“The truth we make for ourselves is just the sum of what is in someone’s interest. . .”

People are all the time giving me books to read or suggesting the book I must read next in order that my life be complete.

I make my own reality?

I make my own truth?

Every academician—or anyone who wants to be thought of as literate and intelligent—knows one is supposed to read books. Lots of books.

I don’t get it. I don’t like to read. I find it very difficult to read. I used to read. I used to read a lot. I have hundreds of books behind me on homemade shelves to prove it. I’ve read (at least parts of) almost all of them.

I find the thought of plowing through a book daunting. I can’t concentrate. I can’t keep a story in my mind (if it’s fiction), and I can’t absorb huge amounts (or even small amounts) of information (if it’s non-fiction).

If this is a sign of old age, my old age began when I was about 55. The last time I read lots of books was 1999 when I was preparing for the qualifying exams for my (2nd—unfinished) PhD. I passed the exams after I finished reading 30 novels in one summer. Mostly 20th-century American, so—if there had not been so many of them—it would have been fun (Madison Smartt’s Washington Square Ensemble was my favorite).

In the last week I have bought the Nook versions of:
Rottenberg, Jonathan. The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic. New York: Basic Books (2014), 272 pages.
and
Gardiner, John Eliot. Bach, Music in the Castle of Heaven. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (2013), 672 pages. (672 pages! Yikes!)

I usually won’t even look at—much less purchase—any book over 300 pages. It seems impossible that anyone can write 672 pages worth reading. I don’t know why reading is such a chore.

I’ll bet most people who tell me I must read such-and-so book (or what? I won’t go to heaven?) have read that one book and not another in the last year. Not “all” — “most.” I know people who read all the time. Most of them watch a lot of movies and listen to music, too (unless they’re academics, in which case they live somewhere the rest of us don’t even want to visit).

Jo Nesbo. My kind of guy?

Jo Nesbo. My kind of guy?

Here’s the truth. The books I read these days are Stieg Larsson’s novels (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest –I’ve read the entire trilogy); Jo Nesbit’s trilogy (The Bat, Cockroaches, and The Redbreast—I’m on the second one); John Morgan Wilson’s “Justice” trilogy—which I started, but—as so often happens with gay literature—being gay is more important than being a good story, so I didn’t finish even the first of those.

So what’s with this? Crime, mystery, serial novels. Right up my alley these days. None of them is as good as Raymond Chandler, of course (who is?), but they keep my mind occupied and hold my interest. I suppose Danielle Steele is next. Or, HORRORS! J.K. Rowling. (No, even in my dotage I can’t stoop to that level of BAD writing. Shudder. What insults to the English language.)

I don’t understand. I’m supposed to be at least a “pseudo” intellectual. I remember 35 years ago having a conversation with a friend in Muscatine, IA, when I was in graduate school (for my first PhD, which I did finish). She was the go-getter director of a foundation that did lots of educational stuff, and she said to me, “Isn’t great that we’re part of the intellectual elite?” Well, no one who was would say so, and I knew we certainly were not.

As Rosencrantz says, “I like a good story with a beginning, a middle, and an end” (Stoppard, Tom. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Act II, line 322).

You see, I’m at an age when pretense and obfuscation (in the name of whatever intellectual game) are just silliness to me. If a writer can’t say what they mean in plain English and spin a good yarn, I don’t want to be bothered. I tell my students to write for their 6th-grade siblings, that Poor Dumb Reader is just that, “dumb.”

And then I come across a passage in one of those low-brow books that I think is worth not only reading, but making note of.

Truth is relative. . . We have forensic psychiatrists who try to draw a line between those who are sick and those who are criminal, and they bend and twist the truth to make it fit into their world of theoretical models. . . and journalists who would like to be seen as idealists because they make their names by exposing others in the belief that they’re establishing some kind of justice. But the truth? The truth is that no one lives off the truth and that’s why no one cares about the truth. The truth we make for ourselves is just the sum of what is in someone’s interest, balanced by the power they hold.  [Nesbo, Jo. The Bat. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (2013) page 200. I think it’s unfortunate that the detective’s name is Harry Hole, but. . .]

OK. I know it’s Nesbo slipping not-very-intellectual “big ideas” into his fiction. Preaching even. Not subtle. But an idea I can get my mind around. The truth we make for ourselves is just the sum of what is in someone’s interest, balanced by the power they hold.

My interest is in getting through this life with some grace and dignity. I hold almost no power. The sum of my self-interest and my power diminishes every day. And so I stop trying to make “the truth for myself” and care about truth. That’s what Nesbo’s cop is trying to say, I think. Without obfuscation. girl dragon

My summer reading list –ADD YOURS, PLEASE!

girl_with_dragon_tattoo_bookAmazon Books has listed The Psychology of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Understanding Lisbeth Salander and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, in which, apparently, “19 psychologists and psychiatrists attempt to do what even expert investigator Mikael Blomkvist could not: understand Lisbeth Salander.”

Any story, IMHO, that needs 19 psychologists and psychiatrists to understand it probably isn’t worth reading.  That does not include Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the other two stories in the trilogy. Anyone who wants to bother finding out what 19 psychologists and psychiatrists have to say about Lisbeth Salander is welcome to waste her time, but it certainly is not necessary. I just finished the second book, The Girl Who Played with Fire.

Here’s what I (with an almost PhD in esthetic studies) have to say about the novels: they are great yarns! Steig Larsson did not bother with all the “literary” techniques, the niceties that make a “great novel” by the standards of academic literaturists (I can make up a word if I want to), but—my goodness!—he can tell a story. I am grateful to Larsson, may he rest in peace, for helping me find out once again how much fun it can be to read a novel.

For the last ten or so years, I have not been able to read novels because I haven’t been able to concentrate long enough to get through one. And now I’ve read all but the last 15 pages of two and will begin the third in the trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest today.  I’ve been told by more than one friend that it’s not as good as the first two of the trilogy, but I was told that about the second compared with the first—and I’ve found it not true. But what do I know.  (There are other reasons for my inability to read—a problem with sleep, for one. I won’t go into those little issues here.)

So I fully expect to keep reading for fun this summer. The 19 psychiatrists can spoil their own fun if they want to, but they are not going to spoil mine.

I know when my ability to read a novel ended: in 1999 when the members of my (second, never-to-be-finished) PhD committee gave me a list of about 30 novels I needed to read (in one summer) in order to take my qualifying exams. I read them. I passed the exams. And I quit the program.

In 1985 I taught a course in World Literature at Salem State College in Massachusetts. It was pretty strange, I will admit. I was an adjunct music teacher drafted to teach Freshman English because that department was desperate and they read my in-progress dissertation and decided I wrote well enough to teach writing (!?!). Then they decided I could teach World Literature (on what basis, I do not know).  I’d say I didn’t “teach” the students much. Together we read a Greek tragedy, Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, some short stories by Flannery O’Connor, E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End, and Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. Not a bad list. If I were to teach such a course now, at least some of the stuff by dead white men would be replaced.

He dared to write "epilepsy"

He dared to write “epilepsy”

I have read much of the “standard” literature – you know, the “Canon.”  But my reading for the last ten years or so has been mostly non-fiction, mostly academic articles, mostly really boring (if not irrelevant) attempts by scholars to understand/explain this-that-or-the-other.

So thanks to Steig Larsson, my summer reading list is taking shape.

  • It will begin with The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.

I already have on my Nook/Kindle/iPad:

  • William Gibson’s Neuromancer (I’ve never read it),
  • Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place,
  • Louise Erdrich’s The Master Butchers (which I’ve started twice but not finished), and
  • Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer.

I also have a paper copy of

  • the recent translation of The Idiot, by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky which is authentic enough to translate the word “epilepsy” as “epilepsy” instead of the vague, meaningless words that translators have always used.

I may even add more murder mysteries if I can find some good ones.

I’d like to know what other folks are reading these days.

My first summer reading venue

My first summer reading venue

PLEASE!  LEAVE A COMMENT WITH YOUR SUMMER READING LIST.

Note: If you listen to NPR or PBS, you’ve no doubt heard they are supported by the Carnegie Foundation, endowed by Andrew Carnegie “to do real and permanent good.” The Scottsbluff, NE, public library (left) is one of many the Carnegie Foundation built across the country,