Here’s what I wanted to write today:
It’s here, it’s here, THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE is here!!
…But then I re-checked the order confirmation when I got home from work and realized that sometime between the time I pre-ordered it in March and now, the shipping address I selected somehow reverted back to my old address in St. Louis. So instead of getting the book today in Seattle, I now get to wait another 3-5 days while my first order is cancelled/refunded and my new order goes through.
There’s a special kind of misery in learning that one of your favorite writers has published a new novel but it won’t be available for three more months, and then realizing that the interminable delay you experienced the first time will be drawn out for a million more years because Amazon stores (and apparently randomly assigns) shipping addresses until the end of time.
This isn’t hyperbole, this is actually how it feels.
I read a piece in the Atlantic today about how reading makes us more human. It wasn’t really a piece of its own, it was more of a comparison/companion to two bigger pieces, one being a Gregory Currie essay about how reading makes us better people and the other being an Annie Murphy Paul essay about how reading makes us smarter, nicer people. Both seem mostly accurate to me, because once you reject the Nazi reference in the Atlantic piece (as it is insane), it makes sense that “deep reading,” that is, allowing literary fiction to immerse you in the world of its characters and thereby assuming responsibility for your part in the characters’ lives, would make us more intuitive and empathetic to others in the real, non-book world.
Then, because it was a slow-ish work day and I was still feeling the high of getting “The Ocean At the End of the Lane” (ahem, I didn’t know any better yet), I read the Guardian’s list of the 100 Greatest Novels of All Time.
The list was published in 2003, so while it would seem outdated by normal chronological standards, one can argue that this kind of list doesn’t really change that much. It’s pretty comprehensive, anyway; while I nearly said that I didn’t agree with the greatness of all of them, I then realized that my idea of greatness doesn’t measure up to the true greatness of a piece of literature. For example, Moby Dick is #21 on the list. I expected it to be there, even though according to my tastes, I’d disagree with it ranking at all. I hate Moby Dick. I really, really, really hate it. It’s dense and boring and way too allegorical to make any real sense to any reader, even one who reads deeply and likes facts about whales. In fact, I’m 90% sure that anyone who says they love Moby Dick is lying their ass off and is not to be trusted on matters of taste (they also adore Ayn Rand and Kraftwerk, you just watch).
But I understand why Moby Dick is considered to be a great work of literature. It is big. It is influential. It is important. It is not very good in my opinion, but it occupies a definitive space in the world and even I cannot ignore that. With that said, I’ve read and mostly enjoyed 34 of the books on the Guardian’s list and have existing reminders to buy or borrow several others. Which probably isn’t very impressive to, say, a Comparative English Literature major, but I never went to college and I’m still gainfully employed, so how about you go fuck yourself, smarty pants?
As I moved down the list, I got weirdly/understandably emotional about some of the entries. These were books I read and loved, and although they were completely different and affected me in completely different ways, they still retained an ability to hit me right in the feelies simply with their titles. This is what it is to be someone who reads deeply; I know the books, I know their characters, and in some ways, I think that I know their writers. And I care so much about all of it, all of these worlds that someone else just made up.
In a recent blog entry, Amanda Palmer sort-of-reviewed “The Ocean At the End of the Lane.” I say “sort-of-reviewed” because she only talks about the book itself a little bit, and also because she’s married to Neil Gaiman so as she admits, the review is more about their marriage than the story that came out of it. In the blog, she noted that “The Ocean At the End of the Lane” is Gaiman’s most personal work so far, which is a big deal because – compared to her, the QUEEN OF FEELINGS – he does not write personally. Like many writers of things that are not songs (or diary blogs, memoirs, or poems), he writes made-up-ly. And I get this, because after a certain number of people tell you they’re afraid you’ll put everything you’ve ever said to one another in a story (this has happened to me) or after someone tells you not to write about how they broke your heart (this has also happened, and wtf, it’s your heart), or after you get tired of someone looking for themselves in your work and getting mad when they’re not there, ultimately, you just start making stuff up. It’s easier that way.
This is why I’m so moved by titles years after I read the books, and why when I do find something personal, just a name or a place or a seemingly insignificant detail, I know what a fantastic little clue it is, and what a risk it was to include it. This is why I loved when Amanda Palmer said that the writing process of “The Ocean At the End of the Lane” began as “…neil started crafting a string of words that was like a long hand reaching out of his heart and across the void that i’d put between us.”
Their marital issues aside, the start of all great literature – both the writing and appreciating parts of it – is a long hand reaching out of a heart. Each time my eyes rested on one of my titles (my titles) on the Guardian’s list, that hand grabbed hold and squeezed, and I remembered what it had been like to read that title deeply, and be so thankful that someone had the mind to start making it up once.
For the next few days, I’ll wait impatiently for “The Ocean At the End of the Lane.” I’ll read snippets in other books about crows and Russians and the Industrial Age. I’ll go to the Solstice Parade and look at floppy hippie boobs, and then I’ll go strawberry picking at mine and Courtney’s CSA farm (I’m making strawberry jam, wait, more like strawberry daaaaaaamn).
But above all, I’ll wait for that book.
Thing one: 34 is nothing to sneeze at. I do have an English degree and I’ve only read 17 (and started another ten without finishing), so you’ve got me beat.
Thing two: My theory on classic literature is that you’re not required to like classics. Nothing says that you have to appreciate or relate to a book just because it was the best thing to come out of a certain time period.