This post is part of our Neil Gaiman Reading Day: a celebration of one of our favorite authors on the occasion of the publication of his new novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Check out the full line-up here.
It’s 2007, the 24th of July, at about four in the morning. I’m in a hospital with my wife, running on no sleep and a potent mixture of adrenaline and panic. We are moments away from the brief burst of activity that will result in my first son being born. I am well aware that my life is about to change. It’s pretty obvious. I am moments away, I know, from not only being a child who pretends to be an adult…but now, a child pretending to be an adult who pretends to be a competent parent as well. (I’m a few years away from realizing that lots of people are also faking it, and it’s fine.) We have a number of books, all about what to expect, and in hindsight, they’re so useless, it’s kind of funny.
Then: chaos. Doctors, a baby, someone eventually notices me, who has been regulated to a corner, and they hand me my first son. Neither of us knows quite what to think about it.
I’ve been re-reading American Gods by Neil Gaiman for a few days at this point.
It’ll be nearly a year before I read anything else.
I didn’t stop reading, mind you. If I was the sort of person who could do so, maybe that’s what would have happened instead. I can’t, though. If I don’t have a book, I read labels and cereal boxes and signs. If I don’t have those, then I go slowly mad. So I didn’t stop reading, or even really slow down, I just got…stuck. It was as though I went into American Gods and couldn’t find my way back out again.
I read it before bed. I read it in the mornings and all throughout the day. I read it propped open while feeding and holding this tiny human the world thought I was responsible enough to take care of. I had a book light and read it late at night, during those long sleepless hours that having a baby guarantees. On rare out-of-town trips, I always packed a book, and it was American Gods without fail. I owned the audiobook, performed by the remarkable George Guidall, and I listened to it on my walks, speaking along with it now and then.
It was odd that I got stuck like that, although perhaps not all that odd. Having a new baby, particularly when it’s your first, is a bit like having archers shooting flaming arrows into your mental sails. Having a baby is remarkable and brilliant, but it’s a bit rough, and that’s a bit of an understatement.
Also, I already had a tendency toward re-reading, and a tendency toward getting stuck on things. It happens even now, now that I’m perfectly sane and there’s nothing wrong with me and I’m much better now ha ha ha twitch. I’ll watch a movie over and over again, or listen to a single album (or a single song) endlessly whenever I put music on. It’s never to the extremity of American Gods and that one year, but it still happens. Usually it’s because I’m thinking about something, or puzzling over something, and somehow that piece of art has gotten worked into the machinery as I try to solve the problem.
So getting stuck is unsurprising. What was strange, though, was that I remained unaware of it. It was only some years later that I looked back and realized the peculiarity of that one year and its one book – and it was just about one whole year. I know because it was also about a year before that other element of my life returned: regular, useful sleep.
It got to the point where I didn’t need to start on chapter one, page one for my American God visits. I’d pick up the book and open it to a random section, able to pick up the story from more or less anywhere. I dipped in and out of the book as I needed to, rather like people who dip in and out of scripture.
Part of the reason, too was American Gods itself. Neil Gaiman’s novel is a long one which follows a man called Shadow who has fallen into the service of a down-on-his-luck god named Odin, and his plan to restore these old and forgotten gods to their former glory, here in America, a land which has no interest in them. It meanders across the country, introducing us to gods and everyday jes’ folks who live in rural Midwestern towns, and it treats them all with equal affection.
It was a good book to get stuck on, because it’s big and rambling and baggy, something that I enjoy in books. There was a lot of space in there to crawl inside of and live in, in a way. I seriously doubt that if I had been reading a short, taut thriller-sort of a novel, that I would have gotten stuck on that. There wouldn’t have been enough weight in the book for me to lean on, and leaning is definitely what I was doing.
Eventually, my son, got a little older and a little more human and a little less infant. Eventually, I got some sleep, and I got back to work, and I got to occasionally do things that didn’t revolve around diapers and bottles. Bit by bit, my life got pieced back together…although in no form I would have recognized pre-baby, since now I was a parent. (I now have two boys, and I am enjoying the hell out of it).
I still re-read American Gods once in awhile. I’m inclined to read it in the winter; it’s a wintery sort of novel. Even now, five years later, I can dip in and re-read from more or less any point. I own four copies of it: a hardcover first edition, a terribly distressed paperback (which lives in the car), a 10th Anniversary edition, and the audiobook. Perhaps more than any other book, it’s an indelible and organic component of my life. In a way, I moved into that book for a year. It’s no exaggeration, when I say that I read it a hundred times. I think that might be understating it, frankly. I don’t regret it in the slightest. What a wonderful, and completely unique, relationship to wind up having with a single book.
2007, then, was the year I went and lived inside of a Neil Gaiman novel.
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