Saturday, December 27, 2008

Charlaine Harris, Dead Until Dark, 2001.

A pleasant, ephemeral, un-mysterious mystery that was oh so much better than the two Twilight novels I read (and about which, because of their sheer disturbing trashiness, misogyny, and general annoying-ness, I refuse to blog). Dead Until Dark is the first story about Sookie Stackhouse--and the basis for a new HBO series, called True Blood. It`s light and fluffy, and replete with vampires and other otherwordly creatures. Don`t expect much, but enjoy the pleasant pulp that relaxes your brain, right after a Christmas that was very, very full of services.

Monday, December 01, 2008

John Green, An Abundance of Katherines, 2006.

My second John Green read, An Abundance of Katherines is a delightful romp. Immediately post break-up, Colin Singleton heads out on a road trip with his best friend, the very funny Hassan. Stopping in the amusingly named Gutshot, TN, the two luck into jobs and housing. Hassan immediately begins to make friends and fit in, while Colin mopes about his most recent girlfriend. Colin--a child prodigy who deeply wants to do something that matters--sets out to develop a formula which will predict which of two people in a relationship will be the dumper, and which the dumpee. He has a fair bit of data to make sense of, having had nineteen relationships with women all named Katherine.

Colin also has a lot of useless information at his fingertips, which may perhaps be why I identified with the lad. I experienced as much joy reading the footnotes--which play with or explain some of the details Colin shares--as I did reading the story! He's also a brilliant at anagrams, a skill in which I am profoundly lacking--to my detriment whenever I'm bored and there are only cryptics lying about.

At any rate, it's a funny, funny book and is touchingly sweet. My impression of Green as a solid and impressive YA author is soaring, and I should really introduce my mother to Green's work. I also need to get my hands on a copy of Paper Towns, to give it a read.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

John Green, Looking for Alaska, 2005.

So. Because I like Jonathan Coulton, I discovered Molly’s ukulele playing on YouTube (her screen name is sweetafton23). So I subscribed to Molly, and a little while ago, watched her video of playing a nerdfighter’s show at the Seattle Public Library. This video, in turn, allowed me to discover the charming John & Hank Green and their Brotherhood 2.0 project. (It also helped me to discover the marvellous song stylings of Ms. Julia Nunes, whose music is stuck in my head of late.) Having discovered John & Hank, I thought I’d give John’s writing a try.

I read Looking for Alaska first, which is a well wrought novel. It’s the story of a young man named Miles Halter, who goes off to boarding school seeking the “Great Perhaps” and who makes friends with other amiable eccentricities (Miles' own eccentricity is a remarkable knowledge of people’s last words). It’s very clearly a bildungsroman, with some of the shortcomings of that particular literary genre—specifically, a fair bit of exposition by a religious knowledge teacher at the school which introduces some concepts of Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam (perhaps hardly surprising given Green’s double major in English and Religion). While these expository bits drag a bit, it’s less notable than similar chunks in most bildungsromans that I’ve read. They’re well integrated with the plot, and do add to it, but they’re a big part of why I see this novel as more of a YA title than something more literary. The plot itself revolves around a tragedy at the school: the book’s two sections are entitled “Before” and “After.”

I’m glad I picked it up and read it. It’s clever, funny, and eminently enjoyable—and I can see why it appeals strongly, both to the nerdfighter community and beyond.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A.J. Jacobs, The Know-It All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, 2004.

The Know-It All is not as good as The Year of Living Biblically. There’s no bias in my reasoning, that I can identify: they’re both eminently enjoyable books, filled with musings about what it is to live. Jacobs’ more recent book, though, has a stronger narrative, a clearer through-line that gives shape to his experience in a way that the A-Z nature of this earlier book lacks.

I bought The Know-It All after L. gave me—and I so enjoyed--The Year of Living Biblically as a present. Jacobs spends a year reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica. More than anything -else, I was struck by how much I am occasionally like Jacobs: enjoying the sharing of obscure, only vaguely relevant bits of trivia and arcana. It can be compulsive.

While it was a meaningful experience for Jacobs, his summary of what he learned takes only a couple of paragraphs. Throughout, he shares interesting experiencing, tidbits of knowledge, and how he makes sense of the experience. Yet while having knowledge helps one in many ways (I’ve always wanted to know everything), I was bemused by the framing of the book, that of a quest to become smarter. It seems too trite, too simplistic a frame: this problem may well explain why I found The Year of Living Biblically to be that much more powerful a quest for meaning than The Know It-All.

It’s an enjoyable book, and worth a read. You’ll pick up all sorts of interesting and completely useless bits of knowledge: Nathaniel Hawthorne was obsessed with the number 64; women in Peru wear yellow underwear on New Year’s; that the name of eggplant “comes from the white egg-shaped variety” (which may explain to my sister why the Brits insist on calling the eggplant that we know an “aubergine”); that “Etruscans sometimes wrote boustrophedon style, in which the direction of writing alternates with each line—right-to-left, then left-to-right”; that Mormons were the first settlers in Las Vegas... I expect you’ll get a bit better at Trivial Pursuit, reading it—though better still if you repeat Jacobs’ experiment!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Shalom Auslander, Foreskin’s Lament, 2007.

Reading this blog, you’d be forgiven this week if you think I pick what book to read next based on my compulsive listening to NPR’s This American Life. I first heard Auslander on an episode about the ten commandments. He described a period of his life when the rabbinical instructors at his Hebrew school yelled at him if he dared write his name on anything—from an atlas to a lunch bag: “Name of the Creator!” It’s a story both moving and sad; his voice, which sounds vaguely reminiscent of Eeyore, makes it impossible not to feel deep empathy for the mistreatment Shalom endured—and yet he tells the stories in a way that is funny, and wry. He happened to be on an episode of Tapestry the other weekend, so I placed a hold on his new book. I raced through it.

Foreskin’s Lament is a memoir about his relationship with God. He writes that his relationship with God “has been an endless cycle not of the celebrated ‘faith followed by doubt,’ but of appeasement followed by revolt; placation followed by indifference; please, please, please, followed by fuck it, fuck You, fuck off” (71). It was hearing that idea on Tapestry that made me want to read the book. Let me quote Auslander again, and try to explain what it is that I mean:
I do not keep Sabbath or pray three times a day or wait six hours between eating meat and milk. The people who raised me will say that I am not religious. They are mistaken. What I am not is observant. But I am painfully, cripplingly, incurably, miserably religious, and I have watched lately, dumb-founded and distraught, as around the world, more and more people seem to be finding Gods, each one more hateful and bloodthirsty than the next, as I’m doing my best to lose him. I’m failing miserably.
I believe in God.
It’s been a real problem for me. (71-72)

There are two things here which intrigue me. The first is that Auslander is not of the Sam Harris / Richard Dawkins school, suggesting that what’s wrong with the world is religion. He’s not convinced that religion won’t lead to the sort of abuse that he experienced, that Harris and Dawkins claim is normative and rail against. Rather, Auslander is quite clear: what’s wrong is how faith has been lived out. Maybe there’s a better way to live it, though likely not. So how do you survive with it? Secondly, there’s an intriguing notion, better described elsewhere when his wife Orli offers a felicitous description of an infelicitous upbringing: Auslander was theologically abused, by parents, teachers, and his societal group as a whole. Without suggesting any sort of equivalence, this latter idea made me wonder about people who have been brought up within a faith tradition and have fled it. Do they do so only because they perceive no relevancy, no connection? Or is there something else, some trauma or injustice, something which has driven them away? And in this latter case, what is the appropriate response of the faith community? Saying “It wasn’t us” or “That’s not who we are now” isn’t any more satisfying than saying “We’re sorry you went through that” to the injured. What is the justice making response, if any?

Reading Auslander, I’m left with more questions than answers. I don’t have a response to his writing that feels in any way adequate. I am genuinely sorry that he has such a tortured relationship with God, and that he had such an upbringing that has left him in this state. He’s very clear in his writing that what he experienced is not Judaism; and yet he’s far from sure that any faith--even one that turns again and again to the Shema--can escape such perversions. I was amused and engaged as I read his book; I felt drawn in, and present to his stories.

Ultimately, I’m left with something he said in the Tapestry interview. Tragedy, he argued, is the human response to the events of our lives: abject dejection, a sense that no good is entirely possible, that we’re too trapped by fate. Humour, in contrast, is God’s perspective: the way of looking back over events and seeing that there’s more than pain and suffering. It’s an interesting way of thinking about the two modes, and as Auslander plays with this idea, he privileges comedy in a way I’ve not encountered before.

It’s a book well worth a read; I hope it will leave you with more questions than answers, just as it left me.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Dan Savage, The Commitment: Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family, 2005.

I first encountered Savage when I read, at the urging of a former co-worker, a couple of Savage’s advice columns: Savage Love. While far more entertaining than most such columns, I wasn’t hugely excited. Then I heard him on one of my addictions: the NPR show This American Life. Surely, if Ira Glass likes the guy’s writing... I was hooked. Even Savage’s voice works well, drawing you into his stories.

It was one of those stories which inspired me to get this book out from HPL. Savage was talking about his son’s opposition to Savage marrying his boyfriend Terry, and I found myself in tears by the end of that act of TAL (which you can listen to here). When I learnt that there was an entire book devoted to the musings, I placed a hold.

It is a book that is by turns touching, vitriolic, foul-mouthed, pensive, inquisitive; it is an incisive commentary on the state of the United States, with some travelogue-esque sections that made me remember de Tocqueville. At its heart, though, it’s a book about what family is and means. Savage’s own large family, whose various members have adopted diverse varieties of familial models, provides much fodder for Savage attempting to make sense of one question: should he and Terry get married? I didn’t cry again, reading it, but I found myself feeling a number of moments quite intensely. One such moment, well worth years of future consideration, is about our relationships in neighbourhoods: how they’re constructed, how we attempt to escape them, how we re-create them in later life. One large Catholic family, rooted in one area of a city for a number of generations offers a treasure trove for thinking about individuals, families, and communities.

So, it's a book I'm glad that TAL pointed me toward. I promise to let it pick my books for me even more frequently.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Dustin Long, Icelander, 2006.

I acquired this novel from McSweeney’s as I renewed a subscription two years ago, and have been looking forward to reading it for some time. Its book jacket/slip describes it as a “Nabokovian goof on Agatha Christie; a madcap mystery in the deceptive tradition of The Crying of Lot 49; The Third Policeman meets The Da Vinci Code. …an intricate, giddy romp steeped equally in Nordic lore and pulpy intrigue.” I’m not sure I can offer anything more than that. What, indeed, can one say about a book that begins with a Dramatis Personae list which includes “Hubert Jorgen: Rogue library-scientist”?

It’s an odd book that has an unreliable narrator, an unreliable editor, and a host of wacky and intriguing characters, the rogue library-scientist included. Others include a pair of detectives that seem a cross of I Heart Huckabees and Thomson and Thompson from Tintin; a main character of a detective who doesn’t want to detect (quite unlike her famous mother); an under-developed-as-a-person avatar of a Norse God; a macguffin named MacGuffin who is only semi-macguffin-y; and a peculiar take on Iceland itself (which seems to have spread to the United States), and fortunately exists in a parallel universe.

As a book, it’s a delightfully silly romp (the detective plot is formulaic and unexceptional, but that’s actually by design) that will have you counting allusions to everything from, well, Tintin to As I Lay Dying, to… well, many, many more places. The allusions are both well done and silly, and made me laugh out loud on more than one occasion. It seems like a McSweeney’s book: it asks for well-read readers, and won’t disappoint them with the particular style associated with Eggers and his cohort. It was a lovely light read to use to emerge from my retreat, before I dive into something with more heft.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

… continuing our travels with M. Proust…

I finished the “Place-Names • The Name” section: that accomplishment means I have now finished the first volume of the novel. Swann’s Way, which has long sat beside my bed at home, can be placed back on its bookshelf. I am not in a huge rush to draw the next volume from the shelf; I think I may pause. Yet I did greatly enjoy this final section: the contrast between M. Swann’s love affair in the previous section and the first blushes of love in the narrator show both the similarities of every new infatuation and the differences of habit in those of different ages. There’s a deep sweetness to this section, almost a gentle self-deprecation while not minimizing the profundity of the experience of the narrator’s love for Gilberte. The intriguing question for me, as I continue in the novel, revolves around the disparity of affection toward M. Swann from the narrator’s parents when at Combray and when in Paris: I do wonder if I’ll learn yet more about their relationship as I move into further volumes. First, though, I will need a variety of divertissements before reading more if In Search of Lost Time. I’ll end this entry by quoting the end of the volume, a lovely musing on memory and place:
“The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. They were only a thin, slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.” (606)

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

jon mcgregor, if nobody speaks of remarkable things, 2002.

W— and S— gave me this book as an ordination present. I opened it, with W— sitting in my office with me, and he told me that they wanted to give me something that they didn’t think I’d have read, and something that might speak to my ordination and my new urban context for ministry. He told me that it revolved around an event, and spoke of a series of individuals’ reactions to that event, how they had been irrevocably scarred by their experience of it. I was intrigued. I started to read the book a night or two later, and was awed by the first few pages: they’re remarkable. I knew I needed some uninterrupted time to read this book, and so I brought it with me on retreat.

The first pages are lyrical: they describe the song of a city, and how it pauses for only the briefest of moments. It’s a beautiful prose poem, and reading it I couldn’t help but think of Wordsworth’s “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge”: it’s that descriptive, that evocative.

From there, the scars are evident almost immediately. What’s astonishing is how the cast of characters remain almost entirely nameless: we meet and remember them by description, by the sort of characteristics we would notice if we encountered them in our neighbourhood but never said more than a polite “hello”—and it’s entirely intentional, a sharply pointed comment about our intertwined lives but about how we maintain such incredible gulfs of separation with our very neighbours. What astonishes me is that the writing makes it work, that the writing is capable of sustaining the effort across the 275 pages of the novel: names, despite the assertion in T.S. Eliot’s feline poetry, do not always convey our deepest beings, our longings and sorrows and our delights and our joys. One of the effects is that each segment, each brief piece about some of the very real people feels anecdotal—just a story about someone I happened to know. They are anecdotes made universal by their lack of identification yet at the same time deeply real and particular in the crisply rendered details that mcgregor feeds us as we read.

The prose does not remain as stunning throughout as in the first few magnificent pages, but it’s never expository, never dull: it remains elusive, revealing bit by bit in a skilfully crafted story. There are some passages, though, which live up to the promise of those first pages. While it is my habit to quote from books in entries in this blog, I’m not going to, with this book: the passages are sharper and stronger in context, and while not less powerful as excerpts, they convey more still in situ. The passage that gives the book its title is one such; for it alone, this book is worth reading. The images—oh, the bungee jumping!—are a delight, and mcgregor handles them so deftly that I’d be interested indeed to know if he writes poetry, as well. As the plot moves slowly along, as we watch relationships develop we move inexorably closer to learning the events of the tragic day: after such a prolonged build-up, it was a relief that, though entirely prosaic, they did not disappoint and were indeed so strong as to move me to tears.

Thank you, W— and S— for this lovely and wonderful gift which I now look forward to re-reading and to sharing with others. You certainly succeeded in all your objectives with this present! For those who read this blog and take it seriously, I’d like to give you a strong recommendation: go and buy this book, and devour it. You’ll thank W— and S—, too.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

L. William Countryman, Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All, 1999.

As my ordination was looming nearer, and I was chatting with my friend M—- about my desire to make better sense of ordination as a sacrament, he strongly recommended Countryman’s book. I began to read it before my pre-ordination retreat, but hardly had much time to spend with it, before or since. It’s hardly surprising, then, that it was the focus of my retreat this past week.

Countryman’s book is genius, absolute and stunning genius. It’s dense and far from an easy read, but is profoundly rewarding. He begins by defining “priest” as “any person who lives in the dangerous, exhilarating, life-giving borderlands of human existence, where the everyday experience of life opens up to reveal glimpses of the HOLY—-and not only lives there, but comes to the aid of others who are living there” (xi). To gloss this idea slightly, allow me to recast it: a priest is someone who has been aware in some way of the presence of the ONE WHO IS and then makes an effort to help others into their own experiences of the TRANSCENDENT. (The small-cap thing, which I'm not learning how to do in html, is Countryman’s stylistic habit, and makes a certain amount of sense in context: you, reading only this blog entry, must simply live with me using it in this entry.) What is fascinating about this definition is the unavoidable conclusion that we are, simply by being human, priests at some moments in our lives. Those with a priestly identity are those more attuned to living in the “borderland” in which we can encounter GOD, and who make a conscious effort to help others attune their own livings of life to be attentive to the presence of the HIDDEN REALITY. The other conclusion we can draw is that religion, in its variety of forms, is a stylized effort to try to mediate and re-present the ULTIMATE to those who participate in the rites and faiths tied to the practice of religion. Ordained priests at their best and most honest then are a sacramental representation of our inherent human priesthood. OK: simpler still, priesthood is about seeking and sharing the experience of TRUTH in our lives, and about remembering that this is the important focal point for how we live out our own lives.

The book is brilliant. The footnotes are engaging, and have provided for me a number of interesting things to read (though I recommend reading the book once, ignoring the footnotes, and then reading it again with the footnotes, so as not to bog down in the asides and interesting ideas: not sources so much as other thoughts with which Countryman is in conversation). I would recommend it highly to those interested in thinking about vocation, about how we encounter and share our encounters of the HOLY, and about the meaning of vocation itself. I will leave you with a sample of quotations from the book which may pique your interest further.

“I cannot say too often that the priesthood of the whole people is the fundamental priesthood. Even for the ordained minister, Christian priesthood still means primarily one’s exercise of the priesthood shared with the whole people. The ordained priesthood is a sacramental service offered not so much to the whole people (which would imply a stance over and against the laity) as in and for that prior and more universal ministry.” (109)

“The great tool of priesthood is not any specific knowledge—whether of the Bible or history or theology or newer disciplines such as pastoral counselling or church growth. Any or all of these are of potential value, but the great tool of priesthood is a priestly life, a priestly self. And such a self, as we have been saying, grows and matures by the fact of our living, attentively and in communion with other priests, on the border of the HOLY. It occurs in conversation with GOD and with one another.” (152)

“The Bible, church history, the traditions of intellectual theology, the ethical reflections of past and present, the liturgical tradition—all these interact with one another and, above all, with our lived experience of GRACE, to create the present and future of our faith.” (155)

“Jesus’ living out of the fundamental human priesthood serves to focus and guide our living out of it in our own time and place. But it will never be enough if we try merely to copy what Jesus did. Instead, we pray that what we learn from Jesus will shape us so that we can live responsibly and generously, in our own day and place, as Jesus did in his.” (77)

Monday, August 04, 2008

The past week has been wonderful for reading. I read the entirety of if nobody speaks of remarkable things, a wonderful present from W—and S--, and a book which left me in awe both of the skill of the artist and the world in which we live. I finally finished Swann’s Way. I finished, and then read again, L. William Countryman’s book, Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All, which is about priesthood (both the ordained kind and the more important kind that stems from our humanity) and what it is to live in ways open to the HOLY. I read quite a number of poems by Rowan Williams. I spent a lot of time with the book of Kings. I enjoyed and learnt from Barbara Brown Taylor’s The Preaching Life. I read Edmund Gosse’s biography of Jeremy Taylor, and a large and not overly fruitful chunk of Jeremy Taylor’s own work, including the entirety of Holy Dying, in the fond hope of finding a passage that has been occupying my spiritual life for some time now. I browsed throughout the monastery’s library, and read bits and pieces of a number of different things, about which I will not make an effort to blog. I’ve reread The Rule of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, and chunks of de Waal’s expansive commentary on the rule of Benedict, A Life-Giving Way. I’ve started reading Icelander, an amusing and odd mystery novel (“A Nabokovian goof on Agatha Christie,” reads the back), if only because its name sounds soothing in the midst of the heat of summer (though chapel, library, and refectory have been deliciously cool).

I have also read a lot of psalms. Some I sang, some I spoke, and many more I listened to. In one of the books I glanced into there was a story of a Zen master visiting a Camaldolese monastery and commenting on the amount of time the monks spent reading the psalms. The response given to the Zen master by one of the monks was no: we spend far more time listening to our brothers read them to us. We are quiet here, and we listen. This retreat of mine has been about space and about calm, about an entirely different rhythm of life than that which I experience at home. It will be interesting for me to pay attention to how I carry the rhythms of this place back with me. To a large extent, that’s why I brought my copy of the SSJE rule with me, and the de Waal commentary: I want to be more intentional about how I am, and they’ve offered me some help in making sense of how to re-engage the process of reflection on my life. More helpful still was the endless flow of psalms, the wave of scripture read, and the wash of “chapters” that share stories of the saints and our call to respond to God’s love that have enveloped me and made space for me to be quiet.

I have been still.

I have enjoyed the rich waft of cedar that has held me in a close embrace in the chapel.

On my way to and from that space of prayer (and particularly on my way to and from Matins, at 4:00am) I have revelled in the odd smell that reminds me of the strawberry fruit roll-ups that were a staple in my grade school lunch boxes. It took me five or six trips along the path before I was able to identify the smell, and it evoked waves of nostalgia, and makes a fitting image of this time and my reading: a Proustian recollection; an invitation, a la Countryman and Brown Taylor, to look deeper into all things of the world, that we may experience and share our encounter with the ONE WHO IS, a reminder of the transitory nature of life from Williams’ poetry, and a true Benedictine way of being quiet, and listening. Away, I’ve had much needed time for reading and prayer. I’m looking forward to discovering how to carry this experience back with me into the rest of my life: I will be still, in the midst of busy-ness.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

A.J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, 2007.

Lesley gave me this book as an ordination present; given the new job, I’m astonished I finished it within a month.

The premise is entirely contained in the book’s title. Jacobs writes in such an engaging manner that the steady stream of vignettes and reflections are riveting, regardless of whether each one is silly or serious. It’s not an academic work of theology, and no student of Biblical interpretation is going to be wildly excited by how Jacobs works through the questions that arise as he tries to ascertain just HOW to follow the Bible as literally as possible. At the same time, the vignettes can function as great conversation starters, allowing those questions to be raised for others. (I know of one rector in the diocese who has used the book successfully for a book study, though she found it more effective with selections of quotations, rather than the entire book.) Jacobs asks good, jargon-free questions about conflicting ways to take the Bible literally, and ultimately is far more concerned with how to read it seriously—his sympathies are far more with people like Marcus Borg than with the innumerable fundamentalists he encounters. What impressed me is that he maintains an unflinching sympathy and equitable portrayal of those with whom he disagrees, though he is clear and forthright about his own reactions.

There are a number of poignant moments in the book, and though I found myself having to concentrate harder in the last third of the year it describes, I was glad to read it. I enjoyed it sufficiently that I’m looking forward to reading his earlier memoir about reading through the Encyclopedia Brittanica (The Know-It-All).

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Stan Persky, Topic Sentence: A Writer’s Education, 2007.

I started reading this one based on the Globe’s review of it (I should really start recording when I add things to my to-read list; I think I acquired the book shortly after it came out, and have only just finished it). It’s been bed-time reading—most of its sections are sufficiently short that I culd read one or two before going to sleep—and with my earlier bedtimes of late, I’ve been doing more of such reading.

Topic Sentence is an intriguing collection. Almost every piece therein is at least partially a memoir. Organized into “Before,” “During,” and “After,” the collected thoughts examine what it is to write well—poetry, memoir, and essays. They describe relationships with some of the most prominent poets of the twentieth century. One of my particular favourites, “The Horses of Instruction” is one of the best pieces of writing about education and philosophy that I’ve encountered. The pieces in the “During” section revolve primarily around Persky’s sexuality—both his life experience, and his making sense of society and culture—and comprise some moving and insightful writing. The epilogue to “Eros and Cupid” is genius.

As you read this collection, your own sense of writing is likely to shift: whether it’s a renewed appreciation for words in “The Translators” or the attempt to survey aspects of what it is to read the times one lives through—and especially the work of Orwell, Isherwood, Miłosz, Creeley, or contemporary music—Persky’s clarity and thoughtfulness are well worth the read. Like some of my other favourite writers, he is clearly interested in everything and wants to think deeply about what he encounters: it’s been nice having him as a teacher while I’ve read his book.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night, 2006.

I crossed another book off my to read list today, and was surprised to see that I’d neither crossed this one off the list nor blogged about it, though I read it shortly after finishing The City of Words back in the fall.

It’s a lovely book, easy to dip into and read from in tiny pieces at a time—and I’m likely biased, given my own predilections and desire to have (what could justifiably be called) a library of my own, rather than a mere trifling collection of books. Manguel offers fifteen reflections on libraries, each loosely structured around a way of conceiving of a library’s import, meaning, and identity. Yet each of these sets of musings are really more about books in general, and—really—about reading. Consider what Manguel writes in “The Library as Island”:
Our society accepts the book as a given, but the act of reading—once considered useful and important, as well as potentially dangerous and subversive—is now condescendingly accepted as a pastime, a slow pastime that lacks efficiency and does not contribute to the common good. As our visitor [a gedankenexperiment of a visitor from the past, looking at our reading habits] would eventually realize, in our society reading is nothing but an ancillary act, and the great repository of our memory and experience, the library, is considered less a living entity than an inconvenient storage room.

Hard to see why I might like such a book as this one, isn’t it? I think Manguel is spot on, here. Our society has come to devalue reading, to marginalise it much as the CBC is currently trying to help marginalise art music. Fewer and fewer people admit to me that they have time to read—does being too busy to read really serve as a commendation of one’s own life? Really?—and when they do, it’s usually to complain that it’s not worth the effort, that television provides better entertainment. Reading, Manguel argued when I heard him speak at McMaster just before he gave the Massey lectures, is what keeps us from being barbarians. My own gloss on this idea is that to read is more than to be entertained: it is to remember stories, moments, vibrant images, ideas; reading is an engagement with the real, and it is restorative, invigorating, challenging, and expansive. Reading helps us to make sense of life, and libraries offer the tools to read and to reread, to find new treasures and to re-encounter anew treasures that are only half-remembered.

Manguel’s book is well worth the time spent reading it (I read it mostly on GO train rides into Toronto), both to wonder about our own relationships with libraries and to think again about what a gift reading is in our lives. And as a fun side benefit, you’ll learn both about neat libraries and about neat books. Add this one to your library. You’ll want to return to it.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

This blog started as I was reading Ulysses. In fact, this blog was conceived partly as a way through that book: I’d write an entry after each chapter, or couple of chapters, as a way of keeping myself reading. After that point, it became less about what I read each day and more my first thoughts on the book I had just finished reading, a sort of aide-memoire about what I had read. The entries have not been essays nor reviews, except very occasionally, but rather a journal of my initial impressions. Not every book I have read since the blog began has made its way here, but most of them have. School has rather slowed my progress, of late, and there have not been many that I could add. Complicating matters yet further, I’ve started a very, very long book, and it will be a while before I finish one volume of it—let alone the whole thing. Because of school, and an uncertain future, and because I’ve just started reading In Search of Lost Time, I have decided to return for the next while to a more episodic sort of reading blog: as I finish a chunk of Proust, I’ll blog about the chunk. And, if I decide to keep reading this book after I finish the first volume, you’ll be able to read about my experiences reading Proust for the next four-five years, at the glacial pace I seem to be managing. As an alternative, you could go read the disappointing The Year of Reading Proust: A Memoir in Real Time by Phyllis Rose, and skip my blog until I return to other books. (It’s likely that, with the end of school drawing nigh, I will start blogging about “work books”—i.e., theology, pastoral stuff, group stuff, leadership stuff, biblical criticism—in a way that I have avoided while in school. That means there will be other things interspersed with Proustian chunks.)

So. Part one “Combray” of volume one (Swann’s Way) of In Search of Lost Time. (I own the volumes from the Modern Library paperback printings: "The C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin translation, Revised by D.J. Enright")
Not, perhaps, the best thing to read each night before bed—particularly during the long section musing about memories of not being able to fall asleep, and what races through the narrator’s brain! Throughout “Combray,” I kept empathizing with the narrator: not in details, obviously, but in the way his brain works and makes associations and connections; I felt as though my brain works exactly the same way. Here and there were some brilliant bits that leapt out at me, and I’ve quoted some of them below.

There’s a dazzling array of remembered detail, all of it interesting. The sheer volume slows and lengthens my reading so that my thoughts are nearly at the same speed as what I read: Proust overwhelms me and forces me to slow my pace, to stay in the moment he is describing. Nor are there a lot of natural breaking points, in which I can cease my reading for the night. Because of this latter fact, I find I’m picking a paragraph, ending with it, and returning the next night by reading that same paragraph again—and yet, it’s not hard to remember both the overall course of the story and the details of where I am in it, a fact that is surprising to me given my lack of knowledge of the story.

I think my other major response, to this point, is to wonder how this first section sets the stage for what is to come—and I find myself worrying that I will need to re-read what I have just finished, perhaps many times, to actually get a good feeling for the novel as an entity.

As promised, a few quotations. I don’t always agree with M.P., but I do enjoy his conclusions for what they are and how they emerge; they’re deeply thoughtful.

But none of the feelings which the joys or misfortunes of a real person arouse in us can be awakened except through a mental picture of those joys or misfortunes; and the ingenuity of the first novelist lay in his understanding that, as the image was the one essential element in the complicated structure of our emotions, so that simplification of it which consisted in the suppression, pure and simple, of real people would be a decided improvement. (116)

…why then, for the space of an hour he sets free within us all the joys and sorrows in the world, a few of which only we should have to spend years of our actual life in getting to know, and the most intense of which would never be revealed to us because the slow course of their development prevents us from perceiving them. It is the same in life; the heart changes, and it is our worst sorrow; but we know it only through reading, through our imagination: in reality its alteration, like that of certain natural phenomena, is so gradual that, even if we are able to distinguish, successively, each of its different states, we are still spared the actual sensation of change. (117)

We try to discover in things, which become precious to us on that account, the reflection of what our soul has projected on to them; we are disillusioned when we find that they are in reality devoid of the charm which the owed, in our minds, to the association of certain ideas; sometimes we mobilise all our spiritual forces in a glittering array in order to bring our influence to bear on other human beings who, we very well know, are situated outside ourselves where we can never reach them. (119)

The facts of life do not penetrate to the sphere in which our beliefs are cherished; they did not engender those beliefs, and they are powerless to destroy them; they can inflict on them continual blows of contradiction and disproof without weakening them; and an avalanche of miseries and maladies succeeding one another without interruption in the bosom of a family will not make it lose faith in either the clemency of its God or the capacity of its physician. (209)