Lexical Undertakings - #3
Books read in May 2018
The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison
Rockhaven: A History of Interiors by Which Witch LA
The first time I sipped a drink, I was convinced I’d become an alcoholic.
13 years old and at a friend’s house -- big wooden railings, sunshine coming through old, slightly waved glass windows. Three of us sat in a circle, taking turns sipping some whiskey she’d found. The smell made me cringe. The taste made me gag. But when my sip was over, warmth bloomed in my chest, like a flower’s petals had suddenly unfolded inside me. I seized up, panicking. It was my understanding that some people, through a combination of poor luck, circumstances and DNA, were born with a small seed inside of them which, if you poured enough booze onto it, would grow into a vine that slowly strangled them from the inside out. And I knew that, because of my genetic code, there was a good chance I had one of these seeds, just waiting for me to accidentally give it life.
Spooked, I refused to have anymore, even though there hadn’t even been much of an effect. The petals shut quickly inside me and I didn’t miss them. It took me years to realize that this fear and this refusal was probably a pretty good indication I was not likely to become an alcoholic. Drink too much at times? Sure. Drink uncontrollably? Never.
That’s a boring story, about someone who drank and then stopped and then drank some more. Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath points out that this is part of the problem with talking about drinking; it’s boring and it’s all the same. Well, sort of. Stories about people who got sober and stories about people who drink responsibly are like that. But stories of epic benders, like The Lost Weekend, which Jamison describes as a story about “drinking and more of it” are interesting and all feel different, even if the ice is the same as it floats in all of the cups.
The Recovering is part memoir and part dissertation, a fascinating examination of the alcoholic writer written by an alcoholic writer about getting sober. Reading it gave me a better understanding of who alcoholics are (I had lost the only thing that made consciousness seem possible, Jamison laments at one point) and who writers are (why is the truth usually not just un- but anti-interesting? she quotes David Foster Wallace as wondering. Because every one of the seminal little mini-epiphanies you have in AA is always polyesterishly banal). As a writer, Jamison had been taught in her fancy writing workshops that a story’s originality is in direct proportion to its value to the world. As an alcoholic, hearing and telling the same story of drinking and then stopping week at AA meetings, she finds this idea simply isn’t true.
“Your story is probably pretty ordinary,” she advises readers at one point, “that doesn’t mean it can’t be useful.” I like to tell my stories. I like to write about myself. I’ve filled hundreds of pages, used thousands of breaths, spinning the same stories about myself, over and over until they are perfect. There is one thing I have wanted my entire life -- to fill a book with words about myself, my thoughts, my experiences, my opinions. And yet, sometimes I worry that it’s a terrible thing to covet. Does anyone need to read the words of another ordinary white girl? I appreciated her reminder that yes, there might be someone, somewhere who does. The belief in useful stories became the thing that made consciousness seem possible.
There was one sentence of The Recovering that stuck me like a knife. Casually, oh so casually, Jamison mentions that her drinking first started to get out of control when she was in college. At Harvard. Oooof. Suddenly my understanding of the book shifted from one thing to another.
It can sometimes feel like the only people who are given permission to write anything interesting have Ivy league degrees. Or, like Jamison, have a Harvard undergrad degree, have done the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and have doctorate from Yale. And suddenly everything I’ve ever wanted feels startlingly out of reach. When that happens, books like Rockhaven: A History of Interiors hit like bolts of lightning.
Rockhaven: A History of Interiors was self-published by a collective called Which Witch LA. After I'd ordered online, my book comes weeks later, in a hand printed envelope. I breathed in deep and held it to my chest. They had done it. They had taken a dream and had made it reality and I was astounded, starry-eyed. No ivy-league degree required. No publisher required.
The actual book is beautiful, tinged pink and filled with pictures laid carefully onto patterns. Reading it was like scrolling through Tumblr. Some people will scoff at that compliment. Tumblr, created in 2007, is one of the more maligned websites on the internet. Users on Tumblr create microblogs where, instead of being limited to just longform (like what I am doing now), they can post short quotations, snippets of text, photos, stunning artwork. Pretty much whatever they please. You can either scroll through your feed, which includes everything people you are following are posting, or you can search a specific tag and see a dazzling assortment of what users all over the world associate with sylvia plath or just married!
Rockhaven mimics the second option. A group of smart interesting women explaining what they associate with female mental illness. Some of the essays are direct in their interpretations cataloging the history of a hospital, or how hysteria came to be understood as a feminine mental disorder. Others float out, freeform, discussing their astrological signs relation to their breakdowns, or how taming hair and taming emotions seemed equally impossible to them. My favorite, titled “Marshmallow Mayonnaise” examined a grandmother’s Alzheimer's and whether her new partner, who put up pink flamingos for her, takes care of her or exploits her. The best conclusion turns out to be both. All of the authors are able to easily hold contradicting ideas like this in their hands. Some are a little too freeform for my taste and some are spuriously academic, but that’s also what the corners of the Internet I hang out in are like.
It’s fitting that this book felt like scrolling through Tumblr. The way people dismiss the site if both a cause and an effect of it being associated with women, with social justice, and with mental illness. The medium fits the message. The editors of Rockhaven successfully created a book that feels like it was born from the internet and works with it, instead of in stubborn opposition, but still preserves what I love about books. That is no easy feat. Executives at dying publishing houses should take note.
Generally speaking, I only finish books that I like. This May, I had a scattered month, picking up tons of things and then plopping them back down again. Here are some books I didn’t read this month and some of the reasons I did not.
Books started and then completely abandoned in May 2018:
Trip by Tao Lin - I had an idea after finishing The Recovering that I should try to read a bunch of books about different kinds of booze and drugs this month. Unfortunately, that fell apart about 100 pages into this. It’s simply not all that interesting to hear someone tell you about their experience with psychedelic drugs. The philosophies of Terrence McKenna were interesting but not as revolutionary to me as they were to the author. Tao Lin was incredibly meticulous as he wrote, often explaining exactly where he had read something and how much of something he had taken. I found it sort of like reading the drugged out tales of an accountant.
Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman -- This is a book written in the 1980s that became famous in the mid 2000s. The main theory put forward is that because of television every aspect of our culture is now designed to be entertaining. It’s an astute observation, the writing is clear and strong, Postman is a natural storyteller. It’s just that reading this was like watching Star Wars: A New Hope for the first time at 18. I already knew the classic, timeless parts and the details seemed like they were from (and for) another time.
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace -- I’ve read the titular essay of this before and loved it. I didn’t love the first essay, about why fiction writers like to watch TV nearly as much. I liked it, but it meandered along until I got bored and went to go pick up something else. I did decide in the middle of it though that I think my dream dinner party would include David Foster Wallace and Chuck Klosterman. Does anyone else have one of these?
Elantris by Brandon Sanderson -- This is actually one of my favorite books that I read a third of this month just because I was on a plane and then didn’t finish simply because I was no longer on that plane.
Hourglass: Time, Memory, and Marriage by Dani Shapiro -- I might come back to this one at a later time, but it’s a novel (or a memoir?) about a man and a woman who have more in common with Betty and Don Draper than I really felt like reading about this month.
I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron -- I’ve been told Nora Ephron was laugh-out-loud funny. But I found none of her thoughts on her neck, cookbooks, or purses particularly amusing or relevant to me. Possibly I’m simply not the target market of this one?
Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman -- I was actually really enjoying Gaiman’s retelling of Norse myths but then I just abandoned it for some library books that had just come in. I would recommend this to anyone looking for something easy to swim through but fascinating. I just swam for shinier seas, I suppose.
Every Day by David Levithan -- Okay, I lied, I totally finished this novel this month. It was fluffy YA that I didn’t really even remember reading until I had finished it. The premise -- there is a creature who wakes up everyday temporarily possessing someone else -- was great, but I would rather see the idea applied to any other genre. Can you imagine how cool this would be in a detective story or a political thriller?