The Literary Life, Part I

I’m almost not crazy now.

Ever since I can remember I have loved the smell of books and old bookstores. There is something about their scent that transports me back to a time and place where I am able to live outside myself; if only for a day, or a few hours, or a few moments. Doubtless you’ve heard the expression, “You are what you eat,” well, I subscribe to a slight variation on that theme: I believe that you are what you read.

I was never what you might call a good student in high school. I got by with a lot of C’s and when it came to math, some D’s. However, I’ve always loved to read. In fact, I think reading saved me from having a much harder time in high school that I actually did. I spent nearly every study hall in the library wandering and wondering among the stacks and reading bits and pieces of as many books as I could. I didn’t know it then, but those days were the beginning of a certain kind of life that I would later carve out for myself.

Now that I’m much older and a professor of literature I find that I live most of my life either inside my own head or between the pages of a book. A few months ago I joked on my Facebook page that I have read so much that I am starting to distrust my own memories. That is, I no longer if what happened in my past was “real” or a part of some book I read. I tell my students all the time that I am not sure if I said something in a past class or “dreamt it,” and they always laugh. The truth is, I am not sure what took place in a book I read or what I actually lived. I guess you could say that this is a sort of occupational hazard for those of us who have made literature a way of life. Nevertheless, it’s a strange sensation to become so caught up in a book that it becomes a part of who you are, and an essential part at that. I suspect for some people this confusion of memories would herald an oncoming case of the crazies. I thought this myself at first, but the more I looked into my “condition,” the more I found it a normal side-effect for those of us who read obsessively.

In his essay, “Five Days in Finland at the Age of Fifty-Five,” John Updike confesses, “As I get older, my childhood self becomes more accessible to me, but selectively, in images as stylized and suspect as moments remembered from a novel read years ago.” Updike’s sentiment is one I wholly identify with. My life with books is not as crazy as Don Quixote’s, not as tragic as Emma Bovary’s, not as depressing as Walter Benjamin’s, but it is a life that I would not trade for any other. I am currently building a library and I consider that collection as much a part of me as my limbs, my hearing, or my eyesight. Thankfully, I have an understanding and loving family who, while they don’t exactly share my obsession, humor me by allowing me to collect books. In short, they share me, willingly and unconditionally.

Doubtless, the fictional character who took reading too seriously was that old charming man from La Mancha, Don Quixote. But there is something magical in Don Quixote, both the book and the character. He leads us to the boundary of the real, daring to cross over when most of us are content to just look and move on. Don Quixote is a big book filled with adventure, misunderstanding, magic, and mayhem. I didn’t read Don Quixote until I was in my twenties, and struggling for an identity myself. Now the book is a staple of my teaching routine. I am haunted by Don Quixote’s voice calling, “Sancho my friend, are you sleeping? Are you sleeping friend Sancho?” I suspect that the entire cast of Don Quixote is sleeping and it is only the old man that is really awake, really aware. We sleep through life while Don Quixote dreams through it, one adventure at a time.

We do not spend enough time enchanted in the world. We are too eager to break the spell and get back to the reality and routine of our everyday lives, and I feel this is a profound loss to the potential richness of existence. We are caught, like flies in a spider’s web, between waking and dreaming in a world that is harsh and unforgiving. Italo Calvino, in his wonderful essay “Cybernetics and Ghosts” states “The decisive moment of literary life will be that of reading.” I wonder how true this is for the writers and dreamers out there. I wonder how true it is for managers and politicians, for the elderly and for children—especially for children, the only ones who still think it possible to truly get lost in a book.

So, because I must, I keep telling myself that I’m almost not crazy now, especially during those moments when I forget myself between the pages of a book and the world, like some ravenous wolf in winter, is at the door.

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