Thursday, October 18, 2007

Methinks I Shall Read 100 Books

The easiest thing about choosing to read 100 books is picking the first one. I know that flies in the face of all logic, but logic was not one of the things I brought to the table when I decided, rather calmly I might add, that I was going to read 100 books before I write my next one. It just felt like the thing to do. Maybe I was looking at Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking At The Novel, a little too closely, but as far as I know I’m not suffering from writer’s block. I am concerned that to write now would be to bring the same old things to a new book, whether that be style or world view or philosophy or even structure. I need to read more. Maybe my next book will be a forward step instead of the sideways move that it feels like right now. Maybe I’m just envying these Camus and Saramago novels that I’ve been reading.

In the middle of all that I’ve been considering two seemingly diametrically opposed thoughts: how to write books that mean something more than what fiction can be on the surface (not metafiction which I cannot stand) but also how to capture that old sense of what a story could be, not necessarily Victorian, but maybe Dickensian in scope and in scale. I’ve been thinking about Dickens a lot lately, not just him but writers, extremely talented writers who nonetheless never forfeited that unwritten contract with the reader. The reason why my headline says Books instead of Novels is that several of the books I plan to read will be Non-Fiction, certainly biography. In fact, between biographies of Young Stalin and classics like the new translation of War and Peace, I might not find much space for contemporary novels.

This is not just because I want to connect with the past or the factual. But maybe you have noticed that if the reader today wants a story on a epic scale, something larger and more sweeping in narrative, he has to read old novels or non-fiction. The novel does not provide these pleasures anymore —certainly none I’ve read recently save for Absurdistan —and I’m not sure why. Michael Cunningham once lauded the era of the smaller novel, narrow in scope and focused on the minutiae of human life. Many writers seemed to agree with him. My problem with this is that it seems to be a decision that writers made among writers for writers without ever asking what the reader thought.

Faced with countless books about nothing the reader goes to where he can find a story: old books, non-fiction, even a videogame like Metal Gear Solid. It says volumes that the most engrossing recent novel was not recent at all, but a rescued work from Irene Nemirovsky, who died in a Nazi Concentration camp in World War 2. The main drawback to teaching a course on 9/11 Novels is the fact that the truly great narratives are not fiction. There has not yet been a novel of the sheer epic span of Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars, or the wide Tolstoyan scope of Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, or the bark and bite of Fiasco, the funky feminist insight of The Terror Dream, the downright surreal Imperial Life in the Emerald City, or even The 9/11 Report, so devastating in its very plainness.

There’s no question that novels change, that the purpose of fiction should change. I’m just not sure anymore what was the point to any change in the past 40 years. In the late sixties John Barth declared the end of narrative, but I’m not sure who that to applied to other than him. Novelists in their desire to break free from imagined boundaries found many exciting ways to express, but not many to communicate. In some arenas that is still called by its first name: masturbation. There is a point to be made for experimental fiction, but fiction has been experimenting since Tristram Shandy and nobody has ever accused that book of being dull. I think I’m trying to find a midway between a novelist’s desire to innovate and a writer’s desire to connect. And maybe after reading 100 books I’ll get a clue.

The first book? Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Saw it fall off a shelf in Borders and just knew. As for the rest, I'm all for people telling me what to do. What book do you think I should read?