by Mikolaj Bać
“All that we are is the result of what we have thought.”
Photo by Mikolaj Bać
Why do people still need personal essays in the era of exhibitionism, performed by celebrities on a regular basis? Perhaps even the quote above is taken from a lame motivational site called Great Focus Quotes. I don’t know. Does it really matter, though? People have read, people still read, and people will read. In the same manner as I did. The point of this lover’s confession is to show you that books have always been present in my life, and they introduced me to the world in which I live right now. They’ve created it, and from time to time they have also made me suffer. But what kind of real love doesn’t make you suffer at one point or another? I aim at helping someone to gain a better understanding of themself. If I happen to succeed, then I would feel like I have achieved what I wanted.
I don’t have lots of stories to tell. But I’ll tell you this one.
Books. They were everywhere.
To begin, I would love to talk to you about my parents. They grew up in smaller towns. Even for Polish standards, these two places weren’t the best ones to live in. My father had seven other siblings and he was the one most interested in reading books. Oh, and my mother. She also read a lot. Mainly Agatha Christie. Appointment with Death. They made them dream. They made them live. Eventually books brought them together.
Then I came. I don’t know whether I was brought by some kind of mysterious stork or, as in The World According to Garp,I was mysteriously brought to life by someone’s empathy. I don’t know, I’ve never asked. All I know is that I wasn’t really planned, like the inspiration which comes to a writer as he starts to compose and which turns his life upside down. Amélie Nothomb even described all the books that she wrote were a result of a pregnancy. Pregnancy nothombiste as she referred to it in French. I guess I was the same kind of inspiration. My parents had just come back to Poland from the States, wanting to give me the best possible future which meant not being an American. In hindsight I really appreciate that.
Maybe Poland in the early 2000s wasn’t the perfect place to grow up but it created this odd subspecies of a thing who I happen to be right now. I remember this time. I was constantly bullied for not being masculine enough,
– but one book was always close to me. Which one, you may ask. It was Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne. It resided in my backpack, in my pocket, in the bathroom. Being beaten for longer hair and reading too much in a martial arts camp and quickly escaping the place thanks to my parents’ quick intervention. They grew up in places with books themselves. Books made them dream. They made me dream.
And also: Trying to write my first story. First novel. Emerald Isles Ally. For those of you who have played Heroes III, I’m sure that you already have a smile on your face. Even though I’d written this piece in Polish, the title was exactly this English one. I didn’t even know back then what it meant. I only knew that I wanted to write. But I wrote one page and abandoned it. Something about mythical guns and creatures in a blue loose-leaf binder, lost during one of the moves from house to house. One day I would really like to read what a ten-year-old could have possibly imagined on those isles.
Why am I talking about books? Well, they just got stuck in my mind, connected to important events in my life. But if you want to talk about other things, then alright, I also love music. I remember being completely heart-broken and riding my bike, listening to Biffy Clyro. I remember my first kiss to Green Day’s 21st Century Breakdown. You know, music has always been around me. It appears in my memories, but it does not create it. It never really changed my personality. That’s why I’m here writing about literature.
As a young boy I wasn’t considered normal by the standards of my friends. When I was 8 my grandfather told me that to become a real man you have to read The Deluge by Henryk Sienkiewicz. For those of you who have no clue who the hell this guy was and what the heck this book is about, I will provide you with an explanation. This is one of the novels which is one of the most important Polish reads. Nearly 800 pages, it used to be read in high schools, but is now overlooked. And I nearly finished the book. I stopped about 750 pages in, saying that there is no more war but just this stupid love between the two main characters. I never came back to the novel and started to read Garfield comics again.
When we drove somewhere during the summer holidays, all the other kids were playing football or playing in the sea. I was lying on the beach, reading. Well, I also played with them sometimes. But I just needed to read as much as I needed to breathe. What was I reading? I guess it was The Master and Margarita. Then everyone was just laughing at me for having dreams about my head falling off from my corpse.
(You’ve just reached the middle of the text. From now on it’s only gonna be easier).
You should know, I don’t really cry much. Since the more conscious age of 13 (I’m now twenty-something), I’ve cried five times. Ten years, only five times “when the wet covered my eyelids” — as we say it in Polish (or at least as I do). I don’t think you’d be surprised that one of those times was because of a book. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell made me suffer. It turned my world of idealism upside down. I would love to say that I haven’t been the same since, but that sounds like a horrible cliché. Oops, already said it.
Books. They will be everywhere.
Perhaps I even had a room of my own. I was living in different times. I wasn’t even a girl, though I was considered one eventually. I was definitely too sensitive. Even now when I watch certain films, I have to pause them because I relate to the hero too much. Well, with books it has happened too. At first, I read only fantasy because it was kind of easier to dissociate myself from the main hero. But then I discovered other types of literature. Ones that were more sophisticated. I even won a Polish literature competition later on. And you know what? It never bored me. I had this gift that I wanted to share. So, what I did was I bought my sister some books. It was my mission to make her culturally knowledgeable! To change her social views. To make her just as enlightened as I was. For that reason, I gave a thirteen-year old a book by Virginia Woolf in an attempt to make her a feminist. She never read it. And then I gave her other books which she also didn’t read. But my cultural revolution wasn’t over yet as I wanted to make her win the Polish literature competition just like me. But she wasn’t interested at all.
And then I went to university. And they asked me a question: Qu’est-ce que tu fais ici? And I didn’t know what I was doing there. But in the Renaissance classes with De Montaigne sitting by my side I just knew the answer. J’essaie. Everything happens for a reason. Even though I wanted to quit those studies after every exam session, it seems like this passion for literature and the French language which, like every new language that you learn, broadens your horizons. Gave me an opportunity to study somewhere else – in a place that is even flatter than my used bike tires, also known as The Netherlands.
In the meantime, a weird thing happened, and I was just as stuck as a lot of other people. In a place where I didn’t want to be. Maybe it’s not that common that you just run away to your childhood home during an event that only happens once in a period of 100 years and some not-even-living molecule shuts the door behind you to your normal life. I remember standing at the bathroom window, thinking about how time flies by so quickly. The nostalgia was taking over so much that while I was standing there, I wanted to become Karlsson-on-the-Roof from Astrid Lindgren’s books that I discovered in the exact same house many years before.
The first analysis? Box Hill with a subtitle Story of Low Self-Esteem. Some place in Surrey which I had never heard of before, reminded me of my weird childhood dream of getting kidnapped by pirates just like I didn’t have my own will at all. I also thought about becoming a guy without any aspirations sitting down on a bench with his friends, smoking a cigarette, enjoying a beer without any concerns about the sense of life. Now I know how wrong I was. Just trying with all my strength to avoid any social problems or more difficult questions that literature proposed. Maybe those thoughts are also the reason why I’m at the place where I am right now.
And here I am, feeling The Discomfort of Evening while being surrounded by the flashing lights of my computer and the blocks of houses nearby. I don’t really know whether everything that I’ve lived through and what I’m living right now is real. Maybe it’s just an imagination of some fucked-up author, who wanted to create his alter ego to tell you a story about the childhood of some lost soul. I don’t really know.
“And where does that lead?” you may ask, frustrated that you’ve just wasted your time reading through some unknown guy’s story. And I would tell you that you are right. I just wanted to show you that I don’t even know where I would be without books. I don’t even know if I would really exist.
As I opened myself up to you so intimately, what do you think about taking a deep breath, taking a look inside yourself and just wonder: How did books change your life? Would that be too much to ask after such a detailed lover’s confession?
Mikołaj Bać is a writer and photographer as well as a student in Utrecht University in contemporary literary studies, particularly interested in gender and intercultural approach. He’s also about to finish his first non-fiction book concerning the culture of Upper-Mustang as well as head of the design section of Rev_UU.
Photo by Izabela Makocka
Bulgakov, Mikhail. The Master and Margarita. Alma Classics, 2012.
Christie, Agatha. Appointment with Death. Harpercollins Publishers, 2019.
“Great Focus Quotes.” Sources of Insight, 25 Sept. 2020, https://sourcesofinsight.com/focus-quotes/.
Irving, John. The World According to Garp. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2019.
Lindgren, Astrid. Karlsson-on-the-Roof. The Viking Press, 1971.
Mars-Jones, Adam. Box Hill. Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020.
Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. Penguin, 2009.
Rijneveld. Marieke Lucas. The Discomfort of Evening. Faber & Faber, 2020.
Sienkiewicz, Henryk. The Deluge. Copernicus Society of America, 1991.
Verne, Jules. Around the World in Eighty Days. Penguin, 1994.