“The only thing you really need to know is where the library is.”
“The only thing you really need to know is where the library is.”
“A good book will turn your world sideways. It will also turn your own writing inside out. The prose writers should read the poets. The poets should read the novelists. The playwrights should read the philosophers. The journalists should read the short story writers. The philosophers should read through the entire crew. In fact, we all should read the entire crew. Nobody makes it alone.”
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s first novel,I Do Not Come to You by Chance, is about a Nigerian who tries to establish a career and ends up writing email scams. It’s a funny, smart, and engaging read. If you haven’t read a novel recently written by a non-American/non-European, this is a good option to take a trip out of the Western literary ghetto.
“All through the night, the mosquitoes came riding in on horseback. The males hummed shrill love songs into our ears, the females sucked blood from our exposed arms and feet. Tired of swatting the air and scratching her limbs, my mother shut the windows against them. Minutes later, we were almost at the point of asphyxiation. She opened them again. The mosquitoes were clearly the landlords.”
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools)
to write. Simple as that.”
Have a suggestion yourself? I’d love to hear what you have been reading recently.
“Another time, in yet another graduate classroom, the students asked, as they sometimes do, “What are you reading?” I said, “I’m rereading Crime and Punishment.” And there’s this feeling you get when there’s nothing coming back at you from the room. That’s the feeling I was getting. So I said, “Have any of you read Crime and Punishment?” Silence. “Have any of you read anything by Dostoevsky?” More silence. And these were graduate students.
I don’t quite get it. On a very basic level, I can’t figure out why people would want to write unless they like to read. I mean, what would be the point? For the incredibly glamorous fast track lifestyle? I don’t think so.”
“Contrary to what might be assumed, it is far easier for the critic to revile than to reveal;
to deride and dismiss than to illuminate, especially when difficult work is being considered.
In ordinary language, to be ‘critical’ means to find fault, justly or unjustly.
In fact, is there an art more exacting, more risky, more vulnerable to censure, than the art of intelligent appreciation? . . . Such criticism requires of the critic not only intelligence and taste, but a more rare talent for self-effacement.”
I recently read “Outline” by Rachel Cusk, a novel about a writer who travels to Athens to teach a writing seminar. It’s a meditation on failure, specifically marriage failures, with people talking at length about their marriages and relationships. If you like a more plot-driven story, you might want to look elsewhere. I found it difficult to sustain interest in the characters.
But the novel started strong, with a literal, and vividly written, take-off:
“Outside, the turgid summer afternoon lay stalled over the runway; little airport vehicles raced unconstrained across the flat distances, skating and turning and circling like toys, and further away still was the silver thread of the motorway that ran and glinted like a brook bounded by the monotonous fields. The plane began to move, trundling forward so that the vista appeared to unfreeze into motion, flowing past the windows first slowly and then faster, until there was the feeling of effortful, half-hesitant lifting as it detached itself from the earth. There was a moment in which it seemed impossible that this could happen. But then it did.”
–Rachel Cusk, “Outline”
“Books fortify the mind and prepare it for writing. They fertilize our imagination, make it ready, and move us to our desk, to the pen and paper that awaits us.”
“There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away.
Nor any coursers like a page of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!”
“The power of good literature comes from its ability to reveal us to ourselves in both our glory and our depravity. At its best, literature explores humanity, not just the humanity that we wish we could achieve, though there’s a place for that as well, but the humanity that is, both beautiful and ugly. That is why we read literature, and why it both captivates and disturbs our imaginations.”
(Two years into Glimmers from the World of Story, I thought it was time for something a little different. For those readers who just want the weekly quote, scroll down to the bottom.)
It’s the middle of March. That means the annual Tournament of Books, a literary response to March Madness, is going full throttle, and I find myself composing imaginary emails to the tournament directors likes these:
“Dear Tournament of Books,
What? How could you fail to put Lila on the short list??? Is it because the slot for ‘protagonist named Lila’ was taken by Ferrante’s novel? A latent prejudice against winners of the Pulitzer Prize? The Idaho quota was filled by Anthony Doerr? Help me out here. I remain baffled.”
Dept. of Speculation falls to a work of sci-fi? I read Offill’s little masterpiece *twice* in a month, it was so good. Just because the victorious novel is called Annihilation doesn’t mean it should do that to its most worthy competitor.”
“Dear Kevin and John,
Those who Stay and Those who Go matched against Everything I Never told You?? Who seeds your brackets? Could you please give them sowing lessons? Why not put each of these stellar novels against lesser choices in the first round? Or do you secretly enjoy gladiator fights? I expect Tayari Jones is not sleeping well these nights.”
“Dear TOB editors and contributing writers,
Bending the rules to allow for Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See? The rationale sounds perfectly rational. It goes something like this: ‘We used to have a rule that forbid editors’ or contributing writers’ books to be considered. But then a contributing writer wrote a book so brilliant we decided it was time to break the rule.’ Hmmm, sounds great unless you’re a contributing writer whose novel wasn’t quite good enough to break the rules. Though you were right to include Doerr’s novel.”
The emails never get beyond my brain. Eventually the growlies subside and I turn to a work of fiction for consolation. In a pique, I decide to conduct a temporary boycott of TOB and choose a novel that is currently not suffering the capricious indignities of a cultural athletic beauty contest. (Temporary because I really do appreciate what these guys are doing.)
Dear American Airlines is the winner, a book that has been on my bookshelf for quite some time. Yes, I have an actual printed copy covered in real dust which is yet another reminder of why ebooks, for all of their virtues, have real limitations. I mean how do you know the number of years a book has been patiently waiting to be read if you can’t see the dust on it? However, since I’m not the kind of person who goes looking for dust, it’s no surprise that the book’s physical condition didn’t influence my choice. Nor did its location in one of the towering ‘books I want to read, really I do, that’s why I bought them” stacks that are located in just about every room in my house. Nor even because it failed to make the Tournament playoffs in 2008 when I would have slipped it into On Chesil Beach‘s spot. (“Dear TOB, Is On Chesil Beach really Ian McEwan at the top of his game?”) No, I chose Dear American Airlines because it was available on a digital library website. But I digress.
So does Jonathan Miles, the author of my winning choice. A failed poet is stuck at O’Hare on the way to his daughter’s wedding. Indignant at this capricious travel delay (air traffic control and the TOB having something in common), he begins to compose a letter to American Airlines; a very, very long letter so witty and effervescent, it is published and goes on to become a New York Times Notable Book.
Confession: I’m not reading this novel. I’m listening to the audio version, and that may be the ideal way to absorb Miles’ vivacious prose. On the page, he tends towards paragraph-long sentences. Perhaps that’s why a few years ago I put the book down. (I use the vague word ‘few’ because I’m not going to carbon date the dust on it.) My bookmark, fashioned from the sticker I peeled off the back of the book which left a smudge of dirty adhesive on the cover, remains stuck– literally–on page 28. (Though there could be other reasons why the bookmark didn’t progress: tempus fugit, I got distracted by another book, or I had to go see the elephants in Thailand. Take your pick.)
However, listening to the narrator, Mark Bramhall, read these sentences in a perfect-pitch New Orleans accent is like rocking on a front porch while sipping rum punch in between inhaling little breaths of sultry afternoon air. As it happens, I am not in the deep south as I listen. Nor am I in Boston where the snow could use the novel’s literary heat. Or parked in Los Angeles smaffic [what better way to describe smog in traffic?), or tooling a straight flat line through Kansas.
Instead I’m picking my way through sidewalk construction on a North African street, an obvious foreigner in this foreign country where I live. Today I stand out not only because of my clothes and skin color and visible hair, but also because of the grin that takes over my usual dull expression every time Miles hits another funny note. Like this one:
“Of late I’ve been suffering weird pains in my lower back and these airport chairs with their gen-u-ine Corinthian Naugahyde upholstery are only aggravating the pain. Throughout my life I vowed I would never be the sort of geezer reduced to conversing about nothing save his health maladies. This was until the day I developed maladies of my own to converse about. Truly, they’re endlessly fascinating and impossible to keep to oneself! How can you talk about anything else when your physical being is disintegrating, when you can feel everything below your neck going steadily kaput? You certainly wouldn’t think of discussing, say, Lacanian theory on a jumbo jet spiraling earthward. Unless of course you were Lacan, but even then Jacques, call the kiddos.”
Dear Jonathan Miles,
Tournament of Books
a literary response to March Madness
the other Lila
Dept. of Speculation
I expect Tayari Jones is not sleeping well these nights
Bending the rules to allow for Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See?
Dear American Airlines
the Tournament playoffs in 2008
Jonathan Miles, the author of my winning choice
the audio version
listening to the narrator, Mark Bramhall
If you have never read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn–or only read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich–then more pleasure awaits you. Keep in mind that he is Russian, and thus tends towards long books. But like Tolstoy, the pages are full of life:
“Arrest is an instantaneous, shattering thrust, expulsion, somersault from one state into another.
We have been happily borne — or perhaps have unhappily
dragged our weary way— down the long and crooked streets of
our lives, past all kinds of walls and fences made of rotting wood, rammed earth, brick, concrete, iron railings. We have never given a thought to what lies behind them. We have never tried to penetrate them with our vision or our understanding. But there is where the Gulag country begins, right next to us, two yards away from us.
In addition, we have failed to notice an enormous number of closely fitted, well-disguised doors and gates in these
fences. All those gates were prepared for us, every last one! And all of a sudden the fateful gate swings quickly open, and four white male hands, unaccustomed to physical labor but nonetheless strong and tenacious, grab us by the leg, arm, collar, cap, ear, and drag us in like a sack, and the gate behind us, the gate to our past life, is slammed shut once and for all.
That’s all there is to it! You are arrested!
And you’ll find nothing better to respond with than a lamblike
bleat: “Me? What for?”
That’s what arrest is: it’s a blinding flash and a blow which
shifts the present instantly into the past and the impossible into omnipotent actuality.
That’s all. And neither for the first hour nor for the first day will you be able to grasp anything else.
Except that in your desperation the fake circus moon will blink
at you: “It’s a mistake! They’ll set things right!” ”
The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
“I tell my students that when you write, you should pretend you’re writing the best letter you ever wrote to the smartest friend you have. That way, you’ll never dumb things down. You won’t have to explain things that don’t need explaining. You’ll assume an intimacy and a natural shorthand, which is good because readers are smart and don’t wish to be condescended to.
I think about the reader. I care about the reader. Not “audience.” Not “readership.” Just the reader. That one person, alone in a room, whose time I’m asking for. I want my books to be worth the reader’s time, and that’s why I don’t publish the books I’ve written that don’t meet this criterion, and why I don’t publish the books I do until they’re ready. The novels I love are novels I live for. They make me feel smarter, more alive, more tender toward the world. I hope, with my own books, to transmit that same experience, to pass it on as best I can.”
Along with Lila by Marilynne Robinson, last year I was also captivated by Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. Three have been published, and I devoured them in a few weeks: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, and Those who Leave and Those who Stay. Here’s a taste from the second book, as the narrator, Elena, visits the big city with her father for the first time:
I felt dazed by the powerful gusts, by the noise. I had the impression that, although I was absorbing much of that sight, many things, too many, were scattering around me without letting me grasp them. My father held tight to my hand as if he were afraid that I would slip away. In fact I had the wish to leave him, run, move, cross the street, be struck by the brilliant scales of the sea. At that tremendous moment, full of light and sound, I pretended I was alone in the newness of the city, new myself with all life ahead, exposed to the mutable fury of things but surely triumphant: I, I and Lila, we two with that capacity that together— only together— we had to seize the mass of colors, sounds, things, and people, and express it and give it power.
The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante
“Looking out at the lake one could believe that the Flood had never ended. If one is lost on the water, any hill is Ararat. And below is always the accumulated past, which vanishes but does not vanish, which perishes and remains. If we imagine that Noah’s wife, when she was old, found somewhere a remnant of the Deluge, she might have walked into it till her widow’s dress floated above her head and the water loosened her plaited hair. And she would have left it to her sons to tell the tedious tale of generations. She was a nameless woman, and so at home among all those who were never found and never missed, who were uncommemorated, whose deaths were not remarked, nor their begettings.”
≈Marilynne Robinson in Housekeeping≈
“The Orphan Master’s Son” is not for the faint of heart. The novel is a microscope on the evil that is DPRK, also known as North Korea, an evil so horrendous, it rivals the Holocaust for human depravity. But this evil is different in some ways. It is not directed against ‘the other’, but against one’s own people. And Johnson personalizes this evil with a haunting, powerful story about one man’s journey through this dark abyss.
“The boys stopped at the harbor, its dark waters ropy with corpses, thousands of them in the throes of the waves, looking like curds of sticky millet that start to flop and toss when the pan heats.”
≈Adam Johnson in “The Orphan Master’s Son”≈
“Canning had a relatively subdued grand manner, perhaps to match his modest public roles. I noted the wavy hair, finely parted, and moist fleshy lips and a small cleft in the center of his chin, which I thought was endearing because I could see, even in poor light, that he had some trouble shaving it clean. Ungovernable dark hairs protruded from the vertical trough of skin. He was a good-looking man.”
≈Ian McEwan in Sweet Tooth≈
“Once a year, in late August, he cut the tall grass and stalky weeds in the old orchard, where in the hollow knots of untended trees nestlings cheeped in the spring, and the trees themselves grew on, flowering at the correct time, bearing fruit, dropping fruit, attracting wasps.”
≈V.S. Naipaul in The Enigma of Arrival≈
“At the lacefringe of the tide he halted with stiff forehoofs, seawardpointed ears. His snout lifted barked at the wavenoise, herds of seamorse. They serpented towards his feet, curling, unfurling many crests, every ninth, breaking, plashing, from far, from farther out, waves and waves.”
≈James Joyce in Ulysses≈
“Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master.
Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.”
“It’s a toss-up which is scarier: living without electronic access to my country’s culture, or trying to survive in that culture without the self-definition I get from regular immersion in literature.”
≈≈≈ Jonathan Franzen in his essay, “The Reader in Exile”
John le Carré and Burmese democracy fighter Aung San Suu Kyi both received honorary degrees from Oxford in 2012. In the speech she gave, Aung San Suu Kyi said, “When I was under house arrest, I was also helped by the books of John le Carré. . . . They were a journey into the wider world. Not the wider world just of other countries, but of thoughts and ideas.”
“We have many shelves of poetry at home, but still, it takes an effort to step out of the daily narrative of existence, draw that neglected cloak of stillness around you — and concentrate, if only for three or four minutes. Perhaps the greatest reading pleasure has an element of self-annihilation. To be so engrossed that you barely know you exist.”
“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us.
If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?
So that it will make us happy, as you write?
Good lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to.
But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”
Henry David Thoreau is best known for Walden and it’s worth reading as an adult if you haven’t already. But he also wrote accounts of trips he took, including Cape Cod. I took my own trip there recently and found his observations about the fine sand which blows everywhere still ring true.
“There was a school-house, just under the hill on which we sat, filled with sand up to the tops of the desks, and of course the master and scholars had fled. Perhaps they had imprudently left the windows open one day, or neglected to mend a broken pane.
Yet in one place was advertised “Fine sand for sale here,”—I could hardly believe my eyes,— I thought that if they could have advertised “Fat Soil,” or perhaps “Fine sand got rid of,” ay, and “Shoes emptied here,” it would have been more alluring.”
Henry David Thoreau in Cape Cod
“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book! When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.”
Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice
“What stories can do, I guess, is make things present. I can look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God. I can be brave. I can make myself feel again.”
Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried
We know Marilynne Robinson for Gilead and Home, two enchanting novels that read as if they were told during long nights in front of a fire. But 24 years earlier, her first novel, Housekeeping, was published, to great acclaim. It is slow and quiet but in a good way, and much happens in the course of the story: a train wreck and suicide and reclusive hoarding. There is a house that is not particularly well-kept and a down-in-the-mouth town called Fingerbone bisected by train tracks, and a landscape filled with a lake and rimmed with mountains.
We walked north, with the lake on our right hand. If we looked at it, the water seemed spread over half the world. The mountains, grayed and flattened by the distance, looked like remnants of a broken dam, or like the broken lip of an iron pot, just at a simmer, endlessly distilling water into light.
The lake at our feet was plain, clear water, bottomed with smooth stones or simple mud. It was quick with small life, like any pond, as modest in its transformations of the ordinary as any puddle. Only the calm persistence with which the water touched, and touched, and touched, sifting all the little stones, jet, and white, and hazel, forced us to remember that the lake was vast, and in league with the moon (for no sublunar account could be made of its shimmering, cold life).
I read the story in one night by the fire. But I will go back now and savor the sentences.
Five years ago I bought Small Island by Andrea Levy because it won the Orange Prize for the best work of fiction by a woman published in the UK in 2004. I had never heard of Levy or the book, but I knew a few hardy souls had plowed through a mountain of contenders.* The book’s other advantages: I found it at a used book sale [=cheap] in this country [=no luggage space required]. In my defense, with so many books and so little time, how else should I choose my reading material?
Last month when I was looking for something to read, I took the book off the shelf where it had been waiting very patiently. The description sounded familiar: “Gilbert Joseph was one of the several thousand Jamaican men who joined the RAF to fight against Hitler. Returning to England as a civilian he find himself treated very differently…Small Island explores a point in England’s past when the country began to change…Levy handles the weight themes of empire, prejudice, war and love, with a superb lightness of touch and generosity of spirit.”
It sounded familiar because I had just watched a Foyle’s War episode on this very subject.* What are the odds of art imitating art? [Oscar or Lucinda would probably know.] And with some similar plot threads, what are the odds that the writer of Foyle’s War drew inspiration from Small Island?
I found the story a little slow to get into at first, but being familiar with the historical period helped pull me in. In a rooming house, people from one small island learn to adjust to life on another small island. Hopes and dreams bump up against post-war prejudices. Before long, I found myself hooked on the characters, the dialogue, and the lively scenes.
All in all, it was a satisfying and sympathetic read.
A fascinating account by one of the prize jurors that year
Competition included novels by Monica Ali, Margaret Atwood, Jhumpa Lahiri, Anne Tyler, Toni Morrison and Shirley Hazzard.
*Foyle’s War, Season Six [Season Seven in the UK], Episode 2, ‘Killing Time’
Reading Oscar and Lucinda* by Peter Carey is like eating a box of chocolates. Perhaps it would be possible to consume the entire book in one marathon, but it might wreck havoc in your literary digestion.
Better to enjoy the story over a few languid weeks so you can savor the richness of mid-19th century England and Australia, two unforgettable characters, and a gambling wager over a glass church.
“She was a grown woman with a damaged friend and she forced herself to show concern for him, teasing his story from him like a bandage from a congealed wound.
And yet there was a part of her, a substantial part too, that did not give a damn about Dennis Hasset’s story. This part was angry. It thought Dennis Hasset a weak fool and a poor friend. It judged him for not valuing her sufficiently, for slumping over in his seat, for not lighting a fire. It coexisted with this other part that loved him. And these two factions fought within her all the while she listened to his story.”
*Booker Prize winner 1988
In reading great literature I become a thousand people and yet remain myself.
Like the night sky in a Greek poem, I see with a thousand eyes, but it is still I who see.
Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.
This, as far as I can see, is the specific value or good of literature…
it admits us to experiences other than our own…
My own eyes are not enough for me. I will see through those of others.
If only you’d remember before ever you sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself. I won’t even underline that. It’s too important to be underlined. Oh, dare to do it, Buddy! Trust your heart.
Although James Joyce is the author of one of the most unfathomable novels written [and no, I haven’t read Ulysses–yet], the passage below shows that he can write sentences that mere mortals can enjoy. I think of it like the early pen and ink drawings by Picasso which reveal he was a magnificent master of line. And in this short story, The Dead, we see that Joyce is a master of narrative.
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
Why do we read?
The nearest I have yet got to answer is that we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself…
We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own… We demand windows.
Keep a space in your mind for the man or woman in prison;
the individual who will read your book with the same sort of relish with which a starving peasant seizes a loaf of bread.
This is the individual who will penetrate to the heart of your writing.
He is your critic, your disciple.
He will sit with you for hour after hour,
and will hear your own soul speaking through your words.
Be aware of this lonely man or woman as you write.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. If all you have read by him is One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, I recommend that you dip into his other works.* He follows in the tradition of Tolstoy and Chekhov with his fresh prose and insights into people. Like Tolstoy, he tends to write long. But you can read just a few pages and have a full meal. Here is a tasting from Volume One of The Gulag Archipelago. It’s a work of history, not memoir or fiction. Yet it reads like a thousand short stories, like a Russian version of Scheherazade’s Arabian tales.
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people
somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were
necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.
But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of
every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place;
sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn’t change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil.
Socrates taught us: Know thyself!
Confronted by the pit into which we are about to toss those
who have done us harm, we halt, stricken dumb: it is after all only because of the way things worked out that they were the executioners and we weren’t.
*Assuming that 650 pages of Russian history [in just Volume One] puts you off, you might want to try starting with Cancer Ward. It’s a more intimate book about a group of cancer patients, one of whom says, “We always think of death as black, but it’s only the preliminaries that are black. Death itself is white.”
…it seems like one of the things really great fiction-writers do –
from Carver to Chekhov to Flannery O’Connor, or like the Tolstoy of “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” or the Pynchon of Gravity’s Rainbow –
is give the reader something.
The reader walks away from real art heavier than she came to it. Fuller.
David Foster Wallace