Monday, February 15, 2010

Diaz on Reading

OK, I kind of remember what Diaz said the other night about novels and reading. He was asked by someone in the crowd if he ever got any push back from his editor or publisher about the use of Spanish in his book.

The short answer was, no, he didn't get much push back. Because he would have just pulled the book and his publishers knew that. But guys, he said (he said that a lot, guys), the only reason that would be an issue is that we've forgotten how to read. When we used to read as kids, we were always coming across a word that we didn't know and we had to look it up. We had to ask questions, we had to do some work, and now that we're adults we think all of that is behind us. Sure, reading can be fun and entertaining and even mindless, but a novel, he said, a novel can be something that does more than that. It can be something you experience like you experience life, which is to say, something you don't completely understand. Just about every day you hear someone or read something that you don't quite understand, someone is speaking in a different language, like Spanish or IT-nerd-ish or politico-conspiracy-ish, and you have to either ask a question or let it go. You either do some work and find out the meaning of that that foreign phrase or that jargon, or you go on with your life and realize that you can't understand everything, you can't control everything, that life is ultimately huge and unwieldy and beyond taming.

And guys, he said, that's why a novel can be such a great form of community building, because ultimately the best way to somehow manage life is to realize that our understanding is really an interpretation. Any meaning we can derive is in the form of interpretation, which we know is in itself a fickle thing, and the best interpretation you're ever going to get is one that includes many voices, many viewpoints. Other people, other readers, who bring their own experiences to the novel and understand it in their peculiar, sometimes even fucked-up, ways can add to the conversation about what this novel "means".

And that meaning, I'd say (no longer paraphrasing Diaz, and hardly being original here), can be so many things, but the best thing you could say about a novel is just that it's true. Fiction is true when you get that sort of it's-funny-because-it's-true feeling, which is a cliche about cliched stand-up comedy. But it's that feeling. The realization that, yeah, this is what life is like, this is my experience somehow snatched and twisted a bit and injected into language in a way I've never seen before. And you somehow understand your life better and feel as if you can live better because of it. Because you've got just a little firmer pinkie grip than you had before, and that's why you keep reading.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Junot Diaz

I saw Junot Diaz last night at Butler University. He kept it very short, just read two pieces. And the first he read off his iPhone because he forgot to print it out.

He seemed to have three personae: Jersey ghetto (which he was in most of the time), Dominican (he spoke in Spanish to some Dominicans in the crowd), and professor (when he expounded during the Q&A). Pretty entertaining. Made me want to go back and read *The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao* again. Haven't read *Drown* yet. Probably will soon.

He said some interesting things about reading and novels and how important they are. Well, I forget exactly what he said, but this is what I remember: reading is way more important to him than writing. I’m always encouraged when I hear that. I can get kind of stupidly depressed when I think about the fact that I want to write something, but I haven't. Everyone wants to write. Not everyone can. But you can read. And, I’m remembering now, I love hearing Borges (in his Norton lectures--they're on CD!) say that first and foremost he's a reader. And an interview by Bolano, where he says that what's really important is that we keep reading--writing, not so much. Is there a Spanish language connection here? Anyway, you can do worse than be a pathological reader, I guess.