19 December 2011

writing about reading

My sister is a great reader. She's really good at it. What makes her a great reader, though, is not her commitment to reading only great works, as determined by those who purport to know such things. She's great at it because she does it a lot. All three of us do. We come by it honestly.

Our childhood home has a wall of reference books. Flanking the 1978 edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica (which was regularly splayed out in layers on the kitchen table as we reference-hopped from one entry to another) are sections about Ireland, dance, medicine, art, physics, & other subjects. I remember wanting to re-shelve the medical illustration books in the art section because the transparent overlays were fascinating & beautiful &, to my young mind, not much different from the books of marble statues. The diagram of the respiratory system had as much aesthetic value as the Pieta. But don't tell the Pope I said that.

We also had subscriptions to a wide array of magazines. Our parents are good at many things, but one thing they're REALLY good at is being curious. They wanted to know more about what was going on in the world, everywhere, in as many realms as possible. National Geographic, The New Yorker, Reader's Digest, The Economist,  Mother Jones, the Atlantic Monthly, Ms. Magazine, Time, Popular Mechanics, WIRED, the National Enquirer.

(Wait, what?)

The National Enquirer. What in the world did they imagine they would learn from a crappy tabloid with cyclical headlines about Bat Boy? So many things, it turns out. In the absence of myths, in the absence of a shared lore, we have Chupacabra, Elvis is Alive!, & the Blue Dot. If I wish very hard while touching this one imperfectly-printed circle of pure cyan, will my wish come true? Maybe! Is the Loch Ness Monster the last living dinosaur? A Catholic priest in Scotland says yes! So while we'd anxiously await our turn at our favorite magazines (I admired Tina Brown's moxie at getting longer stories in The New Yorker, though some of them were a real slog for me), it was always a special treat to follow it up with the serialized fiction of the National Enquirer. And I am not ashamed.

I may be biased toward the tabloids, though. Our family was featured in the Star, when I was about three. The topic: Two doctor sisters with a unique solution to child care. (They job-shared. Whomever didn't go into the hospital that day took care of ... seven children. The dads helped, too, of course, but that wasn't as tidy a story in 1981.) It was August. I look uncomfortably warm in a terry-cloth jumper. I have a perfect bowl cut. And a book in my hands. Like I said, we come by it honestly.

After you put down your copy of the National Enquirer, which will make you a better writer if for no other reason than it will expand your notion of the absurd, I'd like to share ... a list of great works, as determined by people who purport to know such things. Our Favorite Authors' Favorite Books of 2011.

In particular, here's a link to Colm Tóibín's recommendations as a reminder to myself:
a.) Read Tóibín's collection of stories, "The Empty Family"; and
b.) Read Tóibín's recommendations, too: Jeffrey Eugenides' "The Marriage Plot" & Craig Koslofsky's "Evening's Empire: A History of the Night in Early Modern Europe". Actually, this whole list makes me want to attack a library. ("Room" by Emma Donoghue sounds excellent.)


Deirdre said...

And the Weekly World News! Bat Boy, Ed Anger, various Elvis sightings...

But we never subscribed, so far as I know. It was a supermarket checkout impulse purchase read.

Did you know it was while reading the Weekly World News I wondered what would happen if I read Aeschylus with the same cynical eye? And so my senior thesis was born. True story. I still have that issue, in a box with my other college detritus.

Katie O'Shea said...

I did know this about your senior thesis! Rather, I knew that you compared the two, but I didn't know about the "cynical eye" bit. I could swear, though, that we got the Enquirer delivered to our home. Maybe it just felt like it, since every issue found its way to the house every week, anyway. We should have just subscribed.

Blue Dot. I feel like maybe Rob Brezsny would approve.

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