03 January 2009

Who Reads Books?

We do. Moreover, we plan to read more in 2009 than we did in 2008. I noted in "Twilight of the Books" last January that my wife and I had resolved to log our reading in 2008, at least our reading of those books that we devoured cover-to-cover. We did not count the daily newspaper (her), dozens of news blogs and websites (me), or more than a hundred articles in professional journals (both).

We are continuing this year with the goal of averaging twenty-five pages per day. Last year's average was a tad over twenty if we count the forty-three books we completed and the portions of nine others in which we've made significant progress. For example, I started Selected Non-Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges in January, and read a bit almost every day--often rereading a portion from the previous day because I forget where exactly I'd gotten on the bookmarked page, or failed to recall or comprehend the passage. On December 31, I was mid-way through the essay, "Dante and the Anglo-Saxon Visionaries," that begins on page 287. In the supplemental log, I noted 286 pages in this book. The book begins on page 3, but prefaces are not counted and are numbered separately in most books, so the actual number of pages read differs slightly from the official count.

To the extent that our Reading Challenge was a contest, my wife won. Her twenty-one completed books totaled over 7000 pages, while my twenty-two were significantly under 6500. But, when we add in the unfinished books, we both read more than 7500 pages. I'm about four dozen pages ahead in this count. In other words, I could have won (even though it was a challenge, not a contest).

Twenty-five pages per day works out to 9125 pages each. My first effort will be to finish several excellent books that I set aside for reasons I won't go into. I've mentioned Borges; other good books are:

Claude McKay, Home to Harlem (1928)
Barton Gellman, Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency (2008)
Plato, The Laws

I also plan to finish two books that are disappointing. One is poorly written; the other superficial.

John McCain, Faith of My Fathers (1999)
John Talbott, Obamanomics (2008)

My wife's unfinished list includes a memoir that I read in April: Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father (1995). She's also reading Building Suburbia (2003) by Delores Hayden, which I started while waiting in her office one afternoon. I might pick it up again. It's one of several in our home library purchased for her work in economic development, but also drawing from and contributing to academic work in my field of American studies.

Modernism and Postmodernism

My wife also read a chunk of Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon (1997), while I continue to be tempted to make another effort at getting through Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (1973). But every time I pull it off the shelf, I remember the value of first laboring through James Joyce, Ulysses, and starting that without first reading all of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey seems senseless.

Among the six novels I read in 2008, Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis, translated by Helen Caldwell (1953) was exceptional; also worthy of rereading is Don DeLillo, Falling Man (2007). It horrifies me to report six novels in one year because not many years ago that was a common monthly total. Alas, our world is less and less one of books, and the ramifications could be disastrous. Consider the benefits of reading as Maryanne Wolf expresses it near the end of Proust and the Squid (2007).
Socrates never knew the secret at the heart of reading: the time it frees for the brain to have thoughts deeper than those that came before. Proust knew this secret, and we do. The mysterious, invisible gift of time to think beyond is the reading brain's greatest achievement; these built-in milliseconds form the basis of our ability to propel knowledge, to ponder virtue, and to articulate what was once inexpressible--which, when expressed, builds the next platform from which we dive below or soar above.
Wolf, Proust and the Squid, 229.
Reading enables the complexity of thought that our challenges require. Books offer the best prospects for extended reading, and hence the richest thoughts. Let us not forget President Theodore Roosevelt who reportedly read a book every night, and who expressed a strong preference for thick texts. It should be no surprise that John McCain chose that Republican leader to praise in his concession speech--one of the brightest moments in 2008.


Wahrheit said...

James, just dive into Gravity's Rainbow, for Pete's sake. You don't need to have any prerequisites. I remember picking it up a couple of times and reading the first page, putting it back down, and finally I just dove in and ploughed through; and after a bit I loved every minute of it.

Same thing happened with The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt,it sat on my shelf for several years, but when I took the plunge I really got into it.

Finally, I read the "our challenges" piece you link at "Buck Naked Politics" but though our challenges are certainly complex the stand-alone piece seemed awfully simplistic...I submitted a comment, and will look for a reply.

Now I'm going to have to read Proust and the Squid, I'm totally intrigues by the description at Amazon!

James Stripes said...


With so many prerequisites, diving into Gravity's Rainbow is my best chance to get to it this year. I dove in once before, having read some 400 pages in the better part of a week when it was an assigned text in graduate literature seminar I was auditing. That was the early 1990s, and I thought then that I needed to dive into James Joyce and Homer before resuming, but as I was pursuing a degree in American studies, it was hard to find the time for Irish writers, let alone dead Greeks.

Still, it seems that my list of prerequisites to Pynchon are texts that everyone should know, even if I'm still too busy playing chess or reading Faulkner or studying history or going fishing.

Edmund Morris is a great writer. I have both The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Rex, but have finished only Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, which I reviewed for Amazon in 2000. I drew upon memories of Theodore Rex, though, while listening to John McCain's concession speech, and so I mentioned that text in my post "Booker T Washington's White House Dinner."

One could look to my nefarious linking as suggesting that Obama himself, or Buck Naked Politics, should be listed among our present challenges. But, you've read enough of my blog to know that's not where I stand. I see that Damozel has replied to your comment. It is clear to me that we need readers in the leadership of all branches of government, and that means something more than reading the books of the Bible, press releases, and a stack of newspapers. We need politicians that read books.

I may write something about Maryanne Wolf's Proust and the Squid. At times the book seemed badly written--a common problem in interdisciplinary scholarship, and in efforts to put forth the results of scholarship in any field in a text for popular consumption. Other times, the writing was better, and the ideas quite compelling. She puts together discussion of Socrates with the science of brain scans of dyslexics trying to read and lamentations concerning our culture's increasingly virtual world. It's an important book.

Wahrheit said...


Yes, I've read enough of your posts by now to know that linking to something doesn't mean that it is necessarily your view. In general, the idea that linking means agreement doesn't hold--I know that the Blogfather of linkage, Instapundit, gets accused of it regularly and then has to wryly take the accuser to task.

I thought the list of books that Karl Rove gave as having been read by President Bush was pretty interesting. As for Obama, I read his (first) book last year and while it was a pretty good read, the man was still a mystery to me--after reading his autobiography.

I think Obama is a lot like Reagan in this respect. I have not read Dutch but I hear Morris had such a hard time understanding Reagan that he had to invent a fictional character to explain him or something. Obama is something of a self-invented man, and that means what we see is not necessarily what's going on way down inside.

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