Tag Archives: coetzee

“You’re able to find points of deep connection even with people you disdain.”

The New Yorker interviews J.M. Ledgard:

It’s one of the lessons I learned long ago, reporting in the post-Communist environment in Russia and Eastern Europe. I became a really strong anti-Communist at that point, just seeing what that world was and had done. But, after a while, you get into these stories and you realize people whom you see as totally different have all these other characteristics, and you’re able to find points of deep connection even with people you disdain.

I just finished Submergence, which was quite good, if not quite perfect. Definitely recommended if you like Coetzee and Sebald (which I do, a lot). Sometimes his writing can be a bit overly “cosmic” (such a good word used, there, in that piece) but other times it is breathtaking.

Summer Reading.

Often I’m asked questions for book recommendations. While I used to dole out whatever was the latest book that had my fancy, I’ve curbed that tendency lately. Recommendations should be personal—and the best ones (ones that result in a new favorite or a perspective-changing book) always are. While to one person I recommended Leaving the Atocha Station, to the other it would be Telex from Cuba. (Or, to my wife, Ethan Canin’s For Kings and Planets.) An arbitrary book recommendation—without any knowledge of the person you are recommending it to—isn’t worth much.

So that’s why I’m not posting a bunch of random recommendations on the Internet, to people I don’t know.

Despite being tempted.

There’s been more than a few “summer reading” lists out on the Interwebs, and sometimes they can be worthwhile. Most times they aren’t. Stick instead with one of the days the Biblioracle—who recommends books based on the last five you read—is on the job. (He recommended the excellent Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee to me, and I was not disappointed. Given what I said above, my mention of how great Disgrace was is not apophasis.)

Ideally, one is reading throughout the year. If there was any time that was least appropriate to reading, in fact, it would probably be the summer—at least for those of us who live in horridly cold continental areas and who struggle through much of autumn because of ragweed. But, likely because school is generally out, we are stuck with the holdover adolescent notion of “summer reading.” (I suppose one should be happy with any season of reading.)

So, if it’s by the pool or by the beach or in your own backyard garden, you could almost always do worse than reading a good book. But if you’re going to find a “good book,” stay clear of general summer reading lists.

Anxiety is Omnivorous; or, Can Reading Ever Be Bad For You?

I would recommend  this fantastic piece over at Guernica. It’s about the anxiety of the writer Daniel Smith, which prompts many questions about anxiety generally. Somehow I missed this one (it was published a little less than a month ago).

But it’s a must-read.

Smith has written about anxiety for the New York Times and has a forthcoming memoir about his experience with anxiety, Monkey Mind. He also has a great website. It’s hard to imagine someone who knows more about the topic. His writing sounds like a little more intellectual version of Nerve by Taylor Clark (a version with a bit more—or at least more severe—personal experience). Said Smith, in the article:

“If I had money, and space, and glory, would I still be anxious? I believe I would be, yes. I’m certain I would. Anxiety is omnivorous. Or at least my anxiety is. It feeds on what’s available.”

Besides this being a great piece of journalism by Katie Ryder, the story features an interesting comment Smith made in the article about what was “available” for the anxiety to feed on. In part, it seemed, it was books:

He found that James, Faulkner, O’Connor, Cheever, DeLillo, Gaddis, and Pynchon caused the icicle in his chest. Hemingway, Bellow, Updike, Doctorow, and Styron melted it away.

Do some writers tend to produce anxiety in readers while others “[melt] it away”? Or it an entirely personal? Reading this made me remember a somewhat parallel discussion in J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello:

Specifically, she [Elizabeth] is no longer sure that people are always improved by what they read. Furthermore, she is not sure that writers who venture into the darker territories of the soul always return unscathed. She has begun to wonder whether writing what one desires, any more than reading what one desires, is in itself a good thing.

The point I am considering is slightly different—slightly broader and probably dumber—than Elizabeth’s concern. Yet: What exactly is “bad” for a reader? Is there any consistency to it? Can’t we say that a book that’s “good” for someone is “bad” for another?  And if that’s true, then what are we supposed to then think of it? If TV melts people’s brains, why couldn’t certain books do something similar? Even—gasp—some literary fiction? Or is it simply a problem of venturing into certain territories (as Elizabeth seems to suggest) of the “desires”?

Obviously I certainly don’t have any answers to these questions. I like to think that constant reading is a method of self-improvement. At least, I suppose we should be careful with—as we would with what we eat—what we are putting into our bodies.