One year, a few days before Christmas, the city’s pipes backed up and pushed several thousand gallons of water up through our drains and flooded our basement. A litany of first-world problems resulted: no hot water heater, no boiler, a ruined set of very cool and sturdy luggage, living for a time in an extra room with the in-laws. It gave me a chance to catch up on my magazine reading (they subscribe to Harper’s, New York, National Geographic, and many more), as well as Paris Review “Art of Fiction” interviews (Jonathan Franzen, Ursula Le Guin, Richard Price, etc.). At some point I took notice of all the books floating around the house. My brother-in-law laid on the couch and read Ham and Rye, my father-in-law The Da Vinci Hoax, my wife Taming the Spirited Child. Beyond magazines and internet articles, my reading consisted of books related to my research, Fallout Shelter, One Nation Underground, Survival City, mostly cultural history of one type or another.
I remember envying my relatives reading fiction and non-academic nonfiction all around me, though I also couldn’t wait to get an hour here or there to do a little more writing, another paragraph, another page of notes for my next dissertation chapter. I have a friend who said that the only way she could stay sane was to read novels throughout the process of writing her dissertation on a topic that had nothing to do with literature. She knew that it probably caused her to take longer to finish, but she didn’t feel she had a choice: she needed to absorb narratives and be absorbed by them, to spend time every night before bed in what John Gardner called “the fictional dream” state.
Writing a dissertation does many things to a person. For me, it has provoked daydreams about reading fiction, especially about reading a big novel like War and Peace or Infinite Jest. I’m not usually a fan of big novels, so this daydream is probably more about the kind of limited responsibilities and simple surroundings I imagine I’d have in order to be able to read a big novel. Hemingway read through the Russians and the Frenchmen in the mountains, skiing by day and holding open a volume borrowed from Sylvia Beach by the firelight (I always imagine it this way but he probably had plenty of electric light, too). Franzen says he read for four or five hours a day for five years. Kazuo Ishiguro spent a solid couple of years reading and writing and reading and not doing much else, learning how to build stories like a carpenter builds something that needs to hold up for a few generations. Bob Dylan crashed at a friends’ house, where there were plenty of books, in his early, not-yet-famous, Greenwich Village days, and spent afternoons scouring the microfiche of 19th-century New York papers, reading stories of factory fires and white slavery, rich men struck dead by passing stagecoaches, more fires, riots related to labor or race (usually both), and the routine corruptions of Tammany Hall.
During that Christmas of dissertation writing and couch-surfing and seemingly constant activity swirling around me, I found myself longing for my own short time of being absorbed in literature, a time between my MA and starting the Ph.D. I read Jonathan Ames, and James Baldwin, and Margaret Atwood, and Borges, and García Márquez, and Angela Carter, and Alain de Botton, and Susan Sontag, and whatever else caught my eye at the bookstore or library. As Henry Hill says in Goodfellas, “It was a glorious time.” Perhaps it is the mist of nostalgia lending such exceptional glory to this memory, as that time had its own floods and exiles. Perhaps one day, I’ll look back on the year of the flood, and this year, again immersed in cultural history and critical theory, where the closest I can get to a big novel is The Arcades Project (which I love), and see the glory in these times, too. After writing this, I’m beginning to see it already.