Poet and author Ocean Vuong

Poet and author Ocean Vuong

Some book purists may cringe at this, but one test of a great book, to me, is how many pages are dogeared by the time I finish. Those are the ones I tuck on a shelf, reluctant to take them to the Little Free Library down the street or even to loan them to a friend, lest they never find their way back. I delude myself into thinking I will re-read them someday, wondering what I found to stop me on the dogeared pages and then finding new things to mark.

The re-reads seldom happen because, well, life does, and there are more books. My shelves are as limited as my time. I get better at letting go and making room.

But before I do, I check for riches beneath those folded corners. Often it is a line of metaphor or a sensory description I find familiar and yet brand new. Bur sometime it is a moment that speaks to the writing itself. And the best time is when it speaks to the power and imperative of storytelling.

Poet Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” is one of those best times. It took me two years, after it was published and urged on me by friends and trusted book editors, to get to it. When I did, I was reminded that another test of a great book is that it is timeless. No matter it wasn’t read for a year or for decades after it was published. It shimmers and grips — Yes, because of the story it tells, but also because of the writing, and those shards of writing that make you pause and re-read and catch your breath and wonder how a writer did that and why you can’t and, at core, why we write.

My copy of “On Earth” bulged fat with dogeared pages. Treasures all. But because this is a semi-autobiographical novel, and because it is framed as a young man’s letter to his broken mother, the limitations and hopes of writing itself become characters. Thus, the line, “That’s what writing is, after all the nonsense …”

The full passage:

You asked me what it’s like to be a writer and I’m giving you a mess, I know. But it’s a mess, Ma—I’m not making this up. I made it down. That’s what writing is, after all the nonsense, getting down so low the world offers a merciful new angle, a larger vision made of small things, the lint suddenly on a huge sheet of fog exactly the size of your eye. And you look through it and see the thick steam in the all-night bathhouse in Flushing, where someone reached out to me once, traced the trapped flute of my collarbone. I never saw that man’s face, only the gold-rimmed glasses floating in the fog. And then the feeling, the velvet heat of it, everywhere inside me.

Is that what art is? To be touched thinking what we feel is ours when, in the end, it was someone else, in longing, who finds us?

Who among us, no matter what we write, don’t want to reach that person who finds themselves, and us, in our work?

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