I spent some time last weekend getting my reading life in order. It’s not unusual for me to be reading more than one book at a time, but I just started another book with four partially read ones lying around.
Here’s how that happened:
At the end of 2011, I bought my first DSLR camera. Wanting to learn how to get the most out of my new hobby, I bought Ben Long’s Complete Digital Photography. I started reading that back in January, but it is, by design, a slow read, as I read a little and then try things out on the camera. Also, I have gone long stretches because I have been trying to master techniques as a move along.
Shortly after buying the camera, I also got a copy of Adobe Lightroom 4. I didn’t find that to be a particularly intuitive software, so I recently checked out a copy of Adobe Lightroom 4: The Complete Guide from the library where I work. Like Complete Digital Photography, I anticipate reading this book in fits and starts. I won’t finish either book anytime soon, although I’ll need to get to Adobe Lightroom 4 since it is a library book.
At the beginning of the year, I decided I wanted to revisit the works of Henry Miller, an author I have been really interested in in the past. Several years have passes since I’ve read much of his work, and I started thinking I wanted to methodically read through all his works in chronological order. This is my idea of fun. So far this year, I’ve read Tropic of Cancer and Aller Retour New York.
This time around, I’ve been reading with particular attention to things he has to say about America, much of which seems rather prescient. Considering the time he lived in Paris and Greece before being compelled to move back to the states, reading his thoughts about why he left the U.S. in the first place and why he took so easily to living in Paris is fascinating.
Consider these gems:
- New York is cold, glittering, malign. The buildings dominate. There is sort of atomic frenzy to the activity going on; the more furious the pace, the more diminished the spirit. A constant ferment, but it might just as well be going on in a test tube. Nobody knows what it’s all about. Nobody directs the energy. Stupendous. Bizarre. Baffling. A tremendous reactive urge, but absolutely uncoordinated. (Tropic of Cancer, 1934)
- The young Hindu, of course, is optimistic. He has been to America and has been contaminated by the cheap idealism of the Americans, contaminated by the ubiquitous bathtub, the five-and-ten-cent store bric-a-brac, the bustle, the efficiency, the machinery, the high wages, the free libraries, etc., etc. He is not at all pleased with Gandhi’s retrogressive mania. Forward, he says, just like a YMCA man. (Tropic of Cancer, 1934)
- That’s the first thing that strikes an American woman about Europe–that it’s unsanitary. Impossible for them to conceive of a paradise without modern plumbing. (Tropic of Cancer, 1934)
- The machines are driving them screwy. Nothing is done by hand anymore. Even the doors open magically…And then there are the patent medicine. Exlax for constipation–everybody has constipation!–and Alka-Seltzer for hangovers. Everybody wakes up with a headache. For breakfast it’s a Bromo-Seltzer–with orange juice and toasted corn muffns, of course. To start the day right you must alkalize. It says so in all the subway trains. High-pressure talks, quick action, money down, mortgaged to the eyes, prosperity around the corner (it’s always around the corner!), don’t worry, keep smiling, believe it beloved, etc., etc. (Aller Retour New York, 1935)
During the first part of the year, I haven’t been reading Miller exclusively, just interspersing his books among the other things I am reading. I finished Aller Retour New York back in April and only recently picked up Black Spring; however, before starting Black Spring, I was partway through Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, a book I started when it first came out but got distracted from by some other book. As much as I’ve been enjoying it, I have to admit it is a bit of a dense, slow read. I was planning on slogging through, but the mood struck me one day to continue with my Miller project.
Black Spring is not particularly long and is a collection of shorter works, so picking it up for a bit and then setting it aside is easy. My thinking was to mainly be reading Anathem and taking the occasional Black Spring break.
Things got further complicated when my girlfriend and I were talking to our favorite bartender, who is an avid reader and our conversation at the bar often turns to books. He was asking us for suggestions as to what he should read next. In the course of our discussion, the fact that Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow is one of my favorite books came up. He had started it once before but never finished. He had a vivid recollection of the infamous banana breakfast the opens the novel and realized that if he remembered that scene so well that he must be more taken with the book than he though, so we decided that the three of us should read Gravity’s Rainbow at the same time.
I ordered a couple of copies for us and spent some time this past weekend getting to good places to take a break from Miller and Stephenson. I finished the section of Black Spring and the chapter of Anathem I was in the middle of, so that I can devote myself to GR.
And that’s how juggling four books suddenly became five. I had been contemplating a return to Pynchon as well but was thinking of doing that after getting through Miller, but I am happy to re-read GR anytime. I’m estimating that this will be my fifth time reading GR, and it has been at least five years since the last time. I’m looking forward to reading it again after a significant break. When I moved from Vegas, I gave away my old copy that had a lot of underlining and notes, so, in a way, this will feel like a bit of a fresh start.