Monday, July 25, 2011

Book-Of-The-Day Club

Sun Kil Moon--"Lost Verses" (mp3)

For the past three days, I have read a book each day. Nelson DeMille's The Lion on the first day, Kenneth Slawenski's J.D. Salinger the second day, and E.L. Doctorow's Sweet Land Stories the third day. I will probably read another book again today.

This is not intended to be any kind of commentary, any kind of braggadocio. My circumstances are unique--I am alone in the family's Florida condo for another two days before my children come. I have the luxury of picking up or putting a book down whenever I feel like it. I can take it with me wherever in place of conversation. I have an incredible library to draw inspiration from. And it is certainly not a reflection on either my reading prowess or my loneliness. While I'm pretty good in the first and not yet affected by the second, it does need to be said that I am not reading a book each day either to show off or to pass the hours.

I am simply reading these books because I can. They are there and I am there to read them and reading is a habit I carry with me.

What I want to tell you about is the effect that it is having on me. I am already a regular reader; I'm sure you are, too. I read at night before I go to sleep. I occasionally go to lunch by myself and take a book (or Kindle) with me. I sometimes read at work in the when there is nothing else to do. But, most dayssummer , I don't have the easiest time carving out much reading time.

Reading before going to sleep is very ineffective. Since I am reading before I fall asleep, it stands to reason that some portion of the last pages I read each night are lost to that netherworld that exists between wakefulness and sleep. I recently read most of a very large fantasy novel, A Game Of Thrones, during those minutes before sleep. I can't tell you how often I had to go back a few pages until I could find something that I remembered reading. It is not an efficient way to read.

But reading an entire book in a day, well, that has its own set of challenges. In the cases of my past three days, that has involved a) on day one, hanging with a smartass N.Y. cop as he chases down and settles a score with a Libyan terrorist, b) on day two, following the entire writing career of Salinger, from his noodlings at Valley Forge Military Academy to his last, failed publication at the New Yorker, and c) on day three, a somewhat random story-by-story journey through some seedier aspects of American life. In each case, the circumstances have gotten so deeply into my head that they have been hard to shake. Not surprisingly, I guess, they have colored each entire day, even dreams.

I remember the first book (of an adult nature and length) that I read straight through. It was Word Of Honor by the above-mentioned Mr. DeMille. I read it straight through because I literally could not put it down. I can still picture sitting in that chair in that living room with that book as the day slid past me.

Poe claimed that he wrote his stories to be read in one sitting, which would allow them to achieve their single "effect" on the reader. His stories' typical length would seem to bear out this theory, or at least make it possible. Wonder what he would have thought about the idea of reading an entire book of some 400 or 500 pages straight through. I think he would have discovered, as I did, that even a long book, despite its many plot twists or its coverage of the 91 years of a person's life, still creates an effect.

Try spending the day with J.D. Salinger sometime. I promise you, not unlike in the music documentaries Billy discussed the other day, that you will not come away thinking, what a weirdo or pedophile or anything else negative. Instead, you will get enough of the cumulative incidents and circumstances that made him who he is. You may be surprised, as I was, by the intensity of his military service during WWII (D-Day, St. Lo, Cherbourg, Hurtgen Forest, Battle of the Bulge, liberation of concentration camps) and the impact that it so clearly had on him, when that was never clear before, except in "For Esme, With Love and Squalor." You may discover that religion, especially Eastern religion was central to the last 60 years of his life. You may see how, either as a result of their best intentions or their own agendas, the editors he worked with from beginning to end all let him down. Or at least he thought so. You may understand that he did not take a quick path from hero to hermit, that he lived for years in small town New Hampshire as a member of the community, traveling often to New York, but that when a man like Salinger only wants his privacy respected, it becomes the one thing that people are unable to do. Lastly, you may conclude that you have no interest in the reams of writing that he continued to amass through his entire life, even though he last published in 1965. It seems likely, at least to me, that J.D. Salinger is not "the next J.D. Salinger."

So, yes, the effect is understanding more than judgment. But spending your own day with such a singular focus has its own broader results as well. As you chronicle Salinger's writing career, you can't help but reflect on your own (lack of one). As you realize the fame and financial support that Salinger gained from short fiction (for years, the New Yorker paid him $30,000/year for the right to the first look at anything he wrote, whether they published it or not), you may wonder what happened to the United States. How and why did our support of the arts and artist wither away? Or, perhaps most of all, how can we judge anyone when we have incomplete knowledge about how they got to where they are?

And the same is true if you're simply spending the day reading a fairly well-written post-9/11 thriller. Again, you can't help but revisit memories, ponder the current global situations, think about a book you're teaching in the fall, hear a Bruce Springsteen or Steve Earle song in your head, shake your head at Americans' inability to tell where people from other cultures are actually from, wonder if the weaknesses that this fictional terrorist exploits in the novel are, indeed, real weaknesses, lessons we have not learned.

It is so rare these days that we get to focus at length on anything, that it almost doesn't matter what it is. The depth of thought it creates has great value regardless. Reading a book in one day becomes a kind of meditation, the quiet time that some of my friends like to carve out in the morning, the chance to slow life down, however briefly, to the pace that we are comfortable with. That's not a gift I'm going to turn down.

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