I had planned to write on Patti Smith’s new book, M Train, this week. I had schmoozed a rep at Allen & Unwin to convince her I should get an advance copy. Days later it arrived, and I began.
I had a list of books to read; I had a planned schedule, and M Train was on its way to being the finale. I boasted to my die-hard Patti Smith-fan friend, flippantly proclaimed “I don’t think it’s as good as Just Kids”, was met with shock, and immediately regretted my snap judgement.
Embarrassed, I focused on the book, eschewed any Just Kids comparisons that drifted distractingly, and let it become what it became. Tales of her adventures, her coffee drinking; privy to her memories, I was getting sucked in. Until I lost it.
Literally lost it. I can’t find it. I never lose things, let alone a book. And there’s not that many locations I either visit or take books to.
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Since losing M Train, I’ve been completely distracted from reading; I haven’t read in weeks. I start books and don’t pay attention to what I’m reading, close them and feel uninspired to continue. It’s a post misplaced M Train malaise.
Over the weekend I was listening to James Wood (New Yorker writer, eminent literary critic and novelist) talk to Kim Hill about his memoir(ish) book, among other things. Many things they talked about resounded with me greatly. He confessed to being the type of person who puts a book down 100 pages in and often does not look back. I am guilty of the same thing; I read so many books at anyone time and rarely finish all of them. Woods laments the dying breed of slow readers, whose slower pace allows them to properly pay attention. I am an unfortunately slow reader; I take a while to make my way through books.
But our eagerness to digest things rapidly is seeing a trend away from people reading in general. There’s so much else we can do to entertain ourselves. He observes that newer generations of students coming through his classes aren’t as well-read as he once was. Despite my slight aversion to the term “well-read” and the snobbery that it emanates, I see his point. I really do. I am a shining example of this. I missed a whole bunch of the classics. I have a hugely lacking back catalogue of books, especially for an English Literature student.
Pharrell Williams is turning his song Happy into a children’s book—I don’t really get what it will end up like or how it will be translated to book form. But in the trailer (again, huh?) for the book, he asks a kid why she likes reading. “Because I get to explore and see what I can find in books and learn something from it,” she says. Too bloody profound.
So this summer—after the exams have wound up, you’ve drunk your sorrows away, and started your mindless summer job—find time for reading. And pay attention to it. Take the ideas of James Wood, and Pharrell Williams, and try to pay attention to books, because the worlds you explore might teach you things you didn’t know that you didn’t know.
Here is what I will be reading this summer:
1. Men Explain Things To Me—Rebecca Solnit
Rebecca Solnit is one of the strongest current nonfiction writers; she finds a balance of poeticism and honesty. The namesake essay based on “mansplaining” impacted 2014 in a big way. Here the essay that even Beyoncé was influenced by is alongside her other essays that deal with contemporary feminism.
2. The Secret History—Donna Tartt
I have been told and told again to read this book. It so happens that feeling completely lost and uninspired by your current reading enterprises is the perfect moment to start (in my case at least). It’s already hooked me, with a strange elitist air, a mystery, and a fantastic style of writing.
3. The Fame Lunches: On Wounded Icons, Money, Sex, the Brontës, and the Importance of Handbags—Daphne Merkin.
The opening essay, which I have read, looks at Marilyn Monroe’s desperation. This is an excellent book to keep on your bedside table, to dip in and out of, and consider the world of celebrities in a new way.
4. Junky—William Burroughs
I heard a radio show where Iggy Pop hosted several authors and scholars alike discussing burroughs on his, like maybe, 100th birthday? It was fantastic, and I needed to read Burroughs. I had never known his story, or how he fit. To follow—The Naked Lunch.
5. The Alchemist —Paulo Coelho
This book is meant to, literally, change your life. It’s also one of the best selling books of all time—so I don’t know how I didn’t catch this earlier.