R.L. Stine’s horror adventures for kids, Goosebumps, are apparently the second best selling book series in history, right behind the exploits of the world’s most famous wizard.
As a lifelong Goosebumps fan, I find this endlessly puzzling.
It is not like I am alone in my adoration. Stine has his share of devotees. Goosebumps recently got a movie and will soon get a second one. The first film, starring Jack Black as a cursed RL Stine, is exactly the gooey mashup of random monsters, dorky characters, and screwball humor Goosebumps fans find palatable—or are compelled to appreciate after reading too many Goosebumps early on.
… And yet.
Compare the state of the Goosebumps fandom to their main commercial rival, Harry Potter, its ending lines inked on countless forearms all the world over, its jewelry hanging from the necks and wrists of not a few respectable adults I know. Harry Potter has turned England into the kind of theme park that would make Jean Baudrillard, with his Disneyan America, break into heavy breathing. People cue at King’s Cross to take pictures as they cross to Platform 9 ¾. Shops all over Oxford sell Gryffindor hoodies and full-size Hogwarts banners. Hell—J.K. Rowling has a double West End show that is honestly overpriced, especially considering every child in England is going to sonic-attack their parents and go on hunger strikes until they are sedated or brought to the play.
Goosebumps merchandise does exist, but it is, unfailingly, kid’s stuff, phosphorescent plastic monsters and lunch boxes, mostly originating in the forgotten folds of the 1990s.
Let me put it this way: would anyone spend somewhere between $110 and $350 to see a double Goosebumps show on Broadway? The idea is ridiculous (although I would do it).
C.S. Lewis famously said that “a children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” I respectfully disagree. It seems to me that the children’s books that struck me the most as a kid were precisely those I don’t get as an adult.
No matter how hard one tries, childhood is bound to remain inaccessible, except in glimpses, bouts of genuine nostalgia, the occasional moment of awe. As such, to really reread the Goosebumps books past 13 you need to be the kind of adult who is comfortable playing with Legos—and even then, chances are you’ll feel as if you’re playing with your old toys. Some will be beautiful, some will be crap toxic plastic, but the magic you had endowed them with and the tales you had inscribed in them will be forever gone. They are never coming back. Reader beware indeed.
But it seems to me that my extensive experience with Goosebumps between the age of eight and 13 taught me many of the lessons I still hold dear when approaching literature of all kinds, and dare I say it, while living the rest of my life too. I was recently bored by HBO’s Westworld, whose entire plot and major twists—minus the constant philosophical essay-fodder—is condensed in the 100 pages of A Shocker on Shock Street. I have never met an unreliable narrator able to trick me for long, not since I accompanied Billy throughout Welcome to Camp Nightmare only to find out he was an alien all along. So here, then, is an apologia for R.L. Stine’s work, in the form of a list of lessons I learned reading Goosebumps.
1. No One Cares
David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest weaves an elaborate reflection on the dangers of solipsism and self-absorption. On how we are unable to talk meaningfully about vast horrors—depression, werewolves—because our interlocutors, being human, will be too focused on their own inner lives, and on their own personal horrors, to fully open up and listen.
You find plenty of that all over Goosebumps. Even the most basic message—mom, there is a monster in the kitchen, could you come into the kitchen to see the monster that is in the kitchen?—is nigh impossible to deliver. You stutter or don’t make sense; people are too troubled to listen; they have their own personal miseries to think about, their prize-winning gardens and creaky kitchen cabinets turned into all-consuming worries.
This, incidentally, is a rare instance of a Goosebumps theme that speaks to you louder as an adult, once you have had the chance to mumble your way through a couple of job interviews, declarations of love, coffees with high school friends who won’t stop looking at their phones, and you know how hard it is to say the simplest things.
2. The Greatest Horrors Are Small-Scale
Like most kids, when I was little I was convinced my hometown was the center of the universe. A walk to the city center was not something undertaken lightly. Trips to the countryside or to gargantuan Milano had the overtones of quests. My school was a castle, its unexplored corridors holding potential mazes and monsters.
In time, this conviction crumbled away, but when it was there it was made all the more stronger by being instinctive, and unquestioned. It is one of the genius features of Stine’s Goosebumps that its horrors are often very limited, confined. The local librarian turns into a monster at night. Something wicked lives in my basement. The bullies at my school have a terrible secret.
When all of your world is confined to your town or neighborhood, the idea that even a small corner of it is given up to the unknown is terrifying beyond belief. And the fact that these dangers are local and observable rather than absolute and invincible makes it all the more hideous when everyone fails—again—to care.
This, by the way, is one of the key points of Stephen King’s It—spiritual godfather of all Goosebumps books.
3. Assumptions Will Get You Nowhere
On a basic level, this teaches you not to trust the surprisingly nice girl you met at Summer camp. Sure, it has something to do with the basics of narrative suspense: the old man living in the swamp who everyone says is a werewolf is clearly not going to be the werewolf that’s killing all those deer.
Beyond this, Goosebumps—like much horror literature—are a crash course in suspended judgment and unreliable narrators. They teach you that the supposed All-American kid telling you her life story may well be an alien, a monster, a ghost, or a dog. In doubt, question what you’re being told. Use your head. Keep that in mind when you pick up Pale Fire.
4. Adulthood Is a Scam
Michael Chabon’s essay “Faking It”—from Manhood for Amateurs—confirmed a suspicion I have harbored all my life: that being a father and adult who knows how to fix furniture, handle emergencies, and ensure the safety of the entire household, is mostly a matter of pose.
This suspicion was first instilled in me by Stine. Adults in Goosebumps, where not evil, are unfailingly hopeless. The series unfailingly resonates with anyone who was picked on by a teacher (justly or unjustly is besides the point) only to be ignored by their parents.
Adults invest so much belief in this scam they call adulthood that, in order to stop the International Children Revolution, they will occasionally side with the evil piano teacher who’s going to murder little Jerry, rather than acknowledge he may be on to something.
5. It’s Okay to Be Bad
It’s actually okay to be full-fledged Evil. If you are going to grow fangs in a few years and eat people, listen: you do you. People will call you a monster, but you know what? If you accept what you are, chances are you’ll be alright. Monsters are always happy at the end of Goosebumps books; it’s the people who obsess over normality that end up miserable.
6. Be Careful What You Wish For
As in the classic Goosebumps book, Be Careful What You Wish For. Children’s longings can reach unbearable magnitude. I really want that game; I will burst into flames and die if I have to wait the 10 full days that separate me from Christmas.
But longings are bizarre things, liable to bite you on the ass. You wanted to be a stage magician? Now you’ll see the stages of the whole world…as a white rabbit. You wanted to go to sleep in that bizarre bed in your home’s attic (admittedly not the most enlightened incipit in the series)? Expect bad shit.
7. Life Is a Game Where You Don’t Know the Rules
And it’s not one of those progressive modern board games where the point is to have a lovely time and bond. The point is to manage your resources, outsmart your opponents, and win. It will happen that you don’t get the rules. It is going to be humiliating, and to harm you.
The more straightforward staging of this theme occurs in The Beast from the East, where the main characters are literally caught in a game played by blue monsters whose rules are way past their grasp. The loser gets eaten.
A subtler, more useful variant can be found in all the Goosebumps—and there’s many—where characters have to navigate a new environment, like a school or neighborhood. You won’t understand why everyone is so scared of the cave out of town. No one’s sure what’s the deal with the director of this Summer camp. But be assured that you need to figure that out, and quick.
What Goosebumps do not tell you is that what in grade school may look like a temporary situation—so I don’t get why some things have to be the way they are because I am a kid!—never really stops. The age of 30, once a bit of anecdotal nonsense, is starting to loom on my horizon like a terribly certainty. I still haven’t found life’s rules manual.
8. Two Final Maxims
It doesn’t matter if things seem to work out and everything seems to make sense. It doesn’t matter if you are happy, serene, satisfied. Something horrible is going to happen to you.
Also: not only do monsters exist, not only are they literally everywhere, but if you think about it a while, you may realize you are one of them yourself.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon gets stuck. Sometimes plans don’t go according to the outline, if he even writes one. Sometimes an idea just pops into his brain and a book comes out.
Both are the case with Chabon’s latest release, Moonglow. Presented as a memoir about a grandfather, the novel weaves together the history of a man and his family during the 20th century. Like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay or Telegraph Avenue, this new novel features an interesting cast of characters, linked physically and thematically.
The author spoke to us at length, after a day of errands that took him around Berkeley, about his new novel, outlines, why memoirs are bullshit, and screenwriting.
The Millions: When Telegraph Avenue came out, you stated in an interview that with every book you wrote there was this collapse where you either didn’t think you would finish a book or that it wouldn’t turn out the way you wanted it to. Did that happen with Moonglow?
Michael Chabon: Yeah, that usually happens as soon as I start writing the first sentence. It’s already begun to diminish from what I envisioned in that glorious split second of imagination. Telegraph Avenue was much harder to write. It took over a decade, really, during its gestational period. From a pilot to a television series and then laying completely dormant for years before I revived it. I thought because I had written the pilot that it would be easy to novelize it, but that turned out to not be the case at all. I really struggled with Telegraph Avenue. I really struggled with The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. I really struggled with Kavalier & Clay. All in ways that I did not really struggle with this book at all.
In fact, this book — I’m not saying it was easy to write — but it had the same kind of magical birth as Wonder Boys, which is the only other book of mine that had this magical birth where I had no idea that I was going to be writing it until the day I sat down and the first sentence emerged. In both cases, I thought I was going to be working on a different book. With Wonder Boys, I thought I was beginning the fifth or so draft of what was supposed to be my second novel; a book called Fountain City. I thought okay, I had the outline for this new draft to be doing. I sat down and all of a sudden I was writing about Grady Tripp, growing up in this small town in Pennsylvania, and a pulp writer before I had any idea where any of that came from. It wrote itself fairly quickly, whereas this one took longer to write. It started off very much the same, though.
I thought I was going to be starting the first draft of another novel that was meant to be the follow-up to Telegraph Avenue and I didn’t have an outline, but I had definite thoughts of what it was going to be. I had been doing reading and research, but I found myself beginning to re-envision this moment of history from my family. A family story I had heard over the years about one of my grandfather’s brothers who was a salesman selling commercial office supplies and was fired one day from his job to make room on the payroll for Alger Hiss, who was just released from prison.
I had not been thinking about that story until the day I started actually working on the book. It just popped into my mind. I started following it. I didn’t get into any other weird nightmarish corners I had got into with other books.
TM: You briefly mentioned an outline for stories. Was there an outlining process or a plotting process for this book then?
MC: Typically, I’m not a big outliner. When I’m doing screenwriting work — like right now my wife and I are working on a script for this proposed series for Netflix that is a miniseries — when you’re doing that kind of work you have to outline. Of course, outlining makes your job easier, but you actually have to outline because the people who are writing your checks insist on seeing outlines. They want to see a full outline for the first episode and partial outlines for all of the remaining episodes. You have to generate your story ahead of time.
So, I know how to outline, I’ve done it, I completely see the value in doing it, and I’m completely grateful for one when I actually do an outline; however, when it comes to doing novels, I find the more detailed I try to get in my outline, the less interest I have in the story.
For me, part of the process of writing the novel — a big part — is finding out what happens. I like to find out what my story is about. There are two kinds of aboutness, too. One kind is on the plot level: what happens. I find out along the way and suddenly I think, Okay this will happen and that will happen and now I have to go back and throw away 200 pages doing that because now I know this is going to happen. Sometimes I have to completely add a new character because it appeared to me after two years of work. I have to proceed by groping and finding my way without really knowing what is going to happen. It’s a process of discovery and as much as it is torturous and incredibly inefficient when compared to working with an outline, it is part of the mystery that keeps me going. If I don’t have it, I sort of lose interest in the project.
Then there is the other kind of aboutness. There’s this question of what is the story About with a capital A. Thematically, that is. And I don’t even know the answer to that until I am almost done with the book. So many times, and it really happened with Moonglow, I didn’t fully understand what the biggest, most important things about Moonglow were. Especially the story about the grandmother. Not what happened to the grandmother, but what it meant to her, what did it mean to the grandfather, what did it mean to the family? What does that say about memory and history and madness and insanity?
A lot of the things about the nuts and bolts about the structure changed right in the last four to six weeks of me working on the book before I turned it into the publisher. It was like, “Oh my god, I see what my book is about now.”…In this magical period right at the end of writing, which was one of the most magical experiences I have ever had, I just started focusing on the grandmother and realized there was this constant motif throughout the book of dualities. People concealing other people within them. All of the imagery just started to click into place, including the moon imagery: with the dark side of the moon, the lunar eclipses. It was this idea of being half something and half something else. It was all there. I had the wiring, but it wasn’t hooked up to any battery until I hooked it up to the grandmother and the entire book just lit up.
I couldn’t have outlined that. If I had tried to outline something like that I think I would have lost interest in the book long before or, and this happens when I write outlines, I begin to hate the outline and the person who wrote the outline. Like, four years ago there was this smug asshole who wrote out this dumb-ass outline and he thought he knew so much but he didn’t know shit. Why would I even listen to him? He had no idea how wide ranging this book was going to be. I get into this place of resentment with the things I thought I knew.
If the story about the grandmother and duality was there from the beginning, I would have told myself “fuck you” and I wouldn’t have done it.
Outlines are wonderful tools, but they only do what they do in the proper context. Which is similar in the book with the rocket. In one context rockets take you to the moon, and, in other, they rain down terror on innocent people.
TM: Even though you didn’t outline this one, was it always meant to be a faux-memoir that was closely tied to your life?
MC: No, it was… As soon as I started to tell the story of the assault… Well, all I actually know is that one of my grandfather’s brothers was fired from his job to make room for Alger Hiss. I should add that the uncle I thought it was, I asked his daughter and his granddaughter, and neither had heard this story. I was so sure it was that uncle and not the other whom I can’t really ask about, so even that is a little dubious.
Whenever I hear “Alger Hiss,” I think of this story. At some point, I did hear this story. That uncle did sell office supplies. Ah! It had to be him. But that’s all I know. As soon as I made it my grandfather and not my great-uncle, I am in the territory of fiction.
There was no deliberate decision on this point for me, but almost immediately as soon as I had those words, “my grandfather,” I was writing in a reminiscent first person narrator who wasn’t giving his reminiscences but was giving his grandfather’s reminiscences. As soon as I had that structure it clicked immediately with this actual experience I had sitting with my actual grandfather when he was dying in my actual mother’s house. He did tell me a lot of stories. Maybe he did tell me the story about his brother getting fired; maybe that’s where I heard it for the first time. As soon as I had that in place, it was immediate that it was going to be the framework of the novel.
It was very quickly and wasn’t a conscious strategy in mind that this was going to be a memoir. It’s going to be my memoir of the week I spent with my grandfather and the story he told me that is going to end up being the story the reader ends up reading. At that point, I thought that’s going to be fun. That’s going to be a fun structure. Part of the thing that I have to do when I’m starting a book — I mean, everything has been done before — so all I can do is try to find a new approach to it. To find a different avenue for it.
With Moonglow, it was that I wanted to tell the story of this man’s life. It was a very 20th-century, East Coast, Jewish family story, but what’s my angle? What was my way to make it fresh to readers and fresh to me? This memoir angle immediately presented itself.
Then I actually had this more conscious, higher level of thinking of potential pleasure about the book being something I wanted to do. It derived from my feelings about the literary memoir.
TM: How do you feel about them in particular?
MC: [Some people have claimed] that memoirs are more appropriate to the time we live in, but also superior to fiction. Listening to that kind of talk and seeing situations like the James Frey incident…The thing that made everyone upset was the fact that he had lied, you know? That he passed this thing off as true when it was a work of fiction was wrong. What pissed me off as a novelist was that he wrote it as a novel and nobody wanted to publish it. Then he relabeled it as a memoir and suddenly everybody wants to publish it and everyone wants to read it.
That offends me because I’m a novelist and writing novels is what I do. I take that personally on some levels. It also offends me because it’s bullshit. Memoirs are bullshit to some degree. I don’t mean memoirists are liars; some might be, most are not. I know memoirists try to be scrupulous and try not to deviate from what they remember. It’s the last few words of my sentence where the bullshit comes in. Of course what you remember is a lie or a distortion. It’s inaccurate, there’s conflation, there’s elision. There are gaps, there maybe things that you’ve deliberately forgotten and then forgotten that you’ve forgotten so that you sincerely think they didn’t happen.
Some of my favorite books, some of the most beautiful books that have been written in the past quarter century have been memoirs, like Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time or Tobias Wolfe’s This Boy’s Life. There are people who have written beautiful works of literature that are memoirs. I’m not trying to impugn individual writers at all. I’m not even necessarily impugning the form of the genre. It’s just the claims that are made. The esteem that is given. The memoir seems to have a higher value because it claims to be the truth. Obviously it just simply can’t be on some level the truth.
As a novelist, I much prefer, and am much more comfortable with a self-declared lie that is invited by the person being lied to.
TM: Building off of that, did you feel there needed to be a lot of research or were those lies something you could live with?
MC: You can’t tell a good lie without research. Not a really good one.
TM: I want to shift from Moonglow to all of your works. You have these reoccurring topics of family, of history, of Judaism, and many more. Why do you keep coming back to these ideas and feelings that you write about?
MC: I can’t help it. That’s the honest answer. I have no choice in the matter. That’s how it works with compulsive behavior. It’s a kind of compulsion. I wrote a piece about this in my book Manhood for Amateurs about a family heritage of OCD. The piece is called “X09” because it’s about a boy, who at the time his brother was struggling with OCD, called it X09.
I do have it in my family. My paternal grandmother was clearly compulsive, especially about germs. My dad had these strange obsessive compulsive, ritualistic behaviors. I don’t see it in my own behavior or my thought processes, but I do think it is expressed in this return to certain subjects or themes or motifs that are beyond my control. It doesn’t seem to be hurting me, and I think it’s true in a lot of writers, though I wouldn’t be qualified to talk about it.
TM: Are you writing habits compulsive? I once read you always wrote at night. Is that still the case?
MC: I still do, yes. More than ever. I work very late. I still report for duty between 10 and 11pm. Sometimes as late until six in the morning. I get a lot more done in the last few hours than I did the entire time before.
TM: Are you already onto the next idea?
MC: I’m writing a children’s book for middle readers. It’s essentially a follow-up to Summerland, although it’s not a sequel in any way.
TM: What about that Netflix series that you’re kind of working on with your wife —
MC: More than kind of.
TM: More than kind of then, that’s great. Did you take a lot of time off from screenwriting, or did nothing just come to fruition?
MC: [laughs] It might seem like I took time off, but in fact, it’s just a series of failures to launch.
TM: What about screenwriting appeals to you so much on top of writing novels?
MC: I used to automatically just say the money, but when it comes to screenwriting for movies in Hollywood that would be better if [just the money] was the case. It’s so heartbreaking and so hard to get things made. While I was writing Moonglow, I took time off to work on a screenplay for a proposed Frank Sinatra biopic that Martin Scorsese was going to direct. Working on something that could have been directed by him and working with Frank Sinatra’s work was just so great. I just got into it and loved working on it. I think I wrote a pretty good script, and it just seems to be completely done.
I got paid and it would be easy to say, “Oh, I got paid well and that’s showbiz,” but unfortunately I became pretty invested in that project. It hurts to think it all was a waste of time.
With TV it’s a little different. On one end, the money up front just isn’t that good, so you can’t just be all about the money. Also, it seems more gets made and there is more opportunity to do a lot more work with a lot less interference. Though I don’t have any shows on the air, I seem more successful there because I actually had a couple of scripts make it to the screen. It doesn’t quite feel as well… I don’t know. It’s hard to say.
I actually worked on this earlier proposal for a show for HBO that was supposed to be called Hobgoblin that was really good; it would have been amazing. We actually wrote three scripts for that. So now I take it all back: it’s all equally heartbreaking and soul crushing.
Anyway, I’m doing it. I’m still writing scripts. The thing we’re doing for Netflix could be really good. I hope it happens, but you never know.
The late American philosopher Robert Nozick begins his tome, Philosophical Explanations, with this paragraph:
I, too, seek an unreadable book: urgent thoughts to grapple with in agitation and excitement, revelations to be transformed by or to transform, a book incapable of being read straight through, a book even to bring reading to a stop. I have not found that book, or attempted it. Still, I wrote and thought in awareness of it, in the hope this book would bask in its light. That hope would be arrogant if it weren’t self-fulfilling–to face towards the light, even from a great distance, is to be warmed
I first read that opening paragraph in 1981 when Philosophical Explanations was published. Thirty years later and I have still not completed Nozick’s 650 page “essay.” Despite his protestations, Nozick did perhaps accomplish that self-fulfilling hope of which he speaks. Perhaps he did write the unreadable book, though I seriously doubt it. This reader is not throwing in the towel just yet. The book is still on my side table and every so often the bookmark gets lifted out of the cramped dusty seam on the left side of a page and removed to the cramped dusty seam on the right side of the page. I call that progress.
I was thinking about this today as I was flying home from my daughter’s graduation. I do my best thinking on airplanes. It is ironic–and probably of consequence–that I now avoid air travel as best I’m able. I am obviously missing a great deal of good thinking as a result. When I do fly, I keep my Moleskine handy because I’m smart enough to know that I’m only smart enough on a plane–and I don’t want to miss anything. (The great Bruce Chatwin was a Moleskine user. When I became aware of this fact fifteen years ago I was in London and searched high and low for a shop(pe) that carried it, figuring that if it was good enough for Chatwin, it would certainly be good enough for me. But alas, the Moleskine was no more–defunct, kaput. What a success story, up from the ashes, phoenix-like, the Moleskine is now the Kleenex of journals.) As I was saying, I was thinking of Nozick and this passage today. Specifically, I was contemplating this after investing a year, June to June, reading and reviewing books for a literary blog. The year began with Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 and ended with David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, maybe the two best book-ended modern examples of what Nozick sought, the unreadable book. But Nozick was super smart and I’m sure if I made my way through these books, he would have done so with just a modicum of the energies I mustered. No, they are not unreadable books.
I read Bolaño and Wallace, along with 27 other books during these twelve months. And I wrote a review of each one. A person can learn something exercising such discipline. I determined today, five-hundred fifty miles an hour, 30,000 feet up, I needed to explore what I’d learned. So, walk with me, if you so desire, while I try to figure that out.
First, the reading list June, 2009 to June, 2010:
2666 by Roberto Bolaño
Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen
Snakeskin Road by James Braziel
Self’s Murder by Bernhard Schlink
Heroic Measures by Jill Ciment
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer
An Underachiever’s Diary by Benjamin Anastas
Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow
Under This Unbroken Sky by Shandi Mitchell
Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving
This is Water by David Foster Wallace
The Boy Next Door by Irene Sabatini
Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon
After The Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld
Supreme Courtship by Christopher Buckley
Johnny Future by Steve Abee
The Convalescent by Jessica Anthony
Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon
Noah’s Compass by Anne Tyler
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
The Interrogative Mood by Padgett Powell
Zen and Now by Mark Richardson
The Truth About Love by Josephine Hart
The Infinities by John Banville
The Last Station by Jay Parini
The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr
What Becomes by A.L. Kennedy
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
There is quite a mix here, from the aforementioned Bolaño to Wallace and everything in between. There are serious books on the list. Olive Kitteridge won the Pulitzer, for example. And Padgett Powell, John Banville and Peter Matthiessen rank high on the serious meter of contemporary fiction. Pynchon, Tyler, Doctorow and Irving are literary names of distinction and note. Fresher names like Chabon and Hart, Doerr and Kennedy were unknown to me and I was powerfully impressed by what they can do, putting pen to paper, as it used to be called. Buckley is a hoot and Parini an education. What I’m trying to get at here, is the general across-the-board nature of these readings. No specialist here, I read with the modest distinction of the simply curious. There is a little something for everyone on this list and that affords me the latitude to speak generally about the experience.
I am a reader first. If I were an addict, I would get high and while high, presumably, worry about where I was to get my next fix. Reading is not all that different, I think. As a reader, I am always looking over the binding thinking about the next read, in some instances, longing for it. Some books, like some highs, are better than others. But even with not-so-good books–and there where two this past year I did not see to completion–I will come back to the drug, seeking the next high. I will always be a reader. Of this I am certain.
A few years ago I did a project on the homeless in Baltimore. I spent a year talking to, interviewing and photographing men living on the streets of the nation’s ninth largest city. Ultimately, I called the project, One Hundred Gentlemen of Baltimore. Of the 100 men I worked with, there was one in particular, Lonnie, who stood out. Lonnie lived in the bushes behind the Barnes and Noble bookstore in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. This was not a random location, for Lonnie was a reader. “Reading is my drug of choice,” he told me. “It changes your mind and it’s legal.” That’s why he chose to camp behind the B&N. They tossed books into the dumpster and he would dumpster dive at night and come up with armfuls of new reads. “The life-style [of homelessness] is addictive,” he said. “I have no responsibilities, no bills, no commitments. It’s the life I’ve chosen. It gives me the time to do what I want. My thing is books.” This is an extreme case of being a reader, of giving the discipline–for being a serious reader is, indeed, a discipline–one’s entire heart and soul. It is said that Erasmus bought books first then, with whatever money was left, would buy food. Erasmus would understand Lonnie, I am sure.
I cannot claim such heroics. Early in my marriage, before we had money that could in any fashion be considered discretionary, I bought books and snuck them into the house. I didn’t hide booze or drugs, I hid books. I should not have spent the little money we had that way. But it simply could not be avoided. The books listed above were all given to me by the publishers. I gave up not a penny, which sort of gets me back to balance from the early days. One knows he has arrived when he gets his books for free.
This year, the year I’m currently in, I’m reading selections of my own choosing. Some are old books, some I’m reading for the second time. There is a lot of biography on the list. After a year of reading mostly fiction I have a hankering for being grounded in time and space. It will be a study of a different sort, equally rewarding, I hope. Last year, I chose a few of the books I reviewed, but many were suggestions by my editor, not assignments in the strict sense, just books suggested because of my literary interests. In the main, they were all reading adventures, set upon without map or compass. That is to say, I read without much knowledge of book or, in some cases, author. It’s sort of like a blind tasting of reading, an idea I find compelling.
The reading experience is different when a review is due. One pays attention, takes notes, attempts to understand the chronology, the narrative, taking nothing for granted; glossing over is a no-no, as is basic laziness. The reviewer can’t be given completely to the story, but must maintain an objective perspective. It is different from the untethered reading experience. But these are practices which, I believe, reward all types of reading and are good to exercise in general. I got in the habit a few years ago of always having a pencil in my hand while I read. It was a prop mainly, just a device to remind me to pay attention–sort of like having a camera in your hands when out on the town. There were a couple books, however, where I said, Screw That and gave myself the experience. 2666 was a book which fell into this category. Some things in life you must just simply give in to. I don’t regret my weakness.
When someone finds out you review books, they will ask for recommendations, so the thoughtful reader-reviewer must be thinking about appeal and accessibility should this happen. For instance, a friend recently read David Foster Wallace’s This is Water. She loved it. I loved it. It is a pure gem, but is deceptive, leading the first-time Wallace reader to believe he writes everything like This is Water, which is concise and pithy. She asked me if she should next read Infinite Jest. I hedged. I didn’t know her well enough to know if she was the reader for IJ. Wallace once said that the reader wants to be reminded of how smart he or she is. I can understand that. He didn’t, however, worry should the reader not feel smart, or worse, feel stupid. We all know that feeling, no? I loaned her my copy and told her to give it a once over to see if it appealed to her. She was going on a trip and decided that carrying a three pound book didn’t make much sense. Things work out in odd ways sometimes.
Nabokov, as close a reader as “close reading” ever produced, commented somewhere that a book is well written if it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. That, I think, is as good a measure of the literary experience as I can think of. I read some books last year where I would pause and quietly declare, yes! The gooseflesh crawled. The hairs stood at attention. I’m not a golfer, but I think it–the reader’s yes! sensation–is a sensation somewhat akin to the clear-knock sound of a well hit ball. It’s what keeps you coming back again and again. Susan Sontag said something that strikes close to home for me. She said that literature “enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world. It’s a creator of inwardness.” One might deduce from this that literature, or the broader artistic experience, is a manner of completing ourselves. Not to sound too high-minded, but I seek the experience where art and my life combine and the distinction between the two erodes. That is why I read. I hope for the experience of which Sontag spoke: the creation of inwardness. Perhaps to some degree I fear myself lacking and wish for more. Again, we all must sometimes carry that weight. Might that be the impetus for all human striving and art?–but that is a different conversation.
In my reading, I was alert for Nabokovian hair-raising art. I found it more times than I would have hoped, which encourages me. Consider this sentence, for example, from John Banville’s The Infinities: “Time too is a difficulty. For her it has two modes. Either it drags itself painfully along like something dragging itself in its own slime over bits of twigs and dead leaves on a forest floor, or it speeds past, in jumps and flickers, like the scenes on a spool of film clattering madly through a broken projector.” I find that to be a surprisingly lovely metaphor. Or, this pithy gem from Anne Tyler: “She collected and polished resentments as if it were some sort of hobby.” Wonderful. And then there was the time while reading 2666 that I realized I was three pages into one single sentence, a Nile-like flowing stream of words, words like water pouring over polished granite. It was beautiful and I was in awe.
It is not just about the prose, though that is something important and inescapable. I can better stomach a poorly constructed story, the brick and mortar of which, the prose, is well mixed than other way around. The fact is, if the author knows how to mix mortar, she is likely good at construction too. Going back to golf, if you can smash it down the fairway, you’d better have a good short game once you get on the green. It’s been my experience that if a writer can put together words in an appealing fashion, she can also string together a story of those appealing words. It rarely works the other way around.
Hemingway said that you knew a book was good if you were sad that it came to an end. I wager, given the opportunity, you can say the same thing about life. To me that is the point. Reading is an extension, a way of putting out feelers like a spider plant seeking new soil. It is the manner in which we, to Sontag’s point, create inwardness. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen enough in this reader’s year. Too often I grew tired and wanted it over. By Hemingway’s measure, when this occurred, these books weren’t good. But I don’t think it was the book’s fault necessarily. It was more likely an impatient reader champing at the bit. That is a problem I have. I am learning to savor as best I can. Reading Infinite Jest was a good exercise at savoring. I read only ten pages a day. Ten pages a day for a book 1038 pages long. Do the math.
I have moved to Maine from out of state and my library is following me slowly, volume by volume. I didn’t have to move all at once so have taken pains and culled through my library. My plan has been to bring along with me only those books I wish to keep. My library consists largely of books read. But there is a surprising number of books purchased and shelved for a future read. This process of moving and reviewing my library has afforded me this knowledge: There is nothing so profound as an unread library. I don’t think many people understand that. They don’t recognize the potential for inward creation inherent in the unread library. It is, as I said, profound, and speaks to the suggestion that we all think better of ourselves than we’ve yet to realize. A writer cannot help but read a good book and be envious. A reader cannot help but read a good book. Period. Read on.