I. The Problem
I lost my copy of J R. It is in my house somewhere, but I cannot find it. Here is what happened.
After my last post, my wife and I went on vacation to the panhandle of Florida. We drive from Virginia, so it takes us a few days to wind our way through the South. We are off of the interstate much of the way, sailing along the back roads of rural Alabama and Florida. The dried up farms and abandoned curio shops and collapsing porches make you feel like you are in Night of the Hunter. Though I brought J R to read at the beach, the first several weeks of dedicated reading and writing made me want to take a break. One of my favorite bookstores is in a neighboring town from where we vacation, so I decided to buy a few new things to read for the week and enjoy myself. I read Satantango by László Krasznahorkai and began Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate, with which I very quickly fell in love.
My first mistake was taking a break from J R. Though I’ve read J R before, it is not the kind of novel that allows for easy returns after time away. It is difficult to rejoin the choir mid-song. My second mistake was taking up a novel like Life and Fate, which is over 800 pages long and contains so many characters that it requires a seven page appendix of names to keep them straight. Add to this the fact that the novel is really good and completely engrossing, and it was almost inevitable that I would fall victim to my own bad decisions.
The Wednesday after my wife and I returned home from the beach, we closed on the purchase of our first house. In the days leading up to the closing, we were frantically packing and dealing with the last minute problems of home ownership. It was a thrilling, though exhausting, time, but it led to a third problem. When I returned home from work, I didn’t have time to read in the evenings like I usually do. I am not a reader that can read small snatches here and there. I require a few hours at a time to sink into a novel and splash about. It wasn’t possible for me to spend the time I usually take each night to read Life and Fate and J R. I didn’t read all week, falling even farther behind in my J R duties and at the same time, completely losing the thread of Life and Fate. So at this point I have two novels–one of which I love and have a duty to write about and another that I am really enjoying–that I have completely lost the thread of, hanging from my neck like stones.
So then we moved and spent hours carrying boxes and filling boxes and stacking and unstacking boxes and somewhere along the way I lost J R. I have no idea where it is. I’ve looked through every box I own and it is nowhere to be found. I spent over a week looking for it in the new house and when I finally confessed that is was lost, my wife was nice enough to purchase a new copy for me on her Kindle (we live in a rural area and I cannot easily buy a new physical copy).
And so after nearly a month of not reading, I tried to pick J R up again on an e-reader and learned that it is not the right book to read as your first e-book. While its undivided ribbon of text seems like it would be a perfect fit for the electronic age, it is really difficult to keep track of where I am. I don’t mean that I forget what page I am on–the machine keeps track of that for me–but that I have no sense of where I am in the book. With my physical copy, I am able to flip back and forth and find what I am looking for almost instantly because I remember where it was on a page and how far along I was. The machine has a search function, which works wonders when I want to search for a certain term, but for finding something I have a general recollection about, it doesn’t quite work. And so, not only have I lost J R, but I am not lost in J R.
I do not want to give the impression that I am leveling some dust-covered lament against technology. E-readers, like books, are tools to deliver a reading experience. They are different experiences, just as a paperback differs from a hardback, but they are only tools. For me, I think it is maybe the wrong tool for this book.
II. Worry and Shame
In the end, though, my inability to keep up with reading the novel has nothing to do with the machine and everything to do with me. J R is one of my favorite books, but I was lazy and got away from it and my mind moved on. I intend to finish it again and write more, but I fear I’ve lost the spark. I read and comprehend and enjoy, but the part of me that had something to say a month ago, has fallen silent. I am not a book blogger and though I read a great deal, I rarely discuss what I’ve read with anyone or write about what I’ve read. Perhaps I don’t have anything to say of any importance at all. Perhaps I am trying to hide that lack of something to say behind a series of comic excuses. The beach, the closing, the move, losing the book, the e-reader–none of them are really stopping me from sitting down in the evening and reading and thinking and writing. The only thing stopping me is the empty sound of wind blowing through my brain when I look at the pixels spread out before me.
And then comes the shame. Getting interrupted while reading a book and being unable to jump back in is something that happens to everyone. When it happens to me, I begin to feel guilty that I have this book that I bought and haven’t finished. I want to find something new to read, something that I have that sudden flush of curiosity and excitement about, but the unfinished book sits there on a nightstand, half-alive, like a reproach to my profligate ways. So then I spend hours and days that I could be reading—could have been reading—my unfinished book, looking for a new book to read and I am unable to even do that. Each book that I could pick up just reminds me of another book I haven’t read that I should read first. Suddenly there are too many options and I am stymied and spend hours sitting in the semi-dark, calling out for my mother. It really is a terrible scene. Having finished J R before, I don’t have the same welling of shame for not finishing it, but I have agreed to blog about it and I’m not doing that now, and that failure is public. Again, to the semi-dark to call out for my mother.
III. The Art of Failure
My failures as a reader remind me of the failures of the artist in J R. Unfinished novels sitting in a squalid apartments. Composers composing for money. Painters selling blood for paint. J R is the only artist who is thriving. Normally, we don’t think of financial transactions and the accumulation of capital as an art form, but the way that J R practices his trade, they become an art.
Think of the tropes of the Romantic Artist: living in poverty, pursuing an absurd and unattainable goal with unstoppable passion, creating an masterpiece through genius and willpower. These indicators of Artistness all apply to J R. He is poor. He wears the same worn clothes all the time. His mother works long hours and is never home. His father is completely absent. Bast is the son of a famous composer, but has so far failed to succeed. Gibbs has worked on his novel for years and been unable to finish. Yet, J R, a 12 year old child, through nothing more than his inability to understand that what he wants is impossible, creates an empire out of junk and trash and that which the adult world has cast-off. He follows his muse despite being told by his friend and by his teachers that his object is unattainable or not worth his time. Like an artist, the world that J R creates revolves around him even though he is invisible to most of those involved. Gaddis created J R, but his characters don’t see him. It is the same with J R and his empire.
Why does J R succeed where Bast, Gibbs, and I fail? We failures waste our time thinking about how we would like to write a great novel or compose a great symphony or read all of the great novels in the world, time that is wasted, time that should be spent writing and composing and reading. J R is not bound by such worry. He does not contemplate his failure. He only moves forward, unafraid of seeming foolish or seeing what he wants left in ruins. Or worse, incomplete.