What I’ve Been Reading – August 2007

Then We Came To the EndHousekeepingHousekeeping Vs. The Dirt

Books Acquired:
Then We Came To the End – Joshua Ferris (checked out)
The Wonder Spot – Melissa Bank (checked out)
Karaoke: The Global Revolution – Xun Zhou and Francesca Tarocco (checked out)

Books Read:
Housekeeping Vs. The Dirt – Nick Hornby
Housekeeping – Marilynne Robinson
Then We Came To the End – Joshua Ferris

When I started this column nearly two and a half years ago, I did it with a flash of inspiration.

I had just read a fantastic column by one of my favorite writers, Nick Hornby, on the books he had read. Not the books he was being asked to read and respond on, but the books he actually chose himself through the natural, organic habit of reading. In other words, he read the books he was going to read anyway, the books that he would have naturally talked to his friends and family about.

It seemed so personal and very original. “How cool,” I thought. “What a great idea.” I wanted to write that column. I was upset that I hadn’t thought of it. Everyone reads pretentious book reviews written by writers that were never good enough to write their own novels. These reviews are instantly stand-offish, regrettably nearly anti-reading. None of the reviewers ever seem to like the books they review, and even if they did, they wouldn’t bother telling you.

But then, this. This column that Hornby was writing, in a magazine I had only barely heard of – The Believer from McSweeney’s. A column not simply about books, but about reading, the basic act that makes the book alive.

I wasn’t just inspired to write about reading. I was inspired to actually become a reader again – a hobby I had pushed aside for the safe glow of Adult Swim and video game football.

Housekeeping Vs. The Dirt is the second collection of these articles. It’s as funny and well written as I remember, and it’s inspiring. It’s always inspiring. My column has become a little ragged lately – a victim of its own length and my waning time span.

Even reading was starting to drag. I didn’t know what I wanted to read. I hadn’t purchased a new book in over three months (not counting the obligatory Harry Potter) and I needed an intervention.

Thankfully, reading Hornby’s columns always puts the wind back in my sails. It reminds me why I read, and reminds me of how I should judge books – by how much I enjoy them, not as litmus tests of literary worth. I read to have fun, and I’m reminded of that. I rarely hate a book, but when I do, I put it down.

In reading Housekeeping Vs. The Dirt, I found that Hornby was a huge Marilynn Robinson fan. Ha! Me too! Another connection! I found myself thrilled to find myself thinking so much like Hornby, irregardless of the actual similarities. But here we were – Hornby gushing about Marilynn Robinson. Me gushing about Marilynn Robinson. Both of us writing about the books we’ve read, both of us having read both of Robinson’s books. And I’ve even met her and shook her hand and been introduced as “the guy who wrote a wonderful, tear-jerking review of your book.” Me! And a Pulitzer Prize winner!

(Which reminds me – when I said I hadn’t met anyone famous, I was wrong. Marilynn Robinson [Pulitzer Prize Winner] and Rob Fleder [Editor for Sports Illustrated] have to count.)

Of course, for that little scenario to become truthful, I’d have to actually read Marilynn Robinson’s Housekeeping. So I did. And man-oh-man, am I glad I did. Housekeeping is beautiful and funny. Housekeeping is brilliantly clever. Housekeeping is everything that’s right about writing.

Every word is chosen carefully, as if selection was based on the same criteria as sushi fish or ripe tomatoes. Every metaphor is cleverly constructed, pairing themes I never thought possible while seeming so natural. And the story is both heartbreaking and hopeful – two girls, one lost mother, one strange-and-yet-familiar keeper.

To steal a friend’s comments: “The language in Housekeeping is so perfectly controlled. It’s like music. Better than music. Better than poetry.” And she actually likes poetry, so that’s saying something.

Of course, nothing I could say would do the book justice, just as my overflowing words on her other novel, Gilead, were a little heavy handed. The simple fact is that after reading Gilead, I thought Marilynn Robinson was one of the better writers – very talented. After one book, how could anyone judge an entire talented career?

Now that I’ve read Housekeeping, I can drop the hesitation. Marilynn Robinson is one of the best writers I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.

Housekeeping wasn’t the only book I was awakened to through Hornby’s columns. The list of books I suddenly absolutely had to read grew, and my reluctance to stray from The Essentials list became less and less. Now, especially with a new daughter and the lingering fear that my reading time was going to be cut in quarters, I wanted to read what I wanted to read, using The Essentials as a basic guide but focusing more intently on current fiction and other books of note.

I found several new “MUST READ NOW OMG!!” books, either directly from Housekeeping Vs. The Dirt or indirectly through my newfound embrace of current literary trends. The first goal was to try and secure Then We Came To the End – Joshua Ferris’ book about cubicle life in a Chicago advertising agency. It had been recommended not only through Hornby, but through my friends at NPR as well. And when it came in, I rushed to the library to check it out.

(In the meantime, I renewed my love for all things short story by grabbing Melissa Bank’s The Wonder Spot – an author I adored from the Penguin 70th Anniversary box set – and checked out a book on Karaoke that, for some reason, looked kind of interesting.)

I wanted to hate Then We Came To the End. I wanted to hate it in a “jealous copywriter” sort of way. After all – Ferris was a copywriter himself, and we all know that every copywriter’s dream is to become a self sufficient novelist of high esteem. He did it. I haven’t. Therefore, I should hate him, and I should hate the book.

But I couldn’t hate it. I liked it. I liked it a lot. I liked it for the copywriter’s view of a big city agency – a view of the industry that I don’t get here in our dusty little small town agencies. I laughed out loud at certain characters – characters that have popped up through every job, and through classic cubicle lore like Office Space and The Office.

And then I realized why those of us in office settings relate with these cubicle comedies so well. We all think we’re the cool guy. We all think we’re Jim Halpert. We all think we’re Peter Gibbons. We laugh at the stereotypes because we think we’re above them. Realistically, we’re not. We ARE those stereotypes. We just don’t see it in ourselves.

The story lurches in the middle, from the “we” mentality of office culture to a singular story of cancer and heartbreak. It was a weird switch – from quirky humor to Lorrie Moore territory. It’s unsettling for a few pages, and then you realize how necessary it is.

Eventually it goes back to a comfortable office comedy. I found myself hating the same thing the characters do. I hate staring at a blank page, just like them! I hate “polishing the turd,” the term given to a great project turned horrible by a shitty client – where the only thing you’re left to do at the end is make their turd of an idea look like something worthwhile. I even welcomed the idea of working 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., so the end of the work day would feel fresh and would be met with the rising sun. It’s a really good book, and I won’t lie – I kind of hate the guy for it.

So this month, I’ve come full circle, it seems. I’ve come back to my roots. Often, the books I choose have no logical order. They’re all over the board, chosen seemingly by random, as if I ran to my bookshelf blindfolded and asked to choose three books of various textures to keep me occupied for the month. But this month, in the spirit of Nick Hornby’s column, they have a natural progression. One book led to another. Everything fit together. Harmony was achieved. Angels tooted their little brass horns.

And when the angels toot their horns, you know it’s been a good month.

This was lovingly handwritten on September 4th, 2007