Holiday readingAugust 18, 2008 at 8:06 pm | Posted in Music, Art, Etcetera | 1 Comment
I’ve never really been one for travel. Sure, I have a mental rough draft of places I’d like to visit before I die (which includes all 50 states in America, though Alaska’s negotiable), but I never had the money to do the gap year thing and haven’t felt the desire to do those backpacking adventures which sound either exciting or impossibly tedious depending on who’s telling you about them. I guess I’d rather know a few places really well than visit many locations on such a short stay that you barely scratch the surface of what’s there. Since my family first took me there when I was about seven or eight and have returned frequently since, the Lake District fills this requirement pretty well, but what keeps drawing me back is its abundance of those things I’ve come to value as I got older: idyllic surroundings, good food & drink and (this being the clincher) fantastic second-hand book shops.
Even by previous standards, the past week’s haul’s been pretty impressive. For just under £40 I managed to get my hands on novels by Hari Kunzru, Percival Everett, Phillip Roth & Richard Ford, a critical look at NATO’s late 90’s involvement in Yugoslavia, a history of the Armenian Genocide and a collection of investigative journalism.
But although I bought most of these quite early in the week, they all remain untouched. Why? Because I picked up this and then refused to read anything else. Wasted is a memoir about an addiction to starvation. It was written when the author, Marya Hornbacher, was just 23 years and is one of the most searing, smart and beautiful things I’ve read.
With a few exceptions, memoirs of this type don’t have a particularly great pedigree, in large part because you can get published for telling a moving (or at least harrowing) story without being a particularly good writer or story-teller. In this genre, the important things is what you write about rather than how well you write, as James Frey found out to his cost. Hornbacher is a glorious exception. She can construct a narrative as well as any novelist and writes in a style that shifts seamlessly from wry and witty to desperately intense. Tracing the beginnings of her illness from the tender age of five, she details with such naked honesty how her obsession with banishing her body of food enveloped her whole life to the point where she was very close to death. Nobody, after reading this, could ever belittle an eating disorder as merely ‘cosmetic’ or a ‘cry for help’.
Despite the stark subject matter, there’s plenty of light here; enough wickedly dark humour to keep you riveted and enough flawed, faltering humanity to have you rooting for her right to the end. Of all the books I bought on holiday, I’d be surprised if any of them were as good as this.