Ottawa
3 min

Reading is radical

Let footnotes derail your life

If you’re not planning to overthrow the government, deface gender-binary symbols on restroom doors or dry-hump a PETA member while wearing a wolf costume this week, then reading a book might be the most radical thing you can do.

Go ahead. Lie flat on the floor, break the book’s spine into submission, and begin your transformative experience. Yes, starting something dangerous can be that easy.

The ninth most radical thing you can do: Read a book that makes you take a risk. Find the one that will make you order poisonous blowfish in a Japanese restaurant, just to feel the potentially fatal tingle the writer promised. Between chapters, tell someone for the first time that you’ve always loved them, or that you won’t say no if they ask to bed you.

Third most radical thing: Read a book that makes you want to travel somewhere, that throws you into a fit of wanderlust by describing the smell of a certain wind, the cut of a rock. If your destination is distant enough, you’ll quit your job, pawn your furniture and learn to live on the fumes of passport stamps. You’ll lose touch with some people, and you’ll meet others, forgetting bits of your past and possibly even your language.

Seventh on the list: Be alone with your thoughts. A book guarantees a few hours of privacy, a reprieve from distraction. You will hear a heartbeat in your ears, irregularities in your breathing. Who knows what things you’ll tell yourself when no one’s listening?

What’s with my numbering system?

Numbers don’t matter with books. Media theorist Marshall McLuhan claimed to read only every second page, choosing to fill in the blanks with his imagination. I’m sure books are much better that way.

Sometimes you need to sabotage yourself to get the most out of reading. Read a horrible book by your favourite author, one that makes you realize they’re full of shit. Are you a non-monogamy activist? You’ll never know why your work is important unless you pick up a Harlequin romance novel, a bodice-ripper filled with jealousy and betrayal — concepts that make you retch. I bet you’ll grow 10 times more ferocious.

There are other ways to fuck with your status quo. Atheists should memorize passages of the Bible and the Qur’an. If you usually masturbate to porn, mix it up by hunting down a literary character whose textual contours get your panties wet. The exciting part is they’ll be lying there on page 59 tomorrow, still unconjugated and vulnerable. 

The fourth-, fifth-, sixth-, eighth- and second-most radical things you can do — in no particular order — is to read the work of Patrick Califia, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Kathy Acker, Dennis Cooper and the Marquis de Sade in full view of other passengers on the bus. If you make it through the trip without getting a dirty look, you will have failed in your mission. You must have hidden the cover.

There was a kerfuffle at the end of 2009 about the apparent banning of books on flights bound for the US. But there’s nothing to debate; of course books should be banned from planes. What are they thinking even letting them on trains? Don’t the authorities know that it’s in the very nature of a footnote to cause a derailment — on the page or otherwise?

I remember my most radical day. New York City had taken the piss out of me. Exhausted, I fell into bed with Mark Dery’s Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink. With chapters titled Cotton Candy Autopsy: Deconstructing Psycho-Killer Clowns, and Nature Morte: Formaldehyde Photography and the New Grotesque, this book stretched a gape in my mind. I discovered that all my notions of depravity and freakishness were coloured by imagery found a few miles down the subway line at Coney Island, a derelict amusement park, an ocean beach and a laboratory for extreme behaviour.

In retrospect, I likely became an atheist between pages 63 and 145, clueing in that the Devil was the personification of a collective fear: the dread of blood, sex, shit, death and atypical bodies. God, it would follow, was the authority figure we created to administer that fear, to prevent us from desiring any of the “unmentionables” above.

Later, my transformation was deepened when I ended up at Coney Island after falling asleep on the subway. That day, I discovered that the world has many homes for freaks like me.

Reading is radical because it dismantles the power structures in your mind.

Writers, for the most part, are not radical. They’re engaged in the mechanical process of arranging word combinations that they hope, under the right conditions, will unhinge someone. It’s a statistical game. Pretty tame work. 

The results, however, are often unpredictable, and that’s why readers are the true radicals.

Beware of book zombies sprawled on floors, sofas and beaches, lost under a fresh layer of eye glaze, welcoming danger into the world with every sentence — especially if the book zombie is you.