Peter Orner’s essay collection, Still No Word From You: Notes in the Margin, doesn’t home in on any single part of his life, but instead tracks how books have influenced it. With his quintessentially humorous and insightful voice, Orner grapples with themes of loss, the infallibility of memory, and the difficulty of change, even when we acknowledge that change will lead to our improvement.
In 107 essays — few of which exceed four pages—Still No Word From You follows Orner’s childhood and his relationship with his parents, his former wife, and his current partner and their kids. With their shifting narrative center, the book’s short passages often fail to gain momentum, such that the collection might be better appreciated one or two essays at a time. That a sizable portion of these essays were first published in a regular column Orner wrote for The Believer—called Notes in the Margin, the subtitle’s namesake — supports this assessment.
The stories Orner presents are refracted through his reading of roughly one hundred different texts. Sometimes he’s out doing something and is reminded of a story, while other times he’s reading and finds himself drawing comparisons to and from his own life. This two-way street — how his reading complements his life, and how his life complements his reading — consistently deepens the collection, reminding us that reading is not about absorbing a single narrative, but about participating in an interaction that reaches far beyond a book’s pages.
Needless to say, Orner gleans wisdom from each text he encounters; or, if not wisdom, then a better understanding of himself and his priorities. In the collection’s second essay, for example, he notes a preference for wanting to read just the beginning of stories. There’s anticipation in the beginning; we are settling in; we know something that the characters don’t. Orner is not explicit about what he derives from this observation, which in turn gives us space to enter the text and wonder what he — and we — might enjoy about this sense of expectation, this heightened access to knowledge.
Orner’s life is a reading life, and those of us who share his bent will likely see our own experiences reflected in Still No Word From You.
Benjamin Selesnick lives and writes in New Jersey. His writing has appeared in decomP, Lunch Ticket, Santa Fe Writers’ Project Quarterly, and other publications. He holds an MFA in fiction from Rutgers-Newark.