The Books We Read In College

irv0-002I am reading a book right now that I’m not really in love with.  All of the characters are unlikeable and it’s set in New York in 2001 and I know something catastrophic is getting ready to happen and I look forward to it, because, like I said, I hate all of the characters.  

One of the characters was an English major in college, she says at one point that she looks at the books on her shelves and realizes that she read them in college but can’t remember anything about them.  I pondered for a moment about the books I read in Bible college. From the entire four years there, between assigned and pleasure reading, I only remember one book definitively.

If you and I have talked books, you might even know how much I love this book.  It’s a “like” on my Facebook wall.  I’ve read it now 3 or 4 times, but you always remember your first.  I don’t remember when I started John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.  It must have been over Christmas break of my senior year.  I came back to school a few weeks early to go to some kind of convention that was being held on campus.  I loved the feeling of walking around campus with 30% of its usual population.  And everywhere I went, I carried A Prayer for Owen Meany with me.  I ate lunches in the cafeteria by myself, just me and the book.  I don’t remember a single thing anyone talked about at that convention, but I remember that book.  My roommate had not yet arrived for the spring semester and every night I stayed up late reading.

On one of those nights, I stayed awake later than usual, so committed, so spellbound.  I measured the bulk of  the remaining pages in my hand, questioning whether I should turn in and finish the next day or keep going.  I kept going.  And then I finished.  If I tried hard enough, I could probably explain to you why the book resonated so deeply with me, it’s about unconventional people, it’s about complicated relationships with religion, it takes place in New England (and Canada).  There is also something about the ending, the theme of fulfilling the perceived will of God, that spoke to the 21 year old version of me on his final chapter of undergraduate life at a Bible college.

All this is to say that I remember this vividly, that the moment I read the last line of A Prayer for Owen Meany,  “O God—please bring him back! I shall keep asking You,” I shut the book and started weeping.  I lay on my little dorm super single bed with a royal blue Montgomery Ward bedspread and wept for poor dead Owen Meany and broken John Wheelwright and John Irving for being so brilliant and for me, preparing to go into the real world and not feeling equipped to do so.  And I cried until I was done and then I wiped my tears and put the book on my shelf, took off my glasses and went to sleep.

And right now, just thinking about that experience, that kinship, I am there in that January in Missouri cold dorm room, under those covers, reading a book about the world out there, beyond Joplin.

If you’ve read this far, you are probably on your own journey, thinking about that book or maybe two that you read at that time, such an impressionable time.  And you felt like John Irving or maybe Alice Hoffman or maybe Armistead Maupin or maybe James Joyce had written something specifically, singularly just for you.  And what a gift, when you think about it: you will carry that book with you forever, wherever you go.

The Interestings

9781594488399_custom-a82317e37abed747b8112d39b71b8b84724c22fd-s6-c30I do not think I would make a good reviewer.  My reviews would be divided into “I liked it” or “It was…okay” or “I hated it.” The body of my reviews would be, “I don’t know, I just really enjoyed reading it or watching it or listening to it.”  This is not a review of The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, but even though I’m only on page 248 of the book’s 468 pages, I could give you my review, were I in the review business: I love it.

I know there are much sadder things in the world than this, but I have not finished a book since December.  For the last three months, I have picked up books that I’ve slogged through, then given them up somewhere within the first 150 pages.  The books would sit untouched on my side table, and I’d look guiltily at them every time I’d glance in their direction. It’s kind of my own fault; suffice to say, if you’ve read the biography of one gay alcoholic 20th century writer, you’ve sort of read them all.  

A few months ago, my friend Sienna, who I’ve been in the same room with twice and our friendship is mostly cultivated on Facebook, told me that I would love The Interestings.  You can learn a lot about people from their Facebook activity, and Sienna, in her acuity, nailed it.  I do love it.  It’s about New York in the 1970s and New York in the 1980s and current New York and New England summer campers.  The only thing that could make it more interesting is if the characters all went to an Amy Grant concert in Central Park in the 1990s.  Unlikely, but, you never know, I still have over 200 pages left.

If you are a reader, I think you can relate to that feeling you have when you’re reading a book that you love, when it’s the last thing you read before you go to bed at night or you wake up thinking, I could read for 30 minutes before I have to get ready for work.  And wherever that book is set, you are there for the duration.   I wasn’t the only 20-something that spent weeks in 1970s San Francisco while feverishly reading the first six Tales of the City books.  I wasn’t the only midwestern teenager who spent a few days tooling around Holden Caulfield’s Manhattan. And I’m not the only person, with fond but complicated memories of summer camp, intimate but complicated relationships with more successful old friends, that has read and connected with The Interestings.

At work yesterday, a few of us were talking about books. Kristin talked about how she loved when a book was so interesting she had to read it while she walked to the bus stop. Ian confided that he had not finished a book in 10 years. “I wish I loved reading books,” he lamented. But books are just a method of taking a journey and Ian loves movies and television the way others loves books. We are what we are.

And right now, I am in the middle of a journey and I think about my new friends Jules and Ethan and Ash and Jonah Bay constantly. I don’t know what’s ahead, as I said, I’m only on page 248. Will Cathy Kiplinger resurface? Probably. Will I forgive Goodman for what he did? Unlikely. Will one of the Interestings die before the book ends? I have a feeling. But I am in, absorbed, captivated, interested. And I have to wrap this little post up and get back to my book, because I still have 10 minutes before I need to get ready for work.

Turn a Page

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Like a lot of people, I try to always have a book that I’m reading.  Ever since I was little, I’ve loved books.  The two books I just finished, Coral Glynn by Peter Cameron and Harvard Square by Andre Aciman took me on similar journeys.  Each time, I was reading the book, enjoying it somewhat, and then halfway in, something happened and I could not stop reading until I was finished. With a turn of a page, I went from liking to loving.  It’s not uncommon when that happens, but it doesn’t occur every time. Believe me, I hope it will happen soon with the book that I’m currently reading, which I have been reading for over two weeks now.  Not long ago, someone asked me if I was a writer and I replied, no, I’m not, but I am this delusional person who reads something and feels like he’s written it.  That’s what I said at the time and I’m not saying I’m not delusional, but what I think I meant was reading is a collaboration. When you read something that affects you, you are in cahoots with the author. I’m not saying Peter Cameron or Armistead Maupin or Edmund White or John Irving write for only me, but sometimes it does feel that personal. Saul Bellow famously said, “A writer is a reader moved to emulation.” I guess that’s why I started this blog. I’ve felt so clumsy in the last two weeks trying to weave these pieces together, it’s been humbling. It’s also been intoxicating. Last week, I wrote a sentence, so well-crafted, I could not believe it came from my consciousness. I’m still congratulating myself, clearly. But with the highs and lows, I keep going in hopes that eventually, with a turn of a page, I’ll go from reader to writer.
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