On readers: quote of the day

I know a handful of adult humans who, without a whiff of shame or embarrassment, blithely admit they don’t read. This is not only startling to me, it’s seismically appalling.

They (our president included) don’t get the appeal, they have no use for words or language or a particular type of storytelling that is expressly non-passive, that’s indeed near-immersive. I’m trying hard not to sound snobbish about this. It’s like the sports fan whose passion eludes the non-sports fan or the punker who has no interest in Bach or Bartok. We are who we are.

This bibliophile will never understand, and trying to understand the bookless simply exhausts me.

What I am — and here I quote one of the most apt descriptions I’ve seen — is “a person who considers reading an emotionally instructive and intellectually legitimate form of lived experience.”

That’s Alice Gregory reviewing Lisa Halliday’s new fiction “Asymmetry,” which I plan to grab once I finish Evan S. Connell’s smashing 1959 novel “Mrs. Bridge.” Gregory’s account of the serious reader made me even gladder to be one and sadder for those who are not.

What they are missing is incalculable.


It’s OK, you don’t have to read that

Idea of the week: “Some real talk: most writing isn’t worth consuming.”

This both striking and self-evident statement was plucked from a purposely (and pleasingly) provocative essay titled “The Case Against Reading Everything,” by Jason Guriel at The Walrus. It’s a good line, because it’s irrefutably true, and because it comes from a site called … The Walrus.

No way.

Guriel is impugning the moldy axiom that all honest writers must “read widely” — that is, indiscriminately, catholically, voraciously, hoovering the latest hardbacks, pounding down poetry, gobbling it all, from Bellow and obituaries to Cervantes and cereal boxes. It’s the old “balanced diet” theory. He’s not having it.

Neither am I. It’s an unrealistic ideal, reading it all, though I freely admit to reading obits and cereal boxes. In my twenties, I tried strenuously to read wide and far, from the gilded canon to contemporary classics, and I about hurt myself. The volume of verbiage is simply too monstrous, overwhelming and intimidating. I now embrace my blindspots (“Infinite Jest,” sci-fi, “Ulysses,” anything by J.K. Rowling) and guiltlessly shun writers I don’t feel a quick kinship with.

In college, a tough-minded journalism professor chuckled when I told him about the stacks of books taunting me and my ironclad will to conquer them. “You must be selective,” he said, and I deemed him very wise.

To this day, with impunity, I put down books that don’t regale me 110-percent, even if I’m half-way through them. Long ago, I literally dropped in the garbage John Grisham’s “The Firm” with only 50 pages out of 544 pages left. (A bratty gesture, I know, yet one unencumbered with regrets.)

It’s the quality, the intensity, not the breadth of one’s reading that counts. It’s about focus and concentration — concentrating on the works and writers that nail your sweet spot and eschewing inconsequential distractions. Says Guriel:

“The call to ‘read widely’ is a failure to make judgments. It disperses our attention across an ever-increasing black hole of mostly undeserving books. Whatever else you do, you should not be reading the many, many new releases of middling poetry and fiction that will be vying for your attention over the next year or so out of some obligation to submit your ear to a variety of voices. … Instead, shutter your ear against mediocrity. To fall in love with language, don’t fan out. Fall down a rabbit hole. Cynthia Ozick wanted to be Henry James. Nicholson Baker has a whole book about his obsession with John Updike.”

I’ve fallen down many rabbit holes, becoming a near completist of Philip Roth and, yes, Nicholson Baker. I was religious in my ardor for former San Francisco Chronicle humor columnist Jon Carroll, and marveled at New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane’s linguistic paradiddles (until, that is, he became wearisome, cutesy and gassy, a fallen hero).

Rabbit holes are thrilling. I most recently tumbled into that of L.A.-centric novelist Eve Babitz, snarfing up five of her groovily stylish books in a matter of weeks. I did what Guriel suggests, fell in love with the language, shuttered my ear against mediocrity. It was to me what reading is all about. It was like a spell — a love affair without the doom.

Tongue-tied in Russia? Nyet! (Maybe da.)


This is going to end in tears. I plan to go to Russia soon. I know only a single word in Russian, nyet, which of course means “no,” my favorite word in the English language. Actually, I also know vodka and borscht. I know what the first is. The second is a little hazy. Is it a type of sports car?

I’m always a bit insecure visiting foreign countries never knowing the host language. Because I never know it. Even in Spain, France and Germany, I go equipped with maybe four words and phrases — yes, no, please, thank you, do you speak English? — and that’s it. I’m terrible that way, afraid to fumble and bumble the sacred words of another place. I do my best, and thankfully English is such a dependable lingua franca. Even Turkey was a breeze, and I did miraculously all right in Japan and China. Vietnam teemed with English, so that was swell.


But Russia, oy. (Yiddish, that.) Those words are long, even the short ones are long. And they’re in Cyrillic, not Latin. I searched “most difficult languages to learn” and Russian ties with Ukrainian as, get this, “Simply Arduous.” They come in third place. At number one is Polish, named “Extremely Hard.” Number two is “Very Hard,” with Finnish, Hungarian and Estonian tying. (English, incidentally, is number eight at “Basic to hard.”)

“Simply Arduous” is right. I scroll the travel guide’s little baby glossary in the back of the book and my stomach knots. I’m going to have to carry around a small slip of paper as a cheat sheet just for “hello,” “yes,” “thank you” and “please.” See this for greetings:


How do you memorize all this? I’m sticking with Preevyet — “Hi!” — over the tongue-tangling Zdrastvooyte for “Hello.” There’s just no way. I’ll probably only wave, pretend I’m mute. “Yes” is a thank-god simple da. I can do that. And “thank you” is spa-see-ba — that looks manageable. “Goodbye” is Da sveedaneeya — not going to happen. Instead I will smile, shake hands and say, Paka, which is “Bye-bye.”

_66032538_144342017.jpgCall me a language wuss. I’m over it. I bone up, some, and I always do fine. I’m obviously not a big talker abroad, unless my interlocutor speaks English, then we have a fine old time. Russia just seems different. I’ve read repeatedly that you’ll have the best luck with English-speakers among millennials, students and the like, which makes sense. That’s how it was in Japan and China. Young people are learning the language and they absolutely love to practice with native speakers. I’ll be avoiding all locals with wrinkles, paunches and tweed berets.


When the language barrier is too great to bridge, I have on my trips resorted to producing my Moleskin journal and, I swear, taken turns drawing pictures with my new friend. I recall a woman in Lyon, France, trying to explain to me that gas, or petrol, was very expensive. She drew a car and a gas station pump and added exclamation points around the tableau. I got it. Other times, as in Tokyo, we’d write down words in the most elemental English, from movie titles we should see to places we should go. I tried to explain Woody Allen to someone, so I drew his iconic, bespectacled head. It worked. It’s a blast, these exercises in primal communication.

Russia, I hope, is no different. I look ahead to the awkward pauses of miscommunication, the stammers and even the throwing up of hands and parting ways amicably. I hope there are more da‘s than nyet’s, but even so I’ll have my notebook at the ready for my own version of Pictionary.