Two pages forward

Two Steps Forward

Books have been my best friends since I was 3 years old. I’ve read for so long that my hands were inky and my eyes blurred. When I was a child, my parents often had to physically remove a book from my hands before I would consent to going outside or coming to the dinner table. Every book I’ve ever read has altered me.

Books have wrought immense change on the world. “Harry Potter,” “The Chronicles of Narnia” and many others have given magic to millions. This is to say nothing of religious texts, which have shaped the lives of people around the world for millennia. These are a few well-known and extremely popular examples of the effects of the written word. In my nearly two decades of dedicated reading, I’ve come across other, lesser-known works that inspired changes of their own within the confines of my mind. This is a limited account of those books, each of which remain relevant in an increasingly paperless age, and each one is highly recommended by yours truly.

“The Flame Alphabet,” by Ben Marcus, is a soul-rendingly terrifying novel. It begins with a town where adults cannot bear to hear children speak. Young voices cause them physical pain, tremors, nausea and general degradation. Ben Marcus’ authorial thesis seems to be that language is a physical force in the world, one that can hurt like a fist in the gut or nourish like food and water. “The Flame Alphabet” contains a world where this is literally true and where the action of speech itself is a weapon. The book turns words into poison, both for the characters and the people who read it. It reminds us that words and speech, which seem ubiquitous, are vastly important: Every day, we manipulate unimaginable power as a matter of course.

This is inverted in James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” It’s an infamously difficult read, and that’s for good reason. Rather than language being a physical presence in the world, the world is actually composed of it. “Ulysses” dismantles narrative, grammar and structure, breaking them into elemental particles and using them to rebuild the internal universes of his characters. Understanding is not the goal here, and I don’t think it’s possible for anyone but Joyce to understand everything he writes. Reading “Ulysses” is immersing yourself in the mind of another, not sequentially absorbing a story. Let the words wash over you. Read passages aloud — the original Odyssey was recited aloud, and Joyce knows full well the beauty of the spoken word. I have never experienced a book that puts me so thoroughly in the mind of someone else.

“In Cold Blood,” by Truman Capote, and “The Devil in the White City,”by Erik Larson, are very different, though equally important, works. Published nearly half a century apart, both make stunning use of fictionalized history. Capote’s work takes you inside the community of a Kansas town rent by murder; Larson brings to life the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair in all its shining architectural glory. Both books make use of extensive records, whether those be interviews with grieving townspeople or letters from fairgoers and civil engineers. Each recreates a time period in stunning detail, so readers can view real events through the creative lens of talented authors. Combining the factuality of history textbooks and the humanity of great novels, each provides a fascinating glimpse into the past and the minds of those who lived there.

“Winter Journal”by Paul Auster is the same on a smaller scale — the fictionalized history of a life. It’s an autobiography focusing on the author’s physical body, its transformations, injuries, movements and interactions with the world around it. As he discusses his scars, homes, loves and triumphs, he reveals the path of a fascinatingly normal life. When read with the context of his novels in mind, one can see the threads of inspiration as they form in his experience and travel from his mind to the page. It’s one of the very few books I’ve read that can justify the use of the second person. Auster’s use of the word “you” to address both his reader and himself causes a strange singularity to form between author and audience. One feels connected to the aging, weathered man behind the book as he spins out his wistful tale of growing up and growing old.

All of these books have seriously changed the way I view my world and the literature I love. The first two toyed with my perception of language, changing the way words feel in my mouth and feel under my fingers. The latter three clarified my view of the world, showing me other times and other people in ways I couldn’t have seen myself.

Even in this age of digital information and media bombardment, reading remains vital. It allows for introspection, a break from the constant flow of connections and desires, and a subtle (or not so subtle) change in the ways our minds work. We should read to see differently, to add bricks to the structure of our worldview and maybe — just maybe — to demolish the whole structure and build it anew.


Contact Jacob Straus at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @jacob_straus.