It’s winter. I have started smoking again. I have somehow convinced myself that exiting my apartment to smoke a cigarette in the 25-degree air at 4am will make me warm. I wasn’t that cold to begin with. But here I am, grasping a mug of coffee and smoking. I shift my weight from foot to foot, lean against the side of the building with one shoulder, then after a few inhalations shove off to lean with the other. When I return upstairs to my apartment, I know the coffee will be cold.
I have started this ritual of smoking in the 4am quiet air that envelopes my dark street, because I recently read an essay in which the narrator did the same thing. I wanted to feel connected to the words in the essay, the way the narrator took her body outside to smoke and consider the early morning air. So I follow suit. I don’t force myself to emulate the narrator, but I begin to engage in similar activities, feeling closer to the words, to the narrator as I do as what she does. I shuffle my feet, inhale, and gaze out at the world like her. While I am not a regular smoker, when I read of someone else having a 4am cigarette, I decided to integrate it into my own ritual. Because it feels right. Because it pulls my flesh in closer to the words. I stand puffing into the shivering air and grab hold of the wispy thoughts that swirl with the smoke as I look up into the black sky, as I sink my body into the memories of words, those elements of this world that keep me company in solitude.
The pages crackle as I bend the covers through my hands. Poetry spills into me through the open spine and nosedives into my flesh. I can smell the ink pressing into my skin, and feel the transfer of oil from fingertips to page. It dampens. I leave evidence of my reading infatuation behind. Each page proof I was there.
It is night. I am reading. I wrap my hair around my fingers, absentmindedly twist the light brown dreadlocks around my pale palms. Inside my brain the palpitations of the poem swirls. Outside my brain, my hands twirl around a texture. The touch encourages my body to be present. I am a novice at this activity. It is in fact my first attempt to keep my body engaged while I read, to immerse all of myself into all of the text. Usually I read in the bath, the chair, or on the couch, and lose my body in each tale, each stanza. I am used to my body being just a thing that holds my brain, that provides me with the eyes I need to read. I have never been cognizant of my body as it is a reading body, have never before had an awareness of this body as an active part of reading. But earlier in the night I experienced something that nudged me into the realization that this body is a part of the reading activity, something I take with me flesh-first into the words.
What happened: I was standing, leaning against a bookcase. My Styrofoam cup of coffee was balanced on the bookshelf next to me. I was in a bookstore, listening to an author read. After hearing her words as they filled the air, I felt them travel through my ears, and enter into my skin. My body filled with sensation as it soaked in the sound of her breath. It was my flesh, my rib cage, my bones, my lungs, my blood that listened to the author’s voice, the rhythm of her speech, and those enticing words. My whole body heard, was physically present.
The beat of her breath carried each sentence into a new sensation, inflections made muscles flex. I felt the narrative emerge from her body, drift in the air and towards the interior of my skin.The drumming of the words soothed and soared. The pulse of her breath eased and pushed. I breathed into the space each caesura created. The words exhaled into my mind, and I inhaled a new sense of textual understanding. I was no longer simply listening. I was experiencing, feeling, connecting, becoming present in my flesh as it listened. It was a thrumming sense of existence. An awareness of my presence. I was ensconced by the air pulsating with words that beat along with my heart.
And now here I am, back in my apartment, needing to keep that sense of text traveling throughout my body alive. I bring the rhythm of words back home with me. My flesh tingles. I tuck my connection to the feeling of words inside my chest. I press, grab hold of my hair and sink into my bed with a book of poetry. My feet rub together, my legs and butt ground me in my bed, allowing me to sit comfortably, to read. My body feels grounded, steady yet floating with the stanzas, and I become engrossed with my body. My mind engages with the text. My heart thumps with each word, each letter that I read.
I do not remember learning how to read. But I do remember trying to jump into my books.
I am four. I am lying on my stomach in my bedroom. I am reading the most captivating story. With the book splayed open on the shaggy gray carpet in front of me, I know I want to be in the book, in with those characters and that story.
I move. I hoist my body off the floor, and plant my feet into the gray carpet. I toe the edge of the book, and bend my knees deep. Springing up as high as I can get, I aim my body to land directly in the center of the book, the story. I jump right on top of the pages, expecting to travel into them. This does not work. I am not transported into the tale. I try again. Jump. Nothing. Jump. Nothing. My long brown French braids hit the base of my neck with each bounce, each tip hitting my back with proof of my failure. I want those braids to soar upwards as I fly down into the fantastic wonderland of the story. Jump. Nothing. With my fifth attempt I digress to stomping my foot on the book, frustrated that all of those characters in the marvelous little story are keeping me locked out. Why won’t they let me in? Why am I not allowed to physically be a part of the story? With more stomping, I rip a page in the book. The tale now ruined.
Of course I now know something my four-year-old self could not have possibly conceived of, that just by reading the book I was in a way entering into it and keeping the story alive. By reading I was becoming a part of the tale. But I did not know that then. And if I did, I wouldn’t have been satisfied with that. I have always wanted more.
I am twenty-four and find myself squatting in an antiquarian bookstore. Three days ago I did not know the term “antiquarian.” Rare was the word I used for those old books, those dusty texts I never considered as treasures. They were just obsolete tomes, words that lonely, withered men hunted down in order to feel a connection with something as ancient as themselves. But here I am, looking for something of my own with which to connect, something that will hopefully be found in the archaic fiction section. I do not know what it is. But something. Preferably by a woman.
I am here because a a woman named Diane, whom I do not personally know, has prodded me in this direction. Diane is an author who has created a character named Margaret in the novel The Thirteenth Tale. In this novel, Margaret owns an antiquarian bookstore. It is not the antiquarian bookstore I am in, because hers is fictional. But Margaret and Diane are the reasons I am here, the words in the book being what drove me.
Diane lured me in. She wrote about the smell and feel of old books stacked on shelves, and I wanted to finger those books with my own skin, wanted to take into my body the palpitations of the text. In the first chapter, Margaret runs her fingers along the dusty spines. In this actual antiquarian bookstore, I do the same. I softly caress the spines, searching for something that will bring me closer to Margaret. I gather my thoughts of Margaret and the events she has experienced, and tuck these imaginations into my skin. As I slowly rise from the bottom of the fiction shelf—the W’s brought me no relief—I have to hold onto the wall to steady a head rush, a flash of red that sweeps through my body. Lately I have been devouring Margaret’s tale. I am so consumed with it that I have forgotten to eat. Instead of food, I nibble at and gnaw on words to sustain myself. The stories expand in my body.
I am close to the end of the novel, and Diane has created an eerie turn of events. The novel has become Gothic, hinting at Jane Eyre as the story is immersed in suspicions of a mad woman in an attic. For the first time in my reading life, I am suddenly interested in the Gothic. I seek to inject an ancient copy of Jane Eyre into my veins, to feel the text pulsate through me. Maybe that is what I am looking for in this musty store.
Once the head rush passes through, I look for a copy of Jane Eyre, but do not find one. So instead I grab a copy of Ethan Frome. I rush home to continue reading about Margaret, as I only have fifty pages left in The Thirteenth Tale. Ethan Frome sits on the shelf next to my bed, impatiently waiting to be the next novel engulfed by my body. But first I must reach the end of Margaret’s twisted and torturous tale tonight. As the pages dwindle in my hands, I realize the memory of this story is now stored in my body. Margaret’s adventure, her body in motion as she stumbled around a crumbling house in order to solve the mysterious plot sits on the shelf of my bones, on the rungs of my rib cage as I keep the feel of the text close to my heart. I can sense her gasps collecting at the bottoms of my lungs. My toes become blue with cold as the phantasmal night falls upon the narrative. Once the pages of the story are put to rest, the Gothic genre nestles into the cavity of my chest.
The book will end, but I will forever want more. A good story never completely satisfies, it leaves me wanting. A good book teases. When reading such a satisfying text, I consume almost every bit of it in a day, that is except for the last twenty pages. These final pages are like a delicate dessert. I want to savor the story I have just read. I’ll covet these final words like a secret stash. I quell my rising anxiety about the book’s end by letting a morsel of the text remain while I find my next fix—the next tantalizing collection of gratifying words. It will take me another week to finish the last twenty pages not because I have lost interest, but because I do not want the story to end or the character’s existence to cease. I know I’ll crave more, so I wean myself slowly off of it.
Another book, another addiction, another connection. I am almost finished with a memoir about the bond between two female authors. There is friendship, and there is grief. There are dogs, and there are hours spent rowing. Two women meet just when they didn’t know they needed a friend. Each woman had finally settled into a stable, relatively happy life. There wasn’t much more they thought they needed. And then they stumble across each other as their dogs tumble around them. I read of a friendship that grows so steady and deep, that the eventual death of one just feels like another part of their journey. As if grief over the loss of one is another thing they can face together. There are words about work, writing, hunger, lakes, picture frames, and letting go. The words of grief are sad, but the sorrow emphasizes a reflective sense of joy. I myself need to learn how to let go.
As I near the end of the extraordinary tale, my knuckles hold on tighter. This is not because the pages continue to soar, but because I clench onto them, resisting their departure. They are about to take flight, and I am not ready to see them leave.
It takes me a week to release the last twenty pages. And when I do, I cuddle with the story one last time. I fall asleep with her in my arms. Once I have breathed through the eventual end of my relationship with these words and these women, I am unable to become fully immersed in another book. The high cannot be matched. Not yet. I skim and flit about other books, reading the first thirty pages of numerous other stories. They are interesting and intriguing, but are ultimately not what I need. They do not match what I had.
I decide to re-center myself by engaging in a favorite activity: used bookstore browsing. There’s the longing, the hunt, and the satisfaction. There’s the discovery of something I did not know I needed to find. Finding it makes me ecstatic. Right now, a sense of calm sweeps through my body as I recall the moments of discovering a book I did not know existed—a book that spoke to me when I realized a buried part of me needed to be spoken to.
On the rare occasion I do not find something promising at the used bookstore, I return to my apartment and bite my fingernails as I browse my shelves for what I think will hit the spot.It would probably help to ease the effects of my reading obsession if I got rid of books, but I don’t. I horde. And while I do have a compulsion to share these texts with the people I love, I have learned to never lend a book unless I don’t care about getting it back. I’ve lost too many favorite books to ex-lovers. I cannot continue to go down that haunted road. And that’s exactly how it feels when I notice I do not have a book I know was once there. There is an absence. A ghost lingers nearby. There is nothing I can do but grieve. Its empty place on the shelf feels dark, cold. Gaping. An unnerving tinge of sadness creeps beneath my skin when I realize what it is I have lost.
I am reading another memoir. I look at the words. I am not reading anymore. The words are now reflections. I am staring at myself. This is not about a book speaking to me. This is about words imprinted on my veins long before the author felt them in her own hands. I do not need to read these books to know their stories. I could have written them myself. I’ll read ten pages, wait a few weeks and read another ten or so—the whole time feeling as if I’ve been reading them every day. During the breaks, the words multiply and spread in my body. I become subconsciously obsessed. I cannot think of much else. My life has become the book. I barely need to read it to know this.
I continue to stand outside of my apartment in the chilly 4am air, shifting my feet and smoking my cigarette. I am thinking about my body, my mind, and my reading habits. I see now I have always read with my body, but I have never been aware of it. My body has forever tried to enter the text. Yes, reading is a form of mental escape, but my body is never completely separated from the words. It is there resting, waiting for my attention to come back to it.
My cigarette ends. The light has not shifted in the short time I have been shuffling my feet on the little square of cement outside my building. With the cigarette gone, I inhale a sense of the connection I felt to the essay that inspired me to come down here and smoke in the chilly air. When I dragged my body down the stairs, the vibrations of the details of this essay rang through my blood. The cement, the park across the street, the smoke in the crisp air. Feeling connected to the words and scene as I smoked, I realized how it is that my body reads. Through emulation and inundation, through trips to antiquarian and used bookstores, through sinking into my skin as it reads and jumping into books. My connection to reading, my love in finding solitude amongst others’ words lives in my body.
Chelsey Clammer received her MA in Women’s Studies from Loyola University Chicago. She has been published in THIS Literary Magazine, The Rumpus, Atticus Review, Sleet, The Coachella Review and Make/shift among many others. She received the Editor’s Choice prize from Revolution House and the Nonfiction Prize from Cobalt for her essays “BodyHome” and “I Have Been Thinking About,” respectively. She is currently finishing up a collection of essays about finding the concept of home in the body. You can read more of her writing at: http://chelseyclammer.wordpress.com.