Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Books’

What the Hell?

In Books, Reading, Travel on June 22, 2012 at 6:00 am

Another repost, as I’m traveling. This one from summer, 2006. (My god, I’ve been doing this a long time…)

Paris, Under the Tower, D. Bruns

When I die does this blog die with me? Or, rather, does a bit of it, like a clipped toe nail forgotten on the tile floor, remain indefinitely until someone comes along and cleans it up? “Yep, he’s good and gone. Better clean this mess.” I was in Paris only five days and am wading into such depths. Philosophy is in the water there–that is, at least, what they might have you think, as they might think stupid is in American water.
        By “What the hell?” I mean: what the hell have I been doing since February when I last posted to this sorry excuse for a blog. As I said, I’ve been to Paris, also Maine, where I fulfilled a life-long dream to get a little place on the coast, at least until the ice cap melts it gone under, which might be any damn hour. It was E.B. White that set me on this path years ago, writing: “Once in everyone’s life there is apt to be a period when he is fully awake, instead of half asleep. I think of those five years in Maine as the time when this happened to me.”
        Reading too, since I last posted–figuring first I am a reader, then everything else–and getting hooked on a Penguin Editor’s list of Modern Classics, being a big fan of lists and an advocate of self-improvement. [In 2006 I was naive enough to believe that literature could accomplish such a thing–ed.] Twenty books total, only four of which I’d read previously: Heart of Darkness (Conrad), Love in the Time of Cholera (Marquez), A Portrait of…Young Man (Joyce), Women in Love (Lawrence)

        I’ve also knocked off Dellio’s White Noise, which though wonderful and brilliant, seems debatably great, but time will tell. And current?– to the west coast and back again: On the Road, with Jack Kerouac. Also filling the hours at Allie’s graduation with Roth’s new novel, Everyman. Thank god for college book stores open on graduation day.

Also, since February, grinding through 100 Gentlemen of Baltimore, the book project I have set upon, a collection of 100 portraits and interviews with men living on the streets of Baltimore–where it is estimated the homeless population is between 3000 and 5000–a project which keeps a camera at my side and sharpens the tools of this Bodhisattva wanna-be.

And next? Next is this afternoon, sitting quietly with books at my elbow and faithful Maggie snoring as her sun-ray shifts, and working hard to remember that next is now.

My “coffee-thing”

In Books, Creativity, Literature, Memoir, Thinkers, Writers, Writing on April 16, 2012 at 6:34 am

I wrote an essay a year or so ago for the The Nervous Breakdown. Yesterday I received an email from a woman who read the piece and felt compelled to write. The reader had, several years previously, suffered brain trauma in a car accident and was now worried it was catching up to her. She wrote, “I managed to cope fairly well, considering, untill some years ago: I started to think I was going barking mad, dementia/alzheimer a family condition, thinking it was my turn now. Having been reassured I’m just sufffering normal 60ýears memory-loss, I can happily reassured go on living… Thanks to…Doug Bruns for writing about this “coffee-thing”. (My piece was called, Like Burnt Coffee.) I found some comfort in her experience and wanted to pass along (most of) the essay.


“…the books from which entire literatures have flowed, like Homer, Rabelais, are encyclopedias of their time,” wrote Flaubert to Colet. “They knew everything,” he said.

Flaubert was writing in 1854 and grappling with a momentous, essentially silent, event in human history: books had surpassed the human brain for universal capacity. The encyclopedic individual to which Flaubert referred–Homer, Rabelais and their ilk–had been eclipsed by the summation of knowledge as contained in the book. The course of flowing knowledge had reversed–no longer would it flow from individual to book. Rather, the book, the compilation and accumulation of knowledge, would forever inform the individual. (In modern life, the flow has again transitioned: book to computer–and most recently, computer to internet.)

It is related that Gottfried Leibniz was the last man to know everything that could be known; that after he died in 1716, the knowledge the world contained was greater than what one individual was capable of knowing. There is no fact to support either of these notions, Leibniz’s omniscience or the quantity of knowledge in the world at his time. Regardless, it is a concept that gives me pause.

I want to know everything. Realistically, not everything, just more. I read Guy Davenport, Isaiah Berlin, Christopher Hitchens, Susan Sontag, Robert Nozick; I read them–and so many others–and am reminded immediately and precisely how stupid and thick I am. Obtuse… I might as well be illiterate…There is nothing I retain. I forget everything…I go to dinner parties and afterward am told that I had previously entertained those same polite people with that same tired story. I submit an essay only to discover that I’d published it a year previously, a month previously. I look at my library and wonder, who read all these books? I am, I fear, seriously and irredeemably lacking. There will no make-up class. This is not Groundhog Day, the movie.

Unlike Leibniz, I know nothing. If I am the sum of the collected existences which preceded me–what Octavio Paz called, “the living tissue of the current situation”–then I am but a fragment, a single cell even, of a human self. The whole is a futility. It rests in my mouth like the bitter taste of burned coffee.

The Year in Reading – 2011

In Books, Literature, Writers, Writing on December 3, 2011 at 3:03 pm

Two years ago I wrote a piece for The Millions called Literature is a Manner of Completing Ourselves–A Reader’s Year. The title is a quote from Susan Sontag. (If you’re a reader you should bookmark The Millions. It’s perhaps the best of the general lit blogs out there.) I came to write that essay because I had for the first time taken note of the books I’d read that year. It–the reading list–was nothing more than a simple spreadsheet, a record, the transcript of a twelve month journey turning pages. (Yes, all the reading was analogue, real paper pages.)

I have below pasted the reading list for 2012. It is interesting to compare the years. This year I read twenty-seven books, not counting the current book which I will finish before year’s end. In comparison to last year, 27 is less by a full 16%. And last year included one thousand page beast, Infinite Jest. No thousand pagers this year.  The really interesting comparison is to 2009, the list I wrote about in The Millions. This year by comparison is less 2009 by 27%. That is to say that in three years my reading pace has dropped by 25%. (Too, that year included two books over a thousand pages, Bolaño’s 2666 and Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen.) A quick calculation brings me to the conclusion that at this pace in about five years I will have stopped reading altogether.

Speaking of reading lists. Are you aware of Art Garfunkle’s? He’s a serious reader who has been keeping tally of books read since the 1960s. Here’s a link. To really drive it home, he goes another step to list his favorite books. Browsing through his list is almost as good as studying the library of a dinner host. (Which beats looking into their medicine cabinet any day.)

Here’s my list of books read in 2011. (I’ve linked the books I reviewed.)

  • Jan 7    Bound to Last, 30 Writers on their Most Cherished Book — Sean Manning, Ed.
  • Jan 8   The Maine Woods — H.D. Thoreau
  • Jan 24   A Widow’s Tale — Joyce Carol Oats
  • Feb 19   Portrait of a Marriage — Sándor Márai
  • Feb 28   The Foremost Good Fortune — Susan Conley
  • Mar 5    Moby Dick — Herman Melville (This was a third reading.)
  • Mar 21   The Sweet Relief of Missing Children — Sarah Braunstein
  • Mar 28   Tinkers — Paul Harding
  •  Apr 5    Seeds — Richard Horan
  • Apr 25   Fire Season — Phillip Connors
  • Apr 30   The Pale King — David Foster Wallace
  • May 7    The Mind’s Eye, Writings on Photography and Photographers — H. Cartier-Bresson
  • May 15   The Ongoing Moment — Geoff Dyer
  • May 30  The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore — Benjamin Hale
  • Jun 15    Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself — David Lipsky
  • Jun 21    The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas  — Gertrude Stein
  • Jul 10     The Tao of Travel — Paul Theroux
  • Aug 3     Feathers — Thor Hanson
  • Aug 15   The Surf Guru — Doug Dorst
  • Aug 20  The Story of Charlotte’s Web — Michael Sims
  • Oct 1      Disaster was my God — Bruce Duffy
  • Oct 20   The Great Leader — Jim Harrison
  • Nov 3     Blue Nights — Joan Didion
  • Nov 9     Beautiful & Pointless — David Orr
  • Nov 19   Swimming to Antarctica — Lynne Cox
  • Nov 29  The Triggering Town — Richard Hugo

Two last notes, should lists be your thing. Here are two that I’ve studied for years. The first is the reading list of St. Johns College in Annapolis, MD. St. Johns is better known as the Great Books School. The entire college education at St. Johns is based on the readings of original texts. Here is the undergrad reading list. It’s heavy duty. A little lighter and less intimidating is the Modern Library list of 100 best: Nonfiction & Fiction. One could do worse than read a few of these.

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.


Reading list: 2009

In Books, Literature, Reading on January 10, 2010 at 10:19 am

Here’s what I read last year (2009):

  1. Nothing to be Frightened of, Julian Barnes (Jan 3)
  2. Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates (Jan 10)
  3. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Zen Living (Jan 12)
  4. The English Major, Jim Harrison (Jan 15)
  5. Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, Paul Theroux (Feb 22)
  6. The Reader, Bernard Schlink (Mar 5)
  7. The Soloist, Steve Lopez (Mar 12)
  8. Atmospheric Disturbances, Rivka Galcheon (Mar 22)
  9. Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce (Mar 31)
  10. Digging to America, Anne Tyler (April 9)
  11. Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouck (April 11)
  12. The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery  (April 23)
  13. The Writing Life, Anne Dillard (May 17)
  14. Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Joan Didon (May 26)
  15. The White Album, Joan Didon (May 31)
  16. 2666, Roberto Bolano, (June 26)
  17. Shadow Country, Peter Matthisen (July 13)
  18. Snakeskin Road, James Braziel (July 18)
  19. Self’s Murder, Bernhard Schlink (July 22)
  20. Heroic Measures, Jill Ciment (July 27)
  21. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, Geoff Dyer (Aug 4)
  22. An Underachiever’s Diary, Benjamin Anustos (Aug 6)
  23. Homer and Langley, E.L. Doctorow (Aug 9)
  24. Under This Unbroken Sky, Benjamin Anustas (Sept 2)
  25. Last Night in Twisted River, John Irving (Sept 21)
  26. This is Water, David Foster Wallace (Sept 25)
  27. The Boy Next Door, Irene Sabatini (Sept 30)
  28. Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon (Oct 13)
  29. After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, Evie Wyld (Oct 20)
  30. Supreme Courtship, Christopher Buckley (Oct 28)
  31. Johnny Future, Steve Abee (Nov 3)
  32. The Convalescent, Jessica Anthony (Nov 15)
  33. Manhood for Amateurs, Michael Chabon (Dec 9)
  34. Noah’s Compass, Anne Tyler (Dec 19)

The list is shorter than 2008 when I paced myself at about a book a week. But last year I had a couple of BIG ones on the list, 2666 and Shadow County, both weighing in at over 900 pages. So, I’ll use that excuse. One book I tackled, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, didn’t make the list, not from lack of effort. It is massive and dense and, by all accounts, brilliant. But I couldn’t wade through it, giving up after a couple hundred pages. But it sits on the shelf, as if knowing I will come back for another pass.

It was good to read Joyce again. I read Portrait while traveling in Nepal. It was, I think, the third time and is remains a contender for my favorite book (of fiction). Favorite living authors, Jim Harrison and Paul Thoreux both had postings on my list last year. If asked, I would say that This is Water was my favorite read of 2009, though I don’t consider it a book, but an essay. The DFW industry is alive and well, not, sadly, the man himself. It was industry that turned a brilliant short talk into a “book.” 2666 was probably the most rewarding artistic read of last year, not counting Joyce, of course. The biggest suprise was The Convalescent by local Maine writer, Jessica Anthony. It is brilliant.

Much of what I read last year can be found at MostyFiction dot com, the web site for book reviews, including a few of mine. It’s a good gig. I get my books for free and get to write about them. It does, I admit though, sometimes feel like work. But that is whining, isn’t it?

And 2010? I’m off to slow start. I’m not sure why, exactly. There are a lot of distractions, it seems, starting out. But, maybe I’m just catching my breath, setting a pace. There are some writers I want to get to this year, and they are all dead. Last year was all fiction. I love fiction, good literature, a story well told, big thick books, bubbling stories. But this year calls for some philosophy (Camus, in particular). Yes, philosophy. I’m 54, what can I say? Stay tuned.