Between November 2004 — when I reluctantly settled on “blogging” and still could defend placing the neologism in quotation marks — and today I’ve discussed books maybe a dozen times if I’m feeling generous (I won’t count book reviews for various publications). A laughable development. My posts would adduce a deep love of music, film, and history, and I’d like to think a few of them provoked thought as much as they gave me pleasure in the act of writing them; but I’ve done you and myself a disservice by concentrating on those three subjects to the exclusion of the most consumptive, rewarding, and numinous of my activities. “Numinous” is a pretentious way of describing a reflex as involuntary as scratching my nose or smirking anyway.
Long before I became aware of my sexuality I knew I was queer. Reading separated me from my friends. Not because it encouraged isolation — far from it. Books strengthened my interest in people. I craved relationships that matched the tension and ardor with which Woman in Love, Wallace Stevens, Harriet The Spy, and Henry James filled finger-stained afternoons and frustrated hurls against the wall (the books, not me). With some confidence I can assert that no relationship in my life remains as monogamous, “fulfilling” in that crap pop psychology manner, and stable as that with my books. If a bond exists between me and friends, family, and lovers, I’m able to experience it as such because of what novels have taught me. Make no mistake: reading cultivates a ruthless interiority. Not introspection — a good reader gravitates towards situations and fellow humans because it is natural. And forget this “edification” twaddle — reading doesn’t make one a Better Person, it forces one to confront squalor and one’s own cowardice. There is the paradox: by reminding us of our ourselves, reading demonstrates the comity between people.
So it was with regret and embarrassment that I noticed last night how closely my situation mirrored Gurov’s dilemma in Anton Chekhov’s wondrous short story “The Lady with the Little Dog”: that “everything in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people.”And make no mistake: a love of reading is a queerness. In this and this only is a love of reading similar to that other queerness: as the act of reading, thanks to Kindle and iPhones, becomes what Chekhov calls “one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know,” the essential mystery — the privacy — of the union between book and reader remains an enigma, and thus it should remain. At best it provokes good-natured amusement, as when colleagues on my morning intercampus shuttle ride remind me, for the hundredth time, how strange yet “admirable” reading at eight in the morning is, especially when one can be sleeping or looking out the window (Florida is a very flat place). But every time I feel the nudge from one of these sweet, genuinely curious people I shudder, slightly, reminded of the frowns and — yes — unintended condescension from teachers and relatives who at one hand praised reading as a A Good Thing yet sought to contain it, as if I carried an airborne contagion.
I meet more well-meaning people than philistines in my line of work, unfortunately. Even daily, away from academe. No remark pisses me off so much as when one of them calls reading a “hobby,” “something to pass the time,” “what a great way to relax.” How can it be? As cranky and awful as Theodor Adorno could be, he got this right:
Making music, listening to music, reading with all my attention, these activities are part and parcel of my life; to call them hobbies would make a mockery of them. On the other hand, I have been fortunate enough that my job…cannot be defined in terms of that strict opposition to free time, which is demanded by the current razor-sharp division of the two. I am however aware that in this I enjoy a privilege, with both the element of fortune and guilt which this involves: I speak as one who has had the rare opportunity to follow the path of his own intentions and to fashion his work accordingly.
Cliche (“part and parcel”) aside, this is admirably straightforward and humble. It acknowledges the limitations of others judging him, and pleads for no special treatment. It comes off rather better than “How Should One Read a Book?,” Virginia Woolf’s manifesto collected in The Second Common Reader, wherein a valedictory imaginative recreation of the bliss awaiting bibliophiles depends muchly on angels, Days of Judgment, and St Peter for my taste. Better is the rhetorical question she poses: “Are there not some pursuits that we practice because they are good in themselves, and some pleasures that are final?”
In short, I don’t want to reduce reading to a nutritive act, as parents and educators do. Nor do I intend this post as a manifesto, although undoubtedly that’s how it’ll get read — that’s how I’ll read it tomorrow, with a sigh. See it as a reminder of the hole at the center of this cybernetic attempt to explain my reactions to certain stimuli. If I’ve omitted discussion of books, blame humility, and the problem of selection. I’ll start writing about more of them. To share the queerness is not to relinquish one’s share in it.