Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for November 12th, 2013

The great unread

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William Faulkner

When you love books, and especially if you like to think of yourself as a voracious reader, there’s always the temptation to pretend to be familiar with authors you haven’t read. We’ve all experienced that moment at a cocktail party, during an otherwise harmless conversation, when someone mentions a writer—George Saunders, say, or Alice Munro—whose work you’ve been meaning to check out for a long time, but who still remains untouched on your bookshelf, or in a blur of good intentions. If you’re anything like me, you always pause for a fraction of a second, wondering how to play it. Do you confess and say that you’ve only skimmed the latest Saunders story in The New Yorker on the way to the cartoons? Do you try to get away with repeating something clever you vaguely remember about Munro from the writeup you saw in the Times? Maybe it’s best just to smile and nod, hoping that the problem will go away. Or, if you’re particularly shameless, you can just fake it and agree that Saunders is great. (I admit to doing this on more than one occasion, although it usually involves feigning familiarity with movies I haven’t seen.)

Yet unless you’re Harold Bloom or James Wood or Michiko Kakutani, you’re always going to have blind spots in your literary education. In my case, these authors fall into three categories: those I haven’t read at all, those I’ve attempted and abandoned, and those I’ve read to various degrees, but who leave me with a nagging sense that I haven’t read enough. The writers in the first category include—deep breath now—William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, Henrik Ibsen, Thomas Wolfe, Tennessee Williams, John Dos Passos, Eugene O’Neill, William S. Burroughs, Theodore Dreiser, Ralph Ellison, E.M. Forster, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Edith Wharton, and a library’s worth of others. Authors I’ve tried but never managed to finish include Victor Hugo, Salman Rushdie, David Foster Wallace, Gabriel García Márquez, William Gaddis, Don DeLillo, and a lot, lot more. And in the last, most insidious category are writers I know fairly well but not well enough: I may never get past the sense that I need to read more Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Kafka, Austen, Chekhov, Vonnegut, or Roth.

Tennessee Williams

And this rankles me, because I love reading, and I don’t have much of an excuse. There are times when I feel like a birder grimly trying to check off all the sightings in a big year, and I’m always looking for loopholes. White Noise is a lot shorter than Underworld, so maybe I’ll make that my DeLillo, and maybe seeing Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire counts as reading Tennessee Williams. Part of me worries that by approaching it as if I were crossing items off a list, I’m losing touch with the whole purpose of reading: you should pick up a book because it calls to you, not because it allows you to feel smart in some hypothetical conversation, and it certainly shouldn’t feel like homework. Yet I also feel strongly that canons matter as a guide to books that otherwise wouldn’t leap off the shelves, and I know from my own experience that many novels I approached with a sense of dutifulness—The Magic Mountain comes to mind—became treasured companions. After a certain point, you find that moving randomly from one book to the next only leads you in circles, and you need a nudge from outside to push you in directions that so far have only been trodden by others.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned along the way, it’s that the list of unread books doesn’t diminish over time. If anything, it expands, and whenever you tackle a new author, the list seems to double in size. Every great writer points to others, or forces you to revisit books you thought you knew, and the more you read, the more deeply you understand how much remains unexplored. The goal of a lifetime’s reading isn’t to be smugly reassured that you’ve traversed the Great Books of the Western World, but to gain perspective on the tracts of territory that you still haven’t experienced. And there’s something oddly comforting in the thought that so many great works of art are patiently waiting their turn. In his Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson, who has probably seen more movies than anyone else alive, writes of the Japanese director Mikio Naruse:

Naruse sounds wonderful…I will see [his work] one day. But like all lifelong filmgoers, I know the allure of films unseen…There is nothing like knowing that one has still to see a body of great work. And no gamble as interesting as pushing the desire to its limit.

In a later edition, Thomson confesses that he’s finally seen Naruse, whom he finds “ineffable.” So I may as well admit that I’ve also picked up my copy of The Portable Faulkner. There’s a world full of books that I still need to read, and there’s no better time to start than today.

Written by nevalalee

November 12, 2013 at 9:00 am

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Written by nevalalee

November 12, 2013 at 7:30 am

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