What They Are Reading
My father is reading noir. My mother has found Lee Smith. My brother is reading, when he has time, the history of Byzantium. For my lover, novels translated from the French or Russian. My sister, if I had one, would be reading The Brothers Karamazov or something of the sort -- a "great work" that it seems now I will never read.
These days I'm doomed to read either things I don't understand or poems whose endings I know before I'm done -- that dead bird consolation. I have stacks by the bed, stacks by the coffee table, stacks on the dinner table. I'm drowning or I'm thirsty, and I keep refilling my wineglass.
People in books are always reading Hölderlin. Why is that? Who was Hölderlin? Why is it no one I know ever reads him?
The people I know, my friends and I, read periodicals over little lunches and dinners in our one-bedroom apartments -- The New Yorker or Harper's; n+1; The Writer's Chronicle, if we want to be unhappy; the J. Crew catalog, if it's been an especially bruising day and we need to take solace in ballerina flats and pussy-bow tops.
My father is rereading Henry James, my mother is reading Henry James (noting, in her email, that she's still not sure What Maisie Knew), my brother is reading the user's manual for a gas grill. For my lover, the Confessions of St. Augustine, and my sister, if I had one, would be reading Blake and, unlike me, pressing some precious oil from his mess of contraries.
I thought I saw my sister the other day. From one side it was her, shorn-off peroxided hair, panoply of piercings, but from any other angle -- and I walked back and forth inside the café, looking at her sitting at her outdoor table, calmly smoking a cigarette. She was some ordinary other girl, reading Tom Robbins.
My students are reading all sorts of things, hardly ever anything I've read. This one is reading Derrida, this one's bedding down with Bukowski, this one slides her gnawed fingers along the die-cut traces of Tree of Codes. Many do not read at all, though, and when you ask them what they read, they blink for a bit, then say, "Sports scores?"
My father is reading a history of exploration in the Congo, my mother is reading Tasha Tudor, and my brother is skimming George R. R. Martin, reading only the chapters about characters who don't annoy him. My brother has been reading this way for years. He does not sound out words in his head when he reads, so he is less vulnerable than the rest of us. For my lover, case histories in divorce, and for me, the forgotten (and newly rediscovered) feminist heroines of the '90s. I was in high school then, and sometimes, reading, I can see myself then, the flat version of myself in high school, almost an object in the text, part of the world that she (Maso, Myles, Hejinian, Notley) was writing of, toward, against: there I am, seventeen, crossing the road to get the mail with Kristin Lavransdattir in my hand (you will not get run over reading Kristin Lavransdattir).
Do people in movies ever read? Do they read anything I've read? When actors must hold books in films, I wonder whether their eyes ever catch on the script in front of them. I can't see letters without feeling compelled to unravel them, even when I know they're only the copy on the box of crackers. Yes, now I am reading the box of crackers.
People I knew then are reading bedtime stories to their children (and they have so many children). They are reading Goodnight Moon, not The Blue Fairy Book, not The Dwindling Party, not yet. Their children still have such excellent fucking-up to look forward to.
People you knew then are reading the hometown newspaper, though maybe that's The New York Times, or they're reading Danielle Steele, who is filed in literature, in this library anyway, or The Hunger Games, or they have turned out in a way you didn't expect, in a way that suggests you should have kept a closer eye on them, and they are reading The Waves, or Story of O, Richard Wright's Black Boy or the travel books of Patrick Leigh Fermor.
Do I read in dreams? Do you? Why is it occasionally someone says something distinct in a dream, where most of it passes in the same haze? Most of my reading goes by the same way -- a weave, let's say, against which something occasionally stands out: "You are a rare bird, Ava Klein"; "the safety pin is consequential technology / in pursuit of love," this last as I fish out a tiny gold pin for my lover to use to fasten his tie. From Ghosts of the Mississippi, the fantastically myopic description of a plantation owner's preparation for his daughters' double wedding, how he had slaves train spiders to spin along his live oak alley, then sent them out with gold and silver dust to blow into the gauzy traps.
My father is reading Naipaul, my mother is reading her mother's letters, my brother is not reading the book of prose poems I gave him, thinking they would be an easy introduction. My lover is reading something on an electronic device; I can't see it from this angle. I am speeding through a work of popular economics, knowing I should do something less self-congratulatory and depressing with my mental energy, something that leaves me less feeling like an islander. But maybe I am an islander.
My sister, if I had one, would be the girl on the bike stopped next to you at the long red light, whipping Siddhartha out of her back pocket -- she must be wearing her boyfriend's jeans -- to check the wording that's echoing in her head, whether it's the mystic's print or some more mystic amalgamation of last night's late concert and the text, what the bearded man whispered in her ear and the fortune cookie in her friend's takeout, all she ate.
All the girl poets in high school still read Sylvia Plath. All the guy writers in coffee shops read themselves. All the women sashaying downtown have Skinny Bitch in their Hobo bags. All the ragged boyfriends of the women with devil smiles pour over tattered copies of She Comes First.
Meanwhile, histories of countries you'll never see are moldering on bookstore shelves, journals of great explorers are going out in trash bags from the apartments of dead hoarders, someone is using that novel that changed your life that one time to shim the leg of the kitchen table. Meanwhile, a girl looking in a bookstore window is assembling a sentence in her mind, a sentence you will one day read and reread, wondering how she knew, but she doesn't know anything yet, though she is on the verge.
I thought I saw my sister again the other day, holding a tattered paperback and leaning against the doorway of an apartment building she shouldn't be visiting (battered "for rent" sign, maze of weeds, litter of butts, vials, needles). She was shading her eyes with one hand but there was no sun, which made me think she was crying at what she read, but I couldn't see what she read, only how her hand touched the page.
I thought I saw my sister paging through The Book of Lies, laughing.