Category Archives: Reading

Recent Reading

This year has started out pretty well for me, reading-wise; it’s not been perfect, but I did finish two novels I liked very much, Anita Brookner’s Look At Me and Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. This is the third Brookner novel I’ve read, and I think it’s my favorite so far. Brookner captures a certain kind of consciousness so well — the lonely, smart, isolated figure who wants a different life but can’t quite reach it. It’s a first-person point of view, and the narrator is ruthless in her honesty, which makes for a sad story. But there’s something bracing in that honesty that I admire. What’s really hard to read is the process she goes through of figuring out that she was wrong about her relationships. She thought she was doing things right, when it turns out she wasn’t. Sad! But Brookner dissects it all so well.

The Lethem was fabulous as well. Motherless Brooklyn is the second Lethem novel I’ve read, after The Fortress of Solitude, and I think it’s my favorite (perhaps because the subject matter of the other one didn’t appeal as much). It’s a detective novel, and a book I read for my mystery book group, which met last night. In a lot of ways, it’s a straightforward mystery, with murders and detectives and clues, etc. But the main character, Lionel, has Tourette’s, which means he’s not able to control his words and actions as a traditional detective might. I thought Lethem did a great job portraying what life with Tourette’s might be like (not that I know for sure, of course, but his depiction was convincing), and I was fascinated by how imaginative and fluent Lionel was with language. The problem, of course, was that he couldn’t control the outpouring of words, and this frequently got him into trouble. He’s an appealing character — a thoroughly unconventional detective who does the best he can in some difficult circumstances.

I also finished Terry Castle’s collection of essays The Professor and Other Writings, which was a little disappointing. Some of the early essays in the book were good, especially the one on Susan Sontag and another one her obsession with World War I. Other essays I didn’t quite get the point of, and the title essay is much too long, book-length, really, with not enough pay-off. The success of an essay collection comes down to voice, I think, and I was never quite won over by Castle’s.

And now I’m reading Ali Smith’s The Accidental, which has been very good so far. It tells a story from multiple points of view and follows the characters’ minds closely in a stream-of-consciousness style that captures their different experiences well. I can sometimes be put off by writing that seems labored or self-consciously poetic, and I postponed reading this book for a long time because I was afraid I would find that kind of writing here, but that hasn’t been the case at all.

Before I go, a quick note on cycling: since January 1st, I’ve done 11 rides with 410 miles total in over 26 hours on the bike. That’s perhaps one reason I haven’t posted here much!

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2011 wrap-up

I finished my last book of the year this morning, so it’s finally time to sit down and wrap things up. I read my highest number of books ever this year, 100 (as far as I know, since I haven’t been keeping track for long, but I doubt I ever read this much). This has been fun, although I’m not going to try to match the number in 2012. I usually read in the neighborhood of 60 or 70 books a year, and the number went up in part for two reasons: I counted audiobooks this year for the first time, and I read quite a lot of short books. But I only listened to seven audiobooks, so that doesn’t account for much, and I read some decently long books as well. A full 9% of my reading was the Little House series, though, and those books fly by.

But, whatever. My only resolution for 2012 is not to care about numbers so much (although I will still keep track) and to read whatever I please. So although it’s been fun reading fast (for me) this year, and not going to try to keep it up.

So, a breakdown:

  • Books read: 100
  • Fiction: 67
  • Nonfiction: 33 (I thought this percentage would be higher than last year, but it’s only higher by a little; last year I read about 30% nonfiction)
  • Poetry: 0 (I read part of a book that I didn’t finish)
  • Essays: 9
  • Biography/autobiography/letters: 16
  • Theory/criticism: 6
  • Short stories: 3
  • Mysteries: 11
  • Books in translation: 11

Gender breakdown:

  • Men: 28
  • Women: 68
  • Both:4

I’m usually very close to even between men and women, and I don’t know what made the difference this year. There were the nine Little House books, of course, but beyond that, it was just a matter of what I felt like reading at any particular moment (and the books chosen for book groups).

Nationalities:

  • Americans: 54
  • English: 20
  • Canadian: 5
  • French: 4
  • Irish: 4
  • Finnish: 2 (two books by Tove Jansson)
  • 1 book each by Czech, Egyptian, Nigerian, Scottish, Spanish, Swedish, Swiss, Trinidadian, Virgin Islander, and Welsh writers. Plus one book by authors from various nationalities.

Year of publication:

  • 17th century: 1
  • 18th: 1
  • 19th: 2 (yikes! these numbers are low)
  • First half of 20th century: 22
  • Second half of 20th century: 17
  • 2000s: 22
  • 2010-2011: 33
  • Various time periods: 2

This is way more contemporary writing than usual, 55% from the 21st century. I read a lot of review copies this year, which contributed to this.

Now a word about my riding this year. In a lot of ways, it was an off year for riding: I didn’t race much and I spent a lot of the year trying to get in shape after having fallen out of it. This happened partly for good reasons: my 3 1/2 week trip to Ireland and England was great but meant a lot of missed riding. There were also lost days because of my thyroid problem and because of bad weather, both last winter and this fall (hurricanes, blizzards).

BUT, 2011 is also my second highest mileage year ever, at 5,213 miles. My highest year was 2010 when I rode 6,597 miles, and 2009 is now my third highest when I reached 5,097. So, even though I was often riding slowly, I still rode a lot. I’ve kicked up the mileage in November and December in preparation for winter training and the March racing season, and if keep I my current pace up, I might break my mileage record in 2012. But that’s not a particular goal of mine. We’ll just have to see what happens.

I’d like to write a best-of 2011 list; I’ll be back to do that soon.

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Reading notes: Didion

Recently I picked up Joan Didion’s essay collection Slouching Toward Bethlehem because I needed a nonfiction book and was in the mood for some classic essays. And classic they were. I liked them so much I wanted to read more Didion right away, and as I had The Year of Magical Thinking on hand, I picked that up. It, too, was very, very good. I liked the essays better, by a little bit, but both books are great examples of Didion’s voice: clear, pared down, melancholy, implying rather than spelling things out. Both books are about loss, The Year of Magical Thinking most obviously as it tells the story of her husband’s death, but Slouching Toward Bethlehem is also about the loss of ideals and dreams in California, and sometimes in Didion’s own life. There is an elegaic tone to Didion’s writing, even when her topic isn’t obviously loss, but it’s never sentimental; instead it’s almost numb, reflecting her inability to change anything. She witnesses but has no power, except the power to write about what she sees.

Critics have written about the differences between The Year of Magical Thinking and Joyce Carol Oates’s own grief memoir A Widow’s Story, which I read earlier this year. But the entire time I was reading Didion, I kept thinking about the similarities between the two. The books have the same structure: they cover about a year’s worth of time after the husband’s death, they tell in great detail the story of the death itself, dwelling on and returning to the details of the death scene, trying to figure out how it could have happened. They tell of kind and not-so-kind friends who try to offer support, and of reading their husband’s writing in search of clues that might tell them something new about their lost one. They also are going through a traumatic experience from a place of great privilege: their husbands will get obituaries in famous newspapers and will be mourned by strangers and neither needs to worry about financial security. This makes a difference in some ways and in others it doesn’t: they are describing an experience many people have gone through or will, but theirs is not exactly a universal story. Still, both books offer much to think about — and to feel. If Oates’s book speaks more on an emotional level — and I was riveted by the raw emotion on the page as well as horrified by it — I admired Didion’s resolve not to accept comfort that violates long-held intellectual beliefs. She knows there is no God to create meaning out of her loss; all there is is change and all she can do is watch change as it happens.

I thought when I picked up The Year of Magical Thinking that reading Blue Nights right away might be more grief memoir than I could handle, but I don’t feel that way now. Reading two grief memoirs by Oates might be more than I can handle, but Didion is not such an emotionally raw writer. But I don’t have Blue Nights on hand, so that reading will wait until I find a copy somewhere.

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Very brief reviews

I’m not going to pretend to get caught up on reviews or review everything I’ve read lately, but I would like to say at least something about a few books I’ve finished recently.

  • The Laughing Policeman, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. I chose this book for my mystery book group and am glad I did, because I liked it very much and most of the members of my book group did as well. This is the fourth in what’s called the Martin Beck series, but Martin Beck is really just one of a group of characters and doesn’t stand out much more than the others. The book is dark, as one expects of Scandinavian crime fiction, and the writing is very good. I’m not sure how the authors divided up the writing, but whatever they did worked well. I liked the interaction among all the officers, and I thought the dark humor that runs throughout the book was great.
  • Maria Edgeworth’s Helen. This was a bit of a disappointment. It tells an interesting story and takes up some important themes of the early 19th century, but it’s too long, with too many digressions. The story is partly about the complicated friendship between Helen and Cecilia; Helen is your typical nearly-perfect heroine of early fiction, and Cecilia is charming and gracious but has a fatal flaw: when under pressure, she hides the truth about herself. This puts Helen in danger and threatens her potential marriage. The novel is also about unreasonable expectations (or at least I think they are unreasonable expectations — it’s hard to tell what Edgeworth’s stance is) placed on women to love one man only during the course of their lives. The social critique here is interesting, but the novel needed some serious editing.
  • William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. I really loved this book. James surveys a range of religious experiences, focusing on the personal rather than on the institutional aspects of religion. His approach is for the most part nonjudgmental; he wants to describe and understand rather than to judge. The basic idea he is working with is that our religious experiences stem from our individual psychological histories and that the many varieties of religious experience exist because humans have a wide range of religious needs. I valued most his tolerant and open-minded approach, as well as his very pragmatic idea that we should follow the religious practices and beliefs that suit our needs most.
  • Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. This book was so much fun! Before this, I had only read “The Lottery” by Jackson, and now I’m ready to read more. I loved Jackson’s use of point of view; she writes in the first person and uses it masterfully to slowly reveal information about the protagonist and her family — information that, as it turns out, is really bizarre. The book isn’t scary exactly, but it’s incredibly creepy, and it perfectly maintains that tone right through to the end. I’m looking forward to reading The Haunting of Hill House very much.

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How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read

I loved How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard, although I think I loved it as much for its tone and attitude as for the arguments it makes. I thought Bayard’s arguments were fascinating, if limited, but the real attraction was his way of saying things few others are willing to say (an attitude his title indicates well) and his refusal to take reading so terribly, terribly seriously. There was something very freeing about reading this book (and it’s not the fact that I now feel I can talk about books I haven’t read!).

The title is a little misleading, because even though Bayard says he is going to give advice about how to talk about books you haven’t read, he only does that occasionally. Mostly the book is a meditation on what it means to have read something and on how small and uncertain the difference is between having read something and not having read it. If you think about it, is it meaningful to say that you have read a book you don’t remember a thing about beyond its title? Isn’t it possible to know much more about a book that you have recently skimmed than one you read 20 years ago and have completely forgotten? Isn’t it possible that you could say something more insightful about a book you have read a review of and understand from an exterior, distanced point of view, than one you have read and in whose details you have lost yourself?

I’m not in the least interested in pretending to have read books I haven’t, but I realized as I read Bayard that I talk about books I haven’t read all the time: I do it in blog posts where I talk about what I want to read or why I bought particular books that are as yet unread. I recommend books I haven’t read to people I think might possibly like them (while admitting I haven’t read them), and I allude to books I haven’t read while I’m teaching class, in order to make some point about history or context. It’s this kind of book knowledge Bayard is interested in; he talks a lot about cultural literacy, which to him means knowledge of the ways books fit together, their relationships with one another and with their contexts. I can tell you something about a Trollope novel I haven’t read because I know a little about Trollope and a fair amount about the Victorian novel. I understand the context from which his novels come, and, for that matter, I know a lot about novels. If this is the kind of knowledge about books that matters, then actually having read the Trollope novel is kind of a minor detail.

I don’t buy that argument fully — it leaves little room for the actual content of books to surprise you after all — but it does seem true that just by surrounding yourself with bookish people and culture, you can absorb a whole lot of knowledge about books you will never pick up. A bigger problem with Bayard’s argument is that he nowhere acknowledges that reading books might actually be fun. I don’t read solely for the purpose of gaining the kind of cultural literacy he describes (especially now that I’m out of grad school); I read because I want the experience of being absorbed in a book.

But these disagreements aren’t what matter to me. What really matters is the fun of exploring the complexities of reading. Bayard deconstructs the reading/nonreading distinction, but he also undermines the very notion of a book, or rather, he makes up a whole bunch of “books” in addition to the actual book you hold in your hand. Because as soon as you have finished reading a book, you immediately construct your own version of it, a “book” that is only a little bit like what you have read. Every reader brings to books a certain history, capacity, and set of interests that shape how they make sense of them, which means the books they read are a little (or a lot) different than other people’s readings of the exact same books. So when we talk about books, we are really talking about entirely different things: I’m talking about my book and you are talking about yours, no matter whether the words we read are the same or not.

So, given that logic, why not talk about books you haven’t read? One excellent point Bayard makes is that readers should lose the shame they feel about unread books. In fact, any reader’s relationship with books is primarily one of not having read them, since we can only read a very small percentage of all the books out there. Not only that, but our relationship with books we have read is one of loss: once we stop reading, our “inner” book becomes a separate thing from the book itself, and we immediately start the process of forgetting. The small percentage of what we remember, out of the tiny percentage of what we have actually read, leaves us with not a whole lot.

These arguments don’t strike me as all that original; if you’ve studied philosophy or literary theory or just thought deeply about reading they won’t be particularly surprising. But Bayard does a great job of making the ideas fun. The book makes an interesting pairing with Alan Jacobs’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction; they seem like very different books in many ways, one urging us to read for pleasure and the other not even acknowledging that pleasure in reading exists. But both urge a certain freedom in our reading, whether it’s the freedom to read at whim, or freedom from the shame we feel at not having read things. Reading is a serious endeavor, yes, but we could all stand to lighten up a bit.

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Currently Reading

It’s a rainy Friday night here in Connecticut; I spent much of the day grading papers, but the evening is free, and I plan to do some reading ASAP. I also have a book-buying spree to look forward to on Sunday, when Hobgoblin and I will head out with our special book-buying friends to see what we can find. We will be looking in the Northampton, Massachusetts, area, which seems to have a good number of stores, and I hope to come home with some good things.

I don’t think I ever wrote about seeing Jonathan Franzen and Colson Whitehead a couple weekends ago. It was a book signing at McNally-Jackson bookstore in Manhattan; there was no reading or talk, so I only had brief moment to see the two of them, but it was fun. They both looked tired, which isn’t too surprising as they were both involved in the New Yorker Festival and were at the end of a busy weekend. But both were friendly. Meeting Franzen was a little strange, though, because after he finished signing the book and I was ready to go on my way, he kept looking at me as though he expected me to say something. As I’ve written here recently, I’m too shy to say much to authors at these things, and I just wanted to go, but I had this strange feeling I was disappointing him somehow. Was I supposed to tell him how awesome I think he is? I’m not sure, and I’m probably making it up, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed to find some awesome line with which to make my exit. Instead, I just kept smiling and left.

After that, Hobgoblin and I headed over to the fabulous Three Lives bookstore, where I bought Alan Jacobs’s book and also one called The Art of Time in Memoir by Sven Birkerts. It’s part of what looks like a wonderful “Art of…” series by Graywolf Press. There were several I wanted. Okay, I wanted the whole series. Then we hit the Partners in Crime just a couple blocks away, where I bought the next Mary Russell book A Letter of Mary.

So, uh, I guess I don’t really need to go on a book-buying trip this Sunday. Except, of course, that I do.

For now, I’m in the middle of listening to The Given Day by Dennis Lehane on audio. It’s been totally awesome to listen to. This is my first Lehane, and I’m sure it won’t be my last. It’s historical fiction, set in Boston, mostly, in the years after World War I, and it’s a satisfyingly long tale with great characters, dramatic action, and a fascinating historical backdrop. This is the kind of historical fiction I like, I guess, where there’s a strong sense of context that’s developed in a natural, convincing way and fully-fleshed out characters that get caught up in their historical moment but don’t feel like they are there only to make a point.

I’m also slowly reading William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, which I’ve had on my shelves for ages. It’s quite good, it turns out. I was worried that it might be a little dull, a little too predictable in its structure, and that I might feel as though I were plodding through one variety of religious experience after another. But James’s tone and style are wonderful. I didn’t realize this until recently, but the book is a transcript of lectures he gave, and so his tone is a little bit on the informal side of things and his descriptions and images are great. What I like most is his compassionate tone. What he wants is to understand, not to judge, and he is wonderful at explaining the psychological sources of a whole range of religious behavior, without dismissing the mysterious, spiritual, divine aspect of it.

I am also in the middle of the novel Zeina by Nawal El Saadawi, an Egyptian writer. But more on that later. I hope you have a wonderful weekend everyone!

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The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

Full disclosure: a former professor of mine wrote this book, and it was a professor I liked very much, so I suppose I’m biased. But I’m quite sure I would have liked this book anyway, and I did like it very much. My guess is that book bloggers who like books about books and reading will enjoy it as well, since it touches on a lot of topics that get debated on blogs: how to choose what to read next, how best to do that reading, “serious” reading vs. reading purely for pleasure, the value (or lack thereof) of keeping lists and making reading plans, the danger of technology pulling us away from our reading. This book is also great for anyone who feels uncertain about their reading choices and abilities. I want to recommend it to all the people I can think of (and it’s a lot of people, including many students, and including, sometimes, myself) who have ever expressed a doubt about their status as a reader. My guess is that it will make them feel much better.

What I liked best about this book is how successfully it makes recommendations and gives advice without coming across as preachy or judgmental. Jacobs has very definite opinions on things, but I got the feeling that he would not mind a little disagreement. His main argument is that you should read at whim and that pleasure in reading should be your first goal. He also believes that you should mark up the book as you read — or at least you should if it’s something more complex than a thriller that’s not meant to be analyzed that closely. You shouldn’t worry about reading a lot of books; in fact, he believes you’re probably reading too fast and should slow down. He strongly dislikes books such as How to Read a Book, and 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die because they encourage the mindset of reading only in order to cross something off a list. Rereading is very much a good thing.

But the tone that comes across is warm and generous, not scolding. (In fact, while I was in the middle of reading the book, I tweeted something about being absorbed in it but allowing myself a Twitter distraction now and then, making a little joke about his title, and he tweeted back, “It’s allowed!”) Mostly, he just wants people to enjoy their reading and to read exactly what they want to, because that’s the practice that will make reading meaningful and take the reader in unknown and exciting directions. To complicate the reading for pleasure idea, he talks about whim vs. Whim. Lowercase whim is “thoughtless, directionless preference that almost invariably leads to boredom or frustration or both.” Uppercase Whim, however, “can guide us because it is based in self-knowledge.” We learn, over time and by paying attention to our own responses and feelings, what it is we really want from books. We figure out when we want something challenging and difficult and when we want to reread an old favorite or to pick up a book we won’t have to think about too much. We figure out when to put down a book that isn’t working for us or to keep at it because we might come to like it later, or even because we think we might want to reread it in ten years and appreciate it only then. Reading for pleasure is not a simple thing — pleasure itself is not a simple thing.

One of my favorite sections of the book is on serendipity, the unplanned, unexpected discoveries when you read at whim and let accident guide you:

Fortuity happens, but serendipity can be cultivated. You can grow in serendipity. You can even become a disciple of serendipity. In the literature of the Middle Ages, we see reverence for the goddess Fortuna — fortune, chance — and to worship her is a religious way of shrugging: an admission of helplessness, an acknowledgment of all that lies beyond our powers of control. But in the very idea of serendipity is a kind of hope, even an expectation, that we can turn the accidents of fortune to good account, and make of them some knowledge that would have been inaccessible to us if we had done no more than find what we were looking for. Indeed, it may be possible not only to cultivate the sagacity but also the accidents. It may be possible, and desirable, to actively put yourself in the way of events beyond your control.

This is a philosophy of life as much as it is of reading, and I like it very much on both accounts. It can be wonderful when reading — or life — takes you in unexpected directions  (it’s much less risky when it’s reading we’re talking about, though), and it seems worthwhile to strive to be the kind of person who can take full advantage of, and indeed to seek out, the accidental.

Jacobs says his book is aimed toward people who find themselves struggling to read because of the lure of technology and their inability to concentrate after too much time spent multitasking, skimming websites, and following links. He does have a lot to say about this problem, but his potential audience is actually much wider: it’s anybody who likes to think about reading. It’s a book that will inspire you, I think, and inspire you not to read like Jacobs does, necessarily, but to figure out how to read like yourself.

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