Today on Facebook I noticed a friend had listed one of my favorite books, The Fortress of Solitude, as one of his favorite books, so I clicked the link to read the page for the book. Reading the synopsis made me think, again, about my obsessive love for Jonathan Lethem, and then I noticed the link to his name at the bottom of the page and it occurred to me that he’s a real person, who probably has a real Facebook page and it’s deeply creepy that I think I have a connection with him just because I read his book.
But literature is like that. The experience of reading a novel is so intimate. I bring books to bed and to the breakfast table, use them to escape a crowded train or dreary break room. When I’m in the middle of a good book I spend more time with it than I do with any real person in my life. Even when I’m with someone else, I’m often thinking of the book. What is that, if not obsession? The best books are like one night stands that leave your head spinning. It all feels so personal and real, it seems bizarre that the author never knows about your connection. The real embarrassment is knowing that all the other people you see on the train later reading the book are having the same intimate encounter you had, and there’s not a trace of you left in the book. Spooky.
It was easier to keep the romance of the book alive before all the authors started showing up on the internet. Several decades ago we didn’t have the opportunity to tweet an author kudos on a great plot twist and get a response before we’d reached the book’s third act. There was no chance to read an author’s blog and discover that a novel’s dashing hero was named after the author’s childhood pet. Disappointing! When I first fell in love with reading, every book was proof that somewhere out there was someone who understood me much more deeply than the real people I knew. Authors were soulful, hyper intelligent beings who would swoop me up into their milieu as soon as they read the books I would write. Writing my own book was the only route I had in the days before the internet. Now – the horror – if you want to talk to an author you just email/instant message/tweet/facebook them.
Granted, I benefit from that accessibility. It’s wonderful to know the mundane details of writers’ habits; how many hours each day are spent at the computer, what candies make the best fuel, the prime hours for rewrites. But, I can’t get over that creepy feeling of intimacy. I hand an author a book to sign at a bookstore reading and want to ask “don’t you remember me? That weekend in February when I was snowed in with your book and ate nothing but saltines so I wouldn’t have to put it down?” How couldn’t she remember being there? Or I turn the last page on a book and turn immediately to the author’s twitter looking for some mention of myself. Could he already have forgotten me?
It’s a funny contradiction, but for some authors I’m just too close to ever risk speaking with them. I couldn’t handle the rejection of knowing the greatest loves of my life don’t remember me.