Lit Counts: The First Time a Book Ruined My Life

By Genna Kohlhardt

The first time a book ruined my life I was in Morocco with my friend, Leigh. We'd been backpacking abroad for three months. Around this time, I'd started feeling really crappy about myself because it turned out that she was a much better traveler than I was. The first time we'd decided to spend some significant time apart on the trip I ended up meeting an incredibly handsome Moroccan man, who showed me around Essaoira before berating me because I didn't want to have sex with him. How is it possible, he said, he'd shown me the most beautiful sunset! I met up with Leigh a bit later feeling used and embarrassed. Leigh, on the other hand, had found a charming group of locals who boiled a whole goat head for us for dinner. I was bad at this travel thing. She was so much better.

I’d been reading Zadie Smith's White Teeth. At one point in the novel, an overweight teenager complains that some boy who didn't love her must have been too damaged to really be able to love anyone. The narrator jumps in to disagree: "Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean drinking water. Not everybody deserves love all the time."

Smith's line reverberated inside of me. My self-confidence was already in the dumps: everyone was better than me. There was no way I could have the full travel experience without Leigh to be brave and beautiful for me. I couldn't seem to figure out what to do with my future. I couldn't keep any house I'd lived in clean. I couldn't (still can't) make grilled cheese without burning it. So what if it was true, that not everybody deserved love all of the time? How could anyone ever choose to love me, when people who were so much more lovable crowded the world?

This wasn't the last time a book would destabilize me so much. Years later, while living in Idaho I read The Omnivore's Dilemma and discovered that organic produce didn't necessarily mean better produce. In fact, many organic growers used just as damaging environmental and abusive labor practices as those massive agro-businesses.

So there I was in the veggie isle at the co-op needing some carrots. I clearly couldn't buy the bulk, loose carrots. There weren't any labels telling me where they were from and who produced them. I definitely couldn't buy the bagged carrots. While I knew where they'd come from, how far they'd traveled, they were wrapped in plastic. So wasteful! The last option where those lovely rainbow colored carrots gathered in a bunch, cinched together by their tops. Those were labeled "locally grown." That was better, right? Right? But those carrots were crazy expensive. I was a grad student; I couldn't justify spending TEN DOLLARS on carrots. I left the co-op stressed out and completely carrot-less.

So why would someone whose whole self-confidence could be shattered by a sardonic line in a novel work in a literary nonprofit? Well, I don't actually think we should all walk around this planet entirely un-shattered all of the time. Books make me question myself, my worth, what I think is right in the world. I once knew that all women wearing hijabs were oppressed by their husbands, until I knew that it was a lot more complex than that after finishing Reading Lolita in Tehran.

People often tell me to "follow my heart" or "just do what you think is right" and I think those people are nuts. How the heck do you know what your heart wants, or what is right? I think that kind of righteousness in the self is part of how we arrived at this place in history. Which is maybe why I loved reading Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be? so damn much. It was the first book I'd ever read that framed that question so centrally and straightforwardly. I'm with you Sheila—how should a person be? The book doesn't look to solve that problem, the problem of what makes us deserving of love and our personhood. But its gestures so perfectly match my search when I'm at my best:

"Yet the three ways the art impulse can manifest itself are: as an object, like a painting; as a gesture; and as a reproduction, such as a book. When we try to turn ourselves into a beautiful object, it is because we mistakenly consider ourselves to be an object, when a human being is really the other two: a gesture, and a reproduction of the human type. One only has to travel on a subway during rush hour and pull into a station and see all the people waiting to get on and off to be struck by how many of us are in the world. One is a reproduction of the human type—one sleeps like other humans, eats like other humans, and is born and dies like all other humans. We are gestures, but we less resemble an original painting than one unit of a hundred copies of a book being sold."  

Editor's Note: Lit Counts is an essay series in which readers and writers from our community express why they believe in supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop. The series will countdown toward Colorado Gives Day on December 4, the annual statewide fund drive for nonprofits. For 2018, Lighthouse has set a goal of $90,000, to support the continued growth of our literary programs. If you believe in the mission of Lighthouse, consider scheduling your contribution today

Genna Kohlhardt grew up in Colorado and left in 2009 to get her MFA in poetry from Boise State University. After graduating, she lived in Washington, D.C. for two years until she could no longer resist Colorado’s charms and moved back to her home state. She is the founder and editor of Goodmorning Menagerie, a chapbook press for poetry and translation and has her own work in Fact-SimileH_NGM_N, and Strange Machine. She has worked in literary nonprofits and taught creative writing to people of all ages since 2010. If she is not doing something in the literary world, you can probably find her either cooking or eating.