[Wrap Up 2013] This year, I learned that I shouldn’t bank on any reading project that involves more than 3 to 7 books.

At least half the people who've read this book on my recommendation have disliked it (although the other half have loved it!) But Gone Girl is still one of my favorites of this year.
At least half the people who’ve read this book on my recommendation have disliked it (although the other half have loved it!) But Gone Girl is still one of my favorites of this year.

I’m a big fan of grand reading plans. A few years ago, I read all the Russians. The year after that, I read Proust. And last year I read lots of Victorian literature. At the beginning of the year, I announced that I was going to spend this year reading all of the 19th century classics that I hadn’t already read. And I got a decent start. I read Nicholas Nickleby and Les Miserables and  Last Chronicle of Barset and then…I tried to read Daniel Deronda. And it was bad. Can’t put my finger on it. Just really boring and poorly structured. I gave up halfway through. And after that I was put off by the Victorian thing. So I kept looking around for a new project.

In the interim, I did do some little little reading projects. Like, I read Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan  and realized that maybe what I needed was more crime novels! So I read Gone Girl and Strangers on a Train and the Talented Mr. Ripley and Murder on the Orient Express and Silence of the Lambs.

But then I was distracted. I signed with my agent and was all, “Hey, shit, I should read some more YA novels, since that’s apparently what I write now!” So I solicited recommendations from the internet, and read some amazing YA, including Flora Segunda, The Forest of Hands And Teeth, Every Day, Eleanor & Park, and The Disreputable History Of Frankie Landau Banks.

But then I randomly started reading Mrs Dalloway and was really blown away by it and I decided, “Oh, okay, I’ll read the great works of modernism.” And I read Jacob’s Room and The Good Soldier and Invisible Man and Nightwood and As I Lay Dying and Ulysses (p2, p3and re-read To The LighthouseBut that didn’t continue either! Because my journey through the modernists led me to Buddenbrooks, and then I was like, “Wow, you know what? This is amazing! Maybe I’ll read a bunch of german novels now!” And I decided to be really concrete and systematic this time! I’d spend the whole rest of the calendar year reading German novels.

And I was pretty good. For a good two months (from mid-August to mid-October), I only read German novels. And this period included some great and thrilling reads like, A Man Without Qualities, The Magic Mountain, Radetzky March, Beware of Pity, Skylark, The Rider on the White Horse, and Every Man Dies Alone. But after I finished that last novel, I somehow just had no more enthusiasm for German novels. That was the reading initiative that I felt the most bad about. I had some great German novels that I was gonna get to: The Sleepwalkers, The Glass Bead Game, Berlin Alexanderplatz, and The Confusions of Young Torless. But I just didn’t want to do it…

So I started reading protofeminist novels. And I came across some great ones: Heartburn, The Dud Avocado, and Lolly Willowes. And I made a list of all kinds of other ones I was gonna get to next (The Unpossessed, The Old Man And MeAngel, Speedboat, etc…)

But that got derailed because I read and fell in love with The Closing Of The American Mind. And after Bloom took down Nietzsche, I just had to read Beyond Good And EvilAnd then that led to The Social Contract and An Enquiry Concerning Moral Sentiments.

I wanted a more modern look at the meaning of happiness, though, so I also read Flow. And I don’t even remember how that led me to books on communication, like Made To Stick and Influence. But I do remember that the really cold-blooded manipulations described in the last book made me interested in psychopaths, so I read some books on that. But then a Facebook post made me interested in a contemporary novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, which made me wonder about other contemporary fictions and…well…I’ve pretty much abandoned all my reading schemas.

I don’t know. I’ve been served well, in the past, by reading projects. But they lack a certain spontaneity. They cause joy when you think about adopting them, because you imagine yourself possessing all this knowledge about and mastery of a certain genre. But when you’re actually doing it, the scheme eventually starts to become a chore. Leaping around naturalistically seems to maximize my happiness.

The only worry is that if I don’t watch myself, I’ll stop reading “difficult” books. But I don’t know how true that is. Certainly The Closing Of The American Mind is not a hugely easy book. I mean, it’s readable…but it’s also a book that’s repulsed me in the past. So we’ll see. Maybe this time next year I’ll be writing about the return of the reading scheme!

Just finished reading Thomas Bernhard’s _The Woodcutters_

coverAnd let me tell you, it was super weird. The whole thing is two big paragraphs. It’s all told as the ramblings of a guy sitting in a chair at a party, reflecting on the artistic culture of Vienna and his estrangement from it. Very interesting. I thought that the form gave it a kind of pressured quality that suited the content. See, now some people would call a novel like this an experimental novel, because it certainly has a form that’s not very typical.

But don’t experiments have to be new? This is not new. It’s very similar to Molly Bloom’s soliloquoy in Ulysses. And who knows, maybe it wasn’t even an experiment back then. There’s not much in art that is new. There are just millions upon millions of models and techniques. And some models are more commonly used than others, because they are more accessible and more effective in most situations. But that doesn’t mean that the other models are somehow cutting-edge; they’re just rarer.

Sometimes you tell a story that requires you to dig a bit deeper into your toolkit of models, and that’s when you end up being like, “Huzzah, this story needs to be all in one paragraph.” Or, alternatively, you’re like, “I want to write a story that’s all in one paragraph. What kind of content would best fit that form?”

But it’s still not experimental.

Which is not to say that there are not real experiments. I am sure that new techniques are being created all the time. I just bet that most of them are not particularly useful

The main barrier to enjoying Ulysses is not the novel’s incomprehensibility; it’s the sheer tedium of some of its sections

ulysses            Last night, a former Clarion classmate and I were talking about the ultimate blow-off critique: “The writing in this is good.” That critique got so ubiquitous at Clarion that the instructors started disallowing it.

That’s because people use “the writing is good” to mean “this kind of looks and sounds like a real story, instead of something that an eight year old would write,” rather than to mean, “this writing had an emotional effect on me.”

Writing isn’t good in the abstract. Good writing does something to the reader. That’s what makes it good. Personally, I think of good writing as being mostly about observation. Writing is good if it captures the world in a new way. And the best way to do that is to see something no one else has seen or to see it in a way that no one else has seen it.

If writing is judged by the “does this do anything to me” standard, then very little writing is good. And if the writing does do something to you, then there are more important and more specific things to say about it than “the writing is good.”

That’s why I rarely comment on the writing in any of the books I read. And it’s also why I distrust any book recommendation that focuses primarily on the writing. It makes me think that the reviewer is judging the book according to some abstract technical standard rather than according to their own experience.

The ultimate “the writing is good” book has to be Ulysses. People are like, “Oh, the writing is good. And also there are lots of references to…things. And if you get the references, it’ll be, like, good and stuff.”

Well, I can tell you that I did not get the references. The last time I read The Odyssey was two years ago, and I didn’t consciously look for parallel’s while reading Joyce’s book. And there were some whole pages of the book that referred to events and places that I don’t know about. For instance, there’s a running sort of gag about Arius, who was an early church heretic who died on the toilet. While I got those, the obscurity made me realize that there must be dozens upon dozens of similar things that I am not getting.

The writing definitely good. But not in the way that I talked about above. There are a few sections (like the third section, when Stephen Dedalus is walking on the beach) that are so beautifully sketched out that you actually see what they’re looking at.

But, no, mostly the writing is good in the sense that it is fabulously controlled. For most of the book, we’re in the head of Leopold Bloom, who thinks in a very fragmented, scattershot way. And it’d be easy to think that Joyce wrote it in that sort of way too. But when he slips into the heads of other people–Stephen Dedalus, Molly Bloom, Gertie (a girl on the beach), a random anti-semitic bar patron–you see that he has this incredibly protean voice: he is capable of creating so many different effect.

Ulysses is very different from most novels, but it is still a novel and it does tell a story. It’s about people who are trying to find safe harbor. As the book goes on, you understand the characters more and more. Leopold Bloom is fantastically complex. He’s not the everyman counterpart to Dedalus’ intellectual. No, Bloom is obviously very well-educated and very thoughtful. I think some people confuse Bloom’s erudition for Joyce’s, but that’s obviously not the case: Molly Bloom and Gertie don’t have any of the same sort of flights of fancy. So he’s a thoughtful guy. But he’s also earthy. He’s very concerned with sex and shit and food. He’s concerned with saving the money to buy a house and whether/how his wife is cuckolding him. When he climbs into bed with Molly at the end of the novel, the last thing he does before falling asleep is, literally, kiss her ass. It’s hard to imagine Stephen Dedalus doing something like that.

There’s a vitality to Leopold Bloom that’s missing from modern-day portraits of educated intellectuals. Even in cases where intellectuals are portrayed as being virile and capable (as in Saul Bellow’s novels), there’s also an exhausted element to them: a sense that they’re not of this world and are incapable of enjoying ordinary things in an ordinary way.

The beauty of Ulysses is that, because of its length and variety, Joyce doesn’t need to merely sketch out his characters. Instead, there is at least the illusion of completeness. And so you can see tiny movements within the soul that an ordinary novel would need to leave out. Because Molly Bloom’s final soliloquoy is so long, you can see how she both hates and needs sex; hates and needs Bloom. You can feel her disdain and even apathy towards him, and then be swept up by the sense of partnership she feels with him: her knowledge that they are bound together and will go through this world alongside each other.

The downside to Ulysses is not that it’s incomprehensible. It’s really not. You’ll probably understand most of what’s going on. And the parts you won’t understand aren’t really going to affect the heart of the story. No, the downside is that it’s a bit tedious. I read it over the course of 45 days, but the bulk of that reading was done over maybe 4-5 days (I read the last 40% while trapped in the Denver airport because my flight was delayed). The reason it took me so long is that I got bogged down in the interminable “Oxen of the Sun” section. In this part, Bloom and Dedalus and a bunch of med students are partying in/next to a hospital while an acquaintance gives birth next door. And every few pages, the style of the voice changes as Joyce gradually works his way through all of English literature (i.e. there’s a John Bunyan section and a Defoe section and a Dickens section, etc.) And while I was pretty amused and impressed. I was also bored. If it’d been a paragraph of each, the section would’ve been a tour-de-force. But, as it is, the joke goes on for way too long. And it’s like that with a number of sections.

However, that’s okay. Some of my most favorite books have intermittently bored me (Dickens is a particular culprit here).

Oh, on a sidenote, I will say that this book made me appreciate Mrs. Dalloway even more. There’s a book that accomplished many of the same aims as Ulysses…but did it in maybe a fourth of the length.

Finished reading Hard Times and went back to Ulysses

Reading a book like Ulysses is interesting. It makes me realize how much skimming I do when I read. Although the book does have a plot and a progression, you really can’t stop paying attention for even a second, or you lose track of where and when you are and whose head you’re in.  It’s a book that can only be read when you’re in possession of a lot of silence.

Normally books that were revolutionary in their day continue to sound revolutionary. I’m not sure why that is. For instance, I’ve never yet read anything quite like Orlando. But Ulysses isn’t quite like that. Many of its techniques–the fragmented sentences, the interlocking mosaic quality of the details, the frequent neologisms–feel really familiar, because they’ve been thoroughly assimilated into the canon.

For instance, Ulysses continually reminds me of Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter, which is also a very stream-of-consciousness book that takes place over a very compressed time period (a weekend). When I read that book, I was blown away by the heightened effect created by focusing on the hour by hour experience of this guy. It made even little things–a conversation, or a visit to a burger joint–into epic adventures. But the fact that I was blown away then, kind of prevents me from being quite as blown away now =)


Trying to post more often (+some thoughts on Joyce’s Ulysses)

Normally, I post fairly length posts three times a week (almost always during a weekday). And I propagate all my posts to Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. But I think I am going to start trying to post whenever I feel like it (i.e. more than three times a week) and then I’ll only propagate some of the posts to Facebook (which directs way, way more traffic in my direction than all the other services). That way my biggest fans can get more of me and I can also address lighter topics when I want.

Hmm, now I need a lighter topic…well, I started reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. I’m a tenth of the way through and enjoying it so far. Even when I don’t understand what exactly is happening, I still like the writing. It really puts you there. The whole third part of the book is Stephen Daedalus walking along a beach and thinking about stuff. And sometimes that stuff is pretty obscure. But you always get brought back to the beach. It’s a very concrete, beautiful, and lonely place.

I’m not reading the book w/ the help of any kind of guide. I find that guides and footnotes and all that stuff are good for academics, but they’re bad for the reading experience. I don’t want to understand every bit of Ulysses…I want to enjoy it. However, I can definitely see why reading guides exist. Take for instance, this passage (from the aforementioned walk along the beach):

Wombed in sin darkness I was too, made not begotten. By them, the man with my voice and my eyes and a ghostwoman with ashes on her breath. They clasped and sundered, did the coupler’s will. From before the ages He willed me and now may not will me away or ever. A lex eterna stays about Him. Is that then the divine substance wherein Father and Son are consubstantial? Where is poor dear Arius to try conclusions? Warring his life long upon the contransmagnificandjewbangtantiality. Illstarred heresiarch’ In a Greek watercloset he breathed his last: euthanasia. With beaded mitre and with crozier, stalled upon his throne, widower of a widowed see, with upstiffed omophorion, with clotted hinderparts.

Now, obv, this is about Arius, a 3rd century Christian heretic–he believed that the Father was greater than the Son and arose prior to him, rather than them being equal–who died because his bowels burst.  And I think the reason he’s coming up is because Stephen is thinking about his own relation to his family (and church, etc, etc.)

I got this reference because I know about Arius. But it made me realize that there must be a ton of references that I’m not getting. Which is fine by me. Nothing is more annoying than stopping to look stuff up.