Saturday, August 25, 2012

books, or: somewhere in Ohio.

There's this one book—never mind which one—that I've read about nine times. My first copy was purchased for an American lit class that I ended up dropping, so the unread book loitered on my shelves, tossed between a yellowed mass market copy of Neuromancer and a tattered Anaïs Nin anthology.

It followed me through moves across the greater Utah Valley metro, during which time it'd be tossed into a cardboard box alongside other books of minimal importance and diminutive size. I'd arrive at my new digs, and after inserting laminate slats into particle-board bookshelves, the book boxes would be popped open.

Everything was Christmas morning. The pulpy smell of paperbacks would flood whatever too-small room I'd just rented, and I'd sort my collection in as many ways as I could muster:
author's last name
genre (why do movies get drama/comedy/romance/action, but books just get the general "fiction?" stupid.)
date of initial publication
literary movement
authorial political ideology (Orwell and Vonnegut on the left, Chandler and Ellroy in the (ambiguous) middle, Willingham and Mamet on the right)
page count
spine height

Reading lists were constructed, too. I'd set aside an initially small pile that grew Tower of Babel-high of To Reads, and would set it precariously on my nightstand before praying that an earthquake wouldn't strike and cause me to be murdered in my sleep by a toppled stack of my own literary ambition.

And this book—the one I mentioned earlier, and yes, I promise this is going somewhere, hold your damn horses—always sat near the front of it. And by April 2010, some bad business had gone down. It's the usual broken-hearted, she-done-me-wrong crap (with a healthy dose of predictably dramatic ex-girlfriend backslide), the specifics of which are not particularly important, but it was just enough to make me quite literally pack up everything I owned into a small rented U-Haul (attached with a rented trailer hitch), and drive about four hours out of town toward Baker City, OR, what was (and what remains) my favorite place in the world. Realizing that I'd be out the roughly $2.5k in tuition, I turned back, braced for a descent into what had become a deep abyss.

But the book was on the syllabus. It had been floating near the top of the To Read pile, hovering like a Cruise missile, waiting to destroy the walls that had been built up. And a tale of small-town life was precisely what I was looking to create for myself, so when I stumbled through the book's pages, I was taken there. I read about respectability, kindness, the pains of loneliness that come out with the stars, the drinks that keep us warm in empty beds, and hotels we pretend are homes, and the people we should all hope to become.

This is one of only three books that changed everything instantly, a flash freeze of perspective that provided transparency into these things deep down, these corners of my mind and heart that I thought were hidden and closed off by a glacier perimeter. But it was the exact opposite: this book (and the two others) served as fire drills of Where I Wanted to Be, and What I Wanted to Be, lighting my way like a  flare gun. And things went differently from there on out.

Whenever I hear people talk about their favorite book, I want to ask how many copies of it they've given away. Maybe it's my Mormon upbringing, but there's something about handing someone something tangible instead of just telling them about it that turns a simple recommendation into a suggestion for a better life. And the telling's important, of course—I wouldn't be writing this at 3 AM on a Saturday morning if I didn't subscribe to that particular form of evangelism—but there's gotta be more than just words.

Or at least words from a mouth. The page itself is the greatest source, sure, but how else should we display this? Hard to say, and definitely subjective enough to avoid hard-and-fast claims otherwise, but, jeez, I've got a cumulative four tattoos of the first two books that made my Top Three Literary Catalysts for Lifechanging. Obviously, that's not something that everyone should do—my own personal taste has changed frequently enough over the years that it probably couldn't accurately fill out a census form—but it's something.

But this book has, even more than the other two, become a sort of test in my personal relationships. I give away copies of it like it was the time of day, but it's more loaded than that. This, maybe even more than the other two books, is a mirror, and you'll only see your own life in it. But that doesn't make it easier, it makes it harder; it's one thing to allegorically juxtapose your life with that of the crew of a mid-19th century whaling vessel, or the violent men whose backroom dealings shaped America, but this other book is just people, trying to live. Failing, mostly, but trying, and I don't know if I care to meet someone who doesn't identify with that.

By a rough estimation, I've given away six copies of this book to various people, for various reasons. But in the last month, I've given copies of this book to three different people: one person I barely know, another who now barely exists on the outskirts of my life, and another who, even after a bumpy road, I still love deeply. I've received two very kind thank-yous and a non-response from another, but those are all unsatisfactory. The gratitude expressed for the gift is nice, to be sure, and I'm glad to have given it, but this is something else.

Here is a secret:

this book is a test.
and there are so many great answers to be given
but there is only correct one:

"Andy," they'll say,
"this book has changed my life
and I think I finally understand you
in all of the ways that you were never able
to explain, and everything is going to be just fine

once we get out of here."

But I still don't know where I'm going. And even when I finally do know for which destination I'm  headed:

will it have room for all of the books?


dalene said...

As I passed Leif Enger a tattered copy of Peace Like a River to sign for me I said, "I'm sorry it's so worn. I had to get it back from my son's ex-girlfriend's little sister in order for you to sign it. That's how much we love your book."

I'd like to think that meant something to him.

This year I lent out my hard copy of The Book Thief to a friend. I had waited in line until 1am to have Marcus Zusak sign it for me. In his note, he thanked me for waiting so patiently. He even drew a little picture.

It is lost. And my friend is in Peru. I actually pray sometimes to get it back. "Please, God. I know this is a little thing. But I also know you care about little things. And it's kind of a really big thing to me."

You are smart to let them change your life. As I read them I am so moved to be a better person. And then real life hits me hard and fast as soon as I turn the final page. And I forget.

LuckyRedHen said...

Dalene blows comments out of the water (I relate to her last paragraph). I'm excited to have a book to read... literally (hahaha, I couldn't help myself)!

La Yen said...

Receiving a book from a friend is one of the greatest compliments ever.

Mrs. Organic said...

I have a few of these-old friends that I come back to to see if I've changed.