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August 08, 2010

Sunday Book Thread

Every few years or so, I go through my books and sort them into piles: books to keep, books to give to the library, books to give to friends, books to send to the literary knacker's yard. I am often bemused at some of the books I find lurking in my collection. Romances, joke-books, glossy table-top books I can't remember buying, "topical" books whose topicality has long since passed, and obscure books by obscure writers that I was once enamored of.

This year's giveaway pile was somewhat larger than in years past, mainly because I finally decided to get rid of a bunch of books I've had since college. I found a couple of books that underlined how much I've changed since then, how both my literary and philosophical viewpoints have shifted. In particular, my taste for many of the 1960's counterculture writers has waned considerably.

(More after the jump.)

Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was recommended to me by a college friend, and I remember thinking at the time that it was a hilarious and fairly trenchant commentary on the vacuity of the American Dream cloaked in a madcap drug-fueled adventure. I now find both the social commentary and the drug-addled psychedelia tiresome and shallow. I can't remember now what I found so interesting about it. It's not the drugs, per se -- I can still watch a 1970's era Cheech and Chong movie and still get laughs out of it. It's more that I find Thompson tiresome. His literary "gonzo" approach has not only caused great harm to the cause of journalism over the years, but has also worn very badly as time goes by. Thompson's writing now seems as hokey and out of date as other relics of the 1960's drug-culture. His suicide in 2005 struck me as an inevitability: he understood himself that his relevancy had ended in 1971 or thereabouts. He took the coward's way out of life because he had lived a coward's life all along. He ended up as so many castoffs from that era have -- broken, embittered, in ill-health, and living in a world that was a daily reminder of how he'd wasted his life and talents. My paperback copy of Fear and Loathing was secondhand when I bought it all those years ago; now it seems positively ancient, a relic of a forgotten age. I saw no point in even donating it to the library; into the recycling bin it went.

Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is still a masterpiece, and it holds an honored place on my shelf. But I find his follow-on book Sometimes a Great Notion to be turgid and all but unreadable now -- oddly, because in college I thought the book a transcendant work of genius. Kesey is, I think, one of those writers who only have one or two good books in them (J. D. Salinger is another such). Kesey himself seemed to understand this, and devoted his later literary effor to writing articles and essays. (And to being a far-left moonbat.) Cuckoo's Nest stays; Sometimes a Great Notion goes.

John Gardner (not the John Gardner who writes James Bond novels, FYI) is a fairly obscure novelist that a friendly creative-writing prof recommended to me, knowing of my fondness of the Beowulf epic poem. Gardner's short novel Grendel retells the myth from the beast's point of view, and is still as wonderful now as it ever was. I was motivated by my love of this novel to seek out other works by Gardner (who was killed in a motorcycle accident in the early 1980's). I read both The Sunlight Dialogues and Mickelsson's Ghosts, but now find both books rather hard to stay engaged with. Gardner's work has aged much better than that of his peers -- John Updike's excretions, for example -- but they tend to read more like a philosophy professor writing thinly-veiled autobiography than novels. Grendel stays; the other books go to the library giveaway bin.

Somewhat to my surprise, I found that I owned a copy of Norman Mailer's Ancient Evenings. I don't remember ever actually reading it, but I either bought it or was given a copy at some point. Mailer was one of those writers I felt I was supposed to read while in college, but could never find the motivation. I did manage to make my way through The Naked and the Dead many years later, and was underwhelmed. (James Jones' From Here To Eternity and The Thin Red Line are far superior books on pretty much the same subject.) Mailer, like Gore Vidal, seems to have been lionized in the 1960's and 1970's mainly for acting like an Important Writer more than anything he actually wrote. He was, in fact, an overrated hack. (See: John Updike.) Into the giveaway box he goes.

Fred Exley's A Fan's Notes. Maybe the best book ever written on insanity and football. That one stays on my shelf. (Richard Ford's The Sportswriter goes into the giveaway box, though.)

The short-story writer Raymond Carver was at the zenith of his reputation when I was in college, and every lit prof I had pushed his books on me. I thought then and think now that his stories were mere fingernail-parings, and that his readers tended to put more freight on them than they could really carry. His poetry was more impressive to college professors than to anyone else. My copy of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love goes into the giveaway box, and I feel like including a note of apology along with it. (Joyce Carol Oates is a wordier, feminist version of Raymond Carver. She'd be a more interesting writer if she'd just give in and write bodice-rippers like she obviously wants to.) If you want a far more skilled and readable short-story writer, I recommend Ethan Canin. His book Emperor of the Air is a fine place to start.

Speaking of short-story writers, I went through a long period of infatuation with the science-fiction writer Harlan Ellison (of "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" fame). Many of his stories still stand up ("The Deathbird" and "Demon With a Glass Hand" are two), but others seem as obsolete as bell-bottom corduroys and white-dude afros. Deathbird Stories stays on the shelf; Angry Candy goes into the giveaway box. Ellison is another perpetually-angry lefty who seems to go on living more out of spite than any real aim or purpose.

William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner. I was never fond of Styron's other books (Sophie's Choice struck me as morally repugnant, and Lie Down in Darkness was just self-indulgent), but Confessions is still as good now as I remember it being. That one stays on my shelf. His memoir of his time suffering from clinical depression, Darkness Visible, is a worthwhile read for anyone who suffers from this affliction.

As I sorted through all my old books, I thought about how 1970's era bookshelves were dominated by John Jakes, Michener, Clavell, and Stephen King. It seems like four out of five paperbacks from that period were from one of those three writers. I guess we'd call them "airport books" now, but I'd bet that nearly every American household had at least one copy of Shogun or 'Salem's Lot floating around at some point. Or Erica Jong's Fear of Flying; remember how naughty everyone thought that book was back in 1973? I think every adult female in my family had a copy of that book when it first came out.

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posted by Monty at 09:30 AM

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