In late 2011 I decided, in the hopes of keeping my library down to a manageable size, to comb through the unread sections in alphabetical order. It was a naïve, Sisyphean project, and it will take forever—so I’d better get moving. Shelf Defense is my occasional notebook about what I dig up, from Alphabet Juice to Point Omega.
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SAMUEL BECKETT, MALONE DIES (1951, TRANS. SAMUEL BECKETT)
WHY DO I OWN THIS?: I think I found it at a clearance sale at my university.
THOUGHTS: It’s not easy to talk about Beckett with any kind of moral nuance—at least, nothing that doesn’t land on the most pessimistic corner of the continuum of human nature. And since I’m not interested in choosing between shades of black, like a customer in the world’s most depressing paint store, we don’t really get along. So it’s no surprise that Malone Dies repels me almost magnetically. It’s the middle section of a trilogy (part one is Molloy, part three The Unnameable), so maybe there are some key ingredients I’m missing. But its semi-lucid soliloquy, delivered by an old amnesiac who wakes up in either hospital or an asylum, is just as dour and encrusted in bitterness as I’d come to expect. I don’t find Beckett’s much-touted sense of humour that persuasive, either, though there is an admirable dedication to lines like ”Much water has passed beneath Butt Bridge, in both directions.” Later a man in Malone’s story tries to have sex with a woman by “folding [his penis] in two and stuffing it in with his fingers.” No thanks. We disagree too strongly on the basic premise here. If not goodness, it has to at least be curiosity, or hope. Life isn’t constantly worrying whether someone has poisoned your soup, and the world isn’t an irredeemable toilet. I mean, sure, if you go looking for nihilism, eventually you’ll find it. But why would anyone go looking for that?
KEEP OR SELL: Sell.
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ROBERT E. BELKNAP, THE LIST (2004)
WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Because I love lists, and because they had it at the University of Alberta’s discount bookstore a few months ago.
THOUGHTS: One late night online, while working on my undergrad honours essay, about something I called “pre-encyclopaedism” in Moby-Dick, I came across a book-length study of the list in fiction. It was a perfect match for part of what I was interested in, but I didn’t buy it, or even write down the title. It disappeared. Now, that book wasn’t The List—I’m about 85% sure of this—but as I read it, I kept hoping to find something I could have thrown into that essay retroactively. I never found it. Belknap’s book is too cursory, too timid to really dig into the dirt of how lists operate in Emerson, Whitman, Melville, and Thoreau. I want close reading, not block quotes. I want it laid out like algebra: Item A introduces the concept, Item B builds on it, Item C twists it in this direction, etc. What about the way length and rhythm affect surrounding items? The role of titles? Subversion? Humour? There is real juice to the idea of the science of lists, but Belknap doesn’t squeeze hard enough to find it. I did enjoy learning some more about Emerson, and Melville and Ishmael are always mensches. Thoreau, I still don’t know. And Whitman… actually, I’m realizing Whitman is kind of the anti-Beckett. Where Beckett could insult a rainbow in five words or less (and probably has), Whitman thinks every last goddamn rock on the path in front of his house deserves dozens of lines of poetry that verge on press-release levels of excitement. Neither one is believable. I need writers who find a way to split the difference.
KEEP OR SELL: Sell.