Sunday, July 14, 2013

Reading to Sleep

It's not keeping me awake, but I've been looking for a quote by Daniel Pinkwater. I've scoured his books of essays, Fish Whistle: Commentaries, Uncommentaries, and Vulgar Excesses and Chicago Days/Hoboken Nights (since repackaged as Hoboken Fish and Chicago Whistle) and I cannot find it. Rereading the essays has been enjoyable, though; they are funny and informative as well as short (mostly devised as commentary for NPR's All Things Considered). If no one has slipped you a copy of the picture books The Big Orange Splot (nonconformity and art) or Tooth-Gnasher Superflash (surprising magic car) or Bongo Larry (beatnik bear), Borgel (which appears in 4 : Fantastic Novels) or any of his other 101 (you can count for yourself at this list) books, really, now is a good time for a hilarious summer treat.

Aha. The quote may be found online in a Powell's Books interview. In it Pinkwater mentions that he likes writing for children because they are really excited about reading and "…most adults read as a means of getting off to sleep."

Ouch! Ouch! That's not the reason we read! But sometimes we do. Read to get to sleep, I mean. Maybe it is to air the mind, smooth out the worry wrinkles, unclench the jaws from the day's anxieties.

Currently by my bed is Lectures on Literature by Vladimir Nabokov. I am reading this book to get to sleep, not because it is boring, but because it contains material that is familiar. The book is compiled from his notes and the lectures he gave at Wellesley (1941-48) and at Cornell University (began in 1948, left teaching in 1958). His style is entertaining, often over the top, but he did careful, close readings of books and he was very concerned with language and style, not so much with symbolism and interpretation. He focused on the author's perceptions and on tiny but interesting details such as in Bleak House: how the normally unremarkable green eyes of a cat vividly come to the foreground because a lighted candle is reflected in them (121). It helps if you have already read the books he covered, but he gave thorough summaries, so perhaps you will be inspired to read them. The only warning I have is that he did not seem to like women writers much and his take on Mansfield Park was somewhat dismissive of Jane Austen. So you might want to skip that one, which is first. Or read it, but be prepared. You don't have to like everything about an author or everything an author writes. Still, there is something comforting about someone telling you a story you already know.

Books discussed

To get an entertaining feel for Nabokov as a professor, you can read an article by Edward Jay Epstein who was a student of Nabokov's at Cornell. If you haven't read any of Nabokov's novels (not Lolita?) I'd recommend Speak, Memory; Transparent Things; and The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov. Pale Fire and Look at the Harlequins! are other possibilities.

We have so many reasons why we read: to be entertained, to learn, to pass the time, to discuss with others, to sleep…. Now, how do we get back to Pinkwater who you really must read? In  "Mmmm! That's Prose!" Pinkwater mentions Vladimir Nabokov as both a good teacher and a good writer (Fish Whistle, 159). In their essays, both Pinkwater and Nabokov are quite opinionated. But they are also quite funny, which is the best reason to read them. That said, read their creative works in the daylight. And once you are familiar with their work you can reread them, and then relax and get some sleep.



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