Reading Log – A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books (Nicholas Basbanes)

No one, on the evidence of this book at least, will accuse Nicholas Basbanes of being a compelling prose stylist. Fortunately, the people, the history and the very milieu documented in A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books make up for aesthetic deficiencies. From Cicero to the infamous book thief Stephen Blumberg, Basbanes’ book explores book collectors of every kind and stripe, from the ego-driven corporate-raider style library builders to the equally ego-driven individual obsessives whose passions Basbanes pulls reluctantly from the shadows. Basbanes exposes world of books and collections that I never knew existed.

Despite being a lifelong book accumulator, I knew virtually nothing of the world of book collecting before reading A Gentle Madness. What I learned was compelling, fascinating and depressing. I identify with a passion for books, but as works of art to be enjoyed and explored not objects to be hoarded. The incessant reduction of books to items for investment or to complete or add to a collection is depressingly material…and yet without such people, many books would have long since been lost to time. What was most disturbing to me is the number of books—and the amount of materials—that are locked away in library archives and basements with rules limiting access that are unnecessary. I understand minimizing handling of truly rare books and manuscripts, but most of the systems seem to be simply the product of a casual elitism that goes against something deep in my psyche (and, I must say, my own interests). The world of books as objects of art frustrates me in the same way the world of paintings and illustrations as art frustrates and stymies me.

But there are also many stories here of generosity, of people who devote their lives to creating important and accessible collections and whose commercial activities serve primarily as a means to allow them to continue their zealous pursuits. And there are the madmen (and women) whose desires outstrip their financial and, in some cases, mental and emotional resources, for whom I feel a sympathy equal to my distaste for the rich collectors.

A fascinating volume for book lovers of all kinds that retained its hold one me even when it occasionally devolved into a kind of catalog. Recommended.

Reading Log: My Father, the Pornographer (Chris Offutt)

Where to begin with Chris Offutt’s memoir My Father, the Pornographer? My simple advice: get the book and read it. You won’t be disappointed. I became a fan of Offutt’s work with his first book of short stories, Kentucky Straight, which I reviewed online leading to a short email correspondence and a failed attempt to get him to Alaska for a writer’s conference (our fault, not his)…so I expected the writing would be great. But the story is also fascinating: named his father’s executor, Chris inherits a ton (literally) of his papers and manuscripts and, as he goes through them, untangles the story of the mercurial, neurotic, talented and bitter man with whom he’d had such a difficult relationship while also learning more—maybe too much—about himself.

Chris’s father Andrew Offutt was a well-known science fiction writer, a fixture at sci-fi cons and president of the Science Fiction Writers of America. He was also a pornography writing machine who published more than 400 porn novels under more than a dozen pen names. Offutt recalls a relatively happy childhood until his father decided to quit the insurance business and become a full-time writer. Some combination of personality and pressure transformed his father into a tyrannical presence with practically split personalities—Offutt recounts how his father’s personae as Cleve, the pornographer, became more real at times than his father’s own person—who became more and more disconnected from the human, familial world of his wife and children.

Offutt does a wonderful job telling many parallel stories: his father’s life as a writer—the sheer mechanics of which are fascinating, including a kind of paper database of phrases, descriptions, scenes and individual actions such as “tongue,” “kiss” and orgasm” that allowed him to, when pressed, write a book in three days, his and his family’s life in and around that vortex and finally his own life as a writer of stories, novels and television screenplays. Like all biographical stories, those of both of the Offutts are necessarily incomplete: his father’s story, in many ways, began with his death rather than ending there; Offutt’s own story is just getting started.

Reading Log: When Breath Becomes Air (Paul Kalanithi)

My reading of Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air came on the heels of reading a book that was, as far as my own reading experience goes, its polar opposite (Good on Paper): I wanted to love Cantor’s book, but couldn’t; I wanted to hate Kalanithi’s book, but found myself in tears. When Breath Becomes Air could have been many terrible (for this reader) things: a treacly memoir, a self-help book or the inevitably leaden inspirational memoir. Instead I discovered a mind and voice that, months later, I find myself still, in my own small way, considering and mourning.

I’m not up to explicating all the reasons why Kalanithi’s book did what so many others can’t. I’m not even sure I could if I tried. Kalanithi was obviously highly intelligent and driven, a man who couldn’t reconcile his education in English literature with his scientific interests until he became a doctor in an attempt to really experience life. He tells his story in clear prose of sometimes brutal honesty. He was already, by any standard, accomplished and while he certainly would have become even more so had he not been cut-down by cancer before he was 40, there’s no hint in the book that Kalanithi felt he would have become one of our greatest physicians, researchers or writers. That he tells, with humility and grace, what he can of his permanently unfinished story in a way that honors his readers as much as himself is an achievement.

I highly recommend this book, particularly to those who have been resisting it because of the combination of incessant press and the external hallmarks of being Yet Another Self-Help Book. However, I also recommend skipping both Abraham Verghese’s introduction and, sadly, Kalanithi’s wife’s epilogue; the former is terribly written, the second attempts to add some resolution that feels artificial. Both are unnecessary.

Reading Log: Good On Paper (Rachel Cantor)

I wanted to like Rachel Cantor’s Good on Paper a lot more than I finally did, but it just never really came together for me. Cantor’s central theme is translation and transformation…of texts, of signs, of people and of life. But Shira, the narrator, never felt like a real person…and her overly precocious daughter, her best friend and roommate, and her Rabbi neighbor and lover, are made of even thinner stuff. The characters felt like a pretext for exploring intellectual questions.

But that’s also where the book shines. From the mechanics of translation to the philosophical implications of what translation means—or even if it’s possible at all—to where translation becomes transformation, this is a novel of fascinating details. If these questions interest you, or you are a fan of Dante, you’ll probably forgive the novel’s many other faults as an entertainment.

Cantor’s novel is rife with characteristics that might have rung my bell (and that might, even in list form, send many running the other direction): erudition, hyper-literate dialogue, postmodern juxtaposition of the story lines and delving into the intricacies—and the questions of—translation. I think Cantor is trying to explore how the act of translation, and being a translator, intersect with and form and deform the narrative we call our lives…and how the postmodern idea of life as a text both fails and is vindicated in the foundering of our words, spoken and unspoken, written and unwritten. Interesting ideas though, unfortunately, the book itself is better on paper.

Reading Log: Tau Zero (Poul Anderson)

Paul Anderson’s Tau Zero has been on my reading list for a long time. As in almost 25 years. It lingered unread for no particular reason other than never discovering the proverbial ‘round tuit.’ Having finally read Anderson’s oft-recommended tale of a fateful journey to the stars (and beyoooooond), I’m left with mixed emotions.

The good: it’s easy to see why Tau Zero was an influential novel. The science is hard—I can’t vouch for the accuracy but it’s at least not reliant on the physics-defying magic of most interstellar stories—and the idea fantastic (in both senses of the word): a small colony’s voyage to a nearby star system turns into a potentially endless voyage when their ship’s deceleration mechanism fails.

The bad: Tau Zero just isn’t very well written. The characters are thinner than cardboard and, though perhaps reflective of the time, the women on the ship are more sexual objects than people. Even when they occupy positions of power, they mostly do so through their willingness to have sexual relationships or otherwise engage in sexual politics. The men aren’t much better, being stereotyped stand-ins seemingly placed merely to forward the story. And the problem with the unbelievable dynamic of the relationships begins before the ship launches from earth, so this isn’t about how life aboard a one-way (due to time dilation) journey changes people…they are barely people to begin with.

The worst: the ending—an ending that demands a rather flexible interpretation of the science that until then had informed the novel—not only represents an annoying swerve into mysticism and an accompanying epiphany, but feels absolutely tacked-on to boot. Given that this anemic bookend sits opposite another wasted opportunity at the beginning to dig into the extreme, post World War III political situation occasionally and conveniently alluded to, the unfulfilled potential is almost criminal.

I’m not disappointed I read Anderson’s novel—it’s a quick read that has an important role in the history of science fiction—but I am sad that, historical importance aside, it was disappointing in almost every other way.