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RayG – 10/25/2010

Adolfo Bioy Casares' Invention of Morel
Bohumil Hrabal's Too Loud a Solitude
Karel Čapek's R.U.R.
Claire & Yvan Goll's 10,000 Dawns
Joseph Hutchison's Sentences

ajf – 10/07/2010

1) Cormac McCarthy

2) Albert Camus

3) Denis Dutton

4) Kafka

5) intentionally left blank

*This list is a rather reductive rendering (both paraphrased and extracted) from ajf’s original response.

**The following is an exact copy of original response from ajf:

Not Exactly Five Recommendations & Not Exactly a List

Prescriptive posts tend to make my face twitch. So instead of presuming I know what you should be reading, I thought it might be more helpful to talk about what I am spending time with and why. After all, life is short, and people are busy. If I were to prescribe anything, it would be to maintain a skeptical outlook regarding other people’s recommendations. That said, here’s the method to my mania, followed by a few titles that currently live on or near my desk.

Time is a scarce and a precious thing in the world. And because, increasingly, I find myself with little time to read or write things of my own choosing, I choose what to read with discriminating intent.  I am picky as to what I am willing to dedicate a few hours to. Of course, reading is an important aspect of writing that should not be neglected, so I keep a running list of titles that either inform current projects on my hard drive or ideas that are cooking on the back burners of my mind. It is important, for me anyway, to think about what books are getting noticed outside my discipline (I trust you will not be shocked to learn I am an English major) while continuing to select essays and fiction that show promise in shedding light on the areas where I am weakest. Lucky for me, there will always be vast gaps in my knowledge. Lucky for me, I constantly interrogate my aesthetics. Lucky for me, I say, because I love to read.

Over his career, Cormac McCarthy probably questioned his aesthetics. Well maybe there was never a question in his mind, but there are certainly discernable shifts in style between novels; seeing as the man does not like to talk to reporters much about process, one is forced to extrapolate intent from the evidence of his fiction. Recently, I have been reading a lot of McCarthy’s work and learning quite a bit in the process. Unlike a lot of other authors, I seem to gain something significant and different each time I read one of his novels that, in turn, informs my own work. For example, The Road is an object lesson in how the rhythm of fragmented syntax can augment a similarly fragmented narrative as a whole; while Child of God demonstrates how detailed images within small vignettes can be strung together into novel that ‘feels’ conventional even as it  maintains its status as something unique, worthy, and just plain weird. I am unable to articulate what Blood Meridian taught me. Though I can tell you that novel provided me with a fresh reminder of what it feels like to stumble upon a great piece of literature; I can also tell you what it feels like to consciously place a moratorium on dissecting fiction for a few days, allowing myself to revel in someone else’s world: to be in awe. But now – I have had a gutload of these lessons and welcome the weary sickness that weighs me down when I pick up McCarthy’s work. It feels good to escape that feverish worship of someone else’s prose. Indeed, that seems a moribund, impotent state best left to the specialists of the world who, clutching index cards, live in constant quest for tiny gaps in someone else’s scholarship. All the Pretty Horses sits on my shelf unread and will continue to sit there a while. It’s time to move on. I know enough about McCarthy for now.

Something I do not know nearly enough about is philosophy, especially existentialism. I started with Albert Camus, devouring The Stranger in one feverish sitting only to find my throat was dry. Camus makes me feel restless and parched to write; he makes me feel as though I am not doing enough in the world. I purchased a collection of early essays: propaganda hammered out in various apartments around occupied Paris in the 1940s; but those locations, and Nazi occupation of his homeland, did not have the same effect on his prose as the reality of French colonialism in Algeria had on his fiction. The essays were as necessary as they were polemic, and they were what his countrymen required at the time. I respect that. Later, after the Nazi’s had become a grim footnote and the Soviets began to consolidate their gains, one can follow Camus’ bickering with contemporaries regarding stances on Authoritarian regimes. It is interesting, but the intellectual debate feels like a dogfight above my skull; it is a loud buzzing that floats around somewhere nearby. In contrast, the fiction caused me to clench my jaw until the end. But, I am sticking with my decision to read his entire body of work because I want to have a greater understanding of the ideas embedded within his novels. To this end, I have The Myth of Sisyphus lined up alongside a little reader entitled Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. Of course, I picked up the reader with a twinge of guilt. But readers can make things accessible, and I feel hungry to understand this larger philosophical idea Camus helped to define. I find it seductive. Dangerous. Fun.

In the meantime, there are some interesting ideas floating around in the new century. In 2008, Denis Dutton wrote The Art Instinct wherein he stakes out an argument that art and language developed as evolutionary tools that allowed humans to adapt and survive as hunter gathers. While I am quite sure it will be perceived as light reading for evolutionary psychologists, and heresy by folks with any kind of a stake in gender theory, I found Art Instinct to be a challenging and insightful book. If I’m understanding part of his argument correctly, and I could be very well just be plain wrong about this, Dutton challenges the axiom that natural selection is a completely random process. Instead, he asks if humans may not be an exception to this rule, self-selecting the traits that we determine as desirable through, in part, imagining how possible scenarios might play out. If he is right, this book turns a number of theories about evolution right on their head. Whether you agree with Dutton or not, if you work in the humanities, you ignore this book at your peril. While The Art Instinct was engaging and interesting, I am not sure what I gained from it as a writer. Dutton talks, above, around, under, and through the creation of fiction; but I do not see this theories, or any other, actually informing my process. That said, when someone positions an argument about our shared human narrative of the last forty-thousand years, and fiction’s place in it, I think it’s best to give them a few hours.

Finally, I have returned to Kafka because I love Kafka. I purchased Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories as it seemed a good thing to keep handy, something to dip into when the fluorescent lighting and murmuring beyond the thin walls makes my left eye ache. If you are looking for a collection that is comprised of Kafka’s finest work, this ain’t it. Complete Stories contains all his best know pieces along with parables, notes, and incomplete work that would never had survived the flames had Franz had his way. Still, I am happy to have these scraps and scribbles nearby as my own writing seems to come along at its own furtive gait.
This ain’t much of a list, I know. There is actually a lot more passing over my desk, but I will not trouble you with the details. The texts above are what have been foremost in my mind while I watch the clock. I am laying aside a store of time, eyeballing a stack of philosophy, fiction, and books on hard science. But mostly, I am looking forward to setting some time aside for writing fiction. I am hopeful, that by December, I will be too busy for a note like this. If you are a writer, or just a generous soul, won’t you cross your fingers for me, friend? I’ll be sure to cross mine for you.

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