Am I Alone Here? Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live by Peter Orner

(Catapault, New York, 2016, $16.95)

Peter Orner is the author of two novels, two story collections, and a number of articles and essays in important journals and newspapers. He has taught at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and is currently on the faculty of San Francisco State University. His new book, “Am I Alone Here?” is a meditation on place and family, using books as a fulcrum to examine serious emotional and personal issues. In a series of short chapters, Orner uses a work of literature, usually short stories, to bother about love, sex, childhood and other weighty personal issues, while at the same time purportedly examining how books worm their way into our sensibilities, attitudes and behaviors. Orner is not alone in this effort; bookshelves are heavy with volumes connecting literature with real life. Sadly, Orner’s book is heavy-handed, sometimes banal, and often exaggerated.

There are a number of ways to approach Orner’s issue. Some who investigate this topic could be classed as the “intellectual weight lifters”, seeing literature, books and story-telling (and readers) as acolytes seeking instruction in the art of living, using books as a source of strength to face—death, love, Being, Whatever. These people like Adler, Van Doren and notably Harold Bloom, see literature as barbells. Lift enough, and you get strong. Others are more muted in their praise of the reading life, seeing literature as a source of empathy, allowing those of use who read to stand in “other shoes”, experience other cultures, thus improving our understanding of life by understanding the lives of others.   The more lighthearted among us see literature and reading as pleasure, an end in itself worthy of praise. Someone like Kafka, on the other hand, clearly views literature as nothing if not dangerous, a blow to the head that wakes us from an icy dogmatic slumber.

And then there are what I call the hysterics and mystics. They see reading not as a clarion call to action, an act of rebellion or simple pleasure, but as transformative personally, something that can “change your life”. They’re always crying and throwing tantrums about books, spiritually recharged, altered forever etc. Here is a selection of things Orner says books did to him:

“A few years ago I was away from my daughter for five weeks. She was about two and a half at the time, and I remember sitting in a little coffee shop in upstate New York feeling rested, and guilty for all the time I was spending by myself. I took out John Edgar Wideman’s All Stories are True. I often carry this collection around with me. The energy of Wideman’s prose is like a shot of epinephrine.”

 “By the first sentence of the second paragraph—“She would be twelve by now”—I realized I wasn’t going to be able to finish it this time. My family would be surprised to hear that I cry. They’ve never seen me do it. I do it down in the garage, tearlessly. There’s this welling up and I have to gulp air because I feel like I’m suffocating. I hide my face (from myself) in a book…That day in Essex, New York, in a coffee shop called the Pink Pig. I picked up a People instead. No big deal. How many greater challenges have I shirked? But I remember my cowardice. I couldn’t endure someone else’s losses on the page because I was too busy missing my own people…This morning, as an act of private penance, my family asleep, I returned to “Welcome” and wept. All-out wept for a change.



“This morning I threw a novel out the window of my car…I was reading a few lines from a novel—Julian Barne’s The Sense of an Ending—at a red light. I often keep a book under the seat for long lights.”

 “After a few paragraphs…I found myself, once again, sympathizing with Adrian, a character who, before the book opens, kills himself to get away from people like Tony, the guy telling the story. I suppose Tony is supposed to be a a charmingly irritating fellow. All I got was irritated. I’m sure I’m unfair. Smarter heads than mine, people I love and respect, adored this novel, including my mother. It was her book-club copy that I lobbed into the street.”



“As I understand it, she (Gina Barriault) was an intensely private person who did not seek attention. My guess is she was working too hard at her desk to care very much about the business side of publishing. Every time I come upon a faded red copy of the 1982 North Point Press edition of The Infinite Passion of Expectation in a used bookstore, I buy it again. I like to have a copy in every room.”



 “This morning, hours before I heard the news that she was gone, I read an essay by Mavis Gallant called “Paul Leautaud, 1872-1956. It’s about a now obscure writer once known in French literary circles as the Great Insulter.”

 “It’s not much of a coincidence that I happened to be reading Gallant on the morning of her death, because I often read Gallant in the morning before I start to work.”



 “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 work, where mothers die in car accidents and daughter hide the pain. And yet I have come to the conclusion that reading keeps me alive, period.”



 “Not everything he (James Salter) did was perfect, or even close. I remember once being so irritated by a lush sentence in Light Years that I threw the book across the room.”



 “And there have been many times when I’ve wanted to mug people just to force them to take the book home and read it, slowly, letting each sentence echo in the brain. Call it the novel of my life…It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Too Loud a Solitude has rescued me from myself more than once…”

Here we listen to Orner tell us that he throws books out of moving cars, that he keeps a book under the passenger seat of his car so that he can read during “long red lights”, that a book is “like a shot of epinephrine” (would that be good?), that he not only cries over books but weeps over them, that he every time he sees a copy of an unusual book he buys it so that he can have on “in every room” (how many rooms, bathroom? etc.), that he once was reading a book by a writer who’d died that very morning, that he once threw a copy of “Light Years” across the room because the writing was too lush, and of course, that he reads to live—ie, reading keeps him alive.

I find this kind of thing annoying and unbelievable. There are, in fact, many ways towards a phenomenology of book reading. One great way to start would be to examine a recondite volume (reprinted from a 1950 edition) of— The Anatomy of Bibliomania by Holbrook Jackson (University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, pb. 2001) See esp. Part I, Of Books in General; Part III, The Pleasure of Books; Part IV, Of Fellowship; Part XIII, The Influence of Books; Part XV, The Origin of a Species.

 There is a world of books about books. Here is a partial bibliography to get you started on the subject:

The Reading Life

Why Read Moby Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick

Buddha by Karen Armstrong (Penguin)

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell (Little Brown)

The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt (Basic Books)

Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus: The Paradigmatic Individuals by Karl Jaspers (Harcourt Brace)

Leonardo’s Brain by Leonard Schlain (Lyons Press, 2014

“The Psychology of Life Stories” by D.P. McAdams (Review of General Psychology 5, 100-122 (2001))

When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012)

The Quest for Dignity in a Dehumanized World by Wole Soyinka

My Unwritten Books by George Steiner (New Directions, 2008)

Swallowing the Sea by Lee Upton

The Adventurer by Paul Zweig (Princeton University Press, 1974)

The Rise of the Novel by Ian Watt (University of California Press, 1959)

Kandinsky: Biographical and Critical Study, “The Taste of our Times” Series by Jacques Lassaigne, World Publishing Company, 1964.

Why I Read, by Wendy Lesser

Reading Life: Books for the Ages by Sven Birkerts

Nothing Remains the Same: Re-reading and Remembering by Wendy Lesser

Every Book its Reader by Nicholas Basbanes

Remarkable Reads, ed. by Peder Zane

Quarrel and Quandry by Cynthia Ozick

Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit

“Walking a Literary Labyrinth” by Nancy Malone

A Reader of Dostoyevsky by Emil Filla

“Unhappy in their Own Ways: Over 150 Years of Russian Literature” by Julia Livshin and Olivier Monday, New York Times Book Review, November 30, 2014

My Reading Life by Pat Conroy

Huck Finn’s America by Andrew Levy (Simon and Schuster, 2015)

The Age of the Crisis of Man in America 1933-1973 by Mark Greif (Princeton)

The case of the skeptical pragmatist by Christopher Bentley (NYROB June 25, 2015)

” Can reading make you happier?” by Ceridnen Dovey (June 9, 2015, The New Yorker Magazine)

Empathy and the Novel by Suzanne Keen

The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death and Pretty Much Everything Else by Christopher Beha (Grove, 2009)

Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting and Living With Books by Michael Dirda (Pegasus Books, NY, 2015)

Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books by Nick Hornby (Believer Books, McSweeney’s, 2013)

Great Books: My Adventures With Homer, Rousseau, Wolff and the Indestructible Writers of the Western World by David Denby (Simon And Schuster, pb. 1996)

A Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books (And Not So Great Ones) Saved My Life by Andy Miller (Harper Perennial, 2014)

The Case for Books: Past Present and Future by Robert Darnton (NY Public Affairs, 2009)

Studies in Classic American Literature by D.H. Lawrence (Penguin 1977)

Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life by Mark Dirda (Henry Holt, 2005)

Reading Matters: Five Centuries of Discovering Books by Margaret Willes (Yale, 2008)

The Child that Books Built: A Life in Reading by Francis Spufford (Faber and Faber, London, 2002)

Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books by Lynne Sharon Schwartz (Beacon Press, Boston 1996)

Living Autobiographically: How We Create Identity In Narrative by J. Eakin (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2008)

Staying Sharp by Henry Emmons and David Alter, Simon and Schuster (Touchstone Books), New York, 2015

Empathy and the Novel by Suzanne Keen, Oxford University Press, 2007

The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age by Robert Alter (W.W. Norton, 1989)

Why Read? by Mark Edmundson

The Anatomy of Bibliomania by Holbrook Jackson (University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, pb. 2001) See esp. Part I, Of Books in General; Part III, The Pleasure of Books; Part IV, Of Fellowship; Part XIII, The Influence of Books; Part XV, The Origin of a Species.

The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2002)