Lit Matters: Restless Songs, Lost Highways, and Lonesome Yearning

Like every other reader, probably, I tie my love for reading to my childhood. Mine was spent on back-to-the-land communes with my mother, where we raised crops, butchered our own meat, and logged firewood. It was a tough living – you ain’t experienced winter until you’ve spent one in upstate New York using an outhouse – but it was one that gave wide berth to the imagination. I was allowed more freedom to explore than most anybody I know, and we always had books around. Once I got started reading, it was two books a week, a trend that I never lost. It seems like I spent a good half of my childhood walking in the woods, talking back to a book.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately. And what I’ve been thinking is that it really wasn’t all the books I read as a kid that made me the kind of obsessive reader I am. Instead, it was growing up in a way that was already hopelessly anachronistic. It somehow made me stupidly irritable with everyday life and permanently sulky with nostalgia.

Jim Harrison uses the Portuguese word saudade for it, defining it as "a person or place or sense of life irretrievably lost; a shadow of your own making that follows you, and though often forgotten can at any moment give rise to heartache, an obtuse sentimentality, a sharp anger that you are not located where you wish to be, an irrational and childish melancholy that you have cheated yourself of being married to a life essence that you have never been able to quite gather to yourself.”

However, I always thought Woody Guthrie said it best. Alan Lomax once asked Woody what the blues meant to him, and he answered, “I’ve always called it being lonesome. You can get lonesome for a lot of things. You can get lonesome for a job, lonesome for some spending money, lonesome for some drinking whiskey, lonesome for a good time, pretty gals, wine, women, and song. Thinking that you are down and out and disgusted and busted and can’t be trusted, why, it gives you a lonesome feeling. Somehow the world has sorta turned against you.”

My term for it is less eloquent. I call it bullshit male sadness. Part of it, the part that keeps me reading, is an inane yearning for a truer, authentic life – that doesn’t exist. And, with that, the banging of my head against the bars of the life I am living. It’s no coincidence that it’s also the subject of much country music. That’s what Waylon (Jennings) and (Billy Joe) Shaver’s restless songs are about, and it’s exactly what Hank Williams meant when he sang about lost highways. As Willie Nelson once put it, “Ninety-nine percent of the world’s lovers are not with their first choice. That’s what makes the jukebox play.”

Maybe that can seem like a pretty insignificant reason to become an obsessive lifelong reader. But I don’t think so. When you wish for another life, a good time, a lover you can’t have, you’re mourning the fact that you only get the one life you’re living. You’re holding your own death in your hands.

Reading keeps me in touch with that. Along with writing, it’s how I’m having the conversation I’m always having with the world. And the older I get, the less there is of anything else.

This post is part of our Lit Matters series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts is meaningful to them. Lit Matters stories will be posted throughout the month of November, leading up to Colorado Gives Day on December 9. Mark your calendar for Colorado Gives Day or schedule your gift now. Thank you!