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?