Saturday, November 09, 2002

"Novels teach us how to be alone by absorbing us in alternate selves, by momentarily satisfying our craving to understand, as if by osmosis, what it is to be an individual."

— from A.O. Scott's review, in tomorrow's NY Times Book Review, of Jonathan Franzen's new book of essays, How to Be Alone (which I've just ordered from Amazon). The title of the new book hints intriguingly at the great paradox of the state of reading: we need solitude to enter this state most fully, to slip from the physical world into the other place of the narrative, yet one of the chief purposes of reading is to discover other consciousnesses, to realise we are not alone.

Look out also in the NYTBR for John Leonard's review of the new Dave Eggers novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity.
"Some of us are old enough to be nostalgic for the days when smart writers solved their self-consciousness problems before sending a book to the printer; what the reader got was seductive art."

I've had this book on my bedside table for nearly a month now. I've picked it up a few times but each time am put off just slightly, just enough, by the opening sentence (which appears on the front cover — &, as if it has no time to waste, the story continues down the front board & across the end-paper before making it to the book's first actual page). Like just about everybody else, I was pretty well staggered by Eggers's first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a memoir of (exasperating) extremes which seemed to require either an obsessive, prolonged, almost scholarly ganglion-by-ganglion dissection, or else a four-word blurb: please read this book. Nothing less extreme could quite match its heady incautious vigour. AHWOSG lit up my imagination from the time I read a short excerpt in the New Yorker a few months before publication; I couldn't wait to get the book in my hands — literally felt having to wait was unbearable & unreasonable, physically intolerable, like an itch. (The only other book I've felt that way about was Michael Chabon's Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, just about due for a re-read, now that I think of it.) I read an excerpt from You Shall Know Our Velocity also, in an airplane somewhere over the Great Plains in August, & felt a little abdominal tingle of disappointment. I still bought the book, & it's wrong of me to judge it by its cover & by a five-page excerpt. Perhaps this one will stagger me too — but I have to get past that opening sentence first.

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