Episodes in Strange Reading Environments

Or, reading a book about a man in his fifties taking an eleven-year-old girl (to whom he is not related) on a cross-country trip where he sees her naked, bathes her, holds her hand, looks longingly into her eyes, etc. while riding the train. (Review of LAMB will be up by week’s end; all I can say right now: disturbing.)

There are times when reading is not optimal. When the alternative—perhaps staring into space or finding a way to wage a thumb war by yourself—might be a more suitable use of your time. Reading Bonnie Nadzam’s LAMB today on the train got me thinking, “When have I read something and felt immediately uncomfortable, or maybe different, about my surroundings?”

Last year, riding the high of a senior-year-in-college bout of idealism, I decided to make my annual trek from the flat expanse of west-central Illinois to Boston by Amtrak. The twenty-nine-hour trip—which was delayed six hours—was supposed to be a time for reading and writing; the latter was no guarantee, but the former seemed fool-proof. I brought along THEN WE CAME TO THE END by Joshua Ferris, NINE STORIES by J.D. Salinger, THE SPORTSWRITER by Richard Ford, and REVOLUTIONARY ROAD by Richard Yates.

Starting with Yates, I figured, was the safest option. Though all of the books were heralded, I had read Salinger, wasn’t quite in the mood for Ferris’ collective first person-ing, and thought Ford’s brand of slow, steady prose would put me to sleep. So, Yates it was. Frank and April Wheeler were my traveling partners.

For those who have not read REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, a quick summary, blow-by-blow: pain, torment, woe, anguish, all of the world’s misery contained in a single heart pang, death, more pain, wretchedness, suffering, hopelessness, dashed idealism, and finally THERE’S NO WAY YATES WILL END THE BOOK LIKE TH—NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.

Earlier this week, I wrote about the quality of identification in literature; it’s a powerful feeling, no doubt. For a young, soon-to-be college graduate with dreams of moving to Europe or at the very least adopting a more European lifestyle, of living in a big city, of holding a desk job not worth your time—a brainless exercise that would give you the time to brush up on the things on which people usually claim a need to brush up, only to eventually, perhaps in your late twenties, go back to graduate school, a more worldly person than you were at twenty-two, wise beyond your years, the envy of your peers, a tried-and-true example that, yes, it does pay off in the academic or intellectual world to spend some time foraging with the rest of them out there, pushing papers and cashing decent paychecks and having not enough vacation time, because if nothing else it will make you appreciate things—having to be out there among them will make you appreciate things—reading REVOLUTIONARY ROAD can be a little bit of a drag, as it’s a reminder that no matter how virtuous your dreams seem at age twenty-two or how long and successful your future appears, three-zero will hit you hard as hell, will leave you longing to go one year or month or week or day back; to recapture the slightest nibble of youth.

And there’s a chance that, when you finish it, you will remember your own age: twenty-two. You will remember how long eight years is, because it’s been eight years since you were yelled at behind Atwood Homestead because you didn’t have your wits about you, because you grabbed the wrong pile of medical forms off the kitchen table. You will remember the exact tone and tenor of this dressing-down, because it was arresting and you wondered if you’d ever grow up.

Eight years is not long enough.

You will look around and see the weirdly cosmopolitan crowd that populates the Amtrak: mostly white, old, middle-aged, families, Amish. You will assume that those older than you envy you; you will envy those younger. Mostly because of REVOLUTIONARY ROAD.

But you will, at the exact same moment, come to the realization that good literature can impart as much if not more information than nonfiction ever could; that a book about the various spiders of Bolivia is not more fact-based than REVOLUTIONARY ROAD just because the former is researched and compiled and measured against its peers; it is not more true because of its empirical methods. The latter teaches you how to not be and how not to be; it reminds you—and will forever—just how rude it is to as a guest in someone’s home look with sneaking analytical glances at their bookshelf.

The latter makes you look around on a slow-moving, six-hours-behind-schedule vessel of dreary eyes and short tempers; it makes you look every single person in the eye and feel their anguish. It makes you feel like then, if not then then never, then you know the most painful and secret of life’s painful secrets; the most valuable.

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