This piece came about in a strange-ish way, as they so often do. I had fallen down a Wiki hole of truly epic proportions, having stumbled upon the fifty most interesting Wikipedia articles and fifty more.
STOP. I know what you’re going to do, and how much time it’s going to take. Please just open two tabs and dump those links in and come back, or I’ll never see you again.
And I was tearing that shit up, as you can imagine, when I began to wonder, like a tiny woman in an expensive apartment with an early-generation laptop, would I ever have read so much if not for information and smut?
If that sentence seems odd, it’s because it’s a stylistic riff on the late Jack Gilbert’s poem “Don Giovanni on the Way to Hell,” which is both about what the title implies, and also a semi-biographical meditation on a man who has loved women and devoted his life to their ways and bodies and minds. I will quote from it briefly, because he is gone now and the brief flurry of Jack Gilbert quotations in tributes has mostly ceased:
How could they think women a recreation?
Or the repetition of bodies of steady interest?
Only the ignorant or busy could. That elm
Of flesh must prove a luxury of primes;
Be perilous and dear with rain of an alternate earth.
Which is not to damn the forested China of touching.
I am neither priestly nor tired, and the great knowledge
Of breasts with their loud nipples congregates in me.
The sudden nakedness, the small ribs, the mouth.
Splendid. Splendid. Splendid. Like Rome. Like loins.
A glamour sufficient to our long marvelous dying.
I say sufficient and speak with earned privilege,
For my life has been eaten in that foliate city.
To ambergris. But not for recreation.
I would not have lost so much for recreation.
What a glorious thing to have written. And we will return to it, and why it is here, but back to my point about information.
I did nothing but read, all my life, until I began to fall in love, and then I took a bit of a pause to fall in love for years and years and years, and now that I am (Spaghetti Monster willing) done with the business of new love (as though that is a sentence one can write triumphantly, rather than with a tinge of envy) I read again.
But why did I read, so much? I read for the immersion, for the new worlds, for the human experiences, for the empathy, for the glory, for the occupation. I read The Bible to make sense of everything written after. But I also read for information, because books were the way to know things when I was eight or nine or ten. Books were the only game in town, if you were a quiet person with quiet parents on a quiet street. When I was eight, and wanted to know about Vietnam (by which, I should specify, I mean the Vietnam War, and the one that occurred between 1955-1975 in particular, as, not to be irritatingly pedantic, to colloquially refer to said war as “Vietnam” is to do an intellectual disservice to a country that has been around for some time and has more to hang its hat on than an interlude of American military involvement), for whatever reason, I could not go on Wikipedia and spend an hour getting a pretty decent take on the matter. When I was eight, I had to go to my parents’ bookshelf and dig out Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History. They owned the 1983 edition, purchased the year after I was born, and now I have the revised edition in my own library. And so, because I had to read 784 pages, instead of Wikipedia, I know more things. Some of which were likely not true, but I needed the information and there it was.
Again, I say information, because that is how my parents saw it. I have asked them why we were never barred from their shelves, at any age, and they told me that when they had children, they discussed it, and decided the world is a very difficult place, for which the educational system of nice quiet university towns is unlikely to prepare one, and that it would do my brother and I a disservice to keep from us from that information, and the information we would need to live in it.
“Dad, I don’t understand what’s happening to Celie. Can you explain?”
And he could, and he did, or tried to. Parenting, like old age, is not for pussies. And this is not a method for pussies.
I am not here to say that the internet is bad for information. It is the greatest thing ever to happen to information, it is a gift. If you no longer have to read 784 pages about Vietnam to know about Vietnam, that’s time you could spend doing something else. Times change and we change with them. The books are still there, and now you can read them in a Ziploc bag in the bathtub on an electronic device.
But now, done with information, I come to the glory of illicit reading in early adolescence, and to the smutty parts of Jack Gilbert and the zipless fucks and the Philip Roths and the everything else.
Perhaps, now that there is a world of incredible and diverse and wild and free erotica and pornography, it’s not going to be as necessary to find the good bits of your parents’ books, or to sit in the library for hours looking for the same. And perhaps the books with really good bits won’t even BE on your parents’ shelves, they’ll be on passworded e-readers to protect you from the good bits and them from the embarrassment of having good bits to snoop on.
Novels (with obvious room for a slew of exceptions on both ends) aren’t even remotely as dirty as they were in twenty or thirty years ago. It was a time when we needed dirt, as a species, without wanting to buy it in embarrassing places, and so when it was given to us by John Irving, or Updike, or VC Andrews (you knew it was coming) or Samuel Delany, in genre fiction or in literary fiction or in Looking for Mr. Goodbar, we grabbed it with both hands and asked for more. And in the pursuit of those two lines, those paragraphs where something was turgid or unbuttoned or damp or pushed against a wall, we read bildungsromans and we read Saul Bellow, and were better for it.
“Look at her, readingThe Group. Does she even understand the psychoanalysis stuff?”
No. She is taking it back upstairs when this tedious adult party is over so she can re-read the bit where he says she barely made a mess and his ex-wife had bled like a pig.
And that’s my only hang-up, really, about how good the world is becoming for young people who want to read everything they want to read all the time, that because the glorious, exhausting, painful desire of being weak with longing for the world of sexuality is going to be blessedly and confusedly more satisfiable for them (oh, not your young people? you have blocking software? OH THAT WILL BE FINE THEN NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT), that one great entry-point into the world of books-for-grownups will be rendered relatively moot.
Me, I love Freedom. I think Freedom is as good as people said it was, and there is no backlash against it in my heart. There are also some really sexy parts. Are my kids going to want to steal Freedom off my bookshelf when I’m not looking in ten years? In the hopes that four hundred pages in a married man will finally touch the part of Lalitha’s underwear between her legs? Probably not. It would be a waste of their time. What a shame.
Why not, then, spend the year you are fourteen reading books FOR fourteen-year olds (there are so many great ones, of course, and more every year), and then getting a fix for your mad hormonal storm by typing three or four keywords into a search engine? I think that may be what people will do. And there is nothing wrong with that, nothing at all. And for queer kids, what a marvelous thing, not to have to settle for the crumbs they were tossed in previous generations (“I’ll just stop reading before these two guys are brutally murdered, but after one of them touches the other’s forearm and the hairs go up.”)
But would I, personally, now have the benefit of being widely and inappropriately well-read and book-mad were it not for the one-two punch of information and smut? Would I EVER have read all of Ondaatje if I hadn’t needed to sit down, dizzy from the idea of imaginary lovers giving me fruit out of their mouths? Would generations of boys (and girls!) be devoted to the universe of reading about other universes had they not desperately needed to imagine that some of them would contain aliens with strange tongues and oddly-familiar breasts?
Probably not. May it endure always. May they always come for the unbuttoning and find that they stay past the remaking of the bed.
Samuel Delany, Dhalgren (Indiebound | Amazon)
Jonathan Franzen, Freedom: A Novel (Indiebound | Amazon)
Jack Gilbert, Collected Poems (Indiebound | Amazon)
Erica Jong, Fear of Flying (Indiebound | Amazon)
Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (Indiebound | Amazon)
Mary McCarthy, The Group (Indiebound | Amazon)
Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient (Indiebound | Amazon)
Judith Rossner, Looking for Mr. Goodbar (Indiebound | Amazon)
Alice Walker, The Color Purple (Indiebound | Amazon)
Nicole is an Editor of The Toast.