Fish Magic by Paul Klee
I like to whittle away time reading on the subway or in the park, waiting for a latte in a little Soho cafe that sells delicate jewelry, during calm dinners and violent movie previews. The best feeling is being in the middle of a book or right at the beginning. I don’t like endings—once I finish a book I move immediately onto another. I enjoy novels the most but really I’ll read anything at all.
It’s no exaggeration to say that reading is how I became a person. I was a horribly awkward six-year-old, the only Chinese kid in my class, when I first began to read my way into the world (Lorrie Moore: There was the usual dreaminess, I suppose. Also a shyness that caused me—and others—to notice that I could express myself better by writing than by speaking. This is typical of many writers, I think. What is a drawback in childhood is an asset to a literary life). That first year my mom took me to the library and I checked out 30 books at a time, hardcover children’s books about caterpillars and little witches and talking bears lumbering through the woods wearing a striped t-shirt. The Rainbow Fish made me cry. The Little Match Girl made me cry for three hours straight. I loved Ms. Frizzle and the Berenstain Bears and Animorphs and Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. To this day I’m charmed by mysteries and children’s fiction and talking animals.
Vivian Gornick: Like most readers, I sometimes think I was born reading. I can’t remember the time when I didn’t have a book in my hands, my head lost to the world around me.
Books taught me self-differentiation, that there was a difference between me as a commodity in the world and me as a person with a soul. Even though I’ve been heavily affected by other people’s emotions and opinions, I’ve always clung onto this sense of who I am separate of what other people think because books “taught me how to be alone.” They do that by making you feel you’re never truly alone: someone else has felt the exact thing you’re feeling and thought the same thoughts. That knowledge is such a comfort. James Baldwin: You read something which you thought only happened to you, and you discovered it happened 100 years ago to Dostoyevsky. This is a very great liberation for the suffering, struggling person, who always thinks that he is alone. This is why art is important.
I don’t think of reading as productive. I think that if you believe reading has to be productive you don’t really love books. K told me recently that many of her friends approach their hobbies in a very results-oriented way (what did you make, what did you get from it). Personally, I’m most interested in the pure bliss of consumption. I never wanted to write—at the very least, I’m a reader before I’m a writer. But I think that if you are devoted enough to reading you automatically begin to write. Cormac McCarthy: The ugly fact is books are made out of books. Maybe if you consume enough books you inevitably feel the need to yank one out of yourself like a rabbit from a magician’s hat.
I love this passage from Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick:
You like books too much and think they are your friends. One book leads you to the next like serial monogamy. Dear Dick, I’ve never been to school but every time I go into a library I get a rush like sex or acid for the first few minutes when you’re getting off. My brain gets creamy with associative thought.
One book leads you to the next. I remember reading The Argonauts and thinking that I needed to understand every reference Maggie Nelson made. So I read Wittgenstein and Djuna Barnes and Winnicott and Gertrude Stein and Deleuze. Because reading is just brushing up against someone else’s mind. Sometimes you’re so enamored that you want to read everything they’ve ever read just to be a little closer to them.
I don’t agree with psychological nominalism but the idea that “all awareness is a linguistic affair” has always been compelling to me. I believe in narratives but I believe in language more. Like of course experience is just text all the way down. Of course love is just being able to talk to someone and talk to someone and talk to someone and never get sick of their words. The only times I’ve read about relationships in books and thought, I want a love like that is when two people talk to each with these incredibly specific and wonderful vocabularies. From one of Salter’s short stories: He was later to tell her that words were no accident, their arrangement and choice was like another voice speaking, a voice which revealed everything. Vocabulary was like fingerprints he said, like handwriting, like the body which revealed the invisible soul, which expressed it. I think the ultimate act of love is to be able to describe someone very specifically. And of course you can usually be more coherent and articulate in writing than you are in conversation. So in that way love on the page is more genuine than love in real life.
Most of my friends think of ambition as this very structured thing. Like, I have a 30-step plan for how to take over the world. But I’ve always loved the Feynman quote about studying hard “what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.” Refusing to view something as means to an end, being so devoted you’re thrust outside the usual calculus of value and optimization. That’s love: not expecting a return on your investment. I love books and I want to follow them forever from one metaphysical space to another. I think I’d be happy spending ten years in a little cottage in the mountains, reading eight hours a day the way I did that one languid summer I was 12 and had absolutely nothing to do except read tortured novels written by old Russian men. It wouldn’t make sense and it wouldn’t need to. Because love takes you past the need for prestige—past rationality and diminishing marginal returns—into a room lit up purely by desire.