Books on GIF #45 — 'Imagine Wanting Only This' by Kristen Radtke


Books on GIF is a weekly review and discussion of random books — from bestsellers to classics to unearthed gems — told with the help of GIFs. We'll cover fiction, nonfiction and the occasional graphic novel.

This Sunday's book is 'Imagine Wanting Only This' by Kristen Radtke. 
RadtkeGonna keep it short and (not so) sweet this week. That's because I can't really tell you what this graphic novel is about. It's part memoir, part grief chronicle, part medical journal, part historical tale and part philosophical statement. While I did like Radtke's art, the story struck me as a mishmash of themes and unresolved ideas, and by the end of it I was like: starts with Uncle Dan, who is beloved by the author and has a rare heart condition that eventually causes his death. Then she travels with her boyfriend to Gary, Indiana, to take pictures of the urban decay and misery there and comes across some photographs partially buried in a falling-down and abandoned church. The photos depict an unknown man and are covered with dirt and mold. She decides they'd be great for an art project so she takes them. Turns out those photos were from a makeshift memorial for a young photographer who loved to shoot the ruins of Gary and was struck and killed by a train. Once she finds out that she's basically robbed the memorial, she keeps the photos anyway, and for some strange reason even takes them with her on a trip abroad. I wish I could tell you why, but: becomes fixated on disasters, ruins and deserted places, perhaps inspired by Uncle Dan's and the photographer's deaths. Over the course of the rest of the book she visits an abandoned mining town in Colorado and seeks out people who once lived there. Her interviews with them don't really go anywhere. She also does research about a tremendous 19th century fire that once ravaged Wisconsin and learns that its aftermath may have inspired military types to launch the fire bombing of Tokyo and Dresden during World War II. The point of her research, while interesting, is unclear. And she visits Iceland, where lava once buried a town. That's where she states the title of the book, 'Imagine Wanting Only This,' which is a kind of admonishment of people who like to settle down and stay in one place and who don't live with the idea present in their mind at all times that everything is temporary and will fall to ruin. I'm not really sure what all this has to do with Uncle Dan, heart disease, grave robbing, the Peshtigo fire and Icelandic lava, but I think the author was trying to tell us something about the impermanence of life. People die. Buildings, and even towns, are abandoned. The paint on your house will fade. Your cat will die. Someone you love will die. Strangers will move into the house you grew up in. The company you toiled at for years will suddenly lay you off. Everything and everyone will eventually be forgotten. So, best thing to do is travel. And be mindful of impermanence. Or something. But, this is neither new, profound nor particularly interesting. I was like:'s making a philosophical statement that blends wanderlust with a melancholy pre-nostalgia that I found contradictory: We're supposed to see the world and learn new things, and then mope about it? That doesn't make sense. Sure, life will end for all of us. Nothing is promised, and nothing is permanent. And, of course, during what little time we have here, we should make the most of it. We should learn things, see things, experience things, meet people, love them, mourn them, yes, all of that. And there can be beauty in ruins. (Look at Rome.) A somber loveliness can be achieved through loss or change combined with history. But all this is nothing to cry about in a broad sense. It is what it is.

My rating:'Imagine Wanting Only This' by Kristen Radtke was published by Pantheon Books in 2017. 278 pages.

What's next? In the coming weeks I'll review 'Our Man in Havana' by Graham Greene, 'The Moor's Account' by Laila Lalami and 'Eve's Hollywood' by Eve Babitz, among others.

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Thanks for reading!*


* Thanks especially to Donna for copy editing this review!