It’s easy to forget the breadth and scale of the world’s literary landscape. Millions of books from all cultures, all perspectives and should one step out of his comfort zone, out of the few genres and authors that move and excite him, the vast literature universe can be disorienting, disconcerting. Even those who consider themselves “well read”Â must ask, “What else is out there?”Â
Behind me as I type, two bookshelves dominate the living room. Many of the books were procured by my fiancee during her undergrad and grad school studies. When we moved in together, I lugged three, maybe four boxes of her books up the stairs, impressed by her voracity for literature, albeit necessary for her BA in English and eventual MFA.
Before she moved in, I had my own small bookcase, enough to hold my own collection: a hodgepodge of poetry books, novels and biographies amassed during my years in Washington DC. I peeled the tape from the boxes, and stared at the various titles printed on spines, titles foreign to me. Her collection dwarfed mine three or four times over.
I suppose I had an opportunity to feel inadequate; instead, I took the high road, wanting to read more for reading’s sake, as opposed to some fictitious competition between lovers. I will say, for disclosure’s sake, I did feel competitive—to faceless writers, those who devoured books as part of their matriculation, who could quote the most obtuse Proust passage without spilling a drop of Guinness or Shiraz.
That said, I figured I could start reading my fiancee’s books, but that wasn’t the point. I wanted to start with myself: my tastes, my desires, my favorite things. From there, I could not only learn more about myself as I took the first steps out of my comfort zone, but perhaps discover the limitations of my own perspective—then expand it while, at the same time, approach it from a more nuanced angle.
I use the internet, the interconnectivity of servers and ethernet cables, to fill a literary void in my “real”Â life. Not just the likes of Amazon, but keeping my virtual ear to the ground, remaining tuned to the cyber streets, to catch wind of a good book or, better yet, a masterwork collecting dust in a publisher’s warehouse near you.
My favorite podcast is the New Yorker’s monthly fiction program. A writer, once published in the magazine, reads his or her favorite New Yorker short story. Though the story was discussed by author Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz recorded a reading of “How To Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie,”Â from his collection Â Drown. This was how I discovered Diaz, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning Â The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the writer who changed my life for reasons beyond the scope of this little bit of prose.
Technology and social platforms are as useful as you make them. While it’s hip and contrarian to shit on Twitter as micro-banality, with ‘s oft-played-out quips about tweets on users’Â breakfast menus and bathroom habits, its reach and ability to connect, to relay information, is so powerful, it made Facebook publicly and shamelessly bite Twitter’s style.
Follow along, if you don’t mind.
I used to follow a particular novelist’s blog. Through this ‘s list of links, I found another blogger, my current favorite. When I gave Twitter a second chance, I became a follower of my favorite blogger and, after the blogger followed me back, I ran into a short story writer who followed my favorite blogger (stay with me).
The short story writer raved about a book that just dropped, from an author whose name was vaguely familiar to me. Soon, others in my Twitter timeline echoed her sentiments and, me being human and on a mission for more books, I couldn’t resist. Through 140 character recommendations, I purchased two of the author’s books, his story collection and the novel that dominated my Twitterverse for about a week.
Twitter introduced me to Victor LaValle. I remembered his name because of his collection. Â Slapboxing With Jesus was in my hands years ago, at the bookstore that once employed me. I picked it up because of its title, a quote from Ghostface ‘s “Daytona 500″Â from the classic album Â Ironman. While the collection was good, albeit in the vein of Diaz’s Â Drown, LaValle’s Â Big Machine, his second and latest novel, was one of the best books ‘ve read—ever. Octavia ‘s death left a hole in my heart; her novels lit a spark that Â Big Machine doused with gasoline.
And without the internet in general, the following books would remain unknown to me: David ‘Â Reality Hunger, Elif Batuman’s Â The Possessed, Alexander ‘sEdinburgh (and through his blog, the dope Â Astonishing X-Men series written by Joss Whedon), Roberto Bolano’s Â The Savage Detectives, Â James Hynes’Â Next, Ralph Wiley’sWhy Black People Tend to Shout, Yann Martel’s Â The Life of Pi, Denis Johnson’s Â Jesus’ Son, Francis Flaherty’s Â The Elements of Story, and on. And on. And on.
Someone once said, “writers read,”Â Â so color me committed to the craft. After reading a good book, I go through my emulative phases, like other writers, deconstructing the elemental makeup of Nabokov’s Â Speak, Memory (to no avail, I can assure you) in order to find a new way to arrive at the most daunting of solutions: writing a good story.
And yet, it’s impossible to distill the impact of wanting to read more—and finding online avenues to achieve this—on my personal, professional and creative lives. The best literature impales your perspective years after you closed the book, placed it on the shelf, lent it to a friend (to then never see it again). As much as they’re meant to be read, books are lived as well.
But if you held a gun to my head, and asked me to venture a guess, then I’ll say this much.
Angela Nissel was once the webmaster of Okayplayer.com, the official site of my favorite hip-hop group, The Roots. She soon became a screenwriter for the show Â Scrubs and eventually wrote her memoir, Â Mixed, on her life as a biracial woman. I read her book because she was funny as hell on Okayplayer and I wanted to support her efforts. I remember feeling some kind of way when I read her chapter detailing her stint in a psychiatric hospital, treated for Depression. Four months later, I was diagnosed with Depression.
The symptoms were upon me before I read her book, but I had no name with which to associate my deteriorating disposition. And it would be revisionism to suggest that Nissel’s memoir somehow, magically and mystically, helped me become aware of the illness. I was sick and no book could’ve accelerated or delayed my diagnosis. But there was a connection.
Years later, as my fiancee and I note the overflow from our bookshelves, contemplating the logistics of managing our still-growing library, I think about what I want to achieve as a writer. Even amid obscurity, should someone stumble upon my future book or stories, perhaps through a friend of a friend on Facebook, that connection could be enough. I read a poet’s early work online in 1999; our wedding is in 2011. Literature and the internet is a beautiful combination–
Mensah Demary (true identity: Thomas DeMary II) is a full-time worker bee, part-time fiction writer and occasional blogger at mensahdemary.com. From his home in southern New Jersey, dominated by farmlands and flea markets, he melds technology and the written word, sometimes with mixed results. You can read his story, “Saturn Return,“Â at Up The Staircase.