Bookshelves #11

Here we are starting the second half of the bookshelves series, and it’s a bit of a dud, or perhaps it’s fitting, as a few of these I’ve left only half-finished.

I like Mark Twain but haven’t read the one here. I think I got it at a library sale of old books many years ago. One day I’ll get around to it.

I put The Brothers Karamazov down about 700 pages into it maybe 20 years ago, and two or three years ago decided to see if I could read the whole thing with a critical eye. I could! I picked up this biography of Dostoevsky by a historian whose work on Dostoevsky David Foster Wallace (of course) wrote good things about. It was a very readable book, but I ran out of time to read both this tome and The Brothers Karamazov simultaneously and on a bit of a deadline, so I stopped 200 or 300 pages in. I like to think I’ll go back to it some day.

I had heard that Flaubert was the quintessential stylist, and so what better way to read this classic than en Français? That turns out to be difficult if you don’t really know much Français. I tried a few years anyway, with a translation app on my phone to help me quickly get a handle on vocabulary I was missing. It was tedious and frustrating, and maybe one day I’ll try again (in English if not in French), but here we are three books into the shelf and I’ve completed not a one of them.

The Whale I read a few years back along with a bunch of other secondary material when leading an online group read of Moby-Dick. This one is obviously mis-shelved down here among the black books. It was a nice read. I don’t know if I’ll go back to it, though, but I hang onto it just in case, since as soon as I get rid of it, I know something will compel me to read Moby-Dick again and I’ll regret the loss of this secondary source.

DeLillo I tend to keep, figuring I’ll do some big completist type survey of his work some day. I read Mao II a few years ago and was I think so-so on it.

The Swerve was neat — a rare bit of nonfiction that I picked up in part because when I saw the title, it made me think back fondly to my old college class on Milton (my professor introduced me then to the concept of swerve).

This edition of Heart of Darkness is illustrated by Matt Kish, who also illustrated the Moby-Dick we saw on the last shelf. It’s really lovely to look at, and it was fun to see some of the ways in which he departed in this book from some of the themes and gestures so prevalent in his Moby-Dick art (though some of those remain).

I forget what I thought of the Eggers book. Probably I thought it was Eggers-ish, which is to say maybe a little too cute and proud of itself but also with something worthwhile in it. I think I recall that a friend sent me this book (his own copy) and didn’t want it back, and it’s not super clear to me whether I’m to cherish it as a gift or send it out to someone else in the world to enjoy. I suspect the latter.

And finally, Look Homeward, Angel. I grew up in North Carolina, though not in the mountains that Wolfe writes of. Wolfe is celebrated at UNC, which I attended. I remember seeing in some museum or pamphlet about him while I was in school there a photo of him standing beside knee-high stacks of paper that made up, I believe, this book. I should love this book, but I’ve twice now started it without finishing it. I don’t remember that anything has particularly turned me off to it, but I’ve just petered out for one reason or another. On a trip for work recently, I watched the fairly recent movie Genius, which tells the story of Wolfe and his relationship with editor Max Perkins. I enjoyed the movie, though I can’t imagine why they picked Jude Law to play Wolfe, and it made me want to try the book again. Maybe the third time’ll be the charm.

I Scream

A few weeks ago, I went outside to shake my fist at the neighborhood children who had taken to trampling my newly seeded lawn, when I noticed my son and a couple of the younger kids (he’s 10, they’re a little younger, and the neighborhood range of miscreants who run together goes from 5 or 6 to 16ish — which is to say that it’s basically Lord of the Flies, and my son was hanging with the littluns) sort of hunkered down behind the car, which was parked in the driveway. One of the littluns looked over at me sort of guiltily and murmured to my son something like “tell him,” which interrupted my fist shaking. I looked at my son, who had gone kind of a shade of gray.

I should here back up and report that just a few minutes before, my wife and I, both recently finished with work for the day, had been occupying separate water closets. My preferred water closet is a tiny room inside the master bathroom, which is itself buried in the master bedroom (the door of which was closed lest the dog come in and befoul the boudoir), which is upstairs. When I am spending a little time in the old W.C., I am not well prepared to respond to inquiries from downstairs. Yell helpfully as I might, I simply am unable to best the acoustics of our home and make myself heard. So when I heard my son’s plaintive and repetitive cries first of “Mom” and then of “Dad,” all I could do was yell repeatedly (a vein in my forehead no doubt throbbing with the exertion and frustration of it) “I’m finally taking a dump, leave me alone.” And when he kept calling upstairs, I could do little but try to explain my situation more stridently, and perhaps in increasingly colorful language.

I am not a horrible father. My son’s cry was not one of pain. It had much more of the routine “come prevent the dog from trying to escape as I for the 25th time in as many minutes enter and then exit the house again to trample your precious newly germinated grass” pitch. Had the cry been bloodcurdling or one indicating pain or clear emotional distress, I would assuredly have quickly set the affairs of my toilette in order and gone downstairs. I imagine my wife was in similar straits. Eventually, my son stopped calling out.

Let us return to the driveway. A littlun has implicated my son in something. I have ceased to shake my fist at the neighborhood children. My son with trembling lip approaches me and says “I threw a toy at the ice cream truck.”

IMG_20170611_232617The neighborhood children leave things in my paper box. I am no Boo Radley. They aren’t making little gifts for the neighborhood recluse (though a recluse of sorts I am). They just leave shit in my yard and in its structures. Sometimes I find cell phones or scooters or balls. More frequently I find trash. One child left a small plastic doll in the paper box, and this my son decided for some reason to hurl at the ice cream truck as it drove by.

I should disclose that I have many times declined to give my son money to purchase frozen corn syrup from the ice cream truck driver. For one, I find the truck’s noise offensive. Ours plays an obnoxious song and then pauses after about every maybe 6 phrases of common measure to broadcast a sardonic recorded “Hello?” For another, I can’t imagine the ice cream is actually any good. I am personally an ice cream fiend. I am well known within my nuclear family for eating all of the ice cream. Often enough of a summer evening, my poor impoverished children will put aside their ribeyes and their caviar and virgin champagne and ask if there’s dessert, and my wife will say something like “beloved progeny, I have procured ice cream for our family’s enjoyment” and I will have to kind of sheepishly confess that I have since selfishly spooned all the ice cream from the carton while nobody was looking, whereupon the rest of the family will rend their garments and roll in ashes (from a mound of burned cardboard ice cream containers) while I wipe ice cream from my moustache. Which is all to say that I am in no way opposed to ice cream. But I am sort of opposed to ice cream driven around in an obnoxious van. I just read a book in which the author proposes a brilliant ice cream truck prophylactic strategy wherein the parents tell the children that the truck plays music only when it is out of ice cream, and I approve of the strategy.

So, my son is starved for ice cream while I am growing fat from Tennessee’s finest chocolate and rocky road cows. He has many times (the very afternoon in question, even) been denied ice cream from a truck. Naturally then as the truck drove by on its way out of the neighborhood, he picked up one of the trinkets that had been left in our paper box and chucked it at the passing truck. Why not do this, in his position?

My wife and I meanwhile were shackled to our separate toilets.

The driver stopped. Whether she emerged from the truck or whether she squrrrrched the truck to a halt and backed up or whether at the time of impact she was simply already in a good position to berate my son I do not know, but the misc en scène aside, she gave him what for. She threatened to call the police. She said that his behavior was the fault of his wretched parents. She sent him in to fetch one of his parents — who were both legitimately just trying to have a quiet dump at the end of the workday as he called dutifully up the stairs so that they might come down and negotiate with the ice cream truck driver to mete out a fitting punishment. He made a good faith effort, but his parents, thrall to their bowels, failed him. Apparently the ice cream truck driver bought it, or was more concerned with terrorizing more neighborhoods with her terrible siren call than with exacting justice.

My gray-faced son confessed all to me. I told him how foolish the behavior was, but told him I had done something similar when I was about his age — but that my missiles had been rocks (if I’m being honest, when I was older, they were occasionally smoke bombs and sparking fireworks) and the road a highway, which had been much more dangerous. He had an opportunity to learn from not only his own folly but from his venerable father’s. I sent him in for the day and let him know that he’d probably lost all chance of ambulatory ice cream for the summer, since the driver wasn’t likely any time soon to forget the long-haired boy who had flung a toy at her truck and raised her ire, and then I continued to shake my mighty fist at the rest of the neighborhood children and to harry them off of my lawn.

Now, when we hear the ice cream truck’s blasted anthem, we also see my son squirt inside pretty quickly lest he be taken to account by a driver who’d be understandably skeptical that both parents were on the toilet at the precise time of the cataclysm I describe. I laugh every time and sometimes give him a wink and perhaps a comment about natural consequences and the likelihood that he’ll ever do anything quite like that again.

Bookshelves #10

The Tunnel is a enough of a kick in the nuts that I had to put it first in the list so that I could have the rest of this shelf to recover. What a horrible negative ghastly vitriolic book. I don’t even remember how it ended. I had to give it a couple of tries before I could make myself slog through it. But there is this one blessed section about the dustbowl and a grasshopper plague that is one of the finest pieces of writing I’ve ever read. I’ll keep the book for that alone. Also there’s one page upon which the words are arranged to look like a cock and balls (take that, George Herbert), which makes me giggle. There’s other good stuff too.

Stacked up sideways on top, we have Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which I enjoyed a lot. I think Tartt is maybe a rare talent, so I’ll keep reading her and keeping her work. The Makkai book I was ambivalent about. This is one I’m keeping so that I can remember to check out her later work.

Speaking of ambivalence, let’s look at Danielewsky’s House of Leaves. It’s a difficult book and a frustrating book in much the same way that Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is frustrating, in that some of it is kind of terrible. I’m a sucker for literary gimmicks, but I tend to prefer mind-fucks to like weird typographical tricks. Still, there’s something kind of neat about some of the stuff this book does. I predict that I’ll try it again in a decade or so and will scoff at it and never think about it again.

John Milton? Who’s that guy? This book set me back $80 about 20 years ago, and a lot of it is dull as ditchwater. But one of my best professors in college was my Milton professor. He did this thing where he would just sort of hover outside the classroom until it was time for class to begin and then he would sort of run into the room and start talking at the same time and it’d be 50 minutes of ramming smart shit into my head. I admired the heck out of this guy, and I think I did some decent work in his class. I liked Milton’s Comus and Renaissance drama in general enough that I intended to study the stuff of this period as my life’s work, but it didn’t work out. I’ve thought a lot lately about maybe rereading at least Aereopagitica, though probably I’m too addled with age and 21st-century mind-numbing work experience to get much out of it. Anyway, this book, and that class, were formative for me. I learned in college that I’m a terrible reader with a terrible memory, so I had to reread things two or three times to make them stick, so I probably managed to read Paradise Lost 4 or 5 times in a semester. I guess a side benefit is that 20 years later, I can still recite the first 15 or 20 lines of Paradise Lost from memory. That’s practical.

Suttree is a really difficult book. I remember having to read the first 5 or 10 pages several times to get much out of them. The word that has always come to mind when reading this book is “lush.” McCarthy has such a great vocabulary, whether he’s writing about pampooties or the chaparral or good old humble Knoxville, as in this book. I like McCarthy generally, and this one I keep because it’s about the place (albeit a different place than the one I really know) I’ve called home for nearly two decades now. A few years ago, a bar opened in town named Suttree’s, and I went there a fair bit until the night I discovered that it had been discovered (there was a line down the street), which didn’t fit my mostly reclusive temperament.

The next two slim volumes are one about Wallace and one by Gaddis. I read the Wallace book long ago but don’t remember anything about it; Burn is considered a scholar. Gaddis’s Agape Agape I don’t remember much about, but Gaddis is Gaddis, and I suspect this one’ll mean a lot more to me as I get older and older, as it is (if I recall correctly) sort of a dying yawp of a book based largely on Gaddis’s ruminations on the player piano as sort of a weird avatar of the crisis of easily reproducible or mechanized art and, in its obsolescence, probably of death.

Speaking of kicks in the nuts, there aren’t many people I don’t know (other than, say, Trump and company) who’d I’d line up to cock my big hammy leg back and sock really hard in the nuts, but Franzen is one of them. I don’t think he’s a particularly good writer, but he’s lauded as one of our greats. He writes in this contemporary realist mode, but his realism is terrible. He’s humorless (or when he tries to be humorous, it generally fails to land), and I’m not sure he really understands what it’s like to be a hu-man being. He and Wallace were sort of competitive friends, and it’s hard for me to imagine, based on what I’ve read of Franzen’s fiction and his of his public persona, that Wallace could have derived much value from the friendship or the competition. I thought Freedom was really awful and haven’t managed to make myself read Purity yet. The Corrections wasn’t terrible; there was some ok stuff in it. Still, I can’t muster much more than casual disdain for Franzen. A few years ago, there was a news item about a guy who stole Franzen’s glasses briefly (I believe they were later returned). I feel like Franzen probably deserved it and probably also deserved the kick in the nuts the opthalmological purnoiner failed (short-sightedly?) to deliver. I reckon I’ll read this goddamn book again one day in any case. There’s something not awful about it amid its awfulness.

If you’ve read many of my posts bout the nine shelves preceding this one, I’m sorry, and I also know that you know that I’ve got a thing for Moby-Dick. I tried to read it to my firstborn while she was in utero, but my wife ridiculed me just a few pages in (to her credit, it is awfully weird to read a book to a belly, and it is perhaps all the weirder to read to a belly a book such as this). So, it’s an important book to me. I’ve written about it (more about art about the book) on this blog here, and a lot more (with others) about the book itself here as part of an online group read I led a few years ago. This book is a really beautiful book containing an illustration per page from the artist’s edition of the book. When I was conducting the group read a few years ago, I found the art book (inspired by Zak Smith’s similar project around Gravity’s Rainboow — see shelf #2) and reached out to artist Matt Kish, who was very kind to respond and write some posts for my site. We’ve been in touch off and on since, and I have a tattoo based on one of his drawings, and he did me an unnecessary but nice courtesy by mentioning me in the acknowledgments of this beautiful collection of his drawings. So I guess I’ll keep it. I see his art every day in seven framed pieces of his original artwork that adorn my office walls, and I have a few bookmarks (I collect these) that my wife commissioned from him that I’m afraid to use for fear of messing them up (though I use them anyway — carefully).

Finally, we have The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. My son picked this out from somewhere (I forget where), and we shortly thereafter discovered that it had some pretty explicit T&A stuff in it that we weren’t quite ready for our then-8-year-old son to be exposed to. I mean what, Moore, not super appropriate for children?

Thus ends row two of the shelves. I fear that shelf #11 will be a disappointment by comparison, but there are plenty of good books yet to come.

Bookshelves #9

Well here we are at shelf number 9, nearly halfway through the series. This one is a pretty heavy duty one.

Riding along the top there we’ve got a famous essay collection by Wallace that contains a couple of my favorite essays (the cruise ship one that so well describes despair amidst the trappings of pleasure and the state fair one). Then we have a short story collection that is mostly kind of so-so but that does do a pretty good job of dramatizing how easy it is to try to appear to be a good person while actually being quite a bad person. It’s really honest, nasty stuff that struck a chord with me when I read it as a young man. Generally I don’t recommend Wallace’s short stories to people, and of his several story collections, this is the one I’m least likely to recommend stories from.

I didn’t love Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, but it was fine, and I’m keeping Barnes for probable further study later.

I love this collection of Byron’s work. I bought it cheap at a used book store back in college, when I aspired to one day own a big collection of old and rare books. I don’t suppose it’s too rare since I was able to afford it as a college student who sold his plasma for booze money, but it was published in 1905, which is old for my collection. The pages are pretty brittle, and I don’t often actually read it very often (did make it through a fair bit of Don Juan 20ish years ago), but it is one of the books I really just like owning as an object.

I first tried to read Gravity’s Rainbow probably about 15 years ago. I don’t think I got past about page 2. It just didn’t grab me. I false started a few other times, once even getting about halfway through before giving up. Finally, a few years ago I led an online group read of Gravity’s Rainbow that forced me to get through the book. Or maybe I had managed to read it once already by then and this was a reread. I don’t remember. At any rate, I’ve now read it I believe three times fully, and though it is in many ways a really awful, ugly book, it’s also a real work of genius that runs the gamut from inducing a gag reflex to making you laugh aloud to making you roll your eyes to making you feel real sympathy for some of the characters. I figure I’ll read it once a decade or so from here on out.

I didn’t love Chimera, but that’s my way with Barth, whose books I keep even if I don’t love them.

A person who contributed to one or two of my online group reads wrote Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky, and I tend to keep books by people I know or sort-of know. Coincidentally, that author happens apparently and independently to be friends with a college friend of mine who recently died and who has a memoir about the last year or so of her life coming out soon. I’ll keep that one too.

We saw Peter Heller back on the blue shelves. His The Painter is really good, and I’ll keep reading his books until he pulls a Mitchell on me and starts writing stinkers.

A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall I read as part of the Tournament of Books a couple of years ago. It ticked a number of my boxes and seemed like a pretty solid first effort, so this is one of those books I kept maybe to read again some day but mostly as a reminder to revisit this author when he publishes more.

I didn’t much like Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, though I feel guilty for not liking it, as it’s supposed to be foundational. I’d like to give it another try one day, though, as sometimes it’s just not the right time for a book. Well, this is probably a very right time in the world for this sort of book but it wasn’t the right time for me.

Robert Pinsky came to my college when I was a junior studying poetry writing. He was really great — gracious with his time, earnest when he spoke, personable (at a dinner I was lucky enough to get to go to, I landed a seat at his table, and he talked warmly about his grandkids and was generally charming and full of stories), and really just all-around inspiring. He was then the poet laureate of the U.S. if I’m not mistaken (or maybe he came to that a little later, or a little earlier — I forget), and he had a thing for reading poems aloud. So I developed a thing for reading poems aloud, and for example one evening I sat in my dorm room and read his translation of Dante’s Inferno aloud to myself (sipping liberally from a big tall cup of vodka and Mt. Dew, if I’m being entirely honest). I also printed out copies of a bunch of poems that I thought merited reading aloud and carried them around with me. Pinsky gave a really great public reading at the university, and I very vividly recall his reading of the poem “Impossible to Tell,” which is a really great poem. Otherwise, at the time, I didn’t have a great deal of affection for his poems, but I sure liked the man, and his voice, and his presence, and his influence over my approach to poetry as a thing best done aloud. This (then) new and selected poems of his, titled The Figured Wheel, is inscribed to me (something vague and not actually all that impressive or personalized like “Good luck with poetry”) and so is a thing I value given how I valued my little distant interactions with him. It’s been I guess about 20 years now since I tried reading it, so I should probably give it another shot with the benefit of a little more age (though also with a much reduced interest in and patience for poetry). The program that brought Pinsky to our school was one that offered senior honors students more access to the visiting poets. Only a handful of juniors were allowed to go to a workshop and later a dinner in his honor, and I didn’t win the drawing or lottery or whatever, which was a little devastating. My professor (who fills about half of shelf #20) came to me at some point saying he wasn’t going to be able to go himself and giving me his slot, which was, I suspect, basically an act of charity on his part, for which I was and remain most grateful.

The Southern Critics is a little book of criticism and history I believe about the agrarian poets of the early and mid-20th century. My sister-in-law gave it to me years ago, and I’m sure I read it then. I haven’t read it since, but I may one day, and I hang onto this partially as a little souvenir of a burgeoning shared interest in literature that that sister-in-law and I have since continued. In other words, I feel a hair sentimental about it, to the extent that I do sentimental.

There’s plenty of Delillo’s work that I don’t love, and there’s probably a solid 400 pages of Underworld that I could do without, but there’s also a lot in this behemoth that does the trick for me, including some fun stuff about outsider art and one of the finest pieces of writing I’ve ever read in a long intro describing a day at the baseball field. I’ll probably read this again in the next 20 years. It’s another that I false started a time or two before actually finishing it.

Finally, in an inversion of the “books shoved in on top of others” pattern, I’ve got a huge art book tipped sideways on the bottom. I read maybe 20% of it a few years ago after picking it up cheap I forget where, but I’ve forgotten most of what I read. I like art (what a stupid, broad statement) but don’t know much formally about it, so having a book like this that I can go to every once in a while to fill in a knowledge gap is helpful, if sort of infrequent given what a pain it is to get the book out and return it to the stack.

So, on the whole, a really solid shelf with yet more foundational stuff on it. It’s a doozie, and #10 will be too, so stay tuned.

Bookshelves #8

Well this is a sad little shelf compared to the others so far. Rather than being stuffed full or having a few tag-alongs stacked on top, we’ve got some leaners, and a couple of pretty dull ones in the mix too.

We start with more Lethem. Motherless Brooklyn is sort of a noir book that I enjoyed, though it’s not my favorite Lethem by a pretty long shot.

The Melville biography is actually quite good — a really nice mix of literary criticism and biography and a must-read if you have more than a passing interest in Melville or in Moby-Dick. It is very readable, and I’ll almost certainly at least re-skim it in the next decade or so.

I tried reading Catch-22 some 15 years ago and couldn’t get into it, but I tried again in the last five years and loved it. What a mix of hilarity and gut-punching.

Next up, we have the last Mitchell from before he went kind of rogue with the weird pseudo-sci-fi horology stuff. I recommended The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet to some coworkers a few years ago before remembering that it opens with a really grisly complicated birth scene complete with diagrams, which isn’t usually the sort of thing it would occur to me to recommend to coworkers. In any case, this really is a lovely book about the Dutch East India company opening a trade route to Japan, with a little bit of the mysticism that leads into the catastrophe that is Mitchell’s followup The Bone Clocks. Maybe we can consider the gap between this and the next book sort of a moment or space of silence or void in honor of the book Mitchell could’ve/should’ve written next.

I didn’t absolutely love every moment of Barnes’s History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, but there was surely some good stuff in evidence, and in general I’m hanging onto Barnes, as I believe he’s smart and important and is somebody I’ll want to keep reading and rereading.

Wallace of course was inevitable (something by, about, or somehow pertaining directly to him has been found — unintentionally, I assure you — on every compartment of the shelves so far), and this issue of Sonora Review focuses on his work. I keep it because I’m a near-completist.

I rarely read nonfiction. When I do, it tends to be about things like art forgery or the classical concept of swerve as a way of understanding the universe — basically stuff that teaches me about art or literature or culture — but a couple of years ago, I was forced asked to lead a team at my company, and as a result (since I was more of an “I’ll just get this done” person than an “I’ll help others get this done” person), I read a few books on leadership. I still do kind of pinch my nose and wade through a book of this sort every once in a while (I’m in one now called Thanks for the Feedback). This one in any case was pretty interesting. Although it read very much like a consultant-authored book, it read a lot less like an infomercially “I am just going to pontificate at you inspirationally” book than others because they backed it up with lots of data. The authors looked at a lot of teams that had been successful and tried to extract data about things that correlated with that success, and there was plenty in this book to highlight and think about. It’s a little dry, and I highlighted and took notes about all the good bits, so I suppose I’d recommend asking me for the highlights over reading the book, if you’re in the market for such stuff, but I’ve kept it because my company paid for it (so selling it back feels inappropriate) and because I could well imagine flipping back through it sometime.

The book on computer programming is dry and horrible, and my company bought it for me and I’m ashamed I haven’t read it. A developer I admire recommended it a few years ago, and I got to page 11. I hang onto it out of shame and should really pass it along to a developer on my team or elsewhere within the company.

The first Roth I read was Portnoy’s Complaint, and boy was it hilarious. There’s good stuff in Goodbye Columbus too, but it’s probably not worth keeping. I read one other book by Roth a year or two ago. I’m kind of meh on him. He seems pretty funny but kind of a shithead. I’m putting this book in the sell-back pile now, and I suppose I’ll really need to start stocking up on dark blue or purple books to round out this shelf.

I ran across Jodi Angel in the little magazine one story (which I really love, though I have a backlog of about two years to wade through), and this was a really solid collection. She writes often enough from the perspective of teenaged boys, and much better than I’ve ever managed to write even though I once was a teenaged boy and a fair few bits of the little writing I’ve tried to do over the last 20 years’ve been from the perspective of or about the experience of a teenaged boy. I’ll definitely revisit these, and other work by Angel.

We finish strong as we head into the browner tones with Ozick. Well, we finish strong in that we finish with Ozick, though this is very far from my favorite of the books of hers I’ve read. I think she’s great, but this was very meh for me. Still, when I find an author I really like, I tend to hang onto their books.

Next time we’ll get to a real humdinger. It’ll take me probably 3,000 words to get through writing about the Pynchon, Byron, Barth, some of the shorter works of Wallace (who will be nine for nine on my shelves), Delillo, Pinsky, the agrarian poets, and um the whole of of art history.

Bookshelves #7

I have to start this post off with a confession: I used to write poetry. When I was 16 or 17, I wrote about things like “oh, I have these deep soulful blue eyes that speak of my pain in this world,” but by the time I got to college (at least the later parts of it, during which I wrote a poetry manuscript that’s bound in one of the university libraries and for part of which I actually somehow won a literary prize with a cash reward for which the value was equivalent to like 8 weeks of selling my plasma, which I think is probably pretty close to a Pulitzer or a Nobel), I was a little more serious and let’s say literary about it. By this, I mean that I read a lot of conventional poetry and adopted an attitude of “fuck that shit” and tried to buck tradition in mostly ultimately pretty silly ways, but in ways that seemed to either spark the admiration of my peers or cause them to lie to me. I did also write a big long formal and mostly traditional cycle of poems that included a couple sonnets and a villanelle and if I’m not misremembering a few forms of my own devising in it, so I wasn’t all “fuck that shit” but was also a little bit “but there’s sometimes something kind of nice about that shit.”

This all brings us to good old Richard Wilbur, whom I do not like. Some of his poems are nice. His children’s poems are downright delightful. I met him while I was studying poetry writing in college and indeed had an opportunity to have him critique one of my poems, which from my perspective (not so far removed, I’ll grant, from the “deep soulful blue eyes” perspective, but also a fair bit more mature) was a like elegy to the loss of religious feeling in spite of deep family ties to that feeling. When Wilbur visited my school and spoke in his sort of elevated tone about poetry, it was sort of wonderful, but when he read and critiqued my poem, one of many (almost certainly more artful ones by my peers) that he could have selected, in front of a big bunch of people, and when his critique consisted of basically the statement that the author probably needed to get right with God, I was pretty unimpressed. Still, if he is still living, he is considered one of our best living poets, and in spite of my kind of terrible experience with his semi-publicly dismissing whatever like literary or prosodic value one of my poems may have gestured toward, it was neat to meet him. He gave a reading while he visited my school (during which he really did endearingly read some of the children’s poems), and afterward I had a chance to sit around and drink whiskey with him and some classmates and teachers, and it was very neat (he told stories from the war, among others).

All of which in the end is to say that this nearly 20-year-old collection of Wilbur’s poems is autographed but thankfully and somewhat surprisingly not autographed “may you find Jesus, you troglodyte.” I don’t love his poems for grown-ups, but I do admire something about his formalism. When my class of poets had a chance to spend some time with him, and somebody asked whether he labored over his poems, he said that they just kind of came to him (in I suppose rhyming iambic meter), to which I mostly call bullshit. So that’s Wilbur.


The Dog Stars is lovely and sad. I certainly recommend it, and I’ll also recommend Heller’s The Painter, which I must surely have kept (though upon a quick scan, I don’t see it on my shelves, so maybe I gave it to someone).

Now we come to the sweet little darlings of my collection. Back in college, I harbored dreams of one day owning a bookstore, not understanding that that was no way to make a real living. This was before the kindle was a thing, even, so it wasn’t as dire a prospect as it is now. Every once in a while, I’d pick up an old-timey book or two. I used to have a set of three volumes of Ben Jonson from I believe the 1700s, but they were in bad shape, and I eventually gave them the old heave-ho. I have an oldish Byron (shelf #9)  that we’ll get to a few shelves hence. But these two little books are so nice. Longfellow is so nice. I read Hiawatha many years ago in a different edition, and I forget whether I read Evangeline in these books or in another, but this little set from 1872 really pleases me, and there is much to admire within Longfellow’s work. I suppose he too, had my heathenish sentiments been put before him, may have proposed that I find my way to Jesus, but he didn’t say it to my face in front of my peers, so I can hardly fault him for it.

More Saunders, another set of essays on Wallace, and more Barth. Blah blah blah, the usual. Let me pause here, though. There’s also a reader’s guide to Gravity’s Rainbow that is indispensable if you’re a serious reader of the book. A few years ago, I submitted some ideas (pertaining, oddly enough, to lemmings and NYC independent theater of the ’60s) to its author that he seemed intrigued by and said he’d follow up on, but I’ve never heard back, so maybe my ideas didn’t hold water. I keep meaning to check out the since-revised edition to see if I (or my weird reference) make a cameo.

And then we come to Girl with Curious Hair by Wallace. I love “Lyndon” and “John Billy” from this collection, though “My Appearance” is probably more well known given legal shenanigans pertaining to it. The novella that wraps up the collection was reportedly stolen from the trunk of Wallace’s car and thus rewritten from scratch, but I’ve never known whether or not to believe that story, since “John Billy” seems to be influenced heavily by Gass’s “Omensetter’s Luck”  (see shelf #4), whose preface also goes at length to say that the original manuscript was stolen (which seems kind of too coincidental).

You can’t really see it in the photo, but there’s another graphic novel of Moby-Dick tucked in there. My ten-year-old son recently took a look at this and liked it, so I’m optimistic that I may get him looped into Melville-mania, though my wife and daughter continue to resist. I quoted a bit at the dinner table a couple of nights ago, and nobody swooned at how good it was, so count me a pessimist for the moment (maybe I should’ve chosen a quote other than “ego non baptizo te in nomine patris sed in nomine diaboli”?).

Often enough, while on a video conference for work, I’ll hear what sounds like an English usage error, or something will trigger me to think about usage, and I’ll turn around and pluck Garner’s Modern American Usage off the shelf to check on something. I had cause to do this just yesterday. We saw the smaller cousin of this book (also by Garner) on shelf #1. This is one of my favorite, most useful, books. I’m pretty decent at using words, but pretty much any time there’s ambiguity around usage, I can pick this book up and get clarity. Garner is very witty, and I really love his language change index, which offers different ways of thinking about usage issues, such as for example (my favorite among several) the etiquette analogy, which rates usage errors on a scale from “audible farting” to “audible belching” to “overloud talking” to “elbows on table” to “refined.” If you’re interested in American English usage, pick this one up. Since Wallace is a theme in my shelves, it’s worth noting that he and Garner seem to have been fans of one another, which is in fact why Garner’s books are on my radar at all.

Finally here we have Borges, who in this translation I do not love. A Wallace (of course) acquaintance and semi-biographer has suggested to me that another translation is much better, but my feeling from reading this collection, admittedly kind of tired, on an airplane a few years ago, was that Borges does this thing where he states something really obvious as if it’s something of consequence, and that it doesn’t work. It’s almost like the old Jon Lovitz thespian skit on SNL in which he does transparently poor acting and then pronounces with a flourish “Acting!” So, I’ll probably reread this collection one day, or some subset of the stories translated by someone else, but there is certainly no rush.

This is a pretty important shelf to me, even if I don’t love every author or every book on it. Next we’ll wrap up blue and head into purple, with, naturally a few of the usual suspects represented.

Bookshelves #6

Well here we are at shelf section number six. We’re almost a third of the way through the series, and here we move very firmly into the blues. More Barth skating along the top there, though I forget why it’s misshelved, as it’s been a few years since I read this one. It’s fine — mercifully short for Barth, and entertaining enough. I keep it because I keep Barth, figuring that one day I’ll learn how to learn something from him. Beneath that a book on literary theory that I believe I got as a freebie at the MLA conference a few years ago. I haven’t really read much theory and certainly not much in nearly two decades, so I like to think I’ll crack this one sometime to broaden my mind, though really I’m finding that I become a less careful and thoughtful reader over time, so maybe I won’t.

Steinbeck’s East of Eden was for a while my top few favorite books. I read it along with a bunch of other Steinbeck oh maybe 12 or 14 years ago but haven’t revisited his work in a while. I’m sure I will. The Song of Hartgrove Hall surprised me. I picked it up last year during my year of browsing shelves more or less at random and looking for paperbacks by people who were not straight white men. Honestly, once I dug into it, I thought it’d be a sleepy, dreary, fusty old death-of-the-landed-gentry’s-legacy sort of thing, and I suppose it basically was, especially for the first hundred pages or so, but there was also a lot of really beautiful writing in the book and I wound up liking it a lot more than I expected (enough that I kept it, at least).

I read All the Light We Cannot See in 2015 as a selection from the Tournament of Books, which I led kind of a thing for among some of my coworkers. I loved it. His pacing is a little too fast, but gosh did he write a nice book, and I can easily see myself going back to this one some day.

I’ve already documented the appeal Lethem’s work holds for me (am currently reading a short story collection of his that I’m liking quite a lot). Chronic City isn’t my favorite of his books by a long shot, but it’s good enough, and it makes a reference to Infinite Jest in the form of a fat brick of an imaginary book called Obstinate Dust, and that amuses me.

The book about Cape Fear is one my dad gave me a while back that I believe must have belonged to my grandmother. I forget the precise significance of the book, but the Cape Fear river (yes, that one) runs through Wilmington, NC, where my parents grew up, and so this is a book out of my past. I believe there may be an anecdote in the book about my grandfather or some other member of my dad’s family being something of a reknowned dancer in the area, but I’m not positive. This isn’t the sort of book I usually go in for, but I like to think I’ll read it one day, when trying to figure out a bit more about where I come from.

I think I’m not cut out for Beckett. I tried this trio of short novels a few years ago and found it nearly impossible to wade through and gave up. I had the same reaction to Ulysses on my first few tries, and the same with Gravity’s Rainbow, which I’ve now read with increasing pleasure a few times. I’ll try this one again in a decade or so and see if I’m fit for it then.

An anonymous coworker sent me The Art of Fielding probably just about 5 years ago, knowing that I had a thing for Moby-Dick, which, paired with baseball, is featured prominently in this book. It’s not the absolute best book I ever read, but I enjoyed it quite a lot, and I have a soft spot for anonymous gifted books, I suppose. It also serves as a reminder to keep Harbach on my radar.

Handy Dad was a Father’s Day gift years ago, and because I’m not handy and I’m a little lazy when it comes to actually getting up and doing things, I’ve done very few of the things in it with my kids. I mean, making a soap box car or erecting a tree house sounds really nifty, but it also sounds like work. I have mustered the gumption to make a number of paper airplanes using a pattern in the book, and I can report that they are pretty much the best designed paper airplanes I’ve ever seen. (I’m both un-handy and lazy about activities, but to my credit, I’ve sat down and read books at length to my kids nearly every day of their lives and often enough for a couple of hours in a single day, so I am at most a partial deadbeat.)

Wallace comes up yet again in Elegant Complexity, a really great reader’s guide to Infinite Jest. It does a nice job giving both chronology and discussion of themes within the book, and even though I had read and discussed the novel a few times before getting this book, I found it illuminating and will certainly go back to it when I reread and reread IJ in the future.

Finally, another guide in the Harmon and Holman handbook to literature. This book catalogues literary terms, periods, schools of thought, and so on. It was a required text book when I took a college class on Modern poetry by one William ahem Harmon. As in Harmon whose name is on the spine of the book. It was a good class but a weird one, in which he talked at us about poetry but also made us learn terms from the book that honestly probably weren’t that important to learn (though I do like that I can still tell you about asyndeton and hypotaxia). Harmon was the weirdest professor I ever had, and I loved his class. I wrote a paper once on Hopkins and Yeats and bird poems whose title was a strange sort of pseudo-mathematical equation, and he took it in stride. He once held forth about a competition to find the longest one-syllable word in English, with his (maybe?) winning entry of “broughammed,” and I don’t think he ever replied to the email I sent him in which I proposed a longer (if dubious and basically fabricated, in an “if you take X to mean Y and grant that Z, then this is a legitimate word” way) word, subject to lots of interpretation and perhaps a conveniently fanciful pronunciation — “schoenanthed” (I mean, if we can imagine that the broughammed-tying word “squirrelled” is one syllable, I’ll take “schoenanthed” as a given too). All of which is to say that he was my type of weird. Later, I learned that my mother in college had the Thrall, Hibbard and Holman Handbook to Literature, which if you’re reading carefully you’ll note shares an editor with Harmon’s book. So as with The Inlking way back on shelf #2, there’s sort of a neat if random and actually not remotely significant link between my mother’s college experience and mine. We’ll see her older edition of the handbook if we get as far as shelf #13. I still use Harmon’s edition as a reference every once in a while. Where else am I ever likely to learn that “ficelle” is the name of a string used to control a marionette and that Henry James used the term to mean “confidante” — a means (in the handbook’s words and not the words of this blog’s humble author) “by which a self-effacing author conveys necessary information.”

More blue next time, with a lot of the usual suspects and two of my favorite little books I hang onto as objects, even if I don’t open them very often at all.