by Kevin Neilson
You have no clue how difficult it was for me to land this week’s guest. He’s elusive like a snow leopard. Mongths ago, we exchanged a few non-threatening e-mails, but I must have ultimatley frightened him because he bolted for the treeline—and was gone. But when your quarry is a rockstar in J.M. Coetzee scholarship who, like Sting and Prince, is only known by a single name, you hunker down and wait patiently. It’s with great pleasure that I introduce to you the man currently known as Erik.
Who are you?
I’m a doctoral candidate, a college instructor, a writer, an unabashed Cincinnati Bengals fan, and, if the spam folder of my email is any indication, part of the target audience for some very peculiar products and services. I am also the editor and publisher of Sobriquet Magazine.
What was the last book you read? How did you like it?
Not counting books I have re-read for my dissertation or in preparation for the classes I teach, the last book I read was Simone de Beauvoir’s The Coming of Age, her sadly neglected study of senescence. It’s erudite, angry, compassionate, pessimistic, impressionistic, analytical, and meticulously researched. I loved it, even though it was not always a pleasant text to read.
What book do you put on the coffee table when you want to impress your guests?
Peter Jandreus’s The Encyclopedia of Swedish Punk, 1977-1987.
Have you had a freakishly bizarre epiphany while under the influence of a novel?
I don’t know if I have ever had “a freakishly bizarre epiphany,” per se, but I have had several epiphany-like moments when reading. I vividly recall the first time I read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, for instance. That was probably the first time I felt the power of fiction to tell truth in a way that was, for me, more real than anything I had ever encountered previously. From the moment I read the first line of the novel, I knew that fiction could do almost anything. I can also recall the first time I read Ahab’s pasteboard mask analogy in Moby-Dick and feeling, for the first time in my life, an almost religious reverence for the written word.
Among American novels, I would have to say Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Liebowitz, Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? or William Gaddis’s JR. Among global authors, I am partial to the fiction of Agnar Mykle, whose Lasso ’Round the Moon remains one of my all-time favorite books.
What is the greatest treasure you’ve unearthed at a used bookstore?
I found an extraordinarily well-preserved first edition of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s A Few Figs from Thistles one time.
Is there an author you wished had the ear of President Obama?
Since he recently published a novel, I can happily answer Ralph Nader.
Kindle, audiobook, or good, old-fashioned paper pages? Why?
Well, each format definitely has its virtues. I find that the tactile experience of reading a physical book is very satisfying. Turning pages can provide a very real sense of progress that I enjoy. Similarly, I love observing the slow progress of a bookmark as it moves from the front of a book to the back. Likewise, the creases and scuff marks that are the natural consequences of carrying a book from place to place are concrete reminders of the places and times I read the book. They can be like the dings and scratches on a car or bike: they individualize an object and make it one’s own. In other words, the creases and folds help merge the experience reading with the experience of living one’s life. I love a good audiobook, too. Since each performance is really an interpretation of a text, a good audiobook can really encourage the listener to evaluate his or her own reading of that text. For example, Ethan Hawke’s whispered reading of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, with its emphasis on the tenderness with which the author treats his subjects, transforms a masterpiece. It is a beautiful work of art in itself. E-readers have tremendous potential. Among other things, they will help keep books in print, make it possible for smaller publishers to reach wider audiences, and make student backpacks much lighter. I do believe they are the future of publishing, or at least a very large part of it. At present, though, I am still only lukewarm to e-readers. On a personal level, I dislike the look of e-ink and I do not like how long it takes for a page to “turn” because, like many readers, I often find myself turning back to re-read the beginning of a sentence that starts on one page and continues onto the next. But these are minor irritations and not likely to keep me from reading a book if I can only find it digitally. However, there are a handful of concerns I have that are of a more practical sort. For instance, while you can convert any CD, tape, LP, or 8-track into a suitable format to play on a digital media player, there is, as yet, no simple way to convert a physical book into an e-book. I also wonder about the effects of an e-reader boom on children’s books. Children’s literature is very image-oriented and the books, physically, are often unique works of art in their own right. I just hope publishers and retailers either find a way to keep that industry going or develop e-texts that will satisfy the many needs of our youngest readers.
Why do you read?
I read because I have to read. While this statement is certainly true in the most literal of senses (I teach literature and write literary criticism as a profession), I really mean that my being craves the written word. To use a tired analogy, reading is to the mind what lifting weights or running is to the body. If you want to maintain a certain level of health, you simply have to keep working out. Like the runner who feels fully alive only after he or she has had a good run, I feel fully alive only when I have read a really good book. I read to learn, to grow, to understand, to feel. I read to connect, to escape, to find answers. And I read to question those answers.