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What Have You Been Reading Lately?

Posted by on July 30, 2019

Interview given by Tea Obreht, March 4, 2011:

Q: What have you been reading recently?

A: The book I read most recently is Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which was really fun and pleasurable to read. I also read Touch by Alexi Zentner and I loved Swamplandia!. (https://ew.com/article/2011/03/04/tea-obreht-interview/)

Pettigrew: published November 2010. Touch: April 2011.  Swamplandia: February 2011

Is it really plausible that this person reads and recommends only new books?  She doesn’t read books more than one year old?  She didn’t just finish reading, I dunno, Middlemarch and wanted to recommend it?  N.B. Obreht is not asked to recommend stuff, only what she’d been reading, but she chooses to restrict herself to recommendations.  She doesn’t say, “The book I read mostly recently is Towards Zero by Agatha Christie, but it wasn’t among her best.”

This is extremely common.  Writers who are being interviewed because they have a hot new book just published nearly always recommend other hot new books that are just published.  They rarely, if ever, recommend old books (unless they are classics–the Iliad, some Russian novel–that have just received a new translation that the publisher is interested in flogging).  They did not just finish the autobiography of Mircea Eliade (died 1986).  They are not catching up on the early work of Saul Bellow.  They are not really getting into Andre Breton or Proust or Balzac.  They read and recommend exclusively books published very recently, that also happen to be backed by major publishing company advertising campaigns.

Jeff Vandermeer, Dec 5 2017, “A Year in Reading” (https://themillions.com/2017/12/a-year-in-reading-jeff-vandermeer.html) recommends his favorite books that he read in 2017:

Her Body and Other Parties 2017, Belladonna 2017, The Idiot (not Dostoyevsky) 2017, The Gift 2017, Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington 2017, The Green Hand and Other Stories 2017, The Trespasser 2017, House of Ravicka 2017, The End of My Career 2016, Exit West 2017, Rabbit Cake 2017, Crawl Space 2017, The Grip of It 2017, The Answers 2017, Black Moses 2017, Humankind 2017, Sourdough 2017, I Capture the Castle 2017, My Cat Yugoslavia 2017, Fever Dream 2017, Stages of Rot 2017, Orgs 2017, Black Wave 2016, The Cooking Gene 2017, A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be 2017, The Book of Joan 2017

This is nominally a list of the books he read that year that he liked, which could include books published in previous years or decades or centuries that he just didn’t happen to read until 2017, but apparently Vandermeer reads only books published in the previous 12 months, or only recommends those books.  Of 26 books, only 2 predate 2017, and those by only a single year (the Carrington is originally older, but given that her “complete stories” were first published in 2017, whereas formerly they appeared only in individual collections like The House of Fear, attended by a good deal of [not unjustified] hype, it seems more appropriate to list it as a 2017 publication).  He also lists 8 novels in his “to read” pile, 7 of which were published in 2017.  This is in addition to blurbing a “thousand or so” other novels that year, and obviously one only blurbs new novels.

(If Vandermeer blurbed a “thousand or so” books in 2017, and those were just the ones he though deserving of blurbs, how many did he read in total in order to find those 1,000 good ones?  What is the ratio between books read and books liked?  Surely one doesn’t like every book one reads.  Let’s say one likes half the books one reads, which seems optimistic; in that case he would’ve had to have read 2,000 books in order to find the 1,000 good ones.  If he likes a third of the books he read, that would necessitate reading 3,000 books in a year.  Unless he loves every book he reads, in which case he only had to read the 1,000 that he blurbed, which is a mere 2.7 books per day or 19 per week.  And N.B., these are books publishers send to him, asking for blurbs; they’re not books he finds on his own and wants to read.  Ones he finds on his own and wants to read are in addition to the 1,000 or 2,000 or whatever number of books publishers send to him.).

Here are the last 26 books I read with dates of publication or translation if more relevant: The Great Crash, 1929 by John Kenneth Galbraith (1955), Submission by Michel Houellebecq (trans. 2015), The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World by Edward Creasy (1851), Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (1956), The Six Directions of Space by Alastair Reynolds (2007), When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold Kushner (1981), The Rediscovery of North America by Barry Lopez (1991), A Newer World by David Roberts (2001), The Crab with the Golden Claws by Herge (trans. 1958), Last Train to Zona Verde by Paul Theroux (2014), The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (1926), First Footsteps in East Africa by Richard Burton (1856), The Fire Within by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle (trans. 1965), Social Practices by Chris Kraus (2018), The Large Glass by Mario Bellatin (trans. 2016), Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1934), After Kathy Acker by Chris Kraus (2017), Cold Skin by Albert Sanchez Pinol (trans. 2007), Summer of Hate by Chris Kraus (2012), Prince Eugene by Paul Frischauer (1933), Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis (2010), How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti (2010), The Age of Metternich 1814-1848 by Arthur May (1933), The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell (1945), An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (2014), Imperial Eyes by Mary Pratt (1992).

Average publication date: 1974, or 45 years old.  (To some degree this is apples and oranges, because these are only the last 26 books I read–I’m certainly not recommending them all–and some are re-reads, but I still think it can serve as a comparison.)  It includes new books, old books, famous, obscure, good, bad, etc.  It doesn’t include any that anybody else wanted me to read, cuz obviously nobody asks me for blurbs, but only ones I found in the usual ways and wanted to read.  But it just seems to me that any reasonably intellectually inclined person’s list ought to look something like this, with a mix of topics and ages.  If one is a writer of fiction, one must read fiction and, unless you’re a dim bulb who’s overly swayed by marketing hype, or a publishing executive or person otherwise engaged in selling this year’s hot new books, you can’t possibly restrict your reading to books that are published in the current year.  Obreht and Vandermeer fall into the latter category.  That’s why you’re never going to see these people recommending books by, e.g., a 19th century guy like Richard Burton, cuz there’s no percentage in public domain books.  So it should be clear that these recommendations are not really recommendations at all, but advertisements.

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