Reading Habits

Place and Bibliography: On Two Unforgettable Reading Experiences

A few months ago, The New York Times asked Leigh Bardugo which books got her into the fantasy genre. She listed several titles, adding, “I think anytime you can remember where you were when you read a book for the first time (“Dune” – a small motel room on a tragic family trip, “A Rapidly Tilting Planet on a White Shag Carpet”) in my grandparents’ back room) what that means.”

Indeed, isn’t it? In the months I’ve been writing this column, I’ve mentioned more than one book, and I remember details of my first reading experience: When I finished “Where the Red Fern Grows,” I tried not to cry aloud on the Greyhound bus. Allowing myself to cry aloud; reading Lavinia on a train where the sound of wheels on the tracks melds with Le Guin‘s prose; wading through Rangers on a (pre-pandemic) plane, too close to people who frightened me more and more.

If I had read these books elsewhere, would I remember them the same way? What alchemy makes these memories so clear? What makes some stories fit together so clearly in our minds, like postcards you can flip through?

I don’t think there’s any scientific basis for this – no one can work out any equations. Like a nickname, you can’t force it. Something helps me remember where I read; I remember many of the books I read in the backyard of my beloved, now-closed Brooklyn bar, in part simply because I loved posting photos of them on Instagram, the bright orange table contrasting beautifully with almost any cover. But I did. It’s a different kind of memory — conscious memory, not the kind that creeps up on you and sticks around.

If a book can find you at the right time, it can also find you at the right place. I used to think it was bad luck to read a million bars of The Clockwork Bird Chronicle while traveling and staying in hotels, but now I think that uneasiness, I just remember the scene, not the whole book – it fits with the book itself. I don’t recall reading anything on so many trips – I definitely had books in my bag. There always are. But I forgot the title.

When you browse your bookshelves, what do you think of? The way miniature serfs are integrated into our language in college. The moment when I suddenly understood Bascule’s accent in Feersum Endjinn. Sometimes it’s words, sometimes it’s places. On the one-year anniversary of 9/11, I lay on a blanket in the sun on my mother’s deck, reading Heartbreaking Genius and staying off the internet. I don’t remember anything about the book, but I do remember the sun, and the feeling that if I moved, I would have to start holding my breath.

The “how” of reading can mean many things, from format to location, speed to mood. Using a flashlight under the covers? Shuttle between parents’ houses? On the train, in the shower, before bed? Books ask us to read differently, feel differently when we read them differently, and resonate with different tones when we read them aloud or to ourselves. Heraclitus said that one never steps into the same river twice. You also probably never read the same book twice.

In a dream world, maybe every reading experience will be memorable for its own reasons – we will read in the sun, under a tree, in a beautiful, relaxing space that allows us to focus deeply on the story, and everything else is gone. The reality is not so picturesque: Reading on the commute, at breakfast, at lunch, even when you deserve it, feels stolen. Reading outside the restaurant when you are the first to arrive at the restaurant and don’t want to go in alone. While reading in a bar, you try to ignore the loud people behind you.

Although all these things are sometimes perfect in their own way.

There’s another kind of reading experience I’ve been thinking about lately, and that’s it: books that can’t be followed. I often read about things that feel incurable. In the same headspace created by this book, nothing else exists. No other book sings the same clear, pure notes. You might find something harmonious, or you might throw up your hands and let your next choice clash with what this unpopular book has done to you.

Have you ever encountered this situation? When I read Piranesi, I feel the great rooms and spaces of Suzanne Clarke’s novels forming in the synapses of my brain. After that, there was nowhere to fit; everything rattled and crumbled, and I wandered around in a daze, picking up books and putting them down. I’ve never been able to explain why I cried at the end of Jodi Rosenberg’s Confessions of a Fox, but there was a hope in the last few pages that struck me and struck me in some unseen but fundamental way.It relocated something inside me. I’m still nervous about rereading Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Bandit because it also did something in my brain, some transformational magic, and I’m eager to find it again but fear I’ll never see it again.

Profound, ineffable, unparalleled: what it’s like to hear “The Wizard of Earthsea” for the first time; trying to read Catherine Valente’s palimpsest while only moving; The world of City of Usual Thieves. This can happen with non-fiction, too: I slow down to try to be methodical and take my time reading Claire Dederer’s Monster, or Alisa Vasuta’s White Magic.

You can’t force a book to change your worldview, your perception of the story, your sense of scale or scope; of course, you can look for those things, try to match books to moments, looking for that perfect picture of those books and places locked, a photo in your mind that will never be lost or forgotten. But much of it—the haunting, perfect, and infuriating moments found within the pages—is simply the magic of being a reader. It’s obvious, but sometimes it’s hard to make things happen. Stay curious, stay sharp, and be prepared. The next book you read could be one you’ll never forget.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *