Thursday, May 14, 2020

Chris on Reading Backwards

As a reader, I am by no means a completist. I tend to jump from book to book and author to author without much thought about it beyond “what’s on top of the closest pile to this seat?” and “am I in the mood for a serious literary exploration of the contemporary milieu or for something with megasharks and meth gators in it?” I think a part of this is that even if I love a book, when I flip to the good old “also by” page in the front, the author’s list of other work starts to look, to me, an awful lot like a required reading assessment sheet. And if there is one thing I cannot do, it’s required reading.

A frequent conversation from my schoolboy years:
“Chris, you were supposed to read the book.”
“Look! I read four other books!”
“But you were supposed to read this book.”

Don’t ask me where this started. Perhaps it’s just a symptom of my suspicion of authority - a think-for-yourself streak that is, semi-ironically enough, generally encouraged by, you know, reading books. I’m incapable of taking any book recommendation that starts with “oh, if you loved book X, then you are going to be crazy about book Y” - because, let’s be honest, I’m never going to love book Y. Instead, I’m going to spend the whole read comparing the two in my head so I can tell you why why book x is far superior. What can I say, I’m competitive in weird ways.

I’ve even managed to skim right past books and writers who are, deservingly, considered classics and all time greats by those in the bookish know. In fact, read this whole post for an ultra-embarrassing literary confession.

But - but but but - every now and then, a book is so good that I have to spend more time with the author. It’s usually a writer’s voice, the kind that grabs me from the first page and weasels its way into my head until I can’t stop hearing it. Or it’s a writer with such an original perspective on the world that I can’t wait to have my mind re-blown. And then that Also By page starts looking a lot less like a chore and a lot more like something to celebrate. Yay, there’s more to read by this freakin’ genius!

And so - how about some of the authors who’ve inspired this sort of backwards reading for me?

First and most recently, the book that inspired this post - if you’ve followed this blog, you know a couple weeks ago I interviewed Rufi Thorpe about her latest novel, The Knockout Queen. It’s my favorite book of the year, and her writing voice is so good - smart, funny, written with uncanny clarity - that I had to read more. And so I just finished her first novel, The Girls from Corona Del Mar. In her interview, Thorpe said this - “For me the novel is kind of philosophy with tables and chairs and fruit and sex in it.” And that couldn’t be more true of her first book, a decades-spanning story of a friendship that asks the big questions about motherhood, responsibility, life, and death, that’s so full of beauty and brutality. It’s another stunner, and Thorpe’s second novel, Dear Fang, With Love, is next up on my stack.

An author I’ve been reading since grad school (ten years ago, yikes!) when I was living in his hometown is Stewart O’Nan, but it wasn’t until his 11th book that I finally got it together to read something by one of Pittsburgh’s literary hometown heroes. Last Night at the Lobster is an unforgettable singe-day-in-the-life-of-a-failing-chain-restaurant-manager novel that crams more life into just over 100 pages than a lot of books cram into three or four hundred pages. I had to read more. I haven’t read every book of his (yet!) but a couple particular favorites of the O’Nan canon (the O’Nanon) are The Night Country (sadly out of print) and Snow Angels, which of course was the novel-turned-film that catapulted O’Nan’s career.

One more book I finished recently was so good I had to share it with my girlfriend, who red it all in a day on our couch intermittently shouting to me, “Mr. Lanksy has written quite a book!” Why was she shouting? I was sitting three feet away! That’s simply how good Sam Lanksy’s Broken People (out June 9) is - so good you have to shout. It’s rangy, searching, and razor-sharply self-critical autofiction about Sam, a broken young writer desperate to be healed via a weekend ayahuasca trip led by a bougie middle-aged white guy shaman. So good, in fact, that I immediately purchased a copy of Lanksy’s first book, a memoir called The Gilded Razor about Lanksy’s youth as an all-star student at an elite New York City prep school whose addiction to prescription pills spirals rapidly out of control. And how good is that? I couldn’t yet tell you - said girlfriend swiped it the moment I bought it into the house and has yet to give it back!
Okay, as promised, my super-embarrassing literary confession. For years - and I mean years - I never read Joan Didion. Oh, I pretended I had for sure, but I never actually got around to it until a few years ago. And now that I’m hiding behind the couch while you chuck things at me, let me explain. It was, again, a part of my knee-jerk reaction that the moment someone starts calling a writer “the voice of a generation,” and “the premier chronicler of America” I start to go, “this sounds like homework.” Obviously a mistake, which I found out a few years back when staying at my father’s house and, too lazy (yes, laziness does, as you’ve notice, influence how my reading selections trend) to go find something else to read, I picked up the copy of The Year of Magical Thinking that was on the bedside table. Blown away. Immediately, I had to read more. I tore through the classics like Slouching Toward Bethlehem and The White Album, but my still-my-favorite no matter what I read is the immerses-you-completely-in-another-place-in-time novel, Play It As It Lays. And now I no longer have to lie about reading Didion.

No comments:

Post a Comment