Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Island of Unread Books

Since I lack anything particularly interesting to say and, since you really don't want to read about my daily, personal travails, and, since I feel the familiar compulsion to write something to fill the space, and since I really love pointless, run-on sentences, I will ply you with a tale of something lacking.

I recently finished George Saunder's "In Persuasion Nation," which I thoroughly enjoyed, but am now facing down the abyss that every serious reader (and writer) has at one point in his or her life:

I don't know what to read.

Sure, I've got books stacked up at home, piles of novels by once-hot authors and still-burning stars. There are plenty of musty volumes lying about; story collections, biographies, history, science. But I can't seem to work up the cajones to read any of them.

For a neurotic like myself, the thought of wasting time reading something possibly bad is as stress inducing as, say, spending my time writing something possibly bad. I was hoping to find a book that would transport me elsewhere, a book that is so well-written and gripping that I can't put it down. (It's been a long time since I had one of those).

I tried "Bel Canto," which Wife strongly recommended, and found it as turgid as the opera it describes. I tried "Atonement," which about 1,232 people recommended, but I couldn't find the energy to finish.

Unread and unloved

Classics? I am in that state which compels me to Keep Up With What's Happening in Literature, and I gotta read new writers, you know? (Though I do have a book before me that was published but a couple of weeks ago, and that I highly recommend.)

My reading vistas were not always so bleak. Since I was a child, I've always carried around a list in my head of books to read, works I would jump into as soon as I was finished with the book I had in my hand. These were always colored by what my friends read or how much I liked the author I was currently reading -- for instance, as soon as I read "The Handmaid's Tale," I got my hands on as much Margaret Atwood as I could find. Ditto with "Moon Palace" (Paul Auster), "Fifth Business" (Robertson Davies) and, recently "Cloud Atlas" (David Mitchell).

You know what I'm talking about.

The few times I've the same feeling about non-fiction happened to be two books about evolution, "The Moral Animal" (Robert Wright) and (maybe the most important book I've read) "The Selfish Gene" (Richard Dawkins). But while I enjoyed their other books, it wasn't the same -- your know, first love and all that. Right now, Dawkins' "The Ancestor's Tale" is on my nightstand, barely read.

Often, I feel the obligation to pursue a novel that has no interest -- bad sign -- but has been molting on my bookshelf for so long that I feel like a heel by not reading it. There's only so many trees in the world, and some went to make this book, never mind the author's dedication and sweat.

He just read Camus

But life is too short, I say, that reading should be a burden. There are writing schools of thought that posit you should read as much as you can in order to learn, but that smacks of drinking cod-liver oil or allowing a sex-deprived Mike Tyson give you several right uppercuts. Iron Mike broke my jaw, but I learned to duck!

You see, the most important reason for a writer to read isn't just as a course of study. It's inspiration. Some of my best writing has come as I am reading something amazing: "The Moor's Last Sigh" or "Cat's Eye," for instance. Given my lackadaisical fiction output of late, and, given that I am going to embark upon familial duties and vacation that will suck the minutes available to writing, I need something inspiring, well-written, funny, smart, impossible to put down or forget.

Something that I can read the shit out of.

Any suggestions?