Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Reading A-List

I love a good reading list. I know I'm not alone on this one - the popularity of features like Amazon.com's Listmania! and the scores of end-of-year must-read lists demonstrates that most of us like a curated experience when it comes to reading. That's not to say that I don't enjoy wandering through bookstores. The pleasures there are of the unexpected and hidden finds - a reissue of a book your dad once recommended, or a new book by a favourite author. Once you get past the tables of prominently displayed best-sellers and into the meatier, denser shelves, there are literally hundred of thousands of titles to pick up, mull over, and maybe even read.

Back during my interminable undergraduate degree, one of my favourite pleasures used to be, in the first class of the term, receiving the syllabus for the course. The book list always felt like it held such promise; as an English major, I trafficked mostly in novels, so each syllabus would usually contain a few critical texts and then a stack of fiction books that I might enjoy as a civilian, or that might be an academic slog through page upon page of Olde Englishe lunacy.

Early on, I rejected the stale canonical babblings of dead white guys, and instead enrolled in every genre class I could find. I pored over detective fiction from the 1920s, Caribbean bildungsromans, a truly dreadful science fiction book that should have had an editor's scythe through some (nay, most) of its 800+ pages, and Daisy Miller. I read comic books and Jewish fiction - lots of overlap there - Thomas Pynchon and Shelley Jackson. The books piled up around me, making built-in shelving a requirement for any new living space I moved into. Some of them went ignored and unread. I was a student more interested in the idea of learning than the actual legwork, and usually six weeks into the term, I was too distracted by my own latent meltdowns to focus on The Fairie Queene.

I just finished Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends, in which he dissects the works that most influenced him, both as a writer and as a human, and then talks about his own creative methods. Some of the stories that he loves include Sherlock Holmes adventures, His Dark Materials, the myth of The Golem of Prague, and pulpy mid-1980s comics books. It was assembled, it seems, as a sort of reader's map to his wildly successful 2000 book The Amazing Adeventures of Kavalier and Clay, but it also includes an extensive and thoughtful index of his influences, an index that also functions as a de facto reading list.

As a lazy sort of writer myself, I wonder what my Maps and Legends would be about. Working from childhood, I would be a dirty liar if I didn't own up to my soft spot for The Babysitter's Club - but maybe that fontanelle helped me side-step that embarrassing wasteland known as chick-lit. I love Stephen King novels, but I've recognized that his writing is often dreadful; people read him because they want a good yarn, not a masterful literary voice. I've picked up dozens of comic books, essay collection, and short story anthologies because I love the challenges and beauties of short-form writing. It's not likely that I'll ever pull a Chabon and write a gorgeous, multi-layered epic like Kavalier and Clay, but I've written hundred of essays on this website. The high-brow literary classics I was taught in school rarely got under my skin the way science fiction, horror and fantasy did; in university, it was a struggle to read things like Shamela, because I knew there were other, more relevant books for me out there, just waiting to be read.

On my desk right now, I have a to-do list that includes some mid- to macro-level items: nestled among "make a doctor's appointment" and "laundry" is "make a summer reading list," a task that I've put off because I don't want to have that bit of pleasure come to an end. I know it'll include some Chabon-recommended books, but also delightful books I bought months ago that got lost in the job-stress black hole, gifts from my boyfriend, loaners from friends, magazine articles, re-reads, and false starts. I want to order it so that there are breaks - my re-read of The Crying of Lot 49 isn't immediately after my false-started The Pale King because, while I like both books, there's only so much experimental fiction one's brain can really take.

But mostly, I'm trying to capture some of that promise - the idea that every book has the potential to teach me something, whether it's how to write better, how to live better, or just how to scare the everliving fuck out of myself at 12:30 AM on a Thursday night.

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