My Struggle: Book 1 – Detail of a Life

It’s a sunny winter day. Sky is blue, but the trees partially in view from my kitchen and living room windows on either side of my apartment are bare, thin vein branches sprouting. The sunlight makes a guillotine blade down my unclean windows. There’s a green piece of machinery across the way in the empty lot where the condominiums have been scheduled to go up for what seems like a long time. Any day now, they’ll appear though, and the current inhabitants of this residential block will grow accustomed to the reality of a building that seems as if it appeared out of nowhere, no time having passed at all between it’s nonexistence into existence.

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That paragraph might seem totally unnecessary in this “review” of Karl Ove Knaussgard’s first part of My Struggle; however, the book has many passages of the author doing the very same thing: describing skies and small Norwegian cityscapes with seemingly unnecessary detail.

It would be inaccurate to say that these descriptions (forecasts?) of sky, earth, and city make up a bulk of the book. It would also be inaccurate to say that they don’t figure prominently, breaking up other more significant details about Knaussgard’s mother, grandmother, friends, teenage rock band, and of course, his father, the main antagonist in the book.

My Struggle starts and ends with philosophical waxing on death:

For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops. Sooner or later, one day, this pounding action will cease of its own accord, and the blood will begin to run toward the body’s lowest point, where it will collect in a small pool, visible from outside as a dark, soft patch on ever whitening skin, as the temperature sinks, the limbs stiffen and the intestines drain.

The rest of the book is written with just as much visceral detail, whether describing external or internal states. His father, often described as a hard man for Knaussgard to feel comfortable around, is compared to his mother. With few details about her, Knaussgard gets around to the idea that dinner with her is much more open and free-flowing, one in which neither he nor his brother have to be on guard. All of this is shown by the way the opposing parents prepare dinner, his father preparing with formality and the feel of contraction.

As Knaussgard details his upbringing and journey through adolescence, his father ducks and weaves and grows and decays in ways that make it hard to get a bead on the man. He’s a mystery that both the reader and the author are trying to make meaning of. His father is his “problem parent.”

Although the rest of the series cover different phases of Knaussgard’s life (the second in the series goes into more detail about his own role as a father and husband), his father centers around all of it, according to the author. Branching and radiating outward from this central conflict are moments of Knaussgard forming a teenage rock band and playing at a local shopping center. He pursues love with the savage lust of youth, breaking the heart of one girl because he’s interested in her sister. He goes to parties, visits his brother.

It’s a book very much interested in the painstaking mystery of human existence, and Knaussgard explores both the joys and tragedies, the awkwardness and the grace of it all. He does it all in a mostly plainspoken way, which makes it all feel quite accessible. All of this is written in a lyrical yet lucid, down-to-earth tone. Knaussgard waxes philosophical and has a distinct world view, but this is no political or philosophical doctrine on living (perhaps he’s saving this for a future book). The second half of the book, indeed is a doctrine and account of his father’s death.

Knaussgard is much more interested in detailing the little mundane things in life, bringing forth the things that those of us in the modern world have been living for the last half century. The narrative is driven less by plot order and more by the whims and necessity of his intuition. Details emerge out of the blue, including a passage about his father passed out drunk on the couch with the television still on, or the revelation about a dead cousin at a party after his father’s remarriage. The old man starts to cry, and while wearing colorful clothing ill-suited to the man Knaussgard used to know, both the reader and the narrator are surprised.

Who was his father? And who are any of us in relationship to our fathers and mothers, and their father and mothers? Identity is born out of memory or the imagination of the reader’s mind. An image recently released in a piece written by Knaussgard for The Guardian even contradicts any images I have in my head of his father. Then that identity shifts, and it dies off in a graveyard of bottles and depravity.

My Struggle has made Knaussgard a literary celebrity. There are certainly people who loath the book, or at least are puzzle by the appeal, while many others have caught glimpses of their own inner conflicts, their own sufferings. Why has this book made as much of an impact on modern literature as it has? A woman at the bookstore said one of her co-workers said he’d gotten halfway through the book before saying, “My Struggle? Okay…I have struggles…you have struggles…” Right, but how many people have taken the time to explore their own sufferings, much less the sufferings of others? In many ways, this seemingly ordinary, recorded life is a license to do so without it feeling like an indulgence or frivolity.

For further interest:

“The Shame of Writing About Myself” – The Guardian

 

 

 

The Fetish of The Fermata (1994)

fermata – a symbol in music denoting the elongation of a note, a stretching out

I am currently on page 185 of my second readthrough of The Fermata by Nicholson Baker, a book that my friends affectionately refer to as the “time freeze-rape book”. Not only was I revisiting one of my favorite all-time books, but I had to see what might remain now that the titillation of a first read was gone, i.e. is this “literature”? I’m happy to say that unlike most erotica, this book has substance.

The Fermata centers around a temp in his mid-thirties, Arno Strine, and his escapades in The Fold, or The Fermata, a time stasis where the he is still in motion while the rest of the world takes a breather. What does the man use his powers to do? To fondle and undress women who are complete strangers, of course.

I’m sure there are some of you out there right now who are actually not reading this, and I wouldn’t blame you. Bias: I am a pervert. Another bias: I enjoy good literature. The Fermata covers both of these bases. I knew that I’d have to reread what is arguably the hottest book I’ve ever read. What makes it so hot is not only that it’s seriously raunchy, but that Arno Strine is also a very sensitive guy with a streak of the romantic.

Perversion: (taken from Arno’s own erotica writings) “Keep pumping the brake and watchi this hot little cunt come!”

Poetry: (while talking about a former girlfriend) “Nineteenth-century novels were all-important to her. It wasn’t a question of hr liking them; they were a neurological necessity, like sleep. One Mrs. Humphrey Ward, or a Reade, or a Trollope per week supplied her with some kind of critical con-enzyme, she said, that allowed her to organize social sense experience. It was nice if the novel was good, but even a very mediocre one would do; without a daily shot of Victorian fiction she couldn’t quite remember how to talk to people and to understand what they said. I miss her.

Poetry AND Perversion: “Kneeling by the edge of the tub, I spotted something dark in the water near her feet. Her toes were curled around it. When I put my head very close to the surface of the lavishly chlorinated water, steadying myself on one of her knees, I determined that the object was, as I had of course hoped but hadn’t really allowed myself to expect,a large black realistic rubber dildo. She was bathing with her rubber dildo–oh poetry!”

What I’m realizing during this latest read-through is that this is no gimmick. The book is still hilarious and hot, but it also contains revelations, observations, and insights about everyday life and love. It’s like an erotica novel as written by Virginia Woolf. Sex is simply the force by which the realities of the mundane world are made significant and elevated to magic.

He also writes about relationships and loneliness: “I don’t think loneliness is necessarily a bad or unconstructive condition. My own skill at jamming time may actually be dependent on some fluid mixture of emotions, among them curiosity, sexual desire, and love, all suspended in a solvent of medium loneliness…Loneliness makes you consider other people’s lives, makes you more polite to those you deal with in passing, dampens irony and cynicism.”

If you can stomach the ambiguity that goes into Arno’s fantasies and time-freeze escapades, you’ll get a lot out of this book. If you’re turned off by the premise, this post, or the first few pages of the book, it’s understandable. Even Nicholson Baker admits that for all of his loneliness, intelligence, and sensitivity, the guy is a creep (which is maybe why I love him so much)

Book Shoppers Anonymous: “Time Enough at Last”

Something has been happening in my apartment. I have a new roommate. Boy, do I get rankled all the time for want of some alone time. It’s not just the apartment, though. It’s this entire city, it’s the world. He’s just stepped out, and now I have some time to listen to my own thoughts, to read, to write, to walk around the apartment naked. Most of all, though, I tell myself that if only I had more time to myself in the apartment, that I’d read more.

For those of you who know me, I play a lot of video games, and I may have even mentioned that up until a month or so ago, I hadn’t been reading much. So for those of you reading this, you might know, too, that by me saying that I’d read more if only I had more space and more time, is really just me rationalizing my own selfishness.

If we travel back in time to this summer when I wrote my post about detachment, Buddhism, and book-buying, I used that oh-so-iconic figure of Henry Bemis, the eccentric banker from a famous episode of The Twilight ZoneI’ve been watching the show recently from the very first episode, and my god, that show is dark, intense, and ahead of its (yes, here’s that word again) time.

Henry Bemis, as played by Burgess Meredith

In the episode “Time Enough at Last”, our tragic bespectacled hero Henry Bemis is a timid and eccentric bank teller and husband. He’s nearsighted and loves to read books. All Henry wants to do is read books and talk about books, but the real world represented by his wife, his job, and his boss, keep intruding.

The president of the bank tells him, “You, Mr Bemis, are a reader. A reader of books, magazines, periodicals, newspapers. I see you constantly going down to the vault during your lunch hour. You will henceforth devote your time to your job and forget reading, or you’ll find yourself outdoors reading on a park bench from morning until night from want of a job.” Bemis interrupts the president, to which the president replies, “Make it quick and get back to your cage.” Imagine this president in the age of the internet. Talk about the distraction and productivity killer to end all.

His wife is no better, talking down to him and his silly books, a lot like how people used to pester me about video games. She even takes a pencil to his book and vandalizes them. Henry Bemis is crushed. Even after Bemis tells the president how his wife will never let him read, driving him to desperate acts of reading the labels on the ketchup bottle, the president commends Bemis’s wife as a sound woman.

They all just seem like a bunch of meanies, at least to my roommate and his girlfriend.

So much of the episode sets up the viewer to sympathize with Bemis. This shy, timid, gentle man is just being bullied and misunderstood by the world. It’s certainly difficult for an informed and literate New Yorker like myself to understand how so much of Bemis’s world can be against books. It’s even more surprising just how anti-intellectual the world can be even now in the heyday of the internet and quick-and-easy access to knowledge. There’s Project Gutenberg and Wikipedia (which actually gave presented the idea of anti-intellectualism in this episode).

In my liberal time and place, education and being informed are often so highly regarded. I take it for granted just how much we value books. And that’s exactly what the story is trying to teach us, right? The world is just a bunch of dummies, and Bemis is the true hero because he reads books and is educated and understands the human condition and blah blah blah.

Then the H-bomb goes off as Bemis reads from the protected shell of a bank vault. He’s suddenly left alone. His pocket watch shatters. There’s no one to bother him. He has plenty of food, well, crackers, but there’s no one to bother him. No one. Soon enough he goes mad, finds a gun with which he’s going to kill himself. “Surely I’ll be forgiven…”

Then he sees the sign for the Public Library and approaches his version of Heaven.

“Collected Works of Dickens. Collected Works of Bernard Shaw. Poems by Browning, Shelley, Keats! Great Dramas of the World! Books, books, books. All the books I’ll need, all the books I’ll ever want!” No wonder this video was first shown to me in a high school English class.

Still, if this episode is a champion of intellectualism, then why is Bemis “punished” at the end of the episode? He embraces a huge clock when he expounds on having all “the time I’ll need. All the time I’ll want. There’s time enough at last.” And yes, secretly there’s a part of me that wishes for an apocalypse where I’m secretly vaulted up in the cellar of The Strand book store with enough crackers and salami to keep me alive.

And even though I’d be able to read all the Dostoevsky I wanted, and enough time to read The Fermata over and over again, surely I wouldn’t be able to make love to any of these books. I couldn’t discuss them with anyone, and let’s not forget that Bemis wants to discuss books with others. It’s not that he’s a recluse. He wants to

But with no markers of time, no people, no eyeglasses, no life to which our books and knowledge can refer to, it’s all dead anyways. As admirable as Bemis’s intellectualism is, he ultimately falls prey to his own desires. There’s a limit to it all.

What would Werner Herzog have to say about this, though? When he said that you can’t be a filmmaker if you don’t read, bemoaning a culture that only reads magazines and blog posts (like this one), did he see the blind spots of his own obsession with the written word? And what do we make then of this limitation of knowledge when David Simon, the creator of The Wire, one of the most critically acclaimed shows touted for being authentic and unflinching, tells us that we still need to be reading books because they do something television doesn’t? Or even when Buddhists must practice detachment from books and knowledge?

Was Bemis punished? Was it the world that was at fault? Or is this just an example of the amorality of our universe and the tragic nature of humanity? Even books can’t save us in the end, not even an e-book. But if books can’t save us, neither will all of our stories. When the big one hits, no matter how we view these stories as little time capsules, capturing history and slices of life, they’ll never be a substitute for living itself, even if that reality is a harsh wife and a demanding boss.

Is it really that simple, though? That cut-and-dry? Why shouldn’t we get our own little slice of paradise? As we’ve all most of us have learned, life isn’t fair. And as The Twilight Zone, books, and the events of the world have taught us all (oh-so-recently) we often live in a confusing, alien, and amoral world that all the books and knowledge could possibly fix or alleviate.

But I’d like to think it might help…

Moby Dick – Sanchez 2.1 – Chapter 29 “Enter Ahab; to Him, Stubb.”

"Call me Kevin Costner"

“Call me Kevin Costner”

To Officer Cole

Before I get into the meat of my discussion, I thought I’d make two movie recommendations as companion pieces to Moby Dick, to be henceforth called “the Dick”. The first would be Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, because apparently Kahn quotes the Dick” for dramatic effect and literary/cinema allusion. The second movie we should watch is Kevin Costner’s Waterworld, A. because I’ve never seen it, and B. it might just be fun. The 1950s film version of Moby Dick starring Gregory Peck should probably wait until we’re done with the book. Isn’t that a nice little touch about reading classics? We don’t have to worry about the film ruining it for us.

And just one other little side note before getting into the (whale)meat of this: what are your assumptions when we call a book a classic? For me, it’s all “white” literature written in the last 300 years or so. Is the Bible a classic, cause that was written by all manner of non-whites.

Anyhow, let’s get to it.

So I’ve finally met Ahab. with his ivory peg leg and the stub hole in the deck for said peg leg, his pivot hole. The man is fierce. Although I’ve come to trust Ishmael a little more now (only a little), I’m definitely mistrustful of Ahab. At the same time, there’s something drawing me in. Obviously, I have an investment as a reader of literature to know the character, but Melville is definitely making some magic. “He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness.” He’s a fighter, set aflame by the attach, what must have been a near-death experience. But I can’t help but think there are other stories, too. In any case, that one image is what I picture when I picture vigilance. “…an infinity of firmest fortitude, a determinate, unsurrenderable wilfulness, in the fixed and fearless, forward dedication of that glance.”

You don’t fuck with this guy.

In this last chapter I read, Ishmael is waxing poetic about nights at sea:

“The starred and stately nights seemed haughty dames in jewelled velvets, nursing at home in lonely pride, the memory of their absent conquering Earls, the golden helmeted suns! For sleeping man, ’twas hard to choose between such winsome days and such seducing nights. But all the witcheries of that unwaning weather did not merely lend new spells and potencies to the outward world. Inward they turned upon the soul, especially when the still mild hours of eve came on; the, memory shot her crystals as the clear ice most forms of noiseless twilights. And all these subtle agencies, more and more they wrought on Ahab’s texture.”

Now to address something you wrote about last time, I want to speak to Ahab’s archetypal-y-ness. You said that Melville might have shot his wad a bit on Queequeg, making him overtly a type, the noble savage, that in my opinion might be bordering on no-harm-no-foul unintentional racism (oh god, I can already see some of your responses). As nice as it is to be able to say, see, even savages can be humane, is kind of racist, right? It’s like saying, Oh see, even (insert any ethnic type or race) people can be good. I might be pontificating a bit much, BUT I bring up your worry about Queequeg in light of Ahab as an archetype probably only because I haven’t read much about him yet. I can tell this man has secrets. And I’m probably going to feel sorry for him at some point during this book. At least, that’s my hope. There’s got to be tragedy in there somewhere, right, Josh?

At the same time, the part that fascinates me about him is also the part that unnerves and unsettles me. There’s something debauched about it all, what with the ivory being used for his peg leg and even a deck chair made out of ivory, too. Then the man doesn’t even show up until they get to the sea, like a ghost, which sort of supports my early impressions that this book felt like I was reading a ghost story.

“Old age is always wakeful; as if, the longer linked with life, the less man has to do with aught that looks like death. Among sea-commanders, the old greybeards will oftenest leave their berths to visit the night-cloaked deck. It was so with Ahab; only that now, of late, he seemed so much to live in the open air, that truly speaking, his visits were more to the cabin, than from the cabin to the planks. It feels like going down into one’s tomb,’ – he would mutter to himself – ‘for an old captain like me to be descending this narrow scuttle, to go to my gravedug berth.'”

Which Ahab am I?

Alright, a paradox and a flaw in my argument. That description could suggest a man with a lust for life. Or he could be a  member of the undead! A zombie as a matter of fact. Let’s think about how the book starts. Ishmael starts on the first pages saying that when he feels off, he goes to the sea to right himselfAhab seems to be doing the same, but I get the feeling that he’s a bit more…well, let’s just say that if Ishmael is a recreational user of sea voyages, Ahab is a full-blow user and addict. No one sees the man until they’re well away from shore. It’s a perversion of existence, escapism to a hilt, otherworldly and not belonging to dry land.

Doesn’t Ishmael say something about how it disconcerted him to not meet the captain before agreeing to work the ship? Does Ahab live on the ship? Do we know where he was staying while they were in Nantucket? Will he ever return to land? And why does he feel so slighted by the whale? Is that the only reason he’s here, or did this vendetta start from purer usage and relations with the ocean? Ahab, like Ishmael but to a greater degree, is a vagrant not just in (dis)connection with society but to the entire living world. He’s a sea-ghost.

When I first started reading, it all felt like a ghost story. All the epitaphs and carvings at the church. The drabness of Nantucket and Bedford in winter. The bartender sitting in the whale’s jaw bones. In any case, this book is haunted.

A quick story: when I was a kid, say about 4 or 5 years old, I either drowned or had a dream I was drowning. I had to learn how to master myself in the water because I was scared of drowning. Water in astrology is all the spiritual, emotional stuff of life, that essence. It nurtures and is one of the cornerstones of life if it is channeled correctly. It can be soothing, placid, cooling. In a storm, typhoon, or tsunami, water can also be a destructive force. Moodiness, delusion, all-consuming. Water can drown. I think these are all apt comparisons to all of our sea-voyagers.

A quick response to Queequeg: sure, the guy just saves people with no thought of reward, which is all very admirable, but Josh, the guy eats other people. That’s Melville painting Queequeg in shades of gray. Can he change? We’ll see. Wait a minute, Queequeg is a zombie!!!

Your friend,

Private Sanchez

P.S. We should really watch Water World. Here’s the trailer:

Infinite Jest: The First Hundred Pages

The book on the right is a wee bit bigger

I first tried reading Infinite Jest in the summer/fall of 2010. It came amidst and around an apartment move, a college graduation, and a ‘job transition’. I made it through the first 200 pages or so, and was none the wiser. In the forward, Dave Eggers admits that this isn’t a book that you can read with a child on your lap or in a crowded, noisy coffee shop. I might add that it isn’t really the best subway book either. Suffice to say, I dropped the book and any hopes that I’d be reading any books for the duration of my depression. Besides, I’d just graduated college, and after the book binge of that time, I didn’t want to look at anything with text. I just wanted television, movies, and video games.

Over that time, my thoughts would often drift in the direction of the book. Friends would talk about it. I’d run into David Foster Wallace in the form of commencement speech turned gift book for all recent grads. The book in question is called This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, About Living a Compassionate LifeIt can be read in one sitting, or one visit to the bookshop. The truths though are (and please excuse any hyperbole and cliche, as Wallace asked to be excused throughout the entirety of the speech for the same) cosmic. Universal. Eternal.

While the severity of my depression at the time has tapered off, this has also been an incredible year of growth and expunging all demons and emotional roadblocks. With that comes anger, violent thoughts, and even a line of thinking that convinces oneself that you have to be an asshole in order to combat all the disappointment and disillusion that comes with the asshole-ery of living. So maybe it’s just being an adult. In any case, This is Water was kind of a salve. It’s a reminder, a call to conscious action and thought to, in a nutshell, not be an asshole. To be happy. To be thoughtful. To be aware.

As it so happens, it’s much easier to think about living well than it is to actually live well. Living well takes sacrifice, patience, tolerance, and hard work. No amount of reading that speech was going to help me get past this new set of road blocks that would hopefully lead to my eternal liberation. Wallace, though, seemed to hold some truth. While that speech in published form is no more than 137 pages, many of the pages only containing one or two sentences, it was an encapsulation of the work. It was still valuable, but if I wanted to really earn those truths, it was going to be won through the pages of what is commonly thought to be his magnum opus, Infinite Jest.

This book is almost twenty years old. It’s also over 1000 pages, with footnotes, and footnotes for the footnotes. The language is dense, playful, and to the best of my knowledge, a true representation of stream of consciousness writing. What I wanted to accomplish with this writing and response wasn’t so much a full-blown critical analysis of the first 100 pages (full disclosure: I’m only through 65 of the main part of the novel, and I’ve read 25 of 388 footnotes); rather, I wanted to do a play-by-play of observations and thoughts about a book of this scale. If the first 65 pages (and 25 footnotes) are any indication of the genius or madness of the book, it will behoove me to break down the book in chunks, reflect, and carry-on. I hope it will lead to a more engaged reading of the book that hopefully encapsulates some substantial, overarching critique that might be impossible if attempted after completion.

Let’s just say that after the small portion of the beginning, I feel like there are multiple, multiple worlds, characters, thoughts, ideas that are expansive enough to fill a multitude of books. Somehow – successfully or unsuccessfully, people will argue – Wallace does it. For those of you who have read the book, feel free to comment but not spoil. For those of you who haven’t, you’re as in the dark as I am. In any case, below are some of my first observations and more importantly, my questions:

  • Tip: I think it’s best to finish whole chapters with this book. They’re only about 5 pages long, which is a dense 5 pages. Even though there are breaks within the chapters themselves, they represent movements.
  • Sections of note 1) 3 November – Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, in which we get a section about nightmares and the palpable nature and true existence of evil to a 12-year-old who is afraid of monsters in the dark; also, the story about Don Gately, a burglarizing drug-addict who goes too far with a French-Canadian who is sick. Funny, disturbing, and sad.
  • Should I know who O.N.A.N. is by now? I don’t know whether they’re a force of good or evil, sinister or benevolent? I asked a friend who had read the book if I should know by now; she said she didn’t even remember who that was.
  • What is annular fusion? It’s mentioned a few times already, and has a lot to do with James O. Incandenza.
  • James Incandenza’s filmography contains clues to some of the seemingly random stories surrounding the ‘main’ story of the Incandenza family. This is something I didn’t pick up during my first read-through. By the way, the filmography is the first set of the lengthier footnotes spanning 8 pages.
  • Infinite Jest is the name of one of his films, in fact, the film that most of his critics say is his masterwork.
  • Also should note that the filmography was the one subway-friendly section
  • Also should note that the filmography is a collection of stories right there, even though they’re just summaries. Some of my favorites are Kinds of Pain, “2222 still-frame close-ups of middle-aged white males suffering from almost every conceivable type of pain, from an ingrown toenail to cranio-facial neuralgia to inoperable colo-rectal neoplastis”; Mobious Strips “Pornography-parody, possible parodic homage to Fosse’s All that Jazz in which a theoretical physicist ([‘Hugh G.] Rection), who can only achieve creative mathematical insight during coitus, conceives of Death as a lethally beautiful woman.”; The Man Who Began to Suspect He Was Made of Glass. “A man undergoing intensive psychotherapy discovers that he is brittle, hollow, and transparent to others, and becomes either transcendentally enlightened or schizophrenic.”
  • This book is full of drug addicts. It’s tediously awesome how Wallace goes into so much detail of the drugs.
  • Speaking of detail, Wallace knows so much about so many different things. It’s difficult to tell where his imagination fills in the gaps of knowledge and how much his knowledge informs the imagination.
  • I’m using two bookmarks: one for the main section, the other for the footnotes.
  • And, oh yeah, this book is funny.

Alright everyone, see you at the next meeting of One-Man Book Club.

Book-Shoppers Anonymous

A few years ago, I was complaining to a friend about the trials of moving, a friend who we’ll call Mr. Fifths. This man was rather austere with his domestic possessions despite having a reputation for being somewhat decadent when it came to women, drinks, and drugs. He asked me if I had a lot of stuff. I mentioned that my books were really the toughest and heaviest things to move around. He asked me how many I had.

A lot, I said.

“Have you read them all?” he asked.

Of course. Of course I’ve read, well, most of them.

When I got home, I surveyed my room. At the time, I had a queen-sized bed, a futon-couch that folded out, a cheap twenty-dollar clothing rack, a desk made of pressed wood and colored caramel brown, the books, and the bookshelves, which numbered in three. I owned two copies of Shakespeare’s complete works, one brown and faux leather-bound Illustrated Globe edition, the other a Riverside anthology; four D.H. Lawrence novels, The Rainbow, Women in Love, Sons and Lovers, Lady Chatterley’s Lovers, as well as his complete short stories, along with his complete poetry; The Complete Works of Edgar Allen Poe; an ornate hardcover edition of nine plays by Eugene O’Neill published in 1932; anywhere from ten to twelve issues of The McSweeney’s Quarterly; Aldous Huxley’s Island and a collection of his essay, which I’d purchased from a second-hand seller on the street either on the Upper West Side or the West Village; Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis which another friend of mind had let me pilfer from his living room; The Lord of the Rings and a copy of The Hobbit purchased on impulse at the now bankrupt and defunct Borders booksellers at Columbus Circle; about twenty-seven issues of The Believer magazine; The Only Astrology Book You’ll Ever Need and Sextrology; Remember Be Here Now; The Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories and Franny and Zooey; and on and on and on…

I don’t have an exact count, but along with all the books I had to purchase for school (mostly used through online booksellers), I probably had  close to one hundred and twenty-five books. As I surveyed them all during the packing, I began to notice something peculiar. Surely, I’d read eighty-percent of the books. Yeah, that sounds about right. Eighty-percent. Huh. More books into boxes. Okay, maybe not eighty-percent. Surely, seventy-percent. Yes, seventy-percent. Then I was packing away more books into boxes. Well, I haven’t really touched the short stories by D.H. Lawrence and I definitely haven’t read the Democracy in America or the People’s History of the United States of America. I don’t even remember where I got that copy of

So I’d read every issue of the magazines from cover to cover, 80 pages of almost pure verbiage full of essays and interviews. I’d read the entirety of The Lord of the Rings and The Brothers Karamazov and The Mists of Avalon, not only once but twice! But as I really began to pay attention, the realization that I’d only read maybe half of these books was beginning to dawn on me. It wasn’t a frightening revelation, but it was humbling.

Over the years, books were passed on, but even there were even more books coming in. I know the signs of an addiction. There’s a sort of whirl and dizziness that comes into one’s vision. Feelings of elation and seeming clear-headedness while in the presence of the coveted item. My mom is a shoe-addict, but ladies and gentleman of the literary world, I am a book whore.

Now, some of the readers out there might be thinking to themselves, What’s wrong with loving books? Shouldn’t we value a well-read person? Aren’t books one of the world’s great inventions and technologies? There are worse things than being a book whore. Of course, I’ve often felt the same way despite some nagging thoughts about the compulsiveness of book-buying. Our American, liberal, culture takes pride in being well-read as it’s a sign of one’s sophistication. After all, it puts one above the person who sits on their laptop or sits in front of the television all day. John Waters says, “If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ’em!” At a panel discussion with Werner Herzog, he told us in what was almost a battle-cry that he always tells his film students to “Read! Read! Read! Read! Read! Read! Read! Read! Read! Read! Read! …and read books! You’ll never be a good filmmaker if you don’t read.” So, of course it’s good to be a reader, even a voracious reader. This is the belief I’ve held for many years and one that I held until last week, that is, until I read this post.

It’s Consumption Awareness month at the Interdependence Project, a group and community of urban-dwellers dedicated to Buddhism. As you’ve probably just read, this last week was about buying less books. The post recounts a retreat where students were not allowed to read. That’s right, students weren’t allowed to read because they didn’t want the students comparing their own spiritual journeys with other’s, which might make one’s personal journey seem meager in comparison to the one’s read. After all, don’t stories and anecdotes in books always seems more dramatic and larger-than-life than the humdrum of the reader’s? (I always think the authors or the characters in books are always having more sex than I am or will ever have). Beyond this, though, there’s an account of the book-buyer’s dilemma.

The contributor of the post, Sharon Salzberg, talks about how she makes a deal with herself about just buying one book even though she’s promised herself not to buy any until she has given some away. To that, Henry Ward Beecher says, “Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?” Let’s face it, there’s a tumblr blog called Book Porn if one needs further example of just how insidious book-lust can be. Books are incredibly sensual. They have that musky (alright, some will argue musty) smell. I love the way a book feels, the weight of it when you’re holding it up or if it’s hanging at your side, the texture of the cover. We often talk about book covers and their design, whether they’re aesthetically pleasing or not, suggesting that a pile of 8 1/2 x 11 paper with the text of East of Eden on it wouldn’t be as pleasing an experience as having the Centennial edition printed on acid-free paper. Alongside the temptation and the more illicit connections we might have with books, though, I love the feelings of solitude and relaxation and curiosity that set in and are aroused when one is surrounded by books, especially in the bookstore. Yes, I’m alone, but the world and its history, its ideas, thoughts, stories, and secrets are all at my fingertips. Whenever my mom set me loose in the mall, I always went to the bookstores. It’s a sacred space.

Still, beyond all the good stuff, how easily one can slip into narcissism, arrogance, and downright compulsive consumption. On the subway or street, how many times have I turned the cover of my book towards someone who I found attractive? I’m like a flasher. How many times has my natural speech turned towards the bookish, trying to impress? How many times have I gone to the bookstore buying a book that I never intend to read. And then there’s this guy!

For all the knowledge we might obtain and no matter how large our libraries become, it’s all rubbish. On the one hand, Amos Oz says “…human beings come and go, while books remain forever,” but on the other hand, E.M. Forster says, “It is a mistake to think that books have come to stay. The human race did without them for thousands of years and may decide to do without them again.” Rousseau says, “I hate books; they only teach us to talk about things we know nothing about.” Isn’t that why we read? Is all this knowledge just vapor? Well, he might have a point. I can’t tell you how many discussions about books turn into “my favorite part” discussions, not deep and heated debate. While I don’t agree with Rousseau’s statement wholeheartedly, the quote does make one think; whereas for Charles Lamb, there is no thought induced by a book because “Books think for me.”

So where and when does knowledge become power? Where are the limits of that power? I think (and hope) that we are part of a time where we are acknowledging the limits of the rational mind. Will we one day at the height of our knowledge and wisdom not only take breaks from our television, internet, and iPhones, but from the seemingly harmless pastime of reading and book-buying? When does a healthy love for books become a dangerous obsession? Erasmus says, “When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” Not such sound advice. And let’s acknowledge the plain fact that books are consumable goods. They are things we own, and as Tyler Durden says…

Fine, Tyler. I will do what I like because the truth is I will never abandon my books. And hell, even a healthy dose of lascivious thought and action towards one’s spouse after years of marital bliss and torture (is this possible?) can be good for one’s sex life. So let’s say, too, that I’ll never wholly abandon my lust for books. And literature. And poetry. And theater. If that desire was diminished even a little bit, this blog would have no reason for existing. At the same time, just to add a little tonic to the liquor, I’ll try to remember this final quote from Robert Louis Stevenson: “Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life.”

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Disclaimer: Many (read: all) the quotes I’ve pulled were not from the bevy of books I’ve read. No sirree. As I’ve already stated, the Werner Herzog quote comes from a panel discussion I attended. The John Waters quote came from the internetz. And while I’ve read a good deal of books in my life time (he said without even the slightest hint of humility), all of the literary quotes used in this essay were pulled from the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Quotations, edited by Peter Kemp.

Book Review: The Fermata by Nicholson Baker (1994)

Only a book this original could contain a passage like this: “Nineteenth-century novels were all-important to [Rhody]. It wasn’t a question of her liking them; they were a neurological necessity, like sleep. One Mrs. Humphry Ward, or a Reade, or a Trollope per week supplied her with some kind of critical co-enzyme, she said, that allowerd her to organize social sense experience. It was nice if the novel was good, but even a very mediocre one would do; without a daily shot of Victorian fiction she couldn’t quite remember how to talk to people and to understand what they said. I miss her.”

…and a sentence like this: “I need to pop my nuts on a pair of small sexy tits right this second!!”

But if I wanted to give any potential reader the best representational sentence for the book, it would be this one.

“She was bathing with her rubber dildo –oh poetry!”

Indeed, this book is pure, filthy, sensitive, sensible, insightful, lewd, and downright hot, poetry.

The Fermata is the fictitious autobiography of Arnie Steiner, a self-proclaimed career temp, who transcribes tapes and has the special ability to freeze time, or as he calls it, enter the Fold. What does he do with this special ability? Well, he undresses women, of course. Not only that, but he straps vibrating butterfly sex toys onto unknowing women. He gathers secret information from women he’s interested in (and he’s interested in almost all of them. “…it is much more surprising to me when a woman fails to attract me than when she does attract me.”)

After reading the premise of the book, it will be easy to label this guy and his story as a creep and creepy, of no redeemable value. This book must be smut, right? Well, no. The book is lewd and too, too funny. (And hot. Did I mention, hot?) What really makes the book a work of art, and yes poetry, is that Arnie is quite a sensitive individual. He doesn’t use his powers to steal. He’d feel far too guilty to do that. When he postulates a power like he has to others, he’s horrified to know that a man would just rape women. He does nothing to (truly) harm these women, and he often walks that fine balance between titillation and transgression, which is one of the most fascinating sources of conflict in the book. He admits that all he wants to do is give these women a little bit of novelty and pleasure in their basically humdrum lives, but also readily admits that many of the things he does are morally reprehensible.

Along the way, we’re given some serious thought on the implications and dangers of time-travel, insight into human desire, interaction, and intimacy, as well as romance. So much of our everyday world and life is eroticised, and thus elevated, in a book with such deftly produced prose. There’s nothing obvious or cliched in this book. Those who come (pun-intended) for the little spank material won’t be disappointed, but they’ll find a lot more under that surface. Those coming for artful and serious literature will find plenty of intellectualism here with plenty of humor, fun, and sexiness, as well.

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