Monday, April 13, 2015

Surprise Me

She used to say this at restaurants.  “Did you want the green beans or the corn?” The waitress would ask, her pen ready for the response.

“Surprise me,” my grandmother would reply. It’s a good way to handle the situation. Give the responsibility to someone else to keep you in good hands for simple matters. After all, the waitress would then select the best option, as she knew what was going on in the kitchen, and she would hope that she made the right choice for the customer.

But sometimes we let other people sway our decisions so that we don’t find what we need or prefer even in mundane matters. Take, for instance, my interest in an article passing by Facebook about the “100 Best Books of the Decade.”  Great I thought intrigued as I mainly read old musty books found at the thrift store for 50 cents, what are they? Click. Voila a book I recently read, passed down to me via a book swap, that I felt was a great concept yet poorly written. I avoided scrolling any further down the list.  It was precisely that book, among others, that I had taken last week on Good Friday to the used book store to exchange for a fresh lot of used books. People keep recommending Nabokov to me, but the Nabokov section was pretty dry.  I looked around. The last time I was standing in the claustrophobic back room of an 18th century house, surrounded by walls of books, I had chosen authors whom I had previously read and enjoyed. I selected Jeanette Winterson’s “Written on the Body” and Emma Tennant’s “The Adventures of Robina.”

“Ah,” the young man behind the cash register looked over my choices.  He tapped the Winterson, “This was great.” I wondered, two chapters in, about my prejudices. Had the book had been written by a heterosexual man on the prowl instead of an entrepreneurial lesbian, running from conquest to conquest, would I like it better? Let’s recap, a heterosexual man (no obvious judgment there) and an entrepreneurial lesbian (are lesbians supposed to be non-entrepreneurial? And why then the business aspect of this description?)  In this wording I give myself away as a typical prototype of Neanderthal heterosexual woman.  Sigh. Libertin versus Libertine? So much for my liberal education. The Tennant was a bit of a feminist version of Fielding. I gave up on the books, and presented them to a friend whose glance swept across the titles and murmured, “You know what I like.”

So, on a whim I thought, “Surprise me,” and immediately James Joyce fell into my eye. A few years ago I had read an article about a group of people who took two years or more to read “Finnegans Wake” because they read it slowly and aloud.  The whole fantastical idea of a novel which was so complex to read that it was slowly carved up and presented in whiskey fumes circling an insurmountable obelisk celebrated at midnight hours among a host of devotees, became transfixed in my brain. “But it’s not hard,” I complained to friend. “It’s not hard at all.”

“Of course not,” she said. “Who said it was?”


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