Most books contain at least one terrible thing, though they usually hold many, and some carry inside of them previously unthinkable tragedies, holocausts, decimations, and heartbreaks. To read a book is to acquire the manifest of a ship full of trouble. Books hold perversions and prejudices and are as ample as the law as containers for murder, heresy, and lust. Books do worse than contain the worst—they expose it in themselves. They unravel. They self-defeat. They disappoint, like when as a child I read The Bible straight through and concluded that I could not believe in a religion whose god had such inconsistent literary taste. Books are lurid and private and heavy. They devour time, disrupt space, distort chronologies. The good ones haunt more than ghosts, and decades after reading a book, I might still recall its events in a fugue as if I had married Jo March’s German philosopher or drowned with my brother in the flooding River Floss. Books ruined my life, and I love them.
I love the ecstatic absorption that comes with reading, the self-annihilative surrender to the dead or far away, the luring and the transporting and the cathecting, but like a lot that I love, none of these things are all that edifying. If a book is promising, I read it in a bathtub full of hot water and soak for as long as possible. This is as if introducing amniotic fluid to a library: reading in the bath I am revising my fetal ignorance, for in the beginning I knew nothing. I was born woefully under-read.
I have no honey-laced feelings about that. We were all once babies and small and though we were not stupid, we behaved stupidly, unaware of all that governs human life. I trusted my senses and, with them, the world for when I had not yet learned to read—the first year, and the second, and well into the third—I knew nothing about the contents of books firsthand except their surface phenomena and alphabets. Eventually I learned enough to know that to be a child was a condition that required a remedy. I studied letters until they became words. I learned to read, and with it, learned the species disaster: literacy was the remedy for childhood.
I read too much—everyone agreed—and in this too much of library books, newspapers, and product packaging, I learned that reading could make a person (me) isolated, abstract, and subject to ridicule. I learned more, too, like how a person reading around other people can make them feel lonely and slightly terrified. I understand, too, that a person who is reading—particularly if they are a woman—is most often a person neglecting someone or something, all of us like the readers in Courbet’s paintings whose chemises fall off their shoulders, whose shoes fall off their feet, whose hands touch their faces absently and cease, for a time, all work.
But as bad as reading has been for me, reading is not merely the private amplification of the human worst. Reading is not only escapism and militant solitude and everything shirked—that is, reading is not an act exclusive to words and books—and a person can also read the patterns of migrating birds or the lines in a soon-to-be-lover’s palm or the buds of oak trees or the damaged look in an eye or the danger headed this way or the people amassed in the streets. The world existed before books, and it always exists outside of them: that is, how a person should read is how a person must read, which is at least in duplicate, both always in this world and looking for another.
This is the fourth in a four-part series called 'How Should A person Read?', edited by Khalid Warsame and published in The Lifted Brow #34.
You can read part one and part two here and here.
Get your copy here.
Anne Boyer is a Kansas City-based poet and essayist, and a professor at the Kansas City Art Institute. Her works include The Romance of Happy Workers, My Common Heart and Garments Against Women.
Loveis Wise is a freelance illustrator from Washington, DC now residing in Philidelphia, PA.