“Her life was saved by rock n’ roll”*

I’ve been doing a lot of reading the last few months. And writing, obviously. Perhaps one feeds the other. A literary waterwheel, where the words are emptied out as soon as they are taken in. Not that the words being produced are anything like the ones being absorbed, at least not if I’ve chosen the right books. Which I haven’t. I’ve been stuck in a miles-long bad luck streak of subpar novels. A few have more than merited the time spent on them – Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth; We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler – but many have been second-rate or worse. Several I have given up on. Many I have given up on far too late. I used to have a 50 page rule, adopted from someone wiser than me (which doesn’t exactly narrow down the list, does it?):  if I didn’t like the book by page 50, I would set it aside. The idea being that life is too short to read shitty books, and there are actually more good books than you will ever get to before you die, so you should work that ratio as favorably as possible before your own story comes to a close.

I have strayed from this practice recently. Intentionally, I should add, but not out of any sense of enlightened purpose or intellectual rigor or dogged self-improvement. Rather, it was out of cowardice and resignation, which shouldn’t come as any surprise, nor should the ultimate revelation that this was a stupid approach. No, I stuck with these middling, meagre offerings because my life seems too long, an endless slog, a violation of the laws of physics to say nothing of the laws of decency (which I am pretty sure don’t actually exist, which maybe is part of the problem, but whose problem I am not sure about, which is also probably part of the problem). I figured that I had lots of time on my hands – so much time alone that it hollowed me out – and that I might as well fill it reading even bad books. Nothing mattered more than ticking off those minutes. Nothing mattered more than doing something other than thinking about how I was living. Or that I was living. Neither of which I feel good about.

But that was a flawed strategy. Because I wasn’t enjoying that time. And the best books actually are enjoyable. That’s why they’re the best books. Tonight I finally cast off some thick tome that I could barely stay awake for and whose characters I did not care for – resented even – to the point that I couldn’t remember their names or how one related to another. And then I picked up Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin – a book I’d been wary of due to its subject matter – and within a few pages, I was in awe. I was dumbstruck. It was fucking revelatory. The words on one page are worth all the combined words of the last 10 crappy books I’ve read. And it struck me how wrong I’d been. How pointlessly stubborn I’d been to persist in reading books I found dull and uninspiring.

And Kevin isn’t going to change my life. It’s not going to make me happy. It’s not going to bury my loneliness in some remote location and burn the map so it stays hidden forever. That’s too much to ask for (whatever the problem is, at least I understand that much). No, Kevin will function much like these albums I am writing about (one of which, Wilco’s Summerteeth, I was listening to as I read). It will allow me to appreciate beauty and artistry and skill and the divine ability of someone to do something so much better than someone else with the same set of limited materials:  26 letters in the English alphabet; 12 tones in Western music. And during that brief time, I will be able to focus on those things and ignore other things, and if the latter are never going away, well, neither do the former have to. It’s not much, but it’s not nothing either.

*Lou Reed

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