Books about books appeal to me, and in 2012, Will Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club proved to be an amiable enough contribution to the genre, as did his recent Books for Living. One of the delights of the books about books genre is adding to one’s TBR pile, so what a pleasure it was to find that the recommendations that most interested me were already on my shelves.
To read: The Importance of Living (Lin Yutang); A Little Life (Hanya Yanagihara); A Fine Balance (Rohinton Mistry); Valley of the Dolls (Jacqueline Susann)
To reread: Stuart Little (E.B. White); David Copperfield (Charles Dickens); Reading Lolita in Tehran (Azar Nafisi); The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Muriel Spark)
The only purchase I made while reading Books for Living was The Confession, a John Grisham novel about the death penalty, which, because I read Just Mercy earlier this month, touched a chord of serendipity / synthesis / synchronicity.
For the commonplace book:
The world is filled now with huggers. Maybe that’s because we live in such a technological age that people crave human touch. Men and women whom you barely know hug you hello and goodbye. Kids in school hug each other. Even in business meetings, people will give you a hug if they’ve sat with you in meetings a few times before (though not if they work at the same company). I really don’t like being hugged by anyone other than my husband. People regard this as a character flaw. One friend even devoted an hour of time with his analyst to discussing why I didn’t like to hug. I gather he takes it personally.
Reading is a respite from the relentlessness of technology, but it’s not only that. It’s how I reset and recharge. It’s how I escape, but it’s also how I engage. And reading should spur further engagement.
(This entry from late last year discusses an excerpt of Books for Living: “On reading“.)
Speaking of the commonplace book, much of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros might be pressed into mine, but I will content myself with the following bits from Act III, when Dudard and Berenger discuss the way things are:
BERENGER: I understand what you mean, at least I’m trying to. But you know — if someone accused me of being a bad sport, or hopelessly middle class, or completely out of touch with life, I’d still want to stay as I am.
BERENGER: If only it had happened somewhere else, in some other country, and we’d just read about it in the papers, one could discuss it quietly, examine the question from all points of view and come to an objective conclusion. We could organize debates with professors and writers and lawyers, and blue-stockings and artists and people. And the ordinary man on the street, as well — it would be very interesting and instructive. But when you’re involved yourself, when you suddenly find yourself up against the brutal facts you can’t help feeling directly concerned — the shock is too violent for you to stay cool and detached. I’m frankly surprised, I’m very very surprised. I can’t get over it.
The Remy-Bumppo Theatre Company hosted a staged reading of this oft-read but rarely seen play last night, and as I did when watching the Shakespeare Project of Chicago’s King John last month, I thought, This is a play for our time, to be sure. From the conclusion:
People who try to hang on to their individuality always come to a bad end. [He shakes himself out of it.] Oh well, too bad! I’ll take on the whole lot of them! I’ll put up a fight against the lot of them, the whole lot of them! I’m the last man left, and I’m staying that way until the end.
I’m not capitulating!
I first read Rhinoceros in high school and thought myself so clever for “getting” it and Sartre’s No Exit and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. As so many of us discover when we return to the books we swallowed whole as younger readers, though, I “got” little more than the tattered texts I purloined from the shelves of the English department — well, that and the tacit promise that I would return to the treasures at some point, (which, happily, I have).
On the topic of returning to books, as I mentioned here, The Last Policeman (Ben H. Winters) so pleased me that I was reluctant to begin Countdown City, fearing the second in the trilogy would disappoint. It did not. I plan to read the third book later this week.
Much of the “Shakespeare in Year” project also represents a return of sorts, although I find that I am less chagrined by these past readings than, say, by that of Rhinoceros. This is probably because I have been (re)reading Shakespeare for the last fifteen years; as an adult and an autodidact (as opposed to a cocky, know-it-all, “I ‘get’ it” teen), I have approached the plays and now the sonnets and long poems knowing that so much remains for me to learn.
Other commitments require that I continue to read ahead in order to keep up with the schedule, so at this writing, I have read through Sonnet 27 and Line 576 of Venus and Adonis and completed the following plays:
■ The Taming of the Shrew
■ The Two Gentlemen of Verona
■ Henry VI, Part 1
■ Henry VI, Part 2
■ Henry VI, Part 3
■ Richard III
■ Titus Andronicus
■ The Comedy of Errors
■ Love’s Labour’s Lost
A few notes: I appreciated Titus Andronicus much more than I had thought I would, but that doesn’t mean it was an easy read. Even if one accepts the idea that the plot is willfully over-the-top, it’s still horrifying. Given the graphic sound effects in the Arkangel recording, I had unhappily anticipated close-ups of violence and bloodletting. The film featuring Anthony Hopkins in the title role was, however, rather restrained, for which I was most grateful. Not all of the production choices appealed to me (frankly, I just didn’t understand a few), but overall, it earned a thumbs-up for both acting and restraint.
Maybe it was my mood, but The Comedy of Errors fared much better in this, my third or fourth, reading. Would that I could say the same about my second reading of Love’s Labour’s Lost. I’m actually a little concerned because we will see the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production next month; can they make this seem less… ridiculous? Again, maybe it was my mood.
The Sonnets. Sigh. Don Paterson’s commentary, though, makes the journey bearable. And perhaps I am too old to encounter Venus and Adonis for the first time because I have, several times, wondered, Kissing is a polite euphemism, right? What this work has made me realize is that I must read Ovid’s Metamorphoses. (I read some early in our home education days and some more before seeing the Lookingglass Theatre presentation of Mary Zimmerman’s play.) This year’s reading plan is already wildly ambitious, but Ovid is moving up.
Well before I get to Ovid, though, I will reread Edward III for “Shakespeare in Year” and finish The Changeling (Thomas Middleton and William Rowley), which the Shakespeare Project of Chicago will present later this month.
I will also read a few more books about geocaching. To explain: As an election judge, I have met some interesting folks with whom “What are you reading?” has been the perfect way to step around both banalities and (most) politics. Last week, a fellow election judge mentioned a popular fiction novel I had tossed across a hotel room in disgust three years ago, but rather than going there, we moved onto EMPs and emergency preparedness, which is not my usual fare, but in confirming via Amazon that, yes, he was talking about the tossed book, I saw Ted Koppel’s Lights Out, a book I knew was already on my shelves. It was clear-sighted, but I was glad to finish. Since early November, I have felt, well, not unlike Berenger: If only it had happened somewhere else, in some other country, and we’d just read about it in the papers….
The same judge also talked about his family’s interest in geocaching. When I first heard about this pursuit years ago, it seemed like a perfect fit for our family, but our days were already so full. The rhythm of our lives has changed a great deal since then, though, and the judge’s enthusiasm was contagious, so as we parted, he extracted a promise that I would tell him about our adventures when we work together again this week. On the way home from the polling place, I borrowed The Joy of Geocaching (Paul and Dana Gillin) from the library. That evening, I created an account at geocaching.com and downloaded the app to my phone, and this weekend my husband and I found our first cache. Actually, the truth? I found the cache on Friday afternoon, but I didn’t understand what I was looking at. When I brought my husband to the same spot on Saturday afternoon, he indicated that I had read the map and the app’s compass properly (I defer to him in such matters; he is an Eagle Scout), so it should be here…. “I’ve got it!” I hooted softly. “I’ve got it!” Aware that I needed to be discreet, I showed him the contents and the ingenious hiding spot, and we logged the cache in hard copy and in the app. We are late to this but, oh, how it dovetails current pursuits: biking (we took the first ride of the year on Saturday, by the way: thirteen easy miles; it was beautiful), walking / hiking in the county and state parks and conservation areas, and archery.
In addition to Rhinoceros, Books for Living, and The Joy of Geocaching, Calculating God and Diary of a Provincial Lady are pictured above. The latter is a reread. In recommending it recently, I suggested that if one thought Downton’s Dowager Countess was the primary reason to sit through any episode of Downton Abbey after the middle of Season Two, if one fancied the idea of British Bombeck, and if one craved a book that would take him or her completely and utterly out of this place and time, then one might be advised to reach for Diary of Provincial Lady.
Calculating God arrives on my stack via one of those “blind date with a book” gimmicks that popped up around Valentine’s Day. I answered a flurry of questions and landed on this. I read and enjoyed Sawyer’s WWW : Wake in 2010, so I am actually looking forward to my date.
Thank you, thank you, thank you for the consistent book recommendations. Interestingly I have found that when I read books that you recommend, I either love them or loathe them…no middle ground whatsoever! I became so emotional reading My Name is Lucy Barton (sorry, I don’t know how to underline or use italics in comment boxes). I was enthralled with The Last Policeman, which I just finished 3 days ago. It is so unlike any book I’ve ever read!
So thank you for taking the time to blog and share. Not many people in real life ‘get it’ when it comes to my reading life.
Thank you for your kind comment! Tell me about a recommendation you loathed!
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