"I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free."
— John Ashbery, "As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat"
May I confess something? I've been cheating. In the morning, after taking Shazam for his predawn walk in the park, I've been reading. Books. Lots of them. Instead of going to the gym or driving straight to the office to get a jumpstart on the mountain of work that refuses to finish itself when I'm not there, I lie down on the couch with a book—sometimes for a whole hour! If Shazam is so inclined, he'll join in, crawling on top of me and burrowing his cold, wet nose in my armpit before falling asleep. (Which is totes adorbs, as the kids say, if they still say such things like "adorbs" as an insufferable, truncated form of "adorable." Suffice to say, everything our dog does is super-cute, same as yours, same as everybody's.)
The reading-as-cheating phenomenon is new for me. Ever since I discovered Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as a preteen, I've been a voracious reader, devouring most any book I found in my path—The Secret being one notable exception—from the detective novels of Raymond Chandler to the 19th-century European realists like Zola and Flaubert to the whole of 20th-century American literary fiction (Hemingway to Franzen, say) to nonfiction books of all kinds along the way and some poetry as well.
Our house is full of books I've spent the past 25 years acquiring, first in college, spending half my precious work-study paycheck at Ariel Booksellers in New Paltz. (The other half being spent on weed and beer, of course.) In school, a professor would turn me on to an author I'd never heard of—Thomas Mann, for instance—and then I'd go down the rabbit hole, checking all of Mann's books out of the library and skipping class for a week to commune with the books. Looking back, it was like some of those romantic trysts that overtook my life completely, obliterating normal routines like sleep, eating, and attending class. I'd walk out of my room after three days, sated as a satyr, dazed as a newborn, and clutch at the dissipating fog of wonder. I've had similar time-destroying affairs with T. C. Boyle, Don DeLillo, and Joan Didion, to name names.
Living in the city after I graduated, I couldn't pass by a sidewalk bookseller without buying a few things. And this happened every day. I ended up owning two paperback copies of a (I assume) relatively obscure book-length sociological study, Suicide & Scandinavia. I never got around to reading either copy. In my years on staff here at Chronogram, I've accumulated thousands more books—we receive a dozen or so in the mail each week—and I've read quite a few of them.
But in the past five years, my readings habits have fallen off precipitously. I've become one of those "vacation readers" who saves up books for some mythical point in the future when I'll have unlimited, uninterrupted time to read. It's hard to pinpoint how it happened, actually, because there was no definitive break. I didn't wake up one day and say, "Screw reading!" It's just something I lost touch with over time. Which reminds me of the line from The Sun Also Rises when one character asks another how he went bankrupt. The financially ruined man replies: "Slowly, then all at once." I lost my reading habit and picked up a gym habit. And a constant smartphone-checking habit. And a Netflix habit. My non-reading routines—perhaps they might even be called "anti-reading routines"—kicked my books to the curb. And I didn't even notice it—until a few weeks ago, thanks to Chronogram.
While editing the current issue, I came across this paragraph from house astrologer Eric Francis Coppolino's latest essay (p. 98): "You might think Twitter is ridiculous, but you might ask yourself how much longer than 140 characters your attention span really holds up. What was the last book you read? How much of it do you remember?" [My emphasis.] Well, thought I, I've been reading quite a bit as of late, thank you very much, and I recall it quite well.
In fact, the book I'd been laid out on the couch with most recently was Barney Hoskyn's Small Town Talk: Bob Dylan, The Band, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix & Friends in the Wild Years of Woodstock. (Peter Aaron interviews Hoskyns, who's doing a bunch of readings around the region, on p. 90.) While the subtitle gives you the gist of it, Hoskyns's book is a kind of musical biography of the town, and "wild years" certainly captures some of it. Here's an excerpt from a story told by Lynne Nasso, girlfriend of Paul Butterfield Blues Band drummer Philip Wilson about their visit to music mogul Albert Grossman's home after their move to Woodstock in late 1968: "The first time really sticks in my memory. There was a late snowfall, and it was really chilly. We went to the house, which was like a mansion. We walk in the door, and a party is raging. There's a lot of food and wine going around, and people are taking their clothes off. I didn't want to share my boyfriend, but a lot of the girls were getting naked, and they would wander out of the room with some of the guys. I went for a wander and peeked in a room, and there was a very serious orgy going on involving a dog."
Putting aside questions of whether or not canines can give informed consent for sexual acts for a minute—oh wait, I checked with Peter Singer and he says they can't—let's loop back around to Eric Francis Coppolino's column this month, as he writes something relevant to Grossman's orgy that perhaps contextualizes that time period for those of us who didn't live through it. "One somewhat humorous contrast between the Sixties and today is that the Sixties were about boldly finding out who we were at any cost." Fair enough, and I've engaged in my own types of boundary-pushing behavior, but inter-species congress seems a boundary too far for me. Point being, no matter how many burpees I did at the gym, I would never have known this had I not taken to the couch.
One last thing on books and I'll let you go: They're pretty useful, like physically useful. I've got a teetering pillar of books on my nightstand that's almost two-feet high. While on the one hand it's a pile of stuff to be read, it also serves to block out the neighbors' garage light, which they can't seem to remember to ever turn off. I wouldn't be able to sleep otherwise. Books, literally, are my refuge.