Yes, I’m Angry: Reading Men Explain Things to Me By Rebecca Solnit

The last time I attracted this many glances while reading on public transit was my sophomore year of college, when the entire sophomore class had to read the Bible and the Qoran as part of Contemporary Civilization. Naturally, being maniacal about schoolwork, I brought the books along on subway rides. So there I was, flipping through the Bible on the 1 Train41r8yICXM-L._SX339_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg, attracting the stares of people who though they knew me.

A similar dynamic happened on the mornings I brought Men Explain Things to Me on the crowded train I take each morning to work. Only this time, I didn’t mind being typecast. I didn’t mind that men were looking at me reading a bold blue book with a bold white title. I’m happy everyone got to watch me nod righteously, be righteously angry, know that I wasn’t alone. I hope that all the men who gawked at me googled the book.

The essays are about how the cards are stacked against women, always have been. The essays are about the patriarchy and history and domestic violence, about power struggles and how individuals can be crushed under forces of apathy and cruelty. Such violence against women is structurally embedded into the system: how men behave, how law enforcement works. Such violence is allowed. Solnit is angry, yes, but her essays are based with facts and with proof, not emotion. This, of course, makes the essays scarier.

On the one hand, reading this book was satisfying because Solnit identifies a pervasive concept: mansplaining. But mostly, reading it made me angry. Putting a word on “mansplaining” doesn’t make it go away. Listing the awful statistics about domestic violence doesn’t make domestic violence go away. Lately I’ve been inarticulately angry — an anger so looming and large I’ve never been able to gather it into my hands, but like vapor it swirls around me as I walk through the world. I’m angry at the Big Powerful Forces, at having to live through this. How are we going to endure when Voldemort becomes president?

This book came out in 2014, back when I still thought we were headed towards some glittery land in the horizon called “progress.” In the essays Solnit concluded that while feminism has come a long way, there is so much longer to go. But she assured me that we were going there.

And yet. It’s 2017 now. Voldemort, tomorrow, will become the leader of the free world. In light of this, many of Solnit’s optimistic pronouncements ended up reading remarkably dated, like the whole book has been dipped into the present-day situation and came out dripping cruel irony.

Take an excerpt from this essay that she wrote condemning Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s assault of a maid.

“The United States has a hundred million flaws, but I am proud that the police believed this woman and that she will have her day in court. I am gratified this time not to be in a country that has decided that the career of a powerful man or the fate of an international institution matters more than this woman and her rights and well-being. This is what we mean by democracy: that everyone has a voice, that no one gets away with things just because of their wealth, power, race, or gender.”

And yet. It’s 2017, and 20 women have accused Voldemort Trump of sexual assault. A recently married Voldemort Trump said that grabbing a woman “by the pussy” was an acceptable means of seduction. All of this came out before November 8, and yet he still got elected. And to think — we could’ve had a woman in the White House. It’s not just that he won — it’s who didn’t win.

So, yeah, I’m angry. And confused. And want to reread this book and give it to anyone I know so they don’t fall asleep on what is happening and what will keep happening if we keep falling asleep.


Pond by Claire Louise Bennett & Why Likability is Overrated

Let me be honest with you: I struggled to get through Pond. Not because it wasn’t brilliant. It was totally brilliant. In this book, Claire Louise 1-0fuwyaqn8bbil2ihjukppwBennett does what the best writers do with language: reinvent it. She slams together such strange pairings of words together that, while reading, I felt my brain sweat and pant to keep up. It is a thrilling, dark little gem of a book. And yet I struggled to get through it.

Maybe that’s because the book is so deeply rooted in voice, not in plot. The entire success of the novel is predicated on her narrator being entertaining enough to entertain us through perspective, not moment. And it works! In strange, detailed, exacting language, the narrator constructs her world and her body through words. The narrator’s rural Irish cottage becomes enchanted through her unique perspective. It’s utterly unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It’s utterly genius.

“English, strictly speaking, is not my first language by the way. I haven’t yet discovered what my first language is so for the time being I use English words in order to say things. I expect I will always have to do it that way; regrettably I don’t think my first language can be written down at all. I’m not sure it can be made external you see. I think it has to stay where it is; simmering in the elastic gloom betwixt my flickering organs.”

But though it’s a thrill, it isn’t a pleasure. And that’s probably my own close-minded fault. It isn’t a pleasure to read because, well, the narrator is — gasp! — unlikable. Sometimes I thought to myself, oh god, if I have to spend another moment in your cold witty grasp I’ll just have to binge an hour of the Kardashians to recover.

Yet the narrator’s “likability” doesn’t get in the way of my judgment of the book. Because guess what? That shouldn’t matter in determining the merits of a book. In fact, I recommend you all to go pick up Pond and read it. Because the narrator isn’t likable, but she’s herself. She’s just a person whose rich, twisted inner life is made penetrable by the page.

“I only wish you could spend just five minutes beneath my skin and feel what it’s like. Feel the savage swarming magic I feel.”

There’s such a glaring double standard when it comes to unlikable characters in literature. We delight in Raskolnikov and Holden Caulfield. We gladly skip along journeys with the most curmudgeonly, horrendous men we’d never want to be friends with in real life. And hey, that’s because books aren’t real life. They’re windows into lives that aren’t hours. What a joy to read, if ever briefly, the story of someone who’s brave enough to be unlikable.

Take this quote by Claire Messud, which sums this up quite succinctly: “Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?”

So even if I cringed while reading this novel, cringed at a narrator so unabashedly (and occasionally disturbingly) herself, I celebrate her right to exist. I celebrate the idea that a character doesn’t have to be “likable” to land on the page. Put simply: if books were entirely composed of likable characters we would have a lot of boring books.

A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter

When A Sport and a Pastime was published in 1967, the New York Times Book Review said: “Fiction survives through minor novels like this one.”Reading this book fifty years later, I’m testament to that statement. 

With a reputation in the writing community as a “writer’s writer,” each of James Salter’s sentences reads like an instruction guide for how to write the correct sentence. IMG_3318.JPGWhile reading this book, I experienced a similar sensation to how I felt while reading John William’s novel Stoner, also published in the 1960s. In both of these novels, the prose is controlled and very hemmed in. They wrote before the days of “show, don’t tell.” Williams and Salter tell — and they do it well. “Telling” lends the story even more of an element of control. The novel is, under no pretense, a real life. It’s a controlled narrative.

And the concepts of narrative and control couldn’t be more applicable in the case of Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. The novel is technically about the love affair between a young Yale dropout and a French girl. But things aren’t that straightforward in this book, which is just as much about memory & construction & archetypes & the way we mythologize people as it is about romance (and lust). The story is narrated by an unnamed narrator, who, aside from some brief lunches and dinners, is not actually present during the novel’s action. Instead, it’s constructed from his imaginings. As the unnamed narrator simmers and stews in his lonely apartment in Autun, Phillip Dean is driving through the French countryside with Anne-Marie. As the narrator longs for the woman who lives across the street, Dean’s raw sexuality lands him straight into the heart of every woman he encounters. Dean becomes an amalgamation of everything the narrator wishes he was. He is not a real person. But the narrator is. And the narrator creates a warm garret where Dean and Anne-Marie briefly carve out a world — the numbered days of a love affair ticking down with the thuds of a beating heart.  So accurately and perceptively does Salter document the rise and fall of a connection that I questioned the uniqueness of my own experiences! Fiction: to know we are not alone.

“His devotion is complete; he is beginning to sense the confusion that arises from the first fears of what life would be like without her. He knows there can be such a thing, but like the answer to a difficult problem, he cannot imagine it.”

So, in addition to having some lurid and beautifully rendered sex scenes (it turns out the 60’s were pretty racy if you know where to look), the novel is chock-full of philosophy about the act of remembering. To make the story more complicated, the narrator is telling this story from years in the future. In the end, we find that the inspiration of the story comes from a place of memorial.

“Certain things I remember exactly as they were. They are merely discolored a bit by time, like coins in the pocket of a forgotten suit. Most of the details, though, have long since been transformed or rearranged to bring others of them forward. Some, in fact, are obviously counterfeit; they are no less important. One alters the past to form the future.”

I won’t say that this is an easy book to get into, because it’s not. The novel’s written in immediate present-tense, a sea of choppy sentences that convey the exact weather and place and time. Then, interjected throughout this immediacy is the narrator’s long-winded admissions that this whole thing is a dreamscape, a projection of his own inadequacies. Luckily for us — or for me — what I am left with is not the cold, sterile narrator who says no to life. Instead, there’s Dean. Dean in the car, Dean the Jack Kerouac of France, Dean cold and wandering, a sieve to emotion, a life without constraint.

It’ll stay with me, this book. Quietly, yes, but it’ll be there.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

The year is 1976. The Lee family is the only Chinese — or, well, half-Chinese — family in their small Ohio town. And for unknown reasons, Lydia, the family’s 16-year-old middle daughter, has just been discovered in the bottom of the town lake.

In Celeste Ng’s slim novel, the backbone of a death isn’t suspense or who-dun-it. Rather, the story is held together by intricate, deep-seeded family dynamics of miscommunication and good intentions gone awry.

everythinginevertoldyou-celestengThat’s because the how of Lydia’s death is tragic, but not much of a surprise. The why — that’s the interesting part. And it’s not just Lydia’s “why,” but her parents’ and her siblings’. In this story, each family member is equally important in shaping the circumstances for Lydia’s death. In a narrative arc that jumps back and forth in time, exploring important moments in each of the characters’ formation, Ng lets the reader in on each characters’ secret yearnings that dictate their choices. The mother who wanted to become a doctor, and is constantly disappointed by her accidental pregnancy that derailed her plans. The father, the son of Chinese immigrants, who wanted more than anything to fit in — and exerts that same desire on his children. The older son, whose dreams of astrophysics (and his whole personality!) are overlooked by his parents, who are focused on Lydia, their favorite. Lydia, who forges a mask of a personalty under the weight of her parents’ expectation. And Hannah, the youngest daughter, who takes to surreptitiously collecting her family’s possessions because they don’t really notice her.

“The things that go unsaid are often the things that eat at you–whether because you didn’t get to have your say, or because the other person never got to hear you and really wanted to.”

The catch to such well constructed characters? Each member of the Lee family has a distinct history and personality that dictates all of their actions. While this means the plot flows swimmingly — aka each action makes complete sense, given their history — it also meant that I didn’t buy it. Yes: is was a beautifully, achingly written book. In lyrical prose, it portrayed the pressures of being different and the repercussion of inter-racial relationships — two subjects I can relate to especially. But I also imagined Ng’s characters swerving along a clear-cut track, entirely blinded to the needs of their family members, existing in a bubble. In every instance real-life people could have had a conversation and explained their inner lives, Ng’s characters repress, ignore, pretend. In other words, they felt like characters — not real people.

Maybe I just have too high expectations for people’s communication skills. Maybe the Lee family, each with their hidden lives, is really what many families are like (I acknowledge not everyone has a loud Mediterranean family like I do). But I couldn’t help but think: all of this could have been avoided by a few key conversations. And hey, maybe that’s the point of the book.

While I thought the characters behaved in mechanically cruel way at times, that’s not to say I don’t recommend the book. I totally recommend the book. A family is made up of the same story told through many different lenses. In this book, we see the fractals, the way the life of one person is changed utterly by another. And we see this great tragedy: our intentions, once received, are sometimes stripped of their goodness. Without proper communication, our good intentions can go sour, punch people in the stomach, push girls (inadvertently — I’m not giving anything away!) into lakes.

Nutshell by Ian McEwan: The Day My Shakespeare Class Finally Paid Off

Fall semester, senior year. The real world and its rapid shift in values was a-coming. My college bliss could not hold. Might as well, I decided, get really serious about academics. Take the classes not for the grades, but for the knowledge. Radical idea, I know. Lucky for me, class I took on Monday and Wednesday mornings of that semester was one of the most challenging — and rewarding — courses of my life: Shakespeare I with James Shapiro. As any Shakespeare aficionado can tell you, Shapiro is the leading Shakespeare academic, and one of the rare few who’s crossed over into trade book relevance. In class, Shapiro was an animated, leaping, terrifying maniac. He’d prowl at the lectern and pick off actors from the seats.  We’d drag ourselves onto the stage to play Romeo, Juliet, King Henry — dredged up that mortification I thought I left behind in 6th grade. Some arrived stiff with self-consciousness; others, the ones I admired, spooled out soliloquies earnestly, and with a dash of goofiness. As for when it was my turn? It turns out out all your past yous are still there, waiting for James Shapiro to call you on to a makeshift stage and pretend to be Anne in King Richard, about to be seduced.

The most electrifying and excruciating moment in class was the Hamlet unit. Shapiro drilled in his point for Hamlet: that each Shakespeare play is bursting with limitless possibility, that the execution of one line — one word in one line — can have significant reverberations for character and plot, that the decisions a director makes on stage are what make the play. While reading Hamlet, then, we tried to envision the impossible number of Hamlets contained in the play. Wussy Hamlet, vengeful Hamlet, noble Hamlet. Hamlet who loves his mother. Hamlet in love with his mother. Hamlet with an overactive imagination. Hamlet gone mad by betrayal. Hamlet the academic, Hamlet the boy, Hamlet the man. An ending gone sinister. An ending gone peaceful. It was overwhelming: there was no “right answer,” there was no one Hamlet.

All this Hamlet talk led to quite a bit of Hamlet memorization.

So you can’t imagine how delighted I was when, reading Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, I realized the entire book was littered with little variations on Shakespeare’s plays. McEwan’s book is unabashedly clever. Narrated by an unborn fetus made privy to his mother’s and his uncle’s schemes to kill his father, the very premise is clearly a spin on Hamlet. Take the characters’ names: his mother, Trudy (Gertrude) and his uncle, Claude (Claudius). Claude orders Danish food after he kills his brother.

Of course, there’s more to this book than allusion. But for an English major, catching allusions in words of literature is akin to catching coins in Mario. Who cares, in the end, if no one is keeping track but me. After finishing this book, I wanted to award myself a Level Up and stomp around like Big Mario after eating a mushroom. Reading this book was an utter blast. First, there’s the title, an obvious reference to a Hamlet soliloquy: “Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space – were it not that I have bad dreams.” Or, when Claude, the fetus’s unimaginably dense uncle, says, “So we’ll stick our courage to the screwing whatever,” a botching of Lady Macbeth’s “Screw your courage to the sticking place” — my favorite motivational line, spoken by a true snake 🐍..  I don’t even care if the Shakespeare references were overdone or heavy handed. I was too busy playing “gotta catch ’em all” to be critical on the art as a whole.

“It’s already clear to me how much of life is forgotten even as it happens. Most of it. The unregarded present spooling away from us, the soft tumble of unremarkable thoughts, the long-neglected miracle of existence.”  (This quote stopped me on my vigorous plowing through the pages. I even took a picture.)

I can just imagine Ian emerging from the shower, wiping down his legs with a towel, and thinking — wouldn’t it be funny if a baby narrated a book? And, since he is Ian McEwan, he probably sat down, and out came a devastatingly clever stunt of somersaulting soliloquies. While I found the book to be lacking in elements of character (Trudy is slippery and impossible to really know) and plot (the most ill-conceived murder in history), the book achieved great heights with its clever language and its novel take on Hamlet. For people as amused by literature as I am, read the book, and pat yourself on the back for being part of the club.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Two paragraphs into Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, I decided I had to cancel all my weekend plans. There were 255 pages in between me and the conclusion of the story, which seemed like a much more necessary journey to take than anything else I had to do those next two days.


Of course, I didn’t cancel my plans. I’m not that crazy. But as I socialized and concertized and ate and laughed with friends, part of my mind was back with the Cousinses and the Keatings, and the great question at the heart of all my favorite books — what the heck is going to happen next?

As John Irving suggested in the novel The World According to Garp, we read because we want to answer that question. But what Irving didn’t mention in his book is that the story ought to be carried out beautifully. Because as any fiction reader can tell you, good prose makes life digestible. That’s why we read, of course. A book is the great Chipping Away, that knife’s edge that separates the gunk from the things that matter. Writers take proverbial marble of life and distill it to something that is almost truer than life . But unlike sculptors, authors chip away at the marble by “building up.” What does an author pay attention to? Who gets the spotlight, and who gets perspective? What the heck are all these slow nature descriptions there for? These are the questions you wade through on your way to the heart of the book. Life is shown through the accumulation of the right words.


I always end up philosophizing instead of writing about the book. By that long-winded paragraph I mean to say, Patchett just CHOSE THE RIGHT WORDS! And boy does she pull off a story. The story’s inciting incident happens only twenty pages in, so I won’t be spoiling too much (it’s on the jacket cover, for all you skeptics). Bert Cousins, an L.A. district attorney, shows up to police officer Fix Keating’s daughter’s christening party. Amongst the crowd of cops and their wives getting slowly drunk and drunker on the gin Bert Cousins brought, Bert decides that Beverly Keating, Fix’s young wife, is the start of his future. They kiss — and so it begins. Bert’s four children and Beverly’s two children and forever orbiting one another as their families pull a switcheroo. But the kicker happens when, years later, Franny begins an affair with a famous author with a decades-long inspiration dry spell. And when he hears the crazy story of Franny’s upbringing, he has his next novel.

The novel is very ambitious in scope, spanning multiple perspectives, jumping around in time. Ann Patchett manages this by embedding news of the “big events” into the casual vignettes that make up the book. She’s juggling the entire lives of so many characters (Franny’s storyline goes from her christening party to when she’s middle-aged!) so there’s not enough room for each momentous occasion to be described in scene. Patchett masterfully ties up entire progressions in people’s lives in one sentence, and chooses to focus on smaller moments that actually define lifetimes. It reminds me a lot of the “Time Passes” section in To the Lighthouse.

This book is also so appealing because it’s about a dysfunctional family, but written by someone who clearly believes in family. Each character is redeemable. And they all love each other.

Anyway, this is the book I’m going to be urging everyone I meet to read for the next few months. Move over, Elena Ferrante (sorry!)

Read Commonwealth and then come talk to me about it!

The Argonauts by Maggie goddamn* Nelson

*I throw in the goddamn only to convey my enthusiasm and admiration for the sheer BRAVERY of Maggie Nelson, who bares herself in this book for almost clinical purposes, to create a Frankenstein monster of a book that would only be possible if the author were willing to sacrifice her life to the scrutiny of an academic examination. 

The Argonauts had been on the fringes of a lot of conversations, especially while


maggie goddamn nelson

I was in college and people actually spoke about gender, theory, and feminism in an enlightened way. Since the time of my graduation has coincided pretty neatly with the rise of He Who Shall Not Be Named, speaking intelligently about gender and womanhood is more important than ever. That’s why I’m happy I read The Argonauts now, not when I was protected by Columbia’s all-inclusive bear hug.

In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson provides a lyrical mixtape of critical theory meets personal life meets personal hangups. It’s book without chapters or sections; rather, she flows from grouped idea to grouped idea. If an essay could be an epic poem, it would be The Argonauts. It’s essentially poetry.
51joiqa3rml-_sx331_bo1204203200_-1And boy is it beautiful. And powerful. I’ll be honest: it made me cry! The first book that made me cry in ages. I was finishing The Argonauts in the den of three finance bros, people who are lovely but probably wouldn’t dream of reading a genre-bending memoir that looks at mothers, daughters, academia, sexuality, identity, and love, love, love from a very personal lens. So I was sitting in the living room alone, reading. And then, reading and crying. It felt fitting to be having this sort of epiphanatic moment–when the words felt so shockingly true they shook me–in this setting where the written word so rarely penetrates people’s cores. This was the feminist autotheory answer to the biographies of billionaires the boys read in that living room. Felt like I blessed the space in some way.

In the book, Nelson explores the limitations of language. She thinks that everything that can be said can be said with language, and her whole mission is to chase the ineffable with her words. It’s like when I say I love you. I’m chasing what I mean, meaning something different each time. Actually, aptly enough, that’s where the title of the book comes from:

“A day or two after my love pronouncement, now feral with vulnerability, I sent you the passage from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes in which Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase “I love you” is like “the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.” Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase “I love you,” its meaning must be renewed by each use, as “the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.”


I also appreciated the value Nelson gives to caretaking and the role of caretakers in this book. In her valiant prose, motherhood is important, a topic that merits serious thought. And it merits serious joy and honesty, and that description of the birth sequence is shocking and I can’t believe birth is something so many women go through! Wowzers.

This is a great book because, like a good college course, it asks you to challenge your own assumptions. Like all gender theory, it’ll make you question what you’ve swallowed and allowed to become a part of your posture, gait, and perspective. What constitutes a “family” and what constitutes a “partner” are all up for grabs in this book. And it’ll make you want to call your damn mother.

Read this book, and enjoy walking through binaries, feeling them stick to your face like cobwebs but puffing out your lungs so you lose them on the wind. Lose them for as long as you’re reaidng the book, at least.

“The Way It Is” by William Stafford

This poem comes to me when I need it. Frankly, that’s pretty often. But that’s alright. It’s a short poem, quite portable. Could certainly fit inside my pocket, under my tongue, or in the flap between my eyes where I store the compass that steers me around.

William Stafford wrote all of his poems first thing in the morning, a time of day when I’m usually fast asleep. I wonder if there’s some magic in letting the gears in your mind churn when most people are letting their subconscious lugubriously ice skate over their deepest fears and desires. By this I mean, is there more inspiration to be had when fewer people are awake to sip from the inspiration pool? Or to pray by it, hoping it shows them a vision in the rippling water? Or to smash its surface and try to capture the noise in words? Could be something

Stafford wrote this poem in particular 26 days before he passed. Wonder where the thread he followed led him.
The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.


A Confederacy of Dunces Club, or: How I Know I Have Good Friends

Sometimes my friend Laura listens to the recommendations I give her–and when she does, she’s always happy. What can I say? I gots good taste. I got her hooked on everything from British TV (a Doctor Who fandom to last centuries & Little Britain) and the podcasts she listens on her way home from work (Invisibilia and More Perfect). But nothing has made me happier than when she took my reading advice. On the morning commute we shared together, I watched her bookmark travel further and further into A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.


“Apparently I lack some particular perversion which today’s employer is seeking.” –Ignatius, but also me, super unemployed and that’s why I have time to read 😉 

When I first read A Confederacy of Dunces, there were moments in which I lost control over my body and threw the book across the room in a fit of laughter. But in this case, BOY did it ever. The book caused me to cringe and laugh in such rapid succession that my stomach hurt afterward. It’s the kind of book that can cure you of whatever illness you might have by making you just have SUCH  a good time.

Toole’s book follows the one-of-a-kind Ignatius Reilly, who, when we first meet him, is living in his mother’s hosue surrounded by his own filth, writing a long work about Boethius, a scholar of the Middle Ages that Ignatius personally identifies with. Ignatius sees himself at odds with the rest of his New Orleans community. He’s haughty, arrogant, and lives in a world entirely of his own imagination. His intellectualism has gone awry, sprouting horns of self-righteousness and ignorance towards his own personality and situation. In Ignatius’s perception of reality, everyone else is an “abomination” and only he holds the key to the proper way of existence. We all know people who walk around like that–but no one does it with as much bumbling, outrageous, offensive outbursts as him.

Of course, the narrator is entirely on Ignatius’s side, miraculously. It’s that refusal to acknowledge that Ignatius is a madman on the part of the narrator that makes our OWN discovery of it so, so amusing.

In addition to following Ignatius’s attempts at employment (the guy can’t resist any type of food, and has no idea how a business runs. so guess what happens when he works at a hot dog stand?), we also follow a few other plot lines that end up interweaving. It’s the Tom Jones of the 20th century. It’s a modern romp. Each of the characters is ridiculous, but none so unique and superb as Ignatius Reilly (although his very aggressive New York love interest is a close second). There’s a reason that there are statues crafted in Ignatius’s honor in New Orleans. He’s a character that IS larger than the words that contain him–he comes up in statue form!

This book won the Pulitzer Prize posthumously. Unfortunately, Kennedy Toole committed suicide. The book was found in his room by his mother, and she read it and saw the glimmering genius apparent in its pages. She sent it to the writer and professor Walker Percy (he’s also a great writer) and he took it on as well. So even the book itself was published by people passing it on–infectious word of mouth.

I wish more so-called “literary” books, and certainly books as intelligent as this one, could be as unabashedly hilarious. After one reads Hitchhiker’s Guide and Confederacy where is there to turn?

While I want this post to be about A Confederacy of Dunces and that you all should read it, it’s also inevitably about the experience of sharing a book with someone. I’m never more touched than when I tell someone I think they’d like a book, and then they read that book. Laura and I laughed over passages and engaged in a totally old fashioned and delightfully nerdy celebration of the written word. Of course, she might not totally know what she’s gotten into, as I’m devising a whole list of recommendations for what to read next. Once you start reading, might as well keep trying to do as much as you can. 

ESPECIALLY when there are books this good in the world.

Appreciating the Core Curriculum

My undergraduate college insisted that all of its students, whether math majors, start up gurus to be, or English nerds, would graduate having the ability to understand and appreciate the “greats” of “Western” literature, philosophy, music and art. I put those in quotations because those terms are so contested and cause a huge fuss on campus. What constitutes “great” is constantly in flux; so, the curriculum is constantly changing. For example, the book Beloved by Toni Morrison was just included in the Literature Humanities syllabus, marking the third book by a woman students read over the course of the year, and the first black woman. I’m all for updating and adapting the Core to make it less of a Dead White Man club. Because really, what the Core’s about is a road map for interpretation, something that helps with all the OTHER texts a person encounters in his or her life. It’s not about the books so much as it’s about the tools you get having read the books, or having analyzed the art.

But this post isn’t about politics. It’s about appreciation.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I’ve found myself in the “real world,” which is also in quotations, because to be honest I have less of an idea of what the real world is than what constitutes the greats of Western art and literature. But I’ll find myself wandering cold city streets of reality and thinking how lovely it is that I have this treasury of great texts behind me. Because the Iliad, the Odyssey, Jane Austen, Dostoevsky–we’re not just talking about authors! We’re talking about the spine of all other literature!

My life has been so tremendously enriched by having read these books and having learned how to understand a work of art. My mind’s in dialogue with centuries of minds before me. Even if modern books are a reaction against the stiff classics, it’s important to have an idea of what the stiff old classics are. It was more than four years of coursework, but a way of going through the world with eyes wide open, and drinking in culture because I was taught how.

So here’s the kicker. I spent four years in an environment where the goal of my life was to discuss things that matter. Now, I’m in a world where other things (ie money and employment) take precedence. But these books are still in me like hard jewels, information congealed into diamond with heat and pressure and thought. I remember the things that matter, and just because there are other concerns now that might be ahead in line of the books I’m reading, I can still safely say: the books matter more.