Mark Athitakis Newsletter #8

Cycling through books; awards; takin' a putt up to Carson City.

Front Matter

For the past week I have been on Roundup Duty, a reading task that I suspect is exclusive to book reviewers. I’ve been assigned to read a stack of books---two stacks, actually---that are grouped thematically. Rather than plow through each title one at a time, which would make the job feel too much like climbing Everest, my habit while on Roundup Duty is to bounce from one to the next. Twenty pages from one, then 20 pages from another, and another, and so on, a bookish version of the Pomodoro Technique.

I’m not concerned that I’ll get the plots of the individual books jumbled, which people seem to think is the main occupational hazard of this reading method. But reading this way does have a brain-warping, almost buzzy effect. The distinctions between books stand out in sharper relief, and each acquires a kind of synesthetic quality---this here is the gray, baggy one, but the one I’ll get to in about a half-hour is blue and flinty, and the next easy going, airy and light and yellow. Or something. The process makes you a bit book-drunk, delusional about reading, and one of the delusions you acquire is---maybe if I keep going this way, I could read everything I’ve ever wanted to.

Oh, of course not; if I truly committed to making Roundup Duty a way of life, my brain would feel like wet bread by Thanksgiving. But for the moment doing so does feel satisfying, doing the thing that we promise ourselves that we want to do: read a lot and read widely. That urge---and our inevitable falling short of satisfying it---is why we wind up with so many lists, I think. (PBS’s Great American Read, for which the winners were announced on Tuesday, is the latest prominent example.) Lists make the world feel a little more manageable, though no list, however well-curated, will be entirely fulfilling. Lists, Joseph Epstein recently wrote in First Things, “reveal a yearning for a direct route to wisdom. Brace yourself for the bad news: None is available…. For the road to acquiring the body of unspecialized knowledge that sometimes goes by the name of general culture, sometimes known as the pursuit of wisdom, no map, no blueprint, no plan, no shortcut exists.”

In 2010 I went on a rant about the evils of lists and how they’re cheapening literary culture, and so on; it was easily my most popular blog post. (Andrew Sullivan linked to it.) Time, and a few stints of Roundup Duty, have softened my attitude somewhat. I’m more inclined to think that anything that encourages reading is a good thing, and if a list is the thing to do it, so be it. While I was a literary festival in Cincinnati last weekend, I got to talking with James Mustich, who after 14 years has finally completed his book, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die. The book is handsome, inviting, and also intimidating; idly flipping through it I come across scores of books that not only have I not read but haven’t heard of. (Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier…) Worse, I confront the feeling that the books I have read are books I haven’t read well, or so long ago that I may as well have not read them at all. Could I pass a quiz on Don Quixote or Light in August or Beloved today?

Lists are designed to gratify a possessive instinct; I have read X out of Y books, therefore I have accomplished something. But books are ultimately vehicles for experience more than they are possessions or fodder for checklists. The centrifugal force of Roundup Duty will eventually exhaust me, but in the meantime I try to remind myself that what I’m chasing after isn’t an impossible sense of comprehensiveness, just more experience.

What I’m Reading, Essay Dept.

Jabari Asim’s “Getting It Twisted,” an excerpt from his book We Can’t Breathe, is a thoughtful and fiery study of race and lies about racism. Kate Tuttle has a fine profile of Susan Orlean, at the top of my list of favorite magazine writers, in Poets & Writers (print-only). Ligaya Mishan explores the blurry line between homage and plagiarism in literary culture. Benjamin Schwarz on the ill consequences of identity politics mixing with cultural criticism. (Might have been nice to see an example of this beyond one New Yorker film review, though.)

What I’m Writing

On the Seawall, a site by critic and poet Ron Slate, has relaunched with an attractive redesign and a mix of criticism, interviews, and poetry. I’m happy to help out with the site as a contributor, and I have a review there on Pascal Boyer’s Minds Make Societies, a guide to contemporary cognitive and social theory that is invigorating on some levels and crushingly fatalistic in others. As I write: “ Perhaps the cognitive scientists have sorted out how we’ve surmounted violent tribalism, but the evidence of that good work is not in Boyer’s book.”

What Awards I’m Winning

This will not be a regular feature. Last Friday I was pleasantly surprised to receive an award for “Best Adult Nonfiction Title” for The New Midwest, the little book of regional literary criticism that could. I haven’t looked into the methodology for the prize selection, and my 8-year-old son notes that the prize was given to the best title, lest my pride get the better of me. But I am appreciative and honored regardless.

End Notes

Critic Tim Page recently posted on his Facebook about his enthusiasm for Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, a quintessential Difficult Album that I spent a long time pretending to like because smart people seemed to like it a lot. I spent a long time in my teens and 20s stubbornly trying to figure out the appeal of something so disjointed. Once I found a Beefheart song that’s a little more orderly, like this one from Shiny Beast (Bad Chain Puller), the rest of his oeuvre made a little more sense---not a bad strategy for a lot of artists. (Start with Portrait not Ulysses, Crying of Lot 49 not Gravity’s Rainbow, etc.) I’m still not a full-throated fan of Trout Mask---I haven’t voluntarily listened to it for pleasure in years---but I’m in a better position to appreciate its absurd, funny, cantankerous nature.

Thanks for reading. Send correspondence to; I haven’t abandoned the Concierge Desk concept, but a list following a riff on lists felt too meta even for me. Buy my (award-winning!) book. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.