I’m not a very focused reader. Even with the writers closest to my heart, I’ve usually only read a few of their books. I figure I’ll get to the rest gradually, one each year or so, and spread them out across my life. The way I see it, there are so many books that I’ll never get to read before I die, so I might as well try to sample a bit of everything.
In his ‘Art of Fiction’ interview in The Paris Review, Kenzaburo Oe outlines a much more systematic approach to reading:
When I was in my twenties, my mentor Kazuo Watanabe told me that because I was not going to be a teacher or a professor of literature, I would need to study by myself. I have two cycles: a five-year rotation, which centers on a specific writer or thinker; and a three-year rotation on a particular theme. I have been doing that since I was twenty-five. I have had more than a dozen of the three-year periods. When I am working on a single theme, I often spend from morning to evening reading. I read everything written by that writer and all of the scholarship on that writer’s work.
When I came across this recently, I found the idea immediately appealing. It tugged at a persistent sense I have, something a bit like guilt, that I should take reading a little more seriously. After all, it’s what writers are supposed to do. If nothing else, it would help to prepare for interviews and blog posts.
After thinking for a few minutes, it was suddenly clear where I should start. I created a new Notebook in OneNote and named it ‘Adorno Project 2021-2026’. Then I deleted ‘2026’ because I didn’t want to doom the whole undertaking quite so quickly.
I already had a couple of books by Adorno, one of them a semi-permanent loan from a friend, and for a while now I’ve been interested in how he thinks about art under consumer capitalism. My own ideas on the topic are cloudlike—that is, grey and somewhat ill-defined—but I have a general sense that it’s something I feel strongly about. Neither of the books I already owned seemed like good starting points for this project though, so I decided to begin with Theodor W. Adorno: An Introduction by Gerhard Schweppenhäuser.
As I read, I took notes, generally in the form of quotes that seemed important for one reason or another (e.g. ‘Works of art are placeholders of things no longer disfigured by the barter process, of that which is not injured by the profit motive and the false needs of a devalued humanity…’). But I soon found myself writing down other ideas, such as primary texts to read next (Dialectic of Enlightenment was clearly the best place to start) or secondary texts that might be useful (Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann, The Mass Ornament by someone called Siegfried Kracauer). Before long, I had started a new page with ideas for future reading projects after this was one was finished (Nietzsche, parenthood, Flannery O’Connor, ‘the self’).
Fast forward three months and I still haven’t finished the Schweppenhäuser book. I did buy copies of Dialectic of Enlightenment and Negative Dialectics though; I’ve enjoyed picking them up and holding them occasionally.
* * *
For years now I’ve always had at least three or four books on the go at the same time, often more. This is likely a bad habit, but a much worse one is that I never put a book away until I’ve finished it, cover to cover. The misguidedness of this approach was driven home when I decided to start Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, which I bought in the Vintage Classics edition, the first 517 pages of which are actually The Voyage of the Beagle. I found the latter to be useful material for nights when sleep was particularly elusive, and I did finally get to the end of The Voyage after a couple of years, relying heavily on my bookmark. The book itself is still on the shelf beneath the coffee table, to the bewilderment of my wife (a phrase which could be appended to many sentences in this essay).
What else have my bookmarks been hiding in recently? The main one is Moby-Dick, which I’ve been chipping away at for a while now. I mentioned I was reading it to some people at work, but thankfully no one has asked me about it since. Anyway, it turns out it’s a really great novel, although you probably don’t need to hear that from me. There are sailors in it, and allegedly a whale, but I haven’t seen it yet.
I took a break from Melville for a week to read Oe’s A Personal Matter, which wasn’t at all what I expected. As someone soon to become a father for the first time it was perhaps a strange choice, and this became painfully clear to me while I was explaining the plot to my mother-in-law. The novel is about a man whose wife gives birth to a baby with a brain hernia. While his wife is recovering in hospital, the man, with the help of an old girlfriend, tries to find a way to dispose of the baby before his wife can work out what’s going on. Without having much understanding of the context it was written from (twentieth-century Japanese fiction, ‘the Sixties’), it felt capital-T ‘Transgressive’ in a way that didn’t fully interest me. However, I did appreciate the attempt to portray life with what Luke M. Reinsma has described as (in words that feel ripped from every blurb ever written) ‘unflinching, often brutal honesty.’
Alongside all of this I’m always reading poetry, particularly contemporary Australian. The quality of work being produced and published in this country is outstanding, disproportionately so for the size of its audience. A recent highlight was Cath Kenneally’s The Southern Oscillation Index. Previously I knew her as a recurring character in the books of her partner Ken Bolton, and her work shares Bolton’s knack for creating intensely interesting poems out of wholly personal material. A couple of weeks ago I also read Rimbaud’s Illuminations, which skirt such a beautiful line between transcendence and charlatanry. There’s a moment of magic when you finish reading one and you have no idea what you’ve just read but have the nagging sense that it was somehow brilliant.
* * *
This week I decided that I was going to finish the last two chapters of Schweppenhäuser so I’d have something intelligent to say at the end of this piece. Instead, I started reading Fay Zwicky’s essay collection The Lyre in the Pawnshop. (After spending countless hours during lockdown playing online chess, I keep misreading the title as The Pawn in the Lyreshop.) Then on a Saturday night, something possessed me to pick up Sartre’s Nausea. Then the next morning I decided I would spend an hour reading John Donne. Half-read books pile up on my desk, on the dining table and next to my bed, the stacks growing taller like too-fast stalagmites, or horrible fungi, to the bewilderment of my wife.
To fumble towards some kind of conclusion, I suppose you could call this an attempt to portray ‘what I’m reading’ with an unflinching, often brutal honesty.