Thursday, May 10, 2012

Recent reading / taste / neglected reading

Read to me truly

A Place of My Own: The Architecture of DaydreamsI recently listened to two non-fiction audiobooks, both of which were read by their authors: The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten: 100 Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher by Julian Baggini and A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams by Michael Pollan.

The Pig That Wants to be EatenOf the two, I enjoyed Pollan’s the most by far. It’s about his experience building his own ‘writing house’ – perhaps it’s no wonder it appealed since I’m perpetually struggling to claim space to write (and once secured, perfect that space), and have started waking up to architecture in the last six months or so.

Baggini’s book is literally 100 thought experiments, like, if that pig really wanted to be eaten, would you renounce your vegetarianism? Some are a bit meatier than that (excuse the pun), but I found the discussion that followed each scenario to be too light to be worthwhile.

A question of taste

Both Pollan and Baggini’s book got me thinking a lot about taste. In one of Baggini’s thought experiments, a dude decides to only make rational decisions but when it comes time to go to the diary, he finds himself equidistant from two stores stocking identical goods. The only way he can think to choose between the two stores is to toss a coin, but then he thinks that’d be irrational, so he ends up starving to death (or something… I’m paraphrasing heavily). Baggini comments that there world doesn’t separate evenly into logical and illogical, that there’s a raft of things that are outside of logic, and this is where taste comes in.

Personal example: I love feijoas, like apples, like oranges, dislike persimmon. If offered the choice of two fruit, the choice will be easy for me unless I'm offered apples and oranges, in which case it'll come down to how I'm feeling at the time (and if I can be bothered peeling the orange). Logic doesn’t really come into it (expect the question of peeling the orange, perhaps). My tastes are just a set of coin tosses that took place behind the scenes which predetermine my behaviour when allowed to act outside of logic.

Arlington One
The question of taste, of course, is big in architecture. My next column in the Dominion Post (it'll appear Sat 19 May // UPDATE: Here it is) is about two blocks of council flats here in Wellington and their architectural flourishes: Do these spaces have a designed purpose? What are they used for now? How important are they in the scheme of things? When discussing the porthole windows of the Pukehinau Flats, or the periscopey lift tower of the Arlington Apartments, it’s really a question of taste: Do they appeal to your eye? Do you value character in public housing? And if so, at what cost?

When it comes to fiction, the temptation is to focus in on the ‘big mistakes’; these both shape the plot and go some way to shaping the characters. But it’s dangerous to think about ‘big mistakes’ in terms of logic. With hindsight, and within the confines of a narrative structure, it often seems like the character made an error of judgment which led to the ‘wah-wawm’ moment, that they acted illogically and therefore deserve their comeuppance. On the contrary, I think most lives are shaped by tastes and preferences, these little apple-beats-persimmon, feijoa-beats-apple binaries that are constantly shifting (today orange beats apple because I feel like some vitamin C), and logic doesn’t come into it. Think about how you wound up with your current (or most recent) partner. If there was a ‘Do I or don’t I?’ moment, it likely came after you already did at least once.

The best short fiction knows this. It doesn’t deal in logic or blame, but looks at where we wind up when our tastes are given the wheel. Which is why so much feels intractable within a short story.

And novels? I’m not sure. I know there’s a ‘big mistake’ in THE NOVEL… perhaps it’s my big mistake, a failure of my logic, the flaw at the heart of my latest attempt at the longer form?

Or perhaps it’s all a question of taste.

'In the end, a playlist exists beyond logic'

'Pablo Picasso' - Modern Lovers
'Outside Chance' - The Turtles
'I've got that feeling' - The Kinks
'Growin' Up' - Bruce Springsteen
'Imagination (is a powerful deceiver)' - Elvis (Costello)
'Everyday is like Sunday' - Morissey
'Silver Future' - Monster Magnet
'Kingdom Come' - Tom Verlaine
'My Country - tUnE-yArDs
'Pascal's Submarine' - Gord Downie

And now…

State of WonderMy current audiobook is Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, read by Hope Davis. Sadly, Ms Davis struggles  with the Australian accent and the first third of the novel features two Australian characters. This small quibble aside, I’m enjoying the book. I am reminded of something Patchett said at the Melbourne Writers Festival last year about the part before Marina Singh gets into the Amazon being much longer until a friend/editor convinced her to Cut Cut Cut. I’ve notice parts where it feels as if a chunk has been excised, but I’m not complaining. I might even advocate for further streamlining (once I’ve finished the whole thing and know what’s really important).
The Forrests
I’m also reading a paper book at the moment that isn’t research related. It’s Emily Perkin’s The Forrests. I’m about 150 pages in, and looking forward to the coverage the book receives as this month's selection for the Listener’s Book Club.

A check against targets

In my 2011 end of year reading summary, I noted the following goals for my reading in 2012:

  • "Read 12 poetry collections (one a month): hopefully there's a new Geoff Cochrane collection coming out around Writers and Readers Week like in '09!!" (Running total: zero… Ay carumba. BUT Geoff Cochrane has a new collection of poetry coming out in July. It will be called (cracks knuckles and furrows brow in concentration) The Bengal Engine’s Mango Afterglow… Can’t wait.)
  • "Listen to 12 audiobooks, including at least four non-fiction books." (Running total: 12 already if I count State of Wonder; non-fiction: 4... TICK! Makes me feel a bit better about my poetry fail.)
  • "Read at least twenty New Zealand books." (Running total: 7, includes four non-fiction books that are research for THE NOVEL)
  • "Read at least six Australian books of fiction." (Running total: Two - Forecast: Turbulence by Janet Turner Hospital and Inheritance by Amanda Curtin... I didn't blog about them at the time as I was about to appear in a panel with JTH and AC in Perth... not that I didn't enjoy both collections, just throught it'd be weird)
  • "Read at least six books I already own" (Running total: zero)

Conclusion: A third of the way through 2012 and I've already achieved one goal (and its sub-goal), am on target for two more, but I'm yet to get outta the gate for the remaining two. 

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