According to Goodreads I have six books on the go right now. It was seven yesterday but last night I finally polished off the thoroughly mediocre Cuentos Filipinos that I’ve had from the library for six weeks so far (pro tip: if you’re thinking of producing a collection of short stories as a pretext for an extended geography lesson, please think again).
I should say that I’m not actively reading the other six–it’s been months since I read the first two volumes of March, a powerful memoir in graphic novel form of Rep. John Lewis’s involvement in the civil rights movement, and I just can’t seem to get around to the third. Books of essays and short stories are not my usual speed, and I blame their current prevalence in my reading list on the way having a child has shortened my attention span. I can’t read more than one or two novels at once these days because it takes me too long to finish them, and I lose track of the story. So I started reading Love and Trouble when I was stuck in the car waiting for the baby to wake up, and I didn’t have any of my current books with me but had been to a used book sale earlier in the week and had a pile to choose from in the back; I picked a book of short stories so I could leave it indefinitely in between readings. And I have; it’s been three weeks since I picked it up. It’s been even longer since I last dipped into Bad Feminist; I like it a lot, and I’m about halfway through it, but it never seems to be to hand when I’m sitting down to nurse the baby (which is when I get most of my reading done these days) and, because it’s a book of essays, I’m not compelled to seek it out to find out what happens next.
Similarly, I picked up the Graham Greene essays one day to read to the baby while I was nursing her (this is something I do extremely sporadically, read aloud to my toddler from adult books because I have this sort of fantasy of the whole family sitting around in the evenings knitting or drawing or whatever while someone reads aloud, like some posh English family in pre-television days, and I used to read to her from whatever I was reading but now she understands too much and I don’t want to read her anything with sex or violence or swear words, which is most of the things I read, so I picked up the Greene because it seemed likely to be fairly safe in that regard). I love Greene, but so far the essays have mostly been about Henry James and I haven’t been terribly motivated to keep reading. I have had three encounters with James; I read Portrait of a Lady a few years ago and enjoyed it, and before that I read Turn of the Screw, with which I was already somewhat familiar, having designed costumes for the opera version of the story for a class in college, and I liked it a lot.
However, my first encounter with James was nothing short of disastrous, as I attempted to read an entire novel–The Bostonians or The Ambassadors or The Americans or one of those–in a day so I could incorporate it into a supposedly term-length paper for my required freshman writing seminar. I remember sitting by the dry lake on campus paging through the small hardbound library book. I remember it was a sunny day. I remember I did terribly on the paper, and that I thoroughly disliked the professor, Dr. White, who I had wanted to like so much because she reminded me so much of one of my favorite high school teachers, Mrs. Grey, even down to their complementary names, but who rubbed me to the wrong way on the first day of class when she told us that she enjoyed teaching freshmen because our minds were “unformed,” which still annoys me; I can’t imagine that anyone, of any age, enjoys being told that their mind is unformed. Also I considered myself a pretty good writer at that point, having not yet been knocked down by the experience of college, and Dr. White definitely did not agree. I don’t remember anything about the book.
Anyway, I started reading The Wings of the Dove a couple of days ago so I could have a little more insight into what Greene is talking about in his Henry James essays, and so far the experience is mirroring the first encounter rather more than the latter two. I find his sentences just impenetrable. I mean:
No relation with him could be so short or so superficial as not to be somehow to your hurt; and this, in the strangest way in the world, not because he desired it to be—feeling often, as he surely must, the profit for him of its not being—but because there was never a mistake for you that he could leave unmade or a conviction of his impossibility in you that he could approach you without strengthening.
Just try to parse that sentence, let alone diagram it (seriously, I would love to see it diagrammed, sentence diagramming being an exercise I never quite got the hang of, nor saw the point of, in school). I started reading this both because of the Greene essays and because I had it on my kindle and it’s always good to have something to read in the dark while nursing the baby to sleep, but I have to say that at the end of the day when I’m putting my daughter to bed my mind is hardly in shape to make sense of such sentences.
My only current novel is Noli Me Tangere, a classic of Philippine literature, which I started reading over the weekend and so far am enjoying. The first several works I read for the Philippines–Cuentos Filipinos, Florante at Laura, and a few books of The Darangen (in case you were wondering, no, I didn’t manage to finish all four volumes before I had to bring them back to the library)–were not novels, and it’s always a relief to me to be back in my comfort zone of literary fiction.