I have a question for all you kind visitors to my page, writers and non-writers, critics and non-critics alike: How do you read? Not what. How? I'm interested in what you have to say (You can reply here at the Red Room, or e-mail me at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net)
I ask because, I seriously wonder if I'd ever make it as a professional book critic. This is because I'm a slow reader and always have been. Among the reasons are that my attention wanders frequently, and it sometimes requires a hard yank on the leash. An idea in the text will launch my mind off the pages into other, entirely different, spaces.
Maybe I should quit reading. It's too distracting.
My problem becomes acute with short-story collections. With a TBR pile as tall as La Tour Eiffel, my approach to collections is to read five stories over the course of a few days and then open up the next novel. Back and forth I hop and bounce, until the collection is done.
While reading Robert W. Chambers' 1895 classic "The Repairer of Reputations," from American Fantastic Tales: Poe to the Pulps, Vol 1., (edited by Peter Straub), I found myself musing on how one of this amazing story's ideas-a literary work that causes its readers to go mad (one only thread of this stunning, inventive tale)-is echoed today in such contemporary horror films as Ringu/The Ring. That kept me cogitating for about 15 minutes.
While reading Fitz James O'Brien's eerie and funny "What Was It?" (about a most elusive and rambunctious roommate) my mind fluttered off to ponder how I might update and reset this story in the bleak-scape of my current residence of Emeryville. After a few moments of staring at the scene unfolding in the ether of my cozy reading nook, I scrawled some notes . . . before I snapped to and realized I had a book in my lap. I fumbled back into the narrative, splashing helplessly about, my eyes pawing through paragraphs of text: "Now where the hell was I? What happened? What was it . . . I was reading?"
And when I finally finished reading American Fantastic Tales only last week and sat down to write a review, I was gonged by another kind of horror as I realized I'd forgotten everything I wanted to say, even about my favorite stories. (What? Get caught up in the deep serpentine mindscape of Henry James' "The Jolly Corner" again?)
I take few notes when I read. I often re-read parts of a book I'm reviewing, especially one by an author whose work I know and admire. I used to take no notes at all, but realized that, with my mind wandering about like my cat nuzzling the floor for crumbs, I'd better keep a notebook handy.
Yes, a notebook. I never write in books. My mother was a librarian and in her world, writing in books was always a grave and cardinal sin. This lesson is now the superstructure of my DNA's staircase. It's worse now that I'm a fuss-pot bibliophile. Fill the sacred margins of my finely bound, box-set, first edition of American Fantastic Tales with my chicken-scratch? What do you mean "Buy an extra copy and write in that"? What, do I look like I live inside Donald Trump's ATM?
I recall my stunned reaction when reading how book reviewers scrawl page after page in their review copies, like eager medieval illuminators. I recall how I rolled on my heels when a fellow reader told me how they always buy two copies of every book.
For what he spent buying two copies of the same book, I thought, I could buy at least two completely different books.
I occasionally buy a used book only to discover its pages have been scarred with loose scrawl ("Who cares about a goddamn whale? Remember--buy itch cream"). The sight rips my nerves open. How did I become so anal, I who snicker at toy collectors who will only accept tchotchke that's still vacuum-locked inside its original packaging, like an amberized prehistoric insect? Collectors who will never take them out and play with them? Like toys were meant to be! (At least I read my books!)
How can I bring myself to scribble in the bleak white spaces of one of H.P. Lovecraft's very best stories, "The Thing on the Doorstep"? ("H.P. poignantly portrays emotions and human relationships. Rare for him! Easy on the adjectives, Howard! Lost genius of American letters! Where's Max Perkins et al when a fella needs him?").
Maybe I should get over it. At least I can try. Last weekend, while attending the Northern California Independent Bookseller's Association convention, I picked up a free unproofed review copy of an upcoming bit of Nabokoviana, a novel called Cleaning Nabokov's House by Leslie Daniels, due out in March (close to the same time as my novel Dragon's Ark). I'm sure to review it.
And so, I hereby solemnly swear to scribble notes in the margins of this book, even though my Mom's Librarian Eyes will surely glow and glare menacingly from the Other Side.
To paraphrase the doorman who was trying persuade reluctant Jack Benny to come into his museum, "You might as well write in it, Mr. Burchfield. It's free!"
Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark will be published March 2011 by Ambler House Publishing. His essays and blog entries can be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be approached on Facebook, followed on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe[at] sbcglobal [dot] net.
Causes Thomas Burchfield Supports
The Nature Conservancy; Africare; Capitol Public Radio