Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘The Millions’

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.


In Books, Life, Literature, Memoir, Writers on December 2, 2010 at 10:12 am
The Young Rimbaud

The Young Rimbaud

It probably sounds deathly esoteric, but I’ve been reading I promise to be good, The Letters of Arthur Rimbaud. A French poet, Rimbaud (1851-1891), at the age of twenty-one, abandoned poetry and disappeared into the African desert. Of the book, a Modern Library edition,the publisher writes:

A moving document of decline, Rimbaud’s letters begin with the enthusiastic artistic pronouncements of a fifteen-year-old genius, and end with the bitter what-ifs of a man whose life has slipped disastrously away. But whether soapboxing on the essence of art, or struggling under the yoke of self-imposed exile in the desert of his later years, Rimbaud was incapable of writing an uninteresting sentence.

I don’t read much poetry, unfortunately. (It is a personal shortcoming of which I am fully aware. As they say, “no culture exits until the poets arrive.”) Rimbaud came to my attention through the great American writer, Jim Harrison, who someplace wrote of Rimbaud’s lasting influence. I respect Harrison a great deal, so I followed his lead and started reading the poet. I found the book of his letters on the discount used book rack at Longfellow Books. I have the collected letters of V. Woolf and Joyce and a couple of others; but letters, as a literary form, never deliver on the promise I hold for them. Not so here. These are different. In his letters Rimbaud paints a compelling notion of a life I find equal parts exciting and tragic.

Writing from Cyprus, the young Rimbaud asks his parents to send two books: The Illustrated Book of Agricultural and Forestry Sawmills (3 francs, with 128 pictures), and The Pocket Book of Carpentry. They are tools, these books, resources for a world that knows no poetry. Indeed, by this date, Rimbaud the poet is no more. His poet self is dead. And a new man, in search of a new life, has taken his place in full. Several months later, in another letter to his family, he writes, sadly, “The books never came, because (I’m certain) someone took them in my absence, as soon as I had left for Troodos. I still need them…”

Another year later still, in a letter to his family, Rimbaud states, “I am living a really stupid, tiresome existence.” Not long after, Rimbaud disappears into the North African desert.

The phrase, “The books never came…” breaks my heart.


I have a couple new pieces at The Nervous Breakdown:
“The First-Person Singular”

“A Man Gets into a Cage With a Tiger…”

And another at The Millions:

“Who Will There Be to Talk To?”

Review of Miscellany

In Books, Reading, Technology, Wisdom on November 5, 2010 at 8:17 am

In a piece called Generation Why? one of my favorite contemporary writers, Zadie Smith, reviews The Social Network in The New York Review of Books. I mentioned it because I found the movie an unlikely favorite, a sort of Melvillian study in obsession, à la Moby Dick, but with a computer replacing the whale.

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There is a terrific article in the current The New Yorker on Daniel Patrick Moynihan‘s collection of correspondence and letters. I confess to infrequently investing in a full reading of a New Yorker article, but this one was different. I knew of Moynihan, of course, but didn’t really know why I knew of him.  Moynihan: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” The piece is a nice introduction. Where are the Moynihans of today?

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My favorite local beer–local or not, always a favorite–is Allagash White. But there is a contender, though not local, but close. Three Philosophers beer from Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown. I mention it because of the label description, which reads: “cultured yet wild, curious yet wise.” If one were so inclined, there is an apt and wonderful epitaph.

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In the category: Not yet read but going to read: Hamlet’s Blackberry. As you may know from reading my occasional rants here, I am conflicted over the import of technology on our lives. This book takes up the question. One reviewer, quoted on the author’s homepage, states: “To those dithering over whether to close down Facebook accounts, resign from the Twitterati, and resume a more contemplative and more properly connected life, this remarkable book presents the answers and the validations for which you have been hoping.  William Powers, brave in intent and wise in argument, offers in these pages an oasis of serenity and sanity, a sanctuary from a world fast turning into a limitless digital Sahara.

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There are three blogs I read regularly. I thought I should link them here. There is The Millions, a site for readers. It was here I started my David Foster Wallace Infinite Jest journey. There is The Rumpus, a terrific site for all things cultural (popular). And then, The Nervous Breakdown, an energetic blog of ideas and notions, leaning in the writerly direction. I contribute regularly to The Nervous Breakdown (TNB). To wit, a new essay, “I have no natural capacity for anything.”

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I leave you with a quote: “Doubting pleases me no less than knowing.” ~ Dante

“a self-liberated man…”

In Books, Literature, Writers, Writing on July 11, 2010 at 8:03 am
E.B. White in Maine

E.B. White in Maine

I am working on a long-term writing project–employing the essay as the narrative form–and went to my book shelf to look up a quote. I took down Essay’s of E.B. White.  The line I was seeking was right where I left it. “The essayist is the self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest.” I love White. A Google search includes this line: “…one of the greatest essayists of our time.” We, Google and I, are in accord: White was great. I read on to this sentence, a sentence which, I should point out, has garnered me great familial derision: “Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays.” I wish I could say that I don’t have the effrontery, nor can I muster the stamina to argue with “one of the greatest essayists of our time.” But I can’t.

And on that note: Please check out my essay at The Millions.