Day 243. Detour into Litrachoor.

I know this blog is about pain and disease and how I SUPPOSEDLY have only 255 days left to live, but assuming that is true, literature truly may be the most relevant topic.  What better way to spend my time than reading?
If you knew you had less than a year left to live, what books would you choose to read?

My friend Scott sent me a surprise present this weekend, a great anthology, Best American Non-required Reading 2011, edited by Dave Eggers, whose book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius I fell deeply in love with five or so years ago when I was on a memoir craze and teaching a memoir course.

I have been familiar with the Best American Anthology Series: Fiction, Poetry and Essays, since the 1980s, when my sweet stepmother, Marilyn was sharp enough to notice I had fallen in love with writing and began giving them to me for Christmas.  If you don’t read much else, reading these books is a wonderful way to find out what is good about writing, as well as what has been happening in the recent world.

I wasn’t familiar with this very post-post modern genre, the Non-required Reading Anthology.  The pieces I’ve read so far include the Best American Fax, one from Don De Lillo (to an author in an interview, because he doesn’t do email, so this is his representative communication; he discusses topics such as Religion, Paranoia and Discontent, The Freedom to Write), also Best American Memos in the Wikileaks Revelations, and Best American New Band Names (including Dale Earnhart, Jr. Jr., Guantanamo Baywatch, Organ Freeman, etc.)…and so on.

Each of the entries lights up my brain with a snowstorm of ideas.  I am reminded of how little of what I read truly does that.  Guillermo del Toro writes the Introduction to the volume.  It’s hard to use the verb write for what he does.  I really don’t know a word that would credit the kind of writing del Toro does, so gorgeous, so smart, yet not so difficult that it would turn people off.  He starts, “‘ONE OF MY TEACHERS LIED TO ME at an early age. I didn’t know it back then, of course, but she lied nevertheless. I was in third grade in a private Jesuit school and my teacher explained the role books played in our lives: ‘They contain all the answers,’ she said. And I believed her.”  Talk about your great first sentences!  I’m hooked.

Then he goes on to analyze the role books have played in his life, more as blissful providers of mystery than of simplistic boxes of answers.  He tells of the “joyous days” when he read a book a day (yes! I remember those too!).  Telling how books speak to him, he explains, every time he starts a new project, directs a new film, or writes one, he rearranges the books on his shelves.  This is no small project.  Long ago, he moved from one house to another across the street: He made a library of what was left in the shelves in his seven-room home full of books he had saved since he was a boy.  He needed another to fill. Rapture! So as he rearranges the books on the shelves, they speak to him, he reads through them, looks at passages and images, and he gets ideas for the project.  It writes itself.

“Books,” says del Toro, “are objects of great power and reservoirs of great magic.”  Those such as Bleak House or El Aleph, says del Toro, “are grimoires,” or books of magic, “and every time one of these books is opened, a tacit ritual takes place. The book reads you back, it scrutinizes and probes the limits of your language, the cadence and music in your soul.”  Thus, the book finds its perfect reader in you.  The magic takes place and curiosity becomes the goal, not the fire to quench.  That’s why his teacher was a liar when she said that books have all the answers. We don’t love them because we’re looking in them for answers! Au contraire, indeed, mes freres. We love our books because they have mysteries.

My goodness.  I fully intended to launch into a debate here on the merits of Dave Eggers (of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius fame…but also of What is the What? Fame).  Much could be said there, but after my exultation of del Toro, I hardly feel like saying more than read the former, skip the latter.

Definitely get The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011.  It’ll take your mind off of all that other stuff in your head.

del Toro, Guillermo. “Introduction.”  Eggers, Dave, Ed. (2011-10-04). The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011: The Best American Series. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

Now here’s a question for all of us, readers.  If we were to make just such a post-post modern anthology of non-standard entries, what would you nominate to be included?

I know I would suggest two bloggers’ work:

Water Literacy +

Confessions of an Analytiholic

How ’bout you?

14 thoughts on “Day 243. Detour into Litrachoor.

  1. I enjoyed the way del Toro described our relationship with books. It somewhat reminds me of the book “Botany of Life” in which it is suggested that we do not choose the plants, but the plants choose us.

  2. For me, there’s something to be said about the material weight of the object “book.” One of my favorites is an old catechism which belonged to my maternal grandmother. She made note on the margins, place cards to mark prayers she liked and keep in with her – on her apron’s pocket. To me, holding that book, is getting back – in a very physical way – to the world where my grandma was alive. The book even smells like my memory of her.

    Sometimes the books are not the content of the books, but the circumstances of the particular book/object. Something I cannot (at least not yet) access on an iPad or similar device. Those things carry information, but no history.

    One thing I do when I walk around a city is to look for bits of paper on the street, papers that are handwritten. I pick them up and use the writing to compose a story in my head. A story of the paper, or the contents of the note, or the writer – or all of the above. I guess I’d include those accidental fragments in a post-post modern anthology.

    • Carlos, I love that you look for and collect bits of paper on the street. There was a time in my life when I would leave bits of my own poetry or ‘prayers’ written on paper in little hiding places around the city or where I was traveling. When I was in Cappadoccia, Turkey, I left my wrtten thoughts in hiding places (but where someone could find them, just) such as under a seat in an ancient colliseum, and other ancient sites.

      Heidi, I love that you’re sharing what you’re reading. Word of mouth, (or of computer!) is the very best way to find the best juicy things to read.


      • I love this. Imagine that people ten years in the future could be finding your little prayers!
        So glad you’re home and can’t wait to talk more about your trip!!


  3. I love that, Carlos. Every time I learn something like that about you, Carlos, I realize even more what a sweetheart you are. Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone.

    My friend Casey Orr used to purloin lost lost dog posters for much the same reason–she made annual calendars of them. I still have them.


  4. I’m so awful. I almost never read anything new/current. Isn’t that awful? You’re more likely to find me re-reading Wuthering Heights or The Grass Harp, or even Little Women, than giving anything new a shot. The Kindle app has changed this *just a little bit* – but not much.

    • Those books are fantastic. I think there’s no shame in re-reading. But I guess I would rather read a book that is new to me (not that it has to be written yesterday). There’s just so MUCH in this world to read, even if you love nineteenth century books, so many of them you have yet to read. I know this is jumping back a century, but have you read any Fielding? He is supposed to be a scream.

  5. Thank you very much for the kind mention!
    When I figure out exactly what post post modern is, I’ll be back with a suggestion for the anthology.

    • My pleasure, mad scientist!

      Okay. Let’s think about this for a second. If you want a very simple answer, a sort of modernist approach to an anthology would be to have Best American Short Fiction. Best American Poetry. Best American Essays. Best American African American Writing.

      Without boring you about the divides between modernism and postmodernism (which you could read about quickly at or at many better sites), if we just stop to consider some of the broad characteristics of postmodernism, anthologies divided so strictly by genre, in my view, began to seem archaic in this era. Postmodernism is characterized by (among many others) dark comedy, fragmentation, and pastiche (which means pasting together multiple elements), which, according to good old Wikipedia, “can be seen as a representation of the chaotic, pluralistic, or information-drenched aspects of postmodern society. It can be a combination of multiple genres to create a unique narrative or to comment on situations.”

      So if you think about the new collection I was talking about, the Non-required Reading anthology, it is darkly comic with its one entry that is just a wry list of present-day band names. The fragmented feel comes from the variety of entries. There is no definitive entry; in that way each one is a surprise, but it is also somewhat disorienting, the way a fragmented anthology is and the way a fragmented world is. The sense of pastiche, quite similarly, is that mixture of various genres to create a story.

      More than you wanted to know?

      Comments, others? (The crappy thing about this whole discussion, Mad Scientist, is how wrong I can be, particularly if I simplifiy it with my simple mind.)

  6. Unexpected creativity abounds in the product reviews on Amazon. I first stumbled upon this genre via “Tuscan Whole Milk, one gallon, 128 fl. oz.,” and then browsed among the products in “customers who viewed this item also liked…” A few clicks, and the reviews of “How to Avoid Huge Ships,” “Wheelmate Laptop Steering Wheel Desk,” and more demonstrate the amazing scope of non-required writing, just waiting to be read.

  7. I’ve always been a fan of album liner notes, whether tossed-off, wacky, thoughtful and well-informed, unintentionally funny, art-historical, or condescendingly grave. There’s a phrase in the liner notes to the reissue of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music that still pisses me off 10 years after reading it: some know-it-all folk-music scholar makes fun of a singer for saying “chimbley” instead of “chimney.” Bill Evans draws a wonderful analogy between jazz and Japanese ink-brush painting, on the original liner notes for Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. Point being that they stay with you. I’d pay for a historical anthology of liner notes through the decades, or an annual compilation of the best of the best.

  8. Oh my God! I love album liner notes. That’s a crazy about the Chimbley comment. I remember stuff like that too. I can’t let it go, especially on my late brooding nights.

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