“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” -Samuel Beckett
I was gonna write about “Ella Minnow Pea” for this week’s long entry, but I’m gonna keep that one in my back pocket for now, and instead go on a bit of a tangent. Here’s a selection of very short essays which are related to writing and reading. Let’s call it my “32 Short Films About Glenn Gould”, only there aren’t 32 of them, they are not about Glenn Gould, and they are not films.
When I was a kid, I loved Andy Rooney. I’d sit through 60 Minutes and hoped he’d appear. He always thought of himself as a writer who appeared on television, not a tv personality. I bought collections of his columns when I was a kid. I still can recall his essay about the death of his mother. In my memory, it’s the first time I can recall reading about an adult grappling with grief. The reality is probably more complex than that. I read a few of his columns before I sat down to write this, and they didn’t really hold up well for me— most of these would have been from fairly late in his life; he lived to be 92. It was a brief survey on my part, to be sure, and I wonder if the stuff from my early adolescence would hold up, but I’m not all that curious about exploring it. It’s very much a fond memory of a certain time in my life, and it’s fine keeping it there.
However, in the re-reading I did there was one column that stood out in particular to me, named “Silence is a Wonderful Sound” and it ends thus:
“By the time I sat down at my typewriter, which is not a typewriter at all any longer, my ideal day would be cloudy with a threat of rain that discouraged my considering even grocery store travel and encouraged this kind of overwriting.”
I find that oddly beautiful, and wistful.
Rooney continued to write constantly until his death. I wish I had that sort of discipline, and I dream of putting together a sentence like that one.
When I’m asked what my favorite book is, I frequently say “Moby Dick” but the answer is more complicated, as I suspect it is with a lot of readers. We don’t have a single favorite; we have a number of them that we’ve read over the years. My first love was “The Phantom Tollbooth”, which has all of this glorious wordplay, little lessons that still resonate from time to time, and a main character who I still see myself in more than I might like:
“As he and his unhappy thoughts hurried along (for while he was never anxious to be where he was going, he liked to get there as quickly as possible) it seemed a great wonder that the world, which was so large, could sometimes feel so small and empty.”
The book ends on a happy note, with Milo no longer feeling that way about himself and the world, learning to appreciate what’s here, and while feeling he could return to The Lands Beyond, doesn’t need to because “there is so much to do here.” While I always understood that the ending was ultimately happy, I always felt a little sad because the friends he made on the way were people he’d never see again.
I didn’t yet know that was part of the human condition.
This blog began, originally, with the idea that I was going to read all of Kurt Vonnegut, in publication order, and write about them. It’s been a glorious failure. I’d like to think Kurt would have approved, if not of the blog itself, then at least the failure.
A further idea I had for this week’s “long entry” was to watch some ‘booktube’ videos about Moby Dick and compare them to my own experiences reading it. They drove me bats, and I ended up skip watching a number of them, but couldn’t handle sitting all the way through any of them.
There’s one person who had a reading group called “Hardcore Literature” (for Patreon subscribers only) which had me picturing shirtless angry men in basketball shorts yelling at me about how George Eliot is in fact not dull.
From my skip watching, they all spend an inordinate amount of time defending or discussing the ‘whaling’ parts of the book. For those not in the know, somewhere around the middle of Moby Dick, Melville becomes a sort of weird wikipedia entry about whaling, whales, whaleships, the color white, and so on. It’s challenging, for sure; none of it advances the plot. We’ll see what happens when I get there if I’m compelled to do the same, but I’ve always just seen these as a part of the map-that-shows-you-the-territory of the book. I’ve heard people call Moby Dick a prose poem as well, and use this chunk of the book as a defense of that thesis. They are wrong.
The hardcore literature guy did have an interesting point, which I’ll paraphrase, and that is that the experience of reading Moby Dick can be steeped in sort of whatever you want it to be: biblical allusions, history, experiments in narrative form, they are all in there. It’s kind of a mirror, reflecting whatever part of an image you choose to show it, slightly altered through its own story.
You get to hunt your own white whale.
I once started writing a game in Twine (a very simple game engine for text adventures; it creates branching paths for a sort of choose your own adventure text). In it, the protagonist was some sort of zombie, who had lived for so long that their memory had faded into small fragments, which they would be reminded of by certain objects, and then fade away again fairly quickly. They lived in a small shack, deep in the woods, didn’t need to eat, and suffered from a constant feeling of cold. There was meant to be some sort of inciting incident which would encourage them to explore the world around them, and they would discover, then remember that the world had been plagued by the same disorder that afflicted them— it had effectively stopped dying.
I never found a place for it to go— there were all kinds of scenarios envisioned, including one in which the remaining mortals set out to physically obliterate the immortals, or that the immortals were choosing to do so themselves, and on and on until I abandoned the entire project, partly due to that, and partly due to an irritation with some of the limitations of Twine— something I probably should have embraced.
Being creative is a weird process; sometimes the lack of limitations can kill you. One of the reasons I stopped making electronic music and picked up a ukulele is because the possibilities are limited. You have four strings and a few frets, and a much more limited range than even a guitar.
Of course, I set out complicating that, and now own an electric uke with a whammy bar that I play through a small array of pedals in a surf-punk band. But I still keep an acoustic one in the living room, and that’s the one I use the most, fucking around with scales and chords and other nonsense in the living room while I watch TV. The limitations are still attractive.
Writing about reading is my attempt to keep up those limitations; maybe someday I’ll plug back into the pedalboard.
I frequently fall asleep to various youtube videos; this leads the algorithm to recommend videos that people fall asleep to. One of them contained this sentence in its description: “Fall asleep instantly within 3 minutes”.
So many possibilities.
One more thought about my abandoned zombie game. The protagonist was simply alive because they had a daily routine that they had failed to break out of: collect firewood, look for damage to their cabin, repair said damage, and read— because their memory was faulty, they constantly read the same book over and over. I never determined what the book was. In an early draft, it was the bible, later on it became ‘a book’, and in a third one it was supposed to be a semi-autobiographical novel they had written and were famous for before the world changed/ended.
The idea that our daily routines are some sort of prison or a kind of undeath is fairly well trod ground. We’re all shuffling through life in some manner or other. Maybe the ultimate problem with the idea is that it needed a trip through The Phantom Tollbooth.
About 25% of my editing time on this blog is spent correcting “it’s” to “its” where appropriate. It is a fine point on which to conclude.