The Last Book I Loved: Joan Didion’s ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’
The Last Book I Loved is an ongoing series from The Rumpus to highlight emerging Tumblr writers (and the books they love). This is the final installment of Tumblr Storyboard’s version, but you can still submit to The Rumpus for publication! Thanks for reading.
I came across a Facebook post recently in which someone offered W.B. Yeats’ poem “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” as encouragement for a peer going through a quarter-life crisis. Things fall apart; the center cannot hold,” Yeats writes. It’s a feeling everyone has at some point, but for a twentysomething in the midst of an identity crisis, it sounded especially appropriate.
Joan Didion must have felt the same way when she chose the poem as an epigraph for her essay collection of the same name.
The Last Book I Loved: ‘The Unnamed’
When you go to the website for Joshua Ferris’s 2010 novel, The Unnamed, your screen fills with static for a second. Then it resolves into a grainy gray video of the main hall of Grand Central Terminal, like security camera footage, commuters walking to and from their trains. And then fuzzy blue circles appear over a handful of heads. When you click on one, the video pauses, and a small text bubble comes up. One says, “I look around, I wonder if I’m just sick.” Another quotes a poem by Percy Shelley. “Art thou pale for weariness / Of climbing heaven and gazing on earth/Wandering companionless / Among the stars that have a different birth.” They feel like a little of what each person has inside them, a bit of story or sorrow they keep inside themselves.
This is what Joshua Ferris’s work is — a song of this secret world. He writes about the isolation of modern life, our disconnect from the world at large and from the people around us. And he writes of the small, beautiful hopes of connection — through love, through hope, through body-breaking exertions.
The Last Book I Loved: History of the Peloponnesian War
This is not an easy book to love. As an object, it is one of those books all of an age: squat, with yellowing, pulpy pages, the kind whose corners you can’t turn down because the paper creases so hard it that it might as well be perforated. Dog-ear it in the opposite direction and the corner comes off entirely. The print is small and dense; and it is a 2,400 year old account of a war that gets no press. It’s not sexy like the Fall of Troy, not Homerically epic. The gods don’t factor in. The content is almost as hard to love as the way I remember myself when the book first came to me.
The Last Book I Loved: Cataclysm Baby
Cataclysm Baby, a short story collection by Matt Bell, explores fatherhood under the guise of a book of baby names. The innocent abecedary form belies the book’s dark contents. I don’t think it would be inappropriate to place the collection in the horror genre, if only to align it with my own desires and my love affair with horror movies. But the book certainly contains enough blood, guts, and magic to earn a place there.
The Last Book I Loved: Brown Girl, Brownstones
My dreams, for so long unrestrained by land, air, or even death — and frequently including scenes of me tumbling through the air on glossy black feathered wings or jumping into an abyss with a smile on my face — now generally take place in a building with four walls and a roof. I dream of houses. I dream of owning a home, post-Great Recession, and despite the weight of federal student loans on my back. I am frequently visited by visions of curtains that open up to reveal a cold sunlight in the morning, of a cubbyhole library, perhaps in the attic, and of backyards that lend themselves to Slip ‘n Slides and crisp autumnal leaf piles. I would dream of brownstones, except I’m in the wrong tax bracket. Crippling pragmatism happens sometimes.
The Last Book I Loved: The Dream Songs
My relationship with John Berryman’s Dream Songs, like the songs themselves, is murky, complicated, obscure in origin, and not easy to explain — not even to myself. One signpost of great art, it seems to me, is that the meaning of its greatness shifts in relation to the reader over time, and my appreciation of The Dream Songs has deepened and evolved — as I expect it will to continue to for the rest of my life — in the two decades since it first came to my attention.
The Last Book I Loved: Skagboys
Being a lover of charity shops, bargain basements, scruffy, slightly dusty secondhand bookshops, and long-forgotten boxes in attics, it’s a rare occurrence for me to buy a brand new, hot-off-the-press, full-price book. Frankly the idea gives me mild heart palpitations, perpetual tightwad that I am. But I’ve been one of the many who fall somewhere between an admirer and full-on obsessive about Irvine Welsh for a very long time, and when Skagboys was released in the summer of 2012, it was all I could do not to camp outside Waterstones the night before it went on sale — not hardly because of its strangely enticing advertising campaign.
Even those who wouldn’t count themselves among Welsh’s enthusiasts have come to know his signature mix of gritty realism with charming and yet wholly terrible characters through film adaptations of his work that have been made over the years. Ewan McGregor’s portrayal of Mark “Rent Boy” Renton won over those who couldn’t be bothered to decipher Welsh’s lavish use of Scottish slang, and a worldwide brand based on Renton’s “Choose Life” speech was born. Porno,the sequel, was very good (in my opinion arguably better than its predecessor) but failed to enter the public consciousness quite so effortlessly. And although I had high hopes, I could never have predicted how much I would enjoy the prequel to the Heroin Chic trilogy: Skagboys.
A little bit about The Last Book I Loved series, a partnership between The Rumpus and Tumblr to discover YOU: the fabulous, literate, funny, and smart members of Tumblr. This week we selected an essay from Tumblr user Stephanie Wong and it is a knockout. She talks about women and failure and being invisible and the power of that invisibility. She talks about obsession and art and trips, both physical and otherwise. Read it, either over at Storyboard, at The Rumpus, or even here.
If you’ve already submitted something to us, sit tight! We’ve read (and are continuing to read) your work and we can’t get enough of it. We’ve got some fantastic essays already lined up to go out in the coming weeks.
If you haven’t submitted something, you still have time! We’ll be continuing to read over the next few months as the series continues. We are super excited about it, and super excited about you.
Submit, read, and reblog!
With great affection,
The Last Book I Loved: I Love Dick
This is the first of an ongoing series, produced in partnership with The Rumpus, to highlight Tumblr writers (and the books they love). Want to have your essay considered? Submit it here. We’ll publish our favorites every Friday for the next 10 weeks.
The front cover of the last book I loved bears neither gold seals nor laurels to rest on. If you’re looking for flashy art direction, keep moving. Here, there’s just a shadowy still life photo (inventory: one open notebook, one glass ashtray, one bowl, two pens, many loose leaves of paper) set against a plain white background. And yet, if ever there was a book that should be judged by its cover, it’s this one. Open it and you’ll learn that the cover photo is not stock but Treilles, 1996 by French theorist Jean Baudrillard. That’s your first clue. I Love Dick doesn’t look like any other book on the shelf, and it doesn’t read like any other book I’ve read either.
What Was the Last Book You Loved? We Want Your Essays!
We’re excited to announce a Tumblr Storyboard + The Rumpus partnership to highlight Tumblr writers and the books they love — an extension of The Rumpus’s ongoing “Last Book I Loved” series. Here’s how it works: Got a book you can’t stop thinking about? Send us a writeup – a little bit book review and a lot about why you loved it – along with a short bio. Beginning next month, we’ll publish our favorites every Friday, both on Storyboard and TheRumpus.net. Visit our SUBMIT PAGE for more information — and get reading!
(Card catalogue scan from the Palatina Library at the Biblioteca Nazionale in Florence.)