Don’t say “I want to read 10 books this summer.” There is no need to track your progress in books or pages.
Some books are best enjoyed when read slowly. They may be difficult or thought-provoking or emotionally overwhelming. There is no need to rush through them because your sense of progress is wavering. The time you invest may be more rewarding than spending the same amount of time reading twice as much. Other books are lighthearted and exciting and can be enjoyed at a breakneck pace and these are worth your time too. There is no need to approach them all the same way. Enjoy the page you are on, no matter how much time you spend on it. If you want to take a break and go for a walk to consider what you just read, you absolutely should. That time is valuable too.
Don’t choose shorter books because they represent more check-marks on a list or choose longer ones because they seem more impressive. Reading a single page can be just as worthwhile as reading ten, and reading a seven part series is no different than reading one book that is seven times longer than the others.
There is no need to track your progress in books or pages. There is no need to to put your life’s achievements on a graph to show that efficiency is up 25% and this could very well be the best year on record. Get up, go to work, read a good book, and don’t worry about the next one until this one is done.
My original plan was to write a fancy post about how the metafictional strategies used in John Barth’s Lost in The Funhouse and Jorge Luis Borge’s Ficciones reveal beautiful things about love, narrative, and existential dread. I then realized that almost no one would want to read that, so I decided to write about The Princess Bride and The Stinky Cheese Man instead.
For those unfamilair with the term, “metafiction” refers to works of fiction that exists within other works of fiction. Perhaps the modern shorthand for this multi-layered approach to storytelling is just to whisper the word “Inception” and go “OoooOOoh!” However, I assure you that the concept already existed is a pre-Christopher Nolan world…if you can even imagine such a thing.
One of the oldest examples of this device is in Arabian Nights, a work dear to both Barth and Borges. A giant web of stories is held together by an outer layer in which Scheherazade and her sister continually delay their execution at the hands of the king by telling a long story in which characters tell stories containing more characters who tell even more stories. Every night ends in a cliffhanger that convinces the king to keep them alive one more night in order to hear the story’s conclusion the following day. This outermost story Scheherazade and her sister is called the “frame tale” while the stories they tell would be considered “metafiction.”
The first time I encountered this device was in second grade when I was introduced to the greatest children’s book ever written: The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith. The main character in this underrated literary classic is Jack (of Beanstalk fame) who plays the role of a stage director attempting to assemble a collection of fairly stupid tales. Here, Jack’s story is the frame tale and the stories he tells are the metafiction. Things go awry from the very beginning, when The Little Red Hen shows up on the patterned endpaper before we even get to the title page. She is unhappy with both the lack of help she has received in making her bread and the lack of help she has received in telling her story. As a kid, this was the first time I had ever even considered the existence of title pages and ISBN numbers and seeing them mocked was a revelation for the 8 year old me. The physical book that surrounds the frame tale that surrounds the fairly stupid tales is something that The Stinky Cheese Man delights in commenting upon and it irreparably changed the way I thought about books.
Jack completely fails to assemble a coherent book and the whole thing is an undeniable disaster. His inability to keep the characters in check prepares the reader for the subversive nature of the fairly stupid tales themselves. They’re almost all anti-climaxes where kissing frogs results in nothing other than slime on your lips and stinky cheese men remain unchased due to their sheer stinkiness. The format lets you know that the stories are deliberate failures and are meant to funny for that reason. Since laughing at the stories themselves is perhaps a tad conceptual, Jack’s character provides a more concrete subject at which to direct our laughter.
Scieszka makes his debt to Arabian Nights clear in Jack’s story about himself. In order to stop the giant from eating him, he retells the story they’re in which itself contains the same story again and so on and so on. The story trails off the bottom of the page and theoretically goes on forever until you turn the page. There are an infinite number of layers containing an infinite number of Jacks. Programmers can think of this as being a recursive function, art fans can think of this as being an an M.C. Escher drawing, and literature fans can think of it as being…well, metafiction.
While these ideas might at first seem to be little more than fun tricks used get a laugh, in the right hands they can bring forth concepts that go beyond mere aesthetic pleasure.
A wonderful example of this is in The Princess Bride. While the part of the movie that first comes to mind for most people is the fairy tale narrative, this part of the plot only exists within a frame tale where Columbo reads the metafictional story to his grandson, Kevin from The Wonder Years.
Most popular sci-fi and fantasy stories have an outsider character who is encountering the world for the first time: your Luke Skywalkers and Frodo Bagginses and so forth. These characters provide a convenient excuse for the world to be explained to the viewer and give you someone to relate to.
In the Princess Bride, the outsiders in the fantasy world literally exist outside of the story. Other characters come and go at various points in the plot, but Kevin and Columbo never leave our side. The audience is meant to identify with them more than anyone else and our own questions and reactions are mirrored through their dialogue. This was an important and very deliberate choice on the part of the writers, as the movie is more concerned with how stories fit into our lives than it is with sword fights or rodents of unusual size.
Just like a young Ross McLean, Kevin initially isn’t too keen on romance and gets Columbo to skip some of the mushy bits. No one wants to read one of those dreaded “kissing books.” However, over the course of the movie, the power of storytelling and his deepening relationship with his grandfather make him grow as a character and by the end he actually wants to hear about the romantic finale. In doing so, the movie ask cynical viewers to consider doing the same.
Chances are The Princess Bride wasn’t the first story that you ever heard (if it was, then you started in a weird place) and isn’t the first one Kevin has heard, either. He knows some things about how stories are meant to work, including that they’re supposed to have happy endings. When it seems like this might not be the case, he becomes upset and the movie starts asking the viewer some questions. Do stories always have a happy ending? Does life always have a happy ending? How are stories the same as life and how are they different?
The experienced viewer probably still expects things to work out fine, and when it turns out to just be a dream sequence their suspicions are confirmed. We see the shallowness inherent to this kind of device but also still identify with Kevin when he brags about how he knew things would be okay the whole time. Columbo immediately chides him for this, by saying “Yes, yes, you’re very smart. Now, shut up.” There is a great vicarious pleasure to be had when hearing Columbo putting Kevin in his place.
This identification with the older generation is important, as well. Kevin is arrogant and assumes he understands how things work, even though it is Ol’ Grandpa Columbo who is holding the book. It’s a story that has been passed down for generations and is more than just a fairy tale: it is the love and knowledge given to us by our elders. While this is a beautiful act, it is inevitably met with resistance by the younger generation. However, by learning to appreciate the love story within the metafictional plot, he comes to appreciate the love given to him by his grandfather too: This is the power of storytelling. Kevin asks him to read the story to him again and Columbo repeats the words of the fictional Wesley by saying “As you wish,” to mean “I love you.” Columbo reading to Kevin is an act of love and Kevin begins to understand at this at the end of the film.
The characters within the fairy tale struggle with ideas of narrative, as well. Inigo Montoya structures his whole life around fulfilling a revenge fantasy but when he completes his quest he realizes that he was just following a plot that he had laid out for himself. His growth as a character doesn’t come from the satisfaction of killing his father’s murderer, it comes from the realization that by focusing on this mission he was missing out on the rest of life. He frees himself from the constraints of plot and is finally able to take the time to live and love. He may exist within a fairy tale, but his character doesn’t suit the framework.
In some ways life is like a story, and in some ways it is not. The Princess Bride wants us to consider how our lives compare to the stories we tell and ask why we tell these stories in the first place. They have things to teach us but at the same time our lives aren’t the same as a fairy tale. In all cases, what’s most important seems to be love.
It’s a pretty great movie, you guys. Also, now is probably a good time to admit that I haven’t watched it in at least four or five years, so this is all just from memory. But I think I watched it enough times as a kid to remember most of the details.
And guess what else? I tricked you into reading a whole post about fancy post-modern stuff by making it about The Princess Bride and The Stinky Cheese Man! I switched the topic when you weren’t looking! Ha! You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders!
Later this week I’m going to write about how these techniques are used by Barth and Borges to ask more existential and epistemological questions. They’re also pretty funny writers, so it should be a lot of fun. Plus, you read all this, so you might as well keep going and read the second part too.
Alison Bechdel’s (of Test fame) Fun Home is an beautifully structured mess. Many memoirists arrange the events of their lives to make everything fit into a tight narrative with nary a loose end to be found. Bechdel on the other hand revels in the complications that most writers shy away from.
Between her closeted gay father’s ambiguous suicide, her personal coming of age, and her reliance on other fictional works to provide commentary on her life, there is a lot of stuff going on in Fun Home. Despite its multi-faceted story and its non-linear structure, it is an incredibly easy read.
Bechdel shows an impressive grasp of the English language. Her vocabularly is large and academic but is never verbose or circumlocutory. She plucks out the perfect word for every situation without a syllable of waste.
The accompanying illustrations are unexceptional and are at times merely supplemental. However, they are an important addition in that they capture the dissonance between the outer and inner parts of family life. Reading Fun Home is at times like looking at vacation of smiling vacations photos that remind you of how much you wanted to stay alone in the hotel room and cry the whole time. Well, okay, I might just be projecting there. Either way, while her art wouldn’t hold up as an independent storytelling device, it serves an important purpose in Bechdel’s narrative.
The literary allusions and criticism make sense most of the time and I do fully believe that Bechdel included them because they informed the ways that she sees herself. There are a few moments of excess, but she never crosses the line into pretension and the tangential nature of the text feeds into her themes regarding the complexity of life.
Fun Home is a wonderful and complex read that touches on many serious subjects in an approachable, good-humoured way. It could be safely recommended to almost anyone.
Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me by Ellen Forney
In Marbles, Forney chronicles the day-to-day struggles of living with manic depressive disorder. It centers around the interaction between mental health and the life of a burgeoning creative, mediated by countless doctor visits.
There are lots of medications and approaches to most issues of mental health. On the one hand, this is encouraging in that if one potential solution doesn’t work, there is almost always another thing you can try. It is also incredibly frustrating as you deal with failure after failure and struggle with all kinds of shitty side effects. It’s so easy to want to give up, and Forney’s story of years of ups and downs is an encouraging reminder to stick through it. At times you may wish she had condensed or simplified her story, but the repetition is actually what makes her work powerful.
One of the coolest things about it is how she uses her art to convey her state of mind. When she is going through a manic episode, her art explodes all over the page in loose sharpie scrawls and when she’s in a depressive episode, everything appears drab and squared away. There is no one consistent narrative device or style in Marbles, making the combination of narrative repetition and stylistic unpredictability a wonderful depiction of what it feels like to not be well.
It’s an inspiring piece of art, both in terms of its sheer creativity and its validation of personal struggle.
Stitches by David Small
David Small apparently wasn’t very familiar with graphic novels when he wrote Stitches, and it really shows. The language of his storytelling is separate from that of most comics and shows a separate set of influences.
Rather than using the flat, horizontal perspective that most graphic novels employ, Small instead borrows the language of film. He starts out with establishing shots of Detroit before zooming in on the 1950’s dinner table of his childhood. The way he moves his camera around the scene brings to mind Danny DeVito’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda in the way it twists and exaggerates reality to better convey the perspective of a child.
Like the prototypical 1950’s family of my imagination, no real communication existed between anyone in Small’s childhood. Instead, personalities are shown through tiny gestures: the placing of a fork, the banging of a cabinet, the pounding of a drum, and so forth. The defining turning point in his childhood occurs when he has a cancerous tumor removed from his throat, rendering him a mute. This was not discussed with him beforehand or after. He didn’t know that he had cancer, that he’d likely die, or that he would lose his ability to speak.
The true events of his life are so surreal that Small’s decision to include his childhood dreams and fantasies helps make them more comprehensible. He never stops to step aside and provide a more objective perspective on his parents, and the book is the better for it. There is a tremendous continuity to the work, and each scene blends seamlessly into the next.
Stitch makes great use of match shots, again showing his filmic background. A large theater will be followed by the interior of a mouth on the next page or a light will turn into a gas mask which will turn into the swirl of dreams. Whether you notice them or not, these techniques help move all layers of reality onto the same plane. Even when literary allusion comes into the picture and elements of Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland begin to creep in, they don’t seem in any way separate from the more literal events of Small’s life. Everything appears as an intrinsic part of his experience, with seemingly nothing added just for the sake of the book.
Stitches is an essentially flawless depiction of childhood. It’s similarity to film, and emotional story make it the perfect entry point for those new to graphic novels. If you’re more familiar with the art form, its unique approach and pure heart will still seem fresh and exciting. Read it!
My stack of unread books is a source of great anxiety, each one serving as a constant reminder of just how little I know. I have my doubts as to whether I ever honestly thought I would read a 600 page book about Pol Pot, but there it is. Sitting on my shelf. Taunting me.
I often buy books when in an aspiration mindset. It’s nice to imagine an idealized future version of myself who really does have the time to study the political history of Cambodia, even if I know that will never happen. Yet when I look at them later, I am left paralyzed by the sheer breadth of human knowledge and the futility of any attempt to put even the smallest dent in it.
So, I narrow my focus. Sure, I can’t know everything about everything but maybe I can know everything about something. It is this attempt to break a tiny chunk off the gigantic tome of knowledge that leads to me doing things like filling my mp3 player with nothing but music from Mali, or spending 6 months watching nothing but silent films. The hope being that if I reduce myself to a set knowledge small enough to appear completable, my efforts will somehow be less futile.
After awhile, though, I cant help but take a step back and ask myself “What the fuck are you even doing?” Is it really worth my time to read a third book on humour theory when I haven’t even read Don Quixote yet? Why am I picking up another Thomas Pynchon novel when I’m only halfway through that book on the history of feminism? Are you really reading a second book of essays on Tristram Shandy when you haven’t even touched Gulliver’s Travels? This periodic realization of the specificity of my focus once again highlights how many things I’m ignoring and brings me back to where I started.
This problem is made all the worse by the modern obsession with top 10 lists and definable metrics. It is easier than ever to give yourself the illusion that your limited focus equates to some kind of progress as you can track your progress on a given list
The best solution is probably to not engage with books out of obligation and to focus on the experiences themselves rather than the fleeting pride you may feel at having completed them. This is easier said than done, as it is usually difficult to discern how worthwhile something is at the time. Some of my favourite things took a lot of effort to enjoy, and I often genuinely enjoy consulting secondary texts that further analyze other books that I’ve read. How am I to know at what point these things become excessive?
My interests are always swinging back and forth between breadth and specificity, and I always feel woefully inadequate about how little I know. Any attempt to examine this problem seems to end me throwing my hands up in the air and feeling as though I should never bother to read anything ever again. While I have gotten better at engaging in a little bit of self-delusion when confronted with the futility of human existence, that can only take me so far. Balancing the time I have to learn remains an impossible and incredibly vexing task.