Reading

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Bookshelf
My favorite library belongs to my friends Andrew and Kathryn: Color coded throughout the house.

This week I have been inundated with references to a piece by Ian Crouch, The Curse of Reading and Forgetting, on Facebook, Twitter and in my email. Bullseye. This is what perfect targeting looks like, exactly the kind of tailored fit hoped for by marketers who mistakenly fill the margins of my online life with ads for things I will never want, like ecards and glitzy handbags.

Crouch exposes the brutal truth about how much of what we read we forget. Erudite and articulate, he admits to the same deep forgetfulness about books that I have thought best to keep hidden, like a tragic family secret.

This is such a painful state of affairs, and my awareness of this sorry reality has been even more intense of late as I have been reading through the nearly 1300 posts that have appeared here on Slow Muse since it began in 2006. My claim of being a Nowist (a term I borrowed from the MIT Media Lab’s Joi Ito and written about here) may just be a default position rather than a choice.

From Crouch’s piece:

Looking at my bookshelves…the spines look familiar; the names and titles bring to mind perhaps a character name, a turn of plot, often just a mood or feeling—but for the most part, the assembled books, and the hundreds of others that I’ve read and discarded, given away, or returned to libraries, represent a vast catalogue of forgetting…

Reading has many facets, one of which might be the rather indescribable, and naturally fleeting, mix of thought and emotion and sensory manipulations that happen in the moment and then fade. How much of reading, then, is just a kind of narcissism—a marker of who you were and what you were thinking when you encountered a text? Perhaps thinking of that book later, a trace of whatever admixture moved you while reading it will spark out of the brain’s dark places.

Crouch asks himself if perhaps he doesn’t really like reading after all. Or even more frightening, he wonders whether he is actually quite bad at reading altogether.

But he ends his article with a proposed program of self improvement:

A simple remedy to forgetfulness is to read novels more than once…Part of my suspicion of rereading may come from a false sense of reading as conquest. As we polish off some classic text, we may pause a moment to think of ourselves, spear aloft, standing with one foot up on the flank of the slain beast. Another monster bagged. It would be somehow less heroic, as it were, to bend over and check the thing’s pulse. But that, of course, is the stuff of reading—the going back, the poring over, the act of committing something from the experience, whether it be mood or fact, to memory. It is in the postmortem where we learn how a book really works. Maybe, then, for a forgetful reader like me, the great task, and the greatest enjoyment, would be to read a single novel over and over again. At some point, then, I would truly and honestly know it.

While rereading is a good thing, like a high fiber diet, I had a slightly different take on the same data. Given how little I remember, I have to ask just why it is I love reading so completely. What is it that happens in that moment that feels like a opiate surge, the sure hit at the pleasure centers somewhere in my consciousness that produces a titillation, an enthrallment, a state of rapture unlike any other?

It just may be that reading is my drug of choice, and not remembering each adventure is less important than the rhapsody that happens in the moment. I am still pondering if that is true, and if it is, what that might mean.

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East First Street in South Boston on Monday morning (my studio is on the right)


Ice lace on my studio wall

The highlight of that infamous genre, The Christmas Letter (which is, let’s face it, a mixed bag) for me is the yearly book recommendations that arrive from my long time friends Mary Pat and Michael. Both are intelligent and thoughtful readers, and their recommendations provide a reliable compass for my book stack. (Michael is a professor of literature at College of New Jersey and author of Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples, and Stephen Crane, Journalism, and the Making of Modern American Literature.

Here are their recommendations from 2010. And with a storm like the one we have had here in Boston, curling up with a great book is the most appropriate response. These all sound delicious to me.

Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed

Okay, so we’re a little late in our discovery of this novel, which was published in 1974. But it’s the most powerful book we’ve read in years. The Dispossessed is science fiction, but that’s like saying Moby-Dick is a fishing book. This novel set on an earth-like planet and its moon is as profound a meditation on democracy as the Declaration of Independence; it’s about the challenges of building a more just and equal society. Plus, it’s a terrific read, with spaceships and aliens and sex.

David Malouf, Ransom

You may remember the episode in The Iliad when Priam leaves Troy at night, steals into the Greek camp, and begs Achilles for his son Hector’s body. Out of these few lines from Homer, Malouf, an Australian poet, has spun a brief, beautiful, perfect book.

Ian McEwan, Solar

Michael Beard, the protagonist of this new novel by one of our favorite writers, is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and a complete scoundrel. Reading about his downfall, we kept laughing out loud. We bet that you will too.

Lynn Powell, Framing Innocence: A Mother’s Photographs, a Prosecutor’s Zeal, and a Small Town’s Response

Powell, a prize-winning poet, lives in the college town of Oberlin, Ohio. Ten years ago, her friend and neighbor Cynthia Stewart was led out of the house in handcuffs, charged with child pornography for having taking pictures of her daughter in the bathtub. This terrific legal thriller is both scary (there’s a this-could-happen-to-anybody feel to the story) and uplifting (the community’s defense of Cynthia, a much-loved schoolbus driver, is very moving). This year’s if-you-read-only-one-book pick.

Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story

The latest novel by this brilliant satirist is set in the dystopian near future, in a New York City filled with the callous rich and the desperate poor, a world of casual sex and shallow connections, where young people obsessively check their mobile devices instead of actually, like, talking with one another. Witty and deeply disturbing.

And as a postscript: Michael emailed me the following addition to his list which I include here as well:

Since writing them, Mary Pat and I have discovered our new Favorite Author: David Mitchell. I’ve only read Cloud Atlas, which is generally held to be his masterpiece. It’s simply one of the best novels I’ve ever read. I have to get Number Nine Dream, and I want to listen to his new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, on CD. Mary Pat is currently reading Black Swan Green, which she says is terrific; as soon as she’s done, I’ll begin it.

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Highlights from a much needed getaway to New York:

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Charlie Hass (Photo, Narrative Magazine)

Watching Charlie Haas carry off the best book reading event ever with his performance (I don’t use that word lightly) from his new novel, The Enthusiast. I heartily recommend this book to anyone who needs their spirits enthused. (Learn more about the book here.) If he is scheduled in a venue near you—like Los Angeles on the 18th of June—don’t miss it.

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Chapter/Chapel, by Bill T. Jones and company (The Phoenix)

Catching Bill T. Jones’ last performance of Chapter/Chapel at Harlem Stage. Telling the story of several violent murders, this piece by Jones asks an essential question with this multimedia piece: “How can this event suggest the uneasy distance our mediatized era helps create between the passive observers we are and the disturbing, sometimes incomprehensible ‘news items’ we encounter every day?” A deeply intense, haunting, memorable work, Chapter/Chapel gave friend and singer extraordinaire Alicia Hall Moran a remarkable venue for her gifts. (Here’s the review of Chapter/Chapel’s premiere in the New York Times.)

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Francis Bacon, Crucifiction

Not a highlight per se but worthy of a few words was seeing the Francis Bacon show at the Met. Bacon. He’s been a problematic presence in my life as an artist for as long as I can remember. As an art student I could see a mastery in his work, but it was not a mastery that instructed, inspired or enlightened my own intentions. He wasn’t speaking to me, and my “yes but” acknowledgment of his contribution hasn’t changed in all those years since I first began this journey.

I went to see this exhibit more from a sense of obligation than aesthetic connectedness. Bacon’s influence on 20th century art is de facto although the shadow he cast darkened the fields in a completely different part of the art making vineyard from where I have been laboring. Sometimes art is a snake charming of the dark, and sometimes it is a plea for transcendence. Bacon is the prince of the former.

My friend Andria said, Bacon is painting what’s there, but it’s the “what’s there” that the rest of us won’t allow ourselves to see. Bleak that is that deep can be dismissed as easily as the ambient bliss seen by another set of eyes. Bacon’s conflation of Michelangelo and Muybridge, his perennial view of flesh as pusillanimous vulnerability, his obsession with certain forms—the geometric artifice of his work, the shade pulls, the mouths that devour, the human/animal confluence—all bring his dark vision to a powerful, dissonant, full orchestra chord.

Some of the pieces in the show had a toned down rage that made it a bit easier for me to sit with what is painterly in his work. His portraits, of himself, his lovers and even William Blake, have moments for me that are not accompanied by the scream of pain I feel when I look at most of his larger canvases.

But having seen his work for years, I may have been somewhat inoculated over time. My partner David has not had as much exposure to the work, and I watched as he looked intensely at each painting, trying to understand the context and intent. He seemed to be able to detach himself from the dark content and did not flag in his exploration, but the next morning he had a very different sense of the imagery. He said he woke up haunted by the pernicious humanoid forms that sport nothing but a hungry mouth, reminding him of every dark impulse he has ever had. It was hard to shed those images once lodged, and the rest of the day that sense of dark creaturehood was with him.

Those particularly frightening Baconian forms are described wonderfully by Gilles Deleuze: Bacon’s scream is the operation through which the entire body escapes through the mouth. Not surprising that Bacon has mastered how to seed the unconscious with time lapse hauntings, those images that come back when you are most vulnerable and least expect them.

(To read a variety of reviews of the Bacon show, I’ve posted several on Slow Painting.)

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Bacon self portrait

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The best part of a getaway weekend to my old ‘hood in Manhattan however was reconnecting with friends, some of them with me for more years than I can count–Mimi Kramer, Mike and Peggy Porder, Paul and Lynda Gunther, Andria Klarer, Melissa and Annabelle Heckler, Jason and Alicia Hall Moran, Kathryn Kimball. There’s nothing like some serious high contrast to make the darks dark and lights light.

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