:: Article

Why I No Longer Read Heavy Books

By Andy West.

When I was seventeen I had a girlfriend who was too good for me. I met Jess when I was retaking a year at school. She was studying English Literature and would go on to become a children’s author; I, at the time, had never finished a book in my life. I couldn’t believe she liked me. I saw I only had two options: either I could be myself (and allow her to realise she had made a mistake); or I could try and be more like the sort of person I could actually see her with. Someone equal to her. Someone, I thought, who read books.

Jess lent me The Catcher in the Rye, The Buddha of Suburbia and some books about artists like David Hockney and Barbara Hepworth. The books piled up on my bedside table untouched. Meanwhile, I sat on my bed playing Nintendo. Within a day or two the front covers were stained with tea rings. Jess asked me if I’d read The Buddha of Suburbia yet and I said yes, when, in fact, I had only seen the TV adaptation. I hadn’t actually seen the TV adaptation. But I knew people who had. So I repeated what I’d heard them say, so that Jess would be impressed.

We went to bookshops. She stood in front of the shelves and critiqued novels. I just listened. Often I couldn’t work out from what she said whether she thought the book was good or bad. She sounded just as clever when she was talking about books she disliked as books she liked. When I worked it out, I bought the books she approved of. I took them home and tried to make them look well-thumbed. In the mornings, I opened the books to the centre pages, and left them face down on my bedroom floor among stray socks and empty crisp packets, so that by the evening when I was home the spine was creased. I started carrying these books around in my hand with me when I left the house, especially when I would meet Jess. We would be walking down the high-street together and I would catch a glimpse of us reflected back in the windows of shops. I saw myself, Jess in one hand and a worn paperback in the other, and I liked what I saw.

Three months into our relationship, I went on a school trip to the cinema, knowing nothing about the film in advance. It turned out to be a documentary called Capturing the Friedmans, about a violent father and the legacy his brutality left on his family. That night I slept without Jess in my bed. I woke up at 2am in the fetal position hyperventilating. My fingers curled; I couldn’t straighten them. I tried to get out of bed but it was as if my legs had petrified.

The fear peaked, and then subsided. My breathing slowed and I could move my fingers again. I went into a light sleep, like a translucent veil, through which I saw the outline of my estranged father. Less than an hour later, I awoke and my body was crushed with dread once again. I don’t know how many panic attacks I had in total that night. The quakes came too close together for me to count. Eventually, I picked up the David Hockney book Jess had lent me, opened it and followed the sentences, tracing my finger under each line like a schoolboy. I understood little of what the writer was saying. I barely assimilated the words. But following the sentences, my breathing steadied and my muscles relaxed. The fear lost some of its density. With the book still open on my lap I fell asleep and didn’t wake again until the morning.

In the days following these panic attacks, I read that David Hockney book from cover to cover. Soon after, I started buying other books. They weren’t books that Jess had recommended. They were heavy books. Books about heavy subject matter. I became especially drawn to authors who were prepared to give their experiences of violence and its psychic aftermath to the page. I bought John Healy’s The Grass Arena and Primo Levi’s If this is a Man/The Truce. I bought them and I even read them.

When Jess saw me reading these sorts of books she asked me why I was drawn to them. I probably answered something like ‘They’re more original than the best seller shit.’ She would have looked at me puzzled. It still didn’t make sense why I was reading books that were original and violent. I could have muttered to her ‘I’m reading Healy because of the abuse of my childhood’. But I couldn’t. Saying that would have made me looked wounded and obsessive, which at the time I very much was. I needed to find a better way to explain it. I knew from reading Healy and Levi that there were ways of articulating shameful things that meant you didn’t incur shame yourself. But I didn’t know how to do that yet. So I kept on reading. I hoped these authors would give me the words I needed to explain myself to Jess.

The words I needed didn’t arrive until my early twenties, when I read Italo Calvino’s essay Lightness’.  In it, Calvino describes how the process of his writing, when at its most satisfying, is about the subtraction of weight. He reminds us that: “The only hero able to cut off Medusa’s head is Perseus, who flies with winged sandals; Perseus who does not turn his gaze on the face of the Gorgon but only upon her image reflected in his bronze shield.” After Perseus beheads her “Medusa’s blood gives birth to a winged horse, Pegasus – the heaviness of stone is transformed into its opposite.”  Calvino said that when he wrote he was prone to turning the world to stone. That his words and sentences could have too much weight, inertia and opacity. So he writes with the mythic aid of Perseus, to transform his writing from being heavy to light.

Reading Calvino made me remember my night of panic attacks when I was seventeen. But instead of writing, it was reading that night that transformed my body from being gripped by heaviness to being light enough to sleep. Reading, even the perfunctory way I was tracing sentences with my finger, made my body less rigid, my fear less oppressive.

When, in my late teens, I was reading severe books, I was yet to discover Calvino’s Perseus and Medusa image.  If I had then I might have been able to say to Jess that I was reading heavy books as if they were instruction manuals on how to behead my own personal Medusa. What I was doing, but was not able to put into words to her at the time, was reading heavy books because on some level I thought that doing so would help to subtract weight from my own burden. The more brutal my own reading the more I felt I was going to be okay. Reading was my way of playing the part of Perseus in my own inner battles. After my night of panic attacks I dreaded going to sleep. I would have to take a book to bed with me. The more I read it the more sure I was that I wouldn’t experience that petrification again during the night.

At seventeen, when I first started going out with Jess, I’d imagined if I read more books then I would become irresistibly sexy to her. I would become like one of the men I could actually see her with. Seven months into our relationship, we booked two nights away in an expensive hotel. It had sex toys on the room service menu. I brought with me a Buddhist text from the Mahayana tradition. In the morning I sat in our king-sized bed underlining in green pen the passages of the book that compared the hot hells to the cold hells. Upon returning from our weekend break, Jess split up with me.

When I was twenty-four I went out with Eleonore for just under a year. Eleonore had long black hair and the sort of square mouth the women have in Rossetti paintings. She could not make love unless she had had a shower first but she had mugs of tea next to her bed that were so old that mould had formed on the surface of the liquid. We went on holiday together to Greece. On our first day at the beach, she said ‘I’m gonna take a dip.’ Without taking my eyes from the copy of Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica I was reading I said ‘I’ll catch you up.’ A few minutes later I looked up and saw Eleonore treading water in the sea. I wanted to go and swim with her but I wanted to finish the bit I was reading first. By the time I did finish the bit I was reading she had already come out of the sea and was sunbathing on her towel, lying on her belly, her neck turned so she was facing away from me.

After my relationship with Eleonore ended, I tried to be less obsessed with heavy subject matter.  I tried to lighten up. I tried to swap reading dark stories for sunnier ones. But trying was useless. Redemptive stories either left me indifferent or irritated. Tragic voices always seemed more authentic. I was only interested in reading redemptive stories for how easily I could show them to be implausible, full of holes and unconvincing. I didn’t want happy endings. Happy endings are “all fake, either deliberately fake, with malicious intent to deceive, or just motivated by excessive optimism if not by downright sentimentality.” [Margaret Atwood]

Then two years ago, shortly before turning thirty, I sat up in bed one night and read something that changed how I felt about heavy books. Edward St Aubyn’s semi-autobiographical Never Mind. In it, an eight-year-old boy called Patrick Melrose walks in on his father David playing the piano. Patrick dances to his father’s music. Then his father turns to him:

‘Come here,’ said his father. Patrick stepped closer.

‘Shall I pick you up by the ears?’

‘No,’ shouted Patrick. It was a sort of game they played. His father reached out and clasped Patrick’s ears between his forefingers and thumbs. Patrick put his hands around his father’s wrists and his father pretended to pick him up by his ears, but Patrick really took the strain with his arms. His father stood up and lifted Patrick until their eyes were level.

‘Let go with your hands,’ he said.

‘No,’ shouted Patrick.

‘Let go and I’ll drop you at the same time,’ said his father persuasively.

Patrick released his father’s wrists, but his father continued to pinch his ears. For a moment the whole weight of his body was supported by his ears… Patrick felt his ears were going to be torn off, like the gold foil from a pot of cream.

I read past this scene and then all the way to the end of Never Mind that same night. When I finished, I closed the book and took off my glasses and put them both on my side table, curled up and went to sleep.

In the morning, I woke up an hour before my alarm was due to go off. The morning air still cool; I pulled up the duvet to cover my naked shoulder. The early light made my bedding look paler than it really was. I rolled over onto my other side and I remembered something from when I was eight-years-old.

My father was in front of the TV, topless on the couch. I can recall the swirls of dark hair on his chest and shoulders. He was smoking filter tips and drinking beer from a can. I was sitting on the floor between him and the TV. An advert came on appealing for donations to help starving people. Gaunt African children appeared on the screen. The shape of their bones showed through their limbs. Their teeth and eyes looked cartoonishly large in their narrow faces. My father took the lid off of a tin of chocolates that was on the coffee table next to him, took out a chocolate and threw it at the screen.

I turned my head to look at my father. I told him ‘don’t’.

He had a swig of his beer, took another chocolate out of the tin and threw it again. It went past my head and made a dink sound as it hit the glass of the screen.

‘Stop’, I said.

He sniggered and carried on throwing chocolate at the children on the screen.

I lay in bed thinking about this memory until my alarm went off. At which point I got up, had breakfast, had a shower, got dressed and went to work.

Later that week, I tried to read Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead but whenever I picked it up I had forgotten what had happened in the last ten pages. When I did figure out what was going on I found it too grim and would stop. In the weeks after I read Never Mind and after I remembered my father throwing chocolates, my motivation to engage in the sorts of books I had been reading faded. I tried to re-read some of my favourite books. I opened up Jack Henry Abbot’s In the Belly of the Beast but put it down at the pages where he describes taking beatings from the prison guards. It all felt too real. Reading these sorts of books no longer subtracted the weight from things; it made it seem like heaviness was everywhere and immovable.

Today, at thirty-two, I still don’t have the appetite I used to have for heavy books. A few months ago, I started seeing a woman called Vanessa. After the first time of meeting Vanessa I told my friend Morgan about her. He asked what she looked like. I tried to answer but I couldn’t picture Vanessa’s face. Were her eyes almond shaped or more round? Was her voice nasal or deep? Her hair—was it a particular colour? When I saw her again I would actively try to answer these questions. But she was so beautiful that I was mostly only able to look at her hands. Occasionally, if I’d said something to make her smile, I’d glance up and see that she had one dimple bigger than the other, but, as if looking at the sun, I couldn’t stare for long and I went back to looking at her hands. The next time I spoke to Morgan I was just as vague about what Vanessa looked like as I had been before. The first time Vanessa came to my place she asked if she could look at my books. I gestured in the direction of the corridor where books are stacked on the floor. I didn’t follow her down there. I used this as an opportunity to look at her from behind. Then she disappeared around the corner and I sat in my kitchen waiting for her to come back. She returned holding my copy of George Bataille’s Story of Eye. She had read it just recently. I can’t remember what I said except that it would be nice if we sat in the garden together.

It feels strange to not have the obsession for reading visceral writing that I used to be so identified with. I still don’t know if I like it. It’s too early to tell. But I know that shedding habits, even potentially unhealthy ones, isn’t always the best thing. In Darkness Visible, William Styron talks about the day he woke up and found he couldn’t drink alcohol anymore. Drink had been what kept his most graphic thoughts of suicide at bay but one day his body was no longer able to tolerate it. He describes this not as a release, but as abandonment. It was the moment his ideas about killing himself started to find momentum. As if a good friend had left him when he needed him most. The world seemed more wicked and disorganised than ever.  I fear that, for me, without regularly reading heavy books my childhood trauma might start to gain on me again. Or just that the days will come to feel insubstantial; without the mission to subtract the heaviness from the my burden I worry that I’ll become adrift, weightless.

But there are other times when the shedding of my old habits feels like an opening into something new. Maybe the best way to describe it is through the same character I mentioned earlier, Patrick Melrose. In a book from the same series of books called Some Hope, Patrick is then in his thirties, his father is dead and he is in the early stages of being clean after a heroin addiction. He’s explaining the dilemma his father has left him with to his friend Anne. On the one hand, he could forgive his father, though he rules that out as either phony or ethically impossible; and on the other hand he is sick of the stuckness that his hatred of his father brings him. As they talk Patrick glimpses a different way out: “There is no point in staying stuck… But there is even less point in pretending to be free. I feel on the verge of a great transformation which may be as simple as becoming interested in other things.”

Recently I have started to notice “other things”. Like the way the plosives in Vanessa’s speech are sometimes startlingly loud, or the hair that stubbornly clings to her lip when she pushes the rest behind her ear. Like the way she slams taxi doors and doesn’t realise that she has pissed off the driver, or the tilt of her hip as she floats past my pile of books in the corridor.


Andy West’s writing has been in 3:AM, The Millions, the Guardian and The Times. He lives in London where he teaches philosophy in prisons. Find him on Twitter @AndyWPhilosophy

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, June 21st, 2018.