Once, while I was in my early twenties, I saved up enough to not work for a few months so I could read. The house I lived in had no heat, so I wrapped myself in a wool blanket and a winter coat and read book after book by the light of an antique lamp I’d bought at a garage sale for three dollars. I read McCullers, Sontag, Freud, London, Steinbeck and Kesey the first month. My only strategy was to read as much as I could, it didn’t matter what it was. Since I didn’t have a job, I thought that I should put in a solid eight hours with my books. I’d do this work all day, then stumble down the stairs and make a frozen pizza, relishing the heat that the oven made, before nesting back down in my cocoon to read some more.
If given my way, I think that I would do nothing but read. I am not particularly talented at anything else. I always just want to be able to sit with a book and occupy myself for a day in bed with the door locked.
The book that made me love literature in high school was The Brothers Karamazov, read out loud to me by my English teacher, Mr. McDougal. He disliked me, I think, because he found me capricious and unmotivated—which was true—but he still let me read some parts of the book to the class. I struggled through the multitude of names and did my best, and by the end of it I was sad it was over. He was the only teacher that ever told me to “Shut up” when I was talking while he was; which, to my surprise, made me respect him much more. I always imagined that I would go back and tell Mr. McDougal how much that class had changed my life, and how much I learned, but he died of a brain aneurysm a few years later. I read about it in the local news.
I’ve never had a plan for how I read. I feel like there’s an invisible thread somewhere that I have to locate to find the next book. If I find this secret route, I read book after book fairly quickly. If I make a mistake, and say, choose a book because someone gave it to me or I feel like I should have read it by this point in my life, then I get listless and struggle to finish. Then I have to go and find the thread again.
I have read Borges’ Collected Fictions the most out of any book. I first read it while on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. If I look at the weathered copy on my shelf, I can recall the soft shudder of the train as it crossed the icy continent. I like to go back and read a single story from it when I lose the invisible thread. That usually works, because after one or two stories about labyrinths or libraries, I get excited again and look for new things to read or write.
Sometimes, the invisible thread takes me to new subjects. This last summer, I exclusively read books on the history of science before I realized I was understanding little and decided to go back to fiction.
When I was eighteen, I found Martin Eden by Jack London. I was a little embarrassed about how inspired I was by it, since he seemed to write mostly books for young adults, but it forever changed the way I approached how I motivated myself to make art even though I try to be less extreme. He would affix an alarm clock above his head so that if he drifted off to sleep while he was writing, the alarm clock would go off and fall on him. That way he could continue to write even when he was exhausted. Last year, I read all of Susan Sontag’s journals and she mentioned how she herself was inspired by Martin Eden at a young age. This made me feel like the invisible thread was still intact, somehow. Every few years, I reread it.
Annie Proulx and Mary Gaitskell are two writers that I read when I want to make my writing better. Sometimes I feel like if I could write something like either of them, I could be happy enough to just write variations of it for the rest of my life. They both write deeply flawed characters that act horribly. Each time I read a piece by either, I start to miss it in the middle. This anticipatory nostalgia is a good indicator that I’m reading what I need to be.
I’ve decided to stop giving books as gifts. Mostly the reason I love these books is because they connected the invisible thread, and that’s just too hard to explain. It’s confusing when someone I give a beloved book to doesn’t resonate with or understand it, and that just takes up too much time and mental space that I could spend elsewhere. It’s not their fault, they just have a different thread.
I realize that the thread has no ending (though perhaps it has some knots to get stuck on) so I’m never concerned with losing it forever. I can always keep trying to find it, and when I do, it leads me to all the new places I have yet to feel and explore. I often wish that I had the time to just read again. Someday, I hope to make it happen. I’ll lock myself in a cabin, or in an apartment in the city, and do nothing but read until I can’t anymore. Just me and the invisible thread.