Americanah is about love, and race, and authenticity, and hair, and the way women’s choices are limited, and the way women limit themselves.
It is also a book about the love of books and reading. About falling in love with books, and libraries, connecting with other people about books, getting lost in books.
This is a loss that I don’t really talk about. It’s too important; I can’t risk having it misunderstood. So I’ll put it here, and hope that someone who reads it will understand.
I miss books. My cats were probably the first thing I really loved; books were the second. I remember when I first learned how to read: riding in the backseat, and suddenly the world opened to me, announcing itself on street signs and store windows. Reading located me in the world, literally.
And reading located me in the world, socially and emotionally. I didn’t get a lot of empathy, attention, care, intimate conversation as a child. Books were where I found people who understood me. Books were where I got to hear people talk about their inner lives, and probably what enabled me to explore and talk about mine. Books were connection across space and time. This probably has to do with my lifelong habit of reading books that I love.
Books let me imagine possibilities for life and relationships, and in that way, they gave me hope. Books were also a badly needed escape.
Reading was a serious hobby of mine from the time that I learned how to do it. I remember the small, secret pride of finishing my first chapter book in a hotel room in Vancouver: I can still see the bed, in the nightstand where I left the book next to me while I slept. I remember carrying thick, hardback copies of Wizard of Oz books with me, proud and embarrassed by their heft.
I remember the first time I really took joy in language. The start of a lifelong love affair.
I remember hours and hours and hours in bed, on couches, at the kitchen table, in the bathtub, reading and reading and reading.
In middle school, I often read through class. In high school, I remember curling into the yellow, corduroyed armchair wearing two hoodies and three pairs of socks against the cold New England house, and pulling a blanket over me and slowly eating six or 10 clementines while I spent an afternoon, or a day, or weekend lost in a book. Or a few – I was usually reading more than one book at once.
I remember lying on my stomach on beach blankets, reading till I fell asleep, blowing the sand out of the creases in the books. Reading in airports and on airplanes, reading over the soothing noise and tumble of the T. Reading in lines, and at the DMV, and to pass time on the stationary bike. Reading in waiting rooms. Waking up in bed and reading for an hour or two before breakfast. Falling asleep with books around me, even under my pillow.
Reading in bed in my dorm rooms. Reading at the Ratty. Reading on that travel futon I slept on for nine months in my apartment with no furniture besides one chair in Boston. Coming home from work and eating miso soup with rosemary and reading. Spending all weekend reading on my stomach or on my side under the covers.
Reading in the middle of the night at my black table in San Diego. Reading in Pablo’s guest bed. Reading in O’s living room. Reading at his mother’s house. Reading at Matt’s parents house. Reading was a constant, a relief, a joy.
I remember the nausea of getting lost in another world and then being pulled back into this one. The fuzzy, concussed senseas I tried to reorient in the present.
I remember the comfort of Great Expectations in those months after O and I broke up. Sentences and passages appeared to me all the time. Somehow during those months, they formed part of an internal scaffold. Deep in culture shock in India, I was desperate to find a copy in India. And I did find one in a bookstore in Delhi. I was too broke to buy anything, but there was a relief in flipping through the pages and seeing the familiar words.
I don’t have reading anymore. I can’t get lost in it in the same way because any position causes physical discomfort which distracts me, which I have to manage, which I have to move around to manage. Disability is inefficient: I can’t read on buses or planes or in lines are at the DMV. I can’t read on BART. I don’t get the secret pleasure of a long wait or ride–what used to be a precious pocket of time for reading. I can’t read in the tub, or at the library, or on the stationary bike, or curled up in an armchair.
Reading takes management. It takes props and arranging and even this I can only do for so long, because no position really works.
Don’t suggest e-books: this is not the same. This isn’t about some anachronistic fancy, though there may well be a touch of that, too. I love the physical objects of books. I always have. I love their smell and weight and feel. I love them as objects to return to. As touchstones. As objects of comfort, with their personalities in their cover and paper and typeset. As things that can be shared with people I love. I love my system of dog-earing, I love underlining and writing in books. I like seeing what my earlier self thought and noticed. Sometimes, when I reread books, I consciously do it with different colors of ink.
So, reading is seeing the words, but it’s also loving the physical object of the book itself, and writing in it, marking it up with me. There’s something ephemeral about an e-book that makes me think I couldn’t love it like I love paper books. And it doesn’t solve most of the issuesof physical limitation, only the one of having to hold the pages open.
And audiobooks: I like these better, but it is not reading. It is not a substitute for reading. Being told the story is enjoyable, but it is a different thing than reading, and, for the most part, a lesser one.
In that terrible year, I found myself often trying to bargain: could I have lost a leg instead? And then I get caught thinking about how much of my leg what I’d be willing to give up, to trade? Above the knee? Below the knee?
Even no longer in the thick of it in the same way, I’d still take the leg deal.
I wish I could say this to someone. But I could talk about this loss, and not have someone try to make it okay (it isn’t), and not have someone try to fix it (it’s not fixable), and not even have someone reply sympathetically.
I don’t want sympathy. I want empathy. I want someone to think about what it is like to love something like I love reading, and what it’s like to lose that thing in this way.
It’s like not being allowed home. You can step into the house for minute or two, just long enough to remember what you’re missing, but you can’t stay.