Take Me to Church
Partners reading together, on the couch, under a blanket. Or in a bed, before sleep, facing backs, butts touching. There’s something pivotal in the scene of a couple reading side by side: each reading their own story, each inevitably perceiving it uniquely and untranslatably personally. It’s a metaphor for human connection that seems to be made of contradictory and opposing elements: attachment and detachment, presence and alienation, closeness and estrangement. An unrelated association: old paintings of the winter idyll genre. Children ice skating on a frozen creek, snow-covered houses in the background just about to turn their lights on in an invitation to warmth and protection, while from the forest in the background, the dusk and the cold are creeping up on all this familiarity.
When we realize we like the same books, it’s like exchanging a couple of indecent stares into each other’s souls.
When I recommend a book to someone, I become nervous, particularly if the book made a strong impression on me and my recommendation feels like a personal investment. Especially if I’m recommending to someone I care about or if I value their opinion. Waiting for their response gives me a feeling that should have its own name: a kind of mixture of hope, impatience, envy and insecurity. I struggle if I have to face a friend’s negative reaction, I start doubting the friendship itself. If a friend doesn’t understand why the book is so brilliant, do they understand me at all? And if they love the book I recommend, I can’t help but feel a sort of jealousy because now I’m sharing what’s precious to me. Maybe my friend won’t fully share my view on it and will praise different things completely. Or worse, maybe we’ll like exactly the same things about it, which will raise the suspicion that we don’t really interpret them the same way.
We recommend books to feel closer to others: friends, family members, colleagues and sometimes strangers. When those we love read and love the same books as we do, that tends to strengthen our belief that we are luckily surrounded by good people. The universe feels in perfect order when people we hate enjoy reading the books we hate. And when the book we love is a source of pleasure to someone we don’t like, that’s confusing, to say the least. In an ideal world, people we love would find a shortcut to us by simply reading the books we love. Recommending books is a desperate attempt to fight darkness by setting up fires. A realistic master plan of action to contract the world and make it more manageable. When people we barely just met announce that they marvel at the same title we do, that’s always the beginning of a lasting bond, sometimes an overture into a beautiful friendship. When we realize we like the same books, it’s like exchanging a couple of indecent stares into each other’s souls.
Every habitual reader knows the world would be a better place if only we read books, a lot of books. That’s where the fear of reading comes from. It’s a fear of enabling the ones we love to look too deep into us. Or that the books would lead them to conclusions that would compromise our place in their universe. And then there’s that less selfish and more empathic, almost protective fear—to recognize anguish in the face of a loved one, after they have just read something powerful. Fear of falling short to help. Fear of not understanding if they tried to explain. Fear, perhaps bigger than any other, fear to recognize fear in the face of the other. Because books make us feel like leaves in the wind, easily charmed and changeable, we tend to worry for others. Books help us recognize fragility in everything and everyone. That’s why we’re careful which books we recommend. And to whom.
She left the book on my bed. André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name. We discussed it on her last night there, on the terrace by the church, one of the few buildings in Naples that didn’t find a loving hand of restoration after the 1980 earthquake in Irpinia. It was one of those books I would read, but only on a legitimate or passionate recommendation. “You know that books find the way.” “I know that there’s a time and a place for every book.” I opened it and read from the blank page: Churches in us. I´ve seen the movie, touching enough to leave an impression—it started a movement. But I only flirted with the novel in bookstores up to that point. I worried it would ruin my movie experience and mistrustfully reckoned that booksellers are only offering it to make a profit off the movie’s success. One is never fully ready for a disappointment, especially not with favorite movies and books.
I was secretly hoping we’re sliding over exactly the same words. Me in Campania, her in Lazio.
I never read a book in such haste before. The atmosphere of the novel blended in with my summer in Naples. I could smell the searing Ligurian coast on my terrace in Southern Italy, where I had a temporary home in a hostel that happens to own a decaying old church, that happened to host my high-humidity room. I was carrying the atmosphere around the messy city streets, even hotter now that the grand summer’s finale had started. September. Travelers were coming and going, but socializing just made me impatient. I wanted to close the door behind me, climb on the upper bed, smell the sea, feel the salt on my skin, hear cicadas. You have to leave the city to get a feel of the Mediterranean in Naples and take a ride to Posillipo. So I did. I read on the beach, by the wall, looking at the Gaiola twin islands. While I was reading, the distance between us grew with an average speed of 80 kilometers per hour, first on the highway going north, then on local roads somewhere in Lazio. I flipped pages towards the end of the volume: it’s ok, it’s still far. I was despairing because I knew that halfway through the slow dying will begin. I read slowly, with focus and devotion. I had no clue what else she was reading. I didn’t ask, silly. We only talked about books we have read or should have read. Stupid, useless. I was wondering what page she’s on. I was embarrassed even just thinking about her knowing how the book got to me just because she left it on my bed. Maybe that’s exactly what she wanted, maybe that’s what she had in mind. To sneak into my mind. I was secretly hoping we’re sliding over exactly the same words. Me in Campania, her in Lazio, the bestseller Oliver and Elio in Liguria, the blockbuster Oliver and Elio in Lombardy.
Suddenly, I would start rushing just to catch up with her. I felt afraid that she’s on some other page completely, maybe even finishing or just finished, while she was riding the train, maybe in the car, maybe in the evening before sleep in that countryside villa they rented with a couple of friends. I tried to enter her world but couldn’t remember what page she was on when we met. “I’m sorry to bother, is that Call Me by Your Name?” She couldn’t have read a lot in those three days in the hostel, since the moment I sat next to her. She couldn’t have made much progress even now with friends joining her on the trip. Maybe she was—a third of the way through? I was hoping I’ll suddenly be illuminated with certainty that our glances have locked over the same word. I’m not sure why that felt important, it’s not like it would have changed anything. Two people meeting, sharing a terrace by the church and then going their separate ways. Like Oliver and Elio. I was trying to gracefully delight in the fact that our paths crossed and live life as light as a feather, while I was approaching the end of the book that unexpectedly extended the time we shared. It was around that time it crossed my mind: maybe we never really say goodbye.
Then I got a message: “Page 172. You?”
I turned 50 pages backwards and remembered Jorge Luis Borges: “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” Heaven can be a single book. We share nothing anymore, we will not share anything, our lives have briefly crossed and already split, but we’re reading the same book right now. I’m slipping into her mind. I never before used a book to slip into someone’s mind—someone that isn’t its author. I observe with great detail how the written words are shaping her notion and sentiment. We converse without words—isn’t that what I always wanted? But never actually say anything, we don’t share our mundane observations on the days, there’s no reports on big and small wins and defeats of life. We grant each other quiet, uncommented and uncontaminated intimacy. I wonder if we could do it any other way. I find myself—in the center of absolute closeness.
We define the reading norm every morning and arrange the reading time. We share the time zone, for now. I know she’s always there, on the other side of the book. Her thoughts are an extension of mine. Sometimes we think exactly the same thoughts. And sometimes I think the thoughts for her. If we were actually exchanging our impressions in a conversation, we couldn’t be this aligned, not even if our ideas were in fact the same. If we were reading this book independently, it would be as if we never read the book at all and even never met. We’d exchange observations that have lost sharpness with time and are becoming further reshaped each time we remember. Memories are not fixed, claims memory science. We don’t remember the things that happened, but instead the memory of them the last time we were remembering. Like in the children’s game telephone: the more media a message travels through the more distorted it is at the end.
Maybe I write about books because it’s so hard to talk about them in a meaningful and satisfactory way. Maybe I’m a book reviewer out of desperation.
Books are no fun to talk about. Something in the way fiction exists makes us talk superficially about our reading experience. We talk about the books we love the most in an odd mixture of heartfelt excitement and utter defeat represented by a statement: “It changed my life, you have to read it!” The probability of a good conversation decreases with time. It’s like every book I read shuts the door behind me with a louder slam. When somebody catches my attention for a brief moment, I lose interest in the next. Even the most expert readers will often have nothing but clichés to say on the topic. I spent many nights having deep conversations about nothing, but was it ever about a single book? The last time a movie did that to me was La Grande Bellezza back in 2014, we’d talk about it the whole duration of a train ride from London to Brighton. I miss that. I miss not having any fear of saying something wrong or utterly stupid, I miss being able to talk about books similar to the way a musician improvises on their instrument. With the books we of course all read, but a long time ago, we’re further hopeless: happy with reducing them to a single reminiscent fragment, a lone image that survived the rough force of passing time. It feels like I meet someone who adores The Master and Margarita every day, but I almost never meet anyone who has much more to say about it other than it’s somewhat magical.
Maybe I write about books because it’s so hard to talk about them in a meaningful and satisfactory way. Maybe I’m a book reviewer out of desperation. Desperation over solitude of reading. Maybe the only purpose of participating in a literary life is trying to bring the fragile experience of reading into a lasting form, hitting all the tones right, so that my report would feel similar to how the reading felt. Reading is not a strictly cerebral practice, having all the senses available is so much more fulfilling. We might even get the message right. I don’t think I would ever have started reviewing books if it occurred to me earlier to suggest to someone we read a book simultaneously.
I no longer know where she is or what she’s doing. Our messages are short and almost formal. We have nothing to say to one another. We are not tempted to share everyday matters. What we’re doing is so much more interesting. We still define the daily norm each morning: the number of pages, the time we begin. She left my continent a long time ago. It’s morning there, afternoon here. It’s very early morning here, it’s very late evening there. Even after months we’re still reading the same books. By now we read The Alexandria Quartet, The Magic Mountain, Cosmopolis, The Year of Magical Thinking. Essays: quiet, free of big stories, introspective. Our ritual is no place for advocacy and critique. Books that are either strongly for or strongly against something can´t become a part of this. Implicit is good. What else is good: rhythm and long, redundant passages, irrelevant for the story, books in which you lose yourself, stories you can submerge in and come out breathless, tales that make you feel like you’re traveling. Our reading tastes are not a perfect match, they’re complementary. We choose books we can read in the same language. It’s so much more than just reading. It’s a secret parallel life, a discreet bond of two who prolonged three days and three nights into some sort of intimacy. A possibility of a conversation about what we read feels too obvious, like a shallower option of the two, a promise of regress. I showed her my church, why would I want anything more.
I can’t be sure if she always keeps up with our plans. I can’t be sure if she reads at our designated time, on fixed days. I don’t even know if she’s reading at all. I could ask her, but what would be the point of that. Maybe it’s just a game for her. But what kind of a game? It’s definitely a game for me—the game in which I organize complete confidentiality without risking anything. Everything is about those stolen hours for reading. Everything else, everybody else, comes second. I can’t miss a single moment. I don’t want to postpone a single one until tomorrow. I don’t want to read when she’s not reading. I don’t want her to read when I’m not reading. She notifies me when she can’t, I notify her if something comes up. I don’t want to interrupt the game. I’m afraid one of us will grow weary. It won’t be me, so her then? I don’t think she will. And I think we’ll never see each other again. Shared reading became its own purpose. It began as a way to cope with parting, an imaginative continuation of unexpected elation, but by now it became more thrilling than any other kind of bonding, more absorbing than affection itself. We both know any other attempt to get to know each other would just be a sad imitation of this unusual act of synchronized reading of the same book on two different sides of a planet.
Sometimes I can feel her heart beat between the lines. At times, certain words that speak to me feel more like my last heartbeat.
My friends got used to me not staying out late because I have to go home to read. Books are a kind of paradise. Every now and then one of them asks: “Why don’t you two at least talk about what you read?” To talk, after all this? It makes me almost cry. I feel I’m stuck, I can’t go forward, I can’t go back, we’re like an old married couple, caught in a routine. Even the greyest days consist of those two wonderful hours. I stay up late to be on the line with her early evening, I get up desperately early to line up with her late evening. Sometimes I can feel her heart beat between the lines. At times, certain words that speak to me feel more like my last heartbeat. I tremble that perhaps she recognized me on the other side. I don’t know how much longer I can handle this much intimacy with a complete stranger. I think we’re becoming the same person. She, of all people, probably understands what it’s like becoming one.
She told me, that summer night on the terrace, she has a twin sister. Twins know intimacy, I thought to myself. They spend childhood in front of a mirror, always casting a double shadow, everything reflecting them. Maybe they know how to live inside one another, maybe they can nest in the other’s mind, maybe they don’t knock down any boundaries between themselves and the world, because there never were any. Trust. I never learned it. Others are always endlessly far. The concept of somebody knowing me better than I know myself feels distant, but I can’t tell if it’s faraway in time or space. Then there’s this reading, every day, same time, same book. Two rooms, two continents. An activity caught halfway between two opposites: ultimate togetherness and extreme remoteness. No wonder I finally feel as if somebody knows me. I share everything and nothing. In the stillness of harmonized reading, I can expose everything, yet shield myself with extreme distance. I am willing to invest all my time into never having to feel the loss. She and I could read the library of the world in unison, but nothing will take me back to the wall of the church on the terrace.
A common notion that reading romantic novels is escapist always sounded biased and mean. Every reading deed is an escape, it’s in the core of how literature exists and how we consume it. I most successfully broke free from reality with classics, canonized books. Those speaking about escapism probably meant to say that literature is dangerous to lovers, those fulfilled, those longing, those tired. Good literature can ignite love where there isn’t any and put it out where there’s some sort of resemblance of love. It’s because love and reading share ingredients: focused attention, absorbed concentration. Maybe reading is an alternative to love. Maybe every story we share is an act of love. Maybe the recipe for eternal love is simple: let’s share stories and nothing else.
At the end of Call Me by Your Name, the author elaborates on the idea of San Clemente Syndrome. It refers to the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome that is built over many layers of history: there’s ancient Roman and Catholic churches’ remains, even Jewish catacombs deep in its foundations. That’s each one of us. Our history and stories are built in layers, we never tear anything down, we just build around what’s already there from before. This way, we all end up with a pretty unique basilica of ourselves. The beauty of it is we can re-enter the past. We don’t even have to dig. We can open the doors of memory and visit it.
Oliver and Elio do meet again after that summer in Italy, several times actually. The key encounter takes place fifteen years after the events of the novel, in a bar in New England, an environment and a momentum so different from nostalgic memory, doused in Mediterranean light. They talk about parallel lives—the one we live in reality and the other one in our imagination, perhaps made impossible by forces beyond our control. The legacy of their relationship becomes remembering: does the other one, now that their lives have irreversibly taken unrelated courses, still remember the weeks they spent together? Do they remember the same: how the boundaries between them disappeared, how Oliver was Elio and Elio was Oliver. The storyteller, a mature Elio, describes how time turned Oliver into a perfect lover who played all the roles: one of a brother, a friend, a father, a son, a husband, a lover, even one of himself, Elio. Time makes us sentimental. Maybe time is the reason why we suffer in the end.
Paradise is some kind of library. Paradise can be a single book. Paradise is summer, Italy, a natural pool in which Oliver and Elio swim in the afternoon.
Autumn in Sicily. We just ate, we’re drinking and smoking, but I don’t feel like company. This is the second time I’m reading the book, uncovering layers that escaped me during the initial reading. I find it hard to believe that the author wrote it during a few months one summer, when a family vacation plan went awry. The author always talks in a scholarly manner about it, as if the story has nothing to do with any personal pain he might be dissecting. I like that. Fire blasts in my face, I’m sitting too close to the wood oven. Every time I slide back a bit, I feel a hug of cold that’s penetrating through the walls of the house, we’re deep in a forest, it’s been hours since the dusk fell over the valley. I move closer to the source of warmth in a game of retreating and nearing. It’s true that you never step in the same river twice, but only until you have read with someone as one. Everything is the same as I remember and, weirdly, the story seems to remember me. The book is a mnemotechnic device. Paradise is some kind of library. Paradise can be a single book. Paradise is summer, Italy, a natural pool in which Oliver and Elio swim in the afternoon. It’s in the nature of paradise to never occupy it. The curse of paradise is to remember it, each time more inaccurately.
Not only two reading the same book, under a blanket, together. The idea of reading the same book should be adopted by reading advocates who promote fading virtues of reading, literacy, thoughtfulness and curiosity. Urging politicians and decision makers to read more should be way more specific: let’s all read the same book at the same time. A mass or a community of people, fighting for something or against something, should adopt a habit of reading the same book at once. The energy released would be comparable to any force of nature. Sometimes, in the middle of a conversation, when communication feels like a hopeless project once more, I again feel the irrational urge to suggest to a complete stranger we stop right there, go home and read the same book. If we meet at the end of it, we can stay quiet and not feel awkward about it.
The essay is re-written in English by the author, proofread and co-edited by Roxanne Darrow. You can read the Slovene original here.