Some of my most potent memories of the time I spent in college are of lazy mornings that turned into lazy afternoons that turned into lazy evenings in which a book that had grabbed me would completely consume me for those hours. My tape-player would cycle and recycle Sunny Day Real Estate or that one Portishead album or the eponymous Stone Roses album or REM’s Monster and I would read and read and read.
I didn’t give up my illusions – I still pined for a partner, I still imagined myself receiving awards for my brilliance, I still imagined traveling foreign lands, I still imagined romantic lonely cabins in the deep woods. But I did give up, for that moment, for that day, the drive to be productive. I believed, I think, at the time, when I was youngish, that there was plenty of time for partners and productivity and accomplishment. I believed I had time. I would lie in bed, soft light through a basement window, or on a blanket in a park under a tree, and I would give myself over to the book that had me at the moment.
I read widely, and prolifically. It started when I was a child with access to the little book shelf my father built into a random wall in the basement across from my bedroom that contained my mother’s science fiction collection. Lots of Isaac Asimov. But when I got out into the world, I looked deep and hard for books that brought some kind of connection, some kind of transformation. I read about fictional poetry scholars falling in love. I read nonfiction accounts of adventure driving across the Americas. I read about seagulls finding themselves. I read about the backrooms of Parisian bookstores. I read famous things and obscure things.
I drowned myself in used bookstores, using only the eclecticness of book covers as a guide to finding the next thing I’d absorb. Each book seemed to me to be the truth. Each one that spoke to me seemed to speak the truth. I wasn’t discerning. If it was transformative, I bought into it. Which is a dangerous way to live. Many books, like many ideas, feel true but really aren’t. Ayn Rand is a good example.
But for the most part, this tendency of mine was part of a larger inner exploratory drive that seemed to inform my decisions. I loved science. I loved art. I felt like in poetry there ought to be some kind of universal truth, just like in the stars or oceans there ought to be some kind of blueprint to describe the whys and hows of being alive, or at least a way to ecstatically transform oneself into . . . well into something more beautiful, more perfect. In retrospect, though misguided as the many things of youth might be, the pursuit of that kind of transformation was in and of itself something beautiful.
I think grad school killed it. There were so many things we were supposed to be. We were supposed to make the next new great thing. We were supposed to produce and produce and produce. The thing that made for success was constant and unending production. And really, maybe grad school in this sense is just a metaphor for growing up. We grow up, we find careers, we find mates, we make children, our lives fill with the things that disallow spending all day reading a book.
But maybe more than those things, I just didn’t see the possibility of transformative experience in books anymore. It is possible to make a living, or have children, or be a partner and still carve out a day for reading a transformative book. I think I just didn’t feel like I deserved it anymore. At some point, maybe slowly over time, I came to feel like I wasn’t worthy of ecstatic transformation. How did that happen?
I don’t really know. It is a tangle that has only recently become visible to me by the brutal auspices of shocking and deeply penetrating loss. That I allowed it to happen is clear. Whatever influence has come from those around me and from my own illusions of what is important in life, drifting away from myself in this way was allowed by me. There is value in understanding how we come to be the way we are, but that is a topic for a different essay.
Here’s a story about the power of loss:
When I was in my twenties I found work at one of the world’s most unusual museums. This museum was four parts violence reduction education for children, three parts glass art museum, and three parts blind nationalism. I worked mostly with exhibitions and art handling, but one of my jobs was to be an assistant to the museum founder, the inimitable and indomitable IJB. He made up the J, to his middle name – not standing for anything, just because it made his name sound more commanding or important.
He’d call down to my little office, which was literally a converted broom closet and roughly tell me to come up and bring my note pad. I’d jump to – abandoning whatever work was in front of me – and race up to his ornate office. Then I’d sit quietly across from him, taking notes, asking clarifying questions, putting gears in motion of how to complete his requests in the most satisfactory fashion. We worked strangely well together.
IJB was a retired publishing magnate, the originator of TV Guide among other things. He’s years passed on now. At the time I knew him, he was a firecracker, full of life and vigor well into his eighties. His one rule in life, and at the museum, was that nothing could stay the same. Constant evolution, constant betterment, was his mantra. He’d dream up ideas for new exhibits and I’d make little mockups made of foam-core that would turn into room sized mock ups made of overlapping sheets of 11×17 printouts. He’d bark instructions and I would jump – in fact everyone around him would jump.
Over the months I think he came to trust me a little. Maybe he saw our relationship as something of a father/son kind of arrangement. His meetings started to include impromptu life lessons. He’d tell me the story of going bankrupt not once, but twice during his rise to wealth. He’d intentionally call me up to his office before taking a call, then have me sit and wait quietly while he spoke to whatever wealthy acquaintance he’d be extracting donations from, following up with pithy bits of wisdom. “Now that,” he’d say, “was a truly wealthy person.” He’d smile. “You might think I’m wealthy, but don’t ever sit on your laurels,” he’d bark. “There’s always someone out there that makes your wealth look pathetic.”
One day while examining the latest iteration of a mock-up I’d produced for an exhibit whose theme was DNA – how DNA scientifically proves that all people are related, that we are all one people, and that we shouldn’t fight wars, and so on – he turned to me and said, “Do you know what it costs to run this museum?”
I shook my head, innocently.
“Twenty-five thousand dollars a week. This,” he said both menacingly and triumphantly, “is what it costs to have this museum.” I don’t remember saying anything. “Do you know why it’s here?” More innocent head shaking. “It’s here because I died.”
Before I could say anything to that he launched into a story about going to lunch one day, and afterward walking down the sidewalk minding his own business when he suddenly had a stroke. “Right there on the sidewalk,” he intoned. “Struck down. Right there on the sidewalk. And,” he said, “I knew right then that my life was over. All of it, the publishing business, all of it. Gone.”
Again, I don’t know what my response was, but IJB just smiled. “I knew right then,” he said as though he’d unlocked a buried treasure chest, “that God was asking me to make this museum, that this would be my legacy.” There was a silence possible in his richly decorated sanctum that would be hard to replicate. “Always evolving, Jay,” he’d say. “Always moving. I lost everything, but am blessed every day. I am grateful for every day.”
Now, IJB was a man who understood the power of a good story, and how much of his story for me that day was apocryphal, I’ll never know. But it’s important not to dismiss the power of loss. Some losses are acute, some accrue over years, but there is power in the shaking up that happens when losses descend.
In my case, I feel shaken awake. There isn’t some universal truth that has been revealed, but a reminder that wonder – which is really a kind of joy – can only be produced by allowing for a multitude of truths. I remember now, what it feels like to spend a day reading a deeply transformative book, for I have just done so with Lulu Miller’s amazing amazing Why Fish Don’t Exist. In it she writes: Far better things await outside the tunnel vision of your goals.
And what does it feel like? It feels like falling in love.