This is a new theory so hang with me…
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why we read what we read, and what it is that makes a book one we return to. What is the difference, in essence, in the books I have loved and then put back on the shelf feeling full, and the ones that have led me immediately to the bookstore craving more?
Mostly, I’ve been thinking a lot about Sally Rooney. Rooney, if you haven’t heard (lol) is the voice of the Millennial generation. She and I are the same age, born the same year. She has two bestselling novels, a dozen profiles in glossy mags, and a slew of praise. I have read both of her books. I am constantly lending my copy of Normal People, her most recent, out to people. But the thing is, I don’t really even like the book that much. This is not a drag against Rooney at all, so much as it is something I have been grappling with personally.
Why am I lending out this book that I don’t even like that much? Pushing it into the hands of people who ask me for recommendations?
I keep trying to keep myself in check on this. Is it envy? Am I dismissing these two solid novels because I feel threatened?
But the truth is, I feel deep, unbearable envy over novels all the time, and I don’t feel it when I read Rooney’s work. After many hours I have come to a conclusion: there are only two ways to read a book.
Probably, like most of my takes, I will disagree with this in two months but here we go:
The first way to read a book is to read for story. The book propels you along; you can fly through the pages. When you finish, you feel accomplished and like you have escaped. You enjoyed your time, but it is done. You are, in a way, only connected to that story by what it leaves in your memory when you describe it to others: “it is the story of two millennials trying to have a relationship and get through college,” or whatever. This is a great way to read!
It is also the safest kind of book to recommend. “I liked it!” you can say, but it doesn’t mean anything to you. It isn’t a judgement on your interests, a reflection of some deep truth you feel within you. If the person you lend to hates it, it doesn’t matter at all. It’s just a story. It’s not much more to you.
And then there is another way.
In the past month I have read two books that I have truly loved: Joy Williams’ The Changeling and yet another book by Karl Ove Knausgaard. I now own every book by both of them that has been written. I will read them all. Karl Ove Knausgaard is the most vitriolic way to relate this theory, but whatever, this is my newsletter.
Knausgaard is a 50-something Norwegian man who wrote a 6 book series of “auto-fiction” (story about his life) titled “My Struggle.” Knausgaard’s struggles are minimal to say the least. He often causes them himself, and the books have little to pace them and very very little plot. Yet, I am desperate for his books. I have read them all. I have read his dumb essays and his interviews and his longform. I read Knausgaard the way I read Marilynne Robinson, and Jesmyn Ward, and Carson McCullers and now Joy Williams. I do not give a shit what their books are about.
Marilynne Robinson could write a book about a crumpled tissue and I would pay 27 dollars for the hardback because I’m not reading for her stories, I’m reading for her. I’m reading for ACCESS to her brain.
We read someone’s entire canon because we fall in love. We need to know what they think about everything. How would she present this? What would this pile of chips remind her of? Maybe we don’t love a writer for their actual writing. Maybe we love them for their mind.
This isn’t close-reading so much. It’s not about how a metaphor is placed. It’s about a kind of voyeurism into the thought lines of another person. How does Joy Williams, whose book I wrote about on Friday, take her reader into a mythical world and make it work? Where did her sentences come from? This is probably where the desire for author interviews and biographies of famous writers come from. We want to know not how they wrote, but how their brains became spaces where these worlds could exist and these ideas could meet. These are the books, at least for me, that I love.
I’m thinking this week about how this relates to who we read and why. If the books we love, we read for access to the author, then aren’t women at an inherent disadvantage trying to sell to people who don’t think their thoughts are worth much?Could this be why women read so many women and men don’t? If writing is as close to direct access as we can get to someone’s unfiltered thoughts, could it be that part of the opposition to reading women is at its simplest a lack of interest in not just women’s experiences, but women’s thoughts? Is it possible that the confidence of being able to write from one’s own natural brain cadences instead of a learned form is harder for women to reach?
I don’t know. What I do know is that these books, the ones whose underlying hearts I fall in love with, are much harder to leave. I know that what I love about them is a feeling they created in me: of terror, of adoration, of nausea, of awe. They are books I return to time and time again and find myself flooded in affection all over again, interested. It is love, I guess, instead of like. But like any love, it’s uncontrollable.
The best plot in the world can’t make a reader fall in love. Neither can a perfect pacing or an extreme generational relevance. We fall in love awkwardly, irrationally, stupidly. The books we fall in love with have something in them we need: a voice we desire, a heart.
Is this stupid? Do you hate this theory? Can you make it better? Email me! Help me figure it out!
On Friday, I will bring you a reported entry into the world of bookstagrammers! featuring: more DATA!! Subscriber’s only!