>Wondering What This List Tells Me

>Inspired by Bibliographing’s “Bizarre Ranks of the Most-Read,” I’ve been turning over in my own mind which authors I have most read. Excluded are writers I read in my teens and poets, with a cut-off below 5 books.

There are no major surprises, though I wish, of course, it was more erudite, more literary. It reflects the volume of science fiction I read in my twenties; also an inexplicable passion for writers I can no longer abide (Amis, Irving, Theroux). Many other writers on the list I have ceased to read.

  • Iain (M.) Banks – 18
  • Robert A. Heinlein – 14
  • Paul Theroux – 14
  • Julian Barnes – 13
  • John Irving – 10
  • J. P. Donleavy – 10
  • Martin Amis – 10
  • Alberto Manguel – 8
  • William Gibson – 7
  • Ian McEwan – 7
  • Vladimir Nabokov – 7
  • Douglas Adams – 6
  • Haruki Murakami – 6
  • J. G. Ballard – 6
  • Glen Duncan – 6
  • A. M. Homes – 6
  • Jose Saramago – 6
  • Michael Marshall (Smith) – 6
  • Nicholson Baker – 6
  • J. M. Coetzee – 5
  • Geoff Dyer – 5
  • Graham Greene – 5
  • Friedrich Nietzsche – 5
  • Arturo Perez-Reverte – 5
  • Jean-Paul Sartre – 5
  • Elmore Leonard – 5
  • Ed McBain – 5
  • Franz Kafka – 5
  • Kingsley Amis – 5
  • Joseph Heller – 5
Three seems to me the decisive number; after three books in a row I branch out, get distracted by a new writer. I wish there were one or two more female writers in the list. That aside I am not mortified, though obvious to me I must read more Shakespeare (as opposed to watching the plays).
Thank you for the inspiration.

>Tackling Tough Books

>Is it me or am I seeing a lot about difficult books? Life is too short and abandoning Finnegans Wake being recurrent themes. I’ve yet to even attempt the Wake and may come to sympathise with those who leap overboard. I do however disagree with those that give up difficult books and then encourage others that these books are not worth trying to understand.

I share the view that I’d rather tackle a dense, chewy book that has entranced or confused or challenged readers for many decades or centuries, than tackle some fashionable jujube that will be forgotten within a decade. You have probably come across the fantastic series of articles running at The Millions, encouraging readers to tackle a series of “difficult” books.

What I’ve come to think of (somewhat unfairly) as the grad-school response to such allusiveness – treating each sentence like a puzzle to be solved – isn’t always the best way to approach to a tough text. With Finnegans Wake, for example, a willingness to let things wash over you can be the difference between sublimity and seasickness.

In addition to those in the article, the series continues in the sidebar, including two of my favourites: Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle and To the Lighthouse.

>Portals of Discovery

>

-What is a ghost? Stephen said with tingling energy. One who has faded into impalpability through death, through absence, through change of manners.

Part 2, chapter 6 of Ulysses: Nabokov instructs his students thus:

The discussion in this chapter is one of those things that is more amusing for a writer to write than for a reader to read, and so its details need not be examined.

Here, I disagree with the late Professor Nabokov. Yes, it is a dense chapter  of allusion and erudition. Much of it I fail to penetrate on this first reading. But to miss the wit and the satisfaction of unlocking at least some of Joyce’s allusion would be a loss, arguably acceptable for students but not for ardent readers.

During a debate about Shakespeare, Eglinton contends that Shakespeare’s marriage was a mistake:

-The world believes that Shakespeare made a mistake, he said, and got out of it as quickly and as best as he could. 

-Bosh! Stephen [Dedalus] said rudely. A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.

Portals of discovery opened to let in the quaker librarian, softcreakfooted, bald, eared and assiduous.

Ulysses and the Odyssey

Unlike Finnegans Wake, to which he was indifferent, Nabokov thought Ulysses one of the greatest  novels of the twentieth century. In his dissection of the novel, when teaching at Cornell, he disdained the Homeric parallels, supplying only a map of Dublin. Quizzed about this practise in Strong Opinions Nabokov answers:

Joyce himself very soon realized with dismay that the harping on those essentially easy and vulgar “Homeric parallelisms” would only distract one’s attention from the real beauty of the book. He soon dropped these pretentious chapter titles which already were “explaining” the book to non-readers. In my lectures I tried to give factual data only.

In Lectures on Literature Nabokov goes further:

 I must especially warn against seeing in Leopold Bloom’s humdrum wanderings and minor adventures on a summer day in Dublin a close parody of the Odyssey, with the adman Bloom acting the part of Odysseus, otherwise Ulysses, man of many devices, and Bloom’s wife representing chaste Penelope while Stephen Dedalus is given the part of Telemachus. That there is a very vague and very general Homeric echo of the theme of wanderings in Bloom’s case is obvious, as the title of the novel suggests, and there are a number of classical allusions in the course of the book; but it would be a complete waste of time to look for close parallels in every chapter and every scene of the book. There is nothing more tedious than a protracted and sustained allegory based on a well-worn myth; and after the work had appeared in parts, Joyce promptly deleted the pseudo-Homeric titles of his chapters when he saw what scholarly and pseudoscholarly bores were up to.

Thankfully Steven Riddle was helpful, in commenting on an earlier post, to steer me away from worrying too much about the Homeric allusions and more toward a visit to Dublin. Very sound advice which I shall surely take.

>Lists, glorious lists.

>The Telegraph leaps into the fray with a list: Adam Foulds, Sarah Hall, Steven Hall, China Miéville, Adam Thirlwell and Zadie Smith are all credible candidates; the others I don’t know particularly well or at all.

The Millions presents an “informal, unscientific, alternate-universe “20 Under 40″ list”: apart from Kiran Desai and Julie Orringer I know none of these writers.

Undoubtedly one or two interesting discoveries to be made from these lists.

Ulysses In Progress

With limited reading time I am slowly savouring Ulysses. I paused before Leopold Bloom’s entrance in Episode 4: Calypso. Without gushing at such an early stage, I cannot tell you how much I am enjoying Ulysses, but if you have read it before you know how extraordinary is Joyce’s prose.

In Episode 3 Stephen is helping a student, Sargent, to comprehend algebra. For a moment he senses an echo of his own boyhood:

Like him was I, these sloping shoulders, this gracelessness. My childhood bends beside me. Too far for me to lay a hand there once or lightly. Mine is far and his secret as our eyes. Secrets, silent, stony sit in the dark palaces of both our hearts: secrets weary of their tyranny: tyrants willing to be dethroned.

Some sections I read over and over to appreciate the writing.
To my good fortune, more advanced Ulysses readers are posting useful thoughts:The solstice in Circe.Daylight and darkness.Ulysses as an act of fiscal responsibility.

>Chefs Pick Food Books

>Asked to name their favourite non-cookbook food books, leading chefs nominated:

  1. Blue Trout and Black Truffles: The Peregrinations of an Epicure – Joseph Wechsberg
  2. The Art of Eating – M. F. K. Fisher
  3. Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris – A. J. Liebling
  4. The Horse of Pride: Life in a Breton Village – Pierre-Jakez Helias
  5. The Food of Italy and The Food of France – Waverley Root.
  6. Giving Good Weight – John McPhee
  7. The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine – Rudolph Chelminski
  8. The Gumbo Tales – Sara Roahen
The first two would appear high on my list but I would also add:
  1. Kitchen Confidential – Anthony Bourdain
  2. The Perfect Egg – Aldo Buzzi
  3. On Food And Cooking – Harold McGee
  4. The Man Who Ate Everything – Jeffrey Steingarten
  5. Comfort Me With Apples – Ruth Reichl
  6. Where shall we go for dinner? – Tamasin Day-Lewis
  7. Sushi and Beyond – Michael Booth

>St. Mark’s Bookshop, NYC

>My recent appeal for guidance on New York book shops and literary excursions provided some excellent suggestions. Sadly, my schedule allowed all too few free hours.

I was fortunate to visit Claudia’s suggestion of St. Mark’s book shop. After a protracted walk down Third Avenue, I came to St. Mark’s. Aside from the largest collection of literary magazines I have seen, the shop offered a wonderful selection of books.
My spoils of the day were Raymond Chandler’s A Big Sleep and Anne Carson’s An Oresteia.