“[I]t is in this famous library that the manuscript of Thackeray’s ESMOND is also preserved. The critics often say that ESMOND is Thackeray’s most perfect novel.”
I’ve never read Thackeray, nor heard of this novel. I put down the Woolf and Wikipedia’d Thackeray. The novel in question might more rightly be called THE HISTORY OF HENRY ESMOND, or so Wikipedia informed me. I wondered why I hadn’t read Thackeray before. Why had I never read VANITY FAIR, which, despite Woolf’s 1928 assessment, is novel which critics today seem to agree was his best?
I struggled mightily to fight off the impulse to dash off to my nearest library and search out the Thackeray stacks. There are times when I berate myself for being so poorly read. This was one of them. Never mind that it was nearing midnight: Project Gutenberg (god bless them!) listed 30+ Thackeray titles, each of which could be downloaded within seconds. I stared at my laptop, my fingers poised over the keyboard, debating where to begin.
And then it hit me: I’m never going to read Thackeray. Even if I live to 100, I’m never going to imbibe one of his sentences or wrap my hands around one of his bloated novels.
This realization came with both sadness and a feeling of liberation: as sad as it was to confront the limitations to the breadth of my reading, it felt good to let go of my lofty readerly aspirations.
Every so often, one encounters a much-talked-about list of the books everyone ought to read. Or a list of the greatest 20th century American novels. These lists make their way around the internet with frightening regularity, momentarily halting whatever conversations are going on about contemporary letters. Like everyone, I glance at these lists and pat myself on the back (good boy! what good taste!) for having read many of the listed books—but then, inevitably, comes the moment when I tally those I haven’t read. And I think to myself: Dear boy, just what have you been doing with your life?
I was fortunate to grow up in a town that lavishly funded its school libraries. The libraries at my middle school and high school were vast brightly-lit treasure lands staffed with several librarians to guide your journey if you became lost. I remember checking out maybe seven or eight books from my middle school library on the cusp of my seventh grade spring break. They were biographies mostly: John Charles Fremont and Sun Yat-sen were the two that I remember now. I had vowed to read all the books over the upcoming week, but I fell short: perhaps the Fremont and Yat-sen books were the only ones that I finished. I remember feeling foolish the following week when returning the stack of books that mostly went unread. Perhaps the librarians asked me about them, and I shrugged them off.
Why did I feel like such a failure?
It was the first time that my intellectual appetite outpaced my capabilities.
After my Thackeray epiphany the other day, I thought of the other writers I would never likely read: Dickens, Proust, Tolstoy, Mailer, George Eliot, Steinbeck, Rushdie, and Rilke.
The big names kept crashing down all around me: Christopher Marlowe, Simone de Beauvoir, Garcia Lorca, Swinburne, Colette, dos Passos, Styron. All of them unread.
Then there were the writers whom I had merely sampled—a few stories or maybe a novel: Conrad, Twain, Henry James, Solzhenitsyn, Goethe, Faulkner, Dorothy Parker, Ring Lardner, Thomas Mann, Updike, Duras. Given an endless amount of time, I would gladly refresh myself in their pages, but in this world one must make choices every time we step into a library or bookstore.
While I was doing my MFA, I took an independent study course on The Absurd with Dr. Christine Kiebuzinska. It was one of the most remarkable experiences of my reading life. Over the course of eight months, we read a couple of dozen books together. She had me read multiple translation of Camus and Sartre (something every writer-in-training should try, if only to gander and the remarkable variations in which one can construct sentences) and exposed me to a number of writers (including Gombrowicz, Hugo von Hofmannsthal) I might not otherwise encounter.
Yet at the end of this remarkable experience, I came to the understanding that it was more important for me to keep abreast of the currents in contemporary literature than to delve deeply or exclusively in the past.
Contemporary literature is filled with as many hits as it is with misses. There are times I shake my head and wonder why I wasted a few hours reading the blunder du jour, but (like most would-be writers) I read not only for my enjoyment but to sense contemporary possibilities, for no matter how good my writing might one day be, I’ll never be read in c. 1946 France.
Meaning, I guess, that Camus and Sartre have nothing to fear.
Part of being an American is making peace with one’s ignorance. In this way, I am no different from the Tea Partiers who choose to turn their backs on a century of progressive American accomplishments. When I step into the bookstore, picking up an old Henry James classic means foregoing at least temporarily the new Kevin Wilson and Caitlin Horrocks books (both of which I hope to read soon).
Yet, still there is sadness.
And no: the list of writers whom I’ll never read is not fixed. If you had asked me last week, I probably would have included Jane Austin in that list. However, reading Woolf’s fine opinion of Austin makes me want to check out PRIDE AND PREJUDICE the next time I’m in the library. Would that be a good place to start?
DYKSTRA ERRATA: That one-time baseball player who hit me up for money? He's sleaze. You know that. I know that.
Yesterday, he was charged with multiple counts of indecent exposure.
The incidents date from 2009 to just a few months ago. Lenny would place Craigslist ads for personal assistants, housekeepers, and chauffeurs. The ads would request candidates email pictures of themselves to him. He'd claim the jobs would be dream jobs, that he'd pay incredible salaries and that, through him, his employees would meet high-flying sports and entertainment celebrities.
Interviewing the candidates, all of them female and all of them having sent him pictures of themselves that he must have fancied, he'd disrobe and say that the job would also require "massages." Some of the girls, bedazzled by the prospect of good money, probably serviced him-- Lenny, after all, isn't as outright stupid as he's often portrayed; I doubt he would have placed so many Craigslist ads if he was constantly being rebuffed.
The thing is, I wonder why law enforcement waited so long to charge him with these crimes, especially since it had been well-known from various published accounts and accusations that this was Lenny's modus operandi for getting hand jobs. While the police waited, they allowed Lenny to do this again and again.