Schoolyard Games for Readers

Today I was “tagged” by online literary acquaintance (OLA) Matt Bucher. The tag was regarding something called a “meme,” a term new to me. This, of no surprise, was a “book meme,” starting out I’m not sure where but finding its way to Matt via another OLA, Ken Smoker. My task is to fill in these blanks:

Total number of books I own/owned:
529. I counted today. I live in a bedroom-less loft, and most of my books are stored in a room divider / bookshelf. Here’s what it looks like from the dining area. Here’s what it looks like from my bed.

Five Books That Had a Big Influence On Me:
A year and a half ago, I published a piece in PlaybackSTL called “7 from 75.” It featured brief write-ups of seven books I was highlighting from a list of 75 recommendations I had previously published as a pre-xmas buyers’ guide. Certainly each of these seven could be on this “book meme” list, and indeed one of them is. But I’ll go for something a little different and not High Fidelity-definitive.

1. “The World According to Garp,” John Irving
I remember almost nothing about this novel. What I can tell you is that in high school, Mr. Rich Weimann, an overworked hero, taught the book in a small elective called “Best Novels.” It was there where I first thought of books as objects I could wrestle with. Creations I could square off against and challenge. Or hug and celebrate. What Wy-Guy enabled me to do was set ‘classics’ aside and think about books and authors as present-tense things that I had a voice in dealing with. I wasn’t simply hunting for why a certain book was a classic. At the end of this semester, I wrote a blistering attack on “Garp,” one I’d of course be aghast at reading today. But in allowing and encouraging me to do so, Wy-Guy helped launch my deep relationship with books, and triggered what will be a lifetime of challenging and celebrating them with others.

2. “Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation,” by William Gass
I found and bought this book at Christmas time, 2000. I’d heard of Gass, vaguely, as an important writer from my hometown of St. Louis. I read this lovely little volume in the car, as my dad drove us to Florida to meet other family who were flying in. Gass stated: “The Duino Elegies were not written; they were awaited.” If you would have told my then-26-year-old self that four years later I’d be asking this man William Gass about that very quote in person, in his home of 19,000 books, with him laughing and telling stories of vodka and Studs Terkel, I’d have told you you were nuts.

3. “The Magic Mountain,” by Thomas Mann
In 1996, as the student-editor of The Marquette Journal, I put together a magazine issue of deserted-island cultural picks. I had a team of students and teachers choose five books, films, plays, CDs, and life experiences they would like to physically or mentally take with them to the island. Professor Tom Jeffers, who taught me Henry James, had this to say about “The Magic Mountain”: “I discovered this book in my first year in graduate school and have tried to re-read it and teach it every seven years. Seven years is the length of the hero Hans Castorp’s stay at a sanatorium in Switzerland before World War I – seven years that are in effect his graduate school, a time of encyclopedic education, not all of it book-based. It’s a chance to learn how, in fact, there could be a core to MU’s core curriculum.” My girlfriend’s currently reading my copy of the novel, so I can’t quote from it. But I can say that after Prof. Jeffers recommended it, it became one of the first big books I got through for independent reasons. And I ended up buying it for my father, a lifetime reader across many subjects; he now puts it near the top of his list.

4. “Hieroglyphs of Another World: On Poetry, Swedenborg, and Other Matters,” by Ilya Kutik
This Russian poet/scholar/essayist/translator taught me “The Golden Age of Russian Film” in the evening Master’s of Arts in Liberal Studies program at Northwestern. It was a one-night-a-week class, and there were two other students. We’d smile at one another when Ilya would leave every 40 minutes or so to smoke a cigarette. I began visiting his office often, where he would smoke and nod and smile and say really interesting things. I then began reading what he’d published in English. Like Gass, Ilya writes brilliant stuff in a playful manner. The book begins: “Somewhere, although I’m not sure that this is right, I read that a poetic text as a whole is a necklace from which the string was pulled out, and the pearls (we’ll call them pearls) remained in place.” And later: “The stringlet of ring-shaped meanings is like a metaphysical thread. And in its path the arrow pulls that thread, which gradually melts into the 'sky’ of the subconscious, in the same way that the vapor trail of a jetliner becomes invisible as the arrow flight hurtles forward.” As you can see, Ilya also shares Gass’s gift for metaphor. Apparently even in speech, he’s got it. This book includes an interview between Ilya and Mikhail Epstein. The latter says that Russian poetry often has a pairing system, with Zhukovsky-Batiushkov, Pushkin-Lermontov, et. al. Epstein asks Ilya who his other half might be. Ilya answers: “On the whole, it’s an interesting question, pairing. But who is Brodsky’s other half? Rein’s? Or, since you’ve named him twice, Prigov’s? But does the poet create a pair for himself, or, more likely, is it the wish of readers to construct a new Noah’s Ark (where all are paired) so not to drown in the sea of poetry? But in it, you know, the sea, there are also solitary swimmers, and in general, the solitary simmer (and his metonnym, the sailboat) is a very popular topos in Russian poetry….”

5. “Emerson: The Mind on Fire,” by Robert D. Richardson Jr.
I was just circling my shelf and thought I’d add this book, even though I haven’t thought about it for a long while. A note in the front says my father gave it to me for Christmas in 1996, the year after I graduated from college. This was right around the time I was considering applying to graduate schools, and I remember being so inspired by this book’s thinkers and their actions and on-the-page accomplishments. I wanted a life where I’d be doing the same. I just noticed a note I scrawled at the top of page 65 that reads, “Write letters.” I have to think this counts at least a little.

Last Book I Bought:
Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49,” after reading this month’s terrific cover essay in Book Forum.

Last Book I Read for the First Time:
“The People of Paper,” by Salvador Plascencia, which I finished two nights ago. I’ll be reviewing it in the coming months. About halfway in, when I saw the author’s name come up in the novel itself, I wrote “Uhg” in the margin. But I needn’t have worried.

Other Bloggers to Tag With this Meme:
Daniel Green of “The Reading Experience.”