A Writer’s Notebook: a reading meme

Okay, this is perhaps cheating slightly, because a meme is hardly a writing exercise, right?  Except that it is.  I’ll explain more below, but for now, let’s call this a review of my influences.

I should also preëmptively explain that this meme is made rather tricky because I have to qualify my answers: When it asks for books “you own,” I have to mentally distinguish between books my wife and I own jointly (which, technically, is all of them), books my wife mostly owns because they’re higher up her interest scale than mine, and books I own because they’re higher up my interest scale than hers. Take, for example, the first question, about which author we own the most books by. If I were answering solely based on our bookshelves back in the States, I’d probably have to say Agatha Christie or the pseudonym Carolyn Keene, but those huge collections actually belong to my wife. So, when I answer the questions about anything “I own,” I’m talking about books I claim rather than books on our shelves.

1) What author do you own the most books by?

Probably Cormac McCarthy, though I have a lot of Stephen Kings too.

2) What book do you own the most copies of?

I think it’s close to a tie between the Holy Bible and Dracula. I also own several editions of Tom Franklin‘s Hell at the Breech, including a few foreign editions. (We have a lot of copies of Pride and Prejudice, too, and I love that book, but I put that in my wife’s column because they’re all her copies and she’s loved that book a lot longer than I have.)

3) Did it bother you that both those questions ended with prepositions?

Nope. The rules of English grammar, which have only formally existed for a few hundred years, are constantly evolving. That preposition rule is one I’m happy to say has died, though there is still a generation or two desperately clinging to it.

4) What fictional character are you secretly in love with?

I can’t say that I have been in love with a fictional character, unless you count Lizzie Bennet, but that’s because I’m married to a Lizzie Bennet. I also had a kind of a twisted crush on Morvern Caller, from Alan Warner’s novel of the same name, but I wouldn’t want to date her or anything.

Oh, wait, that’s not true! I’m still in totally love with Mary Jane Watson.

5) What book have you read the most times in your life (excluding picture books read to children; i.e., Goodnight Moon does not count)?

I’ve reread books, but not very often. I’ve read Tom Franklin’s story collection Poachers several times, partly because it was the subject of my masters thesis and partly because it’s awesome. I’ve reread Dracula a few times. But probably the two books I’ve read most often are The Dhammapada, and the Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra by Shantideva.

6) What was your favorite book when you were ten years old?

Cripes, I don’t even know. I think when I was 10 I was in a transitional phase. I remember earlier books, like Harriet the Spy and the novelization of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom; and I remember later books, like my Stephen King phase. But I can’t actually recall what I was reading at 10 except a bunch of science books (I was a big astronomy nerd when I was a kid).

7) What is the worst book you’ve read in the past year?

Definitely Alan Dean Foster’s novelization of Terminator Salvation. I actually can’t believe I stuck it out through that book–it was truly awful. But I remember reading (and, shockingly, enjoying) the novelization of T2, so I pushed through the Salvation book just for nostalgia’s sake.

I might have a couple of ties for worst book this year, and sadly, the first is Hemingway’s The Torrents of Spring. It’s allegedly a parody, and on that level it almost works, but it was supposed to be a parody of Sherwood Anderson and instead it reads like a parody of Hemingway himself. Plus, it was intentionally bad (Hemingway was trying to get out of a publishing contract), and Hemingway succeeded on that score in disastrous fashion. Thank god it was so short!

The other awful novel was Hideyuki Kikuchi’s Vampire Hunter D. I only read the first one, and I’m amazed I got through it. In many (many, many) ways, it was actually worse than that Terminator book. If you’re considering picking this thing up, skip it and rent the anime on DVD instead.

9) If you could force everyone to read one book, what would it be?

I’ve recommended Thynn Thynn‘s Living Meditation, Living Insight to scores of people, and I’ve given away several copies and linked to the online text a lot, so I suppose that would be it. Except it’s against my Buddhist beliefs to “force” any religious teaching onto anyone, so I think I’ll stick to secular works.

“One book” is really tricky. I think it depends on the reader. I recommend Cormac McCarthy to everyone, but I’ve leaned alternately on No Country for Old Men, The Road, the Border Crossing Trilogy, or Blood Meridian (ah…. Blood Meridian….) depending on the reader and the circumstances. I tend to recommend Beth Ann Fennelly’s Great with Child to all women, especially mothers. I’ve tried to force Harry Potter onto everyone who’s ever refused to read those books.

One book? I don’t think I can do that. All books, I say.

10) Who deserves to win the next Nobel Prize for Literature?

I can tell you, I simply am not qualified to answer that question. But I can also tell you that if it weren’t for the selection committee’s recent prejudice against American writers, I’d expect McCarthy to pick one up sooner or later. Also, when is Alice Munro going to get hers? She’s Canadian–surely she’s not out of the running!

11) What book would you most like to see made into a movie?

Earlier this year, I finally got round to reading Kazuo Ishiguro‘s Never Let Me Go, and when I finished, I said to my wife, “I don’t know exactly how they’d make it work, because it would be tricky to pull off, but I’d love to see this as a movie.” And she duly informed me that it was already in production and due to premiere later in the year. In fact, we saw it at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival this October. It was exactly as I’d hoped it would be–the filmmakers pulled it off beautifully. So, mission accomplished.

12) What book would you least like to see made into a movie?

Earlier this month, I was talking to some friends about the graphic novel Preacher, which has been suggested as film, as miniseries, and as full-blown TV show (à la Walking Dead). For my money, I would opt for the latter in a heartbeat, and in that sense, I hope Preacher never gets made into a movie–it needs a longer treatment than a two- or even three-hour film can give it, and I think even a miniseries would short-shrift it.

13) Describe your weirdest dream involving a writer, book, or literary character.

Do my own count? Several of my short stories, as well as the geneses of my novella and my dissertation novel, all came from dreams. The weirdest was probably the origins of my dissertation novel, partly because the “I” of the dream (who became the first-person narrator of the book) was a woman, and partly because “I” was already dead in both the dream and the story.

14) What is the most lowbrow book you’ve read as an adult?

Did I mention that Terminator novel? Or Vampire Hunter D?

15) What is the most difficult book you’ve ever read?

Probably Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. That thing is so densely packed and so intricately layered and so (literally) labyrinthine that it took me more than a month to finish.

Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead was no picnic either (but also excellent), though for entirely different reasons.

Maybe I should avoid books with “House” in the title.

16) What is the most obscure Shakespeare play you’ve seen?

I think you get to a point in academia where obscurity in Shakespeare becomes relative. Obscure in the sense that no normal human being has heard of it? Or in the sense that acting companies (much less film studios) rarely attempt it? Or in the sense that only the three most famous Shakespeare scholars in the world have even heard of it, let alone read it?

I can tell you that the two coolest film adaptations of Shakespeare I’ve seen were both of Macbeth: Throne of Blood, by Akira Kurosawa, and the weird but brilliant fast-food black comedy Scotland, PA.

17) Do you prefer the French or the Russians?

Even the Russians prefer the French, or at least they did before the Revolution, so I’d probably have to say the French.

But for literature? I’m dying to read more Russians in a way that I’ve never really felt for the French.

So, toss-up?

18) Roth or Updike?

I’ve read a LOT more Updike than Roth, but the Roth I’ve read has blown me away and I want to read more. I love what Updike did, but I’m kind of done with him for a while. So, Roth.

19) David Sedaris or Dave Eggers?

Probably Sedaris. Eggers is great but often comes across as pretentious.  (What a fun question, though!)

20) Shakespeare, Milton, or Chaucer?

I love all three, really, but man can Milton weigh on a soul! Honestly, I think I prefer to read Shakespeare, but secretly I think Chaucer is a lot more fun.

21) Austen or Eliot?

Austen, baby! (I need to read some Eliot, though.)

22) What is the biggest or most embarrassing gap in your reading?

Right now, poetry.

23) What is your favorite novel?

Hard to say. For a long time it was Dracula, and I’ve been thinking of rereading that one. But it might be a toss-up between Blood Meridian and The RoadBlood Meridian is a better book, without question, but The Road had a greater effect on me, emotionally.

24) Play?

Am I a total chump for saying Hamlet? I don’t care how many times I see or read that, or in how many adaptations or editions, that play is always, always awesome.

25) Poem?

This is tough. Beth Ann Fennelly is my favorite poet, and her collection Tender Hooks, taken as a whole, is just out of this damn world. But there are a few poems by Mark Doty that just knock my socks off. “Days of 1981,” from My Alexandria, is particularly heart-stopping.

Keep an eye out for Michael Levan, too. He’s an up-and-comer I went to grad school with, and we all used to embarrass him with the nickname of “Future Poet Laureate,” but seriously, he’s that good. I’ve read poems by him that have left me breathless.

26) Essay?

Bill Roorbach’s my kind of essayist, and I tend to like everything he does, even his blog posts. My favorite by him is also probably his most famous, “Into Woods.”

I’m also a fan of Seneca, and his short letter on asthma is hands-down one of my all-time favorites.

27) Short story?

I’ve often said that Tom Franklin’s “Triathlon” is a perfectly structured story, and I always enjoy rereading it. But recently I’ve read some stories by Alice Munro that were like very, very long poems–they brought me up short the way poetry can, left me drifting in their wake the way poetry can, spoke in echoes and layers the way poetry can. “Fits,” is one. “Eskimo” is another. “Jakarta” too. And definitely “The Love of a Good Woman.” Wow.

28) Work of nonfiction?

Bill Roorbach’s Temple Stream is glorious.

Also, Stephen Batchelor’s Verses from the Center: A Buddhist Vision of the Sublime is outstanding. Technically, it’s a translation of Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way, but in the grand tradition of Buddhist scholarly translations, the bulk of the book is really Batchelor’s commentary on the text. And his commentary is profound.

29) Who is your favorite writer?

McCarthy. Munro. Chekhov. Carver. Proulx. Tom Franklin. Beth Ann Fennelly. Dan Chaon. Bill Roorbach. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Thich Nhat Hanh. Shantideva. Nagarjuna. Rumi. Hafiz. Am I really allowed only one?

30) Who is the most overrated writer alive today?

A year or two ago, I would have been happy to go off on this. I can certainly think of at least a handful–probably hundreds–of writers that get far more credit than they deserve, and I can just as easily think of at least a handful–probably hundreds–of writers who deserve far more recognition than they get. But what good will come of badmouthing bad writers? Shouting about the awful writers who get all the attention will only incite their devotees to dig in their heels while the choir I’m really preaching to rants on impotently. I’d rather celebrate the writers who need more attention and change the publishing industry that way.

Check out Lori Ann Bloomfield.  Check out Darin Bradley.  Check out David Breeden.  Check out Ryan Werner’s blog.  Check out all the names I’ve mentioned in this post–or in my post on influential writers, or my post on this year’s reading list–and any that you don’t recognize? Those are writers you need to start reading now.

31) What is your desert island book?

A Buddhist text of some sort. If I had to pick just one, I’d say the Dhammapada, or the Heart Sutra, or the Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra.  Maybe the Bardo Thodol.  It’s hard to choose.

32) And … what are you reading right now?

Two books: The Buddha … Off the Record, and the multi-volume series of Swamp Thing. (You can keep track of what I’m reading on my Bookshelf here in the website.)

So, how is this an exercise? I think it’s important to keep in touch with what we’re reading and why we’re reading it, and since I’ve been doing a lot of reviewing lately, looking over this past year and what I’ve been up to as a writer, doing a meme on what I read seemed a natural exercise.  Besides, knowing what we read and why we read it can profoundly inform what we write.  It’s why I keep a copy of Francine Prose‘s Reading Like a Writer on the same shelf as my books on craft.  It’s why one of those books on craft, Jesse Lee Kercheval‘s Building Fiction, includes exactly this sort of exercise in the first chapter:

Clear a shelf on your bookcase, preferably close to where you write.  Fill it with books you love and books you will want to refer to as you write.

Also:

Buy a notebook […].  In it, make the following lists:

  1. Your favorite books.  Explore why you remember each one.  Was it a particular scene?  A character?  A memorable phrase or insight?
  2. Books you have always wanted to read.  If you draw a blank or even if you don’t, go to a bookstore or a library and add at least ten more to your list.  Go out of your way to visit the library’s rare book room or a good used-book store.  Go to a fiction reading or buy a literary magazine.  Do it because you are a writer.

And so on.

So, I include this in my Writer’s Notebook.  I do it because I am a writer.

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2 thoughts on “A Writer’s Notebook: a reading meme

  1. I LOVED reading your blog! I especially loved this post. Carver? Really? I could be confusing Carver with Cheever. One of them really got on my nerves–long, long ago. I’ll go back and look. They might fix my current problem in my writing! Thank you for writing this post. Best wishes for a happy, creative new year!

    1. Thanks, Simone! Hope some of these books will help–they certainly do a lot for me! What problem are you having?

      I love Carver and Cheever, actually, though Cheever can wear thin if you read a lot of him at once.

      Happy New Year to you as well (it’s just past midnight here in the UAE!). 🙂

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