Bedtime Stories: Jan. 2017

  • January 18, 2017

What do book lovers have queued up on their nightstands and ready to read before lights out? We asked one of them, and here’s what she said.

Bedtime Stories: Jan. 2017

Wendy Thomas Russell:

My nightstand is stuffed full of books I’ve never read by writers I admire.

Let’s see: There’s Annie Proulx and Joan Didion and James McBride and Chris Offutt and Colum McCann. I could go on and on. There must be 25 books in there, separated into two tall stacks. Each is begging to be picked up. And yet, if I’m being honest, I may never actually do it.

Because every night for years, I have nodded a silent hello to all those wonderful writers only to step past them, crawl into bed, and turn on my iPad — where most of my attention lies these days, for better or worse.

I started reading on the Kindle for utilitarian reasons; e-books are cheaper, easier, space-saving, and environmentally friendly. The built-in light is a godsend for someone whose husband almost always falls asleep before she does. Highlighting text is a cinch. Word definitions are a click away. And, quite frankly, I tend to choose bigger books when I don’t have to constantly be reminded of the number of pages I have left.

Which leads me to what I’m reading now: My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard.

For many weeks now, I’ve been completely absorbed in Book Two of Knausgaard’s six-volume series of autobiographical books. You’ve probably heard of the series; it’s 3,600 pages long and internationally controversial — as much for its provocative title as for its unabashed self-involvement and lack of plot.

Karl Ove is a Norwegian novelist living in Sweden and writing about various aspects of his life: his father, his love life, his children, his work, etc. The first book was a tour de force, in my humble opinion. The second, subtitled A Man in Love, is equally fascinating, if not more so.

First of all, Karl Ove writes about himself with such raw clarity — even in, especially in, the most mundane of situations. He might be writing about a disagreement he had with one of his wives, or a children’s story time he attended with his daughters, or the things he picked out to eat at the grocery store. Whatever it is, I’m in rapt attention. I’ve never known another writer who can dive into the monotony of life and bring forth an almost skin-tingling sense of humanity.

Sometimes, I’ll stop and think, How is it possible that I’m enjoying this?

But the brilliance of Karl Ove is that he mines the situations in life that other writers cut out of their final drafts or ignore altogether. Although there are plenty of exciting, intriguing, tension-filled interactions in My Struggle, they never seem to be elevated above any other interaction. Each thought or exchange or revelation is treated with the same level of delicacy and care. And the pacing is a constant. We are on a slow-moving train that never speeds up and that makes no stops. The books aren’t even split into chapters. As a result, readers can’t be sure what awaits them on the next page. Will Karl Ove get drunk and say something stupid? Will he have some philosophical thought while enjoying a smoke on the balcony? Will he cut his face in an epic show of shame and hurt and vulnerability? Will he meet a friend for coffee? All are equally possible.

Karl Ove has suffered as a result of publishing these books — both because of public criticism of the form and the fact that his brutally honest depictions of friends and family have ended up hurting people he loves. But I would argue that literature has gained much from his suffering. Every writer should be so lucky as to discover what he or she does best. And Karl Ove has. He has hit on his own genius by making his life — quite literally — an open book.

Which is ironic. Because I’m reading him on my iPad.

Wendy Thomas Russell is author of Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious. A former newspaper reporter, she writes an online parenting column for the PBS NewsHour and is co-founder of an independent publishing company called Brown Paper Press.

Like what we do? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent!
comments powered by Disqus