The best stories act like portals into another realm and consciousness, but it’s hard to avoid the feeling that once you’re finished, you’re out, grasping at the experience like tendrils of a fading memory. It always strikes me how little I’m able to retain from a book I read years ago no matter how much I loved it at the time. In some ways, it feels like the only way to enter that place again is to return to the pages, and reread them. While that’s certainly a worthy task, there’s also a middle way — what Susan Sontag called “filleting a book.”
Here’s how: dog-ear the hell out of books you love, and then at the story’s end, transcribe your favorite passages into a document or notebook. I sometimes feel that letting that language flow through your own fingers will even let you imbibe just a little of the magic in the words. And when the story calls to you again, you’ll have built a secret passageway right to the heart of the book, or your experience of it.
Here’s a selection of my fillets from Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. It’s a lyric essay on the color blue, loneliness, loss, and love — and a piece of writing that I adore.
“44. Later that afternoon, a therapist will say to me, If he hadn’t lied to you, he would have been a different person than he is. She is trying to get me to see that although I thought I loved this man very completely for exactly who he was, I was in fact blind to the man he actually was, or is.”
“45. This pains me enormously. She presses me to say why: I can’t answer. Instead I say something about how clinical psychology forces everything we call love into the pathological or the delusional or the biologically explicable, that if what I was feeling wasn’t love then I am forced to admit that I don’t know what love is, or, more simply, that I loved a bad man. How all of these formulations drain the blue right out of love and leave an ugly, pigmentless fish flapping on a cutting board on a kitchen counter.”
“53. We mainly suppose the experiential quality to be an intrinsic quality of the physical object — this is the so-called systemic illusion of color. Perhaps it is also that of love.”
“72. …Loneliness is solitude with a problem. Can blue solve the problem, or can it at least keep me company within it? — No, not exactly. It cannot love me that way; it has no arms. But sometimes I do feel its presence to be a sort of wink — Here you are again, it says, and so am I.”
“100. It often happens that we count our days, as if the act of measurement made us some kind of promise. But really this is like hoisting a harness onto an invisible horse. ‘There is simply no way that a year from now you’re going to feel the way you feel today,’ a different therapist said to me last year at this time. But though I have learned to act as if I feel differently, the truth is that my feelings haven’t really changed.”
“119. My friend was a genius before her accident, and she remains a genius now. The difference is that these days it is nearly impossible to discount her pronouncements. Something about her condition has bestowed upon her the quality of an oracle, perhaps because now she generally stays in one place, and one must go unto her. Eventually you will have to give up this love, she told me one night while I made us dinner. It has a morbid heart.”
“181. Pharmakon means drug, but as Jacques Derrida and others have pointed out, the word in Greek famously refuses to designate whether poison or cure. It holds both in the bowl. In the dialogue Plato uses the word to refer to everything from an illness, its cause, its cure, a recipe, a charm, a substance, a spell, an artificial color, and paint.”
“191. On the other hand, it must be admitted that there are aftereffects, impressions that linger long after the external cause has been removed, or has removed itself…And who is to say this afterimage is not equally real? Indigo makes its stain not in the dyeing vat, but after the garment has been removed. It is the oxygen of the air that blues it.”
“195. Does an album of written thoughts perform a similar displacement, or replacement, of the “original” thoughts themselves?…196. I suppose I am avoiding writing down too many specific memories of you for similar reasons. The most I will say is ‘the fucking.’”
“198. In a 1994 interview, about twenty years after he wrote “Famous Blue Raincoat,” Cohen admitted that he could no longer remember the specifics of the love triangle the song describes. ‘I always felt that there was an invisible male seducing the woman I was with, now whether this one was incarnate or merely imaginary I don’t remember.’ I find this forgetting quite heartening and quite tragic, in turns.”
“199. For to wish to forget how much you loved someone — and then, to actually forget — can feel, at times, like the slaughter of a beautiful bird who chose, by nothing short of grace, to make a habitat of your heart.”
“206. Perhaps writing is not really pharmakon, but more of a mordant — a means of binding color to its object — or of feeding it into it, like a tattoo needle drumming ink into skin. But ‘mordant,’ too, has a double edge: it derives from mordere, to bite — so it is not just a fixative or preserver, but also an acid, a corrosive. Did I have this double meaning in mind when I told you, a little over a year ago, after it became clear that I would lose you, or that I had already lost you, that you were ‘etched into my heart’? I may not have known then that ‘etch’ derives from etzen or ezjan — to be eaten — but in the days since, I have come to know the full meaning of the root.”
“238. I want you to know, if you ever read this, there was a time when I would rather have had you by my side than any one of these words; I would rather have had you by my side than all the blue in the world.”