Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Anxiety of Reading at the Dawn of 2012

Tip for Reading this Post: If you scroll down (a little bit more... a little bit more... alllll the way), you'll find lists of books. Those are fun. You might find authors and titles you've never heard of, or feel good that you have.

At least since the publication of Harold Bloom's The Western Canon in 1994, reading has been a source of anxiety in our culture. (Not that I'm blaming Bloom: he was symptom, not cause, though he definitely wasn't a palliative.) The serious reader of the early 21st century is aware of an ever-expanding canon that includes not only the Western classics (heralding from England, America, France, Germany, and Russia, with Spain represented by Cervantes, Italy by Dante, and Ireland by Joyce) but also “world literature,” genre fiction, children's fiction, young adult fiction, graphic novels. And it's not only adult readers; children are now indoctrinated into this relationship to reading. This year I flipped through a parenting book on how to interest kids in reading that set off a quote from a child, apparently citing it with approval, in which he expressed his sadness at the thought of all the goods books waiting to be read.

All of this is by way of prefacing the fact that I didn't finish many books this year: if you don't count books by friends or e-acquaintances (which I haven't for the sake of limiting this long post), it doesn't even average one per month. I read almost constantly, online, when not at work or writing – online versions of print journal articles, literary or political website articles, columns, blog posts, Wikipedia articles – amounting to hundreds of pages. Mainly, though, it's book reviews and “book chat,” which have replaced all the reading of criticism I did, assigned or for pleasure, as an undergraduate and grad student (and even, for pleasure, in high school). (If I didn't force myself to draw the line at reading books about reading, reading about reading could easily replace reading for me – it already sort of has in the fiction I prefer.)

I've never been a speed-reader: I'm too easily distracted by daydreams or anxieties. Or rather, I have no attention span: I can speed-read a 10-page essay or article (or the internet equivalent), but nothing longer. I identify with the first reader in the final chapter of Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, who claims, “If a book truly interests me, I cannot follow it for more than a few lines before my mind, having seized on a thought that the text suggests to me, or a feeling, goes off on a tangent and springs from thought to thought, from image to image, in an itinerary of reasonings and fantasies that I feel the need to pursue to the end, moving away from the book until I have lost sight of it.” But my identity as a reader was set in childhood and strengthened in adolescence, so that every year I dream of recovering that pleasure in reading that has only occurred in fits and starts in adulthood, and rarely unmixed with pain. The anxiety of reading, as with the wider “100 things before you die” mentality of the early 21st century, has to do with the outraged recognition of one's mortality: in recent years I have tried to face this squarely, and I know that when I make a new list of the books I want to read before I die (always narrower, then expanding again, then strictly sheared back again), it's the closest I come to communing with the inevitability of my death. (This would also be true, I hasten to add, if I were a gamer making lists of all the video games I want to play before I die.)

To try to prevent myself from constantly buying new books to add to my library of The Unread and distract me from what I'm reading at the moment, my book-related New Year's Resolution is to Read Everything in the House (including my laptop, since I've acquired a handful of e-books) before I'm allowed to buy more books. (I permit the occasional exception if something newly published seems really, really, really exciting, but expect that to happen no more than half a dozen times per year. I've also learned to keep the receipt when it does happen, in case I'm not feeling it.) This will also narrow down the question of what to read next, which will also, I hope, make me less of a fidgety, flighty reader. (I expect none of these methods to work, of course. Devising the method and daydreaming over lists of titles and author names is at least half the fun that reading has become for me. I also identify with Calvino's sixth reader, who says, “The moment that counts most for me is the one that precedes reading. At times a title is enough to kindle in me the desire for a book that does not exist.”)

2011 continued the trend of less and less popular culture filtering through to me. It seems to me that the internet has exacerbated this effect of ageing. Endless reading on the internet has replaced mindless TV watching for me. I know the names, since you can't leave the house, even to work, without hearing about them, or seeing their faces on magazines and books: the Kardashians (still not sure what they are), Snooki (still not sure what it is), Glee, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Adele. I couldn't tell you who's singing the songs in the stores, though. Somehow, a few new hipster singers, bands, and shows still filter through to me from younger or hipper friends. In 2011 I found out about of Montreal, Janelle Monae, and The Indelicates, and also bought Florence and the Machine's Ceremonials and Sufjan Stevens's The Age of Adz. None of this especially blew me away except for of Montreal's Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? (2007). I was also the target audience for Lana Del Rey's “Video Games” single, which I discovered through the constant airplay on BBC Radio 6 (which I listen to online), and only learned about the controversy surrounding her “manufactured” image after googling her to find out more about her. I will certainly buy the album when it comes out next month, and certainly blog about the experience. As for TV, I watched Battlestar Galactica and the three seasons of Bored to Death. I effectively no longer watch new movies, Hollywood or indie, since both have disappointed me time and time again. For new movies my average is one per year, and that's going down, because this year I didn't watch any (although I do intend to check out Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method). (Will this be the film to make me climb back on board with Cronenberg after a two-decade hiatus, as Mulholland Dr. did for me with Lynch?)

This year I did discover – after encountering him through mutual Twitter friends – Bruce LaBruce's polymorphous political gay male art porn, and I can recommend Hustler White, The Raspberry Reich, and Otto, or Up with Dead People; I intend to acquire and watch more... after I've read The Books in My House. (The last few years, my desultory film explorations have included Jerry Lewis, Cassavetes, Elaine May, Antonioni, Joseph Cornell, and Maya Deren, all of whom I heartily recommend. I will also report that I still don't “get” Godard, with the exception of A Woman is a Woman, which most Godardites hate, and as much as I love Anna Karina.)

The internet, for me, hasn't so much opened the floodgates of Information as acted as a much-appreciated filter for pop culture. It's a quiet murmur of word-of-mouth, and I don't have to find out more unless I want to. Everything that doesn't reach me by this method is over there on the Other Side of Silence, like the books I've resigned myself to never reading. However, this was also the year that I developed an interest in new fiction for the first time in my life, at 36. It started with reading Bolano's 2666, and has continued through following various literary sites and bibliophiles on Twitter, which has kept me alert to all the new names in world literature with buzz and also awakened my dormant interest in The Other European Modernists (that is, the world of European Modernism beyond Joyce, Proust, and Mann). Previously, I'd only ventured as far as Robert Walser. So even as one world – pop culture – becomes dimmer and more distant for me, I have a new area to try, hopelessly, to keep up with.

What follows is the short list of books I finished reading this year and the short list books I didn't (the latter inspired by a post on Biblioklept), with links to reviews where applicable and mini-reviews otherwise, following by a long list of Books I Have in the House that I intend to read (the other ones I have in the house I have either read or have decided not to read) and a long (but partial) list of Books I Want to Read Before I Die. Happy New Year!

Books I Finished Reading in 2011

Short Books I Finished Reading in 2011:

Hard Times (Dickens)
The Rings of Saturn (Sebald)
If on a Winter's Night a Traveller (Calvino)

I'm not a Dickens fan, though I made it through Bleak House at one point and didn't mind Great Expectations. I also didn't mind Hard Times, although it wasn't what I was expecting: instead of an account of difficult economic times which I hoped to relate to the global economic crisis, it was mainly a critique, in the form of broad satire, of rationalistic education. There was some kind of commentary on the plight of the worker in the form a subplot in which an Uncle Tommish factory worker is caught between the evil forces of capitalism and an equally manipulative union, but the relation to present socioeconomic conditions was distant.

I also found myself with nothing to say about Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, although I enjoyed it. An eccentric, erudite author discussing whatever crosses his mind, like a long essay or a series of essays with unusually personal digressions, makes for pleasant reading, but the book didn't strike me on any deeper levels, and little of it has stayed with me. I intend to read Sebald's three other “novels” (if that's what they are), but not for a while.

I greatly enjoyed If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, my last read of 2011, and will be reviewing it soon, probably in the form of a comparison with Nazi Literature in the Americas.

“Filler” Non-Fiction Books I Finished in 2011:

Reality Hunger (David Shields)
Just Kids (Patti Smith)

Every now and then I can't resist picking up a short non-fiction book to read quickly between bouts of fiction-reading, or attempts at fiction-reading, which is more prone to send me down rabbit-holes of daydreaming. I was largely unimpressed with Reality Hunger, which I reviewed here. I largely enjoyed Just Kids, although many things about Patti Smith's memoir of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe left me uneasy. Briefly: despite the modesty of the title and the anecdote it comes from (elderly middle-class onlookers argue about whether the young couple are “artists” or “just kids”), there is no doubt that Smith and, in her account, Mapplethorpe always regarded themselves as Artists (capitalized) and believed that calling was sacred. It's not that I wanted her to have some sense of irony about her practises – there's too much of that around, anyway. But perhaps sometimes she could have used a sense of humour, or the minimum self-awareness to realize how the idea of art as a sacred calling jars against the account of how she and Mapplethorpe achieved success. For instance, she boasts of how, after working part-time at bookstores throughout her early 20s, she got out of that ratrace and never had a conventional job again... when one of Mapplethorpe's rich lovers and patrons gave her busywork cataloguing his collections. Sure, Smith managed to make a living through her art, but only after a period of having her way paid by Mapplethorpe's boyfriends and her own.

Smith likewise sees no irony in Mapplethorpe's social climbing and achievement of middle-class comfort (cut short by his premature death) simultaneously with his personal and artistic exploration of the gay male S/M underworld, although she is ambivalent about both his fascination with high society and his fascination with underground experimentation. I picked up the book with an average hipster's respect for both Smith and Mapplethorpe, based mainly on their reputations rather than deep familiarity with or personal interest in their work. (I knew Smith's better than Mapplethorpe, since I've owned both Horses, on CD, and Easter, on vinyl.) The more I read, the more they seemed not just like hipster heroes but like prototypical hipsters themselves, popularizing the idea of the artist and art as “outside of society” from outside the outsider's experience (or from a dual, conflicting perspective of both insider and outsider in Mapplethorpe's case, but always with the conventional goal of wealth and fame). The memoir worked best for me as a tribute to an important, unusual relationship, founded in mutual aestheticism, and I was moved by Smith's description of her reaction to Mapplethorpe's death. However, even or especially in that final sequence, the lack of any sense of humour or self-awareness creates unintentional comedy at the most serious moments, as when Smith shares this exchange with the dying Mapplethorpe:

“Did art get us, Patti?”

“I don't know, Robert, I don't know.”

I have no doubt that Mapplethorpe was an important late 20th century artist, and Smith an important link between the European avant garde tradition and the new all-American genre of rock and roll (although perhaps even more important as a charismatic androgynous frontwoman), but her understanding of “art” seems to have never evolved beyond that of a kid (which is to say, a teenager), and it creates shortcomings in self-awareness that prevent this memoir from achieving the status of... well, art.

Biggest Disappointment I Finished Reading in 2011:

The Marriage Plot (Jeffrey Eugenides) Reviewed here

Outstanding Reads of 2011:

The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in Europe (Franco Moretti) Reviewed here
The Savage Detectives (Roberto Bolano) Mentioned everywhere in this blog
Nazi Literature in the Americas (Roberto Bolano) Briefly mentioned at the end here

Books I Didn't Finish Reading in 2011:

Casualties of Distraction:

The Way We Live Now
The Aeneid

Trollope has never been rated highly among Victorian novelists except by eccentric fans and Victorianists, but he got his moment in the sun when someone (publisher or critic, I don't know) got hold of the idea that The Way We Live now served as a satirical commentary on the 2008 recession. As with Hard Times, I was expecting, but didn't get, a description of ordinary people struggling in difficult economic times. A couple of hundred pages in, and the only connection to the recession I could see was a plot about a young man who gets involved in business speculation. I liked the novel well enough, but since it wasn`t on the topic I was expecting, I wasn't in the mood for a Victorian novel of marriage, fortune-making, and publishing-world satire, so I put it aside to return to when I am.

I also enjoyed the first four books of The Aeneid (I even gave it a partial review), but I wasn't in the mood for classical epic poetry, either, so abandoned it, too, for the time being.

Casualties of Frustration:

War and Peace

I bought this volume after getting caught up in the buzz about the new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, but when I finally picked it up and started reading, I was disappointed on two levels: first, I hadn't realized that Tolstoy's masterwork was a soap opera; which I wouldn't mind (I like epic soap operas) except that the prose and dialogue were disconcertingly flat. I don't know if this is a problem of translation or authorial style. I don't remember being put off by the prose and dialogue when I read Anna Karenina in some standard translation (probably Constance Garnett's) years ago, although I had big problems with the novel: namely, the monstrously narcissistic parallel protagonists, Anna and Levin. In any case, I put it down and didn't pick it up again about 300 pages in. Maybe I just wasn't in the right mood, and I'll certainly come back to War and Peace, and give this translation another try.

The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War

Speaking of disbelief, I couldn't believe anyone could make the sage of the eccentric, artistic, suicidal, probably autistic Wittgenstein siblings this boring, but that is exactly what Evelyn's grandson, Alexander Waugh, accomplishes here. There's a strange mixture of overly detailed writing, failing to create a sense of either external or psychological drama, and omission of essential context, especially when it comes to the star, Ludwig Wittgenstein, about whom the writer seems to assume the reader already knows the basic received narrative of his life. I do – I took a graduate course in Wittgenstein that treated him very much like a star, with as much attention to the man as to his work – but I would have liked to read a fresh take, and one that interwove his biography with the other Wittgensteins featured here. I gave up around page 70, and whether or not I finish it depends on if I feel differently when I pick it up again. I still want to buy The House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family, which does the same thing for the eccentric, artistic, possibly autistic James siblings, to see if this sort of family biography can be done properly.

Little, Big

I had never heard of this classic of American fantasy before seeing the handsome trade paperback edition, with its cover blurb rave by Harold Bloom. I've been meaning to read more (which is to say, any) genre fiction, so this seemed like the perfect place to begin. However, it's a slow start indeed, and I gave up about thirty pages in, just as we start finding out a bit more about the fantasy premise. I will return to it and give it another go sometime.

Biggest Disappointment I Couldn't Finish Reading of 2011:


I bought this in hardcover because of the hype (and beautiful cover design). Before I'd got a hundred pages in, the backlash had started, allowing me, with relief, to exchange it. I've been hearing about Murakami for years and thought this would be the ideal introduction, but even fans admit it's one of his weakest efforts. Due to the author's reputation, even the harshest critiques in the press and blogosphere have been more diplomatic than my own reactions. Forget how interesting the plot or philosophical digressions were or weren't, or whether the description of every female character's breasts were gratuitous; I couldn't get past the prose, which was bad not in the usual, incoherently metaphorical “literary fiction” way but in the amateurish manner of a bestselling thriller. Actually, even most thriller writers know better than to punctuate every line of dialogue with unnecessary physical descriptions of actions like eating and drinking (I remember reading a “How to Write” book aimed at popular fiction writers that sagely warned against this error), or, while writing from character POV, refer to details of characters' expressions that would never, in fact, be noticed in an interpersonal interaction. (For one thing, we spend a lot of our interpersonal interactions not looking at each other, never mind not intently scrutinizing each other for clues to personality and mood, let alone in what appears to be a conscious, lucid manner.)

It's a shame this was my first encounter with Murakami, because I probably won't be back now. This was the novel that was going to decide whether or not to add Murakami to my “to read” list, and unfortunately, it didn't go well. Some authors, however great they may be, have to get booted off that list, with whatever excuse.

Books I Tasted:

The Second Sex

I thought what with the new translation (although naturally there`s already been a backlash against it), it was time to finally tackle this giant work of philosophy that according to my hero, Camille Paglia (and many others), contains all future topics of feminism within it. I dipped into it knowing I wasn't going to read it right away, and the first chapter, a severely abstract treatise on the questionable necessity of the category of gender and the criteria for distinguishing between the genders, complete with zoological and biological examples and explanations, did not disappoint. I'm looking forward to this one.

The Books in My House

I realized in writing these next two lists that they are of no possible use to you, in terms of understanding what point of progress I'm at as a reader, without knowing what I have read. Without that knowledge, these lists look even more eccentric than they actually are (or, for that matter, less, if you think I've read some more obvious choices that I haven't). But that's fine: the only possible interest they could have for you is to introduce you to some titles or authors you might not know. Maybe (probably) you'll read them before I do.

19th Century Novel:

The Charterhouse of Parma (Stendhal)
Pierre, or, the Ambiguities (Melville)
The Professor (Charlotte Bronte)
No Name (Wilkie Collins)
War and Peace (Tolstoy)
A Sentimental Education (Flaubert)
The Princess Casamassima (Henry James)

20th Century Novel:

The Book of Disquiet (Pessoa)
*Remembrance of Things Past (Proust)
Ulysses (Joyce)
The Radetsky March (Roth)
Absolom, Absolom! (Faulkner)
The Last Unicorn (Beagle)
Little, Big (Crowley)
The Loser (Bernard)
His Dark Materials (Pullman) (maybe)
Parallel Lives (Nadas)

Short Stories:

*Lady with Lapdog and Other Stories (Chekhov)
*Collected Fictions (Borges)


The Aeneid (Virgil, trans. Robert Fagles)
*Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (ed. David V. Erdman)
*Leaves of Grass (Whitman)
*Complete Poetry and Prose of Arthur Rimbaud (trans. and ed. Wyatt Mason)
The Road Not Taken: A Selection of Robert Frost`s Poems

Biography and Autobiography:

Confessions of Augustine
The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila
Freud's Women (Lisa Appignanesi and John Forrester)
The House of Wittgenstein: A House at War (Alexander Waugh)
*Susan Sontag: Reborn: Journals & Notebooks 1947-1963 (ed. David Rieff)
James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (Julie Phillips)
Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade (Justin Spring)

History and Politics:

The Revolution in America (Burke)
The Rights of Man (Paine)
The Old Regime and the French Revolution (Toqueville)
The Origins of Political Order (Francis Fukuyama)


The Nicomachean Ethics (Aristotle)
The New Science (Vico)
The Varieties of Religious Experience (James)
The Second Sex (Beauvoir)
**Kant: A Very Short Introduction
**Logic: A Very Short Introduction

Theory, Criticism, Essay Collections:

*Essays of Montaigne
Biographica Literaria (Coleridge)
*The Painter of Modern Life (Baudelaire)
*Silly Novels by Lady Novelists (Eliot)
Days of Reading (Proust)
Books and Cigarettes (Orwell)
*The Social History of Art (Hauser)
*On Writing (Borges)
About Looking (Berger)
Gender Trouble (Butler)
Male Impersonators (Simpson)
Regarding the Pain of Others (Sontag)


The Book of the Courtier (Castiglione)

*I have read portions of these collections, notebooks, or multi-volume works.
**I bought these with the intention of refreshing my memory or getting a firm grasp on the subject, as someone who did a minor in philosophy as an undergraduate many years ago now. It remains to be seen if I'll get around to acting on the excellent intention.

Books I Want to Read Before I Die (Partial and Ever-Shifting)

Pre-19th Century:

The Canterbury Tales (Chaucer)
Don Quixote (Cervantes)
The Princess of Cleves (Madame de La Fayette)
Gulliver's Travels (Swift)
Tom Jones (Fielding) (maybe)
Tristam Shandy (Sterne) (maybe)
Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (Goethe)

19th Century Novel:

The Red and the Black (Stendhal)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Hugo)
A Harlot High and Low (Balzac)
Dead Souls (Gogol)
Moby Dick (Melville)
Les Miserables (Hugo)
An Evening with M. Teste (Valery)
Imaginary Lives (Schwob)

20th Century Novel:

The Immoralist (Gide)
The House of Mirth (Wharton)
A Room with a View (Forster)
Kristin Lavransdatter (Undset)
The Magic Mountain (Mann)
Confessions of Zeno (Svevo)
The Counterfeiters (Gide)
The Sound and the Fury (Faulkner)
Light in August (Faulkner)
Auto da Fe (Canetti)
Ferdydurke (Gombrowicz)
The Invention of Morel (Casares)
The Man Without Qualities (Musil)
Doctor Faustus (Mann)
Under the Volcano (Lowry)
The Kingdom of This World (Carpentier)
The Recognitions (Gaddis) (maybe)
Explosion in a Cathedral (Carpentier)
The Confederacy of Dunces (Toole)
Next Episode (Aquin)
Myra Breckenridge (Vidal)
Invisible Cities (Calvino)
Life: A User's Manual (Perec) (maybe)
The Furies (Hobhouse)
Infinite Jest (Wallace) (maybe)

20th-21st Century Authors of Interest:

Robert Walser
Thomas Bernard
Peter Nadas
W. G. Sebald
Roberto Bolano
Laszlo Krasznahorkai


Paradise Regained (Milton)
Don Juan (Byron)

Biography and Autobiography:

Apologia Pro Vita Sua (John Henry Newman)
The Naked Civil Servant (Quentin Crisp)
Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell (Deborah Solomon)
The House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family (Paul Fisher)

Theory, Criticism, Essay Collections:

A Barthes Reader (ed. Susan Sontag)
Ways of Seeing (Berger)


The Prince (Machiavelli)
The Philosophical Investigations (Wittgenstein)


Shamanism (Eliade)

It's evident from both lists that my reading goals have become modest indeed: only 54 titles in the first, 51 in the second, plus, say, five per author of the ones I listed without giving specific titles, for a total of around 135, ranging in length from around a hundred pages to over a thousand. Generously, I give myself until I'm 50 to clear these, as well as anything new that comes to my attention in that time (generously, I say, although it will mean picking up the pace considerably, or developing some focus). Still, 50 would be young to have your reading conscience clear. That's the dream, now: to get out from under the pile of the clamouring books, to be free and able to read whatever I want to – history, biography, philosophy, anthropology, economics, science fiction. Like when I was an adolescent plucking books from the library shelves based on the curiousity of the moment or eagerly following the footsteps of an idol's reading (in those days it was David Bowie, these days it would be Robert Bolano). It's probably an unrealizable dream. Even if I finish these 200 odd titles, listed or anticipated, in timely fashion, will I be free, or will I have enslaved myself to a new list, rushing in to fill the void? (What about that graphic novels canon, clawing at the corner of my consciousness, demanding attention, even now?)

I have no set list of books that I intend to read in 2012, partly because it would intimidate me, and partly because, among the limited number of books in the house, I want to leave room for whim and mood. But I do want to read Parallel Lives and The Origins of Political Order while they're still hot (I'm missing out on enough hot reading this year by largely restricting myself to the house), so, in my expanded definition, that means in the next six months. I also want to immediately launch on the pile of books I've acquired for novel research, which I will not be blogging about out of a superstitious desire to say nothing about my Big Novel Project. But do remind me, this year, to resist the temptation of Filler Non-Fiction, the potato chips of reading. You think you want it... you think it's gonna be so good... but no, it's just another bag of potato chips.

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