Jonathan Maas's Reviews > Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live

Am I Alone Here? by Peter Orner
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it was amazing

Like having your smartest, most interesting - and unpretentious - friend list you his favorite books, and the life insights that he gleaned from them

Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live by Peter Orner sat on the library slush pile beneath my bed for a long time. It was coming due - renewed thrice already, and there was no chance for another, so I picked it up and -

It had me from the introduction. Sometimes you just know a book is going to be incredible - and you have that strange mix of kicking yourself for not getting earlier, plus relief that you have a can't miss good one in front of you for the time being.

Now I read a lot, more than anyone I know - though when I read Orner's tome, I realize that no - I don't read a lot, at least not compared to him. Or rather I don't read challenging works, or at least not compared to him. I read Ruth Ware, he reads Hrabal, Bohumil.

Orner is beyond unpretentious - so he makes that be ok - it's like having a smart friend who lifts you up. He reads the difficult thing, lends you the insight - and then boom - you've at least sort of read the source material.

And what insight he brings, on every page

I have a thing I like to call the John Updike-level of writing. Updike basically drops an insight that could turn your worldview upside down in every paragraph. I don't think it's bad if a writer fails to live up to this - it's just a number. Some writers come close, some do one a page, some one a chapter, some one a book. Some, like Ruth Ware, might have zero - and that somehow makes her more powerful.

Peter Orner, through reading other people's work - comes pretty close to the Updike level. You read it slowly, lest you miss out.

For example:

On Anton Chekhov:

Chekhov is as realistic a writer as Kafka, and vice versa. I read “The Metamorphosis” not as an allegory but as a rough morning. Gregor Samsa, you might want to call in sick today. Yet Chekhov, in his unobtrusive way, is often gloriously weirder. It’s all in the things he notices about human beings, and there is nothing Chekhov does not notice. Few writers in history have been as gifted a noticer.

On fiction in general:

I’ve always resisted the notion of fiction as consolation. I’ve always seen it as something that is supposed to disrupt my life, to shake me out of treacherous contentment—but there are days, mornings like these, when it does provide a little solace, when reality itself, whatever this actually is, gets to be more than I can take.

On a painting of a family he saw once:

I remember a painting I once saw in a museum. A mother, a father, and a child huddled together on a beach, in the wind, their clothes flapping. There is something so vulnerable about a family of three. Take one away and what’s left but a permanently empty space the other two must carry?

On short stories:

For the short-story writer there is no such thing as essential form. Because his frame of reference can never be the totality of a human life, he must be forever selecting the point at which he can approach it, and each selection he makes contains the possibility of a new form as well as the possibility of a complete fiasco. I once tried to get all that tattooed on my chest, but the artist said he didn’t do paragraphs.

On a quote from Jorge Luis Borges - note how even his quotes change you btw:

Borges, who once said: I like beginnings and I like endings and I leave the long middles to Henry James.

On novels, short stories and himself:

If the novel is the more communal form, the short story is for loners, for those off to the side. Or to put it more mundanely, stories are like me at a party. I hover near the appetizers and have been known to consume entire wheels of cheese in order to keep busy. Anything to avoid the oppressive mob laughter of group conversations.


In short - Orner brings insight and accessibility

He reminds me of Roxane Gay, who herself reads Judith Butler and gives me the insight, and also reminds me of one of my recent favorites - Martin Amis, who seems like he should be difficult to read, and is not.

To clarify that note on Martin Amis - he is incredibly well-versed and read, and looks like a guy who gets into literary feuds with other big literary people - but when you read Amis's work, it goes straight to understanding.

None of these are pretentious, and Orner is perhaps the least pretentious of the lot, or at least tied.

I was thinking why and then I realized it is because -

Orner finds a way to surprise you

One of my few criticisms of Roxane Gay is that she doesn't surprise you after awhile. You get the initial shock of her unique voice, and after that settles in - you can kind of predict what she is going to say.

It is the same with Ta-Nehisi Coates and even conservative writers like Thomas Sowell. This doesn't make their points less valid - it just is.

Orner does not suffer from this - perhaps because he doesn't care for politics. He throws insight at you, and that's it.

Insight surprises, and so does Orner.

His writing of loneliness does not make you feel bad - it uplifts, in fact

Though I loved Dani Shapiro's Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage, the despair in it crowded into the reader's consciousness.

Shapiro leads a seemingly good life, finds a way to be unhappy - and then brilliantly shows this to the reader - I am not happy, and here is an absolutely incredible book elucidating reasons why you should you not be, either.

Note I loved Shapiro's book - just illustrating that Orner does not have the self-obsessed despair within his words.

His message is more Yeah there is a little bit of loneliness here, but it can be good at times - and regardless, let's hang out together and share it - you the reader and me

In Conclusion - no Peter Orner, you are not alone here

In short, reading Orner makes you feel not only less alone, but great. You feel uplifted, and you feel smarter. He's your newest smartest friend that finds a way to self-deprecate just enough, and being around him makes you better.

Now I've got a reading list haha - I won't say that I'll provide Orner-levels of insight afterwards, but it might push me in the right direction, and hopefully I can share with someone else what he has shared with his readers/fans, a group of which I am now proudly a member;)
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Reading Progress

February 26, 2018 – Started Reading
February 26, 2018 – Shelved
February 26, 2018 –
page 50
15.82% "I fell in love with this book during the introduction. Think of your smartest friend - but one who is unpretentious very good at explaining things - think of that person telling you the tale of the books he's read. Just incredible - !"
February 28, 2018 –
page 160
50.63% "Unbelievable. This book keeps getting better - just incredible.
I've found a kindred spirit in Mr. Orner - and I suggest you give this book a shot - he might be a kindred spirit to you as well."
September 27, 2018 – Finished Reading

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