Day 3, Revisited: Books that have made me laugh

I was looking through some of my books this past weekend in a vain attempt to put some order to my shelves, and I realized that I was completely wrong in my response to day three of the Thirty Day Book Challenge. I had originally selected Gore Vidal’s Live from Golgotha, and although I certainly did laugh my way through the book with its unapologetic irreverence, as i looked through my less obviously funny academic books, I realized that they were the ones that truly made me laugh.

I’m not kidding, let me explain. I don’t tend to find humor in obvious places, but I do (I think) have a sense of humor. The vast majority of my reading consists of academic non-fiction, and let me tell you, these historians have a wonderful sense of humor! I think I’ve laughed more reading Isaiah Berlin and Peter Gay than while reading anything labeled as comedy. Thankfully, I annotate my books heavily so I can back this claim up. Allow me to submit the evidence, although I know that I will be dropping some serious “cool points” by showing this…

and yes, even footnotes can be funny...

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First Impressions of The Prague Cemetery

I’ve been reading The Prague Cemetery every chance I’ve had since I received the book yesterday afternoon.  So far, so good!  The main character, Simone, a truly hateful and hate-filled man, is a fascinating study of the prejudices of 19th century Europe, and the fact that he is the one fictional character set amongst a rich array of historical characters (both major and minor), and is at the center of some of the era’s major events, just adds to his role as a reflection of the darker side of the times.  It has called to memory a book that I just recently finished, Peter Gay‘s Cultivation of Hatred, but I’ll leave that train of thought for another post.  I will also leave any detailed discussion about the book for later, as I want to get just a little further into it (I haven’t even reached the halfway point).

I did, however, want to mention how much I am enjoying Eco’s blurring of the lines between Reader, Narrator, and Author.  In fact, one of the narrators (there are three, although two may be the same person), is writer (of diary entries that the other narrators read), reader (of the diary entries of his possible “second self”), and narrator.  One of the voices “The Narrator” speaks (writes) directly to The Reader (in this case, me), after reading the diaries and letters of the two others, further complicating this already intricate dance between text and reader.  Have I mentioned how much fun I’m having with all of this?

I’m reminded of what he wrote in regards to constructing the perfect reader in his Postscript to the Name of the Rose, where he states,

What model reader did I want as I was writing? An accomplice, to be sure, one who would play my game.. . . But at the same time, with all my might, I wanted to create a type of reader who, once the initiation was past, who would become by prey – or, rather, the prey of the text – and would think he wanted nothing but what the text was offering him.  A text is meant to be an experience of transformation for its reader.

He’s succeeded, I’ve fallen prey once again and I’m certainly more than willing to play his game.

There so much else going on here that I will have to sit and write more when I have more time.  There’s the story itself, the history, the conspiracy theories (reminiscent of Foucault’s Pendulum), the notion of memory and loss thereof (a theme he explored in his previous novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana), the concept of the word as a cosmological force (a reoccurring theme for Eco, as we’ve seen in Baudolino, Foucault’s Pendulum, and The Island of the Day Before) the question of the reliability of every word printed on the page, and, of course, what role I, the reader, am playing in all of this.

The book calls…

Umberto Eco? Forget it!

In just six days I finally get my hands on a book that I have been waiting to read for over a year.  Umberto Eco‘s The Prague Cemetery will arrive at my door next Tuesday, and I feel like a child waiting for Christmas morning.  When this book was released last year in its original Italian, I attempted to work my way through it, to no avail.  My Italian is not nearly good enough to be able to appreciate the sheer beauty of Eco’s writing and the subtleties of his ideas.  I tried in Spanish, and although my Spanish is decidedly far better than my Italian, it was just not good enough.  So I waited, and pre-ordered, and then waited some more.

Now let me explain about my love (obsession?) with Umberto Eco.  I first encountered him during my freshmen year of college in an English Comp. class.  I was assigned The Name of the Rose.  I don’t recall the essay I wrote (for which I received an A, that I do recollect), nor do I remember much more about the class or the professor, but I do remember finding myself so completely lost in the world that he created and the words that he used to create it, that I instantly fell in love.  I began to obsessively read and reread everything that I could get my hands on that he had written. I read Foucault’s Pendulum (to this day, my favorite), Baudolino, The Island of the Day Before, and before long I was reading his non-fiction, knee-deep in semiotics, literary interpretation, and once again, his beautiful, beautiful words.  For the last 20 years I have revisited Eco often, and always on the look-out for something new (I even celebrated his release of On Beauty with a relatively pricey bottle of champagne).

So here I am again, less then one week away from his new book.  Impatient.  Excited.  And finding myself abandoning my other readings (even Peter Gay, another intellectual rock star), to immerse myself in Eco.  For the moment, in his essays.  Namely, “An Ars Oblivionalis? Forget it!,” a serious essay he penned in 1966 after not-so-serious conversation over a  few glasses of wine with his friends and colleagues.

Whetting my appetite for new Eco with an old favorite.

They attempted to construct non-existent (and impossible) new academic disciplines, of which ars oblivionaris, or the art of forgetting, was among these “impossible sciences.”  The essay begins with Eco’s usual warmth and humor, and rapidly becomes quite a scholarly article on the impossibility of voluntary forgetting, since, as Eco explains, memory is grounded in semiotics, and semiotics produces presences not absences.  He concludes that perhaps the only way to “produce oblivion” is via addition. Instead of attempting to remove a memory, confuse it.  He writes,

“There are no voluntary devices for forgetting, but there are devices for remembering badly…. One forgets not by cancellation but by superimposition, not by producing absence but by multiplying presences.”

I think it was Cicero who once quoted Themistocles as saying “What I don’t want to remember, I remember; yet what I want to forget, I cannot forget” (Nam memini etiam quae nolo, oblivisci non possum quae volo).   This common desire to occasionally and voluntarily sip from the River Lethe makes this essay strike a personal chord. Let’s face it, we all have things we would rather forget.  But its not only the subject matter.  As is the norm with Eco, his ideas and the expression of his intellect make any subject that he decides to tackle instantly consuming.  His joy of language and of intellect is contagious, and reading his work invariably brightens my day.

Next on the Eco reading list, an interview with Eco regarding lists (yes, lists), and Baudolino, where “lying about the future produces history.”

“Where are you coming from? Where I’ve been. Where else.”

I’ve recently put down a remarkable book, Blue Highways, by William Least Heat-Moon.

For those who haven’t read it, it is a book about traveling, about taking the back roads, about journeys of self-discovery, and a book that just begs to be read (I read its 400 pages in 2 sittings and was left wanting more). But this book is much more than a travel journal, it is one of those books that remind you (and most of us need constant reminders) that life is just as much about the journey as the destination, and often much more so.  As Heat-Moon states early in the book, “any traveler who misses the journey misses about all he’s going to get – that a man becomes his attentions.  His observations and curiosity, they make and remake him.”

Blue Highways is a book about a physical journey, but I was thinking about how we take journeys through our books.  It has been through the “blue highways” of literature, history, philosophy, and science, that I have come to know myself, through my many observations and curiosity of what lies between the covers of the many books that line my walls.  My shelves are full of a wide variety of genres, each purchased and read to satisfy a particular curiosity.  I often get obsessed with ideas and discourses, and will read until I have fully sated that particular thirst.  That being said, my first love is the history of thought.  I rarely read fiction, although I currently purchased a copy of 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami, too many good reviews to ignore it, and lets face it, escaping into well-written fiction is always exciting.  Also on my coffee table awaiting to be read are, The Cultivation of Hatred, part three of Peter Gay’s Freudian study of the Victorian middle class, Cafe Europa: Life After Communism, by Slavenka Drakulic, and Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity, by Rebecca Goldstein.

My relationship with books has always been a unique one.  I annotate my books… heavily.

My annotated Berlin's "The Roots of Romanticism"

These annotations are often scholarly, sometimes nostalgic, periodically observational, and at times even argumentative; they are a way that I have found to discuss these books when there has been no one to discuss them with, a way to argue with the author, a way to understand their greater context, and the finer details.  In short, a way to satisfy my inner, frustrated academic.

So what is the purpose of this blog?  To finally do something with all of these annotations, to use them as the foundation of a more insightful, meaningful journey through my books.  I suppose, much like Heat-Moon, being a solitary traveler has served me well, but sometimes this traveler longs for a little conversation, a little company on the journey, and I hope that this blog will do just that.