"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Monday, November 26, 2012

Thoughts on reading lists and some literary greats

I spent this weekend in a strange and wonderful blur of pouring rain and brilliant sunshine, bubbling parties and quiet moments on trains, reading about the decadence of the Jazz Age and plunging myself into the decadence of both Thanksgiving dinner and an early Christmas dinner. Now that I'm back to the slow studious life after a few days of fast living, I thought I'd take some time to write about the books I've been reading (although the studious life is picking up the pace this week as we veer toward drafts of term papers and the end of the semester's syllabi).

Over the last few months, I've taken a whirlwind tour through Joyce's Dublin, Pynchon's California, Coetzee's South Africa, Nabokov's New England, Fitzgerald's Riviera, and Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha. Sounds pretty incoherent, but in fact I've never been so aware of the strings binding the literary cannon together as I have reading these books. Over and over, the same concerns, the same images, the same sorts of voices appear every time I crack the spine of a book (of course my professor's did design their courses to highlight conversations amongst certain authors, but they certainly didn't have far to stretch to find those points of contact). And yet the books on my shelf right now appear pretty varied in their times, places, and effects.

I was thinking particularly about Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! and Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night. Within the context of my reading list, they are relatively close in both time and place (both American, both written in the first half of the 20th century), and their themes overlap at the very least in the fact that they both tackle and develop the metaphoric repercussions of incest. (Side note: I find the daily life of a literature student is a lot less staid than you might imagine, which you realize when you start bringing up pedophilia, incest, and/or rape in dinner conversations or musing aloud on some of Freud's more ridiculous sexual symbolisms.)

Both books also blend into the general world of modernism - i.e. in this instance, experiments with the structures of written language and the effect of shifting but deeply personal narrative voices on the telling of a story - with Faulkner channeling the slightly desperate voices of multiple generations of a family in post-Civil War America and Fitzgerald the dissolute tones of a cast of American ex-patriots in post-WWI Europe.

But reading these novels in proximity to each other, I was struck by a really significant difference if not in the books themselves, then in my experience of them. Absalom impressed me in large part because I cannot begin to conceive of writing a book like it or even imagine how Faulkner might have come up with, developed, or brought to fruition his idea - or even what that original idea was. Reading it was like being presented with a perfectly blended bisque or a fabulous pastry and enjoying the flavors and textures while having no idea what ingredients went into their making.  

Tender, on the other hand, felt to me to have a looser weave, one I could pull apart slightly in order to peer back at Fitzgerald's intent (or at least my interpretation of his intent). I can imagine him imagining the novel, summing it up in a few sentences for his friends or publishers, holding the arc of the book in his mind. I can't imagine Faulkner doing anything but standing up from his desk with the finished manuscript in his hands.

I would like, of course, to be able to write like both of these men, because their work is equally compelling and inspiring to me. But the more I read, the more I think about writing my own books, and the more I wonder what sort of books I might write. Right now, I think I want to write every kind of book there is, but I'm not sure whether it would be easier to tackle the kind of story I can contain whole in my mind or the kind where I would just have to jump in feet first at one end and swim all the way to the other. Both sound somewhat intimidating (especially when you start measuring yourself up against William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald) but also fairly thrilling. If anything, I will certainly come out on the other side of this year with plenty to aspire to and an impetus to start practicing my swim strokes.

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