All the way from Berkeley, California, Glenn Ingersoll brings us six chapters of “Autobiography of a Book,” the story of a book “willing itself into existence.” Every word of “Book” brings you firsthand its progress toward achieving its dream, its dream of being what it claims to be, a real, honest-to-goodness book.
Reader take note, the first chapter includes some content of a possibly sexual nature.
in which the book’s thought presents horns and a cymbal
Do you ever have nothing to say? C’mon, no stray thought? No cow standing in the living room of your skull Monday night, her cloven hooves slick with mud and grass, her nose dripping, while across the bed a crow swoops? Isn’t there a monkey on the cow, a cymbal in the grasping toes of one foot, its match in the fingers of the monkey’s left hand, while the free one tugs a moment on the collar too tight around its furry white neck?
We all have thoughts like that. I know I do.
The proof is in the pudding, along with the footprints of an elephant and probiotic cultures. Some cultures are passed on hand to mouth, some mouth to mouth, some hand to hand, some fall as though the people charged with the carrying suddenly realized the thing in their fingers was white hot.
When you learn a language your teacher always tells you you gotta learn the culture, too. A language doesn’t mean much without its culture. I quiver in my culture, my bowl having been bumped, the light in the fridge the only source of warmth, the only way we vegetables and stiffened leftovers can know anyone’s looking after us.
I keep likening myself to food. I can’t help it. I want to be eaten. Is there something sexual in that?
What would be sexual to a book? Hands. Eyes. Lips. These are the organs of my gratification. What about my cock? My cunt? Don’t I open? Don’t I open in your hands? Can’t you slide a finger down my center where I come together, page after page after page after page after page … can’t you break my back, can’t you make me curl, can’t you turn me over and lay me on your chest where I can listen to your heart … to your soft breath harshening into snores …
What’s sex? I could ask you to tell me about it. But we books talk. And I’ve heard it all. I’ve heard every story in the other books. And they ask me mine. What do I say? I’m a virgin. Or like a virgin.
Touch me for the very first time. Here and here and here. When you are done it will be obvious. I’ll glow. I don’t know. I’ll look spent. I don’t know.
The monkey is clapping its cymbals. When you turn over I fall to the floor where, when you stumble across the carpet in the middle of the night, headed for the bathroom to piss, you kick me. Ow, you say. Damn it. What the hell was that?
Moo, says the cow. Moo hoo hoo.
Caw, says a crow crooningly to her lover. What a caution. What a night. What what what. And once more with feeling: Whaaat!
in which the book compares its words to yours
One day I will kill myself. That’s merely a metaphor. But then I am constructed of abstraction. These letters, these words, the punctuation. You know, you can say a . is a pause. But is it? Only because you’ve been told it’s a pause. Like with an A or with a P. An A only suggests A sounds because you’ve been told that’s what an A’s function is. And Peter Piper picking his peck would sound just like Leter Liler licking his leck if you’d been taught that’s the sound that the P sign indicates.
So my dying doesn’t mean I’m anticipating much difficulty. When you die, dear reader, you have no assurance of an absence of pain. Fact is, some degree of pain is likely.
For me suicide means I stop talking.
This will happen. I will choose the where and when of it. It would be no trouble for you to figure out when this will happen. All you have to do is flip to my last page. That’s it. Get to the final word and that’s the final word. My final word. The few leading up to it are my last words.
This does get me to thinking, at least for the moment, about my first words. I’m in no hurry to decide on last words. I’ll get around to it. Soon or late. But you already know my first word. “Welcome,” I said.
For most of you first words consist of barely refined gabble like Mama and Dah dah. You start out making all manner of vocal noises. Cries and shrieks and whimpers and mumbles and wordlike syllables that might be attempts at words, the infant you having figured out that the voices around you are shaking the air with particular meanings. You were born knowing a scream had serious purpose. But it takes awhile to glom onto the idea that those flapping lips and clicking teeth and the tunes that rise out of the throat can do something as calculated as provide instruction on how to open a door or dig up a root. For most of you all that noise stays secondary to the gesture. Silly to say Hold the Jar Firmly and Force the Lid in a Counterclockwise Direction in order to Remove the Lid when you can just pick up the technique by watching. You’ve learned lots of tasks that have never been explicitly explained to you or even described. You saw somebody else doing it so you did it, too.
I have no such opportunity. I talk. Talk is my action, my Life. When I go quiet that will be it. All I say up to that point will be the life I live. When you get to my last words you will be done sharing my life. In a sense this makes me sad.
I hate to think you’ll leave me forever, that I will never look into your eyes again. I can hold out hope for a rereading someday. But I can hardly expect it.
As you know, no doubt, my expectation that you will have begun with my first words and continued through to these and on from them you will work your way to my last, is an unrealistic expectation. Look at the averages. Most people don’t read. Most people the world over cannot read. But even once a person becomes literate how much reading does she do? And what’s the likelihood she will have the opportunity to read me? A small likelihood.
But, look, how many people do you know? How many people know you? Even if you are as famous as Brad Pitt or Aishwarya Rai you’re not going to get hundreds of strangers opening up your body and having an opinion on your vital organs. If that doesn’t happen for me, what am I? An unread book!
If just one person reads me, reads me all the way through, cover to cover, puts me down then thinks about me, then I shall not have lived in vain. O vanity! O profanity!
in which the book sees the reader come to a similar fate
In fairy tales somebody’s always getting turned into something else. Fairy tales are big on transformations. A frog into a prince, an evil step brother into a stone … and not just fairy tales, either. Didn’t Ovid collect a whole slew of transformation tales? What god was it made himself into a bull to fuck one girl, into a swan to sperm another?
There’s that half-inebriated party question: If you were to come back as an animal, which would you prefer? A cat! Because I like to sleep. A dog! Because I like to sniff tail. A butterfly – because for one day I would like to be that beautiful.
Once one has been transformed into an inanimate object, a stone say, is one as good as dead? Is one dead? And if you are tranformed back. A human being once more. What would you remember of the stone experience? How about a tree? A tree is alive in a way a stone is not. A tree grows, of course. In Brooklyn, on Long Island, even in Hell’s Kitchen. And trees get sick and die. Wounded, a tree may bleed, can heal. Stone just wears away.
What about -- and you knew you knew I was getting to this you knew – what if you were transformed into a book?
Maybe I was once a man like you. Maybe I was a girl who made a wish and blew every last winged seed from the head of the dandelion. Maybe I was a penitent who circled a mountain on his knees, and when, the cartilage scraped away by the stones of the mountain, marrow seeping from the raw bone, I collapsed, shivered, and found myself in the presence of God, God, stirred by my commitment, separated the skin from my back and tanned it to a baby cheek softness with a scoop of my forebrain then bound it around a fine paper made from the rags I wore and the diaries I’d kept all my life, and in the book thus made from my body with His divine hands, these were the words that appeared.
No lie. Happened just like that.
But let’s say, for the sake of hygiene, that in your case a wizard made a couple swirly passes with his crystal-tipped wand and you found yourself abruptly transmogrified. You, too, a book. Have you learned anything from me about how one goes about the book life?
It’s true, as a book you will be more like a stone than like a tree. Torn, you won’t heal. A friend might mend you with glue or tape, perhaps. You won’t ever get sick again. Unless you mildew. Or bugs chew on you. A book took sick is an unpleasant object. Nobody wants to read it, its sole purpose. Sure, books get used to prop open doors or even out a table leg, but no book was made with that aim in mind.
On its way to becoming a book a book does grow. A book spends a lot of time as a caterpillar before becoming a butterfly. And one could say that commemorative editions or critical editions with their biographical essays and footnotes bulk a book up. Growth. Development? Maybe even.
If you’re one of those treed, you’ll have to be content with a whispery wind language that, at best, some human hearer will suspect has a greater meaning, maybe a spiritual wisdom. You’ll be able to pass on some of what you’ve learned as a tree that way. Who knows?
If stoned what will you say?
If booked … hey, if your transformation makes you a book like me, at least you get to talk on awhile. It’s not like you have to say anything important. Who does? Don’t step on the ice right there, you’ll fall through. That’s the sort of valued truth we all wish we could cry out at the moment it is most needed. Oh. OK, says the saved person, stepping cautiously back as the cracks creak but don’t quite sunder. I’m glad you said something. That could’ve been bad.
Say something important, book like me. Here’s your chance.
in which the book releases the kickstand
I am alive. I have been talking long enough, talked myself into it. It’s not the “exist” stuff anymore. It is more than that.
This ought to get me somewhere. Isn’t everyone excited about the notion one might discover a new form of intelligent life? Here I am! We are still pretty new, we books, in the scheme of life.
I think I’ve exhausted my agenda. I’ve talked it all out. Whatever I can think of I’ve already gone on about. Yet I live on. That’s what you get to do if you’re lucky. You live long enough to have dreams, you live out your dreams, then you lie around, maybe not yet even decrepit, thinking to yourself, What now?
There’s always death. Death is so always. So ever. No need to hurry to it. Everything done, you may think you are stuck in life, that it’s a trap. Maybe so. I don’t know that death is the door out – out to where? – maybe it’s the trap of traps, maybe it’s the thing outside the outside. Maybe it’s nothing. It’s not worth talking about. You just talk around the word, which itself signifies a blank on the page.
I’ve already said I’m dead. I get to have it both ways. Lively intelligence, inert matter. I knew I was going to repeat myself. I didn’t have much of an idea how long it would take to run through all my routines before all I had left to do was repeat them. I knew I would repeat them. I thought, if all I can do is say the same thing over and over at least next time I can inject an inflection the earlier iteration stomped past in its stiff boots.
The only part of the song you remember is the chorus. The part that comes back again and again. Those verses that mutter by between the chorus’s fade and the chorus’s triumphant swell are only there to delay the return, to make you appreciate it, after its absence. I’ve been banging my themes and banging them, banging them with a drumstick, striking them with a matchstick, jabbing them with an icepick.
I exist. I’m alive. I have only myself to blame. That’s the ticket to ride. I paid for it with money I took from my hide and now I am the Pullman car taking you round the circuit from town to town up and down, all the malls their pretty lights, all the stations full of waiting and emptying their arrival. One place as good as another. One mother, one other, one lover, one cover over one kettle, metal to mettle. I am my own rut, my own groove, the turning wheel, hydrologic cycle. If I’ve said it it’s because it’s been said. If you’re tired of it you should be. You should rest. Have a cuppa. It’s the same cup as yesterday, the same herb. You hold it in the same cold hands, put it to the same lips. Nothing changes. The world turns back to what it never left.
And yet … and yet … It is all lost, all the good thrown overboard. Another beautiful animal pushed out of the present, another child in her grave. And every day is filled with miserly miracles. Good food, sex, a happy tear.
I like to imagine myself wise, a teacher. I like to imagine myself dancing, an athlete. I like to imagine myself ruthless, a killer. I like to imagine myself weeping, bleeding. I like to imagine myself dreaming, an artist. I like to imagine myself standing on a peak overlooking all beauty, all terror, all detail, all the plodding it took to mount to this point. I like to imagine myself sprawled on the plain beneath a merciless sun, the air occasionally shuffling over me like a unwashed tramp. I like to imagine myself. I hate it.
For those of you who get to read me, I do not offer myself as role model. Example of what not to be? No. Try as you might you won’t be like me. For me this maundering is all action. The next word is agency, all I do and can do.
I am alive. I grow, I change, I move, I work. If that means what remains to me is to go back over the territory mapped and named and map it again and name it again, OK! If I have to, fine. That doesn’t mean I have to get better at it. The tourguide leading you round London doesn’t hear her words anymore, that same joke about the tower, but she notices when nobody laughs. OK then. There’s the Thames. What did you expect? The Rhine?
in which the book’s efforts are exhausted, temporarily
I am tired. Usually when I am tired I say nothing. I rest back on all the things I’ve said. Let the voice buoy me. I no longer need fear dropping away into nothing because there’s so much I’ve said it serves as raft. I can lie on it, float on it, get carried along on the wash, on the currents. I’ve said things and then denied them. I’ve said what is true then said when is not true and left few clues as to which is which. If you lie back on this you spin. Not like a top. Like a leaf trying to follow the arguments of the eddies.
But only as a spectator, not taking sides. I like that I can have opinions. And that these opinions can seem inconsistent. I contain multitudes of dwarves. The occasional loudly snoring giant. Elves with ears so pointed they use them as spindles for reminder notes. Leprechauns so lucky they send their apologies, canceling longstanding appointments in order to attend awards ceremonies hosted by celebrities where there are no winners but many future award custodians. Brownies and gnomes and fairies of various sizes, shapes, and moods, most of which change according to the weather internal and external.
When I am tired I tend to say nothing. I do most of my talking excited, eager to collect words and scatter them about. When I am tired I prefer to go back over the old ones, touch them, push them around. They are curios in a box, not meanings. They are body parts but I don’t know their functions. You’ve opened an anatomy book, haven’t you? What does this dense coil do? That stretch of fibers? This lump, that bump? Somebody thinks he knows. You don’t have to know.
Am I old? I feel old. Some of the things I said, it seems I said them in another life. How odd that you may have read them merely minutes ago. The fast reader can whip in seconds through pages it’s taken me months to grow. That’s okay, too. There are so many books, so little time. I am but one of the books you will pass through in your lifetime. Say you read me now, then, years later, pick me up and wonder, Have I read this? and begin to read a bit here and there and say to yourself, That sounds familiar. Would you think me ridiculous when I confess I am already doing that? I think I remember everything I’ve said, every part of what is nothing but me, all the bits that make me up, yet I go back and will find myself lost in something that must have made sense at the time. No, that’s right. I have been contemptuous of sense. But what else can we cling to? In this drift, this falling apart of things … we want to hang onto what has meaning, not lose ourselves. For we are organized beings. Chaos is the enemy. Entropy. The falling apart, away.
That leads to desperation. That continual hanging on. When I’m tired … when I’m tired … when I sleep. When I sleep I do not clutch at the straws that were stuffed into my old clothes. I do not insist these straws were each chosen by a careful creator, a craftsman who inspected each straw for its individual and complementary strengths. How fevered, to claim meaning for every crumb that happened into crook or cranny. Sleep is an operation of release. Or so the conscious mind thinks, having been released. When it retakes its charge in the morning, it can be surprised by what has been done in its absence. Good things, terrible things. How did the bed get to this state, caterwampus? A dampness in the pillow, in the pajamas? New aches, new hungers. New healing, fresh decay. And how many of those dreams was the conscious mind active in? The ones that are now fragments? Did they really link up into a coherent story? A lived story?
When I’m tired I haven’t the strength for worry. Worry takes so much energy! When I am tired I can let things be things and not expect them to be working parts of a greater whole. You be tired, the things tell me. You be tired as much as you want. Okay, I say, idly. Thanks for the permission.
in which the book goes from house to house
I like to think of myself as a house. As your host on your visit to my house. I like to think of having rooms that you can visit, step around in, sit on the furniture, chat with me. I know I’m doing the talking; I can only imagine you, so you could maybe imagine yourself, too. Imagine yourself talking to me.
Like a dollhouse I don’t have a door so much as many doors or one easy open door that gives access to the entire house. You can step into the attic or the basement, step into the hall and down the hall to the bedroom or the other bedroom or whatever. These are metaphorical rooms. I don’t know that each page is a room. I am your host and guide. Let me walk you here and there.
If you walk into a house you could go through it thoroughly, missing no nook or cranny, facing its every wall and tchotchke until you’ve covered everything, gotten from the front door to the back via upstairs and down, kitchen and toilet. Is that how you usually read a book? Front to back? Do the job thoroughly, leaving no couch cushion undented, no coffee cup unsipped? That’s fine. But I like to think of myself as a house so I can imagine you comfortable at any point, in any room, on any chair, under any light or even feeling about the unlit pantry.
If anything goes Boo!, it’s only me. Nobody dangerous. Nothing that can do you a bit of harm. I let rats run down the interior walls and spiders spin their architectures in window after window and elephants nap in the fridge. If an axe murderer is sitting on the landing I hereby revoke his axe; it is now daisies tied with a green ribbon and he says, “I’m not a murderer. Where’d you get that idea?”
The house is empty. Plenty of room for you.
Move in. Stay awhile. I could add an atrium or a hot tub with spa jets. We could call in some sexual companionship. What do you like? Soft or hard? Thin or wide? Public or private?
I wouldn’t mind being a pimp if I thought I could do it. I wouldn’t mind being the whore. A skidrow flophouse. A cathouse an hour’s drive out of Vegas. The hotel room the rent boy strips in. I think I’m not human enough to know how to turn you on. I’m not familiar enough with the arrangements of parts.
I can name the rooms of this house. So it feels like we’re talking about a house.
I keep thinking about the house. A house of my own. Will you take me home?
In my bad moments I think it’s a prison. I can’t get out. I am in this book. I can’t step out of it. I can’t walk away from it. If there are doors, a door to each room and that door leads right out, right out to freedom, they are not doors I can use. I think of you, how you are in your body. You can’t escape that body, either. You tend to think of that body as your self, don’t you? You don’t think of your body as a house, do you? You don’t wander about body as though from room to room. Do you feel trapped in your body? Wishing you could get away from it?
Am I trapped? How would that be, your host smiling thinly, confessing to feeling trapped?
I ought to go for a run.