reading

Reading in swarms

I finally figured out a name for this thing I’ve done for years.

The thing is this: simultaneously, or in very quick succession, reading a group of books about one topic or theme.

I call this weird little habit of mine “reading in swarms.”

I suppose you could also call it “research,” but that would be too clinical and would give me too much credit.

Is it “curiosity”?

Sure it is. Of course. I’m curious about something or someone and then read not one, but five or seven or ten or more books about the topic. But there is something about reading five or ten books (and not, say, two) that tips this — at least in my mind — from curiosity towards some other kind of activity.

Is it mania?

Maybe. But a benign mania.

I don’t know what it is. It’s just what I do when I read.


I don’t do it exclusively. O, god no.

I also read one-off books, so to speak: a single book by an author.

For example, while I am reading a swarm of books about the Arctic, say, I might also be reading the novel Mating by Norman Rush. In fact, I am never not reading Mating, but that is a different mania of mine. I’ve never read another book by Rush except a book of his short stories.

Maybe this impulse to read in swarms is an impulse towards mastery.

Perhaps. That’s more like it.

A swarm of books about the Arctic


In reality, it’s probably all of those states along some sort of continuum. The impulse to read a book about death, for example, starts off as curiosity or a straight-up need. As in, I needed help in figuring how to deal with the impending death of my mother, so I looked toward literature for that help. Then, having read one book on death, I got curious as to how other minds thought about it, so I started searching for and reading more books on the topic. And then it became a bit of fixation and a what… hobby? obsession? race? hunger? (See my blog posts: Death, A Reading List part 1 and Death, A Reading List part 2.)

That’s more like it: hunger.

What I know is that for a while I was insatiable about the topic of death in book form. I was desperate to find some aspect of my experience described by another person. I wanted words for the unutterable grief I was enduring at my mom’s side during those years of her dying. That’s why Christopher Hitchens’s perfect phrase “living dyingly” spoke to me when I first read it. It physically rearranged something in my brain and body. I read that phrase and something that slid into place inside me. That’s why I picked up his slim, piercing book Mortality in the first place. A writer like him would surely be able to help me articulate what I couldn’t.

While my mom was dying, I picked up book after book about daeth. (Well, there was that period of time when neither she nor I could read anything, but that’s for another blog post.)

A fraction of the swarm of books I’ve read about death

And each book added another window to the metaphorical dark house I was living in.

Now, I don’t read as much about death anymore. My mom’s been dead for more than three years. Things aren’t so urgent. I’ve metabolized the writings of the authors in my death swarm. I’ve written my own book about death. It’s a songbook.

I occasionally add books to the swarm, of course. People send me things to read. I’d never swat these words away.

New swarms have appeared or old, forgotten swarms have reappeared: the Arctic swarm, the Shakespeare swarm (the Ur-swarm for me), the Jamaica Kincaid swarm, the William Faulkner swarm (I took a whole semester on Faulkner at Harvard, so this is another old one), the Rachel Cusk swarm, the Elena Ferrante swarm (this one is fraught and frenzied), etc. There are also nonfiction swarms (the income inequality swarm) and self-help-y swarms (time management).

Beekeepers, I’ve heard, consider themselves lucky when they come upon a swarm. Catching a swarm is exciting and unpredictable and somewhat (or a lot) chaotic.

I think I understand.

My 3 Things - March 2017

1. LISTENING: “I Told Jesus” by Roberta Flack (aka “If He Change My Name”)

Looking across different versions of a single song is one of the best things about recorded music.

In last month's My 3 Things, we listened to Marian Anderson’s fine rendition of this gospel tune. Now, we turn to Flack’s take on it. Entitled “I Told Jesus," it appears on her magnificent debut album First Take, released in 1969. (I am forever indebted to my friend John Ellis for telling me about this album and insisting I check it out.) 

Her arrangement is slow and brooding, a string section quivering from the start. It patiently builds, almost coming to a stop once or twice in the beginning. Flack gazes inward, the lyrics performed sotto voce. Momentum gathers as the song moves on, and the hushed restraint gives way to defiance by the end (marked by her powerful vocal cadenza starting at 5:24). 

Now that we've heard Anderson and Flack, spend some time with these two takes by Nina Simone: Live, Village Gate 1962 version and Live, Paris 1968 version.  Simone is mercurial as ever. You won't be disappointed.

 

2. READING: Arguably by Christopher Hitchens
Reading the final few pages of this provocative, breathtaking, and immensely satisfying collection of essays was a sad experience. Turning the last page, I had to face the fact that I’d never be able to open one or more of our important newspapers or magazines and read Hitchens on, say, President Donald Trump, to pick a single spring-loaded topic.

Arguably was Hitchens’s fifth collection of essays. Published in September 2011, he died in December of that year. More than 780 pages long and containing 107 essays ranging from literary journalism to political commentary to cultural criticism, his writing here is vital, his thoughts and opinions as relevant today as when they were written. 

When I availed myself of the critical reviews of Arguably (after I had finished reading it), I found I wasn't the only person saddened by this book. When the book came out, Bill Keller of the New York Times wrote: "This fifth and, one fears, possibly last collection of [Hitchens's] essays is a reminder of all that will be missed when the cancer is finished with him."

All that will be missed is a shatteringly tremendous amount.

Was there ever a US President — much less a US politician or, let’s be real, a single person on the face of planet Earth — more in need of one of Hitchens’s blistering tear-downs than this orange-tinted man-baby? #seriously

Where to begin? Let's start with language itself.

Hitch would be having a f-cking field day with Trump. Studies put Trump’s vocabulary at, variously, third- or fourth-, maybe (if the linguists are being generous and he -- for once -- decides to stick to a script) a sixth-grade level. 

Hitchens’s vocabulary? 

Nothing short of jaw-dropping. Reading Arguably, I looked up more than 60 words I didn't know or didn't know well enough. And Hitchens’s turn-of-phrase is masterful, delightful; I found myself highlighting passages just so I could return to and revel in his language not to mention his argument.

The essay "Words Matter" (from Slate, March 3, 2008) gives us a clue as to how outraged Hitchens would've been by Trump's abuse of language. Hitchens is heartbreakingly prescient:

“Pretty soon, we should be able to get electoral politics down to a basic newspeak that contains perhaps ten keywords: Dream, Fear, Hope, New, People, We, Change, America, Future, Together. Fishing exclusively from this tiny and stagnant pool of stock expressions, it ought to be possible to drive all thinking people away from the arena and leave matters in the gnarled but capable hands of the professional wordsmiths and manipulators.”  

He nailed it, I’m devastated to say. 

(It is beyond the scope of my endeavor to imagine how satisfying it would be to hear Hitchens parse the incongruous word pairings “alternative facts” and “fake news” with which we are forevermore saddled. And Trump’s banning of major respected news outlets from the White House daily briefing on Friday, February 24?? I imagine Hitchens would’ve been apoplectic.)

There's so much in this collection of essays that I could go on and on about, but I'll finish by saying that Hitchens’s respect for the reader is a tonic. 

I felt revivified and renewed reading each of these essays, as well as challenged and occasionally maddened (his piece “Why Women Aren’t Funny” isn’t funny, in more ways than one).

Agree with him or don’t, either way this book is a riveting, important read. 

 

3. UPDATING: Death, a reading list - Part 2 … revisited for the making of the Death Album
Way back in December of 2013, I wrote a blog post called “Death, a reading list” in which I shared a “list of the books about death and dying that I find worthwhile, thought-provoking, gut-wrenching.”

The post was a snapshot of where I was then, what I was thinking and learning about.

At the time, I didn’t know how long my Mom had to live or what work she and I would be doing to bring her to a “good” death, by which I mean a death she had chosen, was at peace with, a letting go that felt true and right to her being.

Turns out, there would be more of ... everything: chemo, cyber-knife radiation, hormone therapy, and hospice. And that was just the medical / physical part of it. 

There would still be more of the entire range of her spiritual / psychological reckoning with cancer and death that we both felt was as important (if not more) than any of the miracles her doctors could perform.

I am talking about the deep conversations we were to have, the many Joseph Campbell videos we were to watch and re-watch, the half-a-dozen sessions with a wonderful and caring oncology psychologist, the dedicated trips to visit (in the words of Campbell) her “bliss stations” or favorite places, and the specifically-planned but wonderfully-unstructured time with dear friends and closest family. There would be many more walks in nature, much more time with her dogs, and hours of feeling good and not-so-good, and hours feeling she was ready and yet not ready to die. In short, there was so much more life to be lived between that blog post and her last day, October 13, 2015.

I've been living and wrestling with her death ever since. But then you know this: you've been following along.

The two great commitments of my life since she was diagnosed in October of 2011 have been: 1) caring for her from diagnosis to death (and beyond); 2) writing songs about that journey.

I’ve written well over 20 songs and this year I'll be making something of them — an album, more than a few concerts, collaborations with other artists, etc.  I lovingly and tongue-in-cheekily refer to this project as “The Death Album.” 

Recently, I’ve played some of the songs on Facebook Live; maybe you’ve watched. (If not, this is one you should watch because I lay it all on the line.)

Since that "Death, a reading list" blog post, I’ve done a lot of living, reading, and songwriting.

I thought, on the eve of making the Death Album, it would be appropriate to update the original post. For your consideration: Death, a reading list - Part 2.  

What follows is only an excerpt ... 
"This list is certainly not a “best of," nor is it in any particular order. You have to find your own way through this topic, as we all do. And just because a book appears here does not mean I loved it and would necessarily recommend it. These titles have shaped my thinking about death, but that shaping may have taken the form of a single sentence or two, one chapter, or a particular stance toward mortality more generally.

I've only carried one book over from the original list ... and that is Christopher Hitchens's Mortality.

I am never not reading Mortality. I finish it and immediately begin again. I've given away my own copy so often -- at gigs and to friends and acquaintances -- that I now keep a stack on my desk for just such occasions. It is the keystone of the Death Album; it is the touchstone of the songs about death I have written and am writing still."

THE LIST:

Christopher Hitchens, Mortality

Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Julian Barnes, Levels of Life & Nothing To Be Frightened Of

Astrid Lindgren, The Brothers Lionheart

Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary

Max Porter, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers

Atul Gawande, Being Mortal

Edited by Kevin Young, The Art of Losing: Poems on Grief and Healing

Complied by Yoel Hoffman, Japanese Death Poems

Alphonse Daudet, In the Land of Pain

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams

Lapham's Quarterly: Death, Volume VI, Number 4, Fall 2013

 

Death, a reading list - Part 2

Back in December of 2013, I wrote a post called "Death, a reading list."

So much has happened since then, not the least of which was the death of my Mom, I thought it was time to update the list.

As I embark on recording my next album -- lovingly nicknamed "The Death Album" for now -- I wanted to lay a trail of breadcrumbs between the worlds (and words) I've been immersed in and the songs I've been writing about my Mom, our time together, her living and dying, and my own living and dying ("you are dying everyday").

As with my original post, this list is certainly not a “best of," nor is it in any particular order. You have to find your own way through this topic, as we all do. And just because a book appears here does not mean I loved it and would recommend it without reserve. These titles have shaped my thinking about death, but that shaping may have come in the form of a single sentence or two, a single chapter, or merely a stance toward mortality more generally.

I've only carried one book over from the original list (go back to that post if you want to see the others) and that is Christopher Hitchens's Mortality.

I am never not reading Mortality. I finish it and immediately begin again. I've given away my own copy so often -- at gigs and to friends and acquaintances -- that I now keep a stack on my desk for just such occasions. It is the keystone of the Death Album; it is the touchstone of the songs about death I have written and am writing still.

THE LIST:

Christopher Hitchens, Mortality

Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Julian Barnes, Levels of Life & Nothing To Be Frightened Of

Astrid Lindgren, The Brothers Lionheart

Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary

Max Porter, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers

Atul Gawande, Being Mortal

Edited by Kevin Young, The Art of Losing: Poems on Grief and Healing

Complied by Yoel Hoffman, Japanese Death Poems

Alphonse Daudet, In the Land of Pain

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams

Lapham's Quarterly: Death, Volume VI, Number 4, Fall 2013

 

 

Questions of questions

Another image from my journal.  Read the journal FAQ here.

I like this description of music as a series of questions of questions of questions ... It somehow seemed right to me when I read it.  The quotation came from the book The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. 

What are you reading?  Do capture any thoughts, lines, words when you read them?  If so, how?  What's your way of keeping these shards of words and phrases?  Tell me.  Tell me more.