Trying to read harder

Trying to read harder

Relax.  There’s nothing in this piece about testicles or their removal.

You’re welcome or I’m sorry,  whatever.

I had been looking for a particular sort of book cover to illustrate my reading assignment over the past few weeks, one that presents a book with a cover I find objectionable; this one pretty much fits the bill.  To be honest, I haven’t actually read the Whitman Tell-A-Tale, but I get the jist, as it were.  To return to the reading assignments, I’m not terribly far along in meeting Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge; I’ve just finished White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi, the fourth Oyeyemi novel I’ve read in the last year and one that met the category, “a book with a cover you hate.”  Since finishing the book, I’ve found that the more recent editions (2014) present the cover I dislike, whereas, the earlier edition (2009) actually has a pretty snappy cover.  In any case, given the disparity between Oyeyemi covers, I thought I’d entice the casual reader with the portrait of an pre-operational puppy, pretty much a sure thing in the cover trade.

Why read harder?  It all starts with my eldest son, a better person than I from the start and a much more disciplined reader.  He reads the big books, Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest for example, and sticks with them.  I think he’s actually read these two more than once.  To further establish his moral superiority, he refuses to drop a book one started, no matter how onerous the reading of the book may be.  He’s waded through books that caused him real pain, and yet persists.

I’m a less patient, less disciplined, less ambitious reader.  I’ll bounce from novel to novel, dropping those that seem tedious or just not quite right for the reading mood I’m in.  I’ll circle back from time to time to give a book a second chance, recognizing that the moon and stars may line up differently the second time around.  With some goading I did finish Infinite Jest and found myself quite taken with the novel in the end.  Gravity’s Rainbow is on a shelf somewhere.  Maybe someday.

So, my eldest is taking on the Book Riot Challenge, determined to attack every category by reading only female authors.  This is the guy who decided he needed to read a nineteenth century novel by a female author, deflecting cautionary advice and picking Middlemarch and finishing it, so I’m a relatively lazy piece of flotsam by comparison.  Thus, the challenge to prod me into some sort of direction.

We started in the middle of the year and have only five months to sock away the entire list, but even if I come up short, I will have read more deliberately than I have in a long while.  I began with a slight evasion, re-reading Henry V and Loves’ Labors’ Lost, both plays  I’m working with at the Shakespeare Festival.  All of Shakespeare’s work was published posthumously, which is kind of a weasel choice, but I’ve only got five months so I’m going to grab shortcuts where I can.  I’ll double up a few as well when one novel meets more than one criterion.  Five months and I still have my ordinary undisciplined reading to do as well.

The toughest nut to crack, I knew, would be in reading an assigned book that I hated or never finished.  The list was not all that long even though I majored in Medieval and Early European History.  I actually enjoyed The Nibelungenlied and The Song of Roland.  Enough to finish in any case.  No, the novel to be picked up again after all these years was The Scarlet Letter.

The slog was notable at the outset, but as I clambered through Hawthorne’s dark romanticism and randomly digressive style, I found myself warming to him as an author even as I anticipated the heaviness of narrative at the novel’s end.  It’s considered one of the truly great and thoroughly American American novels, and the characterisation of Hester Prynne is more psychologically complex than I had expected, so I am pleased to have spent some time in Hawthorne’s company.  I am not sure I’d like to spend a moment more with Hester’s feral daughter Pearl and Hester’s demon-husband Chillingworth, although each in her/his distance from the norm in any age would have made for a stirring tale of active witchcraft and satanic possession.  Ah, well.

I’ve read The  Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan, a terrifying account of how the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway began a process by which lampreys, alewives, zebra mussels, and a host of other non-native life forms have transformed the lakes entirely.  It’s a cautionary tale and one I won’t spoil by ham-handedly describing what Egan presents with such clarity.  That was my book about Nature, so on with the parade.

My book of Social Science was every bit as disturbing, perhaps signifying that the current  graceless epoch is simply a continuation of bad behavior that arrived with the first colonists.  Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann describes the murder of at least twenty members of the Osage Nation who held title to oil-rich land that Texas robber barons felt should be theirs.  Twenty is a conservative guess; there may have been hundreds of murders.  It is hard to know that genocide was still a matter of fact in the 1920’s (as were lynchings, of course), but important to put names to those who carried out genocide for profit.

I’ll be cleansing the palate by turning to my celebrity memoir, Wishful Drinking, by Carrie Fisher.  I’ve got a slew of books associated with recovery from a slew of addictions, so the response to Fisher will likely appear in the wider context of recovery literature (Infinite Jest, Girl in Pieces, etc).

Meanwhile, nineteen books left.

Tick, Tock.  Here’s the list:

  1. A book published posthumously
  2. A book of true crime
  3. A classic of genre fiction (i.e. mystery, sci fi/fantasy, romance)
  4. A comic written and drawn by the same person
  5. A book set in or about one of the five BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, or South Africa)
  6. A book about nature
  7. A western
  8. A comic written or drawn by a person of color
  9. A book of colonial or postcolonial literature
  10. A romance novel by or about a person of color
  11. A children’s classic published before 1980
  12. A celebrity memoir
  13. An Oprah Book Club selection
  14. A book of social science
  15. A one-sitting book
  16. The first book in a new-to-you YA or middle grade series
  17. A sci fi novel with a female protagonist by a female author
  18. A comic that isn’t published by Marvel, DC, or Image
  19. A book of genre fiction in translation
  20. A book with a cover you hate
  21. A mystery by a person of color or LGBTQ+ author
  22. An essay anthology
  23. A book with a female protagonist over the age of 60
  24. An assigned book you hated (or never finished)

Checking Out

Checking Out

A friend of mine is dying.  The news came in the morning’s mail, not surprising, but still terrible.  A fair number of friends are already gone.  Others are fighting hard and some are easing on.  It’s not the only subject of conversation, but it comes up a great deal more frequently than it did even a year or two ago.

This is not entirely unexpected.  Apparently we who make up the first bulge in the population that began booming in the late 1940’s have reached what manufacturers like to call the expiration date, although I prefer to think of myself as perhaps Best Used By 2018, still reasonably safe to have around if properly refrigerated.

All the same, my existential warning system has kicked in, the relentless ticking countdown has moved from background to foreground, and time’s winged chariot has begun hurrying more insistently near.  All of which is to say that I think about checking out a good deal more that I once did, and with a good deal more sticky emotional bounce around.  The bouncing is actually profound as I am intermittently at ease with the operation of the universe in whatever fashion it operates and  determined to place an ego-bound headlock on that universe.  I’d use the phrase, “death grip”, but that’s actually… you know… a contradiction of terms in this case.

It may seem a digression at this point to admit that I have an unfortunate inclination to actually read the information people give me about themselves in sporting the t-shirts that they wear, but one hit home the other day and provides a neat transition from wallowing to wondering.

I live in what my children call a “blue hair” town, a town more crowded with retired folks of my generation than most.  One of my generational cohorts, a not particularly well-preserved representative of the tribe, lounged comfortably in a coffee shop wearing a declaration that may be shared by others of my ilk — “I Intend To Live Forever —  So Far, So Good”

Really?  How good?

Well, although the present is always tough to evaluate, it’s clear that we live in troubled and troubling times; humankind taken as a whole appears to be less kind and unfortunately more human, and trusted institutions seem less trustworthy.  At least, that’s the way it seems to me from what I know is a very insulated and privileged point of view.  I suspect that for most of the world daily life has had more to do with struggling to find security than with anxiously observing the loss of treasured beliefs. and practices. I  have been moderately aware that the chunk of history – the speck of history – that I have lived in has known troubles, but for the most part, I have lived in cheerful oblivion decade after decade; fate plunked me down on a continent that has not seen invasion, plague, and pestilence, and in a relatively small and absolutely insulated corner of that continent.  It all looked very Mickey Mouse Club, American Bandstand, and Yankee baseball to me.  Yes, I saw the horror of war in Vietnam, and yes, I saw the legacy of slavery and racial violence in the United States, but from a distance and with an unshaped conviction that the sweep of progress would inevitably correct inequity, poverty, and the few unfortunate remaining flaws in a nation conceived in liberty and justice, in a nation destined to shine its light on the rest of the world; I believed this good nation would correct itself naturally as reasonability overcame self-interest.

Ignorance was comfort if not bliss, and I regret having plonked along so blithely unaware of the hardships of others and, more notably, feel foolish for believing that civility, tolerance, the celebration of progress and inclusion was inevitable and universally admired.  Having seen behind the curtain in a nation I no longer recognize, I’m also in danger of feeling simultaneously responsible and entirely overwhelmed.

I’m stuck.

I don’t know everything, never have, and that’s been ok as long as I felt certain that enough bright people knew enough and enough generous people gave enough, and enough brave people did enough to keep the world from skidding into chaos.  I trusted science and the rule of law, which in hindsight was an abdication of my own responsibility for environmental crisis and the perpetuation of a discriminatory system of justice.  And now …?

I didn’t intend to give up the reins; I look around and, with the exception of the usual cast of imbedded plutocrats still mucking around, impossibly young people are bright enough, and generous enough, and brave enough to try to pull the tattered fabric back together.  I don’t quote Satchel Paige very often, but his question rings through the decades:  “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?”

Old enough to know I’m old enough.

I have always been moved by the last scene in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, a play that has fallen out of favor but which speaks to the human condition in a way that resonates with my own experience in the world.  It’s a play that breaks the fourth wall and operates without props or scenery.   The various characters have contended with the things we contend with and have celebrated the things we celebrate.  At a funeral, the living stand and speak; the dead sit  in rows facing the audience.  They observe the living and respond with pleasant objectivity to all they see.  What strikes me is that in this moment a group finds itself made up of whoever happened to die within the same era.  They may not have had much in common along the way, but end up in the same place.

I’ve thought of this process as similar to my experience in the supermarket.  I walk through the door, others are there or enter later, and at some point, we all stand in the check-out line.  Let’s assume I’m in the express line (15 items or less) with a loaf of bread and a can of soup.  The person in front of me has piled the conveyor belt high with produce, soda cans,  slabs of bacon, candy bars, deodorant –  obviously waaaaay more than 15 items.  Life as it is.  What to do?

Higher life forms than myself have suggested that choosing not to object or express annoyance is acceptance; not noticing is serenity.

Life is happening all around me; I’m delighted with much of it and on the verge of despair with much of it.  I summon my inner Frank Costanza and shout, “Serenity now!”, but the reality is that I’m in the check-out line, however fervently I wish to be somewhere on Aisle 12 looking at hamburger buns.  My job today, I think, is to look around and actually see the people around me.  They may be in my line; they may still be cruising the school supplies.  No matter.  I’m pretty sure we are all in this together.