Note from Miriam: I enjoyed this essay a lot, as I do all of Bibi’s work. It was surprising to see a favorite but obscure novel–John Williams’s novel, Stoner–as part of the piece. I highly recommend it.
Sometimes the time is just right: A book I opened in the past that couldn’t hold my attention to save its life might captivate me now. Or a book I loved a few years ago might no longer charm me, or a book I hated with a fiery passion might strike me as first-rate, or at least less objectionable, later on. Through anecdotal research, I’ve found this happens to everyone I know. I can’t explain this phenomenon, but to hazard a guess, I’d say it has something to do with where we’re at in any given time of life. Sometimes Kerouac seems mighty and brilliant (see: when I was sixteen); sometimes Hemingway is irreproachable and Bukowski a genius (see: same time period through now, though these days I have a very different outlook on their misogynistic natures, which I try to keep separate from the writing itself, but find rather impossible to do). Or: I hated Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick with the the fury of a thousand demons behind me when I read it a couple of years ago, but I have met enough people who adore that book whose taste I respect and admire that I would consider giving it a second spin.
Thing is, when I read I Love Dick, I was in a particularly tenuous spot in my life. It’s possible that I was projecting every frustration and fear from my personal experience at that time onto the book. Or it’s possible that it is, indeed, the worst book I’ve ever read.
Is it possible, then, that we never really know what we truly feel about any given book? And, if so, does this extend to every work of art? Is it possible that I will find the Ellsworth Kelly drawings with which I fell so helplessly in love a couple of winters ago at the Met derivative and reductive later on? What about the painters I’ve loved since childhood, Manet and Matisse and Picasso? Are certain artists and writers, for certain people, untouchable, while others are up for debate?
This is all to say that I just started reading John Williams’s Stoner and haven’t really stopped. I started on the train yesterday morning, and read some more on the train yesterday evening, and resumed my reading on the train this morning. I feel as though this is not enough. I will resume this pattern this evening on the train, but I also suspect that I will find a nook somewhere over the next week in which to curl, turn my phone on silent and read for many uninterrupted hours.
However, this was not my experience when I started reading the book a couple of years ago. I first heard of it from a professor, who’d read a few of my short stories and suggested that I would like the book. His exact words: “. . . if you haven’t already, check out John Williams’s novel, Stoner. Which has nothing to do with pot. It’s a character’s name. And if you read the book’s description, you will start yawning and wonder about my taste. But, trust me. Read it. I’m not going to say anything about it. But . . . when I saw what’s resonating with you in terms of Dubus, I am willing to bet a lot that Stoner will blow your mind away and change your life, the way it changed mine.”
As an aside, this professor was referring to an essay I wrote about Andre Dubus’s astute and concise use of characterization in his stories; and, as a further aside, I find Dubus to be only more compelling as the days pass. So, perhaps there are some writers who are with us for all time, and with whom we will never find fault. (And, if so, I’d like to take this moment to add Amy Hempel and Raymond Carver to my personal list.)
That said, it’s certainly true that I project onto whatever I read. That’s just part of the process. If I’m in a grumpy or tired headspace, it’s possible that I won’t enjoy what I’m reading as much as if I’m feeling great. And if I’m in an ongoing grumpy and tired place, perhaps I will just hate everything I read.
But that’s not right either, because Dubus took me to a transcendent and much happier place when I read him in a weird time of life. I discovered him three springs ago. I was working this strange job in Santa Fe, some amalgam of tutoring and stand-in mothering, with some horseback riding thrown in for good measure. Most afternoons, this looked like sitting at the stables while my thirteen-year-old charge trotted around a ring with her horse teacher until it got dark, and then driving her home. At the start of this arrangement, I found Dubus. And I devoured everything he wrote, there in that strange New Mexican horse barn.
He provided a particularly dreamy balm of life. I felt soothed and calmed and also charged up, inspired. I wrote more. I took more long baths. I read a lot more. When I wasn’t at work, a.k.a. at the barn, I read in Rose Park, a grassy patch on Galisteo Street in Santa Fe with an old-fashioned vibe—perhaps because of the briar-y perimeter and the ancient firs. I read slumped in the front seat of my car when I was five minutes early to something. I read long into the night, after my then-boyfriend had gone to sleep.
Perhaps, as with everything else, there are some books with which we fall madly in love at first read, which will remain forever unimpeachable. Perhaps there are others that we enjoy at first blush but will later fall from favor. And there are still others which will never be our style, no matter how much everyone else might love them. (See: I Love Dick.) Though it’s absolutely possible that my current favorites will sour in another decade (see: Kerouac), I am pretty confident that what I love these days I will love in ten years, and what I hate will remain that way. But that’s how it is with taste: Everything I love now seems perennial, but I know that can’t be true.
Bibi Deitz lives and writes in Brooklyn. Recent work has appeared in Bookforum, The Rumpus, Berfrois and BOMB, and is forthcoming from Marie Claire.