Up until yesterday, I’d only really used Twitter on my computer, so I’d missed the point. Twitter isn’t like Facebook, it’s more like text-messaging. You know how sometimes you’re sitting at home and you’re kind of bored and you’re like, ehh, let me send out some text messages. Twitter is a bit like that, except you’re text-messaging everybody in the world and waiting to see who replies back.
That doesn’t make it any less silly or superficial. But it does make it considerably more fun. I think I’ve sent out more tweets in the last 24-hours than I did during the entirety of last month.
Twitter does atomize attention, though: I don’t think I’m going to get nearly as much reading done during odd moments as I used to.
Actually, I’ve been a bit dissatisfied at how my reading has fallen off lately. Of course, that’s mostly because I’ve been going through the final volume of Plutarch for the last ten days, and that is some pretty dense stuff.
Now that school is over, I kind of want to get back into the reading groove that I was in during that year in Oakland, before school ever started. What an amazing and freeing time that was.
And it’ll be better now because I’ve made a number of refinements in how I select the books that I read.
For instance, I am done with grand reading plans. Now I just read whatever I feel like at any given moment.
I’ve also stopped being such a book hoarder. Nowadays I just buy or borrow whatever books I actually want to read. I don’t stock up on shelves upon shelves of books that I’m going to get to someday. I know that some people like to have that weight pressing down upon them. In fact, I used to be one of those people: I still have roughly 1000 novels in my parent’s house. But lately, I’ve been feeling more and more oppressed by the weight of expectation which a huge book collection carries with it.
I’m sure that everyone out there has an extremely rigorous “next book” selection process. It’s really something of a necessity for modern life. You can’t just pick up whatever’s at hand, because a book cannot be consumed in a single sitting. You need a book that speaks, not merely to your current setting and mood, but to the current moment in your life. And that takes some serious thought.
Over the years, I’ve developed three rigorous book selection principles:
I must actually enjoy reading the first sentence (and the second one and the third one, etc) — If I pick up a book and the first sentence bores me, then I put it down. It doesn’t mean that the book is bad, but it does mean that the book is not what I’m looking for right now.
My whim is law – After I finished reading Jenny Offill’s novel, I decided that I kind of wanted to read a book that had something of an atypical form. This led me to consider Padget Powell’s The Interrogative Mood and Tao Lin’s Taipei. But then, I thought to myself, “Hmm…It’d also be really good to read a book by a woman,” so those two options were out.
Don’t look too far beyond the current book – It’s very easy to make elaborate reading schemas (for instance, last fall I decided that I’d read ALL OF GERMAN LITERATURE). And there’s something very satisfying about making those schemas. But when you’re following them, they become kind of a straitjacket. I’ve learned to dispense with the planning. It’s hard enough to figure out what book I want to read now, much less what book I might want to read in a week or a month.
Anyway, long story short, when I looked around within my parameters (less-typical form, written by a woman), my mind naturally drifted to Virginia Woolf. I picked up The Years, but the first sentence didn’t interest me. Then I picked up Between The Acts and the first sentence was:
It was a summer’s night and they were talking, in the big room with the windows open to the garden, about the cesspool.
And I found myself intrigued….anyway, that is the book I am reading now. It is good. I am enjoying it. Virginia Woolf really is one of the most powerful writers I’ve ever read. All of human existence is mirrored in her novels. For instance, this one is about some folks in a little country house who’re putting on an amateur theatrical (shades of Mansfield Park, there)…and it’s also about the imminence of World War II. That’s a pretty neat trick. Virginia Woolf is so political and so aware of current events, but she gets no credit for it, because she doesn’t engage with politics in the expected way.
When you’re trying to improve an aspect of yourself, the first thing you need to do is pull it up out of the realm of habit and subject it to measurement and conscious control. But, in doing so, you tend to destroy that habit. That means that the beginning of any process of improvement tends to result in considerable back-sliding. It was like that with me and reading. Ever since I started tracking how many hours I was reading each day, I’ve had the sneaking suspicion that I was reading less. Not only did the tracking reduce the spontaneity of the effort, but it also made me satisfied with lower levels of effort. When you’re reading when the mood takes you, it’s not hard to spend six hours in a book. But when you’re tracking your reading, a little voice pops up after hour three and says, “Oh, you’ve read more than enough!”
Anyway, it used to be not uncommon for me to have read so many books that I needed to throw them all into one blog post. But I don’t think I’ve done that in awhile.
However, I’ve been on a tear recently, due to some adjustments that I’m sure won’t be interesting to anyone other than myself. And the result has been a string of truly excellent reading experiences.
Heartburn by Nora Ephron — I am normally pretty awful about taking peoples’ reading recommendations. Somehow, getting recommended the book is almost a turn-off: it makes me feel like, even if I read it, the book wouldn’t be mine anymore. But this recommendation came at exactly the right moment! No one who’s seen When Harry Met Sally could doubt that Nora Ephron would be a great novelist, but I think she only wrote this one novel: a roman a clef about the dissolution of her marriage to Carl Bernstein (the reporter who, along with Bob Woodward, broke news of the Watergate Scandal). Rachel has fled to New York (while seven months pregnant) after discovering that her husband has been having an affair. The rest of the novel is dizzying: it spins round and round Rachel’s life in a very impressionistic way. But the tone is humorous and the dialogue is good. Some things are so overworked that you wonder how anyone can ever write about them. But sometimes the way to approach a well-trod topic is just to handle it as directly as possible. Rachel just sits in her apartment in New York and tries to imagine what kind of life she ought to have. Since I grew up in and worked in DC, I also particularly appreciated her takedowns of yuppie society in our nation’s capital.
High On Arrival by Mackenzie Phillips – This was the last celebrity memoir I read. And it was so much better than all the others that I realized nothing else was really going to be able to measure up. Mackenzie Phillips is the daughter of John Phillips, of the 60s band The Mamas and the Papas. When it came out, the memoir was famous for it’s shocking revelation that when she was 19, her dad raped her and they then commenced an incestuous relationship. But it was the first half of the book that was most interesting to me: it’s the story of her unstructured childhood in her dad’s huge LA mansion. She sort of pops in and out while her dad parties with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and Paul McCartney and everyone else in that scene. His only rule is that she has to spend at least one night a week at the house. She steals drugs from him and pretty much does whatever she wants, all the time. It’s horrifying, but fascinating. The second half is a very traditional descent into drug-fuelled madness. I didn’t like that as much. Needles make me queasy.
The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy* – Sally Jay is a 21-year-old whose uncle has given her the money to tool around in Europe for two years (in the 1950s). Which doesn’t immediately sound incredibly engaging, I know. Sometimes it seems like the American-In-Paris has been done from every possible angle. This novel immediately calls to mind similar scenarios by Edith Wharton, Henry James, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, etc. But, actually, the novel that this reminded me of most strongly was Anita Loos’ Gentleman Prefer Blondes. Whereas Loos’ heroine though was something of a dimwit, Sally Jay isn’t–she’s intelligent and energetic. There’s a light-heartedness to the novel. Every other travel novel is about how you losing your innocence and the ability to feel strongly about anything (I think that’s what happens when the main thing you learn in Paris is how to drink during the day). This isn’t that kind of novel. It’s the kind of novel you’d write before you’d actually gone to Paris: the kind you’d write when the world was still numinous and full of possibility. Sally Jay isn’t quite innocent or naive: she engages in all kinds of subterfuge and initiates several love affairs (it’s kind of nice to see a female protagonist who’s a bit more sexually aggressive). But she’s also not jaded. Far from it, she’s at the mercy of her wild emotions. She’s in Paris to do something, to experience something. She doesn’t know what it is, but she knows what it’s not. Even in Paris, she evades the traditional fate of a female bohemian: attaching herself to some brilliant painter and keeping house for him and being his muse. And she manages to avoid descending into madness and despair and suicide!
*Is there any name in the world that is more 1950s than “Elaine Dundy?”
I was thinking about yesterday’s post, and I realized that my reading habits are incredibly bourgeois. That’s not a pejorative; it’s just a description. My reading habits have a distinctly middle-class and earnest feeling to them. Which made me think, what other kinds of reading habits are there? This line of thought led to the following taxonomy of readers
Mass-Market – People who read only a book or two every year and prefer to read whatever the year’s breakout book is. I imagine that they enjoy the feeling of connectedness that comes from doing something at the same time as millions of other people.
Industrial – People who consume books as if they are an interchangeable product. Once, I was like this. When I read a book I liked, I went out and tried to find twenty books that were exactly the same, so I could get exactly the same experience. I preferred longer books, because they lasted longer. And I preferred long series, because I knew I could get more of what I liked. Example: most children go through a stage like this.
Populist – Readers who distrust book reviews and the opinions of academics, but still try to read the best books that they can. Populist readers often place a lot of stock in Amazon book reviews, word of mouth, and popular vote awards. They have a strong sense of their own likes and dislikes and are willing to defend their own tastes even against the prevailing opinion. Example: many science fiction fans, and people who say that books like Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged are the equal to most of what is considered, by the establishment, to be extremely good fiction.
Academic – These readers gravitate towards books about which there is still something interesting to say. They shy away from books that too much has already been written about. Although they’re about equally interested in contemporary and classic fiction, when they read classics they tend to gravitate towards obscure writers and lesser-known works by famous authors. Example: Most book critics, bloggers, and commentators.
Hip – Very familiar with whatever writer is on everyone’s tongues. In the 90s, it was David Foster Wallace. Now, it’s George Saunders. Also familiar with the nimbus of other, less-known contemporary writers that hover in that zeitgeisty area. Example: Anyone who’s ever read a novel written by Sam Lipsyte.
Super-Hip – The person who determines what the Hip people are going to be reading. Usually conversant with the major features of English literature (the modernists, etc) and extremely conversant with what’s going on in contemporary literature. Example: Anyone who’s ever read a sentence written by Tao Lin.
Bourgeois – Those who put a lot of stock in the literary canon and disdain contemporary literature. Prefers to read “the best” of any genre. Believes anything that has gotten public notice or critical acclaim must have some positive qualities. Turns reading into a project and then blogs about the project. Often has a fascination with and love for literary quotes. The objective of high school and college education in literature is to produce bourgeois readers. Examples: I am an extreme form of this, but I would also include all the computer programmers and lawyers and doctors who very earnestly sit down to read Faulkner or Dickens in their free time.
Aristocratic – Prefers classic literature, but, even within the classics, has very particular likes and dislikes. When they find an author, they often read every work that the author has written. Example: Anyone who has ever read a published collection of a famous authors’ letters.
There are three standard progressions through these categories:
Industrial -> Populist -> Academic
Bourgeois -> Aristocratic
Bourgeois -> Hip -> Super-Hip
I consider myself a little bit of an outlier because I went from Industrial -> Populist -> Bourgeois.