I pride myself with having discerned even then the symptoms of what is so clear today, when a kind of family circle has gradually been formed, linking representatives of all nations, jolly empire-builders in their jungle clearings, French policemen, the unmentionable German product, the good old churchgoing Russian and Polish pogromshchik, the lean American lyncher, [and] the man with the bad teeth who squirts antiminority stories in the bar or the lavatory…

-Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory


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

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

It’s funny how many people say they love Orwell (or Nabokov or Heller, etc.) when they’ve only ever read one (or occasionally two) books by them. I’m no different. With my favourite directors, I watch every one of their films. With my favourite bands, I listen to every one of their albums. So why don’t I read every book from my ‘favourite’ authors? And how did they become my favourites anyway when I barely know their writing at all?

I had no answer to that, but it was clearly a problem. So a few years ago, I set out to fix this by working my way through the bibliographies of some of these authors (often chronologically, ’cause I’m like that). Every month I read a Huxley, or an Orwell, or a Vonnegut. And when I discovered a new author I liked–Winterson or Pynchon, for example–I went back and read other stuff by them. There are of course a lot of good books from a lot of good writers but I feel I’ve been making progress. I’m proud to say I know more than just the catch-phrases now and, best of all, I’ve discovered some great lesser-read works along the way.

As it turned out, Homage to Catalonia was referenced extensively in On Anarchism which I just finished. And here I had picked Orwell this month for no particular reason at all and specifically this book to boot! I just love when things like that happen.

-Reading the Why

Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut is not my favourite writer. That honour belongs to Douglas Adams.(1) And Bill Watterson. Vonnegut is certainly up there,(2) and some of his books certainly count among my favourites. Maybe if I had ‘discovered’ his writings when I was younger, in my formative years, when whims stick longer and become immovable as the foundations of the edifice that is to become my ‘self’. Maybe when I’ve read all of his books, I can chair a committee to see where he ultimately ranks. I’m happy to still have a quite a few to enjoy.

I like Vonnegut for two reasons:

ONE: He wrote about posthumanity, without ever using such terms.(4) Like it says on the back cover of Galapagos: ‘Kurt Vonnegut takes you back one million years. To A.D. 1986–and the beginning of the human race.’ Because why would posthumans call themselves posthuman? Only today’s egoists would deign to regard the humans of the future and define them in relation to ourselves. They will just be humans, and everything else that came before them something less than.

TWO: He wrote comedy, fought the ills of the world with humour, and lost. As he put it in A Man without a Country, ‘Humor is a way of holding off how awful life can be, to protect yourself. Finally, you get just too tired, and the news is too awful, and humor doesn’t work anymore.’ That’s kind of how I feel about Seinfeld too.

So now that we know how it ends, let’s go back to 1976, back when it was still just funny?

-Reading the Why

(1) Why, you’re very welcome, Mr Adams.
(2) Along with Pynchon, Huxley, Nabokov, Robbins.(3)
(3) I seriously need to read more female writers.
(4) See my other blog: Be Less Human which is all about posthumanity.

Life gets sometimes very complicated, and the more complicated the happier it should be one would think, but in reality ‘complicated’ always means for some reason grust’ i toska (sorrow and heartache).

-Vladimir Nabokov, Look at the Harlequins!