Some 20 years ago, the late, great Jenny Diski wrote a review in the London Review of Books. Her evaluation isn’t what struck me, though it’s a fine example of how to dissect a mediocre text sharply but not cruelly. Instead, it was a few lines from the intro. Here she is on the subject of reading:
When you read you make it clear that you have withdrawn your attention from those around you. Perhaps your interest and concern. Who can tell? You are not available. The ability to be physically present but not actually there is a disturbing reminder that people who are supposed to love and care for you live inside their own heads and that their thoughts are their own. It can be a worry.
Anyone who was chastised as a kid for reading too much will be familiar with this sentiment. (Are children still scolded for reading too much, or do modern parents fall to their knees and shed tears of joy at the sight?)
Today, the “worry” Diski describes is more commonly felt when you’re with someone who whips out their phone and vacates the mental space you were previously sharing. Regardless of how often this happens — regardless of how often you do it yourself — it remains eerie.
The virtue of voluntarily exiting into a book, Diski says, is that it’s “a way of committing oneself to the vision of an invisible being.” You cannot say the same of phones. To disappear into one’s device is to be abducted by — what, exactly? The lure of colorful moving shapes? “The algorithm”? An urge to thwart boredom or social discomfort?
Below, a few objects to reach for instead, should the spirit move you.
“Down the Rabbit Hole,” by Juan Pablo Villalobos, translated by Rosalind Harvey
Tired of being imprisoned by your own perspective? Sick of autofiction? Got a hankering to inhabit the rich mosaic of a precocious Mexican boy’s mind? Here is one prescription.
Tochtli lives in a remote palace with his drug lord father and an array of flunkies. His hobbies include watching samurai films, reading the dictionary and collecting hats. His greatest wish is to obtain a pygmy hippopotamus, which looks like a cross between a seal and a Fudgsicle.
Tochtli’s father already maintains a private zoo of lions and tigers as both a display of machismo and a convenient disposal method for the corpses of his enemies, so the integration of a new endangered creature isn’t that outlandish. By Chapter 2, Tochtli is en route to Liberia, which is apparently where you go if you’re in the market for a mini hippopotamid.
Someone should inaugurate a prize for World’s Most Concise Novel and lavish the first award (suggested amount: $100 million) upon this one. In 70 pages, Villalobos summons a complete moral, historical and aesthetic landscape.
Read if you like: Élmer Mendoza, Günter Grass’s “The Tin Drum,” Richard Hughes’s “A High Wind in Jamaica”
Available from: FSG Originals
“The Connoisseur,” by Evan S. Connell
Mr. Muhlbach is an insurance executive from New York. On a business trip to the Southwest, he wanders into an antiques shop and becomes entranced by a pre-Columbian statue. The proprietor, though not an expert, believes the piece to be authentic. Muhlbach throws down $30 and takes the little man home. The transaction is swift but monumental: In under an hour he has crossed the threshold from regular guy to obsessed collector.
Back at home, Muhlbach neglects his official duties to pore over scholarly texts about Olmec civilization and Jaina Island ceramic figurines. The pursuit of artifacts becomes an ersatz religion, offering him aesthetic rapture (that of beholding a fine specimen), communal self-transcendence (at auctions populated by other collectors) and, in the process of authentication, even a quest for truth.
But is Muhlbach beating a path to the sublime? Or merely indulging a sordid covetousness? Connell published this novel in 1974, before the art market of the 1980s went into turbo mode, and it’s a graceful, intimate depiction of a lost era.
Read if you like: S.N. Behrman’s “Duveen,” Sarah Thornton’s “Seven Days in the Art World,” monitoring internet auction sites for peculiar rare objects
Available from: Counterpoint (or at a used bookstore, if you’re intent on scooping up the first edition with its superior cover)