Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2018

A month shy of this blog’s anniversary and it strikes me how subtly but incessantly my reading tastes have morphed over these nine years. It is both a strength and weakness of relatively long-term blogging that one’s earlier inclinations and opinions are maintained for public viewing. As WordPress’ statistics show, readers frequently access earlier posts that now make me wince. Opinions, perceptions, comparisons are perpetually recast. They are also metamorphic. That is not to say today’s impressions are more discerning or refined, but there is little guarantee that the ‘this is’ of today will not change to the ‘this is not’ of next month.

Since starting the blog, I’ve unsystematically read hundreds of books. I am selfish about what I read, driven by serendipity. Where the books lead, I follow. Without checking the lists I keep, I’ve forgotten more of the books that I’ve read than I could recall, but they are nevertheless connected in some vast storehouse of memory, each book connected with the one preceding it and the one that followed. A book read nine years ago may spark a decision today to pull another book off my shelf today.

Next year, my reading will take a different tack. This might last for months. It might take all year, but I plan only to read one book for quite a long time. T. S. Eliot wrote, “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them; there is no third.” My inclination has always been towards Dante, but unlike Shakespeare (arguably), to read The Divine Comedy slowly, attentively and patiently, one needs to be willing for submersion in what is outside the text. So, one book but requiring one to read around, behind and between Dante’s strange poem.

This isn’t my first time making this journey. I’ve read Inferno several times, Purgatorio twice, but have yet to make my way to Paradiso. Dozens of other texts, stories and histories are alluded to within those 100 cantos. Many more were influenced by Dante’s sublime poem. I don’t know how long this project will last. Until I get bored or, more likely, get led down another rabbit hole.

Aside from several translations of Dante, my initial guides will be Virgil (naturally), Prue Shaw, Dorothy Sayers, Erich Auerbach, Graham Harman and Peter Hawkins.

I do intend to come up for air from time to time, with other plans to read more Jan Zwicky, Dorothy Richardson and Peter Handke during the year.

NB: Long term readers of this blog will know how fickle are my reading intentions.

The Only Reading That Deserves the Name

Part of this interview, on reading, resonated deeply, though the entire interview is extraordinary, as is Handke’s To Duration.

“PH: One’s manner of reading changes throughout life. I believe that I’ve only now reached a point where I’ve really learned to read. Or at least that I’ve realized how I used to read. Not even when I was reading Stifter could I really read. It was often … for example, Goethe’s Elective Affinities or Hölderlin’s Hyperion: I read them at the wrong time, I didn’t understand anything of them, and I also didn’t understand, as Ludwig Hohl says, that different authors have different reading speeds. The reading speed I had earlier was much different than the one I have now, which I think is really the one that suits me best. I now only want to be able to, to be allowed to read slowly.

HG: And you write this way as well. That brings to mind: one student found this slow tempo an imposition: how at the beginning of Slow Homecoming, with these long sentences, you force this slowness onto the reader, like in a Wagner opera.

PH: I can understand that very well. At twenty I probably would have stopped reading after two sentences.

HG: Yes, one can only either stop reading or fully give oneself over to it. But to superficially take it in, ‘informative reading’, as it’s called, that doesn’t work.

PH: Nor in the evening before going to sleep, reading in bed, that doesn’t work at all.

HG: Carefully reading a few sentences, that works. But so quickly…

PH: You also can’t force anyone to do anything. You can’t say: you must read at this precise speed.

HG: But otherwise it doesn’t work; one has to read at that tempo.

PH: But I really can assure anyone, if they give it a try, if they want to and are able to read so slowly, they’ll get something out of it.

HG: Yes, then and only then. And that shouldn’t be a reproach!

PH: I have a great need: not simply to read slowly, but rather to slow myself down through reading. But it’s more than that. If it doesn’t work that way, then I lose all pleasure in reading. When I start scanning again, devouring the pages like I used to, then I start to feel my limbs and extremities becoming cold – which is for me a physical sign, when I get cold – only the cheeks remain hot. Then I know that I’m not reading correctly, or that the book’s not the right one for me. But then when everything becomes warm: the heart, the mind, the senses, out to the smallest fingertips; when I also stall – not falter: when I’m able to stall, to pause, then my reading is an all-embracing perception, then it’s … then out of this self-immersion there arises a vision, a completely natural, logical vision of the outermost world (not just the outer world). For me that’s just … it’s completely organic … for me that’s the only way it works with certain things – so that I can ponder them, pore over them. Although there are moments of longing for the old speedy ‘page-turner’ reading – not ‘longing’: rather nostalgia for the page-turner era. Then one puts away the Hölderlin poem, or whatever ancient text, and one picks up something by an author like Simenon, and for a while it’s like being in a speedboat. But for the duration (and I say that expressly: for the duration), the other kind of reading – the reading I have now learned, have now acquired – is the only kind that deserves the name.”

With thanks to Steve Mitchelmore for pointing towards this superb interview: The Sun of Words, excerpts from Aber ich lebe nur von den Zwischenräumen, an interview between Herbert Gamper and Peter Handke.

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2016

On the last winter solstice I posted some well-intentioned reading ideas for 2015. I always intend to read fewer new (to me) writers to concentrate on my old chestnuts and I closed gaps in my reading of Mann, Coetzee, Handke, Virginia Woolf and Sebald. Even the minor works of great writers display brilliance and this intention to read deeply and not broadly continues. I’m looking forward to new books from Anne Carson, Geoff Dyer and Jan Wilm’s Coetzee study.

In my year in reading post I wrote of the thrill of discovering Brophy, Welch and Espedal; each writer will undoubtedly make up some of what I read next year. I’m also looking forward to reading more Han Kang, Wolfgang Hilbig, Giorgio Agamben, Pascal Quignard and Ivan Vladislavic, all who produced books that moved me in some way this year.

Writers I don’t yet know but expect to sample in 2016 include Janice Lee, Jean Rhys, Werner Jaeger, Ivan Goncharov, Philippe Jaccottet, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Ingeborg Bachmann, Claude Cahun, Robert Gál, Yves Bonnefoy and Peter Weiss. There’ll be others but these are in my sights at the moment.

At the moment my mind is anchored in ancient Greece and Rome. My reading year is coming to an end with Giorgio Agamben’s and Monica Ferrando’s The Unspeakable Girl, a work of some power published by the brilliant Seagull Books, and Pascal Quignard’s Sex and Terror, which feels like the only book one could read after The Unspeakable Girl.

My inclination at the moment is to dwell in antiquity for some time, perhaps read Chapman’s Homer, which shaped Troilus and Cressida. I’ve acquired some Loebs and assorted ancient Greek plays that I may make time for over the Christmas break. Being overwhelmed by Troilus and Cressida convinces me that I must fill in some of my reading gaps in Shakespeare’s oeuvre.

The fault and glimpse of newness often leads me astray so expect distractions. If the year ahead holds surprises as great as Brigid Brophy, Denton Welch and Tomas Espedal I’ll be a fortunate reader.

Thanks for reading along in 2015 and for taking time to discuss books with me here, in person and on Twitter. I love little more than to discuss books so more conversation please!

You’ll End Up Reading Peter Handke

I read Peter Handke’s The Afternoon of a Writer after watching Tomas Espedal’s hauntingly powerful interview. In the interview Espedal says:

Reading has its own logic. No matter where you start you’ll end up reading Thomas Mann sooner or later. You’ll end up reading Marguerite Duras – and you’ll end up reading Peter Handke. If you read a lot … if you spend your whole life reading, you’ll arrive at those writers.

This particular Handke is the last I’ve read of three that I bought a few years ago on the strength of Steve Mitchelmore’s review. The Afternoon of a Writer is a boundless exploration, somewhat like Rilke’s Malte on a writer’s contradictory needs for both solitude and a social existence.

The narrator, also like Malte, is one of those autobiographical scapegoats into which a writer pours their mental and emotional torments. Unlike Rilke’s incoherent prose though, Handke’s language is natural, minutely observed lights and shades, even during a momentarily grotesque dream sequence, an incredible passage that forces the reader to question the reliability of the narrator.

Although I’ve only read the three Handke books, I am drawn to his interior canvas and his haunted seriousness. As The Afternoon of a Writer draws to its end, the nameless narrator’s loneliness reaches a point that one cannot imagine it being broken.

Phil from The Last Books kindly sent me To Duration, a long Peter Handke poem that I am looking forward to reading next. It is translated by Scott Abbott, a writer whose collaboration with Zarko Radakovic has lead to two books I plan to read, Vampires and A Reasonable Dictionary and Repetitions. The latter follows a character in Peter Handke’s Repetition into what is now Slovenia.

Beautiful Books, Bibliophilia and Vladislavić’s Loss Library

If I were asked which publisher I admire most, I should say Seagull Books. In truth, possibly because I never request and very rarely accept review copies, I give individual publishers little thought (though I do also have fondness for Sylph Editions’ Cahiers Series). It is of course individual writers and their work that interests me.

I am especially fond of Seagull Books for two reasons: their commitment to making printed books that aspire to the highest aesthetic standards, and the specific writers and translators they publish. As this excellent essay on Seagull Book states, “Seagull’s identity hinges on Kishore’s personal encounters with writers and translators he meets, signs on, gets to know and not just likes but lavish affection on. His passion for a certain kind of publishing expresses itself as a romantic yearning, the professed need to be close to the great, to return to that word, in literature and art.”

At the moment I am slowly reading Ivan Vladislavic’s The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories, slowly because the essays inside are light, bright, and sparkling. David Winters captures their essence well in this review. Essays aside, the book itself is a joy, including the 12 collages by Sunandini Banerjee that accompany each essay. You can tell that this is a publisher that cares deeply about the books they produce.

Seagull Books has the depth and quality of backlist that feels like you can pluck off their shelves any one of the editions and be almost assured of a singularly rewarding experience. This afternoon I rummaged through my library and collected all my Seagull titles together, which includes old chestnuts like Sartre, Bernhard, Handke, Quignard and Schwarzenbach, but also new discoveries await like Nooteboom, Clément and Hilbig.

It is the sort of backlist that ignites my inner bibliophile urge to collect everything, but thankfully the scale of Seagull’s backlist outstrips the funds at my disposal.