On the infinite expansion of reading lists

Abstract digital art. An oblong shape on a dark blue background.

Over the past two decades, I’ve read fifteen hundred books. I’m not including newspapers, magazines, online articles, or sources briefly consulted. I mean books with ISBNs that I’ve read cover-to-cover. Over the same period of time, I’ve listed an additional two thousand books that I’d like to read but have not, to this day, yet read.

The “to read” list usually presents itself as a “to-do” question: When and how will I acquire copies of each book and sit with it? Won’t it take more than two decades to read them all? The “to read” list seems to prompt goal-setting. It’s an achievement that lies in my future. It’s an ambition. We are so often taught to think that way: Something we want to do is necessarily something that we are supposed to do, or else others will interpret us as disappointed, ineffectual, unhappy, and therefore pitiable.

There is a better way of understanding this phenomenon: I add books to my “to read” list at more than twice the speed that I read them. If this week is typical, I’m likely to add five books to my list, yet I can only read two. This is a permanent condition. I can’t catch up with my own list. This is not a problem. The only problem is in imagining that I can read five books a week. I can’t.

One solution is to want less. Just delete books from the list. Don’t tell people that they exist. Downsize my imagination to fit my capacity. This would make other people more comfortable around me because they would remain blissfully unaware that there are things I want to do that I will never do. I wouldn’t be giving them the terms by which to interpret me according to my unrealized potential.

But what’s wrong with having unrealized potential? The list does not have to be a source of frustration. Instead, it can represent abundance. It is the abundance of my own imagination regarding what I would like to do with my time. I may never cross everything off the list. That just means I will never run out of things I’d like to do.

‘Painting Dragons’ will be 99 cents for Kindle on Friday, July 31, 2020

If you haven’t had a chance to read Painting Dragons, now the ebook is on a flash sale! Beginning this weekend, Painting Dragons: What Storytellers Need to Know About Writing Eunuch Villains will be only 99 cents for Kindle! Put the URL in your calendar for Friday, July 31, 2020 so you don’t forget: https://amzn.to/2pU7lo1

The price goes up the longer you wait.

July 31, 2020 at 8:00 AM (PDT) $0.99
August 1, 2020 at 4:00 PM (PDT) $1.99
August 3, 2020 at 12:00 AM (PDT) $2.99
August 4, 2020 at 8:00 AM (PDT) $3.99
August 5, 2020 at 4:00 PM (PDT) $4.99
August 7, 2020 at 12:00 AM (PDT) Original list price $5.99

Painting Dragons: What Storytellers Need to Know About Writing Eunuch Villains
Painting Dragons by Tucker Lieberman

Poems read April-June 2020

Abstract digital art made from a photograph of a rainy sidewalk.

These poems made their way across my Twitter feed. I am grateful to all the people–poets, translators, and sharers–who caused them to appear.

Chris Abani, [“This is not a lamentation, damn it.”] in Santificum
Hanif Abdurraqib, “Lights Out Tonight, Trouble In the Heartland”
Kim Addonizio, “Knowledge”
Ayobami Adesina, “absence”, in Memento
Anna Akhmatova, “Everything is Plundered”
Anne-Marie Albiach, “Such Sweetness,” trans. Anthony Barnett
John Ashbery, “Wet Casements”, “Of Linnets and Dull Time”, “Composition”, “This Room”, “Girls on the Run”
Mary Jo Bang, “The Cruel Wheel Turns Twice”
Frank Bidart, “For an Unwritten Opera”
Caroline Bird, “A Surreal Joke”
Eavan Boland, “Tree of Life”, “Atlantis–A Lost Sonnet”
John Brehm, “Opening,” in Inland Empire
Adam Clay, “Only Child,” in To Make Room for the Sea
Wanda Coleman, “Red Squall”
Katie Condon, “Origin,” in Praying Naked
Eduardo C. Corral, “To Francisco X. Alarcón (1954-2016)”
H.D., “The Walls Do Not Fall”
Tadeusz Dąbrowski, “Redshift,” trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Meg Day, [“Make me a bird, Lord”]
Natalie Diaz, “Grief Work,” in Postcolonial Love Poem
Chelsea Dingman, “In America”; “How a Woman Uses the Wind,” in Through a Small Ghost
Tarfia Faizullah, “The Distance Between Fire and Stone”
Ariel Francisco, “The Sea Can Stand Anything—I Can’t,” in A Sinking Ship Is Still a Ship, and “Meditation on Patience”
Ross Gay, “Sorrow is Not My Name”
Jack Gilbert, “The Abandoned Valley,” “The Great Fires”
Allen Ginsberg, “America”
Louise Glück, “March”
Andrew Grace, “Do You Consider Writing to be Therapeutic?”
Paul Guest, “My Mock-Scale Dream”
Hilda Hilst, “XXXII,” translated by Laura Cesarce Eglin
Jane Hirshfield, “Like Others
Joanna Klink, “Some feel rain”
Randall Jarrell, “What’s the Riddle…”
Laura Jensen, “Tapwater”
June Jordan, [“There is no chance we will fall apart”]
Bob Kaufman, “I Have Folded My Sorrows”
Suji Kwock Kim, [“You must not grieve that the world…”]
Kim Kyung Ju, “Let Me In,” trans. Jake Levine
Philip Larkin, “Days”
Robin Coste Lewis, “Summer”
Ada Limón, “The End of Poetry”
Jayanta Mahapatra, “After the Death of a Friend”
Rachel McKinley, “Still”
Milosz, “Meaning”
Ben Mirov, “Monkey Heart,” in Hider Roser
Laura Moriarty, [“So then as I say I begin again…”]
Lisel Mueller, “There Are Mornings”
John Murillo, [“To preach forgiveness…”] in Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry
Hieu Minh Nguyen, “Heavy”
Frank O’Hara, “Adieu to Norman, Bon Jour to Joan and Jean-Paul
Bruno K Öijer, “[we were the last / to leave every party]” (trans. Öijer/Häggblom)
Sharon Olds, “True Love”
Lisa Olstein, “My Only Life”
Jill Osier, “The Steps in the Snow Lead Around and Around a Place Called Want,” in The Solace is Not the Lullaby
Kiki Petrosino, “Crossing”
Stanley Plumly, “At Night”
Samih Al-Qasim, “Tickets” trans. by Nazih Kassis
Pierre Reverdy, “Memory,” trans. Kenneth Rexroth
Rainer Maria Rilke, “Ich will ihn preisen. Wie vor einem Heere”
Mary Ruefle, “Genesis”
Kay Ryan, “Bitter Pill”
Umberto Saba, “Dawn,” “The Broken Window” (both were trans. George Hochfield & Leonard Nathan)
Steve Scafidi, “Ferocious Ode”
Caitlin Scarano, “How do I know when I have the truth about myself?” in The Hatchet and the Hammer
Anne Sexton, “Just Once”
Jo Shapcott, “Myself Photographed”
Brenda Shaughnessy, “All Possible Pain”
Izumi Shikibu, “[The way I must enter]”, “[Even if I now saw you]” (trans. Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani)
Adeeba Shahid Talukder, “The first three weeks of war”
Marisa Silva-Dunbar, “Americana”
Bruce Smith, “Devotion: Red Roof Inn”
Tracy K. Smith, [“Maybe desire is nothing but memory”]
Molly Spencer, “Elegy with Edge Effects,” in If the House
Mark Strand, “[even this late it happens]”
Mathias Svalina, “Wastoid,” in Wastoid
John Allen Taylor, “On the Anniversary of a Failed Suicide”
Genya Turovskaya, “The World is Not the World”
M.A. Vizsolyi, “[when i’m done what i have to do is]”
Richard Wilbur, “Juggler
Franz Wright, “[The long silences need to be loved]”
James Wright, “Hell
Dean Young, “Zero Hour”, and “Reality” in Solar Perplexus
Lu Yu, “Night Thoughts,” trans. Rexroth

Jane Alison: ‘Complex narratives are networks’

Physicists and novelists alike “strive to describe the universe and understand the relationships between all its components,” Lee Randall says in an essay for Crime Reads. She quotes Jane Alison as having written in Meander, Spiral, Explode: “All complex narratives are networks…your experience moving through them is never purely linear, but volumetric or spatial as your thoughts bounce across passages.”

Abstract digital art. You may see a human torso in it.
Abstract digital art. You may see a human torso in it.

Interviewed for Randall’s essay, S. J. Watson (author of Before I Go to Sleep) said, “This interest in understanding why is one of the things it [physics] has in common with writing and especially crime writing. Not just observing why train tracks buckle under the heat, but understanding why. Not just observing that someone murders, but understanding why you’d do that.”

If you truly know why something happens, chances are you can write a narrative that integrates this information throughout, so that you are not presenting a simple statement to the reader but rather an information network through which they can follow various paths to find the answer they seek–or perhaps an answer you didn’t even know you were providing!

The ‘situation’ is what’s unfolding

Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism; detail from book cover

“…throughout [this book] I define the genre situation in terms of the situation comedy or the police procedural. The police conventionally say: ‘We have a situation here.’ A situation is a state of things in which something that will perhaps matter is unfolding amid the usual activity of life. It is a state of animated and animating suspension that forces itself on consciousness, that produces a sense of the emergence of something in the present that may become an event.”

— Lauren Berlant

In “a situation,” as Lauren Berlant writes in her introduction to Cruel Optimism (2011), our relationships are in flux, and the very manner in which we must live out and storytell that personal or political change is also “unstable, in chaos.” Rather than think of ourselves as living in an ongoing state of exception with an ongoing set of traumas that are “exceptional shock[s]” to some presumed ordinary state, Cruel Optimism proposes that we consider ourselves as ordinarily dealing with “incoherence…in the face of threats to the good life [we] imagine.” It is thus more accurate to say that we experience “crisis ordinariness.” There is never not a crisis. Sometimes our crises just feel less prominent.

Berlant also gives us “perturbation,” which she describes in her introduction as “Deleuze’s word for disturbances in the atmosphere that constitute situations whose shape can only be forged by continuous reaction and transversal movement, releasing subjects from the normativity of intuition and making them available for alternative ordinaries.” A perturbation is a situation in which you have to make a conscious choice to act differently.

One further concept may be useful for fiction writers to attempt to distinguish whether their story focuses on the present or on a future resolution. “Transformation,” Berlant says in Chapter 2, “is always in the language of the aftertime; what the novels [The Intuitionist and Pattern Recognition] want is to provide the sensorium for a reconceptualized present.”