Archives for posts with tag: Nicholson Baker

This has been a tremendous year for me. This project has reset the equilibrium of my life, and I am amazed and grateful.

A thank-you is very much in order. I don’t often address you, reader, but here I am now, to extend my enormous gratitude. Thank you for being here; without you my work would have a very different meaning.

When I started this project in January, I had trouble settling into my voice. I thought that because Bookside Table was a blog I had to use cute, conversational conventions. You can see it in my first post for the project, on Roland Barthes’ Roland Barthes. You can see it in my original about page, where I recklessly absolved myself of the responsibility of criticism, telling you that “I’m not a reviewer: I’m a reader. I’m in this purely for love.” I think I’ve been a mostly phenomenological reader, looking to the book itself and evaluating my experience of the thing. Only rarely have I tried to ‘situate a work,’ and for the most part I haven’t explicitly said ‘I like this’ or ‘I don’t like this.’ But you can tell, probably, which were the ones I loved best.

My year in reading post, over at The Millions, makes clear the two books that ‘lit me up.’ The ones I was compelled to read twice.  But, to be fair, I also went back to sections or stories from The Odious Child, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, The Mezzanine, and Ghosts. I’ve also opened The Obituary at random to revel in its enlightened weirdness, to feel my eyes trying to stitch together the violent, beautiful fragments. Re-reading is one of my greatest pleasures, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I dip back in now and then. There is no great intimacy built without familiarity, even if strange  limerance is its own reward.

I will tell you that sometimes this little hobby was troublesome, and there were a few rough patches. After I finished Nightwood I didn’t much feel like reading another book, more fiction. I wanted to let it simmer for a long time. It was a feeling like the strange sickness I had in 2009, after finishing Infinite Jest for the first time, when I couldn’t force myself to read fiction for a full ten months afterwards. Nightwood was like that, I felt ruined on books because here was something so dark and perfect in it’s power, so claustrophobic and complex that I needed to breath on it. I felt such a sense of readerly justice being miscarried that I couldn’t stew on it, that I had to keep going. I sat on it for a week, and read the next book, Memories of  my Melancholy Whores in a single sitting on the Sunday afternoon before the post went up. I wrote about it immediately after I put it down.  I figured it would be okay, because it’s ‘minor’ Marquez, and now the post on it makes me cringe. I was so ungenerous and clumsy. But the project contains itself, so it stays where it is.

While regret is too strong a word, at times I wish I had been a little less gentle, just a little harder on some of these books. I really wish I’d told you that only 65% of The Fortress of Solitude was worth much more than the paper it was printed on. I liked it a lot, that 65%, and it more than justifies the miss steps Lethem made there. Sometimes I think I was a little bit cowardly, a little too unsure. But I hope I never let you down.

I think that the major responsibility of a book reviewer, of any cultural critic, is to inspire hunger in other people. To stir up the public appetite for better and more nourishing things. I think I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to do this, so I hedged my bets and tried to shirk that responsibility. Thankfully, I couldn’t always escape that harness.  Some of the feedback I’ve received through out the year, from reader (and occasionally author)  emails, new and not so new friends, and on twitter has been from people kind enough to encourage me to keep going, to tell me that my little corner of the internet makes them hungry for more and better books. I couldn’t be more grateful for this kind of connection. Reading these books has made me a little better than I am, but telling you about them has changed my whole life.

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Vanity Fair, U and I, The Books in my Life, Bookside TableFor the most part, I purchased all the books I read this year.  A few were from the library, and a couple were gifts. The rest I bought. When it comes to books, I find that I frequently buy more than I need, or put comfortably as a cliche: I quite often get more than I bargained for. Here are some notes on a few of the books I have purchased, but remain unread.

1. Vanity Fair, by W. M. Thackeray

I first read this “novel without a hero” as an early adolescent. I didn’t really get that you weren’t supposed to like Becky. I was super impressed by her ability to assess any situation,  and I liked her immediately because she’s just so damn smart.  To be honest, I think part of what I liked about her was that she had a sort of power over men. This appealed to me, as an awkward adolescent. Also, I am a product of perpetual financial precarity, and I empathized with her money hunger, having felt those pangs myself. It’s been a little more than a decade since I read Vanity Fair, and I don’t remember any details of the plot, or the ending, though I’m sure it’s ugly. That’s something I learned from re-reading Cakes and Ale, that I tend to remember beginnings more strongly, especially when it comes to books I read at the beginning of my rewarding reading career.  This is probably especially true when the first two thirds feature the characters in their youth. Basically, I want to figure out whatever became of my old friend Becky.

2. The Books in My Life, by Henry Miller

Around this time last year I took out James Wood’s How Fiction Works from the library. I read it in one sitting, and then a lot of different parts of it again, out loud to my partner. I was inspired to read more, and I really think that I wouldn’t have started this project if I hadn’t happened upon that book. I felt a renewed interest in both stories and language, and I knew that I could be a better reader, both in terms of quality and quantity. Wood had given me some tools, and lit a little fire. Not because I love the same books he does, but because I aspire to love the books that I do in the same way. When I saw The Books in My Life at Balfour Books, the first time I went into their new shop in the spring, it felt like fate. Here was an author who know how to love the dirty, the drunk and deranged writing about how he learned to love books! This would be exactly what I would need to guard against the return of that cold sense I’ve had in the past, that reader’s apathy or, worse ennui. I’m still keeping it for when I feel those first few symptoms come on.

3. U and I, by Nicholson Baker

After I read The Mezzanine, I wanted more Baker. I was gearing up to read this year’s release, House of Holes, but for some reason I never actually felt compelled to plunk down $30 on it. Every time I went to BookCity, since its release, I  would run my finger over it’s glossy jacket, and open ‘er up at random and dip in for a bit. But I just never walked it up to the ’till. I did however, ask them to order in U and I. Because for a while I was obsessed with How Should A Person Be?.  I still am. But it was unhealthy. I would follow Sheila Heti around the internet, and I would try to go places that would invite scenes and phrases from HSAPB into my head. I took the book to the bar, by myself, practically on dates. We would sit together, me and this book, and I would swim around and pull up sentence after sentence for my note book and try to make a new world out the one Heti made. I would get angry when I read less than glowing reviews, even when they were sound and pointed out what I considered forgivable flaws in an otherwise perfect work. I was a mess, and I thought that Nicholson Baker would be able to help, because he seems to have gone through a similarly traumatic (and equally one sided) relationship with Updike. But then I read a few more books and the suffocating feeling passed. And then I went to the book launch for The Chairs are Where the People Go and saw Heti in person, and felt ashamed of the squalid (but let me reiterate: one sided) intimacy I forced upon her. And then I heard her on the radio, talking about how her friends and her all agreed that the book is smarter than she is, because she spent five years working on making it the best it could be, and she would never spend five years on just walking around, talking to people, like a normal person, and I felt a little better about the whole thing. I’m still looking forward to reading U and I, especially because now I can probably actually read it instead of mining it for solutions to my problem.

Bedside Table Books To Date

I’ve read 13 books so far this year, which is slightly more than 1/4 of the way to the 50 I’ve set as my resolution. I wanted to take a little minute here to go over some observations about what I’ve read so far:

  • five outta thirteen are authored by women, and maybe a half, if you count Lydia Davis’ translation of Madame Bovary.
  • Four of these are translated books: Three from French, one from Italian. None of the translated works were originally written by women.
  • Four of these books are autobiographical or memoir, as opposed to novels.  I think it’s fair to count How Should A Person Be? in this category.
  • Three, actually call it three and a half,  of these include main plots or subplots that feature characters dealing with their own identities as Jews  in American, Canadian, and European contexts. (The half refers to Tassie Keltjin’s fascination with her Jewish mother and goyish secular father in A Gate at the Stairs.)
  • Of the thirteen books, I only read two that I wouldn’t gladly read again (American Pastoral and My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist).
  • One of these books was about the reproductive system of a dog.

My top five so far, in order of first remembrance:

1. Tracks, by Louise Erdrich

2. How Should A Person Be?, by Sheila Heti

3.The Mystery Guest, by Grégoire Boullier

4. The Mezzanine, by Nicholson Baker

5. Pinocchio, by Carlo Collodi

Although honestly I really want to put Madame Bovary and A Gate at the Stairs, and To the Lighthouse and My Dog Tulip on that list. I guess that’s ’cause I’m not really one for playing favorites. Plus, I’ve been lucky enough to have chosen, for the most part, pretty damn good books so far.

I’m always on the lookout for good books.

If you’ve got any rad recomendations, drop me a line in the comments, or even send me an e-mail at see.emily.read[at]gmail.com.

Winter of our discontent, book cover, steinbeck

The last three books I read were in depth explorations of the way that the mind blankets objects and situations with meaning. To the Lighthouse, The Mystery Guest, and The Mezzanine are all beautiful works that rely on objects as the vehicles for emotional content, for hope, for love, and for nostalgia.

In To the Lighthouse, there’s a pivotal scene towards the end of the first book where a character looses a brooch, and gains a lover. The brooch was a family heirloom, or something, but the interesting thing is how Woolf is able to use the object as an anchor for psychological and emotional experiences. Boulliere brings a pricey vintage bottle of wine as a gesture of his faith in the absurd, as a symbolic bridge across time and temperament. And of course there are the infinite close readings of quotidian objects in Baker’s The Mezzanine, the little book of a day in detail. There something about our stuff, the objects that we often touch more than we do our loved ones, something about these things that make up our lives.

I’ve been thinking about books as objects, the tactile book made of paper and glue, especially since I began this project.  What would ‘bookish’ mean without physical books? I know that the terrain of paper- vs e-books has been pretty well covered, and I have very little to add to the map. Just that these objects mean something to me.

When I was younger, I went through a pretty serious Steinbeck phase. My favorite was The Winter of Our Discontent, and still is by virtue of how much I loved it then. I have been carrying this object around, moving it from one place to another, from Calgary to Toronto, on buses, on planes, to the beach, to school, the subway, you name it, for over a decade. The edition I have is weathered and worn, the pulp cover having fallen off many times. Somewhere along the way someone taped the cover on upside down and backwards, as a prank, so that when I read the volume in public I look foolish. These memories are grounded in the physical object of the book itself, and no matter how I feel about Ethan Allen Hawley or Ellen or Mr. Marullo, I could never relive so many years of my own life in the same way if I were to read a digital copy.

The Mezzanine book cover, Nicholson Baker

Today I rode the escalator at Yonge and Bloor, up from the North bound platform, which I do almost every weekday, without fail when the weather’s poor, though not like I did today. I felt like I was glowing, a total exuberance, swept up up and away by the gentle rhythmic machinations.  I was suddenly smiling so wide that my cheeks almost hurt, and I placed my hand on the black rubber rail and measured its motion, the tiny delay with respect to the grooved steel of the tall steps.

I had just finished Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine. That man is a bad ass in the department of banalities. With clear and thoughtful language this small novel unfolds over the course of a single lunch hour, and with astounding clarity offers meditations on the quotidian pleasures and displeasures of drinking straws, of popcorn, of office bantering, and even corporate restrooms. This is a small book that deals in small things, yet the cumulative effect of a lifetime of  tiny wonders is hugely moving.

The Mezzanine dances on the border between inspired and banal, and hits you full on in the face with something powerful: Life is more than work, relationships, lunches and paper cuts. Howie, the narrator, is attempting to slog through Aurelius‘ Meditations, one of the oldest Self Help books, and at times Baker’s extremely detailed and pedantic prose  made me commiserate with Howie. I mean, it’s cool and all, but it is honestly difficult to read over 1000 words of footnooted text. But of course, Baker knows that. The physical challenge of small text, the difficulty of maintaining mental alertness through a four page in depth discussion of the different stresses on shoe laces and the possible systems that may be able to measure wear and tear are totally worth it in the end. In fact, in dealing so seriously and at length with these minor details of life, they are made into new fascinating things. This devotion to fleshing out the meaning of small and practical objects imbues the world with a freshness that is absolutely intoxicating.