3 things I learned from reading 50 books in 15 months

“Your library is your paradise.”

– Desiderius Erasmus, circa 1520s

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”

– Jorge Luis Borges, 1955

When Henry James dissed Victorian novelists for writing “large, loose baggy monsters”, he kind of had a point: in an age where distractions abound, the idea of spending time on the nitty-gritty ins and outs of imagined people does seem quite cavalier. What is the use, what is the point, what is the objective end goal target achievable of reading fiction etc etc.

And yet, utilitarian checklists, dull and soul-sucking as they may be to some, are beautiful in their slavishness to time efficiency. As such, the combo of boxes-and-ticks is often the boon of corporate-minded souls, or just people who find solace in structure and reassurance in the regimental.

to-do-list

My to-dos would never include ‘calculus sheet’

I would know, because I’m one of the latter. Or at least this is what working for one plus year has taught me about myself. I’ve written about my penchant for to-do lists before, and part of this need for clear ‘scaffolding’ around my life stems from a native love of listing, for the semblance of order and organisation that lists provide. The act of crossing an item off on a Post-It note is probably more cause for mental fist pumping than that of achieving the task itself.

Weird, I know, to think that the strikethroughs I create with the stroke of a pen could double-function as stamps of self-validation.

But like most things, it’s the little things that count, innit.

A Different Kind of List

Among the sea of lists I’ve created, some drafted and dispensed in a day, others colour-coded to confusing excess and ends up being side lined to a random corner, there’s one list that operates by the principle of addition, as opposed to subtraction. Naturally, this is also my longest standing list to date, and one that I’m constantly looking to expand with my Eslite/Page One excursions (Amazon delivery is a bitch – more on that later).

Cue captain obvious, it’s the list of ‘Books I’ve Read Since August 2015’, August being the month when I first returned to Hong Kong from the UK.

bigger-book-collage

A selection of my 2015-2016 reads

With my reading of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity done and dusted this week, I discovered that I have read a total of fifty books – fiction, non-fiction, novels, essay collections inclusive – in the past fifteen months. As far as milestones go, I would say that this one’s probably up there as one that I’m quite proud of having achieved. (Not that the number matters or nuffin; but maybe reaching quantifiable targets does afford emotional merits…)

purity

So I figured that I’d put together a list (another one!) of 3 insights I’ve gained from my reading journey thus far. Disclaimer: given the relative limitedness of my sample size (i.e. 50 books vs. all the books in the world), most of my insights will necessarily be generalisations, and I am by no means suggesting that I’m a bibliographic connoisseur or the next up-and-coming Michiko Kakutani.

michiko_slate

Slate’s caricature of Kakutani

Honestly, 90% of these books I read either before or after work, and if you’re a fellow reader-commuter, you’d probably know that neither morning wooziness nor post-work fatigue (with the occasional dose of ‘shit day crankiness’) qualifies as ‘optimal reading state’.

So what I’m saying is that if anything below strikes you as wildly reductive/unfair/straight up bizarre, (1) that’s kind of the point, (2) please refer to caveats relayed above, and if all else fails (3) ping me a message and we can talk.

Insight 1: A long novel (500+ pages) can be surprisingly quick going

Back in my first year at university, I dreaded weeks in which we had to read long novels like Middlemarch and Vanity Fair, mostly because it was so tough trying to get through the entire book, read the secondary criticism written around it and write a 2000-word essay on the work – all in the course of a week.  This is why, post-uni, I developed a kind of ‘big book phobia’ and shied away from buying/reading any novel longer than 300 pages.

The turning point came in September 2015, when I picked up a copy of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close out of fascination with its quirky typeface. It turned out to be a book I enjoyed so much I started re-including longer length novels within my regular book-shopping purview.

From then on, I think I’ve read about 15 ‘long novels’ (i.e. at least 400 pages in font size 12 or below) and enjoyed almost all of them – apart from Italo Svevo’s Zeno’s Conscience, which I found exceptionally dull and draggy.  I just finished reading Jonathan Franzen’s Purity this week, and my verdict is that this is hands down one of the best novels I’ve ever read. Ever. No exaggerations. No exceptions.

If Updike is Style King, then Franzen is Story King.

updike_franzen-time-covers

Why are Americans so into the idea of ‘Greatness’?

So if you’ve not read Purity or any Franzen before, I suggest that you get thee to thy nearest book vendor and do the right thing.

What surprises me most, though, is how quick going a good long-length novel could be in comparison to a mediocre novella. Case in point: I spent 3 weeks on Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (177 pages, font size 12) and just 1 week on Franzen’s Purity (570 pages, font size 10). Caveat: not saying that Slaughterhouse is a bad book per se, just that I didn’t find it as amazing as everyone else made it out to be.

So go hug ‘em big baggy monsters, y’all!! Because they are, more often than not, nice and furry and shit. Yassss.

vanity_purity_slaughter

Do-re-mi: when your library comes in all shapes and sizes

Interlude: My most recent long novel contains a shout-out to my post-uni inaugural long novel 

“Are you a reader, Pip? Do you read books? Is the sight of so many books in one room at all frightening to you?”

“I like books,” Pip said.

“Good. Good. And are you a big fan of Jonathan Savoir Faire? So many of my students are.”

“You mean the book about animal welfare?”

“The very one. He’s a novelist, too, I’m told.”

“I read the animal book.”

“So many Jonathans. A plague of literary Jonathans. If you read only the New York Times Book Review, you’d think it was the most common male name in America. Synonymous with talent, greatness. Ambition, vitality.”

(206-207, Purity, Jonathan Franzen, 4th Estate edition

jf-v-jf

Big Jon vis-a-vis Baby Jon

#itsthelittlethings #cheeky #allusions #JFvJF

Insight 2: I read a disproportionate amount of American literature, followed by world or translated literature, and appear to have very little time for British writing

I mean, the tally below says it all –

British lit – total: 5 and 1/2

  1. Essays in Love – Alain de Botton
  2. Consolations of Philosophy – Alain de Botton
  3. Coming Up for Air – George Orwell (unfinished)
  4. The Scent of Dried Roses – Tim Lott
  5. The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes (previously read England, England, Nothing to be Frightened of)
  6. Solar – Ian McEwan

World / translated lit – total: 15

  1. My Confessions – Leo Tolstoy
  2. Mr Ma and Son – Lao She
  3. The Key – Junichiro Tanizaki
  4. The Maker of Heavenly Trousers – Daniele Vare (originally written in English)
  5. A Heart So White – Javier Marias
  6. Zeno’s Conscience – Italo Svevo
  7. The Man of Feeling – Javier Marias
  8. Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  9. Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys
  10. Please Look After Mom – Kyung Sook Shin
  11. Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood
  12. The Heart Goes Last – Margaret Atwood
  13. (Writers and Writing – Margaret Atwood)
  14. Skylight – Jose Saramago
  15. Small Memories – Jose Saramago

American lit – total: 26

  1. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer
  2. Walden – Henry David Thoreau
  3. Rabbit Redux – John Updike
  4. Fates Worse Than Death – Kurt Vonnegut
  5. Blue Nights – Joan Didion
  6. This is How You Lose Her – Junot Diaz
  7. The Tenants – Bernard Malamud
  8. Dubin’s Lives – Bernard Malamud
  9. Herzog – Saul Bellow
  10. Breakfast of Champions – Kurt Vonnegut
  11. Rabbit is Rich – John Updike
  12. Open City – Teju Cole
  13. Every Day is For the Thief – Teju Cole
  14. The Lowlands – Jhumpa Lahiri
  15. The Ghost Writer – Philip Roth
  16. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz
  17. Mr Bridge – Evan S. Connell
  18. Fire Season – Philip Connors
  19. Rabbit at Rest – John Updike
  20. The Witches of Eastwick – John Updike
  21. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
  22. Cosmopolis – Don DeLillo
  23. The Invention of Solitude – Paul Auster
  24. Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut
  25. S – John Updike
  26. Purity – Jonathan Franzen

American lit count – 26; World lit count – 15; British lit count – 5 and ½ (sorry, Orwell, but I didn’t love Coming Up for Air enough to finish it, for all your otherwise novelistic greatness)

Conclusion: In the past year and a half, I have read 5 times more American literary works than I have British ones.

What the Dickens?!

american-lit

There are 2 possible reasons for this:

Reason #1 – 

I’ve had enough of British literature during my three years of BA English at Oxford.

When my professor H. warned me said that “Oxford’s English course is fist-thumpingly nationalistic”, it turns out she wasn’t joking, which is why my short-lived excitement at being able to write a first-year paper on the continental intersections between Flaubert and Dostoevsky got the big shoo off before you could say Jack Robinson.

But really, there’s only so much James Joyce and Ian McEwan that one can take.

I will say, though, that Julian Barnes claims a special place in my heart, and his Sense of an Ending is the epitome of what I’d consider a short and sweet read (actually, bittersweet, but no more lest spoilers yada yada).

barnes-and-his-book

Martin Amis I used to like, but be warned that his works aren’t for the faint-hearted, or those who don’t have much appreciation for quintessential British cynicism and British black comedy, both of which can be hella grim.

NPG x133007; Martin Amis by Angela Gorgas

When is Amis not seen without a fag in hand?

Reason #2 – 

This is going to sound mega ironic, given Trump’s recent win in the US Presidential Race and the subsequent hullabaloo about ‘Apocalypse America’, but for as long as I can remember, I have always harboured this strange ideal of USA as the country to visit, the source of all human fascination and opportunities and goodness and amazement galore. Blame it on Hollywood, and films like Pretty WomenGodfather, Shawshank etc.

More than anything, I think my reading of Updike, Roth and DeLillo has actually helped me understand how there could be so many Trump supporters in a ‘Left Behind America (that really, really wants to be Great again)’.

trump-supporter_usa-today

White Men Grief

My idealisation of America, of course, quickly got shat on by W., one of my other professors at Oxford, who thinks that Americans are really just a bunch of “cultural philistines who got lucky one time and just ran with it”. My parents also happen to be thoroughly unimpressed by American culture and politics in general, despite the odd fact that my dad is a regular CNN watcher.

ap-us-history

Back in Grade 10, I bought an AP US History textbook to read – for fun

Anyway, I’m bringing all of this up for context’s sake, because I suspect my natural gravitation towards American literature stems from my inexplicable, inherent affection for this country (which I’ll be visiting for the first time next month – ahhhh!!)

Honestly, had I not been able to pick my Optional Paper on Post-War American Fiction in my final year at uni, I wouldn’t have considered my undergraduate English degree truly ‘complete’, and instead of coming back to HK, I might even have applied for an English postgrad in the States straight after graduation.

I don’t think Prof W would be too happy to hear that.

Within American literature, there are myriad sub-categories, so here’s a more detailed breakdown of my reads –

Jewish American lit –

  1. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer
  2. The Tenants – Bernard Malamud
  3. Dubin’s Lives – Bernard Malamud
  4. Herzog – Saul Bellow
  5. The Ghost Writer – Philip Roth
  6. Everyman – Philip Roth
  7. *(Nemesis  – Philip Roth)
  8. The Invention of Solitude – Paul Auster

Diasporic American lit –

  1. Open City – Teju Cole
  2. Every Day is For the Thief – Teju Cole
  3. This is How You Lose Her – Junot Diaz
  4. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz
  5. The Lowlands – Jhumpa Lahiri

Post-war American lit –

  1. Mr Bridge – Evan S. Connell
  2. (Rabbit, Run – John Updike)
  3. Rabbit Redux – John Updike
  4. Rabbit is Rich – John Updike
  5. Rabbit at Rest – John Updike
  6. The Witches of Eastwick – John Updike
  7. S – John Updike
  8. Fates Worse Than Death – Kurt Vonnegut
  9. Breakfast of Champions – Kurt Vonnegut
  10. Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut
  11. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

Contemporary American lit –

  1. Blue Nights – Joan Didion
  2. Fire Season – Philip Connors
  3. Cosmopolis – Don DeLillo
  4. (Americana – Don DeLillo)
  5. (White Noise – Don DeLillo)
  6. (End Zone – Don DeLillo)
  7. Purity – Jonathan Franzen

*Titles in parentheses are books I had read before my return to Hong Kong in August 2015, included here for the sake of comprehensive comparison

american-lit_pantheon

Representatives of the Modern American Canon: (left to right) Saul Bellow, Jhumpa Lahiri, Kurt Vonnegut, Joan Didion

Interlude: Among the books listed above, the only one that I’ve not made any reference to on this blog is Paul Auster’s Invention of Solitude, and with that –

auster_invention“If the voice of a woman telling stories has the power to bring children into the world, it is also true that child has the power to bring stories to life. It is said that a man would go mad if he could not dream at night. In the same way, if a child is not allowed to enter the imaginary, he will never come to grips with the real.

A child’s need for stories is as fundamental as his need for food, and it manifests itself in the same way hunger does. Tell me a story, the child says. Tell me a story. Tell me a story, daddy, please. The father then sits down and tells a story to his son. Or else he lies down in the dark beside him, the two of them in the child’s bed, and begins to speak, as if there were nothing left in the world but his voice, telling a story in the dark to his son. Often it is a fairy tale, or a tale of adventure.

Yet often it is no more than a simple leap into the imaginary.”

(154, Penguin 25th Anniversary Edition)

Insight 3: My female author count is shamefully low (6), although I appear to have undergone a ‘feministic’ phase in my Spring 2016 reading habits

It pains and shames me to say this, but out of the 50 books I’ve read in the past year and a half, only 6 of them are written by female novelists.

Six. That’s around 10%. WTH.

And most of them I read during an especially ‘feministic’ period between March to May this year, after a winter’s worth of pouring over portrayals of broken male egos (Rabbit is Rich), masculine fragility (Scent of Dried Roses), and justifications as to why men have it hard and how women don’t exactly make life easier for them either (Dubin’s Lives, The Sense of an Ending etc).

Then again, perhaps this also says something about the gender imbalance in the Anglospheric book publishing industry, or on a more localised level, the merchandising decisions made by those in charge of the stock at Eslite and Page One. There have been numerous times when I asked for Didion’s works at either stores, only to be told she’s virtually never in stock.

At the recommendation of a colleague back in March, I read and very much enjoyed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, and the genuine, convincing way with which Adichie represents a strong, independent woman spurred me to seek out more female authors, which resulted in the list below (arranged in chronological order):

  1. The Lowlands – Jhumpa Lahiri
  2. Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys
  3. Please Look After Mom – Kyung Sook Shin
  4. Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood

female-author-books_collage

While I wouldn’t want to make any sweeping statements about ‘how female authors write differently from male authors’/ ‘why the female authorial perspective is different the male one’ etc etc, what I can say in good faith is that when it comes to literary representation, men and women really aren’t that different, especially if we look past the biological givens or cultural divergences and focus on the core humanity – one’s capacity for love, fear, self-consciousness.

Nasty men are just as nasty as nasty women (especially when they are nasty about one another); female suffering is no less painful to read about than masculine suffering (even though they may be starkly different in nature), and when anything joyous arises in the narratives, they are often celebrated between men and women as a testament to human connection, and not one side, eh, trumping over the other.

While modern literature with its sprawling complications and conflicts has long moved past the model of the Shakespearean comedic ending where marriage solves all, there’s always at least an acknowledgement of both genders’ contribution to the fullness of experience.

roth-american-pastoralCoda: Anticipating reads for 2017

I’ve been advised by a friend to read Philip Roth’s American Pastoral before visiting NYC in mid-December, both of which I very much look forward to doing! Reflecting on my reading habits in the past year, I think it’s safe to say that I should make an effort to read more female writers (Alice Munro and Iris Murdoch, anyone?), and perhaps also revisit some of my Great British oldies but goodies.

Fellow lit-lovers, what are some of the books and/or literary works you’ve loved and read in the past year?

Please share and recommend so I can keep growing this favourite list of mine, as I hope this post has helped you with yours.

🙂

[Photo credits: TIME, circololetti, Esquire UK, UCEnglish, Angela Gorgas, USA Today]
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