Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Monday, March 20, 2006

READ THIS BOOK NEXT WEEK

[gary daily col. 47 December 29, 2002]

“You can anticipate slow but steady progress and a calm pleasant life ahead if books were the main feature of your dream.”
-The Dreamer’s Dictionary: From A to Z

During this time of the year magazine and newspaper articles recommending books abound. These reviews of the year list books that won prizes or books that are notable in quality, design, or sales. And, being a celebrity-crazed culture, books that are the favorites of someone whose name might possibly be recognizable to at least five people living west of the Hudson River are also duly noted. Therefore, we might be informed that Donald Trump read Lemons Are My Best Friends and Condi Rice appreciated the self-help work, Lies I Told My Teachers.

But I do not take a cynical view of this list mongering. These year-end graded catalogs of books are not just marketing ploys. I prefer to see them as guides. Guides can be interesting in and of themselves. And possibly instructive. Recommended lists can on the one hand valorize reading choices we made in the past; or, contrarily, they can serve as easy targets, sniffed at and then dismissed with great self-satisfaction. Lists can also motivate. I have several lists with many titles I’ve circled, promises sincerely but unrealistically made to: READ THIS BOOK NEXT WEEK.

These roll calls of book recommendations can be put to more fanciful uses.

Using the "New York Times Book Review” 2002 lists of “Notable Books,” as categorized under the headings “Fiction and Poetry” and “Nonfiction,” I was motivated (who knows why) to run a computer “Find” search on each list for the words “love” and “war.” If you’re not familiar with these lists, I should mention that they consist of the book title, author, publisher and price and a thirty to fifty word summary and comment on the book. The results: “love” is mentioned 22 times; “war” is mentioned 22 times.

This mechanical analysis may be made to prove once again that we live in precarious and coarsened times. I wasn't surprised when I found that the 22-22 tie was achieved in a lopsided way. The 22 mentions of “love” came solely from the “Fiction and Poetry” category--these imaginative works bowing to the ways of the heart. Meanwhile, the hard-nosed, or is it hardhearted, “Nonfiction” books found no room at all for “love.”

Current works of fact would seem to rule love out of their mix of truth. On the other hand, novelists and poets would appear to live in a never-never land where the ignorant armies that clash by night are personal and cultural and never military in nature. Should the Bush II Oil War erupt in 2003 it’s a safe bet poets will go to “war.” Alas, it is problematic if “love” will ever manage to brighten the pages of works by economists and policy wonks.

I’d prefer to spin this simple survey along the lines that it proves nothing except that my favorite quote from George Orwell’s 1984, “Sanity is not statistical.” continues to have legs. More reasonably, it’s fair to conclude that the whole business of writing short paragraph blurbs on long and complex books is an art form that will generally remain stuck in an age of hyper-adolescence, full of gush and high hopes and weak on reason and balance. It must be a major embarrassment for the writers of many of these blurbs to review their sound bite support for books they hyped two or three years earlier.

There is one kind of end of the year book list I particularly enjoy. It’s the not-ready-for celebrity-status author’s list. (“Not-ready” in the sense that our society is not yet ready for these writers and their works.) In a “Books of the Year” section of The Times Literary Supplement (the British grandmama to all present day literary reviews), two favorite writers, Joyce Carol Oates and Julian Barnes, revealed a few of their picks for the year.

Oates is a writer and a reader who has perfected the capacity and talent of easily breathing in books and just as easily exhaling exquisite works of both fiction and nonfiction. She makes it look easy. Love and war and the wars within love and anything and everything in between can be found in one or more of the 48 novels, 9 nonfiction works, and 42 collections of stories and plays she has published as of Dec. 29, 2002, 9:00 am.

In her “Books of the Year” contribution, Ms. Oates mentions a “diary-novel” by Hjalmar Soderberg, Doctor Glas. Translated and reissued last year, she describes it as being a “little-known Swedish masterpiece . . . both naturalistic in its social details and surrealist in [its] haunting effects.” Where does she find these unknown masterpieces? Makes me want to read it; and makes me want to read even more Joyce Carol Oates.

In his A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters (a book on my all time personal favorites list) Julian Barnes sweeps the reader through fictional musings ranging from a stowaway woodworm in Noah’s Ark to perfecting one’s golf game during a stay in eternity. I was very anxious to see what such a mind has been reading.

He has praise for Captives, a work of history on the British Empire by Linda Colley. Barnes notes, “At a time when a version of Islam and a version of the American Empire are making unwelcome history, this is also a book wise in its topicality.” He also plugs E. H. Carr’s study of 19th century Russian philosophers and revolutionary émigrés, The Romantic Exiles. He points out that this title is currently ranked 151,343 in the Amazon.com listings based on sales. This fact serves to underline Orwell’s truth again.

Many of us live by the duties implied in lists: “To Do,” “To Write,” “To See,” even “To Read.” This practice can threaten to turn lists into life. When the reading of books is approached as a listed duty to perform, something to be gotten out of the way and finally checked off as a task completed, those books will be stripped of much of the magic they contain. The only thing worse than this is not reading books at all.

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