November 5, 2009 at 11:12 am | Posted in Book Blather, Challenges | 3 Comments

Another milestone already.  Last year I read 409 books.  Now it’s November 5 and I’ve already beaten my personal record.

It’s wearing me down, though.  I’ve been trying to do other challenges as well, and it’s necessarily involved reading more than double the proportion of fiction that I normally do.  You know what?  Most fiction is depressing!  Murder.  Suicide.  Adultery.  Hypocrisy.  Oppressive social constraints.  Terminal misunderstandings.  Even the funny stuff starts to weigh on you, because I think all humorists have a jaundiced view of humanity that leaks through.  I can definitely say that I will be reading less fiction next year.

The other problem is the sheer amount of work that’s gone into this stupid stunt.  I get flack from my friends for missing social gatherings that I didn’t even hear about until after the fact, because I only check my e-mail about once a week.  Whenever I’m not reading, I’m running around doing housework or errands, trying to clear the decks so I can get “caught up.”  Inevitably it’s a race to catch up, because I’ve been behind goal since the second week of January.  Even now, with eight weeks to go, it’s seriously in doubt whether I can make it.  That’s a minimum of 11 books a week, which I can only occasionally manage.

The other problem is that I’m not getting the ego gratification I thought I would for myself.  I wanted to accomplish a death-defying feat.  Last I year I found that someone else had beat my “record” by something like sixty titles, so I settled in for a second year of dedicating inhuman amounts of time to reading and neglecting other aspects of life.  Now I learn that there are supposedly people out there reading 1000 books a year.  I’m obsessed to the point of obsession with Speed Readers and documentation and proof and the limits of age, intelligence, and honesty.  It’s a theme with me that I set myself a challenge and then get beaten at my own game, usually by a close friend.  I should be grateful for the inspiration but I’m usually enraged.  I’m the one!  Can’t you understand?  It was my idea! Nobody gets to be a megalomaniac but me!  I’d take my marbles and go home, but evidently I’ve already lost them.

Blogging is starting to get to me, too.  It seems like a lose-lose proposition.  What interests random strangers the most is also the most likely to alienate any friends who might know the situation first-hand.  The posts that draw the most hits from search engines are the least likely to interest your regular readers, and vice versa.  Writing about obscure books drives readers off, while writing about popular books annoys them because they see the same book on every blog they read.  Writing at all takes away reading time.  The most interesting posts to write often also seem to draw the least comments, and it’s a constant guessing game to try to write about things that interest yourself and your audience too.  After this year, I can’t think what I would write about.

Introspection is a losing proposition in general.  Go ahead and try asking your friends what they really think of you.  Chances are pretty high you’ll get some “constructive criticism.”  Is it ever possible to receive the benefit of the doubt that one extends to others?  At least in reviewing books, people are willing to say, “I didn’t like it but I’m glad you did.”

Booking Through Thursday: It’s All about Me

November 5, 2009 at 10:15 am | Posted in Book Blather | 3 Comments

Which do you prefer? Biographies written about someone? Or Autobiographies written by the actual person (and/or ghost-writer)?

I love both.  They both have their drawbacks, but usually I’d rather read a biography or memoir than anything else.

Biographies are best when you’re curious about the person.  When I read a biography, it’s because I’ve sought it out and I want to know more about the subject.  The biggest problem with this is that sometimes I don’t like the person as much any more after I know more details.  For instance, ever since I read that Gandhi used to “test himself” by getting into bed with naked girls, I’ve just… wrestled with it.  Still, biographies have the advantage of historical context, research, and a broader POV.

Autobiographies are a bit of a guilty pleasure.  There’s an element of “race to the bottom” in memoir:  “I will disembowel myself emotionally if you give me a book deal.  I have the worst childhood of anyone who ever lived.  Now that you’ve seen life through my eyes, you can never judge me again.”  I loved A Reliable Wife, but then I read Goolrick’s memoir The End of the World as We Know It and it gave me mixed feelings about the novel.  I can’t leave memoir alone, and in this case I will go out and read about anyone as long as the story seems compelling, but at the same time it can feel a little dirty afterward.  Maybe there’s a variety of autobiography that is more positive; maybe it’s what I’m drawn to; or maybe it’s just a trend that will pass.

I’m fascinated by the difference between the story of someone’s life as told by the subject and by an observer, or series of observers.  There are historical figures who have inspired reams and reams of commentary, and it seems like even centuries later there is still more to be researched and reevaluated.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have an autobiography by everyone who became the subject of a bio?  Then we could compare notes, especially when the biographer never met the subject in life.

It’s a compelling issue for me, because frankly, I’ve had stuff in my life that I could quite probably sell as a memoir.  Yet I know from long experience that my memories do not usually jibe with my family’s.  That’s part of the problem.  One of the things that makes a family dysfunctional is that the ‘perpetrator’ either denies everything, has no memory of it, didn’t realize it was significant, interprets it in a flattering light, ignores it out of narcissism, or blames everything on the ‘victim.’  Or all of the above.  “The one who got away” is most likely the only person who “buys” the story.  You want to write a memoir when you feel like nobody is on your side.  At least a neutral audience might consider hearing me out, right?  I think the act of writing a memoir is an attempt to establish one’s sanity, to reinterpret perceptions and adjust to the normal world after attempting to escape the surreal vortex one came from.

On the other hand, memory is notoriously fallible.  A biographer comes in, does hard research, and comes up for air thinking, “There is no way this happened the way my subject claims.”  A memoirist is going to interpret everything in his or her own favor while simultaneously attributing significance to all the wrong things.  We all have plans for our lives, and we tell ourselves a story arc in our minds that most likely has nothing to do with how our lives actually turn out.  A biographer can look at this more objectively.

What I get out of both biography and memoir is the sense of a life as a story, one with patterns, one with recognizable mentors and villains, lucky chances, and successful or unsuccessful reactions to circumstance.  It seems like a pretty good way to get some objective perspective on my own life.

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