What I Talk About When I Talk About Books

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

“Any friend of Gatsby is a friend of mine” -Murakami, Norwegian Wood

Recently, an acquaintance of mine (henceforth referred to as D) brought to my attention that we had only ever spoken about books. I reflected on this. I stewed on it. The implication seemed to be that I was holding D at arms length, perhaps that I was being pretentious. This was, however, a pattern. In part because I spent most of my time this summer with my nose in many books, I had been introducing myself to new people and reintroducing myself to old acquaintances with a single question, “What do you like to read?”

To me at least, it seemed like the perfect conversation-starter: an easy way to get someone talking. In the same way others might ask about other “things” (media, ie music, tv, etc), when I asked D about Bolaño, I wanted the conversation to expand to other topics: friends in common, observations, jokes, etc. But our brief speaking acquaintance hasn’t really gotten past that first book stage, hasn’t become more. Why?

At first, I thought it was something like awkwardness, or bookishness. In that case, the reason why I hadn’t asked about anything more than books was because asking D personal questions, and (in a a parallel track) trying to build up some sort of non “thing” related rapport, would require me to delve into complex territory. To me, personal questions are never about their answers and banter is never about what is said. They’re both about responsive body language and easy inflection, and I felt that my body would betray me. I often betray inattention and anxiety (that I am not, as anyone anywhere else would be, politely absorbed in the conversation) through the unconscious gestures of my body. Perhaps unconsciously, I was keeling the conversation to a topic I had confidence about, where I would portray, the right attitude.

That’s not right, though. That’s too simple, too tied to the interaction and not to the book. If that were the case, the book would’ve merely been a starting point. I asked D about Bolaño in order to arrive at some commonality between us. A novel is composed of words that impart emotional meaning. Some author, it might’ve been Dickens, said that he started his novels by enmeshing his characters in a web of difficulties. We find ourselves enjoying a novel most when the author makes the characters squirm. It can be a desperate ‘squirming’, like in The Plague, or it can be an emotional ‘squirming’, a social ‘squirming’, like in a Jane Austen novel. This is what ‘gets’ us; we empathize with the characters because of their problems. Everyone knows what this ‘getting’ is. Its fruition is that exact moment when we put down the novel because we don’t want to know any more. It’s the moment when I realize that I want this person to be happy.

It’s not just empathy; I don’t just want this character to be happy. If it’s a good novel, I feel that I am them. If I weren’t, why wouldn’t I just treat them as words on paper and read on, disinterestedly? Part of it is as Nick’s father told us at the beginning of The Great Gatsby, (“just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had”), but as novel readers we go farther. More than just a negative like an examination of advantages, we see the protagonist’s dreams as our dreams.

When I ask about Bolaño, I’m asking “Do you secretly wish you were a poet?” I’m asking if you feel constricted by the world you live in. I’m asking if you secretly wish you lived in Mexico City in the mid nineteen-seventies, when everyone was a poet or a writer and lived off crusts of bread? Do you wish you were part of a movement that meant something, that was shocking, that would be documented?

It’s not even just that, though. What I said above is vicarious: living in the world of the novel through the characters. Empathy with the character is something different. It’s the novel brought into the present. It’s quiet daily struggle. Not just the adventures, the big stuff, the eternal stuff. You feel the stress of daily living and question if anyone else ever felt it, and what they did. Did you ever try to do something big to impress someone who stopped caring about you? Do you feel, approaching graduation, a clash of motivations? Have you thought about stopping your job applications, just going somewhere, living in a garret in Barcelona, working as a night watchman at a campground?

And if you feel that way, and I feel that way, if we’re both asking ourselves the same questions and feeling for the same characters, we might have commonalities ourselves. We might be able to speak to each other, become fast friends, because instrumentally, we know the same people. Scratch that: we are in part composed of the same people. That is what I talk about when I talk about books.


  1. “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsly and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who ever had been alive. Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people”
    — James Baldwin, Interview with Life Magazine (May 24, 1963)

    • (That quote was not posted to show off – your article reminded me too much of a Baldwin essay not to post it)

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