Saturday, December 2

Books for the non-reader

I have this brother. Smart chap, a graduate of a fine Big Ten institution, a fan of many "literary films" and, from what I know, a generally thoughtful and soulful person. But you put a book of more than 200 pages in front of him and he'll act like a eight year old staring down a heaping pile of slimy lima beans. He ain't having it. The occasional exception to the rule seems to be the random sci-fi or fantasy novel--books that lay far outside the realm of my notable gift-selecting prowess. For years the only book that I gave him was a volume of Simpsons comics each Christmas. This went on for about six years until, with me in college and he in his mid-twenties, it just didn't feel right. I have since moved on to giving him the annual collection of Best Non-Required Reading, a gift he says he enjoys but one is never sure just how much of it he actually reads.

This year I have been giving much thought to what novels I might be able to give him that won't go unread. I have considered The Gunslinger, the first volume of Stephen King's Dark Tower series. People seem to like, but who knows, the only King book I have read is The Shining, an altogether different affair. Then there is Neal Gaiman's American Gods, a fairly literary novel with enough fantasy that its length might prove to be a non-issue. Also, I have considered Benjamin Kunkel's Indecision, a humorous debut novel about a twenty-eight year-old slacker who takes a drug that cures his chronic indecision and soon finds himself romping about South America. While my brother might greet the humor and subject matter in Indecision warmly, I want not to have him think I am sending him some sort of not-so-veiled message about his own life--which would not be the case--so I have shied away from this one temporarily.

But, in general, what are some good books for the non-reader? Off the top of my head there are some obvious non-fictions like the work of Klosterman and Sedaris--breezy, fun books that seem to appeal to the well-read and unread alike. I struggle a bit more when trying to generate a list of novels. Perhaps this is because I am an elitist when it comes to the book gifts. Indeed, King seems rather too populist for my gift-giving sensibility. Something like Life of Pi is a swell choice, I think. And, while some skimmers might disagree, I believe the shorter novels of Murakami are a fine selection for a person such as my brother with an apparent taste for fantasy but an aversion to literature.

I could ramble on longer, but I come to you now from the communal computer in my apartment building and folks are waiting. If they only knew how urgent this Book-Loop correspondence was they would go upstairs, take a nap and give me more time, but no, they seem quite impatient.


LTS said...

Ooooh, that's a shot!

Still, I say "no-go, brother..." on anything resembling Japanese "pop-lit."

'Tis indeed the holiday season, however, so it's about time the book-loop kicked it into gear. Good of Ben to get us going!

First, in the interest of full disclosure, recently I've been a bit head over heels for books about the brain (and yet none particularly great, strangely enough). Anyway, perhaps I'm not the right person to be expounding on serious to semi-serious "fiction for the non-reader."

Actually, Ben, I wonder if you haven't considered a little Black Swan Green for the man. You're awfully keen on it, I know; although I didn't remember it being 294 pp. last I skimmed through it.

Another author whose books I've considered as gifts for my own kin is Robert Harris. His new novel, Imperium, received a positive review in the New York Times a couple months back, and his previous novel, Pompeii, seems to have been enjoyed by Amazon shoppers at an even brisker clip. "Historical fiction," I believe it's called--an appellation which invariably turns my thoughts to Johnny Tremain, if you know what I mean.

Then there are the people who bought the Robert Harris book. It turns out they also bought (courtesy of John Le Carre thrillers!

I believe you pegged this writer's work as prime fare for the less ambitious reader as many as six months ago, Ben! He wouldn't work equally well for the bro'?

Let's see--surely I can proffer a final suggestion. You didn't mention Hemingway (why would you?). Anyway, your bro' strikes me as a Hemingway-type. Course, it also strikes me that a Hemingway-type might be the very last person who'd enjoy a Hemingway novel (or "Hemi," as I like to call them). Besides, you may have tried that old tack long ago.

I'll hazard one last thought.

(Truth be told, now I'm just working my way through New York Times "Notable Books Lists" from years past. That's something anyone can enjoy (and for hours).)

Hmmm, I probably won't get any further than 2005. Can'! What do we have here? A little old someone named Gabriel Garcia Marquez! Memories of My Melancholy Whores! Not exactly a festive title, but then again...

All right, my work here is done. In seriousness, the Kunkel book seems like a good idea--even better, I have to admit, than the book about the old man and the under-aged whore. In short, I like the DECISION. Haven't read it myself, but I'll probably try to get the flavor of it next time I'm in a Barnes & Noble. As I flip through the pages, I'll be sure to think of you, Ben...

Of course, I look forward to hearing more informed and intelligent ideas from others, and good luck to all the Book-Loopers on their December book-buying!

And by the bye, it's been bloody bully being back blogging 'bout books with Ben &... blast! (Can't think of anything that fits there at the end. Anyone?)

LTS said...

"& Bryan!"

I'm a friggin' idiot.

LTS said...

Not a novel, obviously, but basically under the same rubric as Klosterman and Sedaris is a recent book by A.J. Jacobs, The Know-It-All. Only a year or two old, available in a delightful paperback edition, and a former "National Bestseller," perhaps some other book-loop members have already read it. Some will find it a little obnoxious in parts (a bit disturbing in others), but really I haven't laughed so hard at a book in...well, at the risk of over-selling, maybe ever.

Probably not any help, but I thought I'd throw it out there.

Ben said...

A Johnny Tremain mention! Yes, friends, Book-Loop is really hitting its stride.

My father is something of a Robert Harris fan. He read Pompeii before visiting the charred ruins and couldn't stop talking about the book. (I suppose I could also note at this point that Robert Harris is the brother-in-law of Nick Hornby, and that Hornby occasionally receives a bit of flack for consistently mentioning Harris's books in his monthly column, 'Stuff I've Been Reading' in The Believer. But come on, if he doesn't at least say his brother-in-law's books are among the stuff he's been reading he'll make his sister very unhappy, no?).

On Hemingway, I agree with your assessment of Natty being a Hemingway-type, and I agree even more with your suggestions that a Hemingway-type might not at all enjoy the writing of Hemingway. Perhaps that's why the Beats exist, so the Hemingway-types can have something to read without really reading anything. Not that I'm prepared to defend the stance that the Beats have any reason for existing at all. Except for Gary Snyder. He cool. Dharma Bums, perhaps due to the Snyder connection, also gets a pass.

Black Swan Green is a solid suggestion. The coming of age novel in general is a decent path to take when selecting a gift, I think. Unfortunately I don't believe Mitchell's latest is out in paperback yet, and giving a hardcover book to my brother would not be prudent. Actually, now that I think about it, Number9Dream seems like the Mitchell book my brother might prefer. There's something very cinematic about that one. Parts remind me of some of the Asian flicks my brother loves so much.

Speaking of my brother and Asian flicks. I noticed a nice new edition of Rashomon and Other Stories at the book store recently. I thought that might be a nice gift for my Kurosawa-loving brother. Has anyone read the story? I have the sense that if I were to give him the book, and he ever felt the need to read it, he'd probably just decide to pop the DVD in instead.