Reading, a loner’s sport

I read in bars. It’s spectacularly geeky behavior, but as I often haunt bars alone, white pages peppered with black typography make excellent company. If it’s early and bar seating is available, I’ll even brazenly crack my laptop at a corner stool and read and write. I haven’t spilled a drink on the laptop yet, knock on formica.  

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I don’t know many loners (why is everyone so umbilically peoplely?), so my bar-book habit isn’t totally understood. Once, while I was relaxed and swimming in words, a colleague razzed me for reading The New Yorker in a neon-drenched corner of a Texas dive bar. I told him to buzz off and returned to an exceptionally chucklesome Shouts & Murmurs. Not exactly high drama, but the point is: Some just don’t get it. 

And I get that. If I wasn’t such an insatiable reader — I bring reading material everywhere (I even read a book on line at Disneyland) — I’d regard someone with a book and a beer in a bar as exotic, or sad, possibly pretentious. “Reading a book seems to say: ‘I’m going to be here all evening, drinking this one light beer, so please rescue me from a lifetime of loneliness before I go home to the cats who will someday eat my corpse,’” quips The Daily News.

Funny. But what that misses is what a bold gesture reading alone in public is, and not a piteous one. Bar readers know they appear out of place, irretrievably nerdy, kind of lame. But they also know what they’re doing: enjoying two of their favorite things — words and wine; Tom Wolfe and Tom Collins — in a refuge away from home, where, despite the hermetic aspect of the reading experience, one is still surrounded by the healthy buzz of other beings. The book (or magazine or newspaper), after all, can easily be put down — unlike phones with most people, who are truly and perversely debilitated by their devices. 

“The person at the bar reading a leather-bound copy of ‘Great Expectations’ isn’t pathetic,” Thrillist avers, helpfully. “They’re mysterious and brooding and potentially full of more intricate webs of life-challenging secrets than a YA section at Barnes & Noble. All this is diminished if you are reading from an iPad. Or anything by Dan Brown.” (Those last two lines are funny because they’re true.)

And yet another critic of sipping a White Russian while nipping some Dostoyevsky on a barstool calls reading in bars a “standoffish, even hostile gesture. It signifies that you have little interest in celebrating or commiserating with your fellow patrons.”

So what and boo-hoo. And anyway, that writer’s observational faculties are comical at best, foolhardy at worst. A “hostile gesture” — reading? Maybe if you’re poring over “Mein Kampf,” “Dianetics,” or “Fifty Shades of Grey.” But a book can be an invitation, a conversation starter (especially if you’re reading any of the above titles). And it beats people-watching or glazing over the Times Square spread of LCD TVs. 

Unless it’s you and your child cuddled in bed, or an author appearance at a bookshop event, reading’s a solitary experience. A book, a beer and I. That’s why I’ve never understood the allure of book clubs (note the smooth segue to our next topic), those small-talk nightmares all about chit-chat and socializing and rarely about the book selected by an unreliable committee.

I already have a long list of books I really want to read without being assigned something I might kind-of sort-of want to read in a circumscribed period of time. In other words: homework.  

“Nearly everyone who’s been in a book club has a bone to pick with them,” writes SFGate. “Big personalities dominate the discussion. You’re expected to read a thousand-page brick in a single month. The books you pick are too literary, or not literary enough. Janice didn’t pitch in for wine and cheese.”

So there is this: As part of a verifiable “introvert revolution” springs the Silent Book Club, an actual book club often called “Introvert Happy Hour.” It started in San Francisco eight years ago with two gal pals reading together in a bar. It now boasts 180 chapters worldwide. 

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“The concept is simple yet revolutionary: Members meet up at a bar, a library, a bookstore or any venue that will host them. Once the bell rings, silent reading time commences. After an hour, the bell rings again,” NPR writes. 

“Other than that, there are no rules. Liberated from the orthodoxy of traditional book clubs, participants can bring whatever they’d like to read and chat about anything, before and after the designated reading time.”

Yes, but, it’s still a club, and I’m not partial to organized bodies, be it team sports or religion. So this one, despite its fresh, sensible rules, will have to be a pass. I simply don’t understand why strangers feel the need to congregate and read together. 

People are needy things, squeezed by social pressures and expectations, FOMO (fear of missing out) syndrome, and other insecurities. For me, loneliness isn’t the goal; solitude is. I extract myself from others for a while, book in one hand, beer in the other. Call it eccentric. Call it snooty. I call it peace. I call it bliss. 

Random reflections, wryly

I have never done karaoke, and I never will.

I don’t understand runners. I don’t know what in the world they are doing.

Dancing — a faint memory from my roaring twenties that I hope goes away.

Reggae is the devil’s flatulence.

A good, mean rollercoaster mainlines an unparalleled high. 

There is nothing sexier than a comely woman reading a book. 

Cars. I will never get them. They are like refrigerators — necessary appliances.

‘Good dog’ is redundant.

People who purposely don’t travel are unevolved and sad. (And people who say Munich is better than Paris are the most unevolved and most sad.)

Going to the movies alone is the best.

Religion is so radically misunderstood, so repulsively knotted up, we should hit delete and start all over again.

I am constitutionally incapable of playing charades.

Giving money to your alma mater is strictly for suckers.

Unless you’re doing it to a tiny child, the high-five is socially questionable. Fist-bumps — criminal.

There are worse things than tongue piercings. Though I can’t think of anything.

When an adult says they’re “reading” Harry Potter, they’re not really reading at all.

Sushi is sublime. I’ll even eat the grocery store crap.

I‘m thinking of going back to Japan. The more I think about it, the crazier I get.

I have this thing that if someone tells me they don’t read, I want to go back in time to the moment where I hadn’t met them.

Carnivals are disgusting and revolting. I adore everything about them. Even those poor goldfish.

I can’t do the Great Outdoors. It’s the outdoors part that gets me.

I like sharks a lot. If one bit me, it would probably like me too.

Pet rats are like itty-bitty dogs — highly intelligent, funny, trainable, social, responsive. They drink beer and eat anything and, well, everything. Then at about 2-years-old they die and shatter your heart into 10,000 pieces. They’re the best.

If, in a post-apocalyptic world, all sports were wiped out, I wouldn’t care a whit. Take the fans first.

I was thinking of going to a local food festival and parade. Temporary insanity just creeps up on you.

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Good.
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Evil.
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Cool.
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Fool.

On reading and writing: quote of the day

Following my prior post about being a writer, I resort to the pith and punch of William Faulkner who said that anyone who wants to be a writer should be a reader first:

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’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”

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And if you want to be a great writer, you must absolutely smoke a pipe.

The daunting and taunting of the bulging bookshelf

Nothing in a home excites me more than bookshelves crammed and jammed with actual books, as opposed to knickknacks, tchotchkes and corny picture frames. Filled right, they are towering works of art, swirls of graphics and oceans of colors.

I love engorged, groaning bookshelves, whose heaving pulp cargo functions as stylish and classy decor, the jostling spines stringing rainbow rows of erudition, edification and entertainment. So gorgeous and seductive is a grand, brimming bookshelf, it’s almost erotic.

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At minimum, it takes hundreds of volumes to stock an amply, aptly impressive bookshelf. It takes a collector’s fervor, an obsessive appetite for those bound squares of facts, fiction and, so often, beauty.  

But there’s this: Do we actually read all the books in these sprawling collections? Or do they act largely as pretentious decor, literary plumage that flatters the owner?

That depends, but I know I rigorously try to read every title on my shelves, as nearly impossible and as crazily aspirational that proposition is. Still, I don’t see them as frills and frippery. I simply think walls of books look amazing. (Bookshops and libraries: Platonic ideals of aesthetic glory.)

I confess I don’t read all the books I acquire. One, the quantity is too great, especially when new books keep crashing my bulging bookosphere. Two, not every book is worth reading — too many just aren’t good enough. 

So, as I’ve mused here before, I frequently dispense with books that aren’t thrilling me. The rate that I put books down at the 50-, 80- or 100-page mark is deplorable. It’s also necessary. I show no quarter.

“I own far more books than I could possibly read over the course of my remaining life, yet every month I add a few dozen more to my shelves,” writes Kevin Mims in this essay in the New York Times.

That is a sickness I know well. But mostly I’ve stopped this hoardish habit. I realize now that not every well-reviewed book or immortal classic is worth picking up.   

I used to work in a corporate bookstore — the biggest bookstore in San Francisco at the time — and, like that ravenous kid in the candy store, the one with chocolate smeared all over his mouth, I couldn’t help but accrue a gigantic book collection. It fast became overwhelming, so I kept a list on a lined yellow notepad of all the books I hadn’t yet read, planning to cross titles off as I went. Sheer folly, that.

I have since evolved and have become the prince of the partially read book. Though my shelves boast more tomes that I have actually completed, the rejects are copious. 

And then there are the books I haven’t even cracked yet, and may never get to. In his essay, Mims locates a term for this: “tsundoku, a Japanese word for a stack of books that you have purchased but not yet read. My personal library is about one-tenth books I have read and nine-tenths tsundoku.”

That doesn’t mean your fabulous bookshelves are mere pretty repositories, ceiling-scraping storage bins. They are libraries and all that that word implies: knowledge, art, stories, journeys, lives, cracking your head open with the world.  

Says Mims:

A person’s library is often a symbolic representation of his or her mind. A man who has quit expanding his personal library may have reached the point where he thinks he knows all he needs to and that what he doesn’t know can’t hurt him. He has no desire to keep growing intellectually. The man with an ever-expanding library understands the importance of remaining curious, open to new ideas and voices.”

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* Late postscript: I stumbled upon this nifty quote in my readings later today. It’s from “The Bookish Life,” an article by Joseph Epstein:

So many books are there in the world that no one can get round to even all the best among them, and hence no one can claim to be truly well-read. Some people are merely better-read than others. Nobody has read, or can read, everything, and by everything I include only the good, the beautiful, the important books.”

Eight books I’ll never read

Call me a masochist, a philistine, willfully depriving myself of some of world literature’s masterworks. 

I beg to differ. I’ve read wads of wonderful books and have countless more to go, including those which I call my hope-to books, meaning I hope to get around to them in this lifetime: “Don Quixote,” “Middlemarch,” “War and Peace,” “The Portrait of a Lady,” and to finally finish “The Brothers Karamazov” and Don DeLillo’s “Underworld.”

The following eight novels are books I’ve either attempted to read and put down with disappointment or volumes I simply know I won’t find the time for because I’m pretty sure I’ll banish them, deflated, demanding my many reading hours back. In no order:

“Remembrance of Things Past” (1913-1927). And so our hero launches a legendary journey through his past with one bite of a tea-soaked madeleine, a journey that seems, for thousands of pages, unstoppable. Marcel Proust’s seven-volume novel puts the “ick” in epic, warding off the casual reader who’d rather not commit eons to a single novel. I wish I could do it. I started volume one, “Swann’s Way,” but its famed vortex didn’t suck me in. I took a bite of a milk-soaked Oreo, but it didn’t have the same effect.

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“Ulysses” (1922). The most obvious book avoided by literary wussies, the Everest of difficult fiction, which has scuttled so many foolish takers. I’ve dipped into its brambled pages and got instantly lost and tangled in the impregnable modernist foliage. More trouble than it’s worth. While we’re at it, let’s add Joyce’s indecipherable “Finnegans Wake” (1939), another provocation for brawny brains and paragons of patience I will never read.

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“Infinite Jest” (1996). 1,088 pages of post-modern tomfoolery and intellectual acrobatics, David Foster Wallace’s cult classic daunts and taunts. Not many conquer Wallace’s brilliant, monster challenge to hip, erudite readers, with its formal elasticity, cerebral satire, and devastating commentaries on everything from television to tennis. Another behemoth that I’m afraid I can’t swallow. (Though I relish his non-fiction. Does that count?) 

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 “The Goldfinch” (2015). Adult fiction that reads like children’s literature, Donna Tartt’s old-fashioned opus is clammily contrived and wears a twee Dickensian frilliness. (It also, mystifyingly, won a Pulitzer.) I read almost half of its 976 pages, waiting for the story to grow muscle, to grow up. It’s a squishy coming-of-age tale so banal it’s hard to believe. If it was a movie, Chris Columbus would direct. (Actually, John Crowley, of “Brooklyn” fame, is directing the film. What are you going to do?)

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“Moby-Dick” (1851). I read about a fifth of Melville’s whale tale, and after a peppy start, alive with humor and heart and humanity, the slog began. I’ve heard you must muscle through, machete swinging through the anesthetizing filler and maddening digressions, and a grand story will emerge. But it’s simply too hard to focus on a crowded page when your eyes are so glazed over. 

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“Pride and Prejudice” (1813). I wrote the following here last summer: “I can’t do Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ I’ve tried to read it three times, and each time, at around page 20, I crinkle my nose, toss my head back, issue a fluttering sigh, then slap the book shut. Slap. Pinched and prissy, the prose is like flossy streamers of chirp and chatter, candied and precious and irritating.” Hmm, I’ll stand by that.

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“Gravity’s Rainbow” (1973). I’ve read some of Thomas Pynchon’s other novels and I am no fan. Here’s how a site described the author’s extravagant, fireworks-shooting, 760-page magnum opus: “Quantum mechanics, mass extinction, speculative metaphysics — heavy stuff. It doesn’t help that Pynchon’s style is free-flowing and flashback-heavy. This has been called the definitive postmodern novel.” I respectfully pass.

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Anything by Charles Dickens (lived 1812-1870). I delighted reading “A Christmas Carol” as a child, but since then my relationship with the granddaddy of Victorian fiction has been a frustrating failure. Every so often I will try again to read one of his bloated novels — I picked up “A Tale of Two Cities” three times before I tossed it — but they’re so fussy, so verbose, so cutesy, even, with all those belabored character names. The books aren’t light. They go down like molasses: cloying, thick and sticky.

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Best summer reading (so far)

The damn summer is nearing its damn end and I still have at least two books I want to finish before autumn (dear, dear autumn) introduces its cool, dry resplendence. I will tackle Jamie Quatro’s debut novel “Fire Sermon” and Nick Drnaso’s ballyhooed “Sabrina,” the first graphic novel to make the Man Booker Prize longlist.

It’s been a fine summer reading-wise, with lots of pleasantly prickly fiction. I’m noting the best books I’ve read during the moist months so far. (Some of these blurbs, where noted, are recycled from prior blogs, but you won’t remember anyway.)

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Rachel Cusk’s extraordinary Outline trilogy, starting with “Outline” in 2015 and concluding with “Kudos” this year, presents a minimalism that feels maximalist, a headlong plunge into the rather circumscribed but deeply philosophical world of a single female protagonist who’s on a first-person journey amidst many places and people, and it’s cerebrally and queerly enthralling. Restless and ruminative, each book is short, about 250 pages, and you can start with any of them. (I think “Kudos” is my favorite.)

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A beautiful, privileged young woman is determined to hibernate from life via shelves of pills and pharmaceuticals, and we don’t quite know why. It is the cusp of 9/11 and the only people in her life are a mean sometime-boyfriend, a sort-of best friend and the indifferent fellows at the corner bodega. She’s a wreck, in cryptic self-exile. This wiggy, sometimes wayward study in alienation is at once comical, unnerving, depressing and iridescent. Yet, as good as it is, it’s not as fine as Moshfegh’s …

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She types with talons, and it’s beautifully thorny, particularly in these indelible tales. As noted in a previous post: “Moshfegh’s stories are spare and wicked, laced with a perfect pinch of transgression, enough to fill an eye-dropper. They are comic and you laugh, but there’s dried blood in them.” I’d read them again in a (skipped) heartbeat.

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I again quote a previous blog post: “This smashing debut by Tommy Orange is a novel of ambient beauty as well as a penetrating portal into urban Native American culture. It’s a world at once broken, squalid and, by the skin of its teeth, empowered. The writing swings, crackling with observational fire.” Look out for this one to sweep some prizes.

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A funny, wry and almost gnomic novel about love, marriage (and its dissolution) and raising an inquisitive daughter in Brooklyn. So singular, it’s hard to describe, this brief, breezy book is rife with wisdom, borrowed (the Stoics to Kafka) and original. It’s a pure delight, a glittery gem, in which epiphanies and head-nodding observations abound. It seems to introduce a new fiction form, and it’s a sort of masterpiece.

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Again, from a prior blog post: “Amie Barrodale’s ‘You Are Having a Good Time’ is a gratifying off-kilter kick, a spasm of spare, elusive, funny tales that are touched by mystery, an alluring unknowability. With cavalier irreverence, she throws a strobe-light on aberrant facets of the human condition.” A rare find, a dissonant joy.

Scoping out the right reading specs

I am going blind. 

Not quite, but sometimes it feels like it. 

Like when I’ve been reading and writing all day and, by dusk, the words start blurring on the page in an inky soup and I have to hold the book or laptop back till my arms are fully outstretched before me and the writing is a ways from my eyes, as if I’m appraising a rare gem or sacred artifact.

I feel like Old Man Grumpus, wondering in a grizzled, quavering voice: What’s this say here, Ma? I can’t see the gobbledygook dancing before my eyes. What does “yipdoodle jippy jo” mean?

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It’s a tragedy. I’m used to having 20/15 vision. (That, incidentally, is very good, beating 20/20.) I don’t know what I have now, but I still don’t require everyday prescription glasses. I can read signs from miles away. Yet my up-close reading vision is slowly slipping, degrading, clouding up — and costing me money.

I acquired my first piteous little reading glasses (+1.25 power lenses) at a drug store in 2008. They were cheap and hideous gold-wire doohickies and within months they fit lopsided on my face. I looked like Jerry Lewis after a pratfall. I still wore them, rocking the homeless look.

Then my reading vision got fuzzier, mossy, and I graduated (er, devolved) to +1.50 power lenses a few years ago. These specs still work fine, until, that is, my eyes, after hours of reading, strain and blur. I like the glasses, stylish black and white, made by a respected readers brand, with a commensurate price. But it’s time to move on and up. My eyeballs are working too hard just to type this. 

So I have ordered, with a fleck of rue and despair, +1.75 power reading glasses. Lens power goes as high as +7, so I remain pretty low on the spectrum. The transaction isn’t without some distress, knowing that the precious orbs are steadily deteriorating. The only consolation is that these new specs flaunt a sleek stylishness and subtle audacity. They are a glossy blue and black — living on the edge.

hemingway-4617-black-blue__87137-1510853853.jpgFriends and family either cluck or cackle whenever I’m without my glasses and I need to read something, from a menu to a price tag. I’ve actually flagged down employees in grocery stores to read food labels for me because I am absolutely adrift in an optic fog. Some people joke that I should get a granny chain for my glasses to dangle around my neck. That’s not a funny joke because it might be a reality rather soon. Amid all the mirth and mockery, all I can think is: old man!

But this old man is about to be the proud owner of some hot specs (blue!), a minor if critical development in the history of my readers that you might just call … visionary.