Reading Jane Austen in airports. Watching the business men seated at bars over mediocre beer, investing their cell calls with loud import.
Kongzi (孔子), literally “Master Kong,” is also known in the West as Confucius.
“And yet there is a romance and a power and a beauty and a permanence and a sense of reality that actual printed books have, which also does not translate to electronic format for me.”
Wil Wheaton, the quietest and most constant of friends
I wrote a blog post yesterday on my iPad, because I wanted to try using the WordPress app to both upload pictures I’d taken with the ‘Pad and input text with my dad’s Bluetooth keyboard while I waxed poetic on reading classic epic poems (in ebook format on said iPad). But somehow the draft didn’t get saved and the post got lost and it was a good thing. Good because when driving up to Ketchum with my dad I dove into an explanation of how I ended up reading the Iliad that was far more impassioned than the post I’d been writing, and it forced a sense of shame on me for not being as impassioned a writer as I was a soapbox conversationalist. Good because I read some other people’s posts on the internets today on topics that seemed unrelated to either the Iliad or ebooks at first glance, but in my mind pulled together of a sudden like the borders of a woven shawl snagged on a nail. Good because sometimes losing things so that you can reconsider them from scratch is exactly what you needed.
It started with a book on the clearance table at The Strand bookstore in New York City. No, wait; it didn’t. It started with an iPad, my iPad, the one I got because I was tired of hauling around a heavy 17″ laptop everywhere when often all I needed to be able to do was check email, and also because I was getting tired of hauling piles of books everywhere (and more and more of the kinds of books I read are being published as ebooks, too), and also because I had been utterly charmed by an iPad over the summer and had since pined for a gadget of my own, among other reasons. When I landed a largish paying translation job, I used some of that money for an iPad. So it began there, because part of my argument for an iPad was that I could read books and PDFs on it, something of increasing importance to me.
But I hadn’t bought any ebooks. I download PDFs of available scholarly papers and scanned copies of academic books not yet available as ebooks, and I also read the free versions of books that are in the public domain (Austen, Shakespeare, etc.). At The Strand, however, standing in front of a table full of bargain mass-market paperbacks, all of them flaunting the same notice that the paperback price was less than the Kindle version of the book (fiscal economy over physical economy), I noticed Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin.
LeGuin is one of my favorite authors. She tells tales of worlds far removed from ours and yet the stories in the tales are always about us, about home. I’m thinking especially of The Left Hand of Darkness, which was for me, when I read it in my early 20s, a haunting, nuanced, and far more compelling exploration of gender and society than the Judith Butler I’d hung my hat on in college. So Lavinia, at a mere 5 dollars and neither thick nor heavy, won me over. I had 12 hours of travel ahead of me to get to Boise, Idaho. This book was the thing to help me get through a late night waiting at the airport and the underslept crusty-eyed morning of flying following it.
In Lavinia, LeGuin writes the story of Lavinia, Aeneas’ wife in the Aeneid. Virgil never has her speak in the poem; LeGuin imagines the life and world of Lavinia, both before Aeneas arrived on the shores of Latium, and after. The novel explores silence and voice, story-telling and agency, all of which I find of great importance in what we conventionally call the non-fictive world.
It wasn’t the most compelling novel I’ve ever read and not my favorite LeGuin novel by a stretch. In addition to being about giving voice to the voiceless, however, it’s also about antiquity and mythologized history. It’s about the world of the classical epics. Reading the novel, I realized I knew nothing about the Aeneid. Nor could I really remember the Iliad or the Odyssey, both of which I’d been required to read in college. I had taken a course freshman year that dealt with epics, and we’d gone from Troy to Dublin, ending with Joyce’s Ulysses, a novel I actually gave up on and one of the few I proudly admit I never finished. I took a seminar on Virginia Woolf and read her response (rebuttal?) to Joyce, Mrs. Dalloway. Later I took a course on Milton, and of course the majority of the course centered on Paradise Lost. At some point I’d read portions of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and somehow I had escaped the Anglophilic Yale English Department with only a passing knowledge of Spenser’s Faerie Queene. All of these are classed as epics, and with the exception of the modern novels, all are poems. Lavinia, thin novel though it is, plunged me back into the poetry of the epics and the conversations that have been happening between them for thousands of years.
I downloaded the Iliad while waiting at the gate at LAX. My first ebook, bought and paid. I felt some trepidation. I love books, and when asked to put my money where my mouth is, I have always bought paper books. (Pbooks? If we have ebooks?) Now, though, I’d crossed some line in my mind, the one demarcating my position as a merely opportunistic user of the electronic format to a committed consumer of the electronic format. I felt a little strange, and a little giddy, the way we usually do when we deliberately cross some personal threshold. Not reckless, but not entirely certain what new territory I had entered into.
More books followed over the week. The Odyssey. RipRap. Red Pine’s Lankavatara. And more will follow. Not all the books I like to read are available yet as ebooks. Regarding that, however, I have learned that for the price of mere patience, I can scan things for free at the library. (The librarians content themselves with posting notices about copyright laws and not looking over the shoulders of students at the scanner.) Even if all the books I wanted to read were available in electronic format, I still wouldn’t exclusively buy and read ebooks. There is the romance, the power, and the beauty of pbooks that does not translate to ebooks; so I move forward and I move backward: I read the classic epics on an iPad, I buy paper poetry chapbooks.
I believe this is the shape of things to come: a heterogeneous reading life, at least until the power fails and our batteries die.
Flinging back the curtains, I open the paper-paned inner window, the one which is like a half-door, the Korean version of a Dutch door. Chill morning air pours in. This room faces west-by-northwest, with a steeply graded hill blocking the view of the West Sea and estuary. It will get no sun morning or afternoon. The chill is all there is in winter. At 8 a.m., the sky is flat gray slate. A lone bird’s falling whistle rises over the murmur of voices in the hall.
All the book blogs are talking about e-books. I won’t hyperlink to posts; you all know who you are. I am confused by e-books. No: my eyes are confused by them. I understand perfectly well that I will, at some point, begin using the electronic format. Because I want to make our translation group’s works widely available for cheap or free–and that means internet and e-distribution. Because it will cost me less to download books in files than to buy the paper versions, and I hope to be a poor graduate student someday. Not the poor bit so much as the graduate student bit, but the two go so hand-in-hand I’m already thinking ahead to biking instead of the bus, e-books instead of paper books, cheap coffee instead of the ridiculously good stuff Koreans consume and I’ve gotten used to drinking as well.
But these e-books. I had to re-learn how to read slowly after I left college. How to repeat a sentence on a page over and over in my head, to savor it if it wanted savoring and to chew it over if I didn’t understand it. To let things sink in by repetition, and to let other meanings emerge, like stirring a pot of soup and having different vegetables float up from the bottom of the broth. To let myself not attach “success” or “failure” to the number of pages read, a bad habit I picked up in junior high school when I became known as “the girl who reads thick books.” To linger and wait, to read and re-read, to physically slow my eye on the page. The paper page.
I have not been able to transfer this new lesson to the computer screen, though. Poetry is the one exception. I turn off whatever podcast or audio I may have on, and I read poetry from my computer screen out-loud. I didn’t have any poetry books for an entire year, but I wanted and needed poetry. The internet was it for access, and so I wanted to read poetry properly, with the appropriate respect, the natural relish, and the same delight I have in a paper book collection of poems. It was a struggle, since my tendency is to gulp information off the screen in hunks, finding a topic sentence and then skipping the paragraph below it, snatching the big ideas and leaving the details behind. In Korean the word for this kind of action is heo-geop-jji-geop. I’m not sure, but I think it is an onomatope. At least, it sounds like one to me. If you eat gulping, hurried, barely chewing, this is the sound you make: heo-geop-jji-geop. And that is how I read most things on the internet, and by extension, anything on a computer screen.
Why this habit with digital/internet reading, I don’t know. That I have to fix it is certain. Not only because it’s a poor reading habit, regardless of which physical format I use (because computers are as physical as books, screens as real as paper; the argument that paper books are “real” books is not one I make), but because in the coming years, my life as a reader depends on learning to slow down entirely, and not treat digital formats differently than paper ones.
Paper books have always signaled leisure to me, not in the lazy sense but in the sense that I can devote myself completely to one activity, ignoring everything else, and that activity is reading. A computer is tied by its electric umbilical cord to a socket or a wall in a room: it has a known location and you are stationary in front of it while you work or read. In a temple, this is the same as announcing you are available to be interrupted. If I want to read, I must hide: in a corner of the library, away from the ‘phone console. Out in the fields, off the path where others might walk and find me. On the verandah, out of sight around the corner. In the attic, with a flashlight, where no one thinks to look. A computer makes this very difficult, what with its fetal dependency on a power source and bulkiness and noise, keys tapping, mouse-clicks. I don’t have a Kindle, partly because until very recently, the books I read are all scholarly things that weren’t the main target of digital format and sale. I couldn’t get them on a Kindle or similar device. But now that too will change, I think, and even works on Yogacara or Korean Buddhist history will be digital someday soon.
Maybe with a pocket-sized Kindle, loaded up with my library of Indian Buddhist history, some on early Madhyamika, Ch’an in China, some Austen and some Henry James, some poetry, with me once again hiding someplace, playing hooky from availability, undistracted, able to absorb and be absorbed by the content, I wouldn’t make such a sharp distinction between paper and digital reading.
I’m not entirely convinced of this.
However, I think I’ll have no choice but to find out. Eventually.
The voices on the first floor increase in both individual volume and overall number. Outside the window, the light turns a little warmer in tone, although the sun still isn’t visible. A door creaks open, then shuts with a good thud. Time to go do whatever wants doing, that so many are moving around, working, busy.
2011 was a great year for me as reader. After spending the previous 5 years curbing my reading habit (and having it curbed) as the necessary consequence of postulancy and seminary life, as a fourth-year student I again had the time, independence, and energy to read again.
Here are my favorites from 2011, by category:
- The Diamond Sutra, sutra with commentary, translated by Red Pine
There’s a part of me that wants to protest assigning a “best-of” category to the sutras I read. I’ve never gotten why the Chinese were so keen to classify the sutras and assign hierarchies to the teachings; I mean, sure, they needed a way to understand and sort through the mass of sometimes conflicting teachings, everything from Agamas to The Lotus Sutra, but I still never did like the smug tones that accompany this style. It’s like, my iPhone is better than your Samsung Galaxy, nahh! My perspective is and always has been, But dude…you can make a phone call with both, right?
Despite this internal resistance to anything smacking of mine’s-better-than-yours, I found myself frequently comparing the two sutras I read this year, the Diamond Sutra and The Avatamsaka–titled The Flower Ornament Scripture by Thomas Cleary for his English translation. I’d like to sidestep all soteriological arguments for a moment and say that The Avatamsaka was a stunning spiritual journey. Many of the most vivid images I have ever encountered are in this sutra; some of the most beautiful literary passages I’ve ever read are here, too. It was moving, inspiring, and conceptually inconceivable–which is its point a lot of the time. It was everything a sutra can and should be.
But, whether it was because of Red Pine’s style as a translator, or because I’m more familiar with The Diamond Sutra after many years of recitation, or simply because it’s shorter and I rarely felt the same sense of being drowned in its ocean as I did with The Avatamsaka Sutra, or because I had a commentary to read with it that elucidated unseen meanings and made the text resonate and reverberate through my life and I didn’t have such with The Avatamsaka: for all these reasons, I kept returning to the The Diamond Sutra even while I was reading The Avatamsaka. I’ll add, in defense of The Avatamsaka Sutra, that I’m pretty sure re-reading the sutra and becoming intimate with it will change my perspective. And I’m not saying I didn’t respond deeply to the sutra on the first reading, either. In later years, it may be The Avatamsaka Sutra at the top of a list like this. Before folks get all sectarian on me, I just want to reiterate that I’m not evaluating the theories or methods of awakening expressed in either sutra…because dude, you can practice with both.
- The Buddhist Unconscious: the Alaya-vijnana in the Context of Indian Buddhist Thought, William S. Waldron
It took me a year to read this book. Waldon’s relatively slim volume–the next book on Yogacara I read was three times as long but took me 1/12th the time to read–was incredibly dense. For me, it was the intellectual equivalent of gnawing on rawhide. Dense, but far from boring. Waldon’s text was my first conscientious attempt to understand Yogacara, one of the major schools of Indian Mahayana and a heavy influence on China’s Cha’an tradition, and the year I spent slowly re-orienting my theoretical framework to the Yogacara model was probably one of the most difficult mental shifts I’ve ever attempted. That Waldron has managed to explain Yogacara in all of its complexity without losing the reader along the way is a major feat, and I finished the book as impressed with Waldron himself as with Yogacara. Additionally, by locating Yogacara’s major innovation, the alaya-vijnana or “storehouse consciousness,” within the larger framework of Indian Buddhist thought, Waldron clearly illustrates the successes and limitations of the various schools, including Yogacara, through their responses to each other’s theories. The Buddhist Unconscious was the one string that, when pulled, let me untangle the interwoven threads connecting late Indian Buddhist theory with the East Asian Buddhist schools.
- Buddhist Phenomenology: A Philosophical Investigation of Yogacara Buddhism and the Ch’eng Wei-shih-Lun, Dan Lusthaus
The “next book on Yogacara” I read was Lusthaus’ tome. Without The Buddhist Unconscious, I wouldn’t have understood Buddhist Phenomenology. (So it’s a good thing I read them in the order I did, eh.) Lusthaus did me the important service of explaining why modern Buddhist scholars read so much Kant–I may be up on my Buddhist theorists living and dead, but I’m pretty much a dud when it comes to Western philosophy. He then expands some of the issues Waldron raised in his book by examining in detail the major areas of Buddhist theory (i.e., the five skandhas, pratitya-sammudpada, etc.) and how they were understood by the main schools of Buddhism in India around the time Yogacara emerged. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to grasp the context in which Yogacara, or any school, arose, and to understand the relationships, either complementary or oppositional, between various schools. Lusthaus provides a generous survey in this regard. But the book’s real value lay in Lusthaus’ concordance of Vasubandhu’s “Thirty Verses” in romanized Sanskrit, an English translation of the Sanskrit, Paramartha’s Chinese translation, and Hsuan-tsang’s Chinese translation (both with English translation), followed by an extensive discussion of Chinese Yogacara viz. the Ch’eng wei-shih-lun. Because I encountered Chinese Yogacara texts and terminology first and have had to work my way backward to the Sanksrit-based Indian tradition, being able to see how and where the Chinese struggled with Yogacara’s technical terms and arguments clarified many of the still-pervasive misunderstandings in the East Asian schools that use Yogacara as part of their theoretical foundation. Lusthaus is a thorough scholar and displays an amazing command of Yogacara in three languages, which (given the misunderstandings that are rampant because of either novel interpretations or lack of understanding on the part of translators) is a necessity; and we benefit from his subtlety and skill.
An additional thumbs-up to both Waldron and Lusthaus for managing to weave a subtle sense of humor into their writing. I actually chuckled while reading these books.
- Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, Marable Manning
If you’ve read The Autobiography of Malcolm X with Alex Haley, you’ve read–as it turns out–only one facet of a very complex man. To the amazement of some and the apprehension of others, I count Malcolm X as a role model. (One of my classmates raised her eyebrows in horror when I told her this; my explanation that I’d rarely seen someone so willing to put the brakes on everything he’d done and said and start over in sometimes wildly different and contradictory directions, and I admired and strove to emulate that commitment to an inner compass, failed to bring her eyebrows down.) Manning’s meticulously researched and unflinching biography of Malcolm X builds our perception of the man around the contradictions and conflicts that seemed inherent to Malcolm’s personality and historical place. On the one hand, as Manning himself openly admits, by the end of Malcolm’s life it was difficult to say exactly what, if anything, Malcolm believed in, other than himself. What was clear to Manning, who tragically passed away shortly before the publication of his biography, was that Malcolm X was, nonetheless, someone committed to change, and change for the better. That Malcolm’s vision of “change for the better” was at times controversial, at times conciliatory, at times unclear, is not the main thrust of Manning’s assessment of the man. As Manning wrote himself,
And finally, I am deeply grateful to the real Malcolm X, the man behind the myth, who courageously challenged and transformed himself, seeking to achieve a vision of a world without racism. Without erasing his mistakes and contradictions, Malcolm embodies a definitive yardstick by which all other Americans who aspire to a mantle of leadership should be measured.
(“Acknowledgements and Research Notes,” p. 493)
- An American Buddhist Life: Memoirs of a Modern Dharma Pioneer, Charles Prebish
Opinionated, eccentric, a deeply committed Buddhist and one of contemporary Buddhist Studies’ greatest pioneers, Charles Prebish’s autobiographical voice isn’t like his academic one. (I suppose it’s harder to swear in an academic paper…) His personality is as self-effacing as the title of his autobiography, which is to say, not at all. I loved this lively, on-the-ground view of American Buddhism as both practitioner and scholar. Being a scholar-practitioner (he originated the term), he’s in a position to show us both of those worlds, and Prebish’s not afraid to tell it like he sees it, including some sharp jabs at scholars I personally like and practices/beliefs I also partake of. (Regarding the latter, his fake “blessing strings” stunt with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s entourage at Naropa had me in stitches, even though I also wear a blessing-string on my wrist.) I respected Prebish’s unwillingness to pull any punches and, in an echo of what I find so compelling about Malcolm X, his unswerving commitment to his own vision, academic and personal. Prebish has stood at the center of the academic Buddhist world and participated in the unfolding of Buddhism in America for the past 40 years. You want to know what the view was like? Read his book.
- Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
I ordered this book on a whim. For the past four years, I’ve kept my fiction reading to a narrow corridor whose two walls are Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. A peculiarly narrow pair of reading partners, but excellent ones nonetheless, and if I absolutely feel I must pick up a novel, they’re usually it. I can’t honestly say what compelled me to get Infinite Jest. I read a few reviews, took a look at the page count (1104, always a plus in my as-much-page-for-my-buck life), and wondered if it weren’t an modern American Ulysses. (I refused to finish Ulysses partly out of despair and partly on principle in college. Anyone who tries to make his novel impossible to understand is just a literary and intellectual bully. I freely admit that sour grapes play a part in my opinion of Joyce and Ulysess.)
Infinite Jest was funny and it was not pretentious. It was smart but never condescending. I laughed hard and often; but the novel also left me with the sadness that comes from looking unflinchingly at something. In this case, Foster Wallace’s “something” is modern America in all its arrogance, consumption, emotional hunger, ennui, and obsessions. Infinite Jest wasn’t self-conscious, and made me think without ever feeling like a “thinking” novel. I didn’t seem like Foster Wallace was ever trying to say something, even though, by the time I finished the book, it was clear that he had a very strong view of the state of American society and intended to communicate that. Some passages were difficult to read; violence, both emotional and physical, is a strong presence in Infinite Jest, as is drug abuse. If you can’t watch Requiem for a Dream, you may not be able to read some parts of Infinite Jest comfortably, either.
Again, I read some other very fine novels this year, even a few that are outside the Austen-Dickens corridor. Infinite Jest is among the best of the year, however, for the way it continued to resonant with me, less like a definitive statement on something and more like a question tossed out, one neither easily answered nor quickly forgotten. Above all other considerations, it was this quality of the novel that puts it at the top of the list for 2011.
- The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins
A friend sent me the first book in this trilogy for my birthday. She said she thought I’d like it, and oh boy, did I ever. I stayed up until 11 pm, with a flashlight under my covers, to finish The Hunger Games the same day it arrived. It was like I was 12 years old again! It was great! I love it when a book compels me to stay up way past my bedtime in defiance of parental (and in this case, monastic) authority. There’s been a lot of discussion of The Hunger Games‘ message about girls, relationships, America, dystopia, etc. etc. I’m going to leave aside all meta-discussion and say that it was just plain old action-packed young-adult sci-fi goodness, with a girl as the main character. The deciding factor was that I couldn’t put this book down.
This year, to my sadness, I didn’t read a single complete volume of poetry. This wasn’t on purpose, but was the consequence of choosing to give most of my attention and energy to both sutra and Buddhist theory. Those books were often long and difficult, and I read slowly and deliberately, to digest the content. This requires time, and I gave it gladly; but it meant I cut back on poetry.
Fortunately, I have an internet connection and there are poets who publish electronically. My most consistent reading was the on-going series of what I might call “call-and-response” poems between Dave Bonta and Luisa Igloria, hosted at Dave’s Via Negativa. The Morning Porch Poems’ series archives by season are here: Winter 2010-11, Spring 2011, Summer 2011, Autumn 2011, Winter 2011-12.
Also deserving of recognition for their role in keeping poetry in my life even when I couldn’t get to books are qarrtsiluni online literary magazine, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, and Dale Favier. quarrtsiluni, as a literary mag, is sort-of “no duh” territory for publishing great poetry, but Rachel and Dale do so as a regular part of their lives, and reading their blogs has brought and kept poetry in my life. Thank you.
By the numbers
…but if I’d kept precise track of page-count, the greatest bulk would disproportionately be on the non-fiction and sutra etc. side.
I kept a commonplace book and record of individual books’ start and finish date (see picture) and will do so again this year.
What have you read this past year?