Reading into connections
Despite the high-profile publicity around the world of books and publishing (consider the number of literary prizes awarded in the last few months and the plethora of Best of 2016 lists all around us), the act of reading is itself utterly personal. How we react to a book, how we connect with a story, is completely subjective, largely immune to any sense of objective quality or acclaim (my continued fondness for the novels of Dan Brown of The Da Vinci Code fame, despite their myriad problems, is an ongoing testimony to this).
The intimate connection between reader and book is at the heart of Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live, the new collection of essays from award-winning fiction writer Peter Orner. As Orner writes in his “Notes for an Introduction” — which he asserts he is composing in the garage which serves as his office, in which there is no longer any shelf space for new books —“fiction isn’t machinery, it’s alchemy.”
The essays in Am I Alone Here explore that very personal alchemy, as Orner recounts the particular books that spoke to him, or with which he connected in some way (one suspects it’s a sampling, not an exhaustive list).
In discussions of books ranging from A.S. Byatt’s The Matisse Stories to Moby Dick to Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse and dozens of others, Orner explores not only the works themselves but, to a greater degree, how they became important to him, illuminating corners of his mind and soul, resonating against his personal experiences. That these experiences include the end of his marriage, his role as a parent and the death of his estranged father lends the book a power that seems to be greater than the sum of its parts.
Am I Alone Here isn’t quite literary criticism, nor is it quite a memoir. Rather, it feels like an act of self-exploration and revelation. As a result, one experiences a fresh understanding of the books, but also a keen empathy for, and connection with, Orner himself. Readers will come away from Am I Alone Here with a significant reading list; I’m starting with Orner’s own fiction.
Am I Alone Here, by Peter Orner, Catapult, 276 pages, $24.50.