Lolita (Vintage International)

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The Novel Versus the Short Story: A Conversation with Matthew Lansburgh

The novel’s superiority over the short story has long been a subject of contentious debate among writers, readers, and publishers, and is in no danger of being resolved to anyone’s satisfaction in the near or distant future. The New York publishing world’s privileging of the novel over the short story, with a few notable exceptions, helps to assure the novel’s primacy among today’s prose forms, and booksellers likewise feature more novels on their frontlist and new paperback tables than short story collections.

Certainly there are other reasons why novels, along with memoirs (putative autobiographies, in which their authors often employ the conventions of the novel), are the dominant prose forms on offer in bookstores, but if more short story collections were published by corporate publishing houses, it seems a reasonable assumption that their sales and marketing departments would then necessarily be tasked with promoting them with the same publicity muscle and marketing ingenuity used to promote long-form fiction titles.

Some readers complain that the short story doesn’t allow them to fully inhabit the fictional world the author has created because they feel as if the story is over almost as soon as it begins, but this has always struck me as a hollow reproach, one easily remedied by more careful reading, by slowing down and calling on all five senses instead of proceeding solely with the devouring eye that savors little of what it alights upon.

In the last couple of years, a number of debut collections have broken through the proverbial glass ceiling most short story writers confront, even with a large publishing house behind them, and have garnered considerable acclaim and review attention, among them titles by Carmen Maria Machado, Jenny Zhang, and Ottessa Moshfegh.

Another writer who could justifiably take his place alongside the new generation of short story masters is Matthew Lansburgh, whose collection of linked stories, Outside Is the Ocean, was selected by Andre Dubus III for the 2017 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and was recently named a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction.

One of the more notable formal qualities of this addictive, deeply imaginative, and often very funny debut is that despite its classification as a story collection, it could be described as a novel with equal accuracy. Many of the stories in Outside Is the Ocean were published in journals as stand-alone stories, but taken as a whole, the book’s narrative moves with the fluidity and authority of a novel, most of the stories alternating between two point-of-view characters, Heike, a German woman who emigrated to the U.S. as a young woman, and her son, Stewart, a young academic whose estranged, bullying American father divorced his mother when he was still a small boy.

Outside Is the Ocean is novelistic in scope, spanning 42 years, with the earliest story set in 1967 and the latest in 2019—the force of Heike’s big personality reverberating through every story. In order to escape the unreasonable expectations she has of their mother-son relationship, and her recriminations when he can’t meet them, Stewart flees to the other side of the country as soon as he reaches adulthood and eventually becomes a college professor in Boston.

Stewart’s father, Raymond, is also an academic whom he sees rarely, and in the stories where Stewart does visit his father, he is treated with hostility if he fails to behave or perform exactly as his father demands. Although it would be easy to portray both Raymond and Heike in a villainous light, Lansburgh manages to suffuse the stories that focus on them with pathos, ensuring they are fully realized, complicated characters whose sorrows and disappointments ultimately feel as immediate as Stewart’s do.

Via email and Google Docs, Lansburgh and I recently corresponded about Outside Is the Ocean and his formation as a fiction writer.

Christine Sneed: Which story did you begin with? (I’m guessing you didn’t proceed chronologically from 1967 to 2019). And how did these characters and their stories take root?

Matthew Lansburgh: You’re right that I didn’t write all the stories in the collection chronologically, but the stories I first began working on were in fact the earliest from a chronological perspective. I started these stories well over a decade ago when I first tried to write about my parents. Initially, I began writing what I thought might be a kind of memoir—mostly as a way for me to try to understand my childhood and the people who raised me. This process of making sense of my past through crafting and recrafting scenes in various permutations led me to realize that fiction would be a better vehicle to tell my story. One of the most important lessons I learned early on is that how you tell your story is the most important decision a writer makes. The first five years of working on this book were really about exploring the various ways I could structure and frame my material. In the end, I ended up letting go of the idea that I needed to be true to the facts, and I began to fabricate and embellish and let my imagination take over.

CS: Outside Is the Ocean has been marketed as a story collection, but it’s more novelistic than David Szalay’s latest novel, the Man Booker Prize finalist All That Man Is, which is thematically linked but has almost no overlapping characters. It’s hard not to assume Szalay’s book was marketed as a novel for the sole purpose of bringing more readers to it (which isn’t, all things being equal, a bad thing, considering how hard it is to sell books today). Why do you think there’s such a preference for novels over short story collections among readers and most publishers?

ML: I’m glad to hear you think Outside Is the Ocean feels novelistic—thank you! I think the fact that the book follows the lives of a recurring cast of characters and that the reader can see how those characters’ lives evolve over time does make it feel more like a novel than many short story collections. When people ask me whether I had any literary models in mind as I worked on my book, I often mention Olive Kitteridge, which was marketed as a novel-in-stories.

As for why it is that many readers and publishers favor novels over short story collections, I’m guessing the reason is that people like the idea of escaping into another world that is fully realized and allows the reader to transcend the confines of his or her reality. We all know, however, that the best short stories do in fact provide this kind of escape—in an hour or two, rather than over a much longer timespan. Indeed, I would argue that given the increasingly diminished attention spans we all have these days, short stories should be more popular than ever. Perhaps a book of linked short stories offers the best of both worlds: bite-size narratives that can be consumed one sitting at a time, over the course of several days or weeks?

CS: Did the fact that you were aware of the novel’s popularity over the short story guide the way you wrote and structured OItO?

ML: I wish I could say that I wrote Outside Is the Ocean with some kind of master plan, but the truth is it felt like I was stumbling along during most of the writing process. Some of the key factors that shaped the book’s form had nothing to do with the “market,” but rather with where I was in my life: this is the first book I tried to write and I found the idea of writing one short story, followed another and another, less daunting than tackling a novel (so many of us start with stories, I suppose); I also wrote most of the book while I had a full-time day job, and I found working on a series of shorter pieces easier to navigate than than a single 300-page project. Once I’d gathered together a critical mass of stories and realized they involved the same characters in various settings and circumstances, I did begin to think about what it might take to create a book-length work, but that came later on.

CS: I’m guessing, based on your reply to question #2, that you read more novels than story collections, though perhaps I’m wrong? Do you intend to write more short stories? (Maybe you’re working on some at present).

ML: Yes! I love writing short stories and hope to write them for many years to come, though recently I’ve been spending most of my time working on a novel. (The novel is quite different from Outside Is the Ocean in terms of its tone and sensibility—it’s about a misfit with horns who gets fired from his corporate job and ends up working at Chipotle!) As for my reading habits, I think I pick up story collections and novels in approximately equal numbers. I tend to dip into lots of books, because I’m always curious to see what contemporary writers are up to.

CS: William Trevor and Alice Munro have written novels, though in Munro’s case, only one, Lives of Girls and Women, which could probably still be considered a story collection, but they’re best known for short stories and are considered masters of the form. Do you see Outside Is the Ocean as a book in conversation with authors like Trevor and Munro? You mention Elizabeth Strout above, but I’m curious about your other influences.

ML: Alice Munro and William Trevor are absolutely in my pantheon of favorite writers. Stories like “Runaway” and “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” as well as “Folie à deux” and “An Afternoon” will, I’m certain, remain in my consciousness and inform who I am until I die. I’m embarrassed to say that I’m a slow reader: I’ve always wished I was someone who could read a novel a week, but that just isn’t how I’m wired. As a result, I’ve never gravitated toward large, sprawling novels—the books I connect with most powerfully are usually collections of short stories or shorter novels. I love everything I’ve ever read by Flannery O’Connor and Janet Frame. I also love Coetzee (Disgrace, Waiting for the Barbarians), Nabokov (Lolita), Salinger (especially Nine Stories), Ishiguro (Remains of the Day!!!!), and Anne Carson (Autobiography of Red). Now that I’m answering this question, I’m realizing the list of writers I admire is quite long and includes more people than I can reasonably list here, including Jorge Luis Borges, Virginia Woolf, Federico García Lorca, Gabriel García Márquez, Haruki Murakami, Raymond Carver, Lorrie Moore, Edward P. Jones, and Tony Doerr.

CS: You mentioned above that you began writing Outside Is the Ocean as a memoir but realized that fiction was a better vehicle for this particular story. I kept thinking as I read that Heike and Raymond would be extremely challenging parents to have, and Heike especially is larger than life and almost pathologically maddening at times. What were the main challenges of writing characters who were based on people you knew very well?

ML: Because the material’s seeds are so personal, I do feel like writing the stories served as a form of catharsis. Working through draft after draft of some of the pieces often felt like a kind of therapy, as if the process of conjuring various permutations of certain scenes allowed me to revisit and reexamine events from my past, imagining different fact patterns and possible paths along life’s decision tree. As I mentioned above, the end result is fiction, but the emotions underlying and informing the narrative moments came from my lived experience—I suppose that’s often the case for most writers. I think one of the reasons so many people aspire to write is that putting words on the page can provide an opportunity for us to grapple with things that have happened to us and to understand not only who we are but who the people in our lives are.

As for Heike and Raymond, I think the biggest challenge posed by using my mother and father as the basis for these characters was allowing myself (forcing myself) to let go of reality and let my imagination run free. The characters in the book are different in important ways from my parents and ended up being distinct people. One of the things I struggled with in revision was how to make Heike and Raymond as three-dimensional as possible: to avoid caricature and cliche. This was especially difficult in the case of Raymond who existed for several years on the page as the prototypical angry, domineering father. Writing “The Sky and the Night” was definitely a turning point in my understanding of who Raymond could be. That was one of the last stories I wrote, and it felt like a bit of a breakthrough emotionally.

CS: You earned your MFA in creative writing from NYU, and I’m wondering if in the writing workshops you participated in, most of your classmates were writing short stories (and were they encouraged to do so, rather than writing a novel while in the program)?

ML: I loved my experience at NYU. The program is incredibly flexible, and they allowed me to take classes part-time. (I was enrolled in the program over a period of five years, taking just one class a semester and sometimes skipping semesters altogether.) The faculty is superb, and I had a chance to study with Jonathan Safran Foer, Zadie Smith, Amy Hempel, Colson Whitehead, E.L. Doctorow, Hannah Tinti, and Darin Strauss. The professors who led our workshops didn’t encourage one form over another. It seemed to me about 60 percent of the students were working on stories, the rest novels. In general, I think the students who were the most ambitious and “connected” were, more often than not, working on novels. I guess they figured out early on that it would be easier to sell a novel than a collection of stories.

CS: You likely worked on many of the stories in Outside Is the Ocean while at NYU—did any of your classmates or professors suggest that you write this book as a straightforward novel, i.e. a book with many fewer stand-alone chapters? Was this something you tried?

ML: I did indeed work on many of the stories in the collection while I was a student at NYU. As I recall, only one or two people suggested that I think about what the stories might look like if they were combined into a more traditional novel, but I did try to see whether that approach might work. In the end, none of those attempts got traction (I tried to write the entire book from Heike’s POV, for example, but that started to feel too claustrophobic). In the end, I think the story format offered more flexibility by allowing me to use multiple voices, points of view, and narrative postures.

CS: Do you ever encounter readers who say, “I think you’re a good writer, but I’m straight and just can’t identify with gay characters?” I’m asking this because the topic comes up in writing workshops, i.e. some readers won’t or can’t read from a subject position other than their own. Stewart, who is gay, is of course central to the book and it’s his perspective through which so many of the stories are filtered. His sexuality, however, is only one aspect of who he is.

ML: Ha! I think if I did come across someone who said that I might spray some Chanel Eau de Parfum in their hair. I know that there are probably many people out there who still hold these kinds of views, but, fortunately, I rarely interact with people like that at this point in my life. I live in New York City where it seems just about everyone is gay or wants to be gay.

In all seriousness, I have to say I’ve been thrilled by how supportive and enthusiastic the book’s readers have been (including a number of straight, white, cis dudes—some well over 60—who told me they’ve enjoyed it). The reception I’ve received has been quite heartening, especially given the fact that when the book came out, I really only expected the gays and women to be interested in reading it. Many of the readers (including the straight dudes) have even said they were able to identify with many of the characters in the book. Responses like this have made my fragile heart burst into song.

CS: Despite the undercurrent of sadness that pervades many of the stories in Outside Is the Ocean, there are so many comic moments in this book. Would you say that comedy comes naturally to you?

ML: It always makes me happy to hear that readers find parts of the book funny. Humor is important to me—both on the page and in life itself. My father was a jokester, and I think I inherited his somewhat zany way of looking at the world. It was one of his best qualities. A lot of my writing does have a comic dimension, but Outside Is the Ocean is, for the most part, quite serious, so I’m glad to hear you found moments of levity along the way.

I do think that comedy comes naturally to me. Sometimes people don’t always share my sense of humor, but I see the world as a strange place, full of ridiculous situations and things that often don’t make sense. My father was a difficult person, someone who could be quite scary and sometimes menacing, but he could also be whimsical and funny. In retrospect, I think I developed humor as a kind of coping mechanism to help calm him down and defuse tension. It worked much better than bursting into tears or trying to match his fury with my own.

CS: You wrote above that you’re working on a novel about a man with horns. Where on earth did this character come from?

ML: Yes, I’ve been working on this novel, on and off, for about five years. One of the book’s central characters is a woman with wings who grew up in Croatia and who works in Coney Island. My protagonist, Karl, becomes infatuated with her, and I figured I needed to make him special too. I gave him horns in the second draft of the book. They’re not big horns—just little ones. Most people don’t even know they’re there.

CS: One final question: what has been the hardest part of launching a new book into the world and how have you handled it?

ML: Getting people to read it. Getting reviews in national publications. There are so many good books out there, so to ask people to take a chance on a book that hasn’t been promoted with a big-budget marketing campaign has been a bit of an uphill battle.

On the plus side, many of the people who’ve read Outside Is the Ocean have become enthusiastic supporters. I feel very fortunate that some very well-respected writers (such as yourself!) have taken the time to read my book and have responded so positively to it. It means a lot to me.

Reading Together Even While Reading Alone

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:

Nostromo.
All the King’s Men.
A Clockwork Orange.
This Side of Paradise.

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

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