January 20, 2015KR BlogBlog

After reading

There is a thing that happens when I first read many of the books that become my favorite books where, on finishing the text, I enter a kind of open space of excitement. It’s a space where I desperately want other people to read the book and to share with me the experience of having read the book, and of being moved to read it again, but where I hesitate to form any language around it, as my own language will take me away from the space of experience and into the space of interpretation. That is, I want to hold the book in my hands and place it in the hands of a friend, but I wish to say nothing more than here, this.

I remember this, viscerally, from the first time I read Joan Didion’s essay “The White Album,” an essay that I teach often as there are, in fact, so many things I can say about it. It is so rich with ideas and movements, with thoughts about the act of writing and what it means to live. I can track the beauty of its sentences, can talk my way through that magnificent line “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” and the way its meaning accrues and realigns over the course of the writing. All of these ideas were present to me on the first reading, but still, last word encountered, I found myself launched into that open space, the charged hum of after-reading. Here, this.

As someone who increasingly writes reviews and critical pieces about new books, the rare moments when I enter this space are both terribly exciting and also somewhat perplexing. How to write of and praise a text that feels so singular as to create this moment, yet do so in a way that does not eradicate or lessen it, either for me or for other readers? How to ensure someone else can have that reading experience unencumbered by whatever ideas I might, even inadvertently, attach to the book? To write my own words in the space opened by reading is to take power from that openness, to close it in and, horribly, to make that closing in some ways about me.

This is where I found myself again on finishing Dawn Lundy Martin’s Life in a Box is a Pretty Life, available here. Martin is a co-founder of the Black Took Collective, a co-editor of The Fire This Time: Young Activists and the New Feminism, and the author of Discipline and A Gathering of Matter/A Matter of Gathering. I became familiar with Martin’s work, however, through Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics. When I finished Life in a Box is a Pretty Life, I immediately put it in the hands of a friend, then found myself again in that place, wanting to draw attention without upsetting what had happened.

(I fear, even in giving these brief words, that I have already started the process.)

I think this conundrum is different than that faced by Pierre Menard, the title character of Borges’ short story who attempts to “recreate” Don Quixote as an exact duplication of the original, writing every line just as it had first been written when Miguel de Cervantes set it down. It does, however, speak to the same tension, which I guess really is a tension of fandom. I think of myself like a person hearing a musician sing, wanting to stand as close to the singer as possible while existing in a place of total silence myself, never the first to clap because doing so will mark the end of the song. Menard, maybe, wants to be pulled on stage, like Courteney Cox.

I have tried the few tools that seem available to me. In drafting an essay about James Baldwin I once found my pages flush with long quotes from the writer and with fewer and fewer words of my own (perhaps the closest to Menard-Cox I have gotten), but even the selection of quotes and their placement on the page felt like a diminishing of the reading experience. I have tried pulling together lines from other writers, a collage of voices around the original text, summoning the conversation of literary community, and while this does allow a broadening of experience and an alternative to my own insufficient voice, it still indicates an end to the openness of having read and all that rare moment can do.

So I’m left again with no answers, only here, this. Which maybe, after all, is something—the many copies of our favorite books, leant out and never returned, then acquired again to be shared again. I must have purchased Jenny Boully’s The Body ten times by now, and am certain I will do so again. But for now and while able, I will be selfish and stay with that rare experience, found this time following Life in a Box is a Pretty Life. Eventually, I’m sure I will want to say something. But now, I’ll just repeat the words here and this, and then repeat them again.