Goal for the new year: deeper, “vertical” reading

This great article from The Paris Review about reading in the age of constant distraction has me committing even more strongly to the idea of abandoning the skimming, attention-lite, “horizontal” reading of online bits in favor of immersion into a longer and deeper focus. Mairead Small Staid takes a look at how well Sven Birkerts’s The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age holds up 25 years after it was published, and no surprise he sounds like a soothsayer: “Ten, fifteen years from now the world will be nothing like what we remember, nothing much like what we experience now,” Birkerts wrote in 1994. “We will be swimming in impulses and data—the microchip will make us offers that will be very hard to refuse.”

Staid writes: When a work compels immersion, if often also has the power to haunt from a distance,” Birkerts says, and how I wish this haunting were the sole province of great work. It isn’t: ghosts seep through the words on the screen, ghosts of screeds and inanities, of hate and idiocy, of so much—so much!—bad writing.”

And the final word from Birkerts: “The beauty of the vertical engagement is that it does not have to argue for itself. It is self-contained, a fulfillment.”

As someone inordinately proud of her own reclaimed Borders’ bookshelf, I also loved this great detail: The shelves of the original Borders had been bought and repurposed by Literati’s owners to hold the new store’s fiction section.

Alain de Botton’s 6 books of wisdom

“Most philosophy books are incredibly boring (who needs sleeping pills when you could read Hegel or Kant) so you have to choose what you read very carefully. Here are the six books which brought me most pleasure, and even more importantly, wisdom.”

The Essays: Montaigne

Montaigne likes to point out that philosophers don’t know everything, and that they would be a lot wiser if they laughed at themselves a little more. He also writes in a personal and often very frank way designed to shock the prudish. “Kings and philosophers shit, and so do ladies,” he says, “Even on the highest throne in the world, we are seated still upon our arses.”

Letters from a Stoic: Seneca

Seneca belonged to the Stoic school of philosophy, which is all about teaching you how to respond calmly to disaster. We tend to imagine that cheering people up involves saying happy things. But Seneca says the saddest things and strangely enough, he is very consoling. “What need is there to weep over parts of life?” he asks, “The whole of it calls for tears.”

Essays and Aphorisms: Schopenhauer

Arthur Schopenhauer is another great pessimist who makes you feel happier. He makes some brilliant analyses of why love affairs tend to go wrong (he’s perfect to read after a break up). His general drift is that you’d be mad to expect happiness from a relationship.

Twilight of the Idols: Nietzsche

A much misunderstood philosopher, seen as barking mad, but actually very wise and sane. He tells us nice things about the need for struggle in life. No pain, no gain, or as he put it; “That which does not kill you makes you stronger.”

Collected Works: Epicurus

Epicurus was the first philosopher to say that pleasure was the most important thing in life. People took him to mean sensual pleasure and the word “epicurean” has been linked to gluttony ever since. But read the real Epicurus and you’ll see that his idea of pleasure was quite unmaterial; in fact, it was all about having a group of good friends and reading books together outdoors.

The Last Days of Socrates: Plato

Plato recounts the last days of his mentor and teacher Socrates, famously made to drink hemlock by the people of Athens. It’s a tear-jerking account, as the funny and wise Socrates is put to death by his ignorant contemporaries. It’s also a lesson in how to stand up for your beliefs and inspiration for anyone standing up against the will of the majority.

Wallace Stevens on Work

(From themusedaily.com)
Early Stevens
“None of the great things in life have anything to do with making your living.”
Late Stevens 1
“It gives a man character as a poet to have daily contact with a job. I doubt whether I’ve lost a thing by leading an exceedingly regular and disciplined life.”
Late Stevens 2
“A writer faces a point of honor that concerns him as a writer. He must apparently choose between starvation and that form of publishing (or being published) in which it is possible to make money. His problem is how to support himself while engaged in the most honorable capacity. There is only one answer. He must support himself in some other way.”

Adventures in reading Ulysses, part 2

I’ve suffered, I’ve sweated, I’ve pushed my eyes across mountains of barely comprehensible text. But I made it through part two, across the desert of the Circe episode and fallen into what seems to be an oasis of poetry in part three. The second section of part three is written as essay question and answers, and one answer rhapsodizes over the wonders of water. Coming so quickly on the heels of my Melville adventures, I was particularly soothed by it:

“What in water did Bloom, waterlover, drawer of water, watercarrier, returning to the range, admire?
Its universality: its democratic equality and constancy to its nature in seeking its own level: its vastness in the ocean of Mercator’s projection: its unplumbed profundity in the Sundam trench of the Pacific exceeding 8000 fathoms: the restlessness of its waves and surface particles visiting in turn all points of its seaboard: the independence of its units: the variability of states of sea: its hydrostatic quiescence in calm: its hydrokinetic turgidity in neap and spring tides: its subsidence after devastation: its sterility in the circumpolar icecaps, arctic and antarctic: its climatic and commercial significance: its preponderance of 3 to 1 over the dry land of the globe: its indisputable hegemony extending in square leagues over all the region below the subequatorial tropic of Capricorn: the multisecular stability of its primeval basin: its luteofulvous bed: its capacity to dissolve and hold in solution all soluble substances including millions of tons of the most precious metals: its slow erosions of peninsulas and islands, its persistent formation of homothetic islands, peninsulas and downwardtending promontories: its alluvial deposits: its weight and volume and density: its imperturbability in lagoons and highland tarns: its gradation of colours in the torrid and temperate and frigid zones: its vehicular ramifications in continental lakecontained streams and confluent oceanflowing rivers with their tributaries and transoceanic currents, gulfstream, north and south equatorial courses: its violence in seaquakes, waterspouts, Artesian wells, eruptions, torrents, eddies, freshets, spates, groundswells, watersheds, waterpartings, geysers, cataracts, whirlpools, maelstroms, inundations, deluges, cloudbursts: its vast circumterrestrial ahorizontal curve: its secrecy in springs and latent humidity, revealed by rhabdomantic or hygrometric instruments and exemplified by the well by the hole in the wall at Ashtown gate, saturation of air, distillation of dew: the simplicity of its composition, two constituent parts of hydrogen with one constituent part of oxygen: its healing virtues: its buoyancy in the waters of the Dead Sea: its persevering penetrativeness in runnels, gullies, inadequate dams, leaks on shipboard: its properties for cleansing, quenching thirst and fire, nourishing vegetation: its infallibility as paradigm and paragon: its metamorphoses as vapour, mist, cloud, rain, sleet, snow, hail: its strength in rigid hydrants: its variety of forms in loughs and bays and gulfs and bights and guts and lagoons and atolls and archipelagos and sounds and fjords and minches and tidal estuaries and arms of sea: its solidity in glaciers, icebergs, icefloes: its docility in working hydraulic millwheels, turbines, dynamos, electric power stations, bleachworks, tanneries, scutchmills: its utility in canals, rivers, if navigable, floating and graving docks: its potentiality derivable from harnessed tides or watercourses falling from level to level: its submarine fauna and flora (anacoustic, photophobe), numerically, if not literally, the inhabitants of the globe: its ubiquity as constituting 90 percent of the human body: the noxiousness of its effluvia in lacustrine marshes, pestilential fens, faded flowerwater, stagnant pools in the waning moon.”

Adventures in reading Ulysses

I’m two months into my third? fourth? attempt to read Joyce’s Ulysses, this time armed with companion book. I finally made it to the Oxen of the Sun episode, and spent about twenty minutes reading the first page. I re-cap the two sentences that I was most hung up on below. While I could find this passage online and simply cut/paste, I did not cheat, I transcribed. Chockablock full of delicious vocabulary like lutulent (muddy, turbid), omnipollent (omnipotent), semblables (resemblances), inverecund (immodest), traduce (shame by way of fraud)…

Universally that person’s acumen is esteemed very little perceptive concerning whatsoever matters are being held as most profitable by mortals with sapience endowed to be studied who is ignorant of that which the most in doctrine erudite and certainly by reason of that in them high mind’s ornament deserving of veneration constantly maintain when by general consent they affirm that other circumstances being equal by no exterior splendour is the prosperity of a nation more efficaciously asserted than by the measure of how far forward may have progressed the tribute of its solicitude for that proliferent continuance which of evils the original if it be absent when fortunately present constitutes the certain sign of omnipollent nature’s incorrupted benefaction. For who is there who anything of some significance has apprehended but is conscious that that exterior splendour may be the surface of a downwardtrending lutulent reality or on the contrary anyone so is there inilluminated as not to perceive that as no nature’s boon can contend against the bounty of increase so it behoves every most just citizen to become the exhortator and admonisher of his semblables and to tremble lest what had in the past been by the nation excellently commenced might be in the future not with similar excellence accomplished if an inverecund habit shall have gradually traduced the honourable by ancestors transmitted customs to that thither of profundity that that one was audacious excessively who would have the hardihood to rise affirming that no more odious offence can for anyone be than to oblivious neglect to consign that evangel simultaneously command and promise which on all mortals with prophecy of abundance or with diminution’s menace that exalted of reiteratedly procreating function ever irrevocably enjoined?

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more. Wish me luck. Splash!

Pleasure: A Dinner Conversation

I’ve been curious about the intimate dinners hosted around a huge wooden table with long benches in a nondescript storefront on Guerrero Street. 18 Reasons is an organization bringing local community together over art and food, and when an event with the topic of food, pleasure, and MFK Fisher came up, I happily solo’ed my way to the dinner. At these types of events, it’s critical to make a wise decision on seating. I gravitated to two women who looked to be having a grand time and settled in beside them.
Dinner was heaping plates of couscous-asparagus (gluten free and vegan, oh San Francisco!) along with goat cheese, bread, and unending bottles of white wine. Our two “moderators” were the author of a recent biography of MFK Fisher and a zen priest. After their short presentations, we were encouraged to eat and discuss the topic of pleasure with our dining companions.
Fortunately, my companions were not wedded to the idea of sole focus on this topic, and we covered ground from The Wire to owning the OED on microfiche with several mental canoe rides along the way. At some point I exclaimed, “Some women dream of their wedding day… I dream of having a ladder in my library!” I felt guilty about having my back to the gentleman on my right, preferring the company of my ladies, but every time I turned to politely engage him, he was droning on about pleasure in such an unpleasurable way that I quickly turned back.
I left the venue after a few delightful and intellectually stimulating hours, with contact details for new friends in hand.

Reading at Book Passage

At the Ferry Building last Friday, I sat through multiple hours of other writers reading their stories so that I could emerge from my chrysalis and do my own reading of original work, in a public space, on purpose, for the first time. The first half of the readers pre-intermission were decent, the search for a Chinatown apartment, Lucille Ball’s Where’s My Ethel at the White House, a tiny piece of Ramshackle Days describing the scene at the bar where if you even looked like you were going to say more words than it took to order a drink you’d be kicked out. Intermission should have started after Where’s My Ethel, which got such tremendous applause that it was a natural stopping point. However, one of the facilitators thrust her student onto us “because she has to leave”, whose story was about as interesting as an old shoe. The variety of styles and talent levels was a bit shocking. I know the instructors were told to encourage everyone to participate, but seriously? Some of those kids should be told to put down the pen and walk away.
Intermission was a welcome break from the heat of the room on an unnaturally warm SF day, and then my cheering section arrived, thinking it was over since everyone was milling about. Unfortunately, it was not over, and I punished my friends by making them sit through at least twenty stories, most of which should be deleted from their author’s harddrive immediately. No one wants to hear about you popping a blister before your hike up Mount Masada. You don’t really look like Hugh Grant, so your story about being his doppelgänger is confusing. You’re an ex-nun and you love Jesus and yet your words make me want to burn some religious texts. You are making fun of the Chinese language by pretending to speak it. Wave upon wave of bad writing washed onto the podium. The audience dwindled. A story about a stripper somehow was uninteresting. There was a good piece about being a nanny for a French family. And a bad piece about not being able to go to an uncle’s funeral (written by someone my friend later described as “the gay dude who went and sat by his wife after he was done. She patted his hand.” Ah, beards.) Also a brief scuffle where a homeless gent joined the party (hey, free booze!) and was the only heckler of the evening, snickering as he listened.
The agony of the evening was nearly over. But first, the worst introduction of the evening, saying that I was going last because it was alphabetical (it wasn’t) and oh hey I work at BlahBlahBlah. I put the shaking paper on the podium (a godsend!) and read this. It got laughs from some nitwits in the crowd, and then it was over, and applause, mainly because good lord this night of literary terror was over and everyone was free to disperse to their real Friday evenings.

Literary speed dating


The fear is palpable. Poorly shorn men and women gather downstairs at the main branch of the library, clutching their books, brazenly ogling the others who mill about. Getting checked out at the library. And getting checked in for the night’s entertainment: speed dating, with a literary flourish.
We all dutifully bring books to use as conversation starters. We wear numbers on our chests, if we like someone, we bubble their number on our card and if they bubble our number, match-tastic! Slipping into the last seat, I steel myself for the onslaught and give my friend the thumbs up across the room. The librarians break down the logistics of the evening: the men will snake around the room while the women remain seated. Even the librarians seem nervous, sweated armpits, frenzied.
For the next hour and a half I have nineteen conversations lasting four minutes each.
I meet a cute twenty-something fresh from Brooklyn, reading Zorba the Greek, living in a homeless shelter, who spits paper hearts out of his mouth during the conversation. And a lawyer in a purple shirt, cocksure and flaunting his book: 15 minute meals by Cooking Light. There is the leopard print pajama-bottomed dude with a self-help book, a long haired sci-fi lover who launches weather balloons on weekends, and a Yelp salesman extremely impressed with himself for working at Yelp, reading a history of Palestine.
There are a few effeminate men, one self-published his own book after firing his “real” publisher over creative differences. The other effem has teeth which defy explanation and whose hometown is “the terrible city”, which is not Detroit, as I guess, but LA.
I meet a self-conscious guy with braces carrying one of Roald Dahl’s children’s books. When I mention Dahl had all his teeth extracted in his twenties, Braceface shifts uncomfortably in his chair. There is someone who brought a notebook of his own jokes, with one word jokes like “Alf-ghanistan.” My last conversation is with a whirling dervish, glasses fastened together with electrical tape. We cover so many topics in four minutes it feels like we are on fast forward: literature, comics, pop culture, the new Smurf movie and protests he’ll be leading against it. After the frenzy he hands me a card with link to his 80s appreciation tumblr.
At some point, the men’s snaking breaks down and it becomes a free for all. Men beeline towards cute girls. Chaos reigns. Librarians try to pull us back into order by decreeing a mingle hour, but we ignore them.
My friend meets a woman who brought a book titled All About Scabs. There is also a woman who brought Bukowski and Eggers, trying to appeal to a broad range of men.
When I first proposed this event to my friend, his response was, “What on earth would I gain from this? OK, I’ll do it.” After we survey the shambles of the room, and I see his exhilarated face, I can tell it was a success. He bubbles five girls on his card. We decamp to the bar to debrief, double orders of bourbon.
The next morning, he IMs me, “I now officially regret three of my five choices.”

Literary speed dating

The fear was palpable. Poorly shorn men and women gathered downstairs at the main branch of the library, clutching their books, brazenly ogling the others who were milling about. Getting checked out at the library. And getting checked in for the night’s entertainment: speed dating, with a literary flourish.
I attempted to rope a few of my friends into this, and one showed. We leaned back and watched the chaos. After twenty women on the wait list were no-shows, the librarian finally hit upon someone in the crowd who had had the courage to show up. Six additional women and seven men were shooed inside, after a lengthy reading of wait-list names akin to a list of the dead. At the end of the men’s list, there were two additional spots and four dudes scuffing their feet and looking nervously down. I suggested that they Roshambo to get in. Nervous laughs and then they awkwardly looked at each other. One guy said he’d never Roshambo’d.
I had sacrificed my wait list position until I knew my friend would also get in. But now, he was in and I was outside missing the action. With the men all accounted for, I began to wander off, until a librarian frantically chased me down. “We have too many men! We need you!”
We had all dutifully brought our favorite books or books we were reading, to use for conversation starters. We wore numbers on our chests, if we liked someone, we would bubble their number on our card and if they bubbled our number, match-tastic! Slipping into the last seat, I pulled my book out and steeled myself for the onslaught. I gave my friend the thumbs up across the room. The librarians thanked us for coming and broke down the logistics of the evening: the men would snake around the room while the women remained seated. Even the librarians seemed nervous, sweated armpits, frenzied.
For the next hour and a half I had nineteen conversations lasting four minutes each.

What I remember from that blur:
* A lawyer in a purple shirt, so sure of himself and clutching this book: 15 minute meals by Cooking Light. Apparently he eats fast and doesn’t like spending more time cooking than eating.
* the cute twenty-something freshly moved from Brooklyn and living in a homeless shelter. He was spitting paper hearts out his mouth during the whole conversation, and reading Zorba the Greek.
* Leopard print pajama-bottomed dude with a self-help book. I complimented his outfit and he proudly mentioned that he was meeting up with his crew later and they all dressed like this.
* The guy whose daily routine involves watching Seinfeld, favorite episode: The Opposite.
* Long haired sci-fi lover who claimed that his job doesn’t take any time at all, so he can pursue other interests. His job? Software development. I never thought of that as a part-time gig. His other interests? Launching weather balloons from Tracy, CA, with friends.
* Yelp salesman who was extremely impressed with himself for working at Yelp. Reading a history of Palestine.
* A few effeminate men, one of whom had written his own book and published with CreateSpace. He bragged about firing his “real” publisher a few months before they were supposed to bring out his book. Yeah right. He also has no clocks in his house. The other effem had teeth which defy explanation– a line through the middle of the top row, but white on both sides. Perhaps falsies. Originally from what he deemed “the terrible city”, which is not Detroit, as I guessed, but LA.
* A guy with braces, and like all adults with braces, wildly self-conscious of them. He brought one of Roald Dahl’s children’s books. As is always the case when Dahl comes up, I mentioned reading in his biography that he had all his teeth extracted when he was in his twenties. This factoid caused the gentleman in braces to shift uncomfortably in his chair.
* A whirling dervish, glasses taped together in the middle with electrical tape. We covered so many topics in four minutes it felt like we were on fast forward; literature, comics, pop culture, the new Smurf movie and protests he’ll be leading against it. After the frenzy he handed me a card with link to his 80s appreciation tumblr.
At some point, the men’s snaking broke down and it became a free for all. Men were beelining towards cute girls. Chaos reigned. Librarians tried to pull us back into order by decreeing a mingle hour, but no one responded.
My friend met a woman who brought All About Scabs . He asked her to show him her favorite picture, and flustered, she pointed to the first page.There was a woman who brought Bukowski and Eggers, obviously trying too hard to appeal to the range of men. Other women brought Deliverance and Cloud Atlas, Anna Karenina, a Shel Silverstein biography.
There was a guy that I missed meeting who had a notebook of his own jokes, a whole section of one word jokes like “Alf-ghanistan”, a section of jokes turning the word Bjorn into Pjorn, an Oprah-themed section.
When I first proposed this event to my friend, his response was, “what on earth would i gain from this? ok i’ll do it.” After we surveyed the shambles of the room, and I saw his exhilarated face, I could tell it was a success. He bubbled five girls on his card. We decamped to the bar to debrief, double orders of bourbon.
The next morning, he IMs me, “I now officially regret three of my five choices.”
Update. Data from the librarians in charge.
Data: Match sheets
Women: 20
Men: 20
Matches for both women and men:
0 = 11 participants had zero matches
1 = 16 participants had one match
2 = 4 ” ” ” etc.
3 = 4
4 = 2
5 = 2
6 = 1
Data: Registration Lists
Totals attended: 20 women, 20 men
18 pre-registered
3 no shows
3 canceled by email
2 canceled from the waitlist by email
4 waitlisted & got in
69 waitlisted: 20 (considered the “real” waitlist at the beginning of the list); 49 (at the end of the list, were emailed not to come, they wouldn’t get in)
3 showed up from the last 49 waitlist and got in
20 pre-registered
2 canceled by email
3 no shows
10 waitlisted
5 waitlisted got in
2 showed up not pre-registered and got in

Ways of reading

Beautiful advice on reading, reproduced verbatim in case aworkinglibrary ever goes defunct:

  • Always read with a pen in hand. The pen should be used both to mark the text you want to remember and to write from where the text leaves you. Think of the text as the starting point for your own words.
  • Reading and writing are not discrete activities; they occur on a continuum, with reading at one end, writing at the other. The best readers spend their time somewhere in between.
  • Reading must occur everyday, but it is not just any daily reading that will do. The day’s reading must include at minimum a few lines whose principle intent is to be beautiful–words composed as much for the sake of their composition as for the meaning they convey.
  • A good reader reads attentively, not only listening to what the writer says, but also to how she says it. This is how a reader learns to write.
  • If a book bores you, or tells you things you already know, or is not beautiful, do not hesitate to discard it. There are better books awaiting you, just around the bend.
  • Every book alights a path to other books. Follow these paths as far as you can. This is how you build a library.
  • A single book struggles to balance on its spine; it pines for neighbors. Keep as many books as you have room for.
  • Read voraciously, many books at a time. Only then will you hear the conversation taking place among them.
  • The best library contains both books you have read, and books you have not. The latter should grow in proportion as the library expands. A working library is as much a place for the possible as it is a record of the past.

Make every book beautiful

Remember back in grade school when you covered your text books with paper bags and colored/drew/wrote all over them? This company took that concept and turned out beautiful book jackets to allow you to secretly read your shameful books you wouldn’t be caught dead with in public. I might have to get the Whale Whisperer (shown below) to cover my copy of Moby Dick, because I don’t want to be pigeonholed as a pseudo-intellectual hipster as I read that on the bus.