A Journal of Life Pursued

Posts Tagged ‘Books’

Would Nabokov think you a “good” reader?

In Books, Creativity, Literature, Writers, Writing on January 25, 2013 at 6:00 am

“A hundred years ago,” wrote Vladimir Nabokov, “Gustave Flaubert in a letter to his mistress made the following remark: ‘What a scholar one might be if one knew well only some half dozen books.’”

Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov

My sophomore year in college found me in a comparative literature class. I didn’t know what comparative literature was, but it sounded up my alley. My introduction to the discipline was ill-fated, learning quickly that the serious student was the one reading the texts in the original language. That makes sense. I was fated with the knowledge that with my genetic indifference to languages not womb-embedded, I would be better served building on my tenuous hold of the known, and forsake aspirations foreign. The course, however, instilled in me a keen interest in world literature that continues to this day. For that I am grateful.

The comp-lit class was taught by an associate professor. He was young and enthusiastic and brimming with energy. It did not take him long to introduce us to Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), the reclusive writer, whom our young professor had once interviewed in Montreux, Switzerland, where the master was spending his autumnal days. I did not know of this Nabokov, but my curiosity was aroused. I soon consumed all things Nabokovian.

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A half-dozen years later Nabokov published his Lectures on Literature. The writer had, for nearly twenty years, flexed his substantial literary muscle in the classroom, first at Wellesley then Cornell–and here were his lectures. According to Lectures, this is how “the course” opens:

“With a pleasure which is both sensual and intellectual, we shall watch the artist build the castle of cards and watch the castle of cards become a castle of beautiful steel and glass.”

With that, Nabokov launches into his lectures. One former student of the course, Ross Wetzsteon, recalls Nabokov the teacher advising, “‘Caress the details,’ Nabokov would utter, rolling the r, his voice the rough caress of a cat’s tongue, ‘the divine details.’”

Here is the syllabus:

I’ve read several of these books with Nabokov’s notes at my elbow. It is not unlike, I bet, sitting in a masterclass with Yo-Yo Ma.

Let me share with you an extended passage by the master from the introduction, Good Readers and Good Writers:

“One evening at a remote provincial college through which I happened to be jogging on a protracted lecture tour, I suggested a little quiz–ten definitions of a reader, and from these ten the students had to choose four definitions that would combine to make a good reader. I have mislaid the list, but as far as I remember the definitions went something like this. Select four answers to the question what should a reader be to be a good reader:

  1. The reader should belong to a book club.
  2. The reader should identify himself or herself with the hero or heroine.
  3. The reader should concentrate on the social-economic angle.
  4. The reader should prefer a story with action and dialogue to one with none.
  5. The reader should have seen the book in a movie.
  6. The reader should be a budding author.
  7. The reader should have imagination.
  8. The reader should have memory.
  9. The reader should have a dictionary.
  10. The reader should have some artistic sense.

The students leaned heavily on emotional identification, action, and the social-economic or historical angle. Of course, as you have guessed, the good reader is one who has imagination, memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense–which sense I propose to develop in myself and in others whenever I have the chance.”

Nabokov’s approach was sailing against the winds of the popular literary criticism movement of the time, deconstructionism. We won’t wade into that pool here, but suffice it to

Nabokov's notes on Kafka, with bug.

Nabokov’s notes on Kafka, with bug.

say, his approach to literature was not de jour–but it was lasting, thankfully. A quick perusal of Lectures on Literature reveals one major tenant of Nabokov’s appreciation and understanding of literature: the visual. He teaches to sketch major ideas. Draw Kafka’s bug, or map Leopold Bloom‘s perambulations through Dublin.

Nabokov's copy of Madam Bovary

Nabokov’s copy of Madam Bovary

Also, read with a writing instrument. And use it:

I’ll leave you with this thought, also from the introduction:

“Incidentally, I used the word ‘reader’ very loosely. Curiously enough, one cannot ‘read’ a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why…”

I think, with that, I will be obnoxious and make you seek out the master’s answer as to why a good reader is a rereader.

I only wish he had taught Moby Dick. Class dismissed.

Thanks for reading,

d

Tell me a story.

In Books, Writers, Writing on January 15, 2013 at 6:00 am

421“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” That is the declaration by which Joan Didion begins her now-classic, The White Album (1979). The book is a highly literary, essay-slash-memoir collection exploring the 1960s and 70s in California. Martin Amis, in reviewing the book, called Ms. Didion, a “poet of the Great Californian Emptiness.” It was a time of personal challenge for Didion, chiefly of the mental-stability order, and the expanse of California as metaphor agitates as a perfect harmonic.  Central to the book is the unease of the era as exemplified by the Charles Manson Helter Skelter murder of Sharon Tate and friends. Tate was a friend of Didion‘s. (As a side note, if you pick up The White Album I strongly suggest–no, demand–you then read Battleborn, by Claire Vaye Watkins. Watkins is the daughter of Charles “Tex” Watkins,  Manson’s righthand-man. Battleborn is starkly, and breathtakingly, original.)

So as to not drop Ms. Didion’s quote out of context, here is the full paragraph for your reading pleasure:

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accident, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be ‘interesting’ to know which. We tell ourselves that it makes some difference whether the naked woman is about to commit a mortal sin or is about to register a political protest or is about to be, the Aristophanic view, snatched back to the human condition by the fireman in priest’s clothing just visible in the window behind her, the one smiling at the telephoto lens. We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely… by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria — which is our actual experience.”

I am unabashedly smitten by: “We live entirely…by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images….”

(Aside: I drifted to this shore while reading an article about the current line-up of new TV shows, in particular shows that qualify my loose definition of being narrative-driven. You know the shows: Downton Abbey, Shameless, Breaking Bad, Homeland and a few others. (Full disclosure, I watch–no, I drink thirstily–the mentioned shows.) Are these the stories we are telling ourselves in order to live? What does that mean?)

I have another quote from The White Album in my moleskine: “I tell you this not as aimless revelation but because I want you to know, as you read me, who I am and where I am and what is on my mind.” That is as beautiful an explanation of why a writer writes as ever I’ve encountered. I trust Vonnegut‘s “ink-stained wretches” are applauding furiously. This is the quote that comes foremost to mind when reflecting on that which is attempted here at …the house…. My personal bookend to Ms. Didion’s observation is that I read in the hope, maybe even in the faith, that I will find a writer who will not necessarily explain my life, but share it. That, my friends, is why we tell stories–which is to say, the declaration of our very existence.

Sunday repost: “Two truths approach each other…”

In Creativity, Life, Reading, The Examined Life, Wisdom, Writing on January 13, 2013 at 6:00 am

Books at Tempo De Lari, Peru, D. Bruns, 2006

I recently read of a woman who spends her entire waking hours reading. Apparently she is a woman of means, or perhaps a woman of no means, like my homeless friend Lonnie. Her’s is a case of the extreme in one direction or the other. Regardless, she apparently indulges her singular obsession to the fullest. I am reminded of Einstein who said, “Any man [or woman] who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.”

* * *

I’ve been gripped by obsessions all my life. I seek them out. It’s not worth doing a thing if not to do it obsessively–that is a tag line hung on my life by an observant friend. Yet this woman’s reading obsession troubles me.

A passage from a Tomas Tranströmer poem might illuminate my concern:

Two truths approach each other / One comes from without–and where they meet you have the chance / To catch a look at yourself.

Reading is the richest supplement to life I know. Yet it does not replace life. It can be the truth which “comes from without” but the magic of catching that “look at yourself” comes at the intersection with the second truth, life. That is, of course, the trouble with obsession. It crowds life. I know this to be true.

* * *

Yet, how is a worthy thing to be accomplished without it?

Habits of a blogger

In Books, Creativity, Reading, Writing on January 12, 2013 at 6:00 am

I am a rigid and determined creature of habit. I wish it were otherwise. It would be nice to go dancing through life on a whim, bending to curiosity, twisting to spontaneity. I admire the carefree force, that personality moving through existence on the juice of life alone. (Undoubtedly the French have a name for it.) But no, my ancestors were too Germanic for that. I have habits, routines to keep. This is stuff of my twisted double helix. Too, I am a mid-westerner by up-bringing. Mid-westerners are notorious for stoic productivity. As I’ve said, you cannot escape your biography.

When I retired a few years ago the form of my existence became fluid, like water, filling the shape of any containing vessel. It didn’t take me long to construct a new vessel, filling the hours with projects and schedules. So, to finish off our three-part conversation about habit, here is how I filled the vessel specific to my so-called creative thinking life.

It begins with a short walk at sunrise–and the hope that my muse is out and about. Wrestling your muse to the deck is a bit like catching trout: you can trick her or seduce her, but if you go straight for the kiss, she’ll slip away, a watery sprite at once beautiful yet invisible. If I’ve been successful, the walk ends with a notion of what the day’s creative output is going to look like. That is a thing akin to grace, I suspect.

The production side of the creative ledger finds me at my desk every afternoon. The routine is 1:00 to 4:00, three hours of pecking away. But often, like now, it starts at the breakfast table, trying to tie down a thought or two before the sun vaporizes them. Two years ago I stopped writing …the house… in an effort to collect my thoughts on a larger canvas. I thought I’d write a book, the working title of which was, appropriately, Notes of an Autodidact. Sounds like a yawner, doesn’t it? That did not work out but in the attempt, I discovered my daily rule of 500. That is, write five hundred words a day, minimum. Three hours, five hundred words–whichever comes first. That is the writer-blogger at work.

On the intake side of the creative ledger is the reading. Books are the oxygen by which we fill our lungs. Reading is counting pages for me. Fifty pages a day is the minimum tempo, the metronome of my reading day. That is, fifty pages of the current book. Periodical reading, though entertaining, is too often a time-consuming distraction (much like computer time, a sin factored slightly less grave than tv watching (though I commit that sin, guiltily, too frequently)). The New Yorker, The Paris Review (a quarterly, read for the interviews!) and The New York Review of Books are the extent of the periodicals. The morning paper too and a handful of blogs on my RSS reader round out my reading day.

That’s it. Reading and writing, putting in the time, day after day. Breath in, breath out.

__________

…and, in the news flash department, philosopher Gary Gutting takes a look at Zadie Smith’s thoughts on Joy over at the New York Times’ Opinionator page. Gutting’s piece, The Joy of Zadie Smith and Thomas Aquinas, is artless, but well structured and precise–exactly what one would expect, sadly, of a philosopher. It is, however, thought provoking. It makes for chewy reading.

Here we have a nice, serendipitous, wrinkle demonstrating how a well-articulated notion, Zadie’s essay, starts a thinking process, the birth of an idea’s history–like a Big Bang of  thought it expands and washes over spectator and participant alike. In this instance, as a bonus, because it is rendered artistically, there is pleasure involved (to walk the edge of Smith’s arguement). I read it and send it to you; you absorb it; Gutting writes about it; we visit and entertain his thoughts, her thoughts, and so forth; layered, and inclusive, all of us suddenly part of a larger conversation. That is a function of art, indeed.

Thanks for reading and have a terrific weekend.

d

Ray Bradbury, Nietzsche, a New Year, and How to Live. Whew!

In Books, Creativity, Curiosity, Happiness, Life, Literature, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Writers, Writing on December 31, 2012 at 7:22 am

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Did you read the Sunday Time’s magazine last Sunday? It is the annual “The Lives They Lived” issue. As you might imagine, for a guy who’s spent a lot of time working on the project How Best To Live, this issue is always and annually most welcome. I don’t think one has to lead a life of pronounced accomplishment to live the best life, but for a lot of people, people far more motivated than I am, accomplishment is often the gauge of their existence.

There is one life in particular I want to share with you. Ray Bradbury (b. 1920). Here is the piece in full:

Shortly before his 90th birthday, when asked which moment of his life he’d return to were time travel possible, Ray Bradbury told his interviewer: “Every. Single. Moment. Every single moment of my life has been incredible. I’ve loved it, I’ve savored it, it’s been beautiful–because I’ve remained a boy” Bradbury was a rare and necessary antidote to the tortured-genius myth–that toxic cultural narrative that requires great creators to suffer lest their work have no depth, no gravitas, no legacy.

Bradbury left high school with plans of going to college, but no money. So he set out to educate himself by going to the library three days a week, a regimen he continued for 10 years, never romanticizing poverty or the so-called writer’s life. Instead, he celebrated the joy of writing itself. In 1951, living in Los Angels with his wife and two infant daughters, he got a bag of dimes and rented a typewriter in the U.C.L.A. basement for 10 cents an hour. He wrote “Fahrenheit 451″ for $9.80.

His secret? “You remain invested in your inner child by exploding every day. You don’t worry about the future, you don’t worry about the past–you just explode.”

Two and half years ago I posted a note about the biography I’d read of Nietzsche by Julian Young. In that post I quoted the opening paragraph. I’m posting it again–the paragraph–because I think it the perfect end piece to the Bradbury life we’re considering.

Nietzsche’s greatest inspiration, he believed, was the idea that if one is in a state of perfect mental health one should be able to survey one’s entire life and then, rising ecstatically to one’s fee, shout “Da capo!–Once more! Once more! Back to the beginning!–to “the whole play and performance.” In perfect health one would “crave nothing more fervently” than the “eternal return” of one’s life throughout infinite time–not the expurgated version with the bad bits left out, but exactly the same life, down to the very last detail, however painful or shameful.

So the process continues, this business of how best to live. Why should a new year be any different?

—————————————–

What is going on here? A couple of posts since shuttering …the house… Are we back together, the first breakup never lasting? I don’t know quite honestly. I have missed sharing my thoughts and observations, that is true. And something is nagging me. I don’t know what, exactly, but it brought me back here.

I’m not going to analyze it. Going forward (with life, the big picture, that is) I wish to make fewer plans, establish fewer goals, make fewer commitments. In summary, I just want to live as best I am able in this moment. I’ll never be the boy Bradbury claimed to be. Nor can I say with Nietzsche that I would do it all again without editing. But those are lessons and I value them–lessons I wish to better incorporate.

I do hope our paths cross again, you, dear reader, and me. I so enjoy your company.

Happy New Year.

Reading list: 2012

In Books, Creativity, Memoir, Reading, The Examined Life, Writing on December 31, 2012 at 6:46 am
Not my book shelf.

Not my book shelf.

Okay, there is tradition. Who I am to swim against the current? Three years of reading lists. Let the tradition continue.

In the year 2012 I read the following: …but before I go there…my reading has slowed. Here are the stats: In 2009 I read 33 books. I was doing a lot of reviewing at the time and books were free. What would you expect? In 2010 I read 27 books. In 2011, 26. And last/this year, 2012, 20. Obviously a trend is at work here. I don’t like the look of diminishing returns and hope to rectify things going forward.

I expressed dismay over this trend to a friend recently, fewer books read every year and so on. Her respond was, “Perhaps you’re doing other things.” This is certainly true. This year has been consumed with a lot of “other things.” Perhaps that warrants further comment. Perhaps not.

Anyway, here are the twenty books I read in 2012. (Perhaps you, like me, walk into a friend’s house and move first to the bookshelf, if there is one. If there is no bookshelf it’s probably gonna be an early evening–drink deep. But a bookshelf is like peeling back the skull to the frontal lobes and seeing what a person is made of.)

So, again, here is what I was made of in 2012, first to last:

Something Urgent I Have to Say to You, , by Leibowitz, Herbert–biography of William Carlos Williams, the great American poet. Lots of potatoes, little meat.

Lines on the Water: A Fly Fisherman’s Life on the Miramichi, by David Richards Adams –beautiful account of life standing in moving water.

The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker–A heartbreaking perfect book.

Examined Lives, from Socrates to Nietzsche, by James Miller–The examined life? What can I say? A life mission.

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes–Barnes is a favorite. To my ear, so British, so proper. So much talent.

Incidents, by Roland Barthes–Observations by a master thinker.

End of the Earth, Voyaging to Antartica, by Peter Mettheissen–Perhaps my favorite living American author–after Jim Harrison, of course. Life rendered in adventure by a writer of the first order.

Why Read Moby Dick, by Nathaniel Philbrick–A good primer to a classic.

Thinking the Twentieth Century: Intellectuals and Politics in the Twentieth Century, by Tony Judt–A tough way to go, a slog, but we own the great late Judt the effort.

At Home in the World, a Memoir, by Joyce Maynard–The voice of an angel. It’s hard to blame Salinger, though one must. (See my post from May here.)

Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation, by Tim Bissell–An essayist to warrant jealousy.

Reading for My Life: Writings 1958-2008, by John Leonard–I grew pubic hair reading and listening to Leonard. So sad to see him gone. So grateful for his direction. It made a difference.

Canada, Richard Ford–Over-rated. I wanted to like it more, wanted to love it. But, alas, like so much we wish to love, it was effort ill spent.

Battleborn, by Watkins, Claire Vaye–Best reading of the year. A new, exciting, heavy, and worthy voice. Frankly amazing to me.

What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World, by Jon, Young–wonderful introduction to being one with nature.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard–I read this first a few years ago while traveling in India. It was lost on me–too much distraction for such a quiet book. Now it seems the perfect study in observation rendered by an artist.

Canoe Indians of Down East Maine, by William A. Haviland–A homebound study. (They came to the coast from the woods in winter and lived off clams, in case you’ve wondered.)

Buddhism Is Not What You Think: Finding Freedom Beyond Beliefs, by Steve Hagan–”Not What You Think” is the key to this study. That is, if you can think of it, you’ve missed the point. Perfect zen, of course.

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis, by Timothy Egan–Egan has won the National Book Award and Curtis is the wished for life, without the pain, of course.

Stoner, by John Edward, Williams–A perfect novel. No kidding. Perfection in search of a grand(er) scheme.

________________________

Only one book was read electronically, Canada. That is not the reason it fell short; however, it did not help.

I want to apologize for that weird end-of-year summary post of yesterday. That was odd and unexpected. I don’t particularly like the look of that big ugly thing here at the …house…. It is too foreign and boisterious for our little gathering. Regardless, such are the things over which we have no control. There is a lesson in that.

Make it a good year, folks, as best you’re able. But remember a year is nothing but a collection of weeks and days and hours. I don’t want to be a minimalist (or perhaps I can’t help myself), but I think it better to make it a good hour, good minute, a good second even. When you do that the days and years follow naturally.

Best regards, friends.

Doug