Book Club Newsletter by Josh Hanagarne
Hello, fellow bookworm:
This newsletter is going to be a long one. I mean for it to be a reference of sorts, so if your eyes start glazing over, set this aside and revisit it later. Don’t give up! File it away and revisit it later. Your brain will thank you for it.
I work in a building with 500,000 books. 500,000! Unless you’re a librarian or a book store employee, there’s a very good chance that I see a lot more books than you do. So it’s my hope that the newsletters will lead you to books you might not always hear of otherwise.
Here’s what you’ll find in this message:
1.Reasons for reading outside your literary comfort zone
2.What that experiment looked like for me in March
3. What I read in the last 30 days
4. The book club selection for next month
If any section gets too lengthy, just skip ahead to the numbered section that interests you.
1. Why you should read books outside of your comfort zone
I’ve been saying this for a while, but if I have to choose between a book informing me or challenging me, I want to be challenged. Of course, it’s better if a book does both. What I mean is, unless I’m reading purely for fun or story, I want books to drive me into contemplation. I want something on every page to nudge me towards thoughts or actions that will make me a better father, son, brother, husband, person, man, reader, etc.
We all know what we prefer to read. Maybe you only read novels. Maybe you think that fiction is a huge waste of time. Maybe your attention span has gotten to the point that scanning blogs is your major literary endeavor. Maybe you only read Tolstoy and George Eliot and you’re constantly bemoaning the dearth of modern literary ambition.
Maybe you’re a science fiction nut, or magazines are your thing. Or essays, or graphic novels or manga. Or philosophy.
The point is, it’s easy to get comfortable. So what could possibly be wrong with that?
There’s nothing wrong with it, but personally I believe that of all the useful traits a person can have, physically and mentally, adaptability is the most useful.
I want to have a nimble, quick mind. If I spend all my time reading Lee Child thrillers (I love them), I might get floored the first time I have to read something academic.
If I read nothing but horror, I might forget that philosophy and science and non-fiction, for that matter, have nothing to offer me.
If I spend all my time wandering the dusty mental corridors of academia, I might not have any sense of the conventions of science fiction, should I deign to pick up something by Robert Heinlein. And that’s the worst of all, when I start scoffing at something without having a good reason to. Who am I to turn my nose up at anything? Why should I think that other genres can’t teach me anything about myself?
Being familiar with many different sets of conventions can, being comfortable reading across mediums and genres–and Literature is really just another genre with its own set of conventions–can make your mind more agile. That’s what I want.
That is the mind you deserve to have. One that can change directions quickly and jump over puddles and that laughs in the face of obstacles and can contemplate and problem-solve at a high RPM
2. The Experiment
In March I decided that I would simply toss out all ideas about what I was going to read next. I would ignore the book lists and ignore the pile on the end table next to my bed. I knew I would start with the book Reality Hunger, which I discuss below, but beyond that, I was going to let whatever I was reading lead me to whatever I would read next.
In other words, if Reality Hunger reminded me of something else, or it mentioned something else that sounded intriguing, that’s what I would follow up with. And I’d do the same for that book.
This wasn’t anything revolutionary, but it’s quite different from what I’m used to: seeing books at work, getting distracted, and reading 50 things at once.
3. What I read
Reality Hunger by David Shields
This is a weird one. The subject, according to Dewey, is Literary Manifesto. And I would agree with that, but the book I read is really not the one that the term Literary Manifesto brings to mind. But then, no other book is like Reality Hunger.
Chopped up into more than 600 numbered segments, I would say that this book is, more than anything, about the lines between fiction and non-fiction. The smallest segment has fewer than ten words in it. The longest is perhaps two pages. Chapter four should be required reading for anyone hoping to write memoir, or stuck in the middle of one. It involves the James Frey debacle and the statement that any memoir is more fictional than any fiction.
As someone about to publish a memoir, this was challenging, irritating, and fun.
This manifesto got me thinking of another small book I had seen at the library, so once I finished it:
A Reader’s Manifesto: an attack on the growing pretentiousness in American literary prose by B.R. Myers
Myers thinks that authors, particularly capital L Literary authors, are getting away with too much nonsense.Singling out Annie Proulx, Don Delillo, Paul Auster, David Guterson, and my beloved Cormac McCarthy, he attempts, on behalf of us readers everywhere, to say “Enough is enough! Start making sense! Enough with the convoluted syntax and impenetrable metaphors!”
I agreed with some of his points and found others laughable. But I do enjoy a screed about books, and this is a good one.
This book got me thinking about the least pretentious authors I know. And so I returned to:
The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa
Speaking of challenging reads.
The Book of Disquiet is challenging in all the best ways. It’s like Reality Hunger with longer segments and little of Shield’s exuberant self-confidence. Pessoa’s not really attempting to stir the pot with this memoir–I apply the term loosely, Dewey does not–rather, he’s taking an incredibly honest look at his own mind, his lack of opinions, his reasons for loving and loathing, etc.
If your life has a shortage of existentialist Portuguese poets in it, this might be for you.
Now I was thinking about unconventional autobiographies and memoirs.
Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer
Oh, if all that ever happened on this blog was that I could convince everyone to try Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence, I’d be pretty happy. I can say that because a lot of other good things have already happened because of the blog, but you get the idea, right?
It’s a book about the author’s attempts to write a “sober study of D.H. Lawrence,” and the great, profound lengths he goes to in order to avoid it. It’s funny as hell and his sentences are absolutely perfect, if you care about that sort of thing. It becomes a memoir about Lawrence, books, depression, and is a travel guide of a couple of interesting locales as well.
Also, there’s a moped disaster.
The Letters of D.H. Lawrence
I’ve never been a huge fan of Lawrence’s fiction and I’m a clumsy ox when it comes to discussion his poetry–his and anyone else’s. But Dyer cites many of Lawrence’s letters in Out of Sheer Rage, so I decided to try those.
I’m glad I did. There is something I enjoy immensely in seeing the informal little notes a writer jots to friends and family. Do they try to write like writers when they’re telling dear old mom about how hot it is when they’re trying to sleep? Do they break character when they’re telling a friend that they won’t be visiting after all because they’ve got a cold?
If the letters of Lawrence, Nabokov, and Mark Twain are anything to go on, it’s a mixed bag. Sometimes they shine, sometimes they just write to say “Hey, here’s what’s going on.”
Scalped by Jason Aaron
Dyer’s and Lawrence’s descriptions of New Mexico got me thinking about something a guest posted on my blog recently, a list of graphic novels worth reading. One of them was Scalped, which I had seen at the library but had never picked up. I’m trying to read more graphic novels so I can do my job better–people ask about them frequently at work–but they’re never really been my thing.
Hanagarne–my last time–is a Navajo name. Many of my family still live on a Navajo reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico. I’m only an eighth at this point in the bloodline, but I have some ties to the area, so Scalped it was.
I like the story well enough. It’s a gritty noir tale about a young Indian man returning to the rez for reasons I won’t spoil. I thought what I usually thought when I read a graphic novel: I wish this had just been a book. But that’s just me.
Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure that David Shields mentions Scalped in Reality Hunger.
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
I honestly can’t remember who recommended this to me, but when I was looking for an audiobook I saw this and thought, “Oh yeah, I was going to read that!” It’s a dystopian novel set in a future in which everyone streams everything about themselves, all the time.
The novel is largely revealed through the journals and instant messages of two characters: an older man and the young Korean woman he is pursuing. If you’re looking for an audiobook, the performance is fantastic!
There are some very provocative ideas on display here. It’s a funny story, but you can almost read this book as philosophy if you wish. There’s a mental speech made in a Korean church by the main character that was worth the read alone.
Of course it’s impossible to measure exactly how beneficial this experiment was or wasn’t. But it stretched me. Jumping from one style into another was fun, but because the books sort of led into each other, it felt like I was participating in some great chain of reading.
I had a heightened awareness that books are made of other books, authors are made of other authors, and the same ideas can creep into any form of the written word.
There were other books I read pieces of, but they didn’t really fit into what I’m hoping to say here, so I’ll let that be for now. But just in case you’d like the list:
Quarrel and Quandary by Cynthia Ozick
William Gass’ essay on Lust in Life Sentences
Joan Didion’s essay On Self Respect
The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
The Meadow by James Galvin
If you’re wondering how I read so much, it is because I am the poster boy for insomnia.
4. Book club selection for April
I started American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Now I want to slow down a bit and let everyone catch up so we can talk about it. If you’re a fan of horror, sci fi, mythology, or anything Gaiman has done, I think you’ll like the book.
5. If you know another bookworm
Please forward the newsletter to them.
6. Take care of yourself this month
Read. Think. Nourish your mind.
Become a better friend to someone.
Call someone that hasn’t heard from you in a while.
Don’t be too hard on yourself.
But most of all–read!
Thank you as always