09 July, 2017

The List: Reading April through June 2017

Midway through May, a yearning for greater depth and meaning seized me, and I felt my mind give entry to some darkness. It felt futile to look for anything more than intellectual cotton candy around here. "Prison," I once wrote, "is no haven for the intelligentsia." It's just as true today as it was ten years ago, when that essay, titled "Literacy," was published. You would expect me to have learned sly tricks for overcoming mental stagnation, but my means are limited, and my best efforts are sometimes not enough. 

Prison food is awful, as are prison libraries. By what others have told me, Crossroads' are better than most. Having picked clean the shelves here, for the most part, only a couple (okay, exactly five) books are in circulation that I'm interested in reading. This recent hunger for meaty subjects brought me to finally check out the weighty volume of Emerson, which went a long way toward filling me up. Books that my friend John, and the ever-gracious Tom Wayne of Prospero's, provided were a real boon, too. 

This bout of heavy reading isn't done. If anything, I feel insatiable. Maybe I just haven't run across the precise philosophical meditation that'll tip me over, or the right poetry collection to shift my perspective just so. Maybe this hunger will fade, like so many moods, and I'll settle into a simple novel for some summer reading. If you've been paying close enough attention, though, you'll probably know as well as I do that this is a silly idea. I basically need a steady supply of reading that makes me think, if I'm going to stay sane in this stultifying isolation. 


Umberto Eco (Richard Dixon, translator), The Name of the Rose
My praise, in an earlier review of Eco's nonfiction, was unequivocal. The man was a brilliant, thorough scholar, and losing him, as the literary world did last year, bleeds a measure of contemporary letters' life away. Reading this, his debut novel, for the first time in April, I was struck not just by the intricacy of its central whodunit puzzle, but also by the prominence of certain preoccupations — literary lists, specifically, and medieval legends — that still held Eco in thrall thirty-odd years later, when he published those outstanding works, The Infinity of Lists and The Book of Legendary Lands. His fixations, bordering perhaps on obsessions, make The Name of the Rose the most substantive mystery novel I've ever read. 

J.M. Coetzee, The Childhood of Jesus
To describe this vaguely surreal novel by the Nobel Prize-winning Coetzee, telling about its plot seems unfair. On the other hand, he probably didn't intend for the book to be strictly allegorical — and possibly not even metaphorical. It dances along a line between story and idea, never quite entering fully into the category of either. There is no Jesus here, only an orphaned refugee stripped of his true name and called Daniel. A benevolent older man called Símon looks after him as they struggle to make a way for themselves in a foreign country. But biblical allusions abound, and the parallels are sometimes striking.

Coetzee (whose work I waited years to read) plays with the flow of narrative and with readers' expectations, maintaining a flux at once disorienting and engrossing. Never, ever does he dispense what could be described as a certainty, which, for a certain type of reader, might be infuriating, but I relish this ambiguity for its truthfulness. As Chekov once put it, "lt's about time that everyone who writes — especially genuine literary artists — admit that in this world you can't figure anything out." Coetzee understands this and brings his canniness to the page memorably.

Randall Munroe, What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
What would happen if you set off a nuclear bomb in the eye of a hurricane?

What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90 percent the speed of light?

How many Lego bricks would it take to build a bridge capable of carrying traffic from London to New York?

Former NASA engineers don't generally retire to become cartoonists, but if Randall Munroe is anything like his former colleagues in aeronautics and space flight, the future of quality webcomics is assured. I assume that checking out this guy's very popular website, xkcd.com, will give you a healthy (or not-so-healthy, if you really get into it) dose of his super-geeky humor. If it's your cup of tea, buy his books. They're as funny as they are fascinating — also, they're useless. Could you ask for a more ideal diversion?

Christy Wampole, The Other Serious: Essays for the New American Generation
A tide of vacuity has washed over society. Chronic distraction, knee-jerk insincerity, consumerism, indiscretion, and anti-intellectualism plague even the American universities, former hotbeds of enlightened thought. Our culture is empty. Our minds are atrophying. Our bodies are decomposing mannequins over which to drape the latest fashions. Our homes are mix-and-match simulacra of individual taste. Our workplaces are fluorescent-lit tombs. Our institutions and mass media are perpetuators of false dichotomies. And all of this is our fault, because we haven't done our due diligence, questioning, assessing, and appraising the vapid bullshit masquerading as substance in our lives.
You are by birth a card-carrying member of civilization and are thus responsible for it. No one really wants you to know this; things would be easier if you'd just passively accept your assigned role as a low-standards consumer, a human Pac-Man stuffing your face with pixels. There are other ways to go about life, like being three notches smarter than you thought you were and investing everything you do with aesthetic sensitivity.
Failure to do this, Wampole writes, means "a pointless life." It isn't a new idea that she puts forth, but the passion she musters to express it should be enough to wake even the lazy-minded and compel an emphatic yes. So rarely do I come away from an essay collection believing that its author and I see eye to eye, and yet Wampole's philosophy seems to exactly parallel my own. The Other Serious is a book about how to live, and why, that I wish could foist into the hands of every literate American and exhort them, "Read this!"

George Saunders, The Braindead Megaphone and Lincoln in the Bardo
I'd hoped that the essays in The Braindead Megaphone would be deeper than they turned out. Saunders's reportage work was superior, ripe with nascent meaning (particularly "Buddha Boy," which he wrote for GQ, about the fifteen-year-old Nepalese kid much of the world believed meditated his way out of eating or drinking for nine months). Unfortunately, this wasn't the bulk of the book. Blame my disappointment on its misleading title, plus the introduction, which asks, "Does stupid, near-omnipresent media make us more tolerant toward stupidity in general?" My pump was primed for lacerating social criticism. What I got was mostly a succession of short humor pieces suited to The New Yorker's "Shouts and Murmurs" department. I felt duped.

Lincoln in the Bardo, on the other hand, was stimulating. The novel's clever premise hinges on the death of Willie Lincoln, the young son of America's sixteenth president, and his burial in Lot 292 of Oak Hill Cemetery, where his soul is trapped. (The bardo, in Tibetan Buddhism, is a state of existence between life and death. Conduct, age, and the manner of one's death determine how long it lasts.) As little Willie is interred, the voices of others entombed and buried at Oak Hill narrate his arrival. None acknowledges their deaths, believing instead that they're simply convalescing in "sick-boxes" and will soon be well enough to return to their lives. Part historical fiction, part fantasy, Lincoln in the Bardo intrigued and delighted me so much, I read its entire second half in an afternoon.

John Cheever, Falconer
Whether true or fictional, accounts of prison life are generally avoided. Why read about the same circumstances in which I'm languishing? Ah, but there's the rub: no one's experiences are ever exactly the same, and sometimes there's an unconsidered truth in another's observations of what otherwise appears identical. So I conceded to read Falconer, a selection by my bookstore guy, because you just don't know about most things until you give them a go. And there it was, right at the end of the first hopeless chapter:
Like everything else, [the cellblock] was shabby, disorderly, and malodorous, but his cell had a window and he went to this and saw some sky, two high water towers, the wall, more cellblocks and a corner of the yard that he had entered on his knees. His arrival in the block was hardly noticed. While he was making his bed, someone asked, "You rich?" "No," said Farragut. "You clean?" "No," said Farragut. "You suck?" "No," said Farragut. "You innocent?" Farragut didn't reply.
While Cheever's protagonist is a retired man of means, a heroin addict in a loveless marriage, and probably guilty of killing his brother in a drunken fight, there's much in Farragut's way of thinking that I identify with. That is, Farragut's arrival at Falconer Prison was as shocking to him as it would be to anyone far-removed from the criminal element, and his existential crisis thereafter feels authentic. You don't have to serve years of a life sentence to imagine what goes on in the head of someone who has, but Cheever did so with such empathetic élan that I'd swear the man did a stretch behind bars. Farragut's dealings with the "fucks, freaks, fools, fruits, first-timers, fat-asses […] phantoms, funnies, fanatics, feebies, fences and farts" of cellblock F ring true. And even though pre-1970s prison life was vastly different than prison life today, incarceration's effect on the human psyche will never change.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (David Mikics, editor), The Annotated Emerson
So heavy as to be uncomfortable to hold, so festooned with explanatory footnotes as to be disorienting, and so inclusive as to verge, at points, on irrelevancy, this fat volume of America's (arguably) best-known essayist was nevertheless a profoundly fulfilling read. Coming to Emerson much sooner, I might have pooh-poohed his fervent advocacy for toil, for communing with nature, for putting down the book and learning from the world. Having had the experiences I've had, though, I'm now more than ready to say that a strain of Emersonian self-reliance would do today's America good.

Chuck Klosterman, But What If We're Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past
Two qualities I appreciate in a person quite a bit are prominent in Chuck Klosterman: a propensity for deep thought about unexpected subjects, and a wry sense of humor. This is the fourth of his books that I've devoured, and it rivals his previous excellent work, I Wear the Black Hat, for poignant insights on an area of thought not much considered. But What If We're Wrong? draws to the reader's attention how society and its individual constituents always assume that they know the truth about x, that their predecessors' ideas about x were all wrong, and that nothing could ever come along to change what is "known" about x today. As examples of this phenomenon, he cites the cultural significance of rock music, the history of astrophysics, and the surprisingly authentic-seeming nine-season run of the TV series Roseanne. I would love to sit down for a beer with this unique thinker.