Posts Tagged ‘books’
I might have dramatically misunderestimated how many books I have. It took me forever to write this up!
A quick note on Shelved. I don’t want this to be a futile exercise in pointless navel-gazery. So if you actually make it to the end of this thing, and you see a book you like, or a book you hate, or I said something you want to challenge me on, please leave some comments! I would love to have a nice little conversation!
Also, a quick note about the picture for this post: it doesn’t necessarily reflect the order in which I wrote about these books. As you can see, the books at the front are rather precariously piled on top of one another. If you can believe it, they used to be even more precariously perched. Someone stomped by in the hallway a week and a half ago, and all those books toppled onto the floor, so I took advantage of the opportunity pile them in a slightly less perilous way.
Preacher: Gone to Texas, Until the End of the World, Proud Americans, Ancient History, Dixie Fried, War in the Sun, Salvation, All Hell’s A-Coming, Alamo
What can I say about Preacher? It’s one of the best comic book series you’ll ever read. (Diehards will recall my discussion of Preacher from my post on the Watchmen movie.) One of the problems with comic books, unfortunately, is the sheer volume of pages involved in telling a story. I think Preacher, from front to back, holds up well as great American literature. However, comma, it’s nearly impossible to recommend it as something to read, perhaps for a book club, because reading the whole series requires procuring nine different books. Your best bet is to borrow them from a friend. Ahem.
The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes, The Doll’s House, Dream Country, Season of Mists, A Game of You, Fables and Reflections, Brief Lives, Worlds’ End, The Kindly Ones
Pretty much ditto. What Preacher does for America, The Sandman does for every myth, fable, religion, and bit of folklore you’ve ever heard about. The fortunate thing is, if your local public library has any comic books in stock, they’ll probably have this one.
Civil War: Front Line
Both of these were gifts from my buddy Miles. Thanks, pal!
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay by Michael Chabon
Chabon is a good writer; I’ve enjoyed a lot of his other stuff. Even this book! But for whatever reason, I’ve picked it up three different times, and I’ve never been able to finish it. Who knows.
The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity by Jill Lepore
Excellent book about the war between the Wampanoag Indians and the Massachusetts Bay colonists in 1675. You can probably guess that the colonists won, but Lepore does a pretty good job of establishing how King Philip’s War set the stage for Americans’ future treatment of the continent’s indigenous people. And get this: I read this book for a non-English class, and I liked it! Imagine!
The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow
Ah, now we’re getting into the portion of the bookshelf filled with books that I read and liked in college but felt that I should probably read again because I might not have been paying close attention. Augie March is one that I absolutely loved in school, but maybe it’s just because I was relatively young, and Augie is a charismatic character. Maybe, as more of a grownup, I’ll like it less? Or more? I’ll find out one of these days, probably.
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Viking Portable Library: Anton Chekhov
They told me way back when that Chekhov was one of the master short story writers, so when I was interested in writing fiction way back in the day, I figured it would be a good idea to check him out. (Get that pun?)
Obedience by Will Lavender
This was an interesting little psychological suspense thriller that I read for book club last year. I wouldn’t recommend going out and buying it, but if you ever come across it and have a week of reading to kill, go for it!
The Foucault Reader
I remember junior year, I was responsible for reading some Foucault for class, and I had an assignment over spring break. So there I was, at my little table at a coffe shop in Paris, enjoying my café au lait, reading Foucault, thinking I was part of the great Enlightenment tradition. Of course, I was reading Discipline and Punish, not this book, but that one is in a box in my mother’s garage and not on my bookshelf. So.
Keats and Italy: A History of the Keats-Shelley House in Italy
Mommy got this for me after a trip to Italy a few years ago. I don’t know if she knew that Keats was my favorite Romantic poet, but here we are!
Cut Time: An Education at the Fights by Carlo Rotella
Carlo Rotella is the Official Thesis Adviser of Dangerous, Dirty, and Unfun. However, it’s been a while since I graduated, and he’s no longer grading my papers, so you know this is a clean and unbiased analysis: he’s a great writer! The writer who romanticizes the brutality that happens in the boxing ring is an archetype, a cliche these days. But Rotella does it with grace, but without the schmaltzy reverence that lesser boxing writers often fall back on. Although that’s not quite fair. He’s not a boxing writer. He’s a writer who can write about anything, and this book happens to be about boxing.
MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers
Yada yada yada. They make you cite things according to MLA style sometimes.
Ulysses by James Joyce
What can one say about Ulysses? It’s a pretty good book. This particular copy, I bought in preparation for writing this story.
Juggling for the Complete Klutz by John Cassidy and B.C. Rimbeaux
For a while, I would try to pick up juggling at some point every year. It was always this book that inspired me. I obviously never actually wound up doing it.
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Sharing the Dream by Dominic Pulera
Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century by John A. Farrell
Tip O’Neill, as you obviously know, was a longtime Speaker of the House, a nemesis of Reagan, and a BC guy, so I’ve been meaning to get around to reading this bio. However, comma, now that this has come out, I might have to put Tip on the back burner again.
Bass Guitar for Dummies
Brick City Renaissance: The Decline of Newark in the Novels of Philip Roth by Tim Czerwienski
Back during senior year, they asked me to submit an electronic copy of my thesis to the Honors Program, so they could put it online on the library website for posterity. Regular readers of Dangerous, Dirty, and Unfun know that I never did that. Which is a shame. I wonder if they’ll still accept it?
Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski
I love this place, so I figure I should read one of the man’s books, right?
Spirit of Adventure: Eagle Scouts and the Making of America’s Future by Alvin Townley
Townley goes out and talks to a bunch of really admirable and high-achieving Eagle Scouts. Maybe I’ll make it into the second edition? Eh?
Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself by David Lipsky
During the Infinite Jest book tour, Rolling Stone sent David Lipsky to tag along with David Foster Wallace for a few days, to get an inside look at America’s Newest Literary Genius. The story never got published, so after Wallace’s death, Lipsky more or less turned the raw transcripts into this book. Anyone familiar with Wallace’s oeuvre will recognize and appreciate the worldview that he expresses here, although it’s interesting to see it in such a vestigial, off-the-cuff form.
Hemingway and Bailey’s Bartending Guide to Great American Writers
This was a gift from the former Official Girlfriend of Dangerous, Dirty, and Unfun (I’ll get another one, I promise!) It basically goes through a series of great writers, and gives recipes for their favorite real-life drinks, or drinks that figured heavily in their books. It’s one of the most-used books on this shelf.
Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck
When my brother was a freshman in high school (I think? Maybe he was a sophomore?) the family took a trip to San Francisco. While we were there, we drove down the coast to Monterey. Since my brother was reading Of Mice and Men at the time, we thought it would be a good idea to visit the John Steinbeck Museum. My dad is great for a lot of reasons, and one of them is his willingness to indulge his (and mine) insatiable desire to buy books. We went home with a stack of Steinbeck novels, including this one, which became my favorite. A lot of kids read books and get caught up in fantasies about how they wish they could be Sal Paradise, or Jay Gatsby, or the aforementioned Augie March. I always wanted to be like Danny and his fellow paisanos, just hanging around, scratching and surviving, enjoying a jug of wine when we happened to come across one. Sometimes it still seems like a good life.
500 Beers by Zak Avery
Another gift. This one has very pretty pictures!
Girl With Curious Hair by David Foster Wallace
This is apparently one of DFW’s not-so-critically acclaimed short story collections. Maybe I just love a lot of things, but I thought most of the stories were really good. Sort of how you can listen to “I Want You” and hear the beginnings of “Always,” you read “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” and hear the beginnings of Infinite Jest. At least, I think you can.
Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan
This is a fun read. I suppose I liked it more than other people because a) it’s set in Boston and 2) Chuck Hogan is a BC grad. Ben Affleck turned this book into The Town, which was an excellent flick.
The Power Broker by Robert Caro
Huuuuuuuuge book. Another one that I start a lot and never wind up finishing. But this time, it’s because the book is so damn big. This is one that I really need to get around to reading.
Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity by David Foster Wallace
Hey, a theme! Books that I haven’t finished! I have another legitimate excuse, though. This is a book about the concept of infinity throughout the history of philosophy and mathematics. When we’re talking about Plato or Zeno’s paradox, I can more or less follow. But even though DFW shows incredible facility in walking a know-nothing through the subject matter, once the book gets into the stuff beyond calculus, I just couldn’t through it! I can’t be held responsible! It’s math!
Nine Stories by JD Salinger
I hate The Catcher in the Rye (so much so that I don’t even own it), but I love this book. The Glass family is far more compelling than a whiny, feckless weenie like Holden Caufield.
The Dictionary of Bullshit
various issues of Boston College Magazine
This magazine is very well-edited.
The Revolution: A Manifesto by Ron Paul
Remember when this happened? That’s where I got this book!
Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
Hoo boy. This one was a doozy to get through.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Remember in the Intro, when I said that two of my three favorite books were written by women? This is one of them! If you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably already had this recommended to you. It’s my go-to answer whenever someone asks “Do you know of any good books to read?” So good, my book club read it twice!
It’s Not Easy Being Green: And Other Things to Consider
Boston, Insight Guides
This Is Water by David Foster Wallace
There’s a whole post coming up about this, when the David Foster Wallace Fortnight continues.
Accordion Crimes by Annie Proulx
And then this is my third favorite book. If I ever recommended The Secret History to you, and you said, “But I already read that, because you told me to,” then I undoubtedly said “So read Accordion Crimes!” It’s a book about the immigrant experience in America, told through the eyes of a small green accordion. Probably the most amazing thing you’ll learn here is that no matter culture you come from, there’s probably a tradition of accordion music. Weird.
The Pine Barrens by John McPhee
John McPhee is like the Stan Musial of writing. Other writers get more attention, get interviewed more, sell more books. Then you read a book as whimsical and melodious as The Pine Barrens (about as mundane a topic as the pine wilderness of central and southern New Jersey), and you realize “Wait a sec, this guy is a 20-time All Star, and he led the league in OPS seven times!”
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
Excellent, excellent book. For one thing, it takes place in Jersey. For another, the story is told almost entirely through the lens of comic book and sci fi references. I mean, the narrator referred to himself as The Watcher!
Crisis on Infinite Earths
Crisis on Infinite Earths was DC Universe–altering miniseries, published in 1985, that was meant to clean up 50 years of continuity muddled by all manner of time travelers, alternate universes, and retcons. Kind of like Armageddon 2001. Or Zero Hour. Or Infinite Crisis. Or Final Crisis.
The Dark Knight Returns
It’s one of the best comic book stories out there for a reason. Just read it.
Beer: Tap into the Art and Science of Brewing by Charles Bamforth
Another gift, this time from my brother and his wife. This one is published by Oxford University Press, so it’s a little more than just pretty pictures. It’s in the queue, worry not.
Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
I loved this book when I read it in college. I probably still love it now. It’s popular to criticize Foer as a twee sentimentalist, but he’s capable of evoking strong emotions in a very earnest way. It got kinda dusty in the room a couple times when I read this one!
This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Like Romeo and Juliet, This Side of Paradise is the kind of book you need to read when you’re a kid. Which is a shame, since given the choice of any novel in Scott Fitzgerald’s oeuvre, there are ones that are better written than this one. Obviously. But still, This Side of Paradise was good, even though it really helps to be Amory Blaine’s age when you read about his exploits.
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
There’s a lot of writers like James Baldwin. Folks that are universally accepted as great, but sometimes slip through the cracks of your American literature education. (You could probably name half a dozen such writers without really thinking too hard.) But I took a lesbian/gay/bisexual history class in college, and we talked about this book, a haunting and heartbreaking story of young lovers in France, so I picked it up. It’s wicked short, and well-worth your time.
American Pastoral by Philip Roth
A hefty chunk of my aforementioned thesis was based on this book. At the fore, it’s the story of Swede Levov, a local Newark legend who inherits his father’s glove factory, marries Miss New Jersey, buys a sweet house in the suburbs, and proceeds to see his life fall apart. It’s also about the rise and fall of the city of Newark, which is convenient, since that’s also pretty much what the thesis was about. If you’re from Jersey, you should read this. Also, if you like good, but grim, books.
The Gay Talese Reader
Gay Talese, as you’re all probably aware, is one of the masters of long form narrative non-fiction, and one of the first practitioners of what they call the new journalism. (Of course, it’s not so new any more, but it’s called what it’s called.) This book is a collection of profiles Talese wrote over the course of his career, including Muhammed Ali, George Plimpton, and the much ballyhooed “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” For obvious reasons, I’m partial to “The Silent Season of the Hero,” his treatment of a retired Joe Dimaggio. This book was a gift from a friend, who put a very kind and very complimentary inscription on the front cover. I dunno if she’s a reader, but she’s getting married this week. Good luck, and congratulations!
White Noise by Don DeLillo
Very mixed feelings about this one.
Atonement by Ian McEwan
Atonement is one in a very long series of books that my book club chose to read, with the hope that we would then all go and see the movie. It never seems to work out.
Just wanted to let you know, precious readers, that I’ll be in sunny Bayonne, New Jersey, for the next few days for my brother’s wedding festivities. Consequently, the blogging sched might be a little light until next week. (Can you tell I’m dragging this Shelved thing out as long as possible?) In the meantime, though, here’s some Zelda warriors to keep you warm until I return.
# The Morning News on geoengineering. The upshot? We’re doomed.
# Here’s another arbitrary list, this one of the 100 Best First Lines from Novels. Take it for what it is, understanding that “Call me Ishmael” benefits from the same self-fulfilling cycle that makes “Stairway to Heaven” the most requested song on the radio. Stairway is touted as the most requested, so people request it. “Call me Ismael” leads these lists, because that’s what’s done. My own myopic opinion: 1984, Tristram Shandy, and The Stranger have better first lines. But oh well.
# If you want to understand DD&U, you’ll watch Baffler Meal.
I’ll spare you all the very top shelf of my bookcase, which doesn’t actually have any books on it, but has plenty of hats, toy helicopters, and jugs of loose change (and one of my prized possessions, a box of fun-sized Rice Krispies signed by Something Corporate frontman Andrew McMahon. A gift from the Official Philadelphia Correspondent of Dangerous, Dirty, and Unfun). If you’re not familiar with the project, refresh yourself here.
The New York Public Library Science Desk Reference
Roget’s Thesaurus of Phrases
Dictionary of Word Origins
Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary
The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th Edition
Can you remember the last time you used a reference book? And I don’t mean some obscure text you needed for some esoteric term paper back in college. I mean like an honest to goodness dictionary, for the purpose of looking up the definition of a word. It’s actually kind of sad. I looked through all of these books at various points when I got them (the Science Desk Reference was a good one), but nowadays, there’s no excuse; anything you need to find out, you’re probably going to find online. Hell, they’re going to stop printing the effing Oxford English Dictionary! I think I inherited the Webster’s and Chicago Manual from the garbage heap at my office. (And, of course, Chicago is in its 16th edition, so, you know, it’s a paper book, and it’s superannuated. And heavy. Dunno if I’ll be carrying it with me next time I move.)
What Are We? An Introduction to Boston College and Its Jesuit and Catholic Tradition (two copies)
They give these things away like candy at BC.
The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
The Brewmaster’s Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer and Real Food by Garrett Oliver
I’m ambivalent about the whole concept of food-and-X pairing, which is what a hefty chunk of this book is about. But in the process of pointing out what beers go best with what foods, Oliver, the brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, walks the reader through a history of beer and all the various beer styles, as well as his own journey toward beer connoisseurdom. I loved reading this book, cover to cover. The prose is whimsical, the presentation is interesting, and the subject matter is treated with joy and reverence. If you only even kind of like beer, I would still recommend it!
The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie
This book actually isn’t even mine. Please remind me to give it back eventually. So you don’t have to look it up, it’s a combination biography/literary critique of four American Catholic writers: Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy.
Modernism: The Lure of Heresy by Peter Gay
I picked this book up on a whim after reading this back and forth with the author. It seemed interesting enough, but to be honest, I wanted to be seen as a guy that was reading art history books. I haven’t quite started yet. But I will, eventually. I think.
Criticism: Major Statements edited by Charles Kaplan and William Anderson
I guess there’s one thing you can tell from someone’s bookshelf. If this particular tome is on it, you’re dealing with an English major.
Guide to Beer by David Kenning and Robert Jackson
A recent gift from my little brother. I’ve become one of those people that’s really easy to buy gifts for. When in doubt, grab a beer book. I say, keep ‘em coming!
Reading Myself and Others by Philip Roth
One of the many books I bought for my thesis, Brick City Renaissance? The Decline of the City of Newark in the Novels of Philip Roth. And the only one I didn’t actually read!
The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester
Excellently delightful read about the writing of the aforementioned Oxford English Dictionary. This was a gift from my friend Michelle, if I recall.
On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt
Penguin Dictionary of Symbols
This was a Secret Santa gift from my boss’s boss, at the Christmas party a few months after I started my job. He said there’s two things every writer that’s worth a damn has, and they were in the package he got for me. In it were this dictionary of symbols, and a couple nips of bourbon. He’s a very smart guy.
Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition: Complete Course
I forget if it was right after I graduated high school, or while I was actually in college, but at some point I thought to myself “I want to start diagramming sentences again.” So I went back to my sophomore year English teacher, Mrs. Forgione, and asked if she had a spare grammar textbook that I could possibly have. She was more than happy to hand off this volume. It’s old (copyright like, 1951, I think), but I don’t think there’s been many innovations in the field of sentence diagramming in the past 60 years. Right?
The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald
Junior year, I took a class called “Junior Honors Seminar.” It was designed to help junior English majors discern a thesis topic and simultaneously serve as an advanced survey of literary theory. The idea was, at the start of the semester, you would pick a text (a story, a book, a movie, a song), and you’d carry it with you throughout the term. Every week, we’d learn about a new critical theory, and every week, we had to apply that theory to an analysis of our chosen text.
It’s a good enough idea, and it certainly required me to perform some pretty wild critical gymnastics. Because, you know, I picked “A Diamond as Big as the Ritz” out of this book. It was a story I’d never even read, and I was responsible for analyzing it through a half dozen critical lenses that I didn’t even know. Who knows if the papers were any good, but I did learn something of the most vital importance: the center is a function, not a locus.
Underworld by Don DeLillo
This was on the bargain table at Brookline Booksmith. Look at how thick it is! Five bucks is a real value!
From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Culture by Jacques Barzun
My Goodreads profile pic is me reading this book. You know, because it kinda makes me look like erudite. You’ll hear this a lot in these posts, but I promise I’ll get around to actually reading this book someday. For real! In the meantime, read this profile of Barzun.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
This is not a book I liked. People make fun of me for saying this, but it’s just too written. You know what I mean.
Dangerous, Dirty, and Unfun keeps its finger on the pulse of the left-leaning, literary-minded blogosphere so you don’t have to. The topic blowing up the tubes last month was a dustup that came to be known (”illogically,” as Slate’s Meghan O’Rourke put it) as “Franzenfreude.” This NPR piece explains it well enough, but here’s the Readers’ Digest version: critically acclaimed white male author gets near-universal adoration for latest novel, prolific though less critically acclaimed female authors call bullshit on the entire literary establishment for unspoken gender bias. Discuss.
As you can see from that Google search, the whole thing generated quite a bit of discussion and soul-searching. I mean, what if Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner are right? What if publishers, editors, and critics are just treating female writers, as a whole, less seriously than their male counterparts? Only the most paranoid conspiracy theorist would presume that there was some systematic conspiracy against female writers, but that only makes the problem more insidious. If there’s no boogeyman to vanquish, if there’s actually just something ingrained and unconscious at work, what are we, the reading public, to do about it?
Guest-writing at Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog back in August, Chris Jackson, an editor at the publishing house Spiegel and Grau, wrote what I thought was a very honest and pragmatic piece about his reaction to being confronted with this unconscious prejudice. (And was treated to what I thought was a nit-picky and sort of unfair rebuttal from Alyss Dixson. I wanted to reach into the Internets, grab everyone, and say “Same team, guys! Same team!”)
Basically, the pragmatic endeavor that Jackson decided to try out was to balance his reading: for every piece of fiction he read written by a man, he would read a piece of fiction by a woman. Now, Jackson is an actual book editor, so he can have a proactive role in alleviating any injustices he sees in the publishing world. But for a regular, white, male reader hoping to stay on the straight and narrow path to enlightenment, consciously making the effort to read more female authors seems like a good idea (in addition to, you know, doing my best to treat folks equitably, being mindful of history, and putting myself in other people’s [especially women's] shoes). Once I finished Jackson’s piece, I thought of my own reading. And while I think I do better than a lot of guys when it comes to reading female authors (not looking for a pat on the back here, but two of my three favorite books ever were written by women, ahem), my ratio is certainly not 50-50. I knew that off the top of my head.
All of this thinking about the books I’ve read made me want to actually like, look closer at the books I’ve read. Since I’ve always been a shameless self-promoter, I decided to do it in the most evocative way possible and turn it into a blog-related activity. So in addition to making a concerted effort to alternate my male-written and female-written reading (I just picked up White Teeth by Zadie Smith), I’m going to take a look at my own literary history by examining the contents of my bookshelf.
I don’t necessarily believe that you can tell a lot about a person from their bookshelf. (Although I am guilty of often scanning the shelves wherever I go. It’s a reflex!) For example, here’s a caveat about my bookshelf: I moved back to Jersey briefly after college. When I moved back up to Boston, I decided that I would bring some books with me. Not my favorite books, though. Instead, I brought up all the books that I half-read or didn’t bother reading in college. The reasoning being, if those were the only books I had in my possession, I would actually get around to reading them. You can imagine how that worked out. I just wound up buying new books or taking books out of the library that I actually wanted to read. The result is four shelves of a melange of books that I ignored in college, or read cover-to-cover, or received as gifts, or scanned briefly, or picked up at used bookshops. You can’t learn a ton about someone based on his bookshelf, but I bet you can learn something. Let’s find out what.
In the coming days, I’ll post a photo of one of my bookshelves, along with an annotated listing of all the books on it. I’ll try to say as much as I can, even about the books I haven’t read. And here’s where you come in, precious reader. If you want to join the fun and go through your own bookshelves, trying to paint a self-portrait of a reader, I’ll post your photos and notes here on the blog. It should be a good time!
There’s been a lil bit of talk on the old Intertubes (or at least in the stupid blogs I read) about books in schools, probably precipitated by this Dana Goldstein piece on the Daily Beast. Here’s a telling couple sentences:
The average reading level of the top 20 books read by U.S. high school students is 5.3—two and a half grade levels easier than a front-page article in The New York Times or Washington Post. In no grade do students typically read nonfiction, beyond memoirs like the The Diary of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel’s Night—even though success on standardized tests, in college, and in many jobs requires the ability to comprehend dense nonfiction texts.
Yikes! Goldstein and her sources lament the quality of young people’s reading lists, and take the tack that what we need is more non-fiction in the curriculum, to serve the dual purpose of giving kids real-world “background” knowledge, and to generally engage kids who otherwise yawn at traditional fictional offerings. To which I say, fine! I’m not going to argue with adding some non-fiction variety to middle and high school curricula. What I wouldn’t want to see is a dramatic swinging of the pendulum away from fiction. I was an English major, so I’ve got a dog in this race, but I definitely think there are things that fiction is uniquely positioned to teach us. The important thing to remember, especially for the teachers, administrators, and bureaucrats with influence, is that it’s not a contest. Good writing is good writing, and we should be putting good writing in the curriculum no matter what form it comes in.
The harder pill to swallow in Goldstein’s piece is the negative judgment she levels against the type of reading kids these days do for fun, panning “lightweight fiction” and taking the requisite cheap shots at Twilight. Which is why I liked this piece by Katie Baker on the Awl, examining, among other things, why boys don’t read as much as girls. As the only boy in my book club, I have a tremendous interest in why, at least in my experience, it’s so hard to come across a serious reader who’s a boy. Baker revisits what she calls the age-old issue: “should kids be allowed to read whatever they want, so long as they’re reading?”
Regular readers of Dangerous, Dirty, and Unfun know that I’m no expert. Of anything. So I won’t offer any firm prescriptions for what I think is the right thing to do in the classroom (except for that good writing bit above). What I also won’t do is pick nits about what children read outside of the classroom. Are we really going to look down our noses at a kid for reading Twilight instead of The Best and the Brightest? I don’t want to alarm you, but most adults don’t read books. If a youngster is going to pick up a book, sit down, and read it cover to cover, I really couldn’t care less what it is. Good for her!
Baker’s point about the Sweet Valley High books being just, well, more interesting than typical academic fare is well-taken. I’ll speak from personal experience here. I’ve always been a reader, dating back to the day where I just got bored of the story my first grade class spent a week reading. (It was in an orange Houghton Mifflin reader, about a girl learning to roller skate, and she was really scared of falling, so she left the house with a football helmet and like, a bunch of pillows tied to her torso. Does anyone remember the name of this story? It was a turning point in my life!) My teacher, Ms. McDonald, bless her heart, gave me access to the bookshelf in the back of the classroom and let me read whatever I wanted once I had finished what the class was working on in the reader. After that, it was off to the races w/r/t me and books.
I usually just read what was made available to me by my teachers. It wasn’t until Goosebumps that I started making my own reading material choices. Like many boys my age, I was a CONSUMER of Goosebumps books. Every month, like clockwork, I’d grab the newest installment and rip through it in a weekend. (My parents were cool and would take me to the bookstore pretty regularly and let me get whatever I wanted, which allowed me to rent out the newest Goosebumps to classmates every month once I was done with them. I actually did this!) Goosebumps, of course, were a sort of little boys’ analogue to The Babysitter’s Club: quick, schlocky, cheaply suspenseful horror novels. Nobody would confuse them for high literature, or even high young adult literature. But that’s not the point.
The point is, I looked forward to a new Goosebumps book like I look forward to a new episode of Gossip Girl. It’s something special when a book can excite and engross a young kid like that. Reading Goosebumps books, as low-brow as they were, showed me that it was possible to be captivated by words on a page. Once you put that concept in a kid’s head, it’s not a huge leap to say, Douglas Adams, or Frank Herbert, or George Orwell (all writers I read when I was in grammar school). I always laugh when teachers and sundry authority figures refer to books as “friends,” but it’s not untrue. If you can learn to trust that a book can be worth your time, you’ll always have something to do, and something to learn.
Via the Globe’s Brainiac blog (via the literary magazine the Believer), a forensic artist does sketches of famous literary bad guys. The main piece, unfortunately, isn’t online at this point. I was looking forward to seeing Humbert Humbert.
So Infinite Summer is over. It actually feels like only yesterday when I read a short bit in the Phoenix while I was riding on the C line and, on a whim, hopped off at Coolidge Corner and picked up a copy at Brookline Booksmith. It’s incredibly fortuitous, actually, that there was one copy left; the way these whims work, I probably never would have bothered picking it up if the first store I went to didn’t have it.
The goal was to read ±75 pages a week for the summer. I was far outstripping that pace for a while, to the point that I would read the weekly commentary on the Infinite Summer blog and think, cripes, that happened weeks ago. But after a while, I found myself reading less and less. And eventually, a few weeks ago, I was right there at the spoiler line. And even lagging a few pages behind! Now, I can point to any of a number of reasons for that that make a lot of sense. But I’m also fairly certain that if the depths of my unconscious were delveable, we’d find out that there might have been some intention there. Because with every page, I wondered “Will I ever read a book this good again?”
I’m still not sure.
Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to write a bunch of posts this week about how tremendous and great and brilliant a book this is. But I’ll start with recollecting this post I read earlier in the summer from Freddie at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen. It reads wonkily English-majory at first, but I recommend getting through the whole thing, because the payoff at the end is important (pardon the lengthy block quote, folks).
[David Foster Wallace], like all authors today, wrote in the knowledge that the literary world would be filled with exactly those kinds of readers and critics who would dismiss his work out of hand for its artiness and pretension. And yet Foster Wallace wrote on, like a lot of writers do, in the stubborn belief in the good faith of his audience. . . . Julian Sanchez, commenting on the controversial footnotes, says “having notes at all announces ‘behold, I am a quirky, convoluted pomo novel .’” Again, I can’t blame him for feeling that way. But no book announces any such thing. Rather, it has that announced for it by the “fuming, unwanted ambassadors” that Ben Marcus rightly derided, the antique gatekeepers who unasked and unwanted try to save readers from books. This novel, faults and all, is a work of faith, and when read with trust and courage, will reward both.
It got me thinking about faith. It’s one of the most enigmatic, slippery concepts, and yet for so many people, so much hinges on faith. In a lot of ways, its enigmaticness and slipperiness are the point. But I think reading a book, in general, is an exercise in faith. (I’m NOT implying that reading A book is the same as believing in THE book. There are degrees here, folks.)
I mean, a movie, a TV show, a play; just like books, these are things that you can walk out on if they’re horrible. But even if you didn’t, movies and shows last a very finite and manageable amount of time. But a book, especially one as long and involved as Infinite Jest, is begging you to trust it. To have faith that things are actually going to work out, that things are going to make sense, or, barring that, not make sense in a way that is consistent and tolerable. A book is an investment, of time and actual like, mental engagement.
For this reason, an unsatisfying book is much worse than a lame movie or show. You see a bad movie, and it’s like, eh. You roll the dice and you takes your chances. But a bad book is like a betrayal. We open its pages with faith that the journey an author is taking us on is worth what we’re sacrificing. Unlike religious faith, the consequences aren’t as steep (thankfully). But that feeling of giving up something to the unknown and (for the moment) the unknowable, that’s what happens when you start a book. And when the book is 1000+ pages long, and as tough and demanding as Infinite Jest, you’re really hoping that things work out, for the characters in the book and for yourself.
It did! Stay tuned, everybody.
Why I decided to read Remembrance of Things Past
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
When I was a junior in high school, the honors English curriculum was American literature, pretty much from start to yesterday. It turned out to be just as rigorous a class as any English course I took in college; we read a lot of books. That being said, the texts we covered were, more or less, restricted to the big guns of the proverbial canon (pun, as always, intended): Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, Twain, James, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Steinbeck. It was a good sampling, but hardly an exhaustive survey of the rich tapestry of American literature.
That’s where the Blue Book came in. The Blue Book was, essentially, a series of course packets that everyone in the class got. It was filled with excerpts from and secondary sources about authors that we weren’t reading. We didn’t read anything by Ezra Pound, but we knew he was an influential poet. We didn’t read The Jungle, but we knew that Upton Sinclair was a pretty righteous dude. Theodore Dreiser sticks out in my mind for some reason, if only because I had never heard of him before, and very rarely heard of him since (until I took a Dreiser class in college. Suffice it to say, An American Tragedy made a third of my semester a tragedy). But I knew he was influential, and I felt confident in my authority to speak to that fact.
What does this have to do with Marcel Proust? Well, Remembrance of Things Past (or more accurately [and more lame, in this blogger’s myopic opinion], In Search of Lost Time) is sort of the granddaddy of Sister Carrie–type books: many more people speak to its virtues and influence than have actually read it. Everybody (or, at least, everybody who chooses to have an opinion on this sort of thing) accepts Proust’s masterwork as a paragon of modernist literature and, possibly, the best novel of the 20th century. All the right people say so. But how many people have actually read it? For real. It’s like, 4,000 pages! Honestly, I just bought volume one, Swann’s Way, with absolutely no idea what it’s about. It’s a matter of trusting “all the right people,” but more than that, it’s about becoming the right person.
I’ve heard Ulysses described as the Mount Everest of 20th century literature, but that’s not quite accurate. I’ve read Ulysses (sort of); it’s a long, dense, challenging book. But there are more challenging books (you don’t even have to leave Joyce’s repertoire to find a more challenging book. You know what I’m talking about). It’s dense, but readable: Not to pile on Dreiser, but An American Tragedy is the sloggiest slog that one could slog through. And it’s long, but complaining about a book’s length seems, to me, to be incredibly juvenile. Add to that the fact that Ulysses is firmly ensconced in the culture (to wit: I just wrote a story about Bloomsday in Boston), and you’ve got, perhaps, the Mount McKinley of 20th century literature.
That would make Remembrance something like the Marianas Trench. (Maybe that’s not so accurate. Has anyone ever been down there? I think so, right?) Maybe I’m over-, or mis-, stating things here, but wouldn’t that in itself be telling? That a voracious reader and university-trained English degree-holder doesn’t know the slightest thing about the supposedly best book of the century? So either I’m an idiot, or literary victim, or completely on the ball. Either way, I’m embarking on this journey. What I’ll learn, and where it’ll take me, is anyone’s guess. I’ll keep all of you, my precious readers, in the loop.
So the Globe this weekend ran a list of the top 100 New England books, and by that they mean books about the region, or books written by New England writers. I clicked on the link on boston.com, ready to mock all the provincial literary choices collected therein, but I have to say, it’s a pretty solid list. I was anticipating a few generous reaches (John Dos Passos went to Harvard, and the USA trilogy is, ostensibly, at least a little bit about New England, technically, right?), but it doesn’t appear that the rules needed to be bent too much to get a good list going. It’s also funny when you can see Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel and The Call of Cthulhu on the same best-of list.
They also have a fun little interactive feature where you can check off books on the list that you’ve already read, or would like to read. You’ll be proud to hear, treasured reader, that I was able to check off 17 books from the list, which doesn’t sound like a lot, especially coming from an allegedly voracious reader like myself, but consider that I more than tripled-up the average of 5 books by the 1,300 odd folks who have gone through the list at press time. A lot of those people are probably actual New Englanders! And they probably all loaded up on the kids’ books. (EVERYBODY has read Charlotte’s Web. Who’s got The Trumpet of the Swan under their belts, eh?)
I was pleasantly surprised by how I’ve read all of these books, too. There were enough selections that I read in high school (The Scarlet Letter, The Catcher in the Rye, Our Town, etc.), but only one that I’d read in college (The Rise of Silas Lapham). A whopping three were books that my book club read (Little Children, The Emperor’s Children, and my go-to book recommendation, The Secret History). I read The Last Hurrah purely because I felt like it. And, full disclosure, I haven’t actually completed Common Ground or On the Road, but I have every intention to, so I felt not problem with checking them off.