A Good Read

The only way to be in the world was to write himself there. His thoughts and words were dying. Let him write ten words and he would come into being again.
— from Don DeLillo’s Mao II (p. 204)

I’ve been reading quite a bit lately. I tend to go in fits and starts, alternating between binges on books and on films, my twin addictions. Given a choice between the two, I’d take the books. No doubt about it. Reading is a richer, more intimate experience, demanding more from the audience and offering greater rewards in return. On the plane Saturday, flying back from Fort Lauderdale, the woman sitting beside me noticed my book and recognized in me something of a kindred spirit. She asked me about the author, jotted down his name, then offered a quick review of her latest read. Wallace Stegner. Can’t remember the title. “I like people with an intellectual curiosity,” she told me. “I wish more people had it.”

When I was studying for my comprehensive exams, I often felt like I was training for a marathon. It required the same discipline and exhausting effort. 100-150 pages a day. Everyday. Type up the notes. Check it off the list. Memorize and move on. I’m grateful for that experience now, but I thought it might kill me at the time. I had to take one of them twice, actually — a major disappointment and a story in itself. But I finally got through it all, and it was worth it. On good days, I even feel qualified to hold an opinion.

On Saturday, on that plane, I was reading Illuminations, a collection of “Essays and Reflections” by Walter Benjamin, the influential, early-20th century German literary critic. In the first essay, “Unpacking My Library,” Benjamin exposes himself as another of my kin. Describing the ideal “Bookworm” and his meticulously acquired, obsessively organized library, he writes:

For inside him there are spirits, or at least little genii, which have seen to it that for a collector — and I mean a real collector, a collector as he ought to be — ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting.

Back to the books.