The author’s library, photographed with her phone
Text/Book, the Toronto Standard‘s books column, is written by Emily M. Keeler and Chris Randle, plus occasional guests.
I know who I am because of the books I’ve read. Or more precisely, because of the books I have in my home, whether I’ve read them or not. They are the material objects that most fix and transfix me, so many hours have I spent with these inert things, these strange little portals that take me somehow down to my own core.
In the first column I wrote here, for Text/Book, I joked about preferring fiction to the world, linking little paragraphs from novels to the horrifying realities they presaged. I thought I was trying, as my co-columnist Chris said, to be “sprightly.” I talk a lot about how literature is one of the things I like most about being human, and about how it enables us to better think about things and feel things, and enriches other important aspects of humanity. And I think a lot about how literature can frame the world, make I seem like a livelier place, how the good stuff makes the reader go enough inside to break through to outside. Y’know, the story as a bridge the mind crosses, language as a window that opens wide enough to let in more of everything in. But lately I’m not so sure.
Because that’s not true, not totally, what I said there in the first paragrah. I’m equally transfixed by my computer, and by my phone. And by transfixed, I think I might mean enslaved. My phone, the last thing I look at before I nightly lose the battle against sleep and the first thing I look at when I wake, is the material object that acts most exactly like a window onto the world, my world. It’s where I most often see my friends and it’s where I get almost all of my news. Its digital library of text messages, photographs, and to-do lists are an archive of my recent past. The majority of my reading is done hunched over my phone, when you consider all the tweets, emails, and articles I scan every day. Some of them are great, in that they invite me to think or feel afresh about something. Most of them slip away into the ocean of oblivion that makes up my life.
But then again, books are like that too. I’ve never counted the number of books I have on my shelf, but I have kept lists of what I’ve read each year since I was twenty. So far in 2012, I’ve read just over 50 books. Without looking at my list, I can remember maybe 15 titles, and even looking at my list, my memory can only manage to bring to mind the gist of about half of them. I’m surprised to see that I read a certain small Tin House Books novel, because now I couldn’t tell you the first thing about it. I remember practically nothing from Sara Marcus’s Girls to the Front, even though I remember liking it a lot, and discussing the history presented with a friend, in a state of heightened passion. And though Cesar Aira is one of my favorite writers, I only recall one single scene, near the beginning of Varamo–which is itself not a very long book, and it’s a shame and a wonder that I no longer have any idea how it ends–where the main character is trying to mount a fishing trophy, though the animal keeps coming back to life, even as it has been gutted and chemically preserved it still manages to keep swimming away.
Which brings me back to my main point, which is not so much, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, a point at all: Maybe I read, both literature and everything else, to try to keep my mind from swimming away. I love my books, but I live with my phone, and both sustain me, both make me more who I am. And who I am is this: a reader, fighting against oblivion even as I’m constantly inviting it in, through whichever window I can open.