It’s OK, you don’t have to read that

Idea of the week: “Some real talk: most writing isn’t worth consuming.”

This both striking and self-evident statement was plucked from a purposely (and pleasingly) provocative essay titled “The Case Against Reading Everything,” by Jason Guriel at The Walrus. It’s a good line, because it’s irrefutably true, and because it comes from a site called … The Walrus.


No way.

Guriel is impugning the moldy axiom that all honest writers must “read widely” — that is, indiscriminately, catholically, voraciously, hoovering the latest hardbacks, pounding down poetry, gobbling it all, from Bellow and obituaries to Cervantes and cereal boxes. It’s the old “balanced diet” theory. He’s not having it.

Neither am I. It’s an unrealistic ideal, reading it all, though I freely admit to reading obits and cereal boxes. In my twenties, I tried strenuously to read wide and far, from the gilded canon to contemporary classics, and I about hurt myself. The volume of verbiage is simply too monstrous, overwhelming and intimidating. I now embrace my blindspots (“Infinite Jest,” sci-fi, “Ulysses,” anything by J.K. Rowling) and guiltlessly shun writers I don’t feel a quick kinship with.

In college, a tough-minded journalism professor chuckled when I told him about the stacks of books taunting me and my ironclad will to conquer them. “You must be selective,” he said, and I deemed him very wise.

To this day, with impunity, I put down books that don’t regale me 110-percent, even if I’m half-way through them. Long ago, I literally dropped in the garbage John Grisham’s “The Firm” with only 50 pages out of 544 pages left. (A bratty gesture, I know, yet one unencumbered with regrets.)

It’s the quality, the intensity, not the breadth of one’s reading that counts. It’s about focus and concentration — concentrating on the works and writers that nail your sweet spot and eschewing inconsequential distractions. Says Guriel:

“The call to ‘read widely’ is a failure to make judgments. It disperses our attention across an ever-increasing black hole of mostly undeserving books. Whatever else you do, you should not be reading the many, many new releases of middling poetry and fiction that will be vying for your attention over the next year or so out of some obligation to submit your ear to a variety of voices. … Instead, shutter your ear against mediocrity. To fall in love with language, don’t fan out. Fall down a rabbit hole. Cynthia Ozick wanted to be Henry James. Nicholson Baker has a whole book about his obsession with John Updike.”

I’ve fallen down many rabbit holes, becoming a near completist of Philip Roth and, yes, Nicholson Baker. I was religious in my ardor for former San Francisco Chronicle humor columnist Jon Carroll, and marveled at New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane’s linguistic paradiddles (until, that is, he became wearisome, cutesy and gassy, a fallen hero).

Rabbit holes are thrilling. I most recently tumbled into that of L.A.-centric novelist Eve Babitz, snarfing up five of her groovily stylish books in a matter of weeks. I did what Guriel suggests, fell in love with the language, shuttered my ear against mediocrity. It was to me what reading is all about. It was like a spell — a love affair without the doom.


At a nervous book reading, Nicholson Baker talks writing

I met author Nicholson Baker at a reading of his collection “The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber” some time ago on Haight Street in San Francisco. For me the reading was a sustained 60-minute symphony of emotional unease, toggling from pity, to giddiness, to gleeful recognition, to awe, to depression, to tiny elation, to a momentary lapse into eye-watering hero worship. After the event, as he signed a stack of his books and a framed picture of him that I brought, I told him I thought his work was “astonishing.” I don’t regret it, because I still believe it.

We landed front row seats in the children’s books section, rubbing elbows with Curious George and the kid with the purple crayon. In my lap were Baker’s new book, as well as the novels “Room Temperature,” “Vox,” “The Fermata” and his 1988 debut “The Mezzanine,” which remains my dearest Baker book, an uproarious, undisputed marvel of pointillistic insights into life at its most mundane, consumeristic and miniaturistically magnificent. Aglow with prosy pyrotechnics, it’s the one book I tell everybody to read.

The nifty 2011 reissue cover

(He’s published at least nine books of fiction and non-fiction since then, some of them, including the quietly hilarious novel “The Anthologist,” rather wonderful.)

Baker entered the store, very tall and visibly anxious, and slinked into the back room. Jonathan Pryce’s teetering, disheveled, hand-wringing wreck in the movie “Glengarry Glen Ross” came to mind, and I felt sorry for the man, believing he was perhaps prodded with a long rake by Random House into doing such public readings.

When he first appeared at the podium, his face rapidly changed expressions, almost all of them on his broad red forehead. His entire face was an agitated, chafed pink-magenta, due to psoriasis, the skin affliction he shared with his late literary lodestar John Updike. (See Baker’s marvelous “U and I,” a profound and comical meditation about his tormenting Updike obsession.)


This tall, frail man filled me with pity; my favorite author, my linguistic idol, quivering up there and my expectant probing eyes contributing to his discomfort. But then he opened the book, complimenting it’s nice “minty green” cover, and began to read. With a sudden surge of surety, he read the title essay and told the gathered crowd that he wrote it in 1982, at age 25. (Twenty-five! Envy gnawed me and my heart sank.) He said he decided on non-fiction essays because, also at 25, he had written a couple of short stories that ran in The New Yorker (25!), and after the third one he ran out of ideas.

As a writer without ideas, you become an editor, Baker went on. He applied at The Atlantic Monthly and told the fiction editor he wanted to see more stories replete with metaphorical language, dense, tangled forests of word vegetation, the kind of stuff he writes.

The Atlantic editor asked if Baker knew that writers are supposed to write every day. Baker’s reply: “N-no.” Now, he said, he writes daily, mostly “journal things.” He carries an 8½-by-11 sheet of paper folded to the size of a Camel box on which to jot thoughts, descriptions and whatever springs to his febrile mind.


Baker writes about 1,000 pages a year, and most of it is awful. “What is worth writing about” he said is the toughest thing about writing. With a facetious twinkle, he said “The Mezzanine” is the only novel in history with four pages of continuous footnotes. Why footnotes, which appear in many of his books? Because his sentences become too attenuated, stretch to the breaking point, with too much space between noun and verb.

Writers, he said, stop writing each day when the writing starts getting really bad. So the next day you have to face the last shit you wrote. When it’s that time, he plays Suzanne Vega extremely loud to drown out the re-writing of the leftover shit. When he’s finished, he returns to silence and begins fresh writing.

Book readings are like rarefied mini-salons, enriching and, if you’re lucky, enlightening. You get to meet your heroes, interrogate them, get a glimpse inside their minds, see what they look like beyond their blow-dried jacket photos. I’ve attended swell readings by Lorrie Moore, Michael Chabon, Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen and, as a sweaty-palmed teen, Allen Ginsberg at San Francisco’s fabled City Lights Bookstore.


But my favorite reading is still the one by the wry, shy Baker. He was the funniest (DeLillo was so serious), the warmest (Moore was downright frosty), the most self-effacing about himself and his art (Franzen’s, well, Franzen) and the most self-conscious (Chabon, the cheery nice fellow). He was as good as Ginsberg, who was a gigantic spirit, radiating a Buddha’s benevolence and inclined to chat you up when he signed your copy of, in my case, “Howl.”

Of course he was hugely different than Ginsberg, too. Baker was the introverted version of Ginsberg’s enveloping holy hippie. But he also chatted amiably with me when he signed all my books. He thanked me for reviewing “The Fermata” in the newspaper I worked at. And he thanked my brother for asking a question during the Q&A session. And then he said something I thought was immeasurably kind. Looking at me modestly, even diffidently, he said, “Good luck with your writing.”