If you get a book from this batch you’ll know: all the characters are wearing masks…
With all the talk of educational technology in this era of social distancing, I am reminded of Neil Postman, who said, “The act of reading a book is the best example of ‘distance learning’ ever invented.”
He put it this way in Building a Bridge to the 18th Century:
To use the term “distance learning” to refer to students and a teacher sending e-mail messages to each other may have some value, but it obscures the fact that the act of reading a book is the best example of distance learning possible, for reading not only triumphs over the limitations of space and co-presence but of time as well.
Crack open a book and you can not only learn from someone who’s several thousand miles away, you can learn from someone who’s several thousand years away.
(And even though I love the convenience of my Kindle, I try not to forget that paper is a wonderful technology.)
I don’t sleep much at night. I read in bed, always a number of books at the same time, often six or seven. I find it tiring to concentrate on a single book, to wait for the end… .
While reading, I have the courage to note on the books’ margin the ideas that come to me. Later, before shelving the books, I make up some bibliographic cards. I make signs with different colors so I know what’s most important, less important, what’s complementary, what’s basic, et cetera. And I also write down the thoughts that come to me, impressions absolutely virgin. I reread my notes on the books’ pages and I write them down in notebooks under headings divided by letters A, B, C, D. Then I write ‘human,’ ‘education,’ ‘thievery,’ et cetera. These cards, later on when I need them, will permit me to reconstruct a certain type of person.
The filmmaker claimed he annotated over 9000 books and that his nighttime reading — gathering “an extraordinary amount of information” — gave him the freedom to be improvisational on set during the day.
Rossellini practiced at least 3 of my favorite methods for turning reading into writing:
1. Promiscuous reading, or reading more than one book at a time.
2. Marginalia, or reading with a pencil.
3. Revisiting your notes and copying them for later use.
Years ago I borrowed this copy of Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler from my father-in-law, and when I opened it up I found Calvino’s 1985 NYTimes obit and stories from a 1983 Harper’s.
I was so surprised and delighted by these unexpected artifacts that I decided to start saving clippings in my own books. Here’s my copy of John Ashbery’s They Knew What They Wanted, in which I stuffed a NYTimes review and a photo of his collage desk.
Here’s my copy of Lonesome Dove with a July 2010 Texas Monthly map of the plot of the book and my copy of Salt Fat Acid Heat with Wendy’s piece about writers’ snacks, “The Raw and the Cooked,” from 2011:
Saving clippings this way turns each book into a time capsule. The next time I open one of these books, a paper treasure will fall out. A little surprise for my future self. (Or whoever else cracks it open.)
“Time capsules are notoriously disappointing,” writes Sam Anderson in Boom Town. “They are supposed to be magic existential wormholes to a lost reality, but instead they are almost always empty, damaged, full of junk — further depressing evidence (as if we needed any) of the absolute tyranny of time.”
These time capsules, however, have never disappointed me. They always delight.
I’ve been thinking lately about how only sharing the books you’ve finished or the books you recommend is not the full picture of your reading life.
There’s the reading you actually get done, and then there’s the reading you want to do. The books you check out of the library. The books you buy that pile into stacks on your nightstand.
The books you threw across the room!
(One thing I think Kate Bingaman-Burt’s Daily Drawings do so well is show how purchases can add up to a picture of a person.)
Because there are so many more books I want to point to other than the ones I myself have read, I’m thinking about whether I can steal this read/bought format for the newsletter…
Here are 20 good books I read this year (minus the book I wrote) in roughly the order I read them:
First published in 1960. Out of print for years. Now beautifully reissued by NYRB. (Are they my favorite imprint? Maybe.) Incredible, 59-year-old drawings that look absolutely fresh. An American classic.
I don’t read as many novels as I probably should, and this is a novel novel. McCracken goes for it, doing in the book what, I think, only a novel can do. And damn, can she write a sentence. So many underlines. (Related post: “The religion of walking.”)
Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back)
I don’t really listen to audiobooks (they don’t fit into my commute-less life), but I got my hands on this one, and used it for company while shoveling snow during our Lake Erie
sabbatical exile. I found it warm and smart, with a bunch of good stuff about the creative process and parenting. (Related post: “On solitude and being who you are”)
Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book
Seems like a love-it-or-hate-it book, but I tore through it. One of those books that came at just the right place and just the right time for me. (Related reading: “Walker Percy’s problems of re-entry”)
Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed
Werner Herzog with Paul Cronin
A 500-page interview arranged to cover Herzog’s career in chronological order. This book took me forever to get through, not because it was a slog, but because it’s so dense with insane stories and poetic insights, I was constantly stopping to underline. (Related reading: “Werner Herzog on writing and reading”)
The Library Book
I am a former librarian who read this on a flight from Cleveland to Los Angeles, so it was pretty much the perfect book at the perfect time. A real page-turner. Orlean knows what she’s doing. (Another good LA book, not a page-turner, but a page-lingerer: Christoph Niemann’s Hopes and Dreams.)
Andrew Sean Greer
How great is it when an acclaimed book turns out to be worthy of the hype?
I laughed all the way through this book and then I cried at the end.
How To Do Nothing
When I came across the original talk I knew this was going to be a good book, but I liked my advance copy even more than I thought it would, and then I was quite pleased to see what a hit it became this year. A good contrast to Cal Newport’s productivity-focused Digital Minimalism. (A great companion: Rob Walker’s The Art of Noticing. )
The Three Robbers
My 4-year-old got obsessed with this book, and I got obsessed with it and with Ungerer. Another great classic picture book I loved: Edward Gorey’s The West Wing. (Collected in Amphigorey.) And let’s throw in Bruno Munari’s Drawing a Tree, which I loved even more upon re-reading.
The Love Bunglers
It’s taken me a decade or so for Love and Rockets to really click, but this book, along with its followup, Is This How You See Me?, made me fall in love. (I read Tillie Walden’s On A Sunbeam right after this, and it was such a great compliment — the budding master’s technicolor vs. the established master’s black and white.)
Essays After Eighty
“Maybe we’ll soon have a new literary category, Old Adult, to match Young Adult,” wrote John Wilson, in his review of Hall’s posthumous collection of essays, A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety. I’d be so down for that. (See also: Ron Padgett’s Big Cabin.)
When children are going through transitional periods, they’ll pull out old toys, old books, old stuffed animals. I do the same. This summer I re-read all of Portis’s novels, which is somewhat easy to do because there are only five of them. (If you’ve never read him, go ahead and start with True Grit, his masterpiece.) Gringos was the biggest surprise, and maybe the most underrated of all of his books? Such an interesting world and so many great sentences. I would love for another novel of his to turn up, but I also sort of hope he’s just kicking back on a porch somewhere in Arkansas, sipping bourbon, and enjoying his life.
Real talk: I was initially turned off by this book, because at a first glance I thought the clip-art drawings and photo backgrounds were out of laziness. (This is, by the way, the trouble with comics: our initial response as readers is an aesthetic one, and if you only read comics you’re aesthetically attracted to, you will miss out.) But no, this is a smart and heartfelt and well-executed book that wouldn’t work the way it does if it was drawn “better.” The book is great evidence for the cartoonist Seth’s equation that comics = poetry + graphic design.( Other good comic debuts I read this summer: Ebony Flowers’ Hot Comb and Malaka Gharib’s I Was Their American Dream.)
This book is both a validation of how I’ve chosen to go about my work and a kick in the pants to not get complacent, stretch out, and go down weird paths. (My friend Ryan Holiday, who finally got his well-deserved #1 NYTimes bestseller this year with Stillness is the Key, suggested, rightly, I think, that it’s a parenting book in disguise.)
A book of Warhol’s photographs matched with his thoughts about the country. “We all came here from somewhere else, and everybody who wants to live in America and obey the law should be able to come too, and there’s no such thing as being more or less American, just American.”
The Word Pretty
I am a sucker for collections of short essays by poets. I was completely new to Gabbert’s work and took a chance on this based on a few mentions by Twitter friends whose taste I trust. Very glad I did and looking forward to reading her next one. (Other very good essay collections I dipped into but for whatever reason got distracted from and didn’t finish: Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind and Feel Free.)
Big Ideas for Curious Minds: An Introduction to Philosophy
The School of Life
One thing I started doing on rough early mornings when I’m trying to wake up is read nonfiction books written for younger readers. (Hey man, it works for Jeopardy champions.) This one was great, and I also loved David Hockney and Martin Gayford’s A History of Pictures for Children, Dr. Seuss’s The Horse Museum, and Caitlin Doughty’s Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?
Fein, a surrealist painter who celebrated her 100th birthday this year with a 70-year retrospective exhibition in Berkeley, took a break in her painting career to write this book and its followup, First Drawings. The book collects her daughter Heidi’s drawings of horses from the age of 2 to 17. (Fein raised her daughter on a horse ranch.) I don’t know of any other book like this. A weird, remarkable work showing the development of a child’s drawings with a single subject. (More about the book in my post: What pictures of horses can teach us about art.)
The River at Night
I read so many good comics this year by comics masters at the very top of their game — see Jaime Hernandez above, Eleanor Davis’s The Hard Tomorrow, and Lynda Barry’s Making Comics — but this really felt like Huizenga’s masterpiece. A clever, coherent collection of stories (some old and some new), and a beautifully produced book that shows off his cartooning at its best.
God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State
I’ve lived in Texas for over a dozen years now, I’m the father of Native Texans, so it’s time to admit it: Yeah, I’m a Texan. Wright’s book is the perfect read for someone like me: an urban liberal’s look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of our vast state.
* * *
I’ve been posting my favorite reads since 2006. You can read them all here.
Want to read more next year? Here’s my advice.
In this week’s mailbag, Susan asks: “Have you ever created an altered book? I would like to but I can’t get over the voice in my head that says ‘don’t deface books!’ I usually don’t even write in my own books!”
When I first started making my newspaper blackout poems, it was in the spirit of recycling: there I was, staring at a blank Microsoft word document, with no words, and there, in the recycle bin next to me, were thousands of them. The thing I always enjoyed about using newspapers is that no one was ever aghast at my choice of medium: Newspapers are considered disposable media. Today’s newspaper is tomorrow’s fish wrapping. Etc.
At about the same time I started making the poems, I started working in a public library, and one of my duties there was “weeding”—going through the collection, checking circulation records, and removing books from the stacks to make room for new acquisitions. This was an educational experience for an aspiring writer. It is eye-opening to take a cold hard look at what kinds of books the average population actually reads. It is also eye-opening to understand how many books are thrown out or sold off. (I’ve heard David Sedaris say of his books, “I just imagine every book ending up at Goodwill.”) When you publish a book, it is one of literally hundreds of thousands of books that are published each year.
While I appreciate beautifully printed books and the fine art of bookmaking, I have become less and less interested over time as books as fetish objects to be worshipped for their inherent magical powers. There is a magic to reading, but it comes mostly from the energies of the reader. A book is dormant until the reader comes along to bring it back to life.
On to altered books: I’ve never made one, myself, but I buy books in junk shops to cut up and use in my collages later. (At my feet are ratty copies of Gray’s Anatomy, Kenneth Clark’s Civilization, and The Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics, all purchased for less than a dollar.) Do I feel guilty for cutting up these books? Not a bit. For one thing, I have clean, duplicate copies elsewhere on my shelves, for another, these books are finding new life in my diaries.
As for writing in books: I’ve been reading with a pencil for over two decades. It’s my way of owning the book, of engaging with the material, making it my own. It’s a step in between reading and writing. (I do wonder sometimes if my attitude towards books comes from a middle-class place of plenty. I grew up with as many books as I wanted.)
Your question made me think immediately of Brian Dettmer and Tom Philips, two of my favorite artists who both use old books to create their art. Here’s Dettmer on dealing with his initial guilt of cutting up books:
My first works were with telephone books and other disposable catalogs and I slowly developed a tolerance. Now, I don’t feel guilty as long as I know I’m working with something that is not rare and more often than not, has completely lost its function, but I do still feel an obligation to the material, to respect it and push it in a worthy direction to raise these questions in the viewer.
If you really want to attempt an altered book, you might follow his lead, and begin with newspapers, magazines, and more ephemeral material that’s headed for the recycle bin, anyways. Over time, that voice in your head might quiet down…
Got a question? Ask it here.
If a book makes me want to keep reading, it’s the right book.
If a book makes me want to start writing, it’s the right book.
Any other book is not the right book. (Right now.)