Tuesday, August 05, 2014

In defense of the unread

From Amy Bloom: By the Book in the New York Times Book Review:

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
I’m a grown woman. I can come up with plenty of things that I’ve done and said or didn’t say or failed to do that remain with me as sources of embarrassment. The list of books I haven’t read is pretty long but not embarrassing: most of Thackeray, most of Faulkner (except “As I Lay Dying”), Updike’s Rabbit novels, the books of Norman Mailer, everything by Mary McCarthy (except “The Group”)...

Okay, one can sympathize. No need to be embarrassed about not reading certain books. I've been reading James Joyce's Ulysses for the first time lately but not enjoying it much, which is why I put it down a few weeks ago and haven't picked it up again. We may have to read non-fiction out of duty---I take little pleasure in reading Streetsblog, except for an occasional laugh---but there's no point in reading fiction you don't enjoy, unless you're still in school.[Later: just stumbled on this quote from the late John Williams, who wrote Stoner and Augustus“My God, to read without joy is stupid.”]

But as a novelist Bloom would surely be interested in McCarthy's literary criticism, like The Fact in Fiction in The Humanist in the Bathtub. (The fine title essay of that collection is here.) And if you haven't read Faulkner's trilogy on the Snopes clan, beginning with The Hamlet, you're denying yourself some serious reading pleasure. I admit to reading only the first of Updike's Rabbit novels, Rabbit Run, but I enjoyed it. So why not read the rest? Who knows where the time goes?

And not read any Norman Mailer? Big mistake. You can skip The Naked and the Dead, which is a pretty traditional war novel, with some good jungle combat scenes. But Advertisements for Myself is a wonderful book, as is the under-rated The Deer Park, which I was happy to see San Francisco's David Thomson appreciate in a recent New Republic review (Days and Nights in Desert D'or). Thomson calls it "probably the best novel ever written about the movie business." It's a Hollywood novel that doesn't take place in Hollywood, but it's also about McCarthyism and the blacklist.

After this I'm going to feel guilty if I don't read some of Amy Bloom's books.

Interesting to hear McCarthy talk about writing The Group when it was a work in progress in the Paris Review interview. Good too to be reminded, in her account of how she and her friends differed politically about World War 2, that Political Correctness is not a recent invention.