06 May, 2014

The (Belated) List: Reading January Through March 2014

Unidentified Photographer, Student, c. 1960

Friends and strangers sent me so many books to read this quarter that I barely kept from running into the wall that is the prison’s personal-property limit. I consistently had a stock of books in my cell, waiting patiently for my attention. It was a great two and a half months of reading. Then I went to the Hole for thirty days, a circumstance that cut me off all but entirely and kept me from posting this list in the usual timely fashion. But now I’m back on track and need to thank the people who generously supplied most of the titles below: John A., Sarah L., Chris Steadman and the Freethought Books Project, my dearest Mum, and Tom Wayne at Prospero’s, hands down the best bookstore in Kansas City, Missouri.

* * * * *

Umberto Eco, (Alastair McEwen, translator), The Infinity of Lists
I get so few opportunities for intellectual stimulation and aesthetic pleasure. This anthology, companion to a 2009 exhibit of the same title at the Louvre, provided both. It’s a gorgeous collection of artwork and literary excerpts from throughout the history of Western civilization, curated by Eco in a thoughtful essay on the myriad forms of that deceptively humble tool, the list.

Every glossy page of this startlingly hefty book is a feast for the eyes and brain, accounting for all kinds of lists, from visual lists (Heironymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights and Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans) to lists of things of innumerable quantity (the gods in Hesiod’s Theogeny, the Greek armies in Homer’s Iliad, the moon’s fantastic sights in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso), to sacred lists (the Catholic litanies, the begets in the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, the Song of Solomon) and profane ones (Paradise Lost’s demonic hierarchy, slaughterhouse atrocities in Berlin Alexanderplatz, sixteenth-century bum-wiping options in Five Books of the Lives, Heroic Deeds and Sayings of Gargantua and His Son Pantagruel), to fantastical lists (Aristotle’s De Mirabilibus), to practical lists (the Ten Commandments), to lists of treasures (the holy-relic inventory of the Saint Vitus Cathedral in Prague), to lists of curiosities (the Wunderkammern — cabinets of wonders), to chaotic hodgepodges that don’t even resemble lists at a glance but resolve into them when considered in a greater context. What a marvel!

Albert Camus (Justin O’Brien, translator), The Fall
A novel replete with irony and mordant wit, in which, strictly speaking, nothing happens. Yet The Fall moves swiftly through the monologue that forms it, to a calculated conclusion that doesn’t leave an impression so much as apply a red-hot brand to the reader’s mind — the sentence for its verdict on modern man. Even more so than The Stranger, the infamous novel Camus published eleven years earlier, The Fall is a stunning piece of literature.

Bill Henderson (editor), 2013 Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses
The Pushcart Prize is the high water mark for small, independent literary magazines and presses. Nominations come in from many hundreds of editors each year and the competition is stiff. I admit to entertaining a little fantasy of winning one myself someday. Meanwhile, I was happy to have this 500-page collection of last year’s winners — essayists, writers of short stories, and poets alike, including such personal favorites as Karen Russell and Joyce Carol Oates. The creativity and intelligence on display in this anthology is impressive. I’m going to have to start reading these every year.

Howell D. Chickering Jr. (translator), Beowulf: A Dual-Language Edition
Probably originating from the eighth century CE, Beowulf is the oldest of all the great English poems. Even those who haven’t read it have encountered some form of the legend of Beowulf, the Scandinavian warrior prince. The tale of his heroic battles with fell creatures is one with enduring appeal. Demons, dragons, and death make for good story elements in any century — if you want proof, check the numbers for that CGI-animated Hollywood version of Beowulf that was released several years ago. I knew the basics from a prose retelling I read in elementary school, but it’s one thing to get the CliffsNotes version of a masterpiece, another altogether to dive into the sprawling bombast of this poem in something close to its intended form. (I say close because the poem was meant to be recited aloud by a bard. Me, I’m fresh out of bards at the moment, so this translation had to do.)

What adds so much value to this particular edition of Beowulf is Professor Chickering’s extensive annotation, before and after the poem itself, which gives historic, syntactic, and semiotic information that aids the contemporary reader’s understanding. One tidbit I picked from these was the connection and influence Beowulf had on J.R.R. Tolkien’s renowned tales of Middle Earth. Greatness begetting greatness.

Christopher Steadman, Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious
What was I doing watching The O’Reilly Factor? The host’s an antagonistic blowhard, less interested in meaningful exchanges with guests than with promulgating the Fox News narrative as stridently as possible, and I think the reason viewers tune in to his show is the same as draws people to boxing and martial arts events: to watch some poor sod get beaten down. But when I saw the caption ATHEISTS ATTACK! in that angry red of which Fox News is so fond, I had to stick around to root for O’Reilly’s guest, Christopher Steadman, the Assistant Secular Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, and hope against a verbal beating.

Faitheist is Steadman’s memoir about his journey from Christian Evangelist to atheist, and about the interfaith work he subsequently undertook, bringing people together, no matter their religious beliefs or disbeliefs, in the spirit of greater good. It wasn’t quite what I expected when I wrote my letter to him, congratulating the young man for holding his own against Angry Bill. Not only is this fairly intimate glimpse into Steadman’s struggles with religion, it’s arguably more candid on the subject of his homosexuality. A confounding pair of issues for a youth to grapple with, and so an interesting read that adds a fresh, much-needed Millennial voice to the religious-conversion memoir genre (into which my initiation, nearly twenty years ago, was Dan Barker’s very good Losing Faith in Faith).

I do wish his final chapter had included more ideas for forging quality interfaith relations; although, most of the book’s readers, unlike me, will have access to the Internet and be able to visit Faitheist’s website for lists of those, if they’re interested.

George W.S. Trow, Within the Context of No Context
”Look at the girl smile!” writes Trow in this ruthlessly truthful essay on the Media Age. “The more she smiles, the more certain it is that she represents something trivial, something shocking, or something failed.”

Falsity, pseudo-intimacy, indiscretion, agglomeration, schadenfreude, impermanence — all qualities that Trow attributes to contemporary culture, and even though the latter half of this books was first published in 1980, when TV was still the dominant fixture of empty lives, it continues to resonate, maybe more powerfully than ever.

Writing about the “I like Ike” slogan used in the 1952 presidential campaign, Trow isolates the empty language that a nation embraced: “From ‘like,’ all you could see was other Americans engaged in the processes of intimacy. This was a comfort.” But he might as well be referring to Facebook, where like has been rendered meaningless by users’ implicit agreement that it means anything at all.

Roland Barthes (Annette Lavers and Colin Smith, translators), Writing Degree Zero
My friend and occasional student in the insane, indecent pursuit of writing, Zach (whose blog can be read here), slumped in the doorway of my cell, hands shoved deeply in the pocket of his worn navy blue hoodie. I sat, my back to the desk. We were talking books. When he asked what I was reading just then, I pivoted to pull from inside a narrow cubbyhole the slim volume that is Writing Degree Zero. I held it up for him to read the cover.

“What is it?” he asked.

I held up a finger and turned to a page I’d read shortly before he showed up to converse. “Just listen: ‘It may be said that the whole movement of mathematical flow derives from an explicit reading of its relations. The language of classicism is animated by an analogous, although of course less rigid, movement: its “words,” neutralized, made absent by rigorous recourse to a tradition which dessicates their freshness, avoid the phonetic or semantic accident which would concentrate the flavor of language at one point and halt its intellectual momentum in the interest of an unequally distributed enjoyment. The classical flow is a succession of elements whose density is even; it is exposed to the same emotional pressure, and relieves those elements of any tendency towards an individual meaning appearing at all invented.’ I mean, why do I read this stuff? Semiotics is such tedious bullshit, and yet I keep subjecting myself to books like this.”

“That gave me a headache,” Zach said, pushing his glasses up to massage the left side of his head.

I laughed. “So I see.”

“It just came out of nowhere,” he said, still rubbing his temple. “Damn.”

“You’re serious?”

“Hell yes, I’m serious. This shit hurts!” He took the glasses off altogether and started knuckling the aggrieved spot. After a moment, when he quipped that he was having an aneurysm, I knew that he was fine. I also knew how I would review my experience reading Writing Degree Zero.

“Well,” I said, “there’s my review for the blog: This book made my friend’s head hurt. I’ll just recreate this little scene — you at my door, me sitting here, reading aloud from an almost fifty-year-old book on modern French literature.”

“Do that,” said Zach, recovered from his neurological event. “It won’t be helpful for your readers, but —”

I finished his sentence. “But neither will this book.”

Nicholson Baker, The Mezzanine
A lunchtime trip up an office building’s lobby escalator — sure, why wouldn’t that work as the entire plot of a riveting novel? And yes, The Mezzanine is a difficult book to set down. Specifically because Nicholson Baker centers this novel (a thinly veiled memoir, I’m sure) around such a mundane setpiece, he’s able to engage in page upon page of brilliant, complex associations, in which his musings on shoelaces, brands of shampoo, LPs, shirt buttoning, milk, footnotes, paper towel dispensers, the number of times each year people rethink specific thoughts, workplace etiquette, and drinking straws go far beyond the point you’d think they, as subjects of deep contemplation, could possibly withstand. Baker has a keen eye, and his unrelenting inquisitiveness brings forth insights about the modern world that generally sit right under people’s noses. I’m not surprised that his name isn’t more widely recognized; it takes guts to look at things this closely and report honestly about what you see, because truth never sells very well.

Umberto Eco (Alastair McEwen, translator), The Book of Legendary Lands
In 1899, an American named Cyrus Reed Teed put forth a theory that the sun, moon, and stars are not heavenly bodies as we believe, but are in fact visual effects caused by our living inside the Earth, on its concave crust, like standing on the interior of an enormous beach ball. Hollow Earth theories were relatively common in Teed’s day, but his evolved into a sect that claimed to have scientifically verified the concavity of Earth’s surface using an instrument they called a “rectilineator.” Teed’s followers called themselves Koreshan Unitarians, and they were serious about this stuff. When their founder died in 1908, they believed (presumably because he told them so) that Teed’s body was imbued with certain properties that would prevent it from rotting, so they left it laying out on display for a while, until it became obvious that at least one portion of their belief system was in error.

Florida was where the Koreshans “proved” the inside-outness of our planet, and, regardless of how wrong the sect was, Florida instituted the Koreshan State Park in 1967, nearly sixty years after Teed’s death, in the city of Estero. I’ve been there. Today it’s called the Koreshan State Historic Site — a nice stretch of lush greenery, one part of which is occupied by a little building overseen by a docent who’s only too happy to tell you all about the Koreshans and show you the cutaway model of our hollow world, its continents curling up at their edges as if someone spilled water on them and left them out to dry without weighting them down flat.

The social and psychological factors of why people believe weird things interest me to no end. The Book of Legendary Lands is a tour of places once widely believed to exist: Atlantis, the islands of Homer’s Odyssey, the realm of Prester John, the Antipodes, Ophir, Taprobane, Utopia, the Austral Lands, Shambhala, Saint Brendan’s Isle, Camelot, the Earthly Paradise, Ultima Thule, Montsalvat, Mu, Schlaraffenland, Christianopolis, Hyperborea, and others that I’d never heard of before, plus our hollow Earth — all of which lived in the wishful thoughts and dreams of countless of our forebears. Of a kind with Eco’s previous literary cornucopia, The Infinity of Lists (see my review above), The Book of Legendary Lands offers hundreds of glorious full-color plates of artwork, maps, film stills, and photographs distributed among its nearly 500 pages — more than enough to stroll through and get delightfully lost in.

Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Hats off to Pirsig, a schizophrenic who underwent electroshock treatment, for writing about his philosophical journey into madness in such a way as to capture the attention of tens of thousands of inquiring, questing readers. This book was recommended to me, with great enthusiasm, many times over many years. I didn’t even know until last year that it’s a novel. But as a novel I find it thin. And although it’s thought-provoking, the philosophy it seeks to forward is hit-and-miss. The most pressing question Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance leaves me asking is anything but profound: how an essay about one man’s East-meets-West philosophy, tacked on to the framework of a lackluster father-son bike trip, became a bestseller not merely raved about but profoundly loved.

W.S. Di Piero, Tombo
The fifth title in McSweeney's poetry series, this volume’s slimness belies its beautiful content. Di Piero’s poems sparkle with lexicographical gems, like rhinestones on a hard-luck nightclub singer’s slinky dress, and they sing the same songs of yearning.

Jean François Arouet de Voltaire (Richard Aldington, translator), Candide
Tragicomic melodrama wasn’t what I expected from a vaunted philosopher like Voltaire. His classic naïf-in-the-world adventure of vicissitudes piled atop ill fortune is a highly recommended weekend read. The coincidence of this being the last book I read before everything went sideways for me is noteworthy.

Larry McMurtry, Boone’s Lick
Neither an erroneous conclusion to this quarter’s reading nor a book I wanted to read, this blah western passed a few hours of time in the very bad place I had the displeasure of occupying for the latter half of March and first half of April. If you read my previous post you’ll understand the draw of this terribly un-Byronic book.

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