The Book I Cannot Stop Reading

This is a guest post from Josh Hanagarne, a 6’7″, 260 lb librarian in Salt Lake City, Utah. He has extreme Tourette Syndrome. He is a performing strongman. He is the author of The World’s Strongest Librarian. He speaks all over the country. If you read this far, he likes you even more than The New Yorker liked his memoir. Follow him on Twitter @JoshHanagarne.

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blood meridianMy favorite book is also my least favorite book.

I just finished reading Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy for the thirtieth time. I usually buy a new copy each time, so that I can mark it up in a different way.

Once I marked every word of dialogue by The Kid.

Once I marked all of the landscape descriptions.

Once I was going to mark any instance of mercy I could find. I didn’t even need to sharpen my pencil for that one, so I just wound up drawing a picture of a cowboy in the margin on page 213.

During the most recent read I highlighted all the dialogue by the judge.

I read Blood Meridian for the first time in 2002 at the tender age of twenty four. It rattled me so badly that I put it down and said “Okay, never again.”

I read it again the next day, all the way through.

It’s been over ten years. On average I’ve read it three times each year. But I bet not five days have passed in that decade without me at least reading a paragraph.

“Oh wow, it must be good! What’s it about?”

I never know what to say, except, “For me, it’s about what it feels like to read it. It’s sort of about some scalp hunters.”

“So it’s good?”

“Uh…I can’t really recommend it. Maybe. Um. Duh. Derp.”

Darkness in books doesn’t bother me. Most of my pleasure reading has nasty stuff in it.  I’m not always thrilled with the present, but give me a book with a nightmarish dystopian future and I’ll smile and slobber like a piglet at the trough. I grew up on Stephen King and Anne Rice and Jack Ketchum.

But there’s dark and then there’s Blood Meridian. I backed away from that book and knew that I’d never look at it again. Which worked great, obviously.

Why? I’m not sure. And therein lays my fascination.

I was an English major. I’m a writer. Give me a book that’s not Blood Meridian and I’ll write you a slick paper. But I’m super clumsy when it comes to articulating just what it is that compels me to read this book, and I’m not used to feeling clumsy when it comes to book talk.

Every time I think I’ve figured out why, the answer seems to change.

McCarthy created an instant anachronism with this book. I bet he never dreamed that so many people would read it. Or that he cared much as he slaved away.

Nicholas Sparks doesn’t like McCarthy’s writing. Maybe that’s why I adore it so much. I love the writing in BM intensely enough to talk dirty to it. “They rode infatuate and half fond toward the red demise of that day, toward the evening lands and the distant pandemonium of the sun.” 

The part of me that loves deadpan humor has even found some laughs in BM.

The small town country boy in me loves the setting: I have gorged on Louis L’amour and Larry McMurtry and Thomas Savage and Elmore Leonard’s Westerns. I’ve read True Grit to tatters and my tombstone should probably say “Man…he watched Unforgiven a lot.”

But the steady accumulation of violence and obscenity, rendered in such an affectless manner, along with the nightmarish character of Judge Holden presiding over everything…it just makes me shake. I have passages committed to memory that I almost wish I’d never read, and images that I wish I could un-see.

The judge leading the imbecile through the desert, brandishing a parasol made of bone and hides.

The judge entering a public bath, lowering his nose beneath the water, and his eyes crinkling as if he’s smiling beneath the water, a cigar smoking behind his ear.

The wind dragging circus performers beyond the edge of the firelight.

A coin toss at the edge of the bonfire.

Bats erupting from the cone of a volcano at the conclusion of a particularly dark and pungent sacrament.

I hear lines like this when I can’t sleep:

There is room on the stage for one beast and one alone.  All others are destined for a night that is eternal and without name.  One by one they will step down into the darkness before the footlamps.  Bears that dance, bears that dont.

I love it. I hate it. And I know I’ll be reading it my entire life.

How about you? Any books you can’t stay away from?

Any books you can’t stay away from that you wish you could?

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