books about books

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The Humbling Beauty in Reading-About-Reading Books


Every writer is a reader, and every reader indulges himself now and then in a good “reading about reading” book.

This is where I’m at now as I amble through Peter Orner’s Am I Alone Here? (The answer is, Clearly not, P.O.!)

The thing about reading-about-reading books is how expensive they can be. No, I don’t mean the price on the book itself (this one is a $16.95 paperback), I mean the books the author tempts you with.

Think of it this way. You = addict. Author = dealer. Recommended books = the goods.

And so easy, the way this book is set up! Each chapter begins with a picture of the book Orner is lauding at great length. All oxymoronic, considering the long praise is for short story collections, for the most part. Orner, a practitioner himself, frowns on the novel-love of the publishing industry and says, six ways to Sunday night, “What about the short story, that little shining city on a hill?”

Thus he adds to my list such must-see collections as Chekhov’s Selected Stories (but of course, when talking stories, one starts at Mecca), The Stories of Breece DJ Pancake, All Stories Are True (John Edgar Wideman), The Lonely Voice (Frank O’Connor), The Bride of the Innisfallen (Eudora Welty), Selected Stories (Robert Walser), The Burning Plain and Other Stories (Juan Rulfo), All the Days and Nights (William Maxwell), Cheating at Canasta (William Trevor), Collected Stories (Wright Morris), Dusk and Other Stories (James Salter), and Spirits and Others Stories (Richard Bausch).

This is an incomplete list, but if you count the pennies in your cart on Barnes & Noble, you’ll see you’re about 1,267 poem sales away from breaking even.

What’s even more daunting is how well-read authors of reading-about-reading books make you feel as a supposedly seasoned reader. On the list above, for instance, I’ve only read the Chekhov and the Pancake and I’ve never even heard of (until I listened now) Juan Rulfo.

Where have I been, one wonders? What have I been doing with my wastrel reading life, one cries? And how is it that I haven’t fully appreciated these short story masters as much as Orner has?

All good questions, but that’s the point. That’s why you buy a reading-about-reading book in the first place. When you’re done, you select a few of the recommended books that seem most intriguing to you by weighing the excerpts provided by the author and the commentary he adds. Then you buy them to see exactly what’s been going on here, right under your negligent nose all of these years.

And you can’t stop there, either. When writing about Pancake, Orner says, “Stories fail if you read them only once. You’ve got to meet a story again and again, in different moods, in different eras of your life.” Can’t you just feel your reading to-do list growing, like that 10-year-old kid of yours who, just yesterday, was accepted to a college?

Meanwhile, there’s pitiful me, the suddenly chastened “well-read” guy who hasn’t read much anything as described in Am I Alone Here?

Guilty as charged. But even though I haven’t read all of these authors, now I’ve at least read about all of these authors. Doesn’t that count for something? At least until I buy two or three of the collections Orner waxes rhapsodic about?

Yes, it does. And it must in a world where we can’t be too hard on ourselves, even as readers and especially as writers who read and realize that reading more begets writing more and writing better.

Besides, you have to console yourself, has it ever occurred to you that you’ve read a couple hundred books the author of this reading-about-reading book hasn’t?

Ah. Breathe in, breathe out. Reading is not a competition, thank God.

Books That Lead You to Books

Word of mouth is powerful exchange in the market of book selling. No publicist can match it. Person A reads a book and recommends it to Person B, who immediately tells Person C, “You have to read this!” right on down the alphabet.

Me, I’ve had more recommendations via “word of author.” If I admire an author, I often read the writers he or she admires. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Especially if you believe as I do that writing is informed by the writers you admire, consciously or subconsciously.

My first reading extravaganza came thanks to the young and tortured anti-hero, Holden Caulfield, in The Catcher in the Rye. In an early scene in his private school dorm, Holden is found reading.

What’s the title? As the reader bends for a closer look, he finds it is none other than Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen. It might have been a strange choice for a teenager, but as a teenager myself, I hunted it down and read it as well, feeling cool in a Caulfield kind of way.

The other book Holden recommends in this scene is The Return of the Native. Thomas Hardy, the author, was the kind of guy you’d like to call up and talk to, Holden says. Though I was still in high school, I met Eustacia Vye because of Holden. Talk about a blind date! I made it to the end, too–classic or no–and even read a few more Hardy’s (most memorably, Tess of the D’Urbervilles).

Another great word-of-author guy is Ernest Hemingway. He loved to write about eating, drinking, and reading. In A Moveable Feast (misspelling and all), he shares the books he’s checked out of Sylvia Beach’s Paris bookstore, Shakespeare & Co. One was Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches, a book I took with me on a deer hunt in Maine.

We often associate books with location read, and that collection of stories will forever go down as the one in my hands when the early snowstorm socked us into a farmhouse on a Maine mountain. I’d rather read than hunt, anyway.

Hemingway also was reading Constance Garnett’s translation of War and Peace while playing the starving artist in 1920s Paris. That and Dostoevsky’s The Gambler and Other Stories. I credit Ernie with making me the Russophile that I am–at least when it comes to Russian literature from the golden age (19th century).

In The Green Hills of Africa, EH talks books some more. He’s still reading Tolstoy, in fact. “The Cossacks” and Leo’s other stories of Sevastopol. I bought these stories, too, and read them quickly and selfishly, like a hungry dog that doesn’t want to share his meal.

Hemingway doesn’t stop there. He has Stendhal while big-game hunting in Africa, reading Le Rouge et Le Noir. Suddenly and dutifully, I was reading Stendhal as well. I think I liked The Charterhouse of Parma even better, but I never would have read either if not for Ernie.

It’s like dominoes after awhile. When reading Tolstoy, I got to read books he mentioned. Chekhov’s short stories. Pushkin’s wonderful Belkin’s Tales. Lermontov’s atmospheric  A Hero of Our Time, another short masterpiece featuring an anti-hero.

Perhaps it speaks to my shy nature as a teenager. Word of mouth was for the social sorts. Me, I hung out with writers in a vicarious way, and followed up on their every recommendation. That habit has brought nothing but literary gold, making me a “wealthy” man of sorts, at least if “well-read” counts for something on the stock exchange.

And if you find Tolstoy and Turgenev and Hemingway in my poems (and you will), it’s for a reason. Books that led me to books.

Joe Queenan Loves Books. Poets? Not So Much.

joe queenan

I just finished a round-trip to South Carolina, traveling my favorite way–on a train where I can read to the rumble of tracks in that glorious Amtrak invention known as the quiet car (all *$%& cellphones SILENCED, thank you). After wrapping up the complete Jack Gilbert poetry collection, I turned to a light read in the form of Joe Queenan’s One for the Books, wherein Joe throws elbows and opinions on all things bookish.

This book has more italics than Maine has mosquitoes. That’s because Queenan cites so many book titles, all italicized. And although it is a book lover’s bonanza, there are, alas, few if any poetry books mentioned. Like many bibliophiles, Queenan is happily addicted to reading and books. Just not reading poetry and poetry books. Quelle surprise!

In one amusing section, Queenan is grousing about speakers at libraries. Listen in:

“Library events scare me, as they provide refuge for local historians, fabulists, tellers of tall tales, historical reenactors, and even dream weavers. Not to mention the single most feared creature on the planet: the self-published poet.”

Sorry, team. I laughed. I’m sure traditionally-published poets like me aren’t many levels above the woeful self-published ones in JQ’s eyes, but ha-ha and que sera, sera! If you can’t laugh at yourself, you can’t laugh, non?

Queenan loathes book clubs, too. When friends asked him to join one, JQ writes, “I left town for about six weeks, disconnected my phone, stopped answering e-mails, and told people that I had a weird retinal pigmentation disease that made it impossible for me to read books. Especially books like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”

From there, Queenan goes on to belittle those ubiquitous “Questions for Discussion” found at the end of many books these days. It is the editors’ and publishers’ hope that you, gentle readers, will select their book as the next “book club selection of the month” so that everyone will buy a copy. These questions just make life that much easier for you.

With one book out and one on the way (if December can be considered “on the way”), I wondered why I didn’t think of this ruse before. So easy! Perhaps the second edition of my debut effort can include an amendment for Book Clubs in the back? It might look something like so:

The Indifferent World

  1. In the poem, “Barnstorming the Universe,” Craft discusses a space-traveling barn that crashes in the middle of a Maine field, mid-July. Do you believe barn landings should have a central location like Cape Canaveral, or is the meteor-like randomness of their crashes half the fun? Discuss.
  2. “Astapova Station” describes Leo Tolstoy’s final flight from death, which ended at a train station with wife Sofya (and a “Honey, do” list) hot in pursuit. How important is Czarist Russia’s lousy train service to this poem’s denouement? Who do you sympathize with more–Team Leo or Team Sofya?
  3. This book includes two poems about a large-animal veterinarian in Vermont treating a horse in “Tonsillectomy” and a cow in “Young Brain in the Dairy Barn.” Are bloody operations in a barn appropriate material for poetry? Would Li-Po approve? What about the Lake Poets?

Yes. Discussion Questions for Poetry-Reading Book Clubs. The sort of thing that might move poetry book sales from double digits to, say, a mighty three. (Not many books of poetry challenge the mighty comma, which is only forced into action once your sales cross No Poet’s Land, a. k. a. terrain over 1,000).

In any event, I am an omnivorous reader (maybe more so than Joe), so despite the dearth of poetry collection titles, many fiction and non-fiction recommendations were garnered while reading this book. Also many rereads (Queenan calls Dubliners the single best collection of short stories ever, for instance, so I said to myself on the train, “Hmn. Long time no Dubliners. Time to move it up on the the list. Done!”)

Overall, a few laughs and a lot of book titles added to the borrow-or-buy list. Not bad, eh? Now I just need to find a paperback called One for the Poetry Books. One that sniffs its nose at fiction and talks all poetry all the time.