When Between the Lines (BtL) launched in July, 2009, I had big dreams. I imagined it would become as wildly popular as Avatar or Glee, or at least as widely snickered at as Jesse James, a.k.a. The Vanilla Gorilla. (I wonder, can Vanilla sign I’m sorry like Koko?) Alas, BtL hasn’t gained any celebrity at all. In fact, BtL has one (count it!) one e-mail subscriber. And that hardly counts because she has an unflattering crush on me—sorry, hotChick4books. BtL averages about 2,300 hits per month, which seems like a tidy sum. But when you factor out the lame-ass search terms like “why?” or “outhouse,” that tidy sum gets decimated, fast. But my biggest complaint by far is the excessive amount of time it takes to find people—good, funny, insightful readers—who like yarnin’ about books. It’s wreaking havoc on my reading, you see, and that’s simply unacceptable. I’m six months behind on Proust! I’ve delayed Dickens! And who knows when I’ll get to Agnar Mykle and Graham Greene. So. After a lot of soul-searching, BtL is checking into sex rehab, where it can take a good, long look at itself. Sex rehab, not isolated confinement. Which means that visitors are welcome. So if you or someone you know want to help BtL on its path to recovery, drop me a line. I’ll send questions, which I’ve patiently stored like a squirrel, and you can take a crack at them. Lastly, I’m blogging at Interpolations where I periodically share my thoughts on books and stuff.
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.
Sally Weigle is a sophomore at DePaul Univeristy. She made her writing debut last fall with the novella Too Young to Fall Asleep. Besides reading and writing, she enjoys iced coffee, floral prints, and walking around bare foot. For more on Sally, please visit her website, where her published writings can be found.
Who are you?
I am a 19-year-old Chicagoan who spends my time biking, exploring, adventuring, writing, and reading. When I am not reading, I am studying to get a degree in English literature and when I am not studying, I am on the back porch of my apartment drinking coffee with friends.
What was the last book you read, and how did you like it?
The last book I read was Evasion, whose author is unknown. The book is published with CrimethInc. Workers’ Collective, and the author’s identity is purposefully kept from the reader in order to keep with the company’s underground, punk manifesto. The book chronicles a young kid who lives outside the confines of corporate America by train-hopping, squatting, and dumpster diving. I read it for research for my next story. There’s a whole culture of young anarchist punks running around America and writing about their experiences as they protest the capitalist structure. Although one of these kids wrote Evasion, there still is very little, if any at all, literary fiction on the subject. I’m hoping to delve into the subject of this sub-culture for my next story. Stay tuned.
Do you ever kiss a line, a page, or a cover of a book?
Yes, all the time! I have journals full of lines or pages of books, articles, comics and song lyrics that I have had the desire to kiss because it moves me. If my house were to set on fire, I would without a doubt grab my journals first to save from the flames. The last quote I wrote down was from an interview I read with author Paul Auster. He was asked about the “isolation fantasies” present in his fiction and said, “There’s love and certainly children you care about more than yourself. But nevertheless, we’re alone in our heads.” I totally agree. I’m a quiet person myself, but I’ve come to the conclusion it’s because my mind is elsewhere a good portion of my day. I’m a terrible driver for this reason as well. It’s not that I don’t know how to drive, it’s just that the minute I get into a car, my mind thinks of storylines or interactions I had with people that day or how the tree down the block looks mesmerizing with the daylight sun shining through its leaves. Even if I share my thoughts, at the end of the day, no one knows what’s going through my head.
What is the greatest treasure you’ve unearthed at a used bookstore?
Eugene Ionseco’s The Hermit. I had read Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros and fell in love with it. After reading it though, I wanted to see how Ionesco went about writing a novel. I had his novel The Hermit on my must read list for a year before I found it in a small, used bookstore in Chicago. I’m happy I did because I almost died when I read the following excerpt: “I thought that it was strange to assume that it was abnormal for anyone to be forever asking questions about the nature of the universe, about what the human condition really was, my condition, what I was doing here, if there was really something to do. It seemed to me on the contrary that it was abnormal for people not to think about it, for them to allow themselves to live, as it were, unconsciously. Perhaps it’s because everyone, all the others, are convinced in some unformulated, irrational way that one day everything will be made clear. Perhaps there will be a morning of grace for humanity. Perhaps there will be a morning of grace for me.” I read this in high school, as an introspective, curious person surrounded by many self-absorbed teenagers, so the quote resounded with me, to say the least.
Can wisdom be found in novels?
I read because I am so adamant that wisdom can be found in novels. The amazing thing with literature is that it changes people in the most effective way. People rarely change their lifestyle or mindset because someone tells them to. Literature, on the other hand, allows a person to go through the conflict of another individual as if they are going through it themselves. And if the story is successful, the reader changes at the end of the story with the protagonist. It’s a different kind of wisdom in novels. The reader is given enough freedom to decide whether or not they want to be changed and in what way they want to be changed.
How important is plot to you?
Very, very important. For a long time, I wrote stories without plots. It was more akin to poetry. Now I write plots and storylines and poetry naturally surfaces in my writing. If I’m lucky, not only does poetry surface but so does theme and meaning. In the beginning of my writing process, all I start with is a plot. I do this because I think the plot is the part of the story that needs to be crafted most carefully. It rarely comes out organically. If you try to write without thinking of plot, most likely you will end up writing a story without action and thus, no clear beginning or end. Plot needs to be imagined, forced and constructed before writing even begins, in my opinion. Although, rarely do I construct just how the character deals with the plot. Almost every aspect of writing for me springs forth from me during the writing process, except for plot. That being said, as a reader, the plot doesn’t usually become the main component of the story for me. I do not need a lot to happen but I do need something to happen. The characters and the writing are most important when reading, but I think the plot needs to be there, almost invisibly.