Trudging through a very long book the other night–never mind the title, at least now anyway–it occurred to me that I’d rather be reading from 2666; that, at that particular moment, I’d rather re-read from “The Part About the Crimes.” I don’t know if it was the effete dullness of the first volume that made me want to pick up Bolaño’s epic, perhaps trying to zap some life into my waning eyeballs; perhaps it was just the sense that I was wasting my time with the merely good, which, after all, is mediocrity when set against genius (yes, these are subjective terms).
Anyway, I didn’t have to go looking for 2666 — I have a copy (yes, I have two) right there jammed into my nightstand, along with a few other books that I realize that I’m always reading. Furthermore, I’m always reading these books in the most discontinuous, stochastic fashion, often picking them up at random and thumbing through them. I think I use these books to clear my literary palate, to get a bad (or worse, boring) taste out of my brain, to inspire me, to suggest another book. Some of these books, like 2666 are big, fat volumes, volumes that I set close at hand in the hopes of rereading in full. Sometimes I’ve met this goal; in the case of Moby-Dick, I’ve read the book through at least three times now, and yet never tire of it. I’m always picking it up again and again, sometimes to find Elijah’s rant or to dip into Ahab’s mad monologue or perhaps just to hear Stubb comment on the proper preparation of shark steaks. Of a piece with those big novels is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which I turn to repeatedly, reading over a riff or two at a time, perhaps still trying to figure out the ending, or some clue of the ending, perhaps trying to figure out why Hal can’t speak (you know, beyond like, a a metaphorical level).
There’s also Blood Meridian.
A book I always keep proximal is D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, which, if this were a dictatorship under Biblioklept might replace the Constitution (jaykay, Tea Partiers!). Tellingly, I’ve never managed to finish one of Lawrence’s novels (I even struggle through his much-anthologized piece, “The Rocking Horse Winner”), but I consider his dissertations on Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville indispensable (and creative in their own right). I guess I just like lit crit; Harold Bloom’s too-huge volume The Western Canon is a book I return to again and again. Sometimes I find myself throwing it to the ground, quite literally (if I’ve enjoyed a drink or two, that is), in disgust. Bloom’s battle with “The School of Resentment” can be maddening, especially when he’s so up front about essentially making Shakespeare God. Still, Shakespeare doesn’t seem like a bad God to have.
I should point out that I’ve made no attempt to read The Western Canon the whole way through; in fact, I’ve never made a single attempt to read it systematically. I just sort of pick it up, thumb through it, occasionally plumb the index. There are several books that I am always rereading in this category: Books That I Am Always Reading and Yet Have Never Finished. Foremost among these is Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human, a book that I probably, at this point, have read in full, but never fully through. Its aphorisms beg to be read discontinuously; I think Nietzsche wet-dreamed about his fragmentary works being literally fragmented and then later found, read piecemeal against some newer, more garish culture. Or perhaps that’s just my metaphorical wet dream.
Other Books That I Am Always Reading and Yet Have Never Finished — The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman stands out, as does Finnegans Wake. Sterne’s book is such an oddity: I remember picking it up in a stack of books to be shelved at my college library, thumbing through it, bewildered, thinking that it must be contemporary with John Barth. A bit of research left me even more perplexed. Like Tristram, who can’t seem to finish his story, I can’t seem to actually finish it, but I’m okay with picking it up again and again. Similarly, Finnegans Wake strikes me as an unfinished-unfinishable volume (I do not mean this literally; I know that Joyce “finished” the book as an infinite strange loop, just as I know that the book can be read). I have an audio recording of Finnegans Wake that I like to listen to occasionally (especially while driving), as well as William York Tindall’s guide (which is fun), but I’d rather just sort of grab the thing at random and read a page or two. I know, in an intellectual sense, that is, that I could easily read the book in a calendar year by committing to three pages a day (plus a few pages of Tindall), but I don’t think that I can read books in an intellectual sense. I think, at the risk of sounding unbearably corny, that books have to call to their readers in an emotional and perhaps even spiritual sense. Otherwise, what’s the point?