For a certain sort of person, sharing a book can be as intimate and exhilarating as sharing a kiss — and as varied in its vernacular, from a drunken, late-night exhortation to crack open some John LeCarre, to an old friend gently floating the idea — across the suddenly endless expanse of a living room sofa — that you might, maybe, perhaps, enjoy a little Julian Barnes. Like a kiss, like a crush, like love itself, opening a book at someone else’s suggestion is simultaneously a solitary act and a shared one: We may travel these paths alone, but we visit common territory.
When someone you love tells you about a book that he loves, it’s an act of revelation —intentional or not — that’s as intimate and vulnerable as being handed the keys to his childhood home. He’s telling you where he’s been, but even more than that, he’s trusting you to explore it on your own, knowing your steps will fall where his once did. (And oh, the thrilling signs and wonders that attend reading his own copy of the book: There’s a strange and profound power to holding the very same object in your hands that he once held and — by the same portkey — reaching, separately but identically, the same destination.)
When I read The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen, in the year after I graduated college, I sprinted through its nearly 600 pages with a ferocity and fervor I’d never brought to a book before. In a fevered three-day stretch of pounding heartbeats and shallow breath I called in sick to work, barely ate, and hardly slept. It’s not really even right to say that what I did to the book was read; I gorged on it, I devoured it, I was a voracious, white-hot fire tearing through swaths of exposition and tangents and dialogue, blazing my way toward the end with a dizzying, explosive force.
The Corrections is a thoughtful, deliberate character study — not exactly a book that calls for this kind of visceral reading experience. But my literary fugue state hadn’t actually been driven by the story, the characters, or Franzen’s authorial voice. In fact, the emotional frenzy hadn’t really had much to do with the book at all; rather, it had everything to do with where the book came from. I read The Corrections at the suggestion of a friend — a friend with whom I was, at the time, completely in love, a shivery, resonant crush that overspilled our phone calls and endless email threads and worked its way into every moment of my life, a crush so rich that it made me fall in love, or something that felt like love, with a book he’d told me to read.
And so it was that when I was reading this novel I was, without knowing it, searching for a secret message on every page. A love scene, a family meltdown, an elegiac emotional spiral — whatever these characters did as I read, they did for an audience of two. There was me, alone in a pool of light in a dark New York apartment, and there was my long-distance crush, following the same thread but ahead of me, in a different city and a different time, a ghostly trace on every page. Whenever I fell too deeply into the book, I was jerked out again by the persistent, pleasurable thought that he’d been through this too, that he’d chewed through the same words and been pulled down the same winding narrative corridors. I found myself needing to take breaks from the novel, to physically walk away from the book and catch my breath, to let the floods of dopamine recede to a point where I could open the cover again, throw myself back in, and find out what was going to happen next.
The Corrections may have given rise to the most visceral reaction I’ve ever had while reading a novel, but it wasn’t the only book I fell for because of a crush. A survey of my reading history reveals shelves of novels that I’ve approached with degrees of urgency in direct proportion not to the quality of their storytelling, but to the intensity of my desire for their recommenders. A handsome West Coast techie gave me the cyberpunk classics Snow Crash and Neuromancer. A sweet, bearded philosopher turned me on to Michael Cunningham’s A Home at the End of the World. I picked up Gilead, the quietly luminous novel by by Marilynne Robinson, after a quietly luminous work crush stood next to me in the elevator with his (quietly luminous) Kindle screen displaying the title page. An improbably sexy Midwestern historian used his considerable romantic abilities to bring me a goodly way through the complete works of Mickey Spillane. For years, my email password was the secret wizard-name of the protagonist of a high fantasy octet a college love had read out loud to me in bed. Two separate bombastic objectivists pressed the works of Ayn Rand into my hands (one presented me with The Fountainhead; the other gave me Anthem, he was the better kisser). A devastatingly unattainable friend told me one afternoon that he just couldn’t have another conversation with me until I read John Williams’ Stoner, and so I tore through the whole book that very night, staying awake till sunrise thanks to a limerent, stimulant elation entirely at odds with the novel’s pervasive, midcentury melancholy.
Then there was An Instance of the Fingerpost, a doorstopper of a novel by Iain Pears. I’d only been dating this man for a few weeks when he gave me his own bruised copy, his face radiating a literary evangelism that by then was familiar. We may have been together for less than a month, but by the time his favorite novel made it into my hands, I knew that this man and I were in the first wisps of falling seriously, brutally in love. And as I started reading, I felt the same uncanny energy that had driven me through The Corrections flaring up.
As novels go, the two books don’t have much in common — Fingerpost is an epistolary academic thriller set in eighteenth-century Oxford, not much at all like Franzen’s sprawling portrait of upper-middle-class life in the 1990s — but on my shelf, where the two books sat side by side, their covers looked meaningfully similar: dark jackets, wide spines, stern titles in hefty white text. And maybe it’s true that I devoured Pears’ novel with less of an urgent hunger than I’d done with Franzen’s messy feast, but that’s only because the affection it was channeling wasn’t a desperate, unrequited crush; it was real, it was returned, it was less precarious, less ephemeral, less likely to float away. This was a relationship that didn’t demand the bolstering of an overlay onto the pages of a book. Between the two of us there was so much real discovery, so much story-swapping and mask-removing, that for me to read the same novel he’d read — to walk the same roads, to thrill and mourn the same highs and lows — was just one intoxicating point of intersection among a hundred thousand more.
Three years after he loaned me that first novel, when we were richly and fully in love, I packed up my home to move in with him. In the interest of keeping things light, I weeded my bookcases, and along with old college textbooks and unread remainder-bin finds, the giveaway pile reached teetering heights thanks to the collected works of faded loves: The Spillane paperbacks, the neon-covered ’90s drug romances, the maudlin dystopia trilogies, and plenty more from romantic footnotes of the intervening years, boyfriends and friends and one-night stands. Out went a pile of Korean horror-fic; out went the trio of Eastern European post-war novellas; out went the slim-spined brooding-alcoholic poems; out went the writerly histories of cod, salt, and the color mauve; out went some (but, to be honest, not quite all) of the libertarian-utopia parable sci-fi.
In the end, not much was left: just a few boxes full of the books I hadn’t read yet, and the ones I was prone to re-reading. Among them was that same copy of The Corrections, which I’ve tried to get back into again and again and again, though in all my attempts, I’ve never once been able to reignite the fire. And I kept An Instance of the Fingerpost, which in the years since it was first handed over I’ve re-read twice, each time getting deep into the multilayered story, but also spinning off on emotional tangents: How exhilarating it had felt when I first read it, those intoxicating days when I marveled at the beautiful improbability of having found this remarkable man in the world, and the intense joy of falling in love with him.
As for that man: We’ve lived together for four years now, merged our Amazon logins and our library lists, and have bought and shared and swapped so many books that the notion of separating “mine” and “his” is meaningless — he bought our copy of The Hakawati, but I read it first; we decided together to acquire a complete set of Achewood, but neither of us remembers exactly how the volumes wound up on our bookshelf; our simultaneous read of The Art of Fielding confused our multiple-Kindle account so profoundly that we had to call a truce and put both devices into indefinite airplane mode.
Of course, we don’t always read eye to eye (we might both be prone to geeky binge-reads, but I’m never going to make it through all 10 of Roger Zelazny’s Amber books, and I don’t expect him join me in my annual re-read of every single one of the Discworld novels), but we’re enough in pitch that we can count on one another to reliably deliver hardcover Christmas and birthday presents that won’t just collect dust and guilt in a pile next to the bed. Finding someone whose favorite books move me inherently — and not just because I love him — has been one of the greatest, deepest, most unanticipated pleasures of my life. And so a year ago I revisited Jane Eyre (my copy, as it happens, given to me as a gift by an earnest litigator who desperately wanted to impress me with his appreciation for Brontë) and took my cue from the book’s best line: Reader, I married him.
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