When I was younger I thought I could feel less lonely if I found a way to get people I liked to like the things I liked.
The written word makes us less lonely. When you read about someone just like you, who feels the way you do, gets off on what gets you off, you feel less lonely. That’s the point of it all. The trouble is when you find a book that makes you feel less lonely, but then can’t find another actual person who also felt less lonely after they read that same book. Not being able to find that actual other person can bring on a whole new kind of loneliness. And the trouble with this kind of loneliness, is that you can’t get out of it by reading, because that’s what got you into trouble in the first place, and you become all too aware of that fact.
Years ago, I figured all I had to do was give people I liked the books that I like. I assumed the issue was just that they didn’t know about all of these great books. All I’d have to do was show them. Then they would know about these wonderful things too, and they would feel less lonely, and I would feel less lonely too. This plan had the added benefit of making me look like a cool curator of cool things. People would know that I knew about all sorts of great books that could make you feel less alone.
In hindsight, it is extremely strange how long I stuck with this strategy. There is perhaps no lonelier feeling than when you buy somebody a book, excited to give it to them, and realize as you give it to them that they will not read it. On the day of the gifting, I would always make eye contact with the recipient as I eagerly stuck my book-clutching arms out. More often than not I could immediately see the hesitation in their eyes. It was never disappointment, or even annoyance, just a clear discomfort or weirded-out ambivalence. The look of “What am I going to do with this?” Or, “Wow this is weird, why is he giving me a book?” More generously I sometimes got, “Boy, Chris sure is goofy. I wonder what the fuck this book is about.”
One time I was meeting an acquaintance at a restaurant and I brought him a magazine I thought might interest him. He was a foreign policy junkie with a paleoconservative streak, and that ideology’s foremost outlet, Chronicles, had an issue almost entirely dedicated to the Ukrainian Crisis of 2014. He was sure to gobble it up and ponder it for weeks. We were seated outside when I gave it to him, and after briefly thanking me he tucked it under his chair without much looking at it. Unfortunately it had rained the night before and the magazine slid into a puddle of stagnant water. He failed to hear the slight “sploosh” it made when it hit the water. I didn’t want him to realize what had happened, because it would guarantee at least one uncomfortable apology and a lackluster “no worries” on my part, so I kept my reaction to a brief wince. When we had finished eating and headed out, it was clear he had completely forgotten about the magazine. I didn’t bring it up as we exchanged goodbyes, and he has never mentioned it.
When I was 23 I went to my then-girlfriend’s father’s house for Christmas. He remains the most generous man I’ve ever met. He bought my girlfriend and I a fancy Keurig coffeemaker for our apartment along with dozens of boxes of k-cups. A value of at least a few hundred dollars. At the time I was making $28,000 a year at a non-profit near Washington DC, and had just paid off my student loans. We drove to his house in my girlfriend’s car because I was too broke to own my own. Her father was a fairly tough guy, from rural Pennsylvania, with a keen sense of right and wrong. So I had bought him a paperback edition of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. That novel is easily best detective story ever written, filled with broad shoulders, flasks, dames, and a seedy Los Angeles that can’t manage to protect itself from the heroic and tough protagonist. Plus, it influenced a whole slew of classic Hollywood tough-guy movies, which all dads seem to like. He unwrapped it after we had opened the Keurig and said, “thanks” with a perfectly neutral expression across his face. For a moment, I felt the overwhelming rush to explain to him why it was such a great book, and why he would like it, and why I had chosen it for him. But the rush subsided and I thought better of it. Next Christmas I did not buy him a book, and The Big Sleep did not come up.
Two Christmases later I had wised up a little bit. I had three friends all living together in one house. It was a den of millennial cliches through and through. They, like I, were broke, bright, and conspicuously lacking in telos. When we hung out we tried to get as fucked up as possible. Adderall, ecstasy, alcohol, marijuana, and LSD, mostly. Sometimes I’d go to their house, get high, and watch Netflix for hours with them without ever getting up even to smoke a cigarette. Other times we’d stay up all night giggling through the hallucinatory recollections of the triumphs and tragedies of our adolescence. As a gift to all three, I bought them the issue of Granta magazine with the cover story, “Confessions of a Middle-Aged Ecstasy Eater,” by Anonymous. Of the many many written works that grapple with the ups-and-downs of drug use, I assure you this one as one of the best. Its ability to convey the strange mix of blissful hedonism and unending ennui that become permanently entangled after years of abuse is uncomfortably on point. It’s about forty pages long, ensuring that at least one of the three roommates would read it. This was an incorrect assumption, and not one of the three has ever brought it up to me.
More recently, I made what was likely my most obviously doomed gifting. A conservative friend of mine and I had been arguing about whether Marxists, or at least Marxians, had ever made thoughtful or valuable observations about the world around us. He remained obstinate, and left me with the burden of proof. With the thrill of coming vindication, I dug-up my copy of The Society of Spectacle by Guy Debord and handed it to him. It’s a very short book, and has a kind of whimsy to it that makes it a real pleasure to read. Most importantly, the “spectacle” described in it has obvious value to conservatives, as the spectacle papers over religion, tradition, and even nationalism with a spiritually empty gilding. It’s now been long enough that if he were going to read it, he would have already.
The list could go on, but you get the point. So next time you find a book that makes you feel less lonely, and you share it with someone you like, and the gift goes down the memory hole, and you feel even more lonely than you did before finding the book, try rereading this essay. I hope it makes you feel less lonely.
Chris Rojas is the son of a librarian.