In the Notes app on my phone, there is a list entitled “books of high school.” I made it at the end of my freshman year with the intention of cataloguing all the books I would read in high school, both for class (in bold) and for pleasure (in italics). There are freshman-year classics, of course: Romeo and Juliet, Fahrenheit 451, Catcher in the Rye. And then there are the rest. There are a few dozen books on that list, indicating what I’ve read over the last three-and-a-half years.
Most of the list was a lie.
The required books, for the most part, were honest; we only read a few books each year in my English classes, so it’s never been too difficult to stay on top of that work. It’s the recreational reading list that was tainted with insecurity.
I never read In Cold Blood. I never read Catch-22. I never read Beloved. I never read Educated or Half of a Yellow Sun or A Grace Paley Reader. Yet still they sat in the note, a symbol of my intellectual facade.
The note was not public, nor was it shared with any specific people. It wasn’t the subject of any discussion or the source of any praise. It existed, in theory, only as an archival record of my reading, just another thing that I could look back on and remember from high school.
But the literal privacy of the note failed to account for my own relationship to its contents. I felt a sense of guilty validation when I listed a book that I hadn’t read. Even though I knew nobody was going to see this note, records always seemed public to me. Receipts, concert tickets, data—every thing immortalizes its owner. It’s not that I thought my great-great-grandchildren would worship my intellect when they found the Notes app on my long-broken iPhone 6; it’s that I worshipped my intellect when I saw the Notes app. I saw myself as someone who lived up to her Ivy League applications and the praise she received from adults, the “gifted kid” label and the childhood Rory Gilmore obsession.
Self-delusion is not new to me. I think my tendency toward performance has been growing over the last few years, as I’ve become inextricably attached to social media, as I’ve thought about what kind of career I want, as I’ve daydreamed about romanticized people and lives. After years of dealing with toxic relationships and mental illness and gaslighting and pain, it’s actually really hard to separate reality from romanticization.
But another part of me loves archives. The metro ticket from when I went to Paris, the Lollapalooza wristband, the handwritten Cavetown setlist that I caught: all these things seem to pulse with the energy of another time and place. It’s electric. And so I love to keep things, and to journal, and to have a record of my life. Recording and performing are hard to separate, though, and I’m not sure they’re even different at all. My awareness of an audience is strongest when I am alone. I am conscious of what I sound like when I journal, writing my entries as if someone may judge or objectify or know my thoughts. I am my own voyeur, adjusting my appearance and my words and my mind to fit my own desires.
French philosopher Jacques Lacan introduced the idea of the mirror self, using the concept of a baby looking in the mirror. When that baby sees herself, the reflection is cohesive and uncomplicated; the reflection has no thoughts or self or tension, and is therefore glorified and envied. The mirror self is a conceptual framework for our own subjectivity, an example of our desire to be whole.
My mirror self is basically the girl who reads Half of a Yellow Sun and Educated, a girl who is pretty and smart and completely unaware of pretty much anything. That’s the whole point—my mirror self is an object. My mirror self is my fantasy of intellectualism, a two-dimensional woman that does not exist. Lacan notes, “[The mirror self] is thus fundamentally self-alienating. Indeed, for this reason feelings towards the image are mixed, caught between hatred (‘I hate that version of myself because it is so much better than me’) and love (‘I want to be like that image’).”
I worship the image, but I hate its nonexistence. I worship what the list represents, but I hate that I’m fragmented and spend a considerable amount of my time listening to the same songs and watching the same TV shows and scrolling through the same feed ad infinitum. I hate my own mediocrity, or more accurately, I hate that I’ve glorified my own self-objectification and destroyed my self-image.
All of this is just to say that I can be really fucking narcissistic, and that I’m trying to unlearn years of adjusting and presenting and gazing. It’s difficult, for sure. Especially because of social media, “living as myself” seems to entail a little bit of isolation. I try to journal for myself instead of an imaginary voyeur, but the audience isn’t really the problem. The problem is the guilt I feel when I don’t journal for months on end. The problem is confronting the twinge of shame I felt when I deleted all the books that I hadn’t read from the list.
At the peak of the list’s power, when I “read” almost 30 books sophomore year (I probably read less than ten), I was unspeakably annoying. I brought Uncle Tom’s Cabin to my APUSH class and placed it just so on the desk, hoping my teacher would notice my inherent brilliance. First of all, the fact that I checked the book out from my school library with the sole purpose of carrying it so people would notice is beyond mortifying. Second of all, who cares about what my APUSH teacher thinks of me? I am myself, and I shouldn’t need that kind of external validation. As a result of lifelong insecurity, I’ve always been searching for the undivided attention and approval of others. But the person that I present to people is not necessarily the person I am, or the person I want to be.
I revised the list a few months ago, taking out the books that I hadn’t read. It was a little painful, for sure, and the list got shorter, but it’s now a much better reflection of my real self. There are still incredible books on there—ones that I’ve read and loved.
The list is correct now. So far, I’ve only read two books during senior year: Trick Mirror and Foxfire. And I think they are my favorite books I’ve ever read. It took me more time to get through each one, but I’m trying to value quality over quantity. I’m not rushing through classics, skipping hundreds of pages and throwing titles on the list in a race toward a nonexistent win. I’m learning patience and unlearning comparison, and in that, I am embodying myself, not looking at an objectified reflection.
By Katherine Williams