Word hunger

It was summer in Texas.  I don’t remember how old I was or the year, only that we had long reams of the perforated computer paper with the holes running down the sides.  As children, toeing the line between delightfully imaginative and pitifully dorky, we came up with all sorts of creative uses for the piles of half-inch wide, hole punched paper strings.

The paper was in the same room as the floor to ceiling bookshelf.  Where ever my parents move they have built-ins made, leaving behind curious, empty white rectangles attached to the walls when they move.

But summer, in Texas, we lived there and the shelves were packed tight with books.  My mom’s completely unpretentious organization system has always involved grouping books by size.  No alphabetization or subject sections, just maximum use of space.   Beowulf and Confessions of an Economic Hit Man are next to each other; Martin Amis’s The Information and Paul Farmer’s Pathologies of Power are separated only by The Last Days of the Inca.  Browsing library and bookstore shelves lacks the exciting thrill of discovery that my parents’ shelves possess.

I wanted to read all of them.  I was hungry for stories and meaning and understanding, for narratives and elegantly placed adverbs.  School was out and now was the time to devour literature not contained (and conveniently abridged) between the hard covers of English textbooks.

Mom explained to me that most of the novels were really adult books.  What was in them that was so “adult”? I asked, imagining the sex, language, and violence that made movies rated R.  Nothing like that, she explained, just themes I wouldn’t understand.

I plowed ahead, sure that adult lives could not be so difficult to comprehend.  But of course, she was right.  Novels about the subtle concerns and disappointments of life post-secondary school were written with a vocabulary that I understood but from an experience that made no sense to me.

I’ve tried re-reading some of those books, and reading other books by those same authors.  The rhythms are familiar, the tone of contemporary literary fiction feels like a childhood memory.  Only now things have started to make sense.  When you’re a kid you feel like you’ve got problems, you’ve got worries, and you do, but they lack dimension.  Then one day you’re older and you still have worries, only now you really understand them, you start to understand yourself not as the omniscient narrator of your own story, but as a character in a tangled plot populated by hundreds and thousands of other characters.

It’s not a bad thing, to be one of many.  It’s just perspective.

I thought reading those words would give me more intelligent thoughts.  I was looking for answers to questions I had not yet articulated.  I was pretty sure life had more depth than I had yet experienced and I was impatient for a glimpse of the deep.

It’s hard to be patient.  Especially when you are young and greedy for the future, before you truly grasp that the future is finite and the present substantial.  I still hunger for words, still lust after plot and creative grammar, but I no longer feel like these stories are supposed to make me who I am.  We are colleagues, the words and I, discussing life and exchanging experiences.


One response to “Word hunger

  1. Linda Fitzgerald

    Unlike many people, I like getting older, for the reasons you (precociously) articulate above; the answers to the world’s great questions seem further and further out of reach, but our sense of solidarity with the world gets stronger. We are indeed “characters in a tangled plot populated by hundreds”, no longer feeling pressure to prove our individuality, more or less satisfied to do our small part holding up the firmament. And books are always good!