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Monday, April 11, 2011

Why blog?

Why I’m writing a blog.  I started perusing book blogs on the internet because I wanted to see both what other people were reading, and what they thought about what I was currently reading. Most book bloggers, I discovered, are would-be writers themselves. I’m not a writer; I am more an appreciative and devoted reader. I read a great deal and I always read for enjoyment. Pure enjoyment is almost the sole motive behind my addiction to reading, except, occasionally, when the spirit moves me, I will read in order to learn about a subject I’m interested in. But only if a book can give me actual pleasure, in the sound of the words and the way the sentences flow together, and the images the words conjure up in my mind; otherwise, I might as well be slogging through a swamp. The experience is without sound or color. It leaves me empty, and I read to feel full. Certain books appeal to me and others don’t, and lately I’ve begun to think more about these preferences, and what they stem from.  So that is something I’d like to explore in this blog as well.

As I said, I’m not a writer. It’s also true that I’m even less of a talker. I belong to a wonderful book club—the members are all lovely, charming women who are very smart and articulate, and once a month we get together to talk about books. I have belonged to this group for years.  I always have definite opinions about the books we read, and I really do try to express them during book club, but I rarely succeed. I become tongue-tied and at a loss for words when trying to explain what I like or don’t like, or why a particular author’s words made me feel perturbed or angry or ecstatic. I think this is due to the fact that my brain works slowly and I need time to sort out my thoughts before I can verbalize them. I think more clearly when I’m writing than I do when I’m talking.

So a book blog seemed the right forum for conveying my thoughts about the books I read and what I actually get from them…what it is about them that either fills me with delight and makes me want to scribble notes in the margins, or makes me want to rip the pages out and hurl the book across the room.

Is anyone going to read this blog? I really don’t know, and it probably doesn’t matter. My daughter writes a food & diet blog that she doesn’t want anyone to read so she’s only told three people about it. As for me, I would be tickled pink if someone were to read my blog and respond with comments of his or her own. But who knows if anybody else will see or know or care? Maybe I’ll end up just talking to myself.

I mostly read fiction, and I have some favorite genres that I go back to repeatedly: 20th century fiction, the Victorians, historical fiction, memoirs and diaries, science fiction, fantasy, and children’s literature. I have a soft spot for Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, E.M. Forster and Anthony Trollope, but I also like more muscular prose—Wallace Stegner and Graham Greene come to mind. When it comes to non-fiction I have certain favorite authors—Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, Oliver Sacks,  and Mary Roach, but I think I want to stick to fiction ( at least in the beginning).
When I think about the books that I’ve been reading over the last few months, most of them fall into a category I think of as 20th Century Forgotten and Neglected Works. These consist of books by authors who have fallen out of fashion, or minor works of well-known authors that just aren't read anymore. The way this started was that a few months ago I read  “The Razor’s Edge” by W. Somerset Maugham (a choice made by my book club).  Razor’s Edge was my first exposure to Maugham, and it was a revelation. It was so remarkably good that I’m still thinking about it months later; it spurred me on to read more of him (more on that later) and yet I suspect Maugham doesn’t get much traction these days. He's one of those forgotten authors whose books gather dust on library shelves. Authors fall in and out of fashion, and I guess that's to be expected, and yet...isn't it a shame? Maugham is a fantastic writer; he's just not very modern.
We (collectively) are always lusting after the latest fashionable thing, whatever's new. This is an aspect of society that irritates me a great deal. My favorite article of clothing is a cashmere sweater I bought in 1979. When I see similar sweaters in the department stores today, there’s absolutely no comparison in terms of fit, feel, sturdiness, thickness, softness…where am I going with this metaphor?  Maybe I just feel more at home in the past than the present. I get impatient with meta-fiction and experimental fiction, or writing that is too obsessed with its own cleverness. Some current day authors are so self-satisfied and clever that they make me want to light a bonfire under their books. Not that there aren't wonderful, skilled storytellers of the current era whose work I enjoy: Michael Chabon, Ian McEwan, Yann Martel, Junot Diaz. Maybe it's a false, old, whatever. The most basic requirement of a good book is the ability to be transport the reader to another time and place. The human condition is timeless and unchanging, but so is the need for a change of scenery now and then. Maybe that's why I gravitate toward books that are a generation or two removed from the present. I also tend toward books with a strong female sensibility, some of which tend to get categorized by the publishing industry as “women’s books”. (Or that loathsome term, “chick lit”, which is such a misnomer and does a horrible disservice to writers everywhere.) But I need to backtrack for a minute here and clarify that by “women’s books” I am not talking about romance novels, books about chocolate and shopping, or 99% of the Oprah canon. Women's books do not have to be written by women, and they don’t even necessarily have to be about women. They do usually tend to be about the things that women are interested in, which frequently but not always, means life, families, and the insides of people’s heads-- as opposed to metallurgy, bomb making and mountain climbing. Above all, they must be well written—that is, with clean, sharply worded, intelligent writing as opposed to attention-grabbing, overly stylized prose.  Many of the books I have been reading lately are part of the NYRB Classics series and the list put out by Persephone publications. I will confess that I was drawn initially by the gorgeous artwork on the covers, partly by the idea that their lists contain undiscovered gems waiting to be unearthed and some nice person has already done the digging for me.

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