I’ve reached the point in life where my relationship with bookstores is—how to put this?—well, it’s complicated. I love the idea of bookstores. I smile when I see their bright windows on a block. I talk about a new bookshop like normal people talk about newborns. And after the global pandemic loosens its grip on New York, I know one of the first things I’ll do is visit a bookstore in my neighborhood. In my imagination, this means spending a long lazy afternoon browsing shelves and flipping the pages of dozens of new books. There’s just one problem: I long ago ceased to enjoy bookstores. Even before the pandemic, I couldn’t spend more than a few minutes inside one without wanting to leave; no, without wanting to flee, shoulders hunched, like a child caught trespassing.
I once burned for bookstores. And not just because I thought the right books made me look smart, either. This was a love affair that began before I knew pretension. The very first bookstore that I loved as a boy was a mall bookstore. Its name, Abbey Road Books, made no sense to me because it was located on Gull Road, not Abbey Road. The mall would be gone long before I got the Beatles reference.
Abbey Road Books was not large but it was big enough for a guileless boy: a rack near the cash register held comic books. A half dozen long rows running front to back offered popular paperbacks and—I assume—serious literary fiction. I never really looked. I was too busy with the Garfield collections, the Dragonriders of Pern fantasies or the sci-fi pulp. This was where I found my first favorite novel, Laura J. Mixon’s Astro Pilots, a YA book about a teenager whose revenge on a bully is complicated by the temporal effect of traveling at light speed. Pure nerd bliss.
Years of browsing and buying books freely has produced what you would expect: my home is a book orphanage, and the unread books are almost as numerous as the read ones. Based on a recent roll call, a quarter of the books on the shelves are critically praised titles I have not yet read. Let the Great World Spin. White Teeth. The Wings of the Dove.
In the pre-pandemic era, there were six book shops within the lunchtime walking radius of my office near Union Square. The Strand, Alabaster Books, Three Lives, McNally Jackson, Housingworks, and Barnes & Noble. All of the shops except Alabaster (which was smaller than a studio apartment) had display tables at the store entrance. The intention of a bookstore display table is noble; the effect is, for me, pernicious. From the get go, I am reminded of how many unread books exist and how many new unread books are added to that list daily. All the tables and all the books take on an undifferentiated, daunting sheen. You can judge a book by its cover but what you’re judging is sometimes hard to say. To Keep the Sun Alive? House of Stone? Great book covers, lovely fonts, and crackerjack titles; how do you pick between them? The blurb on every other book promises it is “Like nothing you’ve read before.” Or “More knife than novel.” I want to read the work of this “rising star of Arab fiction,” but I also want to read a dozen others, and in the end, overwhelmed by choice, I choose to flee.
Pablo Neruda once wrote that the smell of barber shops made him sob. The smell of fresh book bindings makes me feel like a phony. I am overwhelmed by all the books I have not read, won’t read. How is it that I was ever able to bear this feeling? Why can’t I stand in front of the French Literature section, picking up and putting down books as insouciantly as the scruffy dude with the man bun and the serious face? What has gone wrong in me? Sometimes, at Three Lives, I worried the friendly clerk truing up novels in stacks near the door would stop me one day and say, gently, “I see you here often, dear; is there something specific you need?”
The global Covid pandemic put an abrupt end to this ongoing bookstore angst, for a time. Overnight, bookstores became more theoretical than real. I shifted to curbside pick up for drinks and dinners, and I pivoted to ordering books over the phone from local stores. The first time that I picked up a book purchase curbside was in the Early Covid Era, and I doused all the brand new books with rubbing alcohol before I stowed them in the trunk for a three-day quarantine. Just to be safe. By summer, I was less anxious about touching books; at a pick-up window for a bookstore in Connecticut, I waited while inside a bookstore employee searched for the title I wanted among all the books in their cells. One day, I thought, one day we’ll all be able to go inside again. Won’t that be something?
I want to believe that everything will be different when we turn life back on. I want to believe a year apart from bookstores has changed me. I want to believe I have re-learned how to be casual, how to relax, how to bathe in the bliss of booksellers. I want to believe. But here’s the truth: rather than rewire me for patience, a year at home has probably made me even less able to downshift and enjoy a bookstore properly. I spend more hours than ever each day digging into the larder of my smartphone for the fatty byproducts of the Internet. Social distancing for months has increased the hours spent as a parent mediating fights, insisting on chores, refereeing screen time. Given my jumpy, angsty, barely-nuanced attention span, does anyone really think I’m capable of slipping with ease into the heady trance that is necessary to enjoy an afternoon among books?
Yet, I am too old to change. I know what is coming, in the summer of our post-Covid dreams, when masks are passé and stores no longer post occupancy limits. I will return to bookstores. I won’t be able to resist giving them another chance. And another. And another. But I’m pretty sure where all this will end up. I’ll be back on the sidewalk again within minutes.
The unforgivable sin of bookstores is this: so many of the books that they offer are physical reminders of passing time. Here are the Kazuo Ishiguros I read while in my fresh-faced 20s. Here are the Joan Didions of my 30s. Here are the Tracy Kidders I discovered after my kids were born. A visit to any kind of bookstore will eventually make me jealous for the younger version of me, the person who was unshaped, unaccountable, unknown. Both the books that I have read and not read all remind me that what I am is not what I was; and they point out to me that for all the work of living that I have done, there remains an impossible amount of work that I have not and cannot do. I cannot change course and pursue a life of ornithology. I am no longer a penniless apprentice writing his first novel. I cannot sell everything and live on an arctic freighter. I cannot be what I am not, and by definition what I am not remains so much larger than what I am.
But there is hope. There has to be. Sometimes, a bookstore visit can still be just right. In the last weeks before the pandemic closed all the bookstores in Manhattan, I stopped by Book Culture, a book shop that was once known—in my apprentice writer heyday—as Labyrinth Books, an unapologetically highbrow bookshop. Here is the headline of a Times review lauding the shop shortly after it opened in 1997: “No Krantz, Koontz or coffee bars.” I was here often as a graduate student trying to write a novel in the vein of Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy. The tin soldier rows of books were like a barracks of like-minded zealots. This was where I jealously flipped through debut short story collections like For the Relief of Unbearable Urges and swore I could do better. (Reader: I could not.)
On this visit half a lifetime later, I flipped through a book I recently saw lionized on Twitter. Nice. One more novel I should be reading, but wasn’t. I almost left right then, but then I saw Draft No. 4, a John McPhee book on writing, and I decided, well, let me look inside that one. I scanned the first page. My insides went calm. I was like a parched man cutting open a spindly cactus and finding watery relief. I skipped to the back, read more words that struck me as perfect, and true: “It is toward the end of the second draft, if I’m lucky,” McPhee writes, “when the feeling comes over me that I have something I want to show to other people, something that seems to be working and is not going to go away.” I closed the book, realizing that I would buy it, damn the torpedoes and all the unread books waiting at home.
I brought the McPhee book to the register. A girl with dirty blond hair and a tired, guarded look was handling sales.
“Are you a member of our book club?”
“I’m sure that I was once,” I said. There was no way for her to hear the ironic undertone.
She asked for my first and last name. I told her. She typed, furrowed her brow. “Nope,” she said. “You want to join? It’s quick.”
Of course, I had been forgotten. Emptiness began to swell inside. Then, a thought: “Did you put a space,” I said, “between Van and Dyke?”
She sighed, hit the delete key lightly, then enter, and her eyes brightened. “There you are,” she said, as if she had just learned I was her cousin twice removed. They knew me. I was one of the remembered ones. I still belonged. This made me so happy that now, in retrospect, it makes me sad.
—A History of Love (of Bookstores)
Image Credit: Piqsels.
I’ve reached the point in life where my relationship with bookstores is—how to put this?—well, it’s complicated. I love the idea of bookstores. I smile when I see their bright windows on a block. I talk about a new bookshop like normal people talk about newborns. And after the global pandemic loosens its grip on New York, I know one of the first things I’ll do is visit a bookstore in my neighborhood. In my imagination, this means spending a long lazy afternoon browsing shelves and flipping the pages of dozens of new books. There’s just one problem: I long ago ceased to enjoy bookstores. Even before the pandemic, I couldn’t spend more than a few minutes inside one without wanting to leave; no, without wanting to flee, shoulders hunched, like a child caught trespassing.
Until the pandemic forced us into hiatus, I curated a reading series for emerging writers in New York City. For 13 years, we met monthly at KGB Bar, a literary venue in the East Village. The bar was rarely full, but it was always a chore to get people to quiet down; we encouraged readers to invite friends, family, and other writers. On the best nights, the place was full of convivial anticipation, like we were throwing a big, bold send-off before these promising writers lit out to new territory.
Standing at the podium before events, the sights and sounds often reminded me of the wet, snowy Sunday evening when I heard the late, great Robert Stone read in the very same room. He was in the last years of a long life. His flowing beard was all white and emphysema made a whisper of his gravelly voice. His audience had dwindled and there were fewer people in the room that night than on evenings when I hosted readings for less accomplished authors. This is just one of the many lessons Stone taught me: that you can be nominated for four National Book Awards and a Pulitzer—and still face a half empty room at the end of your career.
You can get the full fathom five of Stone’s biography from any of a dozen sources. Stone himself wrote a memoir, Prime Green, that tracks through his Catholic school boyhood, the burden of growing up as the son/caretaker of a schizophrenic mother, and the hows and whys of his decision to run away and join the Navy as a young man. At the beginning of his career, he famously tripped with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. His second novel was made into a movie starring Nick Nolte. He once joked to an interviewer that he always ended up running into the much more famous author Paul Auster at parties. He was among the literati in the era when being seen around town was a part-time job, long before Entertainment Tonight and ages before social media made celebrity a full-time out-of-body experience.
“You were part of that world,” the interviewer Christopher Bollen said to him in 2013, talking about the druggy counterculture era. “But you have a rare career in that you moved beyond it. How?” Stone’s response was characteristic of the man: pointed, honest, and unglamorous. “I really, really wanted to write,” he said. He knew that his reach was beyond his grasp as a young writer. “I wanted to be a goof on the bus, but I wanted to write more.” So he went to work.
If you consult with the sages at Encyclopedia.com, this is how all that effort worked out for him: “Robert Anthony Stone (born 1937) was an American novelist whose preoccupations were politics, the media, and the random, senseless violence and cruelty that pervade contemporary life both in the United States and in parts of the world where the United States’ influence has extended, such as Latin America and Vietnam. His vision of the world is dark but powerful.”
Well, yes; but also, no.
The novelist Madison Smartt Bell, in an encomium in The New Yorker after Stone died in 2015, claimed that all Stone novels include the character of “a man whose idealism has been blunted by experience.” Certainly, this is true of Stone’s best books, by which I mean (in order): Dog Soldiers, A Flag for Sunrise, and Damascus Gate. In that same 2015 essay, Smartt observes that for all the protagonists of these books, the main narrative is of a redemption that must be earned. Nothing is handed to them. “Stone and his characters struggle with all received ideas at a very high level of intellectual honesty.”
In interviews and essays, Stone never denied that he wrote stories he hoped would capture the fancy of readers. He was not writing for his private muse. Nor was he a David Foster Wallace, tortured by inner Furies, pouring his thoughts onto the page in a losing bid for freedom. You can still watch Stone speak in numerous video interviews on YouTube; he smiles often, wears professorial jackets and ties, and lounges at tables beside a fire. Stone wrote big, rollicking stories like Conrad, Melville, and Dickens because those were the kind of stories that he loved and were large enough to suit his themes. He was a writer who lived in the world and wrote stories full of living.
On the word-by-word level, his work has the jostle and sting of real life; as a writer he inhabited the people in the stories in order to tell their tales. Speaking of A Flag for Sunrise with Kay Bonetti in 1982, he expresses the surprise he felt when two of his characters broke out into a dramatic quarrel at one point. “The day I started writing that piece I didn’t realize that was going to happen,” he said. “It just developed as I wrote the dialogue and imagined myself into the situation.”
For all his timeliness of story and milieu, however, you cannot approach a Robert Stone novel at high speed. He published four books after 1998; all of them have strengths but also none of them feel quite of our time. I suspect this is why his popularity began to wane after the publication of Damascus Gate. You either slow down and let the chemicals of his words do their thing, or you might as well fly on by.
Stone’s best claim to literary fame is the 1975 National Book Award, when the selection committee picked his third novel, Dog Soldiers, as its fiction prizewinner. Stone’s description of his academic experience at Stanford a few years earlier could just as well describe this deeply paranoid masterpiece: “I spent a lot of my time, when I should have been writing, experiencing death and transfiguration and rebirth on LSD in Palo Alto.”
What were the National Book Award judges thinking when they chose to award the prize to this novel, a druggy, rough tale of a playwright-turned-journalist who loses his shit in Saigon and manages to ravage his entire life before the last page? Cast in granite prose, oracular in the best and worst ways, full of scenes that show but confide less than a gruff Midwestern boyfriend, Dog Soldiers has a thrilling plot, but I’m not sure I could tell you what happens in it, even on a close reread. Did the judges find in the book a reflection, darkly, of the chaotic post-Nixonian world in which they lived? Certainly, this is the easy go-to explanation for the adjunct profs who include it on reading lists and the marketing copywriters who prepared promo material for the latest reissue in 2018. It’s a book about hippies! ’Nam! Failed authority! LSD! Well, yes; and no. Dig a little deeper, and, as with Stone’s fiction, a complicated, interconnected counter story begins to take shape.
Fact: the year before Dog Soldiers won the National Book Award, the award was discontinued, briefly. So perfectly Stone. In 1974, the prize jury chose Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, a writer so writerly that he refused to give interviews. This was apparently the last straw for the publishers who underwrote the prize. They cut their funding. Completely. National Book Award organizers refused to give up, though. They assembled a temporary committee to give their award one more time. They begged the likes of Exxon and Jackie Kennedy Onassis to donate enough moola to keep the lights on. It was one more sign of the times in an age when no institutions seemed like they were going to last. Exactly the kind of world that Dog Soldiers paints in miniature. A perfect choice. Almost as if it were the work of fate. Fate of the kind that flickers in the flames of Stone’s best work. Fate that you can laugh at and say you don’t believe in, but that still has a chance of being true. Robert Stone had to win the prize that year. Because we all needed an author preoccupied by outsiders to be granted the status of a literary insider—so he could go on writing, thinking, and teaching all of us for the next four decades.
The first time I tried to read Robert Stone, I couldn’t stand his prose style. I was 22. Stone’s second masterpiece, A Flag for Sunrise, was on a grad school syllabus that also included the likes of Clockers, Under Western Eyes, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The sine non qua for inclusion was that each book operated in a genre but also rose above its intentions, a concept that my thesis advisor and mentor, David Plante, also inculcated into our thinking in weekly creative writing workshops. He never said as much, but I believe that what Plante was trying to teach us was that if we were to become decent writers, which is to say writers worth our salt, we had to be contextual readers.
My first reading of Stone was troubled by the fact that I was addicted to Cormac McCarthy at the time. For my money, McCarthy is perhaps the only other major male author of the late 20th century who writes convincingly in the cut of the moment. McCarthy and Stone were born within four years of each other. They both had a stint in the military. Both write/wrote painfully slow, labored over their craft, and had very little commercial success at first. But in form and vision, they are opposing calculations on either side of an equals sign.
I read perhaps two pages of A Flag for Sunrise before putting the book back down again. The pace felt too slow. The sentences were sharp but stilted. Characters kept starting and stopping and staring. There was a nun with a man’s name. A lieutenant who was clearly also a drunk. Familiar and unfamiliar all at once. I attended the seminar session on the book without having read A Flag for Sunrise at all. How very Robert Stone of me. I had high hopes for the novel; I was myself trying to write a book that I envisioned as a literary novel with a great plot. That perfect fusion of high and low culture. But I was too eager, too hurried in my work, too starry-eyed with the idea of being done.
Cormac McCarthy novels reward you on a page-by-page basis, or at least they do if his stiff prosaic mescal is your kind of thing. A Stone novel takes longer to get going, and even longer to alter your insides. A Cormac cocktail hits you before the ice cubes melt; the work of Robert Stone will only be clear the next morning, when you realize that you blacked out hours before you got home.
I returned to A Flag for Sunrise a decade later. I revisited Stone in part because I had run out of Graham Greene novels worth my time. After my Cormac McCarthy phase ended, I suffered a long bout of Greene fever. God, how I adored Greene’s books. I still have flash burns on my heart from the pages of The Quiet American, The Heart of the Matter, and The Power and the Glory. To learn more about Greene as a writer, I had even gone so far as to read Greene on Capri, the memoir by Shirley Hazzard (herself a great writer, criminally overlooked both before and after she died).
The rediscovery of Stone was a relief, and a blessing, but not because he was aping Greene. There are plenty of lesser writers who do just that. No, Stone was a find because he added to what Greene was doing. His work possesses the urgency of Greene—the sense of people battling against the dark authorities of this world—but also something else, something that took me many novels and many hours of consideration to realize was lacking in Greene’s novels: a love of living.
Stone was often asked by interviewers for his thoughts on Graham Greene. He was never ambiguous: “He is not a favorite of mine,” he told Charles Ruas in a 1981 interview. He speculated that his antipathy was due to being compelled by nuns to read Greene and Waugh as a schoolboy. Stone was still clinging to that story when he spoke in 1982 to the Missouri Review. But by the end of his life, during his 2015 interview with Christopher Bollen, he no longer felt the need to tiptoe around his deeper feelings. “I always knew I hated Graham Greene,” he said, “even though I thought he was a really good writer.”
Stone’s antipathy, I think, was not professional so much as personal. Graham Greene, for all his talent as a writer, was not a good man. Just about 10 years after Greene died, the Daily Mail wrote a long, dark hit piece on him. The article is a slog through a great writer’s sins. A photo of Greene in late age is captioned as follows: “A man without honour: Graham Greene was an alcoholic who abandoned his wife and two children for affairs with a series of married mistresses.” I learned from the article that late in life, Greene tried to start a brothel on a Portuguese island. And that he shared a house in Italy with an avowed pederast. Asked about his estranged children, Greene is reported as saying: “I think my books are my children.” Graham Greene was the kind of person that no one would want to be constantly compared with. Not if you really cared about the company that you are perceived to keep. And certainly not if you were someone as humanistic, thoughtful, and apparently kind-hearted as Robert Stone.
Perhaps the important difference between Stone and Greene is that while Stone “really, really” wanted to be a writer, he wanted equally to be a good person. I don’t mean in the personal sense, although that seems to have mattered to Stone, too. I mean in the sense of saying things that help guide his readers to a better understanding and appreciation of the world. In the very first words of a taped interview with the Writer’s Institute in 1996, Stone says that people need stories in the same way that the waking mind needs dreams. We put together narratives in order to make sense of life. The punch line of a joke, he goes on to say, is actually a forced recognition of how things are. There is no natural narrative of things; it’s all just out there. “It is up to human will and human ingenuity to compose all this into a narrative.”
If at this point you have in your mind the image of Robert Stone as a neo-Papa standing at his desk and writing out novels by long hand–then you are mistaken. Nor was he a Melvillian scrivener hunched over a desk for hours to write in a slanted longhand better suited for logging barrels of salt pork. The galloping narrative of his books will put you in mind of Stendahl; the moral weight of his vision is on level with Dostoevsky. But those two novelists dictated their work to stenographers. None of this applied to Stone. He was a typing man. He joined the navy as a radio operator, as he reports in his memoir. Later, as he told Bollen in 2013, he learned to type by taking Morse code. “I was using the typewriter from day one,” he said.
Not an Olivetti, either. A Paris Review feature from 1985 describes Stone as working in a cluttered attic at a table just large enough to hold his word processor. That’s right, a fully modern word processor. Unlike Cormac McCarthy, the image of the artist is not meant to be confused with the images in the work. Stone is neither ascetic nor saint. He was just a writer, a big-hearted one.
A picture of Stone in the mid-2010s in the Paris Review shows no fewer than two computer screens. One of them, a laptop with his reading glasses resting on the keys, is—I regret to inform the steampunks among you—almost certainly a MacBook. He was not a simple throwback. Or a caricature. His wife was a waitress when he met her. He remained married to her for his entire adult life. They lived in a simple house in Connecticut on the shore, and their two children, a boy and a girl, grew up and moved out and started their own lives as children everywhere are wont to do.
His work reads as if it were composed to the tune of clanging blacksmiths and left to cool under the stars somewhere far from land. This is the conundrum of good writing. It can take you anywhere. But in Stone’s case, the words you read were almost certainly crafted in a quiet place, by one person, typing in solitude, hopeful of the value of the time spent, but equally certain that it may never mean anything much to anyone. This is the gamble.
Stone suffered to bring the right words forth in the years before acclaim and even afterward. He worked on his first novel, A Hall of Mirrors, for six years. In the era of hot takes and from-the-hip tweets, six years is an eternity. But it is what it takes when you are groping in the dark as a writer.
I find the story of how long Stone labored on his initial book to be both inspirational and validating. I spent six years working on my first novel. It was my thesis while at Columbia. Stone labored over his work while a fellow at Stanford. He had to keep working on the manuscript after he graduated, as did I. He struggled to work and write at the same time. As he told the Paris Review about that first book: “I’d work for twenty weeks and then be on unemployment for twenty weeks and so on. So it took me a long, long time to finish it.” This is the writing life. I am writing the first draft of this essay while I sit on a wooden bench in a coffee shop in Harlem where ironically they are playing Creedence Clearwater Revival’s 1971 single, “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” I have not been employed full time for months, except for a few consulting gigs. I have been desperately writing this whole time, concocting and executing the first draft of a new novel and rounding out essays like this one that have been ricocheting around in the steel drum of my mind for ages. You find a way to get the work done whenever and however you can, almost as a sidebar to real life. And yet it’s the part of life that you most want to talk about with an interviewer from a literary magazine. Stone anticipates everything that I feel as a writer. There is this long exchange, from that same Paris Review interview, which might as well be a diary entry from my own life, except in my case the book that I’m jazzed over is called Likeness, and it won’t win a National Book Award, because I’m no Robert Stone, but the feelings are all the same:
Is writing easy for you? Does it flow smoothly?
It’s goddamn hard. Nobody really cares whether you do it or not. You have to make yourself do it. I’m very lazy and I suffer as a result. Of course, when it’s going well there’s nothing in the world like it. But it’s also very lonely. If you do something you’re really pleased with, you’re in the crazy position of being exhilarated all by yourself. I remember finishing one section of Dog Soldiers—the end of Hicks’s walk—in the basement of a college library, working at night, while the rest of the place was closed down, and I staggered out in tears, talking to myself, and ran into a security guard. It’s hard to come down from a high in your work—it’s one of the reasons writers drink.
Stone never figured out how to write quickly. He kept his standards on the top shelf. He spoke about this in one of his last interviews, with Tin House. The editor asks him about the plot of his final novel, The Death of the Black-Haired Girl. (A novel that, I must confess, I could not finish.) He insists that he does not have a plan for his work; that it just unfolds as he discovers it. “So you are not,” the interviewer asks, “in the Nabokov camp of treating your characters like “galley slaves”? I can almost hear Robert Stone chuckling in response. “Well,” he said, “I don’t treat them very well. But, no.
In an interview with Kay Bonetti, in 1982, she said: “Some critics feel you lost control of the structure in both A Hall of Mirrors [his second novel] and Dog Soldiers.” Stone’s response: “Yes. I guess I lost control.” And then he adds, importantly, and perfectly in tune with his Zen persona: “I’m pretty satisfied with the way they turned out.” Later in the same interview, he elaborates: “I see a great deal of human life limited, poisoned, frustrated, by fear and ignorance and the violence that comes from it…I think some of the people I write about are trying to get above that and get around it somehow.”
How a Stone novel ends is perhaps more important than any other fact about it. The ending is where at long last the slowly moving lines converge. The end is the closest we will ever get to the direct sunlight of his ideas. I remember distinctly where I read the ending of Damascus Gate. I was seated on a subway car headed to the Upper West Side apartment where I lived with my wife and daughter. I was an established adult by then, full-time job, mortgage, a little girl who called me papa. All that fell away as I read the book. The only world I knew as I hurtled under the streets of New York was the world of the catacombs under Jerusalem as reported to me by Stone. The characters are lost, confused, and the predators and prey are all mixed up. As a reader, I recall my heart pounding as I turned the pages. But truth be told, I also remember being confused. Like, seriously confused. As a character in a Stone novel might say: What the actual fuck is going on?
All of Stone’s work is about the confusing fate that lies in wait behind the world of likely events. The startling break. The upsetting loss, when all the odds were in your favor. Being confused, overwrought, out of luck, or nearly so—all of Stone’s characters arrive at this moment. And then they get up and push onward. You may or may not like his heroes. But you have to admire their will to live. There are moments in his work that anticipate the modern anti-heroes of Breaking Bad or True Detective. I cannot be the only person who saw a dark reflection in the ending of True Detective season two, when Frank Semyon bleeds out in the desert, and the ending of Dog Soldiers, when the mortally wounded Hicks walks as far as he can along a railroad track. Both men are deeply flawed and filled with hallucinations. Both men are dead long before they realize it.
Arguably, it is in film and television where you can locate Stone’s true heirs. Plenty of male novelists try to mug their way through tough-guy first novels a la Stone, but in so doing they confuse him with the likes of Hemingway, Mailer, and Roth. There’s no strut to his prose; there’s nothing self-aggrandizing in Stone’s work, nor did there seem to be in the man. If anything, his work is about the extinguishment of the self in a Buddhist sense. “You’ll never find Robert Stone in a Robert Stone book,” Wallace Stegner is said to have remarked famously after reading Dog Soldiers.
Five years have passed since Stone’s death. Other than a brief burst of appreciation after his passing, in the form of admiring words from peers and former students alike, at this point his floating pyre has drifted out to sea. I suspect that the rolling tide of literary canonization will not bring him back to shore. His vision is too intentionally arch; his prose style far too mandarin. This saddens me, but I do not think that it would sadden Stone; certainly the man that I met once, very briefly, had no other expectation for what would happen in the world that went on without him.
I heard Stone speak and read from his memoir in December of 2009, on the Sunday evening when he appeared on a double bill for a book promo event at KGB Bar. There was a snowstorm coming, according to the weather reports, and a wet snow had started. I suspect this depressed turn out a little. But it also made the room feel brighter and warmer.
Stone arrived shortly after I did, entering alongside a taller, younger man. Later, I would learn this was Madison Smartt Bell. Bell was an accomplished novelist in his own right, and he had a book of his own to promote; but there was in his posture, his gesture, his way of introducing Stone to all of us, a clear deference for the literary lion in our midst. For his part, Stone had no airs. He had, I would learn later, visited the bar numerous times for readings. In an Identity Theory interview in 2003, he said to the interviewer: “I was in KGB last night and I think it’s very vital, even more vital than it used to be.” He seemed at ease when he stood at the lectern, adjusting the rickety lamp to illuminate the pages he carried. He wore reading glasses on the end of his nose. His eyes smiled when he glanced up.
He read a section from his memoir and the entire text of a short story. The story, “Honeymoon,” would appear three years later in his second story collection, Fun with Problems. At the story’s end, the main character swims to his death while scuba diving, plunging into the “uncolored world of fifteen fathoms. The weight of the air took him down the darkening wall.”
Afterward, the room was still with the quiet trance of a heady draught. Stone took a place at the wall near a corner to sign books. I hadn’t realized there would be a signing. Like a fool, I had not thought to bring any books. Clearly, others had a better sense of what to expect. One young man had brought a handled paper bag full of Robert Stone hardcovers. Stone, with a chortle, signed each one.
Someone from Houghton Mifflin was selling paperback copies of Prime Green. I bought one and then apologized when I slid it under Stone’s nose. I loved Dog Soldiers, I told him. I should have brought a copy with me. Indeed, I had read the book just two months earlier in huge gulping doses. He nodded. Your work is inspirational, I said. I had spent much of my time in line figuring out what to say, what wouldn’t be too fawning but would still convey the proper reverence.
“You’re a writer?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, although I felt sheepish making this claim.
“Are you working on something? Is it going well?”
“I’m–I’m trying,” I said.
He nodded. He understood. He had seen thousands of versions of me before. I suspect he saw me as a lost child, one so alone as to not know how to ask for help. I was, at this time, twice divorced from literary agents, unpublished after a decade of trying, with not even a short story publication to my name. He told me, simply, to keep at it. That the writing is its own reward. The kind of wisdom that, to a young man, seems like resignation, but that to a man at middle age sounds a lot like fortitude and patience. He asked my name, double checked how to spell it, and then wrote his name and a quick line of encouragement on the title page and handed the book back to me.
After that I went down the bar’s long creaky stairs and out into the wet snowy night and back into the uncertainty of a writing life still largely unlived. I have been thinking about our short exchange ever since.
In a conversation with Robert Birnbaum after the release of Damascus Gate, Stone spoke about the epigraph in the book: “Losing it is as good as having it.” This is a line devoid of poetry and hardly worth an epigraph, unless you’ve bought into the long arrow path that passes through Stone’s oeuvre. As Stone explained to his interviewer, the quote wiped him out when he first heard it. “That which we have,” he said, “we invariably lose. And at the same time, it can’t be taken away.”
Stone was trying to say this same thing a decade earlier at the end of A Flag of Sunrise, when Holliwell is being rescued by a father and son who don’t speak English and seem hesitant to take the bloodied protagonist into their boat: “A man has nothing to fear, he thought to himself, who understands history.”
Losing everything, Stone tells us, is far better than never having anything at all. That full ironic detachment is a lesson that still resonates in our post-Cold War, post-American, pandemic-rankled world—with the empire teetering, so many of our heroes in retreat, and the very idea of grand masters in question, when the notion of a canon is more punch line than party line. Who can be a master? Who can speak for us all? Who is worthy? No one, obviously. But there are some voices that offer more to a listener than others. Stone’s is one of them.
Image Credit: Publishers Weekly.
During my last two years of college in Chicago, I rode downtown by commuter train a few times each week. The trip took about 40 minutes, and I always brought a book to pass the time.
I read most of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain on the tracks between the Loop and the Davis Street stop. I paged through The Satanic Verses that way too. These were strange book choices, but I was a strange reader. I never felt like I had read the right books. Everyone else seemed to have read everything. I was so far behind I had no idea where to start. I had hunger, but no sense of taste.
I certainly got no guidance from what other people on the train were reading. My fellow riders seemed to subsist on the Trib or Wall Street Journal alone. No novels other than the occasional Scott Turow or John Grisham. This was the golden age of the courtroom potboiler. I didn’t understand the priorities of these people whose lives were swarmed with mortgages, kids, and 401(k)s.
In 1998, I came to New York for graduate school, and at once I felt as if I’d found my people at last. I loved how so many people read books on the subway. Not just bestsellers, either. Novels, biographies, poetry collections. Books for people who loved reading.
To pay my bills, I got a job downtown at the Seaport. Once again, I was riding a train for most of an hour a few times a week. Nearly every day I would see a person reading a book that I had on a class syllabus, or a title from my own personal reading to-do list. New York felt like a place I knew, even though I didn’t really know it yet. The covers of books I recognized would stand out like friendly faces—well, hello, Gabo! What’s up, Woolfie? I see you’re a thing they carried, too, Mr. O’Brien!
Because I wanted so much to be a writer in those days, I spent many hours every week at the many bookstores of Manhattan. I bought used books because I couldn’t afford brand new ones. I was always waiting for a new release that I really wanted to show up as a remainder or as someone else’s cast off. If you want something that you cannot afford badly enough, then the packaging itself becomes an object of desire, and I began to be able to identify a book that I wanted after just the barest glimpse of its cover.
My favorite book covers were Vintage International paperbacks; their stately design, metallic hues, and dark tones were so lovely and pure. I would pick up a new author just because of the Vintage colophon. This was how I met Julian Barnes and William Maxwell. They had the right kind of references.
As it so happens, on a crosstown bus many years later, I fell into conversation with a woman who was the purchasing editor for Vintage International. I couldn’t find the words to express my gratitude to her; later, when she got off at her stop, I resisted the urge to ask for her email address. I didn’t want to give her the wrong idea.
Even after I finished graduate school, I still carried a book to the office each day. (In this way, I told myself I was different from those commuter train riders in Chicago years earlier.) Sometimes, at work I’d put the book face down on my desk, but usually I’d leave it out in the open: not to parade what I was reading but as a kind of invitation to anyone who wanted to talk books.
One winter, a colleague stopped by every few days to see how far along I’d gotten in War and Peace. Eventually, he began to offer up his own daily updates on his journey through books like The Count of Monte Cristo and The Killer Angels. I learned that he was a one-time history major who got swallowed up by the corporate world and was trying to find his way out.
Shortly before I got married, I was transferred from the office at the Seaport to the corporate headquarters out in Newark. Once again, I found myself on a commuter train each day. My friends would grimace when I told them about my daily commute. To reassure them that it wasn’t terrible, I pointed out that I had time to read.
Smartphones and e-readers made their debut while I was commuting to Newark. I tried this out one evening when I downloaded The Time Machine onto a first-generation iPad. At the time, I was sitting in bed while my wife slept, and I needed no lamplight because the screen was illuminated. This pleased me at first. But as I read, I realized that the tablet weighed just a fraction too much; it pulled gently at my fingertips, tugging me back to the real world more than a physical book.
The technology for e-readers has improved greatly since then. I read more digital books than physical ones now. I don’t feel quite right about it. But I love the convenience and simplicity of reading via Kindle. I opted for a digital copy of Ian McEwan’s
I am in the habit of slipping objects between the pages of whatever book I am reading: sometimes to mark a place, more often because a book is the safest place I know for letters or receipts or tickets or whatever I need to bring with me somewhere.
I have carried books for over two decades of adult life now, years spent largely in Illinois and New York, but also on vacations and trips that go much farther afield. Earlier this month, I went through every book in our Manhattan apartment to see what I could discover. This meant flipping pages in roughly 700 books, mostly novels, but also poetry books, memoirs, and essays, searching for pieces of my own history.
The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy
A slim copy request slip from Columbia’s writing program, circa 1999. I was workshopping my first novel and adjusting to life in New York City. McCarthy’s rustic prose was like a postcard from the woodsy plain in Michigan where I grew up. On the flip side of the slip, a handwritten list of obscure words in the text I admired — slewed, purl, wale, rictus — words that, alas, I then tried to jam into my own doomed manuscript.
The Blue Estuaries by Louise Bogan
Torn strips of paper mark dozens of poems that I liked as an undergraduate at Northwestern, back when I wanted to be a penniless poet when I grew up. I remember announcing this career path to my parents one chilly bright autumn afternoon while we milled outside Ryan Field before a football game. They took the news remarkably well. Today, I remember nothing of what drew the 20-year-old me to poems like “The Frightened Man” or “Betrothed.”
John Adams by David McCullough
A full sheet (minus one) of Forever Stamps from the U.S. Post Office. The picture on the stamps: the Liberty Bell, of course
Stamboul Train by Graham Greene:
Two colorful ticket stubs, mementoes from an official starting point of my own: Flight 438 from Lisbon to Paris on May 30, 2004, Seats 23E and 23F, one for me and one for my wife, Raina, on the flight back home from our honeymoon.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
The business card of a Vice President of Strategy for Razorfish, a major Internet consultancy in the ‘00s — and perhaps the strangest bedfellow possible for a book about Stalinist oppression. But these were my late-20s, a time of routine contradictions, when I fancied myself a professional Web geek by day but a self-serious failed novelist at the night.
Christine Falls by John Banville (writing as Benjamin Black)
The inspection certificate for our brand new Toyota RAV-4 from May 6, 2009. Despite having sworn never to have a car in the city again, Raina and I leased the Toyota because our daughter was two and we wanted to improve our ability to flee for the suburbs and the helpful hands of her parents whenever our nascent parenting skills failed us.
A Multitude of Sins by Richard Ford
A small card reminding me that I have a haircut on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2006 at 6 p.m. on Waverly Street. A decade later I still get my hair cut at the same place, though I now prefer Thursdays.
Devil’s Dream by Madison Smartt Bell
The floor plan for the apartment that Raina and I moved into in 2011, right before our son — our second child — was born. Our new neighborhood’s streets were littered with more trash than our previous, and car alarms would trumpet the start of the work day for livery drivers at 6 a.m., but the apartment felt big enough for all four of us, plus our dog, and in New York City having enough space means having everything.
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
A yellow Post-It note that says “Waverly and Mercer” and “penne and chocolato,” written in my hand. I know I met many friends near the intersection of these two Village streets over the years — before we’d get pints of Belhaven at Swift or maybe cheap margaritas at Caliente Cab Company — but the meaning has gone just as those friends have left for Westport, Conn., or Chicago, Ill., or wherever friends go.
For 10 years, from 2003 through 2013, I commuted from New York to New Jersey each day — an hour each way. I used to tell people that I didn’t mind, because I had so much time to read books. And it’s true, I did a lot of reading then. But I did mind. I slipped three off-peak round trip passes for New Jersey Transit trains in the Beattie; 4 more receipts and three canceled tickets in the Baldwin; and, in the Sartre, six receipts, more than six round trips, perhaps a signal of how hard I worked to find joy in that joyless fusion of philosophy and fiction.
The Stranger by Albert Camus
A greeting card and a blank envelope. The card has a cartoon king on the cover and inside it says, “You rule!” There is nothing else written anywhere.
City of Glass by Paul Auster; A Rage to Live by John O’Hara; God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut; This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff; The 9/11 Commission Report; Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson; Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima; and on and on.
During that long commuting decade, I often took not just the New Jersey Transit train but also a local tram in Newark. To ride the Downtown line, I had to buy a lavender ticket from a machine at the top of a long escalator. On the platforms at select stops, conductors would surprise commuters and demand proof that we each had used the ticket punch clocks to validate our 50-cent passes. I find these lavender alibis slipped in the pages of dozens and dozens of books.
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Inside this hardcover I find the phone number for a taxi company and words written in Spanish: Buena Vista Villas en la picinade abajo. Also, a receipt for a $26 car ride. I know that Raina and I were in Costa Rica for my brother’s wedding in 2005. But I don’t speak or write Spanish. And I don’t know where the taxi brought us.
The Master of Petersburg by J.M. Coetzee
A full-color 3×2 photo strip. Two duplicates of a portrait still from my daughter’s kindergarten year, her tiny face smiling out, forever five years old. I brought this book with me when I went to a writer’s retreat for a week in 2013. I tried but failed to engage in the Coetzee, never finished it. Spent a lot of time looking at the little girl.
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
A piece of notebook paper from 1999 with phrases from the text that I liked (“the smell of lavender,” “like a person who is listening to a sea-shell held to her ear”), and a toll-free telephone number. I dial the telephone digits now, curious, but a recording says the number is no longer in service.
The Triumph of Achilles by Louise Glück
There is, technically, nothing in this book. But it is hardly empty. I can still find the poem marked with a hard diagonal line at the page corner, as if the paper were folded over a knife. “Sooner or later you’ll begin to dream of me,” the poem promises. “I don’t envy you those dreams.” A haunting line called out by an ex-girlfriend who borrowed the book after we broke up. Two decades later, the curse has yet to come true.
Atonement by Ian McEwan
A tiny, white, blank, one-inch-by-a-half-inch Post-It note.
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
A Polaroid taken last year when it was my son’s turn to be in kindergarten: We are seated together in his classroom on a morning I don’t precisely remember — just as, I suppose, the father in The Buried Giant cannot quite recall his own son — although anyone can see this moment still matters by the bright and radiant looks on our faces. And will always matter, I like to think. Even if that’s not possible to prove.
After I finished this long walk through the books of the last 20 years, I asked myself whether I should leave the found objects or take them out. Should I strip the books clean for whoever comes through next — perhaps for my children when they are adults, if their taste in books resemble mine at all? Or shall I leave the objects more or less where I found them, a story-within-the-stories that tells the tale of one reader’s life for anyone who cares to sleuth out the details? This wasn’t a hard decision, as you’d guess. The objects go back. The page turns.
Image credit: Pexels/Suzy Hazelwood.
To satisfy his creditors, Fyodor Dostoevsky famously wrote The Gambler in four weeks. He was a roulette demon with a habit of losing more than he won. If he finished this new book in less than a month, all his debts would be cleared; if he failed, he’d lose everything. Dostoevsky pulled it off, of course; and in a final coup, he later married the stenographer who’d helped him.
I’ve read the big Dostoevsky novels, but nothing of his ever stuck with me quite like this story behind the story, a Behind-the-Music tale for the literary history books. No one ever argues that The Gambler is Dostoevsky’s best, but still — how was it possible to create a coherent story in such a short time? What did it feel like to compose so rapidly, and under such terrible pressure?
I first learned of Dostoevsky’s gamble in graduate school when I was a 22-year-old babe taking his first steps into the woods. I wrote a novel as my MFA thesis, and I had grand ambitions for myself and my work. Skip ahead eight years, and I still thought of myself as an aspiring novelist, but there was one problem: I hadn’t published anything. Not even a lick of a story online. This might not have worried me except for one new wrinkle: I was about to be a father. I had not yet written the book that I wanted to write. I knew that having a baby didn’t mean I could never write again. But I did know that I wouldn’t have the time or the leisure that I’d had previously.
I began my first compositional race against the clock late on a Monday night in December. I barricaded myself into our spare room — destined to be the baby’s room. Fifteen hundred words, I told myself. Just do fifteen hundred words a day. The story came easier than I expected. It proved easier than I thought to create characters as I went. Coming and going each day was not that hard because I would think about the story during the day while at work.
By the end of the month I had 70,000 words about (what else?) a young man with artistic aspirations who was worried about having a baby because he still hadn’t made his mark in the world. I re-read the whole manuscript and I was surprised at how good it was. Not objectively good — trust me, the piece had problems — I mean it was surprisingly good for me. An idea had been made flesh. Forget what I had made: I had done something that felt important for me.
The baby arrived before I finished revisions on the book. But that’s all right — being a Dad did not turn out to mean abdicating as an artist. An agent picked up the manuscript the next spring, and we sent it out to publishers just in time for my little girl’s first birthday. Too quiet, they said. Lovely, they said, but no way to sell it. Put it away, the agent said. Think about something new.
On one hand, this was terrible news. On the other hand, the rejection carried less sting because I had spent less than eighteen months on this manuscript — far less than the years that I had spent on previous failed efforts to sell a novel.
I do not know when I decided to do it all over again. My daughter was old enough that her sleep patterns were predictable. I had notes on the storyline that I wanted to tell. I knew that I could make the dining room table work for a month as my desk — now that the spare room was gone — and yet, I kept putting off the project.
Finally one March evening while I sat in a parking lot waiting for Chinese take-out, I realized that what I needed was a partner. I wrote a text message to my friend, the musician Matt Lenny, who I knew was trying to overcome his own perfectionist habits and record an album. I proposed a contest. He would compose, perform, and record a full album, and I would draft the text of a new novel — all within a thirty-day period. Then we’d get someone to judge which was better.
I have good news and bad news about this contest. Good news: I wrote over 2,500 words after work each day, and Matt recorded twelve tracks on weekends and late at night, and we both limped across the finish line in time. We were relieved and a little giddy afterward and proud of what we had done. Here’s the bad news: Matt didn’t like the songs enough to release the album in their current form. And my agent hated the novel. So everything went into the deep freeze of the hard drive.
My grad school mentor, the brooding and kind-hearted author David Plante, would sometimes refer to unsuccessful books as “one more for the river.” As a student in his twenties with a chartless ocean of writing challenges ahead, this metaphor made me uneasy because I so desperately wanted to arrive somewhere with my work. But more than a decade later, after trying and failing repeatedly to sell a work despite mustering all the inner creativity that I had, I began to see how important David’s metaphor was. There is a freeing quality to the sense that you have only a brief relationship with writing that you care for and craft as best as you can. In the end it’s all just ballast.
The duel between Matt and I had no tangible artistic outcome. It barely made a ripple in the river. Yet I return often to the story of what we did when I speak about writing and why I enjoy it. What was there about that torturous month that enlivened me so? Perhaps it was the competition. Or the sense that I did not have the time to doubt what I was doing or what I was creating: that I just had to keep writing, keep going, keep powering through. Sometimes the means is also the end.
Finally, not long after the birth of my second child, a magazine published a short story that I had written. The magazine had a relatively small circulation, but it felt meaningful to finally have my work selected. Or at least it did for about ten minutes. The river swept up what I wrote and rolled on. Or maybe I rolled on. This is what was becoming clear: I was made happy not by the product of my writing, but by the process.
As a boy, I was afraid of so much of the world around me. I was a poor sleeper. I worried about everything and everyone. I saw the possibility of terrible events everywhere. “You’d finally relax,” my father says, “when you sat at the table in the kitchen and began to draw and make up stories. You could sit there for hours just working at the details.”
Thirty years later I was at a weeklong writing retreat in upstate New York. I spent that week in a tower studio with a view of the Hudson just outside Catskill, NY. I was the artist in residence during the low season, and so I was almost the only person there. The writing challenge that I had given to myself was this: I wanted to write an entire novel in less than a week. This was sheer masochism. But it felt like something that I could achieve. The tower had spare but comfortable amenities. I had a space heater that I would fire up whenever the temperature fell to 55 or lower; but if I ran the heater warmer than 68 degrees, the black hornets hiding in the knotholes of the tower would rouse from their sleep. Otherwise, I was alone with the latest idea that I had for a novel.
The second day of the writing also happened to be my thirty-seventh birthday. Near dusk I sat back and stared out the window at the setting sun to the west. I had written 20,000 words in the last two days, and I needed to write 35,000 more in the next two-and-a-half to fulfill my goal. I was absolutely exhausted. But I also had the sense that this was the best possible thing I could be doing with myself at that moment. This habit of writing offered me a place where I could go to contemplate the sublunar landscape of the heart — without having to stay in that dark place forever.
I finished the draft before I left the tower. I went home and edited it for a few months. Now it is a book that I am very proud of. I’d rather not tell the story about trying to sell it. Whether that book sold is not the point. The point is that writing it was a breakthrough. I saw what writing did for me, and after that, I had no more illusions about whether I was or was not a writer.
The prolific twentieth-century novelist Georges Simenon published more than 160 novels during his career, and he wrote many of them in just 11 days. It is said that John O’Hara could sit at a typewriter at the New Yorker offices and bang out a story in one go. And of course there is that inveterate old gambler Dostoevsky. Mine has been a life full of writing projects that are large and grandiose in design, even if they aren’t ultimately grand in execution. I am at the end of a sustained writing fugue that has had me write an essay a month for 24 straight months. Each challenge is useful, irrespective of what it creates. There is relief in burning on just the pure oxygen of ideas.
Whenever I wonder why I keep finding ridiculous challenges, I think about that tower upstate. In memory, I can still inhabit the space of the moment. I can still feel how I am tired — my wrists ache and my back hurts from bending over the desk, which is really just a paint-spotted board thrown over some brackets attached to the window. I miss my family. I miss the rest of the world. But I am headed somewhere. I’m channeling something. I feel like I am putting my entire self to good use. Does the world end if I break this trance to walk down three flights and return to the world again without finishing the novel that I’m working on? Do the stars fall from the sky if I give up? I suppose not. But then again, I don’t really want to find out, either. So I keep writing.
Image: Pexels/Kelly Lacy.
I probably shouldn’t admit that I keep an Excel spreadsheet to track what books I’ve read in a given year. The file spans seventeen years, a book lover’s rap sheet, for sure; at my best, I was reading just under 50 books a year, a rate that I felt proud of. Unfortunately, I’ve been reading steadily fewer books over the years. I’m sure Excel could generate an instructive and depressing chart to illustrate this. After the birth of my daughter, I fell from tallies in the forties to the thirties. My son’s arrival in 2011 bumped me down to the twenties. Last year I was grazing the treetops just a few dozen feet above rock bottom.
I was once more casual about books, and I expected far less of myself as a reader. I read whatever was at hand, and I rarely tracked what I was reading. This changed—predictably—in college, when I joined a freshman class where I felt like everyone else had read everything important, while I had read nothing worthwhile. One boy in my Latin class seemed to have read Julius Caesar while in the cradle. Nietzsche was invoked often in late-night bull sessions at the dorm, and I knew the name, but could do little more than nod along. In one class, the professor and the students agreed The Great Gatsby was the solid-gold standard of all modern lit—tossing off references to the high-hatted lover, the ash heap, and West Egg, as if these were people and places they all knew personally as kids.
Looking back now, I can see how some of the people I thought knew everything had in fact just gathered enough knowledge to sound impressive. Such a nuanced understanding eluded me at the time, although such an insight even then would not have really made me feel better. I was a young man of no pedigree coming from the backwaters of Kalamazoo, Michigan, and I was contending with the ex-pats of the East Coast and the better-bred urbanites of the Midwest’s larger cities; all that mattered was what it felt like I had not done, had not read, did not know.
Being prone to rash vows, I swore then that I would henceforth read everything that mattered. That I would embark upon the reading journey of all reading journeys. I’d just have to read everything. Fair enough: except I didn’t really know where to begin. And I didn’t really have time to get started in between integral calculus and seeking out new friends. I made no real progress until the arrival of summer vacation, when I returned home to work as a messenger in a law firm.
For weeks I stumbled blindly through books by William Blake and Carl Sandberg, but nothing really clicked till I opened a copy of the ever-controversial Lolita. Before then, I often said that I wanted to a writer but that I’d probably be a lawyer because it was more practical. After reading Nabokov, I had an epiphany on the order of anything out of Dubliners: I cared more about art than legal arguments. And I admired Nabokov more than any learned attorney. Nabokov was a perfect specimen of art made man. His voice and tone were pitch perfect; he was deeply learned and sophisticated, and he had the charm to make a deeply disturbing story into a thing of terrible beauty.
That summer I put Lolita in the hands of everyone I knew. I urged it onto a girl I was trying to impress. I gushed to the point of self-abasement with strangers at Barnes & Noble. I even convinced my 85-year-old grandmother to read it. She surprised me by diving in so deeply that she read with a copy of a French-English dictionary at hand, the better to unlock the meaning of each filigreed phrase.
I was startled by her deep engagement with the text. Here was a woman who had not finished her last year of high school, and yet she could settle into Nabokov’s wordplay with a verve all her own. The night that I fetched the book from her, after she had finished, we sat in her kitchen in the dim light of a hanging pendulum lamp; we were surrounded by tall piles she had made of newspapers that she intended to read. She lived alone, as my grandfather had died the year previous. We spoke until well after dark, something that had never happened before. The world was full of new surprises.
After that summer, I would never again pretend to care about a career in law: I was mesmerized by the idea of finding, reading, and maybe even writing consequential books. I didn’t have a future path for gainful employment, but I did have The List, and that, at the time, felt like enough.
I call it the List, but its full name is The List of Every Book I Need to Read before I Die. The rules of The List are simple. Rule 1: the List is never written down. It can only be kept in one’s head because only thought can hold the list of everything worth knowing, because the entire universe is worth knowing, and the universe is infinite. Rule 2: you cannot remove a book from the List until you’ve read it entirely—because until the last paragraph, anything can happen.
I have not bothered with any more rules because those two have proved trouble enough.
Those first years of exploring the books of The List were like the beginning stages of love; when you and your beloved discover a shared appreciation for lazy afternoons on a blanket in Central Park, forgetting everything else exists; when you are startled and overjoyed at the simplest coincidences; when it feels like the entire world is made for you to discover its hidden connections and contradictions.
I remember in particular when I fell for the work of William Faulkner in March of 1998. We’d been introduced before, but always at the wrong time and place. This time, I was particularly weak and needy: my graduation was nearing, and having abandoned law school, there were many legitimate questions about where I’d live and how I’d afford living. I was also physically ill with a late winter cold. Into this ailing world, there arrived a Modern Library double-edition of As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury.
Faulkner was brash, confident, and utterly unconventional in all the ways that I was vulnerable to. He was not proper and neat, like Nabokov. He broke things. He seethed. I did nothing for two days but lie in bed and power through both novels. Once I could stand again, I became the evangelist of yet another Great Book. You have to read Faulkner, I kept saying. Have you read this guy? You have to read this. The man has no limits!
One evening at a small party on the patio deck of a nearby apartment, I was introduced to another graduating senior, a woman who had just completed her honors thesis. I inquired about the topic. She said, simply: “Faulkner.” I am not lying when I tell you thunder rumbled in the distance: it had just finished raining. I put my hand on the railing to steady myself.
“Explain something to me,” I said, eager to dive in, “Why does Faulkner put a tiny picture of an eye in the text of The Sound and the Fury? Why is there a tiny coffin hidden in the lines of As I Lay Dying? What’s it all mean?”
This woman glanced at the cloudy skies, as if hopeful for rain but quick. “I don’t know,” she said. I think in retrospect that perhaps she thought I was in the opening stages of a come on. Maybe I was, in a manner. We were all drinking and we were all young and I was desperate to find a way forward that could join the world of reading to the real world of adulthood and being.
My way forward, eventually, led to New York for an MFA program that fall. And while there I began to meet more people tunneling through books, working their own Lists. To my great joy, among these people I could actually talk about what I was reading, and what I thought of Great and Important Books. Yet we were all also very busy and protective of our writing time, as we were all supposed to be composing Important Novels of our own. Also, I was still a laggard. I was reading fistfuls of Hemingway and Dostoevsky, but I still hadn’t read Moby-Dick, and whenever Jane Austen came up, I’d pretend to hear someone calling in another room.
Around that time I returned home again for the holidays and visited my grandmother. She was not living in her house any longer during the winters. Instead, her children prevailed on her to occupy a small cottage on a plot that my uncle owned near a deep pond called Gun Lake. The rooms where she lived were sparsely furnished; she brought little more than her clothes, a television, and dozens of books, which she stacked on the floor near a portable heater.
On a snowy Christmas Day, she and I sat on the divan near the windows where outside my uncle was shoveling snow and we talked about New York City, and what my life was like, and what I was reading there, what new authors I had to tell her about. I found these dialogues somehow more affecting than most of the ones that I had in New York because they were the most honest and true; neither my grandmother nor I had read everything we wanted to read, and we were both serious about fixing the score on that point.
This new relationship surprised me, but it was not without precedent. As a boy, after raking leaves or performing the prerequisite chores to help out, I would sit at my grandmother’s kitchen table with a finger to a page in her 2,128-page unabridged Webster’s dictionary, quizzing her on words while she baked. Pie-eyed; melancholy; puny—these were words we laughed over. This connection had matured into a kind of partnership when I was an adult, and we could speak honestly and like fellow travelers who met up from time to time.
After I finished graduate school, I kept up the tradition of the List; despite stepping away from a community of fellow readers, I did not find myself reading less. If anything, I began to read more. I crossed names off the List and added names on to replace the ones that have passed. I met and became smitten with the likes of Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster and Yukio Mishima.
Around the time that I got married, I fell hard for Graham Greene’s serious novels. During the settling in period of my first home, I binged on John O’Hara. The joy of those books is intermingled with the joy of those periods of my life. Sometimes, I wish just as much that I could forget all the Graham Greene novels and begin The End of the Affair again for the first time. I wish I could read with unspoiled eyes the startling first chapter of BUtterfield 8. But you can’t go back.
I was eating dinner with friends on the Upper West Side in January 2010 when my father called and told me that my grandmother, Valerie Cote, had died. Like a character from countless novels or plays, I was to return home. And home I went, packed up with heavy feelings and the sense that a long, winding conversation had been interrupted—and would never resume again.
At the time, I was reading a book by Nam Le called The Boat. The Boat is a collection of stories, about which I can now remember almost nothing. I carried the book in a knapsack on the 11-hour drive home; and during the three days that I spent in Michigan, I know that I took the book out a few times, but I never really read it with any comprehension or joy.
Instead, while home I helped my parents empty out the apartment where my grandmother lived her final days. We threw out tattered clothes and sun-bleached furniture. There was very little worth keeping. She did not really seem to care about possessions. Except for her small horde of books. She was alone but not alone. In the collection of books near where she died, I recognized many books that she had carried unfinished around for ages, such as Thomas Mann’s Joseph novels. She had neglected the real world at the end and lived in the world of the book, and yet she still did not finish her List.
If it stimulated her, the reading, if it propped her up at the end, as her body failed her, as the light went out, I can’t say for sure. I can, however, say for certain that standing in her apartment while my mother vacuumed and my father packed up boxes, I felt no trace of her presence. It was as if she’d already been gone for ages. I suspect I would feel the same if I stood in Borges’s tiny flat or Proust’s bedroom. It is possible to stop living in the world long before you stop living.
So, then, what is it all worth, all this reading? Is it all just a delusion, a way of killing time, before time kills you?
I don’t think so, and my proof comes—ironically—via one last list. This list is a partial one, a mere sampling from the titles of the books that I took from my grandmother’s apartment and added to my own library on the shelves of my home in New York. This is the list of the place where my List, the list of a boy born in 1976 and still alive, overlaps with my grandmother’s List, the list of a girl born in 1915 and who died in 2010; despite our differences, we share a set of books that neither of us have ever read but both of us feel like we should and hope that we will read someday, somehow:
The last book in this partial list, This Side of Paradise, belongs to a set of hardcover F. Scott Fitzgerald novels which includes The Great Gatsby. And mention of Gatsby returns me—borne back ceaselessly on the tide of nostalgia—to the period in my life when I finally tasted of that great book, the golden apple of American literature, or so I’d been told to expect. I was almost twenty-three, and I read the book all at once over the course of an evening; from the start, Gatsby’s story sent a frisson of recognition through me, like when you approach a murky portrait in a dark room and discover that you are looking at a dusty mirror.
As every reader of Fitzgerald’s finest novel knows, Jay Gatsby fashions a new life out of the void of his past. Born in the Midwest, he rejects his birthright, changes his name, and moves to New York. He pursues an impossible dream. He remains slightly lost, ever in love with an ideal. He comes East to start fresh, but how do you escape the lonely heart you carry within you? Short answer: you don’t.
My grandmother was eleven when The Great Gatsby was published. Like a Jazz Age bon vivant, for a brief period in her teenage years she wore her hair short and danced the Charleston at a trendy club in downtown Kalamazoo. Her name at the time was Ruby Herrick. Years later, after marrying my grandfather, she took his last name—Cote—but she also did something unusual. She began to go by a new first name: Valerie. This was the only name I knew her by. I was a teenager before I learned that she’d once been known as Ruby.
She never left Kalamazoo, despite her name change. She never had to run, or never could. In contrast, I did not change my name, but I did flee to the East. And I do have my own ridiculous ambitions, especially when it comes to The List. I have fashioned a new life in a new city in the quest of an ideal, although I would be hard pressed to sum up all I am after in words. Jay Gatsby probably wouldn’t have been able to say precisely what he wanted, either. He also was a lover of books, by the way—as the owl-eyed man at a party at his house points out in the novel. Except none of the pages in Gatsby’s books are cut. Unlike my grandmother, he never read a single page. He had a different kind of List.
So, now, here I am, after seventeen years of reading my way through my List, and I am reading still, but not as often; and why is that? Perhaps I am too busy. Perhaps I am entering into a period when I can’t fit in time for reading, and so I am deferring much of it for later—as my grandmother began reading with a vengeance after her children were grown and her husband was away at the club with his semiretired friends.
Or, perhaps, the number of books I read has dropped to a low now because after years of accumulation, I have gathered up enough stories and views and perspectives that I can at last wade through life with some confidence. I am no longer that 18-year old cub so cowed by what all the others around him have done. I see ways into the world other those of the milieu that I was born into; certainly there are countless more ways of seeing, but for now I can ease off the throttle.
I’ll never quit, of course. For me, reading is an act of personal tradition, something that belongs to me as deeply as a genetic signature; it is a kind of ongoing, hereditary faith. The images, characters and stories that I have gathered up are the templates for the stories, narratives, and analogies that help me interpret the world—like an ivy using a trellis to catch and claw its way to the light. I am not any more trying to gain admission to a mandarin club or rise up in standing against my rivals. I am going to read, and read, and the reading itself is and will have to be enough.
Reading is solitary and personal, but you aren’t necessarily alone in it. In some ways, we are all reading together; even if we are also reading alone. The List is infinite. My life is finite. I don’t need to finish everything. Finishing isn’t even the point.
Image via Longborough University Library/Flickr
Tonight, they are filming on Fourth Street in front of KGB Bar. On the opposite sidewalk, skinny bearded Brooklynites with watch caps and girlfriends with boxy Ray-Bans are acting casual while covertly (but obviously) laser-eying the actors under the boom mics. Star fuckers. I refuse to gawk at the glitterati assembled here. Hustling up two flights to KGB, I arrive just in time to start the reading — good thing, as I’m the host.
This is my sixth year as the curator and host of a reading series for emerging writers. I can judge the shape of a crowd long before we settle down to hear the first reader. I can tell that we’ve got a good if shy crowd tonight, and so during my warm-up patter, I ask if anyone knows what’s being filmed on the street outside.
A girl says, “I think it’s Smash.”
A gasp from the back: “You are not serious.”
I can’t tell if this is an ironic jest or not; it has become de rigueur in 2013 to say things you do not mean at all in order to get laughs at the expense of the things you are pretending to believe. I am aware that television is experiencing a Renaissance of narrative; perhaps, I think, Smash is one of those shows I should learn more about. I don’t settle in front of the tube often. (Tube is the wrong word, of course. It’s all just flat panels and plasma and LCDs now. But television will always be the Boob Tube for me.)
One of the readers tonight, Josh, looks a lot like me — or at least he looks like the me who moved to New York in 1998. We look like we could be lost siblings. We both have trim little goatees and professorial jackets over v-neck sweaters. He has red pants, trendier than my indigo jeans; and he has trendy black frame glasses, whereas my eyes are bare (it adds to the gravitas when I have to squint to read introductory bios, right?).
Josh brings two copies of Ploughshares to the podium for his turn. He reads a piece from the magazine’s spring 2012 issue. And, damn, but it’s good — I mean really good. And then, to add insult to injury, he announces that he wants to read a second quick selection.
The rules for the reading series are that you get just 10 minutes, and Josh has already eaten up eight; but before I can give him the hook, he says the second selection is from the current issue of Ploughshares. In other words, this kid, this knock off of me, has had two separate editors select his work for one of the country’s most prestigious short story venues. His second piece, about a woman hired to tutor a dead girl, is even better than the first.
After Josh finishes, I send everybody to the bar for a break. We always take a break between readers, but today I really need to pause and grab a stiff one. The readers rarely send me into a vertigo of jealousy, but Josh has kicked off some real self-doubt. I have submitted half dozen stories to Ploughshares over the years, with predictable results.
The regular bartender is not behind the counter tonight; for most of my tenure as host and curator of the series, I always enjoyed between two and three rum and Cokes gratis. But owing to my very recent diabetes diagnosis, tonight I can’t have more than a single rum and Coke, and I feel guilty about even that.
KGB Bar has a sterling literary reputation; it appears on pretty much every Literary New York map. The idea behind the reading series is to provide new writers with a venue where editors and agents might stop by and make a connection. That’s all the theory, at least. Tonight, nobody from the publishing world has showed. Or at least no one from the trade is admitting their allegiance for fear of being mobbed.
I made my own public debut at this podium nearly seven years ago. After I finished my excerpt, I looked into the crowd for someone, anyone waving a publishing contract in the air like an autograph book. No one did. But a few days later, out of the ethereal blue, an editor from Persea emailed me, saying her boss had been present and loved what he heard. For a few months we flirted about the book. I corresponded with them while in India as they read and re-read it and considered whether to publish or let me perish. In the end they passed. They weren’t sure they could really give the book the attention it deserves. I would have been satisfied with a half-assed effort on their part, but no one gave me the option.
Both of the other two readers tonight are also impressive, if not as widely published, and after the last reader finishes her piece, I make a circuit of the room to thank everyone. I find Josh at the back of the room, paling around with two people whom I presume are his friends.
“Yeah, I got my idea to write about a tutor for a dead girl by watching Jay Leno,” he is saying, and all his buddies crack up.
Again, I have no idea if this is meant to be sarcasm, or if perhaps he really was moved by something said by the King of Late Night Lantern Jaws.
“You’re an excellent writer,” I tell him.
He nods in a calm genuine manner, like someone who came to New York for just this kind of moment and is pleased but not surprised to find himself inhabiting it. “Thank you so much for putting this together,” he says, and I really believe he is genuinely grateful. He has no idea what kind of powers I wield — or, as the case may be, what power I don’t wield.
I don’t get paid for this gig. The process of screening and selecting and scheduling readers is tedious and without charm. The only kickback I get — besides a free drink at the bar — is the look in the eyes of the readers after a good night. Handshakes, a hug now and then, an earnest thank you: all the readers here are doing everything they can to build up what is known as The Writing Life, an improbable daisy chain of lauded works and actions that lets one avoid slaving full-time in cubical farms somewhere hundreds of feet above Times Square. They are hungry, all of them, and they believe in their own future with such urgency that you can see their dream life playing like an inspirational movie over and over again on their retinas.
I remember the feeling.
I am back on the street shortly after eight o’clock. The reading has taken less than one hour tonight. The film crew remains, and I cross to the other side of Fourth Street. This time, I am paying more attention to the actors under the kliegs. Not sure why — I don’t have any idea what the show is and what it’s about even if I know the name.
Heading west on Fourth Street, I feel primed to notice everything, as if I have been stirred from a slumber. I see clearly how much the block has changed over the years. No one would have filmed here when I first came to drink at KGB, shortly after I graduated from college in Chicago. There were none of these chocolatiers, no bakery, no Rivington Guitars, no antiquarian map shop, nothing but boarded up doors and the flickering lights of low rent vestibules.
One of the few unchanged features is the fire plug where I sat one evening and read The Plague while waiting for two friends to join me for a drink. I was engrossed in the book when this girl who was a friend of a friend meandered up and said hi to me. I’d never met her before, but we fell into chatting like we had a deep back story. It felt so easy to connect back then. We were all here to pilfer New York for its riches. We chatted and the sun went down and the street got darker and I thought, geez, is it safe around here?
I met my wife a year later at the office, but for some reason when it came time for our first kiss, we debuted in the darkest corner of KGB. The bar was deserted but it felt like a risky public outing because I had all too recently broken up with a girl. That night, I put my future-tense wife in a taxi for home and then stumbled off myself, exhilarated, freed, searching the sky for stars, and never once worrying about shady characters on Fourth — partly because of intoxicating hormones and partly because the block, two years after I had first set foot on it, had already gentrified so much that fear felt foolish.
Tonight the street is laughably safe. On the other end of the block, near Bowery, the pub called Phebe’s is still there, but as I wait for the crosswalk I notice the new hotel rising up from the low buildings. And let’s not forget the contemporary grandeur of Cooper Union, and the building across the street from the black cube where there used to be a parking lot with a sketchy dude who sold old Playboys out of crates in the back of his battered van.
I keep walking in this haze of nostalgia and heighted observation. The past and the present seem more visible than usual. I should go home via the station on Eighth Street, but instead I keep walking west into the NYU campus. Just before Washington Square, I pass a building where the actress that I once dated took her classes about the Theatre of the Oppressed and Augusto Boal and the idea that art was something you participated in, not something you absorbed as an audience or created as an artist and broadcast to others.
Washington Square evokes its fair share of memories from me as well. The place where I am standing now was once a den of drug dealers after sundown. It is now bucolic and as calm as the library, which is lit up like an orange Japanese lantern. In one of the novels I have written and failed to sell while in New York, the antagonist is a kid whose big idea is to sells drugs to NYU students in Bobst Library rather than in the Square.
Maybe it’s a lingering sense of embarrassment from the reading — or maybe it’s simply because I am cold and I’ve worked all day and I should be home. But as I glance around and identify landmarks and addresses that I know, I think to myself: Is it a sign that I am too old, that I am past my prime, that I am no longer someone with potential when everything that I see or hear has some kind of singsong tie back to yesterday?
As time passes, I seem to know more and more of New York. Once upon a time, it felt impossible to learn even the patterns of a few streets. Now, even as venues come and go, as restaurants are born and die with the span of a Mayfly, I feel as if everything conforms to the same loose pattern, one that has me bound up in it; and so I think to myself, with smug disdain, tear it all down, then, burn down everything. I wish for a moment that New York’s famous proclivity for change would accelerate and obliterate all the places I once knew.
For a moment, stationary at the center of the Square, I can see both this emotion and the place that it came from. The disdain itself is real, but reflexive, like something my brain has hardwired as a means for protection. Like the disgust you feel as a kid when you taste something sharp and new. In the case of childhood tastes, this kneejerk disgust protects you from straying too far from what is safe to eat, even if it’s sweet and delicious. So you think you hate mango as a kid till you grow up and taste it and realize in fact you love mango and want to eat it ravenously on blazing summer days when the air conditioner fails and you’re standing shirtless in the pathetic breeze of a shelf fan and tearing the stringy sweet pulp from the kotlo with your teeth while juice runs down your neck and you’re thinking just this and this and wonderful.
Here’s my theory, then: maybe being so fiercely in love with New York’s constant change is a way to protect yourself from regret and the facts of failure after living here long enough; maybe forgetting the past is a means for ensuring that we not castigate ourselves for failing to change the world as much as we’d hoped. That kid who was reading Camus on a fire plug probably would not be too impressed by my six-year tenure as a reading curator. Where are the published books, he’d ask. Where are the prizes and honors?
I start to walk again, cold from the bitter winter wind. But I am not walking so much as I am thinking, considering, weighing all these thoughts. I don’t really notice the steps down to the subway platform at the West Fourth station. I have my phone out and I’m tapping some thoughts into the Notes app. Somehow I get on the train without tripping on the platform. The words quickly bloom into phrases, long lines, and before I know it, I am writing a poem in long lunging gulps, like a horse that has been kickstarted into a canter from a dead stand still. I have not written a poem, not a real poem, in more than half a decade.
At Northwestern, I had a professor who strongly advocated writing in longhand first. She was a brilliant professor, but not entirely someone that was strongly tethered to the modern world. I typed everything that I ever wrote back then. Now, I type some material first with my thumbs. My professor would disapprove even more strenuously, I think. Yet if the train has to be my writing studio, then the train’s just going to have to do. Old Nabokov would understand. I am given to understand that he wrote his first English novel in the loo of his Paris flat — setting his valise over the bidet as a makeshift writing desk.
And so, tonight, like an animal spooked into action, I am writing. The likelihood of creating something profound has vanished with the years. All that is left is the impulse to make something. It is a primal, indivisible thing. In addition to the poem, I thumb into the phone the rough outlines of a story. These pieces are a pair, I realize. Maybe it’s even written by a character in the piece? Maybe there is a third piece, an essay, that acts as a capstone to connect everything into one work about ambition and identity and New York and my life.
The ride home is 20 minutes and I compose the entire first draft of the poem before the train reaches the Museum of Natural History. Rereading it and making edits, I am standing on the corner of a street in Harlem. Someone is walking his dog, and I can hear a jazz guitarist in the bar at the ground level of my building. Yes, it’s a good start, I think.
I am home, transported, through some kind of alchemy, despite what felt like a brain fugue of sorts. What is it that can still seize me, after years of failure, and make me seek to write, to make art? I have no idea. All I know is that I do not have it in me to give up.
I lean forward and push into the revolving door, all while the shape of this piece, the poem, a story, all taking shape. The doorman, a Haitian in a navy suit, hails me and I nod in return. The bright steel elevator doors slide open. I smile at my own feet. I am home. My children are asleep upstairs. My wife is waiting with food to be warmed and conversation to be had. I belong here. Is this the life that I dreamed I would have after this long in the city? Is that really a question that needs to be answered?
I feel I understand,
Existence, or at least a minute part
Of my existence, only through Art.
This comes from the fourth Canto of Nabokov’s Pale Fire and it illumines all I am trying to do when I write. You see, at my age, after the youth burns out, and the long sweet middle years lie ahead, what happens after the writing is done simply does not matter. The point is the chemical burn itself, the molecular exchange, not what is produced or left behind. The point is being, not having done. That would certainly explain the reason why I’m still here, after all these years, chasing the light in a city unwilling to lie down and sleep. But enough thinking. Enough writing. It’s time to see my family, to enjoy the real life that I’ve painstakingly assembled here, and to stop dreaming about poets and novels and the world of sweet lies and pretend people. Let’s live. Let’s be.
The elevator doors close, and up, up, up we go.
Image Credit: Flickr/Francisco Diez