Tag Archives: Reading

“…Heighton is also a poet”

  • Flight Paths of the Emperor (1992)
  • On Earth As It Is (1995)
  • The Admen Move on Lhasa: Writing and Culture in a Virtual World (1997)
  • The Shadow Boxer (2000)
  • Afterlands (2004)
  • Every Lost Country (2010)

I’m having trouble reading. I stopped reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward after 157 pages and I stopped reading Alex von Tunzelmann, Indian Summer: the Secret History of the End of an Empire after 153 pages and after almost two weeks and 235 pages I might put aside Steven Levy, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. The last is the most disappointing. I’ve been waiting to read this for years. Breaking up with a book: it’s not you; it’s me. Something about how he’s writing, how he’s telling the story and avoiding all the context I want somehow. I think I was spoiled by reading The Soul of a New Machine, and believing that anything about computers between 1955 and 1990 would be just as wonderful.

In 2010 I read Flight Paths of the Emperor as a palate cleanser, a short break, something completely different after reading, back-to-back, VS Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival and David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. I finished Flight Paths of the Emperor late at night in a big chair at Our Town, in my new neighbourhood. Early June 2010, learning new streets and restaurants and reading books on a balcony with a view of the tallest poplar tree in Mount Pleasant. And in 2009 I read The Shadow Boxer over lunch in Kingsway, after we won our May campaign, walking up Stamford St to go to Cho Sun BBQ. And I finished it a week later in Port Alberni, drinking beer slowly, all day long. And most of all, reading Afterlands in 2008, in early December, after forgetting how to read over two campaigns and a brief gap of unemployment and an early snowfall and my first 50,000 word November. I read Afterlands in two days, reading all day and all night and learning how to read, how to take it all in at a glance and leave everything else out – how to disappear completely and never be found.

On Wednesday I went to Munro’s Books in Victoria, and today I went first to Book Warehouse on Broadway and then downtown to the Chapters on Robson and finally found Every Lost Country, brand new in paperback.  To quote: “A glorious novel” / “A stunning new novel” / “A truly exceptional novel”

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“It’s small and light and sleek, and I wanted it.”

WordPress has a ‘tag surfer’ via which I can track specific tags. The two I tend to follow are ‘books’ and ‘reading’, in addition to the default tags of the authors I have tagged in pieces here, such as Paul Auster. It’s a great survey tool: what are people saying about what I write about? This has been great fun over the spring and summer, as fans of actor Robert Pattinson started reading and discussing and debating and of course tagging Don DeLillo – the novel Cosmopolis is being filmed by David Cronenberg, starring Robert Pattinson. But the survey is frustrating when people tag ‘reading’ or ‘books’ but aren’t talking about either of those things at all. Namely, when people are comparing prices and features and options and brands of e-readers.

I enjoyed Russell Smith’s piece on e-readers this week in the Globe. What I can’t believe are the comments left on the online story. Some folks are genuine in trying to help him out, explaining the  32b v. 64b. kernel issues, or debating UBS cables. Some are less helpful and even critical that someone with such limited technological capacity is writing about e-readers. My favourite: “Wow, technology articles written by people who don’t know anything about technology. Classic Globe and Mail.” Then there are a raft of comments comparing and contrasting various brands of e-reader. It is only on the third page of the comments that someone named ‘wildeyed’ calls it out: “It is astonishing to me that so many people can be such vehement defenders of e-readers and the underlying technology while evidently being incapable of understanding the simple and entertaining message of this small essay.”

I agree with Russell Smith. In a sense it’s a question of risk: the same reason we are more comfortable jaywalking than boarding an airplane. The odds of my paper book being soaked with water and therefore unusable are probably much greater than the odds of my e-reader choosing to spontaneously malfunction. But I know what will cause my paper book to breakdown: in this hypothetical case, a large quantity of water. I know what steps to take to avoid such a disaster. I can avoid an oncoming bus, and do, when I jaywalk, but there’s nothing I can do about jet engine failure.

Suppose my e-reader has a 98% success rate; that’s still a 2% higher failure rate than my book. The comments go on and on about how easy an e-reader actually is and these folks continue to miss the point. This is what I always hated about reading and writing about music: the tendency to stop talking about music and instead descend to technological cock-waving. I don’t really care about e-readers one way or the other – I don’t use one but do not begrudge those that do – but I do regret this: the commodification of the act of reading, and the resulting consumer one-upmanship.

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“…who wants to lug a thousand pages around on the subway?

More than anything, reading big books, or not, is a matter of convenience. As much as I want to read Annals of the Former World, do I really want to lug a thousand pages around on the subway?

Cancer Ward (536 pg.) is about as big as I can comfortably get on the bus, or at a bar in between periods of a hockey game or bands at a rock show. And to add another element of technological determinism: as I increasingly carry books with me not in my little shapeless green bag but tucked beside my laptop in my bigger but fitted black bag. I could get away with Nixonland in the green bag, but the black bag is less forgiving.

But it’s also a matter of commitment and the lens of memory. I don’t like to read books together, I like to go right through, alone, so to read a big book is to consign my imagination to one book alone for weeks. And as such, that book is my memory lens for those several weeks, the key to walking back through where I was then.

My summer of 2009 is framed by three books. I remember the shorter books too, but not in context, and they aren’t my association, for the simple fact that while I may sink in just as deeply, I may only spend a day or two inside. If I had spent two weeks with Divisadero or The Only Snow in Havana they might be just as determining as the big books I did read but no, I raced right through and have kept just impressions in memory. What I do have, from my summer of 2009: Keith Maillard, Difficulty at the Beginning (1007 pg, over 4 volumes); Don DeLillo, Underworld (827 pg); and Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: the Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. (748 pg.) These books are the frame due to the time I spent with them and their scope. And neither the scope or the time could have occurred without the page count.

So I agree about big books and the categorical distinction. (Which is, of course, relative itself. 280pg is my Platonic form, but a formal Big Book needs ‘heft,’ not mere page count. ‘Heft,’ wonderfully, is a variable term. VS Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival is a ‘big book’ with ‘heft’ because that’s how I read it, even though it has just 354 pages) What I don’t like is the ‘belt-notch’ factor. I didn’t listen to a Bob Dylan record until I could find a context for listening to a Bob Dylan record (that context, in a cute but unplanned segue, was reading Nixonland in July 2009) that extended beyond the ‘belt-notch’: the need to listen to a Bob Dylan record because I should have listened to a Bob Dylan record by now. The Everest analogy is apt: this is the because-it’s-there theory of reading. Even worse, imagine working from a list, the eat-your-vegetables theory of reading; the reason many people don’t.

I don’t like the belt-notch/Everest question, tallying books for some absurd future swordfight, but I do like the guiding Stockholm-syndrome analogy – as Elizabeth Minkel rephrases, the idea of a book having ownership of its reader. And I have to admit to some sympathy for the Everest question on consideration: read a big book because it’s there, sure – it’s all arbitrary, including the four months in 2010 during which I only read books with black-white-red spines. But there’s no intrinsic virtue in a big book – only the virtue you manage to glean.

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Reading Joan Didion

It took a year for me to read Joan Didion, Democracy but because of its size I took it along with me on a number of trips as a ‘back-up.’ Just a little book, just 240 pages or so. Easy to pack, easy to start and put aside if necessary. ‘A guaranteed hit.’ Shoved into my pack at the last moment, just in case. But after all that I didn’t actually read it until this August.

And this is the trust of a favourite author and also the curse – to some degree I take a favourite author for granted; they’ll always be there. And I’ll read everything else like candy but I’ll save an unread book by a favourite author for years because that way I know I’ll always have something left in the tank. A safety net; if everything else is bad, I still have an option on hand. The last chocolate in the box. In case of emergency, break glass.

When I read The Last Thing He Wanted I felt the same way that people do when they hear My Bloody Valentine for the first time, or in my case, how I felt when I first heard The Blue Nile earlier this summer. I didn’t know it could ever be like that. I didn’t know it was possible. I didn’t know you could write a book as spare, as circular, a book that manages to surround its subject without ever really touching down. And if anything, Democracy manages to go even further. A little purposeless puzzle of repetition and distancing devices, strategies and recursive points of plot.

I started reading The Last Thing He Wanted after reading Play It As It Lays over just three hours in the lobby of a Portland hotel. I read After Henry on my next trip, coming back from Portland the next month.

Do people read Joan Didion anymore? I get the sense, perhaps without any evidence – certainly none I could add here as a link – that at some point, perhaps before I was born and certainly before I left high school, people stopped reading Joan Didion and instead read her myth at face value. All the little comments and words that could flip either way and probably have through her career – cool / detached / removed / aloof / ‘more style than substance.’ And before I learned the myth, I read her books and therefore could take them at face value.

I am not an especially critical reader. I read what interests me; that could be based on author, subject matter, cover design, time of year, time of day. Subjective factors. And because I read what I want to, when I want to, I end up liking most of what I read. And because I rarely pull back, unhappy, from a book I have this self-image of someone who likes everything, someone resolutely uncritical. Here is my own concession to myth: I feel that reading Joan Didion is a counterpoint to that self-image. To rephrase: I feel that reading Joan Didion makes me cool.

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More on reading ‘Gloria’ by Keith Maillard

Gloria is less a novel than it is a character study. And to say that I call into question ‘what a novel is’ and that is not my intention – what I mean to do is problematise the ‘novel-ness’ of Gloria. Maybe a character study is enough? Maybe a character study really can sustain 600+ pages of dense, full text.  Because nothing happens. We go through one summer in the inner life of Gloria, the summer of 1957 in Raysburg, West Virginia. We go back, in full text, to who she was through her life, first in boarding school, then in Raysburg, and then in college. Through college, her sorority, her friendships, then back to Raysburg in 1957, just 21 years old. And then the summer of 1957, the full and broad and hot summer. I read Gloria in July specifically to have read it in the summer – I don’t tend to time books by seasons but I wanted to see if it made a difference here and the only way to do that, really, is to read it again this winter, in the rain, when I would otherwise be reading about Canada in some fashion.

But I think it mattered, to read a book set over a summer in just one summer week, sitting at the Whip at Main and 6th after a long bike ride, reading over beer for several hours, reading about West Virginia. The structure mirrors Alex Driving South – a brief real-time narrative, framing memories that contextualise the real-time events.

What matters for me is the sheer empathy with which the entire thing is written; no gimmicks or distancing devices, nothing clever. Long discursive reaches into topics such as modern poetry and the costume of a college majorette in 1955 – topics I couldn’t imagine ever spending time with. But this is the characterisation and, again, the trust in a favourite author. I haven’t tried before to track empathy as a trait in fiction, as a quality in writing. But more than The Sea or What I Loved or any character-driven-literary-fiction I’ve read that any other people have actually read, Gloria is driven by empathy.

Sitting at the Whip again this last weekend, after a bike ride across town, to Kitsilano to buy more books. And as happy as I was with what I had to read I also wanted to read Gloria again.

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Network Externalities

I’ve been saving this link from the Globe for two weeks now trying to put together a piece in response. And there are two broad assumptions that I think I want to tackle.

Sure, it is a light fluff piece but the basis of it is that reading the Girl with a Dragon Tattoo books is something we all need to get around to at some point. The Globe and Mail thinks these books are a really big deal – they were yesterday’s feature piece in the Weekend Review again. (and this is part of the fun too; does the Globe put their book article in the niche Book section, the standard Review section, or the populist Life section? Only the ‘big deals’ move from Review into Life.) I feel like I could write a similar piece by now without ever having read the books, thank you Globe and Mail. Through no fault of my own I could tell you a whole lot about these books. But while I can claim to have been unable to avoid the endless references in a daily newspaper that comes to my apartment door every day, I must admit to having intentionally searched out this piece from the New Yorker out of curiosity. Is it a decent parody, is it even fair; I have no idea. But it gets the point across – I really don’t want to read these books.

Is this just my own quest for distinction – am I just carving out my unique cultural tastes by avoiding the new big thing? I don’t think so. Just because everyone else goes to see the new James Bond movie doesn’t deter me from going too – I really like big fantastic spy movies! I like old black and white spy movies and I also went to see Eagle Eye and Enemy of the State and The Bourne Identity even though everyone else did too. But I didn’t go to see Avatar, for instance, because it just didn’t sound very interesting to me. I don’t want to read the Stieg Larsson books because they don’t sound very interesting to me.

The point that they make in The Rebel Sell is one of ‘network externalities.’ Just as a fax machine is only useful if your friends all have fax machines too and you can fax each other stuff, the value of a cultural good is inextricably linked to its social context; the blockbuster effect, where “because so many people are talking about it, others feel obliged to [read] it, just so that they can participate (or because they want to know what everyone is talking about.)” And Dave McGinn is explicit about this is the Globe: “But for those of you who still haven’t read them, it’s almost worth doing so just to decide for yourself what all the hype is about. Considering how many conversation are going to be about the books this summer, you’ll want to weigh in.”

I could, and have, carried on conversations about the Twilight books without any compulsion to read them and I have no doubt that I could do the same by now with these books. It is precisely because they have crossed from the Review section to the Life section – from novels to cultural phenomena – that I don’t need to actually read them to keep up. To read them is almost beside the point.

The second assumption is that we read differently in the summer and this assumption is by no means limited to the Globe. The WordPress TagSurfer gives me the most recent posts tagged with ‘Books’ and ‘Reading’ and in June I read about everyone’s plans for ‘summertime reading.’ People had lists made up for their own reading; people had recommendations for other people’s lists; people were excited to finally start reading now that it was summertime; people had been saving books for the summer. The Globe got into it too – from the same article’s closing: “Remember, school is out. It’s summer. Save your trenchant literary analysis for the heavy books you’ll be reading come winter. What you need now is sex and intrigue and mystery. It’s time.”

Maybe I am being purposefully obtuse here but it is not clear to me why summer reading should be categorically different from spring reading or winter reading or the apparently doom-filled autumn reading season. Unless you are in grade school or taking the summer off from a university course load (which only 1/3 of SFU students do) or dealing with kids who are out of grade school for the summer I do not understand the distinction.

Now in August I am starting to see people post confessional pieces about how few of their summer reading books they’ve managed to actually read. As if these books will all disappear, or change, on Labour Day. As if they won’t be allowed to read any more. As if they’ve failed at a major task. People post these lists of excuses about why they haven’t read more over the summer and in reading these stories I feel as if I’m marking someone’s homework.

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Reading ‘Gloria’ by Keith Maillard

I know that I’ve read some books too fast. I know I read Michael Ondaatje too fast, specifically Divisadero, which I read in one day last June, but I see this as just a quick way to find the contours of a novel before returning to find out how and why.

I read just two books between May and June. I read three books in a week to start May and then spent three weeks reading The Enigma of Arrival. But it meant more to me, in no small part because I spent three weeks inside of it. I spent another two weeks, right away, inside The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East – in part because it was a long, dense book about a short, dense period of history but also because it was such a joy to spend so much time in it.

I like the feeling of a book over more than a week. I carry the same book with me on the bus, to lunch, on the SkyTrain, in a lineup at the grocery store; I know how it feels in my hand and I know its weight. The heft of a big book – right now, Gloria by Keith Maillard, 600+ pages in paperback and not unmanageable but present, solid.

I don’t crease pages or crack the spine of a book, I don’t spill food or coffee or anything but over several weeks the edges all get blurred down, the corners get dulled and the book looks lived in, tidy but worn. The funny thing is that I’ve been waiting to read Gloria for over 14 months. I found my copy in Portland, at Powells, for just $3.95 – marked down with a special sticker and everything. A book they simply couldn’t sell. I got through just 10 pages of Joan Didion, Democracy, before putting it down for Gloria, one week ago. Somehow the book I couldn’t get to all year is now the only book I could possibly read.

I spent only a week with Gloria and it was not nearly enough time, I could keep reading this book on and on. I was glad to reach the end of Enigma of Arrival and Fall of the Ottoman Empire but I am having trouble getting past Gloria. Of all the stupid things I am trying to read Kennedy by Ted Sorensen – a biography of sorts written in just 1965 by Kennedy’s closest advisor. I figure 1) I’ll have to read it sometime, 2) it’s a chronological step from Gloria, set in 1957, 3) I can’t imagine moving into another novel now anyway, and 4)it will buy me some time, somehow, to keep reading but still stay here thinking about the same novel.

As always the thrill of a new book by a favourite author is to use that new book as a lens for everything else. (and how did I end up with a favourite author whose recurring images are majorettes and gender roles and West Virginia mountain roads?)  And maybe Keith Maillard is not a major author – I have two books all about Don DeLillo while our little “Keith Maillard Fan Club” on Facebook has all of 19 members – but this is the trust and faith that comes with having a favourite author. I don’t need anyone else to tell me that this is good because it works for me, now, where I am, and that is all I could ever hope for from a novel.

I’ve been writing this over two weeks, maybe more. I only made it through 60 pages of Kennedy and really, all that did was give me a chance to settle into not reading Gloria anymore.

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