Saturday, September 24, 2011

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Growing Out of It

My summer at McSweeney's gave me the chance to write a book review for The Rumpus, Stephen Elliot's great literary website. I reviewed Stuart Nadler's debut story collection, The Book of Life. It's a fine book, perfectly suited to the coming of autumn. You can find the review here.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

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Seize the Day

I've been keeping a list of the books I've read this year. This wasn't a New Year's resolution; I'm not that kind of person. It was just one of those things you try, born of equal parts hope and cynicism: the hope that this will be the breakthrough year of personal efficiency and well-being; cynicism that no such year is possible, and that's why it's better to just try things instead of making resolutions. Because the thing about resolutions is that only you can enforce them, the worst conflict of interest out there.

So anyways, after finishing Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet yesterday, I did a quick tally and found that I'd just finished my seventeenth book of the year. What to make of this number? Some dimly-recalled statistic made me fairly confident that I was already well-ahead of the average book-reading American, but this is like being ahead of the average Alaskan in days I've been outside shirtless. And besides, this really isn't a competitive matter for me, at least not with others. It's just that I think of myself as someone who reads and writes; does that type of person only read seventeen books a year?

There's a few ways of considering this number. One is that I am a patently slow reader. I get distracted by noise, I usually annotate as I read, and I am apt to spend close to an hour on a paragraph I don't understand. Another consideration is that, with few exceptions, I was reading long, difficult books this year: meaty Bellow steaks like Humboldt's Gift and Herzog; Michael Chabon's 600-odd page Kavalier and Clay; James McPhersons's weighty Civil War history Battle Cry of Freedom; and, the big kicker, Ulysses. Currently, for fun, I'm working on Arthur Schlesinger's 900-page biography of Bobby Kennedy, and this while trying to write a thesis and keep up with readings for class. Even the slimmer books this year tended to be either dense (Kant's Prolegomena; Mr. Sammler) or ponderous (Sartre's Nausea; Kafka's Amerika). And I spent two months of the summer living in close quarters with my young cousins, an altogether joyful experience except for the grim forecast it gave me of parenthood's effects on reading.

Still, I'm disquieted by the number seventeen. Including readings for school, it looks like I'll finish the year having read about 25 books, 30 if I really hum along. The disquiet has two sources: first, I can easily rattle off seventeen books sitting around my room that I've bought in the last two years. How long will they sit unread? The Recognitions; Montaigne's Essays; Rabbit, Redux; Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams; all the presidential biographies my dad urges me to read: will another year pass without these getting their fair share?

The second cause of unease is related: in looking back over my year of reading as it enters its autumn, I think of time wasted, of nights sacrificed to college football or a desire for eight hours' sleep or Entourage or mindless Internet surfing or just plain sitting around, and I start adding up the pages that those hours might have traversed...

To be a reader is in some sense to act out a comic microcosm of life. How much more urgency we ought to feel as time slips along! But I suppose one of the functions of great literature is to forgive this sort of profligacy; that's one reason I read. And besides, there's always next year.

Friday, September 2, 2011

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Divine Comedy

Two wonderfully funny passages from Elif Batuman's sublime piece on Florence's Dante Marathon, in the current issue of Harper's (I would include a link, but it's restricted access):

"In the shimmering golden evening, for old times' sake, Marilena and I walked past the house where Dostoevsky had lived while he was in Florence. Dostoevsky had an awful time in Florence. No matter where he went, he was always Dostoevsky."

"Dante goes to the afterworld, and everyone is there: Homer, Moses, Judas, Jesus, Brunetto Latini, Beatrice, all the thousand and one douchebags of Florence."