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My Literary Shame

As an ebook lover, it may surprise people to learn how attached I am to my book collection. They are like pets or longtime companions. I don’t feel nostalgic about books — I gave away all my pre-1923 books without guilt. But some (many!) books are there to remind me of my longtime ambitions to read these things. Alas, the years ago go by, I know that I will never be able to read everything, but I still I still have time to read a lot. Here are the books that regularly shame me into reading them.

MY LITERARY SHAME #1: Last night I was talking to an uncle of mine about books. After he mentioned “the rabbit book,” I knew immediately that 1)he was talking about WATERSHIP DOWN by Richard Adams, 2)that I had owned a copy of the book for at least 2/3 of my life without reading it and 3)in the last month I had grabbed my copy of it out of storage with the determination to actually read it this time. Will I read it? Time will only tell; and here’s a photo to mark my shame.

MY LITERARY SHAME #2: After reading MAGIC MOUNTAIN in 1947, the teenage Susan Sontag tracked down German emigre author Thomas Mann in California to get his autograph and interview him. In my teenage years I had also read a good bit of German lit (motivated in part by my high school sweetheart Susan Engelhardt who spoke German and had read Hegel and Kant way before humans should be allowed to). In my final year of high school I had been tearing through German literature: Kafka (20-30+ books by or about him), Hesse (all the major stuff), Goethe’s FAUST and Boll’s MURKE’S COLLECTED SILENCES. Then upon entering college, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Wittgenstein, Freud, Marx, Grass & Frisch. In my German classes I read in the original language Schiller, E.T.A. Hoffman, Buchner, Brecht and (after grad school) Herman Broch. But I could only read German SEHR LANGSAM. Even though I certainly knew about Mann (I’d bought a paperback translation in first year of college), I put off reading MAGIC MOUNTAIN until I could read Mann in the original German (I was told that Mann’s prose was very dense). So I kept delaying on Mann for years — now decades. Finally — a few years ago, I broke down and bought a more recent MOUNTAIN translation — which I still have not read.

MY LITERARY SHAME #3 One mistake I made in college was ignoring US and British literature in favor of authors from distant lands and times. Instead of Melville and Shakespeare, I was reading Kalidasa and Kundera. Later, I have come to recognize and appreciate the sheer breadth of literature written in the English tongue. Not just USA and England, but Canada, Australia, India and various countries in Africa. So many English-language novels fall out of fashion quickly, yet it is these “time capsule novels” that provide insights into the social milieu from which it emerged. US fiction of the 1920s and 1930s are a perfect example. It wasn’t just Hemingway and Faulkner and Fitzgerald and Steinbeck, but also Booth Tarkington, Dos Passos and Sinclair Lewis. Dos Passos is an innovative author with great technique and a sense of USA as a vast patchwork of people and cultures. Or so it is said — I have never read his works even though he influenced a lot of authors and seems attuned to social issues permeating society. Books have a way of reappearing at precisely the moment you need them. This book has been hopping around my book shelves for ages; it is only recently that I’ve sensed that I needed to grab it before it flies away again.

MY LITERARY SHAME #4 After a fellow writer in grad school raved about the prose of Celine, I immediately bought a copy and put it on my TO READ list. Somehow the opportunity to read this work never came — perhaps because I had already read my share of French anti-hero/existentialist/transgressive fiction in college. Celine’s anti-semitism before and during WW2 had tarnished his reputation, but sometimes you can only understand the appeal of an unsavory book by reading it — or so I’ve been told. Stylistically, this novel has been compared to Proust or Bukowski or Keroauc. The book came up in several online discussions — and was praised by a critic I think the world of. So should I read it? Once or twice I’ve opened up the book and read the first page — feeling very nervous. Wouldn’t it be better to read something more uplifting or profound than something than brings people to the gutters? Books are not antidotes to anything, just ways to distract the consciousness for a few days. But is this what I need in the middle of a pandemic? Am I ready? Or am I looking for an excuse to avoid reading it for the 100th time? I still don’t know.

MY LITERARY SHAME #5. I escaped reading TALE OF GENJI in college (though I loved other works of Japanese literature and had read 2 volumes of DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER). GENJI was a giant and imposing book. It is much easier to read novellas or contemporary story collections. I once ran a discussion about long form narratives, and one speaker (a filmmaker, I believe) said that our shortened attention span was not the result of any social influences but simply our age: people are more inclined to read long things before the age of 25 and after the age of 60. I don’t know. I read lots of long novels during my teaching jobs overseas, but it’s true that whenever I try to read nowadays, length is always a consideration. Maybe now’s not the time for GENJI (or SHANAMEH, or ADVENTURES OF AMIR HAMZA). But I can’t wait for the time when my schedule is free enough to immerse myself in long works once again.

MY LITERARY SHAME #6. Often friends with impeccable (or at least adventurous tastes) will rave about certain books, and I will dutifully obtain a copy with the firm intention to read it. Time passes, and then time passes some more. A literary friend Michael Barrett recommended DOCTOR GLASS, a slim 1905 Swedish novel with praise from Sontag and Atwood; it’s virtually guaranteed that I will like it. Also, it’s short — I could zip through it in no time. I’ve kept this book at my side for years (decades?) and still not gotten around to even reading page 1. In a way, it’s a relief that more of my friends (meatspace or virtual) aren’t literary-minded, or else I’d be ensnared in so many reading commitments that I could never leave my room. On the other hand, it is thrilling to share a reading experience with a friend — nowadays it’s such a rare occurrence for two people to have read (or even be familiar with) the same book. I remember having books assigned for class (or occasionally a book club) and dreading having to read a book simply to meet a stupid social obligation. But it can be exhilarating for two people not only to be familiar with a book’s existence but — oh my god! — to have actually read it from start to finish! Perhaps the Internet makes it possible to discover people in farflung places who have read the same book, but most of the time you have to content yourself with the fact that your enthusiasm must remain unshared.

At airport with Jack Matthews

Robert at airport
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