Saturday, February 21, 2009

Reading Some Books, Thinking Some Things

I’ve ended up reading three non-fiction books at the same time: An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Created Hollywood (Neil Gabler, film critic), The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Alex Ross, The New Yorker music critic) and Sexual Ambivalence: Androgyny and Hermaphroditism in Graeco-Roman Antiquity (Luc Brisson, French researcher, transl. Janet Loyd).

I’m convinced, like the most superstitious or religious person, that my reading habits reflect some secret order, either of the universe or myself. I just need to figure out what it is. I’ve owned the music book since Christmas (a gift), my interest in matters Graeco-Roman extends to my childhood, and I’m a blood Jew. So, why these books now and why all together?

I think the answer resides with the novel I picked up after Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex (which was excellent and naturally led to the hermaphrodite book), titled Hallucinating Foucault (Patricia Duncker). It is a book about everything that breaks my heart: the power of text, the erotic love between a reader and a writer, the longing and yearning for perfect understanding of and by another human being, the nature of madness and sanity, an ardent, beautiful young man, and some hot gay sex. In the French countryside.

The book is crafted almost on a level with The Great Gatsby—spare and clean and all the more powerful for lacking any schmaltz. Every phrase is a knife. As night follows day, I was in a state of melancholy for several days after finishing it. I was besotted: jealous, aroused, tender, a touch weepy…all things that I really don’t need right now.

Nonfiction is, I think, safer. The emotion I associated with satisfied curiosity or learning something new is profound pleasure. In short, even though fact books may recount horrible facts, my primary reaction is fascination and, occasionally, awe. Human beings. They’re so disgusting and so wonderful! All at the same time!

Not so with certain stories. A few years ago, I watched the movie Billy Elliot. Another type of story that tears me apart: the need of the artist to create at all costs (see also My Name is Asher Lev (Chaim Potok)). The movie is set against the background of the 1984 UK miner’s strike. The title character is a boy whose father and brother work the mines. The boy discovers he loves ballet and wants to dance. He must dance. I watched this movie every day for a week and ultimately sat outside with my friends at work crying because…? I wasn’t sure.

In response, a dear friend of mine gave me the idea of The Shelf. Certain things go on this very high shelf; Billy Elliot has been on it since that time and may never come off. Tequila is on the shelf, as is a beautiful crack addict I fell for a couple years ago. Another novel, As Meat Loves Salt (Maria McCann), might have its own Shelf, even higher up. Every time I approach a book like Hallucinating Foucault, I have to circle it for a while, as if it were my enemy, before deciding to engage with it. I have to set aside some time not just to read, but to recover. I know what sorts of things go on The Shelf.

When asked on a site I used to write for to describe the death that had affected me the most, I wrote about a death that occurred in a book I read as a child (David and the Phoenix (Edward Ormondroyd)). Maybe I’m crazy, maybe lucky, definitely childish. I have a good memory, which doesn’t help. I remember things—feelings, dreams, desires—that happened a long time ago and they are as fresh as my memories of yesterday. I remember sitting in my babysitter’s red pickup truck listening to the song “Puff the Magic Dragon,” and sobbing because Jackie Paper was so mean to forget Puff when he grew up (and no, the song is not about marijuana). I remember thinking that if growing up meant being a traitor and forgetting your friends then I would never do it.

And, 25+ years hence, I still despise, with unmatched bitterness, that disloyal son of a bitch.


  1. Hallucinating Foucault, & David and the Phoenix- I just ordered both with some Amazon gift certificates I earned.

  2. Dear Ruby, I'm delighted to see that your reading order has started precisely the train of introspection we plotted for you.

    Just curious: do you find, as I do, that memories from long ago become increasingly fragmented? That although individual episodes, scenes, views, conversations may remain sharp and clear, it becomes steadily harder to put them in context? Or is that just me...?

  3. Your description of that book makes it sound irresistible. I have to look it up now.

    I also like this idea of "the shelf." I had never thought of it that way, but there are certain experiences that (while beautiful and somehow necessary) also need to be approached at the right time, in the right mindset.

    Glad I found your blog!