Lots of my blogging friends have commented lately on troubles with reading–how we are not as good at focusing and challenging ourselves as we once were. And we’re not the only ones: of the recent jeremiads on reading, I especially enjoyed (if that’s the word) “Reading: The Struggle” by Tim Parks. It took the March Big Fat Book readalong instigated by Sunita to get me to read Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch (which, though long, turned out to be zippy and plot-driven). So I was glad when Ros decided to start another readalong in July. Here are early reports from some participating readers.
Although I have some Big Fat Fiction on my shelves (and e-reader), this time I decided to choose non-fiction. I’ve been listening to quite a bit of non-fiction (I blogged about that here), but I find it hard to concentrate on in print, so I figured the #BFB readalong would give me the push I needed.
This week, I read the first three chapters/110 pp. of Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. In fact, I read them twice, at least, because I’d read a couple of pages and find I had taken nothing in. This is not Sperber’s fault; it’s mine. Yes, this is an intellectual biography, so it can be dense (even a simple explanation of Hegelianism makes my brain freeze, and I’ve read some Hegel), but the writing is clear and engaging. I am just out of practice concentrating on something like this. I’m kind of appalled by how dumb I’ve gotten. ;) I am making an effort to carve out reading time earlier in the day, because when I’m tired, it’s hopeless. I need a Reading Fitness regime for the summer.
I’ve read a little of Marx’s work, but I knew pretty much nothing about his life–and much more about the British than the German contexts for his work. I had no idea that his family background was Jewish, for instance, and I enjoyed the glimpse of him as a drinking,
brawling, possibly dueling university student–and ardent suitor of a (slightly) older woman. Sperber is clearly deeply knowledgeable about the political and cultural context from which Marx emerged: his part of Germany was briefly under Napoleonic rule, and then under Prussia, so he grew up in a time of political upheaval. So often we hear about Marx’s influence on the 20th-century. To see how he “belongs” in his own time is especially interesting to me as an erstwhile Victorianist.
Marx is just about to head off to England after the newspaper he edited is suppressed by the Prussian authorities, but I’m going to leave him for a while because my library hold on David van Reybrouck’s Congo: The Epic History of a People (translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett) just came in. That will likely be my BFB for the rest of the month. My knowledge of Africa comes mostly from a handful of novels, memoirs and colonialist Victorian texts, and I’m trying to expand it.
My listening right now is non-fiction too: Ann Patchett’s essay collection This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, read (wonderfully) by the author. I loved her introductory essay on writing non-fiction and what she learned from it (to get rid of ego by having periodicals like Seventeen magazine edit the heck out of her), and her advice on writing, “The Getaway Car.” The latter is available online, but you have to “join” Byliner to read it and I don’t know what that entails. I found it, like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, to be mostly the kind of advice on writing that applies to life generally and is interesting even to non-writers.
I found her comments about her dedication to art very appealing and refreshing. One downside about following commercial fiction writers on social media is that they talk more about the commerce than the art/writing and honestly I find this kind of disheartening after a while. I do think they care about craft, but it’s harder to tweet about than branding your covers.
Patchett is not pretentious about “my art,” in my opinion, nor is she unaware of commercial pressures: she counsels people never to go into debt for an MFA, she knows an agent has to be able to sell your work, she wrote for magazines for years, and she never expected to make a living from her fiction. But she cares above all that her writing be good. She talks about only taking advice that will make your work better (i.e. not being swayed by “what readers want” and being aware that there’s a lot of bad advice and feedback around). This is a collection of previously published pieces, mostly personal (on divorce, on loving a dog). I’m enjoying it very much so far. I had mixed feelings about Patchett’s State of Wonder, but I loved her voice, and I’m reminded that I want to read more of her fiction.
As for fiction, I’m reading the second part of Ginn Hale’s Rifter serial, but I don’t feel like I’ve really committed myself to my next book. I’m feeling the call of historical romance. Could I be back on the horse?
My vacation plans this summer now involve a brief, not-very-touristy visit to the UK next month–my husband is giving a paper in Dundee–and a lot of time on planes and trains. Can I read a BFB in those circumstances? Is this my chance to finally conquer Dorothy Dunnett’s Game of Kings? Stay tuned. . . .