Some bookish things: Snow maidens, Vonnegut, & Tsundoku

kurt1. Isn’t this portrait of Kurt Vonnegut great? He wrote such dark books, but had such a lovely, optimistic mind. The Chicago-based artist does other funny “pep-talk” prints, including a great one of Dolly Parton.

2. I just learned a new “untranslatable” word, and it perfectly describes my apartment: Tsundoku. It’s a Japanese word that describes the act of buying books and leaving them unread in piles around your home. Right now, I’m staring at a pile of books that includes novels by Sarah Waters (who wrote Fingersmith, which was just fantastic) and The Snow Childwhich I’m actually quite close to finishing, so technically it’s not “unread.” But I wish it were! It’s so, so good that I wish I hadn’t read it so I could go back to the beginning and start over. It’s about an old homesteader couple in Alaska that wish a child into being. The magic snow-child’s name is Faina. How beautiful is that?

Why I read, why I write: Kafka edition.

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I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

An axe for the frozen sea inside us! Good Lord. What a fantastic way to put it. It’s fitting that this rather dark (yet ultimately hopeful) reading of reading comes from the same mind that turned a salesman into a bug and skewered the inhumanity of the penal system. I imagine Kafka’s frozen sea is perhaps more choppy and violent than most (but also more beautiful, gleaming with ice crystals and the cold blue of glaciers). Oh and that picture? It’s by Russian-born (and now New Haven-based) illustrator Yelena Bryksenkova. She has some great prints for sale on Etsy, and counts “dashing historical men, good grammar, fancy urns, books, elephants” and folklore among her interests. Basically, she’s an artist after my own heart. Check out her website here.

Previously: Why I read, why I write.