Wednesday, September 11, 2013

How You Find Books, How Books Find You

I've just finished up my reading for the debut authors panel (much more about this later) and though it was, overall, a lot of fun, and though I would absolutely do something like this again, whether its reading for a prize or for acquisitions, the last weekend was a bit of a drag. I had read all the books I liked (much more on them later) and was reading books I didn't like to figure out which ones I disliked the most in relation to each other. I was weighing flaws rather than joys. It is the exact kind of toil that brings with it the extra frustration of constantly reminding you what you could be doing instead More specifically, while sorting these last few unfavored books, I couldn't stop myself from pining for the books I could have been reading and/or writing.

The week before Melville House sent me a copy of The Haunted Bookshop . An exuberant celebration of books and bookselling. There is a beautiful quote on nearly every page about the power of books and the unique joy that comes from being the last link in the bucket brigade that gets the book from the author's head to the reader's hands. I've been reading it with a constant smile. About three pages in on Sunday night, after “finishing” the last of the books I didn't like, I said to myself, “Isn't it amazing how the perfect book can find you at the perfect time? What an amazing fucking world?” And The Haunted Bookshop is the perfect book for me for right now, obliterating any trace of frustration and exhaustion by shouting at the top of its lungs “BOOKS FUCKING RULE!”

But what are the odds really? Out of all the books in the world, all the books in my apartment, all the books in my need-to-read-this-next pile, what are the odds that I would find the perfect one for the perfect moment. Or, more to the point, why is it so common for something so unlikely to happen. In following books on social media, recommending them in the store, and reading them myself, the book we need, against the statistical odds, often finds us when we need it.

To me, this phenomenon reveals, perhaps the most powerful and in some ways paradoxical trait of books; despite being the exact same words for every reader, every time they are read, they are almost magically flexible. It's an act of quantum tunneling, in that, as we read, books can reach into our minds, find whatever it is that is occupying them, and seamlessly incorporate those occupiers into themselves. To continue with the quantum imagery, I've always imagined books as energy fields, fields of potential within fixed boundaries, and as quantum particles acquire mass by passing through the Higgs field, meaning is created when minds pass through these fields of potential meaning. Books themselves are meaningless, but they contain the potential for infinite meaning.

Let's think about this from the other direction, what are the odds that, given I know what I like to read and are pretty good at identifying those traits in books I haven't read, every single one of the books I might have picked up next would have been the perfect book at the perfect time? It could have been Shantytown by Cesar Aira, in which he turns his imagination, wit, and playfulness on the urban noir. It could have been Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball. Ball is one of my favorite contemporary writers and, like Shantytown, it leverages Ball's unique and innovative imagination to examine a dark and perplexing crime. This is his first book that is getting the full publicity support of his publisher, including a national advertising campaign and a hardcover release, so could be the work that turns one of my favorites into a superstar. It could have also been The Hanging On Union Square, a wildly inventive originally self-published novel of leftist politics in the Depression written by a Chinese immigrant that includes, as kind of an epigraph, snippets from its many rejection letters. Of course, it also could have been Seiobo There Below, the new Laszlo Krasznahorkai that brings his endless sentences and even endless-er paragraphs from the rain-drowned misery-drenched Hungary of Satantago to a Fibonacci sequenced story of ancient Japan.

There was a lot of conventional submissions to the panel, books that were competent executions of old tropes, tired plots, and exhausted characters. There were a lot of solid opening chapters (you know, the chapters that convince editors to acquire the book and readers to buy it) followed by sputtering plots, un-taken twists, un-challenged assumptions, un-asked questions, leading up to a final and resounding, “OK, that was a book, so what?” There were a lot of books that were a year's worth of rewriting and editing away from actually being pretty damn good, maybe even special, but since so much of the book buying world doesn't seem to realize editors need to eat too, and really the bottom line difference between an OK book and a great book is negligible, they're going to be published without that year's work. As readers of this blog know (Hi, Mom.), conventional is not really how I prefer to roll.

Given my state of mind, it is actually likely that its motion through any one of the fields of potential presented by these books would have felt perfect. And I wouldn't have know how extra-super-perfect The Haunted Bookshop is for this moment, because I wouldn't have read it in this moment.

There is a way to misconstrue my point and conclude that the reader is the ultimate and primary source of meaning in the reading experience and that the book itself, really doesn't matter all that much. I've seen “readers” argue this point, essentially destroying the very idea of criticism and quality. If only the reader counts, then Stephanie Meyer is just as good a writers as Jennifer Egan. (Since Meyers writes entertainment and Egan writes literature it actually isn't accurate to compare one to the other, but it tends to be the Meyers supporters who argue against the idea of quality in books rather than for Meyers quality as entertainment, that push this idea, way, way too far.) But if you've ever said “I really wanted to like this book,” or “I really didn't want to like this book,” you know the book counts. It is not just a conduit for the reader's entertainment or imagination but a participant in the creation of substance.

The way I see it, this inability to extract the influence of your own mind from the influence of the content of the book on a particular thought and emotion is exactly why reading is so powerful. Something is created that is unique and shared; unique to your own thinking and shared by everyone who reads the book. The most powerful influence on your own experience is, somewhat tautologically, your own mind, and yet sometimes, books are even more powerful than that. They need your mind for meaning, but can determine what stays in your mind after it has passed through the field. And if you remove the influence of the substance of books, if you take my belief that readers often make their own perfect books out of the books they happen to have on hand too far, that power is erased. Books are important to us, in part, because some books really fucking suck, even if we ultimately and definitively cannot prove what it is exactly that makes them suck so fucking much.

The story of a perfect book for the perfect moment is also a story about people. In this case, it's a story about me and a story about Christopher Morley. But it's also a story about Dustin from Melville House who sent the copy to me (and, wisely I think, probably just about every indie bookseller he knows). And it's about how I came to be on that mailing list, which is a story of reading, writing, and Porter Square Books. Which is also a story about how my partner and I ended up moving to Boston, which is also a story of how my partner and I got together. Jumping back to the nearer past, it's also about the Indies Introduce panel, which makes it a story about my blogging and social media stuff, for Porter Square Books, which gets at some of the other things I've mentioned, but also, how I read books and how I write about books, which is its own story of other books and professors and friends and book clubs. Perhaps the most powerful aspect of reading the perfect book is not the moment itself, but how that moment unfurls your life before you as you read. When you read the perfect book, you also read your life.


  1. Josh, this is a great essay. I think you should try to get this published.

  2. I would never say that Stephenie Meyer and Jennifer Egan are similar writers, but I don't like the implication that entertainment and literature are mutually exclusive. Perpetuating that false dichotomy in this climate, where interest in longreads of any sort seems to be waning, will just lead to more people abandoning books altogether.

    1. Thanks for the comment, jimmie. To me, the difference between entertainment and literature isn't based on the quality of the books, but on how they are best used by the readers. Books that are "literature," provide the most powerful experience to the reader, when the reader is an active participant in the creation of meaning; exploring implications, examining images and metaphors, and using the words of the work to think about the world beyond the book. Books that are "entertainment," provide the most powerful experience when the reader gives themselves over to the book and passively enjoys whatever emotions the book generates.

      These distinctions aren't absolute; works primarily of entertainment can have enough substance in them to make you think about the wider world and works primarily of literature can reward readers with the same kinds of emotions and experiences as entertainment, but the distinction exists. And I think, even if post-modernism and deconstruction have shown the dichotomy ultimately to be "false," I think the experience of reading is stronger with it in place.

      Your comment brings up a ton of other issues around reading, including how literature is taught and the fact that the same work can be either entertainment or literature depending on the state of the reader, but I'll conclude with one more important point. Distinguishing entertainment and literature doesn't inherently elevate one over the other. I know the terms come with a lot of cultural baggage, but they're still the most accurate terms I can think of. Literature is not better than entertainment, it's just different. Thanks again for taking the time to comment.