I read a part of Clifton Fadiman’s “reading I’ve liked…” at the behest of my mom. While I didn’t really agree with all the books on his list (he was really into Victorian aged shit and random stuffy literary crap that you’ve never heard of), I thought about what I’d write about if I were gonna write a book about “reading I’ve liked”.
Its hard to say, I’ve read quite a few books that I “liked” but there’s been a commonality to the books that I really liked. If I had to try and encapsulate all the books I’ve read, and really thought about the books that I’ve liked, I think I could encapsulate it in by saying that I like MEATY books.
By meaty I mean books that you slow down when your reading them, and its almost like the language and description of the setting, or emotion or mood is what stands out. Like you read a random paragraph and then you look up from the book and think “that’s fucking perfect”.
I’ve never been good at picking up thematic ideas or metaphor or shit like that, but rather I’ve been attracted to books that have great description, or really reflect emotion or imagery.
I’m now reading Suttree by Cormac McCarthy (one of my favorite authors). Yeah, I admit, I was introduced to Cormac by reading The Road on Oprahs book club – fuck off, I liked it and I’m glad I took oprah’s advice and read it.
Cormac McCarthy’s books are spectacular, Blood Meridian has got to be one of my favorite books of all time. McCarthy knows some geology, and his descriptions of the brutal and unforgiving desert southwest make you want to just say “that’s fucking perfect”…take this description:
They rode through regions of particolored stone upthrust in ragged kerfs and shelves of traprock reared in faults and anticlines curved back upon themselves and broken off like stumps of great stone treeboles and stones the lightning had clove open, seeps exploding in steam in some old storm. They rode past trapdykes of brown rock running down the narrow chines of the ridges and onto the plains like the ruins of old walls, such auguries everywhere of the hand of man before man was or any living thing.
I don’t know…I’ve walked around in the desert a lot and looked and thought about rocks a lot..and to read his descriptions? Its perfect. Sometimes rocks DO look split open as if by some steam explosion, or have some linear pattern that resemble walls made before man or anything else…its just a perfect description.
Shiprock, in New Mexico comes to my mind specifically in this passage...the volanic neck of shiprock, pushed up through the plateau, and the radial dikes like walls before living things...yah d00d!
This morning I was sitting in the bathroom and broke open the beginning of Suttree by Cormac McCarthy which had this fucking perfect description of the fish in the bottom of a muddy river:
Fabled Sturgeons with their horny pentagonal bodies, the cupreous and dacebright carp and catfish with their pale and sprueless underbellies, a thick muck shot with broken glass, with bones and rusted tins and bits of crockery reticulate with mudblack crazings.
I think you have to have in your mind what a sturgeon looks like, and what those shiny shed scales look like strewn about a muddy black river bottom…where the water itself is relatively clear, and the sun reflects those scales back through the mud to you. Its just a great description. I'm not that far into Suttree, but I'm already liking it....Shortly after this passage, McCarthy through the voice of a character describes the effects of some moonshine whiskey as "the dry heaves, the drizzle shits, the cold shakes, and the Jakeleg"
I was riding to work this morning I thought about all the other great writers I’ve read, and I remembered specifically Herman Hesse (another one of my all time favorite writers). From Steppenwolf:
“And who over the ruins of his life pursued its fleeting, fluttering existence, while he suffered its seeming meaninglessness and lived its seeming madness, and who hoped in secret at the last turn of the labyrinth of chaos for revelation and gods presence?”
This passage comes after a description of things that Henry Haller considers to be worthwhile in life… who really appreciates these things, and indeed, in the end…who consciously takes time to appreciate all the things in life that are awesome.
If you are trapped in some deep narcissistic depression where you look around at your peers, and at people in general and wonder at their dismissive or shallow characterizations of life's pleasures and pains...well shit, all thats left is death or transcendence.
The Steppenwolf is one of those books that you read and then spend the next 12 months of your life reflecting on everything. It really is beyond me to describe it...its just good. I read it first when I graduated college, and then again about a year ago…and both times it carried a slightly different meaning, both equally important. Damn it’s a good book, crazy and elegant, frustrating and perfectly descriptive.
I just spent like 5 minutes looking back through some other books I’ve read and there are other authors like that: Salmon Rushdie’s language and descriptions are convoluted and perfect at the same time. Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire is another book that every so often you look up from and say “yeah man, perfect”. Arthur C. Clarke’s descriptions of some sci-fi ideas are like that…he’s got some short story about an automatic house that starts up after a nuclear war…its perfect like that. I forgot the name of that story.
Who knows…I like books like that, that make you think or at least for the moment you read them and are so impressed by the writing or the theme or the setting of the book that you think about it for a few days (or years) and end up posting about it on a fucking shitty blog.
in re-reading this, I understand its a stretch to juxtapose Herman Hesse with Arthur C. Clarke, or Edward Abbey with Cormac McCarthy, but really...I guess it just boils down to great writing, I like good writers, writers that express emotion, and can convey not only an elegant description of some physical scene, but at the same time express how that scene shapes how you feel about it.
I mean really, I wish I had the talent to articulate why I liked the “books that I’ve liked”, but I don’t. dammit.