I’m on an airplane from Miami to Denver, surrounded by sleeping Asian people, next to Brad (sleeping, too, of course). I hardly ever bring out my computer on an airplane since it’s a 21st century kind of mercy to have a space/time where the demand to be connected can be ignored without guilt (at least until the airlines get EVDO going everywhere); but I just finished reading The History of Love by Nicole Krauss and I wanted to write while it was still fresh in me how much I loved this book. I went back to the beginning after I read about 100 pages to slow down as much as possible and savor the first time I read this book. It’s a good one to read in one big breath. I’m certain there will be many other readings. This one goes straight to the top of my Best Books Read in 2006 List. Number One with a bullet.
This book left me with that particular sorrowful feeling of recognizing beauty and the temporary nature of all things simultaneously. There’s probably a German word for it (Gotterdammerung? Weltschmertz?). It comes along with the physical symptoms of true aesthetic pleasure, which I mostly experience while listening to music, but also sometimes feel when looking at art or being in nature and watching the sunrise or sunset — or reading a beautiful book; the goose bumps on the arms and the hairs raised on the back of the neck and tears in the eyes and an opening somewhere near the heart. Maybe it’s caused by a vibration from the music or the breath or something. I don’t really know, but it’s the part that recognizes art. This book creates that experience in abundance.
Ms. Krauss writes about loss and recovery from loss, missing/absent parents (both through death and emotional absence), and the Jewish heritage of the Holocaust. She and Jonathan Safran Foer (who wrote Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, my #1 Book of 2005) are married. Comparisons between their work are probably inevitable, and there are similarities. Both have a gift for expressing the inner lives of children and young adults, and deal with similar themes. And both are beautiful writers.
This book is dedicated to Ms. Krauss’ husband, and to her grandparents, with what looks like their passport photos on the dedication page, with the inscription “for my grandparents, who taught me the opposite of disappearing.” One of the major themes of the book is about disappearance and denying. There is a hilarious and sad passage on page 36 between Alma Singer and her brother, Bird.
WHAT I AM NOT
My brother and I used to play a game. I’d point to a chair. “THIS IS NOT A CHAIR,” I’d say. Bird would point to the table. “THIS IS NOT A TABLE.” “THIS IS NOT A WALL,” I’d say. “THAT IS NOT A CEILING.” We’d go on like that. “IT IS NOT RAINING OUT.” “MY SHOE IS NOT UNTIED!” Bird would yell. I’d point to my elbow. “THIS IS NOT A SCRAPE.” Bird would lift his knee. “THIS IS ALSO NOT A SCRAPE!” “THAT IS NOT A KETTLE!” “NOT A CUP!” “NOT A SPOON!” “NOT DIRTY DISHES!” We denied whole rooms, years, weathers. Once, at the peak of our shouting, Bird took a deep breath. At the top of his lungs he shrieked: “I! HAVE NOT! BEEN! UNHAPPY! MY WHOLE LIFE!” “But you’re only seven,” I said.
Passages like this remind me of the deep and real sadnesses of childhood, and how much I really like being an adult. And how much I love beautiful writing. Put this one in your To Read pile if you haven’t read it already.