from a Facebook note

November 21st, 2010

You ask me a simple question, and get a complex answer, and that’s kind of how it goes. If it’s a question about me, I want to answer it honestly, and to me, about me, answering honestly means being precise, and sometimes it means explaining why I can’t answer the question. So I realize I’m kind of trollishly not-playing-along with the question that’s going around Facebook Notes that some friends have tagged me in, but here’s why.

The note asks for a list of authors, “Fifteen authors who will always stick with you.” It asks you to tag friends whose author-list you want to see.

Now, you don’t have to know me very well to know that I read a lot of books. I could certainly name thirty excellent authors off the top of my head. But the note seems to be asking for the Best Of All Time. And there’s a problem with the Best Of All Time writers who are still living, which is that often, as soon as i put them on a “Best” list they come out with another book, and that book doesn’t justify their Best listing. And I don’t think it has anything to do with a decline in quality (or that trite phrase about sharks) but more to do with the high expectations we have for someone we’ve put on a pedestal. So my list wouldn’t be a Best Of All Time list.

I could give you a Writers I’m Digging Right Now list–but then there’s my own hangup about that. From a young age, I knew I had a reputation for becoming deeply enthusiastic about one topic at a time. “One-track mind,” my parents used to say. But at some point I became self-conscious about it, and I overcompensated, thinking that if I was thinking about something a lot, people were probably sick of hearing about it. So as I try to compile a Digging Right Now list I’m thinking, “Everyone’s probably going to roll their eyes and say, I’m so tired of him going on and on about Kim Addonizio, Clay Shirky, Karen Armstrong and Mohamed Hanif.” And I realize that bit of self-consciousness is probably totally absurd.

My real hangup on the issue is my own personal Tattoo Factor. I’ve never gotten a tattoo, and, when asked to explain why, I realized it wasn’t that I was afraid of change, afraid that a 37-year-old me wouldn’t approve of the ink chosen at 19. I was afraid that I wouldn’t change. That I’d be in middle age, gazing on my tattoo with fondness, saying, “That band I liked when I was a teenager? They totally rock.” And while book-related tattoos are less common (among the non-vampire-teens) than band-related tattoos, the thought still stands. I’m no longer the teenager who loved Vonnegut, who insisted that everyone absolutely had to read Breakfast of Champions. I still have endless respect for Vonnegut, but it’s been years since I’ve read his books, and given the choice between re-reading Vonnegut and discovering a new writer, I’m likely to pick the new.

I wanted that change to happen. I wanted my relationship with books to evolve as my relationship with the world evolved. As an awkward high-school student, I wanted to trust in things getting better, and knew that part of things was my own approach to them.

I can’t make this list on behalf of former selves. The 13-year-old who loved Piers Anthony is gone. The 19-year-old who loved Tom Robbins is gone. The 24-year-old who loved Jeanette Winterson, as well, is gone. These writers are worth reading in their own ways, all deserve the successes they’ve had, but I can’t in all honestly sign off on them the way I once did.

In a way, I think I knew that. That teenager, the one who also liked They Might Be Giants and the Cocteau Twins, Monty Python and the Rocky Horror Picture Show, knew his time on Earth was limited. He didn’t fight that. He only felt a little extra urgency to tell people about it before someone else took over the body he was in. I can respect that but I can’t in good faith perpetuate it.

Leave a Reply