Saturday, May 7, 2022

All That Glisters

“And a step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction.”
― Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano 

I knew a girl who couldn't back up. She would circle blocks to avoid parking anywhere she couldn't drive straight into and out again. It was a problem. I was only in her car because she occasionally gave me a ride so I wasn't in a position to complain. Seemed reasonable enough to me at the time. Looking back, I will admit it was strange, but what did I know? I didn't learn to drive until I was thirty-five. I've no idea if the issue was mechanical, psychological, or something entirely other. She didn't explain and I didn't ask. Around and around we would go until there was just the right spot to stop. Meanwhile we smoked and talked and had a lovely time. I also remember scraping ice off the inside of her windshield so she could see. Didn't question that either. People entirely dependent on others for transportation do well to pitch in when and where they may. Nobody made me get in the car. I was just glad of the lift.

Always glad of a lift.

Now the established wisdom is that there are just two types of readers: them what always finishes what they've started, and... the rest of us. The first hesitate to start any book they may not finish but once begun, good or bad, they read on to the end. "You must go on. I can't go on. I'll go on." The other type stops whenever and wherever we please and may or may not ever see the end. I don't personally know anyone over the legal drinking age who still subscribes to the first rule. As for the latter sort, myself included, the reality tends to be more complicated. 

Lots of reasons to not read lots of books. Many things are simply not to my taste: woodworking, team sports, science fiction, the out of doors, heterosexuality, beets -- though I may or may not have had a go at one or more of the things on that list. I wouldn't say never to anything but the last two, though I am willing to concede that I may yet be moved to try beets again if the preparation looks specially good. I would certainly be willing to read a book about beets if the reviews were uniformly positive and or a friend told me I "simply must." There is still the possibility always, at least when it comes to books. Even excluding the authors and books I am sure I will never read again, I like to think "Barkis is willing" should the right proposal come my way. Not married to anything though -- other than the beloved husband of course.

Old Samuel Johnson shocked his young Boswell by not finishing every book he read. In his defense, Sam willingly read nearly anything to get the sense of it, or as much of it as he could stand, but having done so, more often than not he was done. This is not a young man's argument, nor should it be. Youth requires diligence. Young people may not know all of which they are capable, may be made to try hard things from algebra to auxiliary verbs, and may or may not benefit from the lessons they are made to make. Compulsion probably isn't be the best way to teach, but it can be the only way to make a boy wash or read Silas Marner. As neither a parent nor a teacher it's none of my business. The only thing I am now prepared to make a child do is leave the room. What constitutes a reasonable length of time to listen to a five year old-- say, fifteen minutes? Mommy's trying to play cards, honey. Go play in the dirt. Don't want to be traumatic, or thought inhospitable by anyone who may have to drive me to appointments someday. As to books, I'm with Sam. As I no longer serve on any committees or write reviews as such, I can't really be made to read anything anymore. I think that fine. With that freedom comes the ancillary good of reading any book only so long as I like it.

So it is that I too now start far more books than I will ever finish, just as I probably buy more books than I will ever have time to read. The willingness is all. (Also? Apparently scientific studies show that book hoarders live longer -- unless and until we are crushed beneath the unsorted weight of our "to be read" stacks. Worth the risk I say.) Where Sam read largely for sense, I have less elevated expectations and read mostly for style. Great novelists for example are seldom first rate philosophers. (And in my experience most first rate philosophers tend to be less than stellar stylists, at least by the standards of the other muses. Ever laughed at a joke in Aristotle? Found a bon mot in Wittgenstein? Hume's reasoning tends to be more elegant than his sentences, etc.) I prefer to read what I would never say so well. Someone may have already written something so elegant, so perfectly said about beets that I will not only wish I'd thought of it but may also be moved to try borscht again.

A better question than why don't I finish every book I read would be what makes me read a book to the end, and again there isn't just the one answer. Sometimes it's story, or again style, more often than either it is the author. This will seem a shallow response, but honestly, I need to like the author. Don't misunderstand me: I needn't like all the characters, or even the protagonist -- does anybody "like" Bellow's Herzog? I admit that the last time I tried Middlemarch I found Dorothea Brooke every bit as maddening as her first husband. But who can read Shuggie Bain and not be glad to have met Douglas Stuart? Anyone who can read Nicholas Nickleby and not come to love the man who made it is, in my opinion somehow deficient as a human being. But that's just me. You might love Louisa May Alcott or Isaac Asimov. To each his, her, or their own. All I can say is that to finish a book I must not dislike it's author. I am willing to be bored a little, disagree a great deal, I can even allow for an uncomfortable level of bewilderment on my part. I must respect the writer's work if not always their intent, but ultimately I must like the author's company or why keep it? 

Just here I feel it necessary to say a word in defense of difficult books. I do not avoid or abandon books because they are hard and neither should you (huff puff.) The fashion of the day is that all books are equal and just seeing someone read "an actual book" ought to bring hosannas from the congregation. It seems reading books is not just a good but good for us -- like leafy greens twice a day -- and it matters not a bit what grown people choose to read. Evidently there isn't anything creepy anymore about middle aged persons who exclusively read novels with heroic teenagers as the protagonists, likewise dragons, faeries, witches, magic, and Sailor Moon. We are instructed not to judge adults uninterested in reading about other adults. Likewise adults who use "adult" as a verb. As a bookseller I do not judge what people read, so long as they buy. As a reader? Not all books are meant to be easy, just as not all art is best seen on a t-shirt, or music judged by how catchy the tune. (Remember "easy listening" radio? Shiver. That's how most YA reads to me.) I did not recently read the latest book from Paul Muldoon because he is my favorite poet --  because he isn't. My best poet-friend likes him. Good enough for me. I don't know that I will ever entirely understand up to what Muldoon is, nor do I feel that I need to. I am not a poet. I read him because what he does is interesting at least in large part because I don't entirely understand it. Also? He made me feel things. Some of the images were gorgeous. That seems to me plenty. I read all sorts of nonfiction for the reading of which I am not fully qualified: philosophy, history, even a little simple physics. I want to know what I can even if I never know all that I might or ought. And I sometimes read dense and difficult prose not because I think it improving, but because there can be more to it than the effort required. Hard books can be as good or bad as the easy ones. To ignore the difficult ones seems to me weak-minded and to ignore the seemingly simple, pompous. I'm still trying to avoid being either, when and where I can.

 Avoiding difficult books isn't the same as avoiding difficult people. Some complex ideas require more words. Some art requires more effort. Some books invite argument, but unlike actual people, when and if they grow tedious books can be put right back in their place. Perfectly acceptable to tell a book to shut the fuck up. Can't hurt a book's feelings. There have been many mad and even dangerous books well worth reading, well worth the time taken. (Not so in my experience with mad and dangerous people, particularly on buses.) It's true that I most often now read familiar authors, and have grown comfortable with an older style of English, but I don't read only the books I already know and I don't read just to be reassured in my opinions, or to escape my reality, or to imagine what my life might have been but isn't. All perfectly legitimate reasons to read, but not to the exclusion of all else on offer, and not to the exclusion of reality, of life. I read for my livelihood, my life, and for more of life, not to avoid it. I do not understand wanting to feel as one felt at sixteen (who are these people who enjoyed being teenagers?!) and I don't understand not wanting to be a grown person. I don't understand not wanting to think and feel and be who I am. There's nothing very special to being me, but being me now is certainly better than being me was at sixteen. I might regret the state of me, but not the fact. I did at sixteen, poor child. I don't regret the effort, even if I am not always confident in the result. I am smarter now than I was then, and a good part of that has come to me because of reading better books as I went along, and not all of them easy.

I do not now understand reading not to know more, not to be made to think. Wait. Backup. that's not true. Of course I do, but that is primarily what television is for. (Are you watching Season Four of The Circle?! Can't wait for new episodes to drop.)

"What is written without effort is generally read without pleasure," said Johnson. I recognize the effort expended to write the text for Harold and the Purple Crayon -- a work of genius in my opinion -- but a case has, can and should be made just as easily for why one ought to read The Golden Bowl, and or the letters of Charles Lamb, or On the Origins of Species, or Jurgen Habermas. I would argue that all good authors are trying to communicate as directly as they can ideas that may require language other than familiar words of one syllable. I would hope that adult readers are up to conversations they couldn't have with their kids and would want to explore ideas and feelings they couldn't share in an Instagram post. (I suspect that this may be part of the "adulting" about which so many now complain, to which I can only say, "Oh please, a toddler can't even order a drink and most teenagers don't even know enough to eat oysters or watch black and white movies. Enjoy your privilege, people.")

That said, reading Jurgen Habermas was a muthafucka. For me anyway. I don't remember now why I felt obliged but I did so I tried. Unlike the mystical kerfuffle of the French post-structuralists so popular in my youth, at least the German wrote actual prose. Couldn't blame the translation either. What I got from Habermas was had only with hard work, but the fault for anything I missed was mine; my lack of education, my lack of disciple, etc. And no, I never read a whole book by the esteemed philosopher end to end. Nevertheless I still remember most of what I did read, particularly his essay, "Modernity versus Postmodernity" and the encouragement it gave me, and that it made me read on.

I don't feel bad about never finishing The Theory of Communicative Action. You can if you like. I don't feel bad in suggesting it was nonetheless a better use of my time than reading yet another serial killer book, another cozy, another story of a twelve year old come to save the world. Your time's your own, of course. Mine feels too short for too steady a diet of pap, or counting the books I've read in a year, or expecting to be admired to for arranging my books on the shelf by color. Again, who does that?!


Here's what happened. I had picked up a big new book, recently translated and publish for the first time in English. Looked good. I read the reviews and three short chapters. All good. Why not for the book club? It was certainly big enough. Worth considering. Unlike the earlier selections for my Big Fat Book Club, I thought we might try something different, a new book by a contemporary writer in translation  rather than a classic. Then unfortunately, as we came to the end of Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, I had another bright idea. Why not read the book together for the first time? 

This was not a bright idea. As it turned out, this was very dim idea indeed.

The Book Club has my name on it. I host the virtual meetings. I select the books. We have three months to read or reread each book. I reread and collect supplemental materials for each meeting. I try to provide history, context, hopefully a good time had by all. Not everyone who signs up or signs on sticks around. True of all book clubs, as I understand it. I get it. Book clubs are like extramarital affairs, it's all very exciting at first, but interest may wane over time and a thousand+ page side-piece in addition to one's other reading can start to feel a lot like eating Christmas dinner twice. "Go! I know you have to spend time with your real family. So I roasted a turkey and made cranberry sauce from scratch, go, enjoy your store-bought pie." (I should also mention, strange as it still seems to me to say, that my Book Club is free! It was just a couple of months ago that I first learned that people can and do earn a living doing this sort of thing online. Seriously?!?! Who knew? Not to worry, loyal members. Keepin' my day-job.) 

So. I chose a book and nobody liked it. Backup. That's not entirely true. At least one of my regulars seems to have enjoyed what she'd read of the book so far. In fact, I think she may have enjoyed it more than me. By the time our first meeting rolled around, I'd read better than five hundred of the nearly nine hundred pages of the book. I did not hate it. Others did. Which is not to say that I liked it.

It was not for want of  novelist's gifts. "Life had slipped between her fingers like squandered flour." That's lovely -- and kudos to the translator as well. The structure of the novel was more piled than planned, but nothing daunting. Of plot there was none but again, for this at least I was prepared, and prepared to defend it. Not every great novel tells a compelling story. Some tell several stories, some more interesting than others, usually united by a theme, a family, a place. Ivo Andric's The Bridge on the Drina comes first to mind. This I thought would be one of those. There was much of a history with which I was too little familiar. Easily addressed with a computer. I was ready to defend nearly all of the author's choices -- at first. The thing for which I was not prepared was the meagerness of emotion. There wasn't much affection for the family from which the novel was made, seemingly the author's own. The women had the worst of it, despite being the nearest to the narrator's life. There was a very deliberate reserve, a cold objectivity even when describing the grandmother who had raised the protagonist, presumably the novelist himself. A point was being made (and made, and made again,) about the transience of memory, affection, history. Got it. The writing could be very good, even beautiful, but the book was ultimately off-putting. Perhaps that was the intent? If so, it succeeded too well, at least with me and the majority of the Book Club. 

For me the break came after a long chapter detailing the decline and death of the narrator's mother. Evidently a difficult woman. The son does what he can to care for her needs, but there was no sense that the author cared much for the woman at all. He flatly refuses the idea that she was capable of loving her son. Describing in vivid, sometimes crude, even cruel detail the mother's suffering, the author tells us that this inconvenienced rather moved him. He tells us her death changed him not at all. The mother's irrationality, her anger, her contradictions, her howling regrets, her pain comes to nothing. It seems that even her prolonged and hideous death was just something that happened. He wasn't there. No reason to be. As the novelist made the choice to be the central character in his novel, it became impossible to not think the author, however talented, and by his own admission, had been a bit of a shit. He is quick to point out that this is not something he regrets. Just the way things are. Not everybody loves their mother. Not every mother deserves the devotion of her children. Half way through the book it seemed to me that perhaps nobody's mother, and certainly not his, deserves such a kicking, particularly when followed by a shrug.

It is an odd choice to make so big a book, a book with so many characters and with so many stories, and then make everyone in it a cypher. That seems a grim reading of family history, and of history as well. It also felt false, his indifference, more an affectation than a fact. Really? Nine hundred pages that would seem to come to nothing? Was one meant to admire his doggedness in writing so much and so well about places and people and a country he can't quite bring himself to regret? All one ultimately knows of these otherwise forgotten men and women, long or recently dead, are just the few scraps the writer has recovered; his own incomplete memories, a bit of family lore, and the unsatisfactory answers he had from his mother. To distract her from her pain and complaints in their last conversations, he asked her to talk about the past. This chapter, like the character of the mother proved exhausting without being very interesting. That seems unnecessarily cruel. There might be more to all of this, if anyone could be bothered to look, but why would they? He hadn't much. Even at nine hundred pages it all seems strangely grudging. He ends most of his family stories by telling the reader that such stories, such people, don't really matter all that much to anyone but him and then only to extent that somehow a book must be made of this. He's made a book because it is his to make and he, if you hadn't noticed, is a famous novelist. That seems to matter even if the rest doesn't much. It is only this novel, his writing of it, that justifies even the events described in greater detail. He isn't what's become of the largely forgotten generations before him so much as he is the only reason they still exist at all and only because they are the sorry stuff with which he has to work. Even the history of his troubled homeland seems little more than another stone about his stiff neck. In the end I realized that I didn't dislike the book so much as I did the man for writing it. That's not good. Backup. Time to get out. Time to walk away.

Was it a bad book? Certainly not. Difficult? Yes, but not bad, just a bad choice. 

If I'd been reading the book for any reason other than for my Book Club I would have quit sooner and frankly would never have given the novel and the novelist another thought. Happens all the time. Nobody's fault, just not for me. But I'd already told other people to read it. I realized that I'd broken trust. Nothing for it but to apologize and pick another.

So that's what I did. 

All of this happened to be happening while I was away from the bookstore where I work, far away for a solid month, at least in part to mourn the death of my young nephew. Perhaps if I hadn't been with family of my own I might not have had such an unpleasantly visceral reaction to so big a book about a family for which the novelist seemed determined to make no one including himself care. Bad timing if nothing worse. 

If I've learned nothing else in my life, I have at least learned how to reverse.

And because I am not someone who can travel with just one book, I had the good sense to bring other books with me. The place where I'm from is not known for books or bookstores. I packed two books of poetry, acquired three mysteries along the way, and in a very last minute decision I included an inexpensive edition of what many still insist is the greatest novel of all time. 

"All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Trust me, I know how this one ends.

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