Jeff Alford: On 20 of My 31 Years, the Readers We Were, and Those We Strive to Be

At only a year or so into my thirties, it’s a strange task to consider the idea of “the 20th anniversary” and situate it into my current life. “Tenths” are already cropping up and I’m okay with that: ten years since graduating college, ten years since moving to New York City with my girlfriend (now wife) in an effort to work in publishing. Ten years ago I thought I’d become a novelist, and now I’m something different. My early thirties may just be my twenties, fine-tuned and finessed. If you asked if I saw this all coming when I was twenty – a job, a wife, an apartment and a dog – I’d like to think I’d say yes.

But twenty years: that’s a span that allots for new courses and not just course-correction. Twenty years ago brings me back to 1996, to my first CD player and “Diablo” on the computer, to Macarena school dances, which created the illusion of boys dancing with girls long before anyone would actually find the nerve. Sixth grade: we were too young for Braveheart but too old for Babe, adrift somewhere between, like Tom Hanks in Apollo 13. We could have been anything: warriors, farmers, astronauts.

I was always a passionate reader and I began acquiring books on my own a few years later, around 1998. I learned about first editions and started buying hardcovers from Raven Used Books in downtown Northampton, MA with my yardwork money. I got into Hunter S. Thompson (experimenting more in those years with my books than with much anything else) and his famous “wave” speech struck a particularly wayward teenage nerve within me: “no music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world.”

Would I ever be able to feel that sense? Thompson had the hippie zeitgeist, I had the mid-to-late nineties, Gin Blossoms and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. There seemed precious little for me to identify with, so I bought books and projected onto them what I thought could be a wave of cultural momentum. Perhaps they, too, would crest into something special. I strove to be in tune with my literary culture, and if not keep up with every book, I wanted to be able to look back and know that I was there, in that corner of time.

I realize now that each purchase I made then, and each purchase I still make as a collector, is an effort to mythologize my present as a reader and prophesize my future. We may never make it to all the books we buy, but each book kind of answers that eternal question of who we want to be when we grow up. I can point to a book in my library and say, I thought I was this once, and I’d like to be that person again, someday, eventually.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, Infinite Jest has been on my bookshelves since about 2000 when I heard it was a serious read and I thought it’d look impressive in my teenage library. I could make you an Allmusic.com-style network of “if you like this, check out this” referrals, going from Dave Eggers to Thomas Pynchon (having found The Crying of Lot 49 by way of Radiohead’s mailorder shop, “W.A.S.T.E.”), and although all signs pointed to me enjoying the heck out of the thing, I’ve not once cracked Infinite Jest.

Why not? I identified with Infinite Jest, I strove to be its reader. Sixteen-ish years have passed but somehow it’s eluded me, and likely still would have had I not been invited to participate in Infinite Winter. For the most of us, it’s likely due to the page count, but for me I feel it’s something a little more complicated. With Infinite Jest completed, I’ll need a new beacon to send, unread, twenty years into the future, a book to welcome me into my inconceivable fifties.

I’m looking at my bookshelf now and, with a sort of bittersweetness, suspect that it’s already in my library. Which of these will I subconsciously choose not to read, and which book, like Infinite Jest, will wait for me?

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Jeff Alford is a critic and book collector from Brooklyn, New York. He is a contributor to Run Spot Run, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and The New Orleans Review and is also the writer of the rare books and small press blog, www.theoxenofthesun.com. Find him on Twitter @theoxenofthesun.

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