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?
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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
The titles I tackled reveal the diversity of my tastes/interests: Michael Palin’s latest set of diaries, Halfway to Hollywood, along with some readings on cinema (Dark Knights and Holy Fools), history, science fiction, theology, a novella by Roberto Bolano (Monsieur Pain)…
Yesterday I finished a collection of stories by one of the best English language writers on the contemporary scene, Jim Shepard.
Love & Hydrogen brings together close to two decades of Jim Shepard’s magnificent short fiction. Here’s the citation I wrote up for Love & Hydrogen in my book journal:
“Jim Shepard is a marvel. He and George Saunders and Ken Kalfus are the kind of writers who make you want to sweep everything off your desk and apply for a job as assistant manager at the local Dairy Queen. Aesthetically, they make no mistakes, the scope and diversity of their work dazzles.
Love & Hydrogen displays scope and diversity all right: in spades. The stories transit spans of time, the subject matter encompassing everything from the final flight of the Hindenberg to ‘The Creature From the Black Lagoon’. To my mind, any number of these tales could be included in an anthology of the finest writing of the past fifty years. I’ve read that Shepard’s research is meticulous and that is evident in historical reconstructions like the title story, ‘The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich’, ‘Krakatau’, ‘Batting Against Castro’, etc.
There’s a shiver of authenticity present in all of his fiction, an emotional honesty that defies sentiment and still manages to be heart-wrenching. No one in Jim Shepard’s universe is blameless, everyone complicit; perhaps it’s his version of original sin. We quickly recognize ourselves in Jim Shepard’s peerless short stories and novels and that (among numerous other things) is what makes him so great.”
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…and along with that reading I’ve been spending most nights of late snuggled up on the couch with Sherron, watching one or two episodes of the first season of “Mad Men” (a Christmas gift from my sons). Intriguing and addictive. A little bit more of Don Draper’s past swims into focus with each episode, some of the murkiness dissipating…and a very scary picture emerging.
Next month: the first season of “The Wire”.
After “The Wire”, my friend Gene assures me, everything else on television pales in comparison.
We shall see.
This is the view from my window. Notice the old, dessicated oak tree struggling for life alongside our big maple. It’s a “witch tree”, all right, look at it. Entangled in the strangling roots of its neighbor but somehow surviving, year after year.
Cold this morning, with a nut-cutting wind chill. A good day to stay inside, build a fire and read. Yesterday, I finished the new Lee Child novel, Worth Dying For, in about five hours. Just tore through it. Give Child credit, he’s got a sweet franchise going. Sometimes his “Jack Reacher” novels are suspenseful, sometimes they slip into formula. Reacher the unstoppable superman (yawn). This one is better. The story hums along and there are good supporting players.
January 1st, if you recall, I start my “100 Book Challenge”. I’ve already set aside 18 first-rate tomes, fiction and non-fiction, that I’m hoping will get me going, build up some momentum that will carry me through the year. These include some of the smashing great books Sherron, er, Mrs. Santa left under the tree for me. Stuff I’ve wanted to read for ages. Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, Jim Shepard’s Love and Hydrogen, Ken Kalfus’s first short story collection, Thirst, and Huston Smith’s autobiography, Tales of Wonder.
I’ll be spending most of the next two days finishing my year-end cleanup. A ritual that goes back many years. Remove all material related to last year’s projects and prepare for new work. New Year’s Eve, sometimes pretty close to midnight, I clean and vacuum the crappy old carpet in my office and that’s it: I’m ready for whatever comes.
I know, my family thinks it’s weird too.
And there are my resolutions to prepare, a roster of promises I try very hard to keep (and usually end up batting around .500). Then I write out a list of “pending projects”, big and small jobs I’d like to focus on in the coming year. Need to straighten up in the basement too; the workbench overflowing with crap that has to be put away (or shit-canned).
I find I’m feeling pretty good as 2010 draws to an end. Two books released this year, a number of solid shorter efforts…plus there’s the music I’ve created with Garageband, two disks of weird ambient tunes that still make me smile. I’ve discovered I love noodling around and experimenting with different media—Sherron has infected me with her belief that making art shouldn’t always be work, there can also be an element of play involved. In 2011, I want to do some photography, stills and short videos. Sometimes I get tired of working exclusively with words and need a break. A chance to explore non-verbal, non-narrative concepts. I’ve even tried my hand at painting. I hope to do more visual experiments in 2011 (and beyond).
But the main focus, of course, continues to be improving as a writer, growing and developing, moving the bar ever higher with each book or story I take on. I’m certain the “100 Book Challenge” will introduce me to different influences/perspectives and it will be interesting to see how that affects my work. God, wouldn’t it be wonderful if I started writing more like Italo Calvino or with the ferocity and power of a Celine?
Er, I forgot. Louis Ferdinand Celine’s not exactly a popular figure these days. Very difficult to find his work. Awful man…but even Beckett admired his writing and those two were miles apart, ideologically speaking. Celine’s malign nature is as undeniable as his genius. They probably went hand in hand. But anyone who denies themselves the opportunity to read Death on the Installment Plan or Journey to the End of the Night because of his personal failings (however despicable) is missing out on some of the finest writing of the 20th century.
All that said, the first book I’ll likely tackle in the New Year is Michael Palin’s Halfway to Hollywood: Diaries 1980-88. A volume I can zip through in less than a day. Something fast and breezy and fun to get me started.
And then only 99 more to go…