Jul 292009

Though someone with a limited view of the world might call it procrastination, I have elected to begin the long process of organizing my library. This is kind of a weird project to take on right now seeing as I have a complete manuscript on my hard drive, give or take a few chapters. This manuscript needs to be completely revised: front to back. However, I see the inventory of my book collection as part of the writing process.

Approximately ten years ago, I went back to school with some vague notion of trying things on for size. I enjoyed playing MMOs and had the idea of becoming a programmer. A business project I was involved in started to wind down, and I found that school was fun. Long story short, I did not have the math skills to be a programmer but did reasonably well in English courses. Soon, I discovered that the process of reading books and then writing about them was not only fun but an academic discipline. While excited about becoming an English major, I felt embarrassed by the gaps in my reading. Right away, I set about reading things that other people thought were important along with things that were fun.

This has evolved into my current strategy of setting aside three books to be read: fiction, theory, and nonfiction. Out of the fiction books, I try to throw a classic in the mix every now and then. Like, I am reading Delillo’s Underworld right now and have a copy of Paradise Lost on the way. The whole theory/nonfiction thing is really a blurry line – The Federalist Papers is my next theory read, and some kind of historical account will be consumed in the name of ‘nonfiction.’ Anyway, the point is that I read things besides fiction to help provide significant details in my own work: philosophy, essays, etc.

The strategy itself, as well as my expanding library, grew directly out of my experience of going back to school. While pursuing a degree, I was required to read for courses but made it a goal to be sure to read outside of class in order to catch up. Now, I am not reading to please anyone else besides myself. I like the feeling of getting through something really difficult or understanding someone’s argument. School provided me with some of the tools to become a more engaged reader, and I continue to learn how to read slower and more carefully. In addition, the more I learn about syntax and constructing stories, the more I learn from the books I now read and reread. On that point, I would say that is one of the things I am looking forward to in the indexing process. Cutting back on purchases would be smart as there are a number of things that warrant rereading and a whole slew of titles I have not yet glanced at.

So yes, I have novels to write and literature  to read, but not knowing what’s in my collection, or where it’s at, is really getting on my nerves. Cataloging what I have, and where it entered my life, will both allow me to chart my current progress as well as expose the massive gaps that remain. After all, there are a lot of books to read.

Jul 222009

Recently, I reread Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin because I’m interested in dismantling some of her work to see what makes it tick. While Atwood clearly addresses political issues, she’s never done so at the expense of the story. For the record, I’ve read three of her novels: The Blind Assassin, The Handmaids Tale, and Oryx and Crake. So, anything and everything I talk about is based upon knowing only these books.

Regarding structure, I’ve noticed that Atwood is quite consistent with two strategies: she withholds critical information about the plot, stringing the reader along for the payoff; and most chapters operate like a pseudo short story where there’s a set up, detailed exposition, finishing with an emotional punch. I hasten to say that Atwood’s writing is not formulaic, but it’s clear she often follows a similar pattern when moving the story from point A to B.

Atwood often favors telling a story by utilizing the first person PoV of a character that’s obtuse and complicit, and or, passive up to the very end. For example, in Blind Assassin: Iris allows herself to be married off without any kind of protest, doesn’t work to subvert the marriage, states she’s unaware her sister’s being molested, is unaware her sister ‘s having an affair, etc. The story’s a retrospective of all the things Iris is blind to, pun intended. This is an interesting move because all of Atwood’s stories represent the world as a bleak and oppressive patriarchy where females lack agency. Of course, Iris does take actions, but they are vengeful, spiteful, and all of her victories are Pyrrhic. In fact, the very act of writing the book may be futile, as Iris reveals all kinds of family secrets, and it’s not clear if she makes it out of the garden alive to stash the manuscript before Myrna gets to a burn it.

For the most part, I think that if I told “Joe/Jane Reader” about the kind of character Atwood uses as the protagonist up front, they’d most likely tell decline to hear the story. And who could blame them? But her method works. It works because the world Atwood’s characters operate in is as strange, and detailed as it is fascinatingly dark: she delivers descriptions of beautiful train wrecks in slow motion while withholding the worst of the wreckage and injuries until the last few chapters. By the time you realize the protagonist isn’t the hero, you’ll have been seduced into reading a relentless and intricate tragedy of a story.

For me, this works every time.