Archive by Author

The Indexer

14 May

How many ways are there to read? I ask because I desire more.

One of my methods in refuting the ineluctable fuckstorm of reading a book is to love the index. Thou Index, batter mine heart! Skeletons reside within the index; or, at least, the bony, knobby base of the book rests itself on order there. Or there wrests itself to order. Either way, I say “fuckstorm of reading” because—as I’ve written here elsewhere in the past—my feeble mind cannot cage each bit and tid of a book, never will, and reading has become in these last years a desperate foraging for brain tinsel. The process looking similar to the small magpie-gleaned sundries that will illuminate the going-glimmer nest within.

A fuckstorm isn’t wholly negative, by the way. I mean, it’s a raging swirl of fuck, which can be quite pleasant AND brow-furrowed, to put it delicately. But overall, I use the word because of the chaos and capaciousness of “fuck” and “storm,” and because an index is the clarion call of Order, capital-O. Alphabetization, double columns, italics, numbers, logic, sequence.

And I so need Order, folks. Fashioning one’s self an Indexer reins that baggage in with bungee cords. This is my alternate method of reading when the going gets stale. Believe me: staleness creeps like death on tender feline paws.

As a hopeful reader, I’ll die ignorant, to be sure. But for some reason I think the index will save me. When I despair too much, I flip to the back-end and see what’s choice, what’s chosen, what’s important enough to be listed. Lists are a habit of mine. I like marking them in inked phalanxes on the endpaper or flyleaf. My admiration for structure and dissection is depthless. I feel like there would be nothing more suitable for me than to index book after book.

The downside of indices is that they often only appear in non-fiction books. Rare is the novel that contains one. Why so? Fiction deserves as much eggheaded attention as anything else in the index department. As I’m apportioning the voluminousness of Moby-Dick, I’d kill for an index. Which I’m kind of surprised Melville didn’t think of, all the other bells and whistles considered. Searching under the heading “Whale” would be worth the cost of entry.

What wouldn’t work so well with indexing? Haikus, for sure.

On my desk, a copy of Poetic Diction by Owen Barfield. Page 229, the entry “Poetry”:


‘two sorts of’, 12, 111-12
existence of depends on inner experience, 41-2, 49
and on Prosaic principles, 87, 103-4, 105
defined by Coleridge, 58
Great, 166, 170, 178 et seq. ; defined, 181
Modern, 33 et. seq., 148-9, 155-8, 170, 201
as a possession, 52, 55 et seq.
‘joint-stock’, 51
spoken and read, 98-9
fluid and architectural, 86 et seq.
fashionable contrast with science, 63, 138-40

What we have before us is itself a kind of poetry. As I read down the ladder here, I find myself enthralled with the contents before I devour them. The index, then, is poetic foreplay, if you will. Say I came to the index first and saw this entry. I’m immediately curious about our “two sorts” of poetry. Are they the Great and the Modern labeled below? And why is Great Poetry defined, but Modern Poetry isn’t? I’m now wondering what Owen Barfield has against defining the Moderns. Plenty of pages are devoted to both. The answer is within.

Move now to the “existence of depends on inner experience.” How metaphysical. But only three pages! Perhaps poetry isn’t as inner as I once thought. Barfield must not think it necessitates inner experience. Though he does require Coleridge’s thoughts on the matter. And I can say that a small part of my conscience is keen, more anticipatory,  to see proper names in indexes. As I mow the lawn of the index, moving systematically up and down the columns, I’m eyeballing names to latch onto, to compute. Easily recognizable names, or known names, creates a sense of knowingness, or familiarity–a feeling that, hey, I can trust this guy. But anyway…

Poetry then transforms into a possession, joint-stock, and a fashionable contrast with science. The index has distilled the book’s bulk into a potent liquor. Quaff deeply.  Here we can get drunk together on the accidental collision that Order ordains. The index, in my mind’s eye, is like having different groups of friends mingle for the first time. Confusing, awkward, serendipitous.

On page 228, Milton elbows Money, Muller, Music, Mystic, and Myth. The index allows this unusual juxtaposition, seeing as none of these subjects share page-space. And while the author can’t comment upon these relationships, it’s fascinating to see disparate words make even a meager connection.

I would never, of course, strongly recommend that one read a book strictly on this plan. But isn’t it sort of delicious to have the curtain pulled back and the author’s passions exposed? A book declares itself as a stricture on the Nature of Ideas, organizing words into a set design for the reader, their intentions and needs be damned. Life, whipped.

An index also lays out the complexity of the book into pristine statements, as if a yogi lived in the binding, dreaming up witty apercus. By a small transposition on the page, I come up with these sentences from Barfield’s book, under the index heading of Self-consciousness, 204-10.

Self-consciousness depends on abstract thought and vice versa.
Self-consciousness is necessary for metaphor-making.
Self-consciousness produces ‘poetry.’
Self-consciousness opposed to inspiration.
Self-consciousness opposed to cognition.
Self-consciousness opposed to thinking.
Self-consciousness creation out of full.
Self-consciousness unrelieved modern.
Self-consciousness and Kant.

But there’s mystery in numbers. And page numbers can occlude understanding and Order.

Ryhthm apparently shows up on pages 47, 98 et seq., 146 et seq., and 157-8. Why, in a book on poetic diction, does the subject of rhythm only appear on five pages? Lunacy. But, when I look up what the Latin abbreviation et seq. stands for, I find “et sequens,” or, “and that which follows.” In fact, now that I nose closer, the abbr. litters every index page like cigarette butts in a park glen.

Supposing I’m speaking out of school on the subject of reading. That my fuckstorms aren’t as fuckish as all that. They probably aren’t. I’m just trying to ford my way through a minor deluge in the creek. And if I constantly and doggedly read a book in the prescribed way, then I will lose my lust for reading and reading its luster. As an homage, I offer my own hypothetical index entry.

READING (see Education), 193, 193 n, 206-7

defined, i-xi, 2
indexes, 52, 103
by pale fire, 198
with friends, 40-1, 72, 74, 83-6
“accidental,” 1-50, 100-164
“purposeful,” 51-99
while driving, 100-10, 90-99
madness in absence of, 63-70
as a fashionable trait in society, 234
sexual attraction to, 234-260
moonlights as Valium, 261
as opposed to Facebook, 208, 210, 225
as a dying art, 1, 9
as a recuperative lifestyle and restorative, 13, 15 et seq. 

Reading on the Job & Writing Your Values

27 Apr

At the nadir of my walk yesterday, I witnessed a carline abandon a withered Chevy Lumina and achingly waddle up the weedy walk to her home. Her countenance stoned me. It was grave and stygian, as if Charon still sat in the passenger seat smoking a Kool. A deceptively happy cerulean smock still covered her front. Rainbow letters said she worked at Menard’s. Her scruffy ponytail fell out of the band, lopsided and sad.

She didn’t notice me. Her head was down. I would’ve felt like a schmuck if she had, because I cradled Tuesday’s New York Times and a Modern Library edition of Moby-Dick under my left arm. Such a rube I am! Would it not be an offence to her, holding these bourgeois symbols of free time?—because surely the Times and Melville aren’t priorities for an eight-hour-a-day worker. Reading is behooved by sustained silence and solitude. It is instigated by curiosity or the need for Otherness: spies, fantasy, wizards, 18th c. dames and lords, and so on. Ms. Menard didn’t have an eggshell’s worth of free time from the look of her pained gait. Her curiosity: obliterated.

The workaday world is rough. Long shifts, where cubicles reign hard all around and fluorescent lighting pushes down. Micro-managing and tiny tyrant jefes. From what I glean, boredom is worst. Dull and mossy: boredom kills. Though, some folks stand all day in big box stores or in swanky retail chains, chanting, “Thanks for shopping blank, please come again.” Some work construction or farm or sweat on the line in a kitchen. What do they do when they get off work?

At Vouched, we spend a lot of time promoting small press fiction, independent fiction, and new authors. I spend a lot of time asking who reads our site, and further: who reads independent fiction? Grad students and adjunct professors with MFAs? College grads who once played in an emo band? I’m generalizing, obviously, but I do wonder. How broad the cast? How wide the seine?

Writers consider audience, presumably. Who’s left out is an oddity to me. I plotz endlessly over who won’t like my work. Ms. Menard could possibly enjoy Herman Melville, despite her lack of knowledge on whaling. Perhaps she’d enjoy Matt Bell, Blake Butler, or Brandi Wells and Roxane Gay?

Do working class people read small press fiction? If not, why? And why not?

Lower-class values are different than upper-class values. On the whole, what are the values of independent writers, whether raised as lower, middle, or upper class–and does it matter if we don’t share them? The grand plan of “capital-A” Art is to transcend those differences, but I think it’s harder now than ever to do so. Poetry and fiction are stonewalled by certain denizens just because it is poetry or fiction. I’ve heard my own students, at a private college, say that theater isn’t “real life,” so it “doesn’t matter at all.” Poetry is for “fags” or “girls.” Etc. Do we, as John Gardner claims, have a moral obligation to write toward those people who are excluded from the obvious audience of independent literature, or literature in general? Or are we only having fun making the small “in” group laugh at the larger American situation?

If given a solid book sold by Vouched, would Ms. Menard shrug, laugh, cry, or simply call us a circle jerk?

I imagine our crabbed woman engaging in one of the following after work: care of a family, yard work, laundry, various domestic chores, going to the local for a beer and a chat with friends, propping the feet up and watching television or a Redbox selection, napping, or cruising the internet.Transposing sadness on Ms. Menard is unfair. I don’t know what she lives and feels. Perhaps Ms. Menard possesses a solid sunny disposition. Though I would wager that her face spoke all. Reading sits firmly on a blue back burner.

What struck me was how little time a full-time worker has to read, if they want to. If they want to. This phrase is essential because reading is so active, so in need of will and agency. My dear partner and wife, who works long days with insane demands, loves reading, but has no time. Reading has chilled into a slimy soup for her. It’s unattractive and matte. After reading reports all day, and talking to clients on the phone, she has no need or desire or energy for reading. I didn’t realize how the rationalization of the day’s hours into work units ruins the availability of reading time.

I know many people read Kindles or Nooks or books on trams, trains, buses, and such. Adamant readers sneak in sentences and phrases under cover of diligent work habits. Lifelong readers always will, and maybe that’s all a writer has to worry about: the reading reader, the already-converted. Or the Wal-Mart reader: Nora Roberts, bestsellers, Stephen King, etc.

Still, I wonder what can be done to get more working people reading indie lit.? Is it a worthwhile endeavor? Will they want to? Should we let the working folks graft hard all day, then come home and slide into sleep?

Philip Larkin said he wrote for those “who drift, loaded hopelessly with commitments and obligations and necessary observances, into the darkening avenues of age and incapacity, deserted by everything that once made life sweet.”

Is this not Ms. Menard and her ilk? Is she not like Larkin’s Mr. Bleaney?

But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread

That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don’t know.

I don’t want them to not know. We want our writing to make everyone a part of those whom Larkin calls “the less deceived.” When writers think of audience—if they do at all—do they think about Ms. Menard? Should we? Why? And if writers will, how do they reach her, Dear Ms. Menard, deep in aisle twenty-three of a huge hardware store, listening to the drone of Save big money at Menard’s!, grasping a packet of 60 watt light bulbs on a high shelf for an ambling grumpy-ass fucker who never says “thank you”?

You Are What You Have Not: A Review of AYITI

18 Apr

Roxane Gay
Fiction | 126 pgs
Artistically Declined Press

A book is a mirror: if an ass peers into it, you can’t expect an apostle to look out.

The best fiction, I think, works hard to teach you something about the world or the human predicament without sounding like a raging shithead. Didacticism in writing tends to ruffle when it means to instruct. Perhaps this statement is a first step toward my theory of good writing. I don’t know. What I do know is—holy shit: I’m woefully ignorant about Haiti. (Add it to the list of other countries I know squat about. This is not a point of pride.) I start with my lack of knowledge because I want to show how Roxane Gay’s Ayiti owns a set of perspicacious eyes that aren’t so much knowing as they are accountable. (In the spirit of disclosure, I’ve met Roxane once, and she was lovely. She also writes for Vouched sometimes.)

First, I have to say again I’m ashamed (esp. after reading this book) of not knowing a lot about Haiti—and further, I don’t think my reading was ruined one way or another by my ignorance. Gay does a thorough job of delineating the most important aspects of life on the island and off. I imagine the whole book as a catalogue of possible ways to answer a Protean question, something like: “What is Haiti?” or “Who’s Haitian?” or “What does Haiti mean?” There’s no doubt that the answer isn’t gentle. In the book—which is truly a love letter, of sorts—Haiti doesn’t catch many breaks. People are constantly trying to flee the country or are reluctant to go back when they escape. And even when they find sanctuary in another country—generally the U.S.—they’re confronted with prejudice, ignorance, or fear, as if they’re aliens in a godawful terrarium.

For example, the third story in the collection, “Voodoo Child.” An unnamed female narrator takes advantage of her college roommate’s stereotyping after she finds out the narrator is Haitian. The roommate automatically assumes she’s into voodoo.

I do nothing to dissuade her fears even though I was raised Catholic and have gained my inadequate understanding of the religion from the Lisa Bonet movie that made Bill Cosby mad at her.

The narrator has no problem manipulating the roommate for better accommodations.

I leave a doll on my desk. It looks just like my roommate. The doll is covered with placed strategically pins. I like fucking with her. She gives me the bigger room with the better dresser.

A pattern within the collection is alive here: first, second, or third generation Haitians turning a person’s ignorance back around on the perpetrator, using a sideways version of their culture as a way to show a fool the foolishness. But follow “Voodoo Child” to the end, and you find that the narrator fulfills her own prank, when the women come out of a train station and meet an old woman, speaking Creole. The narrator asks what she wants, a bit worried, and when the old woman states the narrator is a famous mambo, or voodoo priestess, the old woman kisses her hands. The story ends: “I was still imagining all the dirty New York boys my roommate and I would later find.”

Does the narrator believe she’s a mambo or not? Will she take her new self-knowledge and ply witless men with it? Does it matter?

Continue reading

A Twofer

21 Mar

I tend to go backward. As much of us do now, we ration, then devour. Especially with media. There’s no way I could’ve withstood waiting a week between episodes of Battlestar Galactica. No, Netflix was my friend there. And as for literature, I am samesies.

Issue Eight: Creation of Annalemma is a thin, sure blade compared with other hoss issues, like, say, Issue Six: Sacrifice. But it holds up well. Inside is a story “South Beach” by Ryan Rivas. Here’s the first paragraph:

After Eve ate the apple, God created South Beach. He, Himself, was a bit stoned at the time.

I originally read this story online because it was published after a story I had online. I was sad to see my story replaced in the featured position, but that disappointment died soon after I read the above. And continued. Rivas conflates and chops up the Genesis account with Christ’s New Testament cameo and sprinkles it with angel dust on a dirty hotel mirror.

When Christ turned sixteen, and realized His name came from a curse word spraypainted on a wall of the abandoned lifeguard tower in which He was conceived, He ran away from home.

The biblical language pervades throughout. “God underwent a spiritual crisis. He took a second look at the Bible and diagnosed Himself bipolar.” How much of the Good Book could be reduced to this summary? The Father and Son bicker and disagree like trailer trash, like a drop-out and a four-toothed mechanic. It doesn’t do much for the Florida Tourist Board or the Miami Chamber of Commerce. But it paints a new white coat on the Greatest Story Ever Told.

God had to admit, the boy had balls. To die like that, again and again. To block the bowels of Hell instead of getting high in Heaven.

Because the issue is centered on creation, Sam Libby’s story “And It Was Good” also picks up on the biblical-esque sense of cosmic lovemaking. “In the beginning there was darkness and time, but there was no God.” Both of these stories operate on similar levels. They both want to subvert classic lines. But they also deviate at that point. Rivas wants to put a cheap nail polish gloss on the holy trinity, and Libby wants to strip the polish off and show that there is no trinity. Only Nature.

As you may have guessed already, between the earth and the sky, well:

It was not to be.

The sky did not want to be touched. The sky didn’t want to lose the only thing that made it different from the darkness on its backside.

We will pause here because this is an important point. We’ll get to the fire and ice later, burning of deep desire–etc. But just a moment, please.

Buy Annalemma here, and read Rivas and Libby! 


20 Feb

Start short-short story with a simple sentence that hooks readers with personal investment—perhaps recognition of pop culture items, brand names, etc.—and a transgressive juxtaposition. Possibly follow with a deadpan comment. Absurd rhetorical question?

Crafty refrain to be repeated.

Use lots of small paragraphs for the pretense of emphasis and earnestness.

Another deadpan comment.

Channel quotidian life via Raymond Carver via Anton Chekhov without intensely studying either of the latter or scrutinizing the former. Verb nouns and noun verbs. Hyphenate adjectives.

Witty observation about character’s personality. Fragments. Fragment. Employ first person plural as if never done before. Drop in tautology for zen master effect.

Crafty refrain.

Get good at parataxis. Very good at parataxis. So good at parataxis that your sentences, almost by magic, will become hypotactic.

Have characters speak laconically and dry. Use asyndeton, gerunds.


[Unexplainable white space]


Deeply searching, yet ultimately shallow rhetorical question?

As you reach the end of the piece and you’re feeling saucy and breaking out the logorrheic polysyndeton and don’t know how to end in a pithy manner but you know it must end soon because without the Joycean throwforward to Wallace everyone is in suspense. Fragment. Let down. Bring down the mood with banal platitudes and possibly switch to second person, you.

Crafty refrain.

Some words that are vague, but, you know, like, in a good way-kind-of-thingy, that sometimes, someone, somewhere, can’t possibly unspool because the thing has no actual content, or whatever.

End with non-sequitur.


[Dramatic white space]


Sincere ending.



Thinly disguised, insane, over-the-top bio that, by necessity, has to include overly personal, and quirky, details about author’s dog, breakfast choices, current location, and blog address. Extensive list of publications that no one will follow up on in titles that no one has ever heard of. 

Darwin and the Art of the Three Star Review

30 Jan

This is not a review. It’s, at best, a contemplation of a phenomenon I’ve yet to pinpoint. Or which may not even exist. In any case, I’m impelled to expand.

By now, most of us understand the basic tenet of Darwinian evolution: those species that are best suited for survival—sometimes by no fault/grace of their own—pass their genes onto the next video game level that is life. Their chromosomes win a 1 UP. Those that aren’t “chosen” die out with an X over each eye. Pretty simple. But does this theory work for aesthetics? Does it work for literature and poetry?

Do the best move on and serve a greater purpose, find a bigger audience, earn the hard work? Does it matter?

This is what bothers me.

I read a lot of reviews online: in magazines online and off, in book blogs, in newspapers, in Vouched, and in books themselves. And, finally, be honest, Kyle: Amazon. Good god. I read googols of Amazon reviews just for the smell of it. Let it be known that I probably read more reviews of books than the books themselves under review. It’s a filthy habit, I admit. Pathetic, really.

Ah, but there’s an inscrutable pattern of my review-scanning I can’t help noticing: I’m tantalized by the middling review, better known to me personally as the Trivalent; the Trident; the Trinity; the Tripod. The Three Star Review.

On Amazon, they are Legion, but everywhere else, this species is like unobtanium. More often than not, the book reviews on websites tend to give the author the benefit of the doubt, to cock the critical head and daren’t wake the sweetly sleeping work for fear of scaring or hurting it. Don’t believe me? Try the major book blogs. Yes, there will be some negs. But the percentage will overwhelmingly favor the positive. This has to be a case of what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. There’s something about a review with teeth that sets the world on edge, as if the reviewer has a chip on his shoulder. E.g., B.R. Myers or Dale Peck. I don’t revile these two examples, nor do I praise them. They are extremes, surely.

Because I’m not suggesting rampage, ravage, and slaughter. I’m talking about a more even-handed consideration of art, one that tries to explain the juxtaposition of the acne on aesthetics. We all love poetry and fiction and essays, but really? Can all this stuff that’s printed and published be the dog’s balls and the bee’s knees?

Have you ever been around a terminally happy person? It’s disquieting. It’s suspicious.

From what I’ve gathered, especially on Amazon, when one arrives at a book that has lots of five and/or one star reviews, one should silently consider the situation. Perhaps both sides are right. Both wrong. But it makes most sense to start in the middle. These in-betweeners marry the conflict into a nuanced consideration of art, and I appreciate this stance way more than a slobbering love letter or a scathing broadside. Lord. Listen to me: nuanced? What am I? 50 years old and reading The New York Review of Books? [I actually like that periodical.]

The short answer of the above question is no. Not everything can be aces. Most likely everything falls into mediocrity. A writer friend of mine once said he didn’t fear failure. He feared mediocrity. I understand all too well that position. Want to hear a horrific word? MIDLIST. The barb of wasted effort stings worse with mediocrity. “You tried hard, and it’s sort of OK, but it’s not bad! But…it’s not great, either.”

“So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:16, KJV).

Even the Christian God isn’t crazy about three star reviews! I get it. It’s hard to reconcile.

The nuanced position is the agnostic stance, in a way. Not yet ready to believe in greatness, not yet ready to throw it all away in despair. And I think, just maybe, the lauding and the back-patting is a deferment about the possibility of mediocrity within the reviewers themselves.

Or! Maybe I’m totally effing wrong. I hear a voice saying, “Kyle, I’m swamped with greatness in writing from all over. I’m not delusional; I just really like all this stuff that’s out there. The embarrassment of riches! Quit moaning, you curmudgeon! Enjoy the talent!”

I see your optimism and enthusiasm, and I raise you practicality and judiciousness. I’ve seen the results of the open-door policy. It welcomes everyone. That’s good for some systems, but I don’t think it works for reviewing writing. The non-nuanced review goes forth in bad faith. Worse, it ignores the depths of art. When I teach my composition classes, and I hear one student tell another that their peer’s paper is fine, and they find nothing wrong with it, I cringe. 99.9% of the time the peer reviewer acts out of laziness and fear. Sometimes they are ill-equipped, and I take the blame. But it comes down to not having the common decency to respect the author enough to take what they’ve done seriously.

And the core of that decent seriousness is to consider all aspects, all blemishes, all figurations of beautiful geometry. The suppurations, the scabs, the scars.

John Updike used to have rules for reviewing a work. And one of the rules was that he’d meet the work on its own ground: “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” Updike went one further for the author under review and threw in another avenue of empathy: “If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?”

Sure it’s his and not yours?

Wow. Kudos, John.

Reviewing is tough business. You handle another’s hard, hard work by giving them a concentrated audience and essentially pass judgment on the art by analyzing the innards and kicking the tires. This is probably why I don’t review as much as I’d like. Is my own mediocrity in the wings, beating the rugs, preparing my middling existence, looking handsome as a valet, hair-slicked, hands begloved and waiting to pull me off the stage and sit me down with a pipe and a toddy and say, “You’ve had enough, sir. Sit. Rest. Watch the parade from your highback.”

I won’t quote from the kind of reviews I’m extolling here. Why? Because it’s uncouth, and I’m not trying to engage in digital fisticuffs. Besides, it’s easy enough. Check it out for yourself. Amazon is a good place to start.

At this point, you may wonder: why’s he mentioned evolution in the beginning? How do evolution and literature interact?

I know the life of literature doesn’t reflect the evolution of the human author, but I suspect that the whole long process of surviving got me thinking about how we pass on what we love or hate. The world is more literate than ever, so I hear. There are more writers in the world, more readers. Are more writers and good writing directly proportional? I don’t think so. Related point, if you’re into that sort of thing, I also hear that AWP is sold out. Chicago’s Hilton will be, for three days at the beginning of March, a throbbing mass of writerly hopes and dreams. And if you’re there, if you listen carefully, you’ll hear the singular thought of everyone there: “Please don’t let me be mediocre, please don’t let me be mediocre, please don’t let me be mediocre.”

It’s humbling and heart-breaking and true.

Five star and one star reviews won’t pass on or kill the work under consideration. Books can’t reproduce. Their ideas can. Their styles can. I wonder if all reviewers know this. That sounds dumb, but I mean it. We must be careful what we recommend and pass on.

Life is short, death is long, and time a fart in the middle.

I’d rather like to make the fart count.

I’ll end with two quotes, neither one of which I fully endorse.

Jean Rhys: “All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. And then there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.”

Flannery O’Connor: “Everywhere I go, I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”

Kyle Winkler: “Everywhere I go, I’m asked if writing is a huge lake. It is. A huge stifling lake of writers. My opinion is that there are great rivers that feed the lake. And then there are mere trickles, like Kyle Winkler. All that matters is the stifling. If I can make it past that, then I feed the lake. You must keep feeding the lake.”

Editorial: Books are an existential crisis.

24 Oct

1.) A Problem?

NPR reported a story back in June titled “You Can’t Possibly Read It All, So Stop Trying”, and it was all about how you’ll never be able to read all the books you think you will. One must cull or surrender, i.e cull what you know you need to and want to read, and set it aside, or surrender and give up what you know you have no time for. And, while this is true, such a reality is bleak. So bleak it instigates paroxysms in my soul. Let me explain.

Like a lot of readers of this blog and contributors to Vouched, I have a lot of books. And, like you dear readers, I try to get as much reading done as possible. But life intervenes, yes. Also, it’s hard to feel like reading all the time. Eyes tire. Brains fatigue. The charm and shine of an author’s wit declines and fades. You don’t want the joy of reading to resemble a job.

So, of course, when I got married, my wife added even more volumes to the library. Dread crept in. The yawning abyss of shelves and spines lay before me. How will I scale this paper and binding monument of words? A profound bummer: I’ve not been able to read all of them. Probably not even a half; maybe I’ve gotten to a fourth. Ugh.

I’m such a fraud.

Every day the books hold court and find me wanting. Each book is a repository for years and months worth of knowledge and diligence and creativity. And I have failed them all. Which has made me succumb to whoring around with my library. The due diligence of regular reading has devolved into a mere fling I delude myself into believing is a full relationship. I browse around my harem, and I’ll peek inside at the cover, see what epigraphs the author has chosen. Read the first few pages, some from the middle, then—gasp!, yawn—read the ending.

I’m Twitterfying my reading habits. Reducing my intake to a 140 characters here, a 140 characters there. Everything calls my name: RSS feeds, blogs, aggregator sites. What wins? Mediocrity. What do I gain? Breadth of scope and lack of depth.

Of course, it’s my fault. I’ve not sharpened my post-post-modern skills as a new-fangled reader. Why do I keep buying more books? How can this add to my sanity? What’s the point? As my friend Greg once said to me, “I don’t want to miss out on the party.” Exactly.

Entropy is a real thing, people, and the signal to noise ratio is unnerving.

In the 1980’s science serial, Cosmos, Carl Sagan showed that if one was to read a book a week, and if that person was to live to an average age of 80 or so, one will only read a few thousand in a lifetime. This is a fractional percentage—a fearsomely minute number—of all that’s available out in the stacks. The trick, Sagan says, is to know which books to read. Alas.

The basic tenet of existential philosophy is that existence precedes essence. One can make himself through choices. So must a reader, book by book.

Thus: Don’t let the fecundity of the written word overpopulate your ability to be decisive, even brutally so. Don’t sleep with just any chapbook, novel, or pamphlet that comes your way, singing sweet songs and proffering roses and displaying a peacock-like cover. Don’t succumb to the Amazon Chain of Death—the name I give to the habit of following an idle curiosity of a book online and then into the ever-descending Inferno links of “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought…” This type of laundry-listing only engenders more despair, more angst, more self-reproach.

2.) The Why?

Do we not all know a boffin—an expert on one thing? Those who can attempt to relate any event in the world back to their study of choice. E.g. the man who can find the answer to any ontological question by bringing to the surface a leitmotif from Moby-Dick.

  • Ahab’s persistence is Satan.
  • Ahab’s persistence is God.
  • The whale’s reclusivity is God.
  • Ishmael’s wanderlust is global capitalism.
  • Queequeg’s bunking with Ishamael is Occupy Wall Street.
    Whatever the case.

There’s a refreshing quality to these folks. I’m more and more exhausted by people who have 37 Twitter feeds they have to follow and umpteen books they need to get through along with their magazine articles. Exhausted because the amount of content will only grow larger as the world becomes more literate and more writerly. And one way to counter this is to get esoteric on life’s ass. Pick your spot and dig in. Depth over acreage. There’s a profit and loss scheme to it, of course. But I think this isn’t terrible. Now some may claim that I am just advertising the opposite side of the coin. Though, I believe that the boffins have more fun. More fun than that reader who’s never able to keep up with all that’s coming at them. Boffins cull and surrender.

Books are an existential crisis because they force us to admit that there’s more to the world than we’ll ever understand. “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents” (H.P. Lovecraft). Books force you to face humanity and the limits of computation. I have to remind myself that even if I could read all that I wanted, there’s no way that I’m intelligent enough to remember it all, and then apply it: which is the definition of intelligence, knowledge with application.

And my library grows or shrinks as a statement of who I am. I build it as a piece of architecture to leave after my death. [How pretentiously grand!] Since I’ve moved over the years, the only bundle I care about and protect is my library. I keep thinking that one day I’ll stop. It’ll be enough. I’ll quit buying and begin reading, dammit. Then, with glee, I’ll reread. “One cannot read a book; one can only reread it” (Vladimir Nabokov). Doomed as I am never to get through them all, I can’t quite help sculpting: probably in vain. No, definitely in vain.

This is why, perhaps, older readers that I know are revisiting and slimming down their choices. Death approaches, and the only way to save face is to find the one book that speaks to you. A writer and teacher I knew in St. Louis, getting into her late 70s, was reading mostly two or three authors on rotation: Henry James, Dickens, and Conrad. She kept rereading and finding more. I imagined that she was hoping to find the one book out of all of them that she could reread indefinitely, where over time, the lines would all illuminate like some Celtic manuscript, and enlightenment drop down from above like heavenly manna.

No one can afford to be that naïve.
But I’ll allow it.

3.) The Solution?

Not to leave this post simply as a gripe, let me offer a restorative, a philtre to reawaken and remedy this soul-sickness: The Communal-Seclusive Reading Camp. This is not merely a book group, that often ersatz reason to get together for a meal or cry together over the newest Times bestseller—the housewife’s Jonestown Kool-Aid. Rather, the Communal-Seclusive Reading Camp is a get away for the technology-laden reader and existentially hounded being who wants to soak up the grafs and suck the poetry in.

Say ten folks spring for a cabin in the woods, somewhere secluded with a village nearby for supplies. These folks decamp to a comfy space and simply…read. That’s it. Maybe affix a giant bowl in the center of the room to dump cell phones and distractions. The seclusion is a necessary no-brainer. The company is for reinforcement and accountability and conversation—and for drinking with after a long day of reading and thinking. It would be a myriad book binge, a way to counter the crawling moist hand of futility and mortality. Also, a real life “Customers Who Bought This…” algorithm. [I feel this is what Vouched is at its best.]

Revelry would win the day. Possibly at the end of such a night, while the wine and brew floweth and the chins are pizza-greasy, readers would cull all the best lines and images from that day’s harvest and share them with the group and surrender themselves to the life of the mind, and that grand existential body, joyfully made of books.

SSM: “For the First Time, Again” by Meghan Austin

30 May

The platitude is that college is for self-discovery. How terrifying! Anything about self-discovery scares the bejeesus out of me. Why would you want to discover something? And around other fellow discoverers! Leave it as it is. Woody Allen said: “Change is death.” Discovery entails contracting disease, risking hostile natives, and losing one’s way. Columbus raped and pillaged. Magellan died half a world away from home. And Ponce de Leon the same trying to find some Vitamin Water–but, like, really awesome Vitamin Water.

If we’re all traversing this social rite of higher education, and one of us realizes the skipper is a madman with a pegleg bent on self-destruction, who’s responsible? Us, for signing on? Or Them, for leading us on? In the end, I think, danger is inherent within discovery. And danger can be a comfortable thought, way, or ideology crushed for the strange, the better.

There were two (or more) opinions on how to proceed: we could teach ourselves, something we had no intention of doing, this being college. We could be absorbed by the multi-cultural women’s literature class across the hall, and talk about African knitting and menstruation, or whatever happened over there. Nothing “multi” is ever appealing. Multi-grain, multi-vitamin. Our parents were paying good money for us to study something that everyone had agreed was good. Whether we read any of it or not.


Read the entire story at Failbetter.


Three Poems by Tomaž Šalamun

27 May

Multiple moons ago, I was wheedled into attending a reading by some friends. Natch, I had better things to do, like watch LOST, or complain about not writing. But I relented and went. And what I heard was Tomaž Šalamun. If you’ve never heard of, or read, Tomaž Šalamun, then I forgive you. Once.

He read his poems in English and then in Slovenian. One poem he read made me fall out of my chair. I am not exaggerating. I say that, and people think I’m hyperbolic. I’m not. The…poem…made…me…weak. That poem is not in this bunch, but this bunch is lovely. And through reading them, you, too, will be made lovely.

grill fish, dwarves, squeeze house corners in your bags
the moon sleeps, carpets
frozen snow, I see blood on the fur coat
I see iron grids, Persian cats
I don’t want to die in the steppe, I don’t go on
I want to be killed by a cicada, the earth’s womb

Read all three poems in notnostrums.

SSM: “The Pig” by Ben Loory

25 May

One can worship anything, I suppose. Money, sex, silence. Often I’ve wondered if humans were made to worship, not the other way around. Recently, a lot of hub-bub was made of Göbekli Tepe, one of oldest–if not the oldest–discovered places of worship. It’s said that possibly civilization was brought to life by the need for religion. A thought worth repeating: possibly civilization was brought to life by religion.

Whether you follow or not, you can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. And if you do, you’re blind already. Ben Loory is, to me, the sine qua non of the short-short form. I visualize the opening scene in my head as taking place in a suburban home in spring, during a downpour and the last scene as during autumn, in the evening, when the light is like weak tea.

Honey? says the man’s wife. Are you in there?
Yes, says the man, but please, leave me alone. I’m in here with the pig.
The man’s wife hesitates.
But we miss you, she says. And also the pig.

Read the story here.