What I’ve Been Reading – November 2007

How We Are Hungry

Books acquired:
Don’t Know Much About History – Kenneth Davis
The Red Badge of Courage and Selected Short Fiction – Stephen Crane
Walk Across America – Peter Jenkins
The Hours – Michael Cunningham
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter – Carson McCullers
The English World – Robert Blake
Wide Angle: National Geographic Greatest Places – Ferdinand Protzman

Books read:
How We Are Hungry – Dave Eggers

There was a time when I was a voracious reader. I devoured books, taking them in like water, bathing myself in words, developing pruned fingers from turning page after page after page. I had dedicated my life to the intake of prose. I read an hour every night after work, blasting through as many as six books a month.

I wasn’t always like this, though. For a while I had almost forgotten completely about books. I purchased them in the same voracity that I always had, piling away several years worth of reading that I’d probably never get to. I didn’t actually read them, preferring to collect rather than use.

Then, I made a change. I vowed to read more. And I did. We got rid of cable. We opened our books. We prepared to become the NPR yuppies that the cards had always predicted.

Two and a half years later, I’m in trouble. I read one book this past month – a Dave Eggers short story collection. One. Just one lonely, solitary book. And not even a true novel but a collection of short snippets!

Coincidentally, I also watched 16 episodes of Arrested Development, four episodes of Planet Earth, and countless hours of high definition football.

I’m not going to say that having a child took away my reading time. It didn’t. I’m not going to say that reconnecting cable took away my reading time. It didn’t either. I will say, though, that my mind has become less inclined to open a book, regressing back into a state unknown since the days before my revelation. I’ve become a couch potato again, and though I want to read, and enjoy reading and would do it all the time if I could, I just can’t bring myself to do it.

Is there such a thing as “reading block?” If so, that’s what I have.

But enough of that – what did I try to read, at least?

Well, again, I made it through one book of short stories – How We Are Hungry, by Dave Eggers. Dave Eggers is always Dave Eggers, so you know what you’re going to get here – paranoid characters, exotic locations, sexual tension and maddening turns of event.

Thankfully, Eggers seems to reserve his maddening twists for his full-length books. How We Are Hungry seems much more basic, as if the short story format was too restricting for his usual flair. I actually found myself enjoying the stories much more than I had the books, a great feat considering how highly I revere A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

What Eggers does in his short stories is no different from the other short story greats. By painting a slice of life that is just vague enough to encourage vast interpretation, Eggers says an awful lot without saying much at all. “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly” details the struggle between doing what you want to do and doing what you should, while “The Only Meaning of the Oil-wet Water” illustrates the complicated world of platonic relationships. And his short short stories? These are my favorite – the ultimate in brevity.

And that was it, as far as finished books go. Not to say I didn’t try others. I took the slipcover off of Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude, which constitutes an effort to begin the book. (I didn’t.) Then, in a frantic rush of activity (spurred by the realization that it was the 27th and I had only read one book) I began reading the shortest book on my Essentials list – Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. I made it through the first 20 pages, a romp through roughly punctuated classic prose, and then gave it up.

For what I’ve seen so far, Woolf’s sentences are the kind that drill straight down. They’re not sprawling like Updike – a base sentence that rambles on ad infinitum – but are set up on several levels, diving below the surface to clarify and bounding back to wrap things up. They’re packed to the gills with modifiers and are easy to get lost in. I know that it’s simply a representation of the main character’s voice – random, easily distracted, flighty, but my mind just wasn’t into the work. So I dropped that one. (For now.)

Having failed at choosing a new book, I attempted to finish Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter again, but didn’t get much further than I had. I’m still stuck on the purpose – why are we looking so deeply into this pseudo-complex man’s mind, and why aren’t we finding anything interesting out? – but I’m 65% of the way through and feel I owe it to myself to see it to the end.

And that brings me to where I’m at now – stranded in the middle of one book, wary of starting another, staring at a DVR filled with several more episodes of Planet Earth. I’m back where I started – purchasing too many books (thanks, First Lutheran Church Bazaar!) and not reading enough of them.

With no one to blame but myself.

This was lovingly handwritten on December 4th, 2007