Argentine-American storyteller based in Appalachia

The Joy of Reading

When we read, we uncover connections to the people and the world around us. We're transported backwards and forwards in time. I just can't get enough.

The Joy of Reading
Photo by Eli Francis / Unsplash

"You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive."

James Baldwin in a 1963 Life magazine profile

Every time I walk down the aisles of McKay’s bookstore I feel like I’ve stumbled into a daydream. Or an invisible portal that’s somehow transported me backward in time. What l do, when I’m there, or really any used books store anywhere in the world, is start to think about every person who’s walked the aisles before me. Picking up a book—an old, grimy one with a torn-up cover and marks on the pages—I picture not the last, but maybe the tenth-to-last person to hold it in their hands. I picture where it lived before it got there: on a shelf somewhere miles, perhaps hundreds or thousands of miles, from its first home.

Sometimes, on the spine of a good used book, you will find a sticker from a library it once belonged to in a different state. I hadn’t noticed this until the early months of the pandemic, when McKay’s closed and I resorted to ordering books and DVDs online. They came from libraries in Arizona, New Mexico, San Francisco. Why they had been marked for departure, I’ll never know.*

These books, the ones with dedications inside the front cover and notes hidden inside from previous owners who forgot they were there, are my favorite to comb through on the Saturday afternoons when the weather is too high or cold to fish, and my mind is too dry to write. Haley, who’s had to deal with my idiosyncrasies for four years now, can alway detect when something is wrong, like a dog senses an impending storm. She sends me off to McKays, music in my ears and a list in my hands, to wander like a kid exploring the woods behind their grandparent’s house for two or three hours. At the bookstore, I murmur disapprovingly to myself when every copy of a David Foster Wallace book—that isn’t Infinite Jest—is still priced at more than $10. But I am happy.

That wouldn’t have been the case years ago. I wasn’t an obsessive reader as a boy. I didn’t spend much time in libraries. As a kid, my mom ordered National Geographic magazines for my brother and me. We had a few novels—Frankenstein, Tom Sawyer—scattered in the playroom. Those books eventually settled on a shelf that held encyclopedias we used for school reports before my parents bought our first computer when I was in the fifth grade. Sometimes I flipped through my dad’s fishing magazines and thick texts about coins and Argentinian history my grandfather kept in his living room.

My junior year at Bayonne High School, I was fortunate to have teachers who introduced me to the novels, short stories, and plays that remain among my favorites: The Great Gatsby, Winesburg, Ohio, Death of a Salesman, The Sun Also Rises. Learning about the Lost Generation writers, who toiled away in Paris in the 1920s, made me wish I had been there with them. It was a feeling that mirrored the not-quite-nostalgia I felt sitting and listening to my grandfather tell stories of his childhood in the old country. A time-bending longing, like what Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges described in his 1981 poem, “Nostalgia del presente,” (Nostalgia for the present):

In that precise moment he said to himself:
What would I not give for the joy
of being at your side in Iceland?
Under the grand unmoving day.
And to partake of the now,
as one partakes of music
or the taste of fruit.
And, at that precise moment,
he was together with her in Iceland.

It is that feeling of connection—to see and be present with someone across time and space—that perhaps I most crave when I read. To know that someone I’ll never know has cried or sniffled or grinned at the same lines, just as someone I’ll never meet has touched the books that line the shelves of my bookcases, which my wife had made me hide away in the spare room—a devastating move, considering that, as a single man, I proudly displayed them just inside the entrance to my apartment, so strangers could ask, upon spotting Into the Wild or No Country for Old Men, whether I preferred the book or the movie.**

Since Mr. Sweeney’s English class, my favorite novel has been J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. About a month ago, I reread it, for probably the fifth or sixth time, and posted some of my feelings to Instagram. The book is more than 70 years old; its protagonist, Holden Caulfield, is half the age I am today. Yet I find so much of myself in it: the stubbornness, immaturity, the constant struggle to not become a phony, a fraud. There’s moments when Caulfield speaks in the second-person, addressing the reader directly, saying things I’ve said or could say. While thinking about a time when he visited the Museum of Natural History (which I’ve also wandered through a time or two), he says: “The best that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was.”

You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and they're pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket. Nobody'd be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you'd be so much older or anything. It wouldn't be that, exactly. You'd just be different, that's all. You'd have an overcoat this time. Or the kid that was your partner in line the last time had got scarlet fever and you'd have a new partner. Or you'd have a substitute taking the class, instead of Miss Aigletinger. Or you'd heard your mother and father having a terrific fight in the bathroom. Or you'd just passed by one of those puddles in the street with gasoline rainbows in them. I mean you'd be different in some way—I can't explain what I mean.

Of course, our memories are deceptive. They are imperfect and, like the narratives in our most treasured books, one-sided. After Taylor Swift released the long version of “All Too Well” in November, I wrote about how she masterfully crafts narratives in her songs. They are powerful, effective, and unbalanced (as she admits, in the last lines of her latest single: “I bet you think about me when you say, ‘Oh my God, she's insane, she wrote a song about me,”). But aren’t all our narratives one-sided? I can tell you a story of how I gloriously won a soccer game against my high school’s greatest rivals as a boy. You may nod along, believing my prowess—until you learn from my little brother that the game had been a JV soccer friendly, and I had come off the bench, gotten blasted in the nuts from close range, and went off in tears while a teammate scored a penalty in a terrible 1-nil win not even my parents attended.

Last year, I spoke over Zoom to Katharina Niemeyer, a German media theorist who co-founded the International Media and Nostalgia Network, for an essay I still haven’t written about the film The Motorcycle Diaries. Niemeyer, who studies fragmented memories and nostalgia felt by modern-day East Germans for their communist past, spoke to me about the psychology of remembering.

“When you go on a holiday trip, and you have a headache for three days, you don’t remember the headache three weeks later. You remember the good things,” she said. “You remember the people you meet, the friendships. Your personal memories are not all the time related to political or collective memories. This is something that protects you. You think about the nice things and not the trauma.”***

When reading, like Borges, I have become a time-traveling stranger in Iceland, a Scottish warrior in blue face paint flashing the English his buttocks, a whiskey-drunk writer in a Paris bar in 1920. But how could I ever be those things? My dad once said to me that, when we read books or watch movies about wars as boys, we all imagine ourselves as heroes and not the first ones felled by bullets, swords, or stones (depending on the age and place you fantasize yourself into). Still, it doesn’t hurt to imagine. The dreams books have helped me dream have only made me aspire to be more of something. The best books have ignited a fire in my belly. To be a kinder neighbor, a braver friend. A more charming and compassionate gentleman. To be wise and strong, sensitive and unwilling to accept constraints. To overcome obstacles and travel the universe.

Reading is one of my great joys. Just as soccer is. And film. But, as I await my son’s birth just days from now, you will neither find me on a soccer field or inside a movie theater. In my last free hours, before the world goes topsy-turvy again, I’ll be at McKay’s in a joyful daze.

*I ask a similar question, about how things get to their final destinations, whenever I'm wandering around an art museum. Because Haley is incredibly patient, and I like talking to her, she heard me me ask this every time at the Hunter Museum in Chattanooga this past November when, despite it being lunchtime, and she being both very pregnant and very hungry, I made her stop with me at paintings of boats and mountains, so I could ask her out loud: "Could you believe 150 years ago someone somewhere in France or the Netherlands put a brush to this canvas and fitted it into this old frame? Do you think they could’ve known it’d one day make it here, to Chattanooga, where strangers with computer phones in their pockets would stare at it from behind a black line?" She nodded and, the saint she is, did not flick me hard between the eyes.

**The DVDs I am permitted to display, in the open space in the TV stand between the TV and the cabinets. I have about 47. Re: Into the Wild, the book is better. No Country for Old Men, very good book, even better film.

***I think about this a lot. How our half-remembered or misremembered memories lead to fabrications. Or, at the very least, misrepresentations of the time and place we get nostalgic over. Ask your grandfather about 2021. What he thinks of this generation of young people? Shoot—ask yourself what you think, watching kids with purple hair and ripped jeans shoot TikTok videos in the lobby of the movie theater. Without provocation, my grandfather will tell you that he belonged to a better time and I to the most entitled, valueless generation of people that’s ever lived, forgetting somehow all the great sins of humanity’s past. How during the Spanish Inquisition they crushed people’s skulls in iron helmets, stretched their bodies on racks until they came apart. How his own drunken father abandoned his wife and three kids and died penniless in the street. Some of my family members will tell you how the military junta that governed Argentina between 1976-1983 may have murdered 70,000 men and women. But at least, in those days, the streets were clean, and the kids weren’t snorting cocaine in public.

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Jamie Larson