When I’m reading, I’m not myself.
I’m not just referring to mind-melding with vivid, original characters who move through exotic times, locales and events impossible for me to experience firsthand.
I mean that in my very reading behavior, I am someone different than I am in my day-to-day life.
As a reader, I’m adventurous. In real life, I find one thing on the menu I love and order it almost every time.
As a reader, I seek out a challenge. In real life, I have neither the time nor inclination to conquer mountains, tend a bonsai garden or make artisanal olive oil.
As a reader, I love complexity, having to puzzle out “the meaning” of a text. In real life, assembling a one-tool-required IKEA end table inevitably becomes a textbook Kubler-Ross evening for me. “The 30-degree slope is actually kinda cool…I think the leg will hold as long as I don’t put anything on the table.”
In my reading life, I am not myself.
My favorite novel of 2015 (so far) hit shelves this week. While “it’s not for everybody” can be said of most books, it truly applies to You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, the debut novel by Alexandra Kleeman. To give you a taste, here are four snippets about the story from the book’s jacket:
— “A woman known only as A lives in an unnamed American city with her roommate, B, and boyfriend, C… B is attempting to make herself a twin of A”
— “A…watches endless amounts of television, often just for the commercials— particularly the recurring cartoon escapades of Kandy Kat, the mascot for an entirely chemical dessert…”
— “…fifteen minutes of fame a local celebrity named Michael has earned after buying up a Wally’s Supermarket’s entire, and increasingly ample, supply of veal.”
— “…her neighbors across the street, the family who’s begun “ghosting” themselves beneath white sheets and whose garage door features a strange scrawl of graffiti: he who sits next to me, may we eat as one.”
This, my friends, is a strange one.
While strange, it is in no way difficult to read. The plot is linear. The prose is clear and expressive, not ornate. It is also smart, incisive, hilarious, and powerfully evocative. I can’t recall a book making me so acutely aware of my physical body: how weird it is to have meat and squishy organs and viscous fluids held in place by a flexible casing of skin. Most of all, it’s an inventive examination—critique, I’d argue—of how we live today. Kleeman takes on our modern existence, our capitalist, consumerist, and mediated lives and explores (and infects the reader with) the disconnect one feels in a place and time where even the imitation of a fake is packaged as “real” and the real becomes merely a simulacrum for a fake we’ve previously been sold.
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine got its claws into me and hadn’t released me since. It subtly transformed me, changing the way I think about some things.
One of the challenges—really, the primary job—of being a bookseller is putting the right book in people’s hands. Some books lend themselves to being “right” for a larger number of people than other books do. This is why I’ve found myself talking to customers far more about Station Eleven than about Annihilation, the book that I rated as my favorite of 2014. Like You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance) are strange, at times disorienting, reads. While not particularly difficult to read, I found them a challenge to understand…to get. The assembling and rearranging and fine-tuning of an operational framework with which I could understand what’s trying to said. The slow unpacking of meaning. The rush of it clicking into place. That adrenalized “Eureka!” moment. This is clearly what I savor and seek out most in a book.
“Escape” is a word commonly applied to pleasure reading. We read to escape from the day-to-day, to be transported into another time, another place, another life besides our own. Adventure, wish fulfillment, emotional stimulus. “Escape” for me, can also apply to pulling me out of my cultural, racial, geographic, national, economic, etc. default settings, challenging me to see things a different way.
Books are a wonder: whatever we’re looking for is waiting for us in the right book somewhere.
I, too, read to be transported.
Sometimes, while transporting me, a book can change the way I see the world…the way I see myself.
Sometimes, in the process of transporting me, a book transforms me.
When I’m reading, I’m not myself. Sometimes, the “myself” that finishes a book is a subtly different “myself” than the one who started it.