Monthly Archives: December 2006

Experiment

Update: The experiment is over, and I’m permanently here.  Yay!

This blog is an experiment, just in case I decide to dump Blogger. For now, I’m still posting regularly here.

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A new year

I feel uncertain about making resolutions for the new year, not being a resolution-making kind of person and especially having just read Bloglily’s very sane post on the topic. But I do want to think about what I’d like to accomplish this year, if only to try something new. So here are some goals, but I won’t beat myself up if I don’t reach them. Mostly they have to do with reading, although I’ll end with some cycling goals.

First of all, back in October I made a list of 13 classics I’d like to read in 2007, and I’d like to complete that list, with one change. Here’s the list again, with James Boswell’s Life of Johnson substituted for the Burney novel, either Camilla or Cecilia, I’d had on there originally:

1. Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way, Sodom and Gomorrah, The Captive, The Fugitive, and Time Regained.
2. Anne Bronte, The Tenant of Wildfeld Hall.
3. James Boswell, The Life of Johnson.
4. Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote.
5. Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out.
6. Virginia Woolf, The Years.
7. Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks.
8. Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives.
9. Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford and/or Wives and Daughters.
10. Balzac’s Cousin Bette.
11. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience.
12. Thomas DeQuincy’s Confessions of an Opium Eater.
13. James Hogg, Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

I’m determined to finish Don Quixote, Buddenbrooks, the Woolf novels, the William James, and the Proust novels; the others I’d really, really like to read but if I don’t, that’s okay. Considering my reading pace, 50-60 books a year, this list is pretty ambitious.

After that, I really don’t want to get specific about what I want to read, as I like room for spontaneity. But here are a few things I’d like to do:

  • Read more poetry than I did last year. As I read 2 1/2 books last year, this will mean 3 books, plus finishing up the 1/2 I have left in my current book — Jane Kenyon’s Otherwise.
  • Read more plays than I did last year. As I read no plays at all last year, this will meant reading at least one. We have a copy of Angels in America around the house I might pick up. I just realized, however, that I’ll be teaching a play this spring — as yet unidentified — and I suppose that will count. It kind of feels like cheating, though, in a weird way. If I’m reading it for work, it shouldn’t count for my New Year’s resolutions? That’s silly.
  • Read more short stories. I managed one collection (Alice Munro) and some individual stories for A Curious Singularity, so this means I’ll try to read two collections and probably more individual stories for the short story blog.
  • Read more books in translation. Last year I read 8. If I read all the books listed above, that will be 7 (Balzac, Mann, Cervantes, and 4 volumes of Proust). Any other books I read in translation I’d like to be non-European. (I’ll check out Book Traveller’s posts for inspiration.)
  • Read one science book. I love reading science but I haven’t done it lately. I have Brian Greene and Bill Bryson on my shelves; one of those will do nicely.

Okay, I’ll stop there. I could on, but the fewer goals I have, the likelier I am to reach them.

Before I begin all this, however, my first order of business is to decide which blog I want to use, the Blogger one or the WordPress one. I can make the big, life-shaping decisions almost instantly, but the little decisions take me forever.

As for cycling, I’m not sure what goals to set, as I’m really still not sure what I’m capable of. But here’s an attempt:

  • This past year I rode somewhere between 3,656 and 3,700 miles (depending on how far I ride today). For next year, I’d like to ride at least 4,000 miles but preferably as many as 4,500. The 3,656 number counts only outdoor rides on my road bike; I rode a few more miles on the indoor trainer and on my mountain bike, but those I can’t easily count. I’m aware that when it comes to preparing to race, I should probably focus less on the number of miles I ride and more on the level of intensity with which I ride those miles, but one of the things I learned last year is that I don’t have enough of an endurance base, so reaching a certain base level of miles ridden seems valuable.
  • I’d like to ride in more races than I did last year. Last year I did 16 — not all of them were official USCF races, but the non-official ones were just as challenging. I did 13 criteriums and 3 road races. I wimped out on a few races in May and June and then I got burnt out toward the end of the summer and stopped racing, so this coming year I’d like to complete more and stick with it longer.
  • I’d like to stay with the pack longer in each race and not get dropped as often. This goal should be more specific, but I don’t know how to make it so. So I’ll just have to say that I’m going to train harder so I’m stronger and therefore won’t be quite as easy to leave behind.

We’ll see how I do. Chances are I’ll accomplish some of these things, but other, maybe better, things will happen and the year will turn out differently than I expect.

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More on Footsteps

I love books that deal with an intellectual problem or issue in a personal way — books that are as much about the author grappling with the issue as they are about the issue itself. Richard Holmes’s Footsteps is just such a book; it’s about biography as a genre and about the lives of various writers Holmes has researched, but mostly it’s about Holmes’s process of learning how to write biography and his discoveries about what we can and can’t know about the past and about other people’s lives.

I’ve written about Holmes’s chapter on Robert Louis Stevenson, where he writes about following in Stevenson’s tracks through France; I’ve now read his chapter on William Wordsworth and Mary Wollstonecraft and I’m halfway through his chapter on Percy Shelley. The Wordsworth/Wollstonecraft (mostly Wollstonecraft) chapter is about their experiences of the French Revolution, but Holmes gets at the topic by writing about his own experience of the student uprising in Paris in May 1968. He tells about getting caught up in the action on the streets and how an officer held a rifle to his chest, and when Holmes said he was English to try to get out of the situation, the officer told him to mind his own business and go back home to England. Holmes moves from there to considering what it was like for Wordsworth and Wollstonecraft to be in an analogous situation — foreigners experiencing another country’s revolution. Holmes wants to know what it was these two were seeking in France and what they might have felt.

This leads him to think about the differences between a rational reaction to revolution — a philosophical take on events — and an imaginative and emotional one — its personal impact. Wollstonecraft was capable of being very philosophical about the revolution, in the sense of distant and nonemotional. She could even be a little glib. But when she actually lived through some of the revolution’s most dramatic events, it changed her. Both Wordsworth and Wollstonecraft went through some personally harrowing times while in France, and somehow these personal events (love affairs, babies) and the political ones connect. Holmes speculates that the real effects of revolution aren’t so much political as they are personal — the internal turbulance revolution causes matters just as much as the political turmoil, and the internal revolutions might cause longer-lasting changes. He isn’t quite so despairing about the failure of the May 1968 uprising when he thinks about revolution in this sense — the immediate political goals might have been left unfulfilled, but it did cause changes in the way many people thought and acted.

Perhaps these are the conclusions one might expect from a biographer, one who is focused more on individual lives than on the sweep of history.

At any rate, I like Holmes’s method of placing himself in the middle of his discussions of 18th and 19th century people, and he’s careful not to make too much of the parallels too — the comparison between the French Revolution and May 1968 can only go so far, after all. But it gives him a way of getting inside the experiences of people long dead — a way of imagining what they might have seen and thought and felt.

Holmes has some amazing things to say about what it’s like to write biographies and he makes me want … not to write a biography exactly, but to research a writer deeply. I may write about this more later (I’m by no means through with posting about this book!), but for now I’ll leave you with this quotation:

In daily human affairs notoriously, we all do sometimes act apparently out of character — especially in situations of great stress or temptation or depression. In such situations one could say that a person’s sense of their own identity is diminished, and that they act almost in spite of themselves. Yet the biographer views and witnesses these daily human affairs in a special and privileged perspective. He gains a special kind of intimacy, but quite different from the subjective intimacy that I had first so passionately sought. He sees no act in isolation; nor does he see it from a single viewpoint. Even the familiarity of a close friend or spouse of many years suffers from this limitation. The biographer sees every act as part of a constantly unfolding pattern: he sees the before and the afterwards, both cause and consequence. Above all he sees repetition and the emergence of significant behaviour over an entire lifetime. As a result I have become convinced of the integrity of human character. Even a man’s failings, sudden lapses, contradictory reactions, sudden caprices, seem in the long run to fall within a pattern of character. One could say, paradoxically, that people even act out of character in a certain way; there is always, so to speak, meaning in their madness, provided one has full knowledge of the circumstances.

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By the numbers

I thought I’d do one more post about the past year; it occurs to me that looking at some of the numbers might be interesting and might show me something about how I read. I have never kept track of my reading quite so carefully before, so I might as well take advantage of it and analyze the information I’ve got.

  • Books read: 56 (it might possibly go up to 57 by Sunday night, but I’m not sure, so I’ll leave it at that.)
  • Novels: 36
  • Nonfiction: 17
  • Poetry collections: 2 (although I’m now halfway through another one.)
  • Short story collections: 1
  • Journals/diaries (included in the nonfiction number): 2
  • Books written by men: 24
  • Books written by women: 32
  • Books in translation: 8
  • Books from the 11th century: 1 (The Tale of Genji)
  • From the 18th century: 4
  • From the 19th century: 6
  • From the 20th century: 23
  • From the 21st century: 22
  • From the 20th or 21st century but about an earlier century: 6
  • Books read for book groups (online or in-person): 7
  • Nonfiction about books, reading, literature, or literary history: 9
  • Travel books: 2 (Tobias Smollett and Rory Stewart)

I tried to count how many essay collections and memoirs I’d read, but I run into problems with categorization; for example, is Pankaj Mishra’s An End to Suffering a memoir? A history book? A book on religion?

I have no idea what percentage of men vs. women I’ve read in the past; it wouldn’t surprise me, though, if I usually read more men than women. But this time I read more women than men, which makes sense to me, as I felt throughout the year that I was discovering a lot of women writers I really like: Rebecca West, Anita Brookner, Muriel Spark, Elizabeth Taylor.

I see I haven’t read as much from the 19th century or earlier as I thought I might — 11 books. Maybe for next year the classics challenge I’m doing (13 books) will change that. Not all of the 13 are from the 19C or earlier, but with those and others I might increase the number. But if I add in the books I read about earlier centuries, I reach 17, which isn’t too bad.

I’d like to read more books in translation. And more short story collections, and more poetry, and more travel books, and more essays, and more books on religious history, and more books on literary history, etc., etc. It’s the problem Stefanie wrote about: what to do when with every new book one reads (especially history and books about books), one’s to-be-read list grows? I’d like to read in many different areas, and I’d also like to read deeply in a few, but I can’t do both. My list of books I’d like to read now has 167 books on it, which doesn’t include the 90 books I own but haven’t yet read. Yikes!

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I’m back!

156478459201_aa240_sclzzzzzzz_v63860474_.jpgThe Hobgoblin and I returned yesterday, and we’re mostly settled back in. It’s nice to get away, but just as nice to return home again. Yes, I know, it’s a very cliched thing to say, but I feel it strongly anyway. I like seeing my family, but unfortunately, it only takes a few days before I begin to return to my irritable, annoying, obnoxious, I-can’t-stand-the-world-and-my-parents-drive-me-crazy 13-year-old self. Will that self ever die away? I’m beginning to doubt it.

I had a very nice trip, all irritability aside. I got to see 4 of my 6 siblings, one brother-in-law, one sister’s boyfriend (or ex-boyfriend? I can’t quite figure it out and didn’t get a chance to ask — to ask my mother, of course, as I wouldn’t have asked my sister. That would be awkward), and some acquaintances at the Christmas Eve service. I was able to keep up my tradition of complaining bitterly about the awfulness of the Christmas Eve service, as it was suitably awful this year. Sometimes it’s awful in a “let’s have a birthday cake for the baby Jesus” kind of way, but this time it was awful in a “let’s draw on as many offensive gender stereotypes as we can, even if they are irrelevant to the sermon” kind of way. I made sure not to ride home from the service with my parents, as I wasn’t feeling irritable enough at that point to want to offend them and hurt their feelings. Traditions are nice, aren’t they?

Christmas itself was nice, and I got a lot of cool things — the Hobgoblin gave me a copy of Michael Dirda’s Book by Book, which I’ve now read a little in, and it promises to be interesting. It will feed my current interest in books on books and reading. My mother-in-law gave me a Barnes and Noble gift card, so we went there on Tuesday, and I found Lawrence Weschler’s Vermeer in Bosnia, which has been on my TBR list for a long time, and Jeffrey Robinson’s The Walk: Notes on a Romantic Image, which will feed my other current obsession with books about walking. I was happy to find some good nonfiction books; I love novels, of course, but often the books that get me most excited and fuel multiple long blog posts are nonfiction ones. And Christmas isn’t quite over yet, as I know I have a box coming from a friend who always sends me books. Yay!

The Hobgoblin also got me a new pair of cycling shoes, which are black and very cool looking:

genius_5_womens_lorica_blk.jpg

Oh, and he also got me a sticker with my new “photo” or avatar or whatever you want to call it:

29096105v4_150×150_front.jpg

A couple of people have asked where it comes from — it’s from one of my favorite novels ever, Tristram Shandy; it’s the narrator’s rendering of his story’s plotline — very digressive. I like the picture because I love the novel, of course, and … I like digressions.

I read a little bit, more in Proust and Richard Holmes’s Footsteps, and a little of the Dirda book, but mostly I sat around and did nothing. I needed a few days of that. I sat around and did nothing, and I also watched a lot of episodes of “The Office,” which was great fun; as we don’t have TV, we miss a lot of crap but also some good stuff, and I was happy to catch up on some of the good stuff.

So — I’m happy to be back reading your comments (thanks!) and catching up on blog posts and posting once again myself. I hope to do some goal-setting around here soon, and maybe some more summing up of my year, and definitely some more raving about Footsteps, and I might finally get around to beginning Buddenbrooks.

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My year in cycling

This year has brought almost as many changes in my cycling as it has in my reading — this is the year I began racing, right about the time I began blogging, in fact, which, I suppose is what inspired the name of this blog, even though I write about reading much more than riding. I’m already gearing up to train for this coming season, which makes it a good time to look back to last year’s season, I suppose. My racing results were mixed, but I’m happy I began racing and pleased at the progress I made.

My very first race I stayed with the pack about 5 minutes and then I dropped off the back as they were going just way too fast. I remember my heartrate was up above 180 and I felt like I was going to get sick. I’m not sure I ever felt so bad on a bike before. But it really does take a while to get used to riding that hard — I often got dropped in races after that, but it happened later and later in the race until finally I was able to stay with the pack until the very end. Well, in some races, that is.

I learned a lot about what kind of rider I am — at least for now, I’m much better at criteriums, the shorter, more intense races where you do laps of a mile or less over and over, than I am at road races. In the road races I did, I’d get left behind on the hills pretty quickly. One thing I need to work on this year is becoming a better hill climber. I do think the endurance road races require takes a while to build up, so I’m hoping I’ll improve at these, but I think I might be built more like a sprinter than an endurance rider or hill climber. I tend to put on big muscles that can generate some power — and I’m most definitely not the skinny type that can fly up the hills seemingly effortlessly.

I learned a lot about riding in a pack too. I’ve talked to a number of women this fall who are interested in racing but who talk about being afraid of riding with a large group of people, and it is a little scary. There’s nothing like riding at 25 or 30 miles an hour in a group of 30 or 40 or 50 people packed closely together. But you do get used to it; it just takes a little practice. I still need to build up some confidence in my ability to do it, and I need to work on things like riding around corners fast, but I’ve learned that these are things I can work on.

The hardest thing about racing, I think, is showing up the first time. I do sympathize with those women I talk to who are interested in trying it but still fearful and uncertain. That’s exactly how I felt last year. But once you get the courage up to give it a try, you realize that you can do it and there are things you can work on to get better and it’s not as impossibly hard as it once seemed.

So this fall and winter I’ve been trying to take my training more seriously than I have in the past. I still wonder about myself if I’m not the type who enjoys the training part more than the racing. Last summer I started to feel burnt out with racing, but I was still interested in going out to ride on my own. But I think since it was my first season, feeling burnt out is understandable, especially since I spent so much time riding with people who were noticeably stronger than me. I got tired of working so hard to keep up with a pack of people who could leave me behind easily if they really wanted to. I’m very curious to see what happens to me next year, how much I change, or don’t change, how much better I get.

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Orhan Pamuk’s Snow

This is my last post for a while, as the Hobgoblin and I are heading out to my parents’ place in western New York state tomorrow. As they have very slow dial-up, I think I’ll have to do without blogs for a few days. It’ll be hard, but I’m going to try my best not to let it get to me. I’ll be back by the middle or end of next week.

I finished Orhan Pamuk’s Snow last night and was very impressed. It’s a beautiful book and one that taught me a lot about Turkey and Turkish culture. I don’t mean to make it sound didactic, but I do think that reading novels is a good way to get a sense of another country and culture. Snow dealt a lot with the conflict between Eastern and Western Europe — the main character Ka has been in exile in Germany for many years and in the novel returns to the Turkish city of Kars, and throughout, he is faced with questions about what it means to have become westernized but not to be fully western. Connected with this cultural conflict is the religious one — shortly after Ka arrives, the city of Kars undergoes a military coup, meant to keep religious conservatives from winning the upcoming election, and throughout the novel religious differences turn violent. Ka takes part in many philosophical and theological discussions about what it means to have given up his faith and about whether or not he has become an atheist.

Ka wanders the city and gets himself involved in adventures; he isn’t all that interested in all the conflict going on around him — he’d really rather write poems and talk to Ipek, the woman who is the real reason he has journeyed to Kars (the ostensible reason is to investigate a rash of suicides committed by young religiously conservative women who want to keep wearing their head scarves). All this is a way for Pamuk to write about religious and political conflict, but it’s also a way for him to consider the relationship of the artist to the political world. It seems like nearly everybody in the novel has aspirations to be a writer; so many people Ka talked with had poems stashed away somewhere or used Ka to try to find a publisher for their work. The novel’s closing section centers around a play, an incredibly loose adaptation of Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, which brings together all the novel’s themes and works through the conflict the city is experiencing.

One thing I found particularly interesting is the way the narrator becomes a character himself, gradually talking about himself more and more as the story proceeds. The narrator’s name is Orhan, making him a stand-in for the author himself, or perhaps another version of the author. At first I found this narratorial intrusion awkward; I wasn’t sure who the narrator was supposed to be and what his relationship to Ka was. All this cleared up gradually, however, and by the end we know quite a lot about him and his presence in the novel adds a layer of complexity to it. His relationship with Ka reminds me of Richard Holmes’s book Footsteps, which I’m currently in the middle of, and also a little bit of The Places in Between by Rory Stewart; in all these examples, one person is following in the footsteps of another, trying to puzzle together what that person’s life is like and to see what that person saw. And then each person writes a book about it. In the case of Snow, the narrator is doing research on a novel about Ka, walking where Ka walked and talking to the people he knew. He follows the exact route Ka took on a book tour, staying in the places he stayed and asking audiences what they remember about Ka.

All this brings me back to travel metaphors, the subject of an earlier post, because part of the narrator’s writing process is traveling (which is true for Holmes and Stewart as well), but writing about travel is itself also a kind of travel (one could say all writing is a kind of travel), as the writer follows the map of the journey, this time in words. And it’s true for the reader too. Following in someone’s footsteps can be done by crossing a landscape but it can also happen as a book gets written and as it gets read. So the narrator tries to relive Ka’s life twice — once by following his path through western Europe and Turkey and another by writing about the experience.

There’s another sense in which the novel is about writing itself. Pamuk talks about what a novel can and can’t do; in one scene, the novel’s narrator talks with another character, Fazil, who is troubled that the narrator plans to write a novel about him and the other residents of Kars. This is what Fazil says to the narrator:

“But I can tell from your face that you want to tell the people who read your novels how poor we are and how different we are from them. I don’t want you to put me into a novel like that.”

“Why not?”

“Because you don’t even know me, that’s why! Even if you got to know me and described me as I am, your Western readers would be so caught up in pitying me for being poor that they wouldn’t have a chance to see my life. For example, if you said I was writing an Islamist science-fiction novel, they’d just laugh. I don’t want to be described as someone people smile at out of pity and compassion.”

In another scene, the narrator asks Fazil what he would like him to put in his novel, and this is Fazil’s answer:

“If you write a book set in Kars and put me in it, I’d like to tell your readers not to believe anything you say about me, anything you say about any of us. No one could understand us from so far away.”

“But no one believes in that way what he reads in a novel,” I said.

“Oh, yes, they do,” he cried. “If only to see themselves as wise and superior and humanistic, they need to think of us as sweet and funny, and convince themselves that they sympathize with the way we are and even love us. But if you would put in what I’ve just said, at least your readers will keep a little room for doubt in their minds.”

So we come up against the problem of whether a novelist can capture the truth of somebody’s experience so that a reader can really understand it, so that the reader can get beyond expectations and stereotypes and keep from pitying the poor people of Kars, and so that the novel won’t just be another way of reinforcing the separation between east and west. I opened this post talking about what I learned from the novel, so I guess I do believe that reading novels can tell us something true about other people’s experiences and can help people bridge cultures, but I appreciate this warning about what a complicated process it can be.

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