Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Spring Reading List

Let's begin at the beginning. 

Is reading a good thing for people? Our distant ancestors, who created language, must have been delighted when writing took on this novel, symbolic, signified value (as the material text), which it still has for us today. 

Language, and the system of signs and symbols which represent it in material (and abstract) space, is mankind's chief invention, which has enabled the development of communication, thought, calculation--all the things which a systematic medium can provide. A written language is the first distinct plateau which separates civilized man from a primitive nomadic oral society, for whom all cultural memory and accreted accomplishments were fragile artifacts, always in danger of being forgotten or lost. Recorded history is a benchmark in time, before which we have little first-hand account. 

My parents, who had grown up in the Midwest in the first half of the 20th Century, believed that the act of reading was a hygienic pastime, not merely a tool in the acquisition of knowledge and understanding, or the indulgence of a pleasurable diversion. They wanted me to acquire a comfort and familiarity with the text, that would develop into a habitual pastime. I suppose if you had asked them whether the simple act of reading, sans any connection to the nature of the text itself, was somehow a beneficial, healthy thing, they would have been puzzled; but I think, deep down, they probably believed that it was, though this would have seemed an ethically ambiguous position. Reading something wrong, to them, would probably have caused them some consternation in the formula. 

I don't recall when reading first became a habit for me. I remember reading a book called The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, by John Fox Jr. [1903] when I was perhaps 7 or 8. I can distinctly remember a sensation of cozy containment, curled up in a chair in our small living room, in which the unfolding narrative created its own mental pathway through suspended time and imaginative space. Earlier, my parents had sat me down and made me read books to them, as a kind of training or practice. The fact of being tested and drilled in this way prevented me from getting "lost" inside the text, so it would have to wait until I was solitary and at ease, before the magic of reading finally captured me.

Later, when I went to college, I lost this sense of reading as a recreation, having to pore over texts for meaning, regurgitation and interpretation. As early as the 11th grade in high school, I had picked up the idea of analyzing texts, and my critical sense was precocious. By the 12th grade, I was able to manipulate the meaning and significance of novels and poems and essays with ease, but this skill came with a price-tag. The more objectively I could read and interpret, the less unconscious my experience of reading became. As a young writer of poetry, I understood that the place it came from in my mind was irrational, generative, and mysterious. As I grew older, I understood that the imagination is like a muscle. But simply exercising that muscle didn't insure that what you imagined, or created, necessarily was good. The muse, unpredictable and capricious, might not smile on you, despite how hard you labored to keep it alive and in condition.  

People who read mostly for pleasure, have the luxury of experiencing it at a level that may be denied those who must work with texts as a profession, or out of necessity. My wife almost never reads serious books, but she routinely consumes a full-length mystery or romance, at an astounding rate of 4 or 5 a week. She's able to read as naturally as breathing; it's truly second nature to her. People read at different rates, and in different ways. 

When I read, I'm not just following a sequence of event. Reading is a savoring of the language, the grammar and word choice and turn of phrase a particular writer employs. I will often read a sentence or a paragraph over again, to completely comprehend it, or to study how it was done, or simply to ride it again. For me, the love of reading is composed of a number of different possible ways of apprehension, no one of which is useful in all texts, each of which may apply to a specific occasion. When I read a thriller, I'm looking to be swept up in a pursuit of intriguing details. When I read a critical book, I'm weighing the writer's point of view, his argument. When I'm reading poetry, I'm trying to appreciate the relationship between the sense of the words, the music and the ingenious wit, all in combination. 

Lately, in the last decade, I've become interested in biographies, autobiographies and memoirs. I've become convinced that autobiography is a fascinating form, in large measure because of the tension which exists between what people would like others to believe about them, and what they believe in their secret hearts is the actual truth of their lives. People may think they are better than they were, or less good than they've been regarded. It's interesting to see how people deal with this dilemma--the excuses or dismissals or emphases they may place on certain key events that happened to them, or acts which they committed.

This spring I've been reading several books at once, as usual. I happened to find a nice reading copy of Frederick Forsyth's The Fourth Protocol [1985]. Forsyth fits the profile of a typical British spy thriller author of the Cold War period. He also published The Day of the Jackal, The Odessa File, The Dogs of War, among other well-known examples. His books are carefully researched, and have an air of authority, and of almost slavish attention to correct detail, which tends to detract a little from the narrative pace of the story. The Fourth Protocol revolves around a Soviet plot to set off a limited (small) nuclear device at an American air base in England, as a way of manipulating the British elections (during the Thatcher years) towards a Left victory, pitting the respective British and Russian intelligence services against each other in a race to apprehend the perpetrator before doomsday. The book was published just before the "fall" of the Soviet Union, in 1991, so it may seem quite dated now in its assumption of the static East-West Bloc stand-off, which more or less was officially ended then. This status is now undergoing a reappraisal, as Russia's President Putin appears to be attempting to reassert the Russian bear's hegemony over its far-flung recent satellite republics (in the Ukraine). Forsyth employs a familiar plot technique, beginning with a series of several seemingly random events occurring simultaneously in different places, gradually drawing these distinct threads into connected alignment until the two phalanxes join in the end with the apprehension of the Soviet Spy in a small English cottage town, barely preventing the detonation of the home-made nuclear device. 

The Fourth Protocol is interesting too as a kind of precursor of the age of terrorism which has developed over the succeeding decades. Pre-"9/11", events like this might have seemed improbable. The "fourth protocol" is the mutual agreement, contained in the Nuclear Arms Treaty of 1969-70, not to employ nuclear arms on a limited, secret basis. This protocol is violated, in the story, by a renegade Soviet Premier, who sees it as an irresistible weapon to manipulate public opinion, to weaken the Western democracies against the East. In 1985, people weren't thinking much about Arab terrorists, though the Iran Hostage Crisis (1979-1981) had just occurred, and young Osama bin-Laden had made his way into Afghanistan, where he was using his money to fund the mujahideen movement there, first against Russia, and later against the U.S. As America's focus shifted from the threat posed by the Soviet Union, to the Middle-Eastern Muslim extremists, many in our intelligence community continue to be concerned about the threat of a nuclear terrorist attack very much like the one sketched out by Forsyth. As the career of Forsyth's contemporary Le Carré shows, espionage genre authors have had to do some fancy foot-work to keep up with the changing complexion of world alliances and oppositions. Forsyth's novel is like a snapshot frozen in (recent) time, but with a surprisingly relevant theme.

Adam Gopnik's The Table Comes First [2011] is a collection of linked gastronomical essays which first appeared in The New Yorker. Gopnik's been a foodie all his life, from his childhood, surprisingly. His first book, Paris to the Moon (based on his Paris Journal columns for the same magazine) didn't appear until he was 43. Though covering a range of different cooking issues and styles, Gopnik's primary theme is the dialectic between high and low cooking styles--characterized by the European (primarily French) tradition of the restaurant versus the bistro. as divergent customary styles of cuisine. This dilemma becomes ambiguous in European and American fine cuisine, in the post-War period, as new styles of preparation and presentation compete for ascendancy. Gopnik reviews the food traditions which channeled these respective approaches, taking nothing for granted, letting his personal eclectic American curiosity lead him here and there. He imagines a correspondence between himself and a turn-of-the-century cook-book writer, in which he looks through her eyes and his, at their separate respective attitudes towards food, trying to find congruences and distinctions that resolve.  

Adam Gopnik

Gopnik has a fine way with a phrase, and is not above waxing poetic about a taste combination that really turns him on. In the end, he seems to come down on the side of those who put pure pleasure at the center of superior cooking (and eating), rejecting both "healthy" alternatives and super-chic finery, in favor of "what works." Though he doesn't say so in as many words, he seems to be advocating an approach to gastronomy that puts the food at the center of a mandala, in which expense is only one possible attribute of the ideal. It's possible to make fabulous dishes in the privacy of one's own kitchen, if you will take the trouble to find out what's good, and go to some little trouble to obtain it. His gastronomic writing is certainly as elegant and sophisticated as any by Elizabeth David or Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, though considerably less "practical." It's not a cookbook. 

Norman Douglas [1868-1952] is an enigma, though you would never have that impression if you only read his works, which show a side of him that would not lead you to imagine the sort of fellow he probably was in the flesh, in private. I've been reading his Looking Back: An Autobiographical Excursion [1933]. During his long life, Douglas kept a card file of people he knew or had encountered over the years, and his autobiography consists of his review of these names, one after the other, in no particular chronological order. 

Douglas is mostly known today as the author of South Wind [1917], a fantasy novel with some frisky moral and sexual innuendos, set in Southern Italy. His other books are mostly forgotten, though holding the interest of connoisseurs of disreputable indulgence. Douglas was a bi-sexual, and a deviant one, eventually preferring young boys, and even children, as partners. His escapades led him into difficulties along the way, and he eventually found haven in Italy, with periods in England and France. For me, his chief interest is in his prose style, which is an odd combination of simplicity, casualness and elegance combined. He is interested in people, but more as types, or eccentric specimens, than as full three dimensional characters. 

Norman Douglas in later life

Douglas is first and foremost devoted to the good life, good food, good landscape, good houses, good travel, nice things, etc. In this book you will find passages about D.H. Lawrence, W.H. Hudson, Rupert Brooke, Frank Harris, etc., but these are less important to the overall effect than as a procession of types which parade across his memory. The point seems to be that a life devoted to notoriety, or accomplishment, for its own sake, is transparent and pointless, whereas a cultivated life accepts each individual moment, and each  incarnation of the race as an integral segment of the tapestry, none more meaningful than another, except as we choose to make it. Douglas presents an enigma of a modern man who grew up in late Victorian England (but with one foot in Germany), whose tastes and daring attitudes informed his life with a frisson of alertness. 

Douglas came to maturity while Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson, Matthew Arnold and Algernon Charles Swinburne were still literary news, and by the time he died there were atom bombs, televisions, jet planes, and The Catcher in the Rye had been published.


Charles Shere said...

by my reading chair at the moment:

James Salter: Solo Faces
Dante: Inferno
Marguerite Youcenar: Memoirs of Hadrian
George Lewis: A power stronger than itself
Paul Freedman: Out of the East
Jaron Lanier: Who owns the future
Ford Madox Ford: Provence
Joyce Goldstein: Inside the California food revolution
Fairfax et al: California cuisine and just food
Thomas McNamee: The man who changed the way we eat
Cornelis van Minnen: America's beroemdste nederlander
Fernando Pessoa: The Book of disquiet

not to mention the perennials: Moliere, Proust, Shakespeare, etc.…

Curtis Faville said...

Salter and Ford are special favorites of mine.

A Shakespeare junky?

Why am I not surprised?

Richard Wilbur's translations of Moliere are simply the best.

Solo Faces was composed, I think, right after Salter had completed his screenwriting work on Downhill Races, so you can see the obvious parallels.