Adam Pelzman studied Russian literature at the University of Pennsylvania and received a law degree from UCLA. He is the author of Troika, a novel published by Penguin Random House. Born in Seattle and raised in northern New Jersey, he has spent most of his life in New York City, where he now lives with his son. Find out more on his website.
There was a distant time when I, as a reader, was blessed with endurance. I could get into bed at night, pull out a massive book (some Russian novel, perhaps, or maybe The Quincunx by Charles Palliser) and enter into a vivid, fictive dream until night gave way to the light and the noise and the nervous, lunging energy of a New York City morning. But I am no longer so blessed, for I seem to have reached an age – how did it happen, this age? – where my reading stamina is not that of the marathon runner, but rather the tubercular Petersburg clerk in one of Gogol’s or Dostoevsky’s sad stories. (Oh how tragic his life is, the poor clerk!)
I now lie down with the best of intentions, only to find that after no more than twenty minutes of reading, my body and my mind have had enough. My eyelids do a flickering Morse code thing, and the words float around the page like hazy, contorted vapors rising from a blistering asphalt road. I lose the meaning of the prose; I repeat sentences; I cannot recall what I just read; I surrender to my fatigue.
Night reading has thus become for me a series of short excursions – not breathless sprints, but leisurely lopes to the end of the meadow and back. My bedside table is now stacked with works that can be read in full (or with distinct subsets that each can be read in full) during my limited window of late night clarity: poems, short stories, books on writing, and photography books.
The poet who at the moment has the most space on my bedside table is Franz Wright. Often lyrical, at times bleak, blunt, tender, uplifting and funny, but at all times compassionate, Wright transforms suffering into hope, views our humiliations as the basis for divine perseverance and looks at life – at art – with a mixture of awe, humor and humility that strikes the tender core deep inside the struggler. God’s Silence and Walking to Martha’s Vineyard are closest to me on my bedside table, always within easy reach. And if you’re a writer or an artist of any sort, you might read “Publication Date” in the former collection, where the poet so perfectly writes that
One of the few pleasures of writing
is the thought of one’s book in the hands of a kindhearted
intelligent person somewhere. I can’t remember what the others
are right now.”
Also on my bedside table are several collections of short stories by some of the masters: Dostoevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy, Gabriel García Márquez. The one I revisit most often is The Stories of John Cheever – sixty-one beautifully executed gems offering the most trenchant observations about human behavior, social strata, our failings, our drives, our prejudices, our loss – the ordinariness of life, the extraordinariness of life.
As a writer, I’m interested in books by writers that address our craft – and there are some good ones, including Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Milan Kundera’s The Curtain and E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. My favorites, though, are two books by John Gardner. As I’ve written before, if you are a young writer (or an old writer or even a middle-aged writer) and struggling with self-doubt (or maybe you are the rare one who is cocksure), then there is no greater tonic than his books on writing – The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist.
And on the far corner of my night table I keep the photographs. For on those nights when I am too fatigued to read the written word, when instead of twenty minutes of focus I might have only a fraction thereof, I turn instead to pictures that tell their own powerful and complex stories. There are many brilliant photographers and thus many brilliant collections – and by my bed at the moment are Eleven by Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Democratic Camera by William Eggleston, a Cindy Sherman retrospective and, by Garry Winogrand, a book aptly entitled The Animals – a whimsical and poignant collection of zoo photographs with silly chimps and dehorned rhinos, lions, imperious llamas and even feral humans.
So, when I put down my book at night, when I glance at that ever-growing stack by my bed, when I turn off the light and think – often with trepidation, sometimes with eagerness – about the day that awaits me, and when the words I’ve just read have brought me great comfort but sadly no cure, I recall with some hope the perspective-shifting verse of Franz Wright: “literature will lose, sunlight will win, don’t worry.”
What’s your end-of-day literary balm? Any overly stimulating do-not-reads?