Am I Alone Here? Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live by Peter Orner
Peter Orner keeps books under the seat of his car “for long lights”, and has thrown one of these books from from his car’s window after reading an irksome passage. He flings books across rooms, and often falls asleep with the lights on, a book “tented over [his] nose.” He’s exceptionally well-read, but that experience has seeped far beyond simply reading and into the realm of the anecdotal: what Orner reads is no longer as important as how he reads, where he reads, and how those perspectives might reflect or influence his life.
It’s a problematic situation to dissect: one could argue that the story of how we read is an intrinsic part of reading, and that our lives inform our reading and vice versa. Others could view Orner’s actions as those of an insecure braggart, and consider the only reason to toss a book across a room is to tell someone about how passionate a reader you think you are, or ought to be.
Am I Alone Here? Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live is composed of around forty spoonfuls of flash-memoir, each connecting a moment in Orner’s life to a favorite, relevant book. Predominantly focused on short story writers, each section runs about five pages where Orner approaches a potent, often beautiful synthesis of text and the human experience, and calls it a day. A story emerges throughout this memoir-in-parts about the death of Orner’s father and this dissolution of Orner’s marriage. Underneath microbursts of fleeting collegiate literary analysis, Am I Alone Here? is compelling record of a tragic turn of adulthood in a man’s life.
Unfortunately, as its forty chapters rattle on, Orner’s memoir begins to feel like a series of uneventful blips, almost as if he stuck to a weekly schedule to get some thoughts on paper. (In the acknowledgements there’s a mention that these texts originated in some capacity as part of an irregular column on The Rumpus.) The memoir devolves into a reading journal: Orner works through his bookshelf, and fits his life in where he can.
Orner often self-deprecatingly mentions that he’s writing from his garage, alone amidst precarious piles of hoarded books. He repeatedly looks backwards to glorious moments of his reading past, like that time he dropped his copy of To The Lighthouse from a canoe and sat waiting on the dock for it to dry in the sun so he could keep reading. His stories always dip into some resonant thoughtfulness, but more often than not land like the confessions of an addict being told to an empty ring of chairs. I’d call it Readers Anonymous if Orner weren’t so self-centered.
In answer to your question, Peter, yes, you are alone there. But it’s not due to a lack of like-minded people. There are multitudes of obsessive, highfalutin kindred readers out there who, too, think “there’s no such thing as recreational reading” and that “stories fail if you read them only once,” each in their own private, parallel library towers of quixotic, well-read passion. If these readers ever met, they’d probably hate each other, or at least struggle with no longer being the best-read person in the room.
All this makes for a difficult read, especially so for the particularly well-read. And it’s not because Am I Alone Here? is a bad book; on the contrary it’s quite accomplished but reflective of so many standoffish traits of the highly literary. (In one scene, Orner refers to his “inner madman” exclaiming “Get thee to a library” because Eudora Welty was missing from his bookshelf.) Am I Alone Here? is as irritating as it is captivating, but above all it’s frustratingly familiar. Any judgmental, passionately opinionated reader will find themselves — or somebody close — in Orner’s casual memoir. And peculiarly, the moment that reflection takes shape, Orner’s thesis is inadvertently proven: by being such a divisive voice, he’s pulled us into his story about finding ourselves in what we read.