June 06, 2005

Reading Meme #2

Rach from Derby, UK, has asked me to fill in a second version of a reading meme, and I’m glad to do it and will try to avoid any books I mentioned the first time.

Here are the categories:

1. Total Number of Books I’ve Owned:

Gee, a couple of thousand? I’ve sold a good many over the years as I’ve moved from place to place, and I’ve always been as much a library borrower as a book buyer. What surprises me, though, is that the total number of books I’ve read in my lifetime probably isn’t as large as I would have thought. Reading a book a week for fifty years gets you a grand total of 2,600 books – hardly a scratch on the surface of what’s available. In the US alone, 10,000 novels are published every year. One per week sounds like a pretty realistic estimate for me, though there have probably been periods, especially in my youth, when I read more.

2. Last Book I Bought:

THE LATHE OF HEAVEN by Ursula K. Le Guin, on the recommendation of Amba. I liked it pretty well – it’s my kind of science fiction, the kind where the nature of the universe changes every few chapters. This time it’s a protagonist whose dreams have the power to change reality. What especially interested me was that this early Le Guin novel lacked this author’s usual preciosity of prose style, and, a possible reason for this, that she was apparently trying to write a Philip K. Dick novel and succeeded. (The ending is a bit weak after the earlier mindblowing, but that’s also true in some of PKD’s novels.)

3. Last Book I Read: That would be the above, and also I’m still reading Patrick O’Brian’s H.M.S. SURPRISE and Pema Chodron’s WHEN THINGS FALL APART as I was a month ago.

4. Five Books That Mean a Lot to Me:
a. THE SUN ALSO RISES by Ernest Hemingway. This is the book I turn to when I can’t read anything else, when every other prose style seems turgid and pretentious, when I’m sick of people showing off how deeply they think and how cleverly they put words together. (I've read it five times.) For me, this book is the baseline of narrative prose, so clean and pure it excites me to read almost any random sentence. Hemingway achieved a psychological depth in this book that he never did again, and it’s all between the lines. The suffering that Jake goes through is never directly expressed, but by the time Lady Brett tells him, “Don’t get drunk, Jake,” on the next-to-last page, it is overwhelming. A FAREWELL TO ARMS has lovelier landscape descriptions, but the love story is a cartoon and the war scenes are out of Tolstoy and others. I’ve never cried at Catherine Barkley’s death in A FAREWELL, but I have cried at that line of Lady Brett’s. And the last line of the novel -- “Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” -- seems to me to sum up at least half of all human wisdom.

b. HOW TO SURVIVE THE LOSS OF A LOVE by Melba Colgrove, Harold H. Bloomfield, and Peter McWilliams. This book helped keep me alive and sane when I lost a love a long time ago. It has 120 pages divided into 58 chapters. Each chapter represents a stage in the recovery process, from “One: Recognize the Loss” to “Fifty–Eight: A Pat on the Back for a Job Well Done.” It is extremely simple. You read the introductory chapter, then you read as much as you can of the fifty-eight numbered chapters. At the point where you either stop identifying with the experiences described, or you can’t keep reading, period, you know where you are in the process. Over months or years, you keep rereading the chapters and finding where you are on the stock–exchage graph of your emotional survival. Two notable details: 1) the loss of a love can be broadly interpreted to many any painful loss, such as the loss of a job, a home, a longtime goal, etc; 2) the chapters alternate with New Age doggerel poems by one of the three authors; these are skippable, often embarrassing, but once you’ve reread the book enough times they may come to seem surprisingly worthwhile.

c. GREEK ISLANDS by Dana Facaros. This is a volume in the Cadogan Guides series, a British travel series that in the US has been lost underneath such series as the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet. I like the Cadogans best of all: they’re well written, very knowledgeable, more detailed than most other guidebooks, and several of their authors have distinctive personal views and styles, notably Facaros (who also did Spain) and Barnaby Rogerson (who did Morocco, an even better guidebook but a country I don’t care as much about). I bought this book in the late 1980s and kept underlining it in red -- every island and island town, every beach, every good taverna, every Byzantine church or ancient ruin -- until finally I got to the land of my dreams in 1993 and started adding my own notes in pen. A sample of Facaros’ work: “Coca Cola or retsina cuts down the oil in Greek foods. Lemon juice can also help stomach upsets. The sea quickly cures cuts and abrasions. If anything else goes wrong, the Greek villagers will advise you to pee on it.” 8th edition was published in 2002.

d. SELECTED LETTERS OF JOHN KEATS, (I own the Signet edition edited by Robert Pack, but that's out of print). Keats’ standing among letter writers in English equals his standing among poets in English. These letters are the autobiography of a great soul who observed his own soul–making with unprecedented (and probably unsubsequented) insight. The style is sweet and readable, often humorous; many of Keats’ poems in rough draft are included in letters to his friends and relatives; you get a likable impression of Romantic social life; and you may unexpectedly come upon something like this from 1817: “The imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream -- he awoke and found it truth,” or this from February 1820, written to Fanny Brawne: “’If I should die,’ I said to myself, ‘I have left no immortal work behind me -- nothing to make my friends proud of my memory -- but I have loved the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remembered.’”

e. HEALING THE SHAME THAT BINDS YOU by John Bradshaw. Bradshaw is a famous self-help counselor who has been through the things he writes about, including alcoholism and mental hospitalization, and has healed himself and many others. Although I was well–schooled in psychology from childhood, and quite adept at analyzing myself from a psychoanalytic perspective, it wasn’t until my late forties, when I came upon this book by chance, that I recognized the role of toxic shame in my own life and started being able to undo the damage. Bradshaw lists many varieties of shame, and by the end of the book you may think they all apply to you. But some will register more deeply than others -- you’ll be able to tell by the feeling in your gut -- and Bradshaw’s discussion will help you face those. Along with HOW TO SURVIVE THE LOSS OF A LOVE this is by far the most useful self–help book I have ever read. I also recommend Bradshaw’s BRADSHAW ON: THE FAMILY, which analyzes a number of types of toxic families.

5: Tag five people and have them do this on their blogs:

Anyone who wants to!