Grant Faulkner is Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month and the co-founder of 100 Word Story. His stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, The Southwest Review, PANK, Gargoyle, eclectica, and Puerto del Sol, among dozens of other journals. His collection of one hundred 100-word stories, Fissures, was released last week.
The interesting thing about my reading life is how messy and sprawling it’s gotten. When I was younger, I seemed to read with greater focus, reading only two or three books at a time, and reading them much more quickly than I do now.
I don’t think “messy” and “sprawling” have to carry negative connotations, though. The sprawl is good because I’m curious, so my reading is wide-ranging and somewhat unbridled. Perhaps more importantly, I’m increasingly moody, so I need to have a variety of books in motion to match the finicky needs of my odd and unpredictable states.
As a result, I have several stacks of books, all contending to be read, like children asking for a parent’s attention. These are the books that have made it out of the confines of a small bookshelf I purchased solely to prioritize the books to be read next on my list. I wonder if there will someday be a structure for yet another tier of books classified as “to be read after the ‘to be read’ books are read.”
Some of the books in my pile will be read and read again. Some will be paged through and dismissed. Some will never be read, or I’ll reach out for them just as I die, and say, “But …”
Books that accompany me to the front porch on moody Saturday mornings
I like to drift on Saturday mornings. That first hour of the day is somewhat sacred because I know it will soon be eclipsed by life concerns, whether it’s a child’s soccer game or even the business of writing. I want my thoughts to traipse gently, and without any determined direction, like the fog that I’ll sometimes find on one of the perfect mornings when I stow myself away on the bench on the front porch.
So I read things that inspire drifting. I’ve been reading Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems—both because it’s the 50th anniversary of the book and because I like the curious meandering of O’Hara’s mind as he walks about town noticing things. I’ve spent many a lunch in my lifetime trying to reclaim the poetry of my mind on a dreary day of work.
John Berryman’s Dream Songs also often accompanies me. I’d initially planned to read one dream song a day this year (there are 385), but my peripatetic reading style took over, so it might be more of a two-year project.
And then I’ll often wisp through A Lover’s Discourse by Roland Barthes, picking up an idea or a phrase to riff on in my journal. Barthes is perfect to drop in and out of. I’m almost always reading something by Barthes.
The books in my satchel
These are the books of the day, the books that accompany me on commuter trains and trips.
I decided that re-reading is as important as reading books for the first time (and perhaps more important), so I’m now re-reading Tender is the Night, my favorite book by Fitzgerald. I haven’t read it in 25 years or so, and since it’s a novel partly about the passing of youth, I thought it would be interesting to inhabit Dick Diver’s demise now that I’m an older man.
I recently got the fortuitous chance to spend an evening with Peter Coyote, a remarkable man of much wisdom and many experiences. I’m reading his memoir, The Rainman’s Third Cure, which explores his life and his mentors. We can never have enough mentors, and it’s an interesting exercise to identify and reflect on my own mentors.
And then I try to keep one book on writing going at all times, so I’ve been re-reading Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. It’s a comforting book for a writer like me, who doesn’t expect to make any money from writing, but approaches it with almost religious purpose.
The books that go on for years
I love books about alcoholic writers. If I were abandoned on a deserted island and had to choose a short list of books, they’d all be by and about that wonderful pantheon of gloriously reckless and doomed alcoholic scribes. Someday I’d like to teach a course on novels written by alcoholics.
I just finished Blake Bailey’s amazing biography of John Cheever. I’m now reading Cheever’s letters, the collection of all of his short stories, and I plan to read his journals, of course.
I’ve heard it said that writers nurture their anguish, burnishing it daily with their words. That anguish can be such a strange friend or enemy, an endlessly interesting spiritual center. Cheever held such anguish, a secret that guided and crippled him. Yet perhaps it also made life a much more interesting affair.
Books that taunt me
If I ever read Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers, I should treat myself to a trip to Paris. Or perhaps I should treat myself to a trip to Paris just to read it. It’s been staring at me for years now.
It seems unlikely that I’ll read David Foster Wallace‘s Infinite Jest. I’d like to take a poll of the number of people who own Infinite Jest and have read it. I think the percentage would be low.
I wonder how I can die without reading Proust. That defines the injustice of life, that I might die without reading Proust. But there he is, waiting for me, whispering that there will never be a perfect time to read him, so I should read him now.
The books that are next
After Tender Is the Night, James Salter’s Light Years awaits re-reading. I’ve heard Virginia Woolf’s The Waves described as a prose poem, and I’m very interested in thinking of the novel as a prose poem because that seems to be the way I’m most inclined to write.
On that note, I can’t wait to read Peter Matthiesen’s Far Tortuga, a story pieced together in fragments. And then there’s Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation, written in a similar manner. Since I write flash fiction, and am increasingly drawn to an aesthetic of brevity, I plan to write a novel that is essentially a collection of little shards pieced together.
Are you a moody reader? What would you choose for first thing Saturday morning before life gets in the way? For last thing before lights out?