Thursday, January 13, 2011

Light reading update

I have to say that I hugely enjoyed Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind. I had heard very good things about it, but it is necessary to take epic fantasy recommendations with a grain of salt: however, it breathes new life into the old scarecrow of the genre with incredibly rewarding results. I will even go so far as to say that it strongly and pleasantly reminded me of David Copperfield, one of my top ten favorite novels of all time! My only regret is that I did not wait just a little longer to get to it, since my impulse on finishing it was to demand the next installment - but that's not out till March 1: however will I wait?!?

I had quite mixed feelings about Bound to Last: 30 Writers on their Most Cherished Book. There are a number of very good essays, but many of the others are on the short/shallow side (you get that bad magaziney feeling, cumulatively - there is no clear principle of selection for who is included, and people have spent quite evidently different amounts of time and thought in composing their pieces); there is also a genuinely distressing subtext of hostility towards electronic books! It is perplexing to me - I have seen it elsewhere recently too - why the sense of an opposition? It is surely not an either-or, a few of the writers here acknowledge this thoughtfully but more of them just lash out against the immateriality of the e-text.

Perversely, I read this book on my Kindle - I should have waited till I was back in the U.S. to order it, since I'm only reading it now anyway, but as soon as I heard about Ed Park's piece on "The Dungeon Masters Guide" I knew I had to get my hands on it at once, island living notwithstanding. That piece met or even exceeded expectations: it is a great little bit, and now I will have to get hold of a 'real' copy of the book so that I can xerox it and share it with others!

Other standouts: David Hadju on Ralph Ellison; Karen Joy Fowler on The Once and Future King.

Anyway, here's one of the bits I liked from Ed's essay - I too grew up on and loved those Wordly Wise vocab books! -- the whole pieces takes the form of 100 numbered points:
15. "In grade school, English class was divided between reading, grammar, and spelling. I liked the first, dreaded the second, looked forward to the last. The vocab book we used was called Wordly Wise. There was a whole sequence of them, with an owl on the cover."

16. "At school I loved vocabulary lessons. Discovering new words. I remember distinctly the time we learned the difference between metaphor and simile--the time we learned what these words even were. The words themselves were so interesting. They weren't shaped like other words I knew. Simile reminded me of smile and, in doing so, made me smile."

17. "Dungeons & Dragons, particularly the Dungeon Masters Guide, was like the phantasmagorical appendix to Wordly Wise. My supplementary, self-directed lessons."
When I was in fifth and sixth grade, I used to race through two or three of those Wordly Wise lessons each week, burning through increasingly 'advanced' workbooks like a fiend: at the end of the week, I would take a spelling test on the words I'd learned (really I knew them already!), there would be perhaps 45 of them because I would have done more than one lesson's worth, and I would have to write a sentence to show that I knew the meaning of the word: but laziness and frenetic energy combined made me make huge absurd portmanteau sentences that would fit three or four or five of these words into a single sentence. I fear it left its mark on my writing style...

(I think I have some of these in a box in my office, I will see if I can dig them out; I am overdue for a posting on more Davidsonian juvenilia! I loved those workbooks - I would strongly recommend them to home-schoolers with kids aged 8-12 or so, I think they are ideal.)


  1. Your recommendation of The Name of the Wind is impressive. I know my wife really liked it--and she'll be pleased to learn there's a sequel coming!

    And while Ed's essay is enough by itself to make me want to read Bound to Last, knowing that there's good writing in there on The Once and Future King is a big bonus. I didn't read it until I was an adult, but I feel as if I got so wrapped up in it--it made such an impression on me--that I might as well have been reading as my ten-year-old self. What a great book.

    As for the e-book fear: I think it's exactly the fear that it will ultimately, or even soon, turn out to have been an either/or--that as e-books cut into the print sales of books that were already marginal, those print editions are going to slowly disappear. I think that fear is surely overblown (and I say that as someone who isn't into e-books personally), and that outcome fairly unlikely, at least in our lifetimes, but I understand where it's coming from.

  2. The KJF essay is gold!

    And: "Wordly Wise"!!!

  3. Oh, now this is funny because I adored BOUND TO LAST. I thought Karen Green's essay about her husband's annotated books was quite affecting (David Foster Wallace for those who don't know) and Joyce Maynard's piece on her father's Bible was lovely. I didn't expect that one to strike such a chord but as she wrote about not having it and why she longed for it, well, it reminded me of several of my father's books that I kept for the same reason.

    And also the piece on The Portable Dorothy Parker as she took it to college with her and I packed my own fav titles along with me even though my family thought it was insane. (And KLF of course!)

    I didn't get a big anti-ebook feeling from it. For me the point was that some books are necessary as objects - for the sense of person/place/time they give you which an e-book never could. I have my father's copy of THE CANTERBURY TALES and the e-book never would affect me the way the hard copy - which he read on the beach - does.

    In retrospect I am simply the perfect reader for this book perhaps ans that is why it resonated so much!