Read to Write

It’s a time honored cliche that if you want to write, you have to read. This point was reiterated to me the other day, when I met up with a friend of mine for coffee on Saturday.

This friend of mine, who we shall refer to as Gustav for no better reason than that’s the only name I could think of off the top of my head, was once a poet. He still describes himself as such, though he hasn’t written a word of poetry in the last ten years, not since a succession of personal tragedies gutted his soul and left him to rot in the sun. He’s a math tutor now, and lives in a building that looks like the face of a third-world widow who’s lost all her teeth.

So when we met up he asked if I was reading anything, and I told him no, I wasn’t. I’d picked up a couple of books and put them down again disappointed, and had instead been spending my leisure time hunched over a Playstation controller in company with the venerable Geralt of Rivia.

“Man,” he said to me, “You’ve gotta read White Noise.”

He’s told me this before. Probably once a month since I’ve known him, actually, now that I think about it. It’s one of a small handful of classics that he keeps buying copies of and dispensing to his students and friends like after dinner mints.

I don’t know what it is that keeps me from taking the recommendations of my friends seriously. I think it’s a reaction a lot of people have, that the more someone keeps trying to foster a band or TV show or great novel of the postmodernist era on them, the more irrationally resistant and uninterested they become. I had that problem with Breaking Bad (of all goddamn things) back when it first started airing, and oh, don’t I look the fool now.

Gustav happened to have a copy of White Noise lying around his small, cluttered apartment, and sent me home with it. He also handed me a copy of 1492 on my way out the door, muttering something about how the potato ended chronic European caloric deficits and thereby gave rise to the Renaissance, and by extension the European conquest of the Earth.

I don’t know, I haven’t read the book yet.

So I went home, got a beer out of the fridge, opened White Noise to page one, and spent the next half hour or so feeling dumb and pretentious before I put the book down again. I did the same thing the next day, and will probably do it again this afternoon. White Noise is a very good book, and there is a real possibility that it is above my intellectual pay-grade.

For example, there’s this part in Chapter 3, where the main character and his friend go to take a picture of a barn. Both men are professors, and seem so far to be walking parodies of the kind of absurdist navel gazing for which liberal arts programs are roundly, and justifiably, maligned.

The reason that they are going to photograph this barn is that this barn is famous for being the most photographed barn in America. When they arrive to take pictures, the one man says to the other, “What did the barn look like before it was photographed?”

I finished this paragraph with this light hum in my chest, the same one I got when the baby started crying at the climax of Children of Men.

“Motherfucker,” I thought to myself.

“That is fantastic.”

So I put the book down and went outside for a cigarette, and there, in the chilly drizzle, it occurred to me that despite the light hum in my chest, I didn’t actually have any idea why I enjoyed that scene so much. I went hunting for the words, the quotes, some explanation for what it was that made that scene resonate. Nothing came.

The way I see it, there is one of two things going on here.

Thing the first is that I just lack the vocabulary to describe what I feel about that scene. I haven’t actually tried to critically dissect a piece of fiction since high school. That’s not only been a while ago now, it was also only the degree of critical dissection one expects of a high school student.

Thing the second is that I am a pretentious douchebag. Thing the second is that the only reason the scene resonates with me is that I know that it’s supposed to resonate with me. That my enjoyment of the book is only surface level, shallow and false, and symptomatic only of an underlying desire to be smarter than I actually am. That I, in my own way, am every bit as much a silly, self-important navel gazer as the man who asks what that barn looked like before it was photographed.

I stood in the rain and thought about that for a minute or two, and as nearly as I can figure it, that might be the best part about a book like White Noise. It got under my skin, and not even in the way I think it was really meant to.

Or maybe I’m a pretentious, self-absorbed little shit.

Either way or both at once, it’s a very good book.


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