My (Half) Year In Books

by Justin Jacobs in


In January I set a goal to read 50 books in 2013.  

Before I get too far into this, here is a link where you can track my progress.  

At the time it sounded like a good idea. I've always thought of myself as a good reader, but there were/are some huge holes in my backlog. I'd been staring at a copy of The Brothers Karamazov on my bookshelf for years. It would just sit there, taunting me with it's presence, screaming, "look how much Russian Literature is crammed inside me, you are not ready for this!" There was also the endless list of authors that people had recommended to me over the years: Murakami, Roth, Chandler, Chabon, and Joyce (yes it shames me that I have never read James Joyce before), just to name a few. 

Here's the thing about reading a book every week, it can be either incredibly easy or practically impossible. A couple of weeks ago, a friend pointed out that I could just read through a bunch of Goosebumps books and reach my goal in a couple of weeks. Of course that would be besides the point. The point was I wanted to feel like, if nothing else, I was making an effort to being well read. 

When I told my friends that I was taking a break from being an obsessive sports fan to read more I got a lot of laughs. 

"Yeah... OK," people would say. "Get back to us in a couple of weeks when you are begging to get back into your fantasy leagues, and watching light night curling on Canadian Public Access television to get a fix." That hasn't happened - yet. I'll still pop in for big sports events like the NBA Finals, but it's been surprisingly easy to just up and drop the biggest hobby of my 20's and reading has had a lot to do with that, but I digress. 

So I've been reading a lot. What books have I particularly enjoyed reading this year? I can't think of a better place to start than The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The few things most people know about this book, if they know anything about it at all, is that it is long and Russian. I remember buying the book because Kurt Vonnegut writes of it in Slaugherhosue-Five:

 

There is one other book, that can teach you everything you need to know about life... it’s The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but that’s not enough anymore.

As a strict follower of all things Vonnegut I found it my duty to purchase and - eventually - get around to reading Dostoyevsky's Magnum Opus. Just so we're on the same page about how large this novel is, the Bantam Classics paperback edition I have is 1044 pages of small print. Like a lot of readers I was scared aware by not just the book's length, but also by the stereotype that all Russian Litereature is basically an exercise in how much suffering and bleakness can an author squeeze into a work of art. The idea of taking a Russian Lit class was enough to send me running to the hills of postmodernism with my tail between my legs. 

 What I found when I began reading was that the Brothers Karamazov wasn't some kind of opaque look into a world I could never understand. It was a book about how people struggle with family, religion, knowledge and our carnal nature. It's a book about what it is to be human. It had the timeless quality of speaking to feelings and emotions that just don't change in the human experience over time.

There's a chapter in Brothers in which Ivan, one of the books main characters, who is an atheist falls ill and has a dream in which he has a conversation with the Devil. It is perhaps the greatest writing about the nature of the Devil, or the nature of evil in all men ever written, not to mention the best scene I've ever read in a novel or anywhere else. 

There are many moments in The Brothers Karamazov that left me breathless, and plenty others that were laugh out loud funny, which is not a reaction I have to books all too often. There's a certain joy to experiencing a piece of art in which you can tell that there is a genius at play, and I felt that joy the entire time reading the novel, and when I reached the end I was shocked how fast I had taken it all in. I remember staying up to two in the morning one the night I finished it, I had read the last 300 pages in one sitting! There was a feeling of guilt for not savoring every bit of the writing. I take solace in knowing that I will return to this book in due time, because there is an undeniable power in the words here. 

Vonnegut was right, because of course he was.  

In Infinite Jest news: I still love Infinite Jest. Last month I read David Lipsky’s, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which is a compilation of a series of interviews Lipsky did with Wallace at the end of the book tour for Infinite Jest. What I found fascinating about Lipsky’s book is just how much Wallace cared about people’s perception of him, and in turn how much he cared about the fact that he was in a position to care about how much people thought about him. You can watch a couple of video interviews with Wallace in which it’s almost painful how much Wallace is self aware about the interview process and what makes this book so good is that Lipsky spends enough time with David to crack through that seemingly impenetrable shield of self awareness. If you are in any way of fan of Wallace’s work I highly recommend the book.

Speaking of books I highly recommend, I finally got around to reading Hemingway's, The Sun Also Rises which is one of the two major Hemingway's works that I hadn’t read, the other being Old Man and the Sea. Some people have a problem with Hemingway’s strong and spare prose, and the fact the man either could not write strong female characters, or just chose not to; but I absolutely love the way he can set a scene in a city, where characters are having a drink after work, or are somewhere off fishing in the middle of the day. Everytime I read a Hemingway novel I wish I was a writer living in Paris just after World War 2, trying to figure out what it all means and enjoying the little things in life.

One more note on Hemingway, if you haven’t read his Wikipedia page, take some time and skim through it right now, you won’t be disappointed. I look forward to reading a biography about the man, he lived one hell of a life.

One of the real pleasure’s of this years reading has been bouncing around from genre to genre and learning what kind of writing appeals to me. I was browsing a local used bookstore a couple of months ago and came across a couple of Michael Chabon books. I knew a little bit about Chabon, one of my favorite movies of the last 10 years is Wonder Boys, which is based on Chabon’s novel of the same name. So when I came across copies of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, I thought why not give them a shot.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a Pulitzer Prize winner. It’s about the journey two young cousin’s growing up in the 1930’s who create a series of comic books that become famous. The book is essentially a rags to riches tale, but it packs in so many themes and is written so beautifully that at times it made my head spin. While I did not enjoy The Yiddish Policeman's Union quite as much as Kav and Clay, it pretty much cemented Chabon as one of my favorite working authors. I look forward to reading his latest novel, Telegraph Avenue, later in the year.

One last book I want to specifically point out from the books I’ve read this year is Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk the debut novel from Ben Fountain. This book came out last year to a ton of critical acclaim, I was really excited to read it, and when I dove into it last week I couldn't put it down. 

The novel takes place over the course of a single day inside of Texas Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys. Our lead character, Billy Lynn, is a member of the newly famous Bravo company of the US Army. Bravo company has achieved a level of celebrity for their heroic actions in the Iraq War under the Bush Administration, and Billy along with the other members of Bravo company are at the end of a two week victory tour. After the game the heroes will be heading back to Iraq.

There is a lot going on in this book. Through the main character Fountain is able to get at what it means to be a soldier in a country that is both quick to acknowledge it’s love for its armed forces, and even quicker to put them out of mind at its earliest convenience.

There’s this great moment in the book where Bravo company is forced to take part in the halftime show, which is featuring the one and only Destiny’s Child. Lynn realizes the absurdity of the proceedings, and the fact that he and his friends are basically being used as mascots for everything America wants to project is good about itself. With all the pyrotechnics and flashing lights of the performance Billy hopes that none of his friend’s PTSD kicks in, and it takes all of his intestinal fortitude to make it through the show without losing it. The punchline of the scene is after the show is over, after they have done their duty for America’s team, they are completely forgotten about and have to find their own way off the field. It’s a standout scene in a book full of great moments.

Billy Lynn is the kind of novel I want to show to everyone who is afraid to try more "literary" books.  It's the kind of book, like Catch 22 and Slaughterhouse-Five that is able to thoroughly entertain and also hit upon some of societies greatest faults. Sometimes as a reader you can have your cake and eat it to, this is a prime example of that. This is the kind of book that gets you excited about the medium and keeps people like me coming back for more. 

All of the books I’ve talked about would probably be among the favorites that I’ve read this year. With millions of opinions about books on the internet it’s pretty easy to find great books, and the only book that I really didn’t care for so far this year was Gone Girl. I think Gilliam Flynn did some interesting things structurally with the book, and I think she really nailed how the media looks at - or better yet - exploits missing women cases, but the characters in the novel were just too weak for me to really care what happened. Someone made the argument to me that the characters were suppose to be unlikable, which I understand, but likable and interesting are two different traits, and the main characters in Gone Girl were neither in my opinion. I didn’t think it was a bad book, it certainly had some neat ideas and fun moments, but it just didn’t resonate with me.

So that’s a bit of what I’ve been reading. I’m looking forward to diving into a whole new patch of books in the second half of the year. I’m currently 20 pages into Meg Wolitzer’s, The Interestings and after that it’s on to last year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, The Orphan Master’s Son. Beyond those two books who knows, I have some ideas in mind but it’s exciting to be able to choose books without any particular rhyme or reason. It feels like teleporting to planets far, far away with the turn of a page or the touch of a button. That’s what I love about reading, when you get lost in a book you get to go to the world an author creates but you inhabit in your mind. You’re an active participant in a work of art in a way that no other medium can provide.

Go read a book, a million little worlds await.

 


A Bit More On Infinite Jest

by Justin Jacobs in


It’s of some interest that the lively arts of the millenial U.S.A. treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool. It’s maybe the vestiges of the Romantic glorification of Weltschmerz, which means world-weariness or hip ennui. Maybe it’s the fact that most of the arts here are produced by world-weary and sophisticated older people and then consumed by younger people who not only consume art but study it for clues on how to be cool, hip - and keep in mind that, for kids and younger people, to be hip and cool is the same as to be admired and accepted and included and so Unalone. Forget so-called peer-pressure. It’s more like peer-hunger. No? We enter a spiritual puberty where we snap to the fact that the great transcendent horror is loneliness, excluded encagement in the self. Once we’ve hit this age, we will now give or take anything, wear any mask, to fit, be part-of, not be Alone, we young. The U.S. arts are our guide to inclusion. A how-to. We are shown how to fashion masks of ennui and jaded irony at a young age where the face is fictile enough to assume the shape of whatever it wears. And then it’s stuck there, the weary cynicism that saves us from gooey sentiment and unsophisticated naivete. Sentiment equals naïveté on this continent...

...Hal, who’s empty but not dumb, theorizes privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (at least as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naive and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile, some sort of not-quite-right-looking infant dragging itself anaclitically around the map, with big wet eyes and froggy-soft skin, huge skull, gooey drool. One of the really American things about Hal, probably, is the way he despises what it is he’s really lonely for: this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pules and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia.
— -David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

Still thinking a lot about this book, and I realize that I should have added some quotes in with the review. Some passages in Infinite Jest hit home like a sledgehammer. Here's another:

[...] almost nothing important that ever happens to you happens because you engineer it. Destiny has no beeper; destiny always leans trenchcoated out of an alley with some sort of ‘psst’ that you usually can’t even hear because you’re in such a rush to or from something important you’ve tried to engineer.

Here is David Foster Wallace speaking at a commencement in 2005, he uses the same antidote about fish and water in Infinite Jest. This is a speech I come back to all the time.