Monday, March 31, 2008


Remember books? They're like television, in a way, but they require more work. Full of stories and factual information, but no advertisements -- as of yet -- these portable paper objects are less popular than ever. No wonder. They're crammed with words, and you have to read every one. Or nearly.

People are reading less than ever, and understandably so. Maybe it's the times. It's hard to read when you're bracing for impact. Still, I admit there are certain pleasures peculiar to reading and only reading. Book clubs, for example. I discovered long ago that I was too selfish for such a thing, after being part of a highly successful club for several years. I actually enjoy choosing books on my own, at random, or nearly so, making choices on a whim and often reading several at once. With a book club, not only are you required by law (and civility) to read the suggestions of others -- a book about the history of a sandwich, say, going back to the growing of the lettuce, the threshing of the wheat, the stirring of tremendous copper vats of mustard -- when you would rather read something else (anything else), but you are required to read "book club books."

By that I mean books that provoke interesting discussion. Some books may be great but are exactly what you expected starting out, and result in a simple retelling of the story in book club. Better club books are open-ended, provoking surprise and disagreement about even the simple "facts." A book like "Kafka on the Shore" by Haruki Murakami was not only a fantastic reading experience but provoked a great discussion in book club. People discussed the book at the level of meaning, with questions relating to the story as well as the choices made by the writer concerning craft, structure, culture, and myth. Other successful club books have included "Middlesex," "The Corrections," "Cloud Atlas," "War Music," "Lolita," and "Kavalier and Clay," and I highly recommend them all.

Like movies, some books are entertaining but don't provide much to discuss afterward, while some lead to deep, passionate discussions well into the night. Currently, I'm reading "The Savage Detectives" by Roberto Bolano (which I've blogged about previously here) and "Lush Life," the new book by Richard Price, whom I had the pleasure of meeting last weekend at a screening of "Clockers," a film of his novel of the same name. I'm also reading non-fiction, mostly refreshing certain questions I have about the craft of fiction, since I'm currently working on a novel. As a result, I'm rereading John Gardner, Jane Burroway, David Madden, Sol Stein, and Frederick Karl. Writers on writing, craft, and the critical history of the novel. These texts would fail miserably in a book club, yet they enrich the reading experience immensely. For me, anyway. To others, this kind of scrutiny spoils the fun and is tantamount to taking a beautiful Swiss watch apart. Me? I like seeing the tiny cogs and gears.

I admit, reading isn't for everyone. For passive entertainment, stick with television. Reading has too many variables, and not enough guidance -- how are you supposed to feel without leading music, or a laugh track? TV is full of familiar friends who do the same thing over and over. We return to "our favorite shows" because we know what to expect. It's better that way. Writing, and particularly good literary fiction, is full of the unpredictable, the complex, even the unpleasant. People do things we don't expect, things we may not even understand, or even detest. Good writing doesn't merely entertain, it challenges us, and we must struggle to understand, empathize, see beyond ourselves. There is not always a character to identify with, a cathartic ending, familiar stock stereotypes, or the comforting reassurance that in the end all is right, and order has been restored by the final commercial. Stick with TV. Stay away from books.

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