The Urgent Matter of Books


So this guy I know, a guy I like, whose brain has not atrophied or anything, says to me the other night, “Books have lost their social relevance; they have been entirely subsumed by economy, and their material form is fast approaching its own demise.”

“Huh,” I go, and I do what I often do when I’m sitting there totally not agreeing and kind of working my inner Lidia up into a frothy fit—I leave the table we are sitting at and go to my internal reality—I daydream. I conjure up images and worlds to cinematic proportions in my head in place of arguing. Though I continue to smile, nod, and consume the rest of my scotch. In my head though, a whole other reality is raging.

American forces make their way like the outstretched fingers of a hand into the deserts of the Middle East. Members of the religious right and conservatives launch an attack on educators, artists, intellectuals, women and their reproductive rights, homosexuals, and workers who belong to unions. The frontlines are national, cultural, and corporeal. Chernobyl reactor vessels rupture and send mega amounts of radiation into the sky. Land. Water. Food.

Sound familiar?

The years are 1985 to 1991. The presidents are Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Then, I’m a student at the University of Oregon. I’m hella pissed off. The Gulf war is screaming. I wear a white T-shirt with “No Blood For Oil” painted on it with red fingernail polish. One of my teachers, an Arab American, has an ugly slur drawn on her office door and her home is broken into. Another of my teachers, a gay poet, is beaten to a pulp after he teaches “Tongues Untied.” I go down to the courthouse at night to protest our military actions and a large white man with a black cowboy hat calls me a god damn hippie (?) and pops me one in the jaw. I’m on the cover of What’s Happening, holding up a peace sign, crying.

Art is crying out everywhere. Piss Christ emerges from Andres Serrano. Robert Mapplethorpe’s images of the gay leather scene emerge. Karen Finley uses yams in inappropriate places in performances depicting graphic scenes of sexuality, abuse, and disenfranchisement. Laurie Anderson sings Yankie Doodle Dandy, differently. Jesse Helms, that blowhard assistic precursor to Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, nearly coronaries attacking art, books, film. One of the books I have written ends up among others deemed “pornographic” on the congressional floor. Funding is stripped from artists, educators, and intellectuals. Bill O’Reilly and Fox news are nascent.

Zeitgeists are funny things. The word “Zeitgeist” implies a spirit of the times, as if each one is distinct. But that isn’t how Zeitgeists work. They surface and submerge, then resurface with slightly different names and faces, like Benjamin’s description of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus.

Flash forward to 2011. Our government just bombed the crap out of Libya in an effort to stop a tyrant dictator. Planned Parenthood, the NEA and NPR are all under the gun as government sponsored frivolities. Education, reproductive rights and unions are under the gun. Speaking of guns, several states are proposing bills to increase gun ownership and usage; some states are attempting to criminalize the bodies of abortion doctors and women who have abortions.

We are under corporeal siege; the bodies of women, children, workers, minorities, immigrants, and gay people are under attack. Art is f’d. Somewhere far away Noam Chomsky is still narrating. I can barely hear him through the white noise that has become my culture.

I know it’s the present tense, but I’ve seen this movie before.

Back to the guy I’m drinking with—back to his proclamation about the use value of books—“Uh huh,” I go. But not really, I think, I drink, I am.

Back then, I protested, and I’m glad I did. But I don’t know what, if any, good it did. There is always the problem of what to “do” in times of national crisis; it’s gotten harder to figure out in our current media saturated, speed centric, uber-fragmented lives. Even back then, there was only one thing I managed to “do” that I think made a radical difference—not in stopping anything terrible that was happening, but in my own consciousness.

I read books.

You heard me. Those thingees with covers and pages that you hold in your hands? Smell like paper and trees? Portable brain defibrillators?

I’m not talking about college-assigned books. I’m talking about the books that I found at that time. The books that spoke to me and maybe only me. The books that kept me from sleeping at night so I could read them. The books that haunted me while I walked around during the daytime. And I’m here to tell you I learned more about war, politics, and social and individual identity from reading books than any class I took, any nightly news, and fat-mouthed politician.

And I didn’t just read them. I devoured them. I mean I did everything but chew and gum them to death. I wrote copious marginalia on every page. I took them with me everywhere I went. Including the bathtub. Europe. Bars. Restaurants. Lover’s beds. Those books were beaten up with reading.

I spent hours in the University of Oregon library. I stole several books. I was so into reading them I wanted to bite them. Eat them. They made my brain hurt in the best possible way.

The books that I found, or that maybe found me, if animas can be attributed to books as objects, had a common theme: war. But not necessarily war the way you are imagining. Then, like now, wars had been dispersed and fragmented—so that when we spoke of wars, we meant both all the wars being fought in countries away from ours, and we meant the wars closer to home, the cultural wars, sometimes happening across our very bodies. War, the serial.

Then, like now, the war “out there” had become serialized, mass-produced, technologically directed in a variety of theaters. And of course outside of America, the war was never “out there.”

I watched television and listened to the radio and read the New York Times. But when civilian society has been so utterly saturated by militarism and mediaspeak and consumerism, how do we even distinguish ourselves from the movie of us?

What chance did books have to do anything? What chance do they have now, if we are, as they say, entering the decline of printed words?

Let me tell you what I read.

White Noise by Don Delillo is a novel about a nuclear family’s fear of death, random airborne toxic events, simulated evacuations, and the inability to distinguish words from things.

Empire of the Senseless by Kathy Acker is a novel about a post apocalyptic revolutionary landscape where multimedia corporations and patriarchal figureheads have demolished identity and human relations.

Shikasta by Doris Lessing is a novel about a future earthlike planet that has been colonized and is being documented from afar in order to see what its fate will be under the competing thumbs of complete militarization of civilian society and the possibility of a humanism in touch with earth’s natural resources.

Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Silko is about a future Native American insurrection in a world where water has replaced oil and a violent end to white rule in America is the logical extension of its colonizing beginnings.

It was as if the sky had opened up and the PERFECT BOOKS fell into my hands. Perfect in that they would raise my consciousness about the definition of war.

Listen: I used to think war was a thing governments sanctioned and soldiers fought on battlefields. After reading these books, I understood that in order to understand war, I had to demilitarize my understanding of it and learn to read beyond the sanctioned soldier’s story to get it. Basically to read beyond the paradigms of World War and Vietnam.

Here is what I learned about war from reading these books:

1. War is a structure of consciousness and cultural production.

2. Our very processes of language and psychic and social development already contain within them the very seeds of bellicosity and the archetype of agon. Protagonist. Antagonist. Fight.

3. Battlefields of war are varied and multiple; they can be social, sexual, domestic, even representational.

4. The threat of nuclear annihilation has already been activated by a kind of death that pervades our existence in the form of “news” and consumerism and entertainment that has become a symbolically lethal delivery system.

5. A patriarchal post-apocalyptic wasteland already exists in terms of our identities, genders, and human connectedness.

6. The new forms of resistance will look like hackers, pirates, terrorists, children, women, minorities, the earth.

Any of this sound familiar?

So. I had my consciousness raised. Big time. But even that isn’t the full power of a book.

Right this second, in our current zeitgeist, I want to read every one of those books over again. And about a hundred more. Because after I read the books, it’s like Rilke wrote: You must change your life.

After I read the books, I decided to stop flunking out of college and pursue a PhD. I decided to become a writer and a teacher. I decided I could be a conduit for desire.

Books, like all art, breed in us desire. In times of crisis and fear and misrepresentation we need desire, or else we shut down and hide out in our houses, succumbing to infotainment and the ease of an available latte, turning off our brains and emotions. Books breed desire. Even if, as Jeanette Winterson argues, the responsibility to act remains with us.

So I’m saying hey, your zeitgeist is upon you. And underneath the story of BUY THIS and FEAR THIS and HATE THAT, rising up and punching through the infomercial we call public discourse in a moment of danger is this: read books.

With covers and pages. Read them, rub them on your belly, smell them, chew on them—they are material evidence that we still know how to think and feel.

So what books do I think should be read right this second?

I can’t tell you. You have to find them. Or let them find you. You must gravitate toward the books that will change your life. Right now. You must stop listening to the contemporary double-speak discourse and the dominant modes of entertainment production. You must silence the clicker, take a facehooker break, and put down that latte.

Go to a public library before it gets shut down.

Go to a university library and have sex in the back stacks, then spend the rest of the night with your lover discovering and reading books.

Go to your local independent bookstore and ask them which books they’d like to most hand sell—which books make you feel alive again.

Buy books rather than boots. Beer. An iPad.

People keep telling me that books are in danger of disappearing. E-books, Kindles, iPads will replace the object of the book as we know it. I’m not worried.

The new technologies are pretty cool, to be honest. Very snappy. But until the day when we are cyborg-fitted with our art and literature, I already know why we’ll keep picking up books and putting them in our hands, turning the pages.

In times of crisis, we can still remember them burning.

Lidia Yuknavitch is the nationally bestselling author of the novels The Book of Joan, The Small Backs of Children, and Dora: A Headcase, and the memoir The Chronology of Water. She lives in Portland, OR. More from this author →