is a Virginia-based writer and musician. His work has appeared, or is pending, in Rattle, Main Street Rag, Liberty, Light Quarterly, Epicenter and Bright Lights Film Journal, among others.
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A Polemicist’s Guide to the Written Word
by Norman Ball
“Prefatory quotes are the lazy man’s excuse for a fitting introduction.”—The Author
Like climbing a hill backwards, serious reading is often attended by material hardship. The typical literary magazine reader would forego a small weekly ration of chocolate to afford his true obsession. He—or she—is a committed reader, someone who reads for reasons other than commerce, career or idle leisure. Acute personal danger would not dissuade this reader from his calling. The requisite image is a citizen-prisoner of some totalitarian regime committing The Gulag Archipelago to memory, flashlight under bed-sheets. Truth to power!
A few obstinate islands of literati notwithstanding, America on the whole has grown too accustomed to a low-slung easy freedom to weather the slog of consequential reading. Perhaps dire circumstance—or the threat of it—assists concentration. If Gravity’s Rainbow were suddenly removed from our library shelves, none but a few literary types would notice. Shutter Blockbuster Video however and SUV’s would be overturned and set aflame in the nation’s strip malls.
It’s no accident I speak from these pages. After all I could have papered windshields with seditionist pamphlets. But why court deaf ears? Those who would risk the deprivations of Siberia to acquaint themselves with Thomas Pynchon are precisely the dissident spirits I wish to engage.
Careful readers may detect a slight patronizing tone to my introduction. This is because I am on the cusp of a damning admission. I wish to petition the court of least favorable opinion, an audience where no prejudice exists for my bourgeois habits. That way, my absolution, should it come, will be duly earned.
First of all, I am not one of you. I am a wolf in sheep’s clothing, the lion that ate the lamb, a spy in the house of love. In my behavior toward books, I am the inner-city apparatchik who opts to live in the suburbs where the schools are better. What I am suggesting, dear reader is that, in my efforts to feign camaraderie with you, I may, from time to time, skirt the hemline of hypocrisy.
I suppose I am no different from most writers in that I would like my writing to be revered. Failing that, I would like it simply to be read. This is a selfish, non-reciprocating expectation as I myself harbor no particular reverence for the written word. The best that can be said is that, while I enjoy certain writing, I show a callous disregard for the books themselves. But even this may be a narrow-minded evasion.
As for books, I interrogate them, soil them, dog-ear them, rifle them, scrawl in them, yellow-line them, often from back-to-front. I compete with the author for each page, utilizing the white-space for my own personal graffiti and epithets. I explicate vague sentences, rewrite awkward passages, insert my own footnotes and asterisks. I once jotted a grocery list on a page torn from The Norton Anthology of Poetry because I had just returned from a class and it was the only available blank paper in the car. I left the list at the check-out counter, never bothering to read the poem on the obverse side.
I suppose it’s my authorial prerogative, but by relegating poetry to the ‘obverse’ side, I am suddenly aware my milk and eggs have achieved a certain cheeky primacy over something that may be recited, reverentially, a thousand years from now. This troubles me vaguely until I remind myself that a struggling writer must eat too.
I am a writer-by-avocation-only, a nocturnal, pro bono, dilly-dallier over inanities. There are probably a hundred things I should be doing right now besides this, sleep being the most obvious. I am acutely aware of favoring writing, the act, over reading, the chore. Unfortunately, a megaphone is only as mellifluous as the tone that informs it. Or is it that a golden throat is nothing but a tin ear in reverse? Clearly my metaphors need more practice.
My writerly guilt, in abeyance for months, received fresh legs recently when I ran across a passage in Salman Rushdie’s collection of essays, Imaginary Homelands. Whenever he dropped a book as a child, Rushdie would, in a gesture of contrition, kiss it before returning the offended tome to its shelf. This practice smacks of a dying age with thick clouds of incense, an age I might have benefited from. It also reflects the sort of reverence I only wish I had for books. Even Rushdie admits to being corrupted away from this practice in later years by garishly painted western women, causing him to interrogate the very notion of the sacred.
I’ve thrown books against the wall in disgust when they fail to reproduce my expectations. As I type this, a certain book lies pinned beneath my bed. Let’s say my disappointment in it was so complete, I wanted it to suffer. One wonders, when a book is burned, do a million tiny angels afflict the author’s body with white-hot pin-pricks? Perhaps this dullard of an author is tickled ceaselessly by dust mites.
Rarely do I read a book completely, almost never in proper sequence. In fact I am a voracious half-reader of books. My home library is stacked with the detritus of my dilettante ways. I pore, with frenetic intermittency, over huge numbers of books. With a reasonable level of certainty, I can relate what I believe the next delectable bite held in store from any number of the half-eaten sandwiches littering my study. On occasion, I will encounter someone who claims to have a read a particular book eight times. Invariably, I want to check his pulse. I can’t remember the last time I was compelled to devour a book cover-to-cover, unable to put it down. In fact, I put books down with great alacrity. I don’t feast, I scavenge, picking bones for whatever interests me at that particular moment. I’m not a book-lover. I’m a book-user. I believe there is a difference.
Non-fiction is the genre that interests me most. Like an impatient fact-finder, I scan the index for the predecessors whom I feel should fill the author’s pages. Everyone stands on a giant or two. When I find the cupboard improperly provisioned, I curse the chef.
I detest the cloying insincerity at the start of most books of fiction. First chapters—the sheer arbitrariness of where a story begins—are the ground zeroes for horrible mischief. A polite introduction can be the obsequious handshake before a blistering run of three-card-monte. At least somewhere in the middle, the author must rest his arms, tally his ill-gotten gains, and allow the book to find its own altitude. So few books defy gravity; most fly in the face of even the most scrupulous powers of recollection.
Think of that first bad date with a cad, probably a struggling writer, silver-tongued, no doubt broke. That’s most authors. At the outset, he often plays the gently cajoling lover, striving for the reader’s confidences. He wants to be the great conductor of truth, the go-to-guy for Ultimate Questions. During plot resolution, we learn whether an author polishes the backs of his shoes. However most are encyclopedia salesmen, all polite introductions and firm handshakes. Why should they care how they look, departing our stoops, check in hand?
But I’m laying too much blame at the shoes of the author and his agenda-rich prerogative. I don’t have the patience for a labyrinthine plot. I’m not a scholar. I’m an autodidact, interested only in engaging cocktail banter and the occasional quotable zinger. Hard-won edification remains one shelf beyond my shotgun shack. Books are vitamin supplements. I belong in a mirrored gym instead.
As an essay writer, I imagine myself a pamphleteer striving to anticipate his audience. When the lay-off is announced, there I am at the factory door, pressing my manifesto into tired hands. Done right, the suspension of belief can be a thing to behold. Rapt believers give me goose-bumps. I find that, for some readers, no leap of faith is too great for their daddy-of-the-moment. Savoring his manna, they cry: ‘Look what he has delivered down from heaven. And to think, he could have kept it all for himself!’
But I am not descending from some Ararat. My writing is a climb out of hell. I’m haunted by everything and everyone I had to stand on to reach the ground others take for granted. No angelic messenger, I am an enemy of the state ducking between razor-wire lines, one village ahead of the dreaded secret police. I’m a horrible seeker of truth. My writings are a series of cascading assertions that seek to appear gravity-defying. After a long hard day at the factory, stupefied faith is all that prevents my polemics from being trampled in the street unread.
At this point, you may be inclined to write me off as a crank intent only on polishing the same old furniture. True, I champion authors who explicate my own vague suspicions. I’m not interested in being unseated from all that torments me.
Have I earned a metaphysical swoon? Learning for me is as Plato divined it—not as a seminal process of raw acquisition, but one of reclamation and recovery. In a strange déjà vu sort of way I seek things already discernible within my orbit. At their best, books are dodgy time machines that offer glimpses of what we already know, but for some reason, fail to recollect.
I’ll leave this astute readership to decide—as only it can—the merits of my musings. Provided some of you are still with me. For those comrades after my own heart, who are just now joining us, hello and good night.