Monday, January 02, 2006

BOOKS: New Year + New Books = Happy Me

Yay! It's a new year, and there are books to be read. What are they, you ask? Hard to say. Like a lot of people, I'm a serendipitous reader, a fact I'm reminded of every time I plot a reading path for myself, only to veer off course almost immediately. Call it literary chaos theory.

For example, last year, Reading Lolita in Tehran gave me a compulsion to re-read The Great Gatsby. Then The Fortress of Solitude made me want to read the Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. I re-read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Vanity Fair (both books I love) after seeing them reviewed on other people's 50 Books sites. Prodigal Summer and Hollywood Wives and
Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul were all "found" reads that I picked up at people's houses or cabins on vacations when I'd run out of other reading material. I read the entire Little House on the Prairie box set in a series of late nights, when young Master Sam was first sprouting teeth and I needed books with large print that I could read by the nightlight. I read Truman Capote's Music for Chameleons after Hurricane Katrina because I wanted to read about New Orleans the way it never will be again. I read the latest Harry Potter book because I was confused and thought I was required to by law.

So take what I'm about to say with a grain of salt. Here's a shortlist of books I'd really like to get to this year (in random order):
And there are a few books I'd like to re-read, including Hemingway's Garden of Eden and Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night. I used to read these every year, but I realized I was going to have to space my readings further apart if I wanted to make these books last my (no doubt long and fruitful) life. It's been a couple of years now, and I think I'm ready.

And I hate to tell you, I may have to also re-read
Kerouac's Dharma Bums. Can I help it if he writes about hiking and camping in such an evocative way? Why must you judge me? Can't we all be brothers?

And goddammit, I'm going to get my mitts on copies of Elizabeth Enright's kids' books
Then There Were Five and Spiderweb for Two (both are out of print for some stupid reason), even if it kills me. I own The Saturdays and The Four-Storey Mistake, and every time I read them (consecutively, natch), the lack of closure makes me go mental.

I haven't just been thinking about the books I'm hoping to read. I've also given some thought to how I'll write about them here. It's occurred to me more than once that, as book reviewers go, I probably leave a fair bit to be desired. I'm naval-gazing, self-reflective, and solipsistic as all get-out. (These are my fancy ways of saying I talk about my baby too much.)

But, you see, here's the problem I have with "mainstream" book reviews:

Because they appear on the printed page alongside articles about world events and local news, book reviews have somehow got it in their head that they are pieces of journalism. As such, writers of book reviews dwell in sensory deprivation tanks where their analysis of each book they read can percolate in a bubble of hermetically sealed objectivity.

Now, out here in the real world where a few of us live, books are read under slightly different conditions: while standing on buses, in hurried snatches in doctors' waiting rooms, while waiting anxiously for a phone call after a job interview, on beaches with a glass of sangria wedged firmly in the sand next to your towel, blurry-eyed by the light of the nightlight while rocking a teething baby.

Books are also obtained in different circumstances that affect our emotional response to them: as gifts from beloved friends or pass-alongs from hated co-workers, as found objects in rental cabins, in the mail from the bloody book of the month club you keep forgetting to cancel, in the bowels of a used bookstore after years of searching.

There are a thousand other factors that make our experience of a book highly subjective: a dislike of certain authors and genres, a tactile distaste for hardcovers or for paperbacks, an irrational prejudice against a character because they share a name with someone you loathe, and even -- yes, it's true -- a visceral reaction to a book's cover.

So why, then, the pretense of objectivity, a pretense that's all the more ironic and unnecessary given that book lovers are the first people you can rely on to appreciate and understand -- and enjoy -- the environmental and emotional factors that colour your experience with a book?

Here's another thing about so-called book reviews: why is it so damn hard for reviewers just to come out and say if the book was good or not? Really, isn't that kind of the point of a book review? I don't need to read an essay that proves how clever you are. I just want to read enough of your writing to know if you're clever enough to trust with my next reading decision, then give me a yay or nay. Is that so hard? It seems like too many book reviewers are writing for the benefit of other book reviewers, or for publishers, or for some imaginary English prof who haunts their laptop. Somehow, the actual readers get lost in the crowd.

Back when I was an undergrad studying English literature, I learned how to write appropriately impersonal, academically correct essays providing "critical analyses" of "texts." These days, I prefer to write my thoughts about books. And I'm thrilled to reclaim personal pronouns to do so.

When I started this site, I didn't consciously set out to give it a certain "voice." I just wanted to write in a way that felt honest and true to me. I wanted to say,
Yes, I loved this book, or No, that book sucked rocks, or I think this may be a good book but it came to me at the wrong time and place. I wanted to think aloud about how my context affects how I feel about what I'm reading. And I wanted to flip it around and think about how what I'm reading colours how I look at the world.

I think about reading a lot. Not just books, but the act of reading. I may occasionally come off as flip on these pages, but I take reading very seriously. And at the same time I think that reading is one of the funnest things I can imagine doing. Really, what an amazing gift we all share, when you think about it: the ability to read simple words on a page and use them to make complex moving pictures in our heads. And then we can go out and find like-minded people and compare our head-pictures with their head-pictures and blow each other's minds. Isn't that totally un-fucking-believable?

So, you know, I'm going to keep on reading in the haphazard way that my life affords, and I'm going to keep writing about it in my own extremely un-objective way, and if I can give you a few laughs and solid book recommendations along the way, I'll be pretty content. And that's as close to a new year's resolution as you're ever likely to hear me make.

19 comments:

Heather said...

It sounds to me like you'll really, really enjoy Polysyllabic Spree. Each section starts off with a list of books read and books to be read, and almost every time Horny ends up reading something else totally off-track. He's pretty direct about whether he liked it or not and he generally connects what he's reading to life around him. Good stuff!

I've enjoyed your blog because I know exactly what you thought of a book after you've read it. Even if I disagree, I appreciate that.

Heather said...

(That, of course, was supposed to be HornBY and not horny... whoops.)

Carrie said...

I can't recommend MKF Fisher more. I am reading The Gastronomical Me on and off, and I finished How to Coook a Wolf this year. That book is amazing and from the few few pages of Me, it looks like a winner too.

I also think alot about how most of the book reviews I read are not helpful. Reading is a very subjective experience. In my reviews i always try to give a straight up read it or not vote. Truthfull, I think criticism is alot more interesting to read if you know the critic's likes and dislikes and the circumstances of when and wehere they do it...

Long comment short-- Great post!

Also, Wonder Boys is a great read. I wrote a little, silly bit about it on my blog...

Clicky click click

Jagosaurus said...

Rock on!

Hey, this is kind of random but have you ever read The Bat Poet by Randall Jarrell (illustrated by Maurice Sendak)?

Anonymous said...

I love your perspective on reading, and am in complete agreement. Many people don't understand why I've never watched the classic film of To Kill a Mockingbird - the reason I give them is that I don't want to replace the images in my head that were generated by my favorite book with the images generated by the film. I'd rather see my Scout, my Dill, and my Atticus, not Gregory Peck (as much as I love him). The older I get, the more difficult it becomes to avoid seeing this movie!

White Trasherati said...

Uh, don't know why it posted me as Anonymous - this is Trasherati. User error or hopeless Luddite?

Dave said...

I love the way you write about the books you read. You're smart but accessible; you react personally but you're informed. Alongside everyone else here, I'll keep being a fan.

Doppelganger said...

Horny... hee!

And hey, thanks for the props, guys! I swear I wasn't trolling for them. Well, not consciously, anyway. I am a feedback junkie, however, so I can't vouch for my subconscious.

Carrie, I believe I actually catapulted M.F.K. Fisher and/or The Wonder Boys to the top of my list after reading your site. And this:

"And, yes, I commented because I am a clicky click click whore. Forgive me, I just want to be loved... Oh, and fuckfaces, I'd feel a lot more loved if you'd comment once and awhile."

Cracked my shit up. I had to show it to the mister to explain why I was suddenly laughing at my laptop. He laughed, too. I will endeavour to comment more on your site. Heh.

Ooh, WT, tough call. As I've mentioned here many times, I love To Kill a Mockingbird, both in novel and book form. But I can totally understand where you're coming from, because Gregory Peck is now indelibly Atticus Finch for me.

Jagosaurus, I haven't heard of The Bat Poet, but I'm off to look it up now!

Cipher Savant said...

I really enjoy your blog for the particular reasons you mention above. I like reading about how your experiences and environment have influenced your opinion of a particular book.

This blog has inspired me to take up my own personal writing challenge as well. Strangely enough, one of my first books is Wonder Boys if for no other reason than because I got it for Christmas from a friend. I loved The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay so I'm hoping for the best.

I look forward to reading over your shoulder (as it were) in 2006!

Anita said...

Your analysis of the typical book review is spot on. I've learned, the hard way, which review sources I trust and which I don't. Time Magazine does a pretty good job. And I love Bookmarks which really avoids that whole stilted, "I am oh so brilliant" approach that I can't bear. If I can't read the review, how am I going to read the book for goodness sake?

Your reading list sounds awesome. I can only comment on three of them - Runaway, Kitchen Confidential, and The Time Traveler's Wife. I liked all three, but felt that Time Traveler's Wife was the worst of the lot.

Kitchen Confidential transports you behind the scenes of the restaurant business and believe me, you are pretty thrilled that the transportation is temporary.

Runaway is simply fabulous. You'll love it.

Time Traveler's Wife is enjoyable to read, but I didn't find the end satisfying. I felt the same way about Dive Off Clausen's Pier. It's odd, but sometimes I can really enjoy the writing style and creativity of a book, but if the ending doesn't seem to live up to the rest of the book, I feel disappointed. Still, I'd definitely read it because it is unique and pleasurable while you are in the midst of it.

Happy, happy reading to you in the New Year!

Jenny said...

More props!

I love your blog -- and it's because you've achieved exactly what you set out in this post. I love it because I can get a clear sense of what the book is like to someone who seems to have a somewhat similar viewpoint. Like another commenter -- I don't always agree, but I can see why I don't agree, and even if I don't agree, it inspires me to reconsider.

Anyway, keep it up, please!

Oh, and also: check out www.alibris.com for those Enright books. I almost hate recommending things these days because it usually turns out that the store or website's corporate parent's founder's grandfather's brother was Hitler or something and so we're all supposed to boycott it, but I haven't heard anything bad about www.alibris.com and I've always had terrific luck finding out-of-print books there.

landismom said...

I agree on the alibris recommendation for out of print books--also abebooks.com is a good source.

And I don't think it's a problem that you write about your baby on this site. I am a very serious reader, and have been one since childhood. One of the things I really love about my relationship with my kids is not just the chance to share with them books that I loved as a child, but also the chance to find new great books that have been written since my childhood and share them with my kids.

Almost everyone I know who really reads is someone who grew up with a parent who was serious about books in one way or another. If you love books enough to write a whole blog about them, who would expect you not to blog about your kid and books?

Dave said...

Hey all,

Just so you know, the 2006 Bloggies are currently accepting nominations.

If you like 50 Books, I think you should rock the vote.

KT said...

Amen to your commentary on book reviewers. In my spare time I compile book reviews for Metacritic.com and sometimes it is so hard to decide whether the reviewer liked the book or not and even harder to pick out a snippet quote that communicates their feelings in a nutshell.

But I am surprised after reading approximately 50,000 reviews in the past few months how many of them are nothing more than a high school book report. On most of them I can read the first and last paragraph and skip the middle, because the middle is generally just a description of what happened in the book.

The sad thing is that reading so many reviews has killed my desire to read a lot of recent books, because by the time I have read 15-30 reviews of a book I almost feel like I have read the book itself, I have rehashed the plot so many times.

But even this is better than the reviews that give a bare reference to the actual book and then the rest is an essay on what the reviewer thinks of the topic, generally in non-fiction reviews. Like, I don't care what you think about the Cold War, I want to know whether this book is something I want to read or not!

Sara said...

I am excited to see MFK Fisher and Anthony Bourdain on your list. I can't wait to hear what you think of them. (I read the Time Travellers Wife last year and then gave it to everyone on my Christmas list. Amazing book I thought.)

Anonymous said...

If it were me, I'd skip Winner of the National Book Award, but definitely reay Time-Traveler's Wife!
I couldn't finish the Jincy Willett, but adored the Audrey Niffenegger book.

Doppelganger said...

Hey again! And thanks for:

a) the additional props;
b) validating my upcoming book selections;
c) assuring me that I'm not alone in my dislike of book reviews; and
d) pimping me for the Bloggies... ahem... again, that's the 2006 BLOGGIE AWARDS.

This year's gotten off to a rollicking start. (Yes, I said "rollicking." Try it -- it's fun!) I've got a really good feeling about this one.)

Cataclysm said...

Big up for 50 Books! Lets make you a winner Doppleganger!!!

Just cast my vote and you were it in most of the categories! We should start thinking of ways you can spend your prize money...

Shylah said...

Congratulations on your nomination for Best Book/Literary Blog in the Best of Blogs Awards, too!

I checked ebay for the books you mentioned having trouble finding, and here's what I found:

And Then There Were Five
and
Spiderweb For Two