Following up on Monday’s post, as it turns out, that missing issue of the New Yorker turned up (bearing a paper jacket reminding me to renew and sporting a torn cover) a day after this week’s issue landed in the mailbox. So it appears as though I won’t be skipping an issue after all. Luckily for me, I’m going on vacation for a few days, and I’m hoping this will afford me some time to catch up. (Incidentally, you can expect The Millions to go dark through Sunday while we take a break.)
An unread book is all possible stories. It contains all possible characters, styles, genres, turns of phrase, metaphors, speech patterns, and profound life-changing revelations. An unread book exists only in the primordial soup of your imagination, and there it can evolve into any story you like. An unread book – any unread book – could change your life.
Like most readers, I love browsing in bookshops and libraries. I like to run my fingers along the spines and read titles and authors’ names. I pull the books out and flip through them, thinking about the stories inside them, the things I would learn from them, how my life would be subtly but surely different after I had read them. Sometimes I buy or borrow the books and read them. As much as I enjoy the books, I often find that the book I have read is somehow not as exciting as the book I had imagined reading. No book is ever quite as good as it potentially could have been.
Last week I bought a book. I looked at the blurb and read the first paragraph, and I could feel the texture of the book in my mind. It was going to be a steadily-paced yet exciting coming-of-age story about three young girls who go camping in the woods, stumble across a couple holidaying in a cabin, and see things through the windows that upend their world. It would move from the girls in their clumsy tent, to their fable-like journey through the forest, to the glowing windows of the cabin. The story was going to be overflowing with the smell of mulching leaves, the stale sweetness of fizzy drinks on the tongue, the crackle of empty sweet wrappers. It was going to be honest and real and uncomfortably sensual. Except that it wasn’t about that at all: it was a thriller about a woman having an affair. With every sentence I read, the book I had imagined shrank smaller and smaller. By the end of the third page, it had disappeared. The actual book was by no means bad, it just wasn’t the book I thought it would be.
I have about 800 unread books on my shelves. Some would find this excessive, and they would probably be right. But I take comfort in knowing that I will have appropriate reading material whatever my mood, that I will be spoiled for choice whenever I want a book, and that I will never, ever run out of new stories. From the cover design, the back blurb, and general absorption of cultural knowledge, I have a strong idea of what each one of my unread books is like.
For example, I think that Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy is at once claustrophobic and expansive. It has the texture of solid green leaves crunched between your molars. It tastes of sweetened tea and stale bread and dust. When I read it, I will feel close to my father because it is his favorite book. Reading the Gormenghast books will allow me to understand my father in ways I currently do not, and at certain points in the book I will put it down and stare into the middle distance and say “Oh. Now my childhood makes sense.”
Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness will make me sad and proud and indignant. I will no longer get tangled up in discussions about gender issues, because I will finally have clear-cut and undeniable examples of how gender stereotyping is bad for everyone. Reading it will make me feel like an integral part of queer history and culture, and afterwards I will feel mysteriously connected to all my fellow LGBT people. Perhaps I will even have gaydar.
Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is an obsessive and world-shifting epic. When I read it, I will be completely absorbed by it. It will be all I think about. It will affect my daily life in ways I can’t fully understand, and when I finish it I will have come to profound revelations about the nature of existence. I will finally understand all the literary theory I wrote essays on when I was at university.
I have not read these books because I worry that they’re not the books I think they are. Perhaps I will never read them. I’m sure they are wonderful books, but no book could possibly contain all the knowledge and understanding I am expecting from these. I know it’s unrealistic, but I still hope.
There is another reason to leave books unread: because I know I will love them. This might seem nonsensical, and I suppose it is. I am a writer, and I learn how to write by reading; I know that certain books will teach me more than others because they are similar in style and content to my own writing, though vastly better. This is why I have not read Fucking Daphne, an anthology of sex writing about and edited by Daphne Gottlieb; or Alice Greenaway’s White Ghost Girls, a short and lyrical novel about sisters in 1960s Hong Kong; or Francesca Lia Block’s fantastical erotica novellas, Ecstasia and Primavera; or anything ever written by Martin Millar.
I know that I will love them and want to learn from them, and so I don’t read them: firstly because it is tiring to read that way, with your eyes and ears and brain constantly absorbing; and secondly because once I read them they will be over, the mystery will be revealed. Sometimes I hold these books in my hands and imagine what I will learn from them. These books have affected my writing, and I haven’t even read them. Maybe we can learn as much from our expectations of a story as we can from the actual words on the page.
Go to your bookshelves and pick a book you have not read. Hold it in your hands. Look at the cover and read the description on the back. Think about what the story might be about, what themes and motifs might be in it, what it might say about the world you inhabit, whether it can make you imagine an entirely different world. I suggest that the literary universe you just created might be more exciting and enlightening than the one contained within those covers. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that book. It might prove to be a great book; the best book you have ever read. But your imagination contains every possible story, every possible understanding, and any book can only be one tiny portion of that potential world.
Back | 1. I prefer my version, and still harbor a hope that my imagined story is out there. If you’ve read it, let me know.
Back | 2. In my defense, I spent six years as a bookseller and am now the reviews editor for a magazine, so I accumulated a lot of paperbacks. Plus, I can’t go past a second-hand bookshop without finding something that I must have.
Back | 3. This is also why I have never reread my favorite books: Patrick Süskind’s Perfume, Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss, Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse, or Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls. They’re just too good.
[Image credit: Kenny Louie]
I have written in the past about the importance of a bookstore’s “front table.”The idea is that one should be able to walk into the bookstore and be able to grasp, based upon which books are on display and based upon conversations with staff and fellow customers, what matters at that moment both in the wider world and in the neighborhood.To me, this epitomizes what separates the engaging indie from the faceless chain, but this selling point has not helped indies win out in a climate that has been tough for all book retailers. Among the many struggles indies have faced is how to translate the relevance and ambiance described above to the internet, where a large portion of book buying, selling, and discussion now takes place.2008’s launch of IndieBound, an aggregated indie web presence that is a vast improvement over its precursor BookSense, shows that the indies are hard at work trying to unlock the online conundrum.Recently, Scott pointed to another far smaller but particularly resonant example of online experimentation by an indie bookstore. The Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago has started replicating its front table on its blog. This book curation done by a knowledgeable staff rather than the chains’ corporate number crunchers, fulfills the bookstore mission that I noted above, giving readers “what matters at that moment both in the wider world and in the neighborhood.” (This notion of curation is important. In many ways, I’d argue that it’s a key mission of The Millions. Our “staff” selects and sheds light upon certain books at the exclusion of others, bringing to bear our different areas of expertise, interest, and taste.)The front table alone, however, is not enough to make a bookstore. A truly great bookstore and its front table will inspire conversation in the aisles among patrons and staff. Seminary Co-op is part of the way towards making its front table live on its web site, but, as the “comments are closed” message at the bottom of the page indicates, it’s not all the way there. However, the sight of all those covers, laid out neatly, makes me think that we may not be far from an indie bookstore website that makes you feel like you are walking into the store itself.See also: Niche Bookstores: A Dying Breed, Islands in the Stream: A Walking Tour of New York’s Independent Booksellers
I recieved this note from a reader the other day and I enjoyed it so much I thought I would provide it for public consumption. Enjoy: I came upon your blog this morning and I liked it. The meta of the blog is a noble idea and I wish you the best. Thought you might appreciate a little ditty I penned- SummapoetaSumma was a bookie, not the Vegas thing where 5 will get you 10, but a fairy thathung out around ink and parchment and leather bindings. Summa hung out around books.Sometimes bookies are call library angels, but Summa bristled at this nomenclature.She was always quick to point out that angels were entities that had been very bad,that were now trying to be good. Not so with fairies. Fairies had always favoredphun and play and giggle, wiggle, laughing. Why be bad when having phun was so muchbetter?Summa’s full moniker was Summapoeta. She favored the short sweetest of poems to thedrudgery of wading through the ramblings of fools and their novels. Yes, beauty toSumma was to say much with little. – And unto my beckoningit did comea perfect point of celestial splendorand with this light I now seethe beauty amongst the shadows.- to Summa this was a zillion times more beautiful than any novel.I have always liked the concept of library angels or book fairies, an invisible handthat seems to lead you to what you need.You can catch some of my other stuff on http://robertdsnaps.blogspot.com. Hint -Some of the big ones hang out in the archives.Doing time on the ball,”d”I love libraries and I love the idea of “library angels and book fairies.” Libraries can be incredible, mystical places. Anyone who has been to the New York Central Library or the Los Angeles Central Library knows it… and anyone who has read the work of poet, writer, philosopher and blind librarian Jorge Luis Borges, knows the power of the library as well… see his Collected Fictions for various magical library tales. My favorite fictional library? It would have to be the library in Richard Brautigan’s novel, The Abortion. In this library, anyone can walk in and place their own handmade book on shelves that gather no dust, and the book will remain there for posterity, for anyone who wishes to see it.Bookfinding… Classic Literatures and my Broken Down CarI feel no particular affinity for my car. It is very average and there is nothing romantic about it. And yet, living in Los Angeles, I depend upon the car perhaps more than any of my possessions. Somehow though, this unassuming car of mine must be really tuned into my psyche, because it seems to collapse sympathetically when ever my life hits a rocky patch. During my various periods of full and gainful employment, my car has behaved admirably, quietly doing it’s job, asking and recieving no special notice from it’s owner… very unassuming. However, whenever I am scrimping and struggling, my car seems to feel my pain and its insides deteriorate and fail, seemingly reacting to the stresses felt by its owner. And so, naturally, with a rent check looming that may be beyond my means, I brought my car to a trusted mechanic for routine and necessary maintainance, and sure enough my trusted mechanic, after spending some time under the hood and under the car, quickly identified several areas where my car was teetering on the brink of total collapse. Having seen the decay with my own two eyes, and resigned to the fact that my car’s chronic desire to push me ever deeper into credit card debt, I set out on walk, not often done in Los Angeles, to kill time while my car was unde the knife.Along my way, I passed several bookstores peddling both new and used books, many of which I would like to have owned, none of which I could afford. So, I was much pleased to come upon a Goodwill store in the course of my travels, one with many shelves of dusty paperbacks going for 49 cents a piece. Many of the usual thrift store suspects were present, mounds and mounds of bestseller fodder from two decades ago, but I was able to lay my hands on three classic novels that I am very pleased to add to my growing library. First I found an old Signet Classic paperback copy of Bleak House by Charles Dickens. Dickens has long been one of my favorites, and I am especially fond of Great Expectations and Hard Times. Many consider Bleak House to be his greatest work. I also found a copy of one the most important American novels ever written: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Finally, I came across a novel that I had not heard of before working at the bookstore. Somehow I went through life without any knowledge of Carson McCullers, who as a 23 year old wrote a Southern gothic masterpiece called The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. But now I own the book, and I can’t wait to read it.
We’re not shy about our praise for NYRB Classics. Their volumes are smartly edited and well designed and quite a few favorite books of The Millions contributors – The Dud Avocado, Wheat That Springeth Green, and, of course, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll – were first encountered in their NYRB Classics incarnations.While I had always planned on passing NYRB Classics books down to my progeny one day, I’ve just discovered that I may get to do that sooner than I had anticipated. NYRB Classics has a line of children’s books, the NYR Children’s Collection.One of the latest to come out under the imprint is James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks with an introduction by Neil Gaiman and illustrations by Marc Simont. The new book provide fodder for Sonja Bolle’s sentimental (in a good way) essay in the LA Times.The 13 Clocks is the first book I remember loving, and it is one of the few books I managed to wrest from my family’s library and preserve through all the mundane disasters of my life. Everything about it is dear to me: The texture of the cover, the cloth spine now in shreds, the gorgeous endpapers with the Duke’s shadowy castle on the hill overlooking the sunlit town.Young readers – and the older readers who are trying to get young readers to read good books – will likely find many more such discoveries among the NYR Children’s Collection.
The Loggernaut Reading Series has a truly exceptional interview up with Daniel Alarcon author of the acclaimed collection, War by Candlelight. He touches on many topics: the Iowa Writers Workshop, Peruvian literature, falling out of love with the New York Yankees. There’s also this bit about being on book tour:I like readings. I like meeting people, and generally it works this way: folks that don’t like your book or don’t like you as a person stay at home. The folks who are likely to enjoy it are the ones who show up. So of course it’s very gratifying to have ten or fifteen or however many people buy your book and tell you they think you’re very smart, write well, smell good, etc. Still, I can’t say that I really enjoy traveling, though these days I seem to do a lot of it. When I started the tour I’d been traveling already for three months in Latin America, didn’t really have a place to live in the US, and still had books and clothes scattered in the apartments of various friends, my parents’ place in Oakland, my sister’s house, and elsewhere. I felt incredibly un-tethered to anything, which is exactly the wrong time to be spending nights in hotels, airports, and shopping malls: the trifecta of sad American non-destinations. They bring out the very bleakest in people who are prone to be depressed from time to time.The best readings were in places I’ve lived before – New York, Iowa City, the Bay Area, Birmingham – where friends showed up and brought their friends, or where peruanos showed up just to say they were proud of me and whatnot. Chicago was also excellent, lots of fun. In Boulder I started my reading with two people in the audience. I introduced myself to both of them and shook their hands. The reading was fine, I think they both enjoyed it, and actually a few more people showed up by the time the story had ended. They asked me to read another story and I did. Then afterwards some dude wanted me to sign a galley, an advance reader copy, the one that says very clearly “not for sale, uncorrected proof” on the cover. He told me with an innocent smile that he’d bought it used on Amazon. I was like, Are you fucking kidding me? I think he expected me to congratulate him on having found such a bargain. But he was so earnest and excited to meet me that he even had his two daughters pose for a picture with me. Maybe he’ll buy my next book. Or not. I don’t even know why I was mad; it’s not like I don’t buy used books.
I’ve been having a really good time following the race for the Democratic nomination. As is usually the case with me and politics, I’m far more interested as an observer than as a participant. The daily maneuvering makes for good reading. I’ve mostly been following the action at The Note, the daily column put together by ABC News’ political unit. It’s a great behind-the-scenes look at the process. All of this politicking has got me thinking about one of my all time favorite books. Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 combines, in a way that only Thompson can, political reporting with author’s deteriorating ability to keep it all together. I enjoy this book the most out of all of Thompson’s books because it provides a terrific outsider’s look at the mealy insides of American politics. Thompson sharing the back of a limo with Nixon on a ride from Boston to Manchester is priceless. But it is also amazing because it comes at an odd moment in Thompson’s career, the point of transition from the clear-headed, idealistic recklessness of Hell’s Angels to the addled egotism of his later work. The book got me excited about politics, but I was frustrated that Thompson wasn’t able to keep writing at this level for the rest of his career. Still, it remains a fantastic book for anyone who is interested in history or politics, especially if you have taste for Thompson’s singular, stylistic flair.
The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani shows her extreme distaste for E. L. Doctorow’s new collection, Sweet Land Stories, as well as movies based on Doctorow’s books. (LINK) “Several of E. L. Doctorow’s novels – Ragtime, Welcome to Hard Times, The Book of Daniel and Billy Bathgate – have been turned into plodding, overproduced movies. Here, in his latest collection of short fiction, “Sweet Land Stories,” he seems to be trying to turn old movie ideas into stories with equally little success at recycling,” Kakutani says. I personally enjoyed both of the stories from this collection that originally appeared in the New Yorker, “A House on the Plains” and “Jolene: A Life,” so I will probably get some more opinions on this one before I declare it a dud.A New LunchI noticed that Kevin over at LA Observed occasionally reports on publishing industry deals listed in something called “Publisher’s Lunch.” Intrigued, I used my book industry credentials to sign up for these weekly newsletters, and so now, from time to time, I will pass along to you publishing industry news that may be of interest to you. For example, Dave Eggers’ new collection of stories, entitled Visitants, will be published by McSweeney’s (of course) this fall, and J. Robert Lennon’s next book will be called Happyland and will be put out by Norton.