The Bradbury: Reading (and Writing) Whatever

Originally published in Brevity 🙂

I’d like to tell you about a morning ritual of mine: The Bradbury.

Basically, I take three random books – poetry, nonfiction, fiction – and read each for 10 minutes. I don’t worry if these books support my projects or whether I’m using my time wisely. I choose to feel zero guilt over commercial vs. literary, whether I skip the beginning, or if I’m actually decreasing the ratio between read and unread books in my New York City apartment. The point of the Bradbury is to read: to open my eyes and let the world in, to find surprise and delight in “my own explicable life.”

That quote comes from a Lucille Clifton poem I encountered today, “Wild Blessings.”

For today’s fiction portion, I read chapter three of Annie and the Wolves by fellow Alaskan author, Andromeda Romano-Lax. Blending historical fiction with a contemporary thriller, the novel alternates between the famed American sharpshooter Annie Oakley and a young historian, Ruth McClintock, who’s obsessed at articulating the unspoken and awful truth behind official documents. The dialogue is especially compelling, and Romano-Lax somehow bridges plausible speech across three centuries. Here’s one admirably restrained example from one of Annie’s battles against yellow journalism:

At her very first trial, in Scranton, the defense lawyer had taunted her. “You’re the woman who used to shoot out here and run along and turn head over heels, allowing your skirts to fall.”

“I beg your pardon,” Annie replied without emotion. “I didn’t allow my skirts to fall.”

For nonfiction, I grabbed What It Means to Write about ArtInterviews with Art Critics. This is a brilliant compilation by Jarrett Earnest of spellbinding interviews with Hilton Als, Chris Kraus, Siri Hustvedt. Today, I started the interview with renowned art critic, Rosalind Krauss. The app on my phone starts, ten minutes per genre, and I don’t pause when life comes up. During the countdown with Krauss, I wanted coffee; I wanted to hug my partner in the kitchen and joke about the co-working space our kitchen has become during Covid. This took about two minutes away from Krauss. But the Bradbury absorbs these incursions. It knows life is more important. What I ultimately took away from the starting the Krauss interview was that at least twice a year, she and Leo Steinberg would have dinner. I love that policy: twice a year, two friends, two dinners.

You may have guessed that The Bradbury comes from Ray Bradbury. My memory has revised it to be a morning ritual, when Bradbury actually suggested this activity at night. I appear to have invented the 10-minute markers, and I have egregiously ignored his advice on avoiding contemporary poetry. I’m fine with this productive misremembering. The point is to reawaken the senses, make the material your own, find your own forms, regardless of social propriety or a publisher’s template.

The Bradbury is orderly and not. The result typically is the same: a refresh for the new day, a reorientation toward life marked by readiness. After this ritual, my mind is jolted to recognize everything in new ways; my eyes enjoy a sort of popping noise, as if they are literally moving closer to the world. My awareness of the world simply reaches a greater resolution, like my vision’s been upgraded from the iPhone 4 to the iPhone 12.

Oftentimes, I’ll find titles for potential stories or essays: Practical Nihilism; a Jesuit in Paraguay; Enjoy the Ride; Themes of Sexuality; Player King; Sines and Co-Signs; If You Have to Advertise; Update Your Model; The Subject of Fate; a Life of Constant Improvement.

Forced into Procrustean time limits, I see fragments in greater resolution. Sometimes life interrupts, and I only have a line or two to think about; sometimes those lines are all I needed. One day I only got a paragraph into Rayola (Hopscotch) by Julio Cortázar. But that paragraph was enough for me to appreciate the granular brilliance of that novel, how well it describes quotidian love: “Oh,” Talita said, picking up the duck and wiping off the footprint with a kitchen rag. “You’ve caved in its ribs. So it’s something else.”

Other days, I will act first and think later, assembling whatever books my groggy eyes first pass. The other day that included a college copy of Candide (happy to report my French has improved!), Gay BarWhy We Went Out by Jeremey Atherton Lin, and The Black Unicorn by Audre Lorde.

With The Bradbury, long-standing gaps in my education are unexpectedly closed. One morning I dipped into Basic Writings of Nietzsche to learn that Zarathustra had a lot in common with Dionysius, or “The Dionysian Monster,” as Nietzsche calls him. I had tried to read Thus Spoke Zarathustra in high school and enjoyed the rhythm but zero clue as to who was even speaking. Now, years and years later, I have my clue.

Some books are so good I only want to experience them slowly. This is how I have come to know the tactile atmosphere of Gwendolyn MacEwan’s brilliant travelogue, Mermaids and Ikons: a Greek Summer.: “A Fred Astaire film came on television, and Christina went out into the garden to feed the doves in their big wire cage.” It’s the daily acuity here that builds to such thunderous sentences as:

‘In this country you are drawn like a bow between heaven and earth, and you may come to know life and death as one blinding, fluid reality. The soul is the arrow shot from that bow, only once.”

By this time I’m amped-up and inspired. Beautiful things beget beautiful things, and I’m eager to move my own hands toward something approaching creation.

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