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You Are What You Read
This article originally appeared as a guest post for Peevish Penman.
As I drove home tonight, I listened to songs with lyrics I hadn’t intended to memorize but did somewhere along the way. The words were in me, lines that have been written into the library of things that I know, and I couldn’t help but sing them out loud. They’re part of me now, only to be wiped away by old age or alcohol or some other brain-cell killer. Instead of avoiding a fairly large pothole, I thought about how many lyrics have etched themselves into my head, become a part of me. Even if I’m misinterpreting them or misunderstanding them, they’re there, shaping the way I see the world simply because they’re offering their opinion.
I like the thought of words invading us without us realizing it. I have a whole document full of quotations, little snippets that I’ve taken from the books I’ve read. Some of them are just examples of writing that I find beautiful, worth repeating for the same reasons that a sunset is worth photographing. Others are passages that express an idea I wholeheartedly agree with in a way I just somehow never managed to. As George Orwell wrote, “The best books…are those that tell you what you know already.” I’ve reread and repeated these quotations so many times, written them down on notecards to sneak in between books at the library for others to find, tried to work them into as many conversations as relevance would allow. I’ve got a lifetime (sure, a relatively young lifetime, but a lifetime nonetheless) of memorized songs and read books, and I wonder how that’s shaped me, made me who I am, made believe the things I do.
Everyone’s shaped by words. Lessons handed to us through textbooks when we were young, sharp parental reprimands that taught us that certain things were wrong. Advice that was phrased so perfectly that we actually remember it for the rest of our lives. I think that as bibliophiles and word-lovers, we’re even more vulnerable to completely incorporate into who we are and what we believe the lyrics sung by musicians, the sentences written by writers, the words spoken by those around us.
My senior year in high school, I read Paul Auster’s Timbuktu, and after coming across the sentence, “The world was filled with such wonders, and it was a sad state of affairs when a man spent his time worrying about the wrong things,” I have actively spent the rest of my life trying not to worry about the wrong things, focusing instead on the wonders this world is so full of.
In The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, Susan Orlean writes that, “An ordinary life examined closely reveals itself to be exquisite and complicated and exceptional, somehow managing to be both heroic and plain.” And I whether I agreed with the thought before I read it is irrelevant- it’s now a thought that I can never get rid of, a philosophy that I see as one of life’s many truths.
“This life is big,” Jane McCafferty wrote in a story called Family on Ice, and the simple sentence became such a part of me, became my verbal reaction to so many of life’s moments that I tattooed it on my leg in three languages.
In my debut novel, Somewhere Over the Sun, the protagonist’s father, says the following about his son, a writer: “…he’s made up of words. All he is are sentences tangled together—so many words that they’re as dense as bone, as flexible as muscle, as soft as flesh. They carry the word “oxygen” to his brain and tell his heart, ‘Keep beating, keep beating.’”
If you were to somehow take me apart, deconstruct all my past decisions, all my current beliefs, you’d be able to trace them back to a sentence. Maybe a jumbled paragraph, Vonnegut followed by Woody Allen followed by Bob Dylan. You’d find that the written word has been invading me since I could read it, the spoken word since I could understand what it meant. I feel that if you could take yourself apart, you too would find that you are what you read.