01 April, 2016

The List: Reading January through March 2016

Medieval readers were among the first to recognize the transformative power of text. They saw how reading facilitated raw knowledge by way of the facts laid down by authors, of course, but they were also perceptive enough to notice how reading inspired original thoughts, independent from the ideas explicit in the text. The medieval bishop Isaac of Syria likened reading to a dream: “I enter a state when my sense and thoughts are concentrated. Then, when with prolonging of this silence the turmoil of memories is stilled in my heart, ceaseless waves of joy are sent to me by inner thoughts, beyond expectation suddenly arising to delight my heart.”

In that placid realm we readers know so well, there’s an exhilarated activity. Readers only appear inert. Inside, our minds are churning.

A study published a few years ago in Psychological Science confirms this. Researchers found that we readers “mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative. Details about action and sensation are captured from the text and integrated with personal knowledge from past experiences.” As this empathetic activity takes place, the regions of the brain at work are the same as would be engaged if the reader were doing or watching the goings-on in real life. Reading, you might say, is being.

Unless this is your first encounter with my blog, you know how important the written word is to me, both as intellectual sustenance and emotional lifeline. I post these quarterly reading lists because I want people to see where my mind has been recently. My “List” posts are mental itineraries, and friends say they enjoy observing my travels from afar (although, not as much as I appreciate their accounts of life beyond Crossroads Correctional Center’s walls and fences). Sometimes they follow along, if the sights are compelling enough, but usually my journeys are solo affairs. What’s important is that these people care and take an interest, despite how peculiar my tastes and habits tend to be, in reading and in life — same thing.

For the life support they’ve sent this year, I owe thanks to Adam M. and my dearest Mum. And now, on to my voyagings.

* * * * *

Annie Liontas and Jeff Parker (editors), A Manner of Being: Writers on Their Mentors
For anyone who feels a deep connection to the craft, this anthology will hold meaning. A Manner of Being presents a trove of anecdotes, witticisms, wisdom, and writers’ testimonies about those inspirational souls who nudged, cajoled, or bullied them to higher literary planes.

As a contributor (my tribute to L., a family friend, begins on page 108), I’m recusing myself from a proper review of the book, except to say how honored I am to be published alongside such estimable names as George Saunders, Aimee Bender, Tony Hoagland, Tobias Wolff, and Tibor Fischer. Thank you, Jeff and Annie, for including me in your labor of love.

Charles Simic, Charles Simic: Selected Early Poems
Too often I arrive at a poet’s oeuvre, or am smitten by the glimpse afforded by a newly published or reprinted selection, right around the time that poet dies. It’s enough to make a man cry out, “Poets, please, stop dying!” In the case of these Selected Early Poems, the book was already on my shelf, awaiting my attention, for a good month before Simic’s death last year. A superstitious sort might make something sinister of that. I was just disappointed that the world had reached its maximum allotment of distinctive works like
Gallows Etiquette

Our sainted great-great
Grandmothers
Used to sit and knit
Under the gallows.

No one remembers what it was
They were knitting
And what happened when the ball of yarn
Rolled out of their laps
And had to be retrieved.

One pictures the hooded executioner
And his pasty-faced victim
Interrupting their grim business
To come quickly to their aid.

Confirmed pessimists
And other party poopers
Categorically reject
Such far-fetched notions
Of gallows etiquette.
It’s a poem that actually made me laugh — to say nothing of the other 150 or so poems, dated between 1967 and 1989, in this collection. Simic was never stodgy or grimly “poetical.” His way with words was astonishing.

In the four instances here when a poem failed to resonate with me, I think Simic’s surreal juxtapositions got too dense or random-seeming, but it speaks to his tremendous talent that the bizarre imagery that was his hallmark almost always accentuated the poems’ emotional heft. At their most unreal they grab you and hold you, and you never want them to let go.

Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor (editors), 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories
Anthologies purporting to be the best of the best can’t help but disappoint on some level. Either the editorial selections aren’t diverse enough to let a reader breathe fresh air, or they’re so self-consciously pluralistic as to verge on schizophrenic. I enjoy every title I read in the Best American series, which has presented a broad spectrum of voices without apparently resorting to affirmative action. This selection from the past 100 years of the series intelligently sticks with the demographics of authors most emblematic of their era. Moore and Pitlor include plenty of white males — Carver, Updike, Fitzgerald, Cheever — but segue into the contemporary multi-culti literati without it feeling forced. That every story her is a true gem helps. If any imbalance exists here, it’s in the abundance of stories first published in The New Yorker. I didn’t really mind rereading the superlative fictions that ran in the magazine over the course of my twelve-year subscription. 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories is the most delightful form of reiteration I can imagine.

Jonathan Lethem, Men and Cartoons: Stories
Some might call this collection of nine wildly entertaining tales uneven. But it is a testament to Lethem’s virtuosity that the contents of Men and Cartoons leap around in time, space, and form the way they do. Here the fantastic abuts the absurd, which itself neighbors poignant realism, which precedes straight science fiction, with the author’s witty, inquisitive voice the only thread necessary for tying the collection together.

Friedrich Nietzsche (Walter Kaufman, translator and editor), Basic Writings of Nietzsche
There’s too much to say about Nietzschean philosophy than could be encapsulated in a blog post (not one you’d want to read, anyway), let alone in my review of this collected volume. I won’t even try.

What I will remark on is how differently I read Nietzsche now than the first time. The vague transgressiveness I felt at sixteen, paging through his Beyond Good and Evil, eclipsed any significant understanding of the book’s message. I wanted to understand, but the philosopher himself commented on the futility of scholarly understanding without life experience. And what did I know about life then? Mired in depression and single-mindedness, the central formula within Nietzsche’s philosophy — revaluation of one’s ideas — was beyond my ken. I hadn’t yet endured enough. In the intervening years I suffered some truly wretched states and, by surviving them, learned and grew, just as Nietzsche describes in Ecce Homo: “[I]t was during the years of my lowest vitality that I ceased to be a pessimist; the instinct of self-restoration forbade me a philosophy of poverty and discouragement.”

The guy’s hard not to quote. It’s his aphoristic style, how he strung together clever phrases, one after another, to approach his ultimate point, that worked so well for and against him. Nietzsche worked by accreting refinements, coming at his subjects gradually, with finesse, like building a house by gluing single wood chips atop one another. Many readers ignored the structure and, instead, glommed on to single chips — lines or passages that seemed, divorced from their context, to support certain ideologies. Although he was unequivocal in his opposition to nationalism, anti-Semitism, and even the “Germanness” later readers attributed to him, Nietzsche’s still egregiously misappropriated and misread today.

Of course he set himself apart:
The spiritual haughtiness and nausea of every man who has suffered profoundly — it almost determines the order of rank how profoundly human beings can suffer — his shuddering certainty, which permeates and colors him through and through, that by virtue of his suffering he knows more than the cleverest and wisest could possibly know, and that he knows his way and has once been “at home” in many distant, terrifying worlds of which “you know nothing” — this spiritual and silent haughtiness of the sufferer, this pride of the elect of knowledge, of the “initiated,” of the almost sacrificed, finds all kinds of disguises necessary to protect itself against contact with obtrusive and pitying hands and altogether against everything that is not equal in suffering. Profound suffering makes noble; it separates.
Sardonic, complex, and, above all, honest, Nietzsche was practically destined for a bad reputation he didn’t deserve.

David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks: A Novel
Its back cover declares The Bone Clocks to be the story of Holly Sikes, “once contacted by voices she knew only as ‘the radio people,’” who has now “caught the attention of a cabal of dangerous mystics.’’ This makes it sound like a Dean Koontz book. Terrible. I trusted David Mitchell to deliver more (and better) than Random House’s marketing department promised, and I’m happy to say that he did exactly that, most spectacularly. Not fantasy nor thriller, not sci-fi nor literary novel, The Bone Clocks is somehow also all of these — a multivoiced, labyrinthine saga, touching and intimate, violent and raw, snarky and dispassionate — that plays with genre as much as with mood, and is all the more engrossing for this multifariousness.

Frank Lima, Angel
The bowled-over feeling I got from reading Lima’s poems in November’s Poetry — astounding examples of that meaningful surrealism I mentioned above — didn’t revisit after I ordered this 1972 collection. There was no magic here for me, despite the heavenly title. Maybe I should’ve waited for the posthumous Incidents of Travel in Poetry, just published in January. As of this writing (hint, hint), that one’s still on my wish list.

Alan Weisman, The World without Us
How disappointed I was to realize that this wasn’t exactly what I wanted, researchwise, nearly made me lose interest before I began reading. But I took the plunge, and not only did I pick up several useful tidbits for my perpetually in-progress zombie novel, Weisman’s exhaustively researched thought experiment — What would happen to Earth if humans suddenly vanished from its face? — astonished and freaked me out. No wonder it won so many nonfiction-book-of-the-year kudos. The World without Us is a reality check that ought to be required reading for everyone alive.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe {Walter Arndt, translator; Cyrus Hamlin, editor), Faust: A Tragedy: Interpretive Notes, Context, Modern Criticism
You know the old story: a learned man exhausts all the common areas of study — philosophy, jurisprudence, medicine, and theology — and so turns to magic in his boundless hunger for experience, only to wind up in a diabolic deal for his eternal soul. Goethe knew it, too. The folktale captured his imagination as a young writer, and he published fragments of his own dramatic interpretation to some acclaim, beginning in 1787. As decades passed, he composed a patchwork of scenes for the drama’s second part {today we’d call it a reboot of the franchise), which took Faust and Mephistopholes far, far from their original setting, making them almost ancillary characters in an allegorical sprawl, alongside classical myths and burlesques of Goethe’s contemporaries.

The Norton Critical Edition I was fortunate enough to get my claws into granted insight that otherwise would’ve eluded my grasp. Goethe himself told a friend, “all attempts to bring it nearer to the understanding are in vain.” He was speaking about Part Two, because Part One, for its somewhat patchy nature, at least carries emotional weight and coheres as a drama. Part Two rambles and rollicks so many different ways, and reeks of a poetic decadence almost too stifling to tolerate; it could never be staged.

Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
Depth of thought. Attentiveness versus automation. The mechanisms by which we arrive at meaning in our lives. The value of literature in contemporary society. I’ve been preoccupied with these themes for years, but until hearing about this Pulitzer Prize finalist during a lecture on C-SPAN 2 (BookTV is my jam, yo) I knew of no grand unified theory for them all. As it turns out, they’re not only closely connected issues, I’m also by no means the first or only person to lose sleep thinking about them.

Carr’s subtitle for The Shallows sounds, somehow, simultaneously alarmist and anodyne. His book is neither. Rather, it’s a well-reasoned, provocative look at the culture and science of wired life. Slate dubbed it “Silent Spring for the literary mind,” and I can’t do much better in summarizing its disturbing importance. What Silent Spring warned, ecologically, parallels the mental pollution Carr shows is a byproduct of the Internet age. I wish I could place a copy in the hands of everyone I meet. The book, however, makes clear that few would read it, and substantially fewer still would hearken its message by taking conscious steps back from the intellectual precipice world culture is blindly scampering toward.

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