Reading is Not a Race

John Freeman: “The sentences run to typical Pynchonian length, and the typeface is alarmingly small. One can spend 20 hours of a weekend reading this book and barely make a dent.”

From David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel:

Harold Bloom’s claim to The New York Times that he could read at a rate of five hundred pages per hour.

Writer’s arse.

Spectacular exhibition! Right this way ladies and gentlemen! See Professor Bloom read the 1961 corrected and reset Random House edition of Ulysses in one hour and thirty-three minutes. Not one page stinted. Unforgettable!

In Defense of Literary Taste (Sort Of) (Wild Metaphor Edition)

To respond more fully to GOB’s post:

While I fully support Mr. Allen’s tower metaphor, having experienced Laurell K. Hamilton once, I cannot find it within me to subject myself to her again. On the reading front, there can be nothing worse than opening a novel about vampires only to find dreadful sentences, inconsistent logic, endless cliches, and characters so thin that they resemble thin wafers rather than full flesh and blood. There can be nothing more horrible than picking up a book and realizing how terrible it is and throwing it across the room and realizing that you have to give into crappy emotions rather than letting the great joys and pleasures of literature subsume your very being. A great read is like great sex. You wonder if it’s possible again and you realize, holy hell, it is. And you’re just as wowed by it the next time. And the next time after that. And it reminds you just how great the reading experience is.

But a bad book is the asshole who dents your car and drives away. It’s the guy behind a telemarketing scam who calls a lonely old woman and bamboozles her out of her life savings. Sure, you’ll pick yourself up off the ground and dust yourself off and live to fight another day. But it may not be easy. It’s the bad books that often discourage those who aren’t so stepped in this books thing from giving it another shot. And just as everyone has a different notion of who an asshole is, each and every person is bound to have a different notion of what a bad book is. That’s the trouble. That’s also the excitement.

One wants to avoid the bad books whenever possible, just as one wants to avoid the assholes. But the flip side of this mission is to keep an open mind (genre-blind, personality-blind) and remain open to the many possibilities of the universe (literary or human). And jumping off the cliff into something you’ve never even experienced could very well leave you bruised. But how else will you know what’s beyond the cliff? And how else can you find recherche treasures?

But just as one must display a little common sense with life, one must display a little common sense with books — however narrowly or broadly one decides to pursue it. So my feelings on the tower is that I’m glad it’s there, but I’ll be the crazy bastard shrieking outside the window about the great jacuzzi on the literary fiction floor, inviting people to come inside. Of course, I’ll still ride the elevator, even if I could care less about where things fall on the vertical axis.

Book Review

Recently, I picked up a book. I flipped through the title page, examined the copyright page and the table of contents. At this point, everything was good. I was prepared to give the book a chance.

But the first sign of trouble came when I flipped to “Page 1.” I use quotes here because I can’t be sure of its numerical status. The publisher had left off the page numbering for both Page 1 and Page 2. And what’s more, they had dared to put “Part One” on this otherwise blank page. While this notice served as a valuable guide signifying the book’s beginning, it still failed to confirm whether or not the page I was trying to examine was the first page of the book. I flipped over the leaf and saw the beginning of the first chapter. Below it, I saw the number three. I flipped backwards, counting the pages, and, yes indeed, this must be Page 1. Why then the secrecy about it? Why the failure to note the number? I was disappointed in the book already.

Things were more or less smooth for a while. I flipped to Page 4 and found there to be a number at the bottom. I flipped to Page 5, Page 6, and the numbers followed me. In case the publisher decided upon any further trickery, I kept a yellow legal pad at my desk, keeping a tally of the pages.

At Page 14, however, there was disaster. The chapter ended at Page 13. And then, to my great shock, there was a blank page with no number, where Page 14 should have been. What a tremendous waste of space! I looked at my yellow legal pad and saw that, yes indeed, I was at Page 14.

To my great fortune, Page 15 was clearly marked: both as the beginning of Chapter 2 and as “15” at the bottom.

Things continued more or less along these lines for a hundred pages. Sometimes, the blank unmarked pages were there. Sometimes, they weren’t.

But things really took a turn for the worse when I was at the end of Part One. There were two blank unmarked pages after the text of Part One ended. And then there was another page marked “Part II.” Yes, believe it or not, this author had the temerity to switch from Arabic to Roman numerals midway through the book! Furthermore, the pages were again unnumbered until I got to the first chapter of “Part II.”

I threw my yellow legal pad against the wall and begin calling friends to understand why so many pages had been abandoned by their creators. Why were some pages numbered and some pages not? Who set the priorities around here?

I started flipping through more books and noticed that other publishers did this too. I know I’ve been told by some of my pals that I have a literal mind, but who mourns for the unnumbered pages? Who considers their feelings? Who considers the waste of space? A page may be blank, but is it possible that the blankness might convey some message? If so, why not number the blank pages too?

In conclusion, I have to say I didn’t care for this book and that War and Peace and Les Miserables were better than this book. I think the main reason why those books are classics is because their authors have taken the time and care to number each page. Which is more than I can say for this book or other books. But perhaps I object to this white space because it reminds me of the quiet room that Dr. Yasir and his staff locked me into yesterday.

The Myth of Bored Readership

Nick Hornby notes that reading should be fun. He notes:

To put it crudely, I get bored, and when I get bored I tend to get tetchy. It has proved surprisingly easy to eliminate boredom from my reading life. And boredom, let’s face it, is a problem that many of us have come to associate with books. It’s one of the reasons why we choose to do almost anything else rather than read; very few of us pick up a book after the children are in bed and the dinner has been made and the dirty dishes cleared away.

While I can get behind the idea that books can be fun, the way that Hornby has phrased his rhetoric strikes me as deficient. It’s one thing to march through a lengthy and turgid book and go out of your way to determine what an author is trying to say (even when it fails to strike a chord), but to throw a book aside simply because one is bored or one cannot find a single point of interest is counterproductive and far from quixotic. To my mind, any good reader should remain naturally curious and committed to the task at hand, which also involves reading things outside what she’s comfortable reading. The copout excuse of boredom cannot do justice to a book, nor can it effectively attune or expand a reader sensibilities. The real question a reader should ask is why a book failed to reach her, what about it succeeded or failed, and why the book was incompatible.

The problem isn’t so much that reading isn’t fun, but that Western society retains a terrible prejudice against the intellectually curious, a state of thinking that can be extremely fun. The academic world is often a humorless millieu of rigid deconstruction. A high school English teacher must subscribe to an inoffensive administrator-sanctioned reading list. Any cockeyed perspective, even a half-baked one, outside the acceptable range of responses is considered wrong or incorrect — this, despite proven results from teachers like Rafe Esquith. Moreover, the thought of thinking and entertaining in the same bite is about as daffy as a peanut butter and banana sandwich for lunch.

Hornby’s proselytizing may win him points among his slacker constituency, but why an’t both camps commingle here? Can’t we find a balance that encourages a new generation of fun-loving, energetic and intellectually rigorous readers? Or has our culture become so hopelessly “bored” that the mind stumbles into atrophy instead of curiosity?

Books Banned on Flights: An Inconsistent Policy

Booksquare points to this LA Times article about LAX passengers traveling to London having to check in their laptops and shifting to reading books in the process. But the folks in Southern California are a hell of a lot luckier than those flying from SFO to London, who were forced to check in all books before the ten hour flight to Heathrow.

In fact, books are being banned at a number of airports:

In that last article, a traveler named Allison Yearsley remarks, “The thought of 10 hours without a book is awful.” And I have to agree. Short of a terrorist explosion (statistically improbable), I can’t think of anything much worse when flying. What a stupendous waste of time!

The folks at Heathrow have gone overboard with their security paranoia. This was, after all, a foiled plot. Banning liquids is one thing, but have they not considered that permitting books might allow passengers to remain calmer and more relaxed, thus causing less of a burden to both security and passengers? They’ve banned matches and lighters from security. What exactly are the passengers going to do? Rip out pages and fold them into paper airplanes? Wow, weapons of mass paper construction!

Further, why do Angelenos flying into Heathrow get books and those up the coastline don’t? Like any madness, there’s no consistent method here. Or perhaps those flying out of LAX are more likely to cause a scene. Or maybe it’s all designed to facilitate Paris Hilton.

Whatever the reasoning behind book banning, these new flight restrictions have transformed the act of flying into something resembling a mobile solitary confinement cell.

* — Even worse, a couple was forced to pack away their kid’s coloring books.

Tanenhaus Actually Gets It Right for Once

Could it be? Joe Queenan has temporarily put away the hatchet (and the hubris)? Well, it’s true. And Sam Tanenhaus is (wait for it) to be commended for not only giving us a different side of Queenan’s, but also for writing an enjoyable overview of Richard Hofstadter (perhaps making up for the aborted Buckley bio) and being a little more relaxed on the recent edition of the NYTBR podcast. Did Sammy Boy get an unexpected refund check for the IRS? What explains this unexpectedly ebullient (well, as ebullient as the gruff-voiced man will be) Sammy-T?

Of course, I still have issues with the NYTBR‘s lack of literary fiction coverage, but perhaps the August sunshine might pierce Sam’s heart and spread some golden rays to make even Dwight Garner wear a pair of khaki shorts. Too bad the NYTBR is under no acknowledgment to accept the brownies.

In the meantime, Queenan wrote this surprisingly humble essay about reading far too many books simultaneously. Perhaps Queenan’s essay spoke to me because I am currently in the middle of reading about 17 books: many of them given to me by trusted people who have insisted that I read them, many of them having nothing to do with future Segundo interviews serving as a welcome respite. The usual figure around here is four books at a time, but books and reading desires pile up rather rapidly.

For the tome-loving multitaskers around here, how many books do you read at a time? The comments await.

Ed’s Punkass Three Foot Shelf

Mark compiled a three foot shelf reading list, based on books he’s seen written up by James Wood. I think this is great idea and that it can also be applied to litbloggers. Here then is my Punkass Three Foot Shelf, a guide to titles that have been great sources of literary inspiration over the past few years:

Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye (for perspective)
James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room (for grit and pain)
John Barth, The Sot-Weed Factor (for satire and voice)
T.C. Boyle, World’s End (for ambitious narrative juggling)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground (for perspective)
William Gaddis, The Recognitions (for amibition)
Allen Ginsberg, Collected Poems (for prose and voice)
Knut Hamsun, Hunger (for voice)
David Lodge, Small World (for comic clarity)
David Markson, This Is Not a Novel (for experimentalism and minimalism)
John P. Marquand, Sincerely, Willis Wayde (for perspective and clarity)
Don Marquis, archy and mehitabel (for the heart)
Ian McEwan, Atonement (for sumptuous subterfuge)
Henry Miller, The Rosy Crucifixion (for honesty)
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (for accessible ambition)
George Orwell, Collected Journalism (for clarity)
Mervyn Peake, Gormenghast Trilogy (for description)
Richard Powers, The Gold Bug Variations (for ambition)
Carol Shields, The Stone Diaries (for giddiness)
Gilbert Sorrentino, Mulligan Stew (for experimental narrative)
William T. Vollmann, The Rainbow Stories (for perspective, courage and honesty)
Colson Whitehead, John Henry Days (for perspective)
Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road (for prose, minimalism and editing)


From Kate’s Book Blog:

One book that changed your life: Lexus, Sexus and Nexus by Henry Miller. I read The Rosy Crucifixion when I was 23 and this trilogy, perused in one mad gulp, gave me invaluable lessons about clinging obstinately to my dreams, remaining true to myself, and being unapologetically honest and passionate. Sure, there was a lot of sex in the three books and that didn’t hurt either. But before Henry Miller, I was a nervous and bumbling kid. I emerged on the other side with the beginnings of an unstoppable impetus. (Other authors I read during this time committed to these self-same truths: James Baldwin, James M. Cain, Jim Thompson — a lot of Jims for some strange reason. But, his narcissism aside, it was good ol’ Henry Miller who I am most indebted to.)

One book that you’ve read more than once: Many, but Richard Powers’ The Gold Bug Variations and William Gaddis’s The Recognitions come immediately to mind.

One book you’d want on a desert island: I hate to pilfer from Jenny D, but The Riverside Shakespeare is truly the only option.

One book that made you laugh: John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor

One book that made you cry: William T. Vollmann’s The Rainbow Stories, in large part because Bootwoman Marisa reminded me of someone I once knew who had gone down a horrible path because she was misunderstood.

One book that you wish had been written: A three-way tie between Dickens’ unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood and the fourth and fifth books that Mervyn Peake had hoped to write in his Gormenghst trilogy with an elderly Titus Groan.

One book that you wish had never been written: Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. While this novel contains undeniable (and certainly unintentional) comic value, perhaps the Rand disciples, who cling foolishly to Rand’s tenets the way flies flock to feces, might have put their energies towards something more humanist. This book, in addition to being a plodding mess I read through to the very edge, is pretty much my ideological opposite.

One book you’re currently reading: Scott Smith’s The Ruins, a good romp after a lot of high-octane literary fiction.

One book you’ve been meaning to read: Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, which has been sitting around unread for years.

Reading for Fun: An Unfulfilled Potential?

The Book Standard has uncovered the latest Kids and Family Reading Report conducted by Yankelovich and Scholastic. 92% of kids enjoy reading for fun. 90% of kids also say that they believe reading for fun is important. Unfortunately, there is a sharp drop-off in high frequency readers between the ages of 5-8 (40%) and 9-11 (29%). The study, taken from a sample of 500 kids, also notes that “the #1 reason why they do not read more is because they can not find books they like to read.”

Part of me wonders if there is some fundamental disconnect going on here that American society is remaining silent about. If the desire to read within kids is there, what is our education system doing to steer children off reading? Does the drop-off occur here because it’s not socially acceptable to read? Or because parents are demanding their kids to read instead of letting them discover books on their own? What underlying factor that shifts reading away from fun and more towards work? The study here suggests that 72% of high frequency readers associate the need to read with getting into a good college or nabbing a good job when they get older. Reading becomes viewed as “work” as early as the age of 5.

But if the chief problem here is that kids aren’t finding books they “like to read,” perhaps there is something within the current system that is not only preventing kids from “liking” literature, but prohibiting a sense of self-discovery. Thus, the “fun” becomes “work,” rather than something naturally embedded within young minds, and the great interest dissipates.

I’d Be Safe and Warm If I Was Readin’ in L.A.

Dana Gioia: “Los Angeles, the city of Raymond Chandler, Ray Bradbury and Octavia Butler, is now the biggest book market in North America. And, as a recent survey by the National Endowment for the Arts demonstrates (with a statistical certainty of 99.5%), Californians read more than New Yorkers. Los Angeles is one of the great literary centers of the English-speaking world — not to mention a growing center of the Spanish-speaking mundo.”

Latest Reading Meme

Continuing the meme (apparently originated by Patricia):

Look at the list of books below. Bold the ones you’ve read, italicize the ones you might read, cross out the ones you won’t, underline the ones on your book shelf, and place parentheses around the ones you’ve never even heard of.

The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown
The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – J. K. Rowling
The Life of Pi – Yann Martel
Animal Farm: A Fairy Story – George Orwell
Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
The Hobbit – J. R. R. Tolkien
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon
Lord of the Flies – William Golding
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
1984 – George Orwell
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – J. K. Rowling
One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
Slaughterhouse 5 – Kurt Vonnegut
The Secret History – Donna Tartt
Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – C.S. Lewis
Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides
Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
Atonement – Ian McEwan
The Shadow of The Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
Dune – Frank Herbert
Sula by Toni Morrison
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Also, what titles would you add to this list? (Well, let’s mix it up then!)

John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead
Great Expectations by Kathy Acker
Gain by Richard Powers
Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner
Mulligan Stew by Gilbert Sorrentino
Veronica by Mary Gaitskill
Wake Up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames
The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle
Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber
Brick Lane by Monica Ali

It’s Not Exactly Like We’re Reading Laurell K. Hamilton

Kevin Kinsella offers an anecdote that represents a type of experience I’ve encountered far too many times myself. Except in my case, it’s generally bankers, lawyers, doctors and other “educated” people who belittle my reading selections. San Francisco is a city of snobs, you see. Not that I give a shit either way, but it still always amuses me when these detractors can’t even remember the basic characters from, say, the current beat-up William Faulkner novel I’m rereading or confuse Sherwood Anderson with (I kid you not) Sherwood Schwartz. Which makes me wonder if there’s a novel I don’t know about called Gilligan Amberson’s Magnificent Island.

The Sony Passive Reader

The new Sony Reader looks spiffy, but I have my doubts. You see, the Reader here is not paper, meaning that no pages can be flipped, folded over, ripped out of the book or written upon. Not that I’m in the habit of defacing books, but I often buy a copy of something specifically for this purpose.

So kudos to Sony for the electronic print clarity, but I’m suspicious of any product that’s attempting to supplant the reading experience, which, as human interfaces go, has been wholly successful for centuries. To me, reading involves stopping, perhaps writing key passages in a notebook, or rereading a particular paragraph or two, and sometimes skipping around. An academic or a student, for example, couldn’t compile information without this technique. Now that the sensation of flipping between, say, page 6 and page 125 has been lost, I’m wondering if the Sony Reader will cause the retention of information to dwindle. Assuming it succeeds, will the Sony Reader create a new generation of otiose readers?

75 Book Challenge

I’ll see your 50 books and raise you twenty-five. Seventy-five books, folks. I’ll be reading 75. Who’s with me?

[UPDATE: Tayari Jones has some very good guidelines about what to read, although I would add the following ideals: a mystery book, a science fiction book, a “chick lit” book, a book written for popular audiences (We don’t have to be literary snobs all the time, do we? Besides it helps to know what everyday people are reading from time to time.), a book that is at least 800 pages, a book that is less than 100 pages, a children’s book, a substantial percentage of books written by women and minorities, a memoir written by or about a truly whacked out individual, a lengthy nonfiction book about a subject I know absolutely nothing about, a microhistory, et al.]

How Big of a Literary Geek Are You?

New meme. Bold the titles. You know the drill. (via this guy)

Here goes:

1. The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — Douglas Adams
2. Nineteen Eighty-Four — George Orwell
.3. Brave New World — Aldous Huxley
4. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? — Philip Dick
5. Neuromancer — William Gibson
6. Dune — Frank Herbert
7. I, Robot — Isaac Asimov
8. Foundation — Isaac Asimov
9. The Colour of Magic — Terry Pratchett
10. Microserfs — Douglas Coupland
11. Snow Crash — Neal Stephenson
12. Watchmen — Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons
13. Cryptonomicon — Neal Stephenson
14. Consider Phlebas — Iain M Banks
15. Stranger in a Strange Land — Robert Heinlein
16. The Man in the High Castle — Philip K Dick
17. American Gods — Neil Gaiman
18. The Diamond Age — Neal Stephenson
19. The Illuminatus! Trilogy — Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson
20. Trouble with Lichen – John Wyndham

Undergraduate Authors

David Hudson passes along this list of books that notables fell in love with in college. While Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban’s plaudits for Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead are preposterously predictable (“I don’t know how many times I have read it, but it got to the point where I had to stop because I would get too fired up”), but it’s interesting that George Saunders was such a big Thomas Wolfe fan.

Surpisingly, however, there’s no Orwell for Hitch.

As for me, the writers that blew me away when I was a lad of twenty-one (and that I discovered in the library almost entirely by accident) were John Cheever (which I liked for his attention to manners), Erskine Caldwell (which I liked for the sex), Guy de Maupassant (which I liked for the sex and the twist endings), the stories of Somerset Maugham (who led me to de Maupassant) and Thomas Wolfe (which, like Saunders, I enjoyed for his heartiness).

What authors did you discover or read in your undergraduate days?

[UPDATE: Jenny D lists her choices, a far more impressive selection than mine.]

Men Who Read Magazines: Easily Bored or More Complicated?

BusinessWeek reports that men aren’t reading magazines the way they used to. I’m going to suggest something radical: Could it be that men are more complicated than the current lad magazine world gives them credit for?

Of course, with this decline comes one thankful development: “Maxim and the laddie titles it spawned are hardly in danger of disappearing, but their newsstand sales are far off their previous peaks. Meanwhile, ad categories that gravitate toward men’s titles, such as domestic automotive and technology, are down this year.”

Powell’s — Another Outlet Promoting Online Classism?

What M.A.O. said. Dave Weich can keep living in a glass tower as long he wants. But to take on the attitude that one must have a credit card in order to survive, let alone purchase books, is to subscribe to the same atavistic and paralogic thinking as doze poor peeples kints read and dere checks will bounce bekaz dey poor. Shame on Weich and shame on Powell’s for refusing to accommodate a form of payment that has been around much longer than the credit card.

[UPDATE: Dave Weich responds to Orother over at Maud’s.]

Slow Reader

How Fast Do You Read?: “You read between 350-400 words per minute. Well above average reading level. (The average rate is between 200 – 250 words per minute.) It is assumed that you did not skim the words nor fail to understand the meaning of what was read.”

Assuming that this level holds, it would take me 250 minutes (or 4.16 hours) to read a 100,000 word novel. If I were to die at the age of 85, I would have roughly 19,710 days of life, or 473,040 hours of life. Cutting out seven hours of sleep from those days (I assume that, as I get older, I will need more sleep), this leaves 335,070 hours left of waking life. If I were to somehow become a literary shut-in (god forbid) and devote every spare minute to reading (this also cuts out a full-time job), assuming that I was able to live to 85 with my vision intact, then I would be able to read a maximum number of 80,545 books. According to the Book Industry Study Group, the number of books published each year is 175,000. Let us immediately assume that 90% of these are worthless. This leaves us with 17,500 books a year (the top 10%) that are perhaps passable or worthwhile. By this criteria, I would only be able to keep tabs on 4.6 years of every book that is passable or worthwhile throughout the remaining duration of my life.

Thus, when one has boasted that he has “read everything,” you should be highly suspicious. For not only is it impossible to read everything, it is impossible to get through a pared down list. Given that 80,545 books remains the absolute maximum (and, at that, a diminishing figure as I grow closer to death), I do not anticipate my library growing too far beyond that number.

A Case for the Larger Canvas

Today, the New York Times noted the arrival of Paul Anderson’s debut novel, Hunger’s Brides, commenting upon its 1,360 page length rather than a more important attribute to gauge — namely, how this book rates as literature.

I’ve never understood people who complain about length in art. One encounters this with film critics as they are bombarded with three-hour Oscar epics. But why should length even matter? To me, it smacks of a petty excuse to kvetch or to boast, rather than assess a book’s worth. Besides, there are plenty of 200-pagers I’ve read that drag as dully as a man holding onto his chastity in a motel room.

However, like Scott, I find myself ineluctably drawn to these mammoth affairs. (Case in point: I’ve read every comparative book mentioned with the exception of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy (which Brian managed to tackle for all of us.) I suppose it’s because I really enjoy the pleasure of getting lost within a world, the specifics of characters or a particular vernacular — the kind of submergal that a sustained length (or its cousin, a sustained density) is likely to offer. I couldn’t imagine, for example, William T. Vollmann’s The Royal Family being shorter. The Royal Family‘s considerable length almost forces the reader to come to terms with the unpleasant underworld depicted. Likewise, Richard Powers’ The Time of Our Singing, at around 640 pages, is the kind of family saga with historical context that a shorter book couldn’t possibly suggest.

Some have argued that this so-called “prodigious fiction” is an inevitable byproduct of the Age of Information (perhaps in collusion with the word processor). But if the world has indeed become more complicated and our knowledge of the world does indeed double every fourteen months, does it not make sense to remain flexible and supportive of these larger canvases?

[UPDATE: Mark weighs in, but I think he’s confusing the argument. It’s not a question of heft being tantamount to significance, but the issue involves whether the story itself works. To reiterate my argument, I think it’s a bit superstitious to refuse a book because of length.]

The “We Battled Insomnia with Gin Last Night and the Gin Won, But Heaven Help the Fallout” Roundup

  • The fantastic Carrie Frye points to the Word Nerds, a podcast devoted to “the effect of Internet communication” and various language-related issues. I’ll definitely be checking it out, as soon as I finally finish the next installment of my own damn podcast.
  • So according to the Associated Press, the book world “is still searching for this year’s great American novel,” eh? There are endless ways that I can answer this, but for now I’ll point again to Lee Martin’s The Bright Forever and Kirby Gann’s Our Napoleon in Rags as two books that I’ve enjoyed very much this year and, in my view, do indeed cut the mustard. Perhaps the key here is to stop thinking about the big boys and dare to delve into the little ones.
  • Dan Wickett doesn’t read Playboy for the pictures or the articles. No, sir, he’s reading it for the literature. I knew about the four-bunny system for books, because I actually had a Playboy subscription at the age of sixteen, in which I would secretly run to the mailbox and grab the latest issue covered in black plastic. (Remind me sometime to tell you the tale of what happened when I was finally caught and how I talked my way out of it.) The nice thing about this was that it allowed me to outgrow a reliance upon visual prurience and apply my perverted sentiments to everyday discourse without shame and of course evolve my unabated interest in breasts. But if the likes of Robert Coover can be found within Playboy‘s pages, then I may have to pick up a subscription. I have to wonder, however, if Mr. Wickett is secretly on Hefner’s payroll.
  • Dubya actually reads serious books? Apparently, some of the books that he’s taken on a five-week summer sojurn are Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History, Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar (which seems peculiarly apt) and John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza.
  • The Gothamist talks with Foop! author Chris Genoa.
  • Another celebrity reading slacker: Noel Gallagher, who only just started reading fiction with Angels and Demons (“my first ever book. Believe it or not, it is.”). In the same article, Hester Lacey suggests that to dismiss someone who hasn’t read “seems both sweeping and snobbish.” Oh come on, Hester. We’re talking Dan Brown here. If Victoria Beckham has not even read Green Eggs and Ham, should her raison d’etre not be suspect?
  • The new China Miéville short story collection, Looking for Jake, gets an early look at SFF World.
  • What the hell was I thinking with the gin? Head hurts. More later.

Et Tu, Posh Spice!

It’s doubtful that any well-adjusted (one might argue: regular) person would expect either a meaty anecdote, much less a bon mot from one-time Spice Girl Victoria Beckham. But I happen to be one of those strange aging men who has retained a soft spot for the Spice Girls and kept the faith over the years . In fact, I’m not ashamed (nor should you be!) to confess that I not only forked out eight bucks for Spice World, but actually enjoyed it!

Throughout the past decade, when in the doldrums, I have turned on “Wannabe,” danced like an ungraceful Caucasian within the privacy of my own bedroom, and connected with the deceptively primitive cadences of “So tell me what you want, what you really really want, I wanna I wanna I wanna I wanna I wanna really, really, really wanna zigazig ha.”

All along, I’ve had faith that there was something more to these many “wannas.” Perhaps somewhere between the “I” and the “wanna,” the brief pause (as the Spice Girls recaptured their breath) suggested a secret existential void that imparted a certain fortune cookie wisdom from performer to listener. It was, one might argue, a fortune cookie of one’s own making, formed within that milisecond of pause and inhale.

So it disheartens me in the extreme to learn that, all along, the Spice Girls have lied to me and that I’ve been led astray. They are indeed authentically vapid.

Or at least one of them is.

The latest news from England is this: Victoria Beckham, the Spice Girl once known as Posh Spice, has, despite having authored a 528-page autobiography, never read a book in her life. “I prefer listening to music,” says Posh, “althogh I do love fashion magazines.”

Fashion magazines! No possibility of her whispering sweet Shakespearean sonnets into anyone’s ear (well, specifically, that caveman soccer star Beckham’s) anytime soon. Heaven help her children.

How did she get through school? Who sent the checks to the headmasters? Isn’t this attitude a bit like performing fellatio but not receiving cunnilingus in return? More importantly, what hope for Ms. Beckham’s autobiography if she ain’t read none of dem books?

Because of this, I’m afraid that I’m going to have to turn my back on the Spice Girls and sell all of my Spice Girls album to Ameoba, if they’ll take them. This was a tough decision. But I’m a man of honor. And frankly there is nothing that turns me off more than a lady who don’t read.

Reading Habits, Technology and the Hypothetical Rise of the Short

It was worth ruining my eyes
To know I could still keep cool,
And deal out the old right hook
To dirty dogs twice my size.
— Philip Larkin, “A Study of Reading Habits

Each person has a different approach to reading. Some folks read in ten minute chunks. Others read in three hour clusters. Some read daily. Others read every week. Some read only nonfiction. Others read only fiction. Some read only on the toilet. Others need to be sitting nude on a mat, preferably in a yoga position for maximum meditation. Make up your own dichotomy and throw it into the pile like a pair of used cufflinks.

The very real question I have, inspired by this anecdotal post at the Shifted Librarian on how game culture has shifted productivity patterns, is whether any approach to reading is wrong, or whether the act of reading itself should even be concerned with something that smacks of schoolmarm etiquette. (These guidelines, for example, suggest that vocalizing or moving lips while one reads is bad. I must therefore conclude that every so often, particularly when I am perusing something that begs to be vocalized, I am a very bad reader indeed.) After all, since we’re talking about an act that is largely solitary, my gut feeling is that the only person who should be concerned with the question of the right way to read and the wrong way to read is the reader herself.

Greogry Lamb has suggested that computers have changed the way that people read, but his article dwells more on how people are learning to increase their WPM reading rate (or using reading supplements like highlighting tools, including a site being devised by the Palo Alto Research Center to annotate Hamlet with endless scholarly commentaries). It says little about, say, the nauseating sensation of reading a 100,000 word novel on a computer screen (as opposed to a 2,000 word essay, which is more managable for the eyes and head) — a prospect that is likely to change as displays come closer to resembling paper (both in feel and resolution). (Many of these developments are being chronicled at the excellent Future of the Book blog.)

Since magazines and newspapers are seeing their subscriptions slowly plummet (with even such one-time staples as TV Guide resorting to drastic overhauls), there is the additional question of whether reading, at least as it pertains to magazines and newspapers, has adopted a time-shifting quality that we have been more willing to attribute to TiVo and podcasting, but that we aren’t willing to apply to articles. This strange stigma may have something to do with the fact that much of this reading is done on company time, whether through the reader sitting at her work desktop reading an article in its entirety or disguising this malingering through effective one-browser window aggregators such as Bloglines or printing it off using company paper to read it on the subway home. Who wants to mention this when it’s legitimate grounds for a grievance?

In other words, technology has enabled a remarkable workforce cluster to read by subterfuge (possibly for short-length articles). Perhaps they read because it’s a revolutionary act that, outside of web tracking software, can’t be completely gauged — sort of like jerking off on the clock.

Despite these clear advantages, there still remains a remarkable faith in technology which might be out of step with the tactile advantages of reading books, to the point where undergraduate university libraries have pared down their books to a mere 1,000 volumes and it is now inconceivable for today’s college students to leave home without an arsenal of technology.

But if libraries and educational institutions become based almost solely around technology, where lies the future of reading? While there are plenty of studies indicating that reading is dropping and there remains some debate over whether this is a “sky is falling” alarmism (which Kevin Smokler and Paul Collins challenge in Bookmark Now) or a problem that needs to be addressed, none of these studies seem to indicate, to me, a much more telling trend: what type of reading are people doing precisely? Do they prefer shorter content such as a 2,000 word essay or a short story? Is there a correllation between a proclivity to read things on the Internet and the drop in “reading literature” announced within NEA’s “Reading at Risk” report? Certainly, the ascent in chapbooks such as Harry G. Frankfurt’s On Bullshit to the bestsellers list cannot be entirely overlooked.

If shorter reading experiences are the future (in part or in whole), then I would suggest that the short story has a fantastic new life ahead and that The Atlantic Monthly, in dropping short fiction entirely from its pages (and in failing to allow non-subscribers to access their content), is ass-backwards. Big time. Unless of course they see a new market in chapbooks or content siphoned directly to today’s tech-savvy reading base.