Monthly Archives: November 2006

Thursday thirteen: re-reading

This will be a pooter-ish post, one that might get me soundly mocked. But, in the spirit of Danielle’s post from yesterday and in the spirit of book-blogging solidarity, because many people think lists and reading plans and TBR piles are fun, here we go!

Inspired by another one of Danielle’s posts, I’m going to try my own list of books I’d re-read. I’d like to re-read more than I do because, if the book is a good one, the second time around feels so much richer. I sometimes retain so little of what I read, and I’m afraid it’s because I rush through things and don’t absorb them properly. But there are so many wonderful new books out there … anyway, here’s a list of things I’d likely turn to if I got the urge to re-read.

1. Anything by Jane Austen, even though I’ve already re-read the novels a lot. In fact, I’ve read all her major novels except Northanger Abbey multiple times; I don’t even know how many times. I turn to them when I want something comfortable and familiar and lengthy; they feel like an indulgence. I’ve also been assigned many of her books for various classes. What I haven’t done is read her juvenalia, which I really must do some day.

2. The Moonstone. I’m guessing that many of the books in this list will be ones I’ve already read multiple times. I can be such a creature of habit. The Moonstone is wonderful fun and I never seem to tire of it; I think I’ve read it twice, although it’s possible I’ve read it a third time. At any rate, I’d be happy to read it again. What I really like is the way Collins tells the same story from multiple perspectives.

3. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and/or Mrs. Dalloway. To the Lighthouse I’ve read at least twice; I’m not sure about Mrs. Dalloway, but I love them both.

4. A.S. Byatt’s Possession. I’m not being original here — Danielle mentioned this one too — but it was so much fun. This is one I’ve read only once.

5. The Anne of Green Gables books. I’ve read these books who knows how many times, but I’ve never re-read them as an adult. It would be interesting to see if my responses to them would change.

6. Anything by George Eliot. I’ve already read Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda twice and Adam Bede and Silas Marner once. I read The Mill on the Floss in High School, so that’s probably the one I’d choose were I to read Eliot again. What can I say — I love the Victorian novel.

7. Crime and Punishment. I read this book during college, I think, in the summer, and was enthralled. I’d like to go back and see if I have the same intense experience.

8. The Phillip Pullman series. I read this just last spring and tore my way through them; I’d get a kick out of doing it again. This sounds like a wonderful thing to do during the holidays — just hunker down and read fun novels really fast.

9. Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay. If I haven’t read all the essays in that book, I’ve read most of them and they are definitely worth returning to.

10. Swann’s Way. Yeah, I read it just last summer, but this is a book that rewards multiple readings and I can already see that I’m going to want to look at parts of In Search of Lost Time again.

11. Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes. I love this kind of smart, quirky, unconventional novel.

12. Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. She’s so fascinating and odd and she’s such a master of the short story, I can see myself re-reading some or all of them. Maybe her novels too, both of which I’ve read once each.

13. Mary Oliver’s book of poems American Primitive. Poetry is an obvious thing to re-read — it can be so complex and rich and it’s short and so doesn’t require a huge time commitment — and yet I didn’t think of it much as I was making this list.

I could probably think of more, but I was beginning to slow down toward the end of that list; I guess when I re-read I tend to turn to the same very small number of books, mainly Victorian or early 20C novels. I could have put Tolstoy and James on that list too.

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How do I read Cortazar’s Hopscotch?

I just got a copy of Julio Cortazar’s novel Hopscotch through Bookmooch, and although the truth of the matter is that I won’t read it for quite a while (not because I don’t want to, but because of all my other reading obligations and desires), I was intrigued by its form — and also set a bit on edge by it.

The novel comes with a “Table of Instructions” (which will make more sense if you know the novel has 155 chapters):

In its own way, this book consists of many books, but two books above all.

The first can be read in a normal fashion and it ends with Chapter 56, at the close of which there are three garish little stars which stand for the words The End. Consequently, the reader may ignore what follows with a clean conscience.

The second should be read by beginning with Chapter 73 and then following the sequence indicated at the end of each chapter. In case of confusion or forgetfulness, one need only consult the following list:

73-1-2-116-3-84-4-71-5 [I won't give you all the numbers, but they continue on for 10 lines or so of text].

Each chapter has its number at the top of every right-hand page to facilitate the search.


I’m not sure what to make of this, and I don’t know how I’ll read the book when I do get to it. The notion of reading the first 56 out of 155 chapters and then quitting with “a clean conscience” seems highly unrealistic, given my intense desire to finish books — finish them all the way to the end. There’s no way I’d quit after 56 out of 155 chapters with a clean conscience.

But following the jumbled-up sequence of chapters doesn’t seem quite the thing to do either. It upsets my notions of how to read a book.

The other option, of course, is to disregard the Table of Instructions and read the thing from cover to cover in the normal way. But … would that work? Would it make any sense at all?

I’m curious about what the different ways of reading would be like. I suppose there’s another option, which is to read the novel in the two ways the author describes: once through the end of chapter 56, and then once following the jumbled sequence of chapters. That way I’d know what the two experiences are like, and I’d be following instructions like the obedient reader I tend to be. But that would take a lot of time and would require re-reading large chunks of the novel. Maybe even I am not prepared to be that obedient.

I realize that my uneasy feelings must be part of Cortazar’s point; he’s making me aware of my conventionality in reading, my obedience, my feeling that I must complete books, my need to have the experience I think the author wants me to have. He’s making me question the traditional arc of a story, the convention of reading from cover to cover, and my assumptions of what must be included to make a story complete (at least I think he’s doing these things — can’t really say until I read the thing I suppose).

Has anybody read this novel before, and, if so, how did you do it? If not, which reading method would you choose?

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The Places in Between

I’ve begun Rory Stewart’s The Places in Between, a book about his walk across Afghanistan starting in January, 2002. It’s quite absorbing, and it makes me want to go on adventures. Before this trip, he’d spent 16 months walking across Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal, but he’d had to skip Afghanistan because the Taliban refused to let him into the country. After the fall of the Taliban, he decided to give it another try. This is how he begins his Preface:

I’m not good at explaining why I walked across Afghanistan. Perhaps I did it because it was an adventure. But it was the most interesting part of my journey across Asia.

I love that attitude, the “I’m not sure why I did it, I just wanted to” attitude. Because why do anything at all, really? In a lot of ways walking across Asia makes as much sense as anything else anybody might choose to do. So he walked across Asia because it was there and he could.

Can I tell you how much this makes me want to go off on some crazy, senseless adventure?

So far the book is very well written, very absorbing, and full of sentences like these:

It was possible that they had simply told Qasim and Abdul Haq to take me outside the city and kill me. No one would notice in the middle of a war. I felt it would be ludicrous to be killed only eight kilometers into my journey and not for the first time worried that when I was killed people would think me foolhardy.

I’ve read story after story of Stewart walking into strange villages with no idea whether he’ll be welcomed or attacked. In his previous walks, people had always taken him in, following customs of hospitality, but in Afghanistan things are not so simple — while the hospitality custom is still strong, so is fear of strangers in a country so unsettled.

Stewart briefly describes what fills his mind while he’s walking day after day. This is the only passage I’ve come across so far that talks about walking in a more theoretical way; I kind of wish he’d do it more often, but that’s not what the book is about (and if you’re interested in that subject, I highly recommend Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust):

Before I started, I imagined I could fill my days by composing an epic poem in my head or writing a novel about a Scottish village that would become more rooted in a single place as I kept moving. In Iran I tried earnestly to think through philosophical arguments, learn Persian vocabulary, and memorize poetry. Perhaps this is why I never felt quite at ease walking in Iran.

In Pakistan, having left the desert and entered the lush Doab of the Punjab, I stopped trying to think and instead looked at peacocks in trees and the movement of the canal water. In India, when I was walking from one pilgrimage site to another across the Himalayas, I carried the Bhagavad Gita open in my left hand and read one line at a time. In the center of Nepal, I began to count my breaths and my steps, and to recite phrases to myself, pushing thoughts away. This is the way some people meditate. I could only feel that calm for at most an hour a day. It was, however, a serenity I had not felt before. It was what I valued most about walking.

As an occasional backpacker, I’m interested in what people think about when they spend hours walking (or something similar like running or riding) — for me, sometimes get in the meditative mood Stewart describes and I agree with him that it’s one of the best things about walking.

More on this book later …

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Blogs and the mainstream media

One part of me says I should leave this alone, but another part of me can’t resist saying something. I’m talking, as you probably guess, about John Sutherland’s article on the sorry state of web reviewing (mainly Amazon reviews but also blogs) and Rachel Cooke’s article on how dull and badly written book blogs are (I came across the links at the Literary Saloon).

It’s the Cooke article that interests me most; she sums up the significance of the disagreements over web reviewing thusly:

The question that Sutherland has raised – what effect is the internet having on criticism? – is not only fair; it is one that no one who cares about art, and especially writing, can ignore.

Cooke says that professional reviewing and book blogging can coexist at present, but she’s worried that someday “serious criticism” might disappear so that we are left with only “the populist warblings of the blogosphere.” She dearly hopes that this will never happen.

At this point, I’m with her — I think it would be a shame to lose the professional criticism we’ve got. I read it and value it.

But then she goes on to attack book blogs, and at this point she loses me. She spends a day reading blogs and comes away very unimpressed, citing examples of blogs she can live without. But I don’t think she’s done her research very well. Anybody can come along and pick a few sentences out of a blog and hold them up for ridicule; I could do it myself with my own blog writing (I can see it now — “she reads a Jane Kenyon poem and all she can say is ‘I like this poem because it reminds me of how wonderful it is to walk in the woods in winter’?”). Many blogs create their effect over time; people find pleasure in them because they get to know the blogger’s voice and sensibility and interests, and if they like those things, they come back day after day, even to read the less-than-stellar posts.

Perhaps Cooke is not interested in spending that much time getting to know a blogger’s voice, but one day’s reading will only give her a taste of all the blogs out there. If she wants high-quality writing all the time, I’m positive she can find it on a blog, if only she would look around a little more. The thing that bothered me most about Cooke’s article was her claim that there’s no good writing on the internet, that good writing must be paid for:

I read and I read; I dutifully followed every link. And come supper time all I could think was that not a sentence I’d read was a millionth as good as anything in The Polysyllabic Spree, Nick Hornby’s recently published diary of ‘an exasperated but ever hopeful reader’. Why? Because his words are measured, rather than spewed, out; because he is a good critic, and an experienced one; and because he can write. The trouble is, these qualities are exceptional – which is why they must be paid for.

I encounter excellent writing on blogs every day. It’s absurd to believe that one has to pay for good writing; bloggers write for all kinds of reasons and many of them, while being good writers, aren’t interested in making a living from it. It’s possible Cooke and I have radically different ideas of what constitutes good writing, but it’s much more likely she wasn’t really giving bloggers a fair chance.

There are all kinds of blogs — book review blogs, publishing industry gossip sites, reading diaries — and only some of them have the kind of reviews and articles that might get published in the mainstream media. So it strikes me as odd that when criticizing book blogs, people tend to blame them for not living up to the standards of professional reviewing. Why can’t bloggers have different purposes and do radically different things than one finds in newspapers and magazines? If Cooke finds reading diaries dull, which it’s her right to do, then there are plenty of other people who love them. What blogs do so wonderfully is open up the possibility for new kinds of writing, so it makes no sense to me to dismiss blogs for not doing the same old thing.

And I’m not buying the idea that professional writers and reviewers must be at odds with book bloggers. Why the hostility? Will internet book reviewing really place traditional, professional criticism at risk? I don’t know, actually, but what I hope will happen is that the two will exist side by side — ideally without the carping — and that the various types of writing about books will enrich the others. Amateur book bloggers have much to learn from professional critics — and vice versa. And the two categories overlap anyway; some professional writers have their own blogs, some literary critics keep reading diaries online, some people who make a living off one type of writing turn to the internet to produce another. There ought to a fruitful relationship here, not antagonism.

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A Jane Kenyon poem

After doing the poetry meme yesterday, I’m inspired to give you a Jane Kenyon poem I read recently and really liked. It’s also appropriate for the upcoming season:

Depression in Winter

There comes a little space between the south
side of a boulder
and the snow that fills the woods around it.
Sun heats the stone, reveals
A crescent of bare ground: brown ferns,
and tufts of needles like red hair,
acorns, a patch of moss, bright green ….

I sank with every step up to my knees,
throwing myself forward with a violence
of effort, greedy for unhappiness –
until by accident I found the stone,
with its secret porch of heat and light,
where something small could luxuriate, then
turned back down my path, chastened and calm.

I like this poem because it reminds me of how wonderful it is to walk in the woods in winter — to notice little things like the thawed space near the rock Kenyon is describing, and to see green things here and there, as a reminder that spring will come soon. The Hobgoblin and I have done a lot of winter hiking, sometimes involving laboring our way through several feet of snow and occasionally involving temperatures barely in the double digits. There’s nothing more exhilarating than a tramp through the snow and nothing nicer than coming home again and warming up with a hot shower and some food.

But Kenyon’s not talking about that kind of walk — the poem also reminds me of how well a walk in the woods can transform my mood. I never come home feeling the same as when I left. I think I know what Kenyon means by being “greedy for unhappiness” — I get like that sometimes: mildly depressed and doing my best to stay that way. And a walk will almost always break me out of that rut; whether it’s seeing something beautiful like Kenyon did in the poem, or whether it’s the movement and exercise that does it, I don’t know, but I rarely come home from a walk unhappy.

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Cam’s poetry meme

The Hobgoblin tagged me to do Cam’s poetry meme, so here goes:

1. The first poem I remember reading/hearing/reacting to was…. Surely nursery rhymes were among the earliest. This question makes you think about what a poem is, doesn’t it? I remember nursery rhymes, songs, chants from when I was a kid. I remember reading Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” for school. Oh, yeah, and I remember reading Ogden Nash early on too.

2. I was forced to memorize (name of poem) in school and…….. I wasn’t forced to memorize poems in school until I got to college, and then only one professor required it. That’s quite a shame, really, because there’s no better way to learn about poetry than memorizing it, I think. You get an intimate feel for how a poem works. I memorized W.H. Auden’s poem “Under Sirius.”

3. I read/don’t read poetry because….I read poems because I enjoy it and want to figure out more about how poems work. I only began reading poetry semi-regularly early this year, so I still feel strange calling myself a poetry reader. I read poems when I was in college and shortly after, but then I stopped for a long time. It’s not that I didn’t want to read them, I just never figured out a way to fit them into my life. Now I have a volume I keep on my shelf next to my reading chair, and I read a few poems a week. It’s not much, but it gets me through a book in a couple months.

4. A poem I’m likely to think about when asked about a favorite poem is …….I’d have to name poets rather than poems, as favorite poems don’t come to mind. Favorite poets? Elizabeth Bishop, Mary Oliver, Emily Dickinson.

5. I write/don’t write poetry, but…………..I don’t write poetry, although I can’t say I never will. But I just have no idea how to write one. I mean, what constitutes a poem? What should it be about? I have no idea. And I have little idea, to be honest, about what makes a good poem. As someone who teaches poetry now and then, maybe I shouldn’t admit that, but it’s true. It’s easy to teach older stuff because it’s generally accepted as good, but newer stuff, I have a hard time saying. That’s one reason I’m curious about reading more poems, to get a feel for how they work and what makes a poem great.

6. My experience with reading poetry differs from my experience with reading other types of literature…..I don’t really get poetry. My students sometimes say that and they mean it negatively, but I’m not being negative here. I don’t really think there’s anything to “get” about poetry, actually — that makes it sound like there’s a key or code to understanding it, which there isn’t beyond being familiar with tradition and form. I just mean I find it rather mystifying — and that’s part of what makes it fun.

7. I find poetry….. well, mystifying. In a good way. Sometimes enlightening, often beautiful.

8. The last time I heard poetry….The local coffee shop has an open mic on Wednesday nights and last February they had a day where people could bring their love poetry/erotic poetry to read. A lot of people showed up to read and to listen, and there was a lot of good energy in the room. It was fun.

9. I think poetry is like….Litlove wrote in a comment a while back that a poem is like a dream, and I’ve found that idea useful. I was initially resistant because I generally don’t find dreams and dream interpretations all that interesting, but the analogy does work; a poem often has loosely connected images that fit together in some shadowy half-known way, just as a dream does. A poem can get at truths in that sideways way a dream can.

I tag … whoever wants to do this great meme!

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More on The Polysyllabic Spree


So I finished Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree yesterday, just as I thought I might. The weather never did get nice enough to go on a bike ride, although The Hobgoblin, Muttboy, and I did go on a hour-long walk in the rain at our local woodsy park. After that, it was nice to come home and take a warm shower and stay indoors for most of the rest of the day.

I thought the book was a lot of fun. It’s rather addictive; I’d finish a chapter and consider moving on to something else or drifting off to sleep, but then I’d look at the list of books read and books bought that begins the next chapter, and I’d think, oh, just one more. Next thing I knew, the book was finished. Hornby’s attitude toward books is infectious. I like how he reads all kinds of different stuff; he writes just as well and just as enthusiastically about a collection of Chekhov’s letters as he does about, say, Mystic River.

There were a couple things that bugged me. He has a bit of an attitude about the “literary novel”; he reads them and reads them happily, but he picks on them an awful lot, to the extent that I began to wonder why, and I also began to wonder if it’s really so clear just what the “literary novel” is. Is it really a clearly-defined category? When talking about Chris Coake’s book of short stories We’re in Trouble he says this:

Sometimes, when you’re reading the stories, you forget to breathe, which probably means that you read them with more speed than the writer intended. Are they literary? They’re beautifully written, and they have bottom, but they’re never dull, and they all contain striking and dramatic narrative ideas. And Coake never draws attention to his own art and language; he wants you to look at his people, not listen to his voice. So they’re literary in the sense that they’re serious, and will probably be nominated for prizes, but they’re unliterary in the sense that they could end up mattering to people.

Now this strikes me as unfair. Why should the “literary” be that which doesn’t matter to people? I think he’s got too much invested in this idea of the literary and that he too easily categorizes and dismisses books based on their supposedly “literary” qualities and readers based on their devotion to those qualities, whatever they are. I’m not sure most readers actually read with this category in mind.

Hornby plays around with Hemingwayesque, hyper-masculine posturing about books and writing a little too much for my taste. Books are always in a battle with other books or with other forms of art. This is what’s on the book jacket; it’s quite funny — but also … eh, not my thing:

Books are, let’s face it, better than everything else. If we played cultural Fantasy Boxing League, and made books go fifteen rounds in the ring against the best that any art form had to offer, then books would win pretty much every time. Go on, try it. The Magic Flute vs. Middlemarch? Middlemarch in six. The Last Supper vs. Crime and Punishment? Fyodor on points. See? I mean, I don’t know how scientific this is, but it feels like the novels are walking it. You might get the occasional exception — Blonde on Blonde might mash up The Old Curiosity Shop, say, and I wouldn’t give much for Pale Fire’s chances against Citizen Kane. And every now and then you’d get a shock, because that happens in sport, so Back to the Future III might land a lucky punch on Rabbit, Run; but I’m still backing literature twenty-nine times out of thirty.

This is clever, but after a couple of passages about fights among books and the degree of strength or wussiness it requires to write, I start to feel a little alienated. What saves it for me is that Hornby is not actually taking any of it seriously; he’s mocking himself a bit, pretty much admitting he’s not very good at the Hemingwayesque, hyper-masculine stuff.

I didn’t come away with a lot of new books I want to read, although I did pick up a couple of recommendations. One is Gabriel Zaid’s So Many Books; I remember Jenny D. has an intriguing post on it. The other is Janet Malcolm’s book on Chekhov, Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey. This seems like a very interesting mix of literary criticism and personal narrative, a combination I like very much.

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