The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I caved! I caved! I’ve spent the last several years avoiding reading Donna Tartt, ever since one of my ex-flatmates told me I had to read The Goldfinch but I knew it was going to be just like so many other books I’ve read: so many pages of really well written but thoroughly depressing realism about a mid-western family self-destructing or two New York couples self-destructing, where I can’t say nothing happens because things happen but I just don’t care. I just don’t care! But I have liked Pulitzer Prize winners in the past (of course it was The Goldfinch that won that, not The Secret History) and the premise does sound interesting (they always do, don’t they? then turn into a thousand pages about four friends, their tragic lives and how they all die in depressing and horrible ways). So here I am and that’s how I got to here.

-Reading the Why


The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks

It’s fascinating to me what lies, even thrives, on the edges of humanity. Sometimes the hardest place to be is in the middle, among the unsung masses, the insignificant majority–the irony of wanting our children to be normal and special. There are, of course, many such ‘edges’. It could be genius-level (standard linguistic-mathematical) intelligence. It could be idiot savantism. (It could be riding a motorcycle too fast down Highway 1 or damning the lives of a billion people.)

It’s hard to believe I’ve never read Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. I’ve always know this book (always: there was no moment when I first saw it’s cover or heard it’s title, my brain has redacted the memory of that first discovery by telling itself that it has always know the book), but never looked inside. The downside to reading (almost) only fiction. Neurological disorders are so interesting.[1] There really are cases documented by reliable medical practitioners of people who have perfect recall of their entire lives to the minutest detail, of people who can ‘count’ instantaneously the number of matches scattered accidentally onto the floor (as popularised in Rainman). There really are recorded cases of brain damage where the part of the brain that is damaged is the part of the brain that tells the brain that a part of it is damaged (like the Grebulon ship in Mostly Harmless), of amnesiacs who can’t remember their amnesia, or patients who can’t recognise their own body. It really opens your mind to what our brains are really capable of and all the things that can go wrong. This stuff is real!

-Reading the Why

[1] As are experiments into consciousness like the rubber hand illusion or the barbie doll illusion.


Art & Lies by Jeanette Winterson

We had family to visit this past week who have never been to Berlin before and while it’s been fun (no, really!), now I just want to curl up and read for 10 hours, but alas I can’t because another guest tag-teamed in and is sleeping on the couch, and it’s raining that steady, interminable ten-degrees-to-the-vertical rain which saps all willpower to venture out to a cafe for a cappuccino though it’s really a flat white and a piece of New York cheesecake, still I’m going to try to finish Jeanette Winterson’s Art & Lies in one day which will make everything right again–how can it not?

-Reading the Why

Songs of the Doomed by Hunter S Thompson

When I was 25, I lived for eleven months in a small tourist town called Airlie Beach. It was an ugly, fascinating place, a backpacker outpost of 3000 locals and twice as many tourists on any given day. The fascinating thing about it was that it was the kind of place where if you shamed yourself–drink too much, sleep with the wrong person, get into a fight–all you had to do was lay low for five days and everyone you’d met or known in the town would have left, moved on, permanently out of your life, if you so choose. And there was a lot of intemperate drinking, misguided sex and incendiary violence.

After I left, I wanted to write a book about Airlie Beach. I wanted to write about the artificial lagoon the locals called the ‘sperm bank’, the Casanova diving instructors, oysters kilpatrick, the bi-weekly wet t-shirt contests, bedbugs, early morning beer golf, the smell of stale sex when the algae was blooming in the waterways, and the most stomach- (and rectum-) clenching burgers I’ve ever willingly eaten, but most of all I wanted to write about this phenomenon of the perpetual clean slate and the attendant feeling of being utterly lost in body and spirit.

Then I read The Rum Diary by Hunter S Thompson and realised that my story had already been written and a hundred times better than I ever could. The moment had passed. Now, this is probably all I’ll ever write about Airlie Beach.

-Reading the Why

The End of the Story by Lydia Davis

I know nothing about Lydia Davis except what I was able to glean from the cover of her salmon-coloured book which I had in my hand just the once and from the table of contents within, which is that she is a highly praised writer of short stories, but being more of a reader of novels–I don’t dislike short stories so much as find them hard to keep hold of in my mind; I have enough trouble remembering novels–I naturally picked her sole novel instead, The End of the Story, and hope I will be able to get an appreciation of her style in her medium of non-choice and am not doing her a great disservice. Is that stupid? I think that might be a little stupid, like judging a sprinter by watching them run a marathon.

-Reading the Why

Count Zero by William Gibson

Count Zero is the sequel to Neuromancer, the holy text of cyberpunk, a juxtaposition of high tech and low life that’s turning out to be the most prescient of the sci-fi sub-genres, so it had a lot to live up to. But it wasn’t just the story that I liked, I remember being tuned to the rhythm of William Gibson’s writing. The plot was dense and the action unfolded right at the extreme where I could just keep up if I concentrated. It was challenging in a way that made me feel proud for getting it, like catching a ball in the tips of your fingertips or skiing a slope at the outside limit of your skill level. Of course the only danger here was losing the thread and having to re-read. If forced to choose, I always prefer writing that is too obscure over writing that is too obvious, and Neuromancer certainly errs on the side of what-just-happened? I had the same feeling reading Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, where I knew what was happening but had no idea how I knew. Then there’s Pynchon, of course, except he’s a few large leaps deeper into the whoosis.

It’s a real thing, this needing to be tuned to the author’s rhythm. Often when I’m reading new authors, it can take a few chapters to get used to his or her beat. I imagine it as trying to maintain a conversation through the open windows of two cars driving side by side down the highway. Of course, with reading, there’s a broader range within which you will be able to understand and even enjoy the story. But when it comes to our favourite authors, I sometimes think it’s not necessarily what they write, but how they write. Which also explains why we sometimes can’t for the life of us enjoy certain authors, even though we should.

-Reading the Why

[End of part five]

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

There’s a word in German called Bildungslücke. It means literally a hole in your education, and refers to something, usually a piece of culture or pop culture, that is widely known but somehow passed you by. So for example if your new girlfriend had never heard of Star Wars, that would be a Bildungslücke, and you would sit her down with the original trilogy and thereby ‘close’ that hole.

As an avid reader, a Literaturinteressierter, someone who takes a strong interest in literature, Steinbeck has always been my Bildungslücke, but one I’ve been working to remedy. In December of last year, I wrote my first Reading the Why on Steinbeck’s The Pearl. Now, nine months later (yes, it’s been nine months!), I continue with Cannery Row. And now, as then, I’m still clutching for his smaller works, tiptoeing, if you will, around the sleeping beast, circling ever closer until I finally collapse into its gravity.

-Reading the Why