Twelve Random Reading Observations

categories: Reading Under the Influence


1. Just read This Won’t Take But a Minute Honey, a small collection of essays and stories by Steve Almond.  I liked the stories a lot, especially the one about Fenway Park, but loved the little essays.  If you enjoy the writing advice that Bill sometimes doles out on this website, then you’ll really enjoy the same from Almond, who writes about writing with similar wit, panache and common sense.

2. Not long ago I posted a picture here of a pile of books sitting on the desk of my writing shack and got a little healthy hell about many of the author in that pile being dead and male.  A few perceptive (and kind) viewers came to my defense and pointed out that they had discovered Mary Oliver, Joan Didion, and Annie Dillard in the pile.  But one they missed was May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude.  Does anybody else still read Sarton?  I used to love her, and have always wanted to write a book of journal entries—the Shack Journals?—but while I like to scribble in my journal I have a hard time imagining converting it, as is and artless, into a book.  For me at least it tends to be a less-energetic and private genre. On the other hand, I’m a sucker for it as a reader.  I gobbled up Sarton and also Rick Bass’s Winter, which other friends found unpalpable.  Oddly, I find Thoreau’s journals kind of dull (though I understand the achievement and its importance as a repository from which to draw.)

3. It was interesting teaching my “Writing Life” class this semester. I think it went pretty well and the reading list was basically a bunch of books that I had loved in my teens and twenties when I was starting out as a writer.  Unfortunately, I hadn’t gone back and read The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm, which proved the term’s dud. I still think of it fondly, especially the part about our need to have ultimate concerns in our life and the way we must dedicate to those concerns daily and consistently if we want to master them.  But I understand that a lot of it is now dated, and that there is an ugly homophobia to his description of love that he does not deem “normal.”  (That homophobia pales next to that of Mailer in Armies of the Night….)

4. If there wasn’t a lot of love for Art of Loving, than these books were ones the class really responded to:

* Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees (Great reassuring, practical advice for writers.)

* John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction (The students were blown away by how much of the modern workshop technique seems to come directly from this book—psychic distance, etc…–and said, basically, “Umm, so that’s where our professors get that lingo.”)

* James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (one of the great single-breath essay spiels of all time and something that still makes you feel racism.)

* E.M. Forester’s Aspects of the Novel (the best thing about it is that it makes you want to quit class and go write.)

* Wallace Stegner’s On Writing and Teaching Fiction (eloquent common sense advice from the master.)

*Van Gogh’s Letters (word paintings and a sense of the sheer willing of man into artist art.)

5.  Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life didn’t fare quite so well.  People were uneasy with the extreme retreat of the author, and the implication that to do great work we all had to pull away from life and friends.  I am still love the book but understand.  Since most of us are wrapped up in the messiness of life, and can only retreat, at best, for a few hours each day, we are reluctant to embrace the notion that art is best created within the cocoon of an isolated island get away.  (I don’t know, an island sounds pretty good right now.)

6. A summer later, after all the hoopla has died down, I am really looking forward to settling in with Franzen’s Freedom.

7. I walked by my colleague Clyde Edgerton’s office and felt a surge of guilt when I saw him reading Infinite Jest.  I have read Wallace’s nonfiction but have been too intimidated to go near that cinder block of a book.  Someone tell me how great it is and get me excited about tackling it.  (And do you have to tackle it?)

8. In an earlier post I mentioned that Betsy Lerner, in the Forest for the Trees says of waiting on an editor’s response (after having handed over your manuscript) that: “It’s like waiting for the results of a biopsy.”  Is this too much?  As someone who has waited on the results of a biopsy, I would say it isn’t.  Not that, in the big picture, the things are anywhere near being of equal importance: metaphoric life or death versus real life or death.  But the reason the metaphor works, I think, is that if you have undergone the waiting on the editor (not doctor) it begins to consume your life and destroy your confidence and everything in the world hinges on the desperately awaited word.

9. Want to feel calmer?  No need for Valium, just try Wendell Berry’s Recollected Essays.  How is it that, in the course of telling us how much is wrong with the world, he makes us feel so good?  A spiritual tonic.

10.  I miss the Boston Globe sports page.  Long ago, I wrote a book in a voice that was equal parts Bob Ryan and Dan Shaughnessy. Less appealing, to my sensibilities, were the flowery, overly mannered columns of Leigh Montville.  And one I don’t miss at all is Bud Collins.

11.  Did anyone else read/look at Tony Mendoza’s Stories, a book of photos and short memoiristic essay-type pieces.  A genre-braking pleasure.

12. These days when I cartoon I keep one book nearby.  Matt Groening’s Life is Hell compendium.  But I also find myself wondering: what is Bill Watterson doing now?

A note on the links: for the moment I have made all the book links to Amazon.  I’m sure that this is very bad but here’s my reasoning.  It’s what most people use, where most people have accounts, and therefore where they are most likely to actually go and buy the book.  I worked for independent bookstores, I I know it’s wrong, but it makes sense to me….please feel free to show me another way.

  1. Bill Diskin writes:

    May Sarton is simply too damn depressing…we got enough of our own darkness to explore. I agree with rebecca, it always feels like she’s pissed at you and all you did was pick up one of her books…

    I gotta go with writer’s websites or, gulp, wikipedia bio pages for the links. Amazon is reality, no doubt, but wouldn’t it be great if not feeding it meant smaller, cozier booksellers could make a small profit…my favorite moments online are those invoIving exchanges that are not commerce.

    I bet Bill Watterson is not a linear reader…

    i don’t think I’ve ever written “cozier” in a blog comment/discussion before tonight. There is a good chance, I will never do it again.

    • Bill Diskin writes:

      that’s writers’ web sites, actually…(does spelling count on this?)

      • Dave writes:

        I don’t think spelling counts too much. I’ll try to link to website but from my point of view, as a writer, I want to sell books (among other things) and, taking into account human indolence, I want to nudge people closer to where that is easy to do. For instance, I am the kind of on-line person who is stopped dead cold whenever I am asked to fill out a form, colder still if asked for a credit card. Since my Amazon was set up, by Nina, in prehistoric on-line times, it is one of the few places where no form-filling out is required. I know that is lame and giving into the man and actually having now typed it out I realize it is time ti change my ways… thanks. Where should I buy my books?

  2. Bill writes:

    I rather liked May Sarton till I read the Margot Peters biography (which I was assigned by Newsday, back when they had a books section). Peters set out to right a sunny bio of a favorite writer, but came in her research to find a pretty horrible person. More, the facts give the lie to the journals. Ugh. Tony Mendoza was a colleague of mine at Ohio State and a friend, brilliant photographer. He left Cuba with his family at about age 12 after the revolution, and has another book, photos from a trip back. He found all the old family places in new uses, very strange and wonderful. As for links, how about the writers’ web sites? Well, those are easy enough for people to Google!

    • Rebecca writes:

      it’s funny, i’ve always loved sarton as well but had an uneasy feeling reading her, as if she didn’t like me (the reader) somehow. i have to read that biography to figure out our relationship.

    • nina writes:

      Love Tondy Mendoza. Hadley and I are great fans of Ernie.