At Spurious, Lars ventures a "reading biography", and at This Space, Steve Mitchelmore reiterates the idea that one should not feel guilt or shame about gaps in one's reading life. I look back on my own reading history and on my evolving attitude towards the books I was reading, what I wanted to read, and what I had missed. My reading biography charts a huge expansion, an explosion of interest, followed finally, at last, by a gradual paring down, a winnowing away. . .
I wasn't a reader, and then I was. Somehow, more than a year out of college, without explanation, I got the idea that I would start reading fiction, having never really read it before. What would I read? I tried my father's favorites: I re-read Lord of the Rings (first read at age 12); I read Dune; I read Carrie. But it really started with Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky, who means so little to me now; The Brothers Karamazov, which had been a gift from a high school teacher, boxed up and carted throughout college, became my first extracurricular reading of capital-L Literature. I was duly pleased with myself. Then came, at a friend's insistence, Camus' The Stranger and Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading. Camus didn't leave much of an impression; it was Nabokov who first gave me some sense of what I might want: language. Beginning with Nabokov, I became intoxicated by language. I wasn’t a great, close reader, by any means. I had no sense of structure, and I didn't think about why an author might have chosen this or that approach. I wasn't even a reader of poetry. But as long as a novel's language had something to recommend it--some beauty or some excitement or even some difficulty--I was interested.
A scattershot survey of the 20th century followed: Steinbeck, Kafka, Vonnegut, Faulkner. I dipped into Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Don Delillo. Before long, I was caught up in current writers--I consumed the exuberant fiction of Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Will Self, Irvine Welsh. Fell in love with Richard Powers. I liked to read quickly, riding the waves of the language, catch the music of the prose, that thrilling thrum, trying to not be too concerned by what I didn't understand. Soon, I began to feel twinges of anxiety about my reading. I'd become interested in the so-called post-modernists--Barth, Coover, Gass, Hawkes--and I began to feel acutely all that I'd missed at the same time I was feeling an insane need to somehow read everything. Consumed with ambition, yet crushed by doubt, I felt sure that one couldn't really get what the post-modernists were up to if one had not read the Modernists (surely they were "post" for a reason, right?). In turn, the Modernists--how little I understood the term!--I thought, would be largely inexplicable if one hadn't read the 19th century novelists, or more importantly, the classics. And yet the 19th century novels seemed accessible, if dusty. The only anxiety I felt towards them was related to the sheer number of them.
The internet only made things worse. My first foray online was Michael Dirda's bookchats for The Washington Post (the only "critics" I had any knowledge of were those who wrote regularly for the Post, then my local newspaper). One thing he repeatedly stressed was the importance of what he called the "patterning texts". The Greeks and Romans, the Bible, and so on. These are the texts that a basic literary education should largely consist of, he argued. I instantly concluded that he was correct, and that this meant that I was, in fact, doomed--how would I ever find the time to read all the classics, while also following through on Modernism, on post-Modernism, and keeping abreast of current fiction (for some reason this seemed really important to me)? Plainly, I could not. Worse, I felt then that the time had long since passed when I'd be able to internalize these crucial patterning texts, so that I could usefully notice and understand a linguistic or structural allusion. Or be able to truly understand and assess a given work's achievement. I worried about the sequence in which I should read books, to allow for maximum pleasure and understanding. To a huge extent, I wanted, yearned, helplessly, to have already read the classics. I wanted somehow to be able to simply plug into my brain, Matrix-style, Homer, Sophocles, the Bible, Ovid, Virgil, Dante. . . I didn't doubt that there were still people who read the classics for actual pleasure; it simply did not occur to me that I could be one of those people. I didn't feel guilt or shame about this. I felt fucked.
It was through Dirda's chats that I first heard of such "experimental" authors as Harry Mathews and Gilbert Sorrentino, and by extension the Dalkey Archive. Another expansion of interest, this time towards the lesser known, the underground or experimental, the forgotten. Then I happened across The Complete Review and, before long, blogs. I had been dissatisfied with what I found in newspaper review sections (I lacked trust in them); the bloggers shared this dissatisfaction. I learned about more and more books. The most common perspective in the early blogs I was reading was that greatness can be found anywhere--any genre, any kind of writer, any kind of story or novel, any subject matter. This was also my perspective. While I had a definite prejudice in favor of the lesser known, I have to admit that I was just as interested in the big mainstream literary books--I took it for granted that the National Book Award and Booker nominees were worth reading, even if they might not be quite the best books of the year. And with the kinds of coverage blogs were providing of numerous small presses, of books from all genres, of countless writers writing in countless styles? An explosion in the amount of fiction that I felt I had to (had to) keep abreast of. I was fucked.
In a post about the ever-prolific Joyce Carol Oates, Steve mentions the "despair one feels in a library, or when faced by the list of classics one has failed to read". I felt that despair constantly. I wanted to read everything, but I was bogged down in the present day. But why did I feel I had to read all of this? How did I think I could possibly do it? How was I ever going to find time for the classical works if I thought I had to read every hot new book that created industry or litblog buzz? Or every unfairly lost writer of the recent past? When would I ever find the time for Ulysses? Or for Proust? More to the point, what did I really want from my reading? What sorts of books meant the most to me? Did I even know? Had I given the matter any real thought? Did I really care about all of these new books? How was I going to find my way out of this situation? How would I cut my way through the chaos?
And then an answer presented itself. Suddenly, it seems, Modernism has become vitally important to me. I've referred to Modernism a couple of times already in this post, but what is it? For years, knowing nothing, I looked on Modernism as a loose movement of writers who rebelled against what was then establishment literature, finding new ways to write, new methods for telling stories. My conception of this movement was that it occurred during a specific, finite period in time (somewhere in the early 20th century). My conception of these writers was that they were difficult. I'd read some of these authors (Kafka, for example), but in general the literary Modernists struck me as especially forbidding. Though difficulty by itself hasn't usually stopped me. Another of Michael Dirda's common themes in his chats was that if you are interested in reading something, you should just read it. You're never going to "get" everything, he’d say, so you may as well just go for it. Yes, obviously. My anxiety notwithstanding, this was usually what I did. I dove right into Gaddis, gobbled up those big Barth books, chewed my way through Gass. And yet, I still tended to hold the Modernists at arm's length. My perception of their difficulty was that it was something apart from whatever difficult works I'd already attempted.
But something has changed. What has happened, really just within the life of this blog, is that Modernism has come into focus for me as an idea, an idea that might help guide my way (and not just as a reader). Steve quotes from a review by Gabriel Josipovici of a new survey history of Modernism by Peter Gay. Josipovici writes that, contrary to Gay's conception, Modernism is "a crucial moment in the history of art, when art arrives at an understanding of itself, a degré zéro beyond which there is only silence". That crucial moment, it now seems clear to me, is ongoing and as necessary as ever. In my engagement with Josipovici's criticism this year, I've discovered a perspective that speaks to me. He's used words like "trust" and "tradition" in ways that make sense to me and enable me to appreciate, in some small way, the Modernist project. This idea that these writers were each concerned, on their own, with finding an authentic way to write--amid an acute understanding that the accepted methods lacked validity--this idea resonates with me and makes sense in the context of the ongoing project of living my own life, and at the same time renders these writers more approachable.
In light of this resonance, to finish up by returning to the theme of my reading, my interests have narrowed considerably. I only have so much time for reading, and now I know, with a clarity that I utterly lacked in the past, how I intend to use that time: I intend to spend it with the Modernists (2008 will be year of Proust, beginning with a re-read of Swann's Way; it will be the year of Beckett's prose Trilogy); with the Greeks and Romans; with Dante. New books and new writers will be filtered through this prism. This is still a big reading project, but it seems to me much more coherent and manageable. More than ever, I'm excited to get on with it.