A gratifying response to my last post, a couple of the writers I cited reaching out and offering words of thanks.
No problem, folks.
But I also took some stick for neglecting to include some other neglected authors on my list and for that let me say merely mea culpa.
Here are some more names to ponder and, hopefully, seek out. These wordsmiths are/were absolute masters and deserve to be discovered (or rediscovered):
Past (Honorary) Members:
M. John Harrison
Compared to the junk currently being excreted by traditional publishing, these fine scribes are like brilliant flowers growing out of dung. Help save great works from obscurity and superb writers from the bottomless trash can of history.
Books of poetry have been scattered around various locations of the house but now, thanks to Sherron, we have a charming little bookcase that’s perfect for highlighting our collection. She happened to spot a garage sale on the way home from work and couldn’t believe her luck when she spied this little beauty. Four shelves and solidly constructed.
Poetry has taken on increased significance in my life over the past five or ten years. I’ve developed the patience and maturity required for verse and have a real appreciation for authors who have the vision, concision and mental discipline to execute truly great poetry.
I have numerous volumes by my current favorites—Paul Celan, Arthur Rimbaud, Ted Kooser, W.S. Merwin, Billy Collins—and offerings by lesser known poets like Naomi Shihab Nye and Carolyn Forsche. A cool, eclectic mix of new and old, with a few oddities thrown in to keep things interesting.
I’ve heard it said most people are only interested in poetry for use in weddings or funerals and that’s unfortunate, an indication of how badly poetry is taught in school. Dissected for its component parts like a frog, rather than appreciated for its beauty and, with the very best poetry, universality. Most readers are afraid of poetry, intimidated by it—poetry is “difficult”, “elitist”, “frustrating”.
I wonder how much of Ted Kooser’s work they’ve read. The simplicity and clarity of his language might surprise them. I advise them to pick up a copy of his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Delights and Shadows (Copper Canyon Press; 2004), encounter a writer who doesn’t hide behind opacity or cloak his ideas and themes in haughty esoterica.
Time to rediscover the joy of reading well-crafted, superbly conceived poetry.
Believe me, there’s a lot of it about.
Seek and ye shall find!
Standing before a tower of unread books, feeling a bit queasy but also defiant. These are books that have bedeviled me for months, years, decades. Tomes I know will be excellent, enlightening, life-enhancing…as soon as I find time to read them. Others are volumes I read many moons ago and want to revisit. Some big, fat, brain-building Pynchon titles, a few of the early Cormac McCarthys; works I read when I was young, stupid and trying to impress everybody. Now when I read them, I’ll be a helluva lot more worldly, slightly smarter and apt to grasp more than I did during that initial encounter. Can you really comprehend the magnitude of Gravity’s Rainbow or Marcel Proust’s convoluted, gorgeous prose at nineteen or twenty?
Never in hell. I’m convinced human beings don’t start developing adult-sized brains until they’ve turned thirty and have popped at least one kid. A teenager reading War and Peace is like handing a mandrill an iPad. Seriously.
This past week I was visiting The Big City and had occasion (okay, I lurked) to listen while a couple of teenage girls discussed their school reading assignments.
“This book,” one said, stabbing a livid finger at Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, “ought to be banned.”
“Did you read The Englishman’s Boy?”
“Only the chapter I had to.”
“Me too! Catcher in the Rye sucked too. What’s the big deal? The Outsiders--”
“That was half decent.”
“It was o-kay. But the main guy is such a whiner…”
And so on. Book club night at the Stephen Hawking residence it was not.
What were those gals doing, hanging out in a book store? Waiting for the rain to subside? I wonder what sort of books they actually liked?
* * * * *
I must do something about my To Be Read pile. Make that piles. It’s getting scary. We’re running out of space. Books are double-stacked on the shelves, some even (gasp!) relegated to the floor. Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, essays…good God, things have gotten completely out of hand. I catch my wife looking at me, her expression cagy: pondering involuntary commitment? What are the legal hurdles? How much can she get for all these fucking books?
And now that I’m hooked up to the library system through the internet, I can log on and troll for more books, secure them free, via inter-library loans. If three weeks pass and I need more time, I can renew the tomes in question with a few taps on my keyboard.
Or perhaps not. It’s like having after hours access to the world’s biggest bookstore. I get messages as soon as another book is ready for pickup at my local branch. Can’t wait to get down there, scoop it up and bear it home…
Understand, I already have dozens, scores of books—wonderful books, classic books—waiting to be read but I’m still ordering more. Isn’t that weird? Isn’t that, well, nuts?
It’s called bibliophilia, folks, and I’ve got it bad.
I’m a collector on the verge of becoming a hoarder. When I find a good bookstore, especially a good used book store, my hands get clammy, my stomach churns and I feel light-headed, like I’m suffering from some kind of sugar deficit. I kid you not. I’ve heard junkies say similar things when they find themselves in the vicinity of dope or paraphernalia. A feeling of anticipation that leaves you weak in the knees.
Have to say, when I visited my last big box book barn I didn’t experience anything like that. The “New Release” shelves didn’t turn my crank at all—the majority of the fiction seemed to be geared toward women, and particularly stupid ones at that. The most dreadful shite. Spotted a number of offerings in the history section, including David McCullough’s bio of Truman, but the prices scared me off. After all my browsing, over an hour in the store, I came away with one thin volume, a beautiful little Penguin edition of Stefan Zweig’s novella Chess. That’s it.
Pitiful, ain’t it?
But, of course, it isn’t just books. I’m no longer part of the desired demographic, and that goes for music, movies, television, you name it. I’m an old fogie with a critical brain and a handle on his spending. Not exact a walking advertisement for consumerism.
No, the ones the advertisers, viral marketers et al are after are the 16-25 bunch, the gamers and mall crowd, armed with credit cards and completely lacking impulse control. Unmarried, no kids, disposable income, too much time on their hands. The morons that have kept Michael Bay, JJ Abrams and Bill Gates filthy rich and reduced the popular arts to public urinals. Thanks, kids!
We have them to thank for the current state of publishing/bookselling. The explosion of graphic novels, the flood of zombies and vampires and knock-off fantasy and franchise novels, and media tie-ins…can you say dumbing down? That extended period I spent in the big box store was most educational. It told me that in their efforts to cater to their sought after demographic, traditional publishers won’t just go for the lowest common denominator, they are willing, nay eager, to debase the language, alienate their traditional clientele and reduce an art form to mere commodity. The rot is evident in every genre—what little “literary” fiction out there is getting harder to find, forced off the shelves by establishments that offer whole sections devoted to the excremental writing of James Patterson, Jody Picoult and the like.
I turn on commercial radio, flip through the TV channels during a rare hotel visit, check on-line movie listings for anything that might look promising and I feel old. Nothing in the entertainment world speaks to me these days. I don’t look forward to the summer movies or check to see who made the Oscar shortlist. Ignore the bestseller lists, rarely buy a magazine or new book…and we’re the last family I know of who still don’t have cable TV.
I’ve been a reader all my life. Forty years with my nose in books. Books have always offered me comfort and consolation. In childhood, they were a security blanket, helping me escape the depredations of reality. As I got older, they became my primary sources of learning, as well as steering me down spiritual/mystical paths I might otherwise have missed. Without books, I would not be the person I am today. I would be one of them: mall zombies, semi-literates, half-simian.
All this might go a long way toward explaining that ever-growing TBR pile. I never stop seeking out new Masters, new teachers; men and women who can perform alchemy with the printed word, transmuting it into something more than mere sentences on a page.
A casual scan of the pictures reveals not too many of the books are of recent vintage. Most picked up from thrift shops, secondhand places or on-line purchases; heavily discounted, showing the effects of their time in remainder bins or battered about in the mail.
New and old enthusiasms: Samuel Beckett, Walter Kirn, Ken Kalfus, Richard Powers, Robert Stone, Raymond Queneau, Roberto Bolano, Fernando Pessoa, J.M.G. Le Clezio, Denis Johnson, Tom McCarthy, Terence McKenna, Georges Perec, Jorge Luis Borges, Gert Ledig, W.G. Sebald…and that’s just scratching the surface. These Jpegs hardly do my TBR pile justice. It goes on and on…
When am I going to find time to read the gorgeous edition of Don Quixote Sherron picked up for me at least five years ago (translation by Edith Grossman)? How about the three volumes by the incomparable Louis Ferdinand Celine that are only an arm’s length away from where I sit, typing these words? Will I ever tackle Madame Bovary, War and Peace or the 1,000+ pages of The Collected Short Stories of J.G. Ballard?
Not as long as I keep adding to that pile.
How many titles are on the “Wishlist” I’ve kept in the same steno pad for the past twenty years? Two hundred? Three hundred? The roster constantly revised; one title acquired and crossed off, three others added…
I’m a sick man. Addicted to the printed word. Always seeking out the best of the best, authors who present fresh perspectives, re-ignite the language, push the envelope thematically and stylistically. Just when I think I’m making headway, someone mentions Ben Okri or Joseph McElroy. How could I have missed them? Fabulous, unprecedented talents, my collection incomplete without them.
The kind of authors no longer being published by the trads and, thus, increasingly unfamiliar to today’s readers.
Creators capable of composing work that ennobles us as a species, presenting an alternative to the superficiality of the processed, plastic universe the corporate types are peddling, the reassuring sameness one is sure to find there. Our souls would be impoverished without these artistes, our “culture” reduced to inanity and tiresome cant. A nightmare I hope never to endure, a history I pray we avoid.
Photos by Sherron Burns
Just hit book #50, halfway there and still (barely) maintaining the pace necessary to hit the century mark by the end of the year.
Four or five books of note in the latest batch of reading, including Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (#42) Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands (#46), John Vaillant’s The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance & Survival (#49) and W.G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction (#50).
The latter left me especially shaken.
What begins as an investigation into the dearth of postwar literature devoted to the suffering and deprivation endured by German civilians during World War II, gradually metamorphoses into a meditation on the limits of language. Sebald asks if mere words can do justice to the horror of an air raid, the obscenity represented by Auschwitz, the experience of being tortured. Do certain episodes defy and impoverish description and can any re-enactment, however well-crafted and best intentioned, achieve more than verisimilitude and clever artifice?
Sebald cites several artists—Gert Ledig, Jean Amery, Peter Weiss—who eschew decorum, ignore taboos, use their immense talents to conjure sentences that are impossible to ignore, that permanently imprint themselves on our consciousness. It is their authenticity that distinguishes them; these men are first person witnesses, their credentials impeccable. They have determined (sometimes after a long period of silence) that they are going to tell what they have seen without embellishment or elaboration. Their courage and honesty simply will not allow them to go into the darkness without making one last fruitless, valiant attempt to communicate to us things we would rather not know, that we’d rather see safely consigned to history’s back pages.
Ledig et al do their best but, even so, words often fail them and images, still shots of destruction, grotesque tableaux, are often substituted; these come in the form of vivid, descriptive passages, devoid of sentimentality, chillingly matter of fact. They bring to mind the stark, silent, black-and-white footage taken in the death camps. Amery chose the personal essay format to unflinchingly document what it means to be dispossessed, cast out and marked for death by fellow citizens. He refused to hide behind a fictional counterpart or allow a contrived plot line to dilute/adulterate his message.
In the end, Ledig/Amery’s efforts are doomed; even the most enlightened, imaginative reader is incapable of gaining more than an inkling of the physical and spiritual agony that can be inflicted by a well-trained torturer…or visualize what it’s like to enter a crammed air raid shelter after it has suffered a direct hit from a thousand pound bomb. We can only, thank God, experience these things vicariously, secondhand, from the safety of a comfortable arm chair. And, though it might pain bibliophiles to do so, we must acknowledge the paucity of language in the face of such incommunicable pain and loss.
Sometimes only a scream will suffice.
We know we can’t possibly understand what they’ve experienced but we feel, in the depths of what passes for our soul, that we owe it to the victims to at least try. Every single day.
Some gals we met through a local “Open Mike” event invited my family and I to pop out to their high school and participate in a public reading.
We love to show our support for stuff like that and were delighted to accept. The only problem is, I needed something new to read. And over the course of a couple of days, a notion for a short tale presented itself to me, pretty much full-blown. A few touch-ups here and there but nothing serious. It’s wondrous when that happens. All the proof I need that the universe is conscious, sentient and permanently beyond human ken.
The story’s short, vivid, to the point. Read on…
“Bagshaw,” my father says suddenly. He’s been silent nearly an hour and his voice gives me a start.
“What was that, Dad?”
“Who I was talking about.” Shooting me a stern look. “The little queer.” I don’t remember any reference to Bagshaw but, never mind; clearly he’s been off on some kind of mental ramble. “Worked at head office with me. A swish, and not ashamed to flaunt it either.” He pauses to get his breath. His lips are dry and grey. Everything in the process of shutting down. Propped up to help him breathe, Demerol to handle the pain. He’s making a sound, wheezing, could it be…laughter? “Lord, how I tormented that man.”
“What did you do?”
His face is still drawn but animated by something that looks suspiciously like a smirk. “I’d put thumbtacks and pins on his chair. Not every day, spacing it out so he’d always be caught off guard. I was down the hall but I could hear him squeal. Served him right.” I’m leaning forward, fists clenched. Make myself ease back in the chair, force open my furious hands. He angles his head toward me. His eyes sunken, lusterless. Dark holes in his face. “Other things too. I’d send him flowers, have them delivered right to his office. With a card, Love, Charlie or whatever.”
“You’re kidding.” I can’t help it, blurting it out.
“Sure.” His thin smile confirming it.
I haven’t seen this side of him before; I’ve often found him thoughtless but never believed him capable of out-and-out malice. “You hated him that much?”
“He made me sick. And I wasn’t the only one. But I was the sneakiest.” A sly wink. “I’d call him, late at night.”
“Never from home. Sometimes from other cities. He’d change his number, get an unlisted one…” His face crinkling with mirth. “Didn’t matter. I worked with the guy. In Human Resources, no less. Jesus. I knew where the bodies were buried and how to find them. That’s why I lasted so long.” He gestures for the water glass and I automatically move to comply. Holding it for him while he sips through a straw. One final indignity he must endure.
“What would you say,” I ask, once he’s done. “When you called him.”
“Sometimes nothing. Just letting him know I was still out there. Other times I’d be all…uh…y’know…you queer, you dirty, little faggot…you’ll get what’s coming to you. Just spooking him.” I back away, fumbling behind me for the chair. Then I realize I still have the glass and must rise once more, replacing it on the nightstand beside the bed. Finding it difficult to approach him again, this stranger I’ve known all my life.
“What was his first name?”
“What? I don’t recall. He only lasted a year.”
“Couldn’t take it, I guess.” There’s no remorse, that’s the thing. He’s talking about running over a dog in the street, thirty years after the fact.
“And then you left him alone? Or—”
“Hell, no.” Frowning at his foolish son. “That might look suspicious, give him ideas. I kept at it six more months. Just to be safe…” He’s fading again, ebbing away. “Old Bagshaw.” Almost a whisper. “You know, the bastard actually lisped?”
My father is sixty-four years old and staunchly conservative. A self-made man. In our house, he was the one who held the reins and cracked the whip. Stern but fair, I guess you could say. My sister sees it differently; she believes mom worked and worried herself to death, trying to please him.
I should tell him. Right now. Go over and spit it right into his face. Just to see his reaction. God. Wouldn’t that be something? I’m dying to tell him, I’m about to tell him…but at that moment his mouth sort of sags open and my dying father begins to snore.
© Copyright, 2011 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
Where does time fly? Over two weeks since my last post and, in that interval, I’ve been occupying myself with hours of scribbling. Filling dozens of notebook pages…unfortunately, very little of this material will ever make it to publication. Lots of meditations, strange aphorisms, gleanings from the subconscious. Here’s one example:
“How many failures turn out to be posthumous geniuses? Not very many, as it happens, the proportion disappointingly low.”
What does that mean? A subconscious dig from my wily Muse, a nugget of wisdom…or mere prattle? And there’s pages and pages of the stuff, much of it spiritually oriented. Many of the entries make for uncomfortable reading, nakedly honest and personal. What should I do with these raw ramblings? This is material not intended for public consumption…but at the same time some of it packs undeniable power. Save it for the archives, hope someone will find it interesting or insightful. Bury it deep, amid old tax receipts and early drafts of stories.
The end of the year is always a time for reflection for me; I settle into introspective fugues where I consider the past 365 days and look with anticipation (and trepidation) to the year ahead. What have I accomplished? Where do I go from here? Point me to the next mountain to climb…
A few things have become clearer to me during this time—the first is that I’d like to make the act, the process of writing more fun, not bear down so hard, subjecting my system to so much abuse and stress. I’m obsessive-compulsive by temperament, a perfectionist in every aspect of my life. Everything has to be done just right or I go ballistic. No half-measures, no band-aid solutions, no excuses for failure. That’s the kind of cat I am.
But that has to change. I’m older and my body is starting to manifest some of the punishment it has absorbed over the years. My fingers, neck and shoulders. My back—Christ, my back. The mental and spiritual damage has been even more substantial, but I won’t get into that. A different approach is required…and I’m not exactly the best person when it comes to new approaches (see: aforementioned obsessive compulsiveness). Maybe voice recognition software is part of the answer, I dunno. I recently bought myself a better office chair, adjusted the height of the monitor so it’s more ergonomically placed, added padding under the keyboard—that will, hopefully, allay some of the physical symptoms. But in terms of approaching my vocation/obsession from a healthier psychic perspective, well, that requires an effort of a whole other magnitude.
I need to write in order to feel settled, sane. But how can I make writing more of a pleasure, less of a chore? I’ve devoted a lot of thought to that over the past while and I think I’ve come up with a few answers, partial solutions. Some of it involves very personal mini-epiphanies that presented themselves to me, insights that are, frankly, too private to share. They relate to my spiritual beliefs, the ridiculous expectations I place on myself. The pain that causes. It’s also about deriving a sense of accomplishment from some of the fine writing my pen has produced over the past quarter century. I don’t have to keep trying so hard to prove my worth, establish my artistic credentials. The work speaks for itself. Stories like “Invisible Boy”, “Daughter” and “Bedevilled”; the novellas and prose poems. And, of course, my two novels.
Just write. Write without a sense of self-consciousness; write from instinct, letting the words flow unimpeded from their original source.
It’s all about the words. The right one in the right place. Over and over again, sentence by sentence, until something precious and timeless has been created. The masters of language show us how it’s done. They showed me. It was reading that made me want to compose stories of my own, tales no one else has told. I read voraciously, learned my craft at the feet of giants. Books were entertainment and professional development all at once.
But something’s happened over the past decade. I’ve read less and less. In the past few years I think I averaged between 60-65 books a year and that’s a pathetic number for someone who fancies himself some kinda hotshot author. I’m talking about books read for my own enjoyment, stuff not related to research or my work.
So one of the other changes I’m making for the new year is that I’m resolving to read more.
I’m taking my own, personal “100 Book Challenge”. I want to recommit to the printed word in a big way. It means switching off, tuning out. “Off the grid” days, spent hunkered in my rocker recliner, reading a novel or collection of stories.
Because I have no doubt all the hours I’ve spent reading on-line, scanning news articles and items of interest, has screwed up my concentration. I find it hard to focus on a book for more than ten pages at a time without needing to get up, make some tea, stack the dishwasher…and then come back for another crack. Ditto movies. How many times has Sherron complained because I’m pausing a film to go to the john or grab myself a drink? Okay, part of that has to do with a pea-sized bladder but I also think all that time in cyberspace has had a deleterious effect on my attention span.
I read an article in the Manchester Guardian that talked about similar matters so I know I’m not alone in this feeling. The piece quotes me old chum John Miedema, who is a noted proponent of the “slow reading” movement and I found myself nodding along at various points. And then a chap in my LibraryThing group posted a lecture by Susan Greenfield in which she talks about learning and brain plasticity. Fascinating stuff. Ms. Greenfield makes a distinction between the information one finds on-line and “in-depth knowledge” that can only be gained from reading a book. I hope folks out there are apprising themselves as to some of the new theories that are emerging relating to how computers are fundamentally changing the way we think. I think the evidence is absolutely compelling and parents, in particular, must be educated re: how all those hours playing video games and “World of Warcraft” are rewiring their kids’ brains.
Years ago, when we were still living in Iqaluit (on Baffin Island), I gave a presentation on books and reading to an audience of about twelve people. I remember becoming quite emotional as I spoke about how books had literally saved my life. I believed then—and believe to this day—that was not mere hyperbole. My childhood was hardly idyllic and my love of reading gave me, at once, an escape from worldly travails and spurred and fired my imagination.
I want to recapture that, the allure and beauty of the printed word. The thoughts and visions reading inspire in me.
A hundred books in one year? Can I manage it? Will my hellish work ethic fight tooth and nail with my desire to settle into an armchair with some Jim Shepard stories or the latest David Mitchell effort? I’ll let you know via periodic blog posts how I’m doing. My progress (or lack of same). I won’t cite every damn book I’m reading but I’ll drop in the occasional review (maybe even resuscitate my “Burning Moonlight” column, you never know). God knows, I’ve got enough good books lying around, gathering dust. I search them out, I buy them…but can’t seem to free up the time to actually, y’know, read the f***ing things. Pathetic.
But no more. I’m turning over a new leaf. 2011 will involve a serious reboot. I’ve made my resolutions and I firmly intend to keep them. Ease back on the throttle. Stop trying to impress. Create for the sheer love of creating. Rediscover the joy and wonder of my craft through reading the best contemporary authors and the finest of past masters. Work to improve myself through a process that doesn’t involve self-flagellation.
I wrote in a blog entry a couple of years ago that after more than two decades as a professional author I finally felt like the apprenticeship period was over.
But, I amend, that doesn’t mean I’ll ever be too old to go back to school.
Speaking of which, I’d better explain what I’m up to:
This year Esquire magazine is promoting a fiction contest where authors are invited to write stories based on three titles they (the editors) provide. You can visit their website for further details. I discovered the contest in May, printed up the info for later reference. Found the stuff again in late June, thought writing a story based on someone else’s title might be an interesting writing exercise. Wrote down the first title, “Twenty-Ten”, and went for it. Not necessarily thinking of submitting the finished work to the contest, just seeking to limber up my wrists before the real work of the summer began.
Well, I wrote one story and it turned out pretty darn good so the next day, suitably encouraged, I wrote a second and almost immediately a concept occurred to me for the third. So in the space of a few days I had three handwritten drafts. Tapped them into the iMac, opened one up, did a bit of fiddling…and now, three weeks later, here I am.
But I have a problem and I’ll bet you spotted it right away, didn’t you? You’re only supposed to submit one story and I’ve got three I’m quite taken with. I read all of them to my family the other night, hoping they’d immediately point out a winner but the verdict was mixed. They loved the stories, the characters, but each seemed to favor a different tale. Even I had changed my mind as to which one I preferred by the time I’d finished reading the last of them. Good grief. Well…I’ve got until the 31st (what is that, Friday?) to choose one story and edit it into tip-top shape. Because I will indeed be submitting something, despite my oft-repeated reluctance to enter writing competitions. For one thing, there’s no entry fee (mandatory). For another, Esquire, like the BBC, is a flagship, one of those names you’d dearly love, as a writer, to have on your resume. And one last consideration: I’ve written three bloody good tales, any of which is worthy for consideration.
My break’s over. Yesterday was fun: I sat around reading Paul Auster’s Man in the Dark (not one of his great ones, unfortunately), straightened up in the office, cleaned my area of the basement (we’ve been painting and installing a new ceiling light/fan in our kitchen so everything is a mess), listened to some alternative radio on the ‘net, trying to ease up and relax…but it’s time to get back at it. Grind, grind grind. Funny how hard you have to work on a story to make it read and flow naturally.
This tales have already taken up more of my summer than I’d intended–this started out as a simple writing exercise, remember? I still want to dive into edits of my next novel and here we are, approaching the end of July. Yike!
Time to finish up these tales and get back on track. It’s been an intriguing interlude but that novel beckons, miles to go before I sleep and all that.
That’s it for the update.
Hope you’re all having a fun summer. We’re finally getting some hot, sunny days, real Saskatchewan scorchers.
And, last but not least, it’s our 19th anniversary tomorrow.
Thanks, Sherron, for everything.
Forever and ever, doll…