Alice Elliott Dark Ruins Books by Reading in the Bathtub

From a New York Times By the Book column headlined “Alice Elliott Dark Ruins Books by Reading in the Bathtub”:

I keep “Upstream,” by Mary Oliver, and “Me & Other Writing,” by Marguerite Duras, by my bed and dip into them regularly. Both those books return me to my deeper purpose as a human and as a writer. I am reading “Crossroads,” by Jonathan Franzen, “Trust,” by Hernan Diaz, “Swann’s Way,” by Marcel Proust, “Ancestor Trouble,” by Maud Newton, and forthcoming books by Eliza Minot, Laila Halaby and Laura Spence-Ash. I listen to “The Lonely City,” by Olivia Laing, read by Susan Lyons, to go to sleep. I know it by heart!

“The Ninth Hour,” by Alice McDermott. The opening sequence is a knockout, there is an unforgettable scene on a train, and the novel reveals itself to be a murder mystery past the halfway mark. That doesn’t begin to describe how brilliantly told this and all her books are, and how profoundly humane. She is a genius of the epiphany.

During the pandemic my writers’ reading group read the novels of E.M. Forster. I had read them years earlier but without such close attention. It’s very moving that Forster stopped writing at 45 after “A Passage to India,” but understandable. The book depicts intransigent impediments to his prewar ideal of “only connect.”

I have read a lot of nonfiction and history books that don’t feature great prose. They overcome that weakness with good theses or information.

I love to read in the tub, but I easily fall asleep and end up with a soggy bloated creature rather than a legible book. This works out well for the authors, as I always go buy another copy. I have bought and drowned four copies of Jenny Odell’s “How to Do Nothing” — that’s how powerful her message is. Otherwise, I like it to be summer and breezy, the air scented with spicy flowers, me in a comfortable chair or sofa with a cup of coffee and a pen for underlining.

I’ll mention three lesser-read novels by well-known authors. I deeply love “The Catherine Wheel,” by Jean Stafford, for its extraordinary and often very funny sentences. It takes place during a summer in Maine in a fusty old town and a house full of old-fashioned objects and habits, yet like her work in general it’s sobering about the nature of desire. “A Handful of Dust,” by Evelyn Waugh, always makes me squirm and hope I’m not deluding myself like Tony Last. It’s a scathing book that takes down the pretensions of class and empire as it entertains with quick brilliant scenes. “The Good Terrorist,” by Doris Lessing,” is a thorough look at radical squatters in London and what they understand and what they don’t.

Hilton Als and Vivian Gornick. His “White Girls” and her “Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-reader” are favorites. I will always read a review by Merve Emre or James Wood. I recently read Saidiya Hartman’s “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments” and was excited by her determination to create histories of undocumented lives. Roxane Gay’s and Rebecca Solnit’s bylines attract me. I like Krista Tippet’s, Miwa Messer’s and Ezra Klein’s podcasts. Nicholson Baker is endlessly inventive, funny, serious and challenging.

I am very attached to particular stories and reread them when I want to remember the exhilarating possibilities of writing. “Camp Cataract,” by Jane Bowles, is a stunner, as is “The Remission,” by Mavis Gallant. I don’t even teach those stories as their wizardry is inexplicable, at least by me. I do teach “Babylon Revisited,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “A Wilderness Station,” by Alice Munro, “Lawns,” by Mona Simpson, “Sonny’s Blues,” by James Baldwin, “The Garden-Party,” by Katherine Mansfield, “Good Country People,” by Flannery O’ Connor, “The Embassy of Cambodia,” by Zadie Smith, “Just Before the War With the Eskimos,” by J.D. Salinger, “The Five-Forty-Eight,” by John Cheever, and “Bronze,” by Jeffrey Eugenides. I love stories that shift directions in the middle and have real endings.

No, though I know it’s wrong how I read — always the last couple of pages first to see if I want to know how a book got there, then on rereads hopping around in ways unintended by the author.

The excellent “Festival Days,” by Jo Ann Beard, led me back to her “In Zanesville,” which is so funny it must be read where quiet isn’t a value.

The poetry in “The 1619 Project.”

I have been in a book group for nearly 20 years with seven other women. We started the group during the 2003 Iraq war when we wanted to understand more about it. We have since read over 120 books about politics, history, climate change and current events, many of which have infuriated me.

“Lakota America,” by Pekka Hamalainen, reframes the Plains as a site of constant reconfiguration by both battle and diplomacy dominated by the adaptability and resilience of the Lakota people from early hunter-gatherer days into the present. It presents a long history before contact with the westward expansion of colonists and portrays Lakota power in a way that needs to be taught widely.

I have one set of shelves for spiritual books in my bedroom. In my son’s former bedroom I have shelves for the books I rely on. They’re organized alphabetically except for the oversized books and sets by favorite authors such as Woolf, Didion, Wharton, Fitzgerald, Simpson, Gallant. Downstairs I have benches piled with TBR books. I have a shocking quantity of them, but so many books sound so good! I have two glass-door Ikea shelves in the dining room for poetry, gardening, childhood Bibles and prayer books and leftovers from my grandparents, including appealing editions of “Leaves of Grass” and “Jane Eyre,” and novels I read as a child in their house and loved, such as “How Green Was My Valley,” by Richard Llewellyn, and “A Stone for Danny Fisher,” by Harold Robbins, which was the first book where I noticed a craft technique and suddenly realized that books are built of units. I wanted to do it!

I have a big collection of Beatles photography books and art books in a separate bookcase. Of course, there are also piles on the floor.

“The Nature of Personal Reality,” by Jane Roberts as Seth, as well as the other Seth books. I have had it in mind to write about her for 45 years.

When I was 6 my best friend gave me “Mud Pies and Other Recipes,” by Marjorie Winslow, for my birthday, and she inscribed it, which felt like a leap forward in sophistication. Later, a first edition of Edith Wharton’s “The Writing of Fiction” was a welcome present.

I no longer read true crime or anything exploitative or narcissistic. I want more than a story — I want the structure and patterning of a book to reach me on a deep level.

I pass on books to my mother that I think she’d like. The last batch included “The Archivist,” by Martha Cooley, “Working,” by Robert Caro, and “Oh William!,” by Elizabeth Strout.

I’d ask St. Paul, St. Luke and St. Thomas to come at 5:30 for a vegan meal. I’d love to hear them compare notes, and I have questions!

Alison Bechdel.

My son read all the volumes of “À la Recherche du Temps Perdu” recently and wanted to discuss them with me, but I had nothing to contribute to the conversation. See my bedside table above!

I’ll be doing research this summer reading railroad, insurance and business histories of the United States and Scotland and books about Philadelphia. I’m also going to read the Neapolitan quartet by Elena Ferrante again to prep for a fall class and hope to make a dent in the TBR pile. I want to start in again on “The Dream of the Red Chamber,” by Cao Xueqin. I haven’t read it since college, but I am still thinking about it. The study of the novel is called Redology. Sounds fun to me!

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