(Keep Calm and) Carry-on Reading

Something old, something older and something new. Not in that order.

Something old, something older and something new. Not in that order. 

Yes, I still read real books on planes. And everywhere else, for that matter. 

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Best of 2011

It’s more than half way through January and as usual, I’m behind. I considered skipping this post altogether, as many of my favorite books from 2011 appeared on this blog when I read them, or shortly thereafter. I also don’t remember what I read in 2011 very well.  My chronology is wonky and unreliable, and I can only be sure of a few general and thematic things:

I can think more easily of authors than of titles. I know I read oh so many books that broke my heart. I also know that if you spoke to me at all last year, had a single conversation with me longer than 30 seconds, there’s a strong chance that I declared my passionate love for Joan Didion. I read her novel Play It As It Lays at some point early in 2011. I fell in love with that book, and then fell further in love with Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I’d read a little Didion before and liked it, but I’d never read her the way I read her this year: intensely, voraciously, patiently. And impatiently. I read an advanced manuscript copy of her new memoir, Blue Nights before it was released this fall. I finished it in the middle of the night, reading with a flashlight, feeling stunned.

I dressed up the day that I worked our bookstore’s event with her. I was giddy about meeting her and hearing her speak. I told her so. She thanked me. I’m still a bit giddy. 

Joan Didion, from Steve Pyke

I think that Joan Didion is one of the best writers alive today. I think her work will be read for centuries. I had a conversation the other day about Sylvia Plath, and whether or not she should be called a minor, rather than a major poet. My friend said (I’m paraphrasing) that she thinks of Plath (on whom she wrote her dissertation) as a minor poet, mostly because she is so distinctly tied to her time, rather than being simultaneously timely and timeless. I think Didion is timely and timeless. I think that she is a writer for whom writing gets harder the better she gets at it. I think that she uses language like a knife, and the more adept she becomes, the thinner and sharper her blade and the more elusive her quarry. I cannot imagine a more terrifying blank page than the one that faces Joan Didion when she begins to write, and I think you can sense that in the deep, oceanic rhythm of her prose, so propulsive and beautiful, haunting and incisive, lyrical and fear-defying. I have trouble thinking of another writer who speaks to me as profoundly as Didion does.  

That being said, I did read a few other things this year. Mostly poetry. Well, that’s a lie — I read a lot of poetry, but I read many other things too. A breakdown by genre seems like a good idea, so…

Fiction: I loved Olga Grushin’s The Dream Life of Sukhanov and Jennifer Egan’s  A Visit from the Goon SquadI was swept away by Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion, and entranced (and horrified, as usual) by Iris Murdoch’s The Nice and the Good and The Bell. I think I owe a lot to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstickwhich I read early last winter and which cracked through a string of reading failures with tragic hilarity and misshapen affection. 

I reread Sarah Waters’ novel The Nightwatch, Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater! and Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth.  I highly recommend reading The Phantom Tollbooth aloud to yourself whenever you’re in need of buoying up.

I also read a quite a few essays. I was enchanted by  Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, whose final line (“If I could start over today, I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or the universe, I still think that’s where we’re going to find them.”) tolled in my head throughout the past month and a half of struggling with graduate school applications. I wrote a staff recommendation for Anna Politkovskaya’s final collected writings, Is Journalism Worth Dying for?, perhaps the most important and most difficult book I read last year. I discovered the great pleasures of M.F.K Fisher and Wendell Berry.

I’ve never had a year where I’ve thought more about how I want to live my life, so it’s more than appropriate that one of my favorite books of the year was Sarah Bakewell’s biography, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. I also spent several weeks with Hermione Lee’s excellent biography of Virginia Woolf (by far the longest book I read this year) and weird and hilarious train ride with Shirley Jackson’s Life Among the Savages.

This year was my introduction to graphic novels, and thanks to the hand-selected choices of a terrifically knowledgeable and generous friend, I’m probably hooked for life. Many of my favorite books this year have really important graphic elements. I had my heart broken by Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls and David Mazzucchelli’s gorgeous graphic novel Asterios Polyp. I had it repaired by Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty, by the fun I’ve had reading The Unwritten series, and by bathing it in oodles and oodles of poetry. Granted, I read some pretty heartbreaking poetry, but something about poetry repairs your heart even as it splits it open. 

I read more Szymborksa, discovered Bob Hicok and Jack Gilbert, returned to Frank O’Hara and A.R. Ammons, and stumbled across Katherine Larsen’s excellent Radial Symmetry, the poems of Nick Flynn, the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, and Olena Kalytiak Davis.  

So, in summary, 2011’s Absolute Best: Joan Didion, The Dream Life of Sukhanov, Asterios Polyp, Bob Hicok, and A.R. Ammons. Absolute, absolute best? Didion and Hicok. I’ll leave you with this:

Some things that come together in coming apart

How stuck am I on the polar ice caps
now that they’re not so much there as historical
novels people pretend to have read
but really, who has the time? Like it’s haveable,
time, like we can stop driving ourselves
to the market and crazy soon enough
to have anything left to claim for England. Melting things
on that scale beats the yo-yo I stoved to goo
and a spanking, someone
needs to come along and send us to bed
without supper. In our defense
we’re stupid, gullible, smelly, we’re not
stupid, that was mean and categorical,
we’re wired and emblazoned and impressed
by the singing of birds who are merely
shuttling air from one spot to another, holding it
as we do each other in a waltz
to let it go further on, where it must fend
for itself. These bits of song-air
and dance are changed forever, everything
is changed forever all the time, I’m not here,
I’m up ahead, running with my arms thrown back
to embrace how mild life seemed
when I first noticed light coming to rest
on my mother’s face. Creatures
who generally have trouble with story problems
may not be the organisms one should ask
to anticipate global warming. A car
about to to be started in Poughkeepsie
is the tipping point, after that, all is fire
and water, all is lost: do you
shoot the driver, learn the backstroke,
enjoy long walks into the high ground?
I keep returning to the ice caps,
their vast calvings in my mind, TV stars
of our dissolution, my head
thunderous and cold and too small
for their wounds but well-suited
to my hair. The debate as I understand it:
it’s too late, it’s not too late. Smart people
agree we’re not that smart. Here are clouds again,
telling me they make this up as they go.
If we don’t owe it to ourselves to fix
what we’ve broken, we owe it to ponies.
That was manipulative, but I love ponies,
how they let our children
ride them in circles with helmets on in case
the circles fall.

~ Bob Hicok

Literary Meals

A week or so ago, Litlove over at Tales from the Reading Room wrote a post titled “Reading At Table,” about the importance of the meal throughout literature, and about the depth of analysis and criticism which can be applied to the interpretation of literary dining scenes. Her aim is in part to criticize the author of How To Read Like a Professor, who wrote that literary meals can be viewed as communion, as evidence that all of the characters eating together are getting along, but who didn’t extend his analysis beyond this point. Litlove writes

Eating a meal in a literary text is indeed an example of people coming together with an eye to communal harmony, but it’s a great deal more than that. It tells us about the characters’ relationship to the way that things are changing in society…to their class…to pride and pretension, to generosity and nurture. Because eating a meal is the moment when public and private collide, where hidden desires are played out in a performative manner, where upbringing rubs up dangerously close to the person the protagonist is now trying to be…power relations structure every mouthful, from hosts who press excess booze on their guests, to anorexics who refuse every forkful they are given. Yes, meals are absolutely dripping with meaning, and the difficulty is in finding one that would ‘only’ be a meal, where nothing much is happening at all.

Her writing reminded me of discussing banquet and dinner scenes in some of my upper division literature courses in college, where we certainly went far beyond the “meals as communion” thesis in our analysis. Since reading her post, I’ve been mulling over some of my favorite meal scenes in literature, and I thought I’d share a few of them with you.

Macbeth, Act III.4

The banquet scene in Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy is probably the first “dining” scene that springs to mind when I think of famous examples throughout literature. There’s Macbeth, newly king, coming together with his thanes to celebrate his rise to the crown and to symbolically consolidate his power and witness their pledges of loyalty. But even while he’s welcoming his guests, the happy host is also dashing off to a corner of the stage to speak to one of the thugs he hired to murder Banquo and Fleance. He even invokes Banquo’s absence (“Here had we now our country’s honor roofed/ Were the graced person of our Banquo present”). And as if to throw these false words back in his face, the ghost of Banquo arrives on stage, and Macbeth, seeing his “gory locks,” and bloody visage, goes completely nuts, screaming at his thanes and yelling at the ghost that no one else can see.

Lady Macbeth tries to keep the peace, moving between assuaging her dinner guests (“Sit worthy friends. My lord is often thus,/ And hath been from his youth) and rallying her husband back from his vision to the matters at hand by verbally assaulting his masculinity (“Are you a man?”). I remember speaking in a middle school class about whether or not the ghost of Banquo should really appear on stage in this scene, or whether Macbeth should simply react as if he is there. Though I think the class was divided, since then I’ve never seen a production where the ghost didn’t physically appear on stage (as indeed, the stage directions indicate quite clearly he should). In the Macbeth I saw in London in May, Banquo’s body rose out of the platter of food set in the middle of the stage, his bloody hand reaching out of the roast boar, followed by his even bloodier torso.

This scene is a great example of a meal gone wrong – – everything the gathering was meant to accomplish (establishment of good feeling and loyalty between Macbeth and his thanes, a chance for his subjects to see the strength of the Macbeths’ marriage, their generosity as hosts, and even the simple mealtime goal of strengthening health through nourishment) backfires completely. Macbeth acts like an insane man; Lady Macbeth has to send all of the guests home; she herself has to wonder at her husband’s behavior, shut out completely from his experience of Banquo’s ghost. By the end of the scene, the initial charged and ambitious intimacy of their marriage has been irreparably damaged, both of their sanities brought closer to the edge, their fears and paranoia heightened, and their hopes of securing the unquestioning support of the Scottish thanes dashed completely. Done right, it’s a brilliant scene, full of tension, fervor and fear.

To the Lighthouse, part one, the dinner scene.

The first section of Woolf’s best novel leads up to the dinner scene that takes place in Part One’s final pages. At least, this is the way it feels for Mrs. Ramsay, who goes about her day with a million meal-related worries running through her head: Will Paul, Minta and Nancy get back in time? “Could they have let the Beouf en Daube over boil?” Who will talk to Charles Tansley?

And then the meal arrives, and one sees why Mrs. Ramsay was worried, “because the whole of the effort of merging and flowing and creating rested on her,” the success of the meal, not only in the present, but for the future, because Mrs. Ramsay is aware that she is creating a memory, that this meal together will be remembered not only after the dishes have been cleared but many years later, after a devastating war, after her own death.

At one point in the meal, someone gets up to light the candles, and the dinner begins to go more smoothly. Woolf writes

Now all the candles were lit up, and the faces on both sides of the table were brought nearer by the candlelight, and composed, as they had not been in the twilight, into a party round a table, for the night was now shut off by panes of glass, which, far from giving any accurate view of the outside world, rippled it so strangely that here, inside the room, seemed to be order and dry land; there, outside, a reflection in which things wavered and vanished, waterily…Some change at once went through them all, as if this had really happened, and they were all conscious of making a party together in a hollow, on an island; had their common cause against the fluidity out there.

Here is an example of a meal as communion, but not only as a gathering together of family and friends, happy in one another’s company, but also as a brief moment in which we’re able to overcome the isolation of our own bodies and minds, able to form a pocket of warmth and stability against the ever-vanishing fluidity of life. What seems to have been created at the meal is a unity of thinking and feeling, many different bodies participating in the same thing, in the same place, all of their minds united in that present moment. Maybe this is what Mrs. Ramsay recognizes, what she has striven to create, and maybe this is how she knows the dinner will live on in the memories of each and every person there. It will be remembered differently, no doubt, by her son James than by Lily Briscoe or Mr. Ramsay, but it will not be forgotten. And she will not be forgotten for her part in it. I love this scene, because you can feel Mrs. Ramsay sensing her own death, but not regretting it; maybe she doesn’t know how soon she’ll leave them, but Woolf’s language suggests otherwise. When the meal is over

With her foot on the threshold [Mrs. Ramsay] waited a moment longer in a scene which was vanishing even as she looked, and then, as she moved and took Minta’s arm and left the room, it changed, it shaped itself differently; it had become, she knew, giving one last look at it over her shoulder, already the past.

Photo: lokate366


Beowulf. One of the things which sticks with me from Beowulf is the image of Hrothgar’s wife, Wealhtheow, Queen of the Danes, holding a large goblet in a banquet hall full of loud, thirsty warriors. Wealhtheow is often referred to as the “cup bearer” or “mead bearer,” a moniker which stays with me the way “Hector, breaker of horses” does. Drinks and drinking are an important part of meals in literature.

Genesis

There are a lot of memorable meals in the bible: the loaves and fish, the last supper, the feast thrown for the prodigal son’s return, manna in the desert, the list goes on and on. And of course, the most famous “bite” in the bible is Eve’s, in Genesis, when she succumbs to the serpent’s temptations and eats from the tree of knowledge. Speculation says the forbidden fruit may have been a pomegranate, which of course shows up in another myth, when Demeter’s only daughter, Persephone, is forced to eat a pomegranate seed by her husband, Hades, lord of the underworld, thus ensuring that she will have to return to him for some months out of every year instead of being free to stay with her mother in the land of the living. (Lizzy, correct me on this stuff if I’ve gotten it all wrong, okay?) I’m rereading Paradise Lost at the moment, which examines in great detail the moment leading up to Adam and Eve’s eating from the tree of knowledge. Indeed he transforms the epic as a genre, to think more about this moment and what led up to it. It’s certainly an important literary meal, if a couple bites of fruit constitute a meal.

“The Dinner-Party.” I was also reminded of Amy Lowell’s haunting poem, “The Dinner-Party.” Lowell (1874-1925) is buried in Cambridge, perhaps a twenty minute walk from my apartment. Maybe I’ll take my dinner and a volume of poetry there some night soon, and have a literary meal of another sort.

Top Ten Books that Shouldn’t Be Made Into Movies

Modlife, the Modcloth blog, recently posted a list of the Top 10 Books that Should Be Made Into Movies. Their list includes Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (#9), books by Dave Eggers and David Sedaris, Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (#3), Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (#2), the perennial favorite by Orson Scott Card (one of the books I “spot” most often), Ender’s Game.

I am not a huge fan of the books turned into movies genre, but I’ve certainly seen (and enjoyed) my fair share of films based on books. I’ve seen multiple versions of Alcott’s Little Women and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Persuasion;  I love the Anne of Green Gables series starring Megan Follows, and About a Boy, based on the Nick Hornby novel of the same name. And yes, I’ve seen all the Harry Potter movies (enjoyed most of them, though nowhere near as much as I did the books), and The Lord of the Rings films. I’ve seen multiple Ms. Marples and many, many James Bonds.

Still, I’m glad many of my favorite books haven’t been made into films. Mostly I enjoy book-based movies, but only rarely do I feel like the films really live up to their written counterparts. And the more I love the book, the more difficult it is for the film to meet my expectations. My mother staunchly refuses to see most films based on books, at least books she’s read. For instance, she’s never seen any of the Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings films, but she liked Julie and Julia, and last week she saw The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, neither of which she’s read. And I’m pretty sympathetic to her viewpoint…my problem is that when books turn into movies, curiosity gets the better of me, and I can hardly resist going to see them.

One unhappy fan's reaction to the film version of Philip Pullman's "The Golden Compass." I'm fairly in accord with him. Photo: Cayusa

But there are some books that I hope won’t ever be made into films, so I won’t even be tempted to see them. Of course, if someone made an epically beautiful, masterpiece-in-it’s-own-right kind of film, that’d be great. But that type of book-to-movie transition is rare (To Kill a Mockingbird, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this month, does come to mind) and, I think, getting rarer. Luckily, a lot of my favorite books will likely never be made into films, because they’re books of poetry. Lives of poets are often turned into films (Bright Star, Sylvia, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle and—forthcoming—Howl) but poetry collections themselves are rarely snapped up for their cinematic potential.

But I’m also a lover of novels, and there a great many that I see so clearly in my mind as they are that I hope I’ll never be tempted to see them in the cinema. So without further ado, here’s my Top Ten Books that Shouldn’t Be Made Into Movies.

1. A Wrinkle in Time. No movie, no matter how great, could beat Madeleine L’Engle reading this book aloud.

2. Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions or any of my other favorite Kurt Vonnegut books. I didn’t really like the movie version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (my dad did, though), and I can’t see Vonnegut’s work faring much better.

3. The Bell Jar. I can just see one of my favorite opening lines in literature (“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”) being done in a voice over as a camera pans down over Manhattan. Ugh.

4. To the Lighthouse. I watched Vanessa Redgrave’s Mrs. Dalloway in high school, and lines from it instantly because class jokes. I think (more so today than I did then) that the film has its merits. But the book is so much better…and To the Lighthouse is far more important to me than Mrs. Dalloway. I hope the film industry leaves well enough alone, and sticks to movies like The Hours (also based on a book, of course, by Michael Cunningham), which I enjoyed well enough, fake nose and all.

5. Catcher in the Rye. Salinger didn’t want it to be made into a film, and neither do I.

6. Ender’s Game. I understand why people might want this book to be a movie. But I don’t agree with them.

7. From the Mixed Up of Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Another book from my youth, (I seem particularly attached to these!) From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler has given me a lifelong love of the Met. This is another book with an absolutely stellar audio version. And yes, I know there are several film versions made already (one starring Ingrid Bergman, another Lauren Bacall, who’d have guessed). I haven’t seen them. Apparently even I can resist some temptations.

8. The Sound and the Fury. The only book-to-film transition I can think of that would be similar to bringing Faulkner’s masterpiece to the silver screen is Oprah Winfrey’s film of Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. I actually think the film version Beloved has its merits (mostly related to Thandie Newton’s epically creepy, mesmerizing performance in the title role) but I’d like Hollywood to stay away from The Sound and the Fury. They can keep making movies of Macbeth though, if they’d like.

9. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I don’t know why I even care, but please, just no.

10. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Another book that I absolutely adore, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter also already has a movie version, starring Alan Arkin, which was nominated for several Academy and Golden Globe Awards in 1968. I’ll never see it. Even if I’m stuck on a 16 hour flight and it’s the only film showing.

Of my Top Ten, at least four already have film versions (making them slightly redundant entries, but I wanted to file my objections nonetheless) and at least three are slated for production (yes, it’s #9, and also #1 and #3). So clearly my opinion doesn’t hold much sway.

Which books would be on your list?

Hello fellow readers, booklovers and friends!

At long last, welcome to my blog, The Art of Reading! Let me begin by saying that this is the first blog I’ve ever written, and once I write something in it, it will become the first blog I’ve ever really read (if reading one’s own blog counts as reading a blog at all). Nearly every day for over a decade now, I’ve felt the need to write, but the desire to write a blog is rather new to me. I spent the past four years studying English literature (and philosophy and other things) at a small, women’s liberal arts college in southern California and even though I only graduated this past May, I think the main reason I’ve chosen to create this blog is very simple: I miss writing about reading.

Over the last several years and particularly throughout these past months since graduation, I’ve been struggling with a growing awareness that reading, in this technology-driven world, has become a fragmented process—so often the work of a moment, rather than the sustained project of many minutes or many hours. The text message, the email, and the one hundred and forty characters of a twitter post are so different from the continual, dedicated experience of reading I’ve had for the past four years as a scholar and the past twenty-two as an enthusiastic bibliophile. So, at the center of this blog is my desire to write about reading in order to think about reading, and in order to make myself read more, and more attentively, and to consider, more closely than I have in the past, an activity I’ve always felt to be central to the most important and best parts of myself. Since I intend to continue studying English in the near future, I want to use this time away from the regimen of syllabi and semesters to good purpose. I want to become a better reader, writer and thinker (and thereby, I hope, a better person).

I plan to use this blog as a deposit for my thoughts and as a reason to polish these thoughts up a bit more than I otherwise would, and hile I don’t know exactly what I will write about, I do know that this will not be a blog about what to read or what not to read—as Virginia Woolf writes in Jacob’s Room, “any one who’s worth anything reads just what he likes, as the mood takes him, with extravagant enthusiasm.” Of course, I don’t mean that I won’t write occasionally (or more than occasionally) about books—honestly, after four years studying English, I think it would be hard for me to stop writing about books even if I wanted to—but I certainly won’t be writing lists of recommendations or condemnations. I just want to create, through these writings, a place in which to reflect on the art of readership, its challenges and joys, its future and its past, its benefits, its ethics, its many uses and guises, and its place and importance in my own life and in the modern world. I want to create a space in which to consider, with my own extravagant enthusiasm and an overabundance of detail and attention, the act of reading itself.

I hope to post here every week or so, on whatever reading-related topic strikes my fancy; these posts may seem a bit odd to begin with (actually, they’ll probably seem a bit odd all along, but especially to begin with) because I’m on a trip at the moment, composing this as I go along from city to city. Though I started thinking about this blog before I left the states, I began writing this first entry in Dublin, worked on it little bit more this past week in Vienna, finally finished it Zurich and am posting this (hostel-wireless willing) from Brussels. Since I’ve been making regular literary pilgrimages (e.g. Trinity College and the Freud Museum) my travels are sure to show up here a bit, but for the most part I plan to focus on writing about reading.

All I want is to write about something that is remarkably important to me, something that I hope is important to others, and to do so in a way that will make me a more thoughtful, skillful and accomplished reader, more dedicated, more aware, and more in love than ever with the art of reading. So to that end, I welcome you, whoever you are, (actually I might know exactly who you are, i.e. the six-ish people to whom I’ve given this address) to The Art of Reading. I hope you enjoy whatever I offer here, and that you chime in as often as you like; I always love to hear what other people are reading.