State of the Word

In a 1985 book entitled Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argues that with the advent of electronic media — in particular TV and entertainment news programs — we have become heavily reliant on bright, shiny images. Which are great for selling products, like toothpaste and political candidates, but very bad, indeed, for advancing intellectual discussion and inquiry. I am reminded of Postman because Jason Riley, our featured guest this week, suggests a similar solution to the problem of having our minds devoured by sound bites.

jason r riley reading

Jason Riley

Who are you?

I’m Minnesotan. But at any given moment I’m also a reader, writer, inventor, attorney, painter, traveler, chef, husband, and general Renaissance man. 

What was the last book you read? And how did you like it?

Usually I’m a fiction reader, but I picked up a translation of Werner Herzog’s Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo. What a brilliant book. I needed a bit of inspiration, a new perspective, and found it with Herzog’s help. It’s really something special.

He kept a diary while filming Fitzcarraldo in the Peruvian jungle, and this filming was plagued with the kind of hardships that would have broken anyone. But Herzog believed in the project so truly. He re-wrote the script and re-shot half the film when the original lead (Jason Robards) contracted dysentery and quit.

You can tell in every line that Herzog is a genius. He really achieved a great emotional depth. His phrases take possession with their uniqueness and precision. It’s wonderfully transportive writing. You feel with him: the despair, the humidity, the insects, the screaming lunatic rants of Klaus Kinski (who replaced Robards as Fitzcarraldo).

The book stands on it’s own as a marvelous piece of prose, but also as a triumph of creativity and spirit over nature. To understand all that Herzog went through in creating the film. . . it inspired me. It gave me courage.

How does your reading day begin?

Usually once I sit down on the concrete benches at the light-rail station. Or I’ll stand next to the newspaper dispensers. Just somewhere I can rest my coffee within my peripheral vision. If I’m lucky, I’ll just miss my first train–that’s fifteen more minutes I can spend with the book in the empty station. I started riding the train to work so I’d have that commute time to read.  I’m a slow reader, so I try to sneak a few pages in where ever I can. I want to make sure I capture every word.

Schopenhauer famously argues that music is the art form par excellence for communicating the essence of the world. What do you say in defense of narrative fiction?

Music may be distillation of creative essence, but narrative fiction is more personal. For me, nothing has the power of a book. While I’m a great appreciator of musical and visual arts, a good book allows readers to create their own music and visuals. To both create and feel. No two readers will hear or see a character or a scene in exactly the same way, and I love that — there is no “correct answer” in literature. Once written, the sounds, the sights, the pace of reading… its all for the reader to decide. There are few things in life over which we have such control. 

Music might remind us of a certain time and place, but a book allows us to be in that certain time and place. To be two places (and times) at once: physically reading on the beach in Santa Cruz, while your mind is making a night-crossing with Harry Morgan from Cuba to Key West. Narrative fiction allows for more intellectual involvement. 

Kindle, audiobook, or good, old-fashioned paper pages? Why?

Paper. The crisper and more yellowed the better. I haven’t tried the Kindle yet. I’d probably love it. Though I’m afraid it won’t be quite as interesting as having a wall filled with books. I have a few audiobooks–and they do remind me of being read to as a child–but I like the feel of the paper. The font. The ability to scan the page for the spot I was interrupted at, or to turn back to page one to read the opening lines. To toss it across the room in frustration. Electronics don’t allow for the times when we need to throw something.

What is your favorite unknown or under-appreciated book?

I’m a great admirer of Norman Lewis’ novel The Volcanoes Above Us. He’s perhaps only known for his travel writing in the US, but he’s also written some fictional gems. It’s set in Guatemala in the ’50s, just before the coup, and much of the setting is drawn from Lewis’ own experience. It’s wise without putting forth an authorial agenda. The novel seems especially relevant at the moment, with the situation in Honduras.

Where would you go on your dream vacation and what three books would you take?

Of all the places I’ve traveled, I’ve never been to Paris. Though if it’s a dream, I’d take the time to actually live there, without the worries of seeing the sights and need to return home. In the mornings I’d read at a cafe with proper coffee and maybe a petit pan au chocolat. Then ease into a bar tabac for a glass of wine and another few chapters. 

The books:

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

The Ginger Man by JP Donleavy 

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind

Why do you read?

Really, it’s just something I enjoy. I love books — outside of a book, there’s nowhere else can you try on another person’s mind for a bit. At the moment, there’s a war on books. Newspapers have eliminated their book review sections. Magazines that formerly devoted two pages to fiction plus two to non-fiction have consolidated to a single page for both. It’s difficult to come by the type of literary commentary that used to stimulate discussion. To read is to be a warrior in that fight.

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5 Responses to State of the Word

  1. Colleen says:

    Sir, I will join your revolution for the book. I will.

  2. Ben Tanzer says:

    Great interview, I really enjoyed this. I am also happy to join any revolution that Jason is leading. Just let me know where to sign-up and when.

  3. Nancy Moore says:

    I loved what you said about the difference between reading fiction and music. Today I was in my car driving to work, and listening to 10 at 10 which brought me back to the early 90’s with PJ Havey’s Big Fish, Little Fish Swim in the Water and Lightening Crashes by Live. Those are two of my favorite musicians from that time period and listening to them back to back reminded me of the concert which PJ Harvey opened for Live in the Greek Theater in S. Cal. But I digress, what I meant to say is as much as we love music and how it make us feel, it doesn’t compare to the imaginary world, lives and minds that we can freely create when reading a good book … not even the best drugs that money can buy could come close. So we should all be addicted to books.
    Oh and I agree with what you said about Kindle too. It is cool but in-organic. I am a “thrower”, and I broke the phone last time. Books are much safer for all involved.

  4. The Revolution begins on page one.

  5. Kevin Howard says:

    Great interview. I like how Jason considers himself lucky to have “just missed” his first train, leaving 15 more minutes to read in the empty station. I’ve been in those 15 minutes and quite enjoy them.

    Though I do not own one, I have tried the Kindle, and it is pretty great — the screen is easy to read and it does not strain your eyes like a typical LCD screen would. Plus, the near-instantaneous access to new material in the form of electronic books, magazines and newspapers is unsurpassed.

    However, there is something about holding an actual book. The feel of the pages, the smell of the paper, and noticing details of the book’s manufacture like whether the page edges are “pre-worn” and uneven, to say nothing of underlining and marginalia. Apparently Kindle allows the taking of notes, but I have not tried that.

    Read on!

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