WordPress gives me something called “tag surfer” – I can pick a set of ‘tags’ and it will generate a list of recent posts from across WordPress sites that use the same tags. The default is to give me the tags that I use here on my own site, so I initially had to wade through tons of fawning Cormac McCarthy fans. Absolutely noone else is using the Robert Kroetsch tag. But I can also add tags that I an interested in, even if I haven’t used the tag myself, so I have added “Reading” and “Books.” It’s gives me a snapshot of the zeitgeist, in so far as WordPress can be considered a representative slice.
And while everyone else in the world is reading The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest I decided to go buy three books that everyone else in the world used to be reading: Edward Said, Orientalism, from 1978 – 30 years ago; Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho, from 1991 – 20 years ago; and Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, from 2000 – 10 years ago. And again – does anyone read any of these anymore? Are these still on The List or even any list for that matter? Orientalism, I guess, in excerpted form for undergrad course readers? But the more I read about the Ottoman Empire and VS Naipaul the more I realize that maybe I should read the stinking book. And the others, yeah: the more I realize that maybe I should read the stinking book. The first two obviously predate me but I remember the year 2000, when everyone on the little Internet had an opinion on A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, insufferably reduced to “AHWOSG” in the vernacular, and while I don’t really want to read it I do want to have read it. Or, rather, “I want to know what it is” has won out over “I don’t want to have this book on my shelf.”
There is a perverse pride in not having read these books – the old ‘hey, I’m special!’ A piece of advice: Read like a lover of books, and not like someone who wants to be seen as knowledgable, or well-read, or scholarly. Read because you want to, not because you need to. And that works in all directions – reading a book to be seen is the same as not reading a book to be seen. The answer is simple: just read books.
Three other books, too:
- Lorrie Moore, Birds In America (1998) – I understand that this book is a Big Deal and it is on Mike Hingston’s ‘Books to Read’ list. My interest in short stories peaked at the same time as my interest in Canadian literature so I have come to regard the short story collection as a peculiarly Canadian form. Obviously this is not true but when I read a short story not based in the far North, or Toronto, or the vast Canadian prairie wilderness I read it as an imitation of the true form.
- Robert Sullivan, Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants (2004) – My friend Clea and I both bought the same book about cod because we were both applying for jobs in the fisheries field. She got her job, I didn’t, and I am probably never going to read my book about cod because I can’t help but see it as a symbol of hubris. So instead I will read this book about rats. This is not a history but more of a personal narrative, hooray.
- John Bierman and Colin Smith, War Without Hate: The Desert Campaign of 1940-1943 (2002) – Not entirely sure about this. It was just that morning that I realized I didn’t really know anything about the northern Africa campaigns of WWII and that this period of history – the last gasp of imperial warfare in colonial territories? – might be just as interesting as the Ottoman 1914-1922 that I am reading right now. So I saw this and picked it up right away. But on closer read it looks like a military history – less politics and treaties and the crazy social situation of mid-20th century colonial warfare and more battle plans and advances and retreats and campaign strategy. Everything I don’t want in a history. But I’ll try it out nevertheless.
And then several days later, from Book Warehouse. I forget about Book Warehouse which is unfortunate because it’s an excellent source of remaindered book about Canadian politics, usually priced around $5 or at least under $10. Cheap new books, in every way.
- Steven Heighton, On Earth As It Is (1995) – I think this guy is really interesting. I’ve read his two novels and have another book of short stories on hand. He has a new novel out this month, set in Tibet, that I’ll read as soon as I see it at PulpFiction.
- Tom Zytaruk, Like a Rock: The Chuck Cadman Story (2008) – hey, it was only 2.95! Tom Zytaruk writes for the Surrey – North Delta Now, which was the leading competitor to the Surrey Leader, the paper I delivered when growing up in Surrey. And Chuck Cadman was my MP from 1997 until 2003, when I moved out of Surrey. I remember the buttons from 1992: YOA: Give the people a say! YOA of course stands for Young Offenders Act. No, I couldn’t support that: mob justice? And all it took to turn the guy into a cult hero was losing the Conservative nomination in 2004 and, well, dying of cancer. Yeah I guess I should read the stinking book.
- Preston Manning, Think Big: My Adventures in Life and Democracy (2002) – I think I have more literature about the Reform Party and descendants from 1988-2004 than any other period or subject in Canadian politics.
- Trevor Harrison, Requiem for a Lightweight: Stockwell Day and Image Politics (2002) – I read this in 2004, borrowed from the WAC Bennett library at SFU; two days, maybe? What a fun and wonderful bit of history. I saved images of the wetsuit press conference at the time but had to track down a photo of his handmade “No 2-tier healthcare” sign from the 2000 leader’s debate – the only image online seems to be at Filibuster Cartoons.
- Hugh Segal, No Surrender: Reflections of a Happy Warrior in the Tory Crusade (1996)– Oh geez, it was only $4.95. I love a memoir of a losing campaign and even if there is just one chapter about that 1993 Kim Campbell collapse this will be worth reading.
- Douglas Todd, Cascadia, the Elusive Utopia: Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest (2008) – A George Bowering chapter on the spiritual force of rainforests and a photo of Eckhart Tolle. I think Douglas Todd can be a pretty interesting columnist, even if I haven’t read him much in the last few years.
- Peter Hopkirk, In Search of Kim (1996) – Yet another book I need to wait to read. I won’t read John le Carre, Smiley’s People, until I can find a trade copy of The Honourable Schoolboy; I won’t read Richard Ford, Independence Day, until I can find a matching copy of The Sportswriter; and I won’t read this until I can find a nice copy of Rudyard Kipling, Kim. This book is travel writing and history and personal narrative – Peter Hopkirk follows the trail of Kim, his favourite novel. Kim inspired Hopkirk to write about the Great Game – one of my favourite recent history books.
- Alice Munro, The View from Castle Rock (2006) – I lent The Progress of Love to a friend and it has been a thrill hearing her report back. And explaining, as was explained to me, that yes, other people know how good this is and yes, this level of craft is rare. Something about the binding on this book – whenever I find a used copy the spine is cracked to bits. So, a marked down new copy.
And then another day, from PulpFiction again, and not a lot to say about them beyond the titles. I nearly bought Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero, in a very pretty edition but what if I hate the guy and I have two books on hand? Best to wait.
- Ramachandra Guha, India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy (2007) – A great big 700pg history of India from 1947 to now. To read after Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire, which I might read this summer; just 350pg. I’ll read the big one some day, some year.
- Birds of Coastal British Columbia – I have a plate of birdseed and a sunflower bell on my balcony but only starlings have found it so far.