Tuesday, December 31, 2013

I learned to close-read at Hogwarts

We all need a book from the Restricted Section now and then.
Reading when you are young is different from later reading. Any one book can have a much greater impact on you, simply because you have read fewer books. And at that age, you tend to read far more obsessively: favorite books call you back repeatedly, just as much as favorite movies. (How many times did I watch the Star Wars trilogy before the age of 10? How many times did my sister watch The Parent Trap?) Heaven only knows why we are so easily transfixed by the same endlessly looping stories as children, at precisely the age when common wisdom would claim that we are most easily bored. But we return again and again to the same books as children in a way that we rarely do later in life.

For me, as for many people my age—because three years older or three years younger is too much—the Harry Potter books were the primary object of feverishly recurrent reading and rereading. I read the first three books at least twenty times each, and volumes four and five at least ten. How did I have so much time? I don't know; but neither am I sure how I could log triple-digit hours of game play on a single Pok√©mon cartridge. I do know that for entire school years I would sit down for breakfast before going to school, take a Harry Potter book from the shelf, and start reading wherever it fell open at random—like a latter-day sortes vergilianae. There was a quasi-religious aspect to this practice, which was ordered a bit like matins: pray for breakfast (a more pious time in my life); eat breakfast while reading about Nearly Headless Nick's death-day party; clean off plate with book still in hand; here endeth the reading. Depart in peace.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Hybrids


In the fourth chapter of his novella Flaubert's Parrot, Julian Barnes—punning on Gustave Flaubert's repeated comparisons between himself and a bear—writes:
It is not known whether Flaubear ever ate his namesake. He ate dromedary in Damascus in 1850. It seems a reasonable guess that if he had eaten bear he would have commented on such ipsophagy. 
Ipsophagy, you ask? What's that? Self-devouring, like the Ouroboros, presumably—a combination of Latin ipso-, meaning "itself" (as in the phrase ipso facto, by the fact itself) and the suffix -phagy, as in "anthropophagy" (cannibalism), "bacteriophage" (a microbe that eats bacteria), "coprophagous" (like these guys), and so forth.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The best short stories I read this year

The British conductor Thomas Beecham once said something to the effect that good music leaves the memory with difficulty, while great music never escapes. Beecham was a man who sometimes let the sound of his own words get the better of him. Still, I've always liked this little rule-of-thumb memory test for what's worth revisiting—in music and in other walks of life. To be sure, not everything great seems great at first glance. But it's rarely the case that something that makes a strong first impression doesn't yield richer insights on revisitation—even if the luster fades, and the insights take the form of nicks and imperfections you hadn't noticed before.

The short story, as I've written before, is a genre that we can't just dismiss; still, I have to admit that many short stories are eminently forgettable. I rarely forget a novel entirely, but when I look at a list of short stories I've read recently, I often can't remember a thing about them. On the other hand, the stories I do remember come back to me all the time—when I'm at the grocery store, or in the shower, or reading another short story. In other words, they do what good literature so often does: they rewire the way you think from day to day.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Very Roman Christmas


... okay, so not Christmas, not exactly. The Romans didn't have Christmas—or at least not until the conversion of the Empire, and even then, it's a little unclear at what point Christmas properly speaking started. But they did have an end-of-December holiday that they called Saturnalia. Saturnalia was a multi-day festival in honor of the god Saturn. We actually have a wealth of sources surrounding the holiday (though never quite as many as we'd like to have), which sounds a bit more like Mardi Gras than Christmas, involving the crowning of a kind of "Lord of Misrule," a lot of temporarily legalized gambling, and the giving of small trinkets as gifts. Oh, and there was animal sacrifice, too. (Which I guess we still have, in a sense; we just eat the animals.)

And the holiday drew a certain amount of Scrooginess from some quarters, as well. This passage from Seneca's letters to his friend Lucillus (which, I fully admit, I scavenged from Wikipedia), gives some sense of what it would have been like to be around for that particular Roman holiday. He sounds exactly like a contemporary person complaining about how Christmas starts ever earlier, resenting the shopping crowds and Christmas music, and wanting nothing so much as some peace and quiet:
It is now the month of December, when the city bustles the most. Legality is accorded to public frivolity; everything resounds with great preparations, as if there were some real difference between Saturnalia and the normal work-week. Nothing matters—to such an extent that it seems to me that the person who said, "Once it was the month of December, now it's the whole year," wasn't wrong. If you were here with me, I'd gladly ask you what you think we should do—whether we should do nothing in our usual way, or, so that no one sees us at odds with the spirit of the season, have a more festive dinner and throw off the toga. (Letters 18.1-2)*
*"December est mensis; cum maxime civitas sudat. Ius luxuriae publicae datum est. Ingenti apparatu sonant omnia, tamquam quicquam inter Saturnalia intersit et dies rerum agendarum. Adeo nihil interest, ut non videatur mihi errasse, qui dixit olim mensem Decembrem fuisse, nunc annum. Si te hic haberem, libenter tecum conferrem, quid existimares esse faciendum: utrum nihil ex cotidiana consuetudine movendum an, ne dissidere videremur cum publicis moribus, et hilarius cenandum et exuendam togam."

Sunday, December 1, 2013

New Books in December

December is a quiet month in the publishing world—presumably because everyone is trying to encourage people to buy more copies of the past eleven months' books as gifts. But, as usual, we're here to point out this month's new releases:

The Empty Chair: Two Novellas
Bruce Wagner
Blue Rider Press
352 pp.
$28

After courting some notoriety last year for sketching a soullessly decadent L.A. in his novel Dead Stars, the publisher's blurb for this new book promises something altogether different: "In First Guru, a fictional Wagner narrates the tale of a gay Buddhist living in Big Sur, who achieves enlightenment in the horrific aftermath of his child’s suicide; in Second Guru, Queenie, an aging wild child, returns to India to complete the spiritual journey of her youth."

The Selected Stories of Frederick Busch
Frederick Busch, ed. Elizabeth Strout
W.W. Norton & Co.
480 pp.
$33

The New York Times's obituary of Busch does a good job of capturing the sensibility and material of his writing—at least, to judge from the one story of his I know, which is also his most widely anthologized, "Ralph the Duck." There's also an interview with Busch available online, conducted by Michael Cunningham.