Thursday, September 12, 2013

Following a train of thought: We Learn Nothing to Speak, Memory


I spend about an hour each day travelling to and from work on BART, the Bay Area's commuter rail system—not to mention the time inevitably spent waiting on platforms when a train is late, or sitting in unmoving trains while another one up ahead is taken out of service (odd that I do this so much even though BART claims to have "95% or better on time performance").

I could use this time productively, I suppose: getting a head start on work e-mail, or keeping up with the latest developments in my field(s). Or, over the roar and screech of the train, I could try to hold a sociable conversation with my seat-mate. Or, like almost everyone else around me, I could become absorbed in a device: play games, text my friends, listen to music or watch video (although BART is so loud I wear earplugs, not earbuds).

But instead I use this time for reading. I don't yet have an e-reader; I still carry books—preferably paperbacks, to save weight (I also have a 10-minute walk on each end of the train trip). So I'm always on the hunt for fresh reading material: no sooner do I start a book than I'm thinking about what can take its place once I've finished. It's a source of constant, low-level anxiety that grows more acute as I get closer to the final page. It's a relief when I discover a compelling series—Trollope's Chronicles of Barchester, Philip Pullman's Sally Lockhart mysteries, Nick Hornby's collected "Stuff I've Been Reading"—or a writer intriguing enough that as soon as I finish one of their books, I want to read another—Trollope again, Edith Wharton, Orhan Pamuk, Michael Frayn, Alison Bechdel.

What makes my continual search for material so much worse is that I'm a reader who's too picky for his own good. Vast swathes of contemporary literary fiction, serial-killer thrillers, and almost all bestsellers do little or nothing for me. And yes, I'm aware that a constant, overwhelming need coupled with an inability to be satisfied is the textbook definition of a neurotic—or an addict.

So in order to find books (and movies, and music—it's especially nice when two or more of these are tied together) to feed my insatiable appetite, I'm dependent on either following a recommendation (from a compelling review or from a friend), or following a train of thought. Since right now I'm in the midst of doing the latter, I thought I would describe the process, and along the way write about some of the unexpected pleasures I've encountered.

Tim Kreider
Of course, I'm constantly trolling through various web and print forums devoted to books. One of my regular stops is Page-Turner, the online New Yorker column of "criticism, contention, and conversation about books that matter." And on July 16 Tim Kreider published a Page-Turner column entitled "The Decline and Fall of the Book Cover," in which he complains about an enervating sameness in contemporary book cover design as compared to the visionary, surrealistic covers of paperback science fiction novels in the 1960s and 70s, or the hand-designed title lettering of novels from the 1940s. The essay was funny, pointed, and articulated a bothersome problem in a way that I'd never quite managed to do myself.

Kreider's examination of covers came about because he was designing the cover for his own book, We Learn Nothing (Simon & Schuster, 2012)—which now has two covers (since he designed a different one for the recent paperback issue).*


The essays collected between those covers have all of the virtues of his New Yorker article, and more. He writes about a near-death experience; various romantic misadventures; the struggle to maintain his political outrage without being overwhelmed by it; the toll time takes on friendships; mortality and the knottiness of Tristram Shandy; and the way we experience happiness mainly in retrospect rather than in the moment. But no matter the ostensible subject, each of his insightful (and often darkly hilarious) essays is about how a rueful, observant and reflective single man in early middle age assesses the passage of time, with its gains (experience, an occasional glimmering of wisdom, and a tenuous emotional maturity) and losses (passion, heedlessness, and many loved ones).

To give you a sense of his style, in "The Referendum" he writes,
"The Referendum is a phenomenon typical of (but not limited to) midlife, whereby people, increasingly aware of the finiteness of their time in the world, the limitations placed on them by their choices so far, and the narrowing options remaining to them, start judging their peers' different choices with reactions ranging from envy to contempt...[W]e're all anxiously sizing up how everyone else's decisions have worked out to reassure ourselves that our own are vindicated—that we are, in some sense, winning...

"Parenthood opens up an even deeper divide. Most of my married friends now have children, the rewards of which appear to be exclusively intangible and, like the mysteries of some gnostic sect, incommunicable to outsiders. It's as if these people have joined a cult: they claim to be happier and more fulfilled than ever before, even though they live in conditions of appalling filth and degradation, deprived of the most basic freedoms and dignity, and owe unquestioning obedience to a pampered sociopathic monster whose every whim is law. (Note to friends with children: I am referring only to other people's children, not yours.)"
(pp. 123-124, 126)
If I haven't yet made it obvious, I highly recommend We Learn Nothing. But what started my train of thought was a comment Kreider made in his New Yorker essay on book covers. As he was decrying the plague of the "single-object-on-white-background cover" whose index case is Malcom Gladwell's The Tipping Point, Kreider mentioned his favorite example of the formula: the cover of a paperback edition of Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory, designed by Michael Bierut. Inside a specimen box, a square of semi-transparent paper is pinned over and partially obscures the title, referencing both Nabokov's obsession with butterfly collecting and memory's partial, distorting, and hazy nature:

Speak, Memory cover

On seeing this cover, I was reminded of an exhibit I went to decades ago at New York's New Museum which consisted of a room coated with beeswax, embedded in which were hundreds of index cards on which people had written particularly vivid or meaningful memories. As viewers of the exhibit walked into the room and touched the walls, the beeswax became occluded. Over time, it became harder and harder to make out the details of the memories. As I just discovered by Googling the New Museum's website and browsing their archive, the exhibit was "palimpsest," by Ann Hamilton and Kathryn Clark. You can see images of "palimpsest" on the New Museum's website; the aquarium visible at one end of the room contains two heads of cabbage being devoured by snails—a less subtle metaphor for the degradation of memory by time, I thought then and now:


Apart from evoking my own nostalgia, the image of Speak, Memory's cover reminded me that I'd never read Nabokov's autobiography. I'm not sure why I'd avoided it up to now, since I admire Pale Fire and think that Lolita is one of the great novels of the 20th century.** So I decided that after reading We Learn Nothing I would turn to Speak, Memory. (It's not as incongruous a juxtaposition as it sounds, since both feature a writer looking back at his younger self.) And as I was picking up my copy of Speak, Memory, I found next to it on the shelf a copy of The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, another title I hadn't yet read. I'll talk about both books in a subsequent post, and about where my train of thought next led me.

Next time: Speak, Memory to Eugene Onegin

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* Ironically, I suppose, I'm not a big fan of either of Kreider's Don-Martin-meets-The-Roadrunner covers. But the cartoons that he includes in the book itself, which illustrate and comment on his essays, are better. My favorite, I think, is "My Worst Enemy—Past Tim" (p. 24).

** Lolita routinely (and deservedly, in my view) winds up on lists of the best novels, such as the Modern Library Board's 100 Best Novels (judging by the list, novels written in English during the 20th century). The less said about the accompanying (and obviously ballot-box-stuffed) Modern Library "Readers' List," in which novels by Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard take 7 of the top 10 spots, the better.

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