Lately I’ve been thinking about how certain books become inseparable from the places we are when we read them.
When I think of Keats, I remember sitting on a train speeding through the green blur of Long Island, and a deep blue collected poems from the 1920s with toast-colored pages that fell apart as I read it. First his name flaked off the spine, then the covers dangled by a few desiccated threads. I kept trying to glue the little book together, tape it and make it whole. But each time I tried, I thought of Keats’ epitaph, still my favorite of all time:
Here Lies One Whose Name was Writ in Water.
Peanuts. Mad. “Lennon Remembers.” “The JAWS Log.” All the beloved books of childhood I read while reclining on a scratchy green couch with an errant spring that used to burrow into my spine. I kept having to shift my body to get comfortable, to stay in the book. In those moments when I briefly surfaced from the page, I noticed how having read seemed to have changed the world slightly. I could see a new sharpness in old things, in furniture and wallpaper. I noticed how the old colored bottles on the fireplace, the colonial figurines, seemed to become more “themselves” somehow, to assert their thing-ness with greater authority.
Baudelaire Selected Poems: First read summer 1985 Plum Island Massachusetts. I remember putting a star next to “The Albatross” in the table of contents. Sand in the pages. Book held against the blinding, magnetic sun. Every so often I’d stop reading and stare at the cover: two sea deities joined in salty, tentacled union in the midst of a crashing wave. I’d watch the calm, dark Atlantic. No sea gods. No crashing. No ecstasy. Just a guy with a mullet and a metal detector silhouetted at the surf’s edge.
So many times I loved a book so much I couldn’t bear to part with it. Equal parts passion and sloth. Okay, I told myself, you have to go for a walk. Bring the book if you have to, but you’re going outside. All the way up the mountain trail to the Hollywood sign, I held the fat paperback (The Collected Stories of John Cheever), but didn’t open it. Then finally, on the long way down, I couldn’t wait. I read as I walked down the trail. I knew I looked stupid, but I had no idea it would anger anyone. “Look at you,” the hiker said as he passed me, “you can’t even appreciate nature. Pathetic.” Was this true? Was reading while one walked a sign of moral weakness–a declaration: I need a constant filter, an intermediary to block or translate the world? I wondered about my innate inability to relate to nature on its own terms. Even though I grew up in the country, I still can’t identify many trees. The present always reminded me of the past. The actual seemed an echo of the fictional. New Hampshire was Narnia. When I smelled the lilacs, I loved them. When I found a cellar hole in the woods, I felt fascinated and afraid. But Frost’s line about the abandoned house that had become a “belilaced cellar hole” is more vivid to me now than either the smell of those flowers, or that dark empty place in the earth.
In 1986, I went with my father to Walpole State Prison in Massachusetts. Dad was interviewing William Douglas, a former Tufts anatomy professor who’d become obsessed with a prostitute named Robin Benedict and eventually bludgeoned her to death with a sledge-hammer in 1983. He threw her body in a dumpster in a Rhode Island shopping mall. My father was going to interview Douglas for the Boston Herald. In the news, the story sounded like a weird fable: “The Professor and the Prostitute.” The papers used words like “obsession” and I remember thinking it was so strange that Robin Benedict had been a graphic designer and a prostitute.
I brought a copy of “Dracula” to the prison with me. I remember watching my father disappear with a prison guard behind sliding metal doors. I had to sit in the waiting room with “Dracula.” I kept trying to concentrate on the book, but all I wanted was to watch my father ask a murderer a series of questions. I remember returning over and over to a description of a carriage on a rocky road and Lucy, pale and vampiric on her deathbed, but her pale face kept giving way to William Douglas, his big professor glasses, and how rodent-like and sweaty he looked in the newspaper photos. The contempt I felt for him as a teenager seemed an indictment of his ugliness as much as his evil. At 19, the silver-fanged monsters of imagination were more sympathetic to me—or at least more beautiful.