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.
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 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.