I have a theory that reading books is like dating.
From the initial excitement and heightened hopes to examining the cover and dissecting the blurb, creating an idealised possibility of what the book may be about in your own head… From here the relationship begins. You can choose to commit until the end in a monogamous fashion or read multiple books at the same time, dipping in and out of each one, perhaps struggling to find time for the two, or three, or four and detracting from any sort of complete immersion into what one novel can give you. If you find it boring you have every right to leave a book unfinished and abandoned, hoping the untouched pages provide a new possibility for another reader on another day.
During the reading process you may keep checking on how many pages are left, growing weary with the effort of pursuing its completion, as if the commitment is too much, too difficult to continue. With some books the pages fly through because they make your soul resonate with a resounding ‘YES!’ and the story they tell becomes so tangible that it soothes your world-weariness like any good heart-filling one-on-one with a lover might do. After the final page is long gone and you are lonely and sleepless, there is always potential to revisit the trustworthy ones that you know you had loved and somehow discover something new in the same pages that you read, long after your final goodbye.
I’ve always loved books as a kid and have read throughout my life, so I have consumed quite a fair amount of pages at any one point. I realised when I was book shopping with a friend of mine that each book I read became a symbol for whatever I was experiencing at the time. They became a manifestation of the love and heartbreak that I held for certain people. When the dating process with the novel ceased, so did my relationships with these people. While this list is partly rapid-fire reviews and recommendations of my favourite books, it is also a brief summation of the stories behind the stories and a reminder of the possibilities of what could’ve been.
Lolita- Vladimir Nabokov
I first read this book in a middle school science class but got it confiscated because it had explicit content. A friend had lent it to me. The book itself is about a pedophile but the language is so lyrical that the whole novel feels like a hazy dream. The author, Vladimir Nabokov, suffered from grapheme-color synesthesia where letters and numbers translated themselves into colors in his brain. His whole world was colorful, and this reflects in his writing. I attended quite a conservative all-girls middle school and during science class I sat next to the only girl who ever did drugs at all in the whole grade. For this she was the most talked about, judged, hated, yet worshipped character in all social circles at the time. Her hair color changed every month and she swore a lot. Parents told girls not to be friends with her because she was a bad influence. I just happened to sit next to her during science and I knew that I would never be friends with her because she was way too cool for me. But just sitting next to her and talking to her now and again made me feel an instant social boost. We hardly talked. She had a book confiscated too. She had bought 50 Shades of Gray, in the spirit of teenage rebellion. I knew that she had family problems. I didn’t see a reason that she could possibly like, nor dislike me. I assumed that our relationship was fairly neutral. One time I got pulled out of class and was accused of skipping school when I was present the whole time. This girl had wagged school that day and when asked for her details had given mine.
Rebecca- Daphne du Maurier
First book I read from the school library after I moved schools! I decided to read it because I was going through my Hitchcock phase at the time and I liked to read the book before I watched the movie. I’m sure it was a great book, very Jane Eyre-esque (another all-time favorite book of mine), but most of the time I couldn’t concentrate on it because for the first time I was interacting with boys properly and was extremely distracted at entertaining the thought that some, might possibly, possibly, like me. Hormones flying high, planning our futures in our heads (to myself only of course, none of which actually happened) — it was an exciting time. In science class I was no longer sitting in the back row with the most popular yet troubled girl in school, but this time I was having seats saved for me and witnessing blushes spread across faces when two smiles of a boy and girl were met mutually. The high did not last long however and I still managed to graduate high school without being in a single relationship.
Book of Longing- Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen, as well as being a singer songwriter singing that famous song Hallelujah (a song I first heard as the Shrek soundtrack), also was a poet, who knew! There was one boy who used to call me every night at ten pm to see how I was going, wrote Bible verses on my hand when I was stressed and gave me longing looks and lingering smiles. I was smitten and was already planning our marriage. I thought he was perfect and I thought that he liked (LIKED!!!) me. This was the book I happened to read when I found out he had a girlfriend. I still remember the glare of my living room’s fluorescent lights and the taste of Ben & Jerry’s that accompanied this suite of poems. This book of longing was an integral part of recovering from my own adolescent longing.
Of Human Bondage- W. Somerset Maugham
Another book I read before watching the movie, starring the ever-glamorous Bette Davis. The protagonist of this novel happens to share the name of the first boy who ever properly fancied me and whom I also broke. Funnily enough, this is also what happens in the novel. During one English class where we were ordered to write love poems, the boy read this and the students fell silent.
The strings that bind us,
The chains that hold us,
The love that is these strings and chains and hopes and joys.
Like petals; delicate, like bonds; strong.
Love compels and restrains,
Makes us human, and gives us life.
Love washes warmth over us,
We hold it on our inside,
But I cannot let it hide;
It will emerge
Our love may converge
We may bond in matrimony
In perfect, God-breathed harmony.
Thank you for these strings and chains
And though this writing does not do it justice,
Thank you for the warmth in my heart.
Strangely, this was somehow addressed to me. But things got awkward while we were talking online.
Him: You’re perfect.
Me: Save your words for someone special.
Him: Are you not someone special?
Me: Not special in the way that I can return your feelings.
The Picture of Dorian Gray- Oscar Wilde
Dorian Gray reminds me of my formal date whom I asked to take and who was also blonde, like Dorian in the novel. I made his tie to match my dress. I dried the flower petals of the corsage to be preserved forever. He wouldn’t return my feelings and I would just sit and let my thoughts rush past me, as I lay soulless on the floor of my bedroom. One day his supple skin would sag and his smile lines wouldn’t plump back. I hoped that that day the girl he thought about was me and how we once entered the ballroom arm in arm rather than with my contacts and false lashes falling out.
The Virgin Suicides- Jeffrey Eugenides
During senior mathematics, I sat next to this girl named Louise. But no one called her Louise; she insisted that she be called Lo. She wore fake tan and shaved her vagina and asked if I did too. We would talk about everything from butts to interpreting dreams to how if mathematics were a scent it would smell like a supermarket deli. Our taste in music and books were pretty similar and she recommended this one to me. It encapsulates all sorts of naïve teenage longing and nostalgia, haunting you long after the last page. For the first time after reading this book, I wanted to try peach schnapps and communicate with lovers via vinyl records played over the telephone.
Metamorphosis- Franz Kafka
After high school graduation I spent a large chunk of time at friends’ beach houses on the east coast of Australia. Late nights, the beach and poolside parties are what the best summers were made of. I wasn’t sure about my religion and worldviews anymore. I could choose who I wanted to keep seeing without being bound by school’s social codes. I could choose whether I wanted to move out or not. I was beginning to realize that sometimes it’s healthier to let go of relationships where there will never be any mutual understanding—including your family. I was learning that depression was hard and that it’s okay not to be okay. This was a book that happened to be lying around in one of these houses while I had no idea where my life was headed and was forced to reflect on the kind of adult woman that I wanted to become. I wanted to be a woman open and honest about her struggles rather than being defensive, aware that gentleness and forgiveness were strengths rather than weaknesses. Someone humble who treated others the way that I wanted to be treated. No matter where I was headed I wanted to be deeply rooted in my relationships. Above all, I wanted to write, hoping that my voice would add something valuable to somebody because I believed in the beauty of the written word. Anything could happen really. While I wouldn’t wake up as an insect like Gregor Samsa did I could wake up and decide whatever I wanted the rest of my life to look like. And that was scary.
I haven’t read in a while.
Every night I suppress my flow of consciousness with a never-ending stream of podcasts, music and newsfeed scrolling so I don’t have to think. Because thinking is far more frightening than not being able to fall asleep at a healthy time nor going to work as a used tissue the next morning. I fear my bedtime and time alone to myself every night and one reason I write this is in hope that I am not the only one. I am meant to be in the peak of my youth and it’s a strange transitional season that I am in. I am experiencing the grind of the capitalist machine for the first time, slugging along on the bottom of the corporate ladder with my first part time job out of school. I’m realising that clubbing is not as exciting as it’s made out to be. My finals results have arrived and I have no idea which university that I will attend nor what my future will look like. My dreams are on hold and I don’t even know what they are very clearly. There is clear conflict between what I want and what my parents do. Also, I’m trying really, really hard to love myself.
These books remain the same while I continue to grow and change. I will continue to read many more books as the seasons change and I hope to change for the better alongside them.
The potential energy of the written word is formidable.
Christina Kim is currently a medical student studying at Western Sydney University. When not studying, she loves drinking tea, listening to live jazz and believing in the power and beauty of the written English language. Her work has been featured in publications such as Cecile’s Writers.