Every now and then, there's a book that keeps me up at night, the kind of story that made me invest in night lights and flashlights for the car. As a kid I was always hungry for words, and books were everywhere. It was unthinkable to go more than a few miles without a book in my bag. When we'd go on big camping trips, I'd trek out to the car with Safeway bags filled with library books.
Somewhere along the way, books became eclipsed by magazines, journals, Walkmen and Discman and iPods. These days my cell phone is as distracting as anything else. The focus of all these products is to entertain, but not necessarily to engage. I majored in literature in college, which meant that reading became an elevated act--one not only meant to pass time in cars, but something to be picked apart, studied, analyzed on a theoretical and historiographical level. I fell in love with a lot of writers in college (Frank O'Hara, Emily Dickinson, Federico Garcia Lorca, Jorge Luis Borges, Rohinton Mistry, Jack Gilbert, Adrienne Rich), but weirdly, in doing so I lost interest in reading itself. Reading equaled homework, which equaled deadlines, which equaled stress.
The older I got, the more important the books needed to seem. And yet, the books I truly remember are the ones I never expected to like. They impressed me with their nonchalance, their lack of pretension, and their lyricism.
This summer I fell in love again. First there was Maggie Nelson's Bluets, which I followed with Jonathan Dee's The Privileges and chased with Danzy Senna's Caucasia.
These books couldn't be more different--Nelson's tome is a carefully organized smattering of philosophical musings on the color blue, Dee's story follows a lofty hedge fund manager as he copes with an era of opulence, and Senna's novel shows a character struggling to find an identity as a biracial woman coming of age in the 1970s. Their aesthetics are different and their approaches unique, and they all kept me up late.
I always know a book has left an impression when I find myself missing the characters a day or so later, as if the writer had drawn them so clearly that I half expect to run into them at the farmer's market or the airport. I'll keep my eyes out for them, as if at some point they'll find me in a crowd, approach me and say, "I remember you--you were the one who paid attention." That's what Senna did with her protagonist Birdie Lee, and that's what Dee did with Andy and Cynthia Morey. These are people we know, innately, and they are characters that their creators have taught us to be on the lookout for.
These books are important because they remind us that stories are meaningful, no matter the content, no matter the characters. Yesterday I even turned off my iPod and silenced my cell phone in order to fully commit to Birdie Lee. How many times has that happened? It is now my goal that to one day be able to keep someone else up reading, lost in some other place, some other time, some other head.