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Thumb Drives and Oven Clocks: Issue 10
What I've Been Reading
Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier
I've been thinking about favorites.
How do you know a book is one of your favorite books?
Not just a book you loved, but, a book that, were someone cruel enough to corner you at a party and demand a top ten list of your favorite books from you, you know you'd put on that list?
I've been thinking about the literary canon.
I like the canon. Not any specific historical version of it, but the idea of it. It's a thing that represents something interesting about us, an evolving and incomplete representation of our struggles and accomplishments.
Were the aliens cruel enough to land on Earth and corner us at parties and start making conversational demands, it's cool to think we could have this thing that we could hand over to them as a shorthand way of saying: here we are, trying.
I like that you and I get to decide what's canon. I like that you and I will probably disagree. I like that we're both probably wrong. This is good. This is valuable.
I've been thinking about how our personal favorites and public canons are fluid and challenging; not fixed, hierachical orderings of items, but rather, signifiers of the intricate, delicate, liquid webs of relationships that weave us into the flowing world.
I've been thinking about how writing this newsletter is cool, because it gives me the occasional excuse to smash figures of speech together until they become unrecognizable pulp, and nobody can stop me.
I think Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier might be my newest top-ten book.
I also think Rebecca should be canonical and I might fight you if you disagree with me.
I can't say this about many books, but I remember where I was when I finished Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. It was summer 2001, the year after I finished college. I was, generally speaking, a mess; turns out, so was David Foster Wallace, in ways much more real than I hope to ever experience. I worked in a soulless office building near the airport, going nowhere, and I finished the book sitting on the outside steps over lunch and when I turned the final page over, and the tide was way out, I knew I'd just finished a work of genius, a gut-punch classic, the latest addition to and possibly one of the finest entries in the Western canon, and, oh yeah, probably my newest favorite book, and so imagine my surprise when the tenth anniversary edition was released a few years later, the one that included a preface by Dave Eggers, and I read some commentary somewhere about how it was only then, ten years into the book's life, that such a preface had to start the work of making the case for the book's right to a long post-publication life.
(Here in 2022, I must parathentically acknowledge that, yes, I was 23, and it would be years before I'd grow self-aware enough to see myself for being the kind of sad young white literary man who probably would have cornered you at parties to tell you that you have to read Infinite Jest. It's weird to think about. And yet…I try not to forget my own sense of context, either, when it felt like everything was beginning. I never could have imagined David Foster Wallace's suicide, nor how deeply it would hurt me, anger me, nor how much I would feel robbed of the work he was meant to go on to create. For me. His deeply problematic relationships with women—I know that impacts every reading of that book, that it will impact me the next time I pick it up in search of, what, reckoning, understanding, grappling, delusion, hope, the silent pain of poking a soft, broken bruise. And yet for all the color time and knowledge has splashed across my memory, there's still that moment, that experience, underneath it all: I sincerely and unironically loved a book.)
In my memory, when I was sitting outside on those steps, the sun was setting.
I know that can't be a fact, but it feels true.
On a recent episode of Marlon and Jake Read Dead People the duo got into a chat about unreliable narrators; Jake Morissey brought up Rebecca, which has been on my TBR pile for a while, because it's a classic, and everyone knows it, and I'm a fraud because I hadn't read it yet. Except Marlon James had not read it, and if he hadn't read it yet, I guess I could cut myself some slack, huh? And furthermore Jake was talking about the book like it was the kind of thing that existed off the main path, a book that still needed to be discovered.
Either way, I finally bumped it to the top of my pile. I don't know if there was anything particularly magical about the moment I picked it up or if it was just the right book at the right moment but there was a point, maybe halfway through, when I went a little out-of-body, and I watched myself reading it for a bit, and what I saw was someone reading possibly one of his newest most favorite books ever. Which was wild to realize.
I say "realize" because I don't think the love I developed for that book can be decided upon. I think about mood a lot when it comes to books, the mood of the story and the reader, and how critical it is to the entire experience of reading books, and yet how thinking about mood so much is the kind of thing that probably made me a very bad English major, because you can't spend your time writing papers about such subjective stuff—rightfully so, I suppose, I mean, get a blog, am I right?—and yet, still, books are moods, and this book, Rebecca, was a whole mood, and I was in it, with this book.
And I say "wild" because I'm not 23 anymore and haven't all my tastes and selves been long since decided upon? What room in my heart do I have for a new favorite book? What am I even supposed to do with that? Except write a couple thousand words of newsletter that's mostly self-important filler around me saying: hey, I think you should read Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, because I loved it, and I think it's possibly one of the best novels ever written?
This book…of all books, this book that I swear to the gods is approximately seventy-five percent descriptions of plant life. I'm glad nobody told me that, because I probably never would have read it. But here we are.
English major mood sidebar: ask me about the time I had to drop a class because we were reading The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway and the class insisted on trying to discuss that book. You can't discuss that book. You can only collapse at it. You can't reduce it to words.
How do you know a book is a favorite book? When do you know it?
There isn't any throughline from Infinite Jest to Rebecca as far as I know outside of me realizing while I was reading it that I was really having the kind of experience that can be inseparable from the subsequent love for the book. Like: there's a reason I'm hesitant to go back to Jennifer Egan's Look at Me, one of my favorite books ever, but which I haven't touched again for fear of finding it lacking. I know it can happen: when I came back to Infinite Jest years after I originally read it, I know I found it to be less. If Infinite Jest can reveal its finiteness, that lessening can happen to anything.
Of course on the flip side you have a book like The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro, which I hated when I first read it in high school. Which, yes, too soon, but also which I've loved more each time I've revisited it since. Rereadng it has rewarded and revealed. I wonder if I needed the intellectual clarity of hatred to make way the path for love.
I'm not going to try to make an actual top ten books list, because that sounds like a mean thing to try to make me do, but were I to do so, everything would be on it for reasons, and every reason would be unique, and right now, I think Rebecca would be on that list. But I'm still trying to figure out why.
As for the greater list, the volcanic flowing canon of literature? It's weird to me to think that, some eighty years after its release, this book—which, for whatever reason, I'd assumed beforehand was an accepted classic—still may need to have the case made for it. I want to make the case for it. I loved it and I also want to rip into it, I want to go back in time and feel like I have the time write papers about it, I want to rediscover it from that perspective, find its context in relation to the books that came before it and the books that came after it. I want to draw out the connections I see to authors like Kazuo Isiguro in the ways it plays with a narrator who knows without understanding and to authors like Franz Kafka, because is there anything more Kafkaesque than showing up for a new job with zero understanding of what it even is you're supposed to be doing there? And I want to think about the representation of shyness in the book and how it works as a literary motif, how you can have a narrator who is deeply engaged with yet distanced from her world, and for once I want to be the loud kid in the class, the one nobody could shut up if they tried. I want to chew up the physical lushness of the book's descriptions and find out for myself just how they work; I want to know what was on du Maurier's shelves, what was it she learned from, how did she come to know how to make such things possible?
And, and, and. And that's where…that's where something feels right for me, magical, even, the way this book both cast the mood but also invites my interest into seeing how the trick was done—I want see the mirror positioned behind the hat even while the rabbit elicits a heartfelt, wordless gasp.