Saturday, May 11, 2013

Reading a Never Read

I acquire books with a slight compulsion, based on recommendations or references or some other chain of interest. The books will either be read immediately as part of a streak, brachiated with a Tarzan yodel, page to page, cover to cover then relegated to the spot on the shelf for exhausted matter or added as furniture, place-held for the future hours its leaves will turn. Of the collection of unreads, there's the assortment of never-reads. It's difficult to define what makes a never-read. The book may have been purchased, the glow of commercial appeal, the cover design, the font and layout, all appealing in the store, but the prose never quite catches or some other stronger strain keeps relegating that book with its realm of associated recommendations to the sidelines and so there's the small guilt of disposing of a book unread on which I spent money. Some are gifts and the guilt of money spent is replaced with the guilt of a friendly gesture ignored.  And still some are found items, dimly assuring in their centrality to the canon of literature that they will, one day, be consumed or at least thumbed through with feigned interest.

Prompted by an imminent capacity purge, I read a never-read, or read a portion. I was reminded of past presumed never-reads that I read and felt something near the hygienic satisfaction of an attic cleaned by toothbrush or what John Baldessari writes about in his pencil piece. Something inert, weighted, on the edge of oblivion, recalled and now found to be momentarily satisfying. I flipped through a journal given by a friend who had assistant-edited the thing. I found a piece that I enjoyed, "List of 50 (31 of 50): You Could Never Finish Stretching" by Blake Butler. The piece, registered as non fiction in the journal's ToC, is a list of cascading memories and impressions given by the author to a specific prompt. It's clean, honest and engrossing and works within the spare limits of its four-page mostly-single sentenced list to evoke a good portion of the strange parts of the author's childhood. 

Recently, I was turned onto , which is an experiment in mining the lost works edited by Gordon Lish. Having engaged with the idea, I logged onto my library's portal (to avoid further, permanent shelf-occupation) and kindly requested the archivist pull a few of these pieces out of storage. They arrived at my local branch and I read. I am apparently late to the Barry Hannah party, but the crazed discomfiting pace of The Tennis Handsome is sending me back to the stacks for more. Another, Campfires of the Dead by Peter Christopher, is partially through and I found the title story gorgeous and haunting, following a tack near Amy Hempel's world of ordinary days with their echoes.  

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