Hell Years: Introduction to an Annotated Bibliography

IMG_2999Reading. Reading is my comfort, my addiction, my solace. For most of my life I have been able to get lost in a book.

Get lost in a book. I never really thought about that phrase before, what it means. But I think it is apt, in the sense that I used to read to forget myself, to get lost in a narrative that was not my own.

It was the way I hid from the world. Hiding behind a book. Nose in a book. Running into fire hydrants because I couldn’t stop reading even if when the need to pay attention to my surroundings was a matter of avoiding physical injury.

Always have a book with you, I would tell my daughters. But now I am not so sure. Having a book open, and being immersed in the story on the page also has the consequence of never looking up, of keeping the world at arm’s length and never really engaging.

A book can be an escape. I know that for most of my life that is how I regarded them. But maybe you should not need to escape all the time. Maybe, just maybe, the world merits your full attention sometimes.

When you are on a bus, for example. And you notice the Eastern European widows in their black garb, and their beautifully handcrafted bible open on their lap, but then notice another book peeking out of it, one that looks a lot like a Harlequin romance.

Or watching a young woman who, I don’t know. Perhaps thinks nobody can see her. Or perhaps she just truly does not care, which are both fascinating possibilities. She is using the bus as her own personal lavatory. Watching her clip her nails. Watching the clippings float down to the rubber mat under her platform, open-toed, red heels, where they will be stepped on by countless other bus riders. And then paint them an exquisite colour, the toxic fumes hovering like a fuchsia cloud over all the passengers’ heads. The exasperating but seductive brazenness of it. Her terrible, powerful beauty I sense she seldom used for good.

I would have missed these moments if I had listened to myself and always had a book on me.

Most of my life I’ve chain smoked literature. Greedily inhaled stories, filled my lungs with them and then exhaled them, mostly to forget them as soon as they are done because I had already moved on to the next one.

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My Books. I gave them all away.

The gap between stories, that moment when I was not sucking in someone else’s narrative, that liminal space with no distraction from my own life, scared the piss out of me.

I am talking panic, pure panic. One of the first and only fights I had with J (that is until the last couple of years, of course) was when I finished Don Quixote on this tiny Greek island and had no book to read. I wanted to go straight to the nearest tourist shop where I had seen some browning Agatha Christie paperbacks (the only English books available) for sale at an exorbitant price and pick one up. He wouldn’t let me. We were young, you see. On a budget. That money could be used for a cheap bottle of wine or three. Some bread. A ticket to the archeological museum.

I freaked out. I.Did.Not.Have.Anything.To.Read. I did not know what to do with myself without a book. I was not me. I was lost.

That is what I thought at the time, but looking back, I think the panic was not because I was not me without a book, but because without a book, there was only me. My narrative. My observations. My experience.

One’s own story is always the hardest to read.

As an aside, while I was lying face down on the lumpy pensione bed, so mad I was crying, J went downstairs to the lobby where there was a small book exchange. I heard him come in the door but I wouldn’t look up. He sat down on the bed, put his hand on my shoulder and said here, “I brought you something.”

I peeked out from the depth of my panicked despair to see what looked like a severed paperback, like some bad book magician had cut the book in two and forgot to put it back together.

I took it. Half of Doctor Zhivago.

The second half.

He eventually found the first half (there was only one page missing between the two) and all was right in the world. I had the crutch of someone else’s story to distract me from thinking about my own. (Double aside- it was an awesome book. Romance! Revolution! Siberia! Trains!)

But what does that mean my story? Our story? I think it means thinking about your trajectory through this world, how we perceive it, how we feel we fit in. It also means taking the time to observe the world we are in and figuring out how we can remain ourselves while engaging with it.

Our frantic need to fill up every space of the day, our worship at the feet of that false god, productivity, is in a large part to avoid contemplation. Because with contemplation comes introspection. With introspection comes an inquiry into our own behaviour in relation to the world. And inevitably, because we are human and flawed, introspective inquiry leads to uncomfortable realizations about ourselves.

These realizations, once realized, cannot be ignored. Like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, the observing of the particle changes the way the particle behaves. Observing ourselves inevitably leads to changing the way we behave.

And change is hard.

But I digress.

Reading. Reading is what I do when I don’t know what else to do. It is my default, my go to. When my world fell apart, I, of course, turned to books.

But not in the way I did before. Not to get lost. Not to hide from the world and perfect my invisibility cloak. What had happened was too big for me to forget. My world had exploded, my heart cratered. The sun was blocked by a thick layer of dust and I was choking on it. I hovered near extinction and needed books to help me figure out how to exist again.

The biggest change in my reading habits was that I could no longer read fiction very well. I just couldn’t concentrate. My heart was too broken, too full of its own story that wouldn’t be ignored. For someone who could polish off two novels in a week, that was a momentous, and deeply scary shift.

The reading I could do was the slow, thoughtful kind. Essays and dense text that were packed with ideas and afforded new perspectives as I stepped into a new reality. The kind of reading that could not be devoured. Its edges were too sharp, its flavour too powerful. It needed to be digested, processed.

It required marginalia. How I am in love with that word. I mean, seriously. There is a word that exists to describe the notes people make in books! How awesome is that! A moment of silent awe for the word marginalia, please.

It is important to note that marginalia has the same exotic, forbidden air about it for a librarian as say, an erotic depiction of the Virgin Mary for a priest. Librarians are not a big fan of the marginalia (Officially, of course. Unofficially I think we all kind of love it). It tends to cost them money and time. It is librarian blasphemy.

I couldn’t help it. I blasphemed and began writing marginalia in my books.

I read personal essays. And, because I needed all the help I could get, because I am the kind of person that needs to know what happened, needs to know the story and understand it the way a doctor understands the anatomy of her patients, I began to read self-help books for the first time in my life.

Seriously. I opened my first book about personal growth at the age of forty. Before that, I was arrogant and dismissive of them. Felt they were there to feed off people’s insecurities and were only attempts to sell us quick fixes for success! Happiness! Fulfillment! The way diet books try to sell you the promise of a Barbie body. If I saw some self- help titles in your bookshelf, I would have been probably judging you.

I am not proud of this. I am here right now declaring that I deserve a splatting of humble pie in my face.

Still I doubt I was the only one. I think many of us find ourselves at this stage of the game with no fucking clue how we got here. And then, like amnesiacs trying to piece together our past, we start researching to see what the hell went wrong.

That is what I did. I started reading anything I could get my hands on that seemed like it could shed some light on the sudden annihilation I just experienced.

Warning: This will not be a linear bibliography. And it will probably be the most deeply uncomfortable and embarrassingly personal annotated bibliography ever. So yay for me. It is always good being a first. Perhaps it will even become its own genre…

First section: Sex.

Yeah. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

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