Bird Land

Since I like to blog about books, my usual reading practice is to stick with a book once I start it.  This can be problematic for short story collections because often there’s one in particular I want to read.  Somewhat embarrassed about it, I have to confess that sometimes it’s because I saw the movie first.  So it was with Daphne du Maurier’s “The Birds.”  Du Maurier, the daughter of a father who also wrote horror, caught Alfred Hitchcock’s attention.  Several of his movies were based on her works.  Not all of them can be called horror—a genre that’s difficult to pin down—but they deal with gothic and thriller themes that had an appeal for Hitch.  In fact some analysts date the modern horror film to the period initiated by this iconic director.

I have a collection of du Maurier’s short stories, written in the day when 50 pages counted as a short story rather than “product” that could be “exploited” in various formats.  (Today it’s not easy to find literary magazines that will publish anything over 3,000 words, or roughly 10–12 pages.)  In any case, “The Birds” is an immersive tale.  The movie is quite different, of course, set in America with a cast of characters that can only be described as, well, Hitchcockian.  Du Maurier’s vision is much closer to the claustrophobic pandemic mindset.  A single English family, poor, tenant farmers, far from the centers of commerce, must figure out how to survive the bird attacks on their own.  The suddenly angry birds attack their hovel in time with the tides (they live near the coast) so the family has to gather supplies between attacks and try to last another night of pecking and clawing.

The story is quite effective.  Reading it suggests the importance of self-reliance and willingness to accept a changed reality on its own terms.  No explanation is given for the birds’ change of attitude.  Human intervention in the environment is supposed but how would a simple family living of the fringes of the fabric woven by the wealthy know?  Forced to react, they try to keep the kids calm while knowing, at some level, this can never end well.  The movie maintains the ambiguous ending, which is probably what makes it so scary.  Corvid or covid, there are things out there that drive us into our homes where we must shelter in place.  Although I didn’t read the whole book, this choice of story seems strangely apt for the current circumstances.

Setting the Mood

I can’t recall how I learned about Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney, but it was one of those books I knew I wanted to read.  One thing I do recall is that I didn’t know it had anything to do with religion until I started it.  It became quite clear that the story—which is difficult to classify—revolves around religion and a kind of gentle horror of things not being what they seem.  Set on a lonely stretch of English coastland where strange things happen, a family takes their mute son to a shrine to have him healed.  The younger brother, not mute, narrates the events.  There are many creepy suggestions of what may be happening, but a full explanation is never given.  That’s kind of like religion itself.

While I don’t normally read the discussion points or classroom/book group discussion material after most modern novels, I found Hurley’s included essay on “Nature, Faith, and Horror” to be of interest.  Several of us, it seems, find the combination of religion, or faith, ties in well with fear.  That was a large part of what I was trying to get at in Holy Horror.  Hurley goes in a different direction with it.  A family under the overbearing religion of the matriarch does her bidding in the hopes of either keeping peace or participating in the healing her son.  We learn from the opening pages that her son Hanny develops into a minister, and therefore has some degree of normalcy.  Hurley is a master of revealing important factors only gradually.  It keeps the tension rising as the story goes along.  There’s no bloodbath, but there is unsettling mystery.

The story is probably best characterized as gothic.  That’s rare these days, and it is the sub-genre of horror that most attracts me.  The mood it casts is kind of a spell and it’s difficult to break.  The Smith family insists on the sacredness of place and on strict religion of the Catholic species.  Evangelicalism could easily lead to horror, and not infrequently it does.  The Catholic variety, however, feels older.  More arcane.  There are things only a priest knows.  And that knowledge can be a challenge to both the knower and the seeker.  The Loney will leave the reader with questions ticking away about what really happened.  These are things we’ll never know.  Those of us who’ve ever entertained religious vocations understand this feeling well.  It stands behind certain kinds of horror and in front of religion, tying them together.

More than Kids’ Stuff

Children and Young Adult literature (which has its own Library of Congress acronym!) has come a long way since I was a kid.  Don’t get me wrong—I enjoyed the books I read as a young person, but there are many more choices that use a lot more imagination these days.  I’ve been reading Robert Repino’s books since Mort(e) appeared in 2015.  Spark and the League of Ursus is his latest and it continues his trademark use of animals (and stand-ins) to get at very human situations.  Spark is a carefully crafted story based on the idea that teddy bears do more than provide cuddles at night.  They are, in fact, a force for good, protecting human children from monsters.

As usual when I discuss books, I won’t give too much away.  I’m one of those guys who doesn’t even like to read back-cover blurbs because I’m afraid they’ll spoil the story.  Instead, I’m going to applaud the use of imagination in a world that seems stuck on a limited number of plot points.  Books like this, which stretch the imagination of the young without talking down to them—why does it cost us so much effort to admit that kids are smart?—are a great addition to CYA literature.  I was exploring this concept with another friend who writes when I read Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing.  A story’s intended audience is often signaled by the age bracket of the protagonists.  I’d suppose ‘tweens might be about the age here, based on that metric.  (Green was more like New Adult, a category that lasts until about age 30.)

Reading material written for younger readers makes me feel younger myself.  I read Ransom Riggs first three Miss Peregrine novels (also published by Quirk, the house that publishes Spark).  You see, I’m really encouraged by this growth in younger readers’ material.  If we can get kids into books with such engaging stories I suspect there’ll be less chance that they become unimaginative, straight-laced adults who want to keep things just like they were when they were kids.  Imagination has that kind of liberating ability.  Besides, who doesn’t want their teddy bear to come to their rescue once in a while?  It’s not just children that can take a lesson from imaginative story-telling.  Repino’s War with No Name series was intended for adult readers but it is good preparation for getting a sense of the possibilities for readers who might, in all hope, never have to face wars at all.

Marching down the Middle

It is true that I have a fondness for nineteenth-century British novels.  Even though they often lack a strong speculative element they tend to be gothic, at least if written by one of the Brontë sisters.  I’d only ever read one of George Eliot’s novels before, and that was in ninth grade.  Middlemarch has been on my list for many years, but due to its intimidating size I’ve kept putting it off.  Now that I’ve read it I feel like I’ve accomplished something.  I had no idea what the story was about in advance, and no idea how it ended.  Unlike many pieces of literature of its time it hasn’t made a huge impact in pop culture, so this was the opportunity to lose myself for a few months in a world completely unknown.

I’m not foolhardy enough to try to summarize an 800-page novel here, but one aspect that the reader can’t help but notice is the prominence of clergy.  And not only prominence, but prestige.  In a world built around the solid belief in different classes of individuals, where pride takes a place in marriages that are supposed to be within class, the clergy are minor nobility.  Since this is the Church of England the vicars can marry and indeed, one such marriage sets off the tension that lasts throughout the hundreds of pages to come.  The clergy of the time were often gentleman scholars—the role that was envisioned for Charles Darwin as a young man.  Eliot plays on that idea with some of her preachers being amateur scientists.

The conflict—that now feels inherent—between science and religion has less to do with older forms of Christianity than it has to do with evangelicalism.  A relatively new expression of Christianity, evangelicalism set itself against modernity and its science.  Quite often today when commentators rail against “religion” it is really evangelicalism that they have in mind.  In the world Eliot sketches, she sees no difficulties between a rational view of things and an ecclesiastical one.  Clergy are often seen at the whist tables and taking long walks down country lanes.  The distinction between them and the average citizen is that they have been to university to study.  Today, in mainstream Christianity anyway, clergy are educated at least to the master’s level.  They’re no longer among the minor nobility, however.  Middlemarch has more than a hint of nostalgia to it, and the clergy roles show that clearly.

A Slice of Childhood

Few names from childhood are as well known as Dr. Seuss.  When my wife and I read Theodor Seuss Geisel, in the Lives and Legacies series, we realized that neither one of us had learned to read with his books.  It’s not that they hadn’t been written and widely adopted yet (they had by the time we started school), but rather that our districts had gone with other fare.  I learned with the famous Dick and Jane series, and I think there must’ve been some Seuss thrown in here and there.  We didn’t own any of his books, but I remember my mother reading from library copies of Hop on Pop.  When our daughter was born we read to her daily and Dr. Seuss was a large part of our informal curriculum.  Before reading this book, however, I knew very little about who Theodor Geisel was.

The series Lives and Legacies features short books, so this is a quick and no-frills way to meet the man.  Although Geisel was born into a middle class family, he experienced (ironically) the trauma of being in a German family during the First World War.  What we would call hate crimes today were committed against German-Americans during the war, even though there were sizable populations of Teutonic Americans by that point (including my mother’s family).  Not only that, but Prohibition put his father’s brewing company out of business.  Still, Seuss was accepted at Dartmouth and, like many who make it to the Ivy League, his connections helped him to a successful career in advertising and then in writing children’s books.

Geisel was a successful man, but wasn’t driven by money.  He was an artist both with images and words, and as Pease makes clear he approached his craft seriously.  As he matured he began to address social and political issues in his larger formatted books.  He eventually became the most successful children’s book author in history.  Reading to my daughter when she was young we discovered that, unlike the often idealized times of the fifties (followed by the sixties into which I was born) there is a wealth of quality children’s literature available.  It’s easy for middle-class kids to be raised loving reading.  Dr. Seuss knew that the pretensions of adults often created the seriousness with which we face life.  Children enjoy fun and the ridiculous.  He never lost sight of that simple fact.  We live in times when it is readily to be wished that many of the adults in power would go back and read a little Seuss and perhaps, just perhaps, learn their lessons.

Fiction

All writing is fiction.  I suppose that requires some unpacking.  One of the first things we do when we approach a piece of writing is answer the question “what kind of writing is this?”  We may not do this consciously, but we wouldn’t benefit much from reading if we didn’t.  If your significant other leaves you a note stuck to your computer monitor or the refrigerator door, you know at a glance that it likely contains pithy, factual information.  If you pick up a newspaper you know what to expect the contents to be like.  It’s quite different if you pick up The Onion.  Or a romance novel.  These categories are extremely helpful, but they can also be problematic.  Any writer knows that you write and others decide on your genre.

I read a lot of nonfiction.  It is a kind of fiction, however, since it follows a narrative and it contains mistakes, or perhaps faulty assumptions.  Moreover, nonfiction is a reflection of its own time.  Geoffrey of Monmouth’s England had giants in its past.  It simply did.  Today we question his working assumptions just as surely as future people (if we long survive) will ours.  This current generation doesn’t really excel at critical thinking.  Many academics, as critical as they are in their own fields, fall into standard assumptions once you get beyond their expertise.  They accept the fictions of their era just as readily as does everybody else.  In reality our nonfiction is not the naked fact we like to think it is—it is the narrative of one perspective.  It is perhaps the truth as it is perceived in its own time.

This may seem to be a subtle distinction, but it is an important one.  Genres are very convenient handles that we use to classify what we’re reading.  Very often they become straightjackets that constrain what writing has the potential to be.  The word “genre” is related to the concept of genus, the classification about species.  Zonkeys and other, perhaps rare, but possible cross-breedings show us that hopeful monsters of the literary world are also possible.  We would soon suffer without genres in a world as full of words as this one is.  We also suffer from simple distinctions that somehow become iron-clad over time.  Think about the narrative that comes out of the White House.  We’re accustomed to it being mostly nonfiction.  At least we were until recently.  Watergate broke our trust in that, and now we live in a world of fiction masquerading as reality.  Critical thinking is, perhaps, the only way to make sense of any of this.

Back in the Zone

In general I’m a fan of reading the book before seeing the movie.  In some cases, however, the written version comes later.  A few months back I started to have a hankering for stories written by Rod Serling.  I’m aware that he mainly wrote scripts, but I also know he had a rare talent for doing so and most of the books I’d collected as a child were collections connected to Serling but not written by him.  He had, during his lifetime, “novelized” three volumes of Twilight Zone scripts into books of short stories.  The second of those books, More Stories from the Twilight Zone, is one I’d not read before.  I remembered some of tales from episodes I’d watched while others were new to me.  All that they have in common is that something isn’t as it “should be.”

This “oughtness” is an illusion, as we’ve learned over the past four years.  Each day has an incredible sameness even as everything changes radically, almost daily.  To me that’s one of the comforting aspects of the Twilight Zone in these days.  Not only does it take me back to my childhood, but it also prepares me for the unexpected.  Rod Serling was a great metaphorical writer.  Quite often on this blog I try my hand at it, writing posts that are apparently about one thing but that are really about something else.  I think most of us tend to be literalists when we read (thus the crisis literalism has wrought when it comes to the Good Book).  Unless we know to shift our focus we take things at face value.  These stories try to teach us otherwise.

Some of these stories anticipate Stephen King.  Others reflect Ray Bradbury.  They are eclectic but unified by a voice that was able to see that the world could actually stand some improvement.  People could treat each other better.  Without being preachy, they are often like morality plays.  Of course that is my experience of reading them.  Readers differ in their responses.  The Twilight Zone was an influential series in a world open to new experiences.  If the twentieth century has taught us nothing else it has shown us that we can take nothing for granted.  To go deeper than the surface, that’s as it should be.  What are the stories really about?  A large part of it will depend upon what the reader takes away from them.  All of this is very helpful, at least to this reader, in times like these.

Wolves? Where?

One of the oldest tricks in the capitalistic playbook is to make something look like a more successful product.  Trademarks and copyright laws prevent too close a similarity—for money is sacred—but we all know “brands” that try to look like other brands in hopes of picking up some of the business that attends success.  The same feature was apparently at operation behind The Dark Dominion: Eight Terrifying Tales of Vampires and Werewolves.  This is a book that I picked up in a used bookstore because its cover design—a dull olive green with a picture oval on the front—was clearly based on the Dark Shadows book series.  While the latter are still available, they’re increasingly difficult to find in used bookstores, so when I come across one I don’t have I tend to buy it.  I knew this wasn’t part of the series but the cover suggested to me it might be similar enough, like store-brand breakfast cereal.

Werewolf stories, it turns out, shouldn’t hunt in packs.  There’s no surprise since it’s pretty clear that one of the characters is a shapeshifter and it’s pretty obvious which one.  Six, or maybe seven, of the eight stories concern werewolves while one outlier has a vampire menace.  Some of the stories in the book are clever, but most follow the same trajectory: attacks are made, the villagers suspect something, one of them turns out to be a werewolf.  Time for the next story.  I noticed a long time ago that unlike vampires and Frankenstein’s monster, the werewolf doesn’t have the definitive novelistic origin.  Others wrote vampire tales before Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but that telling set the stage for those that followed.  The olive green cover suggests Barnabas Collins, but in reality is more in Quentin’s territory.

Interestingly, The Dark Dominion, like occasional collections before and after, doesn’t list an editor.  Modern books use the stature of volume editors to reinforce that what’s contained within has quality.  Otherwise who knows whether someone with good taste has picked the stories by authors you’ve never heard of and wrapped them together in a package meant to move?  That’s not to say that some of the stories aren’t good.  A couple are quite clever.  One is a translation of a medieval German tract.  Another comes from medieval Ireland.  The remainder are stories from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Perhaps it’s the burden of an editor to wonder what the selection criteria might have been.  What’s entirely obvious, however, is that making something look similar to a recognized book series still has the power to sell.

No So Innocent

Mark Twain’s best-selling book in his own lifetime was his first commercially produced one: The Innocents Abroad.  Originally a set of letters sent during an excursion to parts of the Mediterranean basin with stops in Europe and the Levant, it’s difficult to read today.  Although satirical with much of it clearly for fun, Twain’s humor about those other than Americans embodies an attitude that would fit into Trump’s America a little too comfortably.  Other religions are strange and therefore wrong, for example.  People in the regions visited did not bathe frequently enough and were often singled out for their looks.  There’s something rascally about the behavior of the American visitors, chipping away at monuments so that they might take a piece of history home with them, yet never failing to feel superior.

I had to remind myself constantly that this is a period piece.  It contains much of the gritty humor for which Twain became justly famous.  Travel broadened him also.  A southern abolitionist, Twain nevertheless never overcame some of the racism into which he was born.  My wife and I were reading the book because of its early description of western visits to Palestine (there was no Israel at the time).  Keeping in mind that travel to much of that part of the world was expensive (his trip was sponsored by the newspaper for which he worked) and difficult, his account is actually one of the early modern travelogues on what would eventually become a fairly common pilgrimage.  Twain, like all of us, was a product of his time.

Twain’s diary famously reveals what he came to believe about religion.  There are inklings of it here.  Although he refers to the manner of dress of the ship’s passengers as “Christian,” and although he casts aspersions on Islam frequently, he reserves his most biting humor for his own brand.  During their visit to Smyrna (one of the seven cities of the book of Revelation), for example,  he writes, “Thick-headed commentators upon the Bible, and stupid preachers and teachers, work more damage to religion than sensible, cool-brained clergymen can fight away again, toil as they may” (page 327 from the 2018 SeaWolf Press edition).  Still, the assumption of the rightness of Christianity is something that he would eventually come to question.  His humor does often fall flat in an era of government support of racist, sexist tropes.  And the impressions made on those they met was summed up in his contractually-obligated note to the paper: “Many and many a simple community in the Eastern hemisphere will remember for years the incursion of that strange horde in the year of our Lord 1867, that called themselves Americans, and seemed to imagine in some unaccountable way that they had a right to be proud of it” (page 526).  Some things, it seems, haven’t changed despite the time elapsed.

Too Close?

Some time back I did a Google search on something like “best novels about possession,” like one does.  I was in the midst of writing Nightmares with the Bible at the time.  One of the titles that came up was Sara Gran’s Come Closer.  I hadn’t heard of it before, but I started to look out for it.  I finally found and read a copy.  It is a page-turner.  A first-person narrative, it is a story about how a woman became possessed and how her life changed because of it.  Creepy and moody, it isn’t your typical Exorcist-type story.  What it highlighted for me (I don’t want to give too many spoilers) is the dilemma of those who a) live in an era when such things are routinely dismissed, and b) who have no religious background on which to fall.

While there are some quasi-religious characters in the story, there are no priests.  There’s no Catholic Church with its reassuring, if disturbing ritual.  Nobody seems to know how to handle a powerful demon.  One of the features that fuels exorcism movies (and presumably many novels on the subject) is the uncertainty of success.  Will there be deliverance or not?  I’m not going to tell you the answer here for Gran’s novel, in keeping with the spirit of the genre, but the dilemma of where to turn is believably laid out.  Amanda, a well-employed professional, lives without religion.  She acknowledges that strange things happen, but when she gets an inkling that a demon is after her, she doesn’t know where to turn.  As the story builds the loss of personal control is convincingly portrayed.  What do you do without the church?

I often ponder the particular power of The Exorcist narrative.  The threat to a young woman (as I discuss in Nightmares) is part of the key.  Another is the knowledge that the Catholic Church has packed away a powerful ritual that is only brought out in what are clearly extreme circumstances.  Like Amanda, the MacNeils aren’t church-going individuals.  The difference is that they live near Georgetown University where help may be found.  Unveiling this ancient rite was perhaps the greatest brilliance behind the story.  We live in a different age, however.  Simultaneously both more religious and more secular.  With the old certainties now under question, people wonder what they are to do when the impossible happens.  That is the driving pathos behind Come Closer.  It is a scary story on many levels.

No Smoking

I have never smoked anything in my life.  As a kid with chronic bronchitis few things scared me as much as being unable to breathe.  I have not assassinated anyone or consorted with aliens—at least not that I know of.  Otherwise I think I understand the Smoking Man.  As far as my X-Files rewatching saga goes, I recently reached “The Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man.”  I remember the first time I saw it I found it improbable that the assassinations of the 1960s were the work of a single man.  What hit me this time around, however, was the Smoking Man’s real frustration in life.  He wants to be a writer.  Having completed several novels myself, none published, I have received pin-head letters very much like those he does in this episode, only in greater quantities.  When he finally finds a publisher, he writes his resignation letter to whomever hires assassins and those who change the course of history.  I know just how he feels.

You’d think that by the logic of any reasonable system that those who work in an industry might have some inside tracks.  Some, no doubt, do.  Others of us in publishing are just like the average, uninformed person on the street.  Publishing is a cliquish place.  A friend with some success getting novels published advised me to look at the names of editors and editorial boards on the literary journals that get noticed.  “You’ll see the same ones coming up over and over,” he said.  It is, as the Smoking Man discovered, a kind of cabal, which is, I suspect, the point of making him out as a frustrated novelist.  He can set the course of history, but he can’t get a legitimate novel published.  Cue the X-Files theme. 

I know many academics who write fiction.  My second novel (depending how you count these things—this one was never finished) was a pet project while I worked at Nashotah House.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to publish it when I worked there.  In fact, my first fiction publication only came three years after being shoved out of the nest of academe.  I’ve completed seven novels now and I’ve managed to get some short stories published.  Then again, I don’t have clandestine knowledge from a lifetime of access to the truth about alien-human interaction.  I don’t shoot people for a living.  I’m not even a professor any more.  Still, I think I can begin to understand why someone might turn toward a more interesting career, given the situation when it comes to getting published.

Potboilers

“Potboiler” is used in publishing to describe a book written merely to keep a writer going.  Full-time authors are comparatively rare, and many occasionally resort to churning out books simply to generate income.  I have no doubt that most of them start out as most artists do—creative, and looking for a career that allows them to be so.  If you want to earn money, to keep your pot boiling, you need to follow the formula.  Those are my thoughts on having finished the last book for this year’s Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Reading Challenge.  One of the categories was three books by the same author and I had three unread Dark Shadows books by Marilyn Ross.  Barnabas, Quentin and the Frightened Bride, number 22 in the series, was clearly a potboiler.

As I’ve confessed before, these books are guilty pleasure reads for me.  My literary tastes have changed over the years, however, and such journeyman writing sometimes betrays itself.  Even if a book has vampires and werewolves.  Dark Shadows was a melodramatic soap opera of my youth.  Still, it was moody and gothic—something these books manage to convey, even if the stories don’t live up to their promise.  Some of the plot elements in this particular installment don’t even line up, and having read Jane Eyre I’d guessed the ending shortly after the beginning.  I often wonder how the book series might have turned out with a truly literary attempt to tell the story.  Writing takes time.  Good writing takes a lot of time.  But even writers have to eat.

I’m not a Dark Shadows connoisseur.  I haven’t bought the original television series on DVD and I haven’t watched it since I was about ten.  Early memories, however, are formative.  With a remarriage, a death in the family, and a move, childhood got swept away rather swiftly, and along with it, watching Dark Shadows.  The series ended in 1971 after over 1200 episodes had been filmed.  Ross’ serialization began during the six-year run of the series, and, I suspect, he had to keep up a hectic pace.  Books 13 through 24 were all published in 1970, a rate of over a book a month.  I’ve suggested before that academics ought to take pop culture seriously.  Even before this era of fandom becoming mainstream, Dark Shadows spun off a small media empire and it continues to retain public interest.  The daily show struggled, despite being partially modeled on Jane Eyre, until the supernatural was introduced.  Although the Ross novels may not always show it, the hunger remains for supernatural explanations.

In the Zone

Since it lies somewhere between waking and sleeping, between youth and old age, the Twilight Zone is often where I find myself.  I’m hard pressed to say why the show made such an impression on a young and otherwise religious mind.  Maybe it was because religion itself deals with the Twilight Zone of human experience.  In any case, reading Rod Serling’s Stories from the Twilight Zone, as I continue to make my way through the books of my childhood, was a trip down memory lane.  While living in coronapocalypse, these short stories, novelized from Serling’s teleplays, take you back to a different time.  The late fifties and early sixties seem so very different from where we are now.  And reading about them, I’m not sure why some people want to go back there.

At the same time, reading the physical book takes me back.  My edition was printed in 1964.  It smells like an old book.  It has that unmistakable feel of pulp fiction.  Reading a book is so much more than scanning the words with your eyes.  It’s the lying on your back on a lumpy couch on a hot, humid summer day after being at work for endless hours.  It’s the foxing of the pages and the almost laughable cover design.  But more than that, it’s a signpost back to childhood.  This is a book I first held before leaving home.  It was a refuge from a tense life never knowing what might happen in a day.  Believing that escape was possible could save a soul from a ton of grief.  At the same time, those characters who do escape often learn why that isn’t the best option after all.

Some of these stories I remembered from the shows I watched, while others seemed unfamiliar.  There really are no surprises here.  You see, the Twilight Zone was long ago and the stories have entered our national consciousness.  Some have been borrowed, adapted, and parodied by others.  Others, such as “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” were even part of anthologies we read and discussed in school.  Why are human beings so distrustful of others?  I remember us talking about that in class.  Serling’s version has a more grim ending, it seems, that the one I recollect as a youth.  Sitting here in coronapocalypse, however, I see it playing out around me every day.  We don’t know who might be infected.  And suddenly reading about the Twilight Zone seems like a most sensible thing to do in the circumstances.

Thousand and One

I’ve posted on big books before.  I’m reading one right now.  Many large books have had profound cultural influence, and something about their very girth suggests canonicity.  I have never read One Thousand and One Nights.  It is an amazingly influential collection of stories from storied Arabia.  Perhaps it was because I grew up in a small town, or more likely it was because my parents weren’t readers, the only big book to which I was introduced at a young age was the Bible.  The problem with this is that once you become locked into a greedy nine-to-five you’ll find your reading time limited.  Big books demand a lot of time, and you have to try to fit them in with your larger projects.  At least those of us who write do.

Don’t get me wrong—I’ve read many large books over the years.  My point is that if you missed the opportunity when you were in school, which got out around three, or in college with its immensely variable schedule, you’ll find yourself with limited time to catch up on the classics.  Not only are some of them large like One Thousand and One Nights, but there are also so very many of them.  I recently admitted to neglecting Hemingway until far too late.  Hemingway doesn’t stand alone in that regard.  I did manage my way through Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but that was largely during a period of unemployment.  I’ve tackled a few of the longer Dickens novels and some of Neal Stephenson’s books.  I’d love to read more, but work is a time miser.  And there’s so much to do around the house on the weekend.

So I wonder when I’m going to find the time to read One Thousand and One Nights.  How do you record a book on your Goodreads challenge that takes over a year to read?  Moby-Dick, in its lissome five-hundred pages, took me months to get through, and it’s a page-turner (for me, anyway).  Since I often blog on the books I read, not having anything to report for months at a time throws me off.  Our world is increasingly driven by metrics, and a book with the word “thousand” in the title is intimidating to those with so little free time that they must awake early to preserve it.  The problem isn’t with the classics, though.  The problem is with a world that won’t slow down enough to let you read the very documents upon which it was founded.  I could use about a thousand and one nights just to read.

Contrariwise

When you set out to research a topic, reading is the first step.  These days you can’t possibly keep up with everything that’s written—particularly on the internet with its endless iterations and reiterations, and incipient plagiarism.  Even books often come at you in great numbers, from angles you don’t expect.  Apart from holidays, daily life doesn’t give much time for reading.  So how does one get a handle on H. P. Lovecraft?  I’d been aware of Michel Houellebecq’s essay, H. P. Lovecraft Against the World, Against Life for some time, but as always, finding time is the trick.  This short book, however, is profoundly insightful.  Not a biography and not literary criticism, it is more an appreciation of a misanthrope.  One of the things that Houellebecq makes clear is that Lovecraft was a man out of his time.

Continuing the tradition of French writers appreciating the more macabre of American writers (Poe was celebrated more in France than his native country), Houellebecq pays tribute, but doesn’t fawn over, Lovecraft.  In this series of brief essays he manages to highlight much that might remain hidden to those who know H. P. from either only his writing or from the somewhat small circle of experts on him.  Sometimes it helps to break away from the experts to get a fresh view.  I’ve read quite a lot of Lovecraft’s fiction, and when you do this you tend to think you know the author.  You may or you may not.  To know is to delve.  And delve Houellebecq does.  

Serious reflection is too often considered a luxury.  With the exception of a few privileged occupations, think of what would happen at work if you took to reflecting while on the clock.  Those who dole out the lucre prefer to see signs of busyness—fingers clacking keyboards and numbers being lined up, preferably in the black.  Time thinking, so capitalist thought goes, is time wasted.  If you can sell enough copies of your book to afford a little time off for reflection you can make connections, I presume.  You can see things that those who are too busy cannot.  There are many astute observations in this slim volume.  While not making excuses for Lovecraft’s faults, Houellebecq doesn’t attempt to correct him either.  That’s difficult to do with a person, if the author is correct, who hated life itself.  Books like this also demonstrate that a huge word count isn’t necessary for erudition.  And it is still possible to learn, even with limited time.