Brain Food

"I’m beginning to see that our appetite for books is the same as our appetite for food, that our brain tells us when we need the literary equivalent of salads, or chocolate, or meat and potatoes."–Nick Hornby, The Polysyllabic Spree

I love this quote. A suggestion (a) that books are brain food and (b) that we listen to our heads and we’ll read just exactly what we need. Just as if we listen to our bodies, we’ll eat exactly what we need. (OK, that’s basically a paraphrase of the quote, isn’t it? Not very insightful at all.)


My Polysyllabic Spree

So, why did I buy the books I bought this weekend? Well, I made a planned stop at Half Price Books in Round Rock on Sunday, though I didn’t have any specific books in mind to buy. It was one of those let’s-see-what-I-can-find moments that makes book-buying so fun. All of the books I bought Sunday are novels that I hope to read at some point in my 100 novels reading project.

Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham: Last year at about this time I read a review of this novel in the Austin American-Statesman and the review intrigued me enough to generate interest in reading the novel. I like Cunningham’s short stories, but wasn’t quite as floored by The Hours as, say, the Pulitzer committee was, though the film version was well done. At the time I read the Statesman’s review I was dating someone who read a lot of horror and fantasy and science fiction, and I was interested in getting back into reading science fiction. Specimen Days is supposed to have some elements of science fiction in it. So, we’ll see what comes of it when I get around to reading it.

Guided Tours of Hell by Francine Prose: This is a book on Jane Smiley’s 100 novels list in Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. I love Prose’s work. Last fall I read her novel Blue Angel about sexual harassment on campus, and it’s bitingly funny, a strong satire of relatively contemporary campus sexual codes and some interesting observations about relationships between men and women in general. I’m looking forward to reading Prose again. And what a perfect name for a writer.

How to be Good by Nick Hornby: My friend suggested Polysyllabic Spree and loaned it to me and set me off on this additional reading project. I thought I’d try one of Hornby’s novels and add it to my 100 novels list. This particular book appeared to be fairly recent. I’m also curious now as to why I keep typing "Horny" rather than "Hornby"?

Horseman, Pass By by Larry McMurtry: I just finished reading McMurtry’s collection of essays on Texas In A Narrow Grave. The first essay in that collection is on the filming of Hud, which is based on Horseman. I want to read the novel and then rent the movie and see which I like. I also plan to reread The Last Picture Show at some point, a novel that’s immensely important to me; it unveiled my ambivalence toward small-town Texas, particularly the small town in which I spent the longest amount of time, Academy. The movie is also one of my favorite films. I think it’s beautifully done.

What I’m reading now: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, as part of my 100 novels project. The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby, loaned to me by a friend.  


A Polysyllabic Spree of my own

Here goes another derivative reading experiment: A friend loaned me The Polysyllabic Spree, a collection of essays on reading, by Nick Hornby.  At the beginning of each essay Hornby makes two lists, "Books Bought" and "Books Read." My friend suggested I try something similar: keep a book journal, since I am already pursuing the 100 novels project, an idea I appropriated from novelist Jane Smiley. So, really, I’m announcing that basically I’m adding an element to that project.

I periodically go on book buying sprees, as I did this weekend, with every intention of reading every book I buy. So not only will I tell you which books I’ve bought this month, I’ll periodically comment on the ones I’m reading, not just the novels in my 100 novels project, since I’m not just reading novels and usually read more than one book at a time. Like Hornby, my buying and reading probably won’t always match up, but we’ll see.

Anyhow, here are the books I bought this weekend:

  • Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham 
  • Guided Tours of Hell by Francine Prose
  • How to be Good by Nick Hornby
  • Horseman, Pass By by Larry McMurtry


Take It From Me

Plagiarism has been much in the news lately (I wonder how often "much in the news" gets used–to the point it is cliche), since Kaavya Viswanathan, author of the novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life, has been accused of plagiarism by another novelist, because of similarities. I won’t go into this issue much, because I haven’t read Viswanathan’s novel.

New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell addresses the issue in his blog. In his entries on the plagiarism case he directs readers to an article he’d published in the New Yorker on the subject. I recently read that article, fascinated by what he terms "plagiarism fundamentalists," folks, including Harvard University, with a zero-tolerance for plagiarism. Theft is one thing. Writing something and claiming it as your own without any attribution is wrong. But influence, and Gladwell addresses this, is different, as is art, when art takes an old idea and tries to make something new with it.

Gladwell takes up the case of a psychiatrist who discovers a playwright has basically lifted parts of her story and placed it on the stage. Further complicating the issue is that the playwright lifted phrases from a profile Gladwell had written of the psychiatrist. Interestingly, Gladwell isn’t offended by the playwright’s plagiarism. The psychiatrist, however, is.

What seems to disturb the psychiatrist is how details of her life have been transformed by art into something completely different. Gladwell catches something very important here: "Lewis [the psychiatrist] is upset not just about how Lavery [the playwright] copied her life story . . . but about how Laverty changed her life story. . . .She’s upset about art–about the use of old words in the service of a new idea–and her feelings are pefectly understandable, because the alterations of art can be every bit as unsettling and hurtful as the thievery of plagiarism. It’s just that art is not a breach of ethics."

Gladwell notes that one of the main characters in the play is a psychiatrist who has an affair with a colleague. The psychiatrist Lewis, he says, is taking an imagined thing as fact. Which to me is significant, because it signifies something our current culture seems to suffer: A lack of imagination.

Our information-age culture has, as the Police say, too much information running through our brains. We’re a culture that devalues the imagination, preferring a nonficition view of the world, in which art is deconstructed so much that the mere fact of its existence is rendered meaningless. Artists take the facts of actual, and transform them, and we sit picking our asses looking for "just the facts ma’am."

More on Possesion

I found this nifty essay by A.S. Byatt on the origins of Possession. I particularly liked the first paragraph about scholars becoming possessed by dead minds. I know this feeling well. Here is that paragraph:

The beginning of Possession, and the first choice, was most unusually for me, the title. I thought of it in the British Library, watching that great Coleridge scholar, Kathleen Coburn, circumambulating the catalogue. I thought: she has given all her life to his thoughts, and then I thought: she has mediated his thoughts to me. And then I thought "Does he possess her, or does she possess him? There could be a novel called Possession about the relations between living and dead minds." This must have been in the late sixties. It was the time of the nouveau roman, of the novel as "text."


A.S. Byatt’s Possession offers a good reason why I don’t really enjoy literary scholarship as it is practiced, or as it was practiced when I was in grad school in the ’90s: There is a sense of "possesion," of being overtaken by your subject, as seems to have happened to the scholars Blackaddder and Cropper. They are obssessed with Randolph Ash (a fictional poet, as far as I know) down to the minutest details–and what for? Of what value is this sort of scholarship? Possession also reveals problems with lit theory. 

When Roland and Maud are reading Christabel LaMotte’s personal letters, Maud is shown reading a critical study of LaMotte’s work filled with the falseness of literary theory:

The theme was of particular interest to a woman writer, as it might be said to reflect a cultural conflict between two types of civilisation, the Indo-European patriarchy of Gradlond and the more primitive, instinctive, earthy paganism of his sorceress daughter Dahud . . . . "

Fictive scholarship about a fictive poet. It’s a bit of fictive genius for Byatt to have imagined this, but this passage just drains the poet of her imagination, killing her with theory–a theory that it’s likely a victorian poet wouldn’t have. The critic is imposing her views on the poet’s mind, invading it with jargon.

A bit about Moo!

It’s been awhile since I’ve updated you about my 100-novels reading project. About a week ago I finished Moo! by Jane Smiley. As a reread it turned out a bit disappointing. Smiley, as ever, is able to bring forth her wit. The basic premise is this: Something odd is afoot at Moo U, somewhere in the midwest. A strange experiment with an extra-sized hog Earl Butz. Funds going to deforestation projects in Costa Rica. Wild sex and strange bedfellows. A dimwitted governor, the precursor of our current president. All this is what poses a problem. While Smiley has some great and hilarious set pieces, the strange interweaving of so many plots made the book for me a bit unwieldy to read at times. Of course, that Smiley undertook such a risk in a comic novel only makes me admire her skill more.