Thursday, March 31, 2011

Ashes to Ashes

Today I've divided my reading between Sven Birkerts' The Gutenberg Elegies and Lee Smith's The Last Girls. The latter is getting me through sessions on the exercise bike and is proving increasingly difficult to leave on the bike stand at the end of the ride. I'm not sure where the characters are heading, but the slow excavation of who they are and what they've become is the perfect accompaniment to an activity that used to be my own way of running around with friends and family (on a bike that wasn't stuck in place, of course).

The Last Girls is the kind of book that inspires me to hunt down how-to-write authors and beat them thoroughly about the wrists. It's not deathless prose, but then, neither am I. It's a good read and follows its own path to being that. I may not be sunk as deeply in it as I would be if I could read outside without chasing dogs away from the verbena, but I'm still in it far enough to look forward to getting back on the bike the next day.

The Elegies takes me straight into sadness. Reading the essays in this book makes me feel like I'm drowning in an ever-expanding puddle as soon as I boot up the computer and click on one of my favorite blogs. Mr. Birkerts caused me to realize today that after graduating with a degree in English, what I'd gotten out of the books I'd read is more of a thank-goodness-I-live-in-age-with-plumbing-and-women's-rights and not an iota of empathy for the human condition. What the heck happened?

I'm foundering. I used to love to read and I've read widely (if not classically); I've read enough to want to give some of those words back, to write myself into the narrative. Was it reading for number or reading for depth? If I haven't been reading well, then I've been...what? Skimming like a stone over a lake that is soon to swallow me?

Since I've never finished it, I've decided to try reading Ivanhoe aloud over the next several days--mostly to slow myself down and consider every word. Years ago, I promised myself that I'd read Dante's Paradisio if I ever made it to graduate school. I didn't. Instead of paradise, then, a verbal tour of a faux medieval forest at a walking pace.

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