Now Playing: Sarah McLachlan--"Loving You Is Easy"
On the 27th of November, 1992, I started keeping a reading log, marking down the titles and authors of books I'd read, their dates, and completion times. I kept it for nearly the next decade, stopping midway through grad school. It starts with Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon and ends with K.N. Chaudhuri's Trade and Civilisation in the Indian Ocean (finished the 14th of August, 2000). Allegedly, in the interim I read over seven hundred books, with, you can be sure, varying degrees of intensity and interest. Sometimes I'd become so passionate about a book that I'd devour it in an afternoon. Others I'd have on the backburner for months, putting several out of their misery in a single day (by reading the few chapters of each I had left). At one time, this possession of such an artifact might have seemed embarrassing; it's definitely redolent of a time when I set great store in ideas I view skeptically nowadays--the importance of a core group of "Western" authors ("Dead White Males," to use the hoary terminology of the much-ballyhooed 90s "culture wars")* and the importance of quantifying what one had read, as if whatever wisdom there was to be gleaned automatically settled itself in the personal consciousness once one had finished the book. Needless to say, I don't even think of doing that anymore, except for the occasional blog post. I'm very glad I don't, but I'm also glad I kept the beat-up old green folder around.
It was a pretty central part of my personality in young adulthood, and as such should probably be given a place of honor among my stuff just for that. It's also fun to go back and track my reading habits. I'd been a little worried that some of these works wouldn't ring the slightest bell, but that's only true of a cople--Patti Waldmeir's Anatomy of a Miracle (2 August 1997) and Valentina Cilescu's Mistress Mine (23 April 1998).** There were likes and fascinations for which I'd never have time today--seriously, Richard Brautigan??? It also appears that I had a fondness (half-remembered) for the eighties writer John Calvin Batchelor (whose brand of geopolitically-tinged, slightly magical realist thrillers I don't see today--maybe it's a good thing, and I'm not surprised to find he's become a right-wing radio host). When the years end up in grad school, it's nice to see that I was able to fit in a little John Buchan and Andrew Vachss (whose stuff I really need to revisit) and even Ernest Tidyman (Goodbye, Mr. Shaft--basically "Shaft in London") among some of the weightier tomes assigned for class (all of them recorded, of course). The roll call characteristically stops in summer 2000 at Chaudhuri's classic history of the world economy's navel before the global rise of Europe, a book I didn't actually have to read but which I did anyway as I thought it would give me a better handle on some of the background issues.
Probably the best thing about the reading log is how many memories it almost instantly calls up. Reading's always been important to me (beginning in pre-school with blacklistee--not that I obviously knew that at the time--Crockett Johnson's classic Harold and the Purple Crayon) and adding dates to titles reinforces these automatic impressions. Michael Moorcock's The Laughter of Carthage (11 April 1994) provoked a near-half-hour conversation on the Punic Wars with an old guy who used to hang out outside the Salem, Virginia, Public Library and looked like a clean-shaven Solzhenitsyn (himself well-represented earlier in the log). Roddy Doyle's The Snapper and The Van (14 and 18 July 1996) struck a painful chord with me at a time when I was completely at sea about life and semi-employed just after college. Jake Page's Apacheria (13 July 1998) led to some sadly truncated flirting with a girl at the Thirsty Tiger bar in downtown Baton Rouge (Josephus' The Jewish Wars of 22 June 1998 provoked similar memories of M's Fine and Mellow Cafe--now the lackluster Roux House). And so on. It's comforting to know that books have always been there to engross me or buck me up when I was feeling too self-absorbed (as opposed to normal) or depressed. There were a few stretches where things were so horrible that I just stopped recording or reading, but only a few. With the onset of grad school and the growing desire to create rather than consume (I figured I'd read enough books and ought to try writing some), it seemed less and less important to keep a record. I stopped reading so obsessively, which on balance was a good thing, and started writing more, becoming more interested and proactive with films and music. Reading's still important to me, but there's not as much self-imposed pressure to do it, and my life feels freer as a result, even if there are still a few atavistic moments where I don't think I'm reading enough.
It also reminds me of the days when I used to own far too many books. Perhaps even more than reading them, buying them or owning them was a poisoned comfort, and inevitably led to me giving away or selling most of my "stock." I now try and follow a system wherein I'll cull my collection if it rises above a certain limit (I think I've got about a hundred books now, maybe less, and it should stay that way). One of my favorite haunts in adolescence and young adulthood was Elliott's Books in Baton Rouge, where many of my attitudes towards reading were formed and molded. There was a sticker on one of the cash registers which said something along the lines of "if you still have book space (or even if you don't), you don't have enough books." I was really happy to eventually realize what bullshit that was. Still, that hasn't prevented me from winding up over the past couple of months with a number of books I own that I haven't read. It's okay; some time back the pile would have been ten times the size. So, for the next month or thereabouts...
Murasaki Shikibu's eleventh-century Heian classic The Tale of Genji (which I've probably been meaning to read throughout the whole time I kept the reading log), Marion Zimmer Bradley's Stormqueen! (part of her "Darkover" series, the first novel of which, 1972's Darkover Landfall, I read some time back and then left alone), Samuel Eliot Morison's Christopher Columbus, Mariner (one of the books I often wish I hadn't given away was Morison's classic Maritime History of Massachusetts--but it went to a scholar specializing in the maritime history of the Great Lakes, so hopefully it's being put to good use), George Kennedy's Murder on Location ("Actor George Kennedy stars in a new role as sleuth--when murder on the set turns the cast into corpses!"--why I didn't instantly read this the day I picked it off the fifty-cent rack at Dawn Treader will forever be a mystery to me), Charles Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle (in keeping with my newfound half-interest in biology--it's supposed to be good on nineteenth-century South America, too), Colin Wilson's The Space Vampires (basis for the inexplicably beloved 1985 Tobe Hooper cinematic turkey Lifeforce), and Laurie Notaro's Spooky Little Girl (the second novel from one of my favorite contemporary writers, mainly known as a comic essayist). If I can lay off the bird and gardening books and travel guides for a couple of weeks at some point, I might be able to finally out those away, and try to remember that finishing them isn't the point.
* Although these days I have a little more time for that idea, but it's more a case that one doesn't have to devalue "classic" authors in order to make room for a more inclusive canon. Considering how fragmented and kaleidoscopic pop culture has become (and how negatively I can react to it sometimes, especially when it comes to the internet), it's nice to have a kind of conceptual anchor.
**Waldmeir's book, apparently, was a journalistic account of the end of apartheid in South Africa, while Cilescu's was a work of erotica. I vaguely remember George Alec Effinger's The Wolves of Memory (13 March 1994) as a scifi novel that involved interplanetary travel, but that's all that comes to mind.