Sunday, August 21, 2011

Summer reading

Even though I'm no longer a student and have the summers off, I do work at an academic institution where the summers are quiet and there's a rush of activity in September. So I still like the concept of tackling a long book, or a book I've been meaning to read for a long time, in the summer. When I was in high school, the books were assigned - Bleak House, In Country, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Later, I took on books that seemed to need the boundaries of summer to push me to finish them: The Brothers Karamazov, Pale Fire, and last summer (as chronicled here) Infinite Jest.

This summer, I read James Gleick's book The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. When I bought it, I unabashedly judged it by its cover. Usually, I'm not really interested in books whose titles follow this model - e.g., Cod: The Fish That Changed Everything, or The Tipping Point: Whatever its Subtitle Was. But this book didn't seem gimmicky or patronizing. And in this case, judging the cover was correct. While reading The Information, I was often challenged. I had to stop and read passages multiple times to understand them. And, despite having an advanced degree in a subject that includes the word information, I realized that I didn't expect a lot of what the book was going to cover, especially in the chapters covering the present day. There was a lot more about numbers than I expected, which just shows my bias toward verbal information - not the majority of information around today. Even the words I'm typing will be posted by some process involving a lot of zeroes and ones.

In any case, this is definitely a summer reading book: long, challenging, and probably best broken up with a shorter, lighter work here and there. There were (as usual) a couple of passages that stuck out to me. Two are related to information skills, or verging on information literacy (a documented professional and personal interest of mine). The first is a quotation from Gregory Chaitin, a mathematician and computer scientist:

"The computer does not have that capacity [of a friend], and for our purposes that deficiency is an advantage. Instructions given the computer must be complete and explicit, and they must enable it to proceed step by step." (p. 349)

This is what I have a hard time communicating to college students. In their minds, Google understands what they're thinking, and in a lot of cases, it does. But it doesn't occur to them that there are imperfect processes, that don't involve intuition, going on behind that search. Which leads in to the second quotation, from Lewis Mumford:

"Unfortunately, 'information retrieving,' however swift, is no substitute for discovering by direct personal inspection knowledge whose very existence one had possibly never been aware of, and following it at one's own pace through the further ramification of relevant literature." (p. 404)

In library stacks, of course, one would call this "browsing."

The last one - and I just now realized that all of these are Gleick quoting someone else - is from Tom Stoppard's Arcadia (and points out to me what a huge hole I have in my reading, having never read any of his plays). It's about the burning of the library at Alexandria.

"You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language." (p. 379)

I don't know exactly what I think about this idea, but I found it very interesting and moving.

Anyway. I recommend the book - it's full of things I didn't know before - but you may want to wait until you have a long stretch of time to devote to it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

"The specificity and strength of my relation"

This week, I read a book I've been meaning to read for a while: Maggie Nelson's Bluets. I first came across Maggie Nelson's work when I was working at my college library, shelving on the level with the Ns and Ps. Since I was working on my own senior project writing poems, I often pulled volumes straight from "to be shelved" to read, and this was the case with Nelson's book The Latest Winter. I loved reading that book, her later Jane: A Murder, and now this one.

After reading a review of Bluets, I wasn't sure where to look for it at the bookstore - literary nonfiction, poetry, fiction? As it turns out, I had to have it specially ordered anyway, but I guess what I would call the short, numbered pieces in the book are meditations. In fact, that may have been what the reviewer called them, and I'm just plagiarizing. They're meditations on blue: the color, but also the concept, and other, related concepts: depression, heartbreak, drowning, holiness. It's a very moving book. The writing is literate and honest. There is a lot to think about, and I'm still thinking about a lot of it.

Aside from all that, though, the experience of looking for it in the bookstore, and of reading it, underscored a transition (?) I've been going through lately. I've talked to a couple of people recently who asked me, "Are you still writing poems?" And I am, but far fewer than I used to. Often I find myself with thoughts I want to write down, but at a loss for their proper vehicle: they just don't make a good poem, or even part of one. Reading writers like Maggie Nelson and John D'Agata make me wonder if I should just accept this, write, and then shape whatever it is, whether it turns out to be a poem, an essay, or something else. I'm reminded of the retrospective essay I had to write to complete my English major. I wrote about taking a fiction writing class as a freshman, how it made me realize that I wasn't cut out to write fiction - that I cared so much more about individual words and sentences than plot and dialogue, and should probably concentrate on poetry instead. I wonder if this a similar shift is going on now.

Within Bluets, Maggie Nelson comments on what she's writing and how she's writing it:

"...I imagined creating a blue tome, an encyclopedic compendium of blue observations, thoughts, and facts....I thought I had collected enough blue to build a mountain, albeit one of detritus. But it seems to me now as if I have stumbled upon a pile of thin blue gels scattered on the stage long after the show has come and gone...." (91)

And (referring to Leonard Cohen's song "Famous Blue Raincoat"):
"...I have always loved its final line - 'Sincerely, L. Cohen' - as it makes me feel less alone in composing almost everything I write as a letter. I would even go so far as to say that I do not know how to compose otherwise, which makes writing in a prism of solitude, as I am here, a somewhat novel and painful experiment." (41)

And finally:
"It does not really bother me that half the adults in the Western world also love blue, or that every dozen years or so someone feels compelled to write a book about it. I feel confident enough of the specificity and strength of my relation to it to share." (61)

The thoughts I have, the ones I want to write down - about street names in New England and human behavior and adulthood and a bunch of other stuff - I don't know yet which ones I feel confident enough in their and my specificity to share. But I think I'm going to have to stop tying them to one form to find out.

All quotations from Nelson, Maggie. Bluets. New York: Wave Books, 2009.