Wednesday, November 18, 2009

What I'm Reading Right Now

I go through phases where I read one book cover to cover till I'm done with it. I might stay up late to get it done. I might re-read it immediately, or make notes on it as I go along. I rarely read merely to write a review. I read for pleasure, to learn, I read from curiosity, and to broaden my horizons. When I am focused on one book, I become completely absorbed in it, give it all my attention, and sometimes lose track of everything else. I can stand there in a sunlit room and forget to make lunch, till I finish a chapter, my foot goes asleep, or some other physical sensation gets my attention.

Most of the time, however, I am reading several books at once. I may be partway through up to ten books at a time. Some I am reading for my usual morning meditation/contemplation period, my practice for starting my day. Some I am reading for diversion. There are bad days, and really bad days, in which I go seek out something to read purely for the pleasure of distraction; these are often times I re-read a favorite SF or mystery novel, or another in a series of novels I've been reading. Some I read because they caught my attention that day, and pulled me in. Some I read because I am researching an idea, sometimes to write about it, sometimes just to absorb it and let it settle inside me for awhile. Sometimes I am feeding my writing, or my visual art, or my music. Sometimes I read the essays on poetry by poets because it leads me towards my own thinking about poetry. Sometimes I read biographies of a favorite artist, to find out what we have in common. Sometimes I read a book on science, or math, or history, often out of curiosity, but also when I need to be diverted by fully engaging my mind, to give me a respite from my own problems and drama.

There are an infinite number of reasons to read a book. One of the best ways to learn how to write is to read, read, read: eclectically, universally, omnivorously, thoroughly. I am blessed with a knack—untrained, something I've just always been able to do—for reading a book quickly, and being able to remember most of what I've read. I have a knack for remembering many different threads from different sources, and be able to pull them together into a one weave: to make new associations, to synthesize connections and echoes and resonances, to spot similar thoughts by different people in different times and places. It's the omnivorous reading that does it, and it's the attitude of generalist scholar rather than a specialist expert. I'd rather be an independent scholar than a specialist who knows everything about a very small topic. When I read an essayist, I like their tastes in topic and tone to be as eclectic as my own interests; so my favorite essayists tend to write with a wide range and an open portfolio.

I find a lot of interesting books by visiting the thrift stores and used book stores in my county, and the two neighboring counties. I prefer to buy books by certain authors new: an artist supporting another artist, which seems only fair. Other works, which I might not be able to afford brand new, I will get used; especially large-format art books. And the thrift stores often throw up driftwood on the beaches of their shelves, like flotsam after a storm. Sometimes the storm is an estate sale, in which many chattels are donated by the family of someone who just died. Sometimes you find a wave of books all on the same topic, obviously coming from the same person's library, which they have divested perhaps because they're retiring, or moving away. Lightening their load, purging their home of what is no longer useful to them. I've done the same, of course. I recognize the patterns.

This past week, in the various thrift stores and used book stores in my usual orbit, I have found quite a few little treasures. I buy books not only because of their contents, but also if they are special, beautiful editions. I do find first editions are thrift stores, from time to time. As a book designer, artist, and typographer myself, I appreciate a beautiful first edition. But I'm not a bookseller, not a speculator in resale value, not an investor in a book's tangible worth. There are beautiful editions of books that I don't much want to own; in which case, I look them over, enjoy the beauty of their craftsmanship, and do not take them home.

Among the books found recently have been—and this list should give a clue about the eclectic nature of the thrift store quest:

Ellis Peters, A Morbid Taste for Bones, the first in her Brother Cadfael series, which I have come to enjoy reading as much for their historical accuracy as for the pleasure of the company of their principal characters. I've read perhaps 6 of the 20 Brother Cadfael books. I also thoroughly enjoyed the TV versions of these books, which Peters approved and supported.

Robert Frost, The Complete Poems, in the 1949 edition. I have Frost's Collected Poems published posthumously, which is of course more complete, if not a lot thicker. This is a edition with good typography and design. It's a snapshot of what Frost thought was important in his later life, even though he published more poems after this book was given us; and some poems in here were later revised. (For example, one of my favorite Frost poems, "Choose Something Like a Star," is here "Take Something Like a Star," and gathered at the end, loose with other poems in an Afterword.)

Studs Terkel, Working. I've been reading Studs' last book with great pleasure, his book on death and dying and the afterlife and what people believe, titled Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Reflections on death, rebirth, and hunger for a faith. Studs was one of our greatest reporter/interviewers, and his books are essential reading. Even though Working is now decades old, it remains timeless and relevant, because its themes are what we do all day, every day, to make our way in the world. Such wisdom will always be relevant.

Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential. Okay, this guy irritates some people I know, foodies and non-foodies alike. But I rather like his irreverent, even abrasive attitude. What saves Bourdain is that he defends and praises what most needs defending and praising in the world of eating, restaurants, food service, and chefs: the pleasure of a sensual life lived to the hilt, life embraced and enjoyed, life with passion and gusto. His books, and for that matter his TV shows, are not just about food, not just about why food is important and wonderful. At root they are about what makes a life worth living. Sure, he often takes risks and fails. But unlike many, he can admit when he was wrong, he can change his mind, and he has become a force for positive pleasure in life. What's wrong with that?

Federico Garcia Lorca, A Season in Granada: Uncollected poems and prose. This is a book of material I'd never seen before by one of my favorite poets. I freely admit that Lorca has mesmerized and influenced me as a poet and thinker for many, many years. Via George Crumb's ethereal, visceral compositions of the 1960s and 70s, in which Crumb frequently used Lorca texts as sources, for example in Ancient Voices of Children, Lorca has also influenced my music. I have sought the duende in all my art-making, in all the art that excites and grabs me, because of Lorca's influence. Federico has inspired more thano ne of my own poems, such as this Ode. I intend to read this book slowly, savor it, absorb it slowly, and enjoy every sensual and surprising image the poet brings to bear with his usual force and passion. I'm barely into it, and the book has already given me this poem, form the Suite titled Summer Hours:

Knife grinder.
(Three o'clock.)
The soul of Pan
on the lips
of the knife-grinder.

What dusty

He evokes
a green pool,
and something
in the branches.

He carries
St. Catherine's

What sadness!

—translated by Christopher Maurer

I recently read how Gary Snyder thought his strongest influences on his poetry come from his studies of Asian poetic traditions, mostly China and Japan. If you add India to this, he could have been speaking of my poems as well. As much as I feel influenced and inspired by Lorca, Whitman, Dickinson, and others, including Snyder of course, I too feel a strong connection to Asian literature. Especially Japanese classical literature. So it was with pleasure that I recently found copies of Natsume Soseki's poetic novel The Three Cornered World, and the old Japanese literary classic by Kamo-no-Chomei, the Hojoki. I could spend a long time writing about each one of these books, and the pleasures they bring; I'll save that for individual meditations on each, later, and for now just say that I am filled with joy at being able to finally sit down and read, and re-read, these great books at my leisure.

Colin Dexter, The Remorseful Day. This is the last Inspector Morse novel in Dexter's series. It's quite a fine ending to a fine detective series, all the characterizations and eccentricities of its protagonists quite intact. We follow Morse and his subordinate, Sergeant Lewis, on their last case together. It's like hanging out with old friends, one last time—aware of one's own mortality as well as those of friends, coworkers, and fictional companions. If Jerzy Kozinski was correct in his aphorism, that Novels are a rehearsal for life, then this novel also lets us rehearse the deaths of those we love, who would do anything to protect, and who we will deeply miss once they are inevitably gone.

Michael Field and Martin Golubitsky, Symmetry in Chaos: A search for patterns in mathematics, art and nature. A beautiful large-format book about chaos math, fractals, and symmetries. Even if you know nothing of the maths involved, you can still glory in the beautiful kaleidoscopic images they generate. This is a book full of mandalas, as rich and symbolic in their own way as any collection of Tibetan Buddhist or Celtic mandala artworks. As might be expected, the authors do reference the pattern tiles and space-filling engravings of M.C. Escher, but they also include some of the most recent theories and maths involved in chaos theory. This is one of those rare books that proves how artistic aesthetics and conceptual elegance in science are neither divorced nor in conflict, but in fact are the same thing. I'm quite enjoying working through it slowly.

Richard Meryman, Andrew Wyeth: A secret life. This biography of the artist by a friend, who had access to family stories, historical sources, and interviews that few others have enjoyed, promises to be remarkable. I haven't begun to read it carefully yet, I've just skimmed it so far. This past year, I've been to the Brandywine Museum in Chadds Ford, PA, one of the two key Wyeth locations, and I've been reading and thinking about Wyeth's art quite a bit. I've come to many of my own conclusions about Wyeth, who I believe was widely misunderstood. In fact, his paintings are often very dark and bleak at heart, which is very Modern, and not at all antiquated. In fact, Wyeth's realistic style, and the demanding egg tempura medium he worked in, are built on a powerful abstract sense of composition. He often plays with angle of perspective in unexpected ways, and the drama in many of his best known works comes from their very powerful underlying proportional graphic design and almost abstract form. I think it's more accurate to call Wyeth an abstract-realist painter, in which his graphic sense supports the apparently realistic subjects of each painting in ways often overlooked. Wyeth spoke more than once about how these aspects of his technique are used to enhance a painting's emotional content. It will be interesting to read through this book, and discover if my sense of Wyeth is shared by the author; or where my intuitions are deepened, or contradicted. I look forward to continuing an ongoing voyage of discovery.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

As I would have guessed, a diverse selection. Not going out much these days I tend to buy very few books from thrift shops although a great many of the books I own were previously owned. I have no problem with that and I'd rather received two or three used books or CDs than one new one even for presents.

Unlike you I am not a fast reader. I also get bored quickly and so I also have a lot of books that have never kept my attention. This is why I'm glad I've taken up reviewing because it has stretched me as a reader; there's only one book I've been sent that I haven't reviewed - I read about a page and I was bored.

I never read more than one book at a time and I like to get a review drafted before I begin a new one otherwise everything gets muddled in my head. It's like my brain has a plughole in it - as soon as I've finished with the data, the plug gets pulled and I pretty much forget everything I read. It's a real pain.

9:22 AM  
Blogger Mark Kerstetter said...

My approach (if it can be called that) to books is similar to yours.

I agree about Wyeth. I am a committed modernist, I believe in the values of abstraction (which perhaps makes me 'old-fashioned' now). But Wyeth wasn't focused on the superficial, or mirroring the world's surfaces. He built his pictures, and as with many great painters there is a wonderful interplay between the refined and the 'unfinished'- the liquid matter of the paint.

10:32 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

One of these days, we'll have to send you a C.A.R.E. package there in your cave, Jim. :) Start a wish list.

Like I said, I can't account for my reading and retention abilities. I guess it's my "secret super power," it's something I've always been able to do. I thought it was completely normal till in conversation I realized many of my friends hadn't read half of what I'd read. It was handy in high school, since it meant I didn't have to study much to get good grades. College pushed me harder, though.

Mark, I find myself being a Modernist when it's appropriate, and for certain arts more than others. The rest of the time, I'm pretty eclectic. I like Medieval music a lot, for example. But being a composer who grew up in the second half of the 20th C., with all the experimental music around at the time, I do have those values of experimentation and exploration. Sometimes, even though it's an art, it feels like we have the approach of experimenting mad scientists in our labs, creating life out of piles of rusted gears and glass tubes. LOL Okay, maybe that's too Frankensteinian an analogy. I guess I'm just trying to say that I'm probably very influenced by Modernism, but I think in some ways, like I said, I'm even more influenced by ancient cultures, from Asia, etc.

Interesting to think about.

11:57 AM  
Blogger John Ettorre said...

Perhaps the truest sign of a truly hungry mind, someone who's reading several books at a time. I recall coming across that habit when reading about Bill Clinton back when he was running for president, and being momentarily surprised. Until then, I thought that odd habit (which of course I don't think is odd at all but perfectly normal) was mine alone. But I've since learned otherwise.

1:59 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Nope, you're not alone. I have no idea how common it is as a habit. Like you, I thought it was natural and everybody read that way, till I learned that wasn't the case. I wonder how typical it is. It seems to be typical for at least writers, though. It's certainly common for writers to be interested in everything all the time. The hungry mind aspect of it is exactly right, I think.

6:33 PM  

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