I’ve been waiting months for this podcast episode. Tyler Cowen and Lydia Davis did not let me down.
For a writer of her stature, Lydia openly admits she finds very long books hard to approach:
COWEN: Do you think the late Thomas Pynchon became unreadable, that somehow it was just a pile of complexity and it lost all relation to the reader? Or are those, in fact, masterworks that we’re just not up to appreciating?
DAVIS: Since I hesitated to even open the books, I can’t answer you, because I do find — not all long books — but very long, very fat books a little hard to approach, and some of them, I try over and over. If I sense that it’s really a load of verbiage, I really don’t. I fault myself for not having the patience to get through at least one, say, late Pynchon, but I haven’t.
Don’t despair! Lydia Davis also struggled to read Ulysses. It took two cracks and a move to Ireland for her to finish:
I had a problem a long time ago trying to read Ulysses by Joyce, and started it twice, and finally read it when I lived in Ireland, which made it much easier because I had his context. That too — I suppose because it had different chapters, each of which approached the ongoing story in a very different way — I found that possible too.
I’m believing more and more, that what great books do, what the internet at it’s brightest light does, is make introductions.
Today’s introduction? The Catalan writer Josep Pla:
There’s a book by a Catalan writer called Josep Pla that’s called The Gray Notebook. That’s very fat, but I keep going back to it and delighting in it, but I’m not reading it all at once. I’m going back to it and just sort of nibbling away at it. It was an amazing project. He took an early, very brief diary of his when he was 21, I think, and it only covered a year and a half. He kept going back to it rather than publishing it. He kept going back to it and expanding it with more memories and more material, and I love that idea. Maybe that’s why I can read it.
Lydia admits the Harry Potter series didn’t captivate her. She preferred the writing in Philip Pullman’s The Dark Materials trilogy. But she understands, Harry Potter’s greatest value is hooking kids on reading:
COWEN: How would you articulate why you don’t like the Harry Potter novels?
DAVIS: That’s fairly easy, although I should have a page in front of me. It’s always better if you have the page, and you can say, “Look at this sentence, look at that sentence.” At a certain point, my son was reading Harry Potter as kids do and did. I think he was probably 11 or 10 or 11, 12, 9 — I don’t know. Also, the Philip Pullman trilogy, whose name I always forget. I thought it would be a lot of fun to read the Harry Potter books because I knew a lot of grownups were reading them and enjoying them. I thought, “This is great. There are a lot of them.”
But when I tried to read them, I didn’t like the style of writing, and I didn’t like the characters, and I didn’t like anything about them. Whereas, I opened the first Philip Pullman book and read the first page and said, “This is wonderful. The writing here is wonderful.” I really think there’s an ocean of difference. I wouldn’t put down the Harry Potter books because, as we know, they got a lot of kids reading and being enraptured with books. I think that matters more than anything, really — getting kids hooked on reading.
Brilliant and insightful. Do give it a listen or read the transcript in full here.
Robinson lived a tortured life. His parents died while he was still a young man. He battled alcoholism. He was in love with his brother’s (Herman) wife Emma. And worked probably the worst day job of all time – 10 hours a day walking the darkness as a New York Subway time-checker. He once went an 11 year stretch without publishing a poem. And when finally published, the critics ridiculed his poetry. But despite life’s beat-downs, he found the fortitude to keep writing.
Dana Gioia snapped my synapses when he shared this definition of the novel:
It’s hard to think of a novel that doesn’t follow this idea. I’m sure there’s some experimental four hundred pager out there, but the novels I truly know all exhibit this tension between the characters inner and outer life.
In Tolkien’s The Hobbit – Bilbo duels between his craving for comfortable Shire life and his Took instincts for adventure.
In Jeff Smith’s Bone – Fone Bone longs to return to Boneville, but harbors a secret love for Thorn who could never follow him there (Graphic novels count too right?).
Or in Jhumpa Lahiri’sThe Namesake – Gogol’s divided between the need to honor his parents and his traditional Indian heritage, and the allure of American success.
Irony threads through all of them. And novels will no longer read the same to me.
Russ Roberts and Dana Gioia’s conversation was inspiring throughout.