Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Somewhat belated late summer reading list

There were several things that contributed to the relaxation and enjoyment we shared during our recent holidays on the French and Belgian coasts. One of them was the complete absence of any internet connection and, in our second week, of any media source whatsoever.

Another key thing was doing a lot of reading, but, importantly, for the most part reading that had little or nothing to do with 'work'. Given the absence of any forms of multimedia distraction and the presence of either a quiet beach or an even quieter semi-remote farmhouse, it was a relief to rediscover that now all-too-rare commodity of deep focus. 

My reading list for those two weeks ended up being shorter than I had hoped, but I might have been a bit ambitious:
  • Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren (I had started this one before we left: given that it's a bit of a slog -- an interesting slog, yes, but still pretty heavy going -- I was happy to have plenty of time to race through the last few hundred pages) 
  • Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget
  • Paul Fussell, Class: A Guide through the American Status System
  • James Salter, A Sport and a Pastime
  • Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited (first time, I must admit)
  • James Salter, Light Years
  • James Salter, All That Is
  • and, more or less intermixed among them all, Thinking the Twentieth Century by Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder.
As usual with holiday reading, I tend to mix in things I know and like quite well (Light Years, Class) with new things that are long-time entries on my meaning-to-read list (Brideshead) combined with a few random choices that more or less occur to me in the weeks before we leave (everything else).

I thought everything was worthwhile and absorbing, but the main reading joys of this journey were Judt and Snyder's collection of interviews on twentieth-century intellectual history and the novels by Salter.(And, I'd give an honourable mention, Paul Fussell's Class, which I've now read three times at different points in my life: while a bit dated in terms of some of its specifics -- it is, after all, now 30 years old -- it gets a vast amount fundamentally right. It's an unsettling experience, though, to have so many of your own family's class signifiers described in such unrelentingly perfect detail by a complete stranger.)

For an overview of several streams of twentieth-century thought (especially those having to do with Marxism, which, however you feel about it, is an essential part of understanding the twentieth century), I would highly recommend the Judt and Snyder book. It is, however, partly biographical and loosely structured around different phases in the life of Tony Judt, who -- very sadly -- died a few years ago at a far too young age. This mix might put some people off (especially if you're not familiar with Judt's other work). He had an interesting life, however, and as the book is about the intellectual development of various thinkers and interpreters of society, culture and history, the two streams in it tend to mix quite smoothly, I thought.

That is, if you're interested in two historians talking about intellectuals. I happen to like that kind of thing. (Further commentary on the book in this brief piece at the New Yorker.)

The Salter novels are in a very different key. I had read Light Years a couple of years ago and enjoyed it very much. But reading these three novels was much more of a serious plunge into Salter's very unique style.

I can do no better than to point you to James Meek's recent LRB essay on Salter, which is actually what inspired me to re-read Light Years and to try out the other two.

This is the section that focuses on Light Years:

In Light Years, Salter’s mastery of time, his themes of nobility, ruthlessness and failure in the quest for love and glory, his interest in the erotic and the aesthetics of pleasure, achieve their richest realisation. To the portrayal of moments, seasons and years is added the portrayal of entire adult lives, Viri’s and Nedra’s, in a long marriage and its aftermath. [...]

But the story, what the book is ‘about’, matters less than what the book is: an extraordinary replication not of the experience of a marriage but of the memory of the experience of a marriage. For while we remember stories, memory is not a story. Salter strips out the narrative transitions and explanations and contextualisations, the novelistic linkages that don’t exist in our actual memories, to leave us with a set of remembered fragments, some bright, some ugly, some bafflingly trivial, that don’t easily connect and can’t be put together as a whole, except in the sense of chronology, and in the sense that they are all that remains. Over these surviving fragments of the past, where the distinction between the unique and the repeated is blurred, Salter sets the characters’ reflections hovering, in the way our present thoughts will flutter back to burnish and brood over, and find connections between, the same small set of memories we get to keep....
(I think it was this rather melancholic, fragmented sense of memory that made me think, while reading all three books, of the films of Terrence Malick, which I like very much and about which there was also recently a strikingly good LRB essay by Gilberto Perez.)

I think that Light Years remains my favourite of the three.   

We've actually been back for a few weeks, and the reading material has since been much more work-related.

Which is also interesting, though in a different way: one that I hope to get around to talking about here at some point.

But reader, I tell you: being offline for a few weeks was good for my soul.

There might be more periods like that in the future.

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