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Archive for December, 2011

About the last post, I should mention that it was all dead-tree reading. Ownership of an e-book reader has so far eluded me, or perhaps I have eluded it. Or both. At any rate, I am still accustomed to squinting at paper pages by lamplight, which is now either a really uncool way to read or the ultimate in intellicool, like listening to vinyl or watching celluloid and acetate movies.

On that score I’m middle-of-the-road. I would like to possess a Kindle or iPad at some point, but so far other matters are more pressing and I do not feel that my life is suffering for lack of a digital library. On the other hand, I have to admit that those devices are definitely cool-looking, and as an admirer of cool-looking stuff I’m not above putting on airs, so to speak. In fact, I spent a great deal of 2011 pretending to own and operate an e-reader.

Let me explain. Last Christmas my wife gave me something called a Lightwedge, which is basically a clear plastic rectangle with light-transmitting properties. One of its edges is attached to a battery-powered, cool-blue LED source, and when you press it over a book page and switch it on, it becomes the perfect reading light. This was truly a well-considered gift, since most if not all of my reading happens late at night and, more importantly, either in bed next to my sleeping wife or on the couch at the feet of my sleeping wife.

But even more importantly, the Lightwedge is cool-looking. When it illuminates a page it almost resembles an electronic reading device—perhaps an ultra-slim Nook or Kindle, maybe? If you ignore the fact that it’s sitting on top of a stack of paper pages? And if you read out of the corner or bottom edge of your eye? Feel free to agree with me any time.

Anyway, this nifty piece of technology, purchased for a fraction of the cost of a Kindle by a woman who is a thousand lumens more beautiful than any sparkling machine, was one of the principal factors, if not the primary force, in my voluminous reading year. I see it clearly now—I see it as a gift of love, an expression of love. “A passion for reading,” the gift tells me, “is like passion for another person. It burns brighter than even the most coveted gadget and makes them all obsolete.”

So I give thanks to She Who Kindles Me. I will kindle her back all the years of my life.

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My (Vo)luminous Year

It was, miraculously, one of my good reading years. By “good” I don’t mean that I followed through on my January 1st resolution to keep up with the books on Charlie Rose. That never happens. “Good” means that I finished every book I started and I kept an active reading agenda, in which I always knew what I was going to read after my current book. Also, every one of my reading choices had some relationship to a project I was working on.

For example, I read Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking because I was trying to get onto a reality cooking show and then, immediately after that, I read Hal Lindsey’s Satan Is Alive and Well on Planet Earth as part of my burgeoning attraction to evangelical Christianity.

Just kidding. I didn’t read either of those timeless classics. My choices were much less ambitious, such as Tim Wu’s The Master Switch, which deals with cycles of creation and destruction and therefore applies to my interest in terminus myths. Actually, I started reading the book shortly after it was published in 2010, so maybe it shouldn’t count, but I think I’ll be creatively destructive with my own parameters and say that it does count. Anyone who takes issue with that will self-destruct in 30 seconds.

Speaking of self-destruction, what can I say about Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad? I will probably self-destruct if I imply anything too negative about it, so let me make a statement about reading in general. When starting a heavily hyped book, I tend to expect fearless, razor-sharp, bloodthirsty prose. Such expectations may not jibe with the prevailing literary climate, but I believe they are valid and, in my opinion, more readers should have them. Unfortunately, they make normal, competent writing (which is what Egan offers) feel tepid. As for Goon Squad’s PowerPoint chapter… um… I’ll just say that I would have prefered Hundertwasser-esque biomorphs, but that’s just me.

The really sad part of that experience was my motivation for reading the novel—besides, again, the terminus myth angle. Egan’s Pulitzer was a major reason why I picked it up. I even bought it first-hand, albeit in paperback, which is something I hardly ever do. I’m ashamed of myself, of my shallow reasoning. No more of that. No more being pulled in by Pulitzers.

You could argue that Goon Squad isn’t a novel at all but a story collection, and that’s one type of book I read a lot of in 2011. Such as Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (it felt dated, which it is), Edward P. Jones’ Lost in the City (didn’t feel dated at all, I couldn’t put it down), and one of those Best American Short Stories of XXXX collections (not 2011… some other 2000 year). They were all enjoyable, and they gave me insight into my own short story efforts, but another assemblage, also compiled well before 2011, was the real gem of my reading year.

After almost two decades of procrastination and forgetfulness I finally got to Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. It is one of those books (like The Catcher in the Rye) that I definitely plan on reading again, but which I’d prefer to re-encounter via time machine, coming at it completely new rather than as a repeat. Reading isn’t like looking at a painting or visiting a beautiful wild place. You can do those things over and over—squander an hour on a forest path or in front of a Jackson Pollock—and they get better every time. The same goes for sex with the right partner. But a book is different.

No subsequent reading, not even one undertaken on LSD, can beat your virgin experience with a beloved book. The only remedy for the nostalgia associated with this is to find a new tale, a new adventure. So you keep searching. You keep prospecting. You ponder (not too deeply) about where you’d like to strike, and then you bring the blade down forcefully in the most promising places, those mysterious outcrops in the lithology of the new year.

Stay alert. Stay positive. Somewhere among the gridded weeks and days, you’ll pierce another vein of gold.

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