How Gary Shteyngart Reset My Readerly Sights

little_failureThe first book I read in 2014 was Gary Shteyngart’s memoir Little Failure. It’s a wise, funny examination of immigrant life, family dynamics, and writerly ambition. I loved it. I recommend it, even if you’ve never read any of Mr. Shteyngart’s fiction. In fact, I can’t think of a better book with which to have kicked off my reading year, because Little Failure – in my hands, especially – is a picture of what books are all about.

We bookish types are, unsurprisingly, quick to point out the many virtues of reading. We point to studies that show readers as more empathetic than non-readers. We extol the benefits of reading to children from as young an age as possible. We yammer on about unique and powerful intellectual stimulation reading offers. Sometimes, though, it’s easy, in the midst of all this evangelizing, to momentarily lose sight of the many ways in which books continue to do work on those of us who are already converts to their particular sort of magic. Little Failure recalibrated my sights.

Let me explain: I have nothing – outside of an interest in books and writing – in common with Gary Shteyngart. He’s a first-generation Russian immigrant; I’ve never lived more than twenty miles from the hospital in which I was born. He’s Jewish; I’m Christian (and, living in semi-rural Central Kentucky, very homogenously so). He’s bilingual, he spent most of his college years stoned, and he’s had tremendous success as an author. Me: not so much.

The point is that we’re different. Wait, no, actually, that’s not the point. The point is that, no matter how different we are, reading Mr. Shteyngart’s book provided a link between me and these experiences that I have never had (and will never, can never have). ‘Well, duh,’ you’re thinking. Or maybe something more hip than ‘duh,’ because no one probably says ‘duh’ anymore. (Do people even say ‘hip’? Oh Lord.) Maybe you’re thinking, ‘Well, obvs.’ Yes, alright. Fine. Obvs. Books are magical and transport us in all manner of ways, yada yada yada. But that’s just it. The obviousness of it all allows us to miss it, even when it’s happening to those of us who’ve been shouting on about the magic for years, to everyone within earshot. Little Failure reminded me of it in a big way. I teach students who have come from other countries, after all. Former Soviet states, Asia, Africa, Central America, the Middle East. I have very little in common with them, too, but they were in my head almost every step of the way as I read Little Failure.

Do they struggle, as Shteyngart does, with the nature of their cultural identities? Was their transition into school life difficult? How many of them want to tell their stories, but lack a ready audience?

These questions are windows into that oh-so-obvious truth that slipped my mind somewhere along the way: I want books that push me into different places, be they geographic, ideological, or experiential, that help me think about and understand lives that have looked different than my own. Because books are great for a million different reasons, but their capacity to show us something we didn’t understand before (and maybe most importantly, that we didn’t even know we needed to understand) by placing inside someone else’s life, real or fictional, tops the list for me. In fact, if I was the sort to make reading resolutions for a new year, I would probably say that I need to be more intentional about reading books likely to push me in all these ways, more books by writers of color, writers from other countries, writers whose lives and experiences don’t look exactly like mine.

Book number one in 2014 was a great start. Here’s to keeping it rolling.

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