John Waters, my literary personal trainer

You Are What You Habituate

Some habits die hard, and as much as we would like to change them, there is some innate quality about them that makes them not only part of our daily routine but also intrinsic to our character. Whether it be our style of eating (casual grazer or one-meal-a-dayer), our social habits (hostess or observer) or our reactions in conversation (skeptic or believer), there are some habits that seem inherent to our nature.

For me, I have always been a slow reader and have found film a much more readily absorbable form of media than paperback. English was always my favorite subject in high school, but I still struggled to hold still while I slowly pedaled through pages. To sustain my focus, I sometimes would have to stand or walk while I read or just keep in motion. While I at times experience a similar restlessness with movies or television, I find myself more easily hypnotized by cinematic unreality than words on a page. In fact, when watching movies as a kid, I sometimes quite literally forgot the world around me.

Flashback to 2005: In kindergarten, Ms. Rosenfield announced to the class that we would be watching “The Little Mermaid” and would get out of school early before the afternoon session came in to occupy our classroom. All the girls in the classroom screamed, while all the boys feigned amusement. I, like the rest of the boys, was not enthused by the suggested Disney princess movie. My heroines were dinosaurs, goblins and monsters, not easily seduced terrified females.

As Ms. Rosenfield pushed the VHS tape into the VCR, I was soon hypnotized as the sea creatures started dancing around on screen.

Midway through the film, a small finger tapped me on my shoulder. As I turned around, expecting to see one of my friends, I was instead greeted by the face of a stranger. Shocked and a little frightened, I looked around the room and realized I knew none of the other children in the classroom. The afternoon session kindergarten teacher informed me that Ms. Rosenfield and her students had already left for the school day. I had been so hypnotized by this Disney princess movie that I was completely oblivious to the entire audience of children picking themselves up and leaving.

From a very young age, I found shelter in movies and television; the narratives and the character relations were not only entertaining, but they helped inform the events and relationships in my real life and allowed me to peer, for a moment, into the minds of another. I never felt as compelled to read outside of school because I found peace from my schoolwork in creating my own stories in forts in my backyard and watching movies with my babysitters.

Since reading “Carsick” by John Waters last summer and discovering the joy of reading for pleasure, I have deliberately tried to change my relationship with literature by wading through a list of Waters’ personal favorites. From his novels “Crackpot” and “Role Models,” I have constructed a list the most precious sinful and devilish novels that are beaded into Waters’ memoirs. From the victorian dark comedy of Denton Welch and Ivy Compton-Burnett to the static-punk grunge of Dennis Cooper, Waters’ literary palate is coated by depravity with a surprisingly astute and observant sense of humor.

My endeavor to cross off all of this cult film director’s favorite novels is part fanaticism and part effort for self-reformation. But in this effort, I have become reacquainted with my childhood impatience for reading that for so long held my love of literature stowed away. Though I have maintained a steady pace flipping through pages and underlining quotations for later reference, it still sometimes proves to be a slow climb. I may not like all of the books Waters has recommended to his fans and readers, but I have been able to sustain interest in this project by reading books outside of the list that are similar to those I enjoyed among Waters’ recommendations. For this, I extend my gratitude to Waters for teaching me how to cultivate my own fictional taste.

I never identified as a bookworm, and I still don’t consider myself an avid reader — perhaps just an average reader — but as my collection has grown larger, I have learned to grow an immunity to the tedious pace of reading that for many years discouraged me from picking up a book outside of my school’s reading list.

Some habits feel inescapable and deeply ingrained in personality, but I believe that with enough resilience and self-belief, any habit can be curbed. Much of my character has persevered through age and different friendships, but in the same vein, I have discovered that many of my personal habits, such as my preference for movies over novels, are malleable. I may not be completely converted to page, but my interests have definitely steered away from a strict cinema diet, and I welcome more change, growth and evolution in my personal habits that constitute me; for change is inevitable, so why not wield it more deliberately?

For interested readers, here is a taste of my John Waters’ Book List:

  • “Guide” by Dennis Cooper
  • “In Youth is Pleasure” by Delton Welch
  • “Two Serious Ladies” by Jane Bowles
  • “Manservant and Maidservant” by Ivy Compton-Burnett
  • “Prisoner of Love” by Jean Genet

Layla Chamberlin writes the Friday column on how routines create character and delineate personal politics.