Excerpt from Bookmarked: How the Great Books of Western Literature F*cked Up My Life by Mark Scarbrough

A poignant, funny, and timely memoir that marries the intimacy and the sexual identity themes of Boy Erased with My Life in Middlemarch’s interest in the way literature shapes and influences our lives, written in the authentic Southern voice, deeply incisive wit, and with quirky but erudite observations evocative of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead.

Mark Scarbrough has been searching for something his entire life. Whether it’s his birth mother, true love, his purpose, or his sexual identity, Mark has been on a constant quest to find out who he really is, with the great Western texts as his steadfast companions. As a boy with his head constantly in a book, desperate to discover new worlds, he can hardly distinguish between their plots and his own reality. The child of strict Texan Evangelicals, Mark is taught by the Bible to fervently believe in the rapture and second coming and is thus moved to spend his teen years as a youth preacher in cowboy boots. At college, he discovers William Blake, who teaches him to fall in love with poems, lyrics…and his roommate Alex. Raised to believe that to be gay was to be a sinner, Mark is driven to the brink of madness and attempts suicide. Hoping to avoid books once and for all, Mark joins the seminary, where he meets his wife, Miranda. Neither the seminary nor the marriage stick, and Mark once again finds himself turning to his books for the sense of belonging he continues to seek….

In the tradition of beloved titles like The End of Your Life Book ClubReading Lolita in Tehran, and The Year of Reading DangerouslyBookmarked tells a deeply personal story through the lens of literature. An examination of one man’s complicated, near-obsessive relationship with books, and how they shaped, molded, ruined, and saved him, Bookmarked is about how we listeners stash our secrets between jacket covers and how those secrets ultimately get told in the ways that the books themselves demand. 

Excerpt

Caution: A Preface

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “I found myself in Middlemarch!” Or “Shakespeare saved my life!”

I call bullshit. Shakespeare never saved anyone. Least of all, me. Although I sure wanted him to. Ached for him to, somewhere in the marrow middle of my bones. And not only him but all the other literary lions, like William Blake, Charlotte Brontë, and Henry James, now dead and mounted on the wall of Western culture.

I got sucked in by their promises, the best things. A once upon a time that leads logically to the end. Characters who remain true to themselves, despite what the plot throws at them. And desires that can be—ta-da!—fulfilled. Or at least understood.

And something more tangible, too. Down in my soul’s basement, where the lights are dim and my hopes are laid away in boxes, I dreamed up a mad quest through the great books to find a home. To hear the crackle in a fireplace. To feel the weight of the covers at night. To breathe in and out all that’s human and loved.

Maybe I should have lowered my sights. Maybe only the main character gets home. Problem is, I’ve always felt like a minor one: the sidekick in a baggy sweater, the wiseacre two desks down. The guy who steps into a story, pushes it along in some vague way, and gets a one-liner as his reward: Years later, I heard he died in a car crash.

Or maybe I asked so much from the great books because of my upbringing. When I was ten, my parents left the Southern Baptist church. “It is too liberal,” they said, seemingly in unison, a plainsong truth-telling that led us to the upland pastures of American fundamentalism. Letters were sent. Ministers were challenged. Friends were lost.

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t latch onto the great books because they were forbidden. I never once read under the sheets with a flashlight. Oh, sure, I had to skip the sex scenes and turn a blind eye to the notion that a liberal could be the good guy. Authors! What can you do?

But nothing could befoul us. We were the true believers. We interpreted the Vietnam War, Nixon, and everything else as a story, a plot, rushing toward the apocalypse. The world sinned, it burned up, and we got out alive. Time was a straight line.

Once I started reading, I discovered that novels, stories, plays, and even poems were alternate timelines, descending and ascending like a grid. They even got to the same places we believed in: just deserts or happily ever after. For a long time, I wanted to homestead on that scaffolding, even though it kept coming apart and slamming to the ground. I just wasn’t myself without a book in my hand.

Then I wasn’t myself with one. Over time, books stopped being words outside my skin and became shadowy bits inside my brain, alternate versions of me, telling their own stories. I morphed into a bizarre body of shredded volumes, stalking the far country of my imagination. That’s how I saw a long-dead poet manifest in front of me one night. How I got a job fishing monks out of gay bars. And ultimately why I tossed the person I loved over the cliff of insanity in a hail Mary! attempt to save my own brain from dissolving like a cheap paperback in a deluge.

All of which is to say, be careful what you read. It can fuck you up, too.

But don’t worry. There’s a truth beyond the great works of Western literature. Life may seem linear, forceps to tombstone. Instead, the cosmos is round and elastic, spiraled and helixed. Atoms, galaxies, your DNA—they spin and come back around. I got out from under literature’s curse. You can, too.

So this story is a comedy, like Dante’s, if not so divine. But there’s no good news without the bad, which is part and parcel of it. In books, in life, even in the old poet’s journey across the universe, the way up starts with the way down.

Copyright 2021 by Mark Scarbrough. Propertius Press All rights reserved.

About the Author

I’m half of the NYTimes bestselling cookbook writing team behind over thirty cookbooks, including THE INSTANT POT BIBLE, THE ULTIMATE COOKBOOK, and THE ESSENTIAL AIR FRYER COOKBOOK. I’m (recently!) a memoirist, too, with BOOKMARKED: HOW THE GREAT WORKS OF WESTERN LITERATURE F*CKED UP MY LIFE. I host two literary podcasts: WALKING WITH DANTE, the only slow-walk through Dante’s masterwork COMEDY; and LYRIC LIFE, a podcast about lyric poetry. I also co-host COOKING WITH BRUCE AND MARK, a podcast and YouTube channel with his husband, Bruce Weinstein. A former academic, I now teach eight-week literary seminars across my part of of the world on Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Emily Dickinson, and more; and I lead two book discussion group, one online with multiple sessions and an international membership. I find my peace with two collies on acres in very rural New England. 

Website http://www.markscarbrough.com
Twitter https://twitter.com/markscarbrough

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