“Who Will There Be to Talk To?”

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(Photo courtesy the author. The author’s father is in the center, flanked by his brothers.)

My father is a quiet man. He is eighty-eight and, characteristic of his generation, stoic. He comes from German stock and I think he was indoctrinated with the nineteenth-century Teutonic notion that discourse upsets the digestive system. He has never had, to my knowledge, a digestive problem, so presumably the practice has served him well. It came as a great surprise, consequently, to learn that he was writing his memoirs.

I was returning home to Maine and called my father during a layover at the Detroit airport. I’d been away a week. My father lives alone, only a few steps from my door. He gets lonely when I am out of town. I was expecting his lonely or his bored voice to answer the phone. He picked up. “I’ve got a little project going on,” he said, sounding full of joy, and perhaps even excitement. “I’ve got a manuscript I’m working on.” My father finished high school–barely–went to war, returned from war, went to work at International Harvester in Indiana, retired, and eventually moved close to me after my mother, his wife of fifty-three years, died suddenly three years ago. He is not a writer, though his camp letters to me many years ago betrayed an ability to fashion the written word in a surprisingly vigorous manner, particularly when stacked up against the troubled verb conjugations of his spoken words. “What do you mean, Dad, a manuscript?” I asked.

“I’m writing the story of my childhood, of three brothers growing up in Ft. Wayne during the depression.”

“That’s fantastic.”

“My days just fly by,” he continued. “I sit down at the computer and start writing and before you know it, the day is gone. I even forget to eat sometimes!” He laughed at himself over this.

A few years ago I began feeding dad books I thought he might enjoy. There was no reason to think he would take my advice and read them. I have no childhood memory of seeing him with a book. He had magazines and would flip through those, and he’d skim the newspaper, but no books. On a hunch, I loaned him Paul Theroux’s book about exploring the islands of the south Pacific, The Happy Isles of Oceania. He devoured the book and asked for more. I gave him another Theroux. Again, he tore through it, as he did most of the books I pushed his way, chiefly adventure and travel books. My mother used to say, “Your father is a dreamer.”  She laughed at this, but was in essence complaining. He had, over the years, dreamed of homesteading in Alaska, sailing around the world, exploring remote and lost islands, as well as many lesser adventures. To her point, he never seemed settled, was always a pulsing nerve shy of rest. I wondered if books had suddenly allowed him to exercise his dreams; if, like a pacing dog, he could now just stop, book in lap, relax. I stocked a tailor-made library for a man who had suddenly discovered the world of the book.

But somewhere along the line, the enthusiasm for books left him. It took a couple of years, but when it happened it happened with the same abruptness with which it began. It was as if a switch, suddenly turned on, had just as suddenly been flipped off. I kept bringing him books, but he had lost what he’d so startlingly discovered. To this day, now a half dozen years later, he laments the loss. “I just can’t concentrate,” he recently confessed.

“So, dad. Am I going to get to read this manuscript of yours?” I asked from the airport.

“Oh, yes. I want you to,” he said. “But I need an editor. Can you help me?”

I assured him I would help and that I looked forward to reading his memoir.

“My what? Memoir?”

“Yes,” I said. “Memoir. It’s a way of telling your life story. I think that’s what you’re working on.”

“They make memoirs into books?”

“Yes, in fact, it’s a very popular genre right now.” I winced at the word genre.        

“I want to write like Mark Twain,” he said. “I want to use normal words like normal people, people like me, use.”

I told him I understood, but mentioned that Twain had an impressive command of the language. This gave him pause. “Regardless, Dad, just write the story the way it sounds best to you,” I said. “If you do that, you’ll be fine.”

I stopped in to see him as soon as I got home. He was bent over his computer keyboard, hunting and pecking, papers on the floor, a cold cup of coffee on the kitchen table. He looked up and acknowledged me. He didn’t ask about my trip. He didn’t ask how I was. He asked me to read something and handed me a page. (Subtlety is an attribute my father never managed to develop.) “The Great Depression had its grip on us,” it began. The story continued:

Life became a struggle for everyone. There were few jobs to be had, if any. Dad spent many days looking for work of any kind and would come home discouraged only to start out the next day and try again. He got lucky one day and landed a job hauling coal to homes and unloading it. He would save his last load for our house. Mom would have a hot supper ready for him and he would eat while still covered with coal dust. Mom would unload the coal, shoveling it down a shoot into the basement. We would watch through the frosted window. I felt sorry for her but we couldn’t help. We were too small.

“It’s a wonderful image, Dad,” I said. “Your father covered in coal dust, eating, while grandma shovels coal into the basement. The brothers watching through a frosted window. Very nice.” He smiled and handed me another page.

Looking back at the thirties, in perspective, people would say that we were poor and maybe we were, but we didn’t know it. We had a lot of company and thought it was the norm. I wore Ralph’s clothes and when I got done with them they went to Ken, if still wearable. We were great fixers, even glued rubber soles on our shoes to extend their use. Even so, it was a simple life. In those days there was no refrigeration. In the summer the ice man would come in a horse-drawn wagon with a canvas over a big block of ice. He would chip off a piece for our ice box and with tongs carry it into the house. While he was gone we would gather up the loose chips and suck them. In the winter we had a box on the window sill and kept our food there simply raising the window to reach it.

And so the stories flowed: The brothers running catfish lines on Lake James at night. A beloved family dog poisoned.  A rifle accidentally discharged. A near drowning. Motorcycle accidents. I was not familiar with many of them, my father being, as I stated, of that silent generation. Suddenly he was an open gushing spigot. Then, just like the reading, and without warning, the spigot clamped shut.

“This writing business is hard work,” dad complained one afternoon as I was visiting him. I acknowledged that it is, indeed, hard work. “I don’t know how you do it everyday, write like you do.” I joked that there are more days than not when I wonder the same thing. He had abruptly ended his story as the three brothers, now grown, headed off to war, “tapped on the shoulder by Uncle Sam,” as he put it. “Are you going to tell the story of the war?” I asked. He said no, that he did not want to “open that can of worms.” He stated that he had successfully kept that experience under wraps and intended to continue doing just that. I said that sometimes writing is like drawing from a well and if you rest for a time the well refills. Maybe, I told him, he’d someday want to write more stories. He said he didn’t think so. He has more stories, he admitted. But, he confessed, he didn’t want to carry on. And that was that.

There is one line in his memoir I find particularly poignant. It is a clunky line that I wanted to fix but resisted. My father and his brother Ken had recently been talking, recollecting stories for the memoir. My father writes, “Just the other day Ken said, ‘When one of us is gone who will there be to talk to, that not having been there will understand?’” To which my father simply replies, “How true.” It is, in some fashion, the question every writer asks. How true.

A Harbored Notion

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I have long harbored the notion, no doubt foolishly, that incarceration wouldn’t be all that particularly bad. To the contrary. It would give me time to catch up on my reading. In this fanciful scenario I place myself in a minimum security facility. Anything other than that and the advantages quickly disappear. It was in prison that Genet discovered Proust. Edmund White relates that Genet once arrived late to the weekly prison book exchange and was resigned to the picked-over shelves. Proust had been summarily rejected by all the other prisoners. He took the book, read the opening: “For a long time I would go to bed early.” then shut it, savoring it. “Now I’m tranquil,” he said to himself. “I know I’m going to go from marvel to marvel.” That is how it seems to me prison would be: tranquil and full of good reads. Marvel to marvel. Indeed, self-proclaimed “Prison Writer” Kenneth Hartman notes, “In my six by ten foot cell, the locker bolted to the concrete wall is loaded down with books. Big, fat hard-bound reference titles, philosophy, and writing mechanics books. I can’t conceive of a life absent the comfortable solidity of a book held in my hands.”

There are many prison reading projects. There is a Great Books Prison Project and a Prisoners’ Reading Encouragement Project, Books Behind Bars project. Prison literacy programs abound. As they should. Recidivism rates lower in accord with inmate education. This begs the question of what I’d be doing in prison in the first place, being educated and well-read enough to presumably know better. Obviously, I must be a victim of a trumped up charge. And one I would not necessarily quibble with, assuming the prison library was sufficiently stocked and I had time available. I wouldn’t want to waste valuable reading time in prison making license plates. That goes without saying.

It was the Bible that saved souls in the England of the Industrial Revolution, so into the prisons they flowed. Eventually other books were brought in, and, oddly, coded so that the criminal library was distinct from the debtor’s library, the Catholic from the Protestant, prompting some prisoners to switch religions in favor of the better stocked library. To this last point, Janet Fyfe, a scholar who has spent some time studying the history of prison libraries shares that Dundalk Prison, in Ireland, inventoried only religious books, separated by creed. “This is because when they were mixed…prisoners would profess themselves as of whatever creed would yield them the best selection of books!”

Whereas, Genet discovered Proust in prison, William Sydney Porter discovered O. Henry. Porter, while working as a bank teller at the First National Bank of Austin, in Houston, was accused of embezzling several thousand dollars. He fled the country, returning years later to visit his dying wife. He was picked up and thrown in the slammer. It was there he assumed the pen name O. Henry. He was released after three years and died in 1910 with just 33 cents to his name. O. Henry lives on. If there is any credibility to the immortality of the arts, he invested the absconded funds well.

Reading and writing go hand-in-glove. Many readers remain readers only. But seldom does a writer not read. There are, of course, exceptions. E.B. White once commented that he “was never a voracious reader and, in fact, have done little reading in my life. There are too many other things I would rather do than read.” This disappoints me, White being a favorite writer. Perhaps he would have been well served to do a little time in the big house, though one can hardly argue with either the quality or the quantity of his work. (I will resist the temptation to prison-riff on his marvelous collection of essays, One Man’s Meat.)

I recall the movie, Sabrina, the original 1954 Billy Wilder version, starting Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart and William Holden. The tag line to the movie was, “the chauffeur’s daughter who learned her stuff in Paris!” Sabrina’s father, played by John Williams, is the chauffeur. What is so remarkable about the character of the chauffeur is that he chose the profession because it would afford him time to read. It seems a remarkable decision in this day to parlay to the screen, in an age when reading seems so off-center of life choices to so vastly many. I am still amazed when I consider this idea, of a life carved out of reading, And even more astounding, that a screenwriter employed the motif. Dad’s great line in the movie, delivered to his daughter Sabrina, is, “He’s still David Larrabee [William Holden], and you’re still the chauffeur’s daughter. And you’re still reaching for the moon.” To which she smartly replied, “No, father. The moon is reaching for me.” Being a chauffeur and reading during curbside breaks appears a sure winner over doing time.

Two of my literary heroes, Michel de Montaigne and Henry David Thoreau, enjoyed a self-imposed prison cell, as it were, in pursuit of their discipline. Montaigne retired to the tower of his family castle in Bordeaux. It was 1571, February 28, his thirty-eighth birthday. Above his library, he had inscribed on the ceiling Pliny’s remark: “There is nothing certain but uncertainty, and nothing more miserable and arrogant than man.” One scholar, writing of Montaigne in his tower, entitled his dissertation, The Prison-House of Writing. Montaigne said he was intent on spending the second half of his life studying the Myself of the first half. A man requires a prison cell to accomplish such things–or a castle tower in Bordeaux. His library was well stocked with what we would today call the classics. It was, in essence, the rediscovery of these works, the Greeks in particular, which fueled the Renaissance, of which Montaigne was a bleeding-edge participant.

Henry David too, famously, went into a loose-knit confined self-exile. His cabin cost him $28 and 12 ½ cents and measured ten feet by fifteen feet, more than twice the size of “Prison Writer” Ken Hartman’s cell. He moved to his cabin at Walden Pond July 4, 1845. He was 28. Thoreau was not at Walden to read, per se. He was seeking solitude. “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude,” he wrote. Like Montaigne, Thoreau was a reader of classic literature, preferring, the original Greek or Latin. He recorded that at Walden he had a copy of The Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu story of Lord Krishna, a selection perhaps not unusual for the quintessential American Transcendentalist. He warned against relying too much on literature as a means of transcendence and found the common literature of the day annoyingly unsophisticated. There is that famous night he spent in jail, in protest of poll taxes, used as a means to finance efforts with which he disagreed, specifically slavery and the American-Mexican War. I am uncertain as to whether he had anything to read in his cell. When Emerson visited him in jail, the poet asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” To which Thoreau replied, “Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?” He lived at Walden two years, two months and two days. I was reminded of this once, while traveling in Tibet. Peering up a Himalayan cliff I spotted the pitched cave of a meditating monk, a receding dark mouth agape against the bleached crag face. I was told that a monk, in order to become a lama, must meditate in solitude for three years, three months and three days. It does not feel at all awkward to think of Thoreau as an American lama. To the contrary. Years later, on his deathbed Thoreau’s last words were, “Indian…moose.”

The other thing about prison I deem appealing is the apparent outright lack of responsibility required. Like travel, incarceration should afford one the relief of worrying about one’s obligations. There is no grass to cut presumably, rent to pay or dinner to prepare. The roof is not in disrepair, nor do the windows need replacing. I don’t want to minimize the experience, but on one level it seems a stupidly idyllic existence.  There are many things Thoreau has taught me, perhaps most famously, his admonition to, “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” If one could really learn this lesson–easier said than done–one could avoid prison altogether, as well as avoid the roof and the window, the grass and possibly walking the dog. A simple existence should be devoid of most of the existential trappings that call for our attention and sap our energies. To this end, I made a list not long ago of things I deemed wasteful of my time and things I deemed worthy of my time. Philosophically, I am more interested in understanding what is possible than understanding what is true. Consequently, my list made no accommodation for the niggling things one is compelled to do. You can be compelled to do something, but it still be a waste of time. If it’s a waste time maybe you should either 1.) drop your compulsion, 2.) become a monk, or 3.) simplify. One entry on my list that made it to both columns, the waste of time column and the worthy column, was technology. This is a reminder that life cannot always be so easily parsed or simplified. Sometimes a thing is a plus and a minus simultaneously. That is itself a complexity one would be well served to better understand.

I have determined that in prison I would not want an electronic book reader. Putting aside the possible problems with downloading books through the thick prison walls, an electronic reader would not keep me company. Books keep me company. They warm me with their presence on cold winter nights and their iridescent bright spines bring me joy on balmy summer mornings. I would want them as my companions in my prison abode. As a young man I used to want my shelves full because the books in place there spoke to my intelligence. Now I understand that its not the evidence of intelligence I seek, but intelligence itself. That is something altogether different and is itself, I hope, a sign of the intelligence I seek. Regardless, books would warm up the cell nicely.

I understand that when you go to prison you walk in with just the clothes on your back. But they don’t stay your clothes for long. You are issued correct attire for occasion, again simplifying things. For argument’s sake, it is a worthy exercise to ask yourself what books you would take with you, if you could. It is similar to the parlor game–now there is an antiquated notion–of asking what you would take from your burning home if you just had two minutes to escape the flames. What would be worse than going to an English prison 150 years ago and discovering that the only books available were dusty religious tomes? Perhaps that was the redeeming intention of punishment by incarceration. If the rules changed and one could bring, say, five books, what would they be? It is an intensely personal question and I suggest you take it up for consideration. Likewise, when traveling, which books make it to your carry-on? Consider for a moment, should the plane have to ditch over an expanse of water and you were to end up on a deserted island with nothing but the contents of your pockets and your carry-on. It would be a pity should your books sink to the depths in the fuselage belly along with your neatly folded underwear. It could happen.

Oscar Wilde was imprisoned at Reading Gaol (Reading!) after committing the federal crime of “gross indecency.” He was 41. There he wrote De Profundis (From the Depths) which included these sentences:
…I wanted to eat of the fruit of all the trees in the garden of the world… And so, indeed, I went out, and so I lived. My only mistake was that I confined myself so exclusively to the trees of what seemed to me the sun-lit side of the garden, and shunned the other side for its shadow and its gloom.
Reading this, it would appear that prison had the desired effect on Wilde. He fled England upon release and never returned.

I have a friend who has climbed Mt. Everest and K2, as well as a host of other peaks. He spends a lot of time at elevation in a tent acclimatizing, manufacturing red blood cells. I once asked him how he entertains himself while waiting weeks until a summit push. He reads, he told me. He said that reading is a “zone activity” for him. He was referring to the notion of a mental state whereby a person is so fully immersed in what he is doing, in his case reading, that time ceases and energy is focused. You sometimes hear of “being in the zone,” or achieving a state of flow, in relation to sports.

A zen master once told me that flow is akin to enlightenment, a state of consciousness where everything is at once realized yet not transformed. I like the sound of that very much, but I cannot tell you what it means.

Prison cells. Towers in Bordeaux. Cabins in the woods, and tents on the sides of mountains. At work behind the scene is the argument that life can be forced into an edifying and redeeming corner. It is a persuasive, if not compelling notion: That when everything is lost or set aside or taken from you, only then do you have the opportunity to do what it is you truly wish to do, to review your list of what is worthy and what is wasteful. The theme rings true. “I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, To put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die discover that I had not lived.” I never grow tired of this quote. Thoreau’s desire to live deliberately resonates and is at the heart of Socrates’ observation that the unexamined life is not worth living. Although I cannot personally attest to its efficacy, it carries weight that I suggest prison a good thing because it would strip one of everything extraneous. Extraneous to reading, of course.

Literature is a Manner of Completing Ourselves: A Reader’s Year

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The late American philosopher Robert Nozick begins his tome, Philosophical Explanations, with this paragraph:

I, too, seek an unreadable book: urgent thoughts to grapple with in agitation and excitement, revelations to be transformed by or to transform, a book incapable of being read straight through, a book even to bring reading to a stop. I have not found that book, or attempted it. Still, I wrote and thought in awareness of it, in the hope this book would bask in its light. That hope would be arrogant if it weren’t self-fulfilling–to face towards the light, even from a great distance, is to be warmed

I first read that opening paragraph in 1981 when Philosophical Explanations was published. Thirty years later and I have still not completed Nozick’s 650 page “essay.” Despite his protestations, Nozick did perhaps accomplish that self-fulfilling hope of which he speaks. Perhaps he did write the unreadable book, though I seriously doubt it. This reader is not throwing in the towel just yet. The book is still on my side table and every so often the bookmark gets lifted out of the cramped dusty seam on the left side of a page and removed to the cramped dusty seam on the right side of the page. I call that progress.

I was thinking about this today as I was flying home from my daughter’s graduation. I do my best thinking on airplanes. It is ironic–and probably of consequence–that I now avoid air travel as best I’m able. I am obviously missing a great deal of good thinking as a result. When I do fly, I keep my Moleskine handy because I’m smart enough to know that I’m only smart enough on a plane–and I don’t want to miss anything. (The great Bruce Chatwin was a Moleskine user. When I became aware of this fact fifteen years ago I was in London and searched high and low for a shop(pe) that carried it, figuring that if it was good enough for Chatwin, it would certainly be good enough for me. But alas, the Moleskine was no more–defunct, kaput. What a success story, up from the ashes, phoenix-like, the Moleskine is now the Kleenex of journals.) As I was saying, I was thinking of Nozick and this passage today. Specifically, I was contemplating this after investing a year, June to June, reading and reviewing books for a literary blog. The year began with Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 and ended with David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, maybe the two best book-ended modern examples of what Nozick sought, the unreadable book. But Nozick was super smart and I’m sure if I made my way through these books, he would have done so with just a modicum of the energies I mustered. No, they are not unreadable books.

I read Bolaño and Wallace, along with 27 other books during these twelve months. And I wrote a review of each one. A person can learn something exercising such discipline. I determined today, five-hundred fifty miles an hour, 30,000 feet up, I needed to explore what I’d learned. So, walk with me, if you so desire, while I try to figure that out.

First, the reading list June, 2009 to June, 2010:

2666 by Roberto Bolaño
Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen
Snakeskin Road by James Braziel
Self’s Murder by Bernhard Schlink
Heroic Measures by Jill Ciment
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer
An Underachiever’s Diary by Benjamin Anastas
Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow
Under This Unbroken Sky by Shandi Mitchell
Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving
This is Water by David Foster Wallace
The Boy Next Door by Irene Sabatini
Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon
After The Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld
Supreme Courtship by Christopher Buckley
Johnny Future by Steve Abee
The Convalescent by Jessica Anthony
Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon
Noah’s Compass by Anne Tyler
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
The Interrogative Mood by Padgett Powell
Zen and Now by Mark Richardson
The Truth About Love by Josephine Hart
The Infinities by John Banville
The Last Station by Jay Parini
The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr
What Becomes by A.L. Kennedy
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

There is quite a mix here, from the aforementioned Bolaño to Wallace and everything in between. There are serious books on the list. Olive Kitteridge won the Pulitzer, for example. And Padgett Powell, John Banville and Peter Matthiessen rank high on the serious meter of contemporary fiction. Pynchon, Tyler, Doctorow and Irving are literary names of distinction and note. Fresher names like Chabon and Hart, Doerr and Kennedy were unknown to me and I was powerfully impressed by what they can do, putting pen to paper, as it used to be called. Buckley is a hoot and Parini an education. What I’m trying to get at here, is the general across-the-board nature of these readings. No specialist here, I read with the modest distinction of the simply curious. There is a little something for everyone on this list and that affords me the latitude to speak generally about the experience.

I am a reader first. If I were an addict, I would get high and while high, presumably, worry about where I was to get my next fix. Reading is not all that different, I think. As a reader, I am always looking over the binding thinking about the next read, in some instances, longing for it. Some books, like some highs, are better than others. But even with not-so-good books–and there where two this past year I did not see to completion–I will come back to the drug, seeking the next high. I will always be a reader. Of this I am certain.

A few years ago I did a project on the homeless in Baltimore. I spent a year talking to, interviewing and photographing men living on the streets of the nation’s ninth largest city. Ultimately, I called the project, One Hundred Gentlemen of Baltimore. Of the 100 men I worked with, there was one in particular, Lonnie, who stood out. Lonnie lived in the bushes behind the Barnes and Noble bookstore in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. This was not a random location, for Lonnie was a reader. “Reading is my drug of choice,” he told me. “It changes your mind and it’s legal.” That’s why he chose to camp behind the B&N. They tossed books into the dumpster and he would dumpster dive at night and come up with armfuls of new reads. “The life-style [of homelessness] is addictive,” he said. “I have no responsibilities, no bills, no commitments. It’s the life I’ve chosen. It gives me the time to do what I want. My thing is books.” This is an extreme case of being a reader, of giving the discipline–for being a serious reader is, indeed, a discipline–one’s entire heart and soul. It is said that Erasmus bought books first then, with whatever money was left, would buy food. Erasmus would understand Lonnie, I am sure.

I cannot claim such heroics. Early in my marriage, before we had money that could in any fashion be considered discretionary, I bought books and snuck them into the house. I didn’t hide booze or drugs, I hid books. I should not have spent the little money we had that way. But it simply could not be avoided. The books listed above were all given to me by the publishers. I gave up not a penny, which sort of gets me back to balance from the early days. One knows he has arrived when he gets his books for free.

This year, the year I’m currently in, I’m reading selections of my own choosing. Some are old books, some I’m reading for the second time. There is a lot of biography on the list. After a year of reading mostly fiction I have a hankering for being grounded in time and space. It will be a study of a different sort, equally rewarding, I hope. Last year, I chose a few of the books I reviewed, but many were suggestions by my editor, not assignments in the strict sense, just books suggested because of my literary interests. In the main, they were all reading adventures, set upon without map or compass. That is to say, I read without much knowledge of book or, in some cases, author. It’s sort of like a blind tasting of reading, an idea I find compelling.

The reading experience is different when a review is due. One pays attention, takes notes, attempts to understand the chronology, the narrative, taking nothing for granted; glossing over is a no-no, as is basic laziness. The reviewer can’t be given completely to the story, but must maintain an objective perspective. It is different from the untethered reading experience. But these are practices which, I believe, reward all types of reading and are good to exercise in general. I got in the habit a few years ago of always having a pencil in my hand while I read. It was a prop mainly, just a device to remind me to pay attention–sort of like having a camera in your hands when out on the town. There were a couple books, however, where I said, Screw That and gave myself the experience. 2666 was a book which fell into this category. Some things in life you must just simply give in to. I don’t regret my weakness.

When someone finds out you review books, they will ask for recommendations, so the thoughtful reader-reviewer must be thinking about appeal and accessibility should this happen. For instance, a friend recently read David Foster Wallace’s This is Water. She loved it. I loved it. It is a pure gem, but is deceptive, leading the first-time Wallace reader to believe he writes everything like This is Water, which is concise and pithy. She asked me if she should next read Infinite Jest. I hedged. I didn’t know her well enough to know if she was the reader for IJ. Wallace once said that the reader wants to be reminded of how smart he or she is. I can understand that. He didn’t, however, worry should the reader not feel smart, or worse, feel stupid. We all know that feeling, no? I loaned her my copy and told her to give it a once over to see if it appealed to her. She was going on a trip and decided that carrying a three pound book didn’t make much sense. Things work out in odd ways sometimes.

Nabokov, as close a reader as “close reading” ever produced, commented somewhere that a book is well written if it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. That, I think, is as good a measure of the literary experience as I can think of. I read some books last year where I would pause and quietly declare, yes! The gooseflesh crawled. The hairs stood at attention. I’m not a golfer, but I think it–the reader’s yes! sensation–is a sensation somewhat akin to the clear-knock sound of a well hit ball. It’s what keeps you coming back again and again. Susan Sontag said something that strikes close to home for me. She said that literature “enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world. It’s a creator of inwardness.” One might deduce from this that literature, or the broader artistic experience, is a manner of completing ourselves. Not to sound too high-minded, but I seek the experience where art and my life combine and the distinction between the two erodes. That is why I read. I hope for the experience of which Sontag spoke: the creation of inwardness. Perhaps to some degree I fear myself lacking and wish for more. Again, we all must sometimes carry that weight. Might that be the impetus for all human striving and art?–but that is a different conversation.

In my reading, I was alert for Nabokovian hair-raising art. I found it more times than I would have hoped, which encourages me. Consider this sentence, for example, from John Banville’s The Infinities: “Time too is a difficulty. For her it has two modes. Either it drags itself painfully along like something dragging itself in its own slime over bits of twigs and dead leaves on a forest floor, or it speeds past, in jumps and flickers, like the scenes on a spool of film clattering madly through a broken projector.” I find that to be a surprisingly lovely metaphor. Or, this pithy gem from Anne Tyler: “She collected and polished resentments as if it were some sort of hobby.” Wonderful. And then there was the time while reading 2666 that I realized I was three pages into one single sentence, a Nile-like flowing stream of words, words like water pouring over polished granite. It was beautiful and I was in awe.

It is not just about the prose, though that is something important and inescapable. I can better stomach a poorly constructed story, the brick and mortar of which, the prose, is well mixed than other way around. The fact is, if the author knows how to mix mortar, she is likely good at construction too. Going back to golf, if you can smash it down the fairway, you’d better have a good short game once you get on the green. It’s been my experience that if a writer can put together words in an appealing fashion, she can also string together a story of those appealing words. It rarely works the other way around.

Hemingway said that you knew a book was good if you were sad that it came to an end. I wager, given the opportunity, you can say the same thing about life. To me that is the point. Reading is an extension, a way of putting out feelers like a spider plant seeking new soil. It is the manner in which we, to Sontag’s point, create inwardness. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen enough in this reader’s year. Too often I grew tired and wanted it over. By Hemingway’s measure, when this occurred, these books weren’t good. But I don’t think it was the book’s fault necessarily. It was more likely an impatient reader champing at the bit. That is a problem I have. I am learning to savor as best I can. Reading Infinite Jest was a good exercise at savoring. I read only ten pages a day. Ten pages a day for a book 1038 pages long. Do the math.

I have moved to Maine from out of state and my library is following me slowly, volume by volume. I didn’t have to move all at once so have taken pains and culled through my library. My plan has been to bring along with me only those books I wish to keep. My library consists largely of books read. But there is a surprising number of books purchased and shelved for a future read. This process of moving and reviewing my library has afforded me this knowledge: There is nothing so profound as an unread library. I don’t think many people understand that. They don’t recognize the potential for inward creation inherent in the unread library. It is, as I said, profound, and speaks to the suggestion that we all think better of ourselves than we’ve yet to realize. A writer cannot help but read a good book and be envious. A reader cannot help but read a good book. Period. Read on.