Talking about books

Every now and then you read a book that you don’t want to review so much as enter into a conversation with. Here are some excerpts from a dialogue between myself and Joe Queenan’s One for the Books.

Somewhere along the line, I got into the habit of reading several books simultaneously. “Several” soon became “many,” and “many” soon became “too many.” . . . In my adult life I cannot remember a single time when I was reading fewer than fifteen books, though at certain points this figure has spiraled far higher. I am not talking about books I have delved into, perused, and set aside, like Finnegans Wake or Middlemarch, which I first took a crack at in 1978, or The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which I have been reading, on and off, since I was about twelve. That would get me up way over a hundred. No, I am talking about books I am actively reading, books that are right there on my nightstand and are not leaving there until I am done with them. Right now, the number is thirty-two.

Right now, the number for me is forty-three . Most of these are piled up on the headboard of my bed, which is where I do most of my reading. Queenan says he doesn’t understand how anyone can read in bed. I don’t understand how anyone can read any other way.

I’ve only read the first few pages of Finnegans Wake and have no great interest in reading any more. I still have a copy though so I might get back to it . . . someday. I’ve read Middlemarch a couple of times and hope to again before I die. Gibbon I’ve read and still dip into it whenever I have a chance.

Only the greatest books can withstand the damage inflicted on their reputations by bad movies: The Great Gatsby, Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice. Hollywood has always been reasonable good at turning electrifying hooey like Gone with the Wind and The Bridges of Madison County into movies that are far superior to the novels that begat them. But it has trouble when it takes a run at War and Peace. Hollywood doesn’t know what to do with serious fiction, so it does what it does best: It annihilates it.

So true. My own version of the general rule is just that bad novels make good movies. But only a certain kind of bad novel. That type of bad novel, in turn, becomes popular both among authors and audiences, who have now been trained in what to expect.

I am deadly serious about the way I parcel out my reading time. I may have time for this, but I do not have time for that. Several years ago, I calculated how many books I could read if I lived to my actuarially expected age. The answer was 2,138. In theory, those 2,138 books would include everything from Tristram Shandy to Le Colonel Chabert, with titles by authors as celebrated as Goethe and as obscure as Juan Filloy. In principle, there would be enough time to read 500 masterpieces, 500 minor classics, 500 overlooked works of pure genius, 500 oddities, and 168 examples of first-class trash.

I think every confirmed reader does this sort of rough accounting once they make it to a certain age. They often also say things like “I’ve got to quite wasting so much of my time on lousy books.” I’ve made the same resolution. And yet, one still keeps reaching for the trash. Even the second- and third-class stuff. I think there are times when we need that diversity in the quality of what we read. If all we did was read the classics life would get pretty boring.

But the numbers! I think I have close to 2,000 books in my “to-read” pile now, and it is growing every day. I’ll never read them all.

Critics are mostly servile muttonheads, lacking the nerve to call out famous authors for their daft plots and slovenly prose. Academics fear that an untoward word will hurt them somewhere down the line when their own daft, slovenly books come up for review. Blurbs in particular can no longer be trusted. Usually they are written by liars and sycophants to advance the careers of bozos and sluts.

Bozos and sluts? I don’t know. The rest of it is mostly right though.

Unless you are a complete idiot, genre fiction will eventually tire you out.

I’m not sure. It depends how much of it you take on. If 90% of everything is crap then if you stick within a single genre for a long period of time you’ll probably get tired of the regular fare. But here’s the thing: genres of fiction have been around for a long time, suggesting that, as with any literary form, they are inexhaustible. One sticks with them because they’re always being made new. I’ve written a regular SF column for several years now, and while a lot of what I read can start to seem the same, I do come across interesting new works every month.

Then again, I may be a complete idiot.

Can an obsession with reading prove detrimental to one’s well-being? Yes, I think it can.

Reading as mental illness. Well, it certainly seems that way today!

Any obsession is, almost by definition, unhealthy. I think Queenan’s point is more that reading removes us from reality. I’d agree with this, but while it may be detrimental to my well-being I think it’s a price worth paying, since I despise reality.

I have spent countless hours over the years chatting with people about Anne Tyler, Tom Robbins, and David Lodge, all of them fine, accessible writes, none of them writers I especially enjoy. Conversely, I have never discussed Juvenal’s work with anyone. It’s been years since anyone I know has mentioned John Donne in my presence. Decades go by without anyone breathing a word regarding Italo Svevo, Italo Calvino, or anybody else I admire named Italo. Among my favorite writers are Marcel Aymé, Ivan Doig, J. G. Farrell, Georges Bernanos, Thomas Berger, Junichiro Tanizaki, Robert Coover, and Jean Giono. I have never once been engaged in a conversation about these writers.

Ah, the loneliness of the reader of serious literary fiction. I can relate (for what it’s worth, he also writes that “I have never had a wide-ranging conversation about Canadian literature with anyone. Nor do I expect to.”). From the list of names Queenan gives as his favourites the only one I share is J. G. Farrell. I’ve been a fan of Farrell for years, and have often pressed his novels upon friends. These advances have all been rejected. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone else who has read Farrell, though I think he is a relatively popular novelist. I’ve certainly never had a conversation with anyone about him. But then I wonder: Would I even want to, should the opportunity present itself? Perhaps not. Reading is a solitary activity. Every man dies, and reads, alone.


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