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: 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.


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.”


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?

Because I needed a way to make The Instructions feel like a short beach read I went ahead and read War and Peace and it was good

Things went from “I’m busy and then I’m lazy when I’m not busy” to “wow I’m really completely busy” to “well I guess I’m busy but now I’m also mostly lazy since I know I’m just going to be busy again soon” so I haven’t properly post-mortem’ed my reading of War and Peace, a book that I read somewhere in there between the being busy and the being lazy. Here goes.

First, the great thing about War and Peace, is that when you’re not reading a lot, or you’re not reading as much as you might like I should say, because you are being too busy and/or lazy to read as much as is proper, when you’re sitting there thinking you’re way under-read for the year, you can look up at your pile of books you’ve read in the current calendar year, and you can see War and Peace sitting there, and you can say, well, I read War and Peace. I did that thing nobody really does. Even though I was busy! Even though I was lazy! And you can pat yourself on the back, because guess what: you win. You read War and Peace. You are a better person than you were a few short months earlier.

Second, the other great thing about War and Peace, is that War and Peace is actually really great. It’s a really great book. The question people who have not read War and Peace will ask you is, is it worth it? Is it worth reading this book everybody talks about and nobody actually reads? And then when you’ve read it you can answer that yes, actually, it is a great book, and it is worth it, and when you’re done, you’ll sort of wish it was longer, because it sort of felt short. As short as a 1200+ page novel can feel, at least.

See, here’s the thing they don’t tell you when they tell you that War and Peace is this great book that nobody reads: War and Peace is a great book that is entirely readable. At least, in the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, the one I read, it was entirely readable. On a basic human activity level, fundamentally, as a thing that a person has to sit with and doWar and Peace is readable prose; it is story with characters and plots and digressions and you don’t need a doctorate in doctorology to make your way through the thing. Because it’s great literature doesn’t mean it isn’t funny and sad and moving. It is a book. I enjoyed engaging with it.

It is, of course, however, still a long novel, as will most every novel I’ll read between now and likely the end of this year be; it is true that a cup of coffee will help propel you through the pages at a bit more steady of a clip, and you’re going to hit points when you realize you’ve read four books worth of text before you’ve even hit the halfway point. But then you keep going and weeks or months later you finish and you feel good for doing so because it was enjoyable far more often than it was not.

Which probably all seems like a shallow read of the book and I admit, perhaps it is. Perhaps I did not read this book like a blogger looking for a scoop or like a student looking for a paper topic or like a reviewer looking for a lede. Perhaps the next time–because I believe there will in fact be a next time!–I read War and Peace I’ll read it with a few extra hats on and a few more pairs of glasses and I’ll drink the coffee straight from the pot. But here, now, I’m please to submit a defense of War and Peace as a book that can be read purely for the pleasure of reading the book even when there’s a lot of other things going on in your life and that it works just fine for that purpose. In evidence of my defense I submit myself. Case closed!

Also I think the book changed how I view history, at least a little bit. Well. So. There’s that, too.

Freedom from Freedom

Okay, maybe I’m not done thinking about Freedom yet, end-of-year forgiveness aside, because I read this article, and it’s by Bret Easton Ellis about Charlie Sheen, which, I know, I know, but it’s actually interesting and makes some points, and as a toss-off comment there’s this bit about how it’s totally “Empire,” whatever that means, to not like Freedom because one finds the characters “unlikable.” Which—–aside from the fact that I’m not sure what the “Post-Empire” way of not liking or liking Freedom would be, and aside from the fact that this point feels shoehorned into an otherwise fairly well constructed list of this-that’s—is a statement I kind of agree with (said reasoning being Empire) even as I disagree with the plainspoken assumption that the book is great and you’re a dick if you think otherwise.

Because I get it. Got it. A little bit. Freedom, freedom, we’re all free. Ride our machines. Act like ninnies. Great. Good point. And I still didn’t like it. But: it had nothing to do with the fact that I found the characters unlikable. I loved the aspect of the book, when you get down to it. I loved that essentially each and every character in the book was a jerk in their own special jerk-like ways. None of them were unredeemable jerks; I liked American Psycho just fine and that book is nothing but unredeemable jerk-ness. (Right?) Frankly, I say: bring on the jerks. Let’s get more books about characters I personally hate, characters I wouldn’t want to spend five minutes with at a cocktail party, characters I’d rather dissolve into the margins to escape from than spend time with in the text. Bring on the boors!

What I didn’t like about the book were the fundamental aesthetics of the thing: it was long and drawn out and chunky and clunky and gratingly predictable and inherently sort of dull. It wasn’t good story. And it didn’t offer enough else aesthetically to make up for the fact that nothing really interesting happened. I’m nearly finished with War and Peace, a book over twice the length of Freedom, a book which, frankly, has moved more in the two or three hundred pages I’ve just read than Freedom did across its entire length. I really loved The Corrections when I read it a couple years back and I plan to read it again someday and it’s highly possible I’ll read that book and realize it was everything I just said Freedom was, which is sad, maybe; I do seem to recall that The Corrections featured a cast of miserable, deluded jerks, itself. It’s also possible I’ll love The Corrections again the next time I read it and it’s also possible I’ll give Freedom another go some day and it will click better for me the next time through; the opening two hundred pages or so seemed pretty solid, I think, right? From what I recall? I don’t know.

Point being, you’re perfectly free to like or not like Freedom because or despite the characters were all wackadoodle. I liked the jerks—I just wish they’d been given a better story to tool about in.

(Matt linked to the original article, by the way, so blame him for the above mess. Personally. (We’re all on a first name basis here on the Internet now, right?))

Still alive, sans cake

I’m almost–almost!–half way through War and Peace. That’s how long it’s been since I’ve, you know, said hi, here. I’m also about halfway through a semester’s worth of a drawing class. I’m at the beginning of some other cool things that are starting up that I hope to be able to share with you in the not so distant future. I’m really–really!–working my way around to the redesign of this blog I’ve been threatening for an age and that might even motivate me to stop wasting time on Twitter and start wasting my time back over here again, because, really, Twitter? Really? Of course I say all this as I am also dangerously close to complete domination of the game Lumines on the PS3; having just finally beat the Dig Down mode for the first time earlier this week, I can say that there’s only a few more things left for me to do in the game before I can claim I am the greatest Lumines player of all time. Seriously, though, I’ve logged almost as much time in this game as one might for a small-ish RPG. It was a thing for a long time and then I got off the thing and now I’m back on the thing. It’s intense. Yeah.

Yeah. But I’m also still thinking about that long list of long books I want to read this year and the road through them leads through the rest of War and Peace which yes is long and sometimes slow and certainly Russian and all that but it’s also engaging and moving and question-raising and funny and all sorts of things people want in books they want to read. I’m glad I’m taking my time with it but I’m also wishing I was taking more time with it, like, on a regular basis. But, other stuff, and such. Long and short of it being that I remain an absolutely terrible person from whom to receive book recommendations right now, if not for the foreseeable future. Like, oh yeah, well, I’m reading this little book, guy you might have heard of. Tolstoy? And again in a month or two from now?

Anyways, Twitter still happens, and I’ve been posting dribs and drabs of my drawing work over on Tumblr, if you’re inclined toward that stuff. And then this place is either going to disappear in the night in complete shame or it’s going to finally be the place where I figure out how to talk about merging all these various things I’ve been thinging lately or it’s just going to keep on going with the apologies and the silence and really whichever option is probably okay, no? Yes? Does anybody even use blogs anymore? The future is so 2007, isn’t it?