Books Acquired:
Kingsley Amis, Take a Girl Like You
Tim Mitchell, There’s Something About Jonathan
Cornell Woolrich, The Black Curtain

Progress Made:
Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines
Charles Shields, And So It Goes
Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano

Books Finished:
George Saunders, The Braindead Megaphone
Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Cornell Woolrich, The Black Curtain

I was almost caught up on The New Yorker when suddenly two issues arrived in three days. Fuckers.

Fortunately my subscription is up in about a month, so there’s no real hurry. In fact it’s always nice to have an unread issue on hand, as is there is a certain kind of day for which The New Yorker is just the thing — a day of air travel with a longish layover, say, or one afflicted by a mild hangover.

I realized recently that without being conscious of it, I’ve never counted anything other than book reading as “real” reading. Newspapers and magazines can be informative or entertaining, but are ultimately ephemeral — you don’t put them up on a shelf to look handsome and scholarly; you don’t cross them off your list (or write about them). But once you read a book, that’s one less book you haven’t read.

In theory anyway. In reality there are plenty of books that I’ve read but remember nothing about. For instance, after finally finishing Huckleberry Finn I circled back to George Saunders’ The Braindead Megaphone. (It was Saunders’ essay on Huck that inspired me to start it — last summer!) Since I had been about 2/3 of the way through Braindead I polished it off quickly and then, partly out of curiosity and partly out of sheer physical laziness on a warm summer day, went back and started it over. And of course remembered nothing.

This is dismaying but not surprising. I know that most of what I read goes straight into the Star Wars-style garbage masher in my brain; this is part of why I started writing these reports in the first place.

In this case it’s OK, because it was like having 185 pages of a new George Saunders book. George is that rare and wonderful thing, a Serious Writer who is also a Laff Riot. For instance, this passage from the essay “Nostalgia” made me do a spit-take (fortunately I was outside at the time):

I mean, OK, there was violence when I was a kid, but nobody really talked about it. If you got strangled and dismembered, you just got up the next day whistling a happy tune and went down and did some riveting for the war effort. As far as computer simulations, sorry, all we had was sketch pads and pencils. If we wanted to see what various female world leaders looked like naked in the throes of orgasm,1we had to use a little thing called the imagination. Plus, all the world leaders were men back then, and believe me, once you’ve drawn Richard Nixon naked and in the throes of orgasm you never have quite the same interest in using your imagination again, and every time you even see a pencil you get a little pukey and have to sit down.

As for Huckleberry Finn, it was a mighty struggle at first, but as it went on I found myself rather enjoying it. I still flinched a little every time I had to read the N word, but after about the thousandth one you inevitably get a little numb to it.

It can now go up on the shelf to look handsome and scholarly. The book is a big hardback containing several other Twain works that I haven’t read, but that will be a task for another time, maybe another lifetime.

The Cornell Woolrich book was a free box pickup and turned out to be just the thing I needed at that moment: a gorgeously written but economical noir. The ending was a bit of a copout, maybe, but on the whole I was very impressed. There may be more Woolrich in my future; he was an obscenely prolific writer who often wrote under pseudonyms to increase cash flow.

OK, what does that leave?

  • The Kingsley Amis book was another free pickup. The only thing I’ve read by Sir Kingsley (father of Martin) was a book about booze called Everyday Drinking (which, coincidentally, my stepfather pulled off the shelf last week, started reading, then took with him to finish). But Martin’s The Rachel Papers — which I broke down and bought online after failing to find it in numerous used book stores, including Powell’s in Portland — will be arriving by post any day now; it will get high priority, while Take a Girl Like You will go into the pile. I’ll get to it when I get to it.
  • When I got to the point in Charles Shields’ Vonnegut biography where he mentions Player Piano, I decided to reread that one, which has mostly disappeared into the garbage masher. I started it and then it went into a backpack, I’m not sure at the moment which one. Its time will come.
  • I feel a little guilty about Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, which is taking me forever to get through. I always love it when I’m reading it, but at some point I decided that it could only be read while traveling, and only outside in the sun. Which sort of limits progress.

Inshallah I still have many good years left and all these things will be read. For now, as we roll into the last quarter of 2023, I wish you peace, love, and prosperity. And a good night’s sleep.