The trouble with discussing what you’re reading is that you might sometimes be clobbered by someone else’s dislike of the book you’re reading, a dislike sometimes felt and then expressed without their having read said book. It’s something I’m sure to have done, too, with books and just about everything else, forgetting the wise admonition to never “yuck somebody’s yummy”; and, perhaps in some kind of karmic retribution for my past, and surely upcoming perpetrations, of said admonition, when I’d recently mentioned I was reading Finnegans Wake (I’ve since finished it, falling way short of my goal to read it in as close to a single sitting as possible (it took me seven days, the significance of the number exaggerated in my mind)), trying to stay up while reading about someone who was, presumably, asleep, I received a few “yucks,” including, “I tried reading it, but I only know how to read English,” or something of the sort, the comment meant as nothing more than a joke, but, as we know with most jokes, it revealed an underlying belief, and the belief here was that Finnegans Wake is at best incomprehensible to readers, excepting the few academics still wheezing around in the dusty stacks, expert at splitting all kinds of exegetical hairs; or is, at worst, just a hodgepodge of navel-gazing jabberwocky. Joyce, however, quoted in Derek Attridge’s The Cambridge Companion to James Joyce, would disagree: “If you take a characteristic obscure passage of one of these people [modern writers] and asked him what it meant, he couldn’t tell you; whereas I can justify every line of my book.”

Considering my ever-detouring approach to reading, I think it’s appropriate that March for me began with Umberto Eco’s Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, a series of transcribed lectures conflating the telling and writing of stories with Jorge Luis Borges’s metaphor of the woods as a garden of forking paths, or, as Eco puts it:

Woods are a metaphor for the narrative text, not only for the text of fairy tales but for any narrative text. There are woods like Dublin, where instead of Little Red Riding Hood one can meet Molly Bloom….Even when there are no well-trodden paths in a wood, everyone can trace his or her own path, deciding to go to the left or to the right of a certain tree and making a choice at every tree encountered.

In my darker moments, usually after being away from art for some hours, and, mind you, this doesn’t just mean literature, but paintings, sculpture, film, or whatever, I start feeling kind of jittery, but the darkness takes on an especially despairing hue when I start to think about the pronounced lack of ambition and its concomitant general distrust of virtuosity in the contemporary arts scene. Sure, I’m guilty as anyone else of romanticizing past eras, characterizing them as golden ages, when of course the amount of dross to gold has always been grossly disproportionate all throughout history. However, these necessary caveats do little to assuage my disappointment with the various contemporary scenes and milieus. That said, there are, of course, massive exceptions, and fortunately these examples do provide respite from our consumerist culture’s celebration of mediocrity, its wallowing in sloppiness. For instance, as I write this, I’m listening to Beirut’s odd fusion of folkloric textures from the Balkans and Eastern Europe with pop forms, all seamed together by Zach Condon’s plaintive, Jeff Buckley-influenced vocals (something which would normally annoy me but, strangely, as with Andrew Bird, the sincerity of the voice outweighs the obvious debt, and it might be because Condon also blends a bit of Robert Smith’s melancholy and Morrissey’s effete tonality). And during February, when New York City’s interminable winter and its resultant gloom invariably descends upon my household, well, upon my partner, but somehow it ends up being the primary theme anyway, I pulled through with books by William Gass, continuing my plan to consecutively read (and reread some of the books) his complete oeuvre. (I should mention that writing with music on is near impossible for me to do these days, and it is an incredible struggle for me to do this now, but there’s a feeling I want to stay in, and Beirut is helping me do that.)