This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life

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June Books: A Reading List for the Month of Rituals


June is sickly sweet; it’s insipid. Is that because it’s so warm, or because it rhymes so easily? June / moon / spoon / balloon… But while Robert Burns happily rhymed his “red, red rose / That’s newly sprung in June” with a “melody / that’s sweetly played in tune,” Gwendolyn Brooks burned off any sugar in the terse rhythms of “We Real Cool”: the rhyme she finds for “Jazz June”? “Die soon.”

Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.

June is called “midsummer,” even though it’s the beginning, not the middle, of the season. It’s the traditional month for weddings — Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is overflowing with matrimony — but it’s also the home of another modern ritual, graduation day — or, as it’s more evocatively known, commencement, an ending that’s a beginning. It’s an occasion that brings out both hope and world-weariness in elders and advice givers. It brought David Foster Wallace, in his 2005 Kenyon College commencement address reprinted as This Is Water, perhaps as close as he ever came to the unironic statement his busy mind was striving for.

But the graduation speech is an especially potent scene in African American literature. There’s the narrator’s friend “Shiny” in James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, speaking to a white audience like “a gladiator tossed into the arena and bade to fight for his life,” and there’s Richard Wright, in his memoir Black Boy, giving a rough speech he’d composed himself instead of the one written, cynically, for him. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is invited to give his class speech before the town’s leading white citizens, only to find himself instead pitted in a “battle royal” with his classmates, while in Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a young student follows a white dignitary’s patronizing words to the graduates with an unprompted and subversive leading of the “Negro national anthem,” “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” (whose lyrics, to bring the tradition full circle, were written by none other than James Weldon Johnson).

Here is a selection of June reading for the beginnings and endings that midsummer brings:

McTeague by Frank Norris (1899)
One of American literature’s most memorable — and most disastrous — weddings ends, after an orgy of oyster soup, stewed prunes, roast goose, and champagne, with Trina whispering to her groom, McTeague, “Oh, you must be very good to me — very, very good to me, dear, for you’re all that I have in the world now.”

by James Joyce (1922)
Five days after Joyce met Nora Barnacle on a Dublin street, and one day after she stood him up, they went on their first date. Eighteen years later, he celebrated that day — June 16, 1904 — with a book.

Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky (1942/2004)
After reading Colette’s account of the migration out of Paris forced by the German occupation, Némirovsky remarked, “If that’s all she could get out of June, I’m not worried,” and continued work on her own version, “Storm in June,” the first of the two sections of her fictional suite she’d survive the Nazis long enough to complete.

“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson (1948)
It’s a “clear and sunny” morning on June 27 when the men, women, and children of an unnamed village assemble to conduct their annual choosing of lots.

“The Day Lady Died” by Frank O’Hara (1959)
Writing during the lunch hour of his job at the Museum of Modern Art, O’Hara gathered the moments of his afternoon into a poem: the train schedule to Long Island, a shoeshine, the “quandariness” of choosing a book, the sweat of summer, and the memory of how Billie Holiday once took his breath away.

Blues for Mister Charlie
by James Baldwin (1964) and “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” by Eudora Welty (1963)
On the day (June 12, 1963) Medgar Evers was assassinated, Baldwin vowed that “nothing under heaven would prevent” him from finishing the play he was working on, about another notorious murder of a black man in Mississippi, while Welty, on hearing of the murder in her hometown of Jackson, quickly wrote a story, told from the mind of the presumed killer, that was published in The New Yorker within weeks.

Jaws by Peter Benchley (1974)
Is the greatest beach read the one that could keep you from ever wanting to go into the water again?

Blind Ambition
by John Dean (197?)
We know the story of the June 1972 Watergate break-in best from All the President’s Men, but Dean’s insider’s memoir of how it quickly went wrong, co-written with future civil rights historian Taylor Branch, is an equally thrilling and well-told tale.

The Public Burning by Robert Coover (1977)
We’ve never quite known what to do with The Public Burning, Coover’s wild American pageant starring Nixon, a foul and folksy Uncle Sam, and the Rosenbergs, whose June execution is at its center: it’s too long, too angry, too crazy, and, for the publisher’s lawyers who said it couldn’t be released while its main character, the freshly deposed president, was still alive, it was too soon.

Sleepless Nights
by Elizabeth Hardwick (1979)
Sleepless Nights begins in a hot, blinding June but soon fragments across time, into memories from the narrator’s life — which closely resembles Hardwick’s — and stories from the lives of others, a method that has the paradoxical effect of heightening time’s power.

Clockers by Richard Price (1992)
It’s often said that no modern novel can match the storytelling power of The Wire, but its creators drew inspiration from Price’s novel of an unsolved summertime murder in the low-level New Jersey crack trade, and for their third season they added Price to their scriptwriting team.

When the World Was Steady
by Claire Messud (1995)
Bali is hot but dry in June, while the Isle of Skye is gray and wet, at least until the weather makes yet another change. Messud’s first novel follows two English sisters just on the far side of middle age who find themselves on those distant and different islands, reckoning with the choices they’ve made and suddenly open to the life around them.

“Brokeback Mountain” by Annie Proulx (1997)
Meeting again nearly four summers after they last parted on Brokeback Mountain, Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar are drawn together with such a jolt that Jack’s teeth draw blood from Ennis’s mouth.

Three Junes by Julia Glass (2002)
Three Junes might well be called “Three Funerals”–each of its three sections, set in summers that stretch across a decade, takes place in the wake of a death. But the warmth of the month in Glass’s title hints at the story inside, and the way her characters hold on to life wherever they find it.

Image via circasassy/Flickr

“Do Not Mention David Foster Wallace”: On Jonathan Franzen’s Farther Away

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I had set out to review Jonathan Franzen’s newest release (Farther Away: Essays) with only one goal in mind — “Do Not Mention David Foster Wallace.” The constant invocation of one for the sake of the other, although reasonable enough, always struck me as the comparison every commentator can and will often needlessly draw. Imagine reading an article about Eric Clapton in which the name “Jimi Hendrix” appears — casually, frequently — only for the sake of providing a sense of scale and equivalence. “Needless,” I would say, because to appreciate one is at least to be familiar with the other. Or so I thought.

In Farther Away, the linkage between Wallace and Franzen is not merely suggested but rather invited, and Franzen’s collection opens a door to the gearbox of his own mind’s attempt to reorder itself around the death of his friend — not just Infinite Jest’s David Foster Wallace, but Dave, the man whose ashes Franzen scatters from a small book of matches in the essay “Selkirk” and the central figure of a touching reflection (“David Foster Wallace”) on the late writer’s ultimate decline. We find out that the tragically funny prose Wallace spun in Infinite Jest was not just for us — “Those sentences and those pages, when he was able to be producing them, were as true and safe and happy a home as any he had during most of the twenty years I knew him” — and that when he could no longer find solace there, “the disease killed the man as surely as cancer might have.”

Farther Away opens with Franzen’s 2011 commencement speech at Kenyon College (“Pain Won’t Kill You”), where Wallace delivered his own address (later released as This is Water) in 2005. Similar themes echo in the two speeches — the assault of techno-consumerism on the pliable mind, for example, and the necessity of “putting yourself in real relation to real people…that you might end up loving.” Franzen focuses the lens ever-more inward, however, and highlights the dangers posed by a culture of individuals hyper-focused on themselves and conditioned by a level of social networking that was unimaginable in 2005: “To friend a person is merely to include the person in our private hall of flattering mirrors,” he says.

The omnipresent banalities of the smartphone era stoke Franzen’s preoccupation with the ego-centrism of contemporary life. In the scathing “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” he cringes at the forever-nearby din of that which he would prefer not to hear even from a distance — “The cellular component of my irritation is straightforward. I simply do not, while buying socks at the Gap, or standing in a ticket line and pursuing my private thoughts, or trying to read a novel on a plane that’s being boarded, want to be imaginatively drawn into the sticky world of some nearby human being’s home life.” The cell phone, he argues, “has done lasting harm of real social significance,” having replaced the cigarettes of earlier decades as the delivery mechanism of the “suffering of a self-restrained majority at the hands of a compulsive minority.” Franzen, with a measure of irony, bemoans the ubiquity of “I love you!” via cell phone in public spaces (particularly after 9/11) because “the person seems to be saying to me and to everyone else present: ‘My emotions and my family [his emphasis] are more important to me than your social comfort.’”

But if there is any respite from his day-to-day troubles, it certainly comes in the form of watching, cataloguing, and advocating for the preservation of rare birds. “When I go looking for a new bird species,” Franzen says, “I’m searching for a mostly lost authenticity, for the remnants of a world now largely overrun by human beings but still beautifully indifferent to us; to glimpse a rare bird somehow persisting in its life of breeding and feeding is an enduringly transcendent delight” (“Farther Away”).

In perhaps the best essay of the lot, “The Ugly Mediterranean,” Franzen chronicles his travels through Cyprus, Malta, and Italy and renders with surprising even-handedness the duality of the societal forces that contribute to regular trapping, hunting, and consumption of migratory songbirds. While in Cyprus, during an excursion to liberate birds stuck in home-rigged snares, he and his compatriots receive blows at the hands of local trappers, themselves impassioned to preserve a cultural (and economic) imperative. The essay is peppered with species of birds Franzen can casually name at sight — not with the cool, detached interest of a scientist but rather with the ardor of someone who would (and has) risked blows from a baseball bat for the sake of rescuing just one more object of his affection.

Another joy for Franzen is in contemplation of Serious Fiction. “Can a better kind of fiction save the world?” he asks (“What Makes You So …”). “There’s always some tiny hope (strange things do happen), but the answer is almost certainly no, it can’t. There is some reasonable chance, however, that it could save your soul.” Although his musings on selected pieces are likely more accessible for those who have read the works in question, each essay serves equally well as a window into where Franzen draws the line between Serious Fiction and…everything else. In “The Corn King,” a review of The Hundred Brothers, Franzen extols Donald Antrim as an author whose singular work “speaks like none of us for all of us…because we all inescapably feel ourselves to be the special center of our private worlds.” He reaches back to Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler for a discourse on materialism, nihilism, and “the impossibility of pressing the Pleasure bar forever” (pausing along the way to mention Wallace once again). Franzen even turns pragmatic, advising other writers to avoid the use of “Comma-Then” should they wish to avoid churning out “fiction-workshop English.”

Ultimately, Farther Away is a meditation on the obscure other half of a world right in front of our faces — the private horror of a public figure struggling with depression, the unspoken loneliness of an individual living in a world of people perpetually turned off because their devices are turned on, the perils of a bird in flight, and cherished pages of well-written fiction that enable us “to embrace, even celebrate, the dark fact that an individual’s life consists, finally, of an accelerating march toward decay and death.” Franzen brings the reader close (uncomfortably, at times) to facets of life not usually examined, and it becomes clear that he is not just talking about songbirds when he writes, “It felt wrong to be seeing at such close range a species that ordinarily requires careful work with binoculars to get a decent view.” Not every piece soars, but none fails to get off the ground, and as Franzen notes in his essay on Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, “…it’s the kind of book that, if it is for you, is really for you.”

He Was Water: Kenyon Grads Remember David Foster Wallace’s Commencement Speech

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On May 21, 2005 David Foster Wallace delivered the commencement address at Kenyon College.  In the years since, the speech has come to play an important role in the way Wallace’s work is received and remembered.  Depending on who you ask, the speech is the clearest distillation Wallace ever gave of the themes that run through his fiction, or it is a powerful practical guide for how to live a good life, or—in the way the speech has been marketed since—it’s an example of how a vibrant, challenging artist can be packaged for mainstream consumption.

Or it’s a chilling precursor to Wallace’s suicide.  On a hot Ohio morning, Wallace described for the Kenyon grads the day-in-day-out difficulties of grown-up American life.  He beseeched his audience to fight hard to remain conscious and alert through the long slog of adult life; he urged them to be vigilant about exercising control over what they think and how they construct meaning from experience.  These, maybe, are some of the challenges that Wallace himself ultimately could not bear.

The portable wisdom of the speech, layered with Wallace’s complex and tragic pathos, landed the address on Time Magazine’s best commencement speeches of all time list, and caused it to be reproduced as a book, This is Water, which was published a year after Wallace’s suicide and achieves book-length by dedicating a page to each line of the 22-minute address.

I recently began to wonder: What did the Kenyon grads think when they heard Wallace deliver it on that hot Ohio morning?  I was curious whether Wallace’s speech seemed important in real time or whether it was hard to perceive amid the hurrah of a graduation weekend.  This is a question to ask of any event that grows in significance over time, but it seemed particularly relevant here given the themes Wallace spoke about.  “The most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see,” Wallace said in a slow, even voice.  I wondered if this same idea might have described the reception of Wallace’s speech as it echoed over the gathered crowd.

To answer my question I reached out to Kenyon grads through friends of friends and through the Class of 2005’s Facebook page.  “I’m a journalist writing a piece about the commencement speech David Foster Wallace delivered to your graduating class and I’m wondering if you’d be willing to answer a few short questions,” I said in my introductory email.  After hitting send, I often had the odd feeling that I was badgering these people.  I worried that they were tired of talking about an event that maybe had become more important to the rest of us than it had ever been to them.

What do you remember about your reaction and the reaction on campus when Wallace was announced as the commencement speaker?

Jackie G.: I was on the committee that decided to ask him to be our speaker. I had no idea who he was until one of my friends on the committee told me about him.  We wanted to focus on a meaningful message. This was much more important to us that having a big name everyone would know.  We wanted a speech with a message that was personal to our class.  So I guess it would be more accurate to say we wanted our class to be the intended audience of the speech.

Megan H.: I had not heard of David Foster Wallace before the announcement that he was to be our commencement speaker.

Gabe S.: I personally knew nothing of him. A couple friends of mine had heard of him and read a couple of his works. The feeling I got from people was “huh, this could be interesting.”

What was your impression of Wallace as he delivered the speech?

Mike L.:  The one emotion I remember is intensity: he was clear, driving, and inwardly focused.  He also didn’t say anything dismissively. Whether it was his technique or his real feeling I have no idea, but he read the speech like he was passing on a message of importance. Sitting here, I picture a guy at a radio in a bunker intercepting a message, then reading it off to someone else, wasting no time and enunciating every syllable.

Jackie G.: He seemed a little nervous at first. He also seemed like someone who had something to say that was worth hearing.  He was a little disheveled and didn’t stand up straight when he spoke.  He seemed earnest, like he really wanted to say something to us. Hoped he could say something meaningful or useful to us.

Gabe S.: This guy was peculiar, in the most captivating way. I remember he held his head at a slight angle, so that his hair (which was pretty long) would sort of droop over half of his face. It wasn’t in a pretentious way at all, but also not entirely shy — it seemed like in a way he just didn’t care about where his hair was: He was concentrating way too hard to notice maybe. He had a very level, even voice. Slow and deliberate and thoughtful. He seemed like he didn’t do anything without first thinking about it.

What was your reaction immediately after the speech?  Was it clear you’d heard a better than average commencement address?

Mike L.: For the next few hours, we were graduating. Ceremony, cap-throwing, photographs.  No one changed their day over the speech or got distracted from their graduation emotions for very long. The first people I clearly remember saying anything about the speech were the parents. It looked like an ice-breaking thing. Hey, I’m ____’s mom, our kids know each other. Wasn’t that a good speech? There were shared affirmations about the grocery store story.

Megan H.:  I don’t remember if I spoke much with anyone about it that afternoon.  It was a whirlwind trying to find friends, and parents and professors for pictures before it was our time to leave for good. But I knew after that what I had heard was pretty special.

Gabe S.: My reaction immediately after the speech was “Holy crap that was awesome.” But what hit me the hardest about his speech was that it contained zero crap, zero preaching or ideology or politics or really anything at all that could even be taking as a suggestion. He stood there in front of us as one of the most humble people I’ve ever seen in front of an audience, and talked about life.  The fact that he prepared this speech for us made me feel incredibly honored.

Since graduation, have you returned to the speech or read any of Wallace’s other works?

Mike L.:  There were four of us who all read Infinite Jest that year after graduation.  We e-mailed each other constantly about the book and our thoughts and our jokes about the book. I read it mostly in bars, after work in Manhattan. I can remember which stools I chose for IJ time.

Jackie G.: I kind of surprise myself when I say that I have not. I do spend time thinking about his speech, particularly the part about being at the checkout counter and remembering that you don’t know the context of other people’s lives. I remember this part a lot in my daily life, particularly when I’m annoyed or frustrated with other people who I don’t know well or at all.

Gabe S.: I re-read it once. Embarrassingly, it was when I was moving, and I was packing a bookshelf. I have my printed copy (which we were given post-graduation) with me still, and I don’t plan on ever giving it up. I know it’s in book form, but that’s not the same. Mine is “original” and I intend to have my kids read it when they go off to college, and when they are done.

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.

Nabokov, Wallace, and the Incredible Shrinking Book

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I was vaguely shocked and cautiously appalled to learn last week that Vladimir Nabokov’s “new” novel, The Original of Laura, due for release in August, isn’t, in fact, much of a novel at all.”This very unfinished work reads largely like an outline, full of seeming notes-to-self, references to source material, self-critique, sentence fragments and commentary” Publishers Weekly writes, in the first review of Nabokov’s posthumous work. “It would be a mistake, in other words, for readers to come to this expecting anything resembling a novel.”Yet, the hype that has been building around this book for years – years! – has totally eclipsed the fact that the book is, in fact, actually “138 index cards”. This hype, by the by, has enjoyed more than a little support from Nabokov’s son Dmitri, and his, in retrospect, frenzy-building public questioning about whether to publish the text, which his father asked to be destroyed.Given a charitable guess of 50 words per index card (Publishers Weekly says most of the index cards contain less than a paragraph of notes), this comes out to a “novel” of a little under 7,000 words. In other words, the text being published would be comparable to a 25-page short story (if, indeed, it were a story at all). Which makes one wonder how bad a deal Playboy, which bought the rights to excerpt the new book, got. Is the Playboy tease going to be flash fiction?I guess the fact that this book will soon be published (and the fact that I will almost certainly purchase and read it) leads me to ask two big (to my mind) questions, one Nabokov specific and one more general to the world of publishing today.First, why is it that when it comes to the world of Nabokov we are all suddenly academics? I know of few people outside of the academic world who purchase annotated works, yet I have literally dozens of friends who have purchased, and devoured, The Annotated Lolita. Now, Knopf is publishing The Original of Laura by reproducing the original cards, “with a transcription below of each card’s contents.” Obviously, the main reason Knopf is doing this is to fill the pages – it is hard, even in the best of times, to sell a 25-page book for 35 dollars. But there is also the thrill that I know I get and others must get as well of Nabokov scholarship. Enjoying what the master wrote, how he wrote it. Puzzling the pieces together.Perhaps this scholarship-craze is particular to Nabokov (a strong and unverifiable contention, I know) because his novels demand it. You can’t read a book like Pale Fire, or even a relatively simple book like Pnin, without knowing that you’re entering a world, Borges-like, of so many levels, of labyrinths upon labyrinths. Breaking the labyrinths down into the fundamentals of the maze (to draw this metaphor out) seems helpful not only in receiving new material from the master, but in analyzing this new composition to shed light on how the older, more familiar works were composed.Second, though (and this is the more problematic question for me), why is it that books are being published in the contemporary market that don’t have the length or stamina of books. I am thinking, in particular, of David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech to the Kenyon College 2005 graduating class, published posthumously as This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. I had read the commencement speech long before it was officially published. In fact, shortly after Wallace delivered it a friend sent it to me over e-mail. It took me about fifteen minutes to read. And I read slowly.Not that it shouldn’t be written, or read. On the contrary, Wallace’s commencement speech is both moving and necessary, in a way that many full-length texts are not. Yet, why the subterfuge? Sell it as an essay, in a magazine, or in a volume with other texts. But why pretend that this is a stand-alone book?In order to fatten up Wallace’s speech (lacking the help of index cards that Nabokov so conveniently provided), the publisher decided to print only one sentence on every page. So, not only is this essay published in book form, it is actually less pleasant and more cumbersome to read than the e-mail I received of the speech was four years ago.I guess, my plea is, then, to stop the games. If you’re publishing something that’s great writing but that clearly isn’t a book, don’t call it a book. Call it an essay. True, you probably won’t be able to sell it for $15 (the list price of Wallace’s speech). But on the other hand, think of all the paper you’ll save.

Surprise Me!