I used to be a fanatical monogamist. The thought of not finishing one book before opening another one was in itself blasphemous. How can you give yourself fully, be open down to your depths for one, if you’ve got another, entirely different and provocative mate waiting to take you places, with an expectation of equal receptiveness? Blasphemy.
But things change. You soon realize, for one, a book is not a mate. A book is there for you, not you for it. If you’re able to divide your attention between books at different times of day and the books themselves deserve this, you can have an extremely fulfilling and functional polygamous relationship. And your brain, it starts to fire differently, in all different places, making it look and feel like a Fourth of July sky. It’s winter in one part of your brain and a musty, jungle night in another, a sterile room in a tower occupies one part, and a pasture with an unfinished log cabin occupies another. The more books you read at one time, in other words, the less room there is in your brain for drivel. (Also, actual important information necessary for, say, work or other similarly silly pursuits.)
Here are all the books I’m being happily unfaithful to right now:
Right after I open my eyes in the morning–
Wittgenstein’s Mistress, by David Markson
I can count on half the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve re-read a book for pleasure. This is one of them. It’s not a novel. It’s a monologue. One I would pay all the money in the world to see performed on stage, except there is not an actress I know of who would do it justice. The unnamed narrator (one of the best, if not the best, female voice created by a man) is the last person left on earth and she has decided to start writing things down because she is sober enough to realize that memory is a bastard thing. She recalls all the things she has done, the places she has lived (the Louvre, for one, where she had to shoot a hole in the ceiling to allow smoke to escape,) and her life before all the people disappeared. There is a dead husband and a dead son, whose names become interchanged, and places and events whose defining details are also often interchanged. It is a study, most of all, of the mind. An artist by profession, her frames of reference for her own history and that of the world as she knew it are populated by the works and lives and interconnected relationships of the greats. She finds a painting in the house she is currently occupying. It is a painting of the same house. How Markson delineates this labyrinthine confusion makes me want to never read another word ever again.
This is one of the books Tolstoy would have had a field day with. It’s not about anything, it’s about all the words that make it what it is. You just have to read it, is all.
Before leaving the house for work, if I haven’t over-extended myself–
A Heart So White, by Javier Marias
Considered Marias’s masterpiece, A Heart So White is another one where not a great deal of action takes place. An amazing story with little plot, in other words, that I would love to force our Donna to read. The title refers to one of the best lines Shakespeare put in Lady Macbeth’s mouth: “My hands are of your colour, but I shame to wear a heart so white.” She says this after smearing the servants’ faces with Duncan’s blood. Duncan being the man murdered by Macbeth, of course. This is a book about what it means to be married. About what it means to take on and meld with the identity of the spouse, to want to liken your white heart to the other’s black one, to make the other’s deeds synonymous or, at least, in sync with your own. The tragedy, of course, as Marias says, is that “even if Lady Macbeth had plunged the knife again into the chest of the murdered Duncan, not even then would she had killed him or contributed to his murder, it was already done.” It’s about forever knowing and living together with the knowledge that two do not actually, ever, make one, no matter how in sync, no matter how in love.
In the car, for times when waiting is required–
Physics for Entertainment, by Yakov Perelman
Though the fact that I hadn’t read this yet is kind of embarrassing, I am glad I get to have the fun now and it’s not yet in the past. “Incidentally anything half in the water, half out, would present a most fantastic sight to the underwater observer.” “It is only the living beings that feel the cold more in a wind. It does not cause the thermometer to drop.” Engaging directly with the reader, as if over a beer, Perelman is like the crazy genius uncle you always wanted and now can have (well, the book was published in the 30’s so you could have had him for a long time now, but you know what I mean.)
At dinner, if I’m eating alone–
The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, by Benjamin Hale
I just started this, so here’s the description: “Bruno Littlemore is quite unlike any chimpanzee in the world. Precocious, self-conscious and preternaturally gifted, young Bruno, born and raised in a habitat at the local zoo, falls under the care of a university primatologist named Lydia Littlemore. Learning of Bruno’s ability to speak, Lydia takes Bruno into her home to oversee his education and nurture his passion for painting. But for all of his gifts, the chimpanzee has a rough time caging his more primal urges. His untimely outbursts ultimately cost Lydia her job, and send the unlikely pair on the road in what proves to be one of the most unforgettable journeys — and most affecting love stories — in recent literature.”
My criteria for dinner reading: thick hardcover able to stay open on its own and a description like the one above.
Depending on a variety of factors dealing primarily with what kind of dreams I’d like to avoid, though there are, goodness knows, no guarantees–
I is an Other by James Geary
Vox by Nicholson Baker
Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty by Phoebe Hoban
Being Dead, by Jim Crace
Besides proving my need for other hobbies, this begs the question:
What Are You Reading?!