I was 17, sitting in the back seat of my mom’s Prius and watching the setting sun smear its light onto the bay when I thought of my first good metaphor. It only took about 13 years of voracious reading and the perfect alignment of sun, ocean and observer for something to click. But when it did, I knew that a part of me had changed.
The metaphor read as follows: “The water buzzed like TV static.”
It wasn’t much, and I later found a metaphor suspiciously similar to it in the first line of William Gibson’s “Neuromancer.” But the memory of this moment still marks the origin of a passion for creation and interpretation that is still burning within me four years later. I still sometimes revisit the journal of metaphors I kept in the months after that road trip, each of them written earnestly and secretively, as if they would shock the world if shown to it.
As I wrote these fragments, I felt a mysterious wholeness that I didn’t entirely understand. Sure, I was proud of my work, but if this feeling came from pride, why didn’t I want to show anybody?
I’ve since realized that the satisfaction came less from a pride in my own creation and more from a new and foreign sense that I had uncovered a truth about my personal relationship with the world. If these words had presented themselves to me, they were somehow true for me. That moment in the car gave me the feeling of reading a poem that really resounds, but this time, instead of words on a page, I was reading a sunset.
A year after this metaphor was born, I found myself alone in the Unit 2 residence hall at UC Berkeley, staring out of my open eighth floor window onto a quad cloaked in fog. It was terrifying to snap back into my mind and realize that for the past five minutes I had been entertaining the idea of jumping out. Not seriously entertaining, I told myself, but even I wasn’t sure.
Whatever solid floor I had built under myself in high school had fallen out. My life was a mess of delayed teen angst and very real anxiety. I thought I was intelligent. My floormates were smarter. I thought my lack of any life plan was normal for someone my age. Everyone around me seemed to have it together. I thought I’d find people to talk to. I still felt just as scared to reach out as I did in high school. In the space of a year my world had widened too rapidly, and I felt what nearly all new college students feel — the whiplash of creating a new life in a new place with new people.
I turned from the window and, for comfort, reached for my journal of metaphors. For the first time I decided to string a few together. I gave them a structure where they could talk to each other, cut them into lines and sent them crashing together. From the emotional mess of that night I emerged with a single sonnet. Fourteen clunky, life-changing lines. Its hard rectangle of text felt like a life raft. Again came the feeling from that sunset drive, but this time, instead of reading a sunset, I was trying to read myself.
I was trying, and I am trying still. It’s a lot harder to look inward than out, but I’ve found that it’s well worth the effort.
I’ve given you this memory as a preface to the things I’ll be talking about this summer. I believe that we are all readers of the world around us. Whether staring down a sunset or finding room to grow in a huge university, each of us is floating in a constant stream of information — a stream so fast that it sometimes seems impossible to come up for air, much less to find a shore.
I do not know the way to the shore. I only know that as long as I can remember, I have found solace in reading and interpreting. Whether discussing the classics or perusing some comic strips, the act of closely reading gives me a unique chance to understand life and to provide a personal take on a part of it, if only for a little while. Reading is a chance to sidestep the constant barrage of modern life and to focus very closely on only one thing at a time.
This summer I’ll be working to provide you with the same passion that I have for reading closely and challenge you to rethink the way you encounter the world.
Every day, the bay still looks like static. I’d like to see what happens if I change the channel.
Anthony Boodrookas writes the Monday column on literature and life. Contact him at [email protected].