Reading and order

Sometimes there is an obvious order books ought to be read in. I learned this the hard way many years ago when I read the Wheel of Time series in this order: one, three through seven….two. Things made quite a bit more sense once I read the second book. More than just pushing the plot forward, each book in a series adds characters and deepens or broadens the setting. But the question I’ve been thinking about recently is whether there is a more general principle in this regard.

In other words, is there a Platonic ideal for the order in which one reads books that maximizes a) enjoyment and b) the appreciation of the content of each? If so, what sort of pattern might it follow, taking into account fiction and non-fiction, the gender, orientation, cultural background of the authors, and genres?

Obviously not. This is an impossible hypothetical for any number of reasons. For one, there are simply too many permutations and too little time to label anything “essential.” For another, taste is subjective, so the list would have to be customized for each person. Nor does the awareness of a given book disappear upon closing the cover, so while the actual order in which the books are read will have some influence on the experience of the next book, the interpretation of books gone by (let alone books re-read) is open to revision upon further thought.

It might make some logical sense to equip this tabula rasa reader with the tools of literary and cultural criticism, honing sensitivity before unleashing him or her onto the the written word like a wolf onto sheep. If one were to prioritize deep appreciation of the book over the simple pleasure of reading. Yet not only does the reading work this way (the idea of equipping a kindergartner with Derrida’s deconstructionism before, say, The Hungry, Hungry Caterpillar is laughable), but also it is impossible to gain a deep appreciation of literary and cultural criticism without first being steeped with culture (books, in this case).

This thought experiment works somewhat better for specialized subfields, particularly in terms of non-fiction, because a) this means that there are demonstrable bounds to the literature and b) there are things that might be termed foundational texts (and essays analyzing or debating those foundational texts, and on and on) from which the edifice of knowledge is constructed. These foundational texts are unavoidable; when thinking about the ancient economy, it is impossible to avoid dealing with Moses Finley. In this respect, it is possible to at least approach an ideal order in which to read the literature. Yes, the list would be politically charged based on the biases of the list creator(s) and, yes, the list would be limited by oversights, scope, and additions, not to mention issues of what methodological texts are “necessary” for a given topic, but at least it is possible to conceive of the task.

If this concept is an impossible absurdity, why have I spent nearly five hundred words on it? There are two answers to this question, both incomplete. The first is that it was a thought that came to me as I read Chuck Klosterman’s But what if we’re wrong? close on the heels of Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood and thus thinking about what it means for a novel to grapple with a given culture. The question I had was whether I would have had a fundamentally different reaction to Back to Blood if I had read them in a different order.

The second is a broader, more general experience I have had where the second of two books read in the same genre has seemed derivative of the first when they were, in fact, published in the reverse order. (The principle is equally applicable to any consumed media, really). This quirk inevitably shapes how the reader (listener/watcher/consumer) interprets both books and threatens to diminish the appreciation of the foundational book that now may be seen as unambitious, derivative, or inchoate, even though it forged the trail that made the second book possible—simply because it now exists coevally with the media that followed it and so may now be experienced afterward. And this is without considering intertexts that cross genres and the interplay between fiction and non-fiction.

Perhaps a single list is the wrong model. The all-encompassing Platonic structure, might look more like a three dimensional flowchart with near-infinite connections that can be entered from almost any point, depending on what one has already read, what one’s objective is in reading, and what book(s) one is working toward as an objective. Then again, this ceases to be a way to structure reading and becomes a visualization what already exists, provided that a reader cares enough to plan ahead.

Back to Blood – Tom Wolfe

“Dio, if you really want to understand Miami, you got to realize one thing first of all. In Miami, everybody hates everybody.”

On television you have to create a hyperreality before it will come across to the viewer as plain reality.

Oh, ineffable dirty girls.

Miami is seething, with racial tensions between African Americans, Cubans, and Americanos, with class tensions between the super wealthy (including Russian oligarchs) and everyone else, and with sex. In Tom Wolfe’s novel Back to Blood, it is mostly the sex.

Back to Blood is a book for which the plot—a slow-unfolding investigation into a wealthy Russian donating millions of dollars worth of forged art to a Miami museum—does not capture what it is about. Back to Blood is more appropriately described as a version of life in Miami told through multiple concurrent stories about five groups (the Miami Herald, the Cuban ex-pat community of Hialeah, Miami high society, Miami PD, and the upwardly aspirational family of a Haitian professor), variously connected by the intrepid and persistent duo, Officer Nestor Camacho and reporter John Smith.

Nestor Camacho is set up as our hero. Born to Cuban parents, he finds himself all-but disowned when his muscle-bound heroics pulling a Cuban refugee off the mast of a boat in Biscayne Bay are caught on TV and slapped on the cover of every newspaper. The police see this as heroics, the Cubans as betrayal, and not for the last time in Back to Blood, Camacho’s feats of physical prowess mostly succeed in making him a pariah in the eyes of the public. Since his Magdalena, a psychiatric nurse, has recently dumped him in favor of her (in her eyes, more manly and vigorous) employer, Nestor has some time on his hands to help John Smith out with his investigation into art forgeries.

The second most important storyline is Magdalena’s. Her employer, a renowned psychiatrist specializing in pornography addiction, has taken this beautiful young cubana out from Hialeah and introduced her to the sex-drenched world of Miami’s upper crust. Of course, he isn’t doing this own dime, but trafficking on the prestige of his high-profile patients who give him access to the best restaurants, art shows, marinas, and, ultimately, maritime orgies. Magdalena is initially attracted to the power this man seems to have, and certainly he is more sure of himself than is Nestor, but she also starts to see through this mirage, seeing him for what he is: a petty man who uses bluster, belittlement, and his degrees to manipulate people, all the while being as sex-crazed as his clients. But it is possible that one of the men she meets through these connections will genuinely appreciate her…

Back to Blood came out in 2012 and, like Wolfe’s other work, is heralded as capturing something essential about American society at that moment, in this case with Miami being the American city of the future. The fundamental question, then, is how accurate is this description? On the one hand, Wolfe’s vision of America has it deeply divided by racial divisions that can be transcended by wealth and status, with the appearance of both being more important than the actuality of either. Within this vision, everyone is in it for himself—women are objects for and appendages of the men who are sleeping with them or would like to sleep with them. There are parts of this vision that ring true in the contemporary world of social media and police violence, but I as far as capturing a larger Truth about American culture I was underwhelmed.

The biggest reason for my reaction is the seeming conviction that Wolfe has that everyone is a frothing mess of loins and lust. Miami plays into this vision because it provides ample opportunity to describe largely naked women and to have characters of both sexes ogle, judge, and imagine the variously covered body parts. It was as the Wolfe’s literary credentials were dependent on the number of ways he could describe sexuality. To wit:

Her beautiful legs were vulnerable, unguarded innocence in its carnal manifestation.

In this respect, Back to Blood is an orgy of literary proportions. So much so, in fact, that I found myself wondering where Wolfe fell on it all. On the one hand, he comes across as an ogler himself, taking every opportunity to look and to judge. On the other hand, the two Yale characters who are at some level the characters closest to the author both seem to exempt themselves from the vain, fleshy world of the other characters, run through with conservative WASPish tendencies regardless of their political leanings. Thus Back to Blood seems to simultaneously revel in the sex-crazed environment and to take a moral stand against it. Setting aside some problematic issues concerning gender and the absence of genuine discussion of economic precarity, in this dichotomy of morals, Wolfe may inadvertently be onto something.

I didn’t love Back to Blood as much as I’d hoped, but, despite some early frustrations, I came away with a grudging respect for it. I may read some of his other books yet.


Next up, I am almost finished reading The Dogs of Riga, one of Henning Mankell’s Wallander novels. It is another book where I find myself asking how it would hold up in a more recent setting, but I am quite enjoying its depiction of the Baltic at the very end of the Soviet era.