The other day I received one of the greatest emails I have ever received in my life:
My name is Jen and someone here at Litquake came across your blog. Litquake is doing a fabulous fundraiser next Friday in which Litquake will be hosting its first ever singles event.
In addition to inviting hundreds of literary singles to mingle and cavort, we’re presenting a literary interpretation of the old “Dating Game” show – with un-coupled gay, lesbian, and hetero authors as the objects of desire. Each contestant will compose 2-3 literary-type questions. (i.e. What famous fictional character are you most similar to? Elizabeth Bennet? Lolita? or Lisbeth Salander?).
Would you like to participate? If so, you would earn two free drink tickets and a possible date!
Feel free to ask me any questions, and thank you so much!
If you follow the link (assuming that I actually finish this blog post before Friday the 20th, which is not likely), you’ll notice that, as suggested from Jen’s email, Litquake (SF’s largest annual literary festival) is holding a “Dating Game”-style event for prominent SF-based writer. In other words, somebody out there thinks I am a prominent SF-based writer. This is made all the more flattering by the fact that Jen herself is actually a prominent SF-based poet.
I wrote back:
I would totally LOVE to be your bachelor #3, but unfortunately, next Friday is the night of the Lee Fields concert — he’s kind of like the musical version of the Dating Game, assuming that the Dating Game ends with making out hard. Nonetheless, it is truly an honor to be considered in the same pantheon of SF literary hotties as the Adonis-on-earth Evan “Bull Nuts” Karp and reknowned sex kitten Wendy “Maybe It’s Maybelline” Merrill. It looks like it’s going to be a fabulous event (and for the record, I’m kind of a cross between Raskolnikov and Portnoy, and I’d dump Jane Austen, fuck Maya Angelou and marry Margaret Atwood).
We emailed back and forth a bit more, and Jen informed me that the women of Litquake requested that I sell my Lee Fields ticket on craigslist and attend their event instead. Although very flattering, I’m still declining the offer. Admittedly, there’s a little fear of missing out (or “FOMO,” as it is sometimes called) involved; I have a vision of 70 year-old me, sitting in my apartment all alone and unloved, thinking, “damn, if I had only gone to that Litquake Dating Game, I might have found true love. Instead I’m sitting in my apartment all alone and unloved, naked, eating Lucky Charms and playing Super Mario 3 on my old-school NES from the 80s. The 1980s.” Actually, that doesn’t sound all that bad.
The email from Jen, with its literary undertones (or undertones that kind of sort of have something to do with literature) partially inspired me to write a post about books, and the deal was sealed the following morning during a gchat conversation with a friend. We were having a heated debate over whether a Kindle was better or worse than actual bound volumes with paper on the inside, and words written in ink on the paper. I have nothing against Kindles—they’re very convenient, environmentally friendly, and I am in favor of any device that encourages more people to read. I kind of purchased one myself, in fact. Before I went on my 4-month bar trip, I bought a Kobe (sort of a poor man’s Kindle), which came with 100 books available on the public domain. I enjoyed Anna Karenina, Ulysses (well, most of it—I didn’t quite make it through the Nostos), several plays by Oscar Wilde, and a few others. When I got home, I placed my Kobe on my Ikea bookshelf, where it has stayed since. Why? Because I prefer to read books.
And now, I’m going to write about them.
I love old books. Books that have been passed around to uncountable friends and family members before finally settling on a dusty basement bookshelf, where they sit for 30 years before being discovered by the next generation, or perhaps the generation after that. The fragile pages of old books have a comforting and nostalgic smell, with a scent that reminds me of those argyle cardigans wrapped in plastic in the back of my grandpa’s closet, or a piece of decades-old driftwood found on the beach, smoothed down by years of fine sand being swept across its cracked face.
My friend argued that books get old and deteriorate, but I believe that aging makes books sacred and gives them sentimental value. Kindles are designed to be obsolete; nobody is going to still be using the same Kindle in 10 years, and probably not in 5 (or even 3). The stories in the Kindles are digital copies—they will disappear without gaining any value, sentimental or otherwise.
A book, on the other hand, is simultaneously a time capsule and an unborn child. As I write this, I’m looking at my first-edition New York Trilogy by Paul Auster from the mid-1980s. The simple design of the cover evokes a darker, pre-Giuliani Lower East Side, making me nostalgic for a time during which I never lived but with which I am strangely familiar. However, the first time I read the books, they yanked me into as-of-yet uncharted territory, as I was introduced to Auster’s genre-defying take on sinister, existential surveillance. A brilliant novel reminds us that throughout history, human beings have always experienced the same dark emotions. Let’s face it—few, if any, brilliant novels really delve into happiness.
The Auster books were a 30th birthday present from a very dear friend, which brings me to another advantage that tangible books have over their digital counterparts: you can gift them. Books make excellent gifts, although they sometimes confer upon their recipients great responsibility, or even awkward anxiety. If somebody gifts you a book, she expects you to read it. Unlike movies or music albums, a book takes time and effort to complete, and your friend will be extremely disappointed if you don’t put forth this effort. There’s a good chance that she’s already read the book, and she’s dying to discuss it with you, in painstaking detail, at some point in the near future. She’s kind of relying on you, and let’s face it, she could have given it to somebody else, but she chose you because you loved Oracle Night, so naturally you have to love the New York Trilogy, back from when Paul Auster was Paul Auster. Truth be told, I actually didn’t love Oracle Night at all as much as I loved the New York Trilogy; Oracle Night kind of reminded me of Murakami in that it involved some guy getting trapped in a tunnel right before the plot of the story just kind of disappears. I swear to G-d, that’s every Murakami book ever. I still don’t understand why I read so many of them.
I myself love gifting books, and when I read a truly inspiring book I always feel compelled to give it to somebody so that it becomes something we can share. As a result, I own very few books, and most books I currently own (other than those that were gifted to me and that I would feel guilty if I gave away) are actually not that great, as they are the books that I don’t particularly want my friends to read. I actually plan on donating most of my book collection to the Prisoners Literature Project soon, because when you are locked in a cage, you’ll probably read anything, even if it’s Stephen King’s The Regulators (which he wrote as Richard Bachman, years after everybody knew who Richard Bachman was) or Chuck Klosterman’s Killing Yourself to Live. On second thought, maybe I shouldn’t donate that one to the incarcerated.
I believe that giving books as gifts can change the world, and I have a great family story on this subject. 40 years ago, my maternal grandmother divorced my grandfather, married an Israeli man, and moved to Jerusalem to be with him. She thus became my savta (and this took place before I was born, so she has been savta to me my entire life), and received great accolades as one of the greatest English-language poets in Israel, not to mention translator to many of the most-recognized Israeli poets. She received the President’s Prize from Shimon Perez himself 6 or 7 years ago. No, really:
My savta amassed quite an incredible poetry library in her apartment. It included some classics, with a fair amount of Shelley, Keats, Yeats and Elliot, but the real focus was on the beats—after all, my savta had been at the original reading of Howl (maybe). I spent many hours devouring her collection of Ginsberg, Brautigan, Ferlinghetti and Snyder (whom was personal friend of savta’s; she had several hand-written letters from him). Maybe that’s how I became so damn cool. And of course, my savta had copies of all of her own books. Her writing truly got better with age; each new collection of her poetry was more amazing, inspiring, and haunting than the one before.
My step-grandfather, my saba, was born in South Africa and served in Italy during World War II (in Italy, not for Italy). He fought in the Israeli War of Independence in 1948 and stayed in the country, eventually joining the faculty of Hebrew University and becoming one of the foremost professors of British literature in the world. He was fiercely stubborn, quite racist against Arabs (as was par for the course for Israelis his age), a borderline alcoholic (and it was sometimes difficult to tell on which side of the border he sat), and kind of an asshole, but I still loved him nonetheless. He received the Israel Prize (which is basically the Israeli Nobel Prize) 13 years ago for his lifetime of contributions to literary scholarship (I don’t have a picture, but believe it or not, there was a time, 13 years ago, when we weren’t all carrying cameras constantly and the notion of “pic or didn’t happen” seemed absurd).
My saba had a library of his own in his study, filled with early-edition copies of the British classics: the entire Dickens collection, everything by Conrad, a ponderous, elaborately-decorated complete works of Shakespeare (of course), and everything in between. He also had a few “modern” British books (i.e, from the 70s)—mainly mysteries, but also a few comical novels (he got me to read Changing Places by David Lodge, which I thoroughly enjoyed). Of course he had his own books, academic texts on his favorite authors: Dickens, Hardy, Conrad, Woolf, Lawrence, and two others I believe. I admit that I never actually read any of his books.
When saba died in 2010, my mother and her two sisters (correctly) determined that my savta could not continue living in the apartment in Jerusalem on her own, so they moved her to a nursing home in Oakland. Two months later, my aunt returned to Jerusalem to dispose of savta’s and saba’s possessions—my savta’s mind was rapidly deteriorating, and my mom and aunts figured that she was no longer compos mentis enough to care about all of the dusty, moth-chewed crap sitting in some apartment on the other side of the world. Some clothing was shipped to Oakland, furniture was donated to the Israeli Goodwill (whatever it’s called), and my saba’s children and grandchildren claimed some of the more interesting tchotchkes, but nobody wanted the massive book collections, mainly because nobody had room in their home for all of those books.
Then my aunt had a brilliant idea. Everybody in my family had read Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life by Sari Nusseibeh. If you want to understand the story of Israel from the Arab and Jewish perspectives, please read this book, and then read A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz. Or read them in the opposite order—it doesn’t matter. Nusseibeh’s book had a particularly profound impact on us; we already knew the Oz side from talking to my saba and our myriad Jewish-Israeli friends and family members, so to read about how a Palestinian lived through 1967, 1973, 1982 and everything beyond, and still was in favor of peace, was quite incredible.
Nusseibeh is the president of Al-Quds University, an Arab university in east Jerusalem that is refreshingly progressive (to give you an idea of what that means, since 2008, Al-Quds has had a “sister university” partnership with Brandeis). All universities need books, so my aunt emailed Nusseibeh, and a day later he met her at my savta and saba’s old apartment with a U-Haul. To be clear—my aunt and Nusseibeh were not old friends, she had simply looked him up online. He just happens to be incredibly kind, charimstaic, and, like any president of any university in the world, thrilled to receive any sort of donation. Would my saba be thrilled about his personal library, which had taken him a lifetime to amass, being donated to the Arabs? Probably not, but who cares? His family certainly didn’t. I’m sure that my savta, who was a member of the ultra-left wing meretz political party in Israel, would have loved the idea of hip, bohemian Arab-Israelis thumbing through her dog-eared volumes of Michael McClure, and maybe presenting one of her own poems in an upper-division seminar.
Thanks to my aunt, Jewish Israel has given Arab Israel the gift of imagination, passion, history and emotion. This is a form of humanitarian aid for the soul. I truly believe that if everybody in the world gave each other more poetry, there would be no war. If peace will come to the area, it’s going to begin with Nusseibeh’s students at Al-Quds, so anything that benefits them brings us one step closer to lo yisa goy.* I like to think that my family’s donation is the catalyst to a new era of literary love between Israel and Palestine.
And speaking of new eras (awkward segue alert!)…
My favorite English teacher from high school had painted on his wall the Henry David Thoreau quote, “How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.” I never quite understood why this quote is not a question, but that is neither here nor there (I also never quite understood how to correctly use the phrase, “but that is neither here nor there,” but that is what it is). I think I can actually define a few of the different eras of my life through books…at least my life pre-law school, when I used to actually have time to read for fun. If there’s one thing I hate about my job (and there’s just one…), it’s the fact that I read so much at work that when I come home, the last thing I want to do is read, and thus I end up reading one book a month if I’m lucky. My work has ruined a hobby that used to bring me immeasurable joy. But that is neither here nor there, and it’s depressing me, so I think I’ll go back to talking about the eras.
It all started with Dr. Seuss. How could it not? He was an artist like none other, creating otherwise unimaginable creatures and giving them names to fit his bizarre rhyming schemes. I read every single Dr. Seuss book tens or hundreds of times, but my absolute favorite was There’s a Wocket in my Pocket. As a young boy I was scared shitless of monsters, but through Wocket, Dr. Seuss found a way to convert my deepest fears into cute, cuddly, furry, smiling blobs. Until I discovered scorpions, which still scare the bejeezus out of me to this day.
The picture book era was a joyous one–filled with trips to the children’s section of the San Anselmo Public Library, where I would sit on the huge, turtle-shaped bean bag with a pile of books about robots and dinosaurs until I had whittled down the stack to the three that I wanted to read over and over again, and would bring them to the front desk so that the tiny, shriveled, octogenarian librarian could stamp the card in the little slot glued on the inside of the front cover with a satisfying metallic “ca-chunk!” It’s truly wonderful to explore this era again vicariously through my five year-old nephew. He loves Maurice Sendak and will happily shout out Pierre’s most famous line. I like using him as an excuse to revisit Harold, wielder of the mighty purple crayon, who was kind of a hero of mine when I was my nephew’s age (much to the chagrin of my parents, who came home one day to find that I had drawn purple squiggles all over the kitchen wall. That led to a spanking, if I recall correctly). A couple of weeks ago I babysat my nephew and he asked me to read him a story from one of the Frog and Toad books, in which the two of them go swimming and Frog gets all of the animals in the forest to laugh at Toad in his swimsuit, completely humiliating his so-called “best friend.” Seriously, Frog was kind of a dick.
I don’t know how old I was when I first encountered Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic. I’m sure my parents read me all of those poems from when I was in the crib, but once I got to the age when I could read them myself, that was when I entered the next era in my life. For years, every morning I would greet my parents with, “I cannot go to school today,” to which one or both of them would respond, “said little Peggy Ann McKay!” My life-long love of poetry began with those books. Well, and I guess Dr. Seuss too. Shut up.
My “geeky dungeons and dragons-type shit” era started shortly thereafter. When I was in fourth grade, I had a horrible flu and was stuck at home for a week, and my mommy bought me the first three Redwall books by Brian Jacques. If you missed out, Redwall is kind of like Lord of the Rings meets The Mouse and the Motorcycle. The series takes place in a medieval world where the good guys—cute woodland critters (mice, otters, bunny rabbits, etc.) protect the land from the evil yucky rodents (rats, ferrets, weasels, etc.). I became as addicted to this series as kids in the 2000s were to Harry Potter, and am excited about my nephew getting just a little bit older so I can introduce him to them. Don’t worry, I’ll also give him the Chronicles of Narnia.
Fast forward to my sophomore year of high school. For my advanced English class, I read Brave New World, and my life has never been the same. Not a day goes by when I don’t think of dystopian futures. Sure, I had been introduced to the genre before (Ender’s Game, House of Stairs and The White Mountains (and the rest of the Tripod trilogy) being my favorites), but Huxley’s words registered with me and from them on, I started worrying about society’s rapidly impending demise. Are we living in 1984? Is an Oryx and Crake-style plague just around the corner (and yes, I know that MaddAdam just came out and I am super-stoked for it)? Am I a clone, like in Never Let Me Go? Is humanity just straight-up completely fucked? I ask myself one or more of these questions every single day.
I think the next book that brought me into a new era of life was Crime and Punishment, when I read it for the second time, as part of the classic “Literature Humanities” course at Columbia. I had read it two years earlier in AP English, but hadn’t cared for it much at the time. That’s one problem with high school: you read some of the most amazing books in the history of literature—To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, Catcher in the Rye, Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby—but you don’t particularly enjoy or appreciate them. Why? Because you’re in high school, and you don’t particularly enjoy or appreciate anything. Freshman year of college, you suddenly believe that you have this intense understanding fof all of the world’s intellectual and esoteric offerings. You also become more in touch with your darker side…at least I did. Raskolnikov became my literary alter-ego (finally replacing Adrian Mole, with whom I had very closely identified since I was 13).
Sadly, I don’t think I had any era-defining books between the ages of 19 and 32. Don’t get me wrong—I read a shit-ton, particularly before I started law school—but nothing really stands out as a supreme game changer. Then, last month, my sister gave me Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein, and my world has been completely turned upside down. Let’s just say that I’m returning to my dirty hippie roots, at least mentally (unfortunately, my job requires that I bathe regularly). I can’t write about this book or the philosophies it contains right now, but trust me, I will some day. In a nutshell, fuck Babylon (see previous parenthetical regarding my job). I know I’ve always felt it, but now I actually want to act on it…just give me another year or two, okay?
Although there may not have been other books that defined new eras of my life, I certainly went through a number of very important literary phases: the Roald Dahl phase (if you haven’t already, check out his short stories for adults), the Douglas Adams phase (it was mostly harmless…yuk yuk yuk), the Kurt Vonnegut phase (junior year of high school–I definitely would not have survived without KV), the Calvin & Hobbes phase (which lasted about 20 years), the Tom Robbins phase (Jitterbug Perfume remains one of my favorite books of all time), the non-fiction about Japan phase (while I was living in Japan)…I could probably write individual 7-page blog posts about the lasting effects each of these discoveries had on my life. If only I had more time, I’d start a separate literary blog (along with my separate music blog and my separate blog devoted entirely to Pad See Ew).
I want to wrap this piece up, and I end it with one last reason why books are infinitely better than Kindles. Picture this, if you will: you somehow manage to bring a beautiful, brilliant, artsy chick home. She has long brown hair that looks like it was straightened with an iron, John Lennon-style glasses (none of this Warby Parker hipster bullshit), and a jet black beret. She’s sitting on your couch, naked so her tattoo of Bettie Page posing on a spider web that extends from her upper thigh to the middle of her ribcage is exposed, with her legs crossed in such a way that you can just catch a glimpse of her pubic hair, creeping out to form a subtle invitation (okay, maybe not so subtle). She’s sipping on a glass of red wine from your most expensive bottle, which she opened while you were in the bathroom nervously looking in the mirror to make sure there were no remnants of your expensive French dinner stuck in your teeth. She’s turned off the lights and lit a few of those tea candles that you keep in the top drawer of your desk in case the power goes out. As you go back into your living room, where she sits naked (except for the beret and glasses), with her perfectly-shaped ass digging a groove in your otherwise immaculate couch, sipping on a crystal goblet of that malbec for which you played a bloody fortune, she asks, nay, begs you to read her some Pablo Neruda, claiming that his poems make her “go wild.” Do you honestly think, for even half a second, that you’re gonna get so much as a peck on the cheek from her, let alone anything else, if you pull out your Kindle?
For fuck’s sake son, you don’t know shit about romance.
* “Don’t stop after beating the swords into plowshares, don’t stop!
Go on beating and make musical instruments out of them.
Whoever wants to make war again will have to turn them into plowshares first.”