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.)

Spoiler alert: and yet, it’s not so unlike that first chapter

So, I’m about 200 pages into The Recognitions; with luck and determination, I’ll be through part one today; and with a lot more luck and a lot more determination, I’ll be out entirely within a month. I don’t know how much of the book I’ll really get, but if my current stats hold up, I will have at least enjoyed a majority of the book.

Of course, things can change.

The thing about reading a book like this, full of allusions and foreign languages, is that you sort of have to (I mean, if you are me) read it like you’re a little bit immortal; like time is on your side. I’m reading it the way I read Infinite Jest; like I had all the time in the world to come back and study it and burrow into the details. Like, I already know I’d like to come back to this book again, they way there are so many books I could spend the rest of my life re-reading, re-learning. It’s only by giving myself permission to assume I someday will that I can give myself the permission I need to take the immediate pleasures I can while glossing over the pleasures I can’t. Someday, though. (Ten years later, and I’m a little bit away from finally re-reading Infinite Jest. It will almost be like reading it again for the first time. Almost.)

What’s great though is that The Recognitions really can be immediately enjoyable. (Which feels like a bit of a theme for the year; gosh, these big books can be good, too! Which isn’t a particularly interesting theme. But. I’m not exactly in the term paper business this year.) Watching Otto unfold has been in particular a trip; if a somewhat squirm-in-the-seat trip. (Who doesn’t want to make more of their own story to others than there is to make? Who isn’t tempted to show off their own arm sling, whatever it may be for them, to wait for the questions it will fail to prompt? Unless that really is just me. Then, move along, please.) It’s also been fascinating, witnessing the rise and fall of the marriage of Esther and Wyatt; at the rate this book moves, we’re either going to cross several generations of characters, or everybody is going to live until they’re well past a hundred.

I will admit to feeling a little uneasy with regards to the question of what this book all adds up to, which is obviously a premature question to tackle, and one that’s probably foolish to discuss in any case; 950 page books about art, society, religion, and money should not be reduced to bullet-point summaries. Still, I would currently have a hard time filtering out a thesis statement, or even a necessary point, to the book, to what it’s saying about anything, if anything. But, it’s early, of course.

Spoiler alert: it’s really not all like that first chapter…

…our hero realizes (recognizes?) as he reads through the readable, though highly disorienting, second chapter. As Matthew Cheney put it, some time ago:

I enjoyed much of The Recognitions on that first reading, but also knew that I was missing a lot, perhaps even 80% of what the book was up to. For one reason or another, I didn’t mind being lost in the book, though. I was both lost in the book in the traditional sense — engrossed, enchanted, beguiled — and lost in the pedestrian sense: I kept forgetting which character was which and how they related, had no idea for many pages what was going on, and sometimes wondered if English were even a language Gaddis and I shared. Consequently, my memories of The Recognitions are impressionistic, imagistic, and not tied at all to narrative or meaning.

link

Which, well, yeah. Suddenly we’re in Paris and there’s a lot of French dialogue and a lot of non-linear descriptive about stuff I’ve got little bearing on, and, uh, yeah. Maybe not the best chapter to try to get lost in with an itchy bandaged finger pointing one way and a pre-dinner stomach point another way.

Still, the book keeps coming back to some kind of ground, some entirely relatable, entirely, ah, forgive me, again: recognizable bit of prose. Such as:

He painted at night, and often broke off in a fever at dawn, when the sun came like the light of recovery to the patient just past the crisis of fatal illness, and time the patient became lax, and stretched fingers of minutes and cold limbs of hours into the convalescent resurrection of the day.

– page 69

Which is a strange way to put it, and a strange call-back to the sunrise stuff from the first chapter, but: it’s enough. Enough to move me into the next paragraph, which may or may not be immediately (or less so) get-able.

Smart people books aren’t just for smart people, or shouldn’t be, at least

“Something to keep in mind when you start reading, Gaddis considered this [The Recognitions] a comic novel. Don’t forget to laugh amidst all that erudition and fancy language.”

link

Which: yes.

Standard disclaimers and apologies aside about infrequent posting, etc etc etc, yadda yadda yadda, full time job, school, recent discovery that I’ve likely been suffering from a sort of frakking eczema the last six months; the usual. That said there’s some cool stuff in the background that is in fact straight up book-related which will be coming around over the next couple months. So that’s fun.

But anyway, back to The Recognitions, by William Gaddis, a book that marks the incredibly fat, incredibly dense mid-point of my reading challenge for the year, a reading challenge I humbly admit to pridefully believing I’d have been all the way through by now. Because ambitious goals for unrealistic times, right? Anyway, no, still here, still reading, slowly, occasionally, but, with something like something to show for it. Or so.

Anyways. The Recognitions, I’d like to blog about this one a bit more, because I think I once said I would; give me about a month and I might have more time to make good on this promise. I’m going to at least in good faith start by saying I’ll admit to actually knowing terribly little about Gaddis or his works, other than, they’re big books by a white male protopostmodernist, which is fancy talk for shit people brag about reading cuz nobody actually does. Except me and some other people along the way I guess.

The thing about some of these “great books” people don’t actually read because why would you bother reading this “great books” is that they can actually also just be good books. See also, War and Peace. See also, Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, a book I just now noticed I completely missed blogging about, even though it was awesome and made for a really phenomenal follow-up read to War and Peace. These books, many other books, whatever, you get past the professor talk and snobby attitudes and bad raps, and they’re still books written by people for people. Which sounds a little kumbaya, sure, but.

But, so: I’m one chapter into The Recognitions so it’s too soon to declare the book great or good, but what I can say I’ve found in the first sixty pages that I didn’t expect to find has been a lightness of tone, of that modernist sort, that makes me really glad I’ve got some John Barth lined up for later in my reading list this year, because I think there’s going to be some nice call-and-echo action there. I was going to say it avoids slapstick, but then, here, the quote I find for an example of that deft lightness of humor:

—It looks fine, it still looks fine, the Town Carpenter said now, backing into a chair stacked with paintings and sketches and knocking the whole thing over, which immediately put him at his ease by giving him something to do.

– page 52

Which, yes! That’s awesome. Or, another line that had me laugh out loud, as out main character

…was taken with a fever which burned him down to seventy-nine pounds. In this refined state he was exhibited to medical students in the amphitheater of a highly endowed hospital. They found it a very interesting case, and said so. In fact they said very little else.

– page 41

Which, again, yes! That’s awesome. And also tells you most all you need to know about the doctors coming up; and also those delicious, loaded words, burned and refined, exhibited and endowed

Bottom line being, while I’m sure the remainder of this book will not be “easy,” there likely being a reason Jonathan Franzen (oh, Jonathan Franzen) dubbed it “the most difficult book [he] ever voluntarily read in its entirety,” (which, yes, Jonathan Franzen, but whatever), what I can safely say is that it has a pretty stellar self-contained opening chapter, a sixty-page coming-of-age story that I’d rank up there with any other coming of age story you might toss out there. Which, okay, coming of age is about the most difficult thing there is, in some ways, but…still, it’s at least slightly relatable, no?