Me-Colored EyeHow many books do you read at the same time?

Once in a while, a book so grabs me that I can’t read anything else till I’ve finished it.  (Also, once in a while, I have to read a book that is by its nature a struggle and if I read anything else during the effort I’ll never get through it.)

There are days I miss the ability to do multiple things at once—read, listen to the radio, watch television, carry on a conversation.  I think we all remember a time when we could do this, but I also wonder if we remember how much we actually got out of it.  I know that if there are voices around me now, spoken or sung, reading is impossible.  I write to music—instrumental music—but that’s the limit of my cross-discipline multitasking.  (I’m writing this to Glen Gould’s performance of Beethoven’s 1st Piano Concerto.  I find myself recognizing passages during the pauses between thoughts, but the rest just flows by, creating a kind of aural creative cushion, a continuity that fills in the gaps left by interrupted imagination.)  I rarely read to music.

But I do generally have three or four books going at the same time.

Right now I’m reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and at the same time working my way through Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia.  (Does that count as a kind of musical background?  Nah!)  In between, I’ve been reading short stories in current issues of Asimovs SF  and I’m about to start research into Madame de Stäel for the next book in the trilogy I’ve been working on.

The trick is to mix them up.  I almost never read two novels simultaneously.  History and a novel, essay collections and a novel, science, politics, etc.  From time to time they color each other, to interesting (but I’m not sure to superior) effect.  I recall once reading Michael Moorcock’s marvelous The War Hound and the World’s Pain and C. V. Wedgewood’s history of the Thirty Years War more or less at the same time.  Whatever else I might have been reading got overwhelmed by the totality of those two books.  Sort of like reading Norman Mailer’s first novel, The Naked and the Dead and a biography of Admiral Halsey together, or just a good history of World War II in the Pacific.

While we read with our entire brain (especially fiction, in which the internal creation of images is strongest), it seems we can compartmentalize detail.  I wonder sometimes if when I put down one text and pick up another, what I’m doing is giving my subconscious an opportunity to process the first text.  It feels curiously relaxing sometimes to go from one to another, like changing up an exercise routine.

I am a slow reader.  I read roughly 80 books a year, cover to cover (probably if I added in the total page count of articles, short stories, partial reads, and such it might get closer to 120, but nevertheless) and it can sometimes take me a seemingly inordinate length of time to get through a book.  (Having done two works now with a reading group—Ulysses and Dante’s Commedia—the upper range now stands at seven years to get through a text.)  Many factors are involved, the chief being the time to sit down and read.  Life interferes.  Where once it seemed I had a whole day to go through a book, now I read them in 20 minute to 2 hour chunks.  And the depth of the text places its own constraints on how quickly it will be absorbed.  (I can read a standard murder mystery in a couple of days, but I’m looking at a book on my shelf that I know will take a month at least—Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought, a history of the United States from 1815 to 1848.  The older I get, it seems, the more attention I find I must give to such books.  I zipped through William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in high school and did it in less than a week.)  “Processing time” is more necessary, but the urge to keep reading is abated only by picking up a different book for a while.

I have yet to confuse texts.  I always manage to keep whatever I’m reading this way separate.  That might change were I to read similar books simultaneously.  (In fact, I do recall confusing sources during a period of intense research into the Civil War, wherein I switched from one text to another regularly in an attempt to glean a collective comprehension of the period.)

Almost all of my reading, however, is linear (as probably is most people’s).  There are some I’ve known who open books at random and read in the middle, then the beginning, then somewhere else (though not novels, but I wonder how this might work in history?) but not me.  Beginning to end.  Yet I keep them all separate—multi-linearity?—which might seem difficult, since I put one down to pick another up and each return is like starting over.  Yet…

It makes for an interesting, often fascinating journey.  Dancing down the Yellow Brick Road on the way to Versailles at the height of the Sun King’s reign and finding the legation from Vega waiting in the trans-Plutonian consulate fora.  Metternich and Monroe are over there in corner, at the end of the buffet, discussing the Euro with Aragorn while Peregrin and Meriadoc introduce Nero Wolfe to delicacies from Canopus.  There are serious issues under discussion among the gathered dignitaries, not least of which is the true location of the Maltese Falcon and whether or not the heirs to the Dukes of Burgundy have right of return, for which cause Chingachgook represents them to the Culture Minds who may or may not intercede.  The whole arrangement of the imaginative universe could be altered.  Everyone is waiting for arrival of the next book in the series.  in the meantime, we read widely to grasp the multiverse in which existence itself is given meaning…

Bound and Determined

A staple of YA science fiction is the story of the Young Person who begins quite normal and average and through circumstance becomes entangled in Epic Events and ends up an Important Person.  Yes, it’s a coming-of-age arc because the plot requires maturation.  In the best of them (from Heinlein to the present) the protagonist isn’t the only one maturing, but the society/culture of which he or she is a part.  The events of the story perforce drag the whole civilization along, sometimes kicking and screaming, to a new level in order to deal with the New Thing that must be dealt with.  And of course at the end of the novel or trilogy, rapprochement of some kind is achieved, balance gained, and good things are in the offing as a result of the timely, clever, and ultimately mature intervention of the newly-minted adult at the center of the story.

(Of course this is not limited to science fiction, but in all honesty, in what other genre are the stakes regularly so incredibly high?)

In the last decade, with the steady resurgence of YA science fiction, good examples of this abound.  (In particular, I’m thinking of Nini Kiriki Hoffman’s Catalyst, a short, elegantly efficient novel about exactly this kind of growth arc.)  It’s a reliable form, even in the dystopic vein of The Hunger Games.  One thing essential in these is success.  Success for the protagonist, successful resolution of the conflict driving the story, success for the universe in which it’s set.

Which makes Joe Haldeman’s trilogy beginning with Marsbound a bit of a shock.

We begin in the mid 21st Century with the Dula family, who have won a lottery ticket to go join a small experimental colony on Mars.  Carmen, the protagonist, is 17 going on 27, and while certainly curious about Mars is less than thrilled at the idea of leaving everything behind for five years on a world where going outside without an environmental suit will kill her.  Her mother, father, and younger brother, Card, also go along.  On the beach near the space elevator they will ascend to orbit and their waiting ship, Carmen meets Paul, an astronaut and the pilot of their transit ship.  He’s 31.  Nevertheless, the two of them start up an affair on the space elevator, which leads ultimately to their marriage by the end of the novel.

On Mars, through a maze of set pieces whereby Carmen runs afoul of the colony authority figure, she discovers—or is discovered by—a colony of heretofore unexpected neighbors.  These aliens are not native to Mars but have been planted there millennia in the past to serve as eyes and ears for the Others, tremendously old beings of unimaginable power who are absolutely paranoid of budding civilizations that might threaten them.  Carmen becomes a de facto ambassador first to the local group and then, by extension, to The Others, although this latter position is problematic at best as it presumes a cultural and intellectual equivalency that does not exist.

The second novel, Starbound, chronicles the “diplomatic” mission sent the 25 light years to The Others’ homeworld, a mission that includes Carmen, her husband Paul, two other scientists from the Mars colony, and a triad marriage of spies from the U.N., two husbands and their wife.

Things begin to deviate here from the expected arc of a traditional YA.  The interpersonal relations among these people, stuck together on a cramped starship for a very long journey, and the background stories that emerge even as the relationships, both personally and professionally, complicate paint a world that is much darker, much more byzantine, and much more ambiguous both morally and historically than might be expected.  The Earth from which these people matriculate, in other words, is very like our own with all the inconvenient, illogical, ugly wrinkles of detail implied.

Nor does the meeting with The Others unfold as one might expect.  Humanity is not triumphing here.  Carmen does not “save the day” through some particular of personal intuition, charm, or insight.  They find themselves confronted with a Fact that cannot be comprehended and has no reason at all for mutuality with humanity.  Because human nature is, collectively, what it is, Earth makes decisions that lead The Others to simply shut them down.  At the end of the second novel, they have simply turned off the power on Earth, instantly sending humanity back to an 18th Century existence—except, of course, all the guns that use powder and shot still work.

Nor is this effectively redressed in the final volume, Earthbound, which title works ironically in opposition to the first two, which are both about voyages, expansion, growth.  Here it is about surviving in prison.

What interests me about this trilogy is Haldeman’s decision to present, in YA fashion, an implacable universe.   In contrast to, say, Heinlein’s Have Space Suit, Will Travel, the “trial” humanity faces is not won by the plucky, sharp-witted young hero, because winning isn’t even an option.  Placation, perhaps, but humanity has nothing with which to claim even a seat at the table.  Haldeman gives us dispassionate aliens whose only concern is whether or not humanity might try to hurt them several thousand years hence.  (The similarities between the two works, while largely superficial, are intriguing.)  Haldeman has decided to throw a bucket of ice water in the face of the kind of aspirational SF we’ve grown accustomed to.  The last book of his trilogy is a thorough-going downer.  Carmen survives, yes, but one gets the feeling this is only because someone needs to tell this story from beginning to end.

Haldeman is a very careful, meticulous craftsman, and he’s done something very interesting with the character of Carmen Dula.  Marsbound begins sounding very like YA.  Carmen is 17 and her first-person narration sounds like an adolescent.  As the novel progresses, though, she grows up, and, almost unnoticeably, so does her voice.  This is an impressive feat, make no mistake.  She reaches adulthood, even a kind of motherhood, without any of the false notes of jarring transition one might expect, and the voice, within the context of the story, remains strong and convincing.  Artistically, this may be Haldeman’s best achievement here.

But it does serve well as a dialogue between the personal and the problematic.  The choices Carmen makes in her own life are set in contrast to the choices she and the rest of humankind must make faced with a situation of which there is no textbook, no precedence, and therefore no obvious answers.  The notion that the traditional cataclysms of mismatched cultural encounter provide guides is subverted by the supreme disinterest The Others have in any kind of imperial ambition.  They don’t want what we have, which has been the basis for all our past clashes like this.  They don’t want anything, except perhaps to guarantee that another race—ours, for instance—never brings its wanting to their doorstep.

What they have in aide of this disinterest is the ability to yank any carpet we may have out from under us.  Instantly.

Which brings Carmen and her band of above-average-companions face to face with that thin veneer of oh so fragile civilization we’ve all heard about.

At a guess, I suspect Haldeman has, on one level, decided to puncture the Heinlein myth in science fiction, that myth which is admirably summed up in the first few pages of his Time Enough For Love:

Our race could now lose fifty planets, close ranks, and move on.  Our gallant women could replace the casualties in a single generation.  Not that it appears likely that this will happen; thus far we have encountered not one race as mean, as nasty, as deadly as our own.

Haldeman’s response, in a word, is “bullshit.”  That he has chosen to do this in YA, I think, is both interesting and laudable.  Optimism and confidence are well and good, but should be grounded on some notion of reality based in experience.  Science fiction has always been a kind of quasi-philosophical test bed for experiences we’re unlikely to have but which may occur in some form for humanity eventually.  It behooves us, therefore, to occasionally eschew the fist-pumping self-congratulatory delusions of our own imagined greatness and deal with the Unknown as it is likely to be and, at least at the outset, really is—namely Unknown.

Within that larger context, however, Haldeman has presented an interesting arc of maturity for his characters.  Fully human, recognizably flawed, they are nevertheless intelligent and thoughtful and manage themselves and their relations with a degree of forethought that I think is a fine model for young readers to encounter.  Yes, they do stupid things, but then learn from them and don’t continually do them.  Yes, they try things out, because experience, sensation, curiosity are essential to living full lives, but they don’t (usually) charge into things without some idea of responsibility.  They tell themselves No as often as they indulge themselves, and they seem to realize that how they conduct themselves personally, with each other, is just as important as how they meet the larger, almost incomprehensible challenges beyond.

When I finished Earthbound I tried to think of a better way he might have done it that would not have transformed the whole thing into a flight of fantasy, a puff-piece for fragile egos, and I thought to be true to the premise, there was no other way.  He’s giving us the universe as it, at least philosophically, is—which cares not a fig for our concerns or even that we’re here, and which, if we make trouble on too big a scale, is as likely to swat us like a bug as yield to our demands.  It’s not so much a downer ending as it is sobering.

Sobriety is a good thing, especially when one doesn’t know what one is doing.


China Miéville seems to be going down the list. Fantasy, science fiction, horror, police procedural, Kafkaesque urban surrealism…each novel works some new twist on established forms to produce, if not a definitive work, at least an iconic representation of type.

Of course, he’s not just trying to recapitulate what’s been done.  He’s not just re-presenting particular types.  With each work, he seems to be stretching the boundaries—the limits—of the form until they break, and presumably Something New emerges.

(And in some instances, he’s turning forms inside out and demonstrating both their deepest flaws and the possibilities of new attributes. For instance, Perdido Street Station would seem to be an urban fantasy adventure.  It is set in some Other City, that could be London if certain mythic veins had emerged as dominant in our history as opposed to what did establish itself as the Known.  But fantasy requires at its heart an Organizing Principle around which clashes of good and evil make sense in archetypal fashion.  Miéville excised that heart and we’re left with a fantasy world with no such central thema.  The result is chaos, which I think is a point he was trying to make.  But that’s a discussion for another time.)

In a sense, he’s revisited some of that in Kraken, which seems to fit—uncomfortably, perhaps—in the recent spate of X-File type stories about a secret realm of supernatural action requiring special police.  Charles Stross

has been doing a fun series concerning the so-called Laundry, a subdepartment of MI-5.  Recently, the debut novel by Daniel O’Malley, The Rook, kicks it up a notch.  Again, Miéville is mining familiar ground.

But even the name of his special police unit is a give-away that he’s fishing deeper waters: the FSRC, or Fundamentalist and Sect Related Crime.

The main team consists of a “normal” policeman, Baron, a young “witch”, Collingswood, and former Believer and theological academic, Vardy.  Certainly an odd combination, and they do not get along.  As the story proceeds it becomes clear that they don’t get along because they hold essentially incompatible world views.  Nevertheless, they have to work together for a common purpose.

Which is one of the threads Miéville follows, basically that it doesn’t matter what you believe, how you see the world, why you disagree with that fellow over there, at the end of the day we all have to coexist.  Somehow.

Because the London Miéville gives us is a polytheistic stew of essentially incompatible perceptions that nevertheless congeal into a community wherein people—and many, many gods—have to get along.

(Baron, Collingswood, and Vardy are a microcosm of the larger problem.  A “mundane”, a “paganistic supernaturalist”, and an “anti-supernaturalist theologian” all thrust together and forced to cooperate.)

In typical Miéville-ean excess, the plethora of gods are not limited to what we have come to recognize as old pantheons.  Gods are everything, everywhere.  The very brick and mud possess a certain deity-geist.  The Sea itself is sentient.  Nor is this a congeries of paganistic polytheism in which people worship many gods, but rather a congress of many faiths that are essentially monotheistic, each sect ardently holding to their god and no other, even as they all seem to acknowledge that all the others are, indeed, gods.  Where in Perdido Street Station he presents a milieu that has no gods of any kind, only the effects of participatory deism shorn of guiding principles, in Kraken he gives us a world so filled with gods, both past and present, that some organizing principle is required to keep them all in their places and not tear the world apart with their jealousies—or the jealousies of their congregants.

Into this he thrusts Billy Harrow, a curator at the London Natural History Museum.  His specialty is molluscae and in particular the prize specimen, a giant squid, Architeuthis, an intact corpse Billy himself worked on to preserve.  Then one day he comes in to lead a tour, enters the room where the proto-kraken is supposed to be, floating in its tank of preservatives, only to find it gone.  Tank and all.  Vanished.

Which brings in the FSRC and thrusts Billy into the midst of what turns out to be an underground religious turf war revolving around a potential apocalypse.   Because, you see, the Architeuthis is a god, with worshipers, and they seize Billy as a prophet in the cause of getting their god back.

Billy’s descent into this previously unguessed religious underworld allies him to an apostate theological enforcer and between two of the most powerful adversaries in London theomantic circles, one of whom is supposed to be dead but seems to be making a comeback.

The basic rôles are all in play.  Dane, the apostate enforcer, is a Peter-figure trying to make up for lapses in faith by rescuing his god; Marge (Marginalia) is a Magdalen figure trying to save the human man at the center of events she initially rejects but comes to understand in ways none of the adherents can; Fitch, a Pauline messenger who in spite of his belief in neutrality involves himself to the undoing of his own ethic; and Vardy, a former believer who wants so ardently to believe again that he would burn the world down to remake it as a place where fact never overwrote faith.

But Billy is key.  Admirably, Miéville does not indulge the pitiful cliché that so ruined things like The X-Files, that of the scientist who cannot observe, deduce, conclude, and adopt a new paradigm in the face of overwhelming evidence.  Billy, initially dismayed, angry, defiant, displays intelligence and adaptibility and before the novel is halfway through becomes a Player.  As he must.  Why?  Doesn’t the name give it away?

Billy Harrow.

Among all the other meanings of the word “harrow” there are two that are relevant.  The first, the most obvious, is the religious connotation, reference to the “harrowing of hell” wherein Jesus went to hell to free those who had been wrongly condemned.  (And, consistently, but not in any way predictably, Billy fulfills the implications of his inadvertent status—he dies to save the world and then returns, but not the way one might expect.)  The second, lesser, is as a verb, namely to Vex.

Because Billy is named a prophet, not only by the followers of the squid god but by the fabric of London itself.  Why?  Because of a story he told about himself, that he was the first test tube baby.  In a very clever bit of fictive legerdemain, Miéville gives us an immaculately conceived savior.  At least, that’s the story, because, you see, it’s not true.  Billy made it up.  It’s a story.

Which matters not at all to those who would use his perceived prophethood to their own ends.

Which, in turn, is Miéville’s point:

“It’s all a matter of persuasion, as perhaps you now know.  It’s all a matter of making an argument.”

So states the last aching want-to-be fundamentalist as he sets about trying to overwrite history and unmake a century-and-a-half  of scientific fact that successfully displaced his faith.

…He was not a creationist, not any longer, not for years.  And that was unbearable to him.  He could only wish that his erstwhile wrongness had been right…he did not want to eradicate the idea of evolution: he wanted to rewind the fact of it.  And with evolution—that key, that wedge, that wellspring—-would all those other things follow, the drably vulgar contingent weak godlessness that had absolutely nothing going for it at all except, infuriatingly, its truth…

Which brings what up till then had been a thoroughly entertaining supernatural adventure up into the realm of metafiction.  For Miéville, at least in this formulation, there is only persuasion.  Words.  Argument.  The codification of ideas underlies all potential belief, all justification, all reification.

And when persuasion fails, when a given argument proves insupportable in the face of a better one, then the fanatic turns to obliteration.  Apocalypse.  End it All, and start again on a clean slate.  Make a new argument where now none exist.

Interestingly, Miéville seems to suggest that the most ardent fundamentalists are those who have lost their faith—and want it back.  They’re willing to destroy everyone else’s reality to have it.  The ongoing, continual dialogue that constitutes positive coexistence would be anathema to someone who sees nothing but surrender in compromise and salvation in nihilism.  The London of co-extant doctrines, faiths, cults, sects, and divergent and curious theological constructions, uneasily but successfully managing to get along with itself, would be the ultimate blasphemy to someone who wants—needs—only One Truth, without competition.  Or the need to persuade.

On Tactics

I’ve redone my office.  This was a much more arduous task than I originally thought (although I sort of had a premonition, I suppose, because I kept putting it off), but is now in the main done.  While the geography doesn’t look that different, the feng shui is markedly changed.  I have more pacing room, a necessary component to my writing ability.  (I also pace when I’m on the phone, a habit that required first very long cords and then, later, portable handsets.)

Part of any convulsion like this is the uncovering of Old Stuff.  In this case, papers of various arcane and now-meaningless import.  Some of it, though, has been a delight to rediscover.  Like an archaeologist with a new potsherd or a bone, I’ve found layers of past interest embedded in corners unexplored since my last major make-over.  Cartoons, scribbled notes, lists, fragments of stories, and far too many scraps with phone numbers and no names.  Hmm.

One thing I remembered saving and now have in front of me is an essay by Charles Elliott, How To Read Proust, published in the October 1984 issue of The Smithsonian.  I xeroxed it and punched holes to include it in a notebook, but here I find it, mixed in with a lot of other paper that I’ve now discarded.

I have not read Proust.  I have friends who have read Proust.  Proust, much like Joyce, is a rite of passage.  To have read Proust seems to put one in a special category of people, Those Who Have Read Books Everyone Knows About But Few Ever Read.  They are among the artists whose name alone conjures impressions of high art apart from specific titles.  “Have you read Joyce?”  Why, yes.  “Ah.”  The conversation need go no further.  A sign has been given and answered and a recognition of kindred æsthetes has occurred, and you may now continue discussing Other Things with a knowledge that Deeper Meanings will not go unacknowledged, even in the most mundane of topics.  “Have you read Proust?”  No. “Oh.”  A different apprehension, a shift in approach.  Conversation may proceed, but it will not be the same as what might have been engaged.  (Claiming, quickly upon the realization that the sign has not been properly answered, that one has read, say, Pynchon or even Gibbon may restore the level of mutual appreciation, but not the particular frisson of potential mutuality.)

The essay is both comic and serious.  It discusses tactics to be employed in the reading of “difficult” books, sprinkled with epigrams from Virginia Woolf, who endeavored to read Proust.  And continued to endeavor.  “Every one is reading Proust…I am shivering on the brink” reads the first one, from 1922.

What follows is a catalog of useful techniques for dealing with daunting prose.  Deep reading is immensely rewarding, but let’s be honest—it can also be a challenge.  A lot of work, in fact.  Mr. Elliott (who was an editor and vice president at Knopf, and knew, no doubt, a few things about daunting prose, both good and bad) strikes at the core of the problem by concentrating on exactly that—concentration.  How often are we reading along, working our way through a densely-articulated page, and suddenly find that we’ve been missing whole swathes of story because our attention drifted over to what we’re having for dinner later or the argument we had last week or what color we might want to paint the walls?  We start over.  At some point the mind rebels and refuses to allow the kind of attention necessary to parse the lines we think we very much want to read.  Faulkner comes to mind.

(I find posture the most important and when I’m doing research outright discomfort can be useful.  It has been decades since I’ve been able to read lying down.)

Reading, whether we like to admit it or not, is often dependent on mood.  Books enjoyed one day might be impenetrable on another, simply because our internal ‘scapes have shifted, tectonically, and blocked our ability to appreciate what’s in front of us.  (It’s the same with people—we all know those with whom we must be in “the mood” for.)  Sometimes, the proper arrangement of our component cognition waits years before access is granted.  (I tried to read Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany four times over the course of ten years before one day it just opened to me.)

Sometimes we just have to find the right posture.

No one should be embarrassed about being unable to read something.  There are plenty of books, of all types, levels, styles, subjects, and depth is something we learn to plumb.  (“Being deep” however is no excuse for the waters to be murky.)

I may yet one day read Proust.  I’ve read Joyce, yes.  (Also Pynchon, Fowles, Gardner, and Burgess.)  To get the most out of such books you should be prepared to dive deep, but that takes practice.  And we all have fallen asleep while reading.  Practice, yes—but a few worthwhile techniques or tactics couldn’t hurt, either.

Such reading can sometimes be like cleaning a room and finding all kinds of stuff you forgot (or never knew) was there.  The deeper the pile, often the more surprising the discovery.

But if it’s a major project, sometimes taking a corner at a time is better than just overturning the entire landscape and thinking you can put it all back together.

“I followed my new diversion of book binding.  I am covering Proust in little shiny squares of gummed paper.”  Virginia Woolf, 1934.


Hagiography is destructive to truth.  The worshipful retelling of past lives by advocates who wish to see their subjects purely in terms of what they mean to the writer personally, eliding that which is problematic, troublesome, or simply unpleasant, while occasionally producing fun books for the uncritical, puts up barriers to the most essential element of honest biography, namely the recognition of what is human in all of us.

While that may seem a bit over-the-top to some, consider what happens to certain authors who dare to write candidly about “heroes” with many followers.  Often, they themselves become the focus of intense controversy, much of it negative.  How dare they, detractors claim, paint a portrait of Exemplary Figure that goes into the foibles, obsessions, character flaws, bad judgments, prejudices, and petty attributes when the significance of Exemplary Figure ought to exempt him (and sometimes her) from any criticism other than the most theoretical or abstract?

(This cuts both ways—many people seem unwilling to learn that Hitler was inordinately fond of little children and loved dogs.  Anything that humanizes him in any way, it seems, just gets in the way of how most of us wish to see him—as a monster, pure and simple.)

However one may feel about “disrespecting” historical figures, the fact is that being less than honest about anyone’s humanity makes for bad history and boring prose.  The fascinating aspects of certain lives are not what they accomplished but that such altogether human beings accomplished what they did.  (An excellent example is George Washington, who in so many ways was a dull, unimaginative man whose main distinction was having the fortune to be in the midst of enormous events that wrought significant change.  His reputation, which he cared about almost as much as the issue of independence, has come down to us in such a way as to suggest—inaccurately—that between him and Thomas Jefferson, everything important got done, while in truth his principle genius was in knowing how and when to refuse power.  He seemed to understand ramifications almost instinctively.  All the rest is ordinary, but becomes extra-ordinary in the light of what he did accomplish.)

Recently there has been a surge in histories and biographies about the Civil War and its players.  The Steven Spielberg film Lincoln is up for several Academy Awards.  We’re coming up on the 150th anniversary of  Gettysburg, which is arguably where everything turned around and the changes which started with Bleeding Kansas, John Brown, and Abraham Lincoln’s election  began to look permanent.

The book on which Spielberg based his film is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, which I have not read.  What I have read recently, is a book of the same name as the film, Lincoln, by Gore Vidal.

Vidal is exactly the kind of writer to boil the blood of ideologues who want their national heroes as pure as Achilles and reject any hint of more Odyssean qualities.

In a series of novels with the overall title Narratives of Empire, Vidal tore down the idols from their clay pedestals and showed many for the complex, often venal, thoroughly human people they were.  While some may quibble at his interpretations (for instance, in Burr, where he portrays Thomas Jefferson in less than exalted terms and even suggests that he might, in the affair of Aaron Burr, gone briefly mad), it is difficult to fault either his scholarship or his grasp of basic human nature.  When viewed through the lens of our commonalities rather than the distortions of iconic preconceptions, historical figures become both ordinary and accessible, the former of which is sometimes unwelcome, the latter disquieting.

In Lincoln Vidal begins with the newly-elected 16th president’s arrival in Washington, which was an ignominious event in the early morning hours, alone and unannounced in the company of body guards.  We speak today of the incivility of our political discourse, to which Vidal’s portrayal is tonic.  The murder plots set in motion to kill Lincoln even before his inauguration are a matter of record, the venom of pro-Southern sympathizers was lethal in its toxicity.  Reason had little to do with it.  Lincoln, for his part, was stoic, accepting events as they came as simply things to be dealt with.

It’s tempting to see in this picture a fatalist.  It’s possible Lincoln possessed such a streak, but it was offset by a fanatic belief in what he saw himself representing.  The Union.

We find this conversation odd today—or maybe not, what with all the declarations of intent to secede in the wake of Obama’s re-election, though for most of us such claims likely seem silly, but certainly unlikely to gain traction.  But prior to the Civil War, as Shelby Foote has noted, we had a theory of a nation rather than a nation itself.  It is perhaps bizarre for us today to hear Robert E. Lee declare that he could not accept command of the Union army because his first loyalty was to his country, meaning Virginia.  This was not theoretical.  It was so not theoretical that it did serious damage to the Confederacy before the war was over.  Supplies held in one state were not shared with others.  States Rights overwhelmed any consideration of unity, and in a way this made perfect sense.  Were they not after all arguing for the right to be apart?

After the war, theory became established fact.  This is what Lincoln held as his guiding principle.  He refused for almost all of the war to acknowledge “The Confederacy,” preferring to characterize the rebellion as the action of “certain elements within the southern states.”

Vidal did a superb job of making these distinctions not only clear but informing them with the vitality of Cause.  This was not an evening’s conversation over brandy with cigars but life and death.

The drama of Lincoln is almost entirely within Washington, in fact inside the White House.  It is the continuous wrestling Lincoln engaged with his cabinet—most of whom thought they could do a better job than him, some of whom thought he had somehow usurped their rightful position, a couple of them feeling it their duty to operate as de facto prime ministers because, in their opinion, Lincoln was a mediocrity—and the remarkable balancing act Lincoln managed to keep not only the cabinet together but ultimately the country.  An act which most of those around him misunderstood and undervalued constantly.  Yet the steel-spined, dedicated leader emerges on the page when least expected to assert a control that, in retrospect, he never lost.

My appreciation for Lincoln and the Civil War took a long time to coalesce.  Growing up, I was taught and accepted that it was about slavery.  Ultimately this is both true and inaccurate.  Freeing the slaves was a secondary, even tertiary matter for Lincoln.  This is difficult sometimes to separate out from the idea that he was dedicated to ending slavery, which is not quite the same thing.  He saw the institution as unsupportable in a country pledged to the ideas in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.  He admitted that if he could have found a way to preserve the Union and maintain slavery, he would have done so.  But a careful survey of his writings reveals Lincoln to believe such a thing impossible.  The revisionists who attempt to cast the South in a better light point to the notion of States Rights, that they were fighting to preserve what they saw as their autonomy, and that slavery was not the issue.  Again, a survey of the decrees of secession issued by the states rejects this—slavery is in almost every instance the first grievance, that the North sought to abolish it and the South refused to give it up.  It is incumbent upon the honest historian to realize that both issues were inextricably bound up together—that the Southern States saw their own identities as dependent upon slavery and certainly the economics bear this out.

Vidal managed the neat trick of not taking sides even while he showed the Southern Cause as hopelessly flawed and the inexorable correctness of Lincoln’s position relentlessly preferable, even as it struggled against more doctrinaire and self-proclaimed moral bases in the North.

Through it all, though, the importance of the novel is in its refusal to see any of these people as other than deeply human—insecure, unsure, vain, stubborn, optimistic, sometimes corrupt, often blind—and in that it makes for a kind of vaccine against the odious process of deification that infests so much of our public regard of famous people in history.

Robert E. Lee has been known as The Marble Man, because his legend overwhelm and almost silenced his reality.  Something close to that happens to all those we identify as foundational personalities.  It should be resisted.  Not only because it renders them inaccessible to us but it also gives the false impression that we today can never hope to match their achievements.


In another thread, the question came up “what is ‘comfort reading’?”  It didn’t occur to me that the idea might not be universal, that some reading is done purely for the pleasure and affirmation of a pleasant visit.

I recently finished Margaret Maron’s new novel, The Buzzard Table, which is the 18th entry in her Deborah Knott series of mysteries.  For those unfamiliar with Maron’s work, she writes a solid murder mystery, in the vein commonly referred to as “Cozies.”  Which, I suppose, differentiates them from the harder edged thriller idiom employed by writers like Dennis Lehane or Tess Gerritsen, in which plenty of the details and arcana of death and mayhem are on display along with a much darker examination of the sociopathic or psychopathic criminal mind.

Not that the murders in Maron’s work are less gruesome, just that much of the gore is left off-stage or examined with a lighter touch.

I scratch my head sometimes at the fact that I’ve now read 18 of these, from the first  (Bootlegger’s Daughter) to the new one, in order.  There are a couple other series I’ve been making my way through this way.  I’ve kept current with Laurie R. King’s excellent Mary Russell series, which chronicles the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and his wife, the eponymous Ms. Russell.  (I’ve also read all of Ms. King’s other series, the Kate Martinelli novels, the last one of which cleverly dovetailed with Mary Russell.)

I find myself reading these in between books that seem to demand more from me.  I hasten to add that when I began them I did not find them less demanding than, say, the latest Michael Connelly or Laura Lippman, but as one volume followed the next, I found myself able to slip into these worlds more easily, as if coming back to a favored vacation spot.  I was, in a word, comfortable.

This is not the same as easy.  Maron’s character development over the course of 18 novels has been consistent, charming, and engaging.  These people live and breathe on the page and I go along with them as much for who they are as for the adventures in which they are caught.  Also, her exploration of place is a layered experience, book upon book.  The community is alive, the landscape familiar now and yet surprising in its variation.

I’m tempted to call this “snack” reading, but that might suggest an insubstantiality that I do not intend.  Each book shows me something new.  But I don’t live with these characters the way I might with those I might find in a William Gibson novel (and I certainly don’t have to work to navigate the fictive ideascape as I would in a Gibson).

Some comfort reading—it is not all the same, nor does it offer the same comforts—is more like ritual than exploration.  I’m thinking of certain fantasy series that have gone on inordinately long.  I suspect some read these less for the new they might find than for the utterly familiar, and doing so—especially repeated readings—eventually becomes a matter of revisitation as to a shrine.  (I won’t name them, but I imagine people might know of which I speak.)  The value of ritual is unique to each of us, so I intend no derogation here.  But it’s different.

I think most of us who read as a substantial aspect of our lives have certain books which are simply there for the familiarity and comfort they offer.  Fresh ginger between heavier courses.

When I pick one of these up I know I’m going to be refreshed, relaxed, and ready for something else at the end.  It’s reading, so it does all the important things I think reading does for the brain and the mind.  Just about anything, I suppose, can be considered comfort reading, though I have a hard time imagining James Joyce or Proust falling into such a category.  I’ve read most of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels but because each is so different, even while sharing a background milieu, I don’t consider them “comfort reading” even though I am by now fairly comfortable within their conceits.

Interestingly, there seems to be nothing in science fiction I consider comfort reading.  So far, such books have all been mysteries.  Long ago I lost interest in ongoing series in SF and Fantasy, but in the last few years I’ve discovered a taste for them in mystery.  I may examine this at some point, I find it curious, but for now I’m enjoying myself too much to question it.

Right now I’m reading China Miéville’s Kraken.  Not comfort reading.

Rules of the Road

Books have speed limits.

Some you can breeze through, a quick run along a sunny straightaway, windows open and wind in your ears.  Others demand that you slow down, pay attention, move with care.

For the slow-but-dedicated reader, if there is a special plea or prayer upon picking up a new, dense book, it should be “Please don’t waste my time.”  I’m one of those readers who feels a compulsion to finish what I start.  I seem constitutionally incapable of just putting a book aside part way through and never coming back to it.

Oh, I’ve done it!  Years later, though, if I stumble across that book, ignored in a box or on the shelf of someone to whom I’ve loaned it, I experience a moment of guilt, a regret that I somehow betrayed it, and that it may take umbrage for having been dallied with and left for another.   “So…a restless spirit haunts over every book, till dust or worms have seized upon it, which to some may happen in a few days, but to others later…” according to Jonathan Swift.  Death to a book is to be ignored.

But we are mortal and have only so much time.  I have a crabbed admiration for people who can decide within ten pages that what follows is not worth their time and can put it aside without a twinge of conscience.  (Crabbed because another part of me keeps wondering what they’re missing.)

“Please don’t waste my time.”  For me, part of the problem is an inability to know if a book will be a waste of time.  Possibly some paragraph or a chapter or even a line from a character will make the whole thing worthwhile.

I read in anticipation.  This is true of all books.  I’m looking for something.  Surprisingly, I find it more often than not, and in this I have to count myself fortunate.  I have read books not worth my time and most of them I have forgotten.  But something of them lingers and sometimes I recognize them again, at least as a type, and before I make the mistake of reading the first chapter (if I get past page 30 I’m trapped, I must go on) I avoid what I sense is coming.

My own discipline notwithstanding, that is my main rule of this particular road: Don’t waste my time.  I can always be proven wrong, but there are certain books I’m not interested in reading.  Certain kinds of books I should say.  I don’t want to hurt their feelings, I don’t want to feel betrayed.  Books are like people—some are compatible, others should be avoided.

I’ll likely never read another Stephanie Meyers book.  Ever.  (I read The Host—don’t worry, I was paid to, for a professional review—and I found it exceptionally dull, too long for its weight, derivative, and a cheat.  That’s the worst reaction I’ve had to a novel in decades.)  On the other hand, I will likely read everything Iain M. Banks publishes.

I recently read Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon and it’s the perfect example of a book with a speed limit.  Slow down, pass with care, deer crossing ahead.  A paradox, because it is a broad, multi-laned road with no posted limits.  But zipping through it would be to miss everything.  Autobiographical in the sense that Heat Moon is the narrator and the trip recorded was his hegira around the continental United States—but not in the sense that it is about him.  While it is impossible that his own self and life could be kept entirely out, it’s about the road and its impact on the traveler he was.  The main character is the journey.  The sights along the way demand attention.  You do not speed read a book like this, which is reflected in the stated purpose of his travels on the back roads, state highways, and some seldom-used tracts in parts of the country most of us have no idea exist.  If you want to go fast, take the superhighways.  And see nothing.

But if you’re interested in landscape, in impressions of setting on character, on the topography of perception and topology of awareness…

That’s the kind of book I intend to talk about here.

Another rule of the road for me is going to be the advocacy of writers and of local bookstores.  Writers do what they do because they—most of them—love it.  It can be a difficult relationship, to be sure, but the deeper the love the better the result.  Which by extension invites the further relationship with the reader.  Where you first meet is actually important.  Buying from big chains is like engaging a series of one-night-stands.  Buy your books locally, get to know your bookseller, and by extension support the writer.

More on that later.

As to the kinds of books I love to read and which I’ll write about here, well…I said I am a slow reader.  Once, back in high school, I took a speed reading course.  By the time I graduated high school I was reading about 2500 words a minute.  I could go through an average sized book in an evening if I wanted.  I read a lot of  books that way.

What I did not have was very much fun.  I slowed down intentionally.  It occasionally takes me an inordinate length of time to read a book.  I get through about 70 to 80 a year, cover to cover, and I’m usually reading 3 or 4 simultaneously.

Which means I am not “current.”  The last book I finished was Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, which was published back in 1984.  I finished it just before the New Year.  It, too, demanded careful reading and I took my time.  Point being, I am irretrievably “behind” in my reading and will likely remain so—largely without regret or much feeling that it’s causing me any harm.

But I do read new books now and then and I may read more for the purposes of this column.

Another caveat:  I make a distinction between “like” and “good.”  There are plenty of books we read that we like but which, by any metric of craft or art, are not especially good.  I read Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter of Mars novels when I was a kid and I really, really liked them.  From time to time, I pick one up again and I find I still like them, but I can’t say they’re very good.  On the other hand, I read James Joyce’s Ulysses and have no hesitancy at all declaring it to be not only a good book but a great one—but I didn’t particularly like it.  I will do my best to state my prejudice in this regard when it seems relevant.

To be sure, if I write about it here, it meant something to me.  It had an impact.  It was a worthwhile journey.  But none of us ever really go down the same road, even if we get on at the same ramp.  My journey won’t be the same as anyone else’s.

And isn’t that the very best thing about good books?

A Bit of Comfort and Caution

This is my new blog.  I’ve attached a link to my old one, the Distal Muse, so you can get over here.

Why a second blog?  Simple.  I’d like to put my reviews and literary opinions here, apart from the Muse, which has become more of a hodge podge of commentary over the years.  A site dedicated just to my readings and my thoughts on literature might find a welcome audience among those who could care less what my politics are or my opinions on music or film or people in general or things as they are.

For now, this is a placemarker.   I have work to do in my office and it might be a week or two before I start posting.  In the meantime, you can still check out the Distal Muse.  I will be back.  Try to do this up proper, a real honest-to-goodness lit’rary stopover.