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The Lonely Voice: 'Strand' By Peter Orner

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Peter Orner

I’ve read a lot of headlines lately about the slow death of reading during the pandemic. A quick Google search reveals a half-dozen articles asserting those claims in just the last few weeks — even as the book publishing world celebrates gains in sales.

But I get it. The pandemic has turned our worlds — and our schedules — upside down. Old routines have been replaced by new ones, and in some of those transitions, time to read has had to be jettisoned from daily lives.

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Several months back, I returned to a memoir in essays that was first released in 2016, "Am I Alone Here?" by Peter Orner. I returned to it because I recalled the ways that Orner champions reading, considers it absolutely lifesaving. The subtitle of the book is, after all, “Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live.” Can reading be all that? Can our feeling about it be that absolute and unmitigated and unabashed? Well, yes. If not, then why do it at all? If not, indeed, why do anything at all then?

I saw on the pages of "Am I Alone Here?" resonances of my own wrestling with certain stories, my begrudging acceptance of the vagaries of life that wound us and the more studied ways we lead ourselves down dubious paths to destinies that we tolerate because we know how fickle life is. We wait for things to change or we wait to get used to them. And we read while we wait. There are no answers there but there are always kindred spirits roiling in their own despair or coming through it as survivors — a little worse for the wear but imbued with insight we can’t measure but that we can know assuredly exists because it’s right there on the page.

Am I alone here? Are we? We know we aren’t really alone because we do read. Peter Orner distills his boundless and ceaseless reading life on the pages of that book with essays dedicated to the masters of the story form — many of the greats, the examples who lived through other epidemics, terrible wars abroad or in spaces smaller, more personal and closer by.

Stories are about loss. We lose. We are lost. We seek to find. We don’t know what we are missing and that becomes the problem — the reason for the voids we can never fill. These are the universal truths. This is our lot in life.

And as we’ve learned through this pandemic over these last several months, “all our losses are collective.” Peter Orner writes, “If they’re not, we’re truly doomed. If we can’t overcome them ourselves, the very least we can do is recognize that we aren’t the only ones out here trying to get by.”

Orner frequently starts a sentence on “The Lonely Voice” podcast by saying, “I promised myself I would not be hyperbolic, but…” and our conversation continues — a robust, unapologetic celebration of the authors and their stories.

In the essay “Eudora Welty, Badass,” Peter Orner so much as apologizes for using the word “sublime” to describe “No Place for You, My Love,” what Orner considers to be “the loneliest love story Welty ever wrote.” “Did I just use ‘sublime’ in public?” asks Orner. He really believes, that “All worthy stories are better read than talked about.” He’s repeated some variation of this claim on the podcast often, too.

But if reading makes us feel less alone, I find that talking about stories with someone who wholeheartedly believes that stories are better read than talked about—but then can’t help but talk about them — hyperbolically or not at all if you please — puts us in a small club of readers who know that the loneliness is a nonnegotiable, a fact of our humanity but that as readers we can still connect in meaningful ways with others. “The whole point of fiction,” he writes “has always been to forget about me.”

A student of mine who listens to the podcast said in an email to me recently, “I like to listen to you get from point A to point Z. And it’s fun to see the ways you love all these losers.” What could I do but send to her a quote by Peter Orner: “I take my fictional heroes flawed or not at all. Those who believe they’ve cornered the market on wisdom are the ones to steer clear of, in literature, politics, life. Give me the confused, the mistake-ridden, the still trying to figure it out.” She replied with a screen shot of a list of all the books she ordered to read during the winter break.

I feel profound gratitude to get to do what I do — to work with students and hope they will learn to love reading… and to read stories and books and talk about them with the podcast-listening audience privy to the times when emotion — and, yes, the hyperbole — get the better of me or when I admit that there are things about stories I’ve read a dozen times that still elude me.

We don’t know the answers to other terrible mysteries of our lives — the why? The unanswerable about our collective pain and grief during 2020 or any other year that brought its cruelty to us… and will continue to. It’s not like rummaging through the bookshelf to find precisely the right self-help book. Because there isn’t just one book to help blunt the shock and the pain or figure things out. There are many more than that.

Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.