Moral of January: It's entirely possible to read too many books

January 2014

Books Read

This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

The Dinner by Herman Koch

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Palm Sunday by Kurt Vonnegut

10:04 by Ben Lerner

What We Should have Known various humans associated with n + 1

No Regrets various humans associated with n + 1

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Books Bought

Light in August by William Faulkner

Postmodern American Fiction anthology by various

Event Factory by Renee Gladman

The Dinner by Herman Koch

Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut

Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut

Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut

Great Books anthology

American Literature anthology

American Isis A Sylvia Plath biography by some guy

Fates Worse than Death by Kurt Vonnegut

Palm Sunday by Kurt Vonnegut

Philosophies of Art and Beauty various old school philosophers

Kant's Critique of Judgment

Imagination and Interpretation in Kant

What we Should have Known n + 1 humans

No Regrets n + 1 humans

subscription to n + 1

Michel Foucault biography by some guy

As you can see, I both read and bought a lot of books this month. Let's blame this on not working a lot, and a more intense need than usual to be distracted, which of course are intertwined.

The first book I finished this month took me quite a while to read, not because it was super long (which it was) but because it changed everything I thought I knew about the earth and the rest of my life and all our lives and society and civilization. Of course, that was This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein.

I knew that the environment was very messed up. But I kind of had this thought that there must be people figuring it out, because there are so many environmental studies majors out there and there are also those rich people who care about the environment so probably it would be taken care of relatively soon. In all this I was obviously completely wrong! I was sobbing and having panic attacks before I finished the introduction to This Changes Everything because of just how far off the mark I was by my thoughts.

I don't know how much scientific paraphrasing is appropriate for a blog post about books, especially when everyone probably knows more than I do, but in a nutshell: carbon takes ten years to be released into the atmosphere/cause warming, much like HIV takes ten years to cause AIDS. So although it seems now to the stupid eye that not many changes have taken place, (even though you know there are hurricanes and typhoons and tidal waves and droughts in California....) the truth is that the huge ass even worse destroying changes are not only coming in the future, they are actually pretty much impossible to stop because THE CARBON IS ALREADY RELEASED! And worse, we are continually pumping MORE AND MORE CARBON INTO THE ATMOSPHERE so by the time anyone gets their shit together (aka never,) it will already be too late.

To make matters worse...it's basically impossible to stop any of it because no matter the efforts any one or even many civilians make, big oil is the main culprit of everything, and that's all tied up in money and the stock market and white men, and even 'good green' countries like whatever in Scandinavia have shit tons of money in oil, and even the 'good green' billionaires like Bill Gates and Richard Branson also have shit tons of money in oil. And the way the stock market works, the companies need to have like double or triple or something of the product to ensure their investors for the future, which means that the oil companies are drilling everywhere all the time! And there's no way to stop them because of lots of things involving trade agreements and bullshit and mostly....the patriarchy.

So there's my layman's explanation, and the upshot of all this is that civilization as we know it is going to be radically changed within our lifetimes. When I say radically changed, I mean like, collapsed. And that's what made me cry a whole lot in my Christmas hotel while looking out the window and thinking about how much I love the world.

Obviously, there is a lot more to all this, which is why it filled a five hundred page book. A giant factor I haven't even mentioned yet is how tied up capitalism is in all of this – because capitalism requires all of us to be huge consumers of not just meaningless items that are made in factories that produce environmental toxins, but also of money and capital in general, hence the big oil stock problem.

One thing that I cannot let myself forget about This Changes Everything is that one of Klein's main points is that since the people who are in power are clearly going to do nothing to help the environment, the only way anything is ever going to get saved is by the people on the ground.

“Apartheid wasn't a crisis until the anti-apartheid movement turned it into one. In the very same way, if enough of us stop looking away and decide that climate change is a crisis worthy of Marshall Plan levels of response, then it will become one, and the political class will have to respond, both by making resources available and by bending the free market rules that have proven so pliable when elite interests are in peril.”

Klein really addressed every possible aspect of climate change one can think of in this book, delving into each of them with power and depth. She says many things about climate change deniers, but perhaps nothing is more true than: “They deny reality, in other words, because the implications of that reality are, quite simply, unthinkable.”

Of course, on the subject of climate change deniers, I could either make a long list or say that a good portion of my annotations on the book were two words in capital letters: “FUCK THAT.”

This is not to say that Klein's book is entirely pessimistic. Well, it is entirely depressing, but it does discuss how sustainable solutions and ways to semi-reverse (not wholly, obviously) the horror are possible – but only if we find a way to overthrown the current system as entrenched as it is in consumerism, oil, and let's be real, the rich white man. Klein reminds us that it is entirely possible to switch to 100% renewables. But, only if we can get past the red tape. Which is more like giant red piles of money laden with coal and oil and death and poop. She is enthusiastic about divestment, while acknowledging its limits and challenges.

Klein does discuss the people who are on the ground today fighting climate change, and it is with reserved optimism, but the conclusion that I drew and that I hope most people draw from it is that they are not going to save us either unless literally everyone gets involved. I don't know how that is possible when most people are....I'm not going to say stupid, I'm going to say, have not been given access to knowledge and/or are too focused on their childrearing to think about anything else, but it's clear that we need to focus on getting real and unfiltered knowledge out there and being willing to talk about the hard issues.

Okay, there's a lot of information in this book. A little too much to be disseminated into one blog post that also says its going to cover 7 other books. So I will write on it again, not once but many times, because this isn't something I/anyone can just forget about. Or I mean we could, but then cool good luck when civilization collapses. Because the main undeniable fact from the book is that if we keep living the way we are living, disaster will come. And within the next few years a point will come where even if we did make an effort, it would be too late. So great, sit on that, cry, and read This Changes Everything.

(In case anyone was wondering, my plans are: 1. get internet famous and then start yelling about the environment because we all know how good I am at dropping a dramatic bomb then running away, and 2. save money from waiting tables to buy a farm in a safe-r part of the country and invite all my friends there when the world goes to shit.)

After that fireball of a book, I relaxed a little bit with a psychological thriller about two families involved in a violent secret. You can see from that fact that I don't really know how to relax. This book was The Dinner by Herman Koch, which my mom told me not to read because it was too creepy, which naturally means that when I saw it at a used bookstore I picked it up immediately.

The present action of the novel all takes place at a dinner between two couples, although it contains many flashes back to prior events. I described it after I read it to my aunt and mom as 'uppercrust Mary Higgins Clark,' which if you are unfamiliar with the goddess herself means nothing, but basically MHC is a suspense writer whose entire library I read between the ages of 12 and 14, which probably made me way too afraid of men and catastrophe but was pretty fun. The novels are pretty formulaic, but I have a lot of respect for them (and so did David Foster Wallace, because he taught one of her novels in his fiction classes.) Anyway, by that I mean that it was definitely a suspense novel, but it was well crafted and written and had more structural independence than, say, MHC. Also because the characters are all clearly pretty bougie from the narration and their opinions on movies and culture and politics.

The two couples at the dinner are patriarch-ed by men who are brothers, one of whom is a prime minestorial candidate and the other who is...well, we find out later. He's the narrator. They both have sons who are teenagers and friends, and from the beginning its clear that the teenagers have been causing some problemas. It slowly unfolds just how intense and intertwined these problemas are, and as those problemas unfold we are also introduced to the complicated and troubled mind of the narrator.

I mean, at the end of the day what can you really say about a suspense novel without ruining the suspense? It was a good book, and if uppercrust suspense is your thing, or if you're generally uppercrust and need a break from all the hard hitting nonfiction and brain hurting fiction, The Dinner is the way to go. The only other thing I'll mention is that the restaurant commentary, given that the entire novel takes place in a restaurant, was spot on. The narrator also had a good level of hating on hipster nonsense, which is funny because it took place in The Netherlands, and who knew that hipster nonsense was such a thing there? But bravo!

Speaking of novels, I went next to The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. Speaking of novels, I haven't really been into them lately. I still read them more than the average human because they are good at the engaging and distracting from life's problems, but I find myself continually frustrated that they are too plot driven and heavy handed.

I want to say first that for a novel, The Paying Guests was obviously very good. It's been lauded by a lot of people I like this year, and I've known about Sarah Waters for a long time and known she was very good. So I don't mean to say I didn't like it when I say that it was a bit plotty and heavy handed, but it was just a novel.

It starts out with Frances Wray and her mother, a widow, who live in a big old house that used to be fancy but is now dilapidated. They have to take in boarders, which is a big social no no but alas they must because money is tight post-war. Lilian and Leonard Barber move in, and naturally (it being a novel,) drama ensues. First they're just a bit loud and uncouth, and then...you're like oh, Frances has the hots for Lilian.

Which I obviously saw coming because even though I've never read Sarah Waters before, I'm not stupid. I try to explain this to everyone all the time, but being well read isn't about having read all the books, it's about having a basic knowledge of the important authors. Like, SW = the lesbians and the historical times.

Of course, I know, that's very simplistic, but it's good when you're getting a general knowledge of things. Now we will talk about all the non-simplistic things that Sarah Waters does. Such as, a wonderful feminist commentary.

In a conversation between the aforementioned Frances and Lilian: “But then, men never do want women to do the things they want to do themselves, have you noticed?” when discussing how Lilian's husband doesn't want her smoking. On point!

Further: excellent descriptions of humans: “She put an elbow on the table and leaned with her chin on her hand, the flesh of her arm looking rounded, solid, smooth. There were no angles to her at all, thought Frances with envy. She was all warm colour and curve. How well she filled her own skin! She might have been poured generously into it, like treacle.”

Further: the characters get the real side of life: “But his parents and his brothers – Oh, they've no sense of art, or life, or anything! If you so much as open a book in front of them you get called grand.”

Excellent lines: for example: “Some things are so frightful that a bit of madness is the only sane response.”

And of course, the thing that most convinces me that my dear best friend would love this book, the constant questioning of socially accepted gender roles. “If they were a man and a girl, it would be different. There would be less confusion and blur. She would seize Lilian's hand and Lilian would know what it meant. She herself would know what it meant! Lilian would or would not allow herself to be led to a patch of shadow; she might or might not put up her mouth for a kiss. But they were not a man and a girl, they were two women, with clipping heels, and one of them was in a white dress which the moon set glowing like a beacon.”

The other thing about novels is when discussing them, you can't talk about a lot of things in the ending even if they are relevant to the entire theme of the book. Boo. Basically, there's a lot of shit going down in the end and Frances pretty much considers throwing herself under the bus just to fuck with societal norms, which although reckless...would not shock me if I saw any of my friends doing it.

I next read 10:04 by Ben Lerner, which, purely in terms of the type of books I want/need to be reading (versus most important / most fulfilling of my stalker tendencies of n + 1) was definitely the book of the month. Set in a New York of the somewhat now / somewhat future, it chronicles several similar but different tales that are either true or somewhat true or imaginary in the life of the narrator who is very similar to the author.

It retells different versions of several key events; narrator's best friend trying to in-vitro a baby with his sperm and his various fertility tests, storms that are just slightly more serious than the ones we know today hitting the city, grappling with his next novel and how others will receive it. I think of it as a 'writer's book,' as they say there are 'actor's movies' and 'musician's musicians.' And I just misspelled musicians twice.

Personally I really enjoyed it not only for the original voice and on point insight, but because it represents a genre that I am hoping to not only watch develop but contribute to: books that toe the line between fiction and nonfiction, that play with form and style, that do not necessarily chronicle giant plot events but instead focus on voice and craft and the everyday life of ordinary people.

I assume that a criticism of this book would be that 'not that much happened,' but you know what? I'm over a lot of stuff happening. I'm done reading essays or articles where something huge happened to a person but they aren't taking the time to actually learn the skills to write about it well. In this click-bait day and age, craft is getting sacrificed for big deal content and I think it's a huge detriment to the art of writing.

One of the main ongoing gems of 10:04 was the way the author played with words to create interesting sentences that communicated universal (or, well, universal for young idiots) feelings:

“She said thanks, but she doubted shed need help; her tone implied my offer presumed a greater degree of intimacy than our exchange of fluids warranted.”

And ugh cry why can't this be my life: “Bernard and Natali were always working and never working, that is, they were always reading and writing when they weren't hosting receptions for other writers; there was no division between labor and leisure; their days were not structured conventionally; the house was not subject to quotidian rhythms but to the strange duration of the literary.”

Also truly amazing portrayal of social anxiety: “His problem was that the coffee required two hands, or at least he had taken it with two hands, one on cup and one on saucer, so as not to spill coffee or upset foam; he couldn't return her wave. He felt himself scowling at this situation, realizing too late she'd think he was scowling at her. His solution was to look at the cup with exaggerated intensity, in the hope that she would understand his dilemma.”

So this one was a must read for my writer friends, and I don't know if other people would like it or not. Try it and see?

I was very excited about the arrival of What We Should Have Known and No Regrets, two transcribed discussions of books and life by people associated with n + 1, because I am a huge fangirl of n + 1, and possibly the only person to say that phrase in the history of ever. And I was right to be excited, because it turns out that smart people discussing books they loved / should have read earlier / which changed their lives is indeed as awesome as it sounds.

What We Should Have Known came first, and it is a compilation of transcriptions of three panels of writers associated with n + 1 discussing the books they should have read in college as well as how books affected ones life more broadly.

As usually happens when I read things by the n + 1 people, I became thankful for my knockaround alternative education within the first few pages of the book. Many of these dudes went to Harvard, which I'm working on lessening my eye rolls at, but it's not like they were all that positive about it. See:

“The place where I went to college [Harvard] was highly specialized. I don't think there was an idea of humanistic education, of forming people. There was an idea, as exemplified by the core curriculum, that there are certain approaches to knowledge, and we will expose you to them one by one, but we will not try to form a self out of you.”

And I read that, and it's not like Keith Gessen is talking about Johnston or alternative education in general as an alternative to Harvard, but it feels like that's what he's saying because so much of that closely describes what we got.

They also made me grateful that I finally took theory classes at the end of college. I don't think it was too late, but I think that if I hadn't done it senior year I certainly wouldn't have ever and theory has been a truly invaluable addition to my reading life, not just in the theorists and essays themselves but in the ways that it's changed how I think as a reader and how I relate to both the canon and sociology.

From Kate Bolick, here's this gem of an idea, who wants to start this club with me? “I think there should be a little periodicals club, where you meet each month and discuss how people are talking and thinking about stuff in the world you live in.” Sounds great! Sign me up!

At the end of the first discussion they all agree that college is like summer camp, and duh, but then some of them turn around and say that this is bad, to which I say....summer camp is never a bad thing!

Everything from Chad Harbach in the second discussion is on point, not the least because he appears to be the only sane literary adult in the world who not only understands how fucked the climate is but actually writes about it. Still doing no good, but what are you gonna do? And he's from Wisconsin. Go Chad!

Marco Roth is a good one too, and he had this little snippet that makes me forgive them all for going to Harvard and all their connections: “I was drawn to the mystery of what's inside the ivory tower, because of course I thought I'd been inoculated or was different and exceptional – and then I realized, the further I went, that almost everyone in academia feels like an outsider, nobody knows what's going on. Academia's an empty vessel, but the ones who don't realize it end up going all the way and end up in charge.”

And then the last line, from Caleb Crain, nails it in its simplicity: “But I think that a young person should keep a journal, and read seriously, and, you know, think about everything that happens.”

I quickly moved on to No Regrets, which is the same premise but with books in early twenties life and is all female panelists. Amazing! Including Emily Gould, naturally.

We start out right away with the wonderful intersections of literary life and feminism: “Another was that the word should has a special place in the lives of women, as it's been a tool of their subjection through social strictures (“women should be X”) and their emancipation through feminism (“women should reject the authority of anyone who says they should be X, or Y, or Z, or anything else”). Should, in other words, gives us both The Rules and the injunction to break them.”

In the neverending Emily Gould loving from me, I got to hear about how she read The Time Traveler's Wife instead of Middlemarch at a snowed in cabin one weekend. Same with me in Ghana, except it was rereading The Time Traveler's Wife four times instead of reading literally anything else.

I've read a couple of things lately where straight women who are obviously very feminist minded describe ways of thinking to make space for the fact that so much of heterosexuality is fucked while also acknowledging that they still want to sleep with and make relationships with men. First with Meghan Daum, now in here with Emily Gould, who is also recommending Chris Krause. “I Love Dick was the first work of fiction I'd ever read that acknowledged that women who were attracted to men and wanted to have relationships with them were not going to somehow create relationships that existed outside of all existing economic and social structures; that women who love men are going to have to come to terms with their complicity in their own repression and subjugation, and find ways to address it.”

In further Emily Gould excellence, they talk about how literary groups of people all have a secret canon that everyone is somehow referring to, and she says “I like the secret canon idea so much. Establishing your group of friends is about establishing a canon among you.” I totally think that my Johnston friends and I have this. Half the time Naomi and I realize that we are reading the same books at almost the same time and it's amazing!

And then Elif Bautman kills it with this line that questions the entire premise of both discussions: “College is so short, whatever collection of stuff you read just seems super arbitrary.” Right?! I always felt like I was missing so much in college, and in life, and yet people consistently tell me that I'm well-read. And I think I am, but I also think that being well-read has more to do with having a general working knowledge of books and authors and making the effort to be seriously reading consistently rather than having read a chunk of books by every single famous or influential writer. Because there just isn't enough time. Especially if you also like other things (writing included) or have a job that doesn't involve books, you just aren't going to have read everything by everyone. But you can get to a good working knowledge of the important people and what they mean to the canon, and I think this method is better because it also allows you to explore your own taste in more depth rather than just getting the survey of everything.

And then I read The Picture of Dorian Gray, and you may have noticed that I don't read classics often, but somebody gave it to me. And I wanted to read the book the person gave me.

As said person and I discussed, when a poet writes one novel it's usually pretty good. I loved the richness of the language, and how it had an almost frantic quality at times. It lent itself well to the passages about art that I found to be the strongest in the book, such as: “Ordinary people waited till life disclosed to them its secrets, but to the few, to the elect, the mysteries of life were revealed before the veil was drawn away. Sometimes this was the effect of art, and chiefly of the art of literature, which dealt immediately with the passions and the intellect. But now and then a complex personality took the place and assumed the office of art; was indeed, in its way, a real work of art, Life having its elaborate masterpieces, just as poetry has, or sculpture or painting."

Obviously I love this idea of life as art because that's kind of the whole thing I'm working with right now.

Also thumbs up Oscar for throwing us lots of solid opinions about how to live life in there: “I never approve, or disapprove, of anything now. It is an absurd attitude to take towards life. We are not sent into the world to air our moral prejudices. I never take any notice of what common people say, and I never interfere with what charming people do.”

Perhaps the most consistent thread that I found communion with in the book was the importance of aesthetics but the different ways to approach that, some of them clearly resulting in horror and others appreciating without falling prey. Even little gems like this: “And how horribly real ugliness made things!” gave me much to think about. Oh, another gem right away:

“I didn't say I liked it, Harry. I said it fascinated me. There is a great difference.”

“Ah, you have discovered that?” murmured Lord Henry. (AKA Lord Henry throwing it DOWN.)

The theme of life / art continued throughout the novel - “And, certainly, to him Life itself was the first, the greatest of the arts, and for it all the other arts seemed to be but a preparation.” Is it that, or is it the other way around? Who knows? Is it up to each of us? I'm just glad that I'm a person who even cares about art, because so many people don't. Shudder.

And that's where I'll end, even though of course there is much more to discuss in D. Gray, because this has gotten very long thanks to all the science talk of This Changes Everything and the fact that I read eight books this month like a true – oh my god I completely forgot a book. Jesus Christ.

I also read Palm Sunday by Kurt Vonnegut. It was an array of essays and speeches. I honestly don't think that I have room to discuss it in here. This is already eight pages long. Nobody is going to read this as it is. I promise I'll give you some screen time later Kurt. Let the message of this be: it is definitely possible to read too many books.