categories: Cocktail Hour
What am I missing? What’s the best new reading? What’s the best old reading? Doesn’t have to be books, I suppose, though it should be portable. No—I leave it open. Books, Magazines, Websites, Books on CD or what do you call ’em, Podcasts. I’m capitalizing them all in equal respect.
I’d like to generate some lists here. Let’s start with the twelve or so books and articles and anything else you think I should be reading this summer. Twelve weeks, is what I’m talking about.
My favorite recent reading was Edward Hoagland’s essay in Harper’s last month: “Last Call: Old Age and the end of Nature.” It’s a lyrical and joyful and yet slightly depressed look at mortality from the vantage point of someone almost 80 years old, a guy who’s written about nature his whole career, and other things. Here’s an arresting line: “The skinning of the earth, the shriveling of diversity, diminishes the reach of ecstasy as a metaphor for life, and therefore my regret at leaving it.” Leaving life, he means.
And I listened to Madame Bovary in the car having not read it since college. And it’s great. It’s really great. In college I was told it was great and was inclined to agree, but this experience, driving long distance, listening, listening: the book really is great, from sentences to paragraphs to the biggest big picture stuff—personality and culture, the works. (Another great one on tape is Lady Chatterly’s Lover—an English actress reads it and it’s unbelievably sexy—also made me realize that I’d read an abridged version in college… the way this actress utters the word cunt, and the context in which the word appears, and the century that has passed since it was placed in its sentence, wow.)
I have come to appreciate Chris Matthews on MSNBC (as found on the internet) very much. And it’s not just that he’s a Holy Cross grad and reminds me of the students I had there. It’s that he’s smart—he’s really smart, also funny. Wise and incisive. Reliably left of center. Probably well right of me, but he teaches me how to argue without spitting. And I love a man who smiles when he’s angry. Is that reading? Yes, in that MSNBC and other websites and have largely replaced my newspaper reading (and completely replaced my TV news thing). I don’t even get the Nation anymore!
New York Review of Books. Indispensible. Smart people who actually analyze books and really say what’s important in them and what’s wrong with them, across a very wide range of interests. I’ve heard writer friends complain that it’s clubby, but really, how many writers can one magazine have in its stable?
Great interview with John McPhee in the Paris Review, current issue. He’ll be 80 next year, another guy getting on in years and still writing well. The thing that struck me most is how hard writing has always been for McPhee. He says he sweats it out all day everyday till the last minutes of his time and finally makes himself write something… McPhee! And he can’t believe it when someone says he’s prolific. Writing as pain. I want to quote from it right now, but I can’t find the mag in all the piles around here… I’ll update when I do…
I’ve seen a number of good movies lately. Read them, really, since I watch movies as a writer, especially fascinated with structure and transitions, also story. Slowly, I’m realizing that what I want is narrative—the form hardly matters. A favorite recent film was La Danse, a documentary about the Paris Opera Ballet, one season, a gaggle of dancers, some six dances from auditions through rehearsals to performance. Dazzling dancers who know they’re among the best in the world. They get these brutal critiques and just listen and smile and suck it up and make the appropriate changes immediately, before our eyes. Favorite thing was the tough (female) director talking to the frank prima absoluta, who says: I’m getting too old (she’s like 40) to do all these dances this season. She wants to drop one or two. The director says, Of course you can do all those dances! Or something like that—very delicate, as she can’t just immediately agree the dancer is getting too old… Then later, same office, a fabulous new young ballerina is terrified—she’s been called up out of the ranks, she’s sure she’s going to be fired—this you see in her face. And the director says very casually that the prima absoluta may be dropping a dance this season—just the kind of dance this young woman would be right for. I’m not saying we’re going to give it to you. And the young dancer just begins to glow, stumbles all over herself getting out of there, aware that her big moment has just come.
I realize these are all very and fairly mainstream activities—I could go on and on—so, please, tell me about the best new stuff, the obscure corners (aside from myself) I need to know about. What I’m most interested in is finding that next great book that will blow me away. Or narrative in any form—I say it all counts as reading. So much to choose from—you’ll have to sell your picks—why are they better than other stuff I might want to experience?
Because I’m remembering another Harper’s article from some years back, a guy saying, okay, how many books can I reasonably expect to read before I die? (Can anyone identify the author? It was early nineties—I haven’t found it in Harper’s archive as yet—such thin search parameters left in my memory). The number isn’t all that high, once you calculate it. Your life reading list can only be so long. You want to make your reading hours count. You don’t want to miss peak experiences.
Help me out here!
[for more on our recent reading, check out Reading Under the Influence]
[The dog in the photo owns my friend Lily Arnold, who says: “Annabel is reading “Travels with Charley.” She wants to hitch a small airstream to the back of the car and follow Steinbeck’s route, taking down notes from a female’s point of view. We wrote Ellen Degeneres to see if she might want to sponsor us, but she never responded.”]