May 02, 2005

The Reading Meme

Tamar has passed along the following literary hot potato, chain letter, or bloggish homework assignment, and like a good student I enthusiastically complete it and pass it along in turn:

1. You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451. Which book do you want to be? (That is, which book would you want to preserve by memorizing it?)
The true answer is PRONOUN MUSIC by Richard Cohen. It’s my best work so far and it’s a goddamn good story collection that deserves to be known. But the official answer is THE STORIES OF RAY BRADBURY – apropos of the question. Ray Bradbury is the writer I have loved most for the longest time. I loved him when I was twelve and when he goes (he’s 85 now), the world will lose a much more original genius than Saul Bellow or Arthur Miller. Few people have written such beautiful prose or created such joy and excitement, and along with Poe, Verne, and Wells, he is the source of the most and best story motifs in the realm of the imagination. If you go back and read his early stories, many of them feel as if you’ve read the same thing a thousand times before – and you have, because a thousand later writers stole from him. But no one could ever write like him. It was in his soul from the beginning.

2. Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

Not long ago I fell in love with the heroine of an unpublished novel of mine (not based on any real person, by the way – I fell in love with her because I created her). It was a big mistake, because the novel was misconceived but I wasted a year writing it out of infatuation.

A woman I love in a great novel is the aptly named Maria Gostrey in Henry James’ THE AMBASSADORS. She’s an early liberated woman, intellectual, artistic, independent, lonely, distraught – i.e., she needs me to rescue her. (As Margaret Atwood has so wisely written, the words the Sirens sang to Odysseus were, “Save me…”) The same character played by Mary Astor in the movie of Sinclair Lewis’ DODSWORTH.

Also Ursula Brangwen in Lawrence’s THE RAINBOW, one of the most beautifully written novels in English.

3. The last book you bought was...?

I bought a whole bunch of books all at once from New York Review of Books Classics, which is currently the best series that’s reviving worthy obscure books of the past. You should all go to their website immediately and order a pile of stuff. The ones I’m looking forward to reading first are DIRTY SNOW and THREE BEDROOMS IN MANHATTAN by Georges Simenon (another favorite since adolescence – the novelist who has taught me most about the craft, along with Hemingway and Tolstoy); and THE PEREGRINE, by J. A. Baker, a mystical British nature book about the author’s obsession with a peregrine falcon.

4. The last book you read was...?
POST CAPTAIN by Patrick O’Brian

5. What are you currently reading?
H.M.S. SURPRISE by Patrick O’Brian, naturally. Also rereading WHEN THINGS FALL APART by Pema Chodron. Things are not falling apart for me – in fact they’re coming together – but they were threatening to a year ago, on the career front, and this book helped me through, helped me see it in perspective. Chodron is the abbess at Gompa Abbey on Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, but she writes simply, readably, and with almost no Buddhist jargon, about how to face life.

6. Five books you would take to a desert island...
Being a canny prudential time-apportioning type of fellow and a devotee of the Very Finest Things, I really would take the obvious warhorses: Shakespeare, the Bible, Gibbon, the TALE OF GENJI, etc. And of course the biggest, best anthology of English poetry I could find. Some other great big ones: LONDON LABOUR AND THE LONDON POOR by William Mayhew (4-vol. work of Victorian sociology; Dickens used it as a source, and in some ways it’s better than Dickens); the MAHABHARATA (because I’d never read it otherwise); William Prescott’s THE CONQUEST OF MEXICO and THE CONQUEST OF PERU in the Modern Library Giant edition so I could bring both (simply the most amazing stories in all of history, and two of the best books of history ever written).

But you don’t want to hear that. You want to know my quirky personal list of books I treasure and wouldn’t want to do without. So:

THE DHAMMAPADA in the Penguin paperback edition translated by Juan Mascaro. 93 pages including Mascaro’s superb introduction. I would gladly read a chapter a night every night of my life, over and over again till I got it.

THE TRANSMISSION OF LIGHT by Keizan, North Point Press edition, tr. By Thomas Cleary. Ditto above comment.

METAPHYSICS AS A GUIDE TO MORALS by Iris Murdoch. A densely packed survey of Western philosophy from the pre-Socratics to Derrida, and simultaneously an inspiring contribution to that lineage. A book that makes us want to seek the good.

THE MARRIAGE OF CADMUS AND HARMONY by Roberto Calasso. Much more than a survey of Greek mythology: a profound and entertaining re-creation of that mythology as a cycle of linked stories, illuminating the meaning of Greece and of art. The contemporary equivalent of Ovid’s METAMORPHOSES, although in the form of literary criticism rather than poetry.

RESURRECTION by Tolstoy. The big masterwork of his old age, less known than WAR AND PEACE or ANNA KARENINA and probably a half-notch less brilliant as fiction, but immeasurably more profound. A vision of universal forgiveness, of de-supernaturalized Christianity, for which the world is not yet ready. For me, it makes all other fiction look trivial.

7. Who are you passing this stick on to and why?
Well, if Tamar hadn’t already done it I’d pass it to her. And she’s already passed it to several people on my blogroll: True Ancestor and AmbivaBlog and This Too and Nappy40 and Behind Glass and Danny Miller. Some others, I won’t ask because it doesn’t fit their single-genre format (Dancing on Fly Ash and Tales from the Ridge and Jeffrey Hull) or, in Mad House Madman’s case, because he’s a new father and a medical resident and has better things to do. And Simon doesn’t have his own blog. Nuts! Fortunately, though, I’ve still got a lot of choices who are first-rate bloggers and can undoubtedly give us a tour of some wide-ranging literary universes:

Althouse -- il va sans dire

Long-toothed Hinterland Dweller -– she’s probably my most far-flung reader, living in the Australian outback

Adriana Bliss – something to do while she’s sitting in her car in the driveway trying to get over writer’s block

Brenda Clews – a Vancouverite whose comments are always insightful and whose blog is creative

Dilys – because she reads a lot of interesting, up-to-the-minute things that I don’t