I once knew a Holocaust survivor, a Russian non-native English speaker with a thirst for learning, who kept a wonderful book: a logbook of obsessive reading with highly particular summaries. “War and Peace,” the survivor notated, “a bunch of people, war, and countries — can’t anyone get along?” “Madame Bovary,” she wrote, “a fancy lady spends a lot of time dreaming until all is lost for love.”
We are deep into a moment in which authors write of lives, often their own, through the habit of reading. Hearing of the trend from afar, a person could ask: does the practice signify a retreat to a self-reflexive cave? A recherché activity, a hall-of-mirrors exercise, a willed innocence? And yet, these last 15 years, books on reading have proliferated at the same time that newspaper space for discussing the magic of reading has shrunk. Consider Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book, a hundred others.
Such authors share the same gleam you find in the self-portrait of Diego Velázquez in “Las Meninas” in which the artist depicts himself as the aware but lowly court servant painting the aristocratic family. The artist supersedes his content, eyes leaping out of the frame at us, becoming our proxy for understanding a given milieu. With similar esprit, in many of these books, the authors gaze back at us reading them, showing how at a crucial point in life, a book or series swayed them unalterably. Reader, I was never the same, these books whisper, confidingly. The earth moved. These books on reading often also move earth, however subtly, achieving what Aristotle demanded for drama: both recognition and catharsis.
In Pamela Paul’s fifth book, My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, she takes us traveling through a landscape of childhood aspiration and adolescently blind romanticism, the accruals and loss of adulthood, all told from a temperament with a fierce, passionate allegiance to principle. Her Bob is a logbook of reading and also a rueful, joyful autobiography of interests and selves, an elegy fond and bittersweet. Bob in its physical form — even when a mate, soon to be ex, actually writes in it himself — survives courtships, marriages, and the most Aristotelian of reversals.
On first reading, I felt the book created a new genre, the polemic picaresque, in which readers get to wander happily with a Michel de Montaigne-like narrator through varied realms while picking up bits of advice as buried treasure. Imagine a guide who seems at first to speak only of her small village and family while showing the reader a local tower, who meanwhile, subtly, persuades us of the greatness of the parish. On my second reading, Paul’s book seemed to be in conversation with Boswell’s travels with Johnson, Sei Shōnagon, or The Canterbury Tales, in which we roam aesthetic terrain with a hapless and memorable group of individuals, the world rich with surfaces while belying the deeper moral conviction and instruction to be had.
The journey is as good as the guide, and one of My Life with Bob’s pleasures is the humorous and affectionate light cast on the narrator’s strong convictions. As a young girl, Paul begins with reading as a quirky hagiography, finding lives to learn and emulate, the horizon of her worldliness as wide as her last book read. Older, she shows great, impulsive agency in making book-inspired choices while becoming increasingly nostalgic for an earlier temporal freedom, leaving her reader to understand that a life too far from books is not just unexamined, but unfelt, unknown, unarticulated.
From the joy-filled vantage of someone illuminated, and even dominated, by books she has read, Paul inspires her reader to revisit works canonical and unsung. As the best memoir writers do, the witty persona Paul creates for her narrator is not so much heroine but more in the spirit of Paul Klee’s “Hero with a Broken Wing”: gifted and burdened by aspiration, she lives the paradox of being the obedient rebel and contrarian student who delights in having a mind with a thousand pockets. If August Wilson says everyone should wake to see the face of our own god in the mirror, in this case, for a very singular reader, the mirror itself is literature.
Below, Paul speaks of seeing her recollection of Bob emerge.
The Millions: You were a reader with a great understanding of privacy. What is your experience of My Life with Bob, an exegesis of such an important relic of the self, traveling out in the world?
Pamela Paul: A certain amount of trepidation. I never thought I would write a memoir, and in fact, didn’t think of this book as a memoir until Publishers Weekly announced the deal and called it one. My first thought was, “Oh, no — but they’re right! I guess it is a memoir.”
To my mind, it was to be a book about books, a book about travels, a book about storytelling. But of course, it’s not really about those things. It’s about the intersection of books and life, and about how what we read infiltrates, influences, reflects, expands on, and colors everything else. When we read, even when the book is temporarily put down with a bookmark firmly in place, the stories from inside the book don’t entirely recede from our consciousness. They become part of us. My stories are part of me, and therefore a lot more “me” had to be in this book that I am used to putting. My previous books were all journalistic investigations that had one or two first-person sentences in the introductions before firmly leaving that voice behind. This book is not only about me — it’s about (I hope) all readers and the way all of us experience stories. But it’s obviously quite personal.
TM: What are you reading — or hoping to read — now?
PP: I choose my books on a gut level, to match a strong mood or an urge or even a need. But it’s not a one-step or simple process. That’s one of the reasons I ask what books people have on their nightstand in my By the Book interviews: I’m curious about how people narrow down and make their choices among all the possibilities. Personally, I keep a large pile on my nightstand — on the wide edge of my platform bed, actually — and then a few other piles across from the bed on a room-length wall of built-in bookshelves. Like all readers, I have so many books that I’d like to read, that I intend to read, that I feel I must read, but I never truly know what I’ll read next until the moment I finish the previous book.
This doesn’t mean I don’t plan. I do all kinds of planning! And then I cast those plans aside. Right now, for example, I was planning to be reading Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena because the reviews were strong and so many people I respect have recommended it. The glowing praise for his follow-up collection of short stories pushed that book further to the top of the list. So it was on my shortlist. Then I did something I’ve never done before: I enlisted my two older children to help me decide between reading the Marra, Émile Zola’s The Belly of Paris or Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop next. I read the back covers and inside jackets aloud to them. My daughter voted for Marra and my son for Zola. I read the Zola first, and so had turned to the Marra next to be fair. But a few chapters in, I found that it wasn’t quite matching my mood. This isn’t to say I didn’t like it — thus far, I like it very much and I plan to go back to it. But it just wasn’t what I needed at the moment.
What I needed, I realized, and this is what had drawn me to all three of those books, was a book that was engrossing and serious and relevant to my life right now, but also an escape. And that was accompanied by an urge to read about an earlier era in journalism. Scoop wasn’t quite the right book because I didn’t want humor (I’ve kind of been adverse to comedy, overall, since the fall — read into that what you will, though I hope it means I haven’t permanently lost my sense of humor). “Scoop will be read one day…I do love Waugh.
Then, on a shelf I keep devoted to books about writing and about journalism, I noticed Ben Bradlee’s memoir, A Good Life: Newspaper and Other Adventures. I’ve been wanting to read this book since it was published, which to my embarrassment was in 1995, therefore making it a book I’ve meant to read for 22 years now. I adored Katharine Graham’s Personal History, which I’d read as soon as it came out. I picked up the Bradlee and it fits every need I have at this moment: Serious, yet also entertaining. Relevant to my life (journalism), yet also a departure (journalism back when it was strictly about print). Plus, Bradlee is a terrific narrator. You can hear his distinctive voice, his infectious personality. And the part I’m up to now is very much a different world: His experiences in the Navy in World War II, his early days at a startup weekly newspaper in New Hampshire, his experience as a press attaché in Paris. I’m just now getting back to Washington and his Newsweek years. It’s a delight on every level.
Do other readers go through a version of this elaborate mood-matching process when considering what to read next? I suspect many do. To me, it’s one of the great decisions we get to make in life, and we get to make it again and again: What to Read Next.
TM: What is the relation of risk to your practice of writing? And what was your process in sequencing and editing this book, and did it differ from your others?
PP: This book was completely different from any other book I’ve written. My previous books were essentially argument books: journalistic investigations that set out to explore a subject through research and reporting, marshal the evidence, and make a case. My first book, The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony, came out of personal experience — an early marriage and divorce — but I quite adamantly didn’t want the book to be about me, so after the first paragraph, the first person dropped out. That book still felt personal. I discovered and learned through other people’s answers and lessons that I was seeking to help make sense of my own experience. What did these other young divorced people know that I didn’t yet know myself? What had they learned two or five years after their marriages ended that they didn’t know at the point of rupture? The next two books came out of reported stories that I wrote for Time magazine and expanded on issues around consumer culture that I thought worth further exploration. For all of those books, the driving goal was to prove a point.
By contrast, I had nothing to prove with this book. I am not trying to persuade anyone of anything. So the underlying motivation is altogether different, and that fundamentally changes the writing process. This book isn’t probably not going to change anyone’s mind about anything (except perhaps about the wisdom of writing down what you read). So it has to want to be read for other reasons.
If I had a driving sense of purpose with this book in terms of its relationship to readers, it was to write something that was a pleasure to read. Because I get so much pleasure from books, and from my Book of Books. When people have told me they’ve read my previous books, my knee-jerk response has always been, “I’m sorry.” That may sound ridiculous and self-defeating, but I don’t think my earlier books were particularly fun to read. Enlightening, in certain ways, perhaps. But not enjoyable. I wanted to write a book that might be an actual enjoyable reading experience. And that made the book an actual pleasure to write — even when I was writing about embarrassing or frightening or upsetting experiences, like the end of my first marriage or my father’s death.
But I like that you compare it to a journey because that’s how it feels to me. Like a journey through life with books as constant companion. With little discoveries made, both within and outside of books, along the way.
TM: Having also encountered Thalia Zepatos’s book of advice for the independent woman traveler at a young age, to my detriment or advantage, I was nonetheless happy to see her mentioned. Yet what makes your suitcase so singular is the manner in which your narrator, like a lover or devotee, brings books as an offering to beautiful environments, most notably in an outdoor scene in China. Similarly, a landscape can be ruined for your narrator by the errancy of the particular author you happen to be reading, your mind infected by a particular voice. Books similarly permeate the courtships with men you end up marrying. In such moments, you do a great deal to erase the binary of life versus art, the dichotomy that Cynthia Ozick felt she misunderstood as a dictum from Henry James: “Life! Life, not art!” Was there something not mentioned in your book, whether in early environ or temperament, that may have led to this happy erasure, a habit of convergence? The curiosity the reader has — having traveled with you through travel, jobs, marriages, divorces, children — is whether your narrator would say her highest self, her best part, was formed by reading rather than life?
PP: For me, reading Thalia Zepatos was inspiring in the most concrete sense of the word: It inspired me to something I didn’t feel capable of or well-suited for. I read her book and then did something that was highly unlikely given the cautious, ambitious, responsible, fearful person I was at that time. I threw aside all my life and career goals and set out to do something that I knew I might hate. Something that terrified me. Something that nobody like me would do. As I put it in the book, it was as if 5 percent of me made a decision and dragged along the other 95 percent. It ended up being the best decision I’ve ever made.
TM: Your narrator is similarly remarkable in the complexity of being a success-driven rebel: she is both the child who early on learns not to procrastinate, getting her work done first so she can with easier mind enjoy the poking of her pencil into the carpet, and the principle-driven rebel. Within aspirational milieus, in equal measure, she passionately protests and excels within received dictates. One of the abiding sub rosa questions in the book has to do with the quirkiness of free will and self-determination against given legacies: your narrator finds herself shooting out of a particular set of birthright assumptions. How does this complexity inform your relation to your life in writing and reading these days?
PP: I just wrote a piece adapted from the book called “The Joy of Hate Reading” in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times that describes one of the key ways I’ve come to read and write, which is to challenge myself through words. It’s a way to remind myself of how little I actually know. As a writer, with this book, I set out to write the kind of book I never thought I’d write — a memoir. And as a reader, I am always pushing myself to try out books I don’t think I’ll enjoy. I have a kind of perverse urge to constantly test my own assumptions. To a certain extent this has always been there. I was a supremely unathletic child, always picked second-to-last for sports teams in elementary school (an excruciating experience that I wrote about in my college application essay). But when I got to college, I ended up joining the rugby team. It was an entirely absurd decision to make — I have never once hit a ball with a baseball bat in my life. But I joined the rugby team and I loved it. I still have near-zero interest in sports, but I recently read The Throwback Special because it’s about football. (I loved that too.)
TM: “Without imagination of another’s mind there can be no understanding of that other and hence no love,” Sherwin Nuland writes in relation to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “A Defence of Poetry,” a quotation you cite in your book when talking of a first love. How would you relate BOB to that very same imagination?
PP: Reading is ultimately about empathy — about experiencing another person’s story, his version of events, his voice, his way of viewing the world. To me one of the beauties of literature is that two different people from very different worlds can read the same book, and share that experience, even as if in different variations. You can have a 16-year-old girl in India read The Underground Railroad and a 45-year-old stay-at-home mother in Indiana read that same book. They will read it in different ways, but also, in similar ways, sharing a version of the characters’ experience, both with each other, and with the author. That’s connection.
TM: Everyone who has ever worked in publishing or known anyone with a foot near the industry knows something about towering piles of books that have arrived over the transom. Does your delighted, curatorial rapture about books remain intact or has it shifted emphasis? You speak movingly about your almost physical pain as, in an early bookstore job, you had to tear covers off books to be remaindered. Has the status of books as beloved fetish objects begun to alter or have you become just more focused in your pursuit?
PP: I feel like I live in a castle of riches at The New York Times Book Review. Not a day goes by when I don’t feel giddy by the unopened cartons of books awaiting me, eager to see the contents inside, excited by the galleys on the shelves and delighted and slightly stunned that I get to take finished copies home with me. Books to me are still treasures. I’m still greedy and I’m extremely grateful. I am not nearly as focused in my acquisitiveness as I should be and have towering shelves of books at home to attest to that weakness.
Image Credit: Marcia Ciriello.
I awoke one morning inside of a giant oyster shell, dimly made out a treasure chest overflowing with precious jewels, then turned to see a pair of comely mermaids beckoning from the wall. I briefly thought I had dreamt myself into “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. (“We have lingered in the chambers of the sea…”), but soon realized that I was in a much stranger place: the Sea-Cave Suite in a Pocatello, Idaho, hotel.
I suppose it could have been worse. Gay Talese’s necktie could have dangled through one of the heating — er, hydrothermal vents — indicating that he was on the case of yet another voyeuristic ethnologist-cum-motelier. Or one of the mermaids could have emerged from the wall and exacted her revenge for some past depredation of her ocean realm. As Colin Dickey puts it in Ghostland, his sharp, enjoyable study of the repressed past expressed in American ghost stories, “…all hotels are haunted. You’re kidding yourself if you don’t see this, if you don’t recognize that you sleep with ghosts.” If all hotels are haunted, they are also all strange, even if less outwardly so that the Sea-Cave Suite. Again, to quote Dickey: “There’s something uncanny about the very nature of a hotel, its endless, involuntary repetition of home-seeming spaces, rooms that could almost be home but are always somehow slightly off.” After a nice long think in the grotto shower, I resolved, once back on dry land, to conduct a survey of recent, or recently reissued, novels that make their home, so to speak, in hotels.
“It’s an odd thing about the guests in a big hotel. Not a single one goes out through the revolving doors the same as when he came in,” writes Vicki Baum in Grand Hotel, the 1929 novel (and basis for the famous 1932 film) reissued last year by New York Review Books. This maxim may or may not hold true for guests of limited duration, but it certainly does for the Russian Count Alexander Rostov, who in Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow is sentenced to house (or rather hotel) arrest at the Metropol Hotel. Beginning in 1922, he stays there for over three decades, though this confinement is not as restrictive as it initially seems: “Within the Metropol there were rooms behind rooms and doors behind doors.”
Grand Hotel depicts the exhaustion, loneliness, and alienation of the luxury life. “The whole hotel is only a rotten pub,” scoffs its most cynical habitué. Even the guests’ footwear seem to be tortured souls: “Some wedded pair of boots and shoes that stand outside the doors at night wear a distinct impression of mutual hatred on their leather visages.” Its most memorable character, the aging dancer Grusinksaya, wears “trodden-down slippers” covering “weary, unutterably weary” feet. Adventures galvanize the vigorless cast, but the enlivening enchantments, in an out of the “mass-produced” beds, are always fleeting. What remains once the revolving door turns once more is a nightmarish scene of soulless luxury: “an endless perspective of hotel bedrooms with double doors and running water and the indefinable odor of restlessness and homelessness.”
A Gentleman in Moscow, by contrast, demonstrates indefatigable wonder at the variety and whimsy of the grand hotels. Towles’s novel, as if protesting of its own straitening conceit, resolves to be big. The six-foot-three-inch hero, Count Rostov, cannot stand up to his full height in the attic room to which he is assigned, though his spirit is not similarly cramped. In Soviet Russia size doesn’t necessarily matter: “For if a room that exists under the governance, authority, and intent of others seems smaller than it is, then that which exists in secret can, regardless of its dimension, seem as vast as one cares to imagine.”
The novel contains delightful touches worthy of inclusion in the feuilletons on interwar hotel life filed by Joseph Roth (collected in The Hotel Years). The barbershop is “a land of optimism, precision and political neutrality…the Switzerland of the hotel.” The hotel restaurant, the Boyarsky, wages an epic struggle to maintain its standards, “a battle that must be waged with exacting precision while giving the impression of effortlessness, every single night of the year.” And the bored international journalists congregating in the hotel bar devise ploys to attract summonses from the ever-vigilant Commissariat of Internal Affairs. One conspicuously drops a letter “that included descriptions of troop movements and artillery placements on the outskirts of Smolensk.” He is called in by the authorities, only to explain that he has copied out the description of the Battle of Borodino from War and Peace.
Rostov conspires with the restaurant staff against a villainous hotel manager; becomes enamored of a silent film movie star; roams the hotel with an adorably precocious girl; scares off a young man sniffing around his adopted daughter in a typically mannered way (“So that’s your game, is it? Seducing young women with jitterbugs?”); is enlisted to school a Red Army Colonel in the cultural traditions of the West; and chuckles approvingly over the farcical scene of three geese scurrying about and terrorizing a Swiss diplomat, Uzbek fur traders, and a Vatican representative (“How I love this hotel”). It’s all very light — even the Count’s momentary resolution to hurl himself off his balcony doesn’t dampen things terribly — but after nearly 500 pages, the airiness becomes curiously stifling. I found myself in odd sympathy with the Soviet interrogator at the beginning of the novel, who is somewhat exasperated by the Count’s winning archness. “History,” the Bolshevik chides the nobleman, “has shown charm to be the final ambition of the leisure class.”
If A Gentleman in Moscow is a big novel that ultimately feels small, Yusuf Atilgan’s reissued Motherland Hotel is a small novel that feels big. Motherland Hotel, originally published in Turkey in 1973, is the story of a private space made public, then made private again when its clerk unravels and shut himself, and the hotel, off from the outside world. The sign directing passersby “points downwards giving the impression that the hotel lies underground,” thus inadvertently indicating the trajectory of the novel’s protagonist.
“Son, when I’m dead and gone I don’t want you giving this room to just anyone who comes along. Every hotel needs a room like this.” Zeberjet, the phlegmatic clerk “of not quite average height” — compare another taller, but still deficient hero, Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, “an inch, or perhaps two, under six feet” — follows this paternal advice. He reserves the special room for special guests, like the glamorous woman from Ankara, whose arrival wakes Zeberjet from his sleepy existence.
We learn that the hotel was converted from a manor house, one of the few structures standing after the fleeing Greek army set fire to the town in 1922. Its name, The Motherland Hotel, is a relic of the “shamefaced patriotic zeal encountered, during the years just after Liberation, in those towns and cities where very little had been done about the enemy.” The gesture gives the modest establishment a slightly ridiculous air, and adds to the sense that for the unanchored Zeberjet, the town and nation are similarly full of bluster.
The transformation from manor house to “true hotel” takes years, not until “that small-town-hotel odor seeped into walls and woodwork.” But to someone who was born in one of its rooms, that transformation can never completely take place, no matter how many travelers, businessmen, couples, or prostitutes find lodging there. The hotel is a domestic inheritance, having come down to Zeberjet from his well-to-do merchant ancestors. That family, with its Faulknerian history of madness and suicide, is a ghostly presence in the novel. The room in which Zeberjet’s lecherous, senile grandfather was locked up in is now the third-floor bathroom, and tales of the sexual escapades between and among masters and servants work their way into Zeberjet’s erotic imagination, as do tantalizing overheard snatches from the hotel’s guests. (Zeberjet is an auditory voyeur, as it were.)
Motherland Hotel, which depicts the gradual disintegration of a mind, begins in a relatively orderly fashion. After a mildly disorienting opening passage, the narrative resets and proceeds with a series of labeled sections (“The Hotel,” “The Town,” etc.), as if to stave off the coming chaos. The principal actors are similarly introduced: Zeberjet, who carries out his duties in zombie-like fashion; the languorous maid whom he accosts each night in her sleep (“Sometimes he’ll be a nipple and she mumbles ‘Ow’ or ‘Scat’”; the glamorous woman from Ankara, who stays for one night and whose room Zeberjet keeps free in the hopes that she will return; and the mysterious “Retired Officer” who loiters for days on end in the lobby and seems as obsessed with the Ankaran woman as Zeberjet. Even the cat and a pair of bath towels — one belonging to the hotel, one left by the woman from Ankara — are included in this dramatis personae. In a novel full of somnolent characters, inanimate objects become charged.
Zeberjet fetishizes the traces of the woman from Ankara, keeping her room as a shrine, one which he honors, or profanes, with masturbatory visits. But he seems to take a greater sensual pleasure in the commonplace words uttered in their brief interaction (“Never mind the change”) or in calculating the number of cups she poured from the tea kettle he brought to her room, how many lumps of sugar she used. When he breaks her teacup one night, the accident shatters the sanctified atmosphere and his hopes for her return: “The room had been violated. Now she would not come back.”
No matter. The nameless woman (she claims to carry no ID) spawns nameless desires, setting off an unpredictable chain of reactions in the affectless man for whom the hotel has become a kind of prison over the years. (Zeberjet hardly gets out more often than Count Rostov.) He shaves his moustache and buys new clothes; turns away new guests; thrillingly, but timidly, flirts with a young man; and roams aimlessly about the small town.
Once out in the world again, he witnesses a world of action and contests starkly different from the purgatorial torpor of the Motherland Hotel. He watches a cockfight in which one of the birds (sporting the same color as the towel left behind by the woman) is killed in the ring, to the dismay of the onlookers: “Maybe they were afraid of going all the way. Of seeing the end.” He sees a movie, a typical Western in which a lone hero takes on corrupt town bosses. It rings false to him, though he grants that “it gave the illusion that something could be accomplished single-handed, and you went along.” Finally, he attends the murder trial of a young man who, for reasons he doesn’t divulge, strangled his wife on their wedding night. The hunger for a motive exasperates him: “Why a motive at all they need a story either insult or a slap silence or obedience something to fit a little box…”
These scenes of violence — ritualized, heroic, inexplicable — foretell Zeberjet’s own surrender to his darker impulses, a necessary surrender, according to him: “He felt embarrassed, ashamed actually, before all those people who thought of themselves as innocent, who failed to realize that only crime — some kind of crime — could keep you alive on earth.” Such half-baked Nietzschean sentiments are less indicative of his madness, though, than the cooly rational, and illogical, summation of his own crack-up:
Basically the running of a hotel was no different from running an institution, managing a large business, or governing a country. Just when you began to know yourself and understand what the means at hand might be, that’s when you slipped and broke down. Luckily the managers of government didn’t realize this, or they could do much more harm than the manager of a small hotel.
Here is the madman’s tendency to see his particular condition as universal. All the word’s mad, and the center cannot hold for the motherland’s statesmen and hoteliers alike.
Image Credit: Pexels.
There was extra time left at the end of the class and our Koran/Religious Studies teacher was allowing us to quietly do whatever we liked until break time. This was seventh grade and I’d never had a teacher remotely like her. She was young and pretty, unlike our other Divinity teachers who made it a point to dress badly and look bland. She had serene, generous eyes and her bright colored manteaus and overcoats were always tasteful and carefully ironed out. It took me a while to gather enough courage to go up to her desk, a crumpled piece of paper clammy from my sweaty palm in hand. Unfolding the balled-up note I asked nervously, “What does this mean?” It was a word I didn’t know how to pronounce, so I’d written it out – اگزیستانسیالیسم, existentialism. I caught the look of shock in our teacher’s face as her eyes darted back and forth between me and the piece of paper. Then in a cold tone she asked, “Where did you find this word?” I still hadn’t realized there might be something so terribly wrong and even believed that I’d managed to inspire her admiration over a difficult word. I told her that I’d found it in an article that the writer Jalal Al-e Ahmad had written about the novel The Blind Owl. The teacher’s face turned red. She was trying to keep her voice down but there was definite disapproval in her tone. “Who told you to read such a book? Where did you even get it? Do you know that its writer, Sadegh Hedayat, killed himself? Do you realize suicide is a great sacrilege? What else do you read? You shouldn’t be reading this sort of thing.”
As she spoke her voice became gradually less reproachful but also more desperate, as if she suspected it was already too late and there was no turning back for me from a fate similar to that of the writer of The Blind Owl. I stared at my shoes and said nothing about what other sorts of books one could find in our house, and that no matter where my older brother might hide his precious volumes I’d still find them. For a moment I even wondered if our teacher simply didn’t know what that word meant. I wasn’t feeling bad or guilty, just a sense that it was best I turn around now, go silently back to my seat, and keep my mouth shut. I was 12 years old at the time and already sure that books were my first and last love. This certainty, though, came with a price, a constant reminder that my love of books was not something I should cultivate or be glad about. In fact, in the world that I grew up, books — at least certain books — were seen as something dangerous, something to be wary of and keep at a distance if possible. Later in life I’d briefly wonder if there might not be some elemental truth to such fears. But at age 12, walking quietly back to that school desk, firm in my intention to never ask a teacher questions about literature again, I already knew that I’d go home and somehow unearth every book that was left to read in my brother’s bookshelf. No one could stop me.
There is the world before a person discovers books and there is the world after. It is a kind of matrimony. Dangerous, but necessary — especially for those of us for whom a life of not reading might seem simpler, but is also drab and ultimately colorless. I was determined; one day I’d marry a book.
The “book” that I wished to marry, the man of my dreams, had to be someone like my brother, Hossein, the person that most resembled a combination of fictional characters like Thomas Fowler of The Quiet American, Prince Bolkonsky of War and Peace, and Rochester of Jane Eyre. Men who were stubborn and hard to pin down, who were jaded and proud, and who even possessed more than a touch of arrogance.
Hossein was working on his Master’s thesis in Economics when he decided to drop it all. He was a poet at heart. But he was also a working journalist and a veteran who’d been at the Karbala 5 operations at the bitterly contested Faw Peninsula during the Iran-Iraq war. Later on, during the Afghan civil war, he would fight alongside his close friend, the legendary commander of the Northern Alliance, Ahmad Shah Masood, and later still he’d fall in the hands of their merciless enemy, the Taliban, for a time. Yet this was the same man who also loved the poetry of Rumi and Vladimir Mayakovsky, and often you’d see him tramping among his papers scattered in the middle of our living room reciting out loud from Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell’s personal account of the Spanish Civil War.
Hossein was unlike anyone I knew. And I was sure he was that way because of all the books he’d read. Save for a few volumes of The Koran that belonged to our father, all the other books in our house were Hossein’s. He was the owner of a magic treasure chest. He could open that chest and lend me a share of the magic inside.
Which he did. Partly.
But I was hungrier than he’d imagined and would not be satisfied with just what he doled out. I wanted more. Much more. Therefore my first rebellion in life turned out to be directed at my brother, the man I worshipped. He had separated his books between those which my sister and I could read and those that he didn’t want us to touch. His words: “Forget about these other books.” I suppose he felt two adolescent girls growing up in a provincial city in the northeast of Iran weren’t ready yet to read modernist Persian texts and translations of the works of Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, and Jean-Paul Sartre.
A lot of Hossein’s books weren’t even shelved. In a working class home on the poor side of the city of Mashhad, right after the long eight years of war with Iraq, owning enough bookshelves was beyond our means. Most of the books sat stacked in boxes, silent but pregnant with mysteries that our brother didn’t feel we were ready for. Except that he wasn’t there to watch us. Hossein was usually away lugging a camera to some troubled spot. I can’t recall how long it took before I gave in to the temptation and also made my sister a partner in crime. One day, inevitably, we quit just hovering around those boxes and dug in. We heaved, pushed and pulled, until our tiny hands had managed to undo all those gigantic cartons. I have no idea what prompted my sister to choose Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler first, while I chose W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. Nor could I tell you so many years later exactly how much I understood of what I read back then. But I do remember the hours upon hours spent in various corners of the house engulfed and dreaming. If there was a heaven at all, this had to be it. But when the inevitable happened and my brother returned from one of his trips to find out we had not listened to him and delved into the forbidden fruit, he locked the door to Eden. Stifling his natural compassion, Hossein banned us from reaching for any of the books in his library for the next few years.
The female librarian at University of Tehran’s central library takes the two-volume copy of Anna Karenina from me and asks, “You read the whole thing?” I nod yes. By now I’m a junior in college and it’s been just a little over two years since I left Mashhad and came to the capital to study and, hopefully, have my own share of adventures. The librarian puts the books down with distaste and says, “Some women are monsters!” Not knowing how to react, I offer an inane smile. To my understanding, the tragic woman in the novel is nothing like how the librarian describes her. She’s sincere and intelligent. I care about her. And this mindless smile that I offer as an answer is one that, in retrospect, I will go on to offer the world every time I’m faced with declarations and judgments from people who know nothing of the world of shadows, people for whom there is only certainty and no relative answers to difficult questions, people who are forever sure of what’s black and what’s white and who’s guilty and who is not. Books, the very act of reading, have stripped me of absolutes. I do not dislike Anna Karenina, and this is dangerous to our librarian. As I reach to take back my college ID, I see that she has noticed what I’m majoring in and is giving me a hard stare. “You’re actually studying to be a librarian?” Her look turns to one of pity and she continues, “There was nothing else for you to choose besides this? Are you serious? Tomorrow when you graduate what do you think you’ll do? There’s no money in what we do and no job. Take a good look; at most you’ll become someone like me. Is that what you really want?”
I have no answers. There’s no way I can explain that I came to Tehran to major in Library Science because, as absurd and laughable as it seems, I have always wanted to marry a book. There’s no describing that I am here because I could not stand the thought of ever being separated from books and I figured Library Science would guarantee me this marriage. I might in fact try to tell her all of this. But she would not understand. In her curious yet apathetic stare there’s not the slightest hint of the abandon that comes from a true love of books. And all the volumes in this great library have not made a dent in her reasoning. She does not suffer from the bug as I do. We each speak a different language.
The person who did speak my language, however, was an old man that I’d met almost 10 years earlier, just after my fall from grace with my brother. He was a retired school principal in our neighborhood who had turned one of the rooms in his house to a books-for-rent shop. He had a daughter about my own age who was in charge of running the store. For every 24 hours rental of a book they charged a negligible sum. What made the whole set-up even more odd was that it existed in a part of our town where just about every head of a family was a laborer, a place where there was so little interest in books that they were not even used as decoration, where speaking “high language” was considered effete and a sign of incompetence, and where there were at least five children to each household. To try to make a living here by peddling the gibberish of “unbelievers” from clear across the planet who, on top of everything else, had never done right by us and this country, was nothing short of lunacy. That old man, whom I saw only once in his “shop,” had to truly be mad to be doing this. Yet I understood his affliction. I understood that the bug had gotten to him just as it had gotten to me.
When I discovered the books-for-rent shop, nearly two years had passed since my brother’s punishment. Hossein’s library still remained forbidden. I would rent the books and take them home to breathlessly read right in front of our banned library so that Hossein would take notice. Wuthering Heights, Madame Bovary, Anton Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog, The Thirsty Wall and the Stream by the Iranian writer Ebrahim Golestan, Heinrich Böll’s The Clown…
It was as if I had found my way back to Eden. My brother saw what was happening, but he stayed silent; not once did he ask me where I was getting those books from or reproach me for going against his mandate. So I kept on reading, right through the scorching summer when I was 15. I read, and Hossein remained silent. Then one week into autumn, he finally pointed to his shelf and to his boxes of books and bellowed, “Those books over there are not just for show!” He had finally surrendered. He was a man who had seen enough of the world to know when it was too late. Whatever calamity he’d believed might befall a teenage Iranian girl whose passion was books was already here. There was no going back for either one of us.
Image Credit: Flickr/San Jose Library.
Back in 2001, The Onion published a breathless report from a gala awards ceremony: The Fontys. A few dissenting voices groused about the night’s big winner, Helvetica Bold Oblique – “a bold as best font?” – but ebullience carried the night. “‘A million thanks to all the wonderful folks in the font community who believed in Helvetica Bold Oblique,'” said “an ecstatic Oliver Rudd, designer of the font,”Without your faith in my vision, I would not be here before you tonight. I’d also like to thank Helvetica Regular designer James T. Helvetica, the giant upon whose shoulders I stand.Of course this was satire, and its ostensible message served mainly to emphasize a subtext: No one cares about typeface. Some recent reading experiences, however, have me wondering if that’s really true.This summer, I encountered the ultramodern Vendetta font in two books of debut fiction: Anya Ulinich’s Petropolis and Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men. Its polygonal punctuation and strangely shaped gs and ps kept distracting me from the text. I’ve also had problems reading several books from the NYRB Classics series, which has otherwise been justly praised for its attractive design. In each case, an obtrusive font made it hard for me to forget that I was staring at ink on a page. It was hard to distinguish frustration with the typesetting from frustration with the prose itself.Now I’m about three-quarters of the way through John Crowley’s Aegypt Cycle, which Overlook Press has heroically brought back into print. Aegypt is a startling hybrid, part fantasy and part novel of ideas, and, when you’re hip-deep in Daemonomania, a blurb comparing Crowley to Thomas Mann doesn’t seem unjustified. For some reason, however, Overlook has chosen a stylized typeface called Rotis that graphically overemphasizes Aegypt’s connection to genre fiction. Overlook told us that Rotis was chosen because it echoes the “feel” of the book; for me, it overdoes the echo. At times I’ve found myself reading racing along to the next plot-point, rather than slowing down to appreciate Crowley’s rich prose, which deserves the same distinction accorded to other modern masters. I wonder if my experience would be different had Crowley been given the Everyman’s Library treatment – or, indeed, if War & Peace would read differently, printed on copier paper in 12-point Courier.The New Critics taught us that we were supposed to disregard superfluities and focus on the words on the page – but how much does the printing process color our reception of those words? Don’t design choices advance a set of claims for the work – claims that subtly shape our judgment? This seems particularly worth thinking about now that modern technology has made typesetting easier. It would seem to be a fairly simple matter to switch the next print run of Crowley or Gessen or Ulinich to good old Garamond, or to some other font that meets master typographer Matthew Carter’s criteria: clarity is all. Perhaps there are readers out there who care nothing for the superficial, who would just as soon read an airport paperback as, say, a Vintage International trade. I’ve been a little embarrassed to discover I’m not among them.
[Editor’s note: This week we’ve invited Megan Hustad, author of How to Be Useful: A Beginner’s Guide to Not Hating Work, to dissect our contributors’ first-job follies.]Garth writes:My first job out of college was writing for what was essentially a dot-com. In ways I wasn’t really aware of at the time, I thought I was pretty hot stuff. This delusion was encouraged by a mildly “fun” corporate culture and the fact that I could churn out a good chunk of the publication in about five hours of concentrated work, to general hosannas from my editors. I was working a lot faster than my predecessors. This left me with about three hours to kill every day; I didn’t want to take on added duties for the same paycheck.This is a fairly common predicament in American office life, I’m pretty sure; we become victims of our own efficiency. The problem was, I wasn’t into Solitaire or Minesweeper, blogs didn’t really exist yet, and part of my job involved reading four newspapers first thing in the morning, so that wasn’t an option for camouflaging my long periods of inactivity. I tried to read novels at my desk, but had a hard time concentrating with the computer screen right in front of me.Here’s what I came up with (ah, the callow brilliance of the 23-year-old!): I would work like a mule from 8:30ish to 1:30ish, print up my work, and carry it off to the office cafeteria to edit. Around 2:15, after a quick sandwich (eating on the clock), I’d go to a nearby park and sit in the grass and read a book until 3:30 or so. At which point I’d come back to the office to publish.I think I thought of work as a fee-for-service model. I completed my duties, I got paid. And okay, maybe I was stretching lunch just a little bit. Of course, I was away from my desk for two solid hours, and to anyone who saw me lolling in the park, I’d look like a student or trustafarian. Then again, I did get some great reading done that year. I got paid to read War & Peace!Megan Hustad responds:You’re weird. Minesweeper is a great game. Anyhow, the fee-for-service model works fine if superiors are oblivious and you aren’t hoping for a future in the industry. Trouble is, it’s hard to tell whether anyone is noticing. If your superiors are passive-aggressive or otherwise chickenhearted, they’ll mumble about you behind your back for months but never say anything to you directly. If they did notice, your callow brilliance probably worked their nerves. This is just one reason why business success books written throughout the twentieth century advocated acting smart, sure, but never too smart. “Excess intelligence,” wrote Peter Engel in The Overachievers (1976), “is a very sly asset.” Indeed.More importantly, people who take on added duties for the same paycheck tend to go on to have the most interesting careers. I was surprised — but perhaps shouldn’t have been — to discover that Helen Gurley Brown (1962’s Sex and the Single Girl and 1964’s Sex and the Office) went on and on and on and on about this. She believed exploitation had its uses. Uselessness rating: 3For more information, please see these related posts:Welcome to the Working Week: Megan Hustad Analyzes Our On-the-Job FoiblesWelcome to the Working Week 1: MaxWelcome to the Working Week 2: EmreWelcome to the Working Week 4: Andrew