Saturday, April 23, 2011


"And so they accumulate, random chance upon random chance, piling up and pressing down, until one day you realize that your past has been inscribed into your very being as if it had been carved in stone."

I don't know who said that. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion I made it up entirely. But that's the whole point: random events happen to us all the time, and we forge them into a narrative only after the fact. And a few random events happened today that I'm forging just now.

To whit, I realized a few days ago that I had made an unconscious choice to stop reading fiction, in general, and fantasy, in particular. I could trace this impulse to a few different sources. One was a very unsatisfactory encounter with a fantasy trilogy that I have recently discussed in great, great detail, so I'll say no more about that. Another factor was a conversation with a friend wherein she mentioned (admitted? confessed?) that she rarely reads fiction because her own literary interest is contemporary society, and she finds it addressed more directly in nonfiction work. I realized that I couldn't really argue with that, and that I had more than a passing interest in contemporary society myself. And finally, a third contributing factor was my mounting guilt over the glacial progression of my dissertation (The "I and We" chapter of Technics and Time vol 3 is kicking my ass, as I suspected it would). I decided that if I was going to use other literature as a distraction/carrot, then it would at least be a class of literature more immediately useful to my work (comparatively more useful).

And again, my first choice of a nonfiction work was controlled by a strange conflux of influence. In the late summer of 2009, I made my first and still only protracted trip to Toronto, where I stayed with some friends/friends of the family (who are, by the by, great people, and I really, really should take them up on their offer of a repeat visit some day--assuming it still stands). As any good literary aficionado/nut, I was drawn quickly to their bookcase, and constructed a list of promising authors whom, for one reason or another, I had never heard of. Since I was studying for comprehensive exams at the time, the list quickly went to the back of mind--until I stumbled across it again in February, while looking for something else entirely (I can't remember what the something was. A receipt for the student society? A tax form? It was vitally important at the time, whatever it was). Based on the list, I put two books on hold, one by David Sedaris, and another by Jeffrey Eugenides. Sadly, in both cases, I did zero research, and wound up with two anthologies compiled by each author, but not actually consisting of a single written work of either of them.

I probably would have forgotten them both (in fact, I had to look up Egenides to write this post), if not for a later encounter with another friend in March. We ran into each other at the local public library. It was a bit of a strange conversation--although entirely on my part, rather than hers. You know how you can get used to seeing someone in a certain place, and it throws you when you see them somewhere else? Well, that was in full force there. Just how badly I was thrown created another set of slowly accumulating random factors, but we'll talk about that story another time. For now, what's important is that she mentioned, entirely off-hand that she was just reading a David Sedaris book. That reminded me of my list, and my previous failure, and so, I walked out of the public library with a Sedaris book--next week, when I came to the library again. (I actually didn't take out any book that day--I was really thrown. It was weird.)

And now we get to some actual randomness. Today, I jogged to the local library to take out another Sedaris book. And I did that. I stopped on my way out of the library to put in my earbuds. It wasn't until I was a good 10 minutes into the run back home that I realized I had set the book down when I adjusted the buds, and had thus left it back at the library. But when I got back, the book was gone. A very efficient librarian had already noticed it, picked it up, and returned it, as a quick check of my library account confirmed. Thus, I went in search of a new book. I was actually about to walk out with a collection of essays from Susan Sontagg when I found Jonathan Franzen's collection, How to Be Alone. I recognized the name, but only because my office mate has Franzen's The Corrections sitting on his shelf. And yet, that recollection was enough to get me to choose the Franzen book over the Sontagg one.
On the way home, I started reading the book. I'm not sure how I'm going to feel about it--it starts with a preface where Franzen admits that he was a little pompous when he wrote some of these essays--and when an author admits he was a little pompous, you can expect anything up to and including a declaration of divinity.

But the first essay,"My Father's Brain," at least, I found incredibly interesting and involving. Franzen describes his personal experience with his father's decline and death under Alzheimer's. For me, it was a piece that I responded to on two levels. First, academically, I immediately turned to Stiegler and Foucault--Stiegler, for how humans are shaped by their memories and repetition, and Foucault, and his discourse concerning the modern health industry, in Franzen's desperate desire to see his father, and by extension, himself, as more than a statistic for the disease. But I also felt a big personal connection, as I could relate to Franzen's account, and the self-centeredness of that account, because of my own experiences watching the decline of my grandparents. Until I saw it reflected in Franzen's essay, I had never made the connection between these theories and my own life.

I don't want to go any further into this discussion right now, in part because I'm still working out what it means to me, but, more significantly to present circumstances, it's a digression from the main point: it was a series of coincidences that led me to this essay. Granted, even in this partial description, there were some observable patterns in my behavior at large: I'm attracted to books, I make several visits to libraries, and I'm susceptible to offhanded suggestions made by women (not to digress again, but I sometimes seriously think that 90% of the major decisions/changes I've made to my lifestyle have at their source, as part of their motivators, an offhanded suggestion made by a woman. Again, it's weird). But there's undoubtedly an element of chance at work as well-- a randomness within the pattern, so to speak. I could get all N. Katherine Hayles here (she loves her randomness and pattern), but for me, that's what subjectivity and narrative and story always is--putting pieces of randomness together to make something else.

Later Days.

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