Adam’s Big Think #5: Sticking Your Nose in a Book

By Adam Katz

Do you think books mind when we read them?

Here they are carrying on with their lives, being beautiful or terrible according to how they were written, and we come along and literally stick our noses into their business. There are some people—scholars, philosophers, authors—who treat books as if they were alive. I once attended a talk at which the modernist literature professor Edward Mendelson said something like: “If you demand things of a book, you’ll never get the answers you’re looking for. You have to ask them questions and be patient if they don’t answer as directly as you’d like.” Another time I went to a book-signing and Q&A with the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and she said she does indeed have trouble writing a sex scene when she knows her father is going to read it. These two anecdotes do not make the same point, but there is a through line: books change, depending on who reads them—or who is going to read them.

But what about rereading? I pick up a book I ostensibly know the plot of already, as well as the characters. And yet it’s not the same book this time as it was the last time. I notice different things; I focus on different things; I may see pessimism where I once saw optimism, or vice versa. Sometimes the transformation is so complete, it’s tempting to think the book has changed and not I (this is to say nothing of reading a book in a different translation from last time).

There are a few books I just can’t stop revisiting. One of them is The Lord of the Rings. One is Pride and Prejudice. King Lear, The Once and Future King are two more. And two that are less popular than these others but no less magnificent, Song for Night by the Nigerian expat Chris Abani and Gora by Rabindranath Tagore. I’ve literally lost track of how many times I’ve reread any one of these books. And anyone who has taken a literature or writing class that I’ve taught since about 2014 can add one more name to the list, because I always start the first day of any class with “Reunion” by John Cheever. Yes, always. If you’re wondering why, this is why.

I could honestly write about any of these works and you’d get a pretty good idea of what my relationship with all of them is, but I’m feeling like going Early Modern, so let’s talk a walk down King Lear Lane together, shall we? For me, I can’t talk about King Lear without talking about the year 2009. I was in a serious romantic relationship, teaching summer school in Newark, New Jersey, and worried about my job prospects in the midst of the financial collapse (for you readers still in your twenties, that’s the recent financial collapse, not the current one). So one day I took a train out from Manhattan to Newark to attend a job-fair for prospective teachers, and I read King Lear the whole time that I wasn’t desperately, futilely networking. It may be that the bleakness of the story mirrored the bleakness of my mindset on that particular day, but I remember being much cheered by reading a Shakespearean tragedy in which half the named-characters get murdered and at least two others die of heart attacks.

I hear you asking why?—or how?

I think King Lear is a bit like the “magic” ring from a Jewish folktale that can make a happy person feel sad or a sad person feel happy. The story goes that a criminal can discharge his debt to society by scouring the world for this ring, and, in the end, it’s not magical at all; it’s just some old ring that has engraved around the band: “This, too, shall pass.” So. If you’re in a good mood when you read King Lear, you might find the eye-popping level of violence (see what I did there) distasteful. But if you are in a foul mood when you read it, you might end up noticing that Edmund’s last wish is to do a little bit of good. That Lear’s and Cordelia’s respective last wishes are to spend a bit of long-overdue quality time with each other. I always come away from those harrowing last few pages thinking: the future is promised to nobody. But at least we can spend as much time as we have with the people who matter to us. For Lear and Cordelia, that ends up being less than an hour. But less-than-an-hour is infinitely better than nothing, which is what they had before.

In fact, a significant number of the deaths in Lear are accompanied by a moment of redemption. Gloucester, blinded and put out of his own castle, gets to embrace one more time the child he had spurned. Lear, finally seeing that he put his trust in the wrong daughters, gets the same opportunity with Cordelia. Edmund gets to try to save some of the lives he put so needlessly in jeopardy. For all the carnage of King Lear (and there is a lot… some scenes would make Quentin Tarantino pitch a tent, provided, of course, that the actors played the scenes barefoot) it is especially moving that this is such a strong theme throughout the play: whatever time you have left, use it to try to do some good, even if you don’t succeed. I do find it unfortunate that the queer themes, so prevalent in the Sonnets, are either absent or deep undercover in plays like Lear. But that’s why we have Shakespeare’s bolder contemporary, Christopher Marlowe. Look him up some time and you, too, might make a friend.

James Earl Jones as King Lear, 1974; Raul Julia plays Edmund the Bastard

And yes, as someone who has struggled with depression, I’m mostly in a foul mood when I read that book (or watch one of the filmed versions; the two times I saw Lear played live I was decidedly in a good mood because live theater does that to people).

Anyway, when I finish reading, I usually feel at least a bit better.

Looking back, I find some more details about my relationship with this play interesting. First: it wasn’t my favorite when I first read it. Some books or plays, my first interaction with them is enough to sell me on endless rereadings. The moment I started reading The Once and Future King at age 14 or so, I was hooked for life. Same with Song for Night, which I basically can’t read without crying. Lear? It took until the first time I saw it performed before I was hooked. I was in college. I had first read the play maybe a year earlier. And now here were all these people I knew personally. Lear was played by a guy who was in the same seminar with me when we read it. Gloucester was played by the guy who lived next door to me freshman year. And so on. There were some creative touches, too, to the performance. When Regan and Cornwall went to blind Gloucester, they palmed blood-packets to make it seem as if they were really ripping out his eyes. And the illusion worked. Then the two started making out with each other right in the middle of the torture, and I’ve rarely been so creeped out in my life. This was maybe 15 years ago and I can picture it like it was last week. They got some of the blood in their mouths as they kissed. It was magnificently unnerving. #CouplesGoals. The other live performance I saw of King Lear was also really good. Lear was played by John Lithgow, whom I don’t know personally, but he did a good job, too.

If I’m honest, I don’t think King Lear is the best of the best Shakespeare ever wrote. It’s really high on that list, but for my money, the best of the best is Troilus and Cressida. But Lear is MY favorite, and I think that it’s because of those two live performances, one surrounded by friends (both onstage and in the audience) and the other so dearly bought: waking up at 3 AM and stumbling to the subway to get tickets to the last performance of the season at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater, bowled over by the talent of John Lithgow and the rest of cast, and all this taking place a single day before I moved from New York to Stony Brook. It occurs to me that if I wanted to restructure this essay a bit, I could tell you why I love my favorite books, while hardly saying a word about the books themselves; focusing instead on how they have become indispensable parts of my story. So in that way, a book is like a friend. A best friend isn’t called ‘best’ because they’re the best at something. No, it’s because they were there for you in a way nobody else was, at a time when you really needed someone (or you were there for them). And if I look over the books I hold most dear, the stories that come to mind are often my stories, surrounding these books, as opposed to the plots of the books themselves. A few examples will suffice:

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. My brother was assigned this book as summer reading when he was about 16, and he just couldn’t get through it. A book where everything is subtext can be a little much for a fidgety teenager. So we all took turns trying to read it to him. But if he was 16 then I was 12 and there is no way I was going to make any more headway into that book than he did. I re-encountered it in college and found myself charmed by its humor. Later the audiobook version became my go-to  entertainment when I was doing chores around the apartment. And as I navigated the storms of interpersonal relationships, I found myself asking more and more: What would Lizzie do? Because I admire her for standing firm. Or what would Darcy do? Because I admire him for being willing to change. So ironically, my first impression was a prejudicial one, and I have since overcome my pride and fallen in love with the book. 

Gora by Rabindranath Tagore. This is an easy one. I bought it at a second-hand bookstore in Bangalore and read it in a sleeper-car traveling from the south of India to Bombay. The person I was traveling with (and still am, in a sense) kept stealing it when I wasn’t looking, so I had to fly through it (also I flew through the pages because I wanted to know what would happen next). It actually reads a bit like a Jane Austen novel if the not-so-secret subtext to the marriage plot were focused on religion instead of economics.

The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien. This is a book I inherited my love for from my mom. She used to say that she would reread The Lord of the Rings when things were hardest because it reminded her that there were people and ideas worth fighting for. And now I use it in the same way. This book gets a lot of shit for having so many paragon-characters, but the point that that criticism misses is that the paragons are not characters; they’re window-dressing. The evil in this story may be pure evil, and the good may be pure good, but the main characters—the Hobbits—still live in a world that’s almost hopelessly shaded with grey. Yes I know I’m breaking my rule and talking about what’s in the book but it wasn’t a very good rule in the first place. While I’m on the subject, I am sad to report that the racism of the book grates on me a bit more with each reading. North and West are always good; South and East are always bad. The paragons look Teutonic and the faceless hordes of the enemy often look Middle Eastern or African. It’s a lot to overlook. I honestly don’t know why I am still ok with a book that has so many issues. I may have to make that the subject of a future essay. But anyway, now that I’ve broken my rule, I can begin talking about the books that I fell in love with as books, like Chris Abani’s Song For Night. But honestly I’m not fully sure how to talk about that one. You need to just go read it and then you’ll see. It’s not long.

Anyway, I don’t really believe that books are sufficiently conscious that they feel intruded-upon when I crack the spine and start prying into their personal affairs. But in a way, when I am reading them, mulling them over, asking them questions and being patient with the answers, I can’t help but think that they are keeping me company in the way a person would be able to do. Or that, as with any friendship, I am conversing with them; visiting with them. Books, particularly the ones that are like old, comfortable friends, can occupy that middle ground: when I don’t want to talk to a person, but neither do I want to be alone. That is a bleak thought, read a certain way, and probably makes me sound more self-centered than I’d really like. But read another way: books, especially my old favorites. keep me sane. They teach me to be a better person. And in their own way they’ve got my back.

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