June 24, 2011 Writers Writing About Writers Who Write, Part Two
Now, I’m old enough to know that we all deal with death and mourning in different ways. Some of us, as my mother did when my father died, stay in shock for a long time, losing weight and looking at the world through glassy eyes. Others may cut their hair, gain weight, move, change careers, or, in many cases that we tend not to discuss, blossom. Death, after all, for all the bitterness and sorrow, often offers a certain sense of freedom and the chance for redefinition of self as well…
In all the myriad ways that one might express grief, I had never considered for a moment that some might want to read their way out of it. It seems, to me, an odd sort of thing to do, except when I consider the idea of mortality, wrapped around death. When I think of the things that I have in mind as wanting to do before I die, I realize that a death of a loved one might be enough to spur me on.
Which is the case for Nina Sankovitch, author of the readallday.org blog and of the new book Tolstoy and the Purple Chair. I had a chance to review Sankovitch’s book recently as The New York Journal of Books—take a look if you’ve a mind to.
When her sister dies, Sankovitch takes herself up on an scheme that she has wanted to do apparently for some time and decides to allow herself the luxury—and, indeed, what a luxury it seems—to sit herself down in her purple chair and read a book a day for a year. She also decides that she will, the day after reading the book, review it on her site.
This is where, for me, the ick factor sets in.
I can completely support (although no one, to be fair, asked me to) the idea of reading a book a day for a year. Or, more precisely, as we shall see, I can support the idea of reading for a nice long chunk of time each day for a year—the book-a-day factor seems artificial to me for reasons that I will present below. And I completely support anything that one must do, including chocolate, quitting one’s job and getting one or more dogs, in order to deal with deep grief. But the whole of this thing seems frankly odd to me.
First, let me note that Nina Sankovitch lives just down the road from me in Westport, CT. Having lived in Westport, I can fully attest that it is one reading town. You can get away book-free in Fairfield or Norwalk, but you’d better have a good book anecdote to tell or you will be thrown out of many a dinner party or deli in Westport. (Happily, Litchefield County, where I recently moved, has proved itself to be a fairly reading place as well, and one that appreciated the finer things, just like Westport, our Mother Ship.)
Back to the topic. I must say that, in reading The Purple Chair, I was moved by the early chapters that told the story of the sister’s passing and of the relationships among all the members of Sankovitch’s birth family. It was not until the reading reading reading started that I began to twitch.
There were the rules, for instance. The sad part of demanding of oneself that you read a book a day is that it immediately rules out books over a certain number of pages—somewhere between 300 and 400 for most of us, as we determine how much of the actual day we can give to reading.
That rules out a hell of a lot of great books right there. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Forget about it. Catch 22. No way. Instead, you get to read Gatsby over and over, but not The Beautiful and the Damned or even Zelda’s book, Caeser’s Things. Too long. Too weird.
Why, I asked myself upon reading this rule, would anyone want to create a situation in which short books were deemed “possible” if not “superior” to longer books? Me, I like my books long—Garp, Great Expecations, the Foundation trilogy, Dune, on and on—and so I cannot understand why someone who so loves books (and Sankovitch moistens the pages of her own books slobbering over other people’s books) would want to narrow down and eliminate some of the great books from great authors (poor Henry James) just because of length and because the whole of the experiment is set up like a sea cruise in which the time as come to bid Naples goodbye after our allotted five hours and so back to the boat and on to the next port.
Plus you end up reading waaayyyy too much Hemingway.
Not for me. Really. Not for me. Let me linger in Naples and read at my own pace (even with a reviewer’s deadlines).
This other part that gets me is the “I shall review the book the next day” part. This concerns me for two reasons. First, it even more gets in the way of the reading. Why split your attention in having to take an hour or so to blog about the book if what you want it the real, true and pure love of reading in the first place?
And, second, that fact that her blog was in place and she was filling it with all her adventures in reading seems a little too capitalistic to me. As if she had seen Julie and Julia or read the Julie/Julia Project at Salon.com and wondered what variation on the theme of spending a year doing something might yield her literary results.
Am I being icky and critical here? Perhaps. But the fact that Sankovitch’s pathway to hard cover publication pretty much followed the exact same trajectory as Julie Powell’s did makes me squirm a bit in my chair. From blog to New York Times feature article to book contract to (maybe, just maybe—although filming someone reading and writing reviews could be problematic) a movie. We’ll see.
Where the book collapses inward like a partially baked soufflé is when Sankovitch, having pretty much told us her whole story, begins to present chapter after chapter extolling various books read and linking them to childhood memories. The best of these is the Tolstoy memory, which earned its way into the title (and a very good title it is), but that it the end of the book and getting there is no easy read. A love of books that is based on the number of pages and on the cover, the title or what is at hand, is a rather tepid love at best.
Now this little book lives up to its topic—the why and wherefore of an author choosing to adopt a pen name—with a great deal of verve. That Ciuraru chose well in selecting the authors to write about—do not for any reason miss the chapter on writer Patricia Highsmith, the author of Strangers on a Train and the superb-to-the-point-of-perfect The Talented Mr. Ripley—and writes with such affection about her subjects and with such a revealing and light touch that the reader starts to try and slow down as he realized that the number of pages is waning, only to keep reading full speed in order to learn what happens next.
The account of the authors and their new personae is something like the cable shows that reveal what happens to people who win lotteries. Some are far better with their pen names than they were ever before (George Orwell). Some suffer for the sake of their new identities (Romain Gary, in one of the book’s funniest chapters). And for some the change means little (Sylvia Plath took a pen name to protect her mother who she had written about harshly in her book The Bell Jar—but she died soon after publication and the truth rang out, sparing her mother nothing whatsoever).
Note that I have also reviewed this book at the NYJB. If you’d like to know more about it, here’s the review.
Now, having had some time pass since I read and reviewed these books, it seems to me that the difference between the two of them is that, in one, the love is ladled on the books—almost to the point of a fetish—and, in the other, the love is for literature and for those who write it.
This may seem an odd thing to say, and yet, having read both books, and having reviewed so many others over the years, it has occurred to me again and again that there is a vast difference between books and literature. One would think that books are the object that contains the literature. And to a point that is true. But books are objects that can contain so many things. A great deal of crap, for instance. So the fact that a given bit of work has found its way into covers in no way guarantees literature.
I was once someone who hoarded books. I worshiped the little paper idols. No more. When I moved from a farmhouse in Easton, things changed. (Repeat after me, slowly and with one of those mysterious European accents that movies favor: “I had a farm in Easton…”) In part they changed through downsizing. Moving from a huge old farmhouse to a historic little cottage in the historic area of a historic little Connecticut town require one to give away a hell of a lot of books.
But timing was part of it as well. We moved just as the Kindle, and, even better, the iPad came into vogue, allowing me to store thousands of books in one super-object. Miraculous. And the Internet, which is a source from which you can end up mainlining literature if you want to.
So the point is this: don’t confuse the book (the object) with its contents. One is a vital, living thing: an act of creativity and communication, the point of which is to allow one heart and mind to speak to another in a deep act of communion. The other is a dusty thing and will hurt your back if you move too many.
So next time our dear friend takes to her purple chair, I hope it will be for healing act of reading that happens when two minds collide. And I hope she experiences great joy in the act.
Tags: E-books, E-publishing, Earnest Hemingway, Easton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Orwell, Lily Tomlin, Nina Sankovitch, Nom De Plume, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Patricia Highsmith, pen names, print publishing, Publishing, Romain Gary, Stranger on a Train, Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, The Great Gatsby, The World According to Garp, TheTalented Mr. Ripley, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, Westport, Zelda Fitzgerald