Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Tangents; or Deciding What to Read Next

Very often my reading choices seem to consist of chain reactions.  In the chain's simplest form, one book makes direct reference to another, which I then feel compelled to seek out and read.  Example:  The Great Influenza, a history of the 1918 flu pandemic, includes a passage from Katherine Anne Porter's novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider which describes a character's flu-induced delirium:
She lay on a narrow ledge over a pit that she knew to be bottomless, though she could not comprehend it; the ledge was her childhood dream of danger, and she strained back against a reassuring wall of granite at her shoulders, staring into the pit, thinking, There it is, there it is at last, it is very simple; and soft carefully shaped words like oblivion and eternity are curtains hung before nothing at all.
With that last line, she had me.  I was compelled to seek out and read Pale Horse in its entirety, touching off a Porter binge that continued through Noon Wine, Holiday, and Ship of Fools.  Likewise, I discovered Rilke's poetry via The Panther, which was a favorite poem of a paralyzed patient described in Oliver Sacks' Awakenings

Other chains are less straightforward, and more like zig-zagging series of tangents.  The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, an Australian writer, led me to try another Australian, David Malouf, whose gorgeous An Imaginary Life led me back to Ovid's Metamorphoses (vaguely remembered from college).  Likewise, Ursula LeGuin's Lavinia (randomly discovered in the library) was so lovely that I tried her Hainish trilogy.  I also had a peek back at some of her other works (The Lathe of Heaven, The Dispossessed, and The Left Hand of Darkness) that I had enjoyed in high school and college.  LeGuin is the only SF writer I have ever liked, and indeed she has been described as a science fiction writer for people who don't like science fiction. (Am also looking forward to reading the Aeneid, partly because Lavinia, an imagining of the Aeneid from a minor character's point of view, was so intriguing.)

Recent attempts to read in German (slowly, laboriously, with a dictionary at my elbow) have led to trying new works in English, and vice versa.  I've read some stories by Heinrich Boll to prepare for reading him in German.  Am reading Bernard Schlink's Der Vorleser because I liked The Reader.  Friedrich Durrenmatt's Die Physiker made me want to compare it with its English translation, The Physicists. Lots of Agatha Christie in German is happening around here, only because I've read so much of her in English.  Oh, and a wonderful European language bookstore I found while visiting London last summer yielded a bonanza of German translations: Pride and Prejudice, Alice in Wonderland, The Metamorphosis, and The Diary of a Young Girl

I could go on and on, but I won't. (You're welcome.)

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