Monday, August 26, 2013

Reflections from the Well

On Writing Craft, Creativity & Inspiration

by Alexander Slagg

My Summer Read

I’ve been reading Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow this summer. This was my pick for a light summer read—ha ha. For those not familiar, Gravity’s Rainbow weighs in at over 700 pages and includes a large cast of characters that shuffle on and off the narrative stage with no (to my eyes) discernible reason in a complex weaving of storyline strands.

Upon reading the first few pages, I quickly recognized that this book would require the 100-pages rule. The 100-pages rule states: I will give a novel 100 pages before deciding whether to abandon it or not. As of this writing, I have just passed the 100-page threshold and concluded that I will sharpen my machete and continue bushwhacking through the dark continent of this reading endeavor. What baffles me is why I am going to continue reading this book—likely to the far-off bitter end? What’s my problem?

As a lover of books and literature, I love the idea of a summer read. There’s plenty that can be said about the lack of appreciation for literature in the United States circa 2013, when Angry Birds, The Bachelorette and superhero-driven movies tend to loom large over the country’s cultural geography. But we do have the summer read, a tradition wherein most everyone takes to reading a book, whether it be a physical object with a cover and pages or a digital likeness. I prefer everyone reading something, anything, over a handful of literary zealots off in their tower, looking down sadly upon all the loutish masses while turning another page of Portnoy’s Complaint.

Summer reads are supposed to be light and fun—escapist reading. In the summer months, we’re a little more willing to carve some time out of our overworked American schedules to sit down with a book. I’ve spent a lot of time lakeside this summer and not once have I reached into my backpack and pulled this doorstop out for a quick read. I’ve turned to magazines and comic books before looking to crack open Gravity’s Rainbow. Yet here I am, still willing to soldier on with it.

I picked this book off the shelf because it had been on my short list of classic books to read. I wanted to read some fiction, rather than nonfiction. Other writers that I enjoy and respect have touted Gravity’s Rainbow. I conveniently can’t recall their names at the moment. But this book shared the National Book Award for Fiction in 1974! It’s gotta be good, right? If it is good, I am at a loss how to explain its “good” qualities to someone.

It’s sprawling, dense, meandering. It reminds me of the Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton, another 70s relic I read a few years back. It was a confounding read but I read it through to the end. Both of these books require a companion book, similar to Joseph Campbell’s A Skeleton Key to Finnegan’s Wake, something to help explain to the reader the numerous references layered throughout the work.

I think the problem here is that Gravity’s Rainbow sat on my shelf for a few years before I decided to finally pick it up. In the intervening years, my reading tastes have evolved. Back in the day, I enjoyed the challenge of a book that asked something of the reader beyond simply reading it page by page. I wanted to know the books I read intimately, and get all the references and Easter eggs laid by the author.

With children to raise and a day job to go to, I no longer have the luxury of spare time to get lost in reading a book like this. When I have reading time, I want an enjoyable reading experience, not a challenge. And now that I know this, Gravity’s Rainbow may be the last bookin’ bronco I try to ride for a while.

But in the end, my intellectual ego will not allow me to walk away from this book—100-page rule be damned. This perverse pride in “finishing” a book has led me down some ridiculous literary dead ends (see previous mention of The Illuminatus! Trilogy). The conversation in my head goes something like this: I must, must be prepared for that future cocktail party, the one attended by the South American supermodels and the World’s Most Interesting Man, and when the conversation turns to books I will be able to impress everyone by elucidating the intricacies of Gravity’s Rainbow, one of those books that many admire but few actually read—for good reason.

Touching on various aspects of the writing process, Reflections from the Well is more than a rote column, it’s a literary lounge where writers and other creators are invited to share their own experiences. Share your comments with Alex for possible inclusion on the LWN blog or in his next reflection at