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?

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Day 300. Goodreads

Sharan called me tonight to tell a happy library story about the children’s librarian at her public library.  Librarians are all goddesses and gods (this means you Katherine Nuss and Carol Sinwell).

Sharan is in the throes of writing a children’s book, so she’s researching other children’s books, and on this trip, I gathered, looking at some old favorites.  She mentioned Charlotte’s Web, which took me on a (another) brief mental holiday.  I traveled clear back to 1970, to a winter Sunday when I was in first grade.  That day, I checked myself into the pink sheets of my bed for the whole day and read Charlotte’s Web cover to cover.  I picked it up after breakfast for what I thought would be a chapter or two, and for the very first time, for a long book like that at least, I couldn’t put it down.  I had a vice grip on it that would not release until I was utterly devastated the end when [GREAT BIG SPOILER ALERT] Charlotte dies at the fair.  And even then, I still loved the book and would have begun reading all over again at the first page, had it not been time for dinner.  We all know I have never been one to miss a meal.  Besides, my next book, The Trumpet of the Swan, awaited me, so I knew it was time to move on.

Since I was four I have been a good, fast reader.  Books, as they say, are my friends.  Or they have been, until I got sick.  As those aneurysms started growing—long before I knew they were there—it seems like someone poured rubber cement in my brain.  So the thoughts are a bit sticky.  The reading device has become slow, glue-y.  My memory?  Oh just forget it.  I don’t mean to be funny.  When the aneurysm ruptured and I had all the anesthesia—twice—well, the rubber cement turned into, I don’t know what, tar, maybe.  Thought processes drag along like mud.

However, because they are plodingly slow, I still have something called metacognition.  I can still think about what I am thinking about and learning. In other words, I still have my smarts about me. Metacognition might be compared to a ladder that I can use to climb my way out of the goop, even if it is slowly.  That’s the plan, anyway.

That means I can think about how little I can read—but, I have found, I am starting to be able to think more about what I have read.  Metacognition is helping me build ladders up and around my thinking and memory problems.  Slowly.  Frustratingly.  But it is working.

So many times I drew a picture for a student with learning disabilities and said, “This is your brain, and this is another learner’s brain.  In his brain, learning makes a straight line from point A here to point B here. In your brain, if we start at point A, there may be too many mountains for the information to get to point B via a straight line, so your brain has to find different pathways.  It will take longer for you to make the trip, maybe for a few months, maybe forever.  But you CAN do it.

Hmmm….it never occurred to me that I might offer this pep talk to myself.  In fact, let me register that I hate giving this pep talk to myself…except that it works.

Thus, I just signed up on Goodreads.com to read 20 books in 2012.  That is laughable.  Hah!  Scott, in particular, will cackle at that number, and if it were only a lifetime ago, Carlos and I would have cackled evilly at the puny number that poor Heidi was reading, particularly since I have nothing but free time!  But there it is…and I feel terribly stressed at the commitment:  Holy shit.  That’s almost two books a month.  And I’ve also committed myself to three journal entries a week, two blog entries, and one art project, as well as one finished writing project a month.  This is a LOT, people.  Well, I guess you never know what you can do until you try, and even if you fail miserably, do it with style (I don’t mean this.  I hate failure.  I will die trying).

Today I did read probably around twenty pages of prose from the book Liz gave me for Christmas, The Cookbook Collector, (only one of about ten fantastic gifts, including, incidentally, a Cary Grant film box set, which I have yet to watch…any takers for a film fest?). But twenty pages is the far reaches of my ability to read at one sitting.

There are not words to describe the loss I feel about my ability to jam through a novel in two days, or even read a magazine in a single sitting–kind of like a death in the family.  At the same time, how great is this?  I’m on a reading marathon.

How much are you reading?  What are you reading?