Avery Erwin's writing is also forthcoming in Witness. He lives and works in New York City.
Avery's essay "Better World" will appear in the Summer 2018 issue of Carve. Preorder or subscribe by Sunday, July 1, for special savings and discounts.
“Better World” offers a creative and at times humorous look at reading and the act of hoarding books. How did your obsessive love of reading start, and what role does it play in your life today?
Growing up, I didn’t read much beyond what was assigned in school. When I graduated high school, a strange man from my church gave me The Brothers Karamazov and some books about incompleteness and symmetry that were way over my head. The books made me feel like there was some lost kingdom out there, and that I’d have to find it on my own.
After that, I started asking everyone for books. I liked the hunt, and seeing what different people said. My professors seemed to have all these books in their heads that they didn’t list in their syllabi. Like some books you don’t teach, you just pass on. I wanted to unearth those books.
And then the actual reading. I would push through books in hundred page jags. I think it was an ego thing, or some weird test of willpower. Wanting to devour, endure. Nowadays, I have less time to read, which makes reading all the more important. I read in the morning, on the subway, and at night. Reading slows time down. It puts my brain back together.
There is a moment in the story where you come to grips with your problem of keeping too many books, and you make the decision to unload a large number of them. Knowing we all have a finite time to read and learn, how do you now prioritize the subjects and books you take the time to read? What are you most interested in learning about in the future?
I’m more comfortable abandoning books now, and also rereading. Rereading feels pure to me, and it helps me put to rest any delusions I have about tackling the canon. Important books are meant to be revisited, not polished off. After a certain point, I think you just know who your ghosts are. I prioritize books that people give me, because swapping books feels like a secret and very special line of communication. I have a brother in the military, and I read everything he sends my way. I used to read more fiction, but now I’m catching up on history and hard facts. Back to basics, I guess. I want to know how things got here, and how they work, be that the World Bank or the water supply.
One reason we love this story is because we feel as though keeping too many books is a common experience. At one point—and this still happens today—a large library was a sign of a person’s status and “learnedness.” But obviously this can be greatly misleading. If you could only suggest three books to a recent college graduate, what books would you suggest, and why?
One thing I’ve learned is that you can put a book in someone’s hands and tell them it’ll change their life and they’ll still forget about it. People find books on their own time, if ever at all. That being said, I can think of a little survival kit.
1) Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss. That book taught me that there’s no knowing what a new technology means and that a book itself can be a work of art. It also glows in the dark.
2) Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. Sort of cliché but every sentence is so searing, compact. Every sentence clicks. Also, I think we live in a high time of self-improvement. Fight Club puts pressure on that. And that’s a book that explains how things work.
3) Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam. I found this book at a garage sale. Every letter is punctuated by a little biographical blurb about the soldier’s tour, their medals, and their fate. Moving in and out of those letters and bios is unlike any reading experience I’ve ever had. And the writing is so pure, unpretentious. It’s how you’d write if all you wanted to do was share your feelings and experiences with someone. Mail for those soldiers was as important as their rifles. That book to me is a strong reminder that the most important writing in life is not the documents you produce for school or work or even the books you publish, but rather the emails, letters, and everyday dispatches you send to friends, family, and sometimes strangers.