#tobyreads: On Book Groups & De Facto Extra Credit


I may have lost track of the number of book groups I’m in at this point. Four? Five? I run one, and am now in the semi-regular position of putting together the reading list for early 2014. (One prediction: the expanded edition of Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love will make an appearance.) It’s something I value a lot — getting to talk about books with smart people is never not time well spent, and in a lot of cases, I’ve been drawn to books that I might not have read otherwise. And preparing to lead a discussion is something else interesting, an experience I’m still figuring out. Earlier this week, though, I found myself frenetically discussing aspects of a book I’d thought had left me relatively cold; the best book group experiences, for me, are the ones that push me in unexpected ways, that reveal emotions I hadn’t expected to feel about works I hadn’t expected to like.

In Music Writing Book Group, we’ll be discussing Mark Costello & David Foster Wallace’s Signifying Rappers. Which will, I suspect, be one of the more contentious discussions we’ll end up having. Advance word on the reissue was not promising; at the same time, my reasoning behind choosing it was that, with writers as talented as Costello and Wallace (who collaborated here via alternating chapters), even a total trainwreck would provide abundant fodder for discussion. And, yeah, this one’s all over the place, to be honest. Costello’s first section may be my favorite, a fairly straightforward account of a local label in Boston; from there, things get more and more academic, and the language gets more and more circuitous. It’s not my favorite thing by either writer, but there are parts of it that I found fantastic — even as other parts of it made me cringe.

As an old friend reminded me, I’d probably read Kate Chopin’s The Awakening for the first time in the summer of 1995. I’m very glad I had cause to re-read it — I don’t think that the younger me would have necessarily gotten all of the nuances of this book, nor would he have quite grasped the elliptical frustrations and sublimation that take place throughout. This is fantastic, haunting stuff.

Leaping ahead a century, I also had cause to read Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. Which — given the current debt limit situation, NYC’s ongoing real estate crunch, and Shteyngart’s near-future riffs on economics and the future of the city, made me gulp a lot. Between this and Cari Luna’s The Revolution of Every Day, which I recently read for a review, I found myself in need of something that didn’t leave me in a fatalistic mood about the accessibility of the city in which I live. I’m also curious to see which of the fictional acronyms used in the novel will wend there way into everyday use. Life does have a way of imitating art, after all.


I’ve also been catching up on Underwater New York’s fiction section, including stories from the likes of Kathryn Davis, Ben Greenman, and Tom McCarthy. I’ve also slowly been making my way through the latest Bookforum; Elizabeth Gumport’s essay on Leanne Shapton’s work has served to remind me that I really need to read Swimming Studies.

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