In which an increasingly frustrated hero searches for the perfect book to lift the spirits past the drudgery of the winter, and in turn discovers James Richardson and feels better about his interrupted mind.
Starting a blog post is almost like trying to decide what to read in February. That is, I struggle. January crushed me – all the good intentions, new novels, year end lists and optimism brought on by the New Year left me overwhelmed. I cannot recall what I read or why. With February, I hoped for better days – for me, for you, for the written word. How did I do, I’m sure you are asking, sitting perched on the edge of your seat. Not well, friends, but not without a story.
I am and always will be interested in reading connections – what creates the impulse that leads us from one topic to another, from one book to the next, wherein seemingly no connection exists? This impulse often takes precedence over any book list or intended reading – it is far and away the way I read. This post is about how I spent my month in the page.
I began with You Lost Me There by Rosecrans Baldwin and immediately followed with Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. Why do I mention these together like that? Because I am unable to tell them apart. They were contemporary fiction at its best and worst – thoroughly readable, with flashes of brilliance, but altogether not memorable. My favorite parts of both titles were where I wished the author would be brave enough to continue expanding, instead of the modern idea of maintaining minimalism in its plot and abstraction in its characters. Goon Squad, in particular, would have made for a fantastic novel if increased by about 200 pages, to include all the stuff intentionally left out. It did leave me with a trace, however, by reminding me (somehow – it was mentioned somewhere) of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m fascinated by greek mythology, but I cannot read it. I know this now, but in my optimism remembering a heartbreaking story and then picking up Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Virgil’s Aeneid may have been biting off more than I could chew. Especially after relatively coasting on some fiction, my warmup plan was way off. I got to the story I wanted, thought about the Iliad and the Odyssey, but mostly I thought about watching Troy. One name kept catching my eye, “Daedalus”. Why?
Stephen Dedalus is the alter ego of author James Joyce! It must have stuck out because Joyce is another author who I can’t get through. I thought, that settles it, from now on I will tackle Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and finally conquer a book long on my reading list. Unfortunately, that is not how this month works and how our story ends. Fortunately, it ends with me putting the Joyce aside (for another day, I swear) and finally embracing a book. The good thing about the holds system at the library is that it lends itself to happenstance. And the gods (thanks, Greeks!) put James Richardson into my hands just when I needed it. The National Book Award finalist for poetry was on the shelf. And By the Numbers is worth the accolades. Richardson is at his best with aphorisms, and this immediately woke me up, reminding me that sometimes losing yourself in a month is ok:
“First frost, first snow. But winter doesn’t really start until you’re sure that spring will never come.”
*The title of this post is inspired by The Phantom Tollbooth, which may the greatest children’s book of all time. It also may be the greatest book of all time.
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4 responses to “The Doldrums:”
Oh, read Joyce! It took me ages to finally read anything other than Dubliners (which was wonderful!) but when I finally got around to reading Joyce’s novels I wished I had read them earlier. He’s wonderful– a little like reading poetry though; I kind of had to read through once for the pleasure of the language and then another reading for the actual plot. But so worth it.
Your stream of consciousness style of blog writing makes it difficult for me to believe you don’t like Joyce! I suggest starting with Dubliners too; it’s much easier to read than Portrait. I think it’s because Dubliners is a collection of short stories, rather than the continuous narrative of Portrait or Ulysses.
But I really like your focus on connections in reading. I’ve honestly never thought about why I move from book to book and how what I read affects what I read next. I would love to hear more thoughts on that!
Tony, if you haven’t I would urge you to read Dubliners first … and skip to Ulysses. You can always go back to Portrait.
Though it may feel like cheating, did you ever try Edith Hamilton’s book “Mythology?”
There are some books that just feel too dense to read (or that I’m too dense to read) but that I want to experience. I found my cure for the books I was unable to read a couple years ago. I now get them on books on tape. I put the tape on when I’m cleaning, working out, or driving and make my way through them.
I was finally able to get through the Simarillion and Walden that way. It feels like it uses another part of the brain than reading them does and I don’t get bogged down because the tape just keeps playing. It is a different experience than actually reading the books, but if you can’t get through them otherwise it works. I’ve also listened to a book on tape and then was later able to go back and read it.