Category Archives: Books

More books your high school English teacher never let you read…

So you get twenty or thirty pages into this book and you go WTF?! And you run to Google or Wikipedia, or maybe LibraryThing to see what you are supposed to think, because clearly you missed something. You’re not one of the chosen ones – the work doesn’t speak to you – you’re too thick to appreciate it – you skipped class that day . . .

So now you are online reading reviews, and you see words like: ‘groundbreaking,’ ‘visceral,’ ‘audacious,’ and ‘non-linear.’ Ahh, the reassuring authority of terms. That feels better! You go back to the book and keep trying, and for while you succeed in wearing the reverence you read online – for this writer whose beat words spew out like overripe fruit and broken glass, and which he glues to the page using every conceivable (and unfortunate) body fluid.

Your eyes glaze over at sentences promising temporary handholds of sense; you catch at the swirl of crude images and jumbled meanings that come and go like random bursts of machine gun fire. Clearly, some of the bullets are hitting you, though many fly past harmlessly.  But the ones that connect. . . you begin to wonder what the hell they might be doing. Is there a subliminal agenda? Are you being corrupted by this book?

nakedlunchBut maybe getting unhinged is not such a bad thing. And really, the book is not so long. . . you can stomach the uneasiness. Finally you settle into a pattern of reading one sentence after another – dubiously and a little mechanically – like a puzzled arts patron given a one inch window to move randomly over a Jackson Pollock canvas. This task is not easy. You just wish the words would all shout their meanings at once – discarding the sequential – so you can hear it as one grand howl of pain and confusion.

And you start thinking about the metaphor of the canvas; and maybe just standing speechless in front of it is OK. And finally, Burroughs tells you at the end to start anywhere in the book. (“Gee, thanks!”) All of which underlies the suspicion that this book doesn’t even exist while you are reading it, that it coalesces into a book sometime after you finish, and to say you “read” it is to say that you remember pieces of a confusing and relentless pipe dream.

Naked Lunch: The Restored Text, by William S. Burroughs

Written in 1959, before most of us learned to eat Cap’n Crunch, drink Nestle’s Quick or recite from II Corinthians.  Culturally relevant, it might be worth the experience if you are up for it. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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* Repackaged from a review submitted on LibraryThing.com.  (Hint for the clueless: this is a tour of an addict’s brain.) 

Books your high school English teacher never let you read

In keeping with the general topic of Spring: of joyful gushings and sudden flowerings, of reawakened appetitites, of nymphs and satyrs frolicking in fields and woods – I thought I’d post a review of Rabelais*.

You might remember Francois Rabelais from your high school English class (or probably you don’t – especially if your teacher avoided it out of misplaced concern for your safety) as the author of the bawdy 16th century novel, Gargantua and Pantagruel. Rabelais  (roughly: rabblelay) was a French Renaissance writer, humanist, monk, doctor, and a teller of dirty jokes.

So here’s this 16th centurygargantua_pantagruel classic which proudly appears in Great Books of the Western World.  I plowed this compendium of arse-wind symphonies, infarctious bum-hole fruppery, codpiece flip-flappery, and vertiginous piles of latinate verbiage, much of which only a scholar from the Beansquiddle School of Counterposed Argumentation and Juxtiperous Scholary Assidification would understand, or profit therefrom. . .

And for all that, it was fun.

Yes, the complaint that I formed early on was that the writing was overwhelmingly verbose. Despite outlandishly bawdy humor, it took forever to get through what I took to be pointless descriptions, words piled up in a groaning sideboard of verbiage, chapters with no apparent aim toward what I thought should be the meat of the enterprise: advancing a book’s plot. But that complaint, I finally realized, was really my 20th-century American upbringing speaking: my get-out-of-the-way-I’m-in-a-hurry, time-is-money, nose-to-the-grindstone, put-it-in-a-sound-byte upbringing.

Compared to Gargantua and Pantagruel, today’s novels are practically written in short hand where an economy of words wins. Blogs must be digestible in two minutes or less.  We can quit any newspaper article after only three sentences and come away with its essential point. Got to keep moving, folks. We’ve basically re-written Descartes’ famous dictum to: ‘I stress, therefore I exist. . .’

On the other hand, with Gargantua and Pantagruel you have sat down with someone from the 16th-century, and you must not be interested in getting anywhere in a hurry. You must be prepared to sacrifice the entire afternoon to careless, rambling conversation where the person repeats himself, gets sidetracked in colorful but pointless tangents, tells lewd jokes, flirts with passersby, pauses frequently to order more beer, farts at will, and has a love for rattling off endless lists: of popular games, of foods appearing at a banquet, of ways to run someone through with a weapon, or the best materials to use in an outhouse.

The characters,  Gargantua and Pantagruel, are of a race of giants, and in a satire the figure of a giant usually becomes a device for showing human traits writ large. It occurs to me that Rabelais’ use of this literary device may be seen as a kind of rejoinder to Plato’s Republic. In The Republic, man was writ large in the form of an ideal city to explore the question: how should a man live? Then, in Gargantua and Pantagruel, perhaps the corollary occurs: the city or society is writ large in the form of a giant man to explore the question: what is the end of life?

And if this be the case, then Rabelais tell us, in effect, to chill…  There you go! There’s your modern urge to reduce everything to one formulaic pithy equation: just chill. Rabelais seems to be saying: what’s the use in being so pretentious and tight-assed? Humanity is funny, flawed, tragic, comic, both beautiful and ugly – and driven by passion and appetite more so than rationality. Relax, understand this, and stop pushing.

If you don’t mind bawdy jokes, gutter humor, satire, and enough crude body functions to start a riot in a whorehouse, this will be a delightful, if somewhat long read. Let it have its effect on you. On other hand, “If you say to me, master, it would seem that you were not very wise in writing to us these flimflam stories, and pleasant fooleries…” as Rabelais interjects, near the end of Book II, “I answer you that you are not much wiser to spend your time reading them.” ‘Tis a sentiment truer than meets the eye, because to respond out of impatience to this book is to have missed much of the point.

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Gargantua and Pantagruel can be read in the public domain on sites such as: Ebooks and Project Gutenberg. Nothing quite compares to a physical copy, however, and for a translation, I might suggest Burton Raffel for liveliness and fun.

*This review slightly repackaged from a post on LibraryThing..

On reading, in a one-liner world

I have begun to suspect that my brain may be ruined. Short-circuited. Re-programmed. Made over into a Borg-like artifact of the 21st century – now that I have subjected myself for so many years to the buzzing, pinging siren call of the cell phone, the Tweet, the Facebook wall, the RSS feed and the short bursts of attention that online reading requires.

And then, enabling my impulsive addiction to video gaming, comes legions of solo and multi-user role-playing opportunities.  XBox, Playstation, Wii: each provide instant immersion into compellingly rich, enchanting or spine-tingling situations.

Oh, I do love all this stuff!  But I wonder.

Is it still possible anymore to become so transported by a book that I forget who and where I am? More to the point, where have the unbroken stretches of two and three hours gone? I find it difficult, anymore, to stay focused on one thing for any length of time. I remember another era, when spending a few hours with a good book in a quiet house was sufficient.

Alan Jacobs’ book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, is a tonic for readers who struggle with this daily deluge of modern media.  His book takes the form of one long essay, penned in notes of commiseration, humor and encouragement but broken by a series of bold-faced headings into sub-topics (‘Yes, we can!,’ ‘Whim,’ ‘Slowly, slowly’. . .).  These could easily be read in ten to twenty minutes.

Reading is still alive! That is the good news that can be taken to heart. Millions of readers flock to bookstores daily. Large chains, such as Barnes and Noble are in no danger of folding, and publishing is exploring – for better or worse – a brave new world of electronic books and journals.

We were often told to read in school because it’s ‘good for us’, like eating our vegetables. And sometimes from that coercion came a conditioned, if guilty, dislike.  Our educational system can fail, in this regard, to communicate the sweet, soulful pleasure of trekking, unhurried and unbidden, through an author’s world.

Jacobs encourages readers to champion the authority of self in their reading – a force which he calls Whim (with a capital ‘W’), in which one’s passion determines what course we follow in choosing reading material, in which great books are marvelous opportunities for growth, not obligatory hurdles on some pedantic to do list.

Not surprisingly, he encourages us to throw off the binding chains of those canonical book lists of Adler, van Doren and Fadiman, and more especially those of the newer ‘1000 Books to Read Before You Die’ ilk. At least, he says, do not religiously follow these paths simply because somebody ‘more important’ than you said it would be good for you.

When significant works are read for accomplishment, or when strip-mined for content (as online media is designed to be), books lose their primary capacity to involve and radically change you, he says. Slow down. This is actually harder to do than it sounds.

Yes, ‘slow down.’ This could well be the saving mantra for humanity, as we rush pell-mell into our new digital century.

I do suspect our brains are being re-wired by the highly connected, electronic society we live in.  But the process is not necessarily evil or Borg-like – witness the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ and ‘Occupy’ movements which have sprung largely from the ability to instantly communicate with one another. It seems that tyranny cannot so easily hide behind disinformation any more.

And besides, our ‘re-wiring’ is not irrevocable: “The amazing thing about our brains is not that they are hard-wired to accomplish some particular task, but that they are not.”  So goes current neurological thinking. This is good news, and I agree with Jacobs when he asserts that books are not in danger of becoming extinct.

But we have choices to make: how to read and why to read. And in making them, we should heed the authority of our personal journey.