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posted on 12.04.09

Guest Curator Joanna Ruocco co-edits the journal Birkensnake, with Brian Conn.


I read Molloy in a hammock. A hammock is a body-sling. I felt emotionally safe and physically broken in the hammock. The sun was bright and it was difficult to see the type on the page. If I had been born into a wealthy Victorian family I would have read The Mysteries of Udolpho in a spine-crib. Is there a wheelbarrow in Molloy? I can’t remember. There is probably a small, semi-functional cart. I’ve never read anything in a wheelbarrow. Sometimes I left the hammock with Molloy and I read Molloy on the beach. It was hard to read Molloy on the beach because women were walking back and forth through the dunes in very high heels. I would think I was reading Molloy but then it would turn out that I was using my eyes to track the women up and down the beach. Next to me, there was a handsome man with a dark tan and white hair. When I needed to rest my eyes, I just looked at this man. He didn’t move around the beach. He was completely still. The beach was popular because it was situated directly beneath a notable hole in the ozone layer, and this man had most likely found the spot situated beneath the exact center of the hole. His dark tan was remarkably dark. I don’t know how you quantify a tan, if it has to do with color or coverage or depth of the rays’ penetration, but by any criterion it was a record-breaking tan. The man glistened. I couldn’t tell if the glisten was due to sweat or to some sort of oil the man had applied to his body. The man was maybe three feet away from me on the sand. Sometimes, after I rested my eyes on the man, I used Molloy to shield my face from the sun. I don’t know if other people have experienced this anti-aging property of Molloy. It doesn’t seem like Molloy and “anti-aging” should go together. The hammock makes sense with Molloy, and the spine-crib, and the wheelbarrow, provided that all of these things are placed outside. Molloy is a book that should be read outside. Does that seem true to anyone else?


On airplanes, I am always convinced that I am about to die. I imagine the plane is about to crash into another plane, or the co-pilot will hit a button with his elbow and the oxygen in the cabin will be replaced with helium, or I will experience sudden death even though the plane will land safely. My sudden death will actually ensure that the plane lands safely. My sudden death will function like the safety valve on a radiator, releasing the excess mortality generated by the plane’s operations, so that my singular, self-contained death substitutes for a more generalized, explosive death. I read feverishly on airplanes so that only part of my brain is preoccupied with my impending death. The other parts of my brain are repeating the words of whatever I am reading. Every book I read on an airplane becomes extremely important to me, though I usually have a hard time recalling details. Instead of recalling details, I have the vague sense that the book saved me from death. Because I know this about myself, I tend to pick books to read on the plane with which I imagine it will be somewhat reasonable to have this kind of relationship. For example, I read The Selected Stories of Robert Walser on a plane, and also The Charterhouse of Parma (not the whole thing, the Waterloo bit), Three Lives, The House of Hunger, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and, most recently, New Depths of Deadpan, Scorch Atlas, and Fugue State.


Even when I’m not getting on a plane, even when I’m just leaving the house to meet a friend at a coffee shop or bar, I always carry books in my bag and in the pocket of my coat, because I am afraid that I will be trapped somewhere. It is better to be trapped somewhere with books. Usually I am not trapped in places and I do not remove the books from my bag or coat. I feel better having the books. I would most like to own a number of palm-sized books on cords that I could wear like amulets.


When I was a kid I used to sleep with a book positioned over my heart in case ninjas climbed onto the roof and hurled throwing stars through my bedroom windows. The book used to be The Secret Garden, and then when I was older it was Captain From Castille, The Dean’s Watch, or Scaramouche. I chose these books because they were important to me, but part of why they were important to me was because they had hard covers and would possibly protect me from ninjas. Lorna Doone was important to me at this time too, but my edition was so thick and heavy that I couldn’t sleep properly if I put it on my chest. When I put Lorna Doone on my chest Lorna Doone compressed my diaphragm. Still, I was comforted by the existence of Lorna Doone. I always had the feeling that if a real catastrophe loomed, more ninjas than I’d expected and maybe orcs, I would endure the discomfort and protect myself with Lorna Doone. After all, if I knew that I was going to be attacked by many ninjas and maybe orcs, I wouldn’t be able to sleep anyway. Most often, though, you don’t know that an attack is coming. You want to be prepared but not so over-prepared that the preparations negatively impact your life. Putting Lorna Doone on your chest in the night is always a gamble. When I leave the house, anticipating being trapped and so bringing books, I try to limit the number of books (one to three books) for practical reasons. However, if you are going to be trapped, who is to say that you will be trapped for a three-book duration of time? And if you are trapped in a small place for thirty years, would it be worse to have only three books or to have no books? Books affect your experience of a place and the odds are against you having picked books that will improve your experience of being trapped for thirty years, even if the books improve your experience of being trapped for the first year or so. Is this what Brian Conn meant about books? Most days I struggle to leave the house.

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