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Barely Making a Dent: January 2017 Books


In which our narrator tries to read his way through the endless stacks of books that are slowly overtaking both his bookshelves and his life.

*****

[The following conversation never happened, at least not between two people, but let's pretend it did anyway.]

Hey! How's that new tall bookcase working out for you?

Splendidly!

Lots of room for future acquisitions, I imagine.

Oh, yeah...well, it's already pretty full. You see, once I shifted some things around and emptied an old bookcase to set aside for the kids, I filled the sucker up pretty quickly.

Oh.

There's still room to fit more books, never fear. Plus the small bookcase next to it also has room. 

I bet that'll also fill up quickly, though.

[sighs] I need to start reading more on my iPad, huh?

But you love actual books.

True. I like reading on my device but I love the tangibility of books. I always carry at least one around in my messenger bag, nearly everywhere I go. I enjoy reading on a device, but switching away from physical books is not likely to happen anytime soon.

You're old school.

When it comes to books? Yeah, probably more so than I am with, say, music. I never dreamed I'd stop playing full albums regularly or spinning them on CD or in iTunes, but today I do most of my music listening through streaming services and YouTube.

But that isn't going to happen with books for you?

I don't see it happening, no. Then again, I didn't see it happening with music either, yet here we are. If it were to happen with books I'd need a new iPad with far more storage than my current one has.

Changing topics, what's up with that header image?

I don't know where I first saw it, but the image always struck me: Marilyn Monroe reading an upside down book, to the consternation of the dapper gentleman next to her. It's from How to Marry a Millionaire, a film I haven't seen but really should one of these days. So I don't know the scene, but as an image it always seemed powerful to me. I just like the joke of her reading it upside down—something about it makes her seem more worldly, instead of less so, as you might expect out of this situation. Again, I don't know the context of this moment in the film, do you?


Nope, never saw it.

We're losing our film nerd cred here. Anyway, great image, right? Plus, it's Marilyn, you can't go wrong with Marilyn.

So are you going to continue utilizing other book-related, seemingly random, images for this series?

That's the plan. I have some good ones for future posts already. If you have any suggestions, send them along to me and maybe I'll use them.

That's a classic look Marilyn's got going on there.

Absolutely. She looks sharp there, like a dame with real class. She was a huge reader, a lover of literature and culture. So when you're looking for images of people reading, you'll find several with her. The one above even has a pun that makes me laugh every time, and I don't even like puns: "abroad" vs. "a broad." I think if I could travel back in time I'd visit Marilyn just to sit with her and read, surrounded by books in her library. That would be fun.

Such a romantic. I'm sensing a potential "The Many Books of Marilyn" series of posts from you next. But you should really start to talk about the books you're reading now, no?

Hmmmm. That might be a photocentric series, with little commentary besides gushing about how great she looks in every picture. I also stumbled on other images of famous people reading, including some cool shots of the always cool John Waters. Anyway, you're right, I should get to the books at hand here. Clearly this overly precious narrative device, with us bantering about whatever, is influenced by the first book discussed here, specifically the chapter featuring the author's highly fictionalized recounting of a Real World audition interview. And that book would be...

Recently Read

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers. Over the past decade and a half I've held this book in my hands countless times at various bookstores, even reading through long passages while plopped comfortably in one of those luxurious chairs you only find in bookstores. Yet somehow I've never taken the plunge and bought the book. The reason is simple: early in the 2000s (it was published in 2000), I was actively trying to distance myself from the 1990s. Move on, I said. Give away those flannels to Goodwill. I saw Eggers' memoir/creative nonfiction/free-form rant of a book as so emblematic of those years—the story takes place throughout the '90s—that I just couldn't make myself revisit it. I was afraid I'd recognize too much of myself, or my generation, in it, thus confirming every stupid cliche that had been thrown at us throughout that decade.

Since finding the book at the public library and blowing through it in just a few days (holiday vacations are a splendid thing), it certainly confirms several '90s-isms. I'm far enough removed from that time that I'm ready to face them now, though. It's actually refreshing, comforting, and even challenging to be confronted with the sorts of things people our age (Eggers is about five years older than me) were concerned with and obsessed over back then.


It certainly is heartbreaking. It's also staggering. There are times when it seems like the work of a mad genius, for how well Eggers hones in on what it was like being young and stupid in the '90s. So the title, while ironic, is also not too far off the mark. The book is one long meditation on loss and grieving. In Eggers' case it was his parents—both dead from cancer within a month of each other while he was in college. Nearly everything that comes after those opening chapters is a reaction to that loss. The events also serve as reminders of an era not long past, yet one that often feels like eons ago now. He sets out to change the world by starting a magazine! He tries out for Real World and meets Puck! He angles for a one-night stand with a famous sexologist! He fails at all of these endeavors! Could it be any more '90s?

Eggers takes the memoir format and turns it on its ear, with fourth-wall breaking tangents and fictionalized and stylized accounts of his life (and letting the reader know they're fictionalized). He and the book are self-absorbed and entirely aware of this self-absorption. It's infuriating and intoxicating, exhausting and electrifying. I can see now why the book caused such shock waves in 2000, as Eggers truly delivers a unique spin on what was already becoming a tired genre. Memoirs are often tedious and irritating. Eggers (or the version of Eggers who narrates the book) might be plenty irritating at times, but neither he nor the book are ever tedious. It's full of life, exploding with life, in fact. Which is ironic, because it's all shaped by death and loss.

Currently reading

Afrofuturism, by Ytasha Womack. This one's for the "space cadets," as Womack would say. It's a gloriously bold and exciting romp through the fantastical worlds of Afrofuturism. If you haven't been paying attention then you might be surprised just how pervasive the literary and cultural aesthetic known as Afrofuturism has become in recent decades. In this helpful primer, Womack shows how much the style has impacted the visual arts, music, literature, etc. Today, popular artists like Janelle Monae, along with fictional works like Black Panther and Womack's own Rayla 2212, are helping to expand Afrofuturism's reach and influence.

Womack is a fine writer, with an effortlessly engaging style. She's a terrific tour guide through the various worlds of Afrofuturism, from science fiction to fantasy, funk to jazz, Afrocentrism to magical realism and beyond. Reading the book is like being in an Afrofuturistic Doctor Who, with Womack as the Doctor and the reader as her companion. We're hurtling through time and space while she's opening our minds to concepts and ideas that we'd never contemplated in that way before. She's a geek and readers with an interest in this subject (like yours truly) will geek out at her geeking out. She's a writer I'll be keeping my eye on in the future (pun intended).

This interview with Bitch Media  from a couple years ago, around the time the book was published, will give you an idea of what she's exploring in Afrofuturism. Be prepared to fall down the rabbit hole, especially if you follow Janelle Monae's Ten Droid Commandments, including: "Abandon your expectations about art, race, gender, culture, and gravity."

*****

Lastly, I apologize for that Eggersian tangent at the start of this post. Mine doesn't get nearly as weird or self-involved enough to merit much comparison at all. Still, I couldn't resist even a watered-down homage.

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