So You’re Picking Up Virginia Woolf from the Airport
By Alison Balaskovits
So, you’re picking up one of your favorite literary figures (poetry or prose, living or dead) from the airport before taking them to dinner and conducting an interview. You’re a huge fan and you’re super excited about the assignment, but also a bit nervous. Relax. The main thing you need to be concerned with is having a kickass playlist going on the tape deck when you roll up to the terminal and I’m here to help. I offer no guarantees, but with some deductive reasoning, digital crate digging, and intuition I think we can manage something that leaves everyone comfortable, happy, and bobbing their heads.
Below is a 12 track set that I think should get you from the airport and back again with some stops in between. You can play it in sequence, but it will work on mix-mode as well (this might even be better). The important thing is to have it already playing when you pick them up and to not discuss it at all unless they bring it up first. Basically, play it cool and act like you’ve been there before. I can in no way guarantee that they’ll actually dig this, but I have my hopes. Worst case scenario, just have NPR locked in as station preset 1 in case things get desperate. Best of luck!
Your passenger this week is Virginia Woolf author of Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves, an outspoken feminist force in interwar England, and an enduring icon of modernism. Incredibly gifted and deeply troubled she produced some of the greatest literary examinations of the self, consciousness, human communication (and its limits) while continually struggling with her own mental health, all while being a vital member of the legendary literary/artistic circle The Bloomsbury Group. You ready for this?
1. Mulatu Astatke – Yègellé Tezeta (My Own Memory) In her twenties Woolf was one of the participants in theDreadnought Hoax wherein she and other members of the Bloomsbury Group disguised themselves as a royal entourage from the Kingdom of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and (via some shockingly simple deception) received a state tour of the capital ship of the Royal Navy. Justified modern discomfort with cultural appropriation & blackface aside…that s#!1 was hilarious. Fitting then to include this lively tune by Ethiopian jazz master Astatke which, even if its title wasn’t a nod to one of Woolf’s favorite literary subjects, was made big in America by inclusion in Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, a movie about a road trip to investigate the past. Cue it up!
2. Massive Attack – A Prayer for England Woolf lived the last few months of her life during the height of Germany’s near-nightly bombing raids on southern cities in the UK. She lost her London home in the destruction and at that point in 1941 the Third Reich was at the height of its power, having dominated much of continental Europe. To say things looked grim is beyond understatement. This track, one of the most memorable by late-era Massive Attack (Sinead O’Connor on vox!), captures the sinister potential of the era while still allowing plenty of hope.
3. Bjork – I See Who You Are Iceland’s national treasure never fails to deliver and her 2007 album Volta was no different. The slipperiness of identity, the difficulty of knowing another human being beyond the surface (or even fully comprehending the surface) was a problem that Woolf could never stop returning to. She might as well get a chance to explore it with the aid of some sparkling electronica. I hope your sound system has a solid low end, you’re going to need it because the bass on this one is delicate and heavy.
4. Prince – If I Was Your Girlfriend The pscho-sexual contortions and possibilities that are loaded into this tune bear an essay-length unpacking (at least). That’s something Woolf, author of the gender-blasting Orlandowould appreciate…in addition to the serpentine groove of The Purple One’s late 80s masterpiece. Recorded in the high-pitched sped-up vocal persona that Prince named Camille this would surely have been Orlando’s theme song had R&B and 20th century recording innovations been available in Elizabethan England.
5. Missy Elliott – The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly) The sorrow that I feel for the fact that I’ll never actually cruise through late-night London traffic with Ms. Woolf while this pumps out of the stereo is deep and irreconcilable. Still, we must forge on. A lot of characters look out of a lot of windows with a lot of longing and melancholy in her work, she’d feel this one. One of the finest debut singles of the 90s, no question. Plus, what state was Missy Elliot born in??? I’m not even gonna say it…
6. Sophie B. Hawkins – Damn I Wish I was Your Lover I imagine Peter Walsh from Mrs. Dalloway leaned over the steering wheel of his car, weeping, while parked at a deserted Burger King long after the drive-thru has closed, lamenting Clarissa’s decades-old rejection once again. No good for him, them’s the breaks. But you and Virginia can have a grand old time singing along to this anthem as you ease on down the road!
7. Leo Delibes – The Flower Duet Right up there with Vivaldi’s Spring and Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata this tune has probably never failed to make it on to a Time-Life-esque 50 Most Beloved Songs in classical music compilations. So yes, not a highly original pick, but there’s a reason for that enduring popularity: This song is what angels do Pilates to. It also brings Vita Sackville-West (Woolf’s dear friend and sometimes lover) to mind. Among many other things she was a renowned gardener, so the floral theme is apropos, and then there’s that whole Catherine Deneuve / Susan Sarandon scene in The Hunger that this appeared in… This one’s a lock.
8. Interpol – The Lighthouse With their debut album, Turn On The Bright Lights Interpol fed the fires of more high school drama club angst than had been known since Robert Smith bought his first tube of eyeliner. It was a magnificent and towering achievement. Two albums later found them exploring the same melancholy with a more subdued contribution from the rhythm section in this song, which (intentionally or not) references the title of one Woolf classic in its own and another in its plaintive chorus “Let the waves have their way now…” Crying in a darkened bedroom after chess club…re-live the glory!
9. U.S. Girls – The Island Song Considering this song’s instrumental would fit right in on the Drive soundtrack this is a solid car playlist pick. With the vocals it’s something even more special: a track about yearning and loneliness that packs and equally forceful “Fine, I don’t need you…get the hell out” vibe. You’ve got to appreciate that.
10. Kate Bush –Wuthering Heights A song by a precocious and wildly talented English artist about the magnum opus of another precocious and wildly talented English artist appearing on a playlist for the listening pleasure of a precocious & wildly talented English artist. Well, you can justify this song’s presence with that particular Russian doll of reasoning if you’d like. Me? I just really dig the idea of warbling “Heathcliff! It’s me Cathy, Come home!” off-key at max volume through the moonroof alongside modernism’s greatest novelist (suck it James Joyce!)…
11. Radiohead – How to Disappear Completely A pensive meditation on the self and the difficulty of genuine human connection with references to water and hints of an impending departure. I debated whether to include this one, but most car rides with a good and thoughtful companion end up with stretches where you both embrace the silence and let your minds go where they will. This one’s for Rhoda in The Waves.
12. The Waterboys – This is The Sea 2004: I sit down in a movie theater to watch the surfing documentary Riding Giants with no more knowledge of the sport than repeated childhood viewings of Point Break & Airborne. I walk out with a profound respect for the history & challenge of wave riding (plus a more markedly spiritual reverence for Point Break). Part of that was definitely due to the pitch-perfect crescendo this song provides right at the end of the movie. A catalog of intense personal struggle that ultimately embraces hope through an extended water metaphor about transitioning from a river to a sea. I’ll just leave this here.
What To Read, What Not To Read, and How To Choose
In Barnes & Noble bookstores all throughout the country, the Summer Reading tables are up and overflowing with mass market trade paperbacks. Or, if someone’s high school English teacher is evil, hardcovers. Every spring, local Barnes & Noble bookstores receive the summer reading list from local high schools, stock up accordingly, and stack these strategically placed tables with the classic literature we read as teenagers … or that we feel we probably should have read as teenagers.
Like most high school kids, I did all my summer reading the week before school started. This helps to explain my failing grade on A Passage To India (it was set in England, right?) and taught all high school kids (okay, me) that renting the movie is not the same as reading the book.
From teaching creative writing and composition at the university level for a few years now, I think it is safe to say that the only two books that students are guaranteed (or at least really close) to have read by the time they have graduated high school are The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird. Other than that? Who knows? In this BN that I’m writing a portion of this blog post from, the Summer Reading tables have titles such as The Bell Jar, The Sun Also Rises, Catcher in the Rye, and Night. All of which I’ve read.
They also have The Killer Angels, Grendel, The Secret Life of Bees, The Fountainhead, and The Diary of Ana Frank. I’ve never read any of these books.
Recently, hoping to fill a gap in my contemporary literature, I decided to follow the lead of Rebecca Schinsky, who runs The Book Lady’s Blog, and re-read all of Toni Morrison’s books leading up to the release of Morrison’s new novel, Home, which came out last month. It was a good idea. It was motivation. It was interactive. And I managed to read several Morrison books—The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, and Beloved—before flaming out, meekly glancing at the stack of Morrison books I bought, sitting on top of my bookshelf, spines exposed, collecting dust.
How do I choose what to read? Lately, I’ve been reading one new book followed by one re-read, and then read another new book, then another re-read, and so on. Mostly, I’ve been lucky that the books I’ve read for the first time—The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris and Tinkers by Paul Harding—are excellent. There is also the delight in re-reading a classic and seeing it anew each time, the things that I didn’t notice or fully appreciate, perhaps because I couldn’t see them, perhaps I’m making them up, who knows, the pleasure is new even if the narrative is not. I love this. Some people have a reading plan. Most people I know have a TBR (to be read) stack, or several stacks, throughout their home.
So, let’s keep going backwards. Before Harding and Ferris, I re-read The Phantom Tollbooth, which was the first book I read that felt like was written just for me. Before that, I was visiting my mother in Cincinnati, and snagged a used copy of The Great Gatsby and blew through that in a day. I had just finished Mrs. Dalloway. Someone close to me urged me to re-read it, thunderstruck by the fact that I had never even finished it, let alone liked it. She was right: it’s a beautiful, lovely, perfect novel. Next: The Marriage Plot. It was one of the It Books of Literary Fiction in 2011, and one of my friends had talked to me about how the novel was more of an argument than a narrative, and I wanted to know what he was talking about. He was right: an interesting idea but not a particularly memorable novel. Next: several Toni Morrison novels for the reasons listed above. I skipped around simply because one day heading out the door I grabbed the wrong book, and started reading them out of chronological order. Whoops. Next: Portnoy’s Complaint. A writer-friend always talks up Roth, and I haven’t read much Roth, and I bought this in hardcover for twenty five cents last summer, so, yeah, why not? (verdict: yuck). Next: The Best American Essays 2011. I assigned this to my internship class, along with BASS, which I had already read.
And so on.
Do you see a plan there? Neither do I. I see a variety of interests that spring up for a variety of reasons and, despite any planning or best intentions, some that require immediate attention and others that do not.
Here’s the thing: even though I know I can’t and won’t read everything, I still feel anxious about the fact that I haven’t. How can I really know what I’m doing as a writer if I haven’t read everything? How can I really know what’s going in contemporary literature if I’m not up on every single new thing that is published? And, if I can’t get into both of these camps, how am I doing my job, how am I following my passion (writing), if it all often feels far too exhausting to keep up?
This feeling of anxiety never fully goes away. But here’s the weird thing: I don’t really want it to. I don’t want to be comfortable with my reading choices. A certain amount of discomfort keeps me sharp, keeps me open to reading a book I might have dismissed five years ago, or re-reading something that hadn’t impressed me, or dropping everything else I’m reading because of the enthusiasm someone has for a book she just finished and that I must read RIGHT NOW.
I may never get through all of Dickens, or Nadine Gordimer, or Thomas Pynchon, or any other writer that you could name. I also might never be comfortable with the fact that I won’t. But a little bit of discomfort and emotional browbeating are two different things. Read what you love. Don’t waste time on the books that don’t move you. With an open and curious mind, there will always be new books to read, old books to re-read. One particular book or author will never make us feel we “get” modernism or post-confessionalism or whatnot. A little bit of humble (“No, actually, I’ve never read that …”) and a little bit of curiosity go along way. There’s always something terrific to discover for the first time.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
The Moth Doesn’t Matter, or, Some Obvious Statements about an Essay
I didn’t want to say or write anything, ever, about this perpetual conversation about John D’Agata, but I’ve decided to write something for this blog this morning and while I’d love to tell you about how much I like the excellent book I’m reading I’m not far enough into it to really say anything about it.
I don’t have much to add to this big conversation being had about John D’Agata, facts, nonfiction, and John D’Agata – a conversation that I’m very worried will only make it harder for certain people, who have written nonfiction book manuscripts with all the attention to detail and facts that their work called for, to publish those books. I would, though, like to write briefly about “The Death of the Moth,” which I think is pertinent to the discussion. D’Agata included it in his essay anthology The Lost Origins of the Essay, but that’s not what makes it relevant. It is, rather, a great example of something some people don’t seem to have made room for in their personal mental genre maps, a thing I’ll call The Essay in Which Facts Don’t Matter Very Much.
As everyone knows, not much happens in “The Death of the Moth.” A moth starts to die, tries not to, but dies anyway. That’s it, essentially. All of the real importance is in Woolf’s depiction of that death, the significance she grants it, the way she makes the narrative into something much more than the tale of a fading insect.
There is, I suppose, a kind of reportage in the essay, as Woolf relays to us the news of a moth’s windowsill death and her sympathy for it. But if news broke that Woolf never actually watched that moth die, never nudged it with her pencil, or didn’t care about the moth the way she claims she did, it would make absolutely no difference at all. The moth is not important. The moth’s death is not important. What is important is everything else happening in the essay, of which there is a lot, all of which is confined to the space between Woolf’s ears where the thinking happened.
There are those who would claim that if I am right, and Woolf’s essay is not marinated in facts, if it does not adhere to objective truthfulness that we tend to demand of essays, then it is a work of fiction and we should call it a short story. I don’t see it that way; I think we have to live with The Essay in Which Facts Don’t Matter Very Much because there are many of them and to pretend they’re short stories, or poems, or other things that aren’t essays, is to live in an unnecessary kind of denial.
I know that others still would argue that everything in The Death of the Moth does indeed hinge on the reality of that dying moth, on its having actually died on the windowsill with Woolf watching. I don’t think so. But they might be right; I am merely one person, one who flutters back and forth between one opinion and another like a moth dying on a windowsill. I only want to advocate on behalf of a certain kind of essay where facts aren’t especially relevant, where to get upset about the verifiability of its details is to be truly pedantic. While I am convinced – not having read About a Mountain – that it doesn’t belong in that category, I think this Woolf essay is one of them, and is worth a few minutes of our attention once every couple of years or so.
It is interesting to me that prior to About a Mountain, D’Agata did something like what it sounds like he does in About a Mountain, which is to blend literary journalism, or the appearance of it, with this kind of sheer contemplative writing. I am thinking of his essay “Round Trip,” in which he describes, among other things, meeting a twelve-year-old on a bus to the Hoover Dam. There’s a memorable point in that essay where D’Agata inserts a monologue on the computer game Civilization, in quotation marks, offset from the rest of the essay’s text. It is given as if it were the kid’s transcribed rambling. When I first read that long paragraph, I was struck by how inaccurate a description it was of Civilization, which I’ve spent more hours of my life playing than I’ll ever admit. Having spent time listening to kids describe computer games, I couldn’t believe that any twelve-year-old would describe Civilization the way D’Agata says this one did. I questioned whether that kid ever said these things at all. But if you look, he doesn’t really claim that the kid was talking about the game like this; it’s a quotation not attributed to anyone, ostensibly. It’s a description of the game, perhaps based on something this twelve-year-old said, that’s been sent through the meat grinder of whatever D’Agata wanted to do with it.
I don’t doubt that About a Mountain has all of the problems with it that have been identified by the good people I admire who’ve identified problems with it. But although it’s taken me a little while to come around to this, I also think it’s worth pointing out that D’Agata’s whole project is not illegitimate, and that at times it works rather well.
But you don’t have to take my word for it.