Critical Mass

Guest Post by Jonah Raskin: How Do You Decide What to Read Next?

By Jonah Raskin

From NBCC member Jonah Raskin, another response to the third question in our Next Decade in Book Culture series.

At the start of summer, John Simon emailed to tell me about the detective novels of Qiu Xiaolong, a Chinese-born novelist living in the U.S.A. There were six of them including The Death of a Red Heroine all translated into English, and most of them were set in Shanghai. I had a couple of weeks of intense but entirely delightful reading ahead of me, and I had the distinct feeling that I was in China for a good part of June. Before I finished Xiaolong’s books, my friend, Stephen Kessler, clued me in to three new books with work by Jorge Luis Borges, whose poetry he has translated from Spanish into English. They’re all published in handsome, slim editions by Penguin: one volume entitled On Argentina, another On Mysticism and a third On Writing,and so I was off to South America and was soon swimming in the crosscurrents of Borges about whom I cannot say enough that’s praiseworthy.

Books come at me every which way every day. They’re tossed at me by friends like Simon, who was the editor of my first book that was published by Random House in 1971, and by Kessler, who edits The Redwood Coast Review in my neck of the woods. I roam bookstores such as Northlight near the campus of Sonoma State University where I teach, prowling for new titles–for books that haven’t been reviewed anywhere and that catch my eye.

In the library on campus, new acquisitions sit on a conspicuous shelf for a couple of weeks before they’re run through the system. They grab my attention too–books such as Rebecca Solnit’s AParadise Built in Hell. The University of California Press sends me their catalogues and their books, and I often find something with a local connection–a book about Jean-Claude and Christo and their spectacular work of art, Running Fence, for example, that ran across Sonoma County.

Since it’s the 100th anniversary of Mark Twain’s death, Mark Twain books have come my way, including the first big fat volume of Twain’s Autobiography that I’ve only skimmed; it’s 700 densely packed pages and there are two more volumes in the works and no less hefty. Going to the movies alerted me to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire. Listening to NPR, I heard about Lyndall Gordon Lives Like Loaded Guns, and since I’m teaching an American literature class this fall in which we’ll discuss Emily Dickinson’s poetry I snapped it up and found it eye-opening. How could one not read a book with an image such as “lives like loaded guns”? City Lights Books sent me Howard Zinn’s The Bombwhich is about Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Zinn’s own military career during World War II when he dropped bombs on a French village. His book was, if you’ll pardon the expression, a bombshell.

Now that the 2010 fall semester has kicked off, I will have less time to read what I want to read. To do my job I’ll have to read student work. But I might even learn about a book or two I’ll want to read from students; they do still read. They always come back to campus from summer break having read at least one novel. You can count on it. The women all will have a romance. Not the men. But they’re all required to read Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex, which I missed when it first came out in 2002, and so I’m reading it now, taking notes and underlining so I can better understand it and teach it to a class of freshmen.

Ex Ovo Omnia,” the narrator says and translates as “everything comes out of an egg,” which I would amend to read, “everything comes out of a book.” After all, “ex ovo Omnia” comes from a book  – from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I rest my case. We’re still the people of the book. I am. I have no TV, no VCR and refuse to watch movies on my computer screen. I might change my mind tomorrow or the day after that but tonight it’s the night for a book – the chapter entitled “Waxing Lyrical” from Middlesex.

Jonah Raskin is the author of "Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California."