A Journal of Life Pursued

Posts Tagged ‘Literature’

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.

imgres-5

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

And the Winner Is…

In Books, Writers, Writing on January 16, 2013 at 6:00 am
Nobel Prize Medal

Nobel Prize Medal

Nothing underscores the paucity of being monolingual like walking into a bookstore in a foreign country.  “To have another language is to possess a second soul,” proclaimed Goethe. In this instance, I was in France and the bookstore had a small table stacked with English titles. I walked out with Blindness by José Saramago. I was not familiar with the title, nor did I know anything of Saramago–except this: he was a Nobel laureate in Literature. I only knew this because the book sported a marketing emblem declaring it so. If you were to ask me the five best books I’ve ever read, Blindness would be on the list. I’m not sure what the other four would be. The point being, not every book written by a Nobel winner is going to be good, let alone great. But if good literature is your thing, you’ve probably stacked the odds in your favor by selecting one of these authors.

With that in mind, I thought you might be interested the “alumni association” of Nobel winners in literature. Be aware, the list is not without controversy. For instance, three of the greatest writers of the twentieth century didn’t get the nod from Stockholm: Joyce, Proust, and Nabokov.

Here is the list of the more fortunate:

2012 ~ Mo Ya

2006 ~ Orhan Pamuk
2002 ~ Imre Kertész
2000 ~ Gao Xingjian
1999 ~ Günter Grass
1997 ~ Dario Fo
1995 ~ Seamus Heaney
1994 ~ Kenzaburo Oe
1993 ~ Toni Morrison
1992 ~ Derek Walcott
1990 ~ Octavio Paz
1986 ~ Wole Soyinka
1985 ~ Claude Simon
1981 ~ Elias Canetti
1976 ~ Saul Bellow
1973 ~ Patrick White
1971 ~ Pablo Neruda
1961 ~ Ivo Andric
1957 ~ Albert Camus
1946 ~ Hermann Hesse
1943 ~ No Nobel Prize was awarded this year. The prize money was with 1/3 allocated to the Main Fund and with 2/3 to the Special Fund of this prize section.
1942 ~ No Nobel Prize was awarded this year. The prize money was with 1/3 allocated to the Main Fund and with 2/3 to the Special Fund of this prize section.
1941 ~ No Nobel Prize was awarded this year. The prize money was with 1/3 allocated to the Main Fund and with 2/3 to the Special Fund of this prize section.
1940 ~ No Nobel Prize was awarded this year. The prize money was with 1/3 allocated to the Main Fund and with 2/3 to the Special Fund of this prize section.
1938 ~ Pearl Buck
1935 ~ No Nobel Prize was awarded this year. The prize money was with 1/3 allocated to the Main Fund and with 2/3 to the Special Fund of this prize section.
1929 ~ Thomas Mann
1928 ~ Sigrid Undset
1927 ~ Henri Bergson
1918 ~ No Nobel Prize was awarded this year. The prize money was allocated to the Special Fund of this prize section.
1914 ~ No Nobel Prize was awarded this year. The prize money was allocated to the Special Fund of this prize section.
If you think great literature will earn you place in the pantheon of the immortals, think again. How many of these names are already lost to history?

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

the-lives-they-lived-2012.png

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

The state of my (reading) mind.

In Books, Creativity, Death, Literature, The Examined Life on March 7, 2012 at 6:00 am

I just left my local bookstore, Longfellow’s, empty-handed. That is significant and speaks to the current state of my mind. I finished reading a book last night and didn’t have one in waiting. That is unusual. It appears that I’m at a reading paralysis, brought on by irrational fears of mortality. Allow me to explain.

But first, the book I finished last night was the latest by Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending. It is a beautiful little book. I sat down and read it straight, stopping only to refresh my bourbon, also straight. (It was a marathon reading. I needed my electrolytes!) It is a novel of ideas, filtered through a simple but clever story. The first-person narration steadily works up to a crescendo, albeit muted. I liked it very much, but am puzzled that it won the Man Booker Prize. Geoff Dyer wondered too, saying as much in a review in the Times a few months ago. Even without Dyer’s echo, I could not but wonder at the scope of the work, or lack thereof. A prize like the Booker or the Pulitzer calls for a bigger canvas in my scheme of things.

Back to my mental state.

Reading is so important to me that I’ve become trapped by it. The problem specifically is absurd and in telling you I am revealing more than my nature usually permits. Perhaps breaking down the fourth wall, as they say in theater, is just the thing.

Do you ever worry, that should you die tomorrow, the last book might not be the right “last” book? Wouldn’t you want it to be something big and profound to send you off? Like Moby Dick, perhaps? That would be a good one. (Not an option, I just re-read that last summer.) Or Ulysses? Or Proust? (I simply don’t have the discipline to wade through those again–at least not while in such a fragile mental state.) Getting my drift? I told you it was absurd. The “next book” used to hold such promise; now it seems a dark test.

At fifty-six I am starting to plan for the end. Morbid? I think not. Just being prudent. What haven’t I read? What do I need to read? And I’m not just thinking titles. I’m thinking genres. Science, literature, philosophy, history and so on. The bigger question–and this is the important thing–the bigger question is: as a person who has gained most of his knowledge through books, what do I want to know next?

I’m curious by nature and I’ve spent a lot of time attempting to keep curiosity alive. Curiosity is an expectant little beast that needs attending to. Ignore it and it will die. Give it too much attention and you will die. It’s a balance. Moderation, said the Greeks and the Buddha. Where is my moderated curiosity leading me? And to that question, distressingly, I don’t have a solid feel-good answer.

_______________________________

As a side note, Philip Roth famously stated last summer that he no longer reads fiction. That created quite a stir in the lit community. Now, this morning, in a piece at The Daily Beast, Cormac McCarthy is quoted as saying, “I haven’t read a novel in years.” I don’t know what, if anything, to make of this situation.

My Books

In Books, Philosophy, Reading on June 1, 2010 at 4:38 pm

I moved to Maine from Maryland last year and my library is following me slowly, volume by volume, with every trip back and forth. I didn’t have to move all at once–tying to sell my Maryland house (wish me luck)– so I am taking pains to cull through my library. My plan has been to bring along with me only those books I wish to keep. Charles Sanders Peirce, the 19th Century American Philosopher, had two houses, one to live in, and one to store his books. That is not an option.

My library consists largely of books I’ve read. But there is a surprising number of books I purchased and shelved for a future reading. This reviewing and moving of my library has afforded me this knowledge: There is nothing so profound as an unread library. I don’t think many people understand that. Susan Sontag said that literature is the “creator of inwardness.” Imagine the potential for inward creation inherent in the unread library. It is, as I said, profound, and speaks to the suggestion that we might think better of ourselves than we’ve yet to realize.