I can hardly believe it, but I’ve become an avid book reader. Novels! I’m carrying a book almost everywhere I go. This is so not me!
For the past 35 years I had not read 35 books in the English language, voluntarily. The number could even be much less. One of the few that come to mind is “The Bridges of Madison County”. It was easy enough, short enough, immediately digestible, and quite lovely. For me even that was hard, but I got through it. Barely!
My excuse for not reading books has been the way English literature was banged into my head. When I was growing up in Abadan, I was constantly reading stories and novels. In Persian. But when I came to the U.S. at age 14, I had to read really difficult texts for my English class at boarding school. I was so terrified, under so much pressure, I simply stopped reading for my own pleasure. It was sheer pain.
I think that’s a silly excuse though. Millions of Iranians left Iran and learned English or other languages in their new environment just to survive and go through school. I’m sure learning was just as hard for them but they weren’t all turned off by reading a foreign language. So many of my friends are bookworms, and they didn’t even learn to speak English at home as a child like I did. There had to be some other defect that put me off.
The other excuse was that I have a short attention span. That I can not focus on anything for more than a minute. I thought the fast-paced and immediate world of internet publishing was not helping me get over my impatience with any kind of “long” and “difficult” text.
I bought a lot of books but didn’t have the courage to read them. And I finally gave them all away when I left California. But the fact that I never read the great classic novels or current literature always bothered me. I knew I was missing out on wonderful stuff. I didn’t do anything about it though. I was waiting for a miracle.
I think the book that changed everything was V.S. Naipaul’s “Miguel Street”. Author/poet Zara Houshmand gave it to me as a gift ten or twelve years ago. I loved it. It was so simple and beautiful. It didn’t make me go and read more books but at least I knew there was great literature out there that I could enjoy without fear, without feeling like it’s a homework assignment.
Then early last year one of my all-time favorite iranian.com writers Flying Solo gave me Somerset Maugham’s “The Razor’s Edge”. That was it! It completely turned me around. I was so enchanted. It unclogged my head. The perpetual red light was now green. I have not stopped since. I cannot describe the thrill, the joy… A whole “new” world opened up to me.
A couple of months ago I was at a bookstore in Krakow, Poland. I did something I don’t remember doing for the longest time. I went into the English section to pick something to read on the train back to Budapest. Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” caught my eye. I knew he was famous for writing about his sexual encounters. And I had strong memories of the film “Henry & June”. I could not put the book down. I didn’t read it in one go, but I remember being amazed that I had read the first 40 pages or so without stopping. To me, that was a miracle 🙂
Yes, there’s lots of sex in “Tropic of Cancer”. But there’s so much more to this masterpiece. His description of his life as a starving aspiring writer, people and the environment in pre-World War II Paris is so grim and yet so magical, so human, so brutally honest. There were mind-blowing passages on virtually every page. I’m sure there will be other books that will shake me to the core, but “Tropic of Cancer” will always remain one of my top favorites.
Here are some excerpts from “Tropic of Cancer” and one from “The Rosy Crucifixion: Book One, Sexus”, also by Miller which I’m currently thoroughly enjoying. I’m on page 304. Ten years ago just the thought of being that far into a book seemed unthinkable…
From “Tropic of Cancer”:
Once I thought that to be human was the highest aim a man could have, but I see now that it was meant to destroy me. Today I am proud to say that I am inhuman, that I belong not to men and governments, that I have nothing to do with creeds and principles. I have nothing to do with the creaking machinery of humanity — I belong to the earth! I say that lying on my pillow and I can feel the horns sprouting from my temples…
“I love everything that flows,” said the great blind Milton of our times. I was thinking of him this morning when I awoke with a great bloody shout of joy: I was thinking of rivers and trees and all that world of night which he is exploring. Yes, I said to myself, I too love everything that flows: rivers, sewers, lava, semen, blood, bile, words, sentences. I love the amniotic fluid when it spills out of the bag. I love the kidney with its painful gallstones, its gravel and what-not; I love the urine that pours out scalding and the clap that runs endlessly; I love the words of hysterics and the sentences that flow on like dysentery and mirror all the sick images of the soul; I love the great rivers like the Amazon and the Orinoco, where crazy men like Moravagine float on through the dream and legend in an open boat and drown in the blind mouths of the river. I love everything that flows, even the menstrual flow that carries away the seed unfecund. I love scripts that flow, be they hieratic, esoteric, perverse, polymorph, or unilateral. I love everything that flows, everything that has time in it and becoming, that brings us back to the beginning where there is never end: the violence of the prophets, the obscenity that is ecstasy, the wisdom of the fanatic, the priest with his rubber litany, the foul words of the whore, the spittle that floats away in the gutter, the milk of the breast and the bitter honey that pours from the womb, all that is fluid, melting, dissolute and dissolvent, all the pus and dirt that in flowing is purified, that loses its sense of origin, that makes the great circuit toward death and dissolution. The great incestuous wish is to flow on, one with time, to merge the great image of the beyond with the here and now. A fatuous, suicidal wish that is constipated by words and paralyzed by thought….
When I look down into this fucked-out cunt of a whore I feel the whole world beneath me, a world tottering and crumbling, a world used up and polished like a leper’s skull. If there were a man who dared to say all that he thought of this world there would not be left him a square foot of ground to stand on. When a man appears the world bears down on him and breaks his back. There are always too many rotten pillars left standing, too much festering humanity for man to bloom. The superstructure is a lie and the foundation is a huge quaking fear. If at intervals of centuries there does appear a man with a desperate, hungry look in his eye, a man that would turn the world upside down in order to create a new race, the love that he brings to the world is turned to bile and he becomes a scourge. If now and then we encounter pages that explode, pages that wound and sear, that wring groans and tears and curses, know that they come from a man with his back up, a man whose only defenses left are his words and his words are always stronger than the lying, crushing weight of the world, stronger than all the racks and wheels which the cowardly invent to crush out the miracle of personality. If any man ever dared to translate all that is in his heart, to put down what is really his experience, what is truly his truth, I think then the world would go to smash, that it would be blown to smithereens and no god, no accident, no will could ever again assemble the pieces, the atoms, the indestructible elements that have gone to make up the world.
What remained then of that indistinguishable world from which I awakened one morning full of tender wounds that had been so skillfully stanched in the night? The face of the one I had loved and lost! Una Gifford. Not the Una I had known, but a Una whom years of pain and separation had magnified into a frightening loveliness. Her face had become like a heavy flower caught in darkness; it seemed transfixed by its own suffused glow. All those memories of her which I had jealously preserved and which had been lightly tamped down, like fine tobacco under the finger of a pipe smoker, had suddenly brought about a spontaneously combustible beautification. The pallor of her skin was heightened by the marble glow which the smoldering embers of memory awakened. The head turned slowly on the almost indistinguishable stem. The lips were parted in thirst; they were extraordinarily vivid and vulnerable. It seemed like the detached head of a dreamer seeking with eyes sealed to receive the hungry lips of one summoned from some remote place. And, like the convolutions of exotic plants which writhe and lash in the night, our lips with endless searching finally met, closed and sealed the wound which until then had bled unceasingly. It was a kiss that drowned the memory of pain; it stanched and healed the wound.
(Thanks to sweet Red Wine for designing the beautiful image for this blog 🙂