Roundup 2014

Time for a year in review.  I am bound to say, though, that my reading once more has been disappointingly thin.

When I am working on a novel, time for leisure reading necessarily goes down. Reading for research goes up, but that rarely requires me to finish an entire book.  I look at my reading list for the year and the only titles I ever include are those I’ve completed, so on such years I appear to be under-achieving.

That said, I completed 42 titles this year. (To be sure, I’ve probably read, by volume, closer to 90, but most of those I did not finish.  For instance, I am still plodding my way through Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century.  I’ll likely have to start it over.)

There were several that were rereads for me.  Unusual in that I seldom if ever reread a book. I don’t read fast enough to feel good about covering old ground when there’s so much new to be trod.  But I started up a reading group at Left Bank Books—Great Novels of the 22nd Century—and I’ve been choosing classics to discuss, so among the rereads were: Dying of the Light by George R.R. Martin (I wanted to show people that he could write, write well, and write economically about something other than the War of the Roses, although to my surprise I found many of the same themes playing out in this, his first novel); Slow River by Nicola Griffith (her Nebula winner and still, I’m happy to say, a powerful, poignant novel); Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh, one of the best interstellar warfare novels ever penned and very much an inspiration in my own work (for one thing, one has seldom found such solid treatment of working class issues in such a novel); Burning Chrome by William Gibson, which just made me wish he still did short fiction; Timescape by Gregory Benford, one of the best time travel novels ever written, although I’m bound to say it felt socially dated, though not fatally so; Nova by Samuel R. Delany, a lyrical, multilayered congeries of mixed mythos in an exuberantly realized interstellar setting; A Case of Conscience by James Blish; Gateway by Frederik Pohl; and now Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey.

While some of these provided me with revelatory experiences (I missed that the first time through! and I never thought about it this way before) the chief benefit of this exercise for me was in seeing how these books have informed what came after.  Over the past three-plus decades since it’s original publication, Timescape reads like a novel which escaped much of social consciousness progress even of its own time.  Not egregiously so, but there is only one female scientist in the story and she is very much in the supporting cast category.  Certain political strands feel thin.  None of this is a detraction from the primary story or from the fact that Benford is one of our better stylists (which really makes me wonder who was doing what in his recent collaboration with Larry Niven, which I found virtually unreadable because of simple clunkiness in the prose) and paid attention to character more than many of his contemporaries—or, I should say, realized such attention better.  On the page, his people feel real, whole, fleshed out.

The time travel device in the novel leads directly into one of the best books I read this past year, Gibson’s new one, The Peripheral, just recently reviewed here.  Along with H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and a handful of others, this enters my personal canon as one of the finest time travel works ever written, even though the plot seems deceptively commercial.

The most telling revelation of my rereads has been in finding my own reactions to the texts so different.  I remember my initial response to many of these as being quite different.  True, I missed many very good things in retrospect, but also I forgave a lot more than I do now.  There are books I come across today which I find off-putting which I know 20 or 30 or 40 years ago I would have raved about.  Much of this comes down to simple artistry.

Or perhaps not so simple.  I found it interesting that my more positive response to Delany’s Nova for its elegance and its precision left others a bit cold.  One brings a history of reading to a book which largely determines how one’s expectations will be satisfied…or disappointed.

I did reread James Schmitz’s Demon Breed.  Not for the reading group—it is sadly unavailable—but to refresh my memory for another project, and I still found it to be an exhilarating book, well ahead of it’s day in its basic assumptions about gender roles.  This is one I have now read four times since first discovering it as an Ace Special way back in 1969 and each time I’ve found it holds up extremely well and attests to an underappreciated genius.

Knowing now more clearly that elegance of execution is vitally important to me, my patience for certain kinds of writing has diminished.  I mentioned the Niven/Benford collaboration which I found impossible to get through, although it crackled with ideas.  What I have learned (for myself) is that the entire argument over style versus substance is a straw man.  It assumes they are not the same thing.  Quite the contrary, they are inextricably entwined.  Very simply, style emerges from a clear grasp of substance.  A sentence works at several levels, revealing information of different kinds in the way it presents its contents to the reader.  A lack of substance will show in a stylistic failure.  Too often we erroneously hear “style” as code for “decorative.”  Not at all.  The style is all important to the conveying of mood, of character, of setting, of theme.  But style cannot impose any of these things—the style is a result of the writer having a solid knowledge of what needs to be conveyed and an attention to how the sentence should be written in order to convey it.

Which is why I say style is an emergent property.  Almost no one gets to this level without a lot of practice, over time.  Which is also why most writers become clearer—“better”—as they go on.  They’re learning what matters, paring their words down, and revealing more.

For example, two novels I read this year which could not be more different serve to show how that experience and growing clarity result in unique styles.  Jim Harrison’s Brown Dog (which is a collection of linked novellas about the title character) and Richard Powers’ Orfeo.  On the page, the writing could not be more different.  Brown Dog is a semi-literate, often-itinerant aging naif who tells his story in what appears to be simple-minded affectlessness.  Things happen, he’s bounced around by events, lands (inexplicably) on his feet (wobbling often) and while clever is so guileless that one begins to believe in guardian angels.  The style reflects this.  Read carefully, though, and a world is revealed in each passing sentence.  Powers, on the other hand, reads like a musician scoring a great symphonic cycle.  The language is rich, evocative, challenging—and yet absolutely transparent, consistent with the story.  It can only be what it is in the telling of this particular tale of a failed composer who at the end of his life finds himself on the run and becoming an icon of his own life, with one more song to write and perform.  Each sentence reveals a different world, just as clearly, just as uniquely.

Style comes largely, therefore, from perspective.  Perspective informed a pair of books I read about the genre in which I labor, science fiction.  I finally read Brian Aldiss’s Billion Year Spree, which is an excellent history-qua-analysis of science fiction.  Because I had it to hand, I then read Margaret Atwood’s collection of essays about her experience of SF, In Other Worlds.  I wrote a longish examination of my gleanings from these two very different-yet-similar works, but let me just say that in them is revealed the font and consequence of perspective.  Atwood, for all her professed appreciation of science fiction, does not “get it” while Aldiss, who breathed it in like air in his youth, does, leading them both to unique understandings.

Another “paired reading” I did this year was Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsy novels, Gaudy Night and Whose Body?  It was fascinating because the latter is the first Wimsy novel and the former is late in the cycle.  What I found fascinating was the growth of the character.  The late Wimsy is very different from the early and yet are clearly the same man.  (Another instance where style is essential to the content, the revelation of such growth.)

One of the most interestingly-written novels I found was Wives of Los Alamos by Tarashea Nesbit, which can be said to be all about style, and yet nothing about style.  It is written in first-person plural, an ever-present “we” as the story is told from a collective point of view which nevertheless reveals individual character.  The “wives” form an amalgam of experience in opposition to, judgment of, and distance from the events that formed the core of their subsequent lives as they followed their scientist and engineer husbands to Los Alamos to work on the atomic bomb.  A stunningly gutsy thing to do for a first novel, marvelously successful.

I finished the immense Heinlein biography with volume 2 of the late William Patterson’s work on one of the major figures in science fiction.

There was also Thomas Pynchon’s newest, The Bleeding Edge, which exhibits many of Pynchon’s trademark stylistic acrobatics in what may be one of his most accessible convolutions on the American obsession with conspiracy.  Often one encounters a Pynchon novel rather than reads it and you come away with a sense of having toured a vast foreign country, appreciating many things, but knowing you haven’t grasped it, possibly not even its most salient features, but glad you made the trip.  Not this one.  It felt whole, penetrable, complete, and possessed a satisfying conclusion.

One of the most pleasant pair of readings this year was Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and its sequel, Ancillary Sword.  Ambitious and superbly realized, set in an interstellar milieu with fascinating aspects and a unique approach to empire, both books tell their tales from the viewpoint of an ancillary—basically a human-made-robot extension of a much larger AI, a ship mind (borrowing a bit perhaps from Iain M. Banks) that is destroyed in the first book with a single ancillary survivor.  Breq remembers being a ship, being one facet among hundreds, having access to vast data resources, but now much function as a single consciousness in a lone body.  Leckie is indulging an examination of the nature of empire, of morality, of political expedience, and what it means to be a part of something and also what it means to be outside of that something.  What I found most gratifying was that the second volume, while picking up the story a heartbeat after the first book, was a very different kind of book, about…well, not about something completely different, but about a completely different aspect of this enormous subject she’s chosen to tackle.  Serendipitously, a timely book as well, dealing as it does (effectively) with social justice and minority oppression.  I find myself looking very much forward to the third book.

One of the biggest surprises of the year was Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings.  I reviewed this as well and have nothing to add to that.

I don’t think I read, cover to cover, a bad book.  I’ve largely gotten over the compulsion to finish any book I start.  If it’s bad, it isn’t worth the time.  I readily admit I may and probably am wrong about many books that strike me this way.  I’ll talk about them if I find something instructive in my negative reaction, but otherwise I’ll just put it down to taste.

A good number of the nonfiction books I read this year concern the Napoleonic Era because of one of the novels I’m working on.  One I can recommend whole-heartedly is Tom Reiss’s The Black Count, a biography of Alexandre Dumas’s father, a creole who became general under Napoleon.

I am hoping to read more next year.  I have a to-be-read pile on the verge of daunting.  Working in a bookstore as I now do is also a problem because every day I see another book or two I want to read.  When? I ask myself.  It’s not always sufficient to dissuade me.  As I said, I read slowly these days.  It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book in one sitting.  That said, though, I think I’m getting more out of them now than I used to.  An illusion, maybe, but…

Have a safe, bookfilled 2015.

Is the Novel Still Dying?

In 1955, Normal Mailer was declaring the death of the novel. A bit more than a decade later, it was John Barth’s turn.  There have now been a string of writers of a certain sort who clang the alarm and declare the imminent demise of the novel, the latest being a selection of former enfants terrible like Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace.

Philip Roth did so a few years back, adding that reading is declining in America.  The irony of this is that he made such claims at a time when polls suggested exactly the opposite, as more people were reading books in 2005 (as percentage of adult population) than ever before.  In my capacity as one-time president of the Missouri Center for the Book I was happily able to address a group of bright adolescents with the fact that reading among their demographic had, for the first time since such things had been tracked, gone precipitously up in 2007.

And yet in a recent piece in the Atlantic, we see a rogues’ gallery of prominent literateurs making the claim again that the novel is dying and the art of letters is fading and we are all of us doomed.

Say what you will about statistics, such a chasm between fact and the claims of those one might expect to know has rarely been greater.  The Atlantic article goes on to point out that these are all White Males who seem to be overlooking the product of everyone but other White Males.  To a large extent, this is true, but it is also partly deceptive.  I seriously doubt if directly challenged any of them would say works by Margaret Atwood or Elizabeth Strout fall short of any of the requirements for vital, relevant fiction at novel length.  I doubt any of them would gainsay Toni Morrison, Mat Johnson, or David Anthony Durham.

But they might turn up an elitist lip at Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Tannarive Due, Nalo Hopkinson, Walter Mosley, or, for that matter, Dennis Lehane, William Gibson, and Neal Stephenson (just to throw some White Males into the mix as comparison).  Why?

Genre.

The declaration back in the 1950s that “the novel is dead” might make more sense if we capitalize The Novel.  “The Novel”—the all-encompassing, universal work that attempts to make definitive observations and pronouncements about The Human Condition has been dead since it was born, but because publishing was once constrained by technology and distribution to publishing a relative handful of works in a given year compared to today, it seemed possible to write the Big Definitive Book.  You know, The Novel.

Since the Fifties, it has become less and less possible to do so, at least in any self-conscious way.  For one thing, the Fifties saw the birth of the cheap paperback, which changed the game for many writers working in the salt mines of the genres.  The explosion of inexpensive titles that filled the demand for pleasurable reading (as opposed to “serious” reading) augured the day when genre would muscle The Novel completely onto the sidelines and eventually create a situation in which the most recent work by any self-consciously “literary” author had to compete one-on-one with the most recent work by the hot new science fiction or mystery author.

(We recognize today that Raymond Chandler was a wonderful writer, an artist, “despite” his choice of detective fiction.  No one would argue that Ursula K. Le Guin is a pulp writer because most of her work has been science fiction or fantasy.  But it is also true that the literary world tries to coopt such writers by remaking them into “serious” authors who “happened” to be writing in genre, trying ardently to hold back the idea that genre can ever be the artistic equivalent of literary fiction.)

The Novel is possible only in a homogenized culture.  Its heyday would have been when anything other than the dominant (white, male-centric, protestant) cultural model was unapologetically dismissed as inferior.  As such, The Novel was as much a meme supporting that culture as any kind of commentary upon it, and a method of maintaining a set of standards reassuring the keepers of the flame that they had a right to be snobs.

Very few of Those Novels, I think, survived the test of time.

And yet we have, always, a cadre of authors who very much want to write The Novel and when it turns out they can’t, rather than acknowledge that the form itself is too irrelevant to sustain its conceits at the level they imagine for it, they blame the reading public for bad taste.

If the function of fiction (one of its function, a meta-function, if you will) is to tell us who we are today, then just looking around it would seem apparent that the most relevant fiction today is science fiction.  When this claim was made back in the Sixties, those doing what they regarded as serious literature laughed.  But in a world that has been qualitatively as well as quantitatively changed by technologies stemming from scientific endeavors hardly imagined back then, it gets harder to laugh this off.  (Alvin Tofler, in his controversial book Future Shock, argued that science fiction would become more and more important because it taught “the anticipation of change” and buffered its devotees from the syndrome he described, future shock.)

Does this mean everyone should stop writing anything else and just do science fiction?  Of course not.  Science fiction is not The Novel.  But it is a sign of where relevance might be found.  Society is not homogeneous (it never was, but there was a time we could pretend it was) and the fragmentation of fiction into genre is a reflection that all the various groups comprising society see the world in different ways, ways which often converge and coalesce, but which nevertheless retain distinctive perspectives and concerns.

A novel about an upper middle class white family disagreeing over Thanksgiving Dinner is not likely to overwhelm the demand for fiction that speaks to people who do not experience that as a significant aspect of their lives.

A similar argument can be made for the continual popularity and growing sophistication of the crime novel.  Genre conventions become important in direct proportion to the recognition of how social justice functions, especially in a world with fracturing and proliferating expectations.

Novel writing is alive and well and very healthy, thank you very much, gentlemen.  It just doesn’t happen to be going where certain self-selected arbiters of literary relevance think it should be going.  If they find contemporary literary fiction boring, the complaint should be aimed at the choice of topic or the lack of perception on the part of the writer, not on any kind of creeping morbidity in the fiction scene.

Besides, exactly what is literary fiction?  A combination of craft, salient observation, artistic integrity, and a capacity to capture truth as it reveals itself in story?  As a description, that will do.

But then what in that demands that the work eschew all attributes that might be seen as genre markers?

What this really comes down to, I suspect, is a desire on the part of certain writers to be some day named in the same breath with their idols, most of whom one assumes are long dead and basically 19th Century novelists.  Criticizing the audiences for not appreciating what they’re trying to offer is not likely to garner that recognition.

On the other hand, most of those writers—I’m thinking Dickens, Dumas, Hugo, Hardy, and the like—weren’t boring.  And some of the others—Sabatini, Conan Doyle, Wells—wrote what would be regarded today as genre.

To be fair, it may well be that writers today find it increasingly difficult to address the moving target that is modern culture.  It is difficult to write coherently about a continually fragmenting and dissolving landscape.  The speed of change keeps going up.  If such change were just novelty, and therefore essentially meaningless, then it might not be so hard, but people are being forced into new constellations of relationships and required to reassess standards almost continually, with information coming to them faster and faster, sometimes so thickly it is difficult to discern shape or detail.  The task of making pertinent and lasting observations about such a kaleidoscopic view is daunting.

To do it well also requires that that world be better understood almost down to its blueprints, which are also being redrafted all the time.

That, however, would seem to me to be nothing but opportunity to write good fiction.

But it won’t be The Novel.

Culture’s End (The Ends of Culture)

Once in a while, work comes along that, while not doing anything apparently new, turns a settled form inside out and frees possibilities.   In writing, this generally means that, in the wake of such work, the things it is possible to say and the ways in which they are said broaden.  Branchings occur, reactions, new growth, inspiration ripples along.

Iain M. Banks triggered—at least for me—a renewal of an old science fiction mainstay, the Space Opera.  Practically from the beginning of the modern form in the 1920s, interstellar adventures have been woven into the DNA of the genre, replete with strange planets, exotic aliens, and occasional examinations of political systems, albeit not on a very sophisticated level.  Everything from the Roman Empire to a kind of United Nations model has been used, sometimes to unintentionally silly effect.  Given the suppositions on hand, it is not a small task to plausibly imagine such a universe.  Some of the best works have ignored the details, lest unwanted hilarity result, suspension of disbelief sabotaged by, of all things, the wallpaper.

Space Opera lost some of its cachet in the Seventies in the wake of Star Trek, which combined much of the long history of the form in a single popular television show, and made it difficult to write anything that didn’t look like Star Trek.  In written SF, Space Opera receded in prominence.  Then in the early Eighties, with Neuromancer by William Gibson, Cyberpunk muscled its way into prominence and one of those moments of expansion occurred.  For the next two decades, it seemed,  reaction to Cyberpunk dominated the field.

But in 1987 a novel was published in England (a year later in America) that signaled the coming resurgence of good ol’ fashioned Space Opera.

Consider Phlebas was a thick, densely-detailed, elegantly-penned adventure that seemed to have come from the mind of a literary writer who had no real idea there had ever been such a thing as Space Opera.  But that was impossible, since it handled the conventions of the form with such grace and sympathy as to suggest a lifelong devoteé.  Iain Banks simply didn’t write from a traditional æsthetic, even when it seemed he did.

One of the most interesting choices he made in the novel was putting his major invention—the Culture—in both a background position and as an antagonist.  One might be forgiven if, from reading just this book, one thought the Culture was a throw-away idea, never to appear again.  Because the other civilizations depicted, several of which are at war, are so vividly and thoroughly imagined that any one or five of them might have served as the solid foundation for a series of breathtaking novels.

To be clear, what the Culture subsequently became, in novel after novel (and a handful of short stories) was not a hero’s preserve.  The Culture seems often like the Good Guy, but just as often they are a meddlesome, arrogant, dangerous collection of diplomatic bullies.  What Banks constructed with the Culture is a kind of Swiss Army Knife of an interstellar empire.  It is what it needs to be in any given circumstance.  And like any real government, expedience is its chief operating mode.

But.  And this is a large exception.  Because the Culture actually has no material needs—it is what we’ve come to term a “post scarcity civilization”—its political motivations are a bit more abstract.  The Culture has a moral compass, one which it seems to ignore as often as it follows, and has, in complete contradiction to the famous and also often ignored Prime Directive of Star Trek, no compunction about interfering with another civilization at all.  In this way, Banks created the perfect sociopolitical tool to examine what might be termed Moral Expedience.

Rather than confirm the essential uselessness of Space Opera, Banks made it relevant by making cases for right action within a vast and complicated set of interlocking political, social, and ethical systems.  Philosophy 101, in many cases, but deftly handled and often pointedly specific in its potential relevancies.

By further expanding the players to include wholly autonomous machine intelligences—ships that owned themselves and acted according to their own interests, AI advisers, habitats both awake and involved—he opened the dialogue on the question of rights as a, if you’ll forgive the seeming contradiction, concrete abstraction.

If one of the primary attractions of science fiction is the examination of the question “How, then, shall we live?” then one could do much worse than Iain M. Banks as a complete buffet of fascinating riffs, postulates, improvisations, and dialogues on exactly that question—which, at its heart, is the primary concern of what shall be done with virtually unlimited power?

All this would imply a dry, discursive study, plodding expositions, info-dumps that slow the action (what there may be) to a near halt.  That would be a mistake.  Banks’ skill has been to lay all this depth and contemplative meat, bone, and gristle into exceptional adventures with high stakes and finely-drawn characters.  Everything in a Banks novel is profoundly personal.

Space Opera has enjoyed a come-back since that first Culture novel came out.  Banks is now one of many well-respected practioners of the form.  It may be that the field was ready to revisit it anyway.  But without Banks, it may be wondered how satisfying such a visit might have been.

As we shall be wondering when there are no more Culture novels.

Iain M. Banks has announced his last novel (not a Culture novel) because he has terminal cancer.  The 59-year-old writer of eleven Culture books and sixteen other novels says he has perhaps a year to live and his new novel, as yet unreleased, will be his last.

An appreciation of Banks’ Culture stories is only the half of it.  He has enjoyed the enviable ability to write so-called “mainstream” works under “Iain Banks” all along.  His first novel, The Wasp Factory was an experimental work that bordered on SF, reminiscent of both J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick.  He has written thrillers, literary novels, satires.  Since 1984 his work has made a significant impression in the U.K. and has gained a large following in the United States.

He is only 59.  If there is any justice, he will be long remembered as a pivotal voice in Western Letters.  Treat yourself.  Go read one of his novels.  Then read another.  Repeat.

Detecting Sauvage

Savage DetectivesA couple of years ago I read Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives.  I still have the one for which he gained considerable fame posthumously, 2666, waiting for me to tackle.

I say “tackle” fully cognizant of its implications.  For a book like this, one should prepare.  Stockpile food and water, coffee (my god, yes, coffee!) and tell friends you’re going on a long trip and to maybe take care of your pets for you.  One should be prepared to leave one’s life by way of the page and cut what ties are possible, because it will be a journey.  This is not “light reading.”

November 2   I’ve been cordially invited to join the visceral realists.  I accepted, of course.  There was no initiation ceremony.  It was better that way.

So it begins.  Might as well say he had been invited to join Life.  It’s rare that anyone is “cordially invited” to do so, although there are many opportunities along the course of our living to join at a more engaged level.  Too many people pass these opportunities by, either because they do not recognize them or because they do and would rather not.

November 3   I’m not really sure what visceral realism is. 

Of course not.  He goes on to say he’s only 17.  How many of us ever know so early what life is?  But Bolaño sets out to show us.

He never explains it.  He simply takes us through a long journey, immersing us in the viscera of other lives who are all desperately trying to be real.  None of these people know what they’re doing, what they’re after, what they hope to get out of whatever it is they’ve gotten into.  But they go, and that’s the entire point of the several hundred pages of what amounts to a hero’s quest for the internally tangible.

Most of them fail.

They try to find it in art, doing radical experimental poetry, through sex, having affairs that, while not exactly forbidden, are at least not likely to be fulfilling, through violence, through alcohol, through fleeing their country, through poverty and work and opportunistic spiritual muggings.  They are purposeful while lacking a purpose, at least beyond short term stand-ins for purpose.  They hurt, get hurt, love, suffer, burn out, and none of them end up where they began, although there seems to be a return.

One character is named Ulises and this is not capricious.  If anything, Savage Detectives is a recapitulation of The Odyssey.  Years of travel to find home.  But, like Odysseus, they come back, some of them, to find home has left as well.  You get the sense that one or two of them finally understand that home is something you carry with you, not a geographic location, but it’s hard to tell because the mysteries they strive to uncover and reveal mutate in the hard light of day.  Just about the time you see them find something and say “That’s it!  That’s the thing!” it’s gone, slipping away with serpentine grace and telec perversity.

You come back from your own journey, having stayed true to the quest, and feel…reworked.  You’ve been through living and followed the clues to answers that have only the suggestion of questions.  For some, it might feel like a cheat.  In that regard, Savage Detectives is kin to novels like Gravity’s Rainbow, The Sunlight Dialogues, and, yes, Ulysses.

But I suspect it really had more in common with Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge.  Bolaño seems to have fractured the character of Larry in several pieces and sent them all on the same kind of quest, to find Meaning, only to have it all turn pointless on them.  Larry expresses the realization in himself that he had gone about it backwards when he admits that he thought Sophie would be his reward for having lived a good life.  (Sophie, sofia, wisdom, and in a way, Larry achieved it, but Bolaño has a darker view.)  It’s the living that’s the reward and we ignore that at our peril.

Of course, living can be a punishment as well, and it may be that you can’t have one without the other.

I still have 2666 there, waiting.  Daring me.  I have some vacation time coming…

Breakneck Mousetraps—Past and Future in Cloud Atlas

It begins in the past.  Not one past, but three, and then a kind of present.  Then a future.  Two futures, but the furthest is so much like the past as to be functionally the same, only reversed.  The great ship of the technologically advanced is the image fading in the center of this novel, as if the reader has risen to a height of inevitability that can do nothing now but sink back through the layers that cannot support it.  The hyperbolic arc of human trajectory achieves its limit, turns, and falls back to the point where the mirror reality of that insubstantial future rests.  We cannot stay in that future because it is built on anticipation and hope, contending with dread and cynicism, which rob it of any force of inevitability.  It looks real, substantial, has within its possibilities everything we know and everything we are and everything we can be and everything we should not be.

There were once places in the world (and maybe this is still the case) notated on maps as Obscured By Cloud.  Unknown. Protected areas, mostly, in the islands around New Guinea and New Zealand, valleys where the weather systems conspire to keep a permanent layer of cloud cover over them, and which, in somewhat belated attempts at responsible behavior, colonial governments placed off limits.  They are not mapped.

Much like the future, even though we have now more than a century of “futurism” behind us, attempts at forecasting, and not simply confined to science fiction.  We might be tempted from time to time to believe that the future is knowable, even set.  Perhaps we’re not wrong in that, but likely not in the way we might think. Divining the future is very like doing cartography on clouds.  The effort is substantive even while the results are necessarily transitory, because in doing so we learn something about the essence of “cloudness” and perhaps something of the predictability of form.

One of the secondary characters in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas explains it this way:

…The actual past is brittle, ever-dimming + ever more problematic to access + reconstruct: in contrast, the virtual past is malleable, ever brightening + ever more difficult to circumvent/expose as fraudulent.
* The present presses the virtual past into its own service, to lend credence to its mythologies + legitimacy to the imposition of will…Symmetry demands an actual + virtual future, too.  We imagine how next week, next year, or 2225 will shape up—a virtual future, constructed by wishes, prophecies + daydreams.

Which is what Mitchell has accomplished in this curious novel of nested narratives, linked by the most tenuous of threads, like the fraying tag-ends of clouds pulling apart.  The connections between the six distinct—and distinctive—fictions are circumstantial, coincidental, and, on some level, genetic, but unlike novels in which such connections coalesce into resolving tissue upon which the entire plot depends, none of these surface connections does much more than influence the atmosphere.  They are clouds contouring the background against which a bigger game is being played.

Cloud Atlas

There is a journal written by a notary on a long sea voyage, which is discovered by a musician who is composing a sextet that will be the crowning achievement of his short life, which is recorded and printed by obscure labels and found by a reporter working to uncover major corporate corruption, whose story informs a book proposal an unlikely specialty publishers reads while trying to free himself from bizarre circumstances, whose life becomes a film seen by a clone-cum-messiah in a corporate future, who is herself the source of a Buddhist-like liberation faith in a future witnessing a collapse of civilization back to the level found in the first narrative.

Another connection is a curious birthmark shared across time, a suggestion of reincarnation.  Mercantile concerns dominate the cultures throughout, the making of money a driving force in all but one. Servitude.

On the surface, the novellas comprising the total work, except for these superficial connections, seem as disparate and unique as the styles in which they are written.  The journal, written with the stiff formality of a somewhat pretentious educated young man of the 1840s; letters written by a refugee from the Lost Generation to his best friend; a detective story told in third person; a manic tell-all written by an aging publisher with the possibility of a movie in mind; an interrogation session, question and answer; and a first-person oral tale by a semi-literate inhabitant of a future past the collapse of global technical civilization.  Mitchell displays enviable skill in each idiom, moving smoothly not just between periods but among the voices of both the times and the genres in which his narrative(s) unfold.  (A cloud is always a cloud, regardless its particular shape.)

What links them that they should appear as a unified work, as a novel?

Mitchell, in each and every one of them, is writing about slavery and emancipation, and the costs of both.

Certainly the manifestations are unique to each period, but the essence is there throughout, in some more blatantly than in others, but with rigorous consistency.  Freedom, he shows us, means different things to different people, but bondage is the same regardless.

The result of Mitchell’s considerable craft and intelligence is a largely thematic work that doesn’t read like one.  Except for a few passages scattered throughout in which circumspection melds with introspection, the stories of these various actors scattered across time are their own, not the theme’s.  To do otherwise might perhaps suggest the inevitability (and perhaps desirability) of the very bondage under examination. If not approval, at least acceptance.  It would have been easy enough to lose control of his material and produce exactly that validation by writing about his disapproval too obviously.  Instead, we find a work in which the judgment is rendered through the lives depicted and not through the author’s too-pointed explications.

Consequently, we have another rarity—a successful work on a profound theme that is actually fun to read.

Mitchell’s pasts are vibrantly-realized, just as the futures are both exotic and familiar at once.  As his “theorist” continues, however, in the passage on actual and virtual pasts and presents:

One model of time: an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments, each “shell” (the present) encased inside a nest of “shells” (previous presents) I call the actual past but which we perceive as the virtual past.  The doll of “now” likewise encases a nest of presents yet to be, which I call the actual future but which we perceive as the virtual future.

As has always been the case, fiction is about the present—distorted through the lens of past or future in order to make a particular case about Now.  (Nowhere is this distortion more obvious and sometimes poorly-used than in science fiction, but only because of the inherent exoticism of the seemingly unknowable.  Mitchell admirably escapes this pitfall.)

Which suggests that in a world wherein actual slavery has been and is being abolished but virtual slavery is on the rise, it is worth trying to distinguish between virtual emancipation and actual emancipation—which is the struggle each one of the people in Cloud Atlas engages.  As he carries his theme into the future, he inverts our gaze and shows us that no matter how elusive and indefinite our terms, virtual slavery, if unrecognized, will become actual slavery.  In between, we must define what constitutes emancipation and choose between the virtual and the actual.

But the shapes change.  Much like clouds in competing fronts.

It is perhaps no accident that the title appears within the novel in relation to only one thing, a piece of music.  Music by its nature is infinitely malleable, even while it remains ostensibly the same.  Mitchell gives us our map in Zedelghem, Belgium.  If we required any further evidence of his thematic telos, here it is.  The Cloud Atlas Sextet is composed in a place where, historically, one of the largest complexes of concentration camps was built, and which today remains a largely military area.  The ironies implicit multiply under scrutiny.

All of which unfolds and is watched over by the silent judges of history, the dead.  In the beginning piece, an alcove is discovered by the narrator of Adam Ewing’s Journal on the island upon which he has been awaiting the repair of the ship he is to take home.  Within this alcove, the discovery of which nearly kills him, he finds carved faces along the wall, obscured from above.  A collection of memorial carvings, icons, the faces of past denizens of this island.  He tells no one, other than those who might read his journal, fearing its destruction (because memory is one of the things conquerors most seek to obliterate).  In the far future, where the world is returning to this pre-20th Century condition, the faces are once more present, gathered in a cave where their caretakers go to pray and be in the presence (the Present) of a past (virtual) they no longer remember (actual).  The icons of the dead frame the time passing and give us our final connective thread.

History as vapor made momentarily stable, visible.

Multitasking

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…

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.

Lincoln

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.

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?