While my favorite things to read are either books that can be filed under categories like Historical Nonfiction or articles about how this entire society is either going to be saved by a cronut or destroyed by a Kardashian, I’m still always open to the literary suggestions of others and I often shill out some suggestions as well. It’s funny, though: I feel legitimately guilty if I recommend a book or an article to a friend and the end result is that the person doesn’t enjoy it or get why it maybe meant so much to me. I understand that reading causes reactions and reactions are subjective, but there’s still almost this tangible feeling of failure when it’s revealed that no, your best friend did not enjoy the book Prep and now she really can’t understand why you’re dragging her to a book signing of the author’s follow-up and staring at that author like she’s fucking Elvis. You forgive this friend, of course. After all, she’s the person you stole Easy Riders, Raging Bulls from all those many years ago and you smile every single time you open your pilfered copy and see the one sentence that she underlined in the entire book was a quote by Joan Didion.
How’s the weight loss going? I texted this question to a friend the other night. He had to gain many pounds for an acting role that is now complete.
Only twenty to go, he answered. I’ve been boxing.
You should remake Raging Bull, I responded – and then, just as I pressed send, I had this horrible thudding feeling settle inside of me because nobody should ever remake Raging Bull and what if my text somehow put the entire travesty into motion simply because I’d foolishly introduced those vibes into the universe? What if Jonah Hill's eventual starring role in Raging Bull 2 is all my fault?
I was just about to construct some makeshift prayer that began, Forgive me, Mr. Scorsese, for I have sinned…when a text came back that told me the movie was way too good to ever be remade by anybody and I sighed with relief and jotted back that he should read Easy Riders, Raging Bulls if he hasn’t yet, that he’d love the stories about filmmaking that went down before either of us was even born.
I have read it, he responded. It’s amazing.
That’s why I love you, I wrote back.
So sure, there are some people out there I share some literary taste with and there’s a real comfort in knowing that I can rely on them to offer a suggestion for the next book I can maybe make my own. In return, I’ll propose prospective titles to people who ask – and I try not to reveal too much, except for how much the story itself or one particular character meant to me. In the last five years, I’ve probably recommended these books with the most frequency and urgency:
The Things They Carried
The Virgin Suicides
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls
Is That a Gun in Your Pocket? Women’s Experience of Power in Hollywood
Holidays on Ice
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs
There’s no doubt about it that I veer towards the dark when it comes to the entertainment I choose to consume. More than half of the stories on my list are about people destroying themselves or others – and many of them are about people who suffer from absolutely no remorse about the suffering they’ve caused. Still, every single one of those books is written with a style and a rhythm I respond to completely and there is always more than one character who captivates me throughout the telling of the winding tale. These are books I’ve read more than three times each – and a few I’ve read far more times than that – and, yes, I do have favorite sections and sure, sometimes I might even skip an entire chapter, but they bring me joy every time I revisit them and I always manage to walk away with something I hadn’t noticed before and it feels like I’m getting a parting gift from an old and trusted friend.
I found out recently that Bruce Springsteen will soon be releasing an autobiography that he worked on in secret for a few years. I guess such news means that, come September, I will pick up my Kindle one evening and flip to the book I’ve already pre-ordered and sit on my couch or on my terrace and read about the life of the man who has in many ways narrated my own life. The actual reality is that, while I know all of his music and his general history, I made a choice a long time ago not to read biographies about him or delve into what I can uncover about his personal life. It’s not his personal life that interests me. Instead, it has always been his skill in storytelling and the intricate way he weaves narratives and how he can play guitar and harmonica at the exact same time. It’s how he makes me feel when he walks on stage. It’s how, with a flick of his wrist, he can get 80,000 people to thrown their hands into the air. I guess one of the reasons I never read all those books about Springsteen that people gave me throughout all these years is that I just never wanted to know any of the bad stuff. I didn’t want any of his pesky human frailties to impact the way his music makes me feel – and it has not been all that difficult to avoid looking.
But since these are his words and this will be a story he is choosing to tell (one that will be edited with his steadfast approval), I will read that book. I’m also dying to read a story called The Girls that’s coming out in June and is written by a young woman who allegedly sat back and watched with a smile as publishers waged a bidding war to get to be the company that released this fictional account of some of the girls who followed Charles Manson back in the hazy day. And I feel like I’ve been waiting to read it forever – or at least since she stopped writing those Vice columns – but I hear that Cat Marnell will finally release How to Murder Your Life next year and then we can all finally know exactly what it feels like to be drugged out on a city street because that’s obviously not something I’ve ever experienced – except for all those times I was probably standing next to her on that street and just didn’t know it because my mind was rather foggy, too.
I’ve gone through some literary stages for sure. I went on a Chuck Palahniuk bender once. I read Fight Club cover to cover and then moved on to Choke. That stage officially ended after I purchased his book Haunted and I realized that its cover – emblazoned with an image of perhaps the scariest face ever – sort of glowed in the dark and I would wake up in the dead of night and go to get some water and I would see that book as it appeared illuminated on my shelf as though it had been lit from within by what I just assumed was a demonic force. Wanting some lighter fare, I started reading about the year 1968. I read texts about the movies that were released that year and I read stories about what it felt like as the ground shifted beneath society and a potentially immoral war raged on and on while leaders were assassinated one right after the other. I went through a Nick Hornby phase for a little while before I veered entirely off-course and started reading books about religions I’d heard about but knew nothing about. I dove into a bizarre ocean of Scientology texts and I grabbed onto Under the Banner of Heaven like it was an orange floaty and I explored the origins of the most fanatical of religions before walking away and wondering just what it might take for me to ever become one of those followers who actually had it in her to believe.
I found that I love oral histories, even though that sounds like such a dirty thing to say. A bunch of years ago, a book about Saturday Night Live came out that told the sprawling tale of this show from its genesis to the present day. Every single cast member, producer, writer, crew member, musical guest, and host who was still alive shared their anecdotes about the time spent on the show and the scope of the story was massive and I walked away from it with a huge respect for a show I haven’t actually watched in years and a far better understanding about the intricacies of television production, including how expensive it can be to feed such a large cast on writing nights. I moved on from there to the oral history of punk and then left that proverbial guitar-filled gutter to learn a little bit about the tragic events that went down all those years ago at Kent State. When Vanity Fair published an oral history on The Simpsons a bunch of years ago, I devoured it whole – much like I imagine Homer would have done had the piece been covered in pink frosting. I think I just really love the format and the construction of a good oral history, especially the way the reader gets exposed to one event from so many perspectives.
I remember spending a good deal of time for a while at this guy’s house and how I would often have a book with me in my purse because that’s just the kind of thing I carry around. Whatever size my bag is for the day, I have undoubtedly shoved an enormous amount of shit into it and, though I initially thought my shoving was done sort of strategically, I can never find a single thing when I need it. At some point during every day I will need to pull things out of my purse one at a time in an effort to locate that one item (usually lip-gloss) that I feel I so desperately need. I will riffle through full packs of peppermint gum and empty packs of peppermint gum. I will briefly touch a business card someone gave me a million years ago that I’ve kept. I will optimistically grab onto four other lip-glosses before realizing that not a single one is the exact tube I’m looking for. Once I found a black lace thong in one of the zippered compartments of one of my bags and it was clean and all, but I couldn’t remember why I’d put it there in the first place. And buried somewhere in all of those crowded bags – between the bottle of water and the packets of Benadryl and the receipt from Starbucks that I used to blot my lipstick and then kept because the pout of lipstick I’d created in the blotting moment was so perfect that I figured it ought to be celebrated for all of posterity by living in the depths of my cognac-colored leather purse – would be a book that I’d read while the guy I was with took a shower or had to do some work. I can’t recall all of the books I lugged over to his house, but I know one was You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried, a biography on the work of John Hughes, and I remember that I saw him flipping through it once after I’d left it on the bed and how he smiled at me then and told me that he liked that I read so much. He was cool. He never looked at me funny if I whipped out a pen and started scrawling notes in the margins of a book and once or twice he asked me if he could read the book when I was finished with it. But then came the time when I borrowed a book from my mother because she told me over the phone that it was “a fun read” and she left it on her kitchen counter one day and told me to drop in and pick it up. I arrived to see a glossy cover in the shade of expired-Pepto-Bismol pink with two girls walking down a beach away from the camera. Only their backs and their tumbling naturally-beach-wavy hair could be seen and I wouldn’t be able to recall the title of the novel if you put a gun to my head, but I’ll guarantee you that this book that I finished in less than a day and then promptly forgot every detail of, from the title to the author to the name of the protagonist, has sold a bazillion more copies than either one of my books has. At any rate, when I was at that guy’s house, I remember going downstairs to get a bottle of water and how I walked back into his bedroom and he was looking quizzically at the pink book before glancing up and saying, “This doesn’t seem like your usual style,” and I burst into laughter and realized in that instant that this guy actually knew me for real.
There are some books on my shelves that I’m a little bit embarrassed that I bought in the first place, let alone read from cover to cover. Sure, the shit that humiliates me the most is buried deep within my Kindle, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have hardcover copies of books about what it was like to live in the Playboy Mansion. I own a real copy of Fifty Shades of Grey. I've bought all of Tori Spelling’s books. I understand shame. Even worse are those self-help books I bought on a whim of momentary misery, the kind with starkly-drawn hearts on the cover and titles that swear that I will feel all better in seven days if I just read the fucking book and refrain from heaving it against a wall or burning it in a field for the betterment of all of humanity. I don’t think I’ve finished a single one of those books. Still, it’s hard for me to get rid of books, even the books I’ve chosen not to finish, but a book I just read is trying to encourage me to do just that. A friend recommended The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and I tried not to feel insulted when she suggested I buy and read it immediately. Written by a Japanese expert in the art of decluttering – which is apparently a thing – the book lays out exactly how to get rid of the shit in your life you just don’t need and it encourages you not to do a little tidying up each day, but to dive in full-force and create your very own landfill today.
Some of what the book recommends throwing away makes total sense. I went through the drawers of the console in my living room and tossed old television manuals and remotes for devices I don’t even have plugged in anymore and about a hundred oddly bent paperclips. I actually looked closely at what was living in both of my medicine cabinets and threw away expired cough syrup and half-empty tubes of toothpaste and easily sixty small envelopes of free samples of things like moisturizer that have shown up in every package I’ve received from Sephora in the last decade. According to the book, not only will I never use those free samples, but they actually are no longer even effective after a month or so, which basically means that I’ve become a hoarder of expired beauty products and it’s probably time for me to break that cycle. Anyway, once I got rid of old packets of skin cleanser, I continued my forage and triumphantly threw away a diffuser for a hairdryer I haven’t owned in four years and besides, I’ve been straightening my hair for so long that it won’t go curly again, not even if I start praying nightly to the Gods of Felicity Past.
But the prospect of getting rid of my books has presented far more of a problem for me. The decluttering expert made it very clear that books are made for reading and then for passing on so they can move through the world and bring joy to others, but I’m just not completely on board with that mentality. First of all, I like the look of books lined on my shelves. Even aesthetically, I respond to the differentiating heights of the spines and the contrast in the lettering. I like walking into my office and catching a glimpse of my long-treasured copy of Catch-22 and knowing the backstory of just how that book came to be signed by Joseph Heller and was then gifted to my father before it came to live forever on my shelf. According to the rules from the master tidier, Catch-22 would be one of the books I’d get to keep. See, the way to go about it is to apparently hold up each book one at a time and ask yourself, “Does this book bring me joy?” And if the book does not bring you joy, you should get rid of it immediately by donating it to a shelter or to a library or handing it off to one of your friends whose levels of joy apparently do not concern you all that much. I see some logistical problems to this methodology and they’ve scrambled my plans to just go ahead and get started in my decluttering endeavors. First off, I have a fucking ton of books. Picking each one up and contemplating the level of joy it brings to my life will be quite the time-consuming activity and the recommendation is that I do not do this over a period of days or weeks, but that I dive through my crap all at once. Secondly, my office is upstairs and eliminating so many books will require that I carry books or heavy boxes filled with books downstairs and I’m really not in the market for anymore cardio right about now. Third, a lot of viable emotions can be created by an exposure to a book, but that doesn’t always mean that joy will be one of them. Can one really say that The Diary of Anne Frank brings about joy? What should the other qualifiers then be for keeping something? Might “humiliation that someone else knows you purchased this item in the first place” be an acceptable reason to hold onto something like a Jackie Collins hardcover book that you once paid full price for and has a gigantic diamond ring in the shape of a leaping panther emblazoned on its cover?
There were a few years there where I didn’t think I would ever make the switch from an actual book I could hold in my hand to electronic copies of books, but I folded long ago and my Kindle has changed my life. I love that I can get books immediately because one really cannot survive anymore in this society without developing an I-Want-It-Now mentality like we’ve all been reincarnated as Veruca Salt. Besides, I’ve used up all of my bookshelf space. But I know there are definitely books I can make myself get rid of, especially the ones I never remember buying or the ones I’ve owned for decades and still haven’t read. And maybe if I get rid of some of those books, I can then organize what’s left on the shelf by placing the books in stacks beside a cool vase that has a pop of color or next to some picture frames in the kind of minimalist style to which I’m continually drawn. It’ll take work – hard work – to actually master the art of tidying up like this author insists that I am perfectly capable of doing, but I’ve decided that I’m up for a challenge and I’m going to just slightly modify her qualifications for keeping something. I will ask myself these questions in order to determine what I shall say goodbye to forever and what I will choose to keep in my life:
1. What memories come to mind when I see and hold this book?
2. Did this book allow me to learn something important? Have I mastered that lesson or is it something I need to learn again?
3. If this is a book of humor, will the jokes make me laugh the second time?
4. Can this book fit into a category, like Horror Film Criticism? If so, does it truly better my collection or does it just take up space?
5. Who gave me this book?
Using those variables, I will probably be able to chuck a bunch of books for once and forever. At the very least, I’ll be able to take a scenic walk down literary memory lane. And the very moment I finish this decluttering process, I am shoving that book into the hand of someone I truly hate so I never have to see it again because this thing that I bought in an effort to simplify my life has only made it feel even more complicated.
I’ll bet there’s a book out there that can help me deal with all of this confusion…
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle. (And if you buy her book, she hopes it brings you joy.)