Thursday, September 18, 2008

Which Writers Are Indispensible?

I am not even going to pretend that this post will be coherent, but I mean to touch on a subject I have been thinking about recently. You may notice – ‘you’ meaning ‘person reading this blog’, which I think may amount to maybe 3 people at the most – that I have added a slight modification to the “What We’re Reading” section on the left there, where we indicate which books we have ‘on deck’. The ones we are planning to read, for those of you who don’t know baseball. If you have noticed this, you may read through it and ask: what the hell is ‘Melvillepalooza’?!?

(Actually, your first reaction was probably closer to ‘Man, what friggin’ DORKS these guys are!’ But then again, what are you doing reading this blog in the first place if you do not have at least some symptoms of the same disease? If this is you, and you’re still not down with it, go back to your ‘Friends’ list on Facebook and leave the literary discussion to the big dogs.)

The thought occurred to me at some point this year, I can’t say when, that one thing I almost never do is read two books in a row by the same author. It happens sometimes, but it’s rare; it’s not something that I really enjoy for one simple reason: variety. I don’t want to read too much of the same sort of thing in a row. And I find that even if an author’s novels are all very different from one another – someone like Ron Hansen, or Michael Chabon, to cite just two examples – you can still tell it was written by the same guy (or woman), and more often than not some of the same broader themes will emerge in one way or another.

But others sometimes tell me that once they find a writer they like, they go out and find everything by that person and blow through it all in one long shot. My wife does this sometimes, if it’s a writer whose work she really finds compelling. I have never done this, as I said before; I guess it just goes against my impulses as a reader, and there are always so many other books out there I am longing to get to. Yet I had heard it enough times that I finally had the idea to ask myself, ‘If I was going to read several books in a row by the same writer, which writer would I select?’ This is the question that I have been considering off and on for several months now.

If I was ever going to entertain this idea, I thought, I would have to choose a writer that to me was indispensable. I would have to be certain that all of that time reading [SELECTED WRITER]’s books was time well spent. One has to remember that for however long it would take to read a number of one individual writer’s books in a row, that is time you would not spend reading novels by other talented writers. But which writers are indispensable? Everyone has to decide that for themselves. As soon as I started to think about which ones were to me personally, the list was short, and I discovered that I had already read many of those writers’ works. Not all of them of course, but most of them. I had to branch out: I was interested in finding a writer that would probably be considered ‘indispensable’ reading by any ‘objective’ account, that I had not read before, or had not read much of.

So which writers are really indispensible? Meaning you can’t check out of this life without having read them, if you are interested in literature? Although I am always interested in literature from other countries – indeed, world literature is some of the most satisfying reading for me, because it allows me to ‘travel’ when I cannot afford to do it for real! – I wanted to start with the literary tradition of my own country. Which whittled the list down considerably. So then: which American writers are really, genuinely, indispensible reading?

William Faulkner? Without a doubt: but I have read a lot of his books. There are enough more than I haven’t read that I could easily have used him as my guinea pig for this project, but for some reason I wanted this to be more of a journey of discovery, and I know more about Faulkner than I do about many other great American writers. I have read a major biography of him as well. It seemed too safe and too obvious to choose him.

John Steinbeck? Probably, but he is already one of my all-time favorites. I’ve read a great deal of Steinbeck and have thought about his work endlessly. He is clearly not the writer I want for a journey of discovery. I also have read a very big biography of Steinbeck.

Flannery O’Connor? A strong early possibility. But I am also very, very familiar with her work. I have read all of her fiction, but not her letters (yet). She would be a fine prospect for this idea, but again, I feel too familiar with her writing. Not that reading her more and again would not be a good idea. But it was starting to feel to me like I almost wanted to use this as a chance to correct some oversight, to read someone I really should be a lot more familiar with, but am not.

Mark Twain? A very, very good choice. I know very little of his work. Embarrassingly, I have never read Huckleberry Finn OR Tom Sawyer. (Huckleberry Finn is on my shelf, waiting its turn, as are several other Twain books.) In fact, aside from some stories, the only book of his I have read, if I am not mistaken, is his obscure historical work Joan of Arc. This did seem to be that oversight I had been thinking of fixing. Or one of them. And yet…..I didn’t choose Twain. I don’t know if it has to do with the fact that he wrote a lot of satirical and comical stuff that I don’t always gravitate to as much as more dramatic material. But my gut told me to press on with the search.

And that’s about when it hit me. The only possible choice for this experiment of reading several books in a row by the same writer has to be the man who wrote what for me is the most legitimate and best claim to the elusive title of the “great American novel”. That writer, of course, is Herman Melville.

It all seemed to fit. I have read Moby Dick, but only once, and it was several years ago. It is, needless to say, an absolutely astonishing book, and I still tell people that for me, it is the one novel I can think of that grants the reader the greatest payoff for their effort with its electrifying, terrifying, stunning conclusion. The pursuit of the great white whale is probably the single most powerful literary metaphor ever conceived, for my money (as a depiction of man vs. God). The character of Captain Ahab is an immortal creation that has so embedded itself into the culture that anyone knows what we mean if we refer to some one as being obsessed as Ahab, even though many Americans have never read the novel. It is also true that almost everyone is familiar with its world-famous first line: “Call me Ishmael.”

Yet Moby Dick is merely one of numerous Melville novels that illustrate and define Americans, their culture and their beliefs, all written in a time when the country was raw enough to still be in the process of formation and self-definition. And up until this year, it was the only one of Melville’s famous novels that I had read. Earlier this year I returned to the beginning of his work and read his first book, Typee, which is one of two early novels that are set in the distant lands of Polynesia, but concern themselves with the clash of American sailors and those faraway cultures. I have limited familiarity with his other sea-faring novels, or later works that are set in our country itself like The Confidence-Man or the classic short story (which I have read, once) called “Bartleby, The Scrivener”, set on Wall Street in New York City. To me, once I thought of this great writer, this literary behemoth not unlike a white whale for would-be novelists, my search was over. Melville was the guy.

To conclude, I draw your attention to a memory I have from about seven or eight years ago, around the time of the turn of the millennium. This memory didn’t come back to me in the context of this project until later, but when it again returned to my mind, I used it as a kind of strange confirmation that Herman Melville was the only choice for this Fall’s extensive reading experiment. This occurred before I was a father or even married, back when I was just a young single man without a real direction in the world but for the idea that I wanted to some day write my own novels, a dream I am still trying to drag into existence.

I happened to be in lower Manhattan one day, adjacent to Battery Park, sitting on a wooden bench in a suit and tie, writing in a small journal. I was only there because I was scheduled to have a job interview for a financial newspaper called The Bond Buyer, and they were located almost at the very tip of southern Manhattan. As has always been my custom, I was there ridiculously early for the interview, for I am always paranoid of showing up late. To kill time I sat on the bench, and I think I had brought a book to read and the journal. While I was sitting there, I looked up at the building next to the bench, for some unknown reason, and there I saw a tiny metal plate, drilled into the wall.

I cannot remember the exact wording on the plate. Perhaps the journal, which I still have somewhere, records the text verbatim. But the gist of the plaque was this: This is the place where the great writer Herman Melville was born in the year 1819, author of the classic novel Moby Dick. At that time I had not yet read that book, but I still felt a great burst of inspiration then, something I had never forgotten. There I was, trying to get a writing job in some financial periodical as a means to support myself until I could someday write my own books. And right there, too, in that very spot, had been born a man who also worked in the financial markets, long ago, to support himself. A man who would persist and endure, and eventually even triumph. A man who would write one of the greatest novels ever written, in America or anywhere. It was a great coincidence and a happy occasion and I was thankful for it.

Incidentally, I did not get that job. Sometimes I wonder if the real reason I was there on that day had nothing to do with getting a job, but had a lot more to do with just sitting in that spot and seeing Herman Melville’s birthplace and knowing that that’s what it was.

I don’t know. It will go down as one of these unanswered questions. But I know that Melville is an indispensible American writer, and he is the writer I will be reading in my forthcoming literary experiment, “Melvillepalooza”. I plan to read two novels, one book of his stories, and a well-received critical study of his work written by Andrew Delbanco called Melville: His World and His Work. I am looking forward to it. I might do it again next year, to read some of his other works.

The question anyone reading this must now ask themselves, of course, is: which writer do you think is indispensible? Whoever that is, go out and reward their labor by reading their books. For those hard-working men and women didn’t write those books for themselves. They wrote them for you.

1 comment:

oliviaharis said...
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