Wednesday, November 22, 2017


I've decided that the reason why I'm so picky about what I read is that the authors available, no matter how touted they may be, tend to be deficient in one of several areas that are of importance to me. Not only must they be eloquent, but their writing must also be informative and thoughtful, whether it is fiction or nonfiction. In fiction, my main obstacle is usually related to the author's limited life experience, which, even when coupled with eloquence and thoughtfulness, is not enough to make their writing compelling to me. This problem comes up with career novelists whose novels seem contrived as soon as they move out of their comfort zone, and their comfort zone itself may be too narrow to sustain my interest. To repeat the example, I think D.H. Lawrence is pretty good in his novels set in England, because that is what he knew best, and when he pushed himself to write about other places in which he lived later in life, some of his original authenticity and purpose evaporated. Or, in the case of Proust, he remained in his comfort zone in all of his novels, and I eventually found his writing claustrophobic, because he seemed to repeat the same point of view with an inadequate amount of reflection on his subject. I am not finished with evaluating Krasznahorkai, but even though I think he has an effective style and a psychological acuity stronger than that of most writers, there is a sameness in bleakness and absurdity that seems to follow him from one book to the next. In his case, though he is expressing a particular vision effectively, I question whether that is all there is to it and suspect that it is not, because there is a conspicuous absence of certain kinds of characters in his work. I don't know how much more of him I'll read, but he seems to obsess about gloomy, abject life in rural Hungary and then, by living elsewhere – Berlin, New York City or Kyoto – only manages to come up with variations of the same theme, possibly without making use of the cultural contrasts available to him.

When it comes to nonfiction, the specificity of the subject matter adds another dimension to whether or not I'll like a book. Obviously, if it is technical or scientific, one would not expect it to be emotionally satisfying, but eloquence and thoughtfulness can still add to its value beyond its informativeness. Thus, I preferred books by E.O. Wilson and Jared Diamond to books by Daniel Kahneman and Robert Sapolsky, because they are more expansive about the implications of their work. In Wilson's case there is also a palpable passion for protecting the biosphere. In nonfiction, narrowness of research often has an effect roughly comparable to narrowness of experience in a novelist. Doing research in a narrow field can result in ideas that seem to have limited applicability, while an author of fiction who has led a circumscribed life in a homogeneous environment is unlikely to have much of value to say about the broad conditions of the world in which we live.

One kind of nonfiction in which I've had mixed results is biography. I've read seven biographies of George Eliot and found four of them bad, one fair and two good. Of the two good ones, Frederick R. Karl's was by far the most thorough, but it exhibited the qualities cultivated by a professional biographer, and I sensed that he had limited interest in his subject, which, for me, gave the book a dutiful, mechanical quality. The other good one, by Rosemary Ashton, I thought, did a better job capturing the spirit of George Eliot, and it must have helped that she had a strong identification with her subject. There is a general haphazard element to biographies exacerbated by the fact that they require both good subjects and good authors. For me, there are hardly any people whom I think merit a biography, and that limits the field considerably. G.H. Lewes, D.H. Lawrence and Franz Kafka were interesting, but not extremely so. The lives of most literary figures aren't spectacular, but there is always an academic somewhere to write a book about any one of them. Mary Wollstonecraft, George Eliot and Ludwig Wittgenstein strike me as more interesting than most. However, even a good biographical subject can be ruined when placed in the hands of the wrong biographer. My next reading assignment is a new biography of Czeslaw Milosz. To say that he led an interesting life would be an understatement, but I can't be sure that the author will be able to capture his essence in a manner that I'll find satisfactory.

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