For the first two months of this project, I posted a list of “things I learned from reading [the author of the month]” at the end of each month. I’d kept a page in my journal set aside to log in ideas as they came up, and by the end of each of the first two months I had eight or ten possible “lessons learned” to play with.
This month, the “things I learned” page was empty.
At first I thought the reason might be that I was mostly reading from an anthology of very diverse authors. The stories were unique. The voices were unique. The only thing that connected them was that the writers had ties to “the South,” a nebulous concept that appeared to be defined loosely as a combination of geography, culture, and use of language.
Then I started noodling with my pen while I thought back over my July reading experience. I was surprised to see a list of questions emerging on the page:
1. Amy Hempel says in her introduction to New Stories from the South that she choice stories that struck her “as distinctly Southern in character, stance or voice.” If literature is supposed to be about “the human condition,” why are regional and even national differences in literature apparent? Are the differences significant? Why or why not?
2. Does easy Internet access change anything about the relationship between “information” and “story?”
3. My list of reasons to tell stories still feels inadequate. Why do we tell stories? What do we tell, to whom, and why? When do we lie actively, and when by omission?
4. Why did I keep Ship Fever for fifteen years without trying again to read it? What other story collections are hiding and silent on my “keepers” shelves, and why haven’t I looked at them again? Am I really going to get around to reading all those books some day?
5. I still don’t feel like I have a handle on the “human condition” or “human complexity” that is supposed to be at the heart of a story. Why are some kinds of human conditions, like failing or failed relationships, deemed more appropriate than others as subjects for literary fiction?
I think I’m okay with a month of questions instead of answers. Maybe even better than okay. It’s probably a sign that this reading project is stretching my thoughts, moving me outside of my comfort zone. I’m growing as a reader and as a human being.
This is not totally unfamiliar territory. When I was on active duty, I changed job assignments every 18 – 24 months. The first couple of months in a new military assignment are commonly understood to be “drinking from a firehose” – being overwhelmed by information overload. Every day brings new challenges and frustrations; every day, one runs like a hamster in a wheel just to catch up. Around the third month, a set of “big questions” begins to coalesce from the flotsam and jetsam. The next couple months are spent attempting to answer them. By the sixth month, one starts to feel competent and in control of the demands of the assignment: this is the “danger zone,” in which lack of true understanding and overconfidence usually cause a major screw-up.
Fortunately, reading short stories and blogging about them isn’t likely to get anyone killed.
It’s time to slow down, though. In July, because concentration was difficult – YOU try taking notes on literary fiction by flashlight in a bug-filled canvas tent when it’s 98 degrees outside! – I read a great deal, but made very few notes. I suppose this is the point of “beach reading.” Regrettably, the stories I chose were not intended to be mindless entertainment, and even though I enjoyed them, I don’t feel like I was able to give most of them my best effort.
But Scout camp season has ended, my air conditioner is working nicely, and the shorter works of Leo Tolstoy are on the calendar for August. (And the kids go back to school on the 24th, which will free up some time in the middle of the day.) I intend to plow through as much Tolstoy as I can in the original Russian, starting with “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” which I loved in translation. Time to dust off the Smirnitsky. I need to get back to work if I’m going to know enough about reading short stories to be dangerous three months from now.