I’ve known Peter Orner for years. Not well; I see him at booky things and know kids who’ve been lucky to be his students in the graduate writing program at SF State, a program I was rejected from in the 80s and arrogant enough to think they’d made a mistake. If anyone could have taught me to understand Moby-Dick it would have been Peter Orner.
Peter Orner lives to read. So do I but the difference is Peter Orner knows how to write about reading in a way that speaks to those of us who are similarly afflicted. His new book Am I Alone Here: Notes on Living To Read and Reading to Live is the best thing this voracious reader has read in a very long time. And this coming from someone who reads almost exclusively fiction (with a juicy biography thrown in from time to time).
He writes about books, mostly short story collections with such depth and empathy and in doing so he writes about his life (often in painful revealing detail … his father, his first marriage, his love for his children) and somehow our lives and the lives of everyone we know and the past and the future and … well. you get it, there’s a lot going on here. And oh my god the passion: more than once he hurls a book, out the window of a car (Julian Barnes and yes, he read at red lights as I too and probably you reading this have done), across the living room. He falls to his knees at the beauty of a sentence. Passion and perseverance: after falling out of a canoe, he patiently waits for for his sodden copy of To the Lighthouse to dry enough so he can turn the pages without their sticking together.
Here’s a taste:
For a long time I thought reading would somehow make me a better writer. So I’d read in order to write. I’d justify the hours I spent with my feet up and call reading ‘my work.’ Now I see how ludicrous this is. All the Chekhov in thirteen volumes won’t help me write a sentence that breathes. That comes from somewhere else, somewhere out in the world, where mothers die in car accidents and daughters hide the pain. And yet I have come to the conclusion that reading keeps me alive, period. I wake to read and sleep so I can get up in the morning and read some more.
A happy bonus about Am I Alone Here is the reading list you compile as Orner refers to the books that keep him alive: Eudora Welty, Juan Rulfo, Bellow, Kafka, Cheever, Virginia Woolf, and, even more precious, ones you may not know: Robert Walser,, Angela Carter, Gina Berriault, Wright Morris, Vicor Martinez, Mauriac, Hrabal.
I read and loved Orner’s novel The Second Coming of Movala Shikonga, and far too hurriedly (there are those times in life when, for whatever reason, I speed through books that deserve more time) Esther Stories, and Love and Shame and Love … and seem to have missed Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge. I intend to correct those mistakes forthwith.
It seems superficial to mention that Peter Orner is ridiculously handsome, but my friends would be disappointed in me if I failed to state the obvious, and I can tell you from experience that even the most erudite among us (perhaps especially the most erudite) notice such things. I’ve always been grateful he’s young enough to prevent me from making a fool of myself (well, OK, maybe I’ve attempted a pathetic old broad flirtation once or twice).
Anyway, read this book. Now.