Posts Tagged ‘books’

October Books

Wormwood (Poppy Z. Brite)

This collection of horror stories was originally titled Swamp Foetus. Brite now identifies as male and goes by Billy Martin. The naming can be a bit confusing. These stories were written by someone who has spent a lot of time in North Carolina but has since fallen in love with New Orleans, and also thoroughly enjoys modern witchcraft. As ever, some selections are better than others, but in general I don’t much care for this collection. It revealed to me why I like some horror stories and not others. Barker’s stories celebrate life because it is fragile and precious; Brite’s stories celebrate death because it is strong and inexorable. While there is a lot of homosexual male love, it’s generally sidelined by the overwhelming fascination with death. Hooray for the representation for gay goths, but maybe there are some guys in the world who like wearing black and listening to heavy metal who don’t want to kill themselves or anyone else. In this book, if there are, they are likely to fall for a murderer or someone with a terminal illness. I had a professor once who told us that you can tell the implicit values of an author by seeing who the murderers and the victims are – they are the ones the author is punishing. If all your gay men kill or are killed, is that really positive representation?

The Longest Journey (E. M. Forster)

Really? A Forster novel that doesn’t go to Italy? Yup. We do still have the critique of mainstream British middle class, but they stay in Britain this time. A young man has a lot of revolutionary friends in college, but then he graduates and gets a job at a boys’ school and his ideas change. It’s about the confrontation of ideals with real life, particularly as it regards the educational system. I have a lot of experience with this conflict myself, which is why I am no longer a teacher. I also wanted Protagonist to admit his love for his former classmate, but Forster’s explicitly gay stories weren’t published during his lifetime. The longest journey of the title is the one that we all take, through life into death. It’s one that we all ultimately take alone because of the difficulties in communicating our ideas and experiences. This is a book of isolation.

The Golem and the Jinni (Helene Wecker)

This was a fantastic story. In the late nineteenth century, there were several communities of immigrants living in New York, and the European Jews and the Syrians didn’t really have much communication between them. The golem was built to be someone’s perfect wife, but he dies on the crossing and she has to figure out what to do with herself now that she’s freed from building her life around this one man. She develops skills, gets a job, and ultimately builds a community of friends. The jinni was trapped in a bottle for twelve centuries until a metalsmith accidentally frees him. He also works on getting a job and developing skills, adapting to the new culture and nourishing his memories so that he can figure out how he got stuck. They both distrust humans and feel confined because they can’t share their true identities with the world at large. Of course, the woman made of earth and the man made of fire meet each other. I was very pleased to see, though, that they don’t fall in love with each other. I’m pretty sure the golem is asexual, though that word is never brought up, and the jinni is very sexual, which gets him into trouble. It is possible to have a book about two people who don’t get all romantic. Despite the setting, the writing is of our own time, the firm, focused prose that we favor in both popular and literary novels. Recommended for most adult audiences of readers.

 

November Books

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (Yukio Mishima)

There’s a thirteen-year-old boy trying to navigate early adolescence. His friends are sort of terrifying, identifying themselves by numbers instead of names (Chief, One, Two, Three . . .); it’s more of an intellectual, anti-sentimental cult than a group of friends. He learns about sexuality by watching his mother through a knothole in the wall between their bedrooms: first he spies on her masturbating, then continues when she meets a man to bring home. The romance between the sailor and the business owner is sweet and a little Hallmark-ish: they meet when he’s on shore for a few days; they fuck immediately, fall in love, and write each other letters while he’s gone for six months; and then they marry. Moderately wealthy career woman, lower-class hunk with a connection to nature – it’s the stuff American movies are made of. For the first half of the book. After the marriage, the sailor tries to learn business and stepfatherhood and life on land in general, and loses the kid’s respect in the attempt. But as it turns out, the Japanese law at the time determined that no one younger than fourteen could be tried for any crime, so the Chief reminds them that they can do anything they want in these short remaining months before their birthdays. Even murder.

The Mabinogion (Trans. Sioned Davies)

It took me quite a long time to read this book. It’s a group of fragments of Welsh epics, around a thousand years old. There was a specific story that I was looking for, the one about Cerridwen and her cauldron of inspiration, but it’s not here. It’s part of the Tale of Taliesin, because of course they treat a woman as a supporting character in a tale about a man, and the commonly known version of Taliesin has been determined to be mostly spurious, written in the nineteenth century I think. So I missed that one and got instead the authentic, traditional Welsh stories. There are eleven divisions or manuscripts, but don’t let that fool you. There are dozens of stories in this book, and they come so quickly that I could never read very much at a go. I need processing time. I care about understanding what happened, which takes a little digestion, and I also read to share in the emotional experiences of the characters, which just were not explored with the level of detail I (as a twenty-first century reader) prefer. If you’re looking for Arthurian chivalric tales, then this is the right place. Forget Lancelot and Galahad, and read up on the other knights, the ones that get left out of the modern tellings, like Geraint and Culhwch. It’s like we only care about Arthur as a cuckold, because watching Lancelot have sex with Guinevere allows us to vicariously defy authority and we like that. Here, her name is Gwenhwyfar, and women aren’t simply pawns in conflicts between men. The attitude toward sex is remarkably un-Victorian. There aren’t really any deities – maybe a little light Christianity every now and again, but these myths are about people, and sometimes giants and magic-users. My edition is heavily footnoted, maybe a little too much. The writing style is abrupt and forceful, and there’s a little too much Might Makes Right for my tastes. I do like the way that people refer to others as “the man/woman I love best”; it feels beautiful and right. It acknowledges other loves and other types of love while also recognizing the primacy of this individual, and it separates all that from titles and formally recognized relationships. It’s a weird and complex group of stories.

Dead Man’s Quill (Jordan Castillo Price)

The final novella in the series. Dixon and Yuri meet Dixon’s missing uncle who’s been causing havoc and together they resolve all the problems. I don’t think they manage a sex scene, which is a little disappointing, but it wrapped up the series perfectly. The author implied in a postscript that there will be more stories, but I’m satisfied with the closure I got here. I will probably reread all four stories again, as if they were a single book, but I don’t think I need anything more. They’re cute, yes, both the stories and the characters, but I like closure and don’t want any sequels.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (Italo Calvino)

I liked this book a lot. There are ten first chapters of novels, tied together with a frame about you, the Reader. It is assumed that you, the Reader, are a white European heterosexual man, which I find unfortunate but inevitable in a novel written by an Italian man in the 1970s. The Reader enjoys all of these separate books, but runs into trouble finding the rest of the books, whether through printer errors, sudden interruptions, or the incompletion of manuscripts. He finds a young woman, the Other Reader, and they try to hunt down the books they’re reading, to no avail. Because they are separate human beings with different attitudes and experiences, they can never quite agree on the nature of the books they read, and we only see things through his perspective. The stories start off a little paranoid and Hitchcock-y, then around chapter seven things get very sexual indeed, and finally we drift into death and the dismantling of the story. The last few pages involve a discussion of why and how we read, which explains why we can never quite read the same book – even if the text doesn’t change, we do, so the experience is always different, from one reader to another, from one reading to the next. Great for people interested in exploring the nature of reading as they do it, but the metafictional elements both explain why critics love it and why it seems to have passed mostly out of the United States’ cultural consciousness.

The Body in the Library (Agatha Christie)

This is my first Miss Marple book, and technically it’s a December book because I read the last third on Dec 1. I was surprised at how little she actually does; the story focuses primarily on the police officers investigating the murder. She solves it, of course, but the clue-gathering is seldom in her hands. A body appears in the library of a country estate, and the owner’s wife is friends with Miss Marple, so of course they work the case together. Very little action as clues are revealed mostly through dialogue. Positive representation of the disabled, less positive representation of the working class, no representation of ethnic minorities. But she’s writing for a specific audience in a specific time and place, so these things are to be expected. I appreciate the community-based approach to solving the crimes, even though I am uncomfortable with just how narrow and homogeneous the community is.

 

Inspector Hobbes and the Blood (Wilkie Martin)

Inspector Hobbes and the Curse (Wilkie Martin)

Inspector Hobbes and the Gold Diggers (Wilkie Martin)

Full disclosure – Kobo offered me the three in a bundle, so that’s why I read them all in a row. There’s a fourth, and now you can get the four of them in a bundle. Or I can pay full price for the one that’s left.

These books are low-key paranormal mysteries. Inspector Hobbes, the resident Sherlock Holmes, is a large, hairy man with a keen interest in old-fashioned manners and a complete obliviousness to anything modern, like fashion or technology. Watson is played by Andy Caplet, who calls himself a journalist but he’s better at causing news than at reporting on it. He’s clumsy and awkward, and in the first book that leads to a tendency to incite riots. People react less violently in the later books, and the novels are the poorer for it. In the portrayal of trolls and vampires and other supernatural characters, Martin displays unflatteringly people’s tendency to racism and classism, and the gratitude that minorities have toward someone who just treats them like a regular person (maybe a little too grateful). That being said, there’s nothing in these cozy little mysteries to offend anyone, or even to make the heart beat faster. Read these books to laugh, not to be enthralled or horrified. The comedy is the most successful aspect.

 

A Ghost in the Closet (Mabel Maney)

I loved this book so much. It’s a lesbian parody of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, with a bit of Nurse Cherry Ames thrown in. It’s the third in the series, with two previous Nancy Clue/Cherry Aimless books. By the time this one opens, the squad has something like five lesbians traveling together – Midge and Velma are the stable couple, while Nancy and Jackie are fighting over Cherry. There are also several bits of the Hardly boys dealing with their own homosexual feelings (not for each other). The mystery itself is a cross between utter triviality and overblown world destruction, and the writing style is so alliterative I was giggling constantly. There are a couple of graphic scenes with the ladies, but not so graphic. There’s an emphasis on fashion and interior decorating that leads me to question the community’s interest in conspicuous consumption – are we really that materialistic?

“Let’s have breakfast,” Willy announced, shepherding the gang into his pleasant kitchen. Nancy relaxed for the first time in days as she watched Willy bustle about the cozy room, painted in soothing peach tones and decorated with starched white tie-back flounced curtains. Above the sink was a saucy shelf edged with ruffled gingham and holding a collection of dainty porcelain egg cups. She sipped her coffee as Willy tied an apron over his slacks outfit, took a bowl of farm fresh eggs from the Frigidaire and expertly cracked a dozen into a cast-iron skillet, next to a pan cradling a sizzling side of bacon.

A few minutes later he plopped a plate of just-right eggs, yummy-smelling bacon and crunchy toast in front of her. “You’ll feel better once you’ve had a bite to eat,” he smiled. Nancy blinked back tears. He had seen right through her brave charade!

 

Alien Quest (Mark Zubro)

Another gay book, this one not so much a parody as a clunky genre piece. Joe is a detective from outer space, and Mike is a Chicago waiter. There is nothing hot or steamy about the romance, and Mike routinely ignores the global consequences of events for petulant moments of self-absorption. Then, there are so many other things that get shoved in, because apparently no book about gay men is complete without (a) someone dying of AIDS and (b) the gay community adopting a homophobic teenager and converting him to tolerance. Seriously. I get so sick of the myth of the saintly minority. I know what it is to suffer, so I’m required to relieve the suffering of those who hate me? Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that Minor Character is out of the physically abusive situation he was in, but having to save the teenage jerk while trying to save the world was an unnecessary distraction. It’s like Zubro didn’t have enough plot with an alien detective, so he had to keep shoving more elements in until it reached critical mass. There are a couple more in this series, but I may end up having too many issues to read them.

Another thing that bothers me is how seldom the narrator uses Joe’s name. He’s always referred to as ‘the alien’, perhaps because he’s so normal that we might forget that’s what he is. It makes Mike (and Zubro) seem a bit racist against non-humans. If someone looks and acts like a human being, even down to having the same genitals and manner of employing them, why would you keep insisting on his difference?

 

David Starr, Space Ranger (Isaac Asimov)

Asimov includes a short note of apology at the beginning of this book, because science moved on and the story as he imagined it could not possibly happen. Interstellar radiation, or something like that. David Starr is the type of hero that the audience of the time would have really loved – young, rebellious, smart, asexual, and violent. Asimov was writing for boys in the 1950s; what do you expect? Female characters? Despite the complete absence of women, he avoids any hints of homosexuality, which is actually sort of amazing. The last page features two men swearing eternal friendship and companionship, but it’s not until the last page. It seems strange to me that there’s so much hand-to-hand combat, because I don’t think science requires the frequent application of fists to noses, but I’m from another time.

 

Old School (Tobias Wolff)

This is a book about books. First-Person Narrator is remembering his school days, at this uncomfortably elite school where they invite famous authors to meet the students. The first part, about Robert Frost, is sort of straightforward and introduces you to the world and characters. The second part disrupts the first – some fool invites Ayn Rand. She’s horrible, travels with an entourage of superfans, and treats everyone like shit. FPN is enamoured of her work until he meets her and realizes what a terrible person she is. I was going to say bitch, but that’s an insult to dogs. Things get really intense for the third author, Ernest Hemingway. Of course FPN has to submit a story, but he can’t force anything out until he reads a story in a girls’ school literary magazine, and her story hits so hard and seems so much like his own that he plagiarizes the entire thing. He’s chosen, and caught, because this is what Story requires, but Hemingway dies before the visit anyway.

This is a book about authenticity, told by a boy who is so ashamed of his Jewish heritage that he can’t admit it to anyone, not even other part-Jewish boys, not even when he plagiarizes a story about being Jewish on the edges of high WASP society. It’s sad and weird, but worth reading.

 

Alphabet of Thorn (Patricia A. McKillip)

This book was so fantastic. Protagonist is a foundling raised by librarians to be a translator, and one day she finds an untranslatable book written in a completely unique alphabet that only she can read. It tells the legend of ancient heroes, and with the increasing level of detail it becomes clear that it was written by the greatest magician of all time. Because history is as it is, a number of legendary historical figures are misgendered, so the books feels strongly feminist, literally taking a time-traveling fantasy out of the hands of men and making the real heroes women. Men are realistically portrayed, but they do tend to be either violent, dense, or both. My favorite male character accidentally turns himself invisible.

I like the way that McKillip is sex-positive without being erotic or graphic. In this book, sex is as normal, unquestioned, and not worth describing as eating. She normalizes it successfully instead of fetishizing it or making it a significant plot point. I’m now looking for all the books of hers I can lay my hands on.

 

The Lost World (Arthur Conan Doyle)

I had a hard time making it through this one. I started it back before Nancy Clue, but it took this long to finish, even though it’s a short little thing. The problem is that I hate Professor Challenger. Like David Starr, he uses his fists as much as his scientific intellect, but he looses his violence on reporters and colleagues, not anyone who is actually trying to pick a fight. His wife disagrees with him on something, and she’s in the right, so he punishes her by literally setting her on a pedestal that is too high for her to climb down from. It’s everything that’s wrong with Victorian masculinity condensed into one vain, belligerent asshole. He leads a small expedition – another professor, a reporter, and a big-game hunter – with its attendant racist portrayals of Brazilians to find an isolated plateau populated by dinosaurs. It’s hard to escape from, but apparently genocide helps. The reporter is the first-person narrator, and he’s Irish, but uses unmarked speech while his Scottish editor is portrayed as a dialect-employing idiot. So racist. So sexist. Also ends with two men agreeing to stick together because “Bitches be cray”; she told him before he left that he wasn’t good enough for her, so I don’t know why he expected her to stay single while he got himself lost in the Amazon. It’s been a very long time since I’ve read any of the Sherlock Holmes stories, but if they’re as bad as this, I may never come back to Doyle.

 

Faerie Tale (Raymond E. Feist)

Horror novel based on the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Phil and Gloria, a successful screenwriter and an unsuccessful actress, buy a house in upstate New York and move their family there. The twin boys are pretty standard American fare, obsessed with baseball and too young for girls, and the older daughter falls for a grad student working with Phil’s old mentor. He’s a good kid. There are also Mark and Gary, two folklore scholars who are studying the fairy stories and strange occurrences. They sound and act like a gay couple, even though Gary has a girlfriend. Her name is Ellen and she’s a very competitive, athletic tennis player who is almost never onscreen – the perfect lesbian beard. There’s a lot of secret society stuff, and sex is positive when it’s offscreen, as if rape is the only sex worth describing. Feist isn’t a bad writer, and I’ll probably read some more of his work, but there’s something dissonant about this book that I can’t quite articulate. Maybe it’s just me.

For the last two weeks, I’ve been working on grading some research projects, and the teacher gave them all the same topic, so it’s been a little hard to focus on because my mind keeps wandering away from globalization to other things. Any other thing. This morning I was finishing the last of it, and I had some coffee to help me wake up and focus, and I listened to exciting swing music, so now I have all this energy and not much to do with it.

Globalization is becoming rather a pertinent topic lately, with Brexit and Trump’s increasingly intolerant policies. These current struggles are foreshadowed in this book, describing Turkey a good twenty or thirty years ago. Thinking back over Pamuk’s career and the books of his that I’ve read, The Black Book was written before he became internationally famous, and the dominant feeling is the author’s deep love for Istanbul. Then there was this one, The New Life, which expands over all of Turkey, but the optimism implied in the title is misleading. This is an angry, unhappy book. Then there was the first one I read, My Name is Red, the historical murder mystery that helped him really ‘make it’ in the world market. A few years later he was awarded the Nobel Prize, and quickly became the best-selling Nobel author in history.

So, Reader, place your faith neither in a character like me, who is not all that sensitive, nor in my anguish and the violence of the story I have to tell; but believe that the world is a cruel place. Besides, this newfangled plaything called the novel, which is the greatest invention of Western culture, is none of our culture’s business. That the reader hears the clumsiness of my voice within these pages is not because I am speaking raucously from a plane which has been polluted by books and vulgarized by gross thoughts; it results rather from the fact that I still have not quite figured out how to inhabit this foreign toy.

First-person narrator is not a happy guy. The book starts off promising, but it actually goes south pretty quickly.

I read a book one day and my whole life was changed. Even on the first page I was so affected by the book’s intensity I felt my body sever itself and pull away from the chair where I sat reading the book that lay before me on the table. But even though I felt my body dissociating, my entire being remained so concertedly at the table that the book worked its influence not only on my soul but on every aspect of my identity. It was such a powerful influence that the light surging from the pages illumined my face; its incandescence dazzled my intellect but also endowed it with brilliant lucidity. This was the kind of light within which I could recast myself; I could lose my way in this light; I already sensed in the light the shadows of an existence I had yet to know and embrace.

Most of us who love reading have had this sort of experience, and I think that we’re especially susceptible to it when we’re young, as he is. Early 20s, still at the university, a time when we are acutely aware of the fact that we are transforming ourselves into the people we want to be. But for most of us, the research we do into the books we read, no matter how emotional we feel about them, is essentially impersonal. We don’t meet our favorite authors, in my case because they’d been dead for over a hundred years. For Protagonist, though the book leads him into intensely personal spaces.

In the life of those people like me whose lives have slipped off the track, sorrow presents itself in the form of rage that wants to pass itself of as cleverness. And it’s the desire to be clever that finally spoils everything.

He reads the book, and it’s so powerful for him that he wants to meet with the girl who first made him aware of it. They do meet again, but she’s not really into him; she’s all over the guy who introduced her to the book, Mehmet. Mehmet isn’t as into her as she is into him. One day, Protagonist is looking for them and sees Mehmet get shot in the street, right next to her. He asks around and gets really contradictory information about what happened, whether Mehmet is alive or not, still studying at the university or not, still in town or not. Eventually he gives up and takes to the buses. At this point I really started to feel like I was reading a book by David Lynch – the critics say Kafka, but I haven’t made it through The Trial, and I have made it through Eraserhead. They all three share this phantasmagoric quality, which feels sort of allegorical but is not transparent enough for me to find the meaning.

He’s riding buses, changing destinations at random, and Turkey is a big country. There’s plenty of room to get lost in. Then his bus crashes. Then another bus crashes. Then he starts looking for buses that are likely to crash. He thinks he’s being led intuitively by the book, but this section (Act 1 of 3) is full of random accidents. He starts to see that the new life he’s looking for is really close to death. Indeed, his obsession with bus crashes seems to lead toward death. And crime, since he robs the newly dead to keep buying bus tickets. He does run into the girl again – her name is Janan, and in keeping with Pamuk’s habit of portentous names for female characters, it means Soulmate. They ride the buses together, still looking for crashes, both now also looking for Mehmet. In one of the crashes, they meet a couple who had been going to a dealers’ convention to meet Doctor Fine, so they steal their identities and destination.

Act 2 is at Doctor Fine’s. Unbeknownst to Janan and himself, Doctor Fine is Mehmet’s father. Mehmet is an identity that he stole later on. Doctor Fine thinks that his son is dead, and he blames the book for polluting his son with Western influences. Because he hates the book so much, he has spies all over the country looking for the people who read and are affected by the book, and if they seem to be spreading the book they get shot. This is where the similarity to ultra-nationalists like the Americans who support Trump and the British who support Brexit became a little uncomfortable for me. There’s nothing wrong with patriotism, and I personally love North Carolina quite passionately, but I don’t believe any community is served by extreme conservatism. Things change. Cultures change. It’s what happens. But Doctor Fine and his followers are devoted to preserving one aspect of culture as Turkish and rejecting the ways that their culture is changing. No culture can be distilled to a single issue, and choosing the making of local goods and crafts instead of mass-produced imports only makes sense to them because they are dealers trying to preserve their livelihoods. As with our conservatives, they assume that what is good for them personally is good for the nation as a whole, and as with our conservatives, they pick and choose which parts of the country and the culture are Turkey and deny the existence of others. A significant portion of Turkey is European, it borders on Greece and Bulgaria, but European influence is bad for Turkey, which they perceive to be an Asian, Muslim country. And how much of America is heterosexual, white, and Christian? Not all of it. Not even most of it. A recent study showed that white Christians have become a minority group (comprised mostly of people over 30), and if you subtract the gay white Christians, they’ll be even smaller.

The pleasure of reading, which natty older gentlemen complain is lacking in our culture, must be in the musical harmony I heard reading the documents and murder reports in Doctor Fine’s mad and orderly archive.

It’s not that reading was lacking, but that people weren’t reading what their parents read. Just consider the furor that this book is raising, not because young people weren’t reading but because they were reading the wrong thing. Like that time I almost got into a fight with an older colleague over the value of graphic novels. Really? Your worst fear is that your students would rather read Death Note or Black Butler than The Canterbury Tales? What if they never stepped foot in a library or read anything at all? Wouldn’t that be worse? And isn’t that happening? In the place where I used to live in the Midwest, the libraries only serve people who live in the cities. If you live in the county, but in a small town or village outside of the two main cities, you have to spend $75 to get a library card. People in the rural areas are unlikely to be able to afford that, or to prioritize it. I may have ended up spending more than that at the used bookstore, but it wasn’t all in a lump sum. This is just one of the ways that American society punishes people for being poor. If a kid lives out in the country, where cell towers are few and internet signal is weak, his only access to information is through his school library, and teachers are often so pressured to spend every moment of class time preparing to meet state and national standards that they don’t have time to take their classes to the library. Kids can go to the library before or after classes begin, but if students ride the bus, they arrive at school with only a few minutes to get to class and they have to leave immediately after classes end. Again, no time for the library. In that part of the Midwest, access to information is limited to children whose parents can afford to live in the city. How are we supposed to have an educated populace if we restrict who can use the library, or if we dictate which books are to be read? I think we’ll be much better served if we teach children that the world is knowable and available to them and that learning is interesting and rewarding than if we explain patiently to them all the metaphors in Chaucer or lock them out of the library because their parents are poor farm workers.

There and then, as here and now, the conservatives blame foreign influences for the natural changing of culture. Trump’s immigration policies show a great deal of prejudice and a great deal of ignorance about how our country actually works. We’re in a less extreme version of what’s happening in Saudi Arabia: as higher education becomes more available, fewer Americans are taking ‘vocational’ positions. We are expecting a produce shortage soon, because most of the fruit pickers in California are being deported and Americans are not willing to take those jobs. We’ve been conditioned to believe that we won’t get hired for that work, and that we’re too good for that sort of manual labor anyway. You want to get rid of the people doing the lowest paid work? Okay. That means that pretty soon we’ll have no electricity, all the toilets will be clogged, there won’t be any good fruit, and new construction will grind to a halt. In Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes there’s a janitor at the library who spends half the night reading the books after the building is closed to the public. This character felt unrealistic to me in a way that I wish he didn’t – he combines a lifelong love of learning with a contentment to work in a low-paying job that doesn’t require an education. We invest education with this sense of vocation, as if I have a duty to work in the field of literature because I have a degree in it. And now I’m unfit to do manual labor because employers expect me to be too snobbish to do the work. We need to instill a sense of pride in all sorts of work, and relax our expectation that every American needs to go to a four-year university. We need plumbers and construction workers, and right now we need them more than we need more English teachers (a dime a dozen, we are). We need to forget this idea that the life of the mind and the work of the hands are incompatible, and raise up more young students to become like Bradbury’s janitor.

Drifting back to Pamuk. Protagonist does finally find Mehmet, living under a new name and copying the book for select friends and acquaintances. His life is like that of the monks before the printing press, writing the scripture over and over again.

What I do might appear simple, but it requires great care. I keep rewriting the book without missing a single comma, a single letter, or a period. I want everything to be identical, right down to the last period and comma. And this can only be achieved through inspiration and desire that is analogous to the original author’s. Someone else might call what I do copying, but my work goes beyond simple duplication. Whenever I am writing, I feel and I understand every letter, every word, every sentence as if each and every one were my own novel discovery. So, this is how I work arduously from nine in the morning until one o’clock, doing nothing else, and nothing can keep me from working.

His encounter with Mehmet closes this portion of his life, and I felt like it would have been a good close to the book, but like Mulholland Drive, just when it ought to end it doesn’t, and a dozen years go by in the course of a few pages, and there are fifty more pages that tell about Protagonist’s life when he’s my age, and he goes on another, shorter quest to find out about the book. He reads all the source material, disappointed to find out how much of The New Life is based on La Vita Nuova, and then tries to track down another source of inspiration, the New Life candy wrappers that were around when he was a child. Throughout the book he seeks The Angel, and at first he identifies her with Janan, and later he identifies her with the angel on the candy wrapper, and he finally realizes that The Angel of Desire is really The Angel of Death. There’s been a conflation of Eros and Thanatos since the beginning, experiencing a new life while looking for bus crashes. I suppose there’s some accuracy to the idea that change is a sort of death, but I don’t think that literal death is necessary. Change is one of the characteristics of life; Death is an existence that does not change, where nothing is desired.

As I implied earlier, there is a lot of bitterness in this book. The conservatives long for death so much that they are actively killing the people who disagree with them, and the adherents to the book find madness and death. There are a few, very few, who can give the book a place in their lives without letting it flood everything and take away the good things they had, but our protagonist ends up feeling betrayed by both sides. He’s serious about that line, ‘the world is a cruel place.’ He describes the Turks of his peer group as being like himself, hollow shells of adults who are too tired by the conflicts they live among to do anything toward resolution, change, or happiness.

I wonder if a big part of my problem with this book and the similarities with my own society is my disenchantment with materialism. Here and now, as there and then, most people’s life is about things, whether books or houses or furniture or ornaments or clothes or whatever. The identity of the characters, and even of the book, is unfixed and mutable, while things remain the same. When protagonist borrows some old books, unread for more than a decade, the old woman who owns them asks him to return them quickly so they don’t leave her with an empty shelf. Books containing ancient wisdom and original thought are treated as mere knickknacks. I’m holding onto books that I haven’t read in years, but it’s because they’re hard to find and they mean important things to me. Her books are a reminder of the dead husband who loved his books more than he loved her, but she likes the way they look on the shelf. I suppose I see my books as living things, dear to me because of their uniqueness, and not things like a glass unicorn. They’re not status symbols or proof of wealth. Considering how much money I spend on books that I could be devoting to other things, they’re rather a proof of poverty.

I suppose what I’m saying is, this isn’t a happy book, and it reminds me of all the things in the world that I’m not happy with. If you want a happy book, read something else. If you want to be convinced that people are all basically the same, regardless of time or place, and the same dramas keep getting acted on different stages, by all means. Read this book and compare it to the news from the United States. Collectively, humanity does not learn quickly.

Yes, this is a book about the pace of modern life. Partially.

We begin with Kundera and his wife driving out to a castle-turned-hotel for the evening. As he’s driving, he’s thinking about the modern tendency to road rage (yes, I’m pointing at myself) and our insane hurry to do everything. After they arrive, they enjoy a quiet evening and go to bed early. So, for most of the book, he’s imagining it, and his wife is dreaming what he imagines, like their minds are in the same vehicle but he’s driving. Every now and again she’ll wake up and comment on the story, or a piece of music that he mentions. This is the frame.

Because this is a Milan Kundera novel, he moves quickly to the subject of sex. He thinks that our sex lives must be as hurried as the rest of life, and he finds this unfortunate. He remembers a short erotic story from the eighteenth century, Vivant Denon’s Point de Lendemain. This is a real story; you can read it at Project Gutenberg, if you read French. Denon was more famous for his Egyptology; his travel book on Egyptian archaeology fueled the orientalist fads of the late eighteenth to the nineteenth century, which sort of culminated in Aida – because why not set an Italian opera in Egypt – or possibly in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – because why not send an American teacher to fight Nazis in Egypt. Frankly, if you’re looking for eighteenth century smut, Fanny Hill is much more detailed, with less not-sex. A young man sees a married friend of his mistress, and she takes him out to her home in the country (the same castle Kundera is staying in, of course). Over the course of the evening, she works a slow seduction, the type designed to end in sex but in such a way that the man thinks it’s his ardor leading the charge. There are a few changes of scenery; she leads him all over the garden. She flirts him in a little, then pushes him away with that classical French pout. Finally she takes him to a secret room in the castle and they do what she brought him for; the next morning he runs into the guy she’s been fucking and he reveals that the whole night was just a smokescreen so that her husband would focus his jealousy on Young Protagonist instead of on the real lover.

So of course Kundera reimagines the story in the modern world (twenty years ago, before we all had cell phones). Kundera’s pal Vincent is at the same hotel, attending a conference of entomologists. He meets Julie, some kind of admin assistant working the conference. They bond over the fact that they both feel young and undervalued, so they abuse the other attendees over a few drinks and decide to go up to her room. They get sidetracked by the new swimming pool, so they swim naked for a bit and do it poolside. Then she runs away all flirtatious-like and he follows her but not quite fast enough (A lady clutching a dress to her nude front is all right, but a gentleman ought to put on the trousers in his hand). He can’t find her, so for both young men, the love affair has no tomorrow. I feel like I ought to be sad about that, but a one-night stand is one of my favorite memories, so I’m really not.

Because this is a Kundera novel, there’s also a socio-political element, this time focused on performance. Some people grow and expand like a rose blooming when they have an audience. So they play to that audience; Kundera calls it dancing, and he has quite a lot to say about dancers. Most of it not great. We wear masks in public, and sometimes we confuse the mask for the real self. People who don’t even know a person’s real self can reject a mask, but the rejectee feels it in the real self. The good politicians and academics know how to manage their personae to get ahead. Čechořipsky is less skilled in this area. He may at one time have been a brilliant entomologist, but he failed to ingratiate himself with the Soviets when they took over Czechoslovakia. He tries to see it as a successful rebellion now, but at the time it was just cowardice. So he’s spent the last twenty years as a construction worker, not studying bugs. He’s so emotionally overwhelmed at the conference he forgets to present his paper, and when he realizes his mistake he feels like a big idiot, so he comforts himself by thinking of his physique. Working in construction like that, he’s stronger than any of these guys who have spent their lives in laboratories. Boys have always comforted themselves for the fact that they’re not comparatively smart by asking themselves who would win in a fight. But the other scientists don’t see him as buff or hot or anything. They seem to see him more as a Quasimodo figure.

So he goes down to the pool to do some lengths and feel better about himself, and he sees these two people fucking next to the pool, and he thinks what a strange and wonderful country France must be, where lovers can do that in public without drawing unwanted attention. What he doesn’t realize is that Vincent’s dick is not at all engaged. It’s in its resting state, dangling about but not actually inside her. This sex act is a performance. Vincent and Julie are each performing their rebellion against society for an invisible audience, possibly each other, so there’s no need for them to actually touch. Just like in Denon’s story, where the lady takes the young man to prove to her husband that he doesn’t have to worry about the man she’s sleeping with habitually – it’s all performance. Our lives are full of performance too; we’re all dancing about in front of the cameras, hoping to get our pictures taken. Our cultural conversation insists that fame is ephemeral, but that doesn’t stop us from wishing for it. Kundera points out that we all think we are the elect, and that we will somehow get our image preserved forever. It’s hard for us to cope with our equality; we believe we’re special, that we somehow deserve nice things even when no one else has them. Or maybe I’m just talking about me, who secretly never gave up his dream of becoming a rock star. Even though he’s 37 and has only a basic musical talent and a complete disdain for autotune. It makes people sound like robots.

So, to complete this book on fame and sex (and the informal spaces where the two interact) and pacing, there’s this weird little apostrophe on the last page that doesn’t seem to fit with the novel.

I beg you, friend, be happy. I have the vague sense that on your capacity to be happy hangs our only hope.

Is that really what the whole thing has been about? Happiness? and Hope?

What does it take to be happy? What does ‘happy’ even mean?

Against my expectations, I’m reminded of a bit of St Paul, where he says that external circumstances don’t matter to him because his contentment comes from within (Phil 4:12-13). Much as I dislike supporting Paul, this one makes sense. The characters in this book are mostly unhappy, but it’s primarily themselves they are unhappy with. Vincent and Julie and Čechořipsky and the other dancers are all acting out their obvious insecurities, while the characters he borrows from Denon seem happy, even the young man who was manipulated and used. I guess that makes sense, according to the codes of the time he protected a woman (read weak, defenseless creature) from the vile aspersions of her husband (however true they may be). I guess people like being helpful, even if the help is kind of strange. In context, though, I think Kundera would link their happiness to their slower pace of life. Their actions are more deliberate: Julie takes the opportunity when it comes, but Madame de T creates the opportunity and orchestrates the entire experience. My modern self wants to be special, unique, not so easily predicted, but Denon’s lad finds happiness in the utility that comes from being so utterly conventional. Less individuality, less fame, but more happiness.

As I’m sitting here considering times I have been both happy and slow, I think that the connection has to do with the amount of control I feel I have over my own life. If I let modernity have its way, I get swept into the rush of things. When I can control my life, I slow it down. When I feel in control, I feel happy. And frankly, reading seems to play a large part in all this. He got me an iPad a month or two ago, and it’s a nice toy for checking my friends’ facebook posts, but when I try to read an article they share, the ads load very slowly, so I read a few sentences and the screen goes blank to reload the next ad, so I find my place and read a few more words before the screen goes blank again. If I get through an entire paragraph and have to scroll down, when the screen goes blank it will leave me at the top of the page again. It’s one of the most frustrating reading experiences I’ve ever had because I’m forced to rush. But reading an actual book is wholly different. The artifact is already intact, so I don’t have to wait for ads or buffering. It’s always immediately available, and it never reloads. There’s no pressure to hurry before the words disappear. Any pressures are purely internal, so I’m in control of the experience. I can choose to read quickly if the book is exciting, or I can slow down if the writing is complex or beautiful. With a printed book, I can make choices because there is so little technology mediating my experience of the text while I’m reading it.

Choice might actually be a better way of thinking about this than control. When I make choices, I’m happiest if I can take them slowly. Modern life does have a way of insisting that choices be made immediately, whether the matter is actually urgent or not. It’s better to have time to deliberate, weigh the options, think on it for a bit. The slower pace gives me confidence that I’m making a good choice. So. Slow is good. Taking time with/for people shows them that they are important to you. Taking time is how we escape from that twentieth-century French conviction that everything is meaningless. Slowness makes things matter.

Had I picked up this novel when it was first published, I doubt I would know what to think. Woolf’s first two novels, The Voyage Out and Night and Day, are fairly straightforward, the narrative voice simple and clear, the books move as we expect books to. Then along comes Jacob’s Room, and it’s none of those things. Now, we know Woolf as experimenting with the techniques of painting in her novels, some blending of Cubism, Impressionism, and Expressionism, but in Jacob’s Room she’s still working on her technique. It’s kind of like what Mrs Dalloway would be, if it were written by David Lynch – disjointed, pregnant with the unsaid, flirting with obscenity, not making much sense the first time through but not establishing sufficient exigency to experience it again right away.

In short, the observer is choked with observations. Only to prevent us from being submerged by chaos, nature and society between them have arranged a system of classification which is simplicity itself; stalls, boxes, amphitheatre, gallery. The moulds are filled nightly. There is no need to distinguish details. But the difficulty remains – one has to choose. For though I have no wish to be Queen of England or only for a moment – I would willingly sit beside her; I would hear the Prime Minister’s gossip; the countess whisper, and share her memories of halls and gardens; the massive fronts of the respectable conceal after all their secret code; or why so impermeable? And then, doffing one’s own headpiece, how strange to assume for a moment some one’s – any one’s – to be a man of valour who has ruled the Empire; to refer while Brangaena sings to the fragments of Sophocles, or see in a flash, as the shepherd pipes his tune, bridges and aqueducts. But no – we must choose. Never was there a harsher necessity! or one which entails greater pain, more certain disaster; for wherever I seat myself, I die in exile: Whittaker in his lodging-house; Lady Charles at the Manor.

After reading the book, I think about how we react to people after they’ve died. We look at every moment of their lives at once, as if the person never aged but lived all his life in one Eternal Now. Fiction and biography give us the idea that lives have trajectory, as if death is a destination that we are all traveling toward, but our lived experience of death is different. Our daily lives seem static, and one day passes like the next, and then suddenly someone isn’t here any more and we forget the bad things and tell the funny stories and good impressions, the loves and endearing habits without the hatred and mistakes. We can forgive the dead nearly anything, because it’s often only after someone is dead that we realize that love is more durable than anger, and therefore more significant.

In subject matter, this book comes nearer D. H. Lawrence than anything else I’ve read by Woolf. She’s much franker about sex than she is customarily, especially the idea that some men prefer each other’s company to that of women. Young men strip their clothes off but don’t go swimming immediately, and some men reach middle age without marrying but forming possessive attachments with their peers. But the details are reserved for loose women.

The letter lay upon the hall table; Florinda coming in that night took it up with her, put it on the table as she kissed Jacob, and Jacob seeing the hand, left it there under the lamp, between the biscuit-tin and the tobacco-box. They shut the bedroom door behind them.

The sitting-room neither knew nor cared. The door was shut; and to suppose that wood, when it creaks, transmits anything save that rats are busy and wood dry is childish. These old houses are only brick and wood, soaked in human sweat, grained with human dirt. But if the pale blue envelope lying by the biscuit-box had the feelings of a mother, the heart was torn by the little creak, the sudden stir. Behind the door was the obscene thing, the alarming presence, and terror would come over her as at death, or the birth of a child. Better, perhaps, burst in and face it than sit in the antechamber listening to the little creak, the sudden stir, for her heart was swollen, and pain threaded it. My son, my son – such would be her cry, uttered to hide her vision of him stretched with Florinda, inexcusable, irrational, in a woman with three children living at Scarborough. And the fault lay with Florinda. Indeed, when the door opened and the couple came out, Mrs Flanders would have flounced upon her – only it was Jacob who came first, in his dressing-gown, amiable, authoritative, beautifully healthy, like a baby after an airing, with an eye clear as running water. Florinda followed, lazily stretching; yawning a little; arranging her hair at the looking-glass – while Jacob read his mother’s letter.

The concerns that Woolf will become more well-known for do assert themselves from time to time, as in this passage that seems to belong to A Room of One’s Own or Three Guineas:

But coming along Gerrard Street was a tall man in a shabby coat. A shadow fell across Evelina’s window – Jacob’s shadow, though it was not Jacob. And Fanny turned and walked along Gerrard Street and wished that she had read books. Nick never read books, never talked of Ireland, or the House of Lords; and as for his finger-nails! She would learn Latin and read Virgil. She had been a great reader. She had read Scott; she had read Dumas. At the Slade no one read. But no one knew Fanny at the Slade, or guessed how empty it seemed to her; the passion for ear-rings, for dances, for Tonks and Steer – when it was only the French who could paint, Jacob said. For the moderns were futile; painting the least respectable of the arts; and why read anything but Marlowe and Shakespeare, Jacob said, and Fielding if you must read novels?

“Fielding,” said Fanny, when the man in Charing Cross Road asked her what book she wanted.

She bought Tom Jones.

At ten o’clock in the morning, in a room which she shared with a school teacher, Fanny Elmer read Tom Jones – that mystic book. For this dull stuff (Fanny thought) about people with odd names is what Jacob likes. Good people like it. Dowdy women who don’t mind how they cross their legs read Tom Jones – a mystic book; for there is something, Fanny thought, about books which if I had been educated I could have liked – much better than ear-rings and flowers, she sighed, thinking of the corridors at the Slade and the fancy-dress dance next week. She had nothing to wear.

They are real, thought Fanny Elmer, setting her feet on the mantelpiece. Some people are. Nick perhaps, only he was so stupid. And women never – except Miss Sargent, but she went off at lunch-time and gave herself airs. There they sat quietly of a night reading, she thought. Not going to music-halls; not looking in at shop windows; not wearing each other’s clothes, like Robertson who had worn her shawl, and she had worn his waistcoat, which Jacob could only do very awkwardly; for he liked Tom Jones.

There it lay on her lap, in double columns, price three and sixpence; the mystic book in which Henry Fielding ever so many years ago rebuked Fanny Elmer for feasting on scarlet, in perfect prose, Jacob said. For he never read modern novels. He liked Tom Jones.

“I do like Tom Jones,” said Fanny, at five-thirty that same day early in April when Jacob took out his pipe in the arm-chair opposite.

Many people seem to think that the significant thing about someone is whether she reads, and everyone who loves books will naturally have a great deal in common about which they can talk. Fanny Elmer has realized the lie in that thought. It’s not enough just to read; you have to read the same things, though frankly even with people who like the same books as I do, I don’t have much to say. I feel a great surge of affection for someone who shares my taste in books, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into conversation. Our books shape our pattern of thinking, and it’s the recognition of the similarity in mindsets that draws readers together, but generally in a companionable silence.

It is curious, lying in a boat, to watch the waves. Here are three coming regularly one after another, all much of a size. Then, hurrying after them comes a fourth, very large and menacing; it lifts the boat; on it goes; somehow merges without accomplishing anything; flattens itself out with the rest.

What can be more violent than the fling of boughs in a gale, the tree yielding itself all up the trunk, to the very tip of the branch, streaming and shuddering the way the wind blows, yet never flying in dishevelment away? The corn squirms and abases itself as if preparing to tug itself free from the roots, and yet is tied down.

Why, from the very windows, even in the dusk, you see a swelling run through the street, an aspiration, as with arms outstretched, eyes desiring, mouths agape. And then we peaceably subside. For if the exaltation lasted we should be blown like foam into the air. The stars would shine through us. We should go down the gale in salt drops – as sometimes happens. For the impetuous spirits will have none of this cradling. Never any swaying or aimlessly lolling for them. Never any making believe, or lying cosily, or genially supposing that one is much like another, fire warm, wine pleasant, extravagance a sin.

When I lived in Saudi Arabia, I felt confined by government policies and social norms. The impetuous spirit in me is still raging against confinement, but now it’s an inconvenient economic situation penning me in. I just want the freedom to go out and find someone to love; it doesn’t seem like much to ask for, but apparently it’s entirely too much. I’m going to have to work my ass off at two jobs just for the privilege of driving an hour to the nearest establishment for men of my type, buying a drink or two, and meeting someone. I keep thinking that life shouldn’t be this hard, but it continues as ever, heedless of my railing.

My grandfather died last week. The funeral is a week from tomorrow, and already I can feel his life being flattened under a slide for the microscope. My mother will remember that he was a churchgoer who served in World War II, worked for the government, and raised a large family. Other family members will remember his support for liberal politics, and the fact that he loved his children more than religious dogma. I’ll think of how he always played with us when they came to visit. I’ll miss buying a bag of pecans at Christmas (and a bag of Dove chocolates for my grandmother, who died a few years ago), and playing Scrabble with one of the world’s sorest losers. He didn’t lose often, probably because he kept the score. He always said, “A scorekeeper who doesn’t win isn’t a very good scorekeeper.” I’m very proud of the fact that he spent his time in the war saving lives without taking any. He worked closely with General Eisenhower, and he used his radio to deceive the Germans into thinking Allied troops were where they weren’t, often by being himself one of only two American soldiers in an area. He was kind, and patriotic, and loving, and popular in a way that I don’t think I shall ever be. When I think that I will never see him again, that word never seems to make my life stretch out like a desert highway with no relief or shelter in sight. Death always makes me feel so alone.

After reading a book about him, I still don’t feel as if I knew Jacob Flanders well at all. I don’t think anyone else does either. I worry that when I die I’ll leave a similar impression on the world. I’ve been called mysterious and secretive, but I really just want to love and be loved. And in order for me to trust that I am loved, I need to feel known. I don’t want to end up like him, a bunch of letters and receipts scattered around a room, with a pair of old shoes.

It’s always interesting to find the receipt stuck in the back of a book (I use receipts as bookmarks) and think about my life as it was when I made the purchase. According to the receipt, I bought my copy of Fahrenheit 451 ten years ago in a store that has since closed. It was a chain store in my hometown, so I can picture the huge windows in the front, the regulated stacks, the cheerful signage, the in-house coffee shop. It was a little like the Walmart of bookstores. But the town I grew up in doesn’t have enough readers to support a bookstore, which is one of the reasons I no longer actually call it home. Ten years ago I was a newlywed, and the ex and I went everywhere together. The only memory I have of her in that store was the time we ran into two of my friends from high school. Of the two, she came across as perpetually angry and he as a major stoner, which isn’t how either of them was when we were close. I think that my friend’s anger came from the fact that our friend had become so comfortable with mind-altering substances; we met her again a few years later and she was fairly happy, secure in herself and her life. After the visit, the ex said, “Now I can understand why you were such good friends.” First impressions aren’t generally reliable.

Why am I going on about this? Because I’ve just finished reading a book on the importance of memory.

One of them had to stop burning. The sun wouldn’t, certainly. So it looked as if it had to be Montag and the people he had worked with until a few short hours ago. Somewhere the saving and putting away had to begin again and someone had to do the saving and keeping, one way or another, in books, in records, in people’s heads, any way at all so long as it was safe, free from moths, silverfish, rust and dry-rot, and men with matches. The world was full of burning of all types and sizes. Now the guild of the asbestos weaver must open shop very soon.

Yeah, people say that it’s about books, and in one sense it is, but I think that books are a vehicle to talk about something else.

It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books. The same things could be in the ‘parlor families’ today. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not. No, no, it’s not books at all you’re looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.

Montag’s society has lost books, but they’ve also lost the world itself. They flip on the television to distract themselves, and live in a constant state of distraction. They don’t enjoy life. One of the opening scenes involves Montag’s wife accidentally overdosing on sleeping pills and getting her stomach pumped. It happens so frequently the medical technicians come to people’s houses instead of dragging them to the hospital. The techs don’t have any medical training, either; they know where to stick the tubes, they run their machines, then they move on to the next house. Reckless driving and suicide are fairly common. They don’t value their lives.

Bradbury seems to see this as a consequence of their lifestyle. People avoid contact with nonhuman life, and with their own emotions. Television manufactures relationships with the unreal, and if not managed appropriately, those fictive relationships can take the place of real ones. My mom leaves the TV on when she goes out so the cats feel like there is a human presence in the house with them, and I watch an unreasonable amount of television to distract myself from the unbearable loneliness of my real life. Like the other great dystopias of the twentieth century, this book is about the government taking control of our emotional lives. The essential freedom is the freedom to be honest with ourselves and others about our feelings; without that self-awareness and the ability to communicate it, there is no independent identity.

Books tend to fuck with our illusions. Behold, the reaction to a reading of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”:

Mrs Phelps was crying.

The others in the middle of the desert watched her crying grow very loud as her face squeezed itself out of shape. They sat, not touching her, bewildered with her display. She sobbed uncontrollably. Montag himself was stunned and shaken.

“Sh, sh,” said Mildred. “You’re all right, Clara, now, Clara, snap out of it! Clara, what’s wrong?”

“I – I,” sobbed Mrs Phelps, “don’t know, don’t know, I just don’t know, oh, oh . . .”

Mrs Bowles stood up and glared at Montag. “You see? I knew it, that’s what I wanted to prove! I knew it would happen! I’ve always said poetry and tears, poetry and suicide and crying and awful feelings, poetry and sickness; all that mush! Now I’ve had it proved to me. You’re nasty, Mr Montag, you’re nasty!”

Faber said, “Now. . .”

Montag felt himself turn and walk to the wall slot and drop the book in through the brass notch to the waiting flames.

“Silly words, silly words, silly awful hurting words,” said Mrs Bowles. “Why do people want to hurt people? Not enough hurt in the world, you got to tease people with stuff like that!”

“Clara, now, Clara,” begged Mildred, pulling her arm. “Come on, let’s be cheery, you turn the ‘family’ on now. Go ahead. Let’s laugh and be happy now, stop crying, we’ll have a party!”

In Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, there’s a moment when one of the bad guys (Anne Wirthlass-Schitt) gets caught in a book of poetry and ends up trying to save someone. When asked to explain, Thursday says that our response to poetry reveals who we really are. The suicide and tears aren’t in the poetry; they’re in the people reading it. To borrow a phrase from Zora Hurston, poetry calls our souls from their hiding places. It reintroduces us to ourselves. One of the products of reading is self-awareness, which I suppose is why reading leads me to write such long articles about myself.

Mrs Phelps has plenty of reason to cry.

“When do you suppose the war will start?” he said. “I notice your husbands aren’t here tonight?”

“Oh, they come and go, come and go,” said Mrs Phelps. “In again out again Finnegan, the Army called Pete yesterday. He’ll be back next week. The Army said so. Quick war. Forty-eight hours, they said, and everyone home. That’s what the Army said. Quick war. Pete was called yesterday and they said he’d be back next week. Quick . . .”

The three women fidgeted and looked nervously at the empty mud-colored walls.

“I’m not worried,” said Mrs Phelps. “I’ll let Pete do all the worrying.” She giggled. “I’ll let old Pete do all the worrying. Not me. I’m not worried.”

“Yes,” said Millie. “Let old Pete do the worrying.”

“It’s always someone else’s husband dies, they say.”

“I’ve heard that, too. I’ve never known any dead man killed in a war. Killed jumping off buildings, yes, like Gloria’s husband last week, but from wars? No.”

This book reminds me so much of my 1980s childhood that the first time I read it, I filtered out all mentions of war until it actually comes to the town at the end of the novel. The Cold War made the threat of mutual destruction normal, banal, uninteresting. The Russians were going to come and either destroy or enslave us all; this was an accepted part of my daily life. Sometimes there were frantic repetitions of the party line, as with Mrs Phelps, but by then they were less frequent. The constantness of the threat had inured the public to its severity. After all, it’s always someone else’s husband who dies. My grandpa made it through World War II; my dad made it through Vietnam; when the Russians come for us, we’ll survive that too. When I was nineteen, I saw Red Dawn, and I thought it was one of the most frightening movies I’d ever seen – not because of the Russian-Cuban invasion of the United States, that part felt familiar and even oddly reassuring, but because the redneck teenagers were so ready to become child soldiers. I don’t want my kids to have that kind of access to weaponry. On rereading Fahrenheit 451, though, I see that it’s a book drenched in the threat of war; it’s just that my childhood was spent blocking out the threat of war, and now I’m really good at it. No one I knew was involved in the first Gulf War, so it was easy to see it as entirely separate from my life.

For everyone nowadays knows, absolutely is certain, that nothing will ever happen to me. Others die, I go on. There are no consequences and no responsibilities. Except that there are. But let’s not talk about them, eh? By the time the consequences catch up with you, it’s too late, isn’t it, Montag?

And that’s still true. September 11, 2001, was such a tragic day because suddenly we had to stop telling ourselves this lie. We’ve lulled ourselves back into a sense of security since then, which seems fairly obvious from the actions of the US Department of Defense. Sure, we can keep supporting Israel while they act like Nazi Germany; that’s never going to come back and bite us in the ass. If they were annexing sections of Czechoslovakia, we’d be losing our shit; but it’s just those little Arab countries that we can’t even identify on a map, so it’s okay. I mean, they’re not even white. I saw a New York Times piece about nuclear disarmament – apparently the Russians are working ahead of schedule and we’re way behind, and I’m really uncomfortable identifying with the country with the most nuclear warheads. Think of it as a neighborhood; we don’t attack the family next door because we like them, not because they have a lot of guns. In fact, when I see a family with a ton of guns, I avoid them whenever possible. Or, in cowboy terms, the most effective way to ensure that people are going to shoot you is to get a reputation as the fastest gun in the West.

But, books.

I spent my early childhood afraid. I wasn’t involved in any physical abuse, but my dad was undiagnosed bipolar and wouldn’t allow himself to use drugs or alcohol, so he self-medicated by hitting his older children. I was too little, but still petrified of him. My parents divorced a year before the Wall fell, so that gave me a different set of things to be afraid of. My mom has spent forty years creating and feeding a sense of insecurity in her children, delighting in their failures, finding the flaws in their successes, sucking the joy out of our lives unless it is a reflection of her own schadenfreude. After all, if you meet your children’s emotional needs, they’ll just be dependent on you for the rest of your life (the exact opposite of all the research in attachment theory, by the way – I showed all the signs of child abuse except poor academic performance). My older siblings seemed to form a clique that I could never belong to, despite occasional forays into togetherness, so I spent most of my time playing alone. I drew pictures of the toys that I wanted, colored them and cut them out, and played with the scraps of paper. I also read. A lot. I learned to read before I went to kindergarten, and reading was my favorite thing. I was more comfortable in the library than I was in my own home. I lived almost entirely in my imagination; I didn’t make close friends until I was eighteen. My social development still feels about ten years behind my peer group; I hit my adolescent rebellion around age thirty, when I was married and had kids. Five years later I’m mostly better, but I never feel quite mature enough. When I was a kid, the world seemed content to leave me out of it, too: once my mother went out with a bunch of her kids, but left my teenage sister home supposedly alone – they had forgotten that I was there too. If my sister hadn’t stayed, I would have been left home alone. A nine-year-old who lives in books is not likely to be a danger to himself or others, but the having been forgotten damages him. But there are the books, right? Books don’t say awful things about you; books have people who are more similar to you than the people you see in your real life; no one expects you to love them because you were born into the same family or attend the same school or church. Books have brighter colors and happier endings than the real world, and more than anything, I needed the hope that they provide. Then I married someone who taught me that my feelings are important, and books have been teaching me about myself ever since.

She had a very thin face like the dial of a small clock seen faintly in a dark room in the middle of a night when you waken to see the time and see the clock telling you the hour and the minute and the second, with a white silence and a glowing, all certainty and knowing what it had to tell of the night passing swiftly on toward further darknesses, but moving also toward a new sun.

Or in other words, Clarisse had a face like a book. The glowing certainty of books got me through the long night of childhood and has helped me move toward new sources of light.