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.

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