Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Reader's Attention

David Riesman, in The Lonely Crowd, posited the existence of three kinds of persons, the tradition directed, inner directed and the other directed. Similarly, there are three kinds of readers, those who primarily read the classics, those who always have a book or two going, and those who usually lament their lack of time to read but welcome suggestions about what to read next. The inner-directed reader has no time for them, already having a personal list of books to read.

I’m a browser of shelves in bookstores, mainly indies like St. Mark’s and Three Lives, in the Village, and Canio’s, in Sag Harbor, and on each visit I usually buy a book or two that suits me. At Canio’s last summer I discovered the historical novelist Alan Furst and read three of his novels in six weeks. Right now I am reading Roy Harris’ art-historical essay The Great Debate about Art, Nasim Taleb’s book of aphorisms The Bed of Procrustes, and Hans Fallada’s great German novel Every Man Dies Alone.

I am also a habitual reader of poetry collections and literary magazines, and I’d like to bring to your attention a new one, Electric Literature. Founded by young writers and published in Brooklyn, this quarterly includes just five short stories per issue. Among the recognizable writers published in its first four issues are Michael Cunningham, Joy Williams, Rick Moody, Colson Whitehead, and Lydia Davis. Issues are sold in paperback or in a variety of electronic formats at half the cost of paper.

The second story in No. 4 caught my attention because it is written in unusually long sentences. The first story in the issue, Joy Williams’ “Baba Iaga and the Pelican Child,” opens with a conventionally short, direct sentence: “Baba Iaga had a daughter, a pelican child.” Welcome to the land whimsy or the fairy tale.

By contrast, the next story, “The Resignation Letter of Señor de Santies-Teban,” begins, “Whether it was one of those bizarre occurrences to which Chance never quite manages to accustom us, however often they may arise; or whether Destiny, in a show of prudence, temporarily suspended judgment on the qualities and attributes of the new teacher and delayed intervening, in case such an intervention should later turn out to be a mistake; the fact of the matter is that young Mr. Lilburn did not discover the truth in the strange warnings issued to him by his superior, Mr. Bayo, and the other colleagues only a few days after he had joined the Institute, until he was well into the first term and sufficient time had elapsed for him to forget, or at least to postpone thinking about, the possible significance of the warnings.”

Chance, strange warnings, a young Englishman and his Spanish superior? These are the intriguing ingredients of this story by Javier Marías (b. 1951, Madrid), maybe Spain’s greatest living writer, as translated by Margaret Jull Costa. His work has been showing up regularly in America’s best magazines for the past few years, and I recommend his writing, particularly as a change from the simplified English that workshops seem to encourage these days. Anyone with Marías’ control of tone and syntax and his story-telling ability deserves a reader’s attention.

1 comment:

  1. The book list gets longer. On the non-fiction side, I've just begun Doubt (Hecht). It looks like an interesting ride.