Midway through his book talk at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn last week, the Atlantic columnist and MacArthur Genius Ta-Nehisi Coates described his need to understand as much about this world as possible while he lived, having no expectation of an afterlife. Coates, whose work highlights the evils of past and present American racism and the need to right these wrongs, described understanding as a “gift.” In turn, Coates’ gift – or at least one of them – is his innate ability to make others, myself included, understand the world in a radically different way, a more informed and nuanced way, than I had before I encountered his work.
Grant “G-Ratt” Gautreaux, my friend and noted Bayou Book Club founder – yes, this is a thing because I just wrote into existence – asked a question about reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest today on Facebook that turned into an avalanche of discussion about seemingly 100 different authors and books. Books and the ideas they present, it turns out, continue to hold weight for Reagan babies, like us, who are accused of no longer giving a damn about literature. So put that in your pipe, think piece writers, and smoke it!
The conversation’s far-reaching appeal made me ponder books I’ve read this year and books I aspire to read in 2016 – hence the tagline five classic books on my 2016 reading list. The books I am listing below are books I own that I haven’t completed yet – shame, shame. I hope they inspire you to read that unread classic on your shelf, as well.
Danish philosopher Kierkegaard and American mythologist Joseph Campbell share a home next to books on Lincoln, World Wars I and II and early Southern Baptist leaders on my dad’s sprawling wooden bookcase in south Louisiana. What I respect most about his eclectic collection is not that he has amassed hundreds of books on a wide variety of thought-provoking topics. What I respect most about the contents of his bookcase is he does not shy away from works that challenge his beliefs. For instance, when I moved to Portland he loaned me his copy of Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian. My dad is an ordained Southern Baptist minister. I would venture to guess few ordained Southern Baptist ministers are comfortable enough in their beliefs in Christ to own, much less read and contemplate, such a book.
I stumbled upon Paul Bowles’s classic post-WWII novel, The Sheltering Sky, while perusing the new fiction table inside McNally Jackson Books in SoHo one night as summer turned to fall. The Sheltering Sky found a home on that specific table because it had just received a 65th anniversary release from ecco, a HarperCollins imprint. The cover, with its endless blue sky and Middle Eastern cityscape, seduced me with its promise of an unknown world. So did Dave Eggers’s blurb, “A strange and hypnotic masterpiece.”
The Sheltering Sky frustrated me from time to time because its three protagonists – young, twenty-something ex-pats traveling Africa after the war in an ill-fated pursuit of meaning in their lives – invited calamity upon themselves and were not great company, not people I would root for, per se. To be sure, I read better books in 2014 (i.e., Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard; Andy Weir’s The Martian; George Packer’s The Unwinding, etc.). The Sheltering Sky sticks with me, in large part, due to one dynamic passage in which the protagonist’s wife relays her husband’s thoughts on life and death, in the form of a flashback following an ill-fated journey into the desert.
The book excerpt that follows could be interpreted as morbid but I find it sobering, even freeing. For instance, I am dreading today’s cold weather. Yet, after reviewing this quote, I am reminded to provide the present its proper attention and respect, even if that present is one in which my teeth are chattering. Life is a gift, a mysterious and frustrating one at times, but a gift all the same.
Dear Diary …
I am Anne Frank this week, just waiting to be discovered and exterminated. OK, exterminated is too harsh. I am waiting to be removed from a duplex where the landlord does not know I exist. My landlord has the scent something is up – she saw my Mitsubishi Lancer with its Louisiana license plate in the driveway while passing the house – and she is out to uncover me. She might hate Gingers for all I know.
As part of her curious sleuthing routine, the landlord is doing a three-hour home inspection Saturday. My roommate tells me I have nothing to fear. Just make my room look like an extra room, as opposed to a bedroom, he says. Sounds easy enough. I don’t own a mattress. I don’t own much of anything. Funny how easy it is to shed things when you’re living in your fourth house in 20 months.
What if this Nazi, I mean landlord, looks at one of my books and determines it proof a second person – a Ginger, no less – lives in this house? Or she finds something fishy with my clothes, which my roommate is prepared to say are his own? (The Saints jerseys are going in my car trunk.) What then? An invitation to find a fifth house?
Because what this blog needs is self-loathing drenched in dirty capitalism …
I started reading Dostoevsky’s classic The Brothers Karamazov the other night. It was late. I fell asleep before I finished the introduction. There’s still 700+ pages remaining. Sadly, there’s precedent to this kind of book reading failure. Good thing trees can’t sue people for wrongful death.
I could read The Brothers Karamazov at some point. I could also qualify for the Summer Olympics at some point. I would probably qualify for the Summer Olympics before I read the Brothers Karamazov. Don’t ask which event because then things get really dicey. Possibly Wii bowling.
I came away from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Ford’s book-reading this afternoon at Powell’s with fascinating insight into his writing process, motivation for writing, and day-to-day life as a writer. Not to mention, I also scored an autographed copy of his latest novel, Canada, and a parking ticket – the latter of which did not come from Ford.
I wanted to share one thing Ford said, in particular. During the Q&A portion of Ford’s appearance, an audience member asked him whether he found imperfections in his work, now that it was on shelves. Ford answered the question in a roundabout way, noting he did the best he could in the time provided, and then released the book into the world.
In essence, he said he saw no point in holding the book two more years to see how he felt about it then.
“Do it now,” Ford said about his process. “Do the best you can. Get on with it.”
That’s a pretty good credo to live by, whether you’re writing a book or doing any number of things, I thought. Give what you have at that moment in time and then move on. I like it.
George Dohrmann glued his “grassroots” basketball tour de force, Play Their Hearts Out, to my fingertips and even flipped the pages for me this weekend. Hell, he cooked the beef-flavored ramen I ate while reading too. I’m not sure how he did it, but he did.
Play Their Hearts Out proved impossible to put down. I am a fan of sports non-fiction, in general. Dohrmann’s chronicle of AAU coach/glorified pimp Joe Keller, his star player Demetrius Walker, and their ups and downs over an eight-year period held my interest like few other books I have read in recent memory.
Reading Play Their Hearts Out provided me the same feelings of joy, heartache, and anger I felt the first time I watched Hoop Dreams or read Friday Night Lights. To label Dohrmann’s work a basketball book would be like labeling David Simon’s classic HBO drama The Wire a cop show.
The Pacific Northwest’s never-ending winter has a way of choking happiness out of people. There’s something about staring up at gray skies day after day after day that has a negative psychological effect, particularly on a bayou boy like me.
So, with that in mind, I picked up a copy of Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project at Powell’s a few weeks ago. I had never heard of the New York Times bestseller. Powell’s has a bestseller’s bookshelf, and sure enough this paperback with its fun, light blue cover attracted me.
So did the thought of being happier.
It’s time for another list. This one contains my 10 most popular blog posts of 2011, according to WordPress statistics. All were written in 2011, except the Tucker Max post (November 2010).
I want to thank everyone who read this blog over the past year. My page views were eight times higher than 2010! I also encourage you to “like” me on Facebook.
Below are my 10 most popular blog posts of 2011. Enjoy!