Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Sasha Frere-Jones

By posted at 6:00 pm on December 7, 2015 3

When I moved to L.A. in August, my books were not with me. They didn’t arrive for another six weeks. While I was staying in Los Feliz for a month, I went to a bookstore in Atwater Village called Alias. I bought one obscure Russian novel, Sergei Dovlatov’s The Suitcase, and a book published in 1949 about cinematography, John Alton’s Painting with Light.

coverThe Suitcase is about someone who is only allowed to emigrate with two suitcases. He ends up bringing just one suitcase because he doesn’t seem to need more. The chapters are then structured around each item he’s brought with him. I came to L.A. with two suitcases, and a friend suggested I buy this book and use it as a template for my memoir, which I am having a hell of a time writing. The items I brought with me — an Ugly Doll that reminds me of my sons, one LP by Lou Johnson (produced by Allen Toussaint), a piece of DJ gear — do say something about me, but the conceit didn’t work for describing the lifetime I had back in New York.

coverIn Painting With Light, Alton describes physical tricks that produce visual effects. I can’t imagine anybody now would bother doing something involving boxes and curtains if they could do it digitally. There is a dislocation in reading about a medium that is still with us, but sort of not. I guess the equivalent for writers would be a book about how best to use a manual typewriter: tricks for sticky keys and how to store Wite-Out. (I bought an electric typewriter about five years ago. I used it only once and found it incredibly embarrassing — it was so loud. I sold it when I arrived in L.A.)

Everything else I read recently was something I printed out and left by my bed. I have a PDF of Ottessa Moshfegh’s story collection Homesick for Another World, which comes out in January of 2017. It’s sort of douchey to talk about something that isn’t out, except you can easily find about two-thirds of the book online, in the places that first ran the stories: The Paris Review, Vice, Granta. Her name is very Googleable.

It was strange getting into bed (literally) with characters who were doing unpleasant things, like buying drugs from homeless people who look like zombies or dealing with some terrible actor boyfriend addicted to meth, but I didn’t ever dream about these people or get stuck with their problems. Moshfegh’s sentences are so clean and they don’t come in the order you expect. The rhythm of the stories became soothing, and I cycled through this one pile of paper several times.

In the same stack was a story called “The Preoccupants,” by a writer from Canada I love, Paige Cooper. This one is in the Michigan Quarterly Review, a findable thing. Her stories often pit bodies against natural stuff that probably makes more sense in Canada — mountains, predatory birds, floods — but this one is about a couple who fly? rocket? to an unnamed planet. Their only company is each other, and two other couples who apparently work for the same company? country? planet? Everybody has to worry about bodily fluids and there are no mirrors. Many things are never entirely identified or explained. It made me very happy to have a bed with traditional sheets that is not floating.

The last thing I printed made me feel like a murderer. It is a digitized edition of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Theory of Colours. I downloaded a scan of the original, which is beautiful, and apparently some OCR word salad version. After every few paragraphs, these words appear:

Digitized by Google

Then some other weird technical language will pop up a few sentences later. It’s awful. I can’t believe I printed out hundreds of these pages. Even using them as scrap paper feels criminal.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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3 Responses to “A Year in Reading: Sasha Frere-Jones”

  1. Matilda
    at 6:05 pm on December 7, 2015

    My library will only carry Dovlatov in Russian for its Russian patrons. I had to ILL to get hold of translations. Worth the wait.

  2. Richard Polt
    at 7:31 pm on December 7, 2015

    Thanks for this enjoyable piece. I think your experience with the Goethe PDF suggests a few reasons why many people do bother to do things nondigitally: they like savoring a high-quality experience, doing it in a way that shows care and takes time, and avoiding the digital intermediary.

    As for the book on how best to use a manual typewriter in the 21st century, I’ve just published it: The Typewriter Revolution.

  3. Jack M
    at 7:54 am on December 8, 2015

    If you think an electric typewriter is loud, try a manual typewriter. I learned how to type on one when I was in sixth grade.

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