Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Phantom Works

I'm very interested, lately, in those books that people want to read, but don't: the taboo books, the too-long historical novels, the books with lovely covers that sit on our shelves and rarely get picked up.

How does this happen? Is lack of time really the only factor in play when a person who proclaims to love books hasn't read The Death of Ivan Ilych but has read Every Thug Needs a Lady? (world's best bathroom reading, by the way)

I think there's a touch of covetousness involved, of unrequited book-love. Case in point: while browsing in the bookstore the other day, a friend of mine ran his hands lovingly, sensuously over the spines of new hardcover novels, and said: "I think I love books more than I love reading."

Certainly, there's a certain academic/literary smugness involved when your reading list is really killer. But how many books can you buy and leave on the shelf before you're a seventy-year-old post-reader, wallowing in self-pity and a frightening fifty-year sea of the unread?

As such, I'd like to post a list of my own phantom reading list items here. Hopefully it will keep me honest, and hopefully people will have some ideas of their own.

1. The Gulag Archipelago
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's deeply influential work about the Soviet labor camps. Having heard this book praised no fewer than seventy-nine times in the course of my Russian education, I picked up Volume 1 idly at a used bookstore and flipped through. I was immediately taken by the tone, the scope, the art, and the despair. In fact the despair of the author seems inextricably linked to the artistic rendering of this book, more so than in most cases. Sentences stumble through histories and disciplines, occasionally interrupting one another in footnotes as if crying out in desperate pleas for understanding.

2. Anything by Caryl Churchill
Caryl Churchill is better than anyone I've ever read at creating a reality so eerie, so chilling, that you feel certain that it is creeping into your own world drop by drop. It doesn't hurt of course that Churchill's work is made up of plays, and so are intended to come more fully alive through the active participation of human beings. Sparse and honest, her work is more than worth reading and re-reading.

3. Blood Meridian
I recently finished reading Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain), and was more fully absorbed than I have been by a work or set of works in a long time. And yet, strangely, I have found it very difficult to describe exactly why. I suspect that it is because the very thing I admire about McCarthy's work is his ability to imply, to intone a reality that cannot be written, spoken, or consciously comprehended. All the same, after reading all those "soulful cowboy books" I am hungry for more.

4. Ninja
This new graphic novel qua comic qua childhood fantasy come to life by Brian Chippendale just...seems cool. I know very little about it beyond the review I read on, but...just look at it! It's the culmination of a lifetime of frenetic imagination; it's weird, and it's beautiful. What more could you want?