books

On Reading

By

I hold the book in my hands.

The cover is a lavender-silver color with a poppy red stain of a blurred bouquet in a vase. Across the front, in thick, black, child-like letters, are the words, An Exclusive Love: A Memoir, Johanna Adorjan.

It is one of the most beautiful books, perhaps one of the most beautiful objects, I own. I bought the book two years ago and now the paper cover has wilted from wear. I’ve read the book many times over. The cover is what called me to it as I trolled the basement of my favorite bookstore in Soho. But it is the words inside, the incredible rich language, that drove me to read it in its entirety in one sitting. It is the miraculous language that drags me back into its delicious kingdom again and again.

And yet, it isn’t so much what Adorjan is saying (the book is a memoir, imagined, about her grandparents, Holocaust survivors, on the day they decide to commit suicide) that draws me in. It is the kingdom Adorjan has created as the result of her meticulously chosen words: “puff,” “elegant,” “cigarette,” “vintage,” “out of a cloud of perfume,” “ballet,” “dream,” and “smoke.”  The words create a delicious kingdom. I want to enter this kingdom, with such desperation, I am willing to die for it. And to enter a book, to let my life coarse out and stream past me, is to, in a small way, die. And I quite happily exit one world to the next each time I vanish into a book.

So deep into this other world do I drop, I no longer notice, nor do I care, what’s happening outside the book, in the “real” world. Like a drug, the book seduces me. I can’t resist. And is this not a small simulation of death, of suicide? And suicide, let us not forget, is what this specific book is about. The confection-like seduction Adorjan creates for us, the warm promise of the other world inside the book, is an enactment of the seduction she imagines her grandmother and grandfather felt, their drive for the drug of death: a lozenge, a garden, an invisible lullaby only the two could hear. And isn’t this precisely what the experience of reading a book is?

Reading is a kind of death. One exits one’s life, is gone from the world. If my telephone rings, if my beloved calls out my name, I am no longer here. I don’t exist. Dead to the world. And reading erases the world. When I am deep in a book, my life no longer exists. The city I live in, the people I love, it all vanishes just as soon as I open a book and begin to read. And let us not forget what Emily Dickinson has said about reading poetry, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” And, Kafka:

The books we need are the kind that act upon us like a misfortune, that make us suffer like the death of a person we love more than ourselves, that make us feel as though we were on the verge of suicide, or lost in a forest remote from all human habitation–a book should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us.

A book is a seduction, a dark promise; a passionate affair lived entirely inside one’s mind. My retreat into books began by the time I was five. In kindergarten, I had already separated myself from the other children. While they were outside playing in the warm sun, I was lying along the huge maroon Indian rug, my face hidden inside the covers of Black Beauty. So heartbroken was I when I finished the book, when that world came to an abrupt end, I cried uncontrollably. It was the exact same pain I felt each year when, at the tail end of my birthday parties, all my friends left and returned home. A small death. It takes time to recover from the end of a book. The only antidote I know of is to quickly pick up another.

On Saturdays when I was a young girl, my mother would drive me downtown to the Santa Cruz Public Library. Often, she would drop me off; leave me there for hours. And I was completely content to wander aimlessly, pulling books from the endless shelves. I would get myself into a small spell, walking and gathering books. Then, I’d find myself a quiet corner to sit and there, I would lose myself inside the portal of a book.

on-reading-paris-1929Years later, I am, again, in the library, this time, the Aptos Public Library. I am in the children’s reading room kneeling before a round wooden table upon which sits a fake board game, The Phantom Tollbooth. Here is how the game goes: I pick up a card, and whichever book is listed on its backside, that is the book I will read. I spend a week inside the kingdom of this book and then, when my mother returns me to the library, the next Saturday, I tell the librarian which books I’ve read, and she takes me by the hand and escorts me back to the magic round table, back to the board game. She disappears for a moment and then returns with a form with my name on the top. She adds the books I read that week to the long list, instructs me to spin the spinner and then I pick up a new card, and flip it over.

The pretty librarian takes my hand and leads me across the room to a shelf where she pauses, leans into the books and pulls out a beautiful red book with a black horse’s face on it. Black Beauty.

She hands me the book, the key, and I open it, and then I drop under as I enter the beautiful kingdom again.

When my mother introduced me to the book game, I was immediately smitten. The list of books was like one long multi-layered cake: delicious and filled with promise, and impossibly seductive. After I took my first bite, I could not stop. I over performed. And I loved the secretly competitive aspect of the game: how it was only myself I was competing against. With each book I read, I checked a box. I accomplished something. With each book I read, I was transformed. Each book held the promise that I could become someone else, someone smarter, better. With each book I read, I moved nearer to the goal. What goal, I did not know.

The game expanded around me: it would be as small or large as I wanted it to be. I wanted it to be large. I read voraciously and found that with each book, each title the librarian crossed out, I became stronger, wilder, bigger. And magically, beautifully, each time I picked up a new book, I vanished. And it was the vanishing aspect that I prized the most. Once I opened a book and began to read, I slid back into the parallel universe.

The last time I walked into a bookstore (yesterday), I went in for “research” purposes only. I told my husband I was going to The Strand to double check on a handful of books I am assigning next term in one of my classes. I wanted to take a look at the copies at the store to confirm the books were what I had in mind. But, once I set foot inside the store, once I was surrounded by rooms and rooms of beautiful books, these miniature worlds stacked in pretty piles, I was unable to stop myself.

I went in at three and left at five. In the interim, I perused fiction, literary nonfiction, poetry, and Latin American History. Fiction was the most difficult. I held each of Ingo Schultze’s thick, pretty books in my hands. One, the one I wanted most, I held in my hand at the dead end of the S-T aisle, while sitting on the floor. The cover illustration of a dancing bear struck me and lured me back into my childhood in Germany and the woods near my grandmother’s house.

It is the promise of the otherworld that lures me into buying more books than I can possibly keep up with. I knew I had hit a new low in my addiction when, this past week, I brought home thirty-five new books, which brings us back to the topic of death. Collecting, or should I say, compulsive collecting, is a desperate means to ward off the inevitability of death. You see this on Hoarders, that terrifying television show where victims of this addiction find themselves holed up in their homes, relegated to the tiny square foot of floor space they have left. This room, what little space remains, serves as a metaphor for what they’ve made for themselves: the tiny four walls of their minds, for that’s all they have left. Imprisoned in a space only large enough for one’s physical body, one is debilitated. Essentially, one’s life has been removed. And like all good addictions, one’s life is removed. When I am no longer aware of my life, I am left in a stupor. The same sweet stupor that opiates or sugar or infatuation can bring. And, of course, reading.

I wouldn’t say its sexual but I would say it comes close. The desire, the wanting to enter the other world, the pining, the ruminating for days. What will it be like? Look like? How will I change? And then the anxiety over how and when. I collect lists of books I want to own, I save the books in lists near my desk. Should I wait until my next paycheck or should I just go ahead now and buy one, and go without coffee and sweets for the next week? It’s worth it, of course, as any bookphile will tell you: entering the world of the book is always so much more fulfilling than entering the world itself.

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Photographs by André Kertész.


Cynthia Cruz’s poems have been published in the New Yorker, Paris Review, Boston Review, American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review, and others. Her first collection of poems, RUIN, was published by Alice James Books, and her second collection, The Glimmering Room, was published by Four Way Books in the fall of 2012. She has received fellowships from Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony as well as a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University. Her third collection of poems, Wunderkammer, is forthcoming from Four Way Books in 2014. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Brooklyn, New York. More from this author →