“So let’s take this apart” is one of my favorite things to hear from a really good storyteller.
They get into a story, either one of theirs or someone else’s, and get deep into it and explain what worked and what didn’t and really start talking about the stuff that you probably should have caught the first time but you missed because you thought it was just an adventure story about a whale. But no! It’s an allegory for the Social Contract and the coffin is a symbol of life coming out of death, I guess?
Anyway, I recently found a great collection of essays on famous capital-L Literature that were each written by writers and artists that give insight that schlubs like me require someone to point out to me.
The Story About the Story: Great Writers Explore Great Literature collects the following:
Charles D’Ambrosio writing about Salinger. Woolf writing about Hemingway, Sven Birkerts talking about Keats, William H. Gass talking about Malcolm Lawry, Dagoberto Gilb talking about Cormac McCarthy, Nabokov writing about Kafka, Alain de Botton talking about Proust, Seamus Heaney talking about Eliot (T.S., not George), Salman Rushdie writing about L. Frank Baum, J.C. Hallman talking about Henry James, Michael Chabon writing about Montague James, Cynthia Ozick talking about Capote, James Wood talking about Chekov, D. H. Lawrence writing about Melville, Geoff Dyer writing about D.H. Lawrence, Czeslaw Milosz writing about Frost, Phyllis Rose writing about Proust, Randall Jarrell writing about Marianne Moore, Susan Sontag talking about Dostoyevsky, Edward Hirsch writing about various poets including Miklós Radnóti and Sylvia Plath, E.B. White writing about Thoreau, Walter Kirn talking some serious smack about Salinger, Wilde writing about Walter Pater, Fred Setterberg talking about Hemngway, Robert Hass talking about Robert Lowell, Hesse writing about Dostoevsky, Frank O’Connor writing about Katherine Mansfield, Davit Lodge talking about Waugh, Milan Kundera talking about Kafka, Camus writing about Melville, and Wallace Stegner talking about Steinbeck.
Now, you maybe have read a couple of these before in your various travails (I know that we read Nabokov’s essay about Kafka back in one of my philosophy courses way back in antiquity) but this book collects all of them together and, better yet, arranges them well so you can pick it up, read an essay, and put it back down 10 pages later and feel like you’ve actually read something a heck of a lot longer. (And, hey, maybe you’ll be inspired to pick up the stuff they’re actually talking about. Well, probably not Salinger.)
If you’ve been frustrated that you have only bite-sized slices of time and wish you could devour a feast of a novel? Well, Lawrence’s essay on Melville will tide you over for a few days… or Woolf’s exploration of Hemingway will have you remember the stories you read decades ago and google the Wikipedia pages dedicated to them. Or, hey, if you find yourself in a place where you need to quickly jockey for position, you can open with something like “I was reading Herman Hesse’s criticism of Dostoevsky recently and there’s no real point, really. I just wanted to point that out.”
So… what are you reading and/or watching?