Saturday, November 8, 2014

No Novel October (Scattered Thoughts)

I was more than a little shocked when I recently opened the little Moleskin notebook where I keep a list of all the books that I have finished reading. For the first time in at least five years, as far as the notebook goes back, I had not finish reading a single non-fiction book in a month, October. This from a woman who in 2011 had months in which she finished reading ten novels. What happened? Yes, the whole Pulitzer Prize reading thing took away some of my enthusiasm for reading novels. Yes, for the first time in my life I had cable TV and a DVR. Yes, I read quite a bit of non-fiction. But, no novels at all? What was going on?

Recently I was having coffee with a friend of mine. She was enthusiastically talking, and I was doing a lot of nodding. I like her. The coffee was great. The wall next to us was covered with a collage of interesting photographs. The conversation turned to her concern about a difficult situation. Her actions had the potential to force a person to give up a long-held identity. All of a sudden I heard myself interrupt, “People change identities. It is just part of life.” Uncharacteristically, I felt no sympathy for prodding someone to shed an overly worn identity. I went on to describe some of the highlights of my reading about Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky, a man who helped change the way we think about art.

Kandinsky was partially responsible for my lack of novel reading in October. Yes, novels saved my life, but biography can have a powerful influence, too. Book by book the life of Kandinsky has been changing the way I think. Since July, I have read The Noisy Paintbox by Barb Rosenstock; Kandinsky A Retrospective by Angela Lampe and Brad Roberts; Kandinsky Watercolours and Other Works on Paper by Frank Whitford; and Kandinsky: Absolute Abstract Edited by Helmut Friedel. Each book gave me more of a feeling for the life of Kandinsky. Here was a man who moved back and forth between Russia and Germany and spent his final years in France. Sometimes his moves were brought about by his own interests but other times they were forced upon him by the politics involved in two Worlds Wars. Here was a man who knew great wealth, but he also knew great poverty. His only son died partially as a result of starvation. Yet, here was an artist who continued to evolve his style almost up to the time of his death at 77. Here was a man who thrived as an artist in his fifties and sixties, when many people are coasting in life. Despite having to change identities and experiencing various hardships, Kandinsky became a catalyst for new ways of thinking about art. At a time when I could not bring myself to read one more Pulitzer Prize winning novelist who wrote about the military and war, Kandinsky inspired me.

When all is said and done, I seriously doubt Kandinsky will turn out to be my favorite artist. Kandinsky also had his share of flaws as a human being. But, his life made and continues to make a powerful statement. A few days after our coffee, my friend said to me. “I got. What you said about Kandinsky helped me see the situation in a totally different way.”

So I am back to my routine. Some of my favorite cable shows are on fall break. If I include Nightmare Before Christmas –okay it took under ten minutes to read—I have now finished reading three fiction books for the month, and I have another two from the Library waiting in my backpack. I feel better about trying to read more Pulitzer Prize winning novels with the understanding that I allow serendipity and my long-term favorites to shape my reading choices. And, yes, I brought home a very slim book about Kandinsky.

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