Friday, March 16, 2012

The Book Changes You

I recently reread a book, When The Messenger Is Hot, that I last read when I was in high school. I've always remembered it and thought of it fondly, so on my post-Christmas Amazon spree I added it to my cart.

I first read this collection of short stories when I was 17. My local library had a short stories section and I'd always pick out a few collections and toss them in my mom's LL Bean tote (our shared book bag). I read this book of stories and my 17 year old mind WAS. BLOWN. I even brought it into school to lend to my friend Lara and she loved it too, and we both just felt like, wow this is a book that was meant for us. I ended up writing a poem based off of one of the stories, a poem about awkward and doomed love, which is what I interpreted Elizabeth Crane's story "He Thinks He Thinks," to be about. I remember When The Messenger is Hot being all about love and sex and cool city life and women and drinking and everything I wasn't fully yet but wanted to be.

Reading it again, I'm struck by several things. I still enjoy the book quite a bit. It's funny! And it's good. Also, I think Elizabeth's Crane writing style has affected my own writing style without my having realized it. She wrote all these long sentences with lots of ands, sentences that make you feel like you're speeding, breathless, with feelings and reasons accumulating behind you. I had never before read a book whose words read like my thoughts or my patterns of speech; When The Messenger is Hot did. She also uses the second person a lot, which is common to my writing, both my poems and the small amount of fiction I've written (none of that fiction will ever see the light of day).

I have enough distance from the book that I'm not really reading it nostalgically or trying to recapture the feelings of my first read. In 2003, the book felt like a primer on adulthood. How to be the kind of glamorously fucked up yet smart yet sad yet sexy young woman I imagined myself growing into once I was in college and the "real world." The women in the book were the women I wanted to be and the women I imagined myself being, kind of truer-to-life versions of romantic comedy heroines like Lalena in Reality Bites, or maybe a poorer and less ridiculous Carrie Bradshaw. They had jobs and boyfriends and messiness and man, the messiness seemed like JUST the messiness I envisioned my life having when I was in my twenties.

The book itself doesn't change, but my own narrative changes. The adult reader in me reacts to totally different aspects of When The Messenger Is Hot, like the way that the book is SO MUCH about the female speakers' grief over the death of a parent (something I have firsthand experience with) and guilt/shame about not really having found a place in the world or conventional success (career-wise. Also? DING DING. Something I have personal experience with.) I am connecting much more to what I see as the collection's realistic rendering of the blahness of adulthood, a "variety of scenarios ranging from me forgetting to pick up milk accidents varying in degree from chipped paint to fender-bender." I find myself laughing at different parts of the book, like when the narrator of "Year-at-a-glance" decides to smell her dead mother's perfume sparingly so it doesn't get used up. I don't really laugh at the fucked up boyfriends doing typical fucked up boyfriend shit, something I imagine I laughed knowingly about when I was a teenager.

I read When The Messenger is Hot once, almost ten years ago, but my reread made it clear how much it stuck with me. Weird, though, how our relationships with books, even important ones (even important ones you didn't know were important), change. How you change, how the book changes you. How the book changes, although of course the book doesn't actually change. I don't know. I think I've said everything I want to say but I don't feel like I made the awesome point I set out to make when I started this post.  Of course we, as readers, aren't static. Of course we don't read in a vacuum and of course we take our lives with us to the page. I mean, that's what literature is about, right?

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