George Packer says, “As long as there are people who care about good books and they are aware of this giant thing [Amazon] that is squeezing the life out of books, then bookstores will survive.”
As a reader, I finally knew what I wanted to read, and as someone now yearning to become a writer, I knew exactly what I wanted to try to write: narratives of steep verbal topography, narratives in which the sentence is a complete, portable solitude, a minute immediacy of consummated language—the sort of sentence that, even when liberated from its receiving context, impresses itself upon the eye and the ear as a totality, an omnitude, unto itself. I once later tried to define this kind of sentence as “an outcry combining the acoustical elegance of the aphorism with the force and utility of the load-bearing, tractional sentence of more or less conventional narrative.” The writers of such sentences became the writers I read and reread. I favored books that you could open to any page and find in every paragraph sentences that had been worked and reworked until their forms and contours and their organizations of sound had about them an air of having been foreordained—as if this combination of words could not be improved upon and had finished readying itself for infinity.
"I have dreamt in my life, dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they have gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the color of my mind."—from WUTHERING HEIGHTS by Emily Brontë
I need to reread this book sometime soon. The photo above features another book I recently had the pleasure of diving back into: MIDDLEMARCH. If you haven’t read it, you must. I’m so pleased that Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch is bringing much-deserved attention to one of the best novels of all time.
Is there anything better than returning to favorite books?
It’s February and this weather is the worst. Everyone in NYC is impatient. There’s something cleansing about the bracing cold air; it’s way better than the smell of rotting food and semi-empty beer cans that pepper the streets during the summer months. But people don’t linger on sidewalks in this weather; we rush from one location to the next. We’re protecting ourselves by piling on the layers, but somehow the frosty wind makes its way through our winter coats. We swear a lot in February.
These are my tips for getting through the shortest but longest and most tedious month of the year: homemade soup and strong black tea and hot toddies and blankets. Lots of blankets. Books. Many, many books. The longer, the better. Now is a good time to reread Middlemarch or finally tackle War & Peace. Gchat conversations with friends in which you can complain about everything and anything. Salted caramel hot cocoa. Dark chocolate with sea salt. Anything sweet to counteract the bitterness in your soul.
It’s a good month to set easy goals and check them off of your never-ending to-do list. To feel productive in whatever way possible. To not feel like you’re frozen and stuck and trapped because of this damn weather.
I took this photo a little over a week ago when I was walking home from a friend’s birthday party. It’s a reminder to myself and to all of you to look up, to notice, to observe. Not everything is ugly about this month. The beauty of new snow won’t last long. It melts away, it gets dirty, but if we don’t notice it and appreciate it, we’re living our days with woeful spirits. We’re preoccupied by the cold instead of the moment. Right now. Right here. And if finding something to appreciate means freezing your ass off so you can stand there for a few seconds and take it all in, then do that.
I still long for the sweet and less grueling days of spring, but there’s something about winter that makes you a stronger person. Winter tests you. Winter wants you to stand the fuck up and do something with your life. Winter wants you to see things you don’t always want to see. Winter is uncomfortable and necessary and perhaps when we’re most alive.
What, then, do we have to thank for the survival of American literature’s three greatest figures? Remaindered copies bought from book peddlers. A man, sitting at his desk, an oxidized copy of a forgotten novel beside him, cobbling together an essay with no idea of what it would accomplish. The lovely devotion of solitary women and men. Essays published at the right time, in the right journals or books, noticed by the right people. Clearly, these are not the props of fate. They are, rather, the stagecraft of chance.
from the essay “Unflowered Aloes” in Tom Bissell’s MAGIC HOURS. The communitybookstore Essays Book Group will discuss this book tomorrow (2/11) at 7:30pm. Join us! All are welcome.
The “three greatest figures” Bissell is referring to = Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman.
You say “writers, even the most socially gifted and established, must be outsiders of some sort, if only because their job is that of scrutinizer and witness.” I know your next book is about urban loneliness. What do you do, as a writer, to feel less alone? Why are you so drawn to the topic?
OL: Well, I don’t necessarily try and feel less alone. I got interested in loneliness as a subject because I started to notice the amount of fear and shame it generates. States like that are fascinating to me. And I felt like it had connections with creativity, with art, that it was often about difference and as such that it had a political dimension too. Loneliness is a state of lack, a longing, and though that can be acutely painful it’s also interesting. I do think that reading helps, maybe more than any other art form, in that it gives you this extraordinarily privileged access to the interior. It shows the reader other people also experience shameful, difficult feelings, which in itself makes one less lonely.
I interviewed Olivia Laing for Buzzfeed.
The difficult task of knowing another soul is not for young gentlemen whose consciousness is chiefly made up of their own wishes.
…Woolf naturally descends to a running depth in consciousness I tend to forget even exists, and that I can’t access outside her language, without her soul.
(Via Leslie Jamison)