The Fight by Norman Mailer

It feels right to move from Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels to Norman Mailer’s The Fight. Both big names with big reputations. Both pioneering journalistic works, with that subjectivity later honed by Hunter S. into his trademark gonzo, which is to say a hardboiled style where the journalist writes and lives his way to the centre of the story he is reporting.

I studied Mailer’s An American Dream in high school, a novel about a ex-congressman who murders his wife and gets away with it, looking back, a gateway book to adulthood for me. It was the last book I studied at school, and the last assignment, to write an extra, final, chapter to the book, kept me many nights from sleep, characters and conflicts swirling in my head, tossing and turning, reaching for my notepad, scratching down ideas almost indecipherable the next morning. In the end, I submitted my chapter by printing it in the same font and layout as the novel and binding the pages into my copy of the book. I learnt something about writing in those weeks, and I still feel the struggle and satisfaction today, twenty years on.

-Reading the Why

Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson

You’ve probably noticed that I like books, but I don’t have as many as you may think. Most I’ve sold or given away. Right now, I only have 80 or so novels, a handful of Leunigs (certain to be the name of his next collection), and a dozen art books.

I left my home town 12 years ago with a backpack of essentials, leaving behind everything else at friends’ houses, including all my books and comics. I wish I could remember which book I took with me on my trip out, that would be amazing to know. I moved to Airlie Beach, a small backpacker town where I stayed about a year before travelling down the coast to Melbourne. I was there a year too. From there I moved to the UK where I lived in London and worked two winters and stayed in Cambridge and travelled Europe two summers. At the end of two years, I again packed my backpack and moved to Germany where, a few months later, I settled in Berlin. Two years later, I moved cities once more, but I returned to Berlin less than a year later. In Berlin I’ve lived in 4 separate flats. The point is, I’ve had to sell, gift, abandon a lot of books over the years.

Luckily I don’t like a lot of what I read (the why of that I’ve probably explained elsewhere, or I will again soon). Moving so often, I tried not to accumulate too many books. I borrow from the library, I inherit books when friends move away, and I fail to resist picking up second hand books at flea markets. It’s only recently that I’ve started to re-buy some of my favourites, what I call my comfort books, books I’ve read and loved and want to lend to friends to read. I usually don’t even read the copies I buy. My current living arrangement is the most stable I’ve had since I left home, and I’ve realised I may never be reunited with my books back in Australia.

I bought another selection of comfort books the other day. They were:

1. The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams
2. Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine
3. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
4. Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson
5. The Crucible by Arthur Miller

I also bought two books I hadn’t read before. One of them was Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson.

-Reading the Why

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

A customer came in to the bookshop today looking for Flowers for Algernon, which was quite funny because I had just spent most of yesterday researching multiple intelligences in a vain effort to  draft my own intelligence test that takes all aspects of intelligence into account which I was going to call AQ: Awareness Quotient, and had stumbled upon a reference to a discussion about the meaning of intelligence in Daniel Keyes’ Flowers of Algernon (coincidentally already on my to-read list) so I looked for the text online and found a PDF version of the original short story later to be adapted into a novel by the same author, and I shared this with the customer who didn’t seem much impressed. We didn’t stock the book.

She moved on and asked if we had anything by Bukowski, who of course is the author of the book I just finished reading! I love these kinds of coincidences but obviously she didn’t because she just looked at me like why-are-you-telling-me-this and waited for me to point her the way. Connection averted.

-Reading the Why

P.S.: Incidentally, I’m still in the middle of Speak, Memory but I figure I could squeeze a short story in there between chapters.

Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov

Reading Lolita for the first time some years ago I thought to myself that it could have done without the last hundred pages. Then I read the afterword from Nabokov and he writes that some idiots think the book is a hundred pages too long! I felt pretty stupid, but not as stupid as if I had read his 999-line poem Pale Fire and omitted the forward and commentary. It could have happened. I’m sure it’s happened to some people.

I love Nabokov. I love his bleak humour, and I love that he wrote in English as a Russian to rival the great English-language authors. In fact, he is for me one of the great English-language authors. But most of all I love him for his use of unreliable narrators. It’s a feature in pretty much all his novels, all the ones I’ve read so far anyway, and it hasn’t gotten old yet. I’m about half way through.

Speak, Memory is supposed to be an autobiography. It probably won’t but I hope it also turns into an unreliable history! (I also love punctuation in titles.)

-Reading the Why

Pulp by Charles Bukowski

Sacrilegiously, the first I heard of Bukowski was when I watched Factotum starring Matt Dillon. It was a movie about being depressed and it was so good that after it finished I immediately called up my best friend at the time and said, I feel so depressed, I can’t be alone, I’m coming over. This, I’ve noticed since then, is what Bukowski does so well, telling with his straight-forward cynicism about life at the bottom. Drinking, horses, women, in that order.

This guy wrote some 45 volumes of poetry, filled with dirty, ugly bullets of truth fired from a rusty typewriter into the degenerate underbelly of modern America, but I don’t read poetry. Of his novels, I’ve read Post Office, Factotum, and Women. Pulp was his final novel, completed shortly before his death.

-Reading the Why

Daniela von Luise Rinser

Daniela von Luise Rinser habe ich auf der Straße gefunden, in einer Kiste von Bücher, die jemand zu verschenken hinausgestellt hat, was seltener und seltener in Berlin vorkommt. Es gab eine Zeit, vor drei, vier Jahren, nicht sehr lange, wenn man alles mögliches auf den Straßen finden konnte, und nicht nur Schrott, sondern gute brauchbare Sachen: Regale, Sessel, Geschirr, Schuhe, natürlich Bücher. Jetzt, verkauft man sie eher, lässt man sie im Internet versteigen, oder auch verschenkt man sie über Facebook-Seiten.

Rinser war eine Lieblingsautorin von einer ex-Freundin. Ich habe damals eine Sammlung Kurzgeschichten von ihr gelesen, Ein Bündel weißer Narzissen, und fand sie wenn nicht besonders fesselnd, zumindest schön geschrieben. Daniela liegt seit Monaten im Bücherregal, unbeachtet. Wenn ich nicht am Wochenende einen Sprachtest machen müsste, und als Vorbereitung mich vorgenommen hätte bis dahin nur Deutsch zu lesen, hätte ich es wahrscheinlich die nächsten Jahre auch nicht rausgeholt. Nicht gerade die glamouröseste Empfehlung, aber so oder so wollen Bücher einfach gelesen werden, oder?

-Reading the Why

Nobody Knows My Name by James Baldwin

The thing with writing about books before I read them is that the books often turn out not to be what I expected, or, in this case, not even the book I expected it to be. You never hear that side of the story. I don’t go back to correct my misconceptions, and I don’t review them after the fact. The former is difficult–letting my errors stand–but the latter is mostly on purpose. I don’t like a lot of what I read and telling that story can come across as overly negative (it’s not; more on that another time). I write about what I think the books are about. Someone who has already read the book will necessarily know when I am talking rubbish.

If it hadn’t been for one unexpected conversation, I would be writing now about how James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain is one of those books you always come across on best-of lists, and, like too many others, one I never got around to reading, so when the documentary I Am Not Your Negro came out recently, it reminded me that unlike all the obscure pop titles on my to-read list, Baldwin’s books would actually be in the university library, and how I got out Nobody Knows My Name thinking it was the unfinished manuscript which the documentary adapted and it would have been really difficult not to come back and revise this post when I realised my mistake.

-Reading the Why