Tuesday, May 30, 2006


Slate has an feature with various authors recommending their favorite beach reading. You get to watch a bunch of authors do a little dance as they try to avoid seeming pretentious without losing their credibility as literary intellectuals. The really sad display comes from the people that try to be funny (cf. George Saunders, whose early storiesI really love; he should have known better.)

Anyway, one author who contributed to this list was David Amsden, who has inspired violent hatred in me and a couple of my friends purely because he went to our high school and published a novelat the age of 21. I have no idea if it's any good. Publisher's Weekly called it "solid but unremarkable" - which sounds like something one might tell a gastroenterologist about recent bowel movements. (Seriously, could any review be more quietly vicious? I would rather be punched in the face than have someone call me "solid but unremarkable.") Here, in any case, is Amsden's entry:
The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis. My gut tells me that Amis would disapprove of being labeled a beach read, but I read this book at the beach when I (much like the protagonist Charles Highway) was a pretentious 19-year-old neophyte obsessed with a girl who didn't know I existed. I've reread this whenever I feel like recapturing that ignorance, which is exactly the point of beach reading: to zone out, to simultaneously forget and remember, to be misguidedly nostalgic about moments that didn't actually happen. Plus, the novel was made into a perfectly terrible film starring Ione Skye and Dexter Fletcher—the ultimate post-beach rental.

Nothing about this struck me as terribly bad other than its self-involvement and rather pretentious explanation of "the point of beach reading" (also, you have to be a neophyte in something; Amsden seems to just mean it as "a young man") -- but my friend dug through the passage and found something to hate. What, he asked me, could this possibly mean? "To be misguidedly nostalgic about moments that didn't actually happen."

This initially felt fine to me: lame writing, but nothing actually nonsensical. But something did seem off. I didn't think you could be nostalgic about things that didn't happen; you could only feel regret for them, mixed perhaps with nostalgia for a time when they might have happened. (Ah, college.) Even if your memories are somehow false, you still have to believe in them on some level for this emotion to exist at all.

I looked nostalgia up to confirm my suspicion, and here is the definition: "A bittersweet longing for things, persons, or situations of the past" - perhaps a false past that exists only in your imagination, but definitely nothing that you know not to have happened. Apparently the word comes from the Greek nostos (to return home) and algia (pain). The pain of returning home. Isn't that lovely? I think I remember reading somewhere that Nabokov thought it was the most beautiful word in English.

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