In Persuasion Nation

  • George Saunders
  • Riverhead Books
  • 2006

Soaping my chin with shampoo, I have run out of shaving cream and my face is prickly with stubble, I look at the book resting on the toilet seat next to a half-full teacup and wonder why I chose to read this particular volume. I cluster read. I will read three books on Shakespeare, or four novels by Tom Robbins, one after another, like scarfing down chocolate bourbons or salt and vinegar Pringles. There is rarely a connection between books. I can move from Arthur Machen’s non-fiction The London Adventures or the Art of Wandering to Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy; or from Foucault’s three-volume The History of Sexuality to the Psmith books of PG Wodehouse. I need an author to interest me, keep me interested, to replace my world for a time with theirs. I enjoy reading in the bath, in bed, in bars, and all of these places allow me time and patience to enter a shadow space and time, like an extra skin. For me, reading is both ethereal and epidermal.

Orlando is insufferable twaddle.

Scraping my skin with a less than razor-sharp razor, I find I ritualize reading. I always use a six-inch by three-inch ruled index card as a bookmark — it has a faint blue line at the top. When I was a student, I would make notes on these cards — the title would go above the faint blue line — and catalogue them for cross-referencing. I still have an index box, putty grey, which holds postcard/bookmarks — bookcards — of my readings of William S. Burroughs. These cards contain gnomic notes such as “and death instinct (see hanging) SM P40:2-3 Apocalyptic sex. ?SM P43:3-44” and “sublimation, influence, immortality, time, childhood, 9 [the aboriginal (ur poet) is the child] 13: No barriers no end of quest ?SM P26: all writing is threatened autonomy — influence/influenza virus/cut-up.” My friends give me bookmarks as gifts. I have a small collection: op-art cards with swirling hallucinogenic 3-D designs, portraits of authors (for some reason Virginia Woolf is a big hit with my female friends, who seem to think I’m a fan. I’m not really. I like To The Lighthouse, The Waves, and A Room of One’s Own, but that’s about it. Orlando is insufferable twaddle. So, if you want to buy me a postcard of a woman writer, make it Kathy Acker, Gertrude Stein, or Joan Didion). I have tens of bookmarks from bookshops. I find it impossible to go to an art gallery and not buy postcards to use as bookmarks, these appear between pages of unread or not-read-for-a-long-time-and-gathering-dust-and-insects books. Recently, I found a postcard of Francis Bacon holding beef carcasses in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, one of Samuel Beckett looking like a crack-addicted heron in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and a trilogy of Warhol car-crash prints in Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey. While in Japan, I bought postcards of Landscapes of the Four Seasons by Sesshu, and Detached Segment from the Deeds of the Zen Masters by Yintuoluo. These were, theoretically, to be used when I read Ryu or Haruki Murakami or Yukio Mishima but I know they will be found in years to come in W.G. Sebald or Cyril Connolly, causing me to spend wasted hours figuring out why I placed them there. Why? What is the point in buying them? I know I’ll continue to use the index cards. I have a stack of them in my bedroom closet but I use the same one until, having survived immersion in baths, soaking up beer, buffeting in my bag, it becomes dog-eared, stained, and vaguely transparent. People even make me postcards. My first wife would buy them and add ribbons and curls and write notes that I find difficult to read these days, not because her handwriting is as bad as mine, but because they are snapshots of a time when the books she bought me came to be, and are still, concrete reminders of loss. One Christmas, after spending the holidays with her boyfriend, a girlfriend of mine made me a bookmark out of twisted silver and gold wire; it looked like a shepherd’s crook topped with the letter S. I do not react well to receiving gifts. I respond blankly or inadequately. This time, I responded both blankly and inadequately. I could tell she was hurt and I tried to make amends but we both ended up in bad moods and, instead of having dinner together that night, we went our separate ways. She should have seen the look on my face a few Christmases past when presented with that white shirt with the square pockets, those trainers that were so not Adidas, and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral instead of Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon.

Gingerly pulling the skin under my right eye and letting it snap back so much slower than five years ago, I suddenly miss the note-covered bookcards. I no longer make notes on them. I now carry, and have a small library of, Moleskine notebooks, three-and-a-half inch by five-and-a-half inch, lined, with a pocket attached to the inside back cover (or the paste-down end paper) in which I keep tickets, notes made on napkins or scraps of paper, and, in my latest, one can find a prepayment card for a Tokyo hotel’s porn channels. I scribble quotes from books I am reading. After a month or so, I cannot read my notes because, as I mentioned above, my handwriting is, and always has been, atrocious. I rush at it, impatient, slurring words on the page as if I were drunk. So, “Ah, the memories” becomes “Vf, lha rnarnanaz.” I also list books I have read, books I want to read — differentiated by an attempt at italicization — books I own by a particular author, and books I want to buy by a particular author — this is an attempt to stop me buying multiple copies. I have managed, somehow, to buy three different copies of Philip K Dick’s The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. I also bought a third copy of Tibor Fischer’s Don’t Read This Book If You’re Stupid after having given away the two previous copies because I did not like the book — I also own Dump This Book While You Still Can and Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books both by Marcel Benabou.

One problem I have with biographies is the first twelve years or so of a writer’s life; if I can get past this stage I will read on.

Feeling the small mole just north of my right temple, I admit I enjoy books about books, books about writing, writers writing about writers writing about writing. A bible of mine in my late teens was The Paris Review’s Beat Writers at Work. I took it everywhere. It finally fell apart, crumbling to kipper-coloured dust on a Cretan beach, left to the gulls, the sand fleas, and the wind. I have a mania — compulsive and obsessive — for biographies and autobiographies of authors. On my bookshelf, I can see biographies of Jane Austen, Saul Bellow, Jorge Luis Borges, Charles Bukowski, Anthony Burgess, William S. Burroughs, and John Cheever; the memoirs of Paul Auster, Thomas Bernhard, and Italo Calvino; the letters of Julian Barnes and Raymond Chandler; and essays by Albert Camus and J.M. Coetzee. And that’s just A-C. One problem I have with biographies is the first twelve years or so of a writer’s life; if I can get past this stage I will read on. I admit to struggling with A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates but devouring Pursued By Furies: The Life of Malcolm Lowry. Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, Martin Amis’s Experience, and Juan Goytisolo’s Forbidden Territory and Realms of Strife through constant re-reading are beaten and broken specimens. Two of my favourite books are Nicholson Baker’s U&I and Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage.

Please do not despair, the dear, the gentle, I’m getting there. Honestly.

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