Late last year, I was flipping through some passages in some of Edmund White’s books (A Boy’s Own Story, Hotel de Dream, Proust). I was also reading a bit about him, and I realized that I hadn’t read many of the novels he claimed as antecedents. I’d dealt with queer theory and criticism at the margins of my own research but for a variety of reasons had never systematically read through the major works or the corpus that served as its rough working canon. Curious, I sat down and put together an initial bibliography and began reading. Now, a couple months on I’m still reading, I’m revising and building that bibliography and, most importantly, I’m excited.
The past couple years have not been easy ones intellectually. When I settled into a job at a non-research institution with a non-liberal arts focus, I initially felt a sense of freedom: without the burden of teaching my research, I began to read with fewer constraints than I had in years. The very specific pleasures of picking a novel for its cover and reading it blind or picking based on a friend of a friend’s recommendations became more and more my norm. I could and did read anything. Unfortunately, I think this blog shows — without me meaning it to — that this got old quickly and that I’ve read with a fair amount of boredom for awhile now.
In part, I was reading a lot of books that weren’t very good. When I read ones that that were, I often lacked a context (or even a reason) for engaging with them in a meaningful way. So I was reduced to observing, noticing, and, when something was noteworthy, calling it out. But nothing stuck or built up. I was simultaneously struggling with my seemingly ever expanding and increasingly administrative responsibilities at work. Forced to choose between unsatisfying reading (and so nothing to write about) and complicated, “important,” problems at work, I slowly and without noticing devoted more and more of my mental life to helping to run a school.
I didn’t consciously turn to White’s novels for guidance but that’s what they offered by reminding me about the manner in which I’ve always read. For good or for ill, I’ve never been satisfied with random observation. Even as a kid, I always had what I called “my research projects.” I’d be curious about something and would go to the library and check out everything I could about it and would read until I felt I knew what I wanted to know. Then I’d move on to the next project. And there was always a next project because I was always bouncing from one thing to the next as my interests led me.
Sometimes my questions were simple and easily answered; at other times, complicated and involved. Once a very young me figured out what lips were. That was pretty easy. Learning Greek mythology — a childhood passion — took time. Curiosity was my guide not seriousness, and my curiosity always provided its own context and purpose even when I couldn’t put my finger on it at first: I once spent the better part of a year in my early twenties reading crap book after crap book about astrology and the tarot, wondering why on earth I was doing it, but keeping it up until I felt done. When I finally did and looked back, I realized that I’d just explored a highly developed and convoluted instance of archetypal interpretation that was distinct from Biblical exegesis. I found that interesting.
I’ve also always been an encyclopedic reader. I stumble upon a writer, become interested, and then read in a burst, often in chronological order, everything they’ve written up to that point. The first time I remember doing this was with Lloyd Alexander when I was twelve; the next was with Stephen King the summer turned I fourteen. Sometimes this led to great things: I discovered Faulkner and spotted the patterns I wrote a dissertation about by reading in the this way. Sometimes it didn’t: my summer of Stephen King turned me off him irremediably. The thing is though, that however random these bursts were — I often discovered these writers by chance — the bodies of works provided their own context. Operating as an oeuvre, they directed my thinking about my reading in the same way that my curiosity — expressed as a question — pointed my way in the library.
All of this may sound like ridiculous nostalgia but it’s not: I’m not yearning to return to some imaginary, childlike ideal. (Blech!) Rather, I’ve realized in the past few days that flipping through White’s novels last December was the beginning of a new curiosity-based project. My bibliography is me once again working through a corpus that provides individual works with a context and that the books I’ve read are already building upon each other. Seeing this I recognize that there’s something in this arrangement of things that fits with my disposition and supports the better angels of my nature. It’s a happy recognition because, looking back over the past year and a half of this blog, I realize how very boring it is to be bored. So good riddance.