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Book/Kindle Update, 3

February 14, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

On New Year’s Day, I wrote a post about a book I had just finished reading, William Langewiesche’s Fly by Wire: The Geese, the Glide, the Miracle on the Hudson. I also took the opportunity to discuss, again, my experience with the Kindle, as well as mentioning yet again the two books I had been eager to read for months, which I anticipated reading next, Liaquat Ahamed’s Lords of Finance, The Bankers Who Broke the World and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.

In the following days, I began to read Lords of Finance, describing a few days later how I was alternating between reading the physical version and the Kindle version, depending on whether I was sitting up during the day or lying in bed at night, and wishing there were a way for the Kindle to know where I was in the physical book so it could jump ahead as needed.

Five weeks later, I regret to report that my reading of Lords of Finance stalled. Not because of lack of interest. I was thoroughly enjoying the book, and learning a lot about pre-depression economic issues in Europe and the US.

Rather, the three trips we took in January diverted my attention and brought my book reading to a halt. Then, two weeks ago, on our return from the final trip, I read Michael Bérubé’s review in the NYT of Louis Menand’s new book The Marketplace of Ideas and immediately bought the Kindle version. I had read other reviews earlier in January and looked at it on Amazon, but I don’t think it was available for the Kindle yet.

One of the benefits of the Kindle, if a book is available for it, is the ability to read a review, decide to buy the book, and be reading it two minutes later. Alas, this is also one of the Kindle’s disadvantages, as one is prone to impulse buying of books one might otherwise never have bothered to buy or read. In the case of the Menand book, I’ll call it an advantage, though it did take me further away from Lords of Finance.

The Menand slender book comprises four essays: The Problem of General Education, The Humanities Revolution, Interdisciplinarity and Anxiety, and Why Do Professors All Think Alike? I suppose it’s not exactly a general interest book, but it’s certainly up my alley. I found the first two particularly interesting, whereas the fourth struck me as unconvincing in its argument. Given the specialized nature of the book, I won’t go on about it. (But perhaps I should add a few words about who Menand is, for those unfamiliar with him. He’s a regular contributor to The New Yorker, so you may have seen his essays there. He is also the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard. Among his books is The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America, a brilliant and beautifully written 2002 study of the development of pragmatism in the US in the nineteenth century.)

One annoyance in reading Menand’s book on the Kindle is that to read a footnote, one must navigate down to the footnote marking with the clumsy five-way button, then click on it. After reading the footnote, one can pus the back button to return to the text. Maybe this is no worse than having to flip to the endnotes of a physical book, but it seemed so.

I should return to Lords of Finance now. And then Wolf Hall. But I’ve just bought two more books, one physical and one Kindle. The physical one, due to arrive on Tuesday, is Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey: A Novel. It’s been getting a lot of attention and rave reviews, to which I succumbed. I missed Michiko Kakutani’s review of it in the NYT two and a half weeks ago or I might have ordered it sooner. The review came out the day we went from New York to Washington, D.C. I did read the paper that day. I don’t know how I missed it. But there’s no missing the reviews and stories from this past week: the review in the WSJ on Friday (which was the first one to catch my eye), the NYT background piece on Mason and the book earlier in the week, and the review in today’s NYT Sunday book review.

I’ll quote from Timothy Harrington’s WSJ review:

Zachary Mason’s marvelous “The Lost Books of the Odyssey” purports to be a translation of a “pre-Ptolemaic papyrus” discovered in the Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus, the real-life site of an ancient trash dump that has yielded many valuable papyri. Mr. Mason says in his preface that the papyrus contains “concise variations on Odysseus’s story that omit stock epic formulae in favor of honing a single trope or image down to an extreme of clarity.”

Thus the novel unfolds as a constellation of 44 discrete sections, averaging only a few pages each, that revise and recombine images, characters and episodes from the original. The result is one of the most idiosyncratic versions yet of Odysseus’s 10-year journey home to the island of Ithaca after the Trojan War, an epic voyage that—in the traditional telling—sees him plunged into countless adventures while his wife, Penelope, fends off dozens of suitors, refusing to believe that her beloved is dead.

As the tales from “the lost books” accumulate, the effect is both poignant and unsettling—there is a repetitive fever-dream effect as Odysseus returns home over and over, sometimes greeted by Penelope, sometimes not. The stories’ wonderful variety reflects the cunning, resourceful character of Odysseus himself; it is no coincidence that his signature epithet in Greek, “polytropos”—”much-turning, versatile, wily”—shares a root with the English “trope.”

I realize that I should re-read The Odyssey first if I wish to get the most out of the book, but I plan simply to plunge in.

When I previewed today’s Sunday NYT book review on-line yesterday, I saw not just the latest review of the Mason book, but also a short review, in Marilyn Stasio’s regular round-up of crime novels, of Robert Crais’s latest, The First Rule. Two summers ago, I read its predecessor, Chasing Darkness, and last summer I was wondering when the next one was due. On seeing Stasio’s mini-review, I thought maybe I was ready for another crime novel, but before buying it, I looked for longer reviews. It turns out I had missed a positive review in our own Seattle Times on the first Sunday of January. There was also a good review in the LA Times that week. Since Crais’s novels take place in LA, I figured the LA Times review carries some authority, so that was good enough for me. I bought it for my Kindle.

Alas, I had forgotten that if one is going to read crime novels, one has to have the stomach for gruesome crimes. I started it right away, but a few pages in (well, you know, this is the Kindle. It doesn’t operate in the world of pages. I’m guessing we’re 3-4 pages in.), these guys busted into a house and I decided to put the book aside for now, just short of the gruesomeness.

But if I’m going to put Lords of Finance aside for fiction, why am I reading about Odysseus and LA crime rather than the world of Henry VIII, Thomas More, and Thomas Cromwell, as depicted by Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall? Good question. And in case I was inclined to ignore it, I couldn’t after bringing in the new issue of The Atlantic yesterday and discovering Christopher Hitchen’s enthusiastic review of Wolf Hall.

A couple of weeks at home to catch up on reading would be welcome. But that won’t be happening. In fact, I have two more trips planned in the coming three weeks. Oh well.

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