I spent my summer writing bad poetry and reading novels. Self-indulgent, I suppose, and I felt twinges of guilt for not following the ambitious career paths of my fellow classmates, who were off saving poor children in Kenya or studying philosophy in Greece. But after a rather stressful year, it was a relief to sit in my room, in my bed, with my books.
I mainly whiled away my time reading romantic novels–or were they romance novels? The distinction was seemingly small but actually meant a lot to me. I had always imagined “romance novels” as the sort of books my grandmother would read: cheap, sordid paperbacks you would buy at the gas station or local grocery mart, covered in soft pastel tones with muscled Italian men clutching at women whose dresses were almost falling off. They offered the promise and suggestion of passion and sex without any of the substance, just two beautiful people in a beautiful pose. The ideal, right? Love without any of its complications?
I suppose I thought myself above these romance novels, with my high-minded literary tastes and self-acknowledged pretentions. So when anybody asked me what I had been reading, I insisted on calling my books “romantic novels.” I secretly hoped that they would believe I was talking about the Romantics, and would applaud me for plodding through Shelley and Byron. But to be honest, I was hopelessly entranced by romance novels–or at least novels about love. They were perhaps the only things I read that entire summer, and of all sorts: literary classics like Anna Karenina accompanied modern greats like Franzen’s Freedom and mediocre throwaways like Spark’s A Walk to Remember.
I couldn’t possibly count the hours and days I spent at the local bookstore, glancing over titles. I would also prefer not to count the dollars I spent there, collecting dozens of books to line my shelves. I knew the cashiers on a first name basis, and they, along with several book recommendation sites, steered me through the treacherous waters of the romance novel. “Avoid Quinn, her metaphors are weird.” “Read Sparks, he’s decent enough.” “You’ve gotta have some of this Diaz. It’s fresh and intimate and beautiful. I promise you’ll love it.”
In a way, the search was almost as pleasurable as the novels themselves. It was rewarding in the way that panning for gold or fishing are rewarding, finding something beautiful in a sea of nothing. And strangely, the simplest details could hit me just as hard as the complex ones. For some reason, “He stepped down, trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking,” was just as powerful as “Out of nowhere she said, ‘I love you. For what it’s worth.’” Turns out it wasn’t worth much, but to me it meant everything. Phrases like these made other failures, such as my exploratory probing of Fifty Shades of Grey, worth the effort.
I must have finished thirty or so books over those three months, not only because I didn’t have better things to do, but because I had missed reading. The dry non-fiction I had spent my time reading on campus simply wasn’t enough. Sure, the life of Caesar and the theological justifications for jihad were interesting, in the vague sense that Snapple cap facts are interesting. But there was no feeling to it. I couldn’t bring myself to feel happy, or sad. Hell, it was a daily struggle to even feel ambivalent about my readings. I abandoned fiction because I couldn’t bear to see any more words on a page. My head was full, and I caught myself walking around campus comparing and reciting utility and preference curves. Yet, as much as I would like to say campus strangled my love of books, the blame fell on myself. Between the partying and the studying, I chose not to feel anything, or to even think at all.
Why did I choose stories about love? I have trouble justifying it, even to myself. I wish I could say I fell in love, or experienced heartbreak. I wish I could say my change of heart had a starring role, some girl I wanted to sweep off of her feet. But she didn’t exist. Really, it was a desire to recapture my initial excitement for stories that I had lost. After a year of feeling so little other than exhaustion and emptiness, it was thrilling to feel alive again. And to do so, I chose to read books that were “lived in” in the sense that people had experienced or could experience them. I didn’t want pure fantasy, as exciting and escapist as that is. It wasn’t James Bond or Harry Potter who captured my imagination but Mr. Darcy and Mitchell, because I could imagine having these lives. I could see myself in them.
More than that, the books gave my life a sense of order. The great illusion of fiction is that of direction, the sense that events cause and follow one another in perfect sequence and that certain occurrences are simply meant to be. You were meant to meet her on some sunset beach in Montuak (or was it Monset), even though the only reason you didn’t leave five minutes earlier was that you left your wallet in the hotel dining room. Fiction removes the confusion of real relationships, like how two people are even supposed meet in the first place. Life is random, so I constructed my own elaborate private mythology to make sense of it all and create direction. I was the hero of my story: what I did, what happened to me, mattered. Romance novels brought that fiction to life. Reading was my substitute for life experiences, so I needed to consume something honest, something “real.” And I have to say, as silly as it all sounds, I’m a romantic at heart; I chose to read romance novels because I believe in love. What could be more real than that?