My Books Are Unsatisfied Lovers

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately. […] I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

― Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods

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Good old Henry. This is likely his most famous quote, and one that used to thrill me. No, let me be honest: it still does. If the “marrow” is the secret meaning life holds at its core, then words are the tools that crack life’s bones wide open. And me? I am studying to be a butcher.
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BUT.
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Here’s the thing about Henry, summed up perfectly in a post from the Encyclopaedia Britannica Blog:
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We have a picture of Thoreau as a hermit in the deep woods, but he lived just a mile from Emerson’s home in town, within hearing of Concord’s church bells. He also lived within close proximity of his mother, who did his laundry for him—in exchange, lest this seem a one-sided favor, for handyman jobs around Mrs. Thoreau’s Main Street home. He did odd jobs for other people in Concord as well, often in exchange for meals, and he set a good table himself, once, it’s said, hosting a supper party for twenty-five people in his small one-room cabin.
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Now, none of this makes me like Henry any less – that dinner party sounds amazing – but it does make me question how pure any high-minded endeavor can be. Henry was committed, but he didn’t really disappear into the woods at all. It’s more like he disappeared into the vacant lot down the street. He was certainly no Christopher McCandless, heading alone into true wilderness.
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Perhaps McCandless (who, for some reason, I’m too shy to call by his first name) is the shining example of commitment to a noble ideal. Of course, in his case, his search for purity cost him his life. That’s a level of commitment I will never reach, for anything, except when it comes to defending my family or the last ice cream sandwich in the freezer.
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But here it is, the unexpected twist: All these thoughts are just a rambling prelude to me admitting that, no matter how much I want the act of reading to meet some high ideal, when it comes to books… I am a skimmer.
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Yes, it’s true. As soon as I could read well enough to stop sounding out syllables while my mother pointed to them, I began to tear through books. There were SO MANY of them, and I wanted to own them all. Not the physical books (though that’s tantalizing too), but their souls. After I had read one, its ideas and truths and jokes were all mine, and I was greedy. Insatiable, even back then, when the souls I was capturing were those of Polly the Puppy and the eternally vapid Dick and Jane.
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Over the years, this obsession molded me into a genuine speed-reader. I frequently take baths and finish 400-page novels before I leave the tub. This style of reading is in no way a good thing – it’s hell on the water bill and my book budget, and it means my favorite stories end far too quickly. But I just can’t quit. When the Harry Potter series was being released in stages, I longed so desperately for each new book that, the moment it arrived in the mail, I’d go into my room, lock the door, and forgo food and sleep until I had finished it. 1,000 pages – years of J.K. Rowling’s planning and creative sweat – devoured in one night. It’s like eating an exquisite wedding cake with your bare hands – primal, immediate, inappropriate. It’s a sickness, but I do not think I can be cured.
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The worst symptom of my disease is forgetfulness. When I’m reading a book, I feel it all in the moment. I cry, I laugh, I stop mid-sentence to clutch the pages to my chest and sigh. I highlight passages and dog-ear pages, and I do occasionally take a rest stop from my breakneck travel through the paragraphs to re-read sentences that are so good, they feel holy. When I say I “skim,” I’m really only referring to skipping over descriptions of landscapes or dreadfully long internal monologues. As beautifully crafted as those gems may be, it’s the flesh I want, not the adornments. The problem is this: one vital ingredient when making strong memories is giving things time to absorb. When I close a cover after my mad dash, the forgetting has already begun.
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Ask me what my favorite books are, and my mind goes blank, although there are dozens that have literally changed my life. Press me for an author’s name or a minor character’s occupation, and I have nothing to offer you. I always remember the beginnings and middles of plots, but the endings sometimes elude me. (The ending is always the most exciting part, so I read faster than ever.)
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I can admit it: these shortcomings are the proof of a literary flake, enthusiastic but flighty. When I think of things from the book’s perspective, I know I’m not the erudite reader it must have hoped for when it was published. Still, there is some worth in feeling a woman’s breath on your spine as she exhales in wonder at your beauty. With this in mind, I press on, hoping the gentle kiss I give each book when I place it back on the shelf makes up for some part of my fatal flaw. My books may not be satisfied with the practical realities of our relationships, but at least they have known – for a time – true love.
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Ivan Kramskoy. Reading woman.

Ivan Kramskoy. Reading woman.

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34 responses to “My Books Are Unsatisfied Lovers

  1. It’s all image manipulation, if not by Henry himself, then by his publishers. One of my favs, Bukowski, wasn’t the hell-raiser he is commonly thought to be. He held jobs (albeit, terrible jobs) and submitted thousands of poems to literary mags and poetry journals. He couldn’t have sustained that kind of output if he drank as much as is commonly thought. Same with Henry. He needed an image, they gave him one.

    I have a terrible obsession with books themselves. Do you know how many books I have on my shelves that I haven’t read yet? But I need them there. I need their physical presence. e-readers are an abomination.

    Have you ever gone back and reread something you “sped” through and discovered nuances that you missed in your haste?

    • But Henry’s a touchstone for anyone in this country who ever wanted to get back to nature. He’s up there with Muir, Roosevelt, Daniel freaking Boone. When I’ve spent years thinking, “Man, that guy really got it right,” and then find out he didn’t, after all… to be honest, there’s some relief mixed with the disappointment.

      One of my big dreams is to have a library in my house someday. Floor-to-ceiling shelves on every inch of wall except where the door goes (and the inevitable bay window with a pillowed reading seat.) You know that scene in Beauty and the Beast when Beast shows Belle his library for the first time and says, “It’s yours now”? Man, that’s love.

      And yes, when I re-read, I tend to go slower, and find so much enjoyment in the little details. Writers really do create entire worlds, and the details that hold them together are astounding.

  2. Yay!! I fellow skimmer! I totally get it. As a first grader, I practiced speed reading in church–seeing how many passages I could silently read before the minister got through a boring sermon.
    Not only am I a skimmer…but a whore! I have 4 books going at once and have been known to get the characters mixed up. Oh my…I hope they don’t run into each other on my nightstand!
    You are such a talented writer, Jennie. Your intro of Thoreau in the beginning and “woman’s breath on your spine” at the end was decadent to read. I love seeing all the sides, subjects and depth with which you write. Amazing!

    • Oh yeah, I feel you on dating around when it comes to books. J is always amazed that I can hold so many stories in my head at one time… but sometimes you want to laugh and sometimes you want to think and sometimes (I don’t know why) you just want kids with cancer to make you sob.

      Thanks, new friend, for the kind words about my writing. See, we don’t skim where it counts! 😉

      • Oh my…”the kids with cancer” thing.
        I had 30 pages left in that durned thing and almost refused to finish it cuz I KNEW that there would me ugly tears.
        Glad I did…comforted my 14 year old when he came out of the movie last night 😉

  3. I’m in a Robert Reed phase, reading everything he’s penned, and its a pleasure because you can’t skim. Every sentence is finely crafted and demands to be savoured.

  4. “When I say I “skim,” I’m really only referring to skipping over descriptions of landscapes or dreadfully long internal monologues. As beautifully crafted as those gems may be, it’s the flesh I want, not the adornments.”

    I’m the same way. If the previous chapter ended in some sort of cliffhanger I’m too eager to read through those words. I need to know what happens next!

  5. LOVE. Jennie, you are a fabulous reader, skimming et al. Your passion for the material, the visceral experience of it, would do any writer proud. Life is messy, chaotic, not for the precious, but for the ones who dive in and fly. Bravo!

    • This may be my favorite comment you’ve ever left, and comments that burn the fire are always a treasure.

      I’ve only recently learned about using the word “precious” in this sense, and I love it. I don’t want to be precious – I want to be precocious.

  6. I cannot get away from the idea of you secretly visiting your bookshelf late at night, and being caught there, with a guilty expression on your face, and ink smudged around your face, and sticky fingers from cramming them all in at once.

    I couldn’t read as fast as you. I read quickly, to the point where I’m not reading words any more, really – the shape of them is lost, and the pictures and scenes of the book play on inside my mind like a movie. I know I’m not enjoying a book when all I see is the words.

    But I do luxuriate. I challenge you (gauntlet thrown and all) to read Gerald Durrell’s ‘My Family and Other Animals’ without slowing down at least a little to bask in the richness of it. Or to read Lewis Thomas’ ‘Lives of a Cell’ without stopping, mid-scentence, incredulous as you realise that new neural pathways are being formed in your brain as you think entirely new thoughts.

    • Oh, I LOVE that! And then waking up the next morning with my fingers still stained, like they are after I eat cherries. 🙂

      Yes, that second paragraph describes it exactly, actually. With a good book, it feels like you start off walking, then skipping, then running, and then you FLY.

    • It is always a win, because it’s always time with a book. 🙂

      Yours, I am savoring. I don’t say that to flatter. But I can feel Emmaline. And was that a Huck Finn reference I glimpsed?

      • Yes. Glad to hear you glimpsed it. 🙂 Lots of people read the book as a page-turner, and I think that’s great, because lots of people are looking for that when they read. But there are a lot of layers in the book. The Huck Finn reference is one, but there are many others. I’ll be interested to hear whether you catch them. 🙂

  7. Seriously, Jennie… this post made me laugh out loud and it took my breath away at the same time. Fantastic writing, you!!! But beyond that – I couldn’t help laughing because THIS IS ME. This is always how I have read! I have been utterly insatiable, trying to suck all the marrow out of my books. I speed read, too, and tear through books so fast that I catch the best ideas but not always the details. I laughed because I so understood this – devouring the SOULS OF BOOKS!! YES. The details were inconsequential in light of their essence. forget long monologues. I want the guts.

  8. Only yesterday I looked at a book that was due back at the library. I KNEW I had read it. I knew, in fact, that I’d loved it. (“The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals”, by Wendy Jones. I confess, I’m a sucker for impossible titles – but it really is charming.) I read it a couple weeks ago, admittedly while fighting off a horrible dose of flu, and I COULD NOT remember the dang story! I had to spend half an hour flipping through it and reread the final chapter, and it was just lovely, but darn! My excuse is that my brain is stuffed so full of books that sometimes they get misfiled…:)

    • That is an amazing title! Now I’m very curious to know what a “superior funeral” is!

      It’s really nice to hear that so many smart people have this same trouble. I wondered if I just had a terrible memory, but it’s as you say – it’s more about faulty mental categorization than a lack of caring.

      • Another wonderful book with an unpromising title is “The Selected Works of TS Spivet”, by Reif Larsen. But it has to be read in hard copy, because of the illustrations – a Kindle would be just wrong! I once saw about five copies sitting in the remainders section at Barnes & Noble and I bought ALL of them to share. To me, absurd titles are like code for “Here there be dragons, and also a map whereby ye might find ye treasure”.

  9. THIS IS ME! I’m so serious. I remember when The Hunger Games movie came out and the hubs and I went to see it. Afterwards, he had all these questions about the plot and wanted to know what happens next. I had very recently finished the series, yet couldn’t tell him a damn thing! Not even which guy she ended up with! But I could recall feelings and visuals about certain scenes IN MY BONES.
    Details? g-o-n-e.

    • Right?! Because – let’s be honest – even some of the best writing is just filler between moments like Katniss and Peeta about to eat the berries.

  10. I often call myself a serial reader because I love series. I will jump from book one to two to three without even coming up for air, and I tend to devour them, thus missing some of the juicy meat in the core. I met one of my favorite authors last week who just released her 10th book in a series. All of which are a min of 800 pages. When I got home, I gently placed the book on my dresser, and I greet it every morning, but I have yet to crack it open and begin because once I do, I fear I will disappear into the pages and won’t see the light until I finish it. My goal with this one (particularly because it takes her at least four years to write the next) is to savor it. To read page by page and enjoy every single word. I have very little faith in myself because I know me.

    I love this post. I love a fellow reader and lover of books, and I find it incredibly endearing that you kiss the spines. I might take on that habit, with your permission of course.

    • Oh, I know your pain. I only discovered the Game of Thrones books two years ago (they were an amazing wedding present!) and I took them for granted. There were so many, and they were so long, and surely he’d finish another one soon…

      Now I am twiddling my thumbs and grinding my teeth, waiting for George Martin to work his magic.

      Please do kiss spines, gorgeously sentimental sister wife! I share books around a lot and – this might be gross to some people – it pleases me to know a little bit of me (yeah, I mean skin cells) literally goes with them.

  11. I take forever to read a good book . . . because I use guys like Thoreau only as a trail guide on a very long wilderness trip of my own. . . .

    My few favorite books have gone uncompleted since the seventies . . .

  12. I’m the opposite of you when I read books. Slow and deliberate and so thoroughly moved by the end of it, I can’t pick up another in a while (unless it’s a series, of course). It means I don’t read anywhere near enough, but somehow still manage to forget the names and details. Digested til it’s part of me, then gone.

  13. I have been a lifelong devourer of books. I would stay up all night to finish a novel, deliberately not looking at the clock bc I did not want to know what time it was. Many times I would pick up a novel at the library, get partway through it and then realize I had already sped through it, so fast that I did not recall how it ended. I only learned how to moderate my rushing reading style when I read Reading Lolita in Teheran. Now I have more than just the roadrunner speed when reading!

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