“The Ghost of Books: Past, Future, and Present” is an experiment not in terror and not necessarily Dickensian. We’ve asked certain writers to respond to the three times (or tenses) in the subtitle, or simply to the title.
In “The Ghost of Books Past,” we learn what a handful of writers were reading as children: first books, books that shaped them, books they couldn’t shake. We learn, too, some regrets about books not read, books they maybe pretended to have read, books loved and later forgotten.
“ The Ghost of Books Future” will tell us about forthcoming titles some eagerly await.
Which leaves us with “The Ghost of Books Present,” where we learn what certain folks are currently reading, and what they plan, and do not plan, to give as gifts.
By Sven Birkerts, Gary Phillips, Julie Cline, Ben Ehrenreich, Stephen Elliott, Matthew Specktor, Mary Otis, Ayelet Waldman, Meghan Daum, Sesshu Foster, Laila Lalami, Ben Loory, Casey Walker, Jane Smiley, Mark Haskell Smith, Morgan Macgregor, Cullen Gallagher, Chris Kraus, Jennifer Egan, Padgett Powell, Antoine Wilson, and Matt Weiland.
I still have the book on my shelf; it’s a green hardback with a reasonably wide black band on the right side of the front cover, paralleling a similar stripe on its back cover. The book is a collection of short stories, Stories From the Twilight Zone, and are prose versions of the teleplays Rod Serling wrote for his sci-fi, morality tales anthology TV show, the Twilight Zone. I was eight or nine and my Uncle Sammy’s girlfriend, “Aunt” Virginia, gave me the book for Christmas along with the collected Sherlock Holmes and the collected Edgar Allan Poe.
I think she got the books as some sort of Reader’s Digest book club special. Anyway, what I remember to this day is the lightning bolt that went off in my head when I started reading the short stories in that book. Tales such as “The Mighty Casey,” about an android baseball player; “The Midnight Sun,” about a woman who dreams it’s unbearably hot when her reality is the world is gripped by unrelenting cold; or “The Big, Tall Wish” when a kid’s faith is stronger than the will of a washed-up boxer. I think I knew then that actors learned their lines from scripts, but reading those stories suddenly crystallized in my head what the power of words could do.
Maybe having seen the stories, particularly the Serling ones, acted out on all those TZ re-runs I devoured as a kid had already planted the notion that how you said what you said mattered. But the text allowed me a glimpse into the inner thoughts of the characters and that just floored me — how cool was that? Even then I’d read other books, but this was the first adult kind of book and was different than Robin Hood or Pinocchio, or for damn sure the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift. Emotions and desires, hopes and fears, it was all there starkly and with subtlety on those pages. Was it possible I could put words down like Serling and the other writers I would discover? That became my big, tall wish… well, that and wanting a Stingray bike.
There are always, for all of us, the books not yet read, those cross-hatchings of desire and ambition. Or obligation and guilt. The selves we wish we were would have gotten to them already. But we will get there. One day, soon, over break, next summer… They make a future. And they hold an idea of change. As if. As if when we have read them, we’ll be different. As of course we will. But we don’t often consider how the horizon also keeps receding as we make our way forward. Knock off the Purgatorio, and the distant peak of Lucretius (thank you, Stephen Greenblatt) rises into view. No end. But then — cold comfort — there is less and less of old-style guilt involved, as the cultural pressure to have read has, it seems, diminished considerably, making it more clear than before that the reading of books is not a contest.
But isn’t it all a funhouse geography? Nothing holds still. The new peaks appear before us, creating the illusion — or, more likely, confirming the truth — that there’s no real progress to be had. And if we try to console ourselves by looking back, we may — I certainly do — see what a blur most of my achieved reads have become. Books become ghosts. That was the one where, but how did it end, was he finally redeemed, wasn’t there a boathouse, a man with a whip…? If I can’t remember it, am I allowed to count it? And where do all those words go? Related question: where does anything go? What happened to all those miles driven, those glasses of wine, those avowals of lasting brotherhood? Isn’t the point of reading to set us up in a place immune from all that slippage? It is! But that is, alas, then subject to the other slippage. Failure of memory. Or maybe just a faulty contact. There are, of course, the authors encountered at the right time, in the right way, their sensibilities making us their host. But they are countered by all those read, wrestled with — annotated, even — when we were just not primed, not hospitable: the books taken in too soon, or hurried through for a test, a paper. The Charterhouse of Parma. Can I in all conscience count that? A character naned Mosca, a prison-house. Or was that The Red and the Black? Julien Sorel — he looked through a prison-tower window, too, didn’t he? I loved that book. Forty years ago. Can I count it? And if I have forgotten it, as I mainly have, am I even the slightest bit different in my make-up, my sensibility, than I would be if I hadn’t? If some irritatingly literary person mentions it at a party, will I allow that I once read it? Of course. Will I laugh and say that I can’t remember a thing about it? A few years ago, no. These days…
Far from discouraging further reading, that ghostliness makes it all the more tempting — for if books past and future are ectoplasmic at best, the book engaged still wakens the inside life decisively. How I loved my summer with Javier Marias’s Your Face Tomorrow trilogy, or, in recent weeks, new novels by Julian Barnes, Aravind Ariga, Michael Ondaajte…
Writhe no more, little flowers. Art keeps long hours.
Already your agony has outlasted ours.
– “On a Picture by Burchfield,” Donald Justice
Let us go, Ghost of Books Past, to Christmas Eve 1985: an alley behind a condominium in California. Santa Ana. We see an eleven-year-old girl doing some shopping for her little sister, out of the dumpster. The girl emerges with a hardcover, large-format picture book in mint condition. Someone has thrown away Cunningham’s Rooster…
The book went, if I remember correctly, like this: Cunningham is a pianist, a composer who is also a cat. He lives alone with his pet rooster, Kenneth, whom he loves dearly. One night, when Kenneth disappears, the pianist has reason to believe that his rooster has met with ill fate, has, in fact, been torn to shreds: a possum is at large in the neighborhood. Cunningham’s suspicions are confirmed the following morning when he finds three tail feathers — one “cerulean,” one “brick red,” and one “emerald green” (all familiar to the Crayola user) — on the path leading away from the apartment door. He’s devastated. The pianist cat in the red turtleneck gathers the feathers, steps inside, and calmly takes a seat at the piano. He will elegize Kenneth in song. Cunningham composes “Rooster Rhapsody” with his eyes closed, his head thrown back, and it’s a wonderful melody, a love story and a lament — perfectly suited, I thought, for Kenneth, even though we learn very little about the rooster (he sang in the shower, liked to eat bugs) in the page or so leading up to his implied death.
“Rhapsody” was ecstasy plus grief times infinity: terrifically wrenching in its movements, its light and dark variations, mournful silences, etc. It was exactly the song I’d want written about me after being torn to shreds by a possum. The song was purely instrumental — though of course, physically, I could not hear it.
Spellbound by the author’s description of “Rhapsody,” my heart swelling for Cunningham in his bereaved state and homely turtleneck, I closed the book and thought, What a gift. Then I re-opened it: on the book’s pastedowns, beneath “Rooster Rhapsody,” was printed a kind of code, some funny black marks that looked like — like I didn’t know what — like a sickening cross between cursive and long division. But I knew what they meant. They meant it was a real song, one I thought I knew but didn’t.
I would go on never to learn how to read music. Nor would I ever forget the spirit of Cunningham’s lament. Like a rooster etherized upon a tune, so are the ghosts of abandoned picture books.
This Christmas, 2011, I will give my big sister two unused, handsome books, purchased at Skylight Books but never read: Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers: A Novel — because anyone compared to Charles Portis and Flannery O’Connor can’t be half bad, and because I love the cover art and the title; and Nathanael West’s A Cool Million / The Dream Life of Balso Snell — because at a reading recently my sister told Joe Woodward, author of a new West biography, that she had only read Miss Lonelyhearts and Locust. I remained silent: I did own a copy of A Cool Million…
To one New York-born member of our staff, I’ll give Norman Klein’s The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory, lest he forget the things he never knew about his true home.
As for wishes, it used to be that whenever I’d see a Portis novel in a used bookstore (Cliff’s in Pasadena is a trove), I’d pick it up and throw it in the back of my station wagon to hand off to any deserving new friend. I have read Norwood maybe eighteen times, and it only gets funnier: “You think I don’t know that people don’t like me on account of my personality?” But I’m done with doling Portis out piecemeal. O, Overlook Press, it is time to collect his novels, chronologically, in one big tome! Do it now! Relieve me of my project of sewing each together, cover to cover.
While I’m being demanding, I hope someone will give me R. Crumb’s illustrated Book of Genesis as well as his new Complete Record Cover Collection. And I will give to someone — I don’t yet know whom — Donald Justice’s Collected Poems. (Look, Overlook Press: collections!) For my birthday, summer of 2012, I will take two-dozen copies, please, of Padgett Powell’s You & Me (out now in Britain as, strangely, You & I).
Finally, I will give to Tom Lutz, editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books (my boss), Howard Haggard’s Devils, Drugs, and Doctors: The Story and Science of Healing from Medicine-Man to Doctor (1929), which I discovered outside the Riverside Public Library, in the dumpster.
Okay, Ghost of Books Past :
For many years, I believed that my favorite novel was Catch-22. I remembered reading it as a teenager and being transported by the interweaving narratives and impressionistic style. It seemed a perfect amalgam of radical originality and great human storytelling, and occupied the supreme position in my mental pantheon. Then, in my late twenties, I sat down and re-read the novel, and the magic was gone.
Though I was disillusioned with Joseph Heller to the point of anger, it clearly wasn’t his fault; one thing that had driven me back to Catch-22 was my discovery and admiration for a later novel of his, Something Happened. Heller was an excellent writer, no question. But I never lost myself in Catch-22 that second time, and — most bizarrely — my favorite narrative strand, a shivery account of a character recovering from a lung illness, was not in the novel at all. Somehow I’d conflated Catch-22 with another book, not to mention injected it with a whopping dose of teenage emotional paroxysm and revelatory self discovery. What novel could live up to all that?
Ghosts of Book Present :
In between projects and in search of what I like to call “assisted reverie,” I was about to pull Gaston Bachelard’s classic The Poetics of Space off the shelf when a friend recommended a Bachelard title I hadn’t heard of: Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter. I’ve only just begun reading, but GB’s already working his old magic on me: “To be active, a phantom cannot wear motley.”
On reading a letter :
I was put in glasses age 14 when the driver-license lady said “Read line six,” and I said “What lines?” I could read the giant E but below that was a chromosomal fuzzy mass. When I got to school with my John Lennon dork round frames I looked out the window and saw LEAVES on trees. I had theretofore seen a green crayon-like monotonism that I knew represented leaves but had no idea one was supposed to see them. I looked out the windows amazed for weeks. This was roughly the same time I saw Allen Collins also 14 play guitar en route to becoming a millionaire before I was a sophomore in college. I now approach 60 — how has this happened?
On reading books :
My grasp of The Ghost — what one is to do — is murky, but that is the way it should be, one supposes, with ghosts. I am reading Under The Volcano and The Third Man, the latter of which is compelled by reading How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard. I picked the Bayard up after doing an interview with a British magazine called Dazed and Confused in which the books I have not read had repeatedly come up. I believe I averred in the interview that I had not read Joseph Conrad but that I knew where he was on the radar, and what he was… where he is in what Bayard calls the collective library. It is Bayard’s thesis that knowing where a book is in this library is more important than thinking you have read the book or indeed than having read the book (they are the same thing). The book was at my very elbow after my revealing interview and the host gave it to me. The interview may be fun because it was shot on VHS in the host’s slatternly apartment in Waterloo with lighting supplied by two lamps on the floor, which is apparently their natural placement. I notice in Lowery and Greene what I am going to call a British tic: a clipped, nice sentence that is punchy but not without ambiguity, which to clear up would be pedestrian. This goes back a long way, think of Wilde, and it is infectious. Let’s call it the ghost of classic British reticence. While in England I stayed so near the British Museum that I went every day and studied closely Lord Elgin’s infamous purloined rocks.
The ghosts come quickest at Christmastime, but they never really go away. Ghosts of people loved and lost, ghosts of alleyways and rivers run, ghosts of the books we found ourselves in and made ourselves out of. These are the cheery, chastening ghosts of youthful expectation, of possibility and promise, and they are always with us. They are forever rattling their chains on the attic stair, imploring: Be true to your unmade self! Do not forget the wide world you imagined!
It is the wild-eyed ghosts of Delmore Schwartz’s books that haunt me most. At seventeen I read a mass market paperback edition of James Atlas’s electric biography, Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet, and I became a Delmore addict. (“No one ever called him by his last name,” wrote Atlas.) In a blaze that year I read everything — the poems, the stories, the letters, the essays, the journals. The titles of the books alone were enough to enthrall a teenager: In Dreams Begin Responsibilities; Summer Knowledge; The World is a Wedding; Successful Love. But the words and ideas within were intoxicating: a heady blend of high Modernism, a witty and epigrammatic style, and lowbrow epistemology. From the poems: “The ground on which the ball bounces / Is another bouncing ball.” From the essays: “Existentialism means that no one else can take a bath for you.” From the journals: “Wine is one of the proofs of the existence of God.”
I soon grew obsessed not just by Delmore’s writing, but by the vigor and tragedy of his life, his high spirits and hijinks, and his madness. Here was Delmore with W.H. Auden in 1944, scribbling poems in adjoining rooms of Delmore’s Cambridge house and reconvening to argue over the lone eraser. There was Delmore with a group of literary luminaries at the Gotham Book Mart in Manhattan, cracking up Randall Jarrell just before the camera’s shutter clicked. Here was Delmore at Syracuse University in 1962, teaching prosody to a 20-year-old Lou Reed! And there went raging, broken Delmore, showing up at John Berryman’s door, unannounced and unexplained, in the middle of a blizzard — only to rush off again before telling him why he’d come. He died a forlorn death in a squalid Times Square Hotel in 1966, just 53. But he had long since been ruined. Almost a decade before, Auden had said of him: “Nobody should look that unhappy.”
I had somehow begun to feel about Delmore the way I’d felt about a beloved dog my stepfather kept: he was a silent partner, a sympathizer, a private pal to tote up life’s victories and defeats with. It was absurd, of course. But all the more intense for that. I razored a picture of Delmore out of a volume of his selected letters and glued it to the top of my beige Mac II, a shrine of sorts, and I spent the weeks before leaving for college inhaling Berryman’s series of eulogies for Delmore in his magnificent Dream Songs. From Dream Song 147: “Delmore, Delmore. / He flung to pieces and they hit the floor.” Dream Song 151: “Bitter & bleary over Delmore’s dying: / his death stopped clocks.” Dream Song 155: “I can’t get him out of my mind, out of my mind.”
Eventually, I moved on. The Mac went to the dust heap long ago, as dead, as Dickens once said of Marley, as the deadest piece of ironmongery, the coffin-nail. And I don’t know — can’t bear to know — what happened to the dog. But Delmore’s books are in print and still kicking and I haven’t forgotten the enlivening effect they had on me, the air they gave me. I can’t get them out of my mind, out of my mind! Now welcome word comes that New Directions will issue a new edition of In Dreams Begin Responsibilities in June 2012, with an introduction by Lou Reed. Rattle, bones!
Speaking of Ghosts :
For months now, I’ve been reading David Grossman’s To the End of the Land — which I want to finish, but also I don’t. A poet friend, David Biespiel (who won the Oregon book award this year) admits that he reads Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn again and again but never gets to the last page, because he doesn’t want it to end. And I guess, as the end gets closer, I’m starting to feel that way about Grossman’s book, which is everything the critics have said, from Toibin (in the New York Times) to Packer (in the New Yorker) to Gottlieb (in the Los Angeles Times) to Balint, right here at the LARB: Yes, sure, as much as anything this is a tome about the senselessness of war. Which might be why people keep asking me — when they hear that I’m somewhere in the middle, when I tell them the book makes my throat hurt — if it isn’t impossibly sad? The thing is — it isn’t. It isn’t because this book is deeply sad that it’s hard to read or hard to put down; I mean, yes, it’s sad, but the best kind of sad — infused with beauty and joy and having to do with the human condition across the board; with our bewilderment in the face of our mortality, and the courage, joy, and pride (we’re only human, right?) we nonetheless take in our efforts and experience.
Seems to me this has been one of those years (are they all years like this and I just didn’t notice?), when we’ve been again and again confronted with art that examines our perception of time over and over — in terms of moments on the one hand and eons on the other (from Christian Marclay’s The Clock to Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life) — but Grossman gets at the utter poignancy of the passage of minutes, and days, and years, and our place on the continuum, in a way that feels entirely original, with a story that’s as singular as it is universal: as the best stories are, right?
Anyway — for me — this is a book about how we are responsible for each other and also how we’re not. How we cannot help but fail the people we love, precisely because we love them. Then too, it’s about the power of memory (speaking of ghosts) — and about making everything real even before it disappears. It’s about having faith in the ongoing, and about how it goes on, regardless of whether or not we have faith; since the world, the natural world, that is, is just bigger than we, and largely oblivious to our contortions. For the moment I feel as though I have never read anything so authentic, and brave, and committed to investigating the human condition. It is therefore excruciating to read — exquisitely so on the level of the prose — not only because it’s tragic, but because, sad or joyful, it feels so entirely and deeply true. Bottom line: ghosts are all well and good, nothing bad about ghosts of books past — even so I’m not wanting to finish this one, not ready to let it waft away…
The Ghost of Dickens Past :
In seventh grade, we were assigned Oliver Twist. I was in the A section. Our teacher, Miss Fieselman, was a strict and humorless woman. We had two weeks to read the novel. The print was much smaller than the print of the Black Stallion and Nancy Drew books I was used to reading. But I was the sort of girl who did my homework, sat in the front row, and was always pushing my glasses up my nose. We began to discuss the famous scene where Oliver asks for a second helping of gruel, and Mr. Bumble nearly passes out with the shock of it. “Please sir, I want some more.” I raised my hand and asked why the master didn’t give it to him. I was truly curious. Was there gruel left, and if so, why couldn’t he have a second helping? Miss Fieselman whipped around and stared at me. Did I not understand the basic premise of the novel, that Oliver was trapped in a cruel world, surrounded by heartless and dishonest adults? I kept my mouth shut, but no, I did not.
In ninth grade, we were assigned David Copperfield. If Oliver Twist had been incomprehensible, then Great Expectations, which we read in eighth grade, had been frightening. I knew no one like Miss Havisham, no one like Pip’s vicious sister, no one like Magwitch. When I saw how long David Copperfield was, I pushed it under my bed and refused to think about it. But I was still the sort of girl who did her homework, and so, on the Saturday before the Monday it was due, I pulled it out and started reading. Had I grown up? Had Dickens gotten more forgiving and good-humored? I read the 900 pages in two days, with great pleasure. I understood the point of Mr. Murdstone, of Aunt Betsey Trotwood, and of Mr. Dick. I sympathized with David’s friendship with Steerforth and his love for Dora. I appreciated the difference between Dora and Agnes. I got it. For the next eight years, I thought literature had riches that I could uncover — all I needed to do was sit and read it, and I did, but, because of courses and assignments, never again Dickens. But Dickens had opened the door, and I knew it.
When I was a senior in college, I was living with four guys, none of whom appreciated Dickens. By that time I was much more familiar with Beowulf and Shakespeare than I was with Dickens. Nevertheless, just before Christmas, I picked up Our Mutual Friend. I started on a Saturday morning. I read and read, sitting in a chair beside the Christmas tree. My roommates went to bed. My husband went to bed. The house got still. Two and a half feet of snow outside the window. Creaking winds. The entire world of the novel seemed to exist in full, the Veneerings over here, and Lizzy Hexam over here, Eugene Wrayburn in his corner, Bradley Headstone closing in upon him. Nothing I’d read before, no matter how beloved, had come alive in that way — each word impressing itself upon me, then dissipating into the whole, building an entire world one mote at a time. Before I read Our Mutual Friend, I had thought that I liked books and writing, and maybe that was something I wanted to do. After I read it, I could do nothing else.
MARK HASKELL SMITH
At the risk of sounding porny, who wouldn’t want to find an attractive, unreliable narrator stuffing their stocking on Christmas morning? That’s why I’m giving all my friends and family Sara Levine’s extremely funny debut novel Treasure Island!!! (Europa Editions) for the holidays. You can trace the comedic-literary lineage from Don Quixote to A Confederacy of Dunces to this incredibly enjoyable book.
It tells the tale of a charmingly deranged young woman who, inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, buys a parrot and begins to reinvent herself as a fearless doer in a world of sheep. It is, among other things, an inspiring self-help book. It’s a timely gift too; this whack-a-doodle adventuress, with her four-pronged credo of BOLDNESS, RESOLUTION, INDEPENDENCE, and HORN-BLOWING, is just the person we need to lead us into 2012, with the looming madness of an election cycle and the apocalypso-nonsense that comes with the end of the Mayan calendar.
In the fifth grade, someone (probably my school librarian) advised me to read A Wrinkle in Time, that kid-lit classic that blew so many mutable, half-formed minds. A couple of days later, I was at the mall with my mom, and split with her to go into the bookstore (remember when malls had bookstores?). Browsing the shelves, I came across A Clockwork Orange, and somehow I confused this for A Wrinkle in Time (to my credit, both were published in 1962, both deal with crazy dystopian sci-fi scenarios) and bought the Burgess novel instead. Do I even need to tell you?… I read the whole thing in three sleepless, terrifying, feverish nights in which I actually (physically; I remember this perfectly) felt that I was disappearing from the world as I knew it and being consumed by some invisible violent force that I could keep at bay only by staying awake. I’m still convinced that this is the reason why I was such a disturbingly morbid child, if I was in fact as morbid as I remember myself being.
I’ve never read A Clockwork Orange again, and can’t. Actually, I can’t even read A Wrinkle in Time, so I guess that’s another of my ghosts.
Ghost of Books Present:
I’m about to start Reed Farrell Coleman’s latest Moe Prager mystery, Hurt Machine. As for gifts, a friend of mine who adores New York City history is getting William Heffernan’s first novel, Broderick, based on real life NYC police officer Johnny Broderick, called “the world’s toughest cop” by Time Magazine. I might get my brother some Alister MacLean, if he doesn’t pick them up on his own first. I’m not sure what to get some of my friends who read a lot and who already have huge to-be-read piles — sometimes I feel bad adding to their guilt by giving them even more to read.
Ghost of Books Past:
One of my favorite book-reading memories is sitting at my favorite diner (Jimmy’s, in Brooklyn) reading John Fante’s The Road to Los Angeles cover-to-cover and laughing my ass off — out loud. Not many books crack me up in that way, but reading about young Arturo Bandini’s battle with the crabs was just too funny. Another favorite experience was reading Bukowski’s Tales of Ordinary Madness when I was twelve. I hid behind my bed in Maine with a stack of John Grisham paperbacks by my side, to make a quick switch in the event that my parents walked in and caught me. Little did I realize that they were also Bukowski fans and would have approved. Oh, well.
The only book that I can recall ever having lied about reading was Franz Kafka’s The Trial. In my junior year of high school, I took a course called 20th Century Literature. We read some great stuff (like Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita and Kosinski’s The Painted Bird). For our final project, we had to choose a novel and read it on our own. I picked Kafka’s The Trial. Typically, I wasn’t one to slack on my English classes, and I usually doubled (and tripled, sometimes) lit classes whenever I could cajole the guidance counselor into letting me do so. For some reason I woke up on the last day of 20th Century Lit and realized I forgot to read The Trial (don’t ask me why). I also had to hand in a final project that day based on the book. The teacher said that it could be a “creative” project, so I hurriedly wrote a one-page poem about an exterminator based on what I “thought” the book was about. Totally weak on my part. Yeah, I still hang my head in shame. Dumbass, dumbass, dumbass…
Ghost of Books Future:
As soon as it hits the eBook world this weekend, I’ll be reading Heath Lowrance’s Miles to Little Ridge, which is his first contribution to Edward A. Grainer’s Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles series. I also have stacks of Brian Garfield, Dean Owen, and William Heuman western paperbacks to go through this winter, as well as a pile of Orrie Hitt paperbacks (Affair with Lucy, Affairs of a Beauty Queen, Carnival Girl, Shabby Street, and Teaser) that I’ve been meaning to get to. As for 2012, right now I’m most looking forward to Wallace Stroby’s Kings of Midnight (due out in April from St. Martin’s/Minotaur), the follow-up to Cold Shot to the Heart, which was one of my favorite crime novels from 2011.
I read Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory this fall in Australia, where the Gavin Bowd translation had already been published. I found it devastating: apt on every page, poetic, just the right kind of melancholy. It is more allegory than parody. The protagonist, if you can call him that, Jed Martin, is a contemporary artist who produces a new body of work about once every ten years. This seems realistic. The concentrated level of desire required to make art is rare. Some of these groups of work become phenomenally successful. Jed Martin is a contemporary conceptual artist driven by an antiquated modernist ethos stripped of all romance. That is: his desultory process is authentic. Houellebecq’s books — particularly his best, which I think are Map and Elementary Particles — never struck me as “novels of ideas.” The term implies a didactic manipulation of characters and plot towards finite things, “ideas,” that once said are already dead. Houellebecq’s novels are intelligent and active, like philosophy. They are unsentimental elegies to the destruction of experience that began a hundred years ago but is still acutely felt today. Like all my favorite books, I immediately gave The Map and the Territory to a friend.
Right now I’m reading a lot of Mary McCarthy. I have an assignment to write a long essay about her and I’ve been immersing myself in her and it’s just great. I’d read a biography and some of her journals years ago, but not much of the fiction. Some of it is really risqué and ahead of its time. The Group is kind of like a 1930s version of Sex in the City.
For holiday gifts I enjoy picking out cool children’s books for my niece and nephews. I go to the children’s section of Vroman’s in Pasadena and they help me out. I always end up buying stuffed animals, too, because I love them.
Though the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books were huge for me, I think the first author that felt like a true influence (because it’s hard for a kid in 1970s and 1980s suburbia to really be “influenced” by someone writing about corn husk dolls and covered wagons) was Ellen Conford. She wrote a ton of young adult novels during those decades and the ones I remember the best were books like Hail, Hail Camp Timberwood and The Luck of Pokey Bloom, which was about a girl who was obsessed with entering lotteries and sweepstakes. What I loved about these books was that they were funny. They were satirical about the contemporary culture and the heroines were generally kind of wacky and funny and didn’t take themselves too seriously. This was in contrast to Judy Blume’s books, which, in their quest to take on controversial issues, always seemed to me to have a heavy, earnest quality, (sorry, Judy! I know you’re a legend) as if menstruation could effectively send your world crashing down. But Conford books were light without being (at least to a 10-year-old) lightweight. I was such a Conford fan that the school librarian set up a conference call with Conford and a select few “serious readers” from my fourth grade class. I’ll never forget sitting around talking to her on a speakerphone, thinking, “This is a real writer; this is what her voice sounds like; the actual lady who wrote these books is actually talking to me right now!” It was probably the first encounter I’d ever had with a published author — not to mention with a speakerphone.
I’ve spent the better part of my life trying not to let on that I haven’t actually read something that I’m nonetheless talking about — or at least participating in a conversation in which other people are talking about it. Off the top of my head these books include The Odyssey,The Iliad, Jane Eyre, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Infinite Jest, Motherless Brooklyn, and Song of Solomon. Sometimes I secretly give myself credit for reading The Odyssey because I actually did read Joyce’s Ulysses (in fact I took an entire class in it) but I suppose by that logic people could claim to have read Mrs. Dalloway when they only read The Hours, or be fully versed in King Lear if they read Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres and saw the movie. Speaking of which, there are probably lots of books that I think I read when in fact I only saw the movie. That would include nearly all of Stephen King’s books and, I’m sorry to say, The Remains of the Day. That’s right: I never read Remains of the Day. In fact, now that I think of it, I’m practically illiterate.
Big Tree by Mary Buff, the story of Wanona, a 5,000 year old Yosemite sequoia and its generations of resident fauna, squirrels, eagles, and seasons — an ecological vision of history — struck me at age six or so and never left me. Overly serious at 18 (trying to read it while a bouncer in a strip joint), I balked at the wild Nantucket whimsy at the start of Moby Dick, threw it across the room (gratefully picked up, finally, decades later in very different circumstances). Dante’s Inferno in various translations seems a mighty dull, imaginary catalog of stodgy Catholic punishments, sci-fi effects for mental church frescoes. Cormac McCarthy’s recent titles seem imbued with the same disappointed pathology, embittered against the crumbling American empire.
2666 — (reread) Visions of Cody or Desolation Angels, Collected Tales of Joseph Conrad, Across Arctic America: Narrative of the Fifth Thule edition by Knud Rasmussen (1927), plus hundreds or thousands of skinny poetry books on random corners and ledges of the universe — as if each belongs to some infinite City Lights Pocket Poets series cracking a black lightning sky.
Open City by Teju Cole (fun, moody rambles) — I’ve laid in a supply of Will Alexander’s Compression & Purity to give away as favors (such a sharp writhing thing!) — and reading staccato Viktor Shklovsky’s Third Factory. I’d deliver Deborah Luster’s photographs in One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana as gifts, but It’s going for $300 to $400. Somebody deliver it for me, or something most like it.
I just finished reading The Plot Against America, in which Philip Roth creates and explores an alternate history: what if Charles A. Lindbergh, the famed aviator and suspected Nazi sympathizer, had won the Republican nomination in 1940 and went on to become president? What if the United States had not entered the war against Hitler, and, by means of discriminatory policies swaddled in patriotism, became a fascist state? We experience the effect of this disastrous turn of events on a small Jewish family in Newark, people who think of themselves as nothing but ordinary Americans. By changing a relatively small number of historical details, Roth creates a whole new reality, all too chilling for its plausibility. The novel is meant to be a work of reimagined history, but, given the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe and the United States over the last decade, I also read it as a work of speculative fiction, one in which another group of Semites could just as easily have been the target.
I recently discovered Jeffrey Ford, after stumbling into a reading of his, back at Readercon in July… I’ve been slowly working my way through his books, starting with The Drowned Life (one of his three story collections) and his World Fantasy Award-winning novel The Physiognomy. As far as I can tell, Jeffrey Ford is exactly the writer I’d like to be… funny and scary, dreamlike but razor-sharp, and possessed of an effortless and beautifully flowing prose style. I’m on his novel The Shadow Year right now, with seven more on deck after that. I only hope he writes more before I get to the end.
There are old books that, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, seem to keep showing up to embarrass us — look at what you’ve left undone! Still, we dither. We make excuses (“I always did plan to avenge your death, Dad. Just waiting for my moment!”). In hindsight, it was my desire to appease this imposing ghost that drove much of my mid-twenties reading list. The bigger the book, the more I felt I needed to read it: Gravity’s Rainbow, Moby Dick, Infinite Jest, In Search of Lost Time, Ulysses, The Wings of the Dove (you’ll notice War and Peace is missing-the ghost still walks). Here was the buried question: Is there a relationship between literary heft and literal weight?
I’ll now venture an answer: Probably not.
The more over-sized novels I read, the more I understood that there wasn’t some special genius of Gravity’s Rainbow that didn’t exist at all in The Crying of Lot 49 — rather, what the bigger book offers is the spectral experience of immersion, being pulled into a nearly infinite (and jesting!) rabbit hole. It can be a very peculiar type of joy. It’s also extraordinarily intimate. A long book is a friend. (Don’t your friends sometimes talk a little too much? Don’t you still meet again for drinks a week later?) I remember the distinct sense of sadness I felt when I finally finished the last volume of In Search of Lost Time. I’d lived with that book, slept next to it, for years. My relationship to that novel lasted much longer than some of my ‘real’ relationships. Enough time passed that, when I finished, I was a different person than I was when I’d begun.
What I have to offer, then — as the year ends and we make promises of self-improvement — is an absolution: Dispense with the guilt of the unfinished. There’s no hope of ever putting that ghost to rest. Concentrate, instead, on choosing your few friends — and then loving them dearly.
My tastes haven’t changed much since I was about eight years old. Back then my favorite books were all about lonely children who in their wanderings happened across a mysterious portal that allowed them to slip away from the drab everyday and into some brighter, more exhilarating world. I can’t remember titles (that’s why they are ghosts), but I do remember the precise locations of the individual portals, the secret knocks required to open them, the terrifying, fantastical adventures waiting behind each one. I have a map, but it’s hidden and it’s in code and I’m not telling where I keep it. The portals of the moment, though, include a strange and so-far quite gorgeous Czech novel called The Golden Age, by one Michal Ajvaz, and The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel) by Macedonio Fernández, who was a mentor to Borges. The first 123 pages of the latter are composed entirely of prologues, more than fifty of them. Endless doorways: what more could anyone ask for?
As for the future, a small brigade of giant and semi-giant books have been staring down at me from a high shelf for too long, posing a serious danger to the integrity of the wall, and to my cranium: Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fé, Vladimir Sorokin’s Ice Trilogy. If I can tackle one or two of them this year, I’ll be happy. More realistically, my reading list for 2012 includes Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s memoir, Dreams in a Time of War, Paul LaFarge’sLuminous Airplanes, China Mieville’s The Iron Council, Dennis Cooper’s The Marbled Swarm, Teju Cole’s Open City. I’m also very excited about Victor Serge’s memoirs, due out this spring.
I’m reading The Guardians by Sarah Manguso. I recently finished The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson and it blew my mind. It’s the best novel I’ve read in a long time. I don’t usually give books as gifts ever since I saw that New Yorker cartoon where someone is unwrapping a book on their birthday and looks around at the other partygoers and says, “Oh, homework.”
This Christmas, as ever, I’m haunted by the essential poverty of the list-making impulse. As if my experience as a reader, those flights of enchantment and exasperation, could ever be adequately served by abstracts: “Buy This, Not That” is no substitute for whatever it was that kept me up at night, or made me shiver with recognition.
Brock Brower’s The Late Great Creature, recently brought back into print by Overlook, is the novel I imagine my Ghost of Books Present lugging around, if only because it seems still to deserve more recognition than it’s received. (Though it was nominated for the National Book Award in 1973, and lost to John Barth and John Williams.) A relentlessly vital, hilariously deranged story of an aging horror star coming out of retirement, it remains one of the most exciting things I’ve read in some time.
The Ghost of Books Future will, hopefully, bring me hardbound copies of Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians, Steve Erickson’s These Dreams of You, and Antoine Wilson’s Panorama City, to grasp at three excellent books I anticipate in 2012. As for The Ghost of Books Past, I increasingly speculate that I may never get around to re-reading In Search of Lost Time in full. Which depresses me no end.
I cheer myself up by wishing I could bitch-slap the Ghost of Books Present for everything he forgot: Ben Lerner’s Leaving The Atocha Station, Ben Ehrenreich’s Ether, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and The Art of Cruelty, Percival Everett’s Assumption, Jonathan Lethem’s The Ecstasy of Influence. (Also, to thank him for forgetting The Art of Fielding, if only because it’s the pair of socks you’ve already received four times.) What did I say about list-making? Perhaps it wouldn’t be the holidays without a dash of hypocrisy to season them.
I first read Alice Munro’s short story collection, Friend of My Youth, the summer I moved to Los Angeles. I had begun writing, studying with the remarkable writer and teacher, Jim Krusoe, and he recommended that I read her. I didn’t know anyone in the city and had taken a furnished sublet, a beautiful cottage with a bougainvillea-covered porch that was incredibly cheap. However, there was a catch. The original tenant said she needed to return to the apartment once a week for two hours to iron. She told me she was moving in with her boyfriend, and he didn’t like to witness her doing that particular activity. It is a testament to how much I wanted the apartment that I agreed to this arrangement. But back to Alice.
Alice Munro writes digressive, sprawling stories, sometimes as long as forty pages. Her ability to inhabit a personal world, reveal character, and illuminate emotion with heart-stopping precision showed me what was possible in scope and scale in a short story. She writes about the mystery of people’s hidden lives, about shame, about longing and will. She made me want to take risks in my writing. There is a great deal that is left unsaid in her stories, what is most important usually lies beneath the text. Alice Munro is a master of revealing how we make choices, how we all struggle towards insight and revelation. Her stories rarely end with a clear conclusion. Instead they land on a question or possibility.
One day I realized my landlady was reading my copy of Friend of My Youth. I discovered the book facedown on the floor, where I imagined she had fallen asleep, reading. Perhaps she had kept her apartment in Virginia Woolf fashion as a “room of one’s own.”
Friend of My Youth is a touchstone book, one I return to again and again. I am comforted by the idea that whenever we read a book, legions of others are also reading it, maybe at the very same moment, even if they claim to be ironing.
Right now I’m reading the Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell. It’s just delightful, packed full of adventure, satire, social commentary. Everything a book should be. If I weren’t a Jew who on principle refuses to give Christmas presents, I’d give everyone on my list a copy of this book. But I have no list. So just go buy it yourself.