I am clumsy and impotent with new books, nearly incapable of starting to read. I herk and jerk, skimming the front matter, pawing at the cover, staring at the first sentence and checking the table of contents, trying to prefigure some pithy tweet or status to announce that I’ve begun reading the book, which, of course, I haven’t. I try to guess the book’s ‘big idea’ and decide, well in advance of criticism or comprehension, whether or not the writing will be rich enough to entertain my friends when they ask, ‘Read anything good lately?’ Of course I have, and you need to read it too. I haven’t yet. I can’t decide if I can spare the time. But you should definitely give it a go.
In case you are looking for an early exit from this piece, one that will leave you with some fantastico bon mots for Twitter, may I suggest quoting, excerpting, pinning or pace-ing: ‘I enter books like a consummate freshman, prodding absent-mindedly and fixating on the fish tale of my conquest.’
There’s an uneasy negotiation that happens when you start a new book or when you open some hot-off-the-fingers, long-form article that thoughtbloggers and netleaders are pretending to have read. You have to consent to the work’s rules. You have to believe that the piece’s internal logics and details are real enough or, even worse, important. You have to abandon your prejudices against emplotment. You have to buy into the fiction of the composition, pass through the dust jacket into the work’s sacred and artificial space. (This is true even in non-fiction, perhaps especially so. You are radically forgetful. You assume ridiculous, charitable positions: this author can cache out this subtle issue in 500 words, these anecdotes are acceptable substitutes for a measure of reason, I actually care what this twenty-two-year-old thinks about the Middle East.) Then you fake these beliefs until they make the piece habitable.
If you’ve reached this meta-parenthetical — I’m not sure that is a thing but I didn’t want to die without having rutted with a word like ‘meta-parenthetical’ — you’ve already acquiesced to a few of my fictions: I have read books before, there’s some depth to the reading-as-sex conceit that I’ve smartly sprinkled about, there’s a chance that you will finish this thing.
But how can you erase the stock order of your world, making space for the book/blog/article, if you are constantly plumbing your own cleverness and the speculative reactions of your friends? How can you give in to her new short-story collection about cancer and the American Dream, when you are weighing up each sentence, ‘Is this emotionally charged and approachable enough to convince my friends that I have feelings?’
Of course, you can’t proceed like this, one foot in. No Kindle or audiobook or after-hours Barnes & Noble speaker series or other literary expedience can drag you out of your incessantly reflective cherry-picking. You have to give it up. Assume any cachet that you can salvage will still be littered about when you finish. Hell, you can highlight!
Except in this piece. The further you get into it, the worse everything will seem. You’ll be embarrassed by all those early sentences, the ones that made you nod, when you find out where they were leading. In a few paragraphs, there won’t be a thread at all, just a shit-minotaur asking if you’ve ever read Kingsley Amis.
Take the last book I tried to start. I can’t tell if I was successful and I won’t tell you if I finished reading it. I love a good cliffhanger.
So I pick this book up, and it’s got a stunning cover. Arguably this is the most important part of any book. Without the cover, there is no curtain to raise, no proscenium; there’s no theatre; just a bunch of folks over-pronouncing words. This cover features a photograph of a woman with warpaint or facepaint or hippie-cheek-ephemera. There’s tape over the part of the picture where her mouth would go. The words ‘a novel’ are written on the tape suggesting that the narrativization of this woman’s life has silenced her or that all women are silenced or something about subaltern speech. Much like the grainy photo, printed on the textured cover stock, it’s unclear. There are other words like the title and the author’s name, but it’s the photograph that beckons you into a world filled with savage women or, at least, one savage woman. This is how the bargain is struck and the sacred space is marked, measured out with a vivid image that folds behind the pages. I just have to open the book and I’ll be in this primal, female world.
I crack the cover and skim the first chapter. I like to keep introductions at arm’s length. Prologomena are not to be trusted, each one articulating the same unachievable ambition: I will encounter and wrestle beauty as if it were an angel, but this book isn’t about beauty, and I only partially remember the angel-wrestling story (Paradise Lost, maybe?). Every introduction couches the book’s mission in tragic ideals that will eventually peter out, snuffed out by the exigencies of plot and theme, replaced by a wink and a nod. This isn’t to say that every book is a failure. Every introduction is.
I breeze through Chapter 1, which turns out to be some strange flashback that no one reads, or, at least, no one remembers. Reading might just be remembering, but I’m no philosopher. By the time that I’m three paragraphs into Chapter 2, I’m a wreck. I’ve already aborted several attempts at editing a quote into 140 characters. I’ve tried out several critical opinions in my head, each one a vile home brew of pretension and fallacy. ‘The author acquits her earnest, far-reaching proclamations with the endearing discomfiture of her tortured similes.’ It’s unbelievable that such a sentence could mean anything, much less entertain my friends. Alas, there are just enough surprising word combinations to throw acquaintances off their balance. ‘I would have never thought of that.’ Of course you wouldn’t; it shouldn’t be thinkable.
After another 200 pages of dog-earing, highlighting, underlining, over-lining, sub-tweeting and chuckling to myself (about some on-point insights), I wonder if I’ve ever even read a book before. I’ve certainly finished books and opined about many more. I’ve decorated my otherwise spartan man-space with shelves of colour-co-ordinated covers and hung some old volumes on my wall, grandstanded that I might smirk at them in the morning and mouth ‘you done good, kid’ to myself. I haven’t done good, but that first-edition William Gass really throws off the Norman Mailer crew.
Did that last sentence do anything for you? I’ve been working on it for a few years. It’s intended to inspire the following thoughts: Erik is an arch-prosaist or a prose-snob and he doesn’t know the difference between the two. Erik does NOT respect hyper-masculinity or any masculinity. Erik has friends that carry pocket editions of The Naked and the Dead, yearning for the day it stops a bullet and they can finally climax; they are, in a word, studs.
There are only a few books that I’ve read on their own terms, stepping over the threshold, playing by their rules. I disclaim them as guilty pleasures, works that won me over in spite of myself. Naturally, I didn’t love them. Yet I threw myself uncritically into thousands of pages of fantasy novels. I’d bury myself in a series that would never end, written by an author who’d eventually die and have his colossal arc taken over by another author who’d never wrap anything up. These authors all had names that I definitely remember but will pretend to forget and replace with absurd stand-ins: Brandon St Matthewcloud, Robert R. R. Perchance, Michael Moorcock.
You’d be right to note that these are all men. It took me a long time before I was ready to be dominated by a woman that hadn’t given birth to me.
It was easy to abandon a critical distance. Reading fantasy novels was a forgetting. You didn’t want to think about the rest of your awkward adolescence, that same nostalgic sob-story, impastoed in garish oils on every creative-and-weird adult male’s wall: a pale, teenage boy sitting in the past, hiking up the boxer shorts he bought to look cool, cowering behind his Monster Manual. Woe is me, it took twenty years to finally screw like a dragon slayer; jockier friends were well fucked by fifteen.
But the rest of my favourite books? I read them half-heartedly. It’s uncomfortable and alienating to transgress into truly rich worlds, rigged with honest plots and arguments, the kind of real literary furniture that doesn’t merely spin around to reveal some artifice of the reader’s invention. We admire great works for their resources, but resent them at a distance for demanding sacrifice.
We need our sacred spaces to reflect ourselves. We are driven to nest, to sublimate into the trinkets and carpets of our rooms, to scatter tiny mirrors. The only safe perception is world-creation. It palliates the anxiety that we might just be passing through, that we are light. Every sentence has to be inhabited by the reader. Every sentence must be relevant. ‘I can’t believe how much the author gets me.’ She doesn’t. But you get yourself and you’re talented at recognition, even where there’s no resemblance. Her ideas are just words until you put them in your mouth. And that’s why we don’t read, and we certainly don’t love good books. We aren’t confident enough to avoid finding ourselves. And there’s no love without self-renunciation.
An inept book-beginner, it’s unbelievable that I can read anything during the working day, my attention tugged by the flashing lights of websites that keep publishing the same article, the eternal return of a navel-gazing thinkpiece about race and sex, written by the straightest, whitest man that the north-east media corridor could incubate. That piece might even be this piece. But, I was schooled in Pittsburgh, which is a real blue-collar steel town. I know all about bootstraps and the crushing burden of having almost every advantage, but it’s that last one per cent of others’ blessings that breaks the sugar-glass spirits of us mediocre men.
So, here I am, trying to start reading a book, or strive past the tortured lede of an online exclusive. Too hard. I try writing about the ideas, which I understand foggily, in the piece I still haven’t looked at. But, at a certain point, this extemporizing feels forced. Maybe, I’ve just used up all my best anodyne opinions, exhausted my cache of non-controversial arguments that drag as edgy to like-minded friends.
Fortunately, I can write about not being able to write and not being able to read. I can suggest that all writing and all reading is as laboured and insincere as the writing that you’re reading here. It’s the trick that sutures the serpent’s head to its tail. It’s writing that could go on for ever and shouldn’t have started. I don’t even have to pretend to read any more. The perpetual motion of counterfeit memoir, a taxidermied self-care uroboros, is the only engine I need. It’s what drives modern publishing, kids.
What’s more, you’re defenceless against it. There’s nothing to buy into. The focus on the narrator absolves you of self-reflection. The vapidity of the argument frightens away any attempt at engagement. This is the funny dog falling up the stairs of writing. And, as such, it’s going to be a huge hit.
Or, more likely, no one will read it. That first paragraph wasn’t great.