People for whom reading is sacred can offer you stories about their important book experiences. Will offer them to you, as easily as lending you a favorite book. The time I was eight & rode my bike all the way across town to the library, but had to call for a ride home because I’d checked out too many books. The time I stole The Unbearable Lightness of Being from my brother’s bookshelf because of the bowler hat on the cover, then missed two days of classes in order to finish it. The time I was in love with a boy who I didn’t think was a reader, & lent him a copy of The Corrections, which he returned annotated with his favorite quotes.
I hated when people wrote in books, except that time.
The time I was assigned Sula for a class, which made me seek out Beloved, which made me find Tar Baby and Song of Solomon at a used bookstore, which led me to the Bluest Eye. Which is when I first felt that feeling of Write Another Book NOW, Author I Love.
A timeline of each moment the world got larger and weirder than I ever thought possible.
There are those books, too, that feel delivered to you by the universe somehow. For me, the first was The Phantom Tollbooth.
I grew up in Southern small-town suburbia. A Stop-sign town. Two sets of public schools, still
tracking, for the most part, racial segregation lines. No movie theater, no mall until the late 80s. A stretch of local highway named after the president of the Confederacy, strung with motels whose most modern decoration was usually yellow police tape. And though Friday Night Lights was set in Texas, it might as well have been this, my hometown in Virginia, save for the fact that our football team (at the time) was nowhere near a state championship.
Neighborhoods provided circles of friends, for both kids & parents. There were street-long yard sale days, dozens of houses setting up card tables and filling driveways with all the stuff kept hidden inside those houses every other day of the year. There were sets of dishes, kids’ toys, appliances that had been swapped out for newer models. And these were also social occasions—time to check in on neighbors, gossip, snoop. If your neighbors were selling their TV, it usually meant they were able to afford a better one. If another one is buying baby clothes, you know what’s happening there, too.
But often there were stacks & stacks of books—mostly romance novels, science fiction, stacks of old magazines. One Saturday afternoon, my mother came home after a few hours from walking the neighborhood at one of these things. I don’t know if she bought anything else, but she came up to my room with a weathered paperback of The Phantom Tollbooth. I’m the youngest of three siblings, & while hand-me-downs were a part of my life, I was also sensitive to origin stories. I asked whose house she’d bought it from; she said she didn’t remember. She hadn’t ever read it herself, had never heard of it before, but thought it looked like something I’d like. No other books but that one, that day.
The book, of course, tells the story of a mysterious gift, a package that just seems to appear one day in a boy’s room. A package that ends up delivering the boy, both physically & metaphorically, from his boredom & into the delight of language—language of words, numbers, music, love, imagination. That I had the book to read at all seemed like magic. It had the physical feel of having been read by countless other kids, some of whom still might be living inside the book somewhere. Stuck on the Island of Conclusions.
The Phantom Tollbooth was one of those immersive experiences—that the plot matched what I was feeling…It was my first sense of the feeling that a book seemed to belong exclusively to me, & also didn’t belong to me at all.
I’ve written a decent amount—as much as I’m able to articulate right now—about the decade or so I spent not-writing. What I haven’t thought much about—realized, even—is how much of that time I also spend not-reading. I’ve written things throughout my life, stories & poems throughout grade school, but had no sense of an identity as a writer until college, really. But a reader…I’ve always felt like a capital-R Reader. Never not.
There were always trips to the library, B&Es into my sister’s or brother’s bedrooms to pickpocket their bookshelves when they weren’t around, or had moved off to college, & even assigned reading in school, which didn’t really feel like homework, per se. Then college, which was 95% English Lit, photography & writing workshop classes, 5% Required Other, which meant more & more books. Reader.
My poetry workshops didn’t have textbooks. Charles Wright was a living, breathing, skinny-tie-
wearing textbook. Rita Dove brought in xeroxes of her own poems in various stages of revision as tutorial. But there weren’t the massive Norton anthologies that became the mark of the English major on grounds.
Back then, you could purchase all your school books at the student book store using your student ID like a credit card. But you could also purchase anything for sale in the more bookstore-y portion of the store, the kinds of books you’d find now at Barnes and Noble: novels, lit journals, & yes—poetry collections. This is when I began my collection, my word-arsenal. If the courses didn’t demand textbooks, I’d require some of my own: Ai, Ashbery, Baudelaire, Berryman, Bishop, Crane, Cummings. I worked my way down the alphabet of whatever was for sale. A magic credit card that sent the bill home to my folks.
Let’s be very clear: I was a fortunate student. I had generous parents who had the means to pay for my education and the books the classes required. When I started college, I was 16 years old, but still, by the end of my first year, I’d gotten a job working part-time at the local restaurant where my brother—then a fourth-year at my same school—was cooking. I’d continue to work a restaurant job throughout college, but it wasn’t to pay any bills other than extras—clothes, makeup, nights out—those sorts of things. I was a fortunate student to have a family that supported me, financially & otherwise, throughout those years.
At Heartwood Books, the used bookstore closest to my restaurant, I stocked up on the Collecteds: cummings, Dickinson, O’Hara, Plath, Whitman. Every name my workshop teachers would drop, I’d drop eight or nine dollars on a collection. I’d make my own xeroxed packets of poems from different anthologies, to make them more portable.
There was just such a ridiculously luxurious amount of time to read things in college. All the work that middle and high school English classes often do to build up walls around poetry & distance students from poems & their authors, college just as often, if you make the right choices, blissfully tears down. Plath’s life outshines her death. cummings takes you worlds beyond lowercase letters. Dickinson comes out from her garret.
Books that I wanted immediately to forget upon having finished them, so I could have the chance to read them for the first time again:
Light in August
The English Patient
One of the main benefits of an MFA program, aside from an unbridled two years to dedicate to writing, is the access you’re given to the most private libraries anywhere—the book-packed apartments of your classmates, who are all equally absorbed with building out their mind-fields through reading others’ work. It’s always the second stop after getting a coffee mug of wine or bourbon from their kitchens: wandering over to various bookshelves & doing a mental catalogue, pulling out & flipping through whatever sends out its tractor beam, memorizing which books are already pulled from their shelves & where they are stacked (nightstand? & if so, what’s on the top of the pile?).
(Pro-tip: understand that this will happen when you invite anyone over to your home, & adjust accordingly. Writers never forget.)
There’s a TV quote from something, probably True Detective (or maybe from somewhere before that): you can’t know a person until you know what they want.
You can know them a little bit, though, when you know what they’re reading. Don Draper read David Ogilvy, but he also read Dante. He read Ayn Rand, but he also read Frank O’Hara. He reads Phillip Roth & Goodnight, Moon. You can begin to read people by noticing what they read.
Successfully pairing a person with a book is a declaration of love. It might be a skill, or a talent, or a kind of sorcery. My brother has this gift. My copy of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is precious to me. I’ve only lent it out once, to my friend Sam, who is essentially also my family. It’s precious to me because it was a gift from my brother, given at exactly the time I needed to have DFW’s voice introduced to me. I give partial credit to that collection for my realization, halfway through a Master’s in Advertising Copywriting, that I would never go into the business of advertising.
I don’t think I’ve ever ascended into the higher knowledge it takes to be a great book-recommender. For me, it ends up being that thing of giving people not the gift that’s best suited to them, but the gift that you’d like yourself, or the gift you already own. If I do make a successful match, it’s likely the person I’m matchmaking happens to be a kind of literary twin, or else I’m recommending a book that is just too damn good—the kind of book that makes you think something’s wrong with you if you don’t like it.
My friend Allison Wright is one of these book-sorceresses. I began writing this post as a way to start laundering my thoughts for an essay about the state of my reading brain post-law school. That is to say, law school turns one into a professional skimmer. And by the end of three years, & a summer spent studying for & taking the Virginia Bar exam, my reading skills were shot. I had about a month between finishing the Bar & starting my first job as a legal aid attorney, & the plan was to relax. To strive, to seek, to find my creative self & not to yield. But I could not even make it through the first paragraphs of any novel without my eyes skipping around the page.
I yielded. I was not writing, & I was not reading. A couple years later, through a kind of magical set of circumstances, I did indeed begin writing again. Or rather, I wrote a poem. But that was all the fuse needed, & I was headed towards writer again. What I also needed returned to me, though, was my identity as a Reader. Enter Allison, who came floating into my life like a literary Mary Poppins, if Mary Poppins came from Texas & wanted to drink bourbon with you.
I introduced her to Charlottesville, & she introduced me back into a reading community. Book titles showed up in my inbox & in text messages. We’d meet for brunch & I’d leave with a lent book stashed in my bag. Sorcery.
More advice: when you have people with this ability in your life, do. not. let. them. go.
I’ve also talked a bit about my disdain for “writers’ rules.” Everyone’s a hypocrite in one way or
another, so I’ll reveal an instance of my own here: I think there are actually a couple of rules that help writers get better at writing. One, of course, is writing. Do the damn thing. I don’t believe in prescriptions like Write Every Day, & I’m not a fan of exercises, but that one’s a personal preference—get there how you need to get there.
But I absolutely think the second rule is: read. Readreadread. Soak it all up. You’ll read yourself into boredom, discovering what you don’t like, what you don’t respond to. You’ll read yourself into a copycat phase, where everything you produce will be just a skosh too derivative or even a bit plagiaristic of the writers you fall in love with. You’ll write yourself out of it soon enough. You’ll read yourself out of your own skin, onto a dangerous ledge, into a grave & back out of it, & it will be the best thing ever.
Not-reading had as much to do with my decade of not-writing as any other reason I’m able to list. So here’s your not-a-fortune cookie: “Ever tried writing. Ever Failed. No matter. Read again. Read better.” Keep one eye on the universe, & what it delivers to you. Read like a teen. Give books as gifts. Reader’s block might be worse than writer’s block, but it also has a faster recovery rate, & just might cure both ails at once.