Thinning out the stacks

I was recently asked to write an essay that would look at some current trends in literary criticism. In order to provide some background I wanted to talk a bit about earlier books like Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading and Cleanth Brooks’s The Well Wrought Urn. I have copies of both but since they’re buried away in boxes in my basement (I’m a slow mover), I thought I’d just walk over to the university library and check them out.

No luck. Neither book was available in the holdings of the university library, or any of the other university libraries that are part of the same library system. ABC of Reading was listed as being there but it wasn’t, while The Well Wrought Urn (available only in a single copy) was reported as missing.

What gives? These are two very well known, seminal books of literary criticism: the first a keynote of modernism and the other the signature work of the New Criticism. I was so sure the catalogue listings were wrong that I even went into the stacks to double check, but neither was there. Nor were they available in the city library system.

This would be weird enough, but just a month ago I’d had a similiar experience when looking for a copy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Again, this is a landmark work and very well known. It was just recently republished as part of the Library of America series. And yet trying to find a copy in the university and city library systems I came up empty. They didn’t have a single copy available. And again the stacks were bare.

I don’t offer this experience as evidence that it’s the end of the world as we know it, but I do think it suggests how much is changing. Obviously libraries are being transformed into something more than just warehouses for books, but they do still have stacks and holdings. With gaps this wide starting to show up though I’m not sure how valuable a resource they’re going to be for much longer.

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Bedtime reading

I recently came across the word “oscitant” while reading Tade Thompson’s Rosewater. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it used before and I pulled a complete blank on what it meant. (When I looked it up I found it described by the OED as rare and obsolete, which made me feel better.)

Its meaning is drowsy or dull, deriving from the Latin for “gape.” So literally it means yawning from drowsiness. According to several dictionaries it also means negligent, in the sense of being asleep at the wheel. You read and learn.

Trump/Ford/Trump/Ford

A nagging injury has led to my catching up on a backlog of notes I’d made on some older books. One of these was The Only Average Guy, a book about Rob Ford’s political career by John Filion, who sat on Toronto City Councilor during many of these years.

I reviewed Filion’s book when it first came out but two subsequent events made me want to go back and write something more on the subject, which I’ve done in a new review over at Goodreports.

The first was the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States (something I first wrote about here). In the lead-up to that astonishing event, and for a while after, there were many comparisons made between Trump and Ford.

The second event was the election of Rob’s brother Doug as premier of Ontario (which I initially responded to here). Like it or not, the family had established itself as a political dynasty.

The similarities between Trump and the Ford brothers are obvious: media-friendly blowhards who ran as right-wing populists. Are there deeper connections though? Not only between the personalities involved but the electorates? This is a subject that I think could still use some further investigation.

The English beast

Over at the Canadian Notes & Queries website my review of David Goudreault’s Mama’s Boy (an English translation by JC Sutcliffe of La bête à sa mere) has been posted. I really enjoyed this little book, which is just the first part of a trilogy.

Sutcliffe’s translation of François Blais’s Document 1 is also very good. Both books are published by Book*hug, who have done a first-rate design job as well. Definitely worth checking out.

Post-Postman

Quick responses to a couple of questions raised in Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992) by Neil Postman:

Will the computer raise egocentrism to the status of a virtue?

Well, I think that one’s already been answered.

My point is that, with the Cold War at an end, our political leaders now struggle, as never before, to find a vital narrative and accompanying symbols that would awaken a national spirit and a sense of resolve. The citizens themselves struggle as well. Having drained many of their traditional symbols of serious meaning, they resort, somewhat pitifully, to sporting yellow ribbon as a means of symbolizing their fealty to a cause. After the war, the yellow ribbons will fade from sight, but the question of who we are and we represent will remain. Is it possible that the only symbol left to use will be an F-15 fighter plane guided by an advanced computer system?

We’ve gone one better, Neil. Now we have drones.

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.