The Book That Made Me A Reader
George Saunders on Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time...and more
The book that first made me a reader was In Our Time, by Ernest Hemingway, and a specific edition of the book: a hardcover, probably not a first edition, but with the distinctive look and smell and typography of a book from the 1920s or 1930s. I found it on the attic-like top floor of the library of the Colorado School of Mines, where I was studying geophysics, in their small but cozy fiction section, which was, for some reason, dominated by books of that era. A peer of Hemingway – Hemingway himself! – might have handled this very volume. That thought had great appeal for me. It was a thin book – 123 pages – and this also appealed to me. A person could do that, right? Write a mere 123 pages? Well, yes and no. Turns out, those were a very special 123 pages: packed, poetic, the result of some sort of insane, high-wire selection process. Each story contained more life than its brevity should have allowed. The form was experimental: fragmented, allusive, Cubist. The brief introductory prose poems were anchored in the real world of experience; the longer stories that followed were formal miracles. Hemingway seemed to be writing from his life, but what he was doing with language and form made his life – which was, at the time of the writing, no longer than mine was at the time of my reading – seem epic. Before In Our Time, I’d thought that great art was just…big: long and expansive and uncontrolled, a sort of unmediated genius-rant ala Thomas Wolfe. But this book seemed to have been made brilliant via compression and understatement. In Our Time inspired a lifelong love for the short book: later would come Red Cavalry, Visions of Gerard, Jesus’ Son. There was something about brevity manifested in form that excited me as a reader and still does – in a short book it always feels to me as if every word needs to be savored; every movement of plot has weight. From this same period I remember sitting on the banks of Clear Creek with a ninety-page volume of DeMaupassant: the water popped against the boulders, the sun shone on the water, life was all around, and was being made more urgent and luminous because of the life coming off those (relatively few) pages. I wanted to enter that club: the club of people who lived fully and put all of what they’d seen and done and learned into these little compressed packages, and sent those packages out across space and time, hoping the like-minded would find them.
Although, wait a second. I’ve just realized that the preceding is a big, self-serving lie. I know I was only supposed to write one paragraph here, but the truth must be served, so let’s consider this all one long paragraph. The book that really made me a reader was a pretty bad book indeed: Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand. When I read it I was a young and hungry lunkhead who was just realizing that the world was leaving me behind: her perfect reader. I’d been a screw-up in high school and only in my senior year had started to realize that a certain train (Success) was leaving the station and that I might not be on it. Atlas Shrugged seemed to say that my being left behind was not my fault – the whole system was corrupt, and run by whiny jerks, and such an unjust system naturally discriminated against genuine and uncorrupt people like me. I also liked the idea (if Rand was to be believed) (and she was so forceful!), that all I had to do to be good was to believe very strongly/selfishly in myself – which, lo and behold, came naturally. I liked the easy way the Rand reader was encouraged to understand and dismiss suffering as the fault of the (weak, self-indulgent, handout-seeking) sufferer. This eliminated a lot of things I didn’t like: ambiguity, confusion, the struggle of ideas, the possibility that all was not known. In my defense, I hadn’t read a novel since third grade, so the very act of reading a novel was pretty wonderful – all those pages, situations, speeches! Rand’s ideas seemed to be coming to me from a world I had never been to – they seemed European, encoded, sophisticated. All that certainty! All those apparent rapes that actually were, we would later find out, pretty much consensual! Well, it was a world view, rendered in prose, and I joyfully stuck it out to the end, and loved it. I was so naïve that I didn’t realize that people didn’t say things like, you know, “Man’s natural desire to strive and be victorious will elevate us above the beasts and the saboteurs who do not realize the lofty exalted qualities of the human mind, when engaged in valorous work!” just before raping someone. Well, that’s the way it is; the path is not always straight. A bad book causes reading, and reading causes that old reliable beauty “the mind” to kick into gear, and the mind likes that feeling of being in gear – and reads on, past the bad book, with any luck, and into the good ones – like, for example, In Our Time.