Year in preview: 2017

Things I don’t typically do:

  • Keep up very well with contemporary literature. As in like published-right-now literature. Maybe once upon a time I dabbled closer to that, when I was actively pursuing book reviewing as a thing I was trying to do. So, so long ago. But really not so much anymore. Theoretically, I’d like to, more than I do, so I can feel like I’m more a part of more conversations, but I don’t. Partially because I don’t
  • Read nearly as many books as I’d like to. It feels like once upon a time I closed in on that book-a-week pace over the course of an entire year, but that might also be rose-colored rear-view mirrors. I hit 35 books in 2016, 37 the year before that, which does put me stratospherically above many people, based on flimsy stats I’ve half scanned or invented, but it’s not nearly enough, obviously. I attribute this in part to the fact that I don’t
  • Focus terribly well. I don’t sit well for long periods of time, eyes on the page, pages turning almost invisibly, like flowing water. Pointless social media trolling hurts me a bit, a stupid number of professional- and/or hobbyist-level interests also suck up time, but I’m also just generally a bit restless, likely as not to seek out distraction when the task doesn’t require me to have my hands on it. Great for my rockstar coder lifestyle, less good for, like, just, thinking, and stuff.

I have absolutely no plans to solve the above problems.

I mean, if they’re indeed problems. Though I do suspect an increased focus on my inability to focus would be a generally beneficial one, at the least.

That said, these “shortcomings” do rattle around in my head as I think ahead toward what I loosely plan to attempt to do this coming year.

Typically I don’t make specific plans for the year ahead, and I wouldn’t say I’m setting a script in motion this year either, but it does feel like a good year to put a little structure around my reading list. My TBR pile isn’t insane—a few years back, I think, I forget when, I did a concerted effort to focus all my efforts on working the pile down, either via reading or dumping, and I think the residual effect of that effort still lingers in the size and shape of the pile today. At least in so far as it it not absolutely ungainly, still.

I don’t plan on going quite so hard-core this year, because, I mean, buying books and being gifted books is a pleasure, and I’ve also made better use of the local library over the last few years, which is also a pleasure, and, well, pleasure is nice. And I suspect pleasure, done right, could be made great use of in the coming years. Ahem. But I have grown conscious of a sub-set of books in the pile marked by no other commonality than that they’re all kind of longer and feel slightly more ambitious than other books and are often easily passed over in favor of not-as-long and maybe not-so-ambitious books when I’m looking for my next book to read. And I think it might feel good to put a little effort into focusing on those titles for a while and feeling like I’m putting in some good progress on actually reading all the things I really do think I do want to read. Or at least finding a few more titles I can maybe forgive myself of, allowing them to move on to other pastures, while new challenges slip in to take their place.

So there’s about 14.5 inches of 2017 I’d like to get through, right there. It could be an interesting list. There’s a Nabokov in there and another Vollmann, a Dickens, the second volume of Proust. Other things. I expect that part of the pile (which I’ve formally made a well-defined part of the pile) to shift and slide a bit as the year progresses. But hopefully it won’t grow too dusty.

As for other plans for the year, it’s a bit nebulous, really. Not really plans, so much as things I’ll probably think about as the year goes on:

  • I grew conscious of the fact that in 2016 my efforts to diversify the genders of the authors I read fell apart, which is baffling but also sort of not. So I need to do something about that. Because, jeez. C’mon.
  • I’d like to get some poetry into the mix, but, and this might sound dumb, I sort of don’t know…how, I guess. It’s a kind of reading that doesn’t seem to mesh well with how I read these days. That’s something I’d like to figure out.
  • I read more non-fiction in 2016 than I have in ages, and I’d like to keep that going. I’d like to work in more essays, as well. This probably won’t make for a huge percentage of what I read, but I’d like it to continue to feel less like a statistical glitch, more like something with some intent behind it.
  • And then there’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West, which I’m probably not going to devote four months to reading cover-to-cover, but which I’d like to get a plan in place to make some honest headway on. I started it in 2016 and I dig it but I realized when I picked it back up later in the year that I was going to have to plan my reading of it a bit better if I was going to make more coherent sense of it. I’m not quite sure what that entails but I think it involves more marginal notes and shorter gaps between sessions with it. We’ll see.
  • And, really, I think I do want to allot some time to re-read a notable book or two, because there’s so many books I say I think I’d like to consider re-reading, but it’s so hard to do. But maybe just identifying even one to spend some time with again would be enough. Yeah, I’m looking at you, Gravity’s Rainbow. Or Perdido Street Station. Or A Visit from the Goon Squad. Or The American Girl. Or you, Summer of Dostoevsky 2006 Project II: The ReDostoevskying. Or…

Which, well, there’s what 2017 may or may not look like.

Oh, yeah, and there’s also the bit about wanting to write about books again. Like, here, on this blog, at least. Because—and I mean this with all the love I can muster right now for the entirety of the contemporary human condition as it chills in the long cold shadow of human history—tweet storms, as a method of complex interpersonal communication, can go ahead and fuck right off. And, if I can, in my own tiny, insignificant, likely unnoticed way, breathe a tiny bit of life into this blog this year and contribute some small amount of noise to the legitimate signal? I’d like to think that’s worth something.

And, well, I think I miss the way we used to be.

Immortality; or, 2006 is my Independence Day

Editor’s note: the following post is kind of jumping the gun, a bit, but it’s also kind of becoming quickly out of date, as well; it’s a little paradoxical. There’s more books from earlier this year yet to be discussed and a book from right now that is in the process of being discussed but since time marches on (time is no man’s Elizabeth!) this post is going out now, whatever warts may remain upon its fair skin. This post will also require a sort of explanatory follow-up post, which will follow in either timely or untimely fashion. Or not at all. Professionalism.

There are a lot of books out there. Think about it too much, you’ll drive yourself bananas. Limited resources and all. One pair of eyes. The preciousness of each spare moment. Having a lifespan.

Me, I try not to think about it too much.

By which I mean I think about it constantly.

It’s sick.

This is one reason I resist setting myself up with reading lists. Strict lists fill time and have ends and remind me of my own mortality.

I do not enjoy contemplating the immediacy of my mortality.

So, instead, immortal, I bounce. I pick up whatever looks good, next. Sometimes I know a book or two out what’s coming next. Sometimes not. I have ideas, I have moods, I have goals. I have huge piles of books to read, but they’re more quantum mechanical than classical, less propositional logic, more chaos theory.

This usually serves me well. The good books coalesce and I get dizzy because everything is awesome. Other times, the system crashes. Everything sucks. I quit reading. I wash dishes. I update my iPod. I contemplate my career. As scary as that can get (maybe tonight I will update my resume? that sounds like fun?) I always bounce back and my brain fizzes and the plates pile back up in the sink, where they belong.

The iPod still gets updated. But that’s another story.

I think I mentioned in an earlier post that I could see a path filling the rest of this year, constructing itself out of the books that I need to read like whoa. This would typically bother me the way hitting the seventh hour of a nine hour road trip bothers me. When the odometer becomes more interesting than the sights. Checkboxes, checked.

The problem is, right now? This Summer of Dostoevsky ’06 project isn’t going to finish itself.

Since I started this project, a couple weeks ago, I have had one goal: to read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s five big novels, beginning with rereads of Crime and Punishment and The Idiot, before moving on to reading Demons and The Adolescent each for the first time, after which I would finish with a reread of The Brothers Karamazov.

Karamazov is a book I was assigned at the end of high school. I read most of it, those final weeks of youth. I loved it. Reading it probably helped get me on the path to being wherever I am today. Thanks for nothing, Dostoevsky!

Honestly though, sincerely: I’m terrified of it. Rereading it. What if it sucks? What if my tastes changed? Maybe the new translation blows. I might wind up questioning every decision I’ve ever made. I might have to quit.

I might have to become an economic theorist.

And yet, though this book could be the frozen donkey wheel at the bottom of the unexplainable pit that spews golden light out from underneath my life, the turning of which will send me spiraling through space and time on paths that could literally break my brain, I know, in my gut, as a true hero must, that we have to go back.

Well: I do. You keep doing your own thing. Unless you want to go back with me. That’s cool, too.

I’ve put going back off for a good long while now. (Sort of like growing up.) For the last fifty or sixty or two hundred books or so (ask my girlfriend how many times I’ve brought it up by now) (actually, don’t) Karamazov has been the book I have been just about to get to one or two more books from now. Each book or two had a habit of turning into another book or two, though. It’s been the perpetual priority number one at the top of the metaphorical office white board alongside all the other priority number ones of the moment. The hour. The month. The month after that.

The Kindle did not exist, when I began this project.

Now, today, here, with the coffee table stack sitting at the same height for months now, books filling gaps faster than the stack can shrink, a never-ending list of old fat books I need to read next wrapping around the apartment like a noose, books by authors who I will buy in hardcover coming out left and right, books by authors I would not buy in hardcover that I got interested in when they were first out in hardcover finally starting to come out in paperback, the weight of unavoidable mortality becoming itself more unavoidable each passing day, and Dostoevsky, all the while, sitting, patiently, waiting his turn, something has to give.

Business time demands it be gotten down to.

So: a set list.

The gates are now closed, for a while, and 2006 and 2010 are mashing like ham and eggs in an antimatter omelette, and things are going to run something like this: a seven book rock-block of gotta-dos, curious-enough-to-dos, have-meant-to-dos, and why-not-dos, in no particular order.

  • Two books by Hans Keilson: The Death of the Adversary and Comedy in a Minor Key. See, this is the problem: I don’t read as much as I once might have and I don’t read that fast and now I’m trying to do reviews a little more often so when I look at the book shelves and I see all the books I should be reading and might read and could read next that’s really where my focus should remain, with these decisions I’ve already decided I’ve made. But then Francine Prose comes along, whose novels I have been meh on but whose criticism I enjoy, and she praises something, and the next think I know, I own it. I’m pretty sure I ordered these two books in a fugue state of consumerist-driven suggestion. To be fair, Prose could have praised dirt and blood and I would have woken up with a bunch of it on my hands. At least they are slim numbers, this time out. And they do sound good.
  • Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen. There’s the hype. There’s the hoopla. There’s the complaining and there’s the gushing. And yet, there remains pure cause and effect: still, the simple fact that Franzen wrote a novel I have not read and another novel that I liked and another novel that I liked a lot, really liked a lot, and then he spent a long time writing his next novel, and now it is out, and I want to read it. And I’m going to read it. And I’m not going to feel bad about it. Even if it makes me a misogynist. Keyword Franzenfreude!
  • Our Tragic Universe, by Scarlett Thomas. I drove to the bookstore the day Freedom came out to buy a copy because I believe sometimes some things should happen when physical bodies manipulate physical objects with actual plastic debit cards. Perhaps someday I will end my resistance and I will stop fighting the future and have an e-reader surgically implanted into my metacortex and replace release day symbolism with drooling data downloadism and that will be fine because by then I intend to be dead of old age. Until then, I have my car and highway and bookstores and the deluded thrill of feeling like things matter for no other reason than because they might, like a book’s publication can match the opening day histrionics of movies made of explosions and fart jokes. When I picked up Freedom, the new Scarlett Thomas book was near it. I could not miss its garishly shiny cover, the design of which seems more appropriate to a young adult fantasy novel than whatever it is Thomas does, smartypants hipster lit or whatever. I don’t mind shiny, I guess, though, because despite having believed I’d have to wait for this one in paperback, I bought it on the spot.
  • The Dalkey Archive, by Flann O’Brien. I like Flann O’Brien. The Third Policeman freaked me out a little and At Swim-Two-Birds, well, I need to reread that one someday. But not this day, because The Dalkey Archive is up, largely because I really liked Omega Minor, by Paul Verhaegen, which was published by Dalkey Archive, and I’ve felt I’ve owed it to them ever since to read the book from which they took their name. This is what passes for logic in my world.
  • The Taker and Other Stories by Rubem Fonseca, translated by Clifford E. Landers. I don’t know a thing about this book other than it’s a quite thin short story collection and it’s endorsed by Thomas Pynchon. I’m sold, you know? Plus it was actually chucked up by an online recommendation engine, which, for once, actually suggested something I knew nothing about, something other than Jane Austen and Philip Roth, so I figured it’s worth a whirl. Plus, cool cover colors.
  • And then, The Brothers Karamazov. At last. At long, long last.

So, if you are a stalker who likes to play along at home (the bushes outside the apartment building), here’s a chance for you to grab a title or two from my stack—I mean that metaphorically, get your own copies, taking mine would defeat the purpose—so you can share your comments with me and I can share my comments with you and through such means as are available to us the dialogue will occur and the world will be a better place, my fellow immortal.

Also note that this means…well, I’ll tell you later, what to note that this means. (It’s mostly about 2011, which might as well just not even bother showing up to work, because it is fired though it has already quit? Question mark? Something.)