Sunday, September 29, 2013

An interesting question to consider

In today's New York Times Sunday Book Review, Mohsin Hamid (a new favorite writer of mine) and Zoe Heller tackle the question: "Are we too concerned that characters be likeable?" Here is the link to the article, but I'll give you a snippet (okay, more than a snippet - see italics below) of Hamid's answer. In some ways his response answers a question I've been pondering the last six months: Why do we read? What is it that compels us to read away a day or a week or a summer, if we are lucky? Back in April I read an article by a cutting-edge educational expert who suggested that those who spend their time reading fiction are simply trying to escape present reality. Disturbed, I nonetheless spent my summer reading and thinking about an alternate answer. I now think the answer is love. Love of an art form. Love of a voice. Love of an imaginative turn for the character and ourselves that we did not see coming.

In fiction, as in my nonreading life, someone didn’t necessarily have to be likable to be lovable. Was Anna Karenina likable? Maybe not. Did part of me fall in love with her when I cracked open a secondhand hardcover of Tolstoy’s novel, purchased in a bookshop in Princeton, N.J., the day before I headed home to Pakistan for a hot, slow summer? Absolutely. 
What about Humbert Humbert? A pedophile. A snob. A dangerous madman. The main character of Nabokov’s “Lolita” wasn’t very likable. But that voice. Ah. That voice had me at “fire of my loins.” 
So I discovered I could fall in love with a voice. And I could fall in love with form, with the dramatic monologue of Camus’s “Fall,” or, more recently, the first-person plural of Julie Otsuka’s “Buddha in the Attic,” or the restless, centerless perspective of Jennifer Egan’s “Visit From the Goon Squad.” And I’d always been able to fall in love with plot, with the story of a story. 
Is all this the same as saying I fall in love with writers through their writing? I don’t think so, even though I do use the term that way. I’ll say I love Morrison, I love Oates. Both are former teachers of mine, so they’re writers I’ve met off the page. But still, what I mean is I love their writing. Or something about their writing. 
Among the quotes I keep taped to the printer on my writing desk is this one, from Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities”:   
 “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.” 
I wonder if reading, for me, is an attempt to recognize who and what are not inferno, and if the love I sometimes feel is the glimmer of this recognition. 
 I wonder if that is the case for many of us. Perhaps, in the widespread longing for likable characters, there is this: a desire, through fiction, for contact with what we’ve armored ourselves against in the rest of our lives, a desire to be reminded that it’s possible to open our eyes, to see, to recognize our solitude — and at the same time to not be entirely alone.

Friday, February 22, 2013

A Good Chuckle

"In Villages God Does Not Live in Corners" by Joseph Brodsky

In villages God does not live in corners
as skeptics think. He's everywhere.
He blesses the roof, he blesses the dishes,
he holds his half of the double doors.
He's plentiful. In the iron pot there.
Cooking lentils on Saturday.
He sleepily jigs and bops in the fire,
he winks at me, his witness. He
assembles a fence, he marries some sweetheart
off to the woodsman. Then for a joke
he makes the warden's every potshot
fall just short of a passing duck.
The chance to watch all this up close,
while autumn's whistling in the mist,
is the only blessed gift there is
in villages, for the athiest.

~ from The New Yorker, February 25, 2013

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The books that saved our lives

I shared this snippet of a WSJ article with my students last week and asked them to name the three books that saved their lives. I'm not averse to Kindles, and someday I'll probably cave and buy one, but I have to agree with Joe Queenan here that it is hard to perfect the book. For the entire article titled "My 6,128 Favorite Books," click here
"I wish I still had the actual copies of the books that saved my life—"Kidnapped," "The Three Musketeers," "The Iliad for Precocious Tykes"—but they vanished over the years. Because so many of these treasures from my childhood have disappeared, I have made a point of hanging on to every book I have bought and loved since the age of 21.
Books as physical objects matter to me, because they evoke the past. A M├ętro ticket falls out of a book I bought 40 years ago, and I am transported back to the Rue Saint-Jacques on Sept. 12, 1972, where I am waiting for someone named Annie LeCombe. A telephone message from a friend who died too young falls out of a book, and I find myself back in the Chateau Marmont on a balmy September day in 1995. A note I scribbled to myself in "Homage to Catalonia" in 1973 when I was in Granada reminds me to learn Spanish, which I have not yet done, and to go back to Granada.
None of this will work with a Kindle. People who need to possess the physical copy of a book, not merely an electronic version, believe that the objects themselves are sacred. Some people may find this attitude baffling, arguing that books are merely objects that take up space. This is true, but so are Prague and your kids and the Sistine Chapel. Think it through, bozos.
The world is changing, but I am not changing with it. There is no e-reader or Kindle in my future. My philosophy is simple: Certain things are perfect the way they are. The sky, the Pacific Ocean, procreation and the Goldberg Variations all fit this bill, and so do books. Books are sublimely visceral, emotionally evocative objects that constitute a perfect delivery system.
Electronic books are ideal for people who value the information contained in them, or who have vision problems, or who have clutter issues, or who don't want other people to see that they are reading books about parallel universes where nine-eyed sea serpents and blind marsupials join forces with deaf Valkyries to rescue high-strung albino virgins from the clutches of hermaphrodite centaurs, but they are useless for people engaged in an intense, lifelong love affair with books. Books that we can touch; books that we can smell; books that we can depend on. Books that make us believe, for however short a time, that we shall all live happily ever after."
—Adapted from "One for the Books" by Joe Queenan, to be published Thursday. With permission from Viking, a member of the Penguin Group (USA).

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Edith Wharton

How is it that reading her novel The Age of Innocence never gets old for me? I joked with my students recently about the fact that I am spending a little bit of every summer with Wharton, but I don't mind it. Especially on a day like today when, while grading a student essay, I came across this quote from her autobiography:
"One can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways."
If there is a better motto to live by, I haven't found it. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

All the King's Men

I need to capture a few things while reading this enormous tome for next fall. Such as the following:
"She trusted me,  but perhaps for that moment of hesitation I did not trust myself, and looking back upon the past as something precious about to be snatched away from us and was afraid of the future. I had not understood then what I think I have now come to understand: that we can keep the past only by having the future, for they are forever tied together. Therefore, I lacked some essential confidence in the world and in myself. She came, as time passed, to suspect this fact about me" (467). 

"So I fled west from the fact, and in the West, at the end of History, the Last Man on that Last Coast, on my hotel bed, I had discovered the dream. The dream was the dream that all life is but the dark heave of blood and the twitch of the nerve. When you flee as far as you can flee, you will always find that dream, which is the dream of our age...

At first it was, as I have said, rather bracing and tonic. For after the dream there is no reason why you should not go back and face the fact which you have fled from, for any place to which you may flee will now be like the place from which you have fled, and you might as well go back, after all, to the place where you belong, for nothing was your fault or anybody's fault, for things are always as they are. And you can go back in good spirits, for you will have learned to very great truths. First, that you cannot lose what you have never had. Second, that you are never guilty of a crime which you did not commit. So there is innocence and a new start in the West, after all.

If you believe the dream you dream when you go there" (468). 

Monday, May 21, 2012

"Confessions of a Nature Lover"

Back then I was going steady
with fog, who could dance
like no one's business, I threw her over
for a leaf that one day fluttered
first her shadow then her whole life
into my hand, that's a lot
of responsibility and a lot
of relatives, this leaf
and that leaf and all the other leaves
hung around, I told her
I needed space, which was true,
without it I'd only be a soul,
and no one's sure that wisp
is real, that's why we say
of real estate, location, location,
location, and of speech,
locution, locution, locution,
and of love, yes, yes, yes,
I am on my knees, will you have me,
~ Bob Hicok from The New Yorker, May 14, 2012