I can usually remember exactly where I was when I read any given book. Here’s what I mean: when I look to the shelf before me, The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram, is the title that catches my eye. It’s a hardcover with a matte black jacket and gray print on the spine.
Where was I?
An image arrives instantly: a wheely chair in the adjunct faculty office at the community college. It was winter, my first in New Mexico. Besides teaching, I waitressed in a cocktail lounge until two or three in the morning. Exhausted and homesick, unable to afford health insurance, I often wondered whether I’d made a mistake in following my heart to Santa Fe.
Next on the shelf: The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, which I read in a college dorm room strewn with empty mugs and textbooks. Rain streamed down the windowpanes for weeks on end. It was finals, but I wasn’t writing my papers — those I stupidly saved until 24 hours before they were due. I was a frantic person then, always running late.
And as for Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, I read that on a pink couch in a Cambridge apartment in summer. My boyfriend and I had just broken up; he packed his bags and moved to Alaska, and I was simultaneously fraught with grief and elated with newfound freedom.
It’s an ability I suspect many of us possess: besides plying our minds for the story’s plot, the characters’ names, and the themes presented, we can send ourselves back to where we were when we read the books we loved. Lately, I’ve been trying to pay even more attention to my journey as the reading of the book is taking place. What mark did the book leave on me, and in turn, what imprint did I impart?
Books have always helped me to find meaning in the chaos of experience. As my eyes scan the shelf, I can picture angsty teenage afternoons, Cynthia Voigt beside me offering up Dicey’s Song like comfort food. I see an October of bad job interviews, red wine, and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. I see a quick succession of flings and subsequent breakups, Jane Smiley and Joyce Carol Oates stroking my hair as I wept. I read Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich when my grandmother died. Anita Shreve, Stephen King, and Isabel Allende saw me through romantic weekends, family get-togethers, and summer road trips. Because of the books I have read, I’m a teacher, a traveler, and a chef. I am a fighter and a laugher. I am a writer.
For one bewildering moment, I wonder who I’d be without this shelf.
When I was 22, I worked at a hotel in my hometown for six months and saved up enough money to buy a round-the-world plane ticket. While members of my graduating class were accepting real jobs and renting their first apartments, I moved back in with my mom and dad. It took some convincing to get my mom to agree to put me up while I prepared to see the world alone. “I just need to do this,” I told her many times, so many that finally I actually believed it. The truth was, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do, and so traveling seemed the most logical path, because after 17 years as a student, I needed a break. I needed some culture, some eye-opening excitement. In the end, my mom pitched in for my rabies vaccine, and together we mapped out my route on the family globe.
A few days before Thanksgiving, my brother drove me to the Boston airport. I was bound for Hong Kong, and foolishly I had done very little planning and no preparatory reading. Like most other things, I had left my trip around the world until the last minute. My friends threw me a going-away party the night before, and I hadn’t slept at all. At the airport, my brother kissed me goodbye and tore off gleefully in my car — his for the next six months — and then I was alone, the morning still dark and very cold. I looked at the ticket in my hand. This wasn’t how I imagined it would be — already, a desperate loneliness, and I hadn’t even left the States.
In Hong Kong, I suffered from horrible jetlag. I woke every morning at three and tossed and turned until four, and then I sat out on the roof of my hostel and watched the city twinkle awake. I had never felt so lonesome. I had no idea what to do with myself. I couldn’t communicate, and I had terrible trouble reading my map. I didn’t know how to do the most basic things — eat at a café, find a book in the library, buy a train ticket — and I felt stupid and self-conscious trying. People looked at me strangely, and so I wandered the streets very early in the mornings when only schoolchildren were out walking. I wrote weepy emails home and wondered how I would survive six months of this.
Then I opened Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt.
Of the book itself, I only vaguely remember the plot. The main themes stand out: a desperate childhood, extreme poverty, alcoholism, and abandonment. I remember McCourt’s Limerick in stills: a dirty gray street, a freezing Sunday mass, a sour pickled dinner, a Christmas with nothing.
I can remember well the book’s humor, though, and its hope. I remember an adolescent Frank who scrimped and saved, rose in the morning, passed out in bed at night, and watched men throw his mother around. Still, he survived. By the light of a waning headlamp, I finished the book and wept. I slept deeply that night and rose with the sun for the first time in a week.
When I think of Angela’s Ashes, what I remember most is the way Hong Kong sounded and smelled. The air was muggy, winey, and fishy by late afternoon. Salt blew off the sea. My hostel smelled like cigarette smoke and old newspapers, and the curtains were always closed so that the place sat in a simmering, crowded gloom. In the very early morning, the scent of lilies blew in through the single open window. The girl in the bed next to mine came in late and slept a restless, whimpering sleep. All of this I recall as if it happened very recently. I think of Angela’s Ashes and my senses remember Hong Kong.
The book kept me from giving up, I realize now. It kept me from getting on the next plane home, and it forced me out of the relative safety of my hostel. If Frank could survive, you can do this, I told myself, setting out. I took a ferry to Lantau Island and then rode a bus for hours through a tiny fishing village and a silver city built into cloud forest. On Lantau, standing beneath the largest Buddha sculpture in the world, I couldn’t believe where I was.
Thailand was my next stop. I made my slow way up and down the country, riding buses toward Burma and then back to Bangkok. In the daytime the buses were always crowded, four or five to a seat and people standing with animals and children in the aisles. There would invariably be a toddler on my lap. The heat would rise and the hours would lengthen, and yet there was always something so calm about those rides. The heat, the long light, and the good-natured Thais all made for easy traveling.
I read The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith on one such journey. We were traveling down Thailand’s narrowest passage towards the Malaysian border, having left Bangkok early that morning. We were due in the city of Trang by midnight, and all the while I read. The sun was warm through the windows, and a gentle breeze blew. A little girl sat perched on my lap, her hair in braids, her hands folded across her body. Eventually, she closed her eyes and slept against me. I read about a grassy Botswana savannah, a friendly community, and a no-nonsense lady detective called Hetty who sings to herself, “O, Botswana, my country, my place.”
I can still remember that line exactly. I was a continent away from home on a bus in Asia, and yet I also felt, however temporarily, to be in my place. The words somehow matched exactly the Thailand that stretched alongside me, yellow and green beneath an amber afternoon sky. There came an occasional glimpse of the sea. I was content, flung, and anonymous. I had never felt so free. We jostled along in the fading afternoon, the passengers’ heads lolling in sleep.
A man in a beach hut on the island of Ko Chang gave me his copy of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist in exchange for a piece of cake wrapped in foil and two lukewarm Chang beers. Of that book, I remember round pebbles and a wandering boy, spare prose, a search for treasure, and a long journey home. But I cannot think of The Alchemist without also thinking of that man’s beach hut, his dreadlocks, the jam-packed ashtray by his bed, and his sandy kitchen floor. I remember a white-sand beach, creaking palms, shells lined up on the stairs, a jagged painting of birds and water. I can still hear the man’s deep, quiet voice. Our feet were bare. He was born on the beach, he told me. Without The Alchemist, I might not have remembered him at all.
I spent my last months in India, where I felt it my duty to read E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. I expected to slog through the book, published three-quarters of a century ago, but in the end, I couldn’t put it down. Everything I saw matched the texture of the book: the sounds of the streets and markets, the smells of burnt sugar and sweat, and the rocking of the trains. I noticed caves the color of clay, and my train once passed through a desert strewn with bones. I saw the marshes of Goa and the Karnataka coast; I turned the pages.
Still, India shook me. It shakes most anyone, I imagine, especially if you’re used to orderly streets and personal space. The clamor was jolting. The trains were late and crammed, and people slept on cots in rows on the sidewalks. I saw sick people, hungry people, and dead people. I was overwhelmed and afraid, and people stared at me constantly.
In the end, it was, of course, a book that saved me. I distinctly remember sitting on a train in a busy aisle seat, deep into A Passage to India. Mrs. Moore was watching from the deck of a ship as India shrank away. She had had a bad go of it, and she was ready to go home to England. On a train pulling through neighborhoods of sprawling Mumbai slums, I read Forster’s description of Mrs. Moore’s departure:
…Presently the boat sailed and thousands of coconut palms appeared all around the anchorage and climbed the hills to wave her farewell. ‘So you thought an echo was India; you took the Marabar caves as final?’ they laughed. ‘What have we in common with them, or they with Asirgarh? Goodbye!
I put down the book, looked out into mad Mumbai, and laughed out loud.
I heard Forster’s coconut palms everywhere after that: So you thought one bad night was India? One bad meal? One crowded street? India is beautiful, you see. Give it time!
Their whispers strengthened me. In freezing Manali, I did what I could to stay warm, eat well, and exercise. By Haridwar, I had stopped noticing the stares. I learned to look instead for the beauty each place offered: In Rishikesh, I stayed for free in an ashram, practicing yoga in the mornings and walking by the glacially blue Ganges in the afternoons. Jaipur held an ancient fort, a raucous flea market, and an organic farm at the end of a dirt road where, for three weeks, I weeded vegetable gardens with a group of Israeli hippies. Rajasthan was a city of blue roofs, golden sunsets, and cream-colored walls, a color palette I will remember for the rest of my life.
Nowhere else, I suspect, could I have read so closely or loved so dearly A Passage to India.
That year, only the books in my hands knew where to find me. They were my guides, my teachers, and my friends. Thailand will always resemble Botswana in the afternoon light, and my Hong Kong is Lantau, silent mornings, and Frank McCourt as a rugged little boy, finding laughter in a gloomy room. For readers, I have discovered, there will always be two journeys, and if we forget one, we’re bound to lose both, for each sustains the narrative of our lives.
Photos by Katie Thebeau.
Call me Galadriel.
(Also Rosalind, Tyrion Lannister, Remus Lupin, and Fanny Price.)
Do you know me now?
The rash of character personality quizzes that recently popped up on my Facebook was delightful at first. Of course I wanted to know what Harry Potter or Shakespeare character I was. What ’90s rocker, what Downton lady, what David Bowie.
It was fun. I took them too. I am in favor any declaration of readerly passion.
But, as the quizzes multiplied, I started to get an awful, queasy feeling. I was troubled as I saw post after post that read: I am this person in this book. We are the same. This is me.
For a character to feel relatable, of course, is one of the great joys and strengths of fiction, and I myself travel with a posse of characters who have spoken to me as if from inside my own heart: Harriet Welch, Seymour Glass, Fleur Pillager, Joelle Van Dynne, Eugene Henderson, and Mick Kelly, to name a few.
But the most powerful reading experiences I’ve had all happened when I was seduced into the specific and alien lives of characters who are not like me at all. Characters who do things I would never do. Characters with whom I likely do not share common party styles or desired vacation destinations or favorite Beyoncé songs. I’ve gone along for the ride with Úrsula Iguarán’s matriarchal ferocity, Billy Pilgrim’s disorienting despair, Rat Kiley’s misdirected bravado, and Peter Jernigan’s magnificently self-destructive gin drinking. I have loved Lolita with Humbert Humbert and wondered how I felt about myself after. Raskolnikov made me kill an old woman with an axe. I screwed around as Yunior in ways that hurt me more than the girls in question. Jay McInerny told me that YOU, that I, was doing all manner of things I assure you I never had any intention of doing. Hell, Rajesh Parameswaran once showed me what is was like to be a TIGER who brutally mauled person after person in a confused expression of love.
Call it radical empathy, as Colum McCann does. Call it the moral necessity of metaphor, as Cynthia Ozick does. Call it containing multitudes, as Walt Whitman does. Call it anything you like — so long as you think it’s important. So long as you understand that gaining access to identities, consciousness, and experiences different than your own is one of the most powerful and humanizing things a piece of art, particularly a book, can do for you.
This is perhaps never so clear to me as when I am teaching.
When an older, continuing-ed student, so shy she typically blushes when she has to talk, says that she really liked the parts of Persepolis where Marjane was a confident loudmouth who spoke out against the post-war Iranian regime. When a Floridian frat guy says he likes “ghetto-nerd” Oscar Wao and understands how hard it is to not be the person everyone expects you to be. When the orthodox Jewish boy who hadn’t participated all semester was the only one who didn’t think “For Esmé With Love and Squalor” was about a pedophile and defended it to the class by saying: “They’re trying to save each others’ lives.” When the young African-American guy in the nursing school who was only in my class because it was required came to life during our unit on August: Osage County and demanded to read the part of Violet, the cruel Okie-mother. When a kid named Frankie performed the greatest Lear I’ve ever seen in the trailer under the West Side highway that was our classroom with an umbrella for a scepter because it was raining that day…these are the times that I remember why I write and why I teach.
You might point out that there are more important things than a proliferation of online personality quizzes happening in the world this week. There is upheaval in Ukraine. There are protests in Venezuela and Bosnia-Herzegovina. At home, there is Jan Brewer’s terrifying consideration of SB 1062. But I’ll go ahead and say that humans who engage in radical empathy with characters unlike themselves, who experience things beyond the scope of their lives, are more likely to know and care about these events too. Are more likely to do something about them.
So do not ask us which characters we are most like. Forget: “Who Are You?”
Ask us our favorites. Ask us who we love. (And in truth, and in the spirit of February, what says more about a person really, than who they love?)
Because when you list your favorite characters, when you tell us who it is you love, are these the characters and people who are the most like you? I hope not. If you find yourself encouraged to love only characters who are just like you, I want you to worry about that; it means your art isn’t doing its job.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
CSPAN’s Book TV is an odd entity. It seems like it’s just used to fill the time, although there are occasionally interesting guests. Though CSPAN has never struck me as particularly publicity-hungry, the nonetheless have the Book Bus, “a mobile television production studio that travels the country promoting Book TV’s unique non-fiction book programming.” Recently, the Book Bus came through Laurie’s town, and she sent in her report:CSPAN’s “Book Bus” stopped by the Athens, GA public library for a couple hours on a very wet Wednesday afternoon in February. The two twenty-something female staffers, Ann and MaryAnn, gave tours and explained their traveling broadcast facility. It has a small kitchen and bathroom in the back, but the bulk of the bus is set up with broadcast equipment and a mini-studio for taping interviews. They were just finishing interviewing a local author when we arrived (I think, but am not certain, it was Mary Padgelek talking about her book In the Hand of the Holy Spirit: The Visionary Art of J.B. Murray, a biography of a self-taught Georgia artist). We toured the bus and I asked so many questions you could say they got interviewed for a change, though most of the answers were disappointing. What follows is my best recollection of the conversation:Q: We know BookTV is dedicated to nonfiction, but why so much on politics, American history and American biographies? Why not more on world history, world figures, nature, technology, explorers, science….?A: We do some of that. We’re primarily focused on what is of interest to our audience.Q: In that case, when you get to Atlanta in April, will you be interviewing Neal Boortz and Congressman John Linder, authors of The Fairtax Book which came out in 2005 and made the New York Times bestseller list?A: We hadn’t planned to, but that’s a good idea.Q: Atlanta seems to have trouble attracting good authors for visits. Most of them seem to stick to the Northeast and West Coast. Do you think BookTV could come to Atlanta more often and maybe raise publishers’ awareness of our existence?A: We come as often as we can. We recently covered an author talk for the Center for the Book at the Decatur public library, and have covered events at the Jimmy Carter Library.Q: You visit a lot of book festivals. Some great nonfiction has also been written in graphic format yet you’ve never been to a comics convention. Why not go to one and interview some of the nonfiction authors/illustrators there?A: We do nonfiction.Q: But some good nonfiction has been done in graphic format — most recently In the Shadow of No Towers by Art Spiegleman, La Perdida by Jessica Abel, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, Epileptic by David B. and Pyongyang by Guy Delisle, among others. There are even a couple annual conventions near Washington, D.C., your headquarters, that would be easy for you to get to and cover.A: It would be up to the comic book convention organizers then, to contact us about coming.(One of the staff gives out her business card as a contact point. I have no connection to these conventions but may forward the info to the organizers.)Q: Why are you staying in Atlanta for 12 days in early April?A: We’re attending a cable producers’ convention, but that’s not open to the public. We’ll basically be reporting to the industry that provides our production budget.Q: Earlier this year you stopped in Katrina-ravaged Mobile, Alabama. What was it like there? How did people with no homes or public facilities respond to a “Book Bus?”A: Another crew handled that, so we can’t say, but some interviews were taped that may be broadcast.They in turn asked if I would think up something to ask political theorist Francis Fukuyama for an upcoming 3-hour interview to air on March 5th, and then filmed me asking the question. Who on earth wants to listen to a political theorist for 3-hours?!! Is that their big audience — cable tv producers closely following political trends? Marjane Satrapi could easily fill one of those Fukuyama hours with the story of her life in Iran before and after the revolution and be a lot more interesting. (Postscript: we taped the show and saw that they aired my question, but I look awful. A friend called and said, “You look better in real life.” Thanks.) They rewarded us with free BookTV t-shirts, which come squeeze-packed in the shape of a 2″ x 1.5″ x 6.25″ bus, round wheels and all. My husband opened his and it was less interesting than the way it was packaged. My package is now displayed on a shelf at work, t-shirt still squeezed inside.The BookTV Bus folks wanted to try local food and planned to have dinner at Athens vegetarian institution The Grit. Maybe they got another interview out of it. Too bad Weaver D’s only serves lunch; that’s truly Deep South soul food – and Weaver’s definitely worth an interview by the BookTV bus folk.
A small but satisfyingly eclectic batch of blurbs from the pen of Zadie Smith. Prior to today, I don’t think I’d ever seen the phrase “the mutt’s nuts” printed on the back of a book.On Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi – “This is an excellent comic book, that deserves a place with Joe Sacco and even Art Spiegelman. In her bold black and white panels, Satrapi eloquently reasserts the moral bankruptcy of all political dogma and religious conformity; how it bullies, how it murders, and how it may always be ridiculed by individual rebellions of the spirit and the intellect”On Love, Sex & Tragedy: How the Ancient World Shapes Our Lives by Simon Goldhill – “It’s great, and great fun… a sparkling, erudite and amusing remedy for our collective historical amnesia”On Dogwalker by Arthur Bradford – “Arthur Bradford’s stories are quite simply the mutt’s nuts: One of the funniest, smartest, tallest writers working in America today.”On The Pharmacist’s Mate by Amy Fusselman “Ms. Fusselman’s book, brief as it is, affected me deeply. Not only that, the talent displayed therein was somewhat unnerving.”On Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z.Z. Packer – “The kind of brilliance for narrative that should make her peers envious and her readers very, very grateful.”See Also: The Collected Blurbs of Jonathan Safran Foer, The Collected Blurbs of David Mitchell