What's All This Then?
What's All This Then?
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Field-Tested by Ben Greenman
in his parents’ house in Miami, Florida
At fifteen, books had the upper hand, always. So many pages, so many words. My arms grew tired when I held them too long.
Sometimes I paid for the books myself, but more often I leaned on my parents for the cash. Some things were rationed, but books were in free supply. I repaid my parents by reading the books that they bought me, and my diligence offset various idiotic adolescent crimes: moods, girls, out too late, threw a rock at a passing car. If I was sent to my room, I read until it wasn't my room anymore, but Freetown or Sulaco. “Prison reading,” one author wrote, “is a richly spiritual endeavor.”
One afternoon at the bookstore, I picked up Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, a 30,000-line poem that imagines Odysseus's adventures after he leaves the Homeric universe. It was the largest book on the table by far. It felt like a brick that, if thrown, could shatter the windows and let the light come in. I held it up. “You sure?” my mother asked. “You'll never read it.”
The book came home. It went on the shelf. It stayed there. At first it was a challenge. Two months later, it was black comedy. Two months after that, it was an embarrassment. I blamed the victim: it was too thick, too dense, too much. I went off to college. Graduated. Got a job. Got a girlfriend. One summer on the telephone, my father told me that my parents had decided to sell the house. “We need you to come down and help pack,” my mother said.
I flew home with my girlfriend. I boxed up clothes, trophies, magic tricks, while she sat out in the sun. Then I turned to the books. The Kazantzakis was still on the shelf, no longer a source of recrimination, just a wide spine between narrower ones. I slid it out, sat down, and read a few pages. My eyes grew heavy with verse. This time I blamed myself. I took the book out to the yard. My girlfriend was getting top-browned, speeding through a thinner book she'd certainly finish. I sat down next to her and surrounded myself with the Kazantzakis. A desire for freedom drove me past page one. Odysseus left Ithaca and the comforts of home for Sparta, for Crete, for Egypt. He watched nations rise and fall. He found women to love and then abandoned them. It was rough going, for him and for me. Odysseus grew disappointed with worldly things and sought peace in ascetic solitude. I skipped ahead. After meeting Buddha, Don Quixote, and Jesus Christ, among others, Odysseus spent a year living in a remote Antarctic village until he was killed by an iceberg. I looked at my parents' house. It was smaller than I remembered. How had I grown up in that little box?
I thought about getting back on the airplane. I weighed the book and foresuffered the moment when I would pack it away. It was unlikely I would ever see it again. The Miami sun was overpowering. My girlfriend smiled at me. I wiped my brow. I wiped hers.
Ben Greenman is an editor at the New Yorker and the author of several books of fiction, including Superbad, Superworse, and A Circle is a Balloon and Compass Both. His work has appeared in several publications you'd recognize, and several you wouldn't. He lives in Brooklyn.
Read the next Field Test by John Gruber