Books, 2016

Last year, I recorded having read 74 books for a total of 25,500 pages. I fell a little behind this year, logging 67 books and 22,107 pages, which I suppose is still respectable enough. Last year I padded my book count some by reading the 13 books in the Series of Unfortunate Events series to my kids and participating as fully as I could in the Tournament of Books, which required a sort of mania to manage. Much of this year in reading to the kids was consumed by reading Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, which contributed to the page count (these are 800+ pages apiece if I recall correctly) but added a paltry three books to the list. This year I read almost all things that were new to me (To Kill a Mockingbird was the exception, though I hadn’t read it in 25 years, so it was sort of new all over again), and I tried a different approach to picking what to read.

When writing last year’s summary of my reading, I noticed that I was reading mostly white American men. Since I am a white American man, I suppose this makes a certain amount of sense, but I figured it was time to broaden my horizons a bit, and the best way to do that is intentionally. So I made 2016 the year of reading people who weren’t white American/English/Canadian dudes. Brandon Sanderson and a late read of a Heinlin book (which gets logged on 2017 anyway) aside, I managed to avoid white guys. My failures were concessions to my family, who didn’t necessarily want to go along on my personal journey, though I dragged them along for some of it. The Sanderson at least featured a strong female protagonist; the Heinlein was a late break for my wife, who couldn’t bear another soporific read-aloud of Agatha Christie (who my children oddly really like).

So, how did I pick all these books by non-white men? Sometimes it was more or less at random. I actually browsed a little local bookstore a lot (enough that they got in the habit of thanking me not for my purchase but for my “contribution,” as if the sometimes not insignificant purchase was an act of charity) and read book covers to see what looked interesting. The store — Union Avenue Books —  has a small new paperback collection (I’m generally not charitable enough to buy in hardback) that rotates frequently enough that I could stop by and pick up a stack of six or eight books to last a month or two and find a fair few different books on my next stop. I basically profiled authors by looking for names that seemed unlikely to belong to white men, and when possible I would confirm by looking for an author photo or bio. It felt a little weird to physically profile people, and I consoled myself that it was ok since it was in the service of expanding my perspective to include the perspectives of people whose work I had not actively sought out before, but I’m still not sure it was actually ok. In any case, what’s done is done.

One thing I found was that when trying not to read white dudes, it’s very very easy to read white women. I read more white women than I really wanted to, to the extent that it felt a little cheaty, since though they do have a different experience of the world than white men, it seems very probable to me that overall, the experience these (I suspect largely entitled) women have of the world is probably very much more like the experience I have of the world than the experience of, say, a Nigerian Jesuit.

Now a word about my GoodReads rating system. First, I wish they allowed partial stars, as often I find five-star granularity to be insufficient for expressing how I feel about a book. Some books are better than three stars but not quite 4 stars, and it’s frustrating that I can’t express that in my quantifiable review. I tend to rate down, I guess because I’m a little snobbish and don’t want to elevate a book that didn’t really do it for me. So, a five-star book is basically transcendental for me; it changed my worldview or offered a perspective or a beauty of writing that made me really want to put it in a very small group of favorite books. A four-star book is very good and I liked it a lot (maybe even loved it a little) or found it exceedingly worthwhile even if not altogether enjoyable to get through. A three-star book I liked just fine. A two-star book I didn’t like much at all. A one-star book I pretty much hated. An abandoned book is very very rare for me, and I abandoned one this year (The Night Circus — irredeemable, and I wish I could bill the author for my time).

Of the books I read this year, I gave no books five stars but gave these 18 books four stars:

There were a few surprises here for me, notably the presence of some genre fiction in A Wizard of Earthsea (I wanted to continue the series but my daughter wasn’t digging it; I’ll likely revisit on my own later) and Epitaph, which is a loosely historical novel that isn’t at all the sort of thing I tend to pick up. Groff was a new find for me this year, and what a great find. The Vegetarian was more of a 3.5, but I rated it up rather than down because it was a bit of a puzzler for me, and I’m intrigued by puzzlers even if I don’t strictly like or enjoy them. I was glad to find Mason’s book so good, as I had read her Feather Crowns many years ago and found it merely ok. I would cheerfully recommend almost all of these books to just about anybody with the exception perhaps of The Vegetarian.

I gave three stars to these 37 books:

Lots of the family reads made this list. I hadn’t expected to like the Mistborn books as much as I did (and the third was kind of bad and thus got only two stars). Sri Lanka is well represented here in the books of Ondaatje and Cummings, thanks to recommendations from a colleague and friend. Africa makes a couple of appearances, largely because I so enjoyed Half of a Yellow Sun (a rare five-star) last year and wanted to read a bit more from Africa (which, I know, is a very reductive thing to say). The Sellout was a big disappointment to me, enough so that I fear that the defect is in me as a reader and not in the book (it failed to connect for me in the way that a lot of Barth fails to connect; there’s something very smart about it but also something over-labored and thus tedious and annoying about it). Tartt delivers solid books consistently (two this year netted three stars for me and another four). I would recommend these books with less confidence. Some would surely land for some readers, but this cohort of books on the whole didn’t wow me.

I gave two stars to these eleven books:

The Erdrich was a real disappointment (I really liked The Round House), as was the Atwood, which I picked up randomly because it was on a table at a bookstore and I hadn’t read much Atwood and I was sort of feeling like maybe the U.S. was heading toward a Handmaid’s Tale-like future. My daughter liked Persepolis, and I was glad to learn more about Iran but didn’t really care for the book itself. The Stoddard and Wharton books were mostly just boring. Sanderson should have given up while he was ahead, and the Gratz was a real dud in my opinion after a more enjoyable first two books in that series.

I read but didn’t rate The Girl in the Well is Me by Karen Rivers because I’m very vaguely, tenuously acquainted with the author, and I feel weird about rating or commenting on books when I know the author (even though really I don’t — it’s a very very teensy, old connection, but enough of one that I feel weird about rating the book anyway).

Usually when I finish a book, I leave a very brief review on GoodReads, mostly just enough to tell a future forgetful me generally how I felt about a book or why I thought it was or wasn’t good. These micro-reviews aren’t really worth reading on the whole, but if you’re curious why a book landed in one pile or another and want to gamble on whether there’s useful context or not in my little review, click the link above and look for my review (easier to find if you friend me on GoodReads, I believe).

So, that’s 2016 in books for me. I’m glad I tried branching out. It was hard sometimes to avoid picking up a book by a white guy (there’s new Lethem, for example, and I got a book for my birthday that didn’t meet my criteria and has sat on my nightstand for 11 months), but I’m glad I mostly avoided it, and I’ll continue trying to keep an eye on how homogeneous my reading list is, and strive for heterogeneity. I think it’s probably more and more important to do so in a changing (or maybe merely acknowledged?) political climate in the U.S. that more than ever seems to favor the entitled and terrorize the rest.

Paper or Plastic

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I’ve had a couple of Kindles over the years, but I always find myself going back to paper books. More and more, I’ve been trying not to accumulate books, though. I mean, I love them as artifacts and as decor, even, but I’ve recently begun getting rid of books I didn’t love or that I figure I’ll never read again, keeping only the really good ones.

Since I’ve tried to stop keeping as many books as tangible items in my home, I’ve thought about trying to read more electronically. Reading on a tablet or Kindle is pretty convenient when running on an exercise machine, for example. You just situate it on the control panel in front of you and flap a hand up to tap the screen when it’s time to turn the page. Compare to the dismal experience of trying to wrangle a big thick floppy paper book with sweaty hands while running. It’s an infomercial in the making.

This week, I finished the last in my current queue of paper books and debated trying again to make the switch to electronic books. Because I’m a miser, I thought pretty quickly about the cost difference. I can pay $10 – $12 for an electronic book and sort of maybe have it forever, whether I liked it or not. I can pay $8 – $16 or so for most of the paper books I’d want, and then I can sell them to a used book store at a significant markdown for store credit to get more books. If I don’t like the book that much (which has been the case for a lot of what I’ve picked lately), I can sell it to a used book store for (based on a recent experience) about 17% of the purchase price. That’s a pretty stiff markdown, but it still seems like a better choice for me given that I go through a lot of books and am fairly adventurous (I try things I don’t know for sure that I’ll like). The alternative is to have a bunch of electronic books I don’t like and for which I paid nearly as much as and sometimes more than I would have paid for the paper copy. If electronic books were significantly cheaper (say they cost $5), I’d buy a lot more of them. At the current price of electronic books, the trade value and the risk mitigation of buying paper books that I can at least get some money back for makes electronic books a bad choice for me.

I also still just generally prefer the tactile experience of reading a paper book. Call me a Luddite. The financial angle and the personal pleasure angle combine to keep me still firmly in the paper books camp.

Books, 2015

I read a lot of books in 2015 and tracked them pretty reliably via Goodreads. Whereas last year I claimed to have read 24 books (probably I missed updating Goodreads for a few), this year I logged 74 for a total of about 25,500 pages. I suppose I cheated a little bit, since a whole bunch of those were books I read aloud to the kids, though they weren’t tiny little Golden Books or anything (average page count per book came out to around 345 on the whole), so maybe it wasn’t cheating after all.

Highlights included the Series of Unfortunate Events series (started in late August and finished at the tail end of December) and the Prydain Chronicles series, which were both fun and represented a lot of evening and weekend reading with the kids, which is one of my favorite things to do.

I reread a few books. I had been nervous about rereading Infinite Jest after several years, but it held up for me. I also reread The Recognitions and didn’t love it. I reread some Vonnegut that we had sitting around and had mixed feelings. I accidentally reread some Roth that I had forgotten I had read years ago, and though I didn’t much like the novella I reread, I did wind up enjoying some of the stories that were packaged in the same volume with it.

Part of what boosted my reading stats this year was an effort to participate in the Tournament of Books. I forget how many of the selections I wound up reading, but I believe it was around a dozen, and a few of them pretty lengthy. The ToB introduced me to a rare five-star read in All the Light We Cannot See. I tend to reserve five-star ratings for books that change the way I think about the world or that had some other profound effect on my life. AtLWCS probably didn’t quite do either of these things, but it really was top-notch writing, so I gave it a 5.

I awarded another 5-star rating to Half of a Yellow Sun, which remains the best book I’ve read all year. It taught me things about the world, made me really feel for its characters, made me laugh, and was generally just beautifully written. I’ve recommended it to many people this year.

Although I had heard of Jonathan Lethem, I had never read him before, and late in the year I picked up several of his books and liked them all a lot. I’ll read more of his work for sure. So far, he’s been a consistent 4-star rating for me (meaning that I liked the books a whole lot, even if they didn’t change my life).

I read more genre fiction this year than I’m accustomed to, picking up several sci-fi things (if you include Vonnegut, who sort of straddles literary fiction and sci-fi). Not listed below or accounted for in my stats are a number of the Poirot stories by Agatha Christie and probably a few Sherlock stories as well. I also read a lot more nonfiction than usual, mostly books about teamwork and leadership that I read as I transitioned into a leadership role at work.

Although I’ve striven in general to read a fair number of books by people who are not white men, it’s clear from looking over the list below that I’ve done a pretty poor job. I suppose it makes sense that fiction by white dudes would resonate with me since I am a white dude, but I’d like to continue to read things that offer perspectives from behind a gaze different from my own. My favorite book of the year is after all by a Nigerian woman, so it’s clearly to my benefit to read things by people who are not white dudes.

The table below shows my recorded books for the year, sorted by rating and then by whatever Goodreads chooses as a secondary sorting field. The unrated books at the bottom I think I just forgot to rate (though in the case of the Dara book, I felt like I needed to read it again some time before deciding how I felt about it).

Title Author Stars Kids For Work Nonfiction Reread Not a White Dude
All the Light We Cannot See Doerr, Anthony 5 N N N N N
Half of a Yellow Sun Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi 5 N N N N Y
Infinite Jest Wallace, David Foster 5 N N N Y N
The Fortress of Solitude Lethem, Jonathan 4 N N N N N
The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #1) Snicket, Lemony 4 Y N N N N
The End (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #13) Snicket, Lemony 4 Y N N N N
When Teams Work Best Lafasto, Frank 4 N Y Y N N
The Painter Heller, Peter 4 N N N N N
Mason and Dixon Pynchon, Thomas 4 N N N N N
Annihilation (Southern Reach, #1) VanderMeer, Jeff 4 N N N N N
The Reptile Room (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #2) Snicket, Lemony 4 Y N N N N
Dept. of Speculation Offill, Jenny 4 N N N N Y
The News from Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story Wickersham, Joan 4 N N N N Y
The Sense of an Ending Barnes, Julian 4 N N N N N
A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall Chancellor, Will 4 N N N N N
Chronic City Lethem, Jonathan 4 N N N N N
Gun, With Occasional Music Lethem, Jonathan 4 N N N N N
The House of the Spirits Allende, Isabel 4 N N N N Y
Paper Towns Green, John 4 N N N N N
Wittgenstein Jr Iyer, Lars 4 N N N N N
Men in Space McCarthy, Tom 4 N N N N N
Motherless Brooklyn Lethem, Jonathan 4 N N N N N
Sartoris Faulkner, William 4 N N N N N
Slaughterhouse-Five Vonnegut, Kurt 4 N N N Y N
Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? Eggers, Dave 4 N N N N N
Cat’s Cradle Vonnegut, Kurt 4 N N N Y N
Americanah Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi 3 N N N N Y
The Recognitions Gaddis, William 3 N N N Y N
The High King (The Chronicles of Prydain #5) Alexander, Lloyd 3 Y N N N N
The Miserable Mill (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #4) Snicket, Lemony 3 Y N N N N
The Wide Window (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #3) Snicket, Lemony 3 Y N N N N
The Ersatz Elevator (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #6) Snicket, Lemony 3 Y N N N N
The Dragon Lantern (The League of Seven, #2) Gratz, Alan 3 Y N N N N
Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead Bock, Laszlo 3 N Y Y N N
The Grim Grotto (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #11) Snicket, Lemony 3 Y N N N N
The Sound and the Fury Faulkner, William 3 Y N N N N
A Brief History of Seven Killings James, Marlon 3 N N N N Y
The Austere Academy (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #5) Snicket, Lemony 3 Y N N N N
The Prince and the Pauper Twain, Mark 3 Y N N Y N
The Slippery Slope (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #10) Snicket, Lemony 3 Y N N N N
The Hostile Hospital (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #8) Snicket, Lemony 3 Y N N N N
Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories Roth, Philip 3 N N N N N
The Castle of Llyr (The Chronicles of Prydain #3) Alexander, Lloyd 3 Y N N N N
The Book of Three (The Chronicles of Prydain #1) Alexander, Lloyd 3 Y N N N N
The Fermata Baker, Nicholson 3 N N N N N
The Black Cauldron (The Chronicles of Prydain #2) Alexander, Lloyd 3 Y N N N N
The Mysterious Benedict Society (The Mysterious Benedict Society, #1) Stewart, Trenton Lee 3 Y N N N N
The Vile Village (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #7) Snicket, Lemony 3 Y N N N N
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly Bauby, Jean-Dominique 3 N N Y N N
The Word Exchange Graedon, Alena 3 N N N N Y
Silence Once Begun Ball, Jesse 3 N N N N N
Divisadero Ondaatje, Michael 3 N N N N Y
The Carnivorous Carnival (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #9) Snicket, Lemony 3 Y N N N N
The Penultimate Peril (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #12) Snicket, Lemony 3 Y N N N N
All the Birds, Singing Wyld, Evie 3 N N N N Y
Middle C Gass, William H. 3 N N N N N
Between the World and Me Coates, Ta-Nehisi 3 N N Y N Y
Looking for Alaska Green, John 2 N N N N N
The Sirens of Titan Vonnegut, Kurt 2 N N N Y N
1Q84 (1Q84, #1-3) Murakami, Haruki 2 N N N N Y
Ready Player One Cline, Ernest 2 N N N N N
Acceptance (Southern Reach, #3) VanderMeer, Jeff 2 N N N N N
Reamde Stephenson, Neal 2 N N N N N
Foundation (Foundation, #1) Asimov, Isaac 2 N N N N N
Deception Roth, Philip 2 N N N N N
Adam Schrag, Ariel 2 N N N N Y
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (Extraordinary Voyages, #6) Verne, Jules 2 Y N N N N
Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High Patterson, Kerry 2 N Y Y N N
The Bone Clocks Mitchell, David 2 N N N N N
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (Fairyland, #1) Valente, Catherynne M. 2 N N N N Y
Generosity: An Enhancement Powers, Richard 1 N N N N N
Authority (Southern Reach, #2) VanderMeer, Jeff 1 N N N N N
Taran Wanderer (The Chronicles of Prydain #4) Alexander, Lloyd N N N N N
The Lost Scrapbook Dara, Evan N N N N N
Foreign Bodies Ozick, Cynthia N N N N Y

gun, with occasional music

Although you’d think based on this post’s title and a spate of mass shootings in America this year (more than one per day, if I’m to believe what I see on the interwebs) that this’d be a political post, you’d turn out to be wrong. The title is the title of a novel by Jonathan Lethem, an author whose name I had heard for years but whose work I had never read until this year, when in July I picked up his Chronic City and enjoyed it a lot.

A few weeks ago, I found cheap copies of his gun, with occasional music and Motherless Brooklyn, and I read gun over the last few days.

It is ostensibly a sort of noir style detective novel, and the epigraph pays homage to Raymond Chandler, whom I’ve not read but who I gather wrote similar stuff. I don’t usually go for genre fiction because the appeal seems to me to be more in the familiarity of the framework and the trappings of the specific genre than in the creation of a distinct voice or other formal innovation that I’m likely to find interesting. I’m not passing judgment on genre fiction here, to be clear; there’s a lot to be said for finding a formula that you enjoy and sticking with it (I buy shirts and pants of the types I like basically in bulk because I find them comfortable). But the books I tend to enjoy most are the ones that do something a little different in terms of voice or structure or rule-breaking, and genre fiction by definition tends to follow established patterns and thus to avoid innovation of the sort that I find appealing. I feel like once I’ve read one or two noir stories, I understand the pattern, and reading a lot more of them in which the names and circumstances change slightly but the flavor is largely the same doesn’t interest me.

So when I first started in on gun, I wasn’t too excited by it. It felt like I was reading pretty standard noir fiction, and once I had the stereotypical noir narrator’s voice in my head, I felt like I’d maybe had my fill. But then there was mention of something called Forgettol, a particular sort of a generic snortable drug colloquially called “make.” This was sort of interesting. And then I came across this:

I rode up in the elevator with an evolved sow. She was wearing a bonnet and a flowered dress, but she still smelled like a barnyard. She smiled at me and I managed to smile back, then she got off on the fourth floor.

Well that’s an attention-getter! This was not to be standard noir fare after all. We encounter other evolved animals in the book, along with some “babyheads,” who are human children exposed to the same evolution technology used to turn animals into sort of human hybrids, with the result that they’re (the babyheads) mentally mature but stuck in the bodies of toddlers and seem understandably cranky and prone to drink. We learn that we’re in a dystopic future in which the state provides free make to keep people’s faculties sufficiently dulled and in which the police officers (called inquisitors) deduct karma points from your id card when you run afoul of them. We do of course also see the usual trappings of pulp detective fiction, complete with one-liners, hard drinking, the roughing up of various and sundry people, and pretty much everything you’d expect besides the lonely saxophone background music (if there’s an audio book, I’ll bet you get the saxophone too).

So the book turns out to be a neat mix of noir and something resembling dystopic sci-fi, with pretty fun results. I enjoyed the book a lot (also, it’s short, so the enjoyment to page count ratio was very high), and I enjoyed just as much how it helped me think a bit about what I find appealing (or not) about what I do like reading (and what I don’t).

Book Shelf

I read a post this morning by a friend in which she included a photo of one of her book shelves laden with books by an author whose work we both admire. I didn’t have a particular post in mind for the day (if you’ve been seeing this sudden uncharacteristic surge of posts over the past 10 days, you may be unsurprised to learn that I’m sort of quietly participating in a challenge to write a post a day this month, and you may also be relieved to learn that my gumption is not likely to outlive this month), so I figured I’d post a picture of my book shelf.

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We have another set of shelves in the bonus room that houses my kids’ books (they have more than I do these days, or very nearly so) and my wife’s books. This shelf sits behind me in my office, and just about every other time I have a video chat with coworkers who haven’t seen the shelves before, somebody does sort of a doubletake and asks whether their eyes are deceiving them or whether my books are arranged by color. And, well, yes, they sort of are.

I used to organize them mostly at random, with little pockets of order. Amid the randomness you’d find all of the David Foster Wallace grouped together, and you’d find most of the slim books of poetry (now relegated to a stealth row behind the fiction) grouped together. Random shelving is easy to add books to without much fuss, and I always liked having to scan the whole shelf to find a particular book I had in mind, which often enough would remind me of something else I wanted to dip back into.

It was a few months ago that I decided to rearrange more or less in a spectrum. I forget what made me decide to do it. I think I just wanted the shelves to be pretty while retaining some measure of organization that was random in terms of book content. Chaos has already begun to set in. I’m out of room for reds and oranges and yellows and too lazy to shift the whole shebang, so here and there you can spot within or atop the shelves little flashes of bright horizontal color from a book slid in on top of the others. Some books are new and haven’t been shelved at all yet (these mostly lie on top of the shelves). I got rid of a bunch of books to free up the bottom shelf for storage of other things, and the result so far isn’t very pretty. Near bottom left are cookbooks, arranged in a more orderly fashion because even a weirdo needs some measure of pragmatism here and there.

On top of the shelves you’ll see three globes, the early members of a collection my wife is slowly building. One of the globes wears a pirate hat and wig that a coworker sent me; the companion parrot hat lies nearer the opposite ends of the shelf. At bottom right, too big to fit in any of the compartments, is my OED.

Although it has always pained me to get rid of books (I used to have a lot more than this), I’m finding myself more capable lately of paring the collection down a bit. Most of the books pictured here are ones that I really treasure or would like to read again one day (or at least have on hand for occasional reference). Whereas my collection used to be largely provisional, containing lots of things I thought I might read one day or that I just picked up used on a whim, I’ve read probably 95% of these (putting cookbooks aside) and figure they’re important enough to me that I’ll one day regret not having them on hand. I have a nasty habit of selling back a book I think I’ll never need again and then needing it desperately again within the month; I’ve bought back my own books from the used bookstore more than once.

Blind Date with a Bookseller

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In Asheville there’s a cool little indie bookstore called Malaprop’s that I make a point of stopping by any time I’m in town. Almost every time I stop by, there’s some kind of event going on — an author reading, story time and face-painting for kids, that sort of thing. Yesterday my family and I went to Malaprop’s and discovered that we had just missed a book signing by the author of a book we had just recently purchased for the kids.

As I was browsing books, I found a shelf containing books wrapped in brown paper written on in black marker. A nearby sign revealed that the idea — dubbed “Blind Date with a Bookseller” — was that you’d buy a book on the vague, un-spoilerish recommendation of a staffer without knowing in advance what the book was. I loved the idea!

Of the half dozen or so different book descriptions on the shelf, the one pictured appealed to me the most, so I bought it. My wife was nervous that it might turn out to be one I had already read. I was a little nervous about the possibility too, but the little thrill of coming across this opportunity buying a surprise book outweighed the small risk. The store clerk assured us that if I had in fact read the book, I could return it for store credit. When I ripped into it, I discovered that it was in fact a book I already owned and had recently read, but that didn’t diminish my pleasure by very much at all. In fact, it was kind of fun to have myself sort of typecast as a reader interested in the sorts of things listed on the wrapper.

I won’t reveal what the book was, lest I spoil it for some reader who happens by Malaprop’s and decides to pick up a mystery book — which, if you are a reader in the Asheville area, you should!

Borges, Collected Fictions

Borges, Collected FictionsSome books you can’t make yourself put down, and others you can’t make yourself pick up. Gass’s The Tunnel ruined reading for me for months because I didn’t feel like I could read anything else until I finished it, and I couldn’t bear to read much of it at a time. Jorge Luis Borges’s Collected Fictions I carried around like some sort of a curse for a couple of weeks. These are books that you feel like you ought to read, that you know people admire, that you really do want to get through, that you know are probably good for you, but that just don’t do it for you.

I finally finished the Borges today and really don’t understand the fascination people have for him. His is a name you hear with awe and respect. I had meant to read him for years and was finally nudged into doing so upon reading several references to him in a John Barth essay collection recently. The Barth also nudged me to read Don Quixote, which I enjoyed a lot, and The Thousand Nights and a Night, which will take a good long time but which I’m digging. So I was optimistic about Borges.

His stories seem to take a few forms:

  • History (usually about gauchos or knife fighting or Argentenian politics) retold.
  • Revenge plots (some overlap with the history here).
  • Brief philosophical or mystical musings that fall really flat.
  • Fantasies.

The first three varieties generally don’t much interest me. I don’t have a head for or a particular interest in history or politics, and though the knife-fighting gauchos make for an occasional fun (if oddly subdued) read, I don’t need a dozen of them. The fantasies, and particular those that touch on the infinite and on doubling, are the stories that required less of a stiff upper lip for me to get through. Even those sometimes Borges delivers in a way that winds up feeling sort of deflated. He’s a master of telling a story and then adding a punchy closing line that wrecks the whole thing. In the shorter mystical pieces, he has a way of making simple statements about things and then adding a feeble flourish that seems designed to make you think the story is deep, but to me, it comes off pretty badly, as if he’s a magician doing the thumb-removal trick we all learned as kids and finishing with a big “ta-da” and a deep bow. His tricks, in other words, don’t merit nearly the response he seems to expect. It’s pretty annoying.

The later work appealed to me more than the earlier work, as evidenced by the sharply increasing frequency of dog-eared stories toward the end of the book. I dog-eared nothing until nearly halfway through the book, when I was struck by “The Zahir.” Others that I liked to some degree or another include the following:

  • The Aleph
  • The Interloper
  • The Encounter
  • The Gospel According to Mark
  • Brodie’s Report
  • The Other
  • The Book of Sand
  • Blue Tigers

The penultimate collection, The Book of Sand, is the strongest in the book.

A few references in Barth’s book aside, I’ve studiously avoided reading any criticism or even biographical information about Borges in hopes that I could form my own opinion unsullied. My opinion’s obviously not very high. I’ll be curious now to read a bit to discover all the ways in which my opinion is ill-informed and unjust; I’m sure there must be much to Borges that I’m missing. He seems to have been an awfully smart man, just not one whose fictions struck me in general as being as great as a whole as I gather they’re trumped up to be. I’m glad I read the book, and I’ll likely revisit a few of those dog-eared pieces. I’m also glad to be done with the book and eager to move on.

Book Day

As I approached the door of my home office today to come out for lunch, I saw that a large sheet of green paper had been slid under the door. My seven-year-old daughter is making up holidays, and today is apparently Book Day. This is a holiday I can get on board with. I’m not sure yet what the specifics of the celebration will entail.

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She's seven. We'll work on the your/you're distinction soon enough.

Book Day

It's Book Day!