Love Drunk Book Heads: What’s Your Most Revelatory Book Experience

(Catherine Cheek’s initial process of putting together books.)

Part of the increasingly insane spiral of conversation occurring downriver included a reminiscence of mine concerning a book/reading experience:

One of my best reading experiences was buying a little book with a white cover in Left Bank Books in Seattle. It had been misplaced in the magazine section. It had no title. It had no author name. It had no information about what press had published it. It existed totally by and of itself. I could come to no conclusions about it contextually except through the first word, and then the second, and then the third–the first sentence, the second sentence, the third sentence. And so on. It was a very good book about thought crime. If it had come to me in a particular section of the bookstore with all of the accoutrements of context, would I have liked it as much? Would I have given it a chance?…

Which reminded me of my The Physicality of Books feature from Fantastic Metropolis, which included answers from Michael Chabon, K.J. Bishop, Jonathan Carroll, Karen Joy Fowler, Neil Gaiman, and dozens of others. I had asked five questions there:

1. What do you like about the book as physical object?

2. Do you have any rituals or procedures you go through after acquiring a new (or used) book? (Some writers indicate they bite or smell books.)

3. Is it necessary for books to exist as physical objects in our increasingly electronic world? If so, why?

4. What recent examples stand out for you as exemplar of well-designed, well-made books?

5. Do you have any memory connected to books that you would like to share?

I’ve been working on a book off and on incorporating the Fantastic Metropolis material. The working title is Love Drunk Book Heads.

Because I’m always curious, the question I’m asking here is:

    Can you describe one or two of your most unusual, strange, or revelatory book experiences, either in the finding/buying of a book or the reading of it?

Some of this material may be incorporated into the book (with your permission, of course).


  1. says

    I have two.

    When I was young, I constantly over-extended myself in terms of reading skill–I did speed reading training and kept grabbing increasingly larger and larger volumes, sometimes not quite understanding everything I read but reading it nonetheless. That is, until I read Aristotle’s “Metaphysics” and was forced to slow down.

    It wasn’t fiction, but in reading it, I for the first time truly got dragged into an idea, an abstract concept. While I sat in a dying mall’s atrium beneath filthy summer skylights, and waiting to see my scheduled and appointed social worker, my mind was flitting through the spaces between molecules like a rogue electron; it was trying to discern what makes up the bonds that hold together matter when “obviously” the five alchemical elements made up the matter’s particles… and in the midst of this scientific and logical treatise, Aristotle slapped me in the face. He claimed that love was the bond that held together matter and therefore reality. It was… expansive. Kitsche perhaps, cliche maybe, but certainly revelatory. I practically felt the neurons moving to form a connection and I felt the most intriguing sense of peace… like I had finally read something I didn’t think I could have ever come up with given enough time on my own and it would take a long time to fully understand, despite a sudden and keen awareness. Like perching warmly at the center of a blossoming flower as it lets in the sun. The room around me, the worn brick and air conditioned sunlight all had something in common, the bonds that held their molecules together. Revelatory and humbling… the universe turns on despite of us, but that does not mean it hates us.

    The second was, well, more brief.

    While reading Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren novel, which had me in a nearly bipolar and gender confused state for two weeks. I couldn’t stop reading it. I would try to put it down, but then I’d find myself gravitating toward it again as I tracked the protagonist(?) through the physical manifestation of getting lost, feeling lost, and certainly being told to get lost. I truly felt for the character, and for the first time it wasn’t because I could see myself in the character–it was because I could see the smallest bit of the character in myself. The story wasn’t a cheap suit to pull on and then pull off, it was the first time I felt like I was clawing at my own mind trying to discern the reality of the story from the reality of my life. If you ever read it, well, the elevator shaft scene in the story left my head spinning for a few days.

    Hopefully this has been of some interest.

  2. says

    3. “Necessary” seems to be a red herring. I believe I view it as a matter of preference and comfort. Right now, I can read endless reams of words on my computer screen, but I have no desire to do it. It’s not comfortable and its not as much fun. The Kindle may or may not change all this, though. I haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing one first hand, but they seem like sort of thing that really has the potential to supplant the printed word once and for all. Because my computer monitor is still no threat to books whatsoever. Add to that the feel of paper pages in the hands – it really seems like you are a lot more active when reading a book than when gazing transfixed at a screen. But books remain practical. Unlike the newspaper (which won’t see the next century, mark my words!).

    4. I bought an old copy of The Golden Bough at a book drive. It looked so impressive, in leather binding with gilded lettering, that I had to have the copy. I have still never read it. May never read it. But I like to own it. Overall, I’m not much of a collector. I’m more about the ideas, less about the object. But I do enjoy a well-made book.

    “Can you describe one or two of your most unusual, strange, or revelatory book experiences, either in the finding/buying of a book or the reading of it?”

    I don’t believe in fate or magic, but there are a few books that I knew I would love from the moment I saw them on the bookstore shelf. Love at first sight, you could call it. The Somnambulist (US hardcover edition) was one of these books. The cover art, the blurbs, the art within, the feel of the book in my hands — this was the sort of book I could marry. I almost did until my state refused to recognize our union. But that’s politics for you. The expanded edition of City of Saints and Madmen also had this effect on me. But sadly, it was in such poor health that all the pages unglued from the binding. It saddens me when a really great book is damaged. It’s almost like losing a beloved pet.

  3. says

    I may have told this story before, and if so, I apologize for repeating myself.

    Some background: I grew up in Crystal Lake, Illinois, about 45 miles northwest of Chicago; went to law school and practiced law for 12 years thereafter in Chicago; then lived in Omaha for four years before moving to California. So I’m no stranger to snow and cold weather, but I haven’t lived through a blizzard in a good 12 years or so now.

    While living in Sacramento, I finally got around to reading Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. It completely wrapped me up in its pages, making me live inside that world. So much so, in fact, that when I had to leave my apartment, I looked at the trees and was astonished to find that they were covered in big clumps of fresh snow. It took some time before I tumbled to the fact that I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, the temps were in the 80s, and the “snow” on the trees was actually flowers.

    More background: I was raised Catholic, even attending parochial schools for the first four years of grade school. I stayed Catholic for some time, through and past my time in law school. I gave up on the Church when the Pope made some stupid statement about women being intended by God to reach their fulfillment only by having babies, and that’s why they couldn’t be priests, but until then, I was pretty devout. (If you say to yourself, over and over, “The Church is an earthly institution, and therefore necessarily imperfect,” you can last for years.) Leaving the Church was like opening floodgates, and I now consider myself an agnostic tending toward atheism. I tend to agree with Robert Langdon in Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons: Faith is a matter of grace, and I have not been gifted with grace.

    Still: when I was in law school, I read Hunting the Divine Fox by Robert Farrar Capon. (Isn’t that terrific? A book about fox hunting (of a sort) by a guy named Capon?) I came to a passage in which Capon was describing how much God loves us. “We really have God’s clock wound up,” is more or less how one sentence went — and somehow that vernacular language undid me. Perhaps what I felt at that moment *was* grace — but I knew, and felt, the most perfect love of — something, someone — for me that I’ve ever felt. It was transporting. I’ve never felt anything like that since, and never had before (though I do shiver, slightly, at the memory). God is probably very disappointed in me for having given me the gift of that moment and yet still not getting my unconditional belief and worship.

  4. teaver says

    I sometimes buy a book because of it’s smell and texture of the paper. I love reading old, used books for the same reason and the more they’re worn out, the better.

    When it comes to the inside – as a child I honestly believed that there must be a book answering all the questions in the world. Now I know it’s not possible, but the feeling of thrill remained and I can’t help it everytime I go past shelves packed with books. :)

  5. says

    Oh, more such experiences than you would possibly want to know about.

    I have books with inscriptions in them – given to grandfathers, nieces, sisters, and mysterious people referred to only by their first name with no hint of relationship – dated more than a hundred years ago. THe idea that this book was new once, loved, handed down, possibly cherished by its recipient… that this book had a LIFE before me… fascinates me completely. That there was a over a century of such life boggles me.

    I can only hope that somebody somewhere finds something *I* wrote, a hundred years from now.

    I also have a book which is carefully babied because it is fragile – but it is also in a remarkably good condition… given that it was published in the early 1700s. It’s some sort of law book, nothing remotely valuable or first-editionish or famous, but it’s so ancient, so steeped in history, that I think I can still smell the antique inks used to print it, and see the faces of clergy who might have looked at it and sighed remembering the not-too-distant, then, days of hand-copied and beautifully illuminated manuscripts.

    Books are a wonder to me. Always have been. I love the fact that I live in a house which has an entire room dedicated to books. It is so much part of who I am.

  6. says

    (butting in…)

    3. Is it necessary for books to exist as physical objects in our increasingly electronic world? If so, why?
    It isn’t ‘necessary’, no. Which doesn’t mean the physical object isn’t important. Having a work of art reduced to a file name on a computer diminishes its significance, disables the reader’s ability to respect the work, and adds in distance. The reader cannot touch it, there is no sense of connection, the monitor acts as a window, and that is all we do, look at the work through a window, which is a far cry from holding it in your hands, slamming it shut in joy or irritation, hugging it, using it as a hat or blunt object…reading a story can be done on a computer. Reading a book, however, is a different experience.

    And re: the actual question asked – I take the presence of books in my life for granted. Memory is saturated in them, so they don’t stand out.

  7. says

    Tessa: Re, 3., absolutely. And in posing the question, I was curious to see if in fetishizing books some people would say it’s necessary.

    Re books in your life–they may not stand out, but what was the first time you remember being really struck by a book or affected by one?

  8. Cat Sparks says

    Back in the days of my first full-time job… I was so engrossed in the book I was reading on the way to work — one of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels — that when I arrived at the office I snuck off into a little-used storage room and hid under a table to finish it. I figured it was worth risking the sack for. I didn’t get caught.

  9. Gio Clairval says

    The strangest book experience I had was with a stolen book.

    They say the only people who steal books in a house are your friends, but I didn’t steal from any friend, nor did I forget to give the book back to a buddy who wasn’t exactly a friend (which would have suffused the stealing experience with a perfume of real crime). It wasn’t casual pilferage either; certainly it wasn’t a sudden urge to pocket – in this case ‘to bag’ – a book. No. It was planned robbery.

    You see, I’d carried this large canvas bag to the bookstore, adding several branches of celery because they attracted attention to themselves. I’d read that stage magicians lured the eye by a flourish with one hand while the other did the trick you weren’t supposed to see. So I hoped the celery branches would coax the bystanders into looking at them while one of my hands bagged a book. A simple plan.

    The vendors glared. I have forgotten to say that there were three of us, all with big bags and long celery branches of the greenish kind poking out of them, and bunches tied with rubber bands. The vendors couldn’t keep an eye on each of us as we stormed down the bookstore aisles like schoolgirls on a fun fair. It was an ordinary stealing foray. We were good. Synchronised booklifting, we’d invented the art.

    Then I saw it.

    Encased in red velvet.

    Smelling of parchment.

    It looked like a book that only a very old person with a high salary and a Maserati (and a perhaps a Moto Guzzi, too) could afford.

    When I touched the book, it flung a tingling up to my ears. Parchment high. I lost the thief’s professional distance.

    Hand-printed on the first page: 3/100. The bugger had a service number. It was the third of a one-hundred litter. One of the eldest sibling. This made the stealing more real, not just a prank.
    The title was The Songes Drôlatiques de Pantagruel. I didn’t even read French.

    Uncertain, I stood there, book burning my hand, celery brushing against my stokinged calves.

    “Signorina?” called a vendor. “May I help you?”

    I felt myself blush and followed the vendor to the counter. In automatic mode, I bought another book, according to plan. ‘Never steal without buying’ was one of the first rules of booklifting. When you go to the counter to pay, camera and gorillas lose all interest in you.

    So I paid and took away the uninteresting book I’d grabbed passing by a display. In the park, under a lime tree, my accomplices flaunted their hauls. And you? And you? What did you filch?


    I wrenched the stupid celery out and threw it into a bin.

    A scent of parchment rose from the bag. Parchment is paper with mammalian qualities. The book must have jumped in of his own accord. I didn’t do it. I swear.

    That smell, boy. It was alive.

  10. jeff vandermeer says

    Gio–yer a marvel. (and readers, if you haven’t heard of Gio Clairval yet…trust you will. Hopefully in the next 18 months.)

  11. says

    I can’t wait for that — Gio, if this is an indication of your writing chops, I want more!

    As to whether a book must be physical book, just thought I’d mention that there’s going to be a program at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA on July 30, 2009 entitled “Books, Google and the Future of Digital Print.” It will feature Dan Clancy of Google Books in conversation with John Hollar, CEO of the CHM. They’re advertising that there will be “an extensive Q&A session with attendees.” And it’s free! (Though apparently you must register at the Museum’s website.)

    Me, I both want and don’t want a Kindle. I adore physical books, but I’ve torn both my rotator cuffs, and heaving around big books, not to mention big piles of big books, hurts.

  12. jeff vandermeer says

    Terry–I think I need to interview you for my blawg.

    Yeah, re Gio, she has some awesome novels. I truly believe an agent will take her on soon and she’ll be a supahstah in the next two years.

  13. Doreen says

    Although it was not my MOST revelatory book experience–I just turned 60 and have had many and I’m not sure I could order them–I was only a few pages into Dradin, In Love when the thought came to me out of the blue, as I was blown away by the writing, that my oldest son would have loved it. He was born in 1969 and was a voracious and precocious reader from an early age and enjoyed a wide variety of fantasy and science fiction. He died unexpectedly in 1992, 2 days shy of his 22nd birthday. What strikes me about the realization is that at no time since his death has it ever occurred to me to try to assess whether or not he would’ve liked a particular book or writer. I’ve never thought to attempt that kind of connection; it simply popped into my consciousness. Of my three children, he shared with me most my love of reading, but his tastes mostly went in different directions as he grew up. I have no doubt that were he alive today he’d be an avid and enthusiastic fan of yours. I have at present no interpretation for this revelation, only an awareness. Its effect for the time being has been to heighten my awareness of his personality and literary preferences as I read but I don’t know where that’s leading me yet.

  14. says

    Oh, hey, I’m just your typical lawyer who wants to be an English professor but who is too old to get into a good PhD program and can’t afford it besides, and so instead lives with about 12,000 books and is constantly reading. Dime a dozen. But sure, any time.

  15. Spencer says

    I loved those Fantastic Metropolis interviews – I recently passed along links to a friend who is doing a speech on the necessity of physical books in an increasingly digitized world, and I’m sure she’ll find them highly useful.

    On reflection, so many of the most significant moments of my life have to do with books. I can think of two especially revelatory experiences or epiphanies. The first was reading Finnegans Wake a few months ago. Now, Joyce is one of my very favorite writers and I’ve read Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist, and Ulysses many times each, so I thought I would finally attempt the Wake this year (I had read several excerpts from it before). Nothing prepared me for how exhilarating, gorgeous, brilliant, and hilarious I found it to be, though – I felt like my eyes were on fire, like my head would explode. The sentences seemed to come alive and writhe and wrestle on the page, as though the book were a magic spell and not a work of fiction. It was so sublime and enrapturing I think I experienced Stendhal Syndrome; I even started to dream in words. As far as I’m concerned, it is the human race’s greatest artistic accomplishment.

    The second experience was reading Bolano’s 2666 a few days after it first came out last year. I knew very little going in aside from a sketchy idea of what it was about and the massive acclaim it immediately received. But I didn’t expect for it to have such an effect on me – I read it nonstop for about two days and eventually finished it in the wee small hours of the morning. I was in a daze for a week afterward. It was all I could think or talk about; its images and characters and prose, its terrible beauty, continued to mesmerize me long after I closed the book. After reading and rereading the rest of Bolano’s English language oeuvre over the next months, I concluded that he is my favorite writer of all time, and that 2666 is his masterpiece, the greatest and most unforgettable novel in decades. I felt like I was taking part in some great cultural event by reading a future classic right after it was published, letting the story unfold on its own terms.

    Another one off the top of my head was Tom Disch’s 334, which still moves, horrifies, and haunts me. I’ve never felt so emotionally drained or numb after finishing a book. And then there’s Steve Aylett’s Lint, a novel that changed my life…but I could go on forever about powerful reading experiences.

  16. Hellbound Heart says

    isn’t it the most marvellous thing to buy a book that you know, you just KNOW is going to be a fantastic read and taking it home and the ANTICIPATION of opening its cover and diving into the narrative river…..and isn’t it sometimes with a feeling of vague loss and desolation that you finish the final page of a truly great story and close the back cover……
    i love the wight of a book in my hand and the way the words flow out of the page and drown me in images and suspend my disbelief……my heart goes on a journey in that river and sometimes comes out changed……
    the most transforming book that i read was when i was a child….i bought watership down by richard adams…..i lost myself in the world of hazel and fiver and bigwig and the great rabbit god frith countless times…the beauty and the compassion towards living things and the spirituality and occasional brutality drew me back again and again….i still have that dog-eared worn book in my book case 32 years later…..

    peace and love……

  17. Dorwin Black says

    2. Being a novice book collector, one of the first things I do is place the dust jacket in a Brodart protector. Then, I may spend a few minutes admiring the jacket artwork in its glossy new outfit, reading the blurbs or author bio on the for dustjacket flaps, etc. For illustrated books, I often flip through and look at a few of the illustrations or plates. For books that I am not able to start reading immediately, I will go to my book shelves to find te right location/make space for the new book.

    4. Charleston SC based Aio Publishing has a small catalog of beautifully designed books, including three slender volumes by Zoran Zivkovic in matching black boards, and a signed, limited edition of Ian MacLeod’s “Summer Isles”. Several of their books have won design awards.

  18. says

    I think as to the book as physical object question, that I actually really like the idea of a Kindle or reading text on a screen, because it makes physical the reality that all these books are just ideas floating in space, waiting to be engaged with. It’s like the memory smacks in a Carol Emshwiller story (?) from Asimov’s. The one where they guy turned himself into his ex-girlfriend’s dog. Wish I could dig it up, but I’m at work.

    Anyway, ideas floating in space, waiting to blow our minds.

    Books were never really a physical object. They’re made into them because the ideas inside are valuable enough to make it into a physical artifact.

    Re: Hellbound Heart

    You just described exactly why I have to unhinge myself from Amazon. I check the mail. I check the mail. I tap my foot. The anticipation!

    Then, it arrives and I get to read it and it’s awesome!

  19. Jeff VanderMeer says

    I don’t really think of books as ideas. They contain ideas, but they are not ideas. They become physical objects in our minds. I’m quite drawn to the idea of book as artifact, and I think it adds to the overall reading experience. It can damage or enhance that experience. A good book design and cover, with good descriptive text, can provide the necessary point of entry for a *difficult* book, too. This is important because sometimes what we think is difficult isn’t, if we can just get the right clues to begin with.

  20. says

    I found a copy of Bill Bryson’s “The Lost Continent” on the very last day of what we in Britain call secondary school. I was 17, exams were over, and I was looking forward to going to university in the autumn. Just as I was taking a last look at my old classroom I saw the rather battered paperback amongst a pile of scrap paper and asked the teacher if I could have it. He said the headmaster had left it there for anybody to take, and so to go ahead.

    I read it while on holiday that summer in Madeira while lazing around on the beach. Now whenever I see that book on my bookshelf I think back to that time, over 10 years ago now, and being 17 years old in a foreign country in the hot sun with a whole world of opportunity wide open before me.

  21. Sarah H says

    I was in Spain on a month-long study-abroad trip in high school with some classmates. We’d been turned loose for the afternoon in the ancient city center of some town-Sevilla, maybe, or Toledo. I spotted a sign for a used bookstore, ditched my buddies, and wound up in a tiny hot attic stuffed to the rafters with books.

    All the bookstores I visited in Spain were strange and disorienting. None of them seemed to have the books in any order I could decipher-not alphabetical, not by title, not by subject, not by genre. This one was even wilder. There were books in all the languages of all the passing tourists who had come to exchange a finished book for a new one, stacked and crammed and boxed and falling over in heaps. Book nerdvana.

    I was running out of time when I spotted a big thick paperback en ingles: Tandia, by Bryce Courtenay. He’s the author of my favorite-ever book, The Power of One. At that time his other novels weren’t published in the states, so I didn’t even know they existed. I turned it over to read the back. “…sequel to The Power of One…” I remember that at that moment the cover felt hot and I almost dropped it in shock.

    I paid my however-many pesos and just made it back to the group in time to catch the tour bus. I read that book and cried over the characters all over Spain. I carried it in my backpack, even slept with it in my sleeping bag because I couldn’t bear to be parted from it. An American kid being united with a Canadian-published novel that she desperately needed but didn’t know existed, written by an South African ex-pat from Australia, in a used bookstore in Spain isn’t magic, I’m not sure what is.

    Another quick one: I read the Hobbit in 3rd grade after I found it on my parents’ shelves. I tried The Fellowship of the Ring but I stopped right before the end. After Gandalf died, I knew there was no way they could make it. I cried and hid the book on the bottom shelf. In sixth grade I found The Fellowship of the Ring and read it, but stopped right before the end. It all seemed vaguely familiar, but I knew I couldn’t read on, as the Fellowship was doomed without help from Gandalf. I cried and threw it in a box. In eleventh grade I picked up this book called Fellowship of the Ring, and read it with a strange feeling of deja vu. Gandalf died, and I knew they were all screwed, but I was stronger emotionally, so I finished the book anyway and located the sequel. No reader has ever in the history of reading been more relieved than I was when Gandalf The White showed up. It was like a confirmation that the universe was not indiscriminately evil.