At the beginning of the year, I made a resolution that I hoped would help me to curtail my online reading habits, which I felt were getting out of control. It wasn’t necessarily that I was spending too much time online, it was more that I felt like the Internet was leading me around by the nose. I would go online with the intent of reading a particular writer or article and my attention would be dragged into various micro-feuds — micro because they existed only within a particular community, feuds because there was a level of passion that gave everything an operatic edge. The drama was fascinating and not without value, but it was also exhausting. More importantly, I never ended up reading what I wanted to read.
I considered banning certain websites, but decided that approach was too broad. Instead, I resolved to stop reading criticism and blog posts that were written in reaction to someone else’s criticism. The only criticism I would read would be pieces that were directly tied to a primary source, such as a book, film, museum exhibition, television show, etc. No more re-caps, round-ups, or lists. Likewise, I would avoid op-ed pieces and news analysis. I was sick of having to hack through two or three layers of commentary and interpretation before I got to the actual thing or event or person that existed in the world.
I wasn’t sure if this new reading diet would actually help with my distraction problem, so I was kind of embarrassed to discover, in the first weeks, that over half of what I typically clicked on fell into this category. I started to read more things on paper because it was easier than navigating the short-term headlines.
As it turns out, paging through a magazine is a lot more relaxing than going from thing to thing online, and it’s also a pretty effective way to find new things to read. One writer I discovered on paper is the critic Tim Parks. I’m sure I’ve read Parks’s criticism before this year, but there is reading criticism and reading a critic, and Parks became someone I had to follow after I read his review of Peter Matthiesen’s In Paradise in The New York Review of Books. Something about this review struck me as deeply felt, but also very clear and easy, the distillation of many hours of thought. I started to look out for Parks’s reviews and I also began to follow his posts on the NYRB blog.
Ironically, Parks’s blog posts became more important to me than his print reviews. I reread many of them while working on this post, because Parks is very interested in the question of how and what we read in the age of the Internet, when there are oh-so-many interesting things to read. More broadly, Parks is curious about the way that globalization and the number of online outlets are affecting how fiction is written and constructed, and what pressures this new, global audience and delivery system are putting on literary writing in general and the novel in particular. This is a question he touches upon in many of his blog posts but faces head-on in “Reading: The Struggle,” an essay about just how hard it is to find time to read books. Parks is old enough to remember a time when his workday was interrupted just once, by the mailman — an event he neurotically anticipated, but was nevertheless able to put out of his mind after the mail’s arrival. While Parks doesn’t lament the advent of email, he notes that we are living in a time when “every moment of serious reading has to be fought for, planned for.” And, at the same time, he observes we are living in an era when readers seem to relish long, densely plotted books, fantasy trilogies, and a return to the kind of episodic, repetitive storytelling many reviewers favorably liken to 19-century authors like George Eliot and Charles Dickens. But contemporary novels, Parks argues, are quite different from their forebears: “There is a battering ram quality to the contemporary novel, an insistence and repetition that perhaps permits the reader to hang in despite the frequent interruptions to which most ordinary readers leave themselves open.”
When I read that, I thought, yes, that is exactly how I feel when faced with the prospect of reading The Goldfinch or The Luminaries, novels that I have been told are wonderfully entertaining and intelligent, but which are so long, and so virtuosic, that I can’t help feeling cowed by them. Suspend your disbelief! they seem to say. Do it now!
It’s also how I feel, a little, about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, which Parks includes on his list of exceptionally long contemporary novels. I loved reading Knausgaard, but looking back on the experience I feel as if the books were somewhat manic, as if a crazy old friend came to visit for two weeks, got drunk every night and talked nonstop about himself, and then left. My friend Maura read the books at the same time and we sent each another Knausgaard-length texts, trying to figure out why we were so fascinated by this overly long, repetitive, and sometimes quite inelegantly constructed narrative. Maura felt it was written in reaction to the blogosphere, as if Knausgaard was racing against the never-ending outpouring of confession, information, and analysis. I felt it was written in reaction to parenthood, to the feeling of really stupid things shaping your time and therefore your work, things like laundry and shopping lists and yes, online chatter.
The opposite of a battering ram novel is what Parks describes as “the novel of elegant, highly distinct prose, of conceptual delicacy and syntactical complexity.” He predicts that in the Internet and smartphone age, this type of novel “will tend to divide itself up into shorter and shorter sections, offering more frequent pauses where we can take time out.”
When I read that, I immediately thought of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, which mines many of the same themes as Knausgaard, but does so in short, carefully pruned paragraphs, sometimes consisting of just one sentence. You get the sense, as with Knausgaard, that Offill was pressed for time when she wrote it, but instead of furiously filling up as many pages as possible, she just tried to write down one or two good sentences on index cards. Both approaches, strangely, were riveting in the same way — I couldn’t put down Offill’s book any more easily than Knausgaard’s. And both books were the ones that I returned to the most, throughout the year, in thought and in conversation.
This post was supposed to be on the short side, and I’ve already past 1,000 words. Obviously, my writing style leans toward Knausgaard. I’m also aware that this post is exactly the kind of writing I tried all year to avoid: Here I am, piling onto another writer’s already excellent criticism and observations. Please relish my hypocrisies. The truth is that I did not keep up my peculiar info-fast for the entire year. I blame Ann Friedman, whose weekly email newsletter pulled me back into the fray, pointing me to all the articles, blog posts, and debates that I might be interested in following. (She recommends books, too.) The best thing about her newsletter is that it arrives on Friday afternoons, so in theory, I could just skip a lot of my aimless browsing during the week and wait for Ann to point the way. I think I did that maybe twice this year — and one of those weeks I was on vacation. So now you know what next year’s New Year’s Resolution will be.
Last year, I ended my year in reading with a nod to the book I read most often to my son, so I’ll attempt to begin a tradition and share this year’s book: The Cat In The Hat by Dr. Suess. Have you read this book lately? It’s perfect. I can honestly say I never tire of reading it out loud — and I read it a potentially tiring number of times. The rhymes are simple and addictive and will make you love the English language. If I were a writing teacher, I would assign it to my students. One sentence in particular stuck with me, it’s kind of the perfect slogan for how to deal with the huge variety of material on the internet, or maybe just the animated GIFS: “It is fun to have fun / but you have to know how.”
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