Category: reading

Who wants flowers when you’re dead? Nobody.

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J.D. Salinger. What can I say? He has meant more to me than any author, except maybe Jack Kerouac on his good days. I owe my literary “career,” such as it is (not to mention a certain long-winded writing style), to Catcher In the Rye and Buddy Glass. I know I’m not the only crumby author in this world to say it, but still it should be said. The chorus is loud and millions-strong. I owe a definite part of my worldview to the Glass family. My penchant for quote-collecting I owe to Buddy and Seymour. Let’s just say it: I owe my love of books, reading, and writing to Salinger, and I really can’t picture my life without those loves in it. This is what the man means to me.

Like a lot of people I read Salinger first in high school – which is actually pretty funny, a curriculum based on that book – but then I kept reading Salinger. Granted the volume of work isn’t staggeringly large – a whole four books – but its depth, belied by its simplicity, is nearly limitless. Since reading Catcher that first time, I’ve read it (and Franny and Zooey) nearly every winter, missing only a couple years here and there. Actually I’m reading it right now, which is weird. It isn’t that I empathize with Holden or the Glass family – though I do see much of myself in all of them. In fact, I find myself less and less like Holden every year, which is understandable, but I love the book more and more each time (though it’s hard to beat that first time through). With Franny and Zooey, I fall in and out of love with them every other year it seems – one year Franny will seem an insufferable phony, and then one year (as happened this year) her whole mind will just open up to me and I will love her dearly. It’s the fact that I can love or hate them, the fact that their characters – though when compared to, say, Anna Karenina, are barely sketches – they just seem so real. So full of life. It’s hard to imagine walking down the street and bumping into Anna Karenina. It’s easy, though, to run into a Holden, or a Zooey, or a Seymour. In fact, it’s impossible not to. It’s the difference between a Rembrandt and a Monet – yes, the Rembrandt is more realistic – like a photograph, almost but, the Monet, full of color and pure abstract emotion, feels more real.

You could say the element that defines all Salinger characters is the search for Real, for Truth, simultaneous with a distrust of all things Real and Truthful. I think a great many people can identify with that paradoxical quest/curse, and this is why Salinger’s stories will endure.

It will be interesting in the coming days and years to see what happens with the supposed vault of stories and books that he has written but never published. Maybe they’re real, maybe apocryphal, maybe he ordered them burned at his death (“don’t ever tell anybody anything…”). A part of me would like to read those stories, a part of me wants his family and estate to abide by his wishes, should he have chosen to never reveal the works. And if the books don’t exist, if he just ended up an eccentric old hermit in the woods, that would be fine too. The four books we already have are, for me, enough for a lifetime of reading and rereading.

Reading Proust: Fin

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I’m done. I’m sick of Proust. Sick of his rambling go-nowhere prose. All that BS I laid on before? Total crap. My metaphor of exploration was based on the idea that my exploring would be rewarded with some shiny treasure; instead, it just goes on and on and hardly says a thing. I swear I read all of Swann’s Way and it’s all been meaningless. The prose, yes, is beautiful and a joy to read; his way with language cannot be understated enough. The guy knows his way around an epiphanic moment too. But at some point in the middle of saying things, you have to Say Something. The dense, thick language which takes so long to navigate (one paragraph I read was six pages long) must be made worthwhile. And for me it hasn’t been. I’m just bored. Simply bored. Somehow I keep finding book after book to read instead of Proust. There’s a reason that keeps happening. In my mind I keep comparing the book to Tolstoy, whose novels are also very, very long, but who has perfected the trade-off between lengthy ambiance/exposition and plot/character development. Perhaps at another point later in my life I will have the time and patience to enjoy finishing this novel. But for now, it’s just stupid to waste my time reading and reading and reading a novel that I can’t enjoy, when there is so much out there to read that is enjoyable for me. It was a noble pursuit but I admit defeat…for now. You win, Mr. Proust. Zut alors!

Reading Proust from Start to Finish, #2

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I’m still working my way, slowly but surely, through volume one of In Search of Lost Time, Swann’s Way. As expected the book’s plot (I’m assuming there will be something of a plot sometime soon) develops at a glacial pace, however Proust has announced his themes of time, memory, dream, and epiphany clearly and quickly. Without the forward momentum of a plot it is hard to read at anything but a leisurely pace, which is fine by me. The book is also so dense as to be nearly impassible from one micro-plot to the next; it’s as if you were dropped at a river delta and told to walk your way to the source, somewhere high up in the jungle-covered mountains, and you don’t have a map. You are simply told to follow the river to its end. You walk, and walk, following the river, but every so often you come to a fork, and then you must explore each fork, for you don’t know which will bring you to the source. But up each fork is another fork, and so on and so on, until by the time you’ve explored each little creek and made your way back to the main body of the river, you’ve forgotten what the hell you were ever doing in the first place. Most will say, oh, the hell with this and walk back down to the delta and tell the guy who set them off on this journey to go flour his nuts. But you, and by you I mean me, are an intrepid explorer and like Stanley, or Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, you become desperate to discover the mysteries that await you at the end of the river, even if it’s Colonel Kurtz’ creepy bald head (probably not what is waiting for me in Proust, but who knows?!). You are also assuming, maybe naively, that there are mysteries waiting for you at all.

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Time and Timelessness: Reading Proust from Start to Finish, #1

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After staring down Anna Karenina last year I crested a daunting hill and looked down into the valley on the far side. The summit was the overbearing weight and patience needed to tackle the long novel. The valley below was the relief I felt that not only is reading a 700-800-plus page novel not difficult (considering the reader agrees with the author’s subject, pace, style, etc.) it is relaxing, in its own certain way, and it soon becomes familiar – spend so many nights with the same few people and they soon become like family – and therefore a joy to read rather than a burden.

Having made the summit it disappeared and I was left on a flat plain, where the 800-page, multi-volume novel was as accessible as the 80-page novella, and each had its share of worthy merits. I made it my mission to tackle another long-form novel this winter. Keep with Tolstoy and move on to War and Peace? (By the way, if you plan on reading either this or Karenina, go with the recent Pevear/Volokhonsky versions – they’re excellent). Move to the Americas and Moby-Dick? But in the back of my mind there was only one possibility, which was to go for the mother of them all, À la recherche du temps perdu, or, In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust. The name “Proust” is enough to make even the most hardened literary souls quiver. For many his novel represents the highest and hardest task available to any avid reader, and more often than not, judging by anecdotes and reviews, most flounder and drown in Proust’s verbosity, usually finishing only the first volume, Swann’s Way.

Perhaps with good reason: In Search of Lost Time holds the Guinness World Record for Longest Novel with 1.5 million words. Though now, with the internet being what it is – an equalizer of things and a destroyer of all sorts of records – Proust’s distinction is now no longer true, not technically. For example, Artamène, or Cyrus the Great, by Madeline and Georges de Scudery, is 2.1 million words (what’s with these French guys?), but is only available online, in French. The internets reveal all sorts of other astoundingly long novels:

  • The Story of the Vivian Girls, by Harvey Darger, 9 million words
  • The Blah Story, by Nigel Tomm, 11.3 million words
  • Marienbad My Love, by Mark Leach, 17 million words (!?)

These books’ extraordinary lengths hold a few caveats, however. Vivian Girls exists (as far as I know) in handwritten manuscript form only, and The Blah Story just seems to clever and artsy to actually be readable (most of the book’s 11.3 million words are actually one word: “blah.” As in: “In a blah she was blah blah blah down a blah between blah roses blah blah blah, her blah blah hair blah blah gently the blah blah trees, most blah blah blah, she thought, as blah blah he blah the nice blah blah she blah…” Seriously.). Marienbad is published online only, and is an extreme version of the cut-up style of writing, which leads one to wonder whether it is in fact a novel or some other kind of text (which is not to be dismissive of the work, in fact it sounds pretty cool). The title, by the way, of Marienbad includes a rather lengthy subtitle of 6,931 words. And this doesn’t even cover some of the immensely long Japanese and Korean books out there, or the multi-novel epics like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

So then, what we have in Proust is, ahem, the Longest Single Novel Written in the Latin Alphabet and Published in Book Form, and Doesn’t Use the Word “Blah” Millions of Times. There. See, now reading In Search of Lost Time doesn’t seem so bad anymore, does it? Proust is long, but not that long by comparison.

Getting back to the actual reading, the novel begins with the first volume Swann’s Way, which consists for the most part of the narrator’s recollections of his childhood in the fictional country town of Combray, France. The story begins with a dozen or so pages about the act of falling asleep, which is perhaps an ironic and funny way (looked at with postmodern eyes) to start a lengthy tome, but is in fact key to Proust’s thematic development of the formation and use of memory, time, and epiphany. This book was written just after the turn of the century, from 1913-1922, a time when psychoanalysis was just beginning, Europe experienced a major and scarring war, and the physicists began dismantling and recreating the ideas of time and the universe as we knew them. This is the bewildering world into which Modernism was born, and many consider In Search of Lost Time to be the greatest of all Modernist novels.

After Swann’s Way the book continues on for another six volumes, charting a course through the narrator’s life and loves as he navigates the daunting paths of aristocratic France and his own mind. Over a series of posts I hope to cover my impressions on the novel itself as I’m reading it, its joys and difficulties, and talk some about Proust and critical aspects of the novel as I learn more about both, all while keeping it light and inviting and without getting too literary criticism-y.

A few words on David James Duncan

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Today I finished the third book in the trilogy of David James Duncan’s major works: River Teeth. The other two books are The River Why and The Brothers K, both of which I cannot possibly recommend highly enough. I recommend the third book just as highly, however I would read the two novels first before wading (har har) into River Teeth, which is a book of short stories and autobiographical pieces about transformation; sort of a book of Ovid for the 90s. While the book is certainly the equal of the other two it pays to have DJD’s sense of timing and narrative already firmly planted in your mind before reading; plus the book features a last glance at Evertt Chance, one of the brothers in The Brothers K, and is truly a joy to read after learning about his trials and tribulations in K.

Duncan, in these three books is focused on – obsessed with, haunted by, devoted to – water and transformation, and the play between the two. His characters are, in essence, baptized – reborn, transformed – by the lakes, rivers, creeks, oceans, and irrigation ditches of the Pacific Northwest. His characters seek out answers constantly, in books and from friends – Why is littered with choice quotes from The Compleat Angler to the Koran – and from that ultimate source, nature. The final truth of these books is that people can and will change, if they open their minds up wide enough. Thus Duncan’s protagonists drop the tops of the convertibles of their minds and let the wind blow Truth through their hair, although sometimes not without a bit of forcefulness. Gus, our hero of The River Why, takes painfully long to figure things out. Even being chased down by a beautiful girl, haunted by quotes tossed at him by his hippie bodhisattva friend, and facing the utter torment and sadness of his lonely life, he refuses to change, a refusal that is all the more painful for the reader because he or she surely recognizes this stubbornness in him/herself, and is no doubt embarrassed and hurt by it. I don’t want to spoil the ending but in the end what saves him is a fish, not a pretty girl or a fancy quote. In a flash of epiphany and ecstasy his world is switched on and he, and we, are allowed to move forward. Our joy as readers is tempered only by our lingering jealousy that he gets to change and we do not.

In The Brothers K, each brother takes his own path out of darkness, and all are not equally successful. Although each has his point of ecstasy and epiphany, for some of them the magic is fleeting – they climb just to the top of the canyon wall, only to stumble and fall back in just as they peek their heads over the horizon and see what could be. Although some of the clan does get to the top, the book is ultimately a tragedy, with joy again holding hands with sorrow.

River Teeth is a series of vignettes, some fiction, some more memoir-like snippets from Duncan’s own life. Again each is a tale of transformation, a peek into the clockwork machinery of the world and the return from that. As I finished this book today, over and over in my head I heard the word “ecstasy,” just the word flipping and sloshing around in my brain like a trout in one of Duncan’s Oregon rivers. The word, as far as I can tell, is never used in this book, however each story includes an ecstatic moment. In my mind (word geek that I am) I’m thinking of an older definition of the word “ecstasy;” today we use the word as a synonym of joy or happiness, but the word’s more archaic meaning is “an emotional or religious frenzy or trancelike state, originally one involving an experience of mystic self-transcendence.” The word comes from Greek, ekstasis, “standing outside oneself.” To me this is the precise word to describe Duncan’s work, filled with characters succumbing to experiences of mystic self-transcendence. Gus’ transcendence comes not from a girl or a book or a shaman; it comes at night, alone with a fishing pole. Peter Chance, one of the brothers, chases transcendence through the words of every hold man he can possibly find, finally making a pilgrimage to India where he is transformed not by a yogi or a priest or an volume of Vedic literature, but by a robbery gone wrong, after which he is left alone and naked – literally. Everett Chance too takes the route of the lonely to find his way to transcendence, bathed for an entire winter in the slogging rains of Vancouver Island.

Beautifully written and wholly inspirational, I found each book infinitely rewarding, and I feel that subsequent readings will reveal even more. Sometimes a book – or in this case a trio of books – come along right when you need them, and when you read them you feel as if the writer is talking just to you and you alone, as if he is there to help you and guide you along. Sometimes a book gives you exactly what you need, nothing more or less, and you feel elevated, enlightened. The irony of these books and that feeling of enlightenment is that in Duncan’s books, as we’ve seen, words are useless. They can lead you down the path but it’s up to you and you alone to find the rest of the way. Transformation and ecstasy is left solely up to you. I hope for myself that I can someday finish what these books have helped me start.

Book Guilt

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The truly cultured are capable of owning thousands of unread books without losing their composure or desire for more.
-Gabriel Zaid, So Many Books

I like this quote. I love it, in fact. A few months back I ran out of space on my big bookshelf. The glut of books that accompany the Christmas/birthday season didn’t help matters, and soon I had at least four knee-high stacks of books hanging around in my room. Add in the comics and well…they say the human body is 70% water – I believe mine is 70% paper and ink.

Now here’s the big reveal which is sure to deny me some of my street cred: half the books I own – a literal 50% – I haven’t read. You have no idea the guilt I feel because of this. And apparently I’m not alone. This guilt manifests itself in strange ways. Like, I feel guilty about getting books from the library. Sometimes I’ll wake up in the morning and feel sheepish just looking at the shelf. Or I feel like an ass for taking so long to read Anna Karenina even though I love the book so much I moved it to the #4 slot of my Desert Island Top 5 the other night. (The #5 slot is reserved for a rotating selection of books.) The main reason it’s taking me so long to read is I ALWAYS fall asleep when reading. But that’s another post altogether.

The funny thing is, the ONE time I should feel guilty about having too many books – when I’m buying new books – is precisely the time I feel the least guilty about it. The feeling of joy when walking out of a used book store with a new stack of books is unparalleled. Similarly, when a friend starts gathering books for me to read, I will always choose to read those first over my own books, provided there is sufficient joy and sincerity in the recommendations, which there almost always is.

There are of course many reasons NOT to feel guilty about owning unread books. I’ve got a long lifetime of reading ahead of me, for one. And I know deep down that I’ll get to all these books eventually. My parents own about six-seven times as many books as I do and they don’t seem too worked up about it. And then there is the above quote, from a man who should know a little something about owning books. Mr. Zaid makes me feel downright proud of my unread book collection! My unread books mark me as a “truly cultured” person! You can see from the quote that Zaid understands the joy of buying books too. I shouldn’t feel guilty – I should feel good about my passion and desire for reading. Vindication.

The only way to really break the cycle of guilt is to just keep reading, which is my plan anyway. Since reading is so integral to writing, the only way to continue being a good writer is to keep reading good books. The bookshelf is like my power plant, the books my coal, the words and my eyes ingredients in a combustion reaction, the pen a power line, the poems I write the little houses lit up at night.

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