The first quote-unquote serious novel I read was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. My eighth grade teacher set down a box at the front of the classroom and, in a seemingly casual way, invited us to treat the box as our own personal library, taking home any book we wanted—but when the number of books in the box didn’t go down fast enough, he book-shamed the lot of us.
He viewed reading as not only the single most reliable metric of a class’s worth, but as a deep signal of humanity. I wanted to matter in his eyes, so I took home as many books as I could.
But the day I reached in and pulled out Solzhenitsyn, everything changed.
This book, I experienced more deeply than any in my life before. I did not want to reach the end of the novel and drew out the reading for as long as I could. I slowed myself down, rereading passages. I did everything I could to delay arriving at that final page. The book seared itself into my body and mind, like an invisible tattoo I would always carry. Ivan hunted fish-eyes in watery gruel, and I cracked the book wide, opening a fine white tear along its spine—and then I set the book face-down, tripping off to make a bowl of watered-down oatmeal. When I returned to the passage, I sat beside Ivan on a prison bench, elbows tucked close to my sides. The freezing wasteland of that prison left ice crystals in the marrow of my bones; I too felt imprisoned, albeit in a suburb. I’d been hungry for this kind of writing all of my life, but until I read Solzhenitsyn, I didn’t know what food was.
I read and read, trying to recapture this feeling, but only a few books cut all the way to the bone. There was Solzhenitsyn. There was Morrison.
A decade later, in another city, I would take my seat in a literature class as the professor opened his lecture by dismissing the regard with which Toni Morrison’s work had lately been received. He stopped, turned his back on the room, and chalked the words “political correctness” on the board. In that moment, I understood what my grade eighth teacher had meant. No one who dismissed Toni Morrison could be fully human. This professor was worse than mistaken. He couldn’t possibly have read Morrison’s books.
The following week, the professor opened his lecture with the same chalked words, the same tired dismissal. The third week as well. This last time, I raised my hand and asked, without pause, if he’d read her work, if he knew she’d just won a Noble Prize, if he realized he’d already given this lecture twice before. And with that, the professor and his class fade from memory. I don’t know if I dropped out or checked out. I did not drop Morrison.
For years, I bought Morrison’s latest—even when the money had to come out of what I would have spent on food. There were libraries, yes, but I had to have my own copy, and I wanted that copy forever. I still regretted returning Solzhenitsyn to my teacher’s box. A few years before, I’d managed to score an identical edition—but nothing could replace the feeling of holding the exact same book in my hands and seeing the physical traces of that first reading.
I wanted more than the same words in the same font on the same paper stock. I wanted to see the fold where I’d tipped down a page, the tender scars along the book’s spine, each marking a place where I’d cracked the book wide—a delicious habit as difficult to give up as smoking. For a time, every book I read was covered in marginalia—tiny cramped notes I piously left for my future selves, thinking they would need me to unfold the import of what lay inside, but which, it turned out, would teach me a lot more about my own limitations.
And that’s the crux of it, really. Isn’t it? We don’t ever reread a book, because it is always a slightly new book we encounter. When I reread a book, inevitably, what I find is not just more to the story, but ghostly, tucked inside of familiar pages, an old and shed skin, a way of seeing and being that has become just a little bit too small.
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The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Anne Stone is the author of four novels, Delible (2007), Hush (1999) and jacks: a gothic gospel (1998), and her newest book, Girl Minus X. She is currently at work on a collection of short fiction. She spent her childhood in Toronto, lived in Montreal, and now makes her home in Vancouver, where she teaches Creative Writing and Literature at Capilano University.