Those Books You Have To Talk Yourself Into Liking

Okay hi. So I just finished book #35 for the year, and it was a weird experience. You know when you pick up a book because the cover is cool and the title sounds promising, then you go to read the back and instead of a summary of the book, you find lines and lines of praise from all sorts of reputable, trusted sources? So you’re kind of sold without really know what you’re getting? I hope I’m not the only one.

Anyway, the book I just finished was like that. It’s called Can’t and Won’t (Stories) by Lydia Davis. I’d never heard of Davis, but like I said: this book had a cool cover and a lot of praise on the back. I tried very hard to like it, and mostly did, but it was weird. I don’t know that I totally got it, and I don’t like that feeling.

The book is a collection of (very) short stories. Many are a paragraph or two, some even a couple lines or a single sentence, so it was a relatively quick read for that reason. Any maybe it’s the genre of the short story collection that I have trouble with – I like them to have a connection, or common thread. I didn’t necessarily see that in this collection.

It’s a weird genre because it’s possible that Davis didn’t write all of these with this single book in mind, meaning that any sort of connection would have felt contrived and probably forced, making it less genuine. And I did find mostly all of these short stories to be genuine, which is always a plus.

There were no real characters in any of the short stories. Or, I guess there were, but none who were described with enough detail for the reader to form attachments or anything (excluding “The Seals,” one of the longer stories in the book). I got the sense that every story was told from Davis’ personal point of view, and were mostly just observations that she had made.

In that sense, I guess there was a connection. All of these stories felt like Davis has spent the past decade of her life walking around and writing down every thought, every observation, every idea, everything that she interacted with. So some of the stories felt more like poetry, some felt more like an anthropological report, but both were connected by this common narrative voice. So that was cool.

I’m very back and forth about the book, I guess (can you tell?) I’ve never been super on board with that whole idea that everyone can be a writer. Like, the kid who I think exists in every creative writing class, who brings in a grocery list and wants it to be workshopped as a poem. To pull that kind of thing off, I think you need a lot of credibility. Write For Whom The Bell Tolls or War and Peace, and I’ll be happy to read your grocery list.

A lot of these short stories felt like that. There was a story called “Local Obits,” and it was a long list of excerpts from what I’d imagine are obituaries from Davis’ local paper. And yes, it’s interesting to read these, observe the repetitiveness of some, the coldness of others, and contemplate what we become defined by in death, but at the same time… she’s just picking and choosing lines from obituaries and publishing them.

That’s just one example. There were also a lot of stories that struck me, that I’ll come back to, and that marked some really interesting day-to-day observations and ideas. Her way of viewing the world, and seemingly ordinary situations, is admittedly really cool. I’d love to meet her, because based on this book, she enjoys turning ordinary interactions with strangers into something that feels dramatic, a good story. She also seems incredibly observational, therefore probably wise.

I guess I’ll be thinking about this book for a while (albeit half in frustration, wondering if I completely missed the point) and that’s something. ◊

I had never before thought so clearly about all the scenes that took place when I wasn’t there to witness them. And then, I had a stranger and less pleasant thought: not only was I not necessary to those scenes, and not necessary to those lives that continued to go on without me, but in fact, I was not necessary at all. I didn’t have to exist. I hope you understand how that is related.”

– page 206, “The Letter to the Foundation”

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