Normally, I read a piece of fiction, then one of nonfiction, then back to fiction, and on in that pattern. I read what catches my eye and my fancy as I’m wandering the shelves at the bookstore, muttering to myself, “I need a biography, a big, thick biography,” or “Somehow I feel as if it’s time for one of those Alan Furst spy novels. You know, part historical fiction and part (usually failed) love story.”
I’m far too moody to belong to a book club. How dare anyone suggest I have to read this or that book and then show up on the second Tuesday of every month to listen to a bunch of people saying things about it that I didn’t think of first! I shake my head in wonderment at the very thought.
Sometimes I break out of the fiction-nonfiction-fiction-nonfiction pattern and take up an author or a topic. For almost a year once I read nothing but biographies of Soviet leaders—Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Beria. Multiple biographies of each of them. At other times I’ve become lost in the Tudors or Rick Atkinson’s histories of WW2 campaigns. I finished most of Anne Tyler ages ago, and come back to reread David Copperfield every few years.
At the moment, I’m reading my second Alexander McCall Smith novel, having recently finished his modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma. I go back to Austen every few years, too, so Smith’s retelling was especially fun. La’s Orchestra Saves the World, only the second Smith novel I’ve taken on, is certainly entertaining and smooth, but I think I’ll want something with more heft for my next read. Maybe something about the development and workings of ISIS or a biography of Mao. I’ll know when I start wandering the shelves at my local bookstore.
• • •
Like many of you, I don’t usually think about why I read poetry. I just do. Do you analyze why you love someone (and if so, how’s that going for you?). But I do know two qualities I experience from poetry: inspiration and amazement. Inspiration—about life but also about poetry itself, often sparking something in me to write poems as well. Amazement—well, who can get too much of genuine amazement?
So what am I reading lately? Just today before writing a poem, I had the happy notion to reread Mark Doty’s magical poem about community and individuality, “A Display of Mackerel.” Here’s another thing I love about poetry like this—what a wonderful experience it can be in spite of not necessarily “agreeing” with a poem’s main argument. I enjoy the power and evocative nature of his viewpoint, the beauty of his imagery, and the larger attempt at expressing the inexpressible. Here’s a taste, so to speak, of the mackerels in question:
…in a Tiffany window.
prismatics: think abalone,
the wildly rainbowed
mirror of a soapbubble sphere,
think sun on gasoline.
Splendor, and splendor…
You can hear and read the full poem on the Poetry magazine website here. Maybe you’ll be inspired to write something yourself.
The other poet I’m revisiting is Leonard Cohen, who died November 7th. Some say he’s bleak, even depressing. But who are we mortals to disagree with Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan, who reported, “I don’t ever find him depressing.” I agree. For me, Cohen’s work has a deep resonance and beauty. His apparent darkness also has an unsentimental yet compassionate take on life’s apparent setbacks—its griefs, its loves, and its connections. His works are gritty, and maybe for that reason, strengthening. For example, take these much quoted lines from “Anthem”: “Forget your perfect offering/There’s a crack in everything/ That’s where the light gets in.” Cohen showed us that everything may be broken when seen through our limited ideas of how things should be, but he didn’t stop there. Typically, he led us back to at least a glimmer of light and even joy.