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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 previous interviews include such writers as Lydia Millet, Jeff VanderMeer, Leena Krohn, Jeffrey Ford, and Kit Reed. More of his work can be read in our archives.
Current Issue
30 Jan 2023

In January 2022, the reviews department at Strange Horizons, led at the time by Maureen Kincaid Speller, published our first special issue with a focus on SF criticism. We were incredibly proud of this issue, and heartened by how many people seemed to feel, with us, that criticism of the kind we publish was important; that it was creative, transformative, worthwhile. We’d been editing the reviews section for a few years at this point, and the process of putting together this special, and the reception it got, felt like a kind of renewal—a reminder of why we cared so much.
It is probably impossible to understand how transformative all of this could be unless you have actually been on the receiving end.
Some of our reviewers offer recollections of Maureen Kincaid Speller.
When I first told Maureen Kincaid Speller that A Closed and Common Orbit was among my favourite current works of science fiction she did not agree with me. Five years later, I'm trying to work out how I came to that perspective myself.
Cloud Atlas can be expressed as ABC[P]YZY[P]CBA. The Actual Star , however, would be depicted as A[P]ZA[P]ZA[P]Z (and so on).
a ghostly airship / sorting and discarding to a pattern that isn’t available to those who are part of it / now attempting to deal with the utterly unknowable
Most likely you’d have questioned the premise, / done it well and kindly then moved on
In this special episode of Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast, reviews editors Aisha Subramanian and Dan Hartland introduce audio from a 2018 recording for Jonah Sutton-Morse’s podcast Cabbages and Kings which included Maureen Kincaid Speller discussing with Aisha and Jonah three books: Everfair by Nisi Shawl, Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan, and The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar.
Criticism was equally an extension of Maureen’s generosity. She not only made space for the text, listening and responding to its own otherness, but she also made space for her readers. Each review was an invitation, a gift to inquire further, to think more deeply and more sensitively about what it is we do when we read.
In the vast traditions that inspire SF worldbuilding, what will be reclaimed and reinvented, and what will be discarded? How do narratives on the periphery speak to and interact with each other in their local contexts, rather than in opposition to the dominant structures of white Western hegemonic culture? What dynamics and possibilities are revealed in the repositioning of these narratives?
Tuesday: Genre Fiction: The Roaring Years by Peter Nicholls 
Wednesday: HellSans by Ever Dundas 
Thursday: Everything for Everyone: An Oral History of the New York Commune, 2052-2072 by M. E. O'Brien and Eman Abdelhadi 
Friday: House of the Dragon Season One 
Issue 23 Jan 2023
Issue 16 Jan 2023
Issue 9 Jan 2023
Strange Horizons
2 Jan 2023
Welcome, fellow walkers of the jianghu.
Issue 2 Jan 2023
Strange Horizons
Issue 19 Dec 2022
Issue 12 Dec 2022
Issue 5 Dec 2022
Issue 28 Nov 2022
By: RiverFlow
Translated by: Emily Jin
Issue 21 Nov 2022
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