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Portland Reads

Here’s a shocker, taken directly from Your Library, a publication of the Portland (Multnomah County) Library: “The only library in the U.S. with higher annual circulation than your library, Queens Library in New York, serves a population more than three times the size of Multnomah County….” But I shouldn’t be surprised. One of the joys of living here is that everywhere I go, I see people reading (and not just on their laptops). In coffee shops. On the trolley or bus. Standing in line at the grocery store or the bank. Sitting in the park. And of course at the library and at Powell’s. I finished Julia Cameron’s memoir, a disappointment. Too much name-dropping. Too many cliches. The best thing she does is describe her manic episodes leading to psychotic breaks (which she calls breakthroughs). Apart from that, the general flabbiness of the language suggests to me that she relies too heavily on her Morning Pages (stream of consciousness writing) and too little on careful and caring word-craft. I feel mean (or as Bob says, cranky) saying this, but it appears to me that she suffers from a compulsion to be productive, something from which I hope I’m in recovery right now. She frightens me. I don’t want to write like she does, not for any amount of money. Reading her memoir is a good reminder to me to slow down, write less, and take more care with what I write. Jose Saramago and Proust are the antidote to her flaccid prose, and Italo Calvino’s Mr. Palomar just arrived today (thanks for the recommendation, Nacho).

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8 responses to “Portland Reads”

  1. Bob Currier says:

    It seems that San Francisco buys more than it borrows from the library, to judge from what I see on MUNI [the public transportation system]. Lots of people are reading. But it doesn’t look like library books. Still, we have to approve of reading. It does seem that people on the left coast do still read.

    On a somewhat different front, I always remember the apology [though I’m afraid I’ve forgotten who said it] for a long letter, because the writer didn’t have time to write a shorter one. That’s self-criticism. And self-editing.

  2. Kathryn says:

    I’ve heard it attributed to Blaise Pascal and also to Mark Twain: “forgive the length of this missive; I had not the time to be brief.” But I can’t confirm who said it. The point is that if you take more time and care, you can be more specific, and say what you need to say in fewer words. But what’s your point, Bob?

  3. Bob Currier says:

    Sorry about being obscure. It was a comment about your reaction to the Julia Cameron book, which I read as a wish for more self-editing. And a recognition that writing and self-editing are separate processes that add, sometimes a lot, to the length of time that it takes to produce something.

    On a much more trivial front, after reading Harry Potter 5, 6, and 7 I felt that some serious editor should have said to J. K. Rowling and said: Look, these shaggy monsters need to be pruned–a lot. Which is not to say that all long complicated books need to be shortened. I’m still a huge fan of late Henry James–particulary “The Ambassadors”.

  4. Kathryn says:

    I also enjoy James if I’m in the mood–and of course I’m working my way through the whole Proust right now. Surely he’s the champion of long, complicated books. I think if we take care with the writing in the first place, there is less need for editing. We can do too much editing and never finish anything; self-criticism and self-editing can stifle a writer. But the other extreme, which I see in the Cameron memoir, is lazy writing: just putting down whatever comes to mind and rushing on to the next paragraph without thinking at all. That, I think, is the result of too much “free writing”–stream of consciousness–which is what Cameron advocates in her self-help books for “blocked” artists. Balance is everything, and every writer has to find the right balance between self-encouragement and self-editing.

  5. h sofia says:

    I’m another who writes too much, but I like to get it all out and then go back and prune things up. My general thinking is that if, while reading what I’ve just written, I start to get bored (my attention span is brief), it’s time to tighten things up. I still write too much and go off on tangents, but maybe Julia Cameron has lost that sense of knowing when she’s being tedious.

  6. Kathryn says:

    Well, who writes “too much”? Too much for whom? I’m glad you write, Hafidha, and I think your guide–if it bores me, tighten up–is a good one. What’s best about Cameron is that she encourages people to write. I do that too. It’s just that this memoir seems slapped together hastily. It’s an example of what I fear in my own work–going for what is easy to say, what comes to mind first (which may be hackneyed), and then rushing on to the next project. Not taking the time to reach for the RIGHT image or simile or example, the FRESH idea. Not taking the time…that’s my sense of this memoir. It seems to have been dashed off carelessly–with the exception of the periods of mental disintegration leading to what she calls “breakthrough,” which must have been excruciating to remember and write about, and which she does brilliantly.

  7. Nacho says:

    Kendall, I certainly hope you like Calvino, even through its long passages that, as Bob said above, could use some pruning. Still, the long reveries and wistful mood is fun for me.



  8. Nacho says:

    Oh, let me amend that… I don’t know if it needs pruning. What needs pruning is my own mind. Mr. Palomar is, for me at least, a wonderful set of meditations. At once lighthearted, and inviting to depth, not taking itself too seriously, and yet wistful precisely of that depth of knowing the world. Revealing of a gnostic desire. Here’s a bit:

    “It has always happened that certain things -a stone wall, a seashell, a leaf, a teapot -present themselves to [Mr. Palomar] as if asking him for minute and prolonged attention: he starts observing them almost unawares, and his gaze begins to run over all the details and is then unable to detach itself. Mr. Palomar has decided that from now on he will redouble his attention. . . . Mr. Palomar tries staring at everything that comes within eyeshot; he feels no pleasure, and he stops. A second phase follows, in which he is convinced that only some things are to be looked at, others not, and he must go and seek the right ones. To do this, he has to face each time problems of selection . . . he soon realizes he is spoiling everything, as always when he involves his own ego. . . . But how can you look at something and set your own ego aside? Whose eyes are doing the looking? As a rule, you think of the ego as one who is peering out of your own eyes as if leaning on a window sill, looking at the world. . . . So, then: a window looks out on the world. The world is out there; and in here, what do we have? The world still – what else could there be? With a little effort of concentration, Mr. Palomar manages to shift the world from in front of him and set it on the sill, looking out. Now, beyond the window, what do we have? The world is also there, and for the occasion has been split into a looking world and a world looked at. And what about him, also known as ”I,” namely Mr. Palomar? Is he not a piece of the world that is looking at another piece of the world?”



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