I talk loosely about “lilypod or lilyblog hopping,” referring to what Ambulance Driver calls “linky love,” which is to say, finding a blog one likes and then exploring the links it lists down the side, in hopes that you’ll like them, too. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but at the very least it’s a good way to kill a rainy afternoon. The worst hazard is too many bookmarks choking your browser like cattails.
The principle was primally formed in my mind, I guess, at home where my father accumulated books and lined every room with them. They were roughly grouped by subject, so I learned early that if I liked one of the books, I’d probably like some of the others on the shelf. This carried over to the library, where the librarians grouped books by age appeal (to which I paid little attention) and Dewey Decimal numbers. Once I found the 700’s, I was kept busy for a long time. When I realized that the main library had a lot of books about ballet, I went down there and read the ones in English. The ones in French I sat and stared at for a long time, in hopes that I would suddenly get the knack for the language, the same way that I did on the day the first English writing suddenly became a voice in my head. But it never happened.
They put all the adult fiction together alphabetically, so I learned to read by author. All the works of Anya Seton (who would have been next to her father, Ernest Thompson Seton, except that he got bumped to “animal stories” or “young adults.”) are the foundation of my very confused sense of English history. I’d seen “The River,” so read every Godden book -- two sisters’ worth.
But I NEVER, I mean NEVER, read books recommended to me by other people and I am NEVER tempted to join a reader’s group. I guess I’m a snob. On the other hand, most people have totally nutty and off-the-mark ideas of what kind of books I might like. Usually what they think I’d like is really what THEY like.
Many times in my life I’ve found a person I admired and, in an effort to see life out of their eyes, I’ve read whatever they read. Once in a while it works -- other times I’m just bored. When I found the Unitarian church in Portland, I set out to read every book referenced by Alan Deale, the minister -- so I ended up reading a lot of Hans Kung and Ellul. I understood them about as well as I understood Russians with long names early in my reading career. I mean, I recognized most of the words -- but there was almost no integration into any kind of system. I didn’t have a system. Not having a system WAS my system. But then he let it slip that his true favorite author was Ernest Gann so I read all the works of Ernie Gann and loved them. (He tells airplane stories, like “The High and the Mighty.”)
At Northwestern as an undergrad, I didn’t spend much time on bibliography. I read the books I had to. At the U of Chicago Div School I suddenly understood “salvation by bibliography” and began to read the bibs of books before I even read the Table of Contents. I finally understood the uses of a Canon and how, if everyone knows the same set of books, it becomes a kind of language, a shorthand for certain concepts and stages in the development of thought in any discipline. It saves a lot of time to know who reads Tillich, who reads Process Theology, who reads Gustafson -- therefore what those peoples’ works suggest. It also suggests something if a person actually CAN read Toulmin or Ricoeur. I still sit and stare at some of their passages as though I were waiting for French to resolve. Theology, clinical psychology, and feminism all benefit from this Canon approach. I spent a lovely winter reading all the “teddy bear” object relations theory books I could find at the Chicago Powells. All I have to say is “Winnicott” to the right person and we’re off in talk. But with feminism, what’s politically correct changes pretty quickly, which means you can usually sell off last year’s books.
Which I suppose means that now I’m reading for ideas more than for plot, unless the plot is actually an idea in narrative form.
By default, one of my book game trails turns out to be remaindered book catalogues, esp. Daedalus. Google is a very effective spoor trail and so is Amazon, though I find it less fun. (Too much being grabbed by the ears and told I’ll like something, that I MUST read it!!! Everybody else is! It’s a case of the hunter being stalked.) Sometimes books and authors “yard up” like elk in deep snow: a book festival with everyone milling around and reading out loud.
Writing a book that is research- and therefore bibliography-based is more like trophy hunting. What are the big names and definitive works? While writing my bio of Bob Scriver, I learned bookshelves worth of material about French bronze casting, the Animaliers, the Hundred Years War in the Palatine, the sugar merchants of Scotland, and geology. I somehow always end up reading geology. It’s terrain, I guess.
So now I’ve been fiddling along with a novel about a middle-aged concert pianist Blackfeet man (!) and the old white widow of an anthropologist much older than she. The pianist has ruined his hand in a fistfight and is now beginning to learn about the drum (and his people). The woman is a painter who is renting her house from the man. There are other threads, but I’m currently reading about drumming and my resources are coming through: “Rhythm & Beauty, the Art of Percussion” by Rocky Maffit (a gorgeous book rich with photos) which was remaindered (Hamilton, I think), and “Touch the Sound” a documentary about a deaf percussionist who literally feels what she plays. I’m borrowing it from Netflix.
When I googled my old friend, Rolly Meinholtz, his name came up as the author of “Place Where Bear Dances,” a play about the early Oregon frontier that draws on the writing of Kim Stafford. (I’m from Oregon and have met Kim.) The play centers on the coming of age of a young mixed-blood girl and the music woven through it was supplied by the Drum Brothers. So I got the play from Rolly -- hey, you Oregon people ought to be producing it! -- and googled Drum Brothers. Downloaded some of their songs for free on MP3. Great stuff! I may begin to “bang on cans.”
Once I did a workshop about place and at one point played a tape by Paul Winter Consort about moose walking with a strong drum beat. We all got up and walked like moose, even the old ladies with walkers. All this is going to curl around and get into the novel in some slantwise, obscure and unexpected way. I’m hunting and gathering on a braided trail.