Tuesday, January 31, 2012


And again the blog lies fallow, with several draft posts hanging fire. I wanted to post something about what this year will hold, so here goes.

Three weeks ago, I finished reading James C. Scott's The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, a book I'd been reading slowly over the course of the last year. It's not very long (336 pp.), but my general lack of familiarity with Southeast Asia itself (as opposed to the criminal American wars in Southeast Asia, about which I know all too much), let alone anthropology about upland Southeast Asia, slowed my reading down considerably. In truth, I was more interested in Scott's general points than in retaining specifics about the hill peoples who are his ostensible subjects, as fascinating as many of those specifics are. So I read slowly.

But this post is not about Scott's book. I finished reading it and looked at my book shelves for what to read next, expecting it to be non-fiction of some kind, since I'd been in that mode for months. Then I realized I felt a bit overwhelmed, over-stuffed with facts and ideas. It's true that the books I expect to get to were not immediately to hand, but all of sudden I couldn't bear to pile even more facts atop the others. And, really, I need time to process what I have read, and to write; a slowdown was in order. So, while in the coming year I do expect to continue following the non-fiction reading threads I've been following (i.e., feminism, history of capitalism, etc), my more immediate plans and expectations involve fiction. Fiction, which has lately so often seemed an imposition, an impertinence, not to mention a waste of my time. But then it does depend on what you're reading, doesn't it? Even so, it's not always the book's fault.

Helen DeWitt's Lightning Rods got the year off to a fine start, helping to break the fiction impasse. It's not the great book that The Last Samurai is, but it's a spot-on satire of business speak and human resources nonsense, capturing the cliché-ridden, vacant language of sales and business perfectly; it's very entertaining. Then I re-started Mathias Énard's Zone, a novel I'd read about 135 pages into last Spring, I think, before stumbling, taking a pause that became a break that dragged on and on and finally became too long for any kind of thread to be picked back up upon re-entry. This reading went much better, the sheer velocity of the writing carrying me forward with relative ease. There are some great pages in that book; I still think of it alongside The Kindly Ones, not just because both were translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell, but I think because of the focus on the unpleasant details of the labors of war. Then I noticed that several people in my Twitter feed were talking a lot about the Hungarian writer, László Krasznahorkai, a name that was vaguely familiar (probably from old Waggish posts), but which had not really registered with me till now. Comparisons to Bernhard, of course, got my attention, though I'm skeptical as to their accuracy or usefulness. (Comparisons to Bernhard rarely do anyone any favors.) All of a sudden, I felt excited about fiction again. Krasznahorkai's novels The Melancholy of Resistance and War & War were duly added to my wish list.

But I can't rush out and buy them just yet, because a big purging is upon us, and I must do some reading in order to make the purging at all effective. In the summer, we are planning to move, still in Baltimore, but to a somewhat smaller location. This means shedding some possessions, including of course many excess books. The problem is not just the fact that I've kept tons of books I've read that I no longer have any interest in seeing, let alone re-reading. (As much as he's become an easy target, with good reason, I'm not sorry to have read several Ian McEwan novels; after all, I needed to start somewhere. But do I really need them taking up shelf space?) The bigger problem is the large number of books I acquired fully intending to read, someday, which I've not yet gotten to. Worse, upon closer examination, I now expect that many of them will never be read. Some of these acquistions are a product of my days of despair, a period in which I was increasingly interested, so I thought, in more and more authors, more and more kinds of fiction. Why I wasn't using the library more often is beyond me. Just stupid, I guess. (It literally did not occur to me to use the library until a couple of years ago, which is just wrong for so many reasons.) In any case, I amassed piles and piles of books. For example, as noted here previously, I participated in one of those big Dalkey sales, where you could buy 100 books for $500. I split this with a friend, but still, this is a lot of books to get in one fell swoop (now, of course, they have smaller such sales available). It strikes me that it's time for another post revisiting the fruits of that purchase. Re-reading the last update, from 2009, I'm reminded that I didn't always look on my so-called "days of despair" with actual despair, that "I believed in the virtue of diverse reading, an expansive view of what constituted literature". But it was this expansiveness that caused me problems, that ultimately became untenable and more than a little silly. For along with the McEwan-ish books (your Booker winners and shortlisted, your NBA and NBCC winners, and so on) was the mass of "post-modern" books, before I ever had the slightest idea what modernism might be, not to mention various so-called "genre" books, a concept I once considered much less critically than I do now.

I'm not going to write about those conflicts again here, but the point is I have a lot of books and many of them need to go. I started to pull books from the shelves, read a few pages, and make harsh decisions. It turns out I'm not ever going to read Kathy Acker. I'm just not. That's two books. I read Walter Abish's How German Is It years ago, and I mostly liked it, I think (if memory serves, the second half is not as engrossing as the first), but did I like it enough to have also acquired two other Abish novels? Do I even remember which one I bought first? Flipping through How German Is It, I quickly realized I didn't want to read it again; reading the first chapter of Alphabetical Africa revealed to me that I no longer have the patience for those kinds of experiments; Eclipse Fever didn't hold my interest at all. Three books, and boom: off they go. Still in the letter A: look at all those Martin Amis books! Amis, of course, straddles the Booker/post-modern line, and though I've long since soured on him, and find him rather odious and boring anymore, he was once one of my favorite writers. I'd always thought I'd go back and re-read the better ones, to see if they held up. To that end, Money, London Fields, and The Information remain, but all the rest go, including the incredibly overrated memoir, Experience (again, it's not terrible, but this is when it started to go south for this reader, even before his ridiculous Stalin memoir and post-9/11 Islam-phobic blather), and probably The War Against Cliche. The idea is to re-read those three, and then discard them, so don't be surprised if I'm reading Martin Amis in the coming months. And Stephen Dixon. And Alasdair Gray. And A.L. Kennedy.

Before I get tempted to bore you further with a list of all the books I plan to re-read, keep, or discard (topic of another post, no doubt), I should probably come to a close here. The overall, brilliant strategy looks like this: read books I have before acquiring new ones, discard books that no longer need to be in the collection (be harsh), make use of the library. Repeat.