The Summer Reading List, or Call Me Krapp

Warning: Of all the previous posts on Krapp’s Last Blog that deserved such a disclaimer, this time a warning is imperative: there is a very high possibility that you will have absolutely no interest in the following text. You will most likely find it boring, although do not be surprised to also find it cloying, pointless, pretentious, or mildly delusional. Devote instead the time you would have spent reading my blog to an edifying article on Arts and Letters Daily. You have been warned.

‘Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories. . . For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?’ – Walter Benjamin, ‘Unpacking My Library’

When I left New York for France last summer, I knew from my last tramp abroad that I should travel lightly, so I filled a suitcase and backpack with the bare essentials: some clothes, my computer and camera, notepad, and a few trinkets for my desk.

Oh, and 105 books.

Packing my library into storage last summer, deciding which authors would come to Paris and which would be banished to storage for. . . One year? Two years? Tempus Immemoria? was like Sophie’s Choice: ‘I can’t choose! Don’t make me choose! . . . Take my Dostoyevsky!’ I spent hours sorting through the library, imagining a possible future with each title. ‘Every young man of letters needs an annotated bible nearby,’ I reckoned. ‘And will there ever be a better time to read Henry Miller? Or Hemingway? What sort of modern philosophy student travels without Wittgenstein?’

Confident in the necessity of their company and unable to bring them all on the plane, I ended up paying a few hundred dollars to have my books shipped by boat to Normandy, roping in a friend with a car to drop them off at the shipping yards in New Jersey. The eight cartons arrived two months later looking like they’d been processed by Jiffy Express. As I opened them, though, I didn’t feel like Walter Benjamin unpacking his library, humming a little waltz under my breath, ‘the air saturated with the dust of wood.’ I felt like a crack addict tearing open an overdue vial. I got my fix, yes, but I paid for it. I’m still paying for it. Look at all these damn books! How will I ever get them back? Will I ever get them back? I was horrified a few weeks ago when my friends Mischa and Sofia left Paris. They had amassed a fine little polyglot’s library in their few years here, but when I dropped by their apartment a day before their departure, they had a handsome pile of books ready for the curb; there was simply nowhere else to put them. (I ended up hauling the books back to my apartment and, with some success, pushing them on partygoers that weekend.)

I like to think of myself as disillusioned. (Others would say cynical.) In most conversations about humanity, I am the designated shrew: ‘God/love/fame/equality/idealism, eh? Like hell!’ So how is it possible that I couldn’t foresee, that I am still unable to admit to myself, that the presence of my books here and my plans to finish them were (and remain) downright comical.

How many was I planning to read a week? Five? Did I not suspect that Parisian bookstores would charm me into buying even more? (I’m up to 135.) And some of the titles I brought are just imprudent. Compact editions of Nietzsche’s basic works and a sturdy volume of Percy Shelley’s modest output are the perfect companions for a student abroad. But do I really need, when I can hardly read music, the scores to all nine Beethoven symphonies? How likely am I, when browsing my shelves for my next read, to pick up Adorno’s Essays on Music? Twelve hundred pages of Artaud ramblings? Being and Time? Who was the last person that read Being and Time all the way through? (If you plan to, though, the classic McQuarrie and Robinson translation is coming out in paperback for the first time in July.) Kant, Freud, Tennyson, Beckett, Robert Lowell; forget a few years abroad: will I ever read them all?

Perhaps! Right? The sine qua non of Autodidact endeavors is the acceptance that, in a lifetime, one will only manage to read and appreciate a small portion of the literature one would like to read and appreciate. This limitation only means that, if we have a goal in our studies (whether it’s expertise in a certain field, spiritual fulfillment, or merely entertainment), and if we want to achieve that goal efficiently (that is, with a maximized input-output ratio), then we must choose carefully which books we devote our finite time to reading. The Autodidact’s dilemma, then, is deciding which course will be the most efficient for his or her unique objective.

I don’t say this contemptuously, but what separates the Autodidact from the rest of the population is the difference in how they are introduced to new media. Most people receive media. They listen to the songs that get played on the radio, they watch the television programs that air after dinner, they go to see movies with the most recognizable stars and most omnipresent marketing campaigns, and they read whatever literature happens to be popular or accessible or affordable. The Autodidact seeks media. He listens or watches and reads not what it is presented to him, but what he has determined to be of interest by a selective screening process. This is why the expert critic is so important for the Autodidact. (I add the ‘expert’ because not all critics are created equal.) The critic is the first line of defense against the barrage of inferior media. It’s her duty to experience everything, every post-1974 Godard film, every Hemingway poem, and tell us if she finds anything worthwhile.

Because I’m still unsure what I hope to accomplish or ‘do when I grow up,’ my own studies are lacking in precision. Having little interest in politics and little capacity for the sciences, I read a potpourri of poetry, philosophy, novels and short stories, drama, and music and art criticism. I’ll have to specialize in the next few years if I ever want to get a job, and as I have very few responsibilities this summer outside of travel, finishing some school papers, German classes as the Goethe-Institut, and trying to set up tutoring sessions with all the UHB Parisian teenagers who failed the English section of their baccaulauréats, I thought the next few idle months would be the ideal time to compensate in part for the the classic liberal arts education I was deprived of as a drama student and to begin the daunting descent into Analytical Aesthetics. That’s why I stood in front of my library this afternoon and made some very serious and absurdly ambitious study plans for the next few months. They are:

Melville: I’d never read a word until I started his short novels yesterday. And, oh, how glorious it is: ‘His face was leanly composed; his gray eye dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him. Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been any thing ordinarily human about him, doubtless, I should have violently dismissed him from the premises. But as it was, I should have as soon thought of turning my pale plaster-of-Paris bust of Cicero out of doors.’ I declare a Summer of Melville: Norton Critical editions of the short novels, The Confidence Man and Moby Dick, the Arvin and Delbanco biographies of Melville, all the Melville Cambridge Companion. (I’ll decide later if the early novels are worth reading yet.)

An intensive reading of one author, especially an older one with consistent themes, can be difficult and even counterproductive. I read a dozen Vonnegut novels in a feverish couple weeks when I was eighteen, and now I can hardly remember who did what in which novel and why. That’s why I’m going to punctuate my Summer of Melville with Philip Roth (Sabbath’s Theatre) and, after Moby Dick, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. The ‘definitively American’ kinship of the two novels is often noted.

Aesthetics: I don’t think I have the discipline or the intellectual moxie it takes to become a genuine philosopher of art, but I always hope to be at least an amateur. So, in keeping with the grandly American theme, I’m going to tackle Monroe Beardsley’s epic Aesthetics. If I do manage to get through it all this summer, I’ll get a picture of the roots of American philosophy with Louis Menand’s Pulitizer-winning The Metaphysical Club. That will lead to John Dewey’s Art and Experience.

Music: As soon as I put the nail in Harold Schonberg’s The Lives of the Great Composers‘ coffin (I just passed Hindemith), I’m going to attempt Charles Rosen’s The Classical Style. I’m sure my utter musicological incompetence is going to compromise its effect, but I’m tired of hearing Haydn and Mozart so blindly. How can I appreciate a sonata if I don’t even know what sonata form means?

Poetry: My epic reading of Paradise Lost continues. Then I’m going modern (and sexy!) for a spell with Edna St. Vincent Millay’s collected works.

French: How many books has Krapp read in French? The answer is: one! True, one mainly reads philosophy and art criticism in articles or selections, and sundry short stories and plays count for something, but, still, one book? The problem is that I’m an exceedingly cagey reader. When I encounter an unknown word, I look it up immediately, or I circle it and look it up when I get home. Otherwise, I feel like I’m missing out, doing a disservice to myself and the author. The first novel I bought when I came to Paris last September was J.K. Huysmans’ Là-bas. I circled 28 unknown words in the first three paragraphs alone! No wonder I never made it through Rousseau! I hope to spend the rest of my life reading French literature, and if that’s to be a tenable future, now is the crucial time to hone my French. So, in addition to the Roth and McCarthy entr’actes, I’m going to struggle through George Simenon’s La neige était sale. His many novels have been the subject of some darling reviews in the English press recently (I believe thanks to a new wave of translations), and because I hear his writing is both refined and entertaining (and because I received a beautiful new edition of his works as a gift), I’m going to see what all the fuss is about.

That’s my summer reading list. Seventeen books in ten weeks. We’ll see how it goes. For anyone that ignored the disclaimer up top and read all the way through: yes, I know this seems like a wrongheaded, neurotic way to approach knowledge, and it isn’t really different than some beefcake posting his summer workout regimen and protein stats. This is something many confused, bookish young men do. It’s a manifestation of our insecurity with the disparity between what we know and what we’d like to know, or what we think we should know. Odd, yes, but our hearts are in the right place.

Are our minds?

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~ by ohkrapp on June 23, 2008.

One Response to “The Summer Reading List, or Call Me Krapp”

  1. […] last time I did inventory, the Great Traveling Library contained 135 volumes. It has since bloated — after […]

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