Oberlin Blogs

Me vs. My Bookshelf

January 19, 2009

John West ’10

The problem is that I've run out of clever things to say. (Let's leave aside, for the moment, that what I have written has not been altogether that clever.) Simply put, I don't have any more piercingly insightful and witty generalizations about life at Oberlin. So, I'm going to shift gears and write about what I want to write about, which is me and my life, sans insightful generalizations and (probably) sans wit.

Some of this is out of a kind of self-preservation. I haven't been writing for this blog nearly as much as I should--or, at least, nearly as much as I told myself I would. Over the last week I've been trying, with increasing desperation, to write something about The Oberlin Experience, and ended up with two or three posts that I didn't publish because they read like ad copy--and bad ad copy at that.

The good news is that we bloggers are given quite a bit of freedom in crafting these posts; I think the primary rule is, don't write anything so ludicrous that it gets (1) yourself or (2) our boss fired. I can swing that. Of course, these posts should probably give you (our readers) an idea of what Oberlin or Oberliners are like. But if you do end up coming to Oberlin, you'll probably run into someone like me who bloviates at any opportunity, so there's your tie-in.

The best thing--and I've said this already, but bear with me--about Winter Term in Oberlin is that you have the opportunity to do those things for which you didn't have time during the semester. In my case this means reading.

I have the unfortunate, juvenile habit of buying books that I think I should read, but really have neither the time nor the chops to finish. This is how, for example, I ended up with Gravity's Rainbow on my bookshelf. And, despite three solid summers of semi-serious effort (and apparently, quite a bit of alliteration), I have yet to finish the godforsaken behemoth. Don't get me wrong, I like to think of myself as a relatively well-read guy, but with each trip to the bookstore, the ratio of 'books I own' to 'books I have read' gets more lopsided.

Winter Term, then, gives me the chance to actually do something about this problem, and I've had some success with that. I finally finished Bolaño's 2666, a 900-page, five-novels-in-one masterpiece (so say the critics...) that left me feeling punched in the stomach afterward. 2666 is set against the backdrop of the rapes and murders of over 400 young women in a Mexican border town (Ciudad Juárez--this part of the novel is true), and, while it is an incredible book, for obvious reasons it's not always easy to read. When I couldn't handle 2666, I would read a couple of Bolaño's excellent short stories, then switch back. In this way, I managed to finish off his collection of short stories, Last Evenings on Earth, as well.

As good as Bolaño's books are, they are all pretty depressing, probably a result of being imprisoned then exiled after the 1973 coup in Chile. Fortunately for my sanity, I followed Bolaño with Paul Auster's Man in the Dark and The Brooklyn Follies, thus restoring my faith in humanity and feeling like I was actually engaging with contemporary American fiction.

Unfortunately, I've hit a kind of dead end. In the place of "serious" reading, I've switched gears, reading three weeks worth of neglected comics and, most pertinent for this post, Nick Hornby's collected Believer columns: The Polysyllabic Spree and Housekeeping vs. The Dirt. For those unacquainted with Hornby's column in The Believer it's billed as "massively witty adventures in reading" (those are the publisher's words, not mine).

As much as the phrase "massively witty" annoys me, it is--and I say this grudgingly--an apt description of his column. Hornby's criticism is chock full of one-liners, anecdotes, and insights that fall into the category of "things I will shamelessly use in conversation in the vain hope of impressing romantic interests." Sure, sure, it's unethical and a little on the pathetic side, but Hornby is so massively witty. Examples:


A survey conducted by WHSmith in 2000 found that 43 percent of adults questioned were unable to name a favorite book, and 45 percent failed to come up with a favorite author. (This could be because those questioned were unable to decide between Roth and Bellow, but let's presume not.)



I would like my personal reading list to resemble a map of the British Empire circa 1900; I'd like people to look at it and think, How the hell did he end up right over there?



The truest and wisest words ever written about reviewing were spoken by Sarah Vowell in her book Take the Cannoli. Asked by a magazine to review a Tom Waits album, she concludes that she "quite likes the ballads," and writes that down; now all she need is another eight-hundred-odd words restating this one blinding apercu.


Well, I'm at 850, so I think I'll call it a night.

Responses to this Entry

The New Yorker Book Blog (http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/) had a post about 2666 recently. It sounded like an enthralling read until I realized that it might not be the best choice to accompany a late night in my dorm room in the dead of January. Glad you fared better than I did; I'll bump it to the top of my beach reading list, where I can read it with the safety net of sun and warm weather.

(Also, I like to read big books on the beach to unduly influence strangers' impressions of me. "Oo, look at him, honey. He's reading a hardbound copy of "The Complete Works of Marcel Proust." I bet he goes to some small liberal arts college, where he spends his nights wearing disney pajama pants and eating dry cereal out of the box." And they'll be so, so right.)

Posted by: Will on January 19, 2009 1:36 PM

I have the same book problem. I raid my local library's book sale whenever I get the chance and my shelves are currently OVERFLOWING with unread stuff (mostly big, heavy classics which I decided I should read... someday - but I can't pass up the complete works of Chekhov for 50 cents!). It's totally overwhelming. Like Will, I brought some good, solid, academic reading with me to the beach this past summer. Only then I ended up reading the Twilight series instead... hmmm. Sorry, Camus. Sorry, Ayn Rand. My mistake.

I've also written a fair number of entries that will not be seeing the light of day. I've been feeling like I should be encapsulating the Very Essence of Oberlin in each entry, but have slowly been realizing that the minutiae of my daily life and thoughts may be the (more boring & tedious for my limited readership?) way to go.

Posted by: Megan on January 20, 2009 5:10 PM

Will, I'm not going to lie, the image of you in Disney pajama pants, reading 2666 or Proust made me giggle, or at least snort.

And, yes, I think we've all been there: bringing implausible books to the beach as a big f you to those carrying The Da Vinci Code, but, in the end, delving into some silly and profoundly nonliterary book.

Megan, I have not only read Twilight itself, but all four of the series, much to my endless shame. Here's a good evasion tool: pass it off as anthropological research. You know, exploring the mind of barely-pubescent adolescent girls or the abstinence-obsession of Mormon writers... I don't know.

Posted by: John on January 20, 2009 8:47 PM

as a follow-up, John, here's the full series of entries on 2666: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/national-readin/

My favorite is when Mishan writes: "I have finished Part IV, yet I feel no sense of victory. At first it wasn’t so bad; I was surprised to find flashes of humor amidst the horror—the policeman swooning over the psychiatrist as she tosses off a litany of phobias, for example. My favorite scene: the young Lalo Cura, hired to protect a narco’s wife, guns down not only her would-be assassins but his gutless fellow-bodyguards as they flee in terror. In his old-school righteousness, he reminded me a bit of the little gaucho.

But once I was inside the prison (see how my language betrays me: I can’t read this book at a safe distance), I started to falter. I felt dizzy. My head throbbed. I bristled at minor sleights, stalked balefully through my apartment. I considered skimming through the rest of the pages, but what if I missed something? Already I’d lost track of characters’ names. Why hadn’t I taken notes?"

Posted by: Will on January 23, 2009 9:50 PM

Here is an excerpt from a book that I was reminded of when reading this entry, conveniently posted on someone's blog. Unread books have so much more possibility than read ones, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb has highlighted here:


Posted by: Lillie on January 26, 2009 9:04 AM

Leave a Comment

Similar Blog Entries

Winter Term in Southeast Asia

March 8, 2023

Ilana McNamara

I spent my Winter Term in Indonesia and the Philippines learning about the musical cultures of both countries, meeting incredible people, and maybe even learning something about myself along the way.
Ilana looking off to the side with a blurry nature background

January Recap

January 31, 2023

Yuhki Ueda

My January summed up in a few words: Winter Term, free movies, dancing, pasta, birthdays, music, and applications!
Yuhki Ueda