Tuesday, March 3, 2020

“By the Book” for the rest of us

I’m beginning to suspect that the “By the Book” people at The New York Times are never going to call. Perhaps it’s because of my snarky posts about Michiko Kakutani’s too-frequent use of the word messy. Sigh. So I’m making my own “By the Book” column, or post, with questions pulled from a couple of Times columns. Why should such questions be the province of the well-known alone?

What books are on your nightstand?

As Gertrude Stein might have said, There ain’t any nightstand, there ain’t going to be any nightstand, there never has been any nightstand, that’s the nightstand.

But I have many books yet to read on shelves or in piles. A few: James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain; Vladimir Nabokov, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight; W.G. Sebald, A Place in the Country; Gabriele Tergit, Käsebier Takes Berlin.

What’s the last great book you read?

Robertson Davies, Fifth Business, the first novel of The Deptford Trilogy. Elaine has been praising these novels for years. Now we’re reading them together, and I second her emotion. I’d say that if you like Stephen Millhauser’s fiction, you’ll love Robertson Davies.

Describe your ideal reading experience.

A printed book. A chair or sofa that’s comfortable enough but not too comfortable. (Zzz.) A cup of coffee or tea nearby. A pencil. Post-it Notes. My iPhone for looking up words on the fly.

What’s your favorite little-known book?

Many of my favorite books are little known. I’ll pick one: Ted Berrigan’s A Certain Slant of Sunlight, late poems written on postcards, published posthumously. Berrigan’s use of the postcard has a lot to do with the way I’ve come to think of the blog post: a small but extremely flexible space.

Another: Works and Days, an several-hundred-page issue of the Quarterly Review of Literature devoted to the poet David Schubert: all his poems, published and unpublished, and a running commentary on his life and work by those who knew him.

Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?

I think highly of Roger Angell, Rae Armantrout, Clark Coolidge, Bryan Garner, Stephen Millhauser, and Alice Munro, among others. But most of my reading is of the dead, and really, any writer whose work is being read is working today. John Ashbery and Toni Morrison are working today.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

The story of the Bollandists, an association founded by Jesuits and devoted to hagiography. The work of the group is part of Fifth Business.

How do you organize your books?

Not as well as I once did. There’s one bookcase of ancients. Another with works running from Gilgamesh to Thomas Hardy. Two more with modern poetry. Another with modern fiction. Another with art and music. Two more with non-fiction prose and reference works. Two more with books recently read and books on tap. As my reading interests have expanded, it’s not as easy to find things as it used to be.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

I have almost two dozen books by or about Thomas Merton. What can I say? I am a devout non-believer and Thomas Merton fan. I admire his humanity, his humor, and his ability to change his thinking: having found the answer, he discovered that there were others. Reading Merton’s journals has taught me a lot about my own world of work. An academic department, with people (mostly) in for the long haul, is in some ways much like a monastic community. Better hope you can get along with your abbot (chair).

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

I read mostly comic books, How and Why books, and the World Book Encyclopedia. The book that made a reader and re-reader of fiction: Clifford Hicks’s Alvin’s Secret Code, which I borrowed again and again from the public library. I still re-read it once a year (now as an ex-library copy of my own). The only “classic” I can recall reading in childhood is Treasure Island, in sixth grade, for school.

[March 13: A “classic” I forgot: Great Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. I also bought A Tale of Two Cities, but I don’t think I ever read it. I bought these books in a department store, 45¢ each.]

How have your reading tastes changed over time?

My formal eduction was almost entirely about Anglo-American lit. Now I read more and more in translation from French and German and Spanish. I am back to my high-school self in a way, when I was reading Borges and Kafka. And I’ve become much more generous toward the nineteenth century. Not everything needs to be modernist.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

I’m sorry, but I really have no reason to think that anyone I might invite would show up. I’d rather spend an evening with true friends. But I’d give anything to speak, through an interpreter, with Homer and Sappho, whoever they were.

What do you plan to read next?

The Manticore and World of Wonders, the next two novels of The Deptford Trilogy.

An invitation in the spirit of the open Internet: Reader, why not post your own responses to such questions? Add some, omit some, make up your own. If you write such a post, let me know, and I will link to it here.


March 4: At 30 Squares of Ontario, J.D. Lowe offers what he calls a tongue-in-cheek “By the Book”: “By the Book” — Miniature Buildings Edition.


March 11: At Traingeek, Steve Boyko offers “By the Book” — Railfan Edition.


May 4: Pete Anderson offers his responses to The Guardian ’s “Books that made me” prompts. And, inspired by Pete’s effort, Elaine Fine offers her responses to those prompts. (I think I prefer those prompts to the NYT questions.)

comments: 17

Chris said...

You left out one of my favorites: "Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like and didn’t?"

Michael Leddy said...

Hmm. There are some I wanted to like and didn’t. Sense and Sensibility comes to mind. (Now ducking for cover.)

Elaine said...

Wait! Not _Charlotte's Web_? And what about the 3 books by Gannet, beginning with _My Father's Dragon?

Michael Leddy said...

No, not a one, honest. But I have read E.B. White’s books for children as a grown-up.

Sean Crawford said...

Thomas Merton was one of three people we took in our one semester college course called "Outstanding Lives." The other two were Simone Weil (who wrote the Poem of Force essay-texbook about Troy) and Ghandi. All three died before their time.

Michael Leddy said...

That sounds like a great humanities course.

brownstudy said...

During a self-imposed sabbatical from working in 1999 I read all of Robertson Davies, from the first novel to the last, in order, and then dipped into his letters and essays over the years. Big-hearted novelist.

I loved "World of Wonders." Of the later books, "What's Bred in the Bone" still sticks in my memory; would love to go back to that. Pair that book with Orson Welles' "F for Fake" (the Criterion edition, of course).

The other book I remember reading on that binge in 1999 was "The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony." (I deeply imprinted in 4th grade on "D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths", checked it out over and over, and never got over it.)

Michael Leddy said...

I think there’s much more RD in my reading future. If I had understood what he’s about (or what I think, so far, he’s about), I would have been reading him much earlier. He seems to be endlessly inventive in his storytelling.

Elaine Fine said...

I still have my childhood copy of that book of Greek Myths. Mine is a first edition, and was my childhood everything. It is actually only one of three remnants of my childhood that I have (the others are a necklace with my name on it, and a sad jewelry box). My brother, who took possession of the book and slapped a bookplate with his name on it on the inside cover, drew a dotted line connecting Odysseus and Penelope on the “family tree” page. I did get the book back, eventually.

Fresca said...

Oooh, fun!
I want to play too! (Soon.)

I am surprised you are a fan of Thomas Merton--not because it doesn't make sense but just because I don't recall you mentioning him before.

Some nice old editions of Thomas Merton books have been donated to the thrift store in the past couple years--not first printings of first editions, but close...
Next time we get one, should I check if you are interested?

LOVED this:
"Any writer whose work is being read is working today."

I laughed at you pointing out that writers might not respond to your (or any of our) invitations to dinner.
With that in mind, I would invite Thoreau because he always seemed to be mooching at dinnertime...

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks, but I think I’ve got plenty Merton. Someone else should enjoy them. I have seven Merton posts, including his 1940 NYC telephone listing.

Thoreau — he was such a grump. It’d be awful if he dared to complain during a free meal.

Play soon!

Fresca said...

P.S. I remembered that I was thinking about Thomas Merton just two days ago,
as I composed my Mary Oliver-esque lines,

"You do not need to ground your refrigerator.
Let the electricity travel its natural path."

To be specific, I could have written "fan"... But I was also thinking of the scene in the A S Byatt novel whose name I forgot in which a young woman is electrocuted by her refrigerator.

We may have lethal viruses, but in the USA anyway, electrical appliances are grounded--I bet young people don't even know fridges and fans used to kill people.

I really am eager to play--after my birthday trip!

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, the fan that electrocuted Thomas Merton. (I know though that there are those who doubt the accepted narrative.)

The Subliminal Mr Dunn said...

What a brilliant idea, Michael! If I can find the energy (see my latest post), I might try this myself.

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, do. :)

Steve Boyko said...

I saw J D Lowe's version of this quiz on "30 Squares of Ontario", which linked here... you both inspired me to write my own version. Thanks! :)

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for letting me know — I’ll add a link.