Our Evolving Reading Lives

SCOTT: Let’s begin with a little scene-setting. Lunch yesterday.

You: “You’ve been reading more poetry lately.”

Me: “Don’t say that so loud!”

Point being, I suppose, that my reading habits sometimes evolve faster than my ability to settle into them. Poetry is a new(ish) thing for me. My education didn’t include much — certainly not in high school, and college English was mostly a six-year slalom around dull-sounding classes and into semesters of “The American Novel of Cosmic Absurdity” and “Ecofiction.” Poetry sounded too … flouncy for a non-drinking, drug-free, but generally gonzo-hearted Hunter Thompson disciple like me. It seemed too dedicated to not saying what it meant, at a time when I needed everything spelled out.

That time has apparently passed, because my poetry uptake has spiked, beginning with Michael Robbins’ Alien vs Predator, and hop-lurching randomly across the poetry scene from there. I’ve been guided by enthusiasm for voices rather than an enlarged understanding of what poetry is about — I wouldn’t know a quatrain if it bit me in the sestina. Still, I’m considerably more comfortable these days with the allusive, elusive, sideways style of meaning that poetry entails. Back when the hot velocity of New Journalism was my jam, I couldn’t imagine relishing the quietude that poetry often requires … the slowness of meaning-ingestion, the stillness and focused attention with which poetry is best taken in.

Interestingly, this development parallels another significant change in my reading life: the vanishing of time for stillness and focused attention. There’s something so wall-to-wall about my life these days. (Example: I’m about to spend the weekend traveling for my granddaughter’s dance recital; so much prime reading time lost!) Some days, all the intentionality in the world just can’t compete with the clamor of a job, kids, grandkids, dogs, a cat and the general shrieking vortex of life. What’s the urgent verse of Erin Belieu when my grandson is crawling out the doggy door?

GEOFF: While you’re experiencing a marked reduction in time for focused attention, I’ve seen the opposite, at least when I’m not at work. My wife and I are on our own these days, with our two adult kids in college out of state. Our two cats aren’t all that demanding on my time. They are more attached to my wife. This has left substantial time for intense reading. I haven’t used this newfound time as effectively as I should — damn you, quality television! — at least not yet. But I’ve had the opportunity to dig into some BIG books that in the past I might have bypassed in the hope of having time for them at some future stage of life. That time, it seems, is now.

When I say BIG books, I don’t necessarily mean LONG books, but that’s often the case. One example is The Silmarillion, which is essentially J.R.R. Tolkien’s prequel to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. If one is an admirer of LOTR, one recognizes that at some point one needs to tackle The Silmarillion, but it’s understandable to want to put off that task as long as possible. The Silmarillion is a tough slog in places. It’s written in a loftier and more stilted style than Tolkien wisely adopted for The Hobbit and LOTR. It’s also not really a cohesive narrative but a collection of stories that make up the Middle-earth mythology. I’m really happy that I read it, and I enjoyed it in places, but it definitely requires that “focused attention” that you described.

A second example I would mention is not a LONG book. It’s not a book that would normally fall into my areas of interest. I guess I would characterize it as intimidating. It turned out it wasn’t intimidating at all. Based on an unimpeachable recommendation, I read Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. This award-winning book is an astonishing work of immersion journalism. Boo delivers a detailed, nuanced and moving portrait of the poorest of the many, many poor people in India, one of the most alarming cases of economic inequality on the planet. The commitment of time and determination Boo made in order to produce this book is almost impossible to fathom. It’s an important book that I would recommend to everybody.

One more example: A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. Published in 1960, it’s a science fiction novel without much science in it, at least not of the advanced sort. The story is a product of its time: Earth after the nuclear holocaust, a popular Cold War subject. But not a few days or even a few years after the holocaust. Hundreds of years afterward, so that, one presumes, the radioactive cloud is no longer airborne, its immediate destructive effects a distant memory. Earth is a primitive place at this point, with most of the technological advances of the 20th century long lost, and the discovery of relics from before the holocaust being of interest primarily to a small group of monks living somewhere in Utah. If this doesn’t keep your interest, I don’t know what would! It’s a very interesting novel, far more thought-provoking than most post-apocalyptic fare.

SCOTT: “How did it get so late so soon?” Dr. Seuss once wondered, as do I every time I pick up a book only to realize the day is almost over. A busy life — it’s karma’s way of saying, Tempis fugit, motherfucker! But there are ways to deal with that. Early last year, in a piece on New Year’s resolutions I wrote for a newspaper insert, I publicly declared that I would read 32 books in 2015. It seemed possibly doable, an uptick from the dismal 15-20 books I’d finished the year before. And I figured the gentle pressure of a public declaration — albeit to complete strangers who’d never know if I followed through — might arrest the time-drift and brain-flit that always seem to bog down my reading momentum.

It nearly worked, too. I read 30 books. Some good stuff, too: Ben Lerner’s 10:04, William Gibson’s The Peripheral, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. But also two David Baldacci potboilers and Lee Child’s latest Reacher, and more about those things later. The main thing is, by giving myself a little structure and the barest nudge of accountability, I gave myself permission to cadge reading time at moments I might’ve otherwise devoted to other activities. (I certainly watched less TV, though I don’t typically watch much.) Totally changed my reading habits. This year, without the forward prod of some declared intent, or even a list of books I plan to get to, I’ve shamefully backslid into the drowsier reading mojo of 2014. Sad. Ah, well, as Coco Chanel reminds us, there’s no sense pounding your fists on the wall hoping to make a door.

Before I leave 2015, I want to say a few words about one of my favorite books from that fertile period: The World Is on Fire by Joni Tevis. There’s been a lot of quacking the last few years about the resurgence of the essay — every decent book festival has a panel devoted to the subject anymore — beginning in some sense with the release of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead in 2011. Some collections have been rightly celebrated as part of this trend, Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, for example, but far too many get only a fraction of the attention they deserve. Tevis’ book is one of them. Her pieces really stretch the capacity of the essay to create meaning. Her method is juxtapositional — she’ll layer several utterly different narrative streams side by side to see what they say to each other. So the title piece has her considering the heyday and legacy of the Nevada Test Site as well as the circumstances of Buddy Holly’s death. Others throw together her naked anxieties about pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood with explorations of industrial ruins or sites from her childhood. There’s not a glib sentence in the entire book, and she brings a lot of raw honesty and fierce writing to bear. It’s one of the best books I’ve read recently.

GEOFF: The larger culture probably would consider me to be a fairly prodigious reader, but I constantly feel I’m barely scratching the surface of the good books available to me. Further, I feel like I’m constantly cracking open the wrong books — not that they aren’t good books but that there are so many other good ones I’m passing over, often for unclear reasons.

The harsh reality is that in my remaining years on the planet, with eyes and brain still functioning sufficiently to absorb words on paper, there’s no way I’m going to read all the books I want to read. In fact, recently I’ve been pruning the books in my house on the premise that the ones going into the boxes in the trunk of the car are highly unlikely to ever rise to the level of “next up” on the reading list. This is a fairly healthy process, I think, but there’s undoubtedly going to be a situation where I’ve gotten rid of a book that at some point down the line I will have new reason to want to read.

At different times over the years, I’ve wanted to spend more of my reading time on literary classics, but right or wrong these enthusiasms have dimmed again and again. I have, in fact, read some great classic novels all the way through, and I’m happy about it. Moby Dick, for example, and Anna Karenina, and Madame Bovary. But I’ve started many more that still have the bookmarks sticking out of them about a third or halfway through. Two recent examples are Bleak House and Middlemarch. I’ve enjoyed the reading of them that I have completed, but I’ve set each of them aside in favor of some other pressing passion. I may come back to Bleak House — at least that’s what I’m telling myself right now — but, honestly, I might not. As for Middlemarch, the party’s over.

One thing I’ve clearly learned about myself as a reader is that I crave narrative. This hardly makes me unusual. Most readers crave narrative. It’s taken me a while to recognize this about myself, in part, I suspect, because of some vague belief that this craving is more middlebrow than I would like to think of myself as being. But I don’t see it that way anymore. This narrative craving, by the way, is not strictly for fiction. In fact, I prefer it to my nonfiction as well: history, journalism, biography, memoir. It can be highly literary in tone, deeply historical, whatever — but tell me a story that has a beginning, middle and end. Or tell me a bunch of different stories. It doesn’t matter, as long as there’s some form of narrative propulsion.

You and I share a passion for essays. But I will admit that I prefer essays that revolve around or meander through the unfolding of a story. I want the essayist to share observations, to raise questions, to make assertions within the context of some kind of story. It doesn’t have to be anything momentous. The writer could be going to the store and coming back home. But in the telling of this story, however mundane, there remains the possibility that something is going to happen, however trivial, that will keep my interest.

SCOTT: Right now, still gestating in a Google doc somewhere, I have a short essay about my tricky relationship to fiction. I began it when I had a realization: It’s amazing, in a completely shameful way, all the great books I’ve started and abandoned, so many classics among them. From Amis to Zola, you could compile a great syllabus from the books I’ve bailed on.

And some of that, I think, has very much to do with narrative. In the sense that, in a certain (and appallingly frequent) frame of mind, narrative is all I want. Propulsion. A whooshing transit from point A to point B and beyond. That is, the books of, say, Dan Brown and David Baldacci. What I seem not to want when I’m in those moods, what I resist at some kind of deep psychological level, is the process of identifying with a fictional person — the setting aside of my immediate consciousness in order to inhabit the one created by the writer. My mind truckles at that sense of … well, surrender is what it feels like. It probably means that I’m a raging narcissist or something.

Of course, the novels that people think of as airport fiction or cheap thrillers require zero identification; whether you climb inside the hero’s head or are continually aware of him/her as a one-dimensional linguistic effect, the rewards of reading these books are exactly the same. So it is that I can (a) realize that Dan Brown and David Baldacci are mediocre writers, and (b) read everything they’ve written. They trot me through a decent obstacle course of plot contrivances while — because I’m still reading, after all, an effortful act — being at least slightly better for me than TV.

GEOFF: I’m fully capable of reading what you’ve aptly called “airport fiction.” I’ve read deeply into Stephen King’s prodigious list, and I’ve read a ton of John D. MacDonald, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, as well as, in my earlier years, some seriously questionable knockoff heroic fantasy. But I do think compelling narrative can be found among more literary-minded writers. My favorites in this area include Richard Russo, Richard Ford, Jim Harrison, Charles Portis, Nelson Algren, Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. For me, it’s okay for the narrative to meander a bit, to take some off-ramps here and there to explore the countryside. But in the end it works best when there’s some of that “propulsion” you described, the idea that things are happening that lead to other developments and so on.

The death this week of Jim Harrison bummed me out. He was old and tired and sick, I know, so I’m sure he was past due, but over the past 10 years, especially, I ate up everything he wrote. I know I was one of the first people in the world to pick up his latest book and devour it in just a few days. This devotion is not easy to explain, except to say that Harrison possessed a literary voice that was as distinctive as that of any iconic actor or singer. It was — still is, really — comforting and exhilarating to experience that voice from time to time. It’s interesting that Harrison’s fiction was most beloved in France. I’m not sure what that says about the French, but I agree with their admiration for him. I wish Harrison had written more nonfiction. He wrote some, and it was good, but I really would have loved to see him produce more journalism and essays.

My wife is a big fan of Lee Child and Harlan Coben. I understand these guys to be at the high end of the airport fiction realm, probably around the same level as your Baldacci and Brown. I don’t see myself going there, so we’re different in that way. Modern-day high-concept mysteries and international thrillers aren’t what I’m after, I guess. But I’m sure I’m missing something. My wife is always citing “Reacher wisdom” as we go about our daily lives. I rarely am able to retort with practical wisdom offered by one of my favorite writers!

SCOTT: Correction: Lee Child is a much better writer — at the sentence and paragraph level — than Brown or Baldacci. He is, I’ll grant you, no Jim Harrison. I’m a huge fan of Harrison’s nonfiction, in particular his writing about food, which is so often really about appetite and the natural world and being human. Definite loss to us all, his death. I’m waaaayyyy behind you in reading of his fiction. I hope some day to find the time to catch up. Indeed, my real, honest-to-goodness hope in this life is that books are the one exception to the rule that you can’t take it with you. As Warren Zevon might sing, “I’ll read when I’m dead!”

Scott Dickensheets is deputy editor of Nevada Public Radio’s monthly magazine, Desert Companion. Geoff Schumacher is director of content for the Mob Museum.

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