Category Archives: reading

How should you read a book?

A bookshop in Edinburgh, Scotland, photographed in June 2012.

A bookshop in Edinburgh, Scotland, photographed in June 2012.

 

Virginia Woolf’s reading advice, circa 1926 , remains witty & useful.

In the first place, I want to emphasise the note of interrogation at the end of my title.  Even if I could answer the question for myself, the answer would apply only to me and not to you.  The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.

—Virginia Woolf

Woolf around the time she wrote her essay on reading.

Woolf around the time she wrote her essay on reading.

As these opening sentences of her famous essay on reading show, Virginia Woolf is highfalutin only to those who haven’t read her. The chatty offhand charm and modesty of her essays impress and please. The humbling phase comes when you re-read, and see how simple she’s made complex matters, yet how rounded, deep, and full her expression.

I turned again to “How Should One Read a Book?” because after a while a reviewer tends to ask himself what he thinks he’s doing. What’s fair? Relevant? This weighed on me in wondering how to assess, for my recent review, Ted Kerasote’s Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs. I found this fine book marred by one major flaw in Kerasote’s judgment. I was uncertain how serious my disagreement is for the book, and puzzled by the issues it raised for reviewing in general.

Woolf, in stepping back to see the forest of literature, does provide some guidance in how to asses its individual trees:

1.    Open your mind

 At first, she says, try to move in tune with the author. “Be his fellow-worker and accomplice” rather than his critic: “Most commonly we come to books with blurred and divided minds, asking of fiction that it shall be true, of poetry that it shall be false, of biography that it shall be flattering, of history that it shall enforce our own prejudices. If we could banish all such preconceptions when we read, that would be an admirable beginning.”

Thankfully, I feel I did a good job initially of moving in tune with Kerasote. And even as my hackles rose over his letting his dog roam, I admired him for being himself. For admitting what he must’ve known would upset some readers. Granted, he doesn’t appear fully aware of how maddening his practice is to some of us, but he does explain his thinking; steadily he reveals himself throughout, which is brave in its way.

Woolf addresses this:

How far shall we resist or give way to the sympathies and antipathies that the man himself rouses in us—so sensitive are words, so receptive of the character of the author?  These are questions that press upon us when we read lives and letters, and we must answer them for ourselves, for nothing can be more fatal than to be guided by the preferences of others in a matter so personal.

I take this to mean that my faulting Kerasote on a matter of judgment—and in this case the preponderance of opinion is on my side—was within bounds.

2.    Learn to read by trying to write

Who can’t help but agree that to discern it helps to have done, or tried to do. Some great and famous editors were not great writers, just as many coaches weren’t great players themselves. But in each case they understood their chosen business from the inside.

A practitioner’s tough love, here:

Recall, then, some event that has left a distinct impression on you—how at the corner of the street, perhaps, you passed two people talking.  A tree shook; an electric light danced; the tone of the talk was comic, but also tragic; a whole vision, an entire conception, seemed contained in that moment.

But when you attempt to reconstruct it in words, you will find that it breaks into a thousand conflicting impressions.  Some must be subdued; others emphasised; in the process you will lose, probably, all grasp upon the emotion itself.

Now, she says, read the opening pages by a great novelist—she suggests Daniel Defoe, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy—and see their mastery and the great differences between their reality, their worlds, from open-air adventure to the drawing room’s subtleties to the lonely moor’s dark mysteries.

She continues:

Yet different as these worlds are, each is consistent with itself. The maker of each is careful to observe the laws of his own perspective, and however great a strain they may put upon us they will never confuse us, as lesser writers so frequently do, by introducing two different kinds of reality into the same book. Thus to go from one great novelist to another—from Jane Austen to Hardy, from Peacock to Trollope, from Scott to Meredith—is to be wrenched and uprooted; to be thrown this way and then that.  To read a novel is a difficult and complex art.  You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelist—the great artist—gives you.

3. Read lesser books & even rubbish

These are those lives and letters mentioned above, works of craft—books that don’t necessarily aspire to art. They can be made to “light up many windows of the past,” but also can stoke one’s own creative musing:

Is there not an open window on the right hand of the bookcase?  How delightful to stop reading and look out!  How stimulating the scene is, in its unconsciousness, its irrelevance, its perpetual movement—the colts galloping round the field, the woman filling her pail at the well, the donkey throwing back his head and emitting his long, acrid moan.  The greater part of any library is nothing but the record of such fleeting moments in the lives of men, women, and donkeys. Every literature, as it grows old, has its rubbish-heap, its record of vanished moments and forgotten lives told in faltering and feeble accents that have perished.  But if you give yourself up to the delight of rubbish-reading you will be surprised, indeed you will be overcome, by the relics of human life that have been cast out to moulder.  It may be one letter—but what a vision it gives! It may be a few sentences—but what vistas they suggest!

And yet, we must move on, for lesser works lack the “artist’s power of mastering and eliminating.” Having failed to “tell the whole truth,” having “disfigured the story that might have been so shapely,” they can only offer facts. Not Woolf’s “purer truth of fiction.”

4. Read poetry

“The impact of poetry is so hard and direct that for the moment there is no other sensation except that of the poem itself. What profound depths we visit then—how sudden and complete is our immersion!”

Woolf cites first a heartbreaking lament from the 16th Century song Westron Wynde, which probably is even older in origin—from a fragment if medieval poetry:

 Western wind, when wilt thou blow?

 The small rain down can rain.     

Christ, if my love were in my arms,     

 And I in my bed again!

Her reading essay concludes this collection.

Her reading essay concludes this collection.

And the time to read poetry is “when we are almost able to write it,” she says, going on to cite, so as to show their differing emotional expressiveness, verses of “force and directness,” of “wavering modulation,” of meditative calm,” of “complete and inexhaustible loveliness,” and of “splendid fantasy.”

I love Woolf’s unabashed passion and how it endorses one’s own deeply personal emotional response to literature—which, after all, is made from emotion and is meant to move us, engendering an emotional response its very purpose. Like the blinded Gloucester in Shakespeare’s King Lear, we might, using our great human asset of emotion, apprehend the world fully, “see it feelingly.”

Remember always, Woolf says, that with the lever of his great power to shift our perspective, “The poet is always our contemporary. Our being for the moment is centred and constricted, as in any violent shock of personal emotion.”

5. Wait, then give tough love

Having been open to an author, once “the dust of reading” has settled we must come to judgment. One of Woolf’s most useful tips is to wait till a book, first experienced in varying impressions, floats “to the top of the mind as a whole.” And the book having revealed itself as a “barn, a pigsty, or a cathedral,” she writes, “Let us then be severe in our judgments; let us compare each book with the greatest of its kind.”

Ouch. While judging isn’t as simple as reading and receiving impressions, Woolf admits, the task must be done to complete the reading process. One may be tempted to leave this to the “gowned and furred” experts:

Yet how impossible!  We may stress the value of sympathy; we may try to sink our identity as we read.  But we know that we cannot sympathise wholly or immerse ourselves wholly; there is always a demon in us who whispers, “I hate, I love”, and we cannot silence him.  Indeed, it is precisely because we hate and we love that our relation with the poets and novelists is so intimate that we find the presence of another person intolerable.  And even if the results are abhorrent and our judgments are wrong, still our taste, the nerve of sensation that sends shocks through us, is our chief illuminant; we learn through feeling; we cannot suppress our own idiosyncrasy without impoverishing it.

 6. Learn from experts as you train your taste

Some critics, however, including gifted fellow practitioners whom Woolf enjoys for their inside knowledge, can “steady” us in this difficult task of assessment: “But they are only able to help us if we come to them laden with questions and suggestions won honestly in the course of our own reading. They can do nothing for us if we herd ourselves under their authority and lie down like sheep in the shade of a hedge. We can only understand their ruling when it comes in conflict with our own and vanquishes it.”

And though reading a book “calls for the rarest qualities of imagination, insight, and judgment,” and Woolf considers it unlikely that even after a lifetime if reading someone can “make any valuable contribution to its criticism,” ordinary readers have responsibilities and even importance.

Here Woolf winds down her metaphor-rich advice with a mystical bit I love—it’s so very Virginia in its generous sense of connection and in its vision of ultimate holism:

The standards we raise and the judgments we pass steal into the air and become part of the atmosphere which writers breathe as they work. An influence is created which tells upon them even if it never finds its way into print.

. . .

If behind the erratic gunfire of the press the author felt that there was another kind of criticism, the opinion of people reading for the love of reading, slowly and unprofessionally, and judging with great sympathy and yet with great severity, might this not improve the quality of his work?  And if by our means books were to become stronger, richer, and more varied, that would be an end worth reaching.

And, anyway, reading is its own reward—the closest we can come to heaven on earth, she ends.

Wise, warm, and witty, our fellow reader Virginia Woolf is always so much fun.

Woolf’s essay “How Should One Read a Book?”concludes her collection The Second Common Reader and also is available free around the web by googling it.

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Filed under emotion, essay-expository, reading, REVIEW, Temp

Swamped by ‘Infinite Jest’

On failing to finish David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece novel.

 Beach Stick x

Carry nothing even remotely vegetabalish if in the path of a feral herd.

Infinite Jest

To paraphrase Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, “It’s a terrible thing to quit a book. To take from it less than it has to give.” I don’t believe that about books—we should quit any one that’s not working for us and start another—but David Foster Wallace’s 1,079-page novel Infinite Jest is a special case. And I’ve just failed to read it for the second time.

How many sail around the world on their first try? Still, there’s a sense of failure involved in quitting any one of the world’s acknowledged Great Novels. (I have a secret list.) And a special poignancy for me in giving up yet again on Infinite Jest since I love Wallace’s nonfiction and wanted to join those who’ve beaten on against the current to the bitter end. It appears, as well, to be a novel, like Catch-22 and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance were for my generation, that’s an important marker for twentysomething readers and writers. Alas, I am not young. Just dropping Infinite Jest on my toe, even in this paperback version, might be tragic at my age.

I’ve had plenty of reading time between semesters, down here in Florida in my sister’s beach condo. Even so, I feared the cetaceous bulk of Infinite Jest. And once you open it and see its pages covered in a smaller-than-usual font, with sentences at tighter than usual spacing—and I’m not talking about the 96 pages of tiny single-spaced endnotes—you instantly know one thing for sure. Reading Infinite Jest is an opportunity cost. Because you could read at least six good novels in the time it’d take you to read it. Just sayin’.

Wallace's Infinite Jest

But that’s not relevant if it’s worth six good novels. There’s testimony it is, though in all honesty I made it only to Page 109 so how would I really know? Yet Wallace’s genius, energy, and belief in his work are palpable from the start. He could do anything as a writer, and he seems to do everything in Infinite Jest; of course he’s got all the basic chops, from sentences to scenes, from point of view to voice. Incidentally, Wallace, both a grammarian and someone who could write circles around almost anyone, had no problem with breaking the heart of his frenemy Jonathan Franzen by using the “, then” construction that drives Franzen crazy. Franzen’s hatred of this common and useful usage pattern has made me weirdly sensitive to it; I see it everywhere, and I see his point. But his point, in his way, is also annoyingly overstated (and partly specious). (Watch Wallace cruelly dominate Franzen on Charlie Rose’s show.)  A minor quirk in Infinite Jest is Wallace’s use of single quotation marks; reviewing another book of his, Oblivion, for The Modern World, Marie Mundaca said they “seem to indicate that the entire story is enclosed in a set of double quotes.”

But to stand back. Wallace had the genius’s way with metaphor—at the sentence level, sure, but pertinently here in the overarching sense: how he sets up a bleak exaggerated future America. One in which our prosperity and beloved diversions (video, drugs, sports, advertising) turn hellish as richly flawed people struggle amid ascendant corporations and an environmental holocaust. New England is a toxic waste dump called the Great Concavity and roamed by Québécois separatist terrorists.

Blessedly I made it to Page 93, and so to the horde of rampaging hamsters:

     It’s a herd of feral hamsters, a major herd, thundering across the yellow plains of the southern reaches of the Great Concavity in what used to be Vermont, raising dust that forms a uremic-hued cloud with somatic shapes interpretable from as far away as Boston and Montreal. The herd is descended from two domestic hamsters set free by a Watertown NY boy at the beginning of the Experialist migration in the subsidized Year of the Whopper. The boy now attends college in Champaign IL and has forgotten that his hamsters were named Ward and June.

 

The noise of the herd is tornadic, locomotival. The expression on the hamsters’ whiskered faces is businesslike and implacable—it’s that implacable-herd expression. They thunder eastward across pedalferrous terrain that today is fallow, denuded. To the east, dimmed by the fulvous cloud the hamsters send up, is the vivid verdant ragged outline of the annularly overfertilized forests of what used to be central Maine.

 

All these territories are now property of Canada.

 

With respect to a herd of this size, please exercise the sort of common sense that come to think of it would keep your thinking man out of the southwest Concavity anyway. Feral hamsters are not pets. They mean business. Wide berth advised. Carry nothing even remotely vegetabalish if in the path of a feral herd. If in the path of such a herd, move quickly and calmly in a direction perpendicular to their own. If American, north not advisable. Move south, calmly and in all haste, toward some border metropolis—Rome NNY or Glens Falls NNY or Beverly, MA, say, or those bordered points between them at which the giant protective ATHSCME fans atop the hugely convex protective walls of adonized Lucite hold off the drooling and piss-colored bank of teratogenic Concavity clouds and move the bank well back, north, away, jaggedly, over your protected head.

One of the funniest passages I’ve read, it thrums with a deep sadness, maybe like all humor. Like Wallace’s, anyway. Like watching reruns of Leave it to Beaver and aching for your lost youth and for a more innocent America. Maybe you’ve not read Infinite Jest or, like me, have failed so far to finish it (in my case for largely unknown reasons but probably involving a reading hangover from my personal best reading year just ended, work I lugged with me, and a stupor induced by ocean waves breaking a stone’s throw from my pillow). If so, remember you read it here first: Carry nothing even remotely vegetabalish if in the path of a feral herd.

In 2009, my son, Tom Gilbert, reviewed Infinite Jest for Narrative.

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Filed under experimental, fiction, humor, metaphor, MY LIFE, punctuation, reading, REVIEW

A slew of new books about writing

“Most problems in writing are structural, even on the scale of the page. Something isn’t flowing properly. The logic or the dramatic logic is off.”—Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd

Kidder-Good Prose

As the owner of an entire bookcase crammed with writing manuals dating back to the 1940s, Dad’s as well as mine that begin in the 1970s, I’m leery of new acquisitions. Rearranging my books earlier this winter, I thought, “I should at least reread some of these before buying another.” But that’s not a formal vow. Hence I find myself tempted by a sensible-looking new one, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, to be published January 15, because I admire Tracy Kidder’s nonfiction narratives and I know his editor and now co-author, Richard Todd.

Theirs has been a long and fruitful collaboration, beginning in 1973 when Todd, as an editor at The Atlantic Monthly, began editing and encouraging Kidder, a brash newcomer trying to break into magazine journalism. Their new book reveals that the tables were turned in their relationship recently when Kidder edited a draft of Todd’s wry lament about America, The Thing Itself (reviewed). I’m eager to know more, to see the editor get his comeuppance, but I’ll have to read the book to find out what Kidder said because Amazon’s “Look Inside!” feature cut me off.

Having stumbled across Good Prose on Amazon, I found myself directed to four more forthcoming books on writing.

Essayist and essay scholar Philip Lopate will publish in February To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction. Patricia Hampl blurbs the book, saying it “includes brilliant and helpful considerations of the essay and memoir, placing them and their vexing questions in clear cultural context. This is the rule book.” Also in February, Lopate’s new collection of essays, Portrait Inside My Head, will be published.

Goldburg-True Secret

Natalie Goldberg, author of the enduringly popular Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within and Old Friend From Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir (reviewed) will publish in March The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life With Language. It’s unclear how this book will extend Goldberg’s vision of writing because Amazon’s “Look Inside!” isn’t yet functional for it, but the description—which reads in part, “Sit. Walk. Write. These are the barest bones of Natalie Goldberg’s revolutionary writing and life practice . . . ”—implies that this is a summation of her teaching methods.

Then there’s Blueprint Your Bestseller: Organize and Revise Any Manuscript with the Book Architecture Method, by Stuart Horwitz, to be published January 29. The description says Horwitz’s method is “a tested sequence of steps for organizing and revising any manuscript. By breaking a manuscript into manageable scenes, you can determine what is going on in your writing at the structural level—and uncover the underlying flaws and strengths of your narrative.”

Finally—and I’m sure there are more forthcoming writing books but I refused to look—there’s The Plot Whisperer Book of Writing Prompts: Easy Exercises to Get You Writing (January 13) by Martha Alderson, author of the blog Plot Whisperer for Writers and Readers, recognized by Writer’s Digest as one of “101 Best Websites for Writers.”

Briefly sagging in the face of this how-to cornucopia, I wondered why are there so many books on writing. The obvious answer is that they sell.

Which only begs the question: What is it about writing? On the one hand, I take comfort—as intended—in statements like “writing’s just bricklaying”; i.e. making meaning and pleasing structure from piles of inert material. And I know there’s merit in the metaphor’s veiled plug for discipline; something made, day by day, takes on its own life, makes its own plea for completion. I even ruefully appreciate the heartless corollary mocking those with “writer’s block”: There’s no such thing as plumber’s block.

Yet such analogies seem partly disingenuous and reflect only partly my own experience. Writing is different. (Isn’t it?) It’s an art as well as a craft. It’s concentrated thought. And it’s far spookier, and far less substantial, than bricklaying. Bricks are physical objects, and words are symbols, invisible until writers pull them from their brains as if snatching them from thin air, write them down, and accept or reject them. Love works better than discipline, for me. But lonely work it can be. Surely I’m not the only writer who has gone to the bookcase and pulled down a book, almost any book, to reassure myself that my sentences are not so very different from those that have found print.

Writing can feel so insubstantial. Which is why, if nothing else, books on writing offer scribblers something beyond advice: comfort. As my groaning bookcase might attest, however, be  selective.

The plot whisperer, Martha Alderson, at work at her white board.

The plot whisperer, Martha Alderson, at work at her white board.

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Filed under NOTED, reading, REVIEW, working method

My top 12 books of 2012

From 30 finalists, a dozen memoirs, novels, how-to & history.

Bookstore in Mainex

While reading sixty-something books—those re-read I listed and counted again—I picked thirty favorites. I’ve now winnowed them to my top twelve. They’re listed here in the order I read them.

I Knew You’d Be Lovely by Alethea Black. Black’s short stories are funny and wise. Readable from this collection on line is the fine “The Only Way Out is Through,” about a man trying to help his furious, disturbed son by taking him on a camping trip; the story’s flash forward still thrills me. Another of my favorites is “Someday is Today,” based on the death of Black’s brother in law, in which a young single woman struggles to comfort her widowed sister and tries to help care for the couple’s three young girls. Review/Author Interview.

A Childhood: The Biography of a Place by Harry Crews. Crews depicts his life from age five to ten, the son of destitute sharecroppers in Georgia’s coastal plain during the Great Depression. These are folk right out of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Crews masterfully employs both his child and adult perspectives. Reviewed.

The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea. This 2005 Pulitzer finalist is about the suffering and deaths among a group of twenty-six Mexicans who tried to sneak into America through the Arizona desert in May 2001. Urrea, the son of a Mexican father and American mother, is a poet, memoirist, novelist, short story writer, and journalist who is steeped in border culture. He exhaustively researched and fully imagined this tragic incident, producing a powerful and important book that soars lyrically and inhabits shifting points of view. Reviewed.

Such a Life by Lee Martin. These linked memoir essays are deliciously readable and inspiring—see him turn his life into art! And in Ohio, no less. My favorite essay, “Never Thirteen,” is about Martin’s girlfriend and himself when they were thirteen and were about to be split up by his parents’ return from suburban Chicago to their farm in southern Illinois. Martin captures the sweetness in the kids’ relationship, which is set against the fears, suspicions, and flawed lives of the adults around them. He’s a master at moving between himself then and himself now. Review/Author Interview.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. Impressively Woolf opens her wondering mind and wandering body to us. This book-length essay is always transparent and never didactic: surprisingly, she embeds most of her inquiry into sexism in scene. Her riff on what-if-Shakespeare-had-a-sister is witty and poignant, and the book peaks in conclusion with a Rilke-worthy mystical vision of the sexes’ ultimate unity.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. A blockbuster bestselling memoir I adored—my favorite memoir of 2012. For me it was a very comfortable book to slip into, and it also inspired me as a writer. I read it completely twice and its prologue about six times. Sales figures indicate I’m not the book’s only admirer—and Oprah even revived her book club with it. Reviewed.

Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy. Better late than never I read this masterpiece from 1985, and I’m still reeling from the prose, the story. It’s a bloody western, a historical novel, a revisionist history, an overly dark view of humanity, a master class in narrative technique. You don’t “like” this novel any more than you “like” Everest. You love it or hate it, but you must bow down before its grandeur.

Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg. How to foster and feed and practice the writing mind that makes sentences lies at the heart of this hymn to prose style. Klinkenborg’s method is to gut it out, one sentence at a time. I was stirred by his hard-edged honesty about how hard it is to think. That is, to write. Reviewed. Another fine how-to book among my thirty finalists is Robin Hemley’s A Field Guide for Immersion Writing: Memoir, Journalism, and Travel.

The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love by Kristen Kimball. A compelling story, beautifully written, about a young couple’s first year as full-time farmers. My desire to call attention to this fine memoir may be why it edged out on the top twelve list Philip Roth’s strong 1996 memoir about his father, Patrimony.

Canada by Richard Ford. In my favorite novel of the year, action is seen through the eyes of a fifteen-year-old boy, though technically—and memoiristically—it’s narrated by his adult self. The story is how his middle-class parents committed a crime that wrecked their family and shattered his and his twin sister’s lives; it begins in Montana and moves to Canada, where the boy ends up, alone, living a Dickensian existence. A short third act is told purely from his perspective at age sixty. Reviewed.

The Round House by Louise Erdrich. Like Canada narrated technically by a middle-aged man about and from the viewpoint of his teenage self, this winner of the National Book Award for fiction is set on a high plains Native American reservation. A woman, a tribal record-keeper, is raped and brutally beaten, and her thirteen-year-old son sets out to solve the crime, as does his father, a tribal judge. It’s a detective story, a whodunit with high stakes, as well as a coming-of-age tale, and a portrait of ongoing racial injustice. I also admired Kevin Powers’s celebrated novel of the Iraq War and its aftermath for one soldier, The Yellow Birds, which The New York Times has named one of the top five novels of 2012.

Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard. Millard depicts the shooting and lingering deathbed agonies of President James Garfield—killed by doctors who didn’t yet believe in European germ theory. Born to dire poverty in Ohio, Garfield was leading a college at age twenty-six; entering the U.S. senate to fill an open seat, he soon rose to the rank of general in the Civil War, and after the war was drafted as a presidential candidate against his will. Millard’s book, a carefully crafted narrative, is still history and harder reading than memoirs or fiction, but worth the effort to feel an America being swept into modernity as its physical frontiers shrink. Garfield was not only smart, he was good to the core, and Millard’s portrait of his noble character and his needless suffering is humbling and inspiring.

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Those best books lists . . .

Strayed’s Wild my top memoir; Ford’s Canada my top novel.

Strayed's Wild

I’m on track to have read some sixty-seven books in 2012. I know that because for the first time I kept a reading log, which is heavily weighted toward memoir: thirty-plus read, including re-readings. Maybe that’s because memoir’s been my own writing project, though by now I’m a true fan of the genre. The rest are a smattering of history, theory, short stories and novels. There were standouts and duds in all departments—books unlogged because unfinished. I’m working on my complete favorites list, and so far it includes, along with the memoirs and novels, a short story collection, a work of journalism, a how-to book, and a history. (Admittedly I find myself wanting variety on my list.) The best indicator of my heart’s true tally: the thirty titles in boldface (“to re-read”) on my reading log.

The idiosyncratic nature of preferences is shown by my slow-to-grow admiration of Junot Diaz’s blockbuster novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which I just finished; from the start it’s obviously great, so full of energy and so confident in its story, but it was late to capture me the way a couple other novels did this year, maybe because of its shifting narrators—a real feat, technically and imaginatively—when I was most invested in Oscar’s story. Of course any writer and most readers can see advantages in multiple narrators: the urgency, voice, and warmth of first person allied with multiple perspectives on key characters and events akin to third-person. I have a feeling that Wao, with its fearless slang and colloquial vulgarity, is a time bomb that will detonate for me when I need it. The other thing against it making my top twelve list is that I read it so late in the year, and books need time to marinate and resonate—at least for me they seem to. It’s been hard to get a draft of twelve, so I better stop before I talk myself into listing it . . .

Ford's Canada

And although I say here that Richard Ford’s Canada is my favorite novel, I’ve just realized that I’m mentally exempting probably my finalist list’s greatest novel read this year, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, simply because it’s an older book I just got around to, whereas Ford’s is indeed a 2012 publication. I can see why it would be easier, cleaner, and just plain better to stick to 2012 books for these best lists, like the major review outlets do. Except that’s not the way real people read. Also, while I admired McCarthy’s masterpiece I enjoyed Ford’s novel in a rare childlike way. Notably missing in action so far from my draft of the final twelve is the great Iraq War novel The Yellow Birds, a lyrical wonder. I have no idea why. Except like Wao I read it late. It is in boldface, however, among the top thirty, on my log.

Who said these lists were fair, let alone logical?

Next: My top twelve books of 2012.

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On hating a memoirist

Bill Roorbach readin’ and lovin’ Wild up in Maine. Despite its bestsellerdom, or because of it, some hate the book and its author.

Another nonfiction issue: judging a book by its author?

 I know of nothing more difficult than knowing who you are, and having the courage to share the reasons for the catastrophe of your character with the world.—William Gass

As my previous three posts indicate, I admire Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. I devoured it as a reader and also loved how I could raid her techniques for my own memoir. So I was surprised to read some reactions to Bill Roorbach’s laudatory review of Wild on Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour.

Margaret Benbow, a poet, wrote:

. . . Why do I feel that I understand her, and what she’s about, better than you? Because I’m a woman. I intensely enjoy her writing. No question that she has the chops. The problem comes with your faith in her “honesty”. I see most of her unbuttoned, hairy, sweaty sexual recollections as calculating. They get the reader’s attention, right? She glories in her own screw-ups, rubs her (and our) face in them time and again. She SETS UP screw-ups on the trail. Who in her right mind would prepare so inadequately for such a demanding physical crucible as the Pacific Trail? Why has she chosen brand new unbroken-in too-small boots? She endlessly whines about the poor rags of her feet–whose tattered condition was absolutely inevitable, given her contempt for the most basic preparation. She has mailed packages to herself with food and money at halting-places on the trial. They are often missed, inadequate.

Strayed has a kink in herself which demands constant life crises…and for readers to see them, deplore them, be excited by them, root for her to overcome them. She’s extremely good at being an exhibitionistic screw-up performance artist. In general, I like and admire her book. But I don’t like that calculating glimmer in the back of her eye.

Hmmm. Well. I found surprising and interesting this peevish reaction and Bill’s irritated reply and her rejoinder and another reader’s also weighing in coolly toward Strayed. Personally I had no problems with Strayed’s sensuous but rather mild depiction of a sexual incident on the trail. And I felt her preparation, a mix of intense focus and amateurish oversight, totally believable (and she only screwed up once mailing stuff to herself).

Something deeper was at work in my acceptance. I admired her courage for taking a 1,100 mile hike alone—and for her entire under-employed young artist journey. When I was young I always wanted to do something like her backpacking adventure, which she undertook, I think, in her role as a young writer as much as she did for its healing properties. Instead, I worked. My equivalent post-college adventure was traveling to New York for the first time and taking classes at a famous method-acting school; I’d never been outside the south or in a big city, and New York scared me—it scared a lot of people in the late 1970s, so much crime and hostility on the street. I remember reading The World According to Garp on July 4, 1978, sprawled beneath an air conditioner—it was 104 degrees outside—in my sublet at 113th Street and Broadway.

Cheryl Strayed: don’t worry, be happy?

At the age Strayed lit out for the trail, twenty-six and turning twenty-seven, I’d worked for several newspapers and had just accepted a Kiplinger fellowship to Ohio State, where I spent a year reading history, philosophy, religion, and literature. Then I went back to newspapers, married, settled down, had kids. I also wrote short stories, but about the time I wrote one that had promise, I got busy (or something) and quit, not returning to creative or deeply personal writing for several years. So I was awed by Strayed’s belief in herself or in her writing dream, which she had very little to show for coming off the trail as thirty loomed ahead.

But I did have to overcome my own doubts about Strayed, I realized. For me, it was her blaming her self-destructive meltdown—her affairs and drug use and divorce that led her to the trail—on the depth of her derangement after her mother’s death. Gradually I accepted her explanation of being derailed by grief, not because I’ve ever shared it to that extent but because of other life experiences I brought to Wild.

Strayed, the middle of three children, was six when her mother divorced her abusive father; she carries scarring memories of seeing her mother hurt, punched or dragged down a sidewalk by her hair, and of being threatened herself with her daddy’s knuckle sandwiches. Strayed and her sister grew up as not very close siblings, and her sister puzzles Strayed by staying away when their mother lies dying. Maybe she just couldn’t take the pain of it. But this woman, a couple years older than Strayed, by definition took the first blow, so to speak, from their father and his dysfunctional household—the first born takes the first blow and gets the first benefit from parents—and she surely suffered more than Strayed. Maybe she had more bitterness toward their submissive mother or just more distance. Maybe she was angry at Strayed, so tough and questing, for displacing her in the sibling hierarchy. Perhaps for all of that.

In any case Strayed ascended over her more damaged sister (in my reckoning) as leader of the sibling pack and glommed onto their mother so fiercely as a child and young adult—which she depicts—that I don’t see how her older sister could have had anything but a secondary relationship,  in comparison, with the woman. That wouldn’t have affected their brother, baby to all in the family dynamic. But it would have, as we said in the South, cheesed her big sister’s grits.

Am I what Bill Roorbach accuses Margaret Benbow above of being, an armchair psychologist?

Absolutely.

But aren’t we all?

I hope I don’t explain everything in life, as a middle child myself, in terms of birth order. But my own experience of its significance is why I despised Vladimir Nabokov’s self-portrait in Speak, Memory, reviewed here. And my reaction was in part a perverse rebellion against the literary establishment and canon—more middle child stuff?—for endlessly praising his memoir. Briefly, Nabokov admits to cruelly dominating his younger brother as they grew up and then judges him a hapless fool for sticking around Germany too long and getting killed by the Nazis. Guess which one of the brothers I identified with?

Regardless of the validity of my or Margaret Benbow’s visceral reactions to authors, isn’t this yet another nonfiction issue? Judging a book by its author? I’m always ashamed when I do, feeling it’s an invalid way to assess a work of literature, and at the same time secretly convinced of the truth of my perception. To me Nabokov was a cold fish and a cruel human being, whose art—or at least whose nonfiction—should be suspect. (Some milder critics merely find Speak, Memory boring since, following his aesthetic star, Nabokov wrote about his toy soldiers and butterfly collection rather than his assassinated father and his aristocratic family’s traumatic exile from Russia.)

And yet I give Nabokov a pass in his fictional worlds and works. We all do, pretty much. Relatively few blame him for Humbert Humbert in Lolita. No, quite the contrary. We praise an author of fiction for using bits of himself—his socially unacceptable feelings, his misdeeds, his psychic warps—to animate various characters. There seems to be two reasons why some fiction writers cannot countenance memoir: such a waste of good material; and using oneself overtly, in such an unguarded way, only invites others’ disdain.

An acquaintance, a scholar and editor, who read a chapter of my memoir praised my courage. I’m not sure what he meant, unless it’s the exposure of my family’s particular trauma and that general risk of backlash that memoir writers face. My twentysomething son said the problem with my memoir is that it doesn’t show how strange I am. On the one hand, such a classic kid’s response to his parent. On the other, he had a point. Am I protecting myself too much, fearing rejection? I upped the strangeness quotient. But one should construct a persona that serves the particular book, no? Reveal one’s weirdness artfully, not all at once?

But regardless of what you do, brace yourself, Effie. Because some people are going to think—and say—terrible things about you and your modest attempt to offer to the world a gift.

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Filed under audience, honesty, memoir, MY LIFE, NOTED, reading, REVIEW

The quotes on my desktop

There are quotes about writing on my desktop. Actually, they’re in a Word file, at the top of a journal I’ve kept for the last year as I produced a fourth version of my memoir. I don’t make journal entries every day, usually when things go really badly or really well. Or when I notice something I want to remember—like the fact that I won’t be able to remember or recreate or explain how I interwove narrative threads over the course of an entire 500-page manuscript. Such notes to my future self are intended to lessen consternation by that future, unknown self.

I know they won’t help. Even the ones that say: Hey Dummy, You did it like this. Because:

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few. . . . This is also the real secret of the arts: always be a beginner. Be very very careful about this point.”— Suzuki Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Check. Anyway, I seldom look at my journal—or my inspiring quotes. But they are there when I need them. Of course I’ve internalized other thoughts, such as Annie Dillard’s famous statement:

“There’s a common notion that self-discipline is a freakish peculiarity of writers—that writers differ from other people by possessing enormous and equal portions of talent and willpower.  They grit their powerful teeth and go into their little rooms.  I think that’s a bad misunderstanding of what impels the writer. What impels the writer is a deep love for and respect for language, for literary forms, for books.  It’s a privilege to muck about in sentences all morning. It’s a challenge to bring off a powerful effect, or to tell the truth about something. You don’t do it from willpower; you do it from an abiding passion for the field.

As she says, “Willpower is a weak idea; love is strong.” I believe it, and believe Dillard meant it. But I’ve also read her despairing comments about writing’s difficulty.

Here’s my top “working” quotes.

“The realest, most honest part of anyone is the part that suffers.”—John V. Wylie

John, my brother in law, told me that one day when I was concerned about going deeply into a painful incident in my memoir.  Retired from his huge Washington, D.C., psychiatric practice, John is a key member of my writer’s posse. He’s a sunny guy, so I was afraid that my darkest chapter, about when I got seriously hurt on my farm, would upset him. My injury was agonizing, and it made me despair. But in his old day job, John had heard worse.

So when John said the problem with “your chapter is it’s not dark enough,” I listened. He added, “I think it’s the writer’s duty to be honest about such things. People can relate.” I hold to that philosophy myself, and was so stunned by his reaction I couldn’t speak.

He’s helped me come far with this iteration of my memoir. And I have tried to help him with his magnum opus. Explaining its theories would involve summarizing more than thirty years, which is how long John’s been talking to me about evolutionary psychology, his passion, in his effort to understand human emotion and the nature of God. We’ve each had a hard, creative year. I wish I were smarter, so I could help him more—much of what he writes is over my head.

But just as I have inoculated him with the creative nonfiction bug, and unwittingly increased his confidence to tell me when what I write is flawed, he’s brought me along, with help from his buddies Darwin, Freud, and Kierkegaard. To paraphrase the detestable but quotable Rummy: “We must go to the keyboard with the reader we have.” Maybe in time you grow the reader you need, or deserve.

“Talent is a process, not a thing. Failure is not proof of an innate limit but rather is an indication of a skill we haven’t yet developed.” —David Shenk

I’ll never forget talking to an accomplished writer once at a conference. He was a “mid-list writer,” someone who has produced a string of books over the years, not bestsellers but good, diverse books, mostly memoir and nonfiction narratives, but also a couple books on writing. Suddenly he said to me, out of the blue, “I’m just a craftsman. Sometimes I get lucky.”

Maybe I was looking too star-struck. Having now spent almost six years writing a book, I understand better what he meant. Writing is rewarding, of course, but can seem so hard. And it’s a field full of geniuses, so it’s humbling. But I also remember something Brenda Ueland said in her classic If You Want to Write: We call “geniuses” by that one word, but we all possess genius. “Geniuses” just are people who act. They plug away. They may be smarter and more talented than most, and seemingly always “on,” but it is an illusion that work is easy for them. Virginia Woolf suffered terribly, from family baggage and bipolar disorder, yet she wrote—and she rewrote—endlessly.

Shenk is the author of The Genius in All of Us and made the comments above to a newspaper reporter when he was in speaking in here in Columbus.

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail better.—Samuel Beckett

In the same vein, more poetically expressed. Many writers mention this quote. Again, it’s the idea that creating involves constant failure but that’s no reason to quit. And there’s a flaw in every work of art. Art cannot be flawless, if only because each recipient sees something different in it, and perhaps something lacking.

Books do not have to be great. They can be good enough.Heather Sellers

This is from her fine book about writing a book, Chapter After Chapter, which I’ve mentioned occasionally here. The day I added it to the list I probably needed to lower my standards to get some work done. But the statement occurs within the context of her rather paradoxical philosophy that you only accept the best you can do as good enough.

It’s carpentry.—Noam Shpancer, novelist, commenting on his writing.

This is another lower-your-standards quote, obviously. And I know Noam, an Otterbein colleague, tries very hard to make it more than just carpentry. But there’s a lot to that analogy nonetheless.

It takes stamina and self mastery and faith. It demands those things of you, then gives them back with a little extra, a surprise to keep you coming.—Tobias Wolff, In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War

I love this memoir; I love this quote. I believe it is true about writing. It is true in my experience. The little breakthroughs amaze me. I can beat my head against the wall trying to solve a problem, to figure out how to do something, and suddenly the solution’s there—I think it’s the subconscious kicking in. Strangely, when a breakthrough is happening it doesn’t feel as big as it really is. It’s only later that I realize how much my ass was saved, again, because I showed up and didn’t quit.

Set aside time to write, even if it’s only an hour or two a day, and think of the time as the requirement.  So you just have to be there, and it doesn’t matter what you finish. I think it takes the pressure off the individual story or chapter, and you’ll end up working on the ideas that seem most promising.  I start many, many stories and abandon most of them, but eventually some pay off.—Maile Malloy, novelist and short story writer

I read Malloy’s 2009 short story collection, Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, and was amazed. The first story is about a lonely, crippled young Montana ranch hand who stumbles accidentally into the world of a pretty, striving attorney, a few years older than he, and falls in love with her. It can’t end happily, and doesn’t, but ends with a poignant, understated truth. The rest of the stories astonished and surprised me, too, and her writing is beautiful in its spare simplicity. Her sentences seem perfect in their punctuation, detail, and apt summary.

I read a few interviews with her on the web, and came across that quote in a Q&A on her web site. Malloy says she writes in some kind of a reclining “astronaut chair,” with a desk that comes across her lap to write upon.

For me, time spent writing indeed is probably more important than number of words of pages, because I think a quota could make my writing more mechanical. At least that happened to me once, as I recall, long ago. And, as it happens, I’d already abandoned my desk to write during the last year reclined in my leather La-Z-Boy with my laptop in, well, my lap.

“Amazing what power there is in surrender to suffering.”—Mary Karr (from her Paris Review interview)

I admire the heck out of Mary Karr, as my review of her third memoir, Lit, should have made obvious. The Paris Review interview, which I learned about from Shirley Showalter’s blog 100 Memoirs, is a gold mine. I can’t wait to read the book Karr’s working on about writing memoir. In her own work, she always unites a powerful narrative with a strong voice and a larger awareness of herself.

This particular quote inspires me deeply—I think it’s a truth recognized by all great religions. I first encountered the overt notion of, well, yielding about seventeen years ago in my study of Buddhism, which has tools that seemed, and seem, much more codified and therefore generally helpful with less struggle than Christianity’s.

But having dissed my own tradition, I know that Christianity contains multitudes; it’s just that in my early practice I was too obtuse a supplicant to notice that it’s also about surrender and forgiveness. And of course community—working with and helping others. Like all religion, I suppose, it’s designed for adults who have experienced grief and who struggle with loss. Surely that group includes all writers, for loss is their stock in trade.

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Filed under Dillard—Saint Annie, MY LIFE, reading, religion & spirituality, working method