This is the inaugural column in Reading Room, a biweekly collective column on reading and life. The column will go in rounds, with the four contributors each responding to a prompt chosen by the group. The first prompt is What kind of book would you most like to read at this moment? The order of the columnists on this round will be: Sarah Chihaya, Merve Emre, Kamran Javadizadeh and Timothy Aubry.
We started talking about this column in the distant past, which is to say, late January. What a nice thing to do, we thought; we’ll make a little space to read together, a space we could share with other readers and writers. The idea was to make a place for the often unpindownable thoughts and feelings we had about books, and about ways of reading, that weren’t always welcome in our lives as professional critics and teachers. We’d call it “The Reading Room.”
I’d thought that a good prompt for this first round would be something simple: “What kind of book would you most like to read at this moment?” The question is a general one, but its specific phrasing comes from Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979, trans. William Weaver). In it, the well-read love object Ludmilla is always able to articulate her specific desire for different kinds of books, in delicious terms that make me want to read just that kind of book, too. “The novel I would most like to read at this moment,” Ludmilla explains early on, “should have as its driving force only the desire to narrate, to pile stories upon stories, without trying to impose a philosophy of life on you, simply allowing you to observe its own growth, like a tree, an entangling, as if of branches and leaves…”
If you’re familiar with Calvino’s book, you’ll recognize its own contours in this wish; this novel, whose piled narratives do indeed grow “like a tree, an entangling,” is driven less by the narrator’s desire to narrate and more by Ludmilla’s changing desires about what she wants to read. I liked the idea of starting off with Calvino because If on a winter’s night begins with the premise of direct address between reader and text. Written in the second person, the novel speaks to “You,” the Reader, and makes you consider what kind of book you’d actually like to read at the moment. I like the way Calvino works the crowd here, because it’s kind of how I imagine this collective column working: the writing of my own entries seems less exciting to me than the reading of yours.
To be honest, for a literature professor I’m actually pretty bad at telling people what I’m reading—my mind just goes blank, even if I’m holding the book in question—or worse, what I’m looking for in a book. But I love to know what other people are reading, and I love to ask them about what they’re looking to read. I have way more questions than answers: How do you choose a book to read? Do you want a book to be chosen for you, or do you want to stumble across it yourself? Would you prefer to seek it out? If you prefer your books chosen, do you want a book to be thoughtfully selected, inscribed and given to you by someone you love and trust? Do you want a book to be recommended to you by someone whose taste or intellect you admire and envy? Do you want to read the book that everyone’s reading right now, or one of those ones that nobody’s reading but should be? Do you want a book that will instruct you, or seduce you, or alarm you, or delight you?
Even for those of us who critique and recommend books for a living, trying to answer these questions can be surprising and sometimes unsettling. It means having to take a close look at your most intimate, inexplicable cravings and kinks, as well as your political desires and insecurities, and the way you understand your position in the moment you’re living in. You can want to read a book that fills in a certain kind of blank, or that creates another. You can want a book that teaches you something new and difficult, or confirms what you already think you know. All of this says something about you—if not about who you are, at least about where you are right now.
In response to all of this cute pop-psychoanalytic musing, I had planned to say a few soul-searching things about the book I’m looking for but can never exactly find, as a certain kind of Asian-American reader looking for a certain kind of Asian-American novel, some of which exist and many of which have yet to be written. But that was then! Thinking back and typing this all out now, it feels stupidly indulgent to think about the old days, like two weeks ago, when choosing a novel to read next felt consequential on even the personal level, much less any scale beyond that.
I’m guessing that some of you will disagree, and say that choosing and thinking about books is of particular importance right now, in our widely distributed solitude, when art is supposed to sustain us, or whatever. Literary quarantwitter is full of lists of books to read to feel better or at least different, books to read to comprehend this incomprehensible situation, books to read to escape, et cetera. I’m really not interested in these lists, or rather, I can’t make myself be interested in them. Though I’m usually a voracious reader, I’ve found it impossible to work up an appetite for fiction over the last week, something that’s only happened to me once before, in the aftermath of a different kind of crisis, which involved a different kind of forced isolation. Looking at these two moments together, I’ve come to realize that even though reading is technically an activity you can only do by yourself, it’s an activity that, for me at least, is profoundly social. And as a result, this socially distant moment is making me feel equally distant from books.
Talking to Merve yesterday about this feeling of readerly loneliness, I realized that the kind of book I really want to read right now is a book recommended in the heat of conversation, by an excited friend. Or rather, what I want is the experience of walking around, or having a coffee, or being on the subway with that friend and seeing them get worked up about trying to remember a title or an author, an excitement that seems to spark in the air between us and catch in me, too. Does that make sense? Sure, this can happen over FaceTime or on text, but it’s not quite the same. There’s something almost palpable about those moments of intellectual and emotional connection; they always make me feel a little pop of joy in my chest in knowing that I’ve been swept up into the orbit of someone else’s mind for a second.
Imagining the kind of book that could make me want to read at this moment, I wish I’d kept better track of the books suggested to me in that way. I’m desperate for a retroactive spreadsheet of novels, poems, essays recommended to me over the last ten years, by whom, when and for what reason (a list of reasons that would be as hilariously varied as the texts themselves, I’m guessing). If I had this nonexistent list, I’d be ridiculously excited to start reading, so I could start texting friends out of the blue to say, Hey! Remember that thing you recommended to me like four years ago, that one time we, you know, whatever? I finally read it, let’s talk! I love the idea of this kind of friendship ambush—in this time of endless bad surprises, the delightful surprise of someone telling you that they care enough about you to not only ask if you’re okay, but to remember something you said in passing four years ago seems almost magical to me. Sitting alone in my apartment, somewhere in week 2 (or is it 3?) of isolation, I feel like an infant, craving skin-to-skin contact—but reading a book recommended just for you by a loved one can be its own kind of contact, and to respond to that tender touch with your own thought is, too. But alas, I’m not a good writer-down of things in general, and I only have a random smattering of notes in my phone, with parts of titles and misspelled authors’ surnames.
When I started this entry, I’d been wary of the tone-deafness of pontificating on my small and particular troubles with books, my small and particular loneliness—even guilty about it. Now that I’ve written it out, though, I’m actually feeling more optimistic. What I’d really love most right now is for this column to be a place where we can all meet to share and suggest things, and hopefully also get other people to do the same. Thinking about that, and imagining new ways to discover things and have them discovered to me through you all, seems like a good project for this moment, even if it’s an inconsequential one.
Art credit: Torajirō Kojima, “Woman Reading,” 1921