"Literate people appropriate all the best things they can find in books, and dress themselves in them just as certain crabs are supposed to beautify themselves with seaweed." — Herzog, Saul Bellow
'Selecting Books' - NYPL Digital GalleryHow do you decide what to read next? With the literature of the world and of the ages spread before you, how do you choose?
Do well-meaning friends push their favorites on you, as if you wouldn’t sooner jump down a well than read what they’ve recommended? Do you rely on services which offer suggestions based on what you’ve previously enjoyed (“if you liked so-and-so, you’re sure to like such-and-such”) and put your faith in simplistic mechanical equations? Are you an au courant reader, who prefers whatever has made it to the bestseller list? Or, like me, do you imagine the world of books as an endless forest to roam in, going wherever whim takes you and randomly plucking succulent berries to eat--even if you risk the occasional poisonous mushroom?
Would you take the reading suggestions of a librarian? I didn’t think so. Not that I would ever presume to judge anyone else’s taste in books. I have enough trouble judging my own, which seems to change from year to year. My path is strewn with the broken-backed carcasses of once-beloved authors, now completely unreadable to me. (If you had told me in college that I would someday think of William Faulkner with a shudder of horror, I would have laughed out loud. If you had told me I might come to relish Henry James, I would have thought you mad.) If, however, you have an insatiable curiosity about what other people are reading, as I do, I will present a list of a few of the novels I’ve read so far in 2010 and give you a chance to peek over my shoulder. Other people’s books offer fascinating glimpses into their personalities. Is the person across from you on the train, with his or her face buried in a book, reading Proust or James Patterson? Pride and Prejudice or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? The Audacity of Hope or Going Rogue?
What you may notice about my reading list are the things it doesn’t contain. There is nothing about the physical sciences, because they are cold, hard, and lack spontaneity. Technology strikes me as another sort of tyranny. History may repeat itself, but I seldom learn from my own mistakes, and I don’t suppose other people do, either. I have about all I can stand of politics in the Sunday New York Times. And, if I ever had the stomach for business or economics, I might have earned more money in my lifetime but would have been an infinitely less happy person. What consumes me is fiction. Others might find their own brand of passion in other subjects, but I am always astonished at those who can proclaim they have no “use” for fiction, as if a book’s not being “true” makes it somehow less worthy. As if, when the last page has been turned, a book not crammed with facts can offer nothing but a faint aura, like the last ember of the campfire. Reading novels or stories (and occasionally plays) augments and intensifies my life. Engaging with language on that level strikes me as one of the principal aesthetic pleasures. And encountering on the printed page another human consciousness in its most naked form is an addiction not easily overcome. As Harold Bloom writes, in his How to Read and Why:
"We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are. Yet the strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading of the traditional canon is the search for a difficult pleasure.”
None of the novels on my list is from what Bloom calls “the traditional canon,” but they all provide the same “difficult pleasure.” They follow no particular path or reading trajectory. I should also note that all of these novels were borrowed from the Mid-Manhattan Library. This might not be good news for the people who earn their living selling books, but it does help boost the circulation statistics of the branch library system.
All Passion Spent.
Although Lady Slane’s married life has been dutifully submerged in her role as the wife of the Viceroy of India, the 88-year old widow has decided to spend her final days living where she chooses and doing as she likes, despite the condemnation of her skeptical, conservative, middle-aged children and their schemes to thwart her. The novel mounts to a great level of lyrical intensity, not simply through its gracious language and subtle exploration of final things, but because it is braced up with a solid backbone of social context, sharp characterizations, and wit.
I finally got to this 2002 Pulitzer Prize winning novel from one of my favorite living authors. The story of a decaying mill town in Maine and its quirky inhabitants is centered on Miles Roby, who runs the town’s only restaurant, the Empire Grill, and feels trapped there in much the same way that George Bailey feels trapped in Bedford Falls. Much of the novel’s tension revolves around the question of whether he will ever muster the will or inner resources to break away. The lengthy novel takes on a rich verbal life of its own, in which even the minor characters are portrayed with dignity, humanity, and humor. I was immediately able to set aside mental pictures of the well-cast actors in the splendid HBO television adaptation--with the exception, possibly, of Paul Newman as Miles’s crusty, bearded, cantankerous father, who made such an indelible impression he was impossible to shake.
After a good deal of reading and thinking about Charles Dickens, I found this novel by Dickens’s friend Wilkie Collins something of a revelation. Collins’s female characters have a lot more muscle, fortitude, and inner reserves than all of Dickens’s good women put together. The social background of No Name involves the effect of the Victorian legal system on the children of illegitimate parents. When Magdalen Vanstone unexpectedly finds herself in that predicament, she sets out to reclaim her wealth and rightful place in society, no matter what the cost. Victorian readers seemed to think the author’s attitude to the assertive Vanstone too lenient; such an upstart needed to pay dearly for her crimes. For this modern reader, the character’s independent nature was one of her principal assets, adding another fascinating level to an already deep and compelling narrative.
The Price of Butcher’s Meat.
Genre fiction has its own unique allure, particularly when it involves series characters whose personalities and voices seem to take on an independent life. Although I’m addicted to several different series, I sometimes think my favorite is the one featuring Dalziel and Pascoe of the Yorkshire constabulary. These are the least formulaic of mysteries, suspenseful, witty, and oddly enriched by a background of literary allusion. For example, in the previous installment, Detective Superintendent Dalziel was injured in a terrorist bomb blast; in this, the following novel, he is recuperating in the healing center known as Sandy Town, which is actually a sly reference to the setting of Jane Austen’s Sanditon. Despite several grisly murders and a fair amount of sex, the narrative is Reginald Hill’s attempt to finish Jane Austen’s unfinished novel. It is a cunning pastiche of her work, a large portion of it written in the twenty-first century equivalent of the epistolary novel: e-mails.
Night Train to Lisbon.
Although the title of this European novel by Pascal Mercier suggests a vintage film noir with exotic locales, spies, and dangerous women, it is none of that. A 57-year old professor of dead languages in a secondary school in Switzerland, set in his ways and seemingly unlikely to change them, has a chance encounter on a rainy afternoon with a woman who speaks only Portuguese and writes a phone number on his forehead with a felt-tipped pen. Shortly afterward, in a second-hand bookstore, he discovers a Portuguese book which is presented to him as a gift by the owner. Although Portuguese is not one of the languages spoken by the professor, he sets about learning it in order to decipher the book, becomes fascinated by its author, Amadeu de Prado, an activist during the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar, and abruptly abandons his apartment and his job to take the night train to Lisbon and piece together a portrait of the mysterious Prado. Not following me? I’m not surprised. The novel’s texture is dense, philosophical, and full of talking, talking, and more talking, much of which eluded me.
God of Nightmares.
A young woman leaves home for the first time to track down her aging, alcoholic Aunt Lulu in New Orleans. In this landscape--as hot, earthy, and sensual as the setting of a Tennessee Williams play--she passes from innocence to experience, from illusion to disillusion. I have only recently discovered the six adult novels of Paula Fox (who is also a prominent children’s author) and wonder how I could have overlooked them for so many years. Maybe I would not have responded as well at an earlier, more idealistic age. Fox’s outlook is bleak and yet curiously transcendent in its truthfulness, and her characters are uncompromisingly lacking in illusions. “We must put a good face on it,” says Helen’s mother, speaking of life and its difficulties. “It was her credo,” thinks Helen scornfully. “I detested it. It was like an order to fool yourself.”
Seize the Day / Henderson the Rain King / Herzog.
The Library of America’s recent collection encouraged me to reread these Saul Bellow novels. Experiencing the same worthy book at different periods of your life can alter perceptions. This time around the exuberance of Bellow’s writing seized me as never before; sentence after sentence bounced and sizzled with life, and details of the physical universe erupted like little epiphanies. The quality of the writing aside, however, I was left with a certain uneasiness. In Henderson, Bellow’s 1964 evocation of a black African culture would probably not be countenanced today. And women do not come off very well in Herzog. He describes them as creatures who “eat green salad and drink human blood.” Nevertheless, these three books revitalized an early interest, and I am anxious to return to more of Saul Bellow, if only to see what sort of relationship we still have after so many years.