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Excerpt from Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Memories of the Future

by Siri Hustvedt

Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt X
Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2019, 336 pages

    Paperback:
    Mar 2020, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl
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Christopher Street was vibrant then, an open-air theater I liked to walk down incognito and peek in windows at erotic paraphernalia and costumes of a sort I had vaguely known existed but had never seen, and I wondered what my old friend Pastor Weeks would have thought of it all and what he might have said if he had been walking beside me, and I answered in the words he would have chosen: "We are all sisters and brothers in the Lord." I admired the proud couples that resembled twins, lean and trim in matching blue jeans and fitted T-shirts and perfect posture with a little sway in their hips and maybe a dog on a leash between them as they strolled to show off their perfect beauty, and I liked the tall girls in plumes and heels, and I tried not to stare at the men I silently referred to as "leather threats," the big muscle boys in black regalia with silver studs and spikes and intense expressions that made me look down at the sidewalk.

I loitered in bookstores, in the Coliseum and Gotham Book Mart and Books and Company and the Strand. In the Eighth Street Bookshop, I bought Some Trees by John Ashbery, and I read it on the train and then aloud in the apartment over and over again. And I discovered the National Bookstore on Astor Place, jammed with tantalizing scholarly books wrapped in plastic to prevent fingerly invasions from people like me, overseen by a tyrant with white hair who kept time with his tapping pencil and barked if you lingered too long over a volume, and I had to save my money, so I usually left empty-handed, but old man Salter, not so friendly himself, let me sit on the floor of his bookstore back in my own neighborhood just across the street from Columbia, and I would lean against a shelf and read until I knew I truly wanted this book or that one, mostly poets new to me, but before the year was over, I had bought the whole New York School and beyond, more Ashbery, as well as Kenneth Koch and Ron Padgett and James Schuyler and Barbara Guest and Frank O'Hara, the latter killed by a dune buggy on Fire Island twelve years before I arrived. And I still remember Guest's words, the ones that prompted me to buy her book: "Understanding the distance between characters." I am still trying to understand that.

And when I wanted the city to stop, I bounded up the steps between the stone lions and passed through the doors of the New York Public Library and walked swiftly to the grand reading room, fit for kings, and I seated myself at one of the long wooden tables under the vast vaulted ceiling with a chandelier dangling high above my head, and I ordered a book as the silent daylight from the great windows fell upon me, and I read for hours and felt as if I had become a being of pure potential, a body transformed into an enchanted space of infinite expansion, and as I sat and read to the dull sound of pages turning and to coughs and sniffs and footsteps that echoed in the immense room and the occasional rude whisper, I found refuge in the cadences of whichever mind I was borrowing for the duration, immersed in sentences I couldn't have written or imagined and, even when the text was abstruse or gnarled or beyond me, and there were many of those, I persevered and took notes and understood that my mission was one of years, not months. If I could fill my head with the wisdom and art of the ages, I would over time augment myself, volume by volume, into the giant I wanted to be. Although reading required concentration, its demands were not those of the streets, and I relaxed in the reading room. I breathed evenly. My shoulders fell from their hunched position, and I often allowed my thoughts to play in reverie over a single phrase, "The irrationality of a thing is no argument against its existence, rather a condition of it." In the library I had wings.

Before I left the building, I would always stop by the Slavic Reading Room, open the door, and peek in at the old men who resembled ivory carvings of themselves, their skin the color of gray-tinted eggshells and their long beards a paler shade of the same color. They dressed in black and at first appeared motionless as they sat over the old books. Only their long forefingers moved with deliberation as they turned the pages, a uniform gesture that proved to me the statues were alive. The old men must be long dead now, and the Slavic Reading Room is no more, but I never failed to look in on them and inhale that special dry odor of aged scholar and precious paper, which together seemed to me to carry a faint whiff of smoking incense and the mystical philosophy of Vladimir Solovyov before the revolution. I never dared cross the threshold.

Excerpted from Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt. Copyright © 2019 by Siri Hustvedt. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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