You Don’t Get to Choose Your Literary Heroes — And That’s Not Necessarily a Bad Thing

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A few weeks ago, James Salter spoke at one of Paul Holdengraber’s always-brilliant Live from the NYPL events. We’d bought the ticket the day the event was announced, lovingly looked at that Friday on our calendar as it came closer and closer, and reveled in the fact that we would finally be in a room with this man.

And then, incidentally, we got a migraine and couldn’t go. We were devastated. He is our hero.

When we were younger, we wished we could read different books than we actually wanted to. Publicly, we read Christopher Pike and R.L. Stine, trashy teen novels that we loved for their beyond-the-grave high-schoolers and their symbiotic nerds. Privately, we read Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes (once a year, whether we needed it or not), or Louisa May Alcott, or, when we were really feeling it, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. We loved Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 and Frank Herbert’s The White Plague. Nineteen-eighty-four and The English Patient.

And then we got older and decided we had to read real books, and started running through novels where people talked to each other about their feelings: Julian Barnes’ Love, etc. and Talking it Over; anything by Augusten Burroughs; Sue Townsend’s Adrian Moles.

And then we stopped feeling like we had this much choice. We were mocked for never having read Philip Roth — and immediately got Exit Ghost. We were scorned for never having read Norman Mailer — and picked up the current New York Magazine. We were introduced to that hero Salter, whose Burning the Days we now force on anyone who seems remotely interested in words, and we felt we had to catch up with Malcolm Gladwell. We gradually turned from readers who spent six Saturday hours in the library, picking up books that at least felt as though they appealed to us, and us alone, to part of a larger cultural swell, subject to the whims of the reviews editors that put particular copies in front of us, others we could just as well have loved, to the floor.

We have stopped choosing our literary heroes. It doesn’t mean we don’t lionize those we’ve come across or been introduced to, but it never feels like we truly discovered them, sought them out amongst all the others.

We started reading A.M. Homes because we were in a memoir kick and The Mistress’ Daughter was on the front table; a week later we’d read everything she’d written; a few months later we saw her at a New Museum opening and were too awestruck to move. Our college best friend introduced us to David Foster Wallace (may he, truly, rest in peace) and Infinite Jest blew us into another literary stratosphere, blasting us through Oblivion and Brief Interviews and A Supposedly Fun Thing. We were devastated when Wallace died; he had been — and still is — our hero.

Our literary heroes now are a mix between who we can pick out from the media noise and who we’ve been given. We can’t spend those six hours in the library, or the Barnes & Noble, or the Borders, and the times we’ve tried to veer from the latest, the hottest, the presented, we’ve been too overwhelmed by the prospect of choosing wrong, of wasting time or money. We don’t have those endless stretches in which to discover on our own that we’re totally into Ken MacLeod’s free-market post-Singularity sci-fi, but, having been introduced, we’re beyond on board.

Don’t get us wrong. We have heroes, authors whose books we wait for and ask them to sign (apologies to Mr. William Gibson for our overexcited hello), people whose words we just can’t wait to read more of, books we want to savor one page a day so that they’ll never ever end. But we haven’t chosen them. They have, through the small and large accidents that make up the everyday, been chosen for us.