Loving Words

By Matthew Cheney

You do not remember if it was love at first sight. You do not remember the first sight. It could have been when you were an infant, your eyes roaming through the undifferentiated landscape beyond your crib or your mother's arms, settling somehow, improbably, magically, upon a bookshelf. It could have been later. Certainly, by the time you could walk you were fascinated by pages and the mysterious words they held, and after you learned to read, the world became a treasure trove of temptation, a concatenation of crushes, a place where bookstores were the best of brothels and libraries lent love.

You love each book differently. Some you love for superficial reasons, for their shape and color, for the texture of their pages and the scent of their history, the way a particular book touches your hand, the way another sits, so dignified and confident, on the shelf. Some you love for what they do to you, the joy they cause, the tales they tell, their eloquence and humor, their depth of insight, their usefulness and charm, the way they touch your imagination and bring your dreams to life. You adore them when they make you laugh, you cherish them when they surprise you and bring a sudden depth to what you see and feel. Even sad books can be fulfilling—indeed, sometimes they're the only ones that can, and you suspect they are the ones that know you best.

You love the books because they are dependable, they wait for you, and when they are most frustrating, you can close them, abandon them, take a break, move to another. When you don't understand what they're trying to say, they remain there, patient, always ready to say it again until you give up or get it. This is how you love them: selfishly. They let you indulge all the worst parts of yourself, and they don't complain.

("I loved your words," he said, "not you.")

You should not be afraid of escape. Let the pedants proclaim against it, but you know love is always escape, the flight from the self while trapped in the self. There's something shameful in it, though, the narcissism of masturbation, and so we all disguise our most pleasurable reading with the best of intentions, declaring ourselves adorers of culture and knowledge, of wisdom and beauty, but listen closely and you will hear the desperation beneath those declarations, the ache to be known for something other than what we are: malcontents and dreamers.

You love a book, but the real erotic charge is between the reader and the writer. One of my favorite poems spreads this truth out like a centerfold, beginning:

Reader unmov'd and Reader unshaken, Reader unseduc'd

and unterrified, through the long-loud and the sweet-still

I creep toward you. Toward you, I thistle and I climb.

Ending:

Disconsolate. Illiterate. Reader,

I have cleared this space for you, for you, for you. [1]

The writer, exhausted. The reader, just beginning. The words as the space in-between.

You love the words because they preserve the wonder of all that potential in the moment between when the writer dug deep (with blistered hands and shattered fingernails, into a well of impermanent passion) and when the reader first approached with naive and unjaundiced eyes, wary perhaps, but nonetheless hoping to be dazzled and entranced. The moment before failure is recognized, the moment before disappointment, the moment before the inevitable heartbreak of recognition and the end.

You learn that the writer is not dead, but that the writer has moved on, and you, reader, despite your hopes and dreams, do not matter to the writer, who is digging for other passions, other words, leaving you with what has been cast off, leaving you always to play catch-up, leaving you forever out of synch, leaving you.

You search through other sentences, other stories, and though you know that they are what you have, you always hope for more, because love makes gluttons of us all.

You speak of loving writers, but it is not writers you love, it is what they have written. One day you will be satisfied with that. One day you will stop searching through the books in search of something else to love, one day you will stop roaming the world looking for the person who is the equal of words, and one day you will settle down, finally, with the one love that has been true, and you will be happy, because all you have, and all you need, are words.

[1] "Sweet Reader, Flanneled and Tulled" by Olena Kalytiak Davis, from Shattered Sonnets Love Cards and Other Off and Back Handed Importunities, New York: Bloomsbury/Tin House, 2003.


Matthew Cheney's work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including English Journal, Locus, SF Site, Rain Taxi, Failbetter.com, and Ideomancer. He writes regularly about SF and literature at his weblog, The Mumpsimus, which was recently nominated for a World Fantasy Award. Read more of his columns in our archives.