Shelf Life for March 2020

Books Read
Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches by John Hodgman
Dig by A.S. King

Books Bought/Found/Given to Me
The Lurking Fear by H.P. Lovecraft
The Tomb and Other Stories by H.P. Lovecraft
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft
The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

As the COVID-19 pandemic drove us into our homes and out of work last month, forcing us apart from one another, I sought solace in a book that I was fairly certain would shut out our grim new reality.

I was wrong. More on that in a bit.

First, the books I added to my collection last month …

There’s a popular meme that circulates around social media every few weeks. It’s a photo of a group of kids hanging out on a sidewalk. They’re passing the time joking around, goofing off, talking trash, whatever. And there’s a caption beneath that says something to the effect of, “When you’re a kid, you never realize the last time you and your friends will be together, just doing kid stuff.”

That was me on Monday, March 2, 2020, when I went to The Eloquent Page bookstore in St. Albans, VT. I had no way of knowing this would be the last time I’d go to a bookstore for quite some time. 

My oldest son was in town for a pre-op physical. Nothing serious, and the operation went off without a hitch the following week. But it was rare for us to have one-on-one time together, and since we had the time and both love books and bookstores, we ended up at the only one in Franklin County. 

I had store credit from some books I traded in a few months back, and I used it to get him a couple books, along with the four I got for myself. We left with credit still on the ledger, which made me feel very restrained and responsible. If I’d known then what I know now, I would’ve used it up on the spot and probably spent money besides.

The really weird bit is that the four books I purchased – early ‘80s reprints of H.P. Lovecraft and a 1976 edition of Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan – attracted me purely because of the covers and the nostalgia they triggered. 

I remember staring at the grotesque Lovecraft covers at WaldenBooks in the University Mall as a pre-teen, intrigued and repulsed at the same time. It was similar to standing in front of the Horror section at the local video rental place and imagining how terrifying movies like Microwave Massacre and Chopping Mall must be, based on the box art. The difference, of course, is that a vast majority of those movies were laughably bad, and any Lovecraft book cover is only the tip of the iceberg.

The books themselves are unreadable due to their use of a font I find unreadable. I’m far from a font expert and can’t say for certain what it is, but the leading and kerning are too tight, the letters are overly compact, and my visceral reaction is yawning and a desire to not read. But I have other readable collections, so that’s fine. 

Those covers, though …

Like I said, I was attracted to them out of a deep sense of nostalgia. Author, podcaster, comedian, and actor John Hodgman has thoughts about nostalgia, which he expresses rather eloquently in his book, Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches. (This is the book I referenced earlier.)

Regarding nostalgia, Hodgman writes, “… normally I consider nostalgia to be a toxic impulse. It is the twinned, yearning delusion that (a) the past was better (it wasn’t) and (b) it can be recaptured (it can’t) that leads at best to bad art, movie versions of old TV shows, and sad dads watching Fox News.”

He’s not wrong. When you’re swept up in it, nostalgia’s a hell of a drug, but it’s a dragon you’ll wind up chasing in vain.

I was chasing solace when I picked up Vacationland from one of my bookshelves. I’ve been a fan of Hodgman’s work for several years, and I was saving the book for a special time when I could really dedicate myself to it. I bought it last autumn at a bookstore in Cambridge, N.Y., on the closest thing my wife and I have had for a vacation over the past few years. That bookstore, along with The Eloquent Page and every other bookstore in the country, is on life support now. So are most small businesses.

Which brings me back to seeking solace.

Hodgman provides the heady mix of gentle wisdom and subtle humor that was once associated with Garrison Keillor for some reason. (Actual reason: nostalgia, i.e. a toxic impulse.) But whereas Keillor was repetitive, hackneyed, and presented life through a soft-focus lens smeared in Vaseline, Hodgman is blunt, original, and clear-visioned.

It’s those same qualities I admire in him that made Vacationland a rough read at times.

 In the second half of “Daddy Pitchfork,” one of the longer pieces in the book, Hodgman references a country bluegrass song called Rocky Top. He dissects the Appalachian tune, ending with the last two lines: All I know is it’s a pity/Life can’t be simple again.

Hodgman writes: “I cannot fault the poetry in this line. It hit me hard and deep … The song’s message is no longer ‘I wish life could be simple again.’ It is not even ‘I know life cannot be simple again.’ It’s ‘All I know.’ It is a consuming knowledge, an overwhelming sadness for what is lost that makes enjoyment of the present impossible.”

“Yeah, John. You said it,” I thought as I lay in bed reading, curling my body into an even tighter fetal ball. 

Here’s some of that gentle wisdom I mentioned earlier, from a piece entitled “So Thin Is the Skin of My People”: “We who are white men can’t change who we are. But we could do worse than to follow what I took that summer as his example: to be aware of and curious about the world around you, to give what you have with neither apology nor self-congratulation. When praise comes to you, get out on the fire escape. When it’s someone else’s time to talk, listen. Don’t turn your house into a museum. When your work is done, get out of the way.”

I love this so much. To the point that I can’t even begin to explain why. I just want to embrace those words, live them, and share them with the world. 

The big punch to the gut came near the end of the book when Hodgman was relating the final days of his mother’s life in the book’s titular essay. Telling the story of the routine that took root at his mother’s home, he described their shared experience: “Slow death keeps you busy with chores and distractions.”

We are living in busy days of chores and distractions. 

Finally, in “A Little Beyond the Limits of Safe Travel,” on the last page of the book, aside from a brief coda and acknowledgements, I read words that made me feel as though Hodgman was sitting in the room with me, writing the book in real time as the pandemic played out: “There are transitions in life whether we want them or not. You get older. You lose jobs and loves and people. The story of your life may change drastically, tragically, or so quietly you don’t even notice. It’s never any fun, but it can’t be avoided. Sometimes you just have to walk into the cold dark water of the unfamiliar and suffer for a while. You have to go slow, breathe, don’t stop, get your head under, and then wait. And soon you get used to it. Soon the pain is gone and you have forgotten it because you are swimming, way out here where it’s hard and where you were scared to go, swimming sleekly through the new.”

I don’t know how to swim. I have a crippling fear of water. But Hodgman’s words provided a bit of buoyancy in these uncharted waters of the unknown.

I did’t get what I expected when I started  Vacationland, but I got what I needed.

I don’t want to give short shrift to the other incredible book I read last month, Dig by A.S. King. It’s a surreal, transcendent exploration of family, privilege, and the roots that bind. But I’m at nearly 1,500 words here. I’ll come back and share thoughts on Dig sometime soon.

What did you read last month? What books did you add to your collection. Let me know in the comments below. Thanks!

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