On being absorbed by books
By Reilly Capps
A version of this Book Report ran in the Telluride Daily Planet, April 4, 2013
An astonishing fact: at least 10 percent of all the photographs ever taken were taken last year. The figure has to be similar for “all the words ever written,” no? On top of all the books and articles, you have Twitter, Facebook, text, email, wordy tattoos and sext captions.
Which is great. A miracle. No one need live a life of quiet desperation, not when there is Tumblr.
Yet, we are not necessary in the golden age of literature, just as the world's fattest man does not also win the Nobel Prize. It's overwhelming. When I click on Facebook, I feel like I’m being waterboarded.
I have a lot of very dear and very illiterate friends, sweet friends so illiterate they regularly poison themselves because they misread prescription drug labels, who would sign contracts with an “X” except they never got that far in the alphabet, whose inability to decipher road signs means they’re constantly ramming into highway buttresses -- and whose status updates are the length of a book they believe is called “Mopy Dick.”
With all these Facebookers -- people you know and love -- constantly recommending Panda videos, promoting their high score on a Zynga pyramid scheme or “liking” things that are clearly signs of the apocalypse, you forget about books. Books are still good, but books have bad PR. Books sit quietly, like forgotten Dutch masterpieces in a dingy wing of an art gallery -- you have to put in some effort; you have to go find them.
The following are three books that lifted me up, as in a hot air balloon, away from the flashing lights of our convenience store world to reveal a little bit of the horizon ... which is an image I stole from Pico Iyer, who wrote:
Let’s say you loved the Grateful Dead. Your life bottomed out when Jerry died. Your only solace nowadays, aside from the old bootlegs, is Phish. Phish is pretty good. And when Phish covers the Dead, you are nearly paralyzed with pleasure, reveling in two levels of greatness -- the original Deady greatness, and the newer Phishy greatness, magnifying and interpreting Jerry’s work.Me, I love Graham Greene. If the author had gone on tour, I would have dropped acid and danced in circles while he read from “The Quiet American.” I would have rutted behind the Port-a-Potties while Greene, on stage, recited “Our Man in Havana.”
Greene is dead. Now, there’s Pico Iyer. Iyer is to Greene as Phish is to the Dead: not the same thing, not a follower, not an acolyte or an imitation, but somehow kin or comrades. Maybe the best thing since.
“The Man Within My Head” could be described as Iyer “covering” Greene. It’s not a biography, it’s an exploration of Iyer’s love for and connection with Greene. Iyer’s essential question is: ”How one can feel closer to someone one's never met than to those one's known all one's life? Why do I feel he understands me as nobody I've met in my life can do?”
A story has to heat up as it goes along, increasing in tension and meaning. It has to end well. Eggers, a master, starts this book moving as slowly as an hourglass: a salesman waits in the Saudi desert for a meeting with King Abdullah. And, you know: so what? Who cares if some sad sack meets some jerk monarch? And yet you will need to know. And that need to know draws you into a wider, deeper, more important story, one that illuminates a lot about the world we live in now.
A comet, sure to kill us all, renders life pointless. Yet one detective in a small town is determined to investigate one particular case, an apparent suicide. Why? What is the point of solving a case if a meteor is going to kill us all? It’s a great question on which to base a book, since it’s the essential question of life.
What is the point of life, if we’re all just going to die? The point is probably to love deeply and laugh loudly and dance like nobody’s looking, or whatever’s written on that inspirational poster hanging in your aunt’s kitchen.
Epictetus says that the point of life is to be a spectator of God and God’s works, and not only a spectator but an interpreter. If that’s true, how best to spectate? What should we be looking at?
Pico Iyer, at least, likes to look at books. In an article in the L.A. Times, he writes about the difference between reading online vs. reading a book. Reading online is great, he writes. “But I also felt, as I logged off, a little as I did when I worked four blocks from Times Square: wildly stimulated, excitingly up-to-the-moment, alive with ideas — and with no time or space to hear myself think. Then I picked up a novel … when I looked up from my reading, I’d forgotten what time it was, my self and my life seemed much larger — and it was as if I’d stepped out of a traffic-jammed car on the 405 at 5 p.m. on a Friday and into a deep forest rich with secrets."
Iyer describes happiness as “absorption.” Facebook is pure distraction. You look at a lot, but what do you really see?