“There were no books when I was a boy. Books were hardly accessible, yet there were some books. That is why I did not develop a literary taste.”
So begins Sheila Heti’s 2005 novel, Ticknor, a fictionalized account of the relationship between William Hickling Prescott and his biographer, George Ticknor. With all the liberties Heti probably took in writing this book something about these opening lines rings true to me, although the “truth” in this instance is relational only to my own childhood, for there were no books, not any of my own, for many years. The ones I did see belonged to others, mostly my grandfather. He had massive bookshelves in a couple of different rooms, large volumes on the Titanic, antique cars, and Christianity. He was a history buff. On Sunday mornings while my mom was at work he would read to me, or so I am told—I have no memory of these moments.
I use Ticknor here because it is an idiosyncratic work; each line feels contradictory to the one that precedes it, and in a way this feels like a framework for my life. Despite the mostly articulated history I have of my grandfather reading to me I have no real connection to where my love of books comes from. It’s not genetic, it has nothing to do really with my upbringing … it seems to be a need that has existed in me from the time I was born, a need for language, a search for a way of communicating my thoughts to others.
Without books at my family’s house I made due with the stories that I made up. We had a very early Macintosh computer, and I recall typing things into it, unsure whether the machine even had the ability to save the data or not—we did eventually get a newer model, with a printer, so I could hold the pages and read my work. It was mostly sloppy adventure narratives and PG horror stories in those days.
In elementary school I joined my first “literary circle.” My best friend and I would sneak into his parent’s office (they ran a business from home), take a four-pack of five-by-eight yellow legal pads, cheap Bic pens, and then we’d sit in his room spit-balling ideas and turning them into stories. This was also around the same time I was introduced to having my own books for the first time. Our school library had a publisher sale every couple of months and we’d either steal books or ask our moms for money to buy some and then steal others. We felt like rebels, the literate outlaws or something.
By the time I started high school I was a nihilistic, selfish prick who thought I was just too cool because I was reading Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk and not the required titles like The Crucible and Of Mice and Men.
Within four years I became obsessed with the Beats, graduating and deciding I didn’t want to go to college because what writers really need is experiences.
I had my first drink at eighteen: a fifth of a bottle of Captain Morgan at a party in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, lost my virginity, attempted to move out of my parent’s house, smoked weed for the first time at a party in Bowling Green, moved back in with my parents, wrote stuff to myself like “you got the spirit of Kerouac in you, boy,” drank more, smoked more, had sex with more people, read some stuff, moved out, had a breakdown and ended up in a few psychiatric hospitals, tried to become a Christian, moved back in with my parents, got engaged, got kicked out of my house, cut the umbilical cord of and then helped raise a child that was not mine, deciding to try my hand at fatherhood, wrote stuff, promised things (I’m trying to finish this book so I can get it published and support you and E—), broke up with my fiancée, or rather was broken up with— three times, moved back in with my parents, drank more, wrote more, moved out for the final time, failed— a lot.
I used to have a lot more regret, it filled me with holes and left me sinking in too deep of water, but I realized I was going to let myself drown so I started swimming and eventually made it back to the surface.
Last year felt like a kind of surreal and empowering time for me and a lot of my friends, we published books, got invited to read places, met tons of likeminded individuals … things we never could have imagined. As we begin to move into the New Year I hope to do even more: write more, read more, and listen more.
David Foster Wallace once said in an interview that he felt like art has got something to do with loneliness and that until you face “various darknesses … it’s very hard to understand how precious and rare the sort of thing that art can do is.”
It took me a long time to learn that for myself.
I still don’t know exactly what art is and probably never will, but what I do know is that in my own work and in the work of those that I read what I look for is connective tissue, I want there to be a conversation happening. It’s as if I need constant reminding by everyone, fictional or otherwise, all the time, that I’m not alone; there are others who have gone through similar things and they made it. This is what makes us unique, I think—as individuals and as a species, this constant reiteration of the basic truth of our shared existence: we won’t be saved from the experiences or emotions, they’re inevitably bound to come our way at some point, but you just have to keep on swimming.
For me I’ve found this reminder in the works of Dave Eggers, Miranda July, Jim Shepard, and specifically in Wallace’s Infinite Jest and J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories, two books I consistently come back to for inspiration. To name just a few.
I never developed a specific “literary taste.” Ben Spivey’s Black God, a very short cinematic/experimental masterpiece out on Blue Square Press, moved me to tears. Joseph Bates collection, Tomorrowland (Curbside Splendor), is one of the best books I read last year.
A Scanner Darkly is one of my favorite novels.
I try to read across a wide spectrum of authors and genres; I don’t want to close myself off. I’m constantly searching…
My grandmother used to say that bookstores seemed to be my “sanctuary.” If she saw that I was feeling down she’d say, “You need to go to your sanctuary.”
That is where you’ll find me, skimming the shelves or digging through stacks, on my haunches, as if about to drop to my knees and bow in reverence, in prayer, waiting for the answer, that whisper … the word delivered. It has never failed me and I know it never will. There are always going to be books, they will outlive us all. No matter what new technology pops up we’ll always love holding something that is real, and right now I’m just trying to do my small part in getting books into people’s hands and reminding them that we’re all in this together and none of us really has the slightest idea what we’re doing anyway.
Enjoy Mark Cronin’s review of Black Cloud, Juliet Escoria’s short story collection forthcoming from Civil Coping Mechanisms in April.