In the summer of 1997 I worked on an archaeological dig in southern Jordan. Not Petra – this was in the middle of nowhere. From the base camp in a desert village you had to take a jeep farther into the desert and then climb the mountains on foot for half an hour to get to the dig site. I was an archaeology major; my program requirements said you had to have a summer of field experience, and this was the dig I had found. It was run by two Germans, Hans Georg and Hans Dieter. They didn’t get along.
My plane landed in Amman in the middle of the night. At the airport I met Abu Hassan, who didn’t speak English, but he spoke a little German, and I spoke a little German, and he managed to tell me that we had to wait at the airport for two Swedish girls to arrive. We waited. I’d flown from New York via a long layover in Amsterdam, and by the time the Swedish girls joined us I was fairly delirious. We climbed into Abu Hassan’s car and drove for several hours. The Swedish girls sat in front speaking Swedish to each other, and I sat in the back feeling increasingly like I had to pee and at the same time like I had accidentally entered a bubble of unreality and was no longer subject to the usual passage of time. Abu Hassan drove silently. On either side of us was nothing but moonlit desert.
We arrived at the base camp just before dawn. There were signs inside all the doors and windows: “Keep closed – cats!” Some people introduced themselves, I don’t remember who. In the end I was given to Abd Al-Nasser, who showed me to a foam pad in a cement and cinder block room with one door and one window. I lay down as the sun was coming up.
I woke up sometime before noon. From my mattress all I could see out the window was a patch of thin blue sky. Around me the concrete and cinder blocks, bright now in the sun. I got up and looked out the window. It was the first I’d seen of Jordan in the daylight.
There was desert out there.
I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into.
The dig lasted a month. I happened to have brought with me a copy of Infinite Jest. I’ve never reread the book; I think it’s good, but my memory of it has nothing to do with its quality as a novel but only with the depth of its Americanness, the speech patterns and thought patterns and life patterns that, unexpectedly, I missed like a severed limb. These things are very thoroughly elaborated in Infinite Jest. It was perhaps the best possible book for the occasion.
Everybody on the dig got sick for a week or two. A little boy in the village was stung by a scorpion. One of the Swedish girls wanted to run off with a Bedouin. I resolved to take up tennis when I got home.
I don’t know what happened to my copy of Infinite Jest, but whenever I remember it I remember the blue of the cover as the blue of the sky out my window that first morning, and in the orange of the cover there’s something about the dense and extensive world of the Enfield Academy, and the sense that it saved me.
Can you remember where you were when you read certain books? I remember reading Dhalgren on a gray, gritty day at the beach. A Peter Wimsey mystery (Busman’s Honeymoon I think) on a cold bench by the Ballard Locks in Seattle. Gödel, Escher, Bach fifteen years ago in the pine-smelling attic of a Swiss farmhouse.
These are my strongest memories of books. I forget the books I read at home.
Perhaps in the future we will understand reading not as a way to experience text but as a way to experience the space in which the text is read. Text itself is cheap. I can cause any variety of it to appear on my computer screen. The character of space is not (yet) cheap. I would like to develop a poetics of reading spaces. The library of the future will consist of an indifferent collection of texts and screens, and a carefully curated collection of spaces (aquariums, swings, ruins) in which to read them.