And breaking, and breaking

I’ve been reading The Tunnel by William H. Gass for the latest Big Read at Conversational Reading. In large part because it’s one of those many books I’ve bought along the way with great intentions only to watch them slowly collect years’ worth of dust and dammit if I’m not going to read at least a few of them before I die.

“Reading” might be the wrong word though. The wrong term. It’s more like, more like drifting through it, like a photo of a vacation taken before the trip actually takes place. You see it but you don’t really get it. You don’t taste the ice cream. You don’t sweat the sun. You’re not at all there.

It really is a constant, claustrophobic reminder of human morality, of limitations on experience. A single trip is almost wasted on trying to grab it as it happens. While a return trip is only going to cost you.

Dearly.

I’ve been breaking

I finished school in May.

Since then, I’ve been on break, which mostly means I’ve been going to my day job and then trying very hard to do not a thing at night, and failing, a lot. Turns out when you’re used to going 80 miles an hour for about that many hours a week, when you suddenly have buckets of free time, and a desire to quote-unquote relax, it’s real easy to wind up staring at the walls, locked in the embrace of indecision. That is, when you’re not getting sucked into pretty much whatever you can justify as a way of breaking out of your “break” in order to not, you know, waste the entire night staring at the walls.

Reading, in particular, has been a casualty of this war against time, lately. I’ve started and stopped more books in the last few weeks than I have in probably the last ten years combined. It’s a little silly.

The last book I actually finished was a doozy, though. Heliopolis by James Scudamore is a pretty fantastic little book about economic disparity of the most extreme sort. It’s one of those books that’s pretty great throughout and then the last few pages just pick the whole book up and slam it through the hoop it’s created for itself. Killer stuff. Recommended.

So maybe it’s a case of having a hard time finding the book that’s meant to follow that. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve tried too soon to break out of my YA rock block. School got intense and it was about all I could handle this last semester. Of course, even then, I was reading the His Dark Materials trilogy, so, like, yeah. Brain, pummeled. And now I’m two-thirds through the Hunger Games trilogy, with the third book finally on the shelf across from me. I suspect I’ll have better luck with that than, say, DeLillo. I mean, Libra started fine and all, but. DeLillo and burn-out do not go well together.

The timing sucks. A bunch of large-scale group reads have started up across the Internet this week, such as #OccupyGaddis, a read of William Gaddis’s J R, and the Conversational Reading Big Read of A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava, both of which sound awesome fun to the version of Darby that has the extra free time and the desire to use some of it contemplating and writing about tough literature much more often than he’s been able to the last few years, less awesome to the version of Darby that is dealing with the brain-cycle hiccup train crash that is that free time.

I’ve got things I should be doing, too, anyway, I guess. But.

In other news I’ve got a book review coming out in August that I somehow wrote during this last semester of school—I look forward to finding out what I actually wrote when the review comes out.

And I’m getting ready to self-publish a chapter of the graphic novel I started as a school project. Because it is 2012. And I can. So I will. (My imaginary Kickstarter campaign has already netted me an imaginary quajilliontry dollars so I ought to be able to handle the expense of posting the PDF and saying, “Fly.”)

Recent readings, and some bold claims

I’ve read almost as many books in the first two months of 2012 as I did in all of 2011. That statement? Not literally true. Give me another two months. Then the numbers will add up.

Granted, I don’t think I’ve picked up a single book with more than 300 pages in it since I finished A Clash of Kings shortly after the new year began. So. There’s that.

It’s been a weird mixed bag; some stuff I might have expected to like and didn’t like too much, some stuff I’ve gotten really excited about. The Rook by Daniel O’Malley was delightfully entertaining; one of those fun books with some good solid brains in it that really deserves to make the rounds. (And when Tina Fey picks up a British accent and nabs the lead role in the movie version, the one I’ve cast and shot in my head, I will be at the midnight showing.) I’m having a lot of fun with the His Dark Materials trilogy, which I look forward to wrapping up this week. There’s a book I’m going to be reviewing elsewhere in a couple months that I kind of want everyone to read.

And then there’s Steve Erickson’s newest novel, These Dreams of You.

I try not to use the phrase “have to,” as in, “you have to read this book,” because at the end of the day, it’s usually a lie. You don’t have to. You won’t die.

Still, you really probably ought to read this one.

I’m coming back around to it to say more, and I plan to spend some portion of the back half of 2012 rereading Erickson’s collected works, because it’s time for that to happen and I want to find what threads of his new book I can in his old work, but in the here and now I wanted to reiterate that These Dreams of You is the book people should pick up and start reading every time they consider complaining about how Jonathan Franzen shit in their Cyber-O’s that morning, or whatever. Which is pretty much all people do anymore on Twitter, I’m convinced.

Because, let me cut through the (slightly forced comparison) crap and lay it out: Franzen, at the end of the day, tried to do some mighty zeitgeist-capturing in Freedom, which he didn’t do so well, but also not so horribly. And then he’s said other stuff. Whatever. He’s human. It’s cool. Erickson, on the other hand, is a god, and in a godly fashion, he took the last 50 years of America and rolled it up into a 300 page story, completely resetting the bar for what Modern American Fiction ought to look like, and basically showing us our soul, and it is a confused one.

I tell you: he nailed it.

New video

I Am In Here from Darby Dixon III on Vimeo.

Kinetic type interpretation of the opening paragraphs of the book Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

For the tech interested: all the stop-motion marker-y and cut-out-y stuff was shot using Dragonframe; that footage was combined, sliced, and diced with the rest of the type in After Effects. The audio was originally created in GarageBand, mucked up a bit in Audacity, and then the final bits of crunch were added in Audition (once I discovered that Audition was a thing that existed that I had, like, right there on my hard drive; awesome).

This video was originally conceived and created for an independent study project in the graphic design program at Cleveland State University, in an effort to explore the intersection of design and literature. Which is a fancy way of saying I like books and I like design and I like finding ways the two play off and interpret each other.

It’s like that

Then beneath the colour there was the shape. She could see it all so clearly, so commandingly, when she looked: it was when she took her brush in hand that the whole thing changed. It was in that moment’s flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child.

—from To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Half-baked thoughts at the end of a twice-baked year

It’s been a weird year, you guys.

From the long novel project to the sort of semi-ish still in process pop-novel project, which I don’t think I’ve gotten around to saying anything about anywhere, to the absurd PDF blog post, an effort that sort of cemented a lot of my thoughts and feelings about how and why we talk about books (I mean, somewhere in there, maybe in an end note or something, and maybe only slightly apparent to me) to The No Crumbs Project, an effort that underwent a massive identity crisis (the panic did, indeed, set in), one that’s still in progress but is starting to result in some stuff I’m quite proud of, to the one book review I published this year, for a pair of books I really do love and look forward to reading again and which I’d love to see more people reading and talking about, to the round table discussion I had the chance to participate in…it’s been a year of actually a lot more activity than I necessarily might have realized, which was all around focused on nothing particularly definitive. Which is fine. Nice, even.

But, you know, weird.

I mean, just from a personal perspective. I won’t even get into, like, Borders, or ebooks, or much of anything that has actually happened outside of my head.

I guess I’m left wondering in a vague non-committal way what the state of book discussion and reviewing and interpretation and actual reading is like, right now. What’s happening out there? I’ve got a better sense of what I’ve got ready to bring to the table, and I’m really excited about polishing up some of this work I’ve been engaged in the last four months; still, there’s a lot of burning questions I’d planned on asking—and getting answers to—that I never quite got fully immersed in, not the way I’d hoped to, or expected to.

At this point I guess I hope more that someone more suited to the tasks is doing that work and I get to see the results sometime. (Please.) Because now I know I’ve got some plans for 2012, which will take me in some interesting directions, with regards to design and story-telling and books and art. And, like, the panic will probably set back in, but. There might be some noise to be made, along the way.

The No Crumbs Project

First off: Maine? Bar Harbor? Acadia National Park? Love you guys. Love you. You’re beautiful. Next time, don’t let me leave. I mean it.

Second off: as I mentioned somewhere in the depths of my previous post—I assume; I mean, I said, like, everything else in there, right?—I’ve been in the graphic design program at Cleveland State University the last few years. (Which, yes, still, feels kind of weird and impostery, but I’m assured I’ll get over that feeling in about thirty or forty years.) This semester I’m diving into an independent study project that I intend to use to find (or create) interesting areas of overlap between the world of books and the world of design. This should involve more than making pretty book-related things—though I’d be lying if I said I’m not a little excited about the pretty book-related things I plan to make. I plan on bringing a design-thinking approach to today’s world of books and some of the problems (or big-huge rabbit-ear “problems”) out there today. Those pretty things should have impact and should affect and have effects, should be participatory in some way. I’d like to see what opportunities there may be to use design to improve something related to the finding, sharing, and enjoyment of books.

Which either sounds awesome and ambitious or stuffy and dull—your call is welcome in the comments. Either way, I’ve got that early-stage optimism that has me thinking this is going to result in a slightly more steady stream of actual content here over the next few months, as I share what I learn and ask for help in learning more. I’ve also got those early-stage heart palpitations that come with seeing a timeline and thinking, Oh no, now I have to do what now? So it’s probably safe to say this stream won’t include any 7365-word PDF posts. Maybe. Probably. (We’ll see.) If nothing else there should be a lot more linking to the thoughts of other people who have gone down this path.

I’m doing some initial planning over the next few days and should be kicking things off here in the next week or so. Unless of course the panic sets in, then, see you in December.

I heard that blogging isn’t cool anymore which means now I can blog all the time again and say whatever I want and oh yeah I’ll still have the longest post titles in Litblogtown because I’ve got game, son, even when I’m not playing

Editor’s note: this post got away from us, slightly, and, therefore, is presented in two versions. The body text of the blog post is provided below. The (hopefully far more fun) version is available as a downloadable (and more or less printable PDF, at least, printable, if you skip the cover page, though, to be fair, at the time of publication, I have not actually tried printing a copy, so, if you try, please, report back with your experience and/or suggestions for improvement, which will be addressed after a vacation I’m about to go on in a matter of hours, which may or may not take me directly into the heart of Irene, which is awesome, yeah) here:

“I heard that blogging isn’t cool anymore” extended mix (with endnotes, endnote footnotes, some pictures, and one imaginary pullquote).

Late last year, I decided the only way I could ever work through my ever-growing TBR pile would be to tackle it in strict chunks. Like, line ’em up, knock ’em down piles, projects, whatever you want to call them. Looking at my stacks of books, both physical and virtual, I realized there were a lot of long books on there, both physically and spiritually. Books I wanted to read or re-read but which I knew could easily get put off for months or years at a time, which fact I knew because it was exactly what I had done with most
of them.

Flash forward almost eight months, and I’ve just begun reading the last book on that pile. Like Callie Miller, who has spent the last I don’t know how long re-reading all of Haruki Murakami’s novels, I’m:

…floundering a bit on many fronts. I don’t really want it to end. I very much want it to end. I probably should have written about each book as I completed it. I should have taken academic-style notes. I’m glad I didn’t do anything  of the sort.

There is so much to say about all of these books I’ve read this year. And I kick myself a little bit for not saying more about them, until I give myself an actual break and realize that, hey, I’ve been working a day job and going to school and starting to develop these like professional-level design career plans and, oh yeah, taking on a freelance-type project here and there. If I haven’t been as active a blogger in the last few years, it’s not because I haven’t wanted to write more about books. I have. Badly. But at the end of the day, the day has to end, whether or not you’ve accomplished the thousand items on your to-do list for the entire year.

So here we are, with about 900 pages between me and the end of both Against the Day and my big crazy stupid ambitious reading project for the year, and me wondering if the question about a project like this is, what exactly from it did you learn, are you learning?

And I think one of my stated or unstated goals was to learn to be more wholly focused on the book I’m reading right now and spend less time looking forward to the book that follows. Frankly, it’s a lesson I’m still grappling with, knowing how much I both want to continue enjoying a book like Against the Day for years at a time while also hurrying up through it right now today to finish it so I can get to the short short short and also hopefully fast books that I have lined up after it. It’s a pseudopainful paradox, the dual calls placed by literature to our eyes and minds, one call from the page in front of us, one from the pages that follow. But lining up all these sorts of books in a row does serve as a refreshing sort of antidote to that latter call, a recognition that, for someone with some role to play in the modern world of books, really, it’s okay to just check out for a while and actually go read some other stuff, whatever the current buzz might be.

What an exercise like this does not teach is the patience to get through a terrible book for the sake of saying you got through a terrible book. It does teach patience with books that aren’t easy going; I had put The Recognitions on this reading list for the year because I knew I needed to read it at least once, but now, having read it, having pushed through it, having understood maybe a quarter of it, I can safely say it’s going back onto some re-read project list down the line in a couple years maybe, because, huh wait what the huh wha wha wha? Parts of it were insanely awesome and parts of it might have been awesome if I knew what was going on and other parts were words on pages that went in one eyeball and out the other, but at least I read it, essentially, and saw enough in it to know I want to go back to it someday, armed with more coffee and a willingness to tackle something complex and difficult in a meaningfully focused quasi-academic way. Unlike Giles Goat-Boy, which I am not ashamed to admit I gave up on after about a hundred fifty pages, because I hate allegory. There are books you push through because they feel worth it, like exercise, which is horrible but good for you, I guess, and then books you just say no to, because, let’s face it, flabbo, you’re just no marathon runner, and your time on this earth is brief.

On a more specific note, one nice surprise to come from this project was that I learned that it is possible to enjoy War and Peace completely, without reservation, as a novel of ideas and characters, story and mood, and that most all of the baggage associated with the title “War and Peace” is bullshit, and worth ignoring, but that, you know, if you don’t make it through the book, that’s okay, too, so long as you do or do not make it through the book with clear eyes and full hearts.

Before this project began, the idea of re-reading books seemed silly, optimistic at best, what, again, with all the new stuff and un-read old stuff that has yet to be tackled. As I come to the end of this project I realize now that I could spend the rest of my life reading only the books I’ve read up to this point in my life because it’s not really re-reading when you’re a completely different person than you were when you first read the book.

Which about sums up my experience with Infinite Jest, a book I am so very glad I have finally re-read, and which about I can mainly say that it is, in fact, well worth re-reading, and that, surprisingly, and despite what certain recent Internet debates might have you think, style is the least interesting thing about the book we could be talking about, and that if you haven’t read the book since sometime before September 12, 2008, you’ll probably want to make sure you’re in a healthy enough place mentally before you pick it up again. Which you should do, someday, whenever is right for you because, really, it’s still an awesome book.

Following up Infinite Jest was probably a fool’s task for any book on the list, which may have helped contribute to the re-downfall of Giles Goat-Boy, but the next full book I read, the one I just finished last week, was probably one of the other most pleasant surprises on the list.

I put Warlock on here not because it was absurdly long but because I sort of worried it would feel like it would feel absurdly long. I am no genre snob, I grew up on the stuff and I look forward to reading more of it, but something about the idea of reading a western sort of chafed the wrong way. Like, I don’t know, I’ve never read or watched any westerns ever, I think; I guess the closest I’ve ever come would be the gunslinging action in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, which, I know, come on, right? But I mean the book’s a NYRB book and those guys and gals consistently put out awesome books and plus it got the nod from Grace Krilanovich and Thomas Pynchon so why not right? Turns out it’s one of the best books. Engaging and enjoyable and the style is perfect and there’s a good reason why the back cover copy drops casual mention of the fact that it was published at the height of the McCarthy era in America; ah social paranoia, yes! Good times. All of which is still perfectly relevant to our modern society. And plus gun fights and a lot of whisky and also whoring and honor and cold-blooded murder and references to the yellowness of bellies, which, all, basically, are, like, the ingredients of anything that is awesome at all, right? Which is to say: go, go read this book, because I loved it and I want you to love it too.

It timed out well for me, too, the spot it took in the year. One of my favorite things when reading a stack of seemingly unrelated books is when one book talks to the book that preceded it, when a theme gets picked up and mutated in some new way, when some weird connective thread lays across their separate pages like some bit of spider silk. When immersed in these long books that kind of connectivity is both there and not there. I mean, obviously, reading Life and Fate right after War and Peace, connections out the ears, but without sitting down with the pencil and the notes and the time by the bucketload, hard to really lay it all out, because there’s so much. But then what of connections between the other books I read this year? Hard to say; so much gets lost when pulling one author’s all-eclipsing sky down and replacing it with another. And plus all the other nonsense going on in life. But then here I am about to lift back up out of these cross-country treks and it’s like Thomas Pynchon and Oakley Hall got together one day and decided to work together to remind me that it’s all the same journey, which, okay, cheesy, but, still, you know? What I’m saying is Against the Day, in its way, picks up almost exactly where Warlock left off. It’s spooky and weird and not impossible that it was planned that way. And also mostly just exciting and awesome and weird and it raises more questions than can be answered or even asked in one blog post.

And so what then? Long books are long, right? And sometimes they’re awesome and it’s worth reading a bunch now and then because you get this flow going and you get an author doing things to your head for a while or maybe for a week if you’re reading particular fast or are on vacation or just unusually focused; nothing too deep. But, oh, there is depth, depth of experience that can never really translate to a discussion or an explanation, which fact is what we all dance wildly around in our blog posts and our reviews, the fact that reading a book isn’t like how we say it is but exactly how we feel it is. All of this imperfection serves to amplify and confuse and enlighten and strengthen the experience, sure, but. It goes back around in a somewhat forced and self-aware-ly circular way to what Callie said in my quote up top: academic notes are fine, but this time, I’m glad I didn’t take them. But, you know, maybe, after all, we can still talk about it, a little bit, at least. Maybe. Sort of. Kind of.

 

Round table on Stone Arabia

Okay, so, okay: more stuff coming, but, and I’m way late on this, but: I took part semi-recently in a super cool round-table discussion of Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta, which is a pretty good book, and I think the conversation was pretty good, too, despite my being in it. It’s over at Reluctant Habits. You can start at part one and then work your way forward. Thanks again to Ed for inviting me to take part and to everybody else for making the discussion so lively and good and all-around spoiling-me-with-regard-to-most-everything-else-I-read-now-in-that-I-wish-I-had-a-collective-to-discuss-with-once-done.

(And aside from that I “finished” The Recognitions which I just need to re-read some day because, huh? And I am halfway through Infinite Jest and love it even though it’s a much darker book the second time through plus ten years. So. More on all this later. Also I’ve got a review that is in the works for mumble mumble about mumble by mumble which I’m excited about because mumble mumble.)