“The Soft Lunacy” – In Conversation with author Vincent Francone

"The Soft Lunacy" by Vincent Francone.

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to speak with Chicago-based author Vincent Francone, author of The Soft Lunacy (Blue Heron Book Works, 2019), which is, in essence, a collection of essays about collecting books and a love of literature. In other words, a book that is right up my alley, as they say. Read on to see what he has to say about how The Soft Lunacy came to be, the impact that technology has upon reading, the importance of media literacy (particularly in this day and age), the benefits of an active pursuit (like reading) versus passive pursuits (like watching television), some of his favorite reads and much more.

Andrew DeCanniere (AD): To begin at the beginning, how did The Soft Lunacy come to be? 

Vincent Francone (VF): Well, I started writing it in January of 2016, not thinking of it as a book. I was just writing it because, as I say in the intro, the end of 2015 was pretty rotten for me. My dog passed away and 2016 started off kind of badly. I was already a little worried about my career because my job seemed a little unstable. My wife was out-of-town for the better part of a month. I was alone and mildly depressed, so I decided to start writing about what I was feeling. I didn’t think it was something I’d publish. The original manuscript, which was a lot shorter, really somber and not something that I would necessarily share in that form, came out of that. I ended up looking at parts of it and thought ‘Well, there’s sort of a theme emerging here, which is that I wanted to pare down everything I own.’ My wife and I decided we were kind of sick being in that apartment. It had too many bad memories and we had this ambitious idea that we would move to a different city. 

Of course, it was winter and freezing and we said that every winter. What I ended up doing while she was gone was that I sold a lot of my library, thinking I would sell at least half of it. I didn’t. I sold maybe two thousand out of about six thousand books. I was going around to bookstores all over the city with these boxes in my car, selling them for whatever I could get. At least it occupied my time and made me feel better during the day. 

Then, at night, I would sort of sit around with these piles of books all over my apartment and look at them and start writing this manuscript about why it is that I’ve kept all of these books for all of these years — especially since I haven’t read all of them. That sort of became the original version of the manuscript. Once I got over a little bit of the sadness and thought that I have a theme here, I decided to keep going with more related thematic essays about book collecting and what it sort of means to me. I guess you could call them vignettes. 

AD: After this last winter, I think many people were in the same place you found yourself. I know many people who contemplated a move to someplace else or are still contemplating a move someplace else. It was incredibly cold, so that’s definitely a theme that I have noticed with people, in general, that comes up again and again in the Chicago area — the desire to relocate to someplace milder. Truthfully, I kind of feel like contemplating a move to someplace warmer is as much a tradition with Chicagoans as anything else.

VF: It is. Contemplating relocating and complaining about the weather. My brother always says he hates when people complain about the weather because you live here and you know what’s coming. But I think that’s how we deal with the winter. We have to complain about it. We have to make these grand plans to move. Then, by the time June arrives — and all the more so when July and August are here and it’s beautiful out — we’re all like ‘Chicago is the greatest city. I would never leave. I love being so close to the lake,’ and all of the other things we celebrate about it are just so in our faces that we go ‘Yeah, winter. We’ll get through it again. We got through that. We’ll get through it again,’ and we never leave.

AD: Since the book is so much about books, you talk a bit about the supposed decline of literacy and these pieces that are written by academics that argue against deep reading and so on. Yet you, like myself, are an avid reader. I don’t know what your take on it is. Are people really reading less and, if so, what is to be done about it? Is something to be done about it?

VF: When I wrote that, I think I was more worried about it than I am today. I think I have gotten a little more optimistic, only because when I wrote that I was in a sort of self-imposed isolation from the community of writers. I wasn’t really going to readings and events and so forth. Now that I’m back, I think that in the last two years, so many people — people who are are not just anxious to be writers but that are avid readers — have reminded me it has probably always been the case that there’s been a decline in intentional literacy, as I am calling it. In other words, people who feel reading is important to them and want to carve out time in their lives for books. I think it has always been a thing. I’m a child of the eighties. I went to high school in the eighties, and I remember that is all I ever heard from a lot of my teachers — you know, ‘You guys don’t read the way you should or as much as you should. You’re too busy watching TV.’ 

Now, I’m sure people my age who teach eighteen-year-olds for a living are saying the same thing. It’s like ‘Well, you’re too busy on Instagram and you’re not even on a platform that privileges text. You’re most interested in images and immediacy.’ At the same time, there’s some truth to that, too. I do feel like we are declining somewhat in our embrace of the printed page and of literature itself, but that’s probably not the case if I really think about it — especially if I walk into a bookstore and see the vast numbers of books being published. I guess they wouldn’t be publishing so many books every year if there weren’t people out there reading them. So, there has to be a market. I don’t want to say it’s a niche thing, but it’s just a specific community of people who are still very excited by the possibilities of literature. There may be a smaller number of people compared to the number of people on Snapchat — if that is even a thing anymore — or just always watching Netflix. I, myself, watch a lot of Netflix. So, I’m just as guilty as anybody else even though I still try to find time in my life for books. 

VF: And I think there has also long been this fear of a decline in literacy every time some sort of new technology is introduced. If you look back, I’m sure there were similar concerns when radio first came onto the scene, and then when television came onto the scene, and then when cable television became a thing followed by the Internet followed by social media — and I’m sure that the same concern will accompany whatever else comes next. So, I think that with all of these new technologies that have come out, there has always been a concern — perhaps more than was actually necessary. For example, I received my first computer back in 1996. It actually was one that had been sort of passed down to me and ran Windows 3.1. It was only a bit later on that it was upgraded to Windows 95, which was the latest operating system for PCs at that time. I think that even back then, when we just had the one shared computer at home and no Internet connection — it wasn’t until two years later, in 1998, that we finally got dial-up for the first time — people were concerned that technology was going to take over and reading would fall by the wayside. I have to say that I don’t think it came to pass, and it doesn’t seem like it’s happening now — even though we now have many things we didn’t at that time, like Wi-Fi and Netflix and Facebook, along with smart phones and tablets. So, I’m not saying we shouldn’t be vigilant, but I don’t necessarily think these things are the threats to reading that some people thought they may be.

VF: It hasn’t come to pass and it probably never will. I just think it’s maybe going to change our relationship with the book a little bit. Years ago I interviewed Jeanette Winterson and she said something that has always stuck with me, because I was a little more concerned about this a decade ago. She said that she doesn’t think new technologies are necessarily bad for literature. She thinks they’re liberating. The book has been kind of freed up to do things it wouldn’t normally do, like how modernism sort of became a thing. We could experiment because we didn’t need to tell linear stories with a Dickensian style cast of characters because we have movies for that. We have Gone with the Wind and so forth. So, now the novel could do something experimental. She likened it to the way that once we had the camera, we no longer had painters who were as concerned with painting portraits. They could then start doing more abstract things. 

You mentioned 1996. If you think about flashing forward twenty plus years from there, and you look at the ways in which technology has evolved, it is just astounding. I don’t know that the novel has necessarily caught up with it, but I think there are examples of literature that is being made that is informed by all of these technological advancements. I’m a little less on the cutting edge of some of this stuff, but I know there are Twitter poems and I know there are people using different forms of multimodal composition, which is very much an Internet-era thing in my opinion. So, it could be exciting. It could just be a way to reinvigorate literature a bit. I’m trying to be a little more optimistic but in my heart, quite frankly, I am still pessimistic that as much as there are inventive things going on and there are wonderful possibilities, the average reader — like myself — is still probably going to have some of the time that they would traditionally have set forth for reading interrupted. 

AD: Right. I think we’ve all been there. We’ve all been guilty, to some extent, of intending to read and then kind of getting absorbed in whatever new show is on cable or Netflix or whatever it is we’re doing on the Internet rather than reading. Nevertheless, I cannot say that I’ve really begun to read any less than I’d been reading before. I’ve always been an avid reader and I can’t really envision that ever changing.

VF: Sure. There are just so many things vying for our attention. Books are just one of them and, if you care about them like we do, you will find the time to give them your attention — but still maybe there are so many more things competing for your attention that some of your time is eaten away.

AD: Speaking of time being eaten up by technology, you also discuss this thing of people claiming that they don’t really have the time to read but, in the next breath, they will extol the virtues of their smartphone and talk all about how much time it’s saving them. As you say in your book, if these technologies — like your smart phone — really do save you all of this time, what are you doing with the time you save if you aren’t reading? And, if you’re not using any of it for reading, why aren’t you?

VF: Exactly. 

AD: So, I have to say you’re right. It does make you wonder, but I am also inclined to say you are also probably correct when you say that what they are likely doing with that time is re-watching The Walking Dead.

VF: Well, I know that my students always sing the praises of technology and it is something I’ve become kind of interested in. We’ll read some cultural criticism addressing technology — like something by Nicholas Carr or Neil Postman — and the students will always say the same thing when we read these essays, which is that these guys are being too critical of technology and how technology is just absolutely wonderful and they love it. They always say it keeps them connected to people and saves them so much time, but is it saving you time or is it creating more time for you to do things and then you have to find something to fill that time with? And then it’s also giving you more opportunities to fill that time. So, to me, I don’t really understand what people mean when they say that, because it’s not always a good thing. It just means we are working more and faster. It doesn’t mean we’re working better.

Author Vincent Francone (Photo: Courtesy of the author)

AD: You also talk about books as a source of certainty and constancy in an uncertain world — perhaps more uncertain than it has been in recent history, some could say. You also kind of talk about the guy in the White House and how he has been an embarrassment. Just look at what he said recently about the noise from windmills causing cancer or how having windmills near your home decreases the value of your house by 75 percent, absolutely none of which is based in reality — or this little thing called science. So, I do share your perspective where he is concerned, but I thought this larger idea of books as a source of certainty and constancy is an interesting one. 

VF: Yeah. There was definitely something there. I’m in a period of my life where I don’t talk to a lot of my friends very often — some because we’re just too busy, some because we’ve moved away and others because we’ve had fallings out. Even when it comes to my family, I feel like I don’t see them as much as I’d like to. So, I have people in my life but that kind of changes a lot as you get into your forties where you start to think ‘Okay. Everything is a little bit different than I thought it was going to be.’ It’s not bad, but you start to realize people are — or can be — unfathomable and inconsistent. That’s alright, because human beings are unfathomable and inconsistent. That’s just who we are. Part of me was kind of bothered about that at a certain point. As I started to get older, I started to lament how many of my friends were just no longer in my life or I was no longer in theirs. It’s a mutual fault. Once people in my life started dying — and then 2016 was also the year of the celebrity apocalypse, where everybody seemed to be dying — I started to realize maybe one of the things I’ve always liked about reading and about art in general is that it’s permanent — how I feel I can always go back to this thing and it will always be there. There’s something that is created and it kind of exists forever, even though the authors may be dead and the books themselves may change a bit — or my understanding of them changes as I get older — I find it to be somewhat encouraging. It can be a way to further distance yourself from society and just say ‘I’m just going to hole up in my apartment with some books and some movies and some beers and my dog and that’s going to be an ideal weekend.’ Quite frankly that is kind of an ideal weekend, but every once in a while you’ve got to dust off and go outside and actually interact with people, even though that’s a little bit of a chore sometimes because people will let you down, too. You just have to learn they aren’t going to be as steady as books. 

As far as the political aspect, though, I think it’s definitely been a solace for me since the Trump presidency — being able to escape just a little bit. That thing you just quoted about the windmills, I hadn’t even heard that yet. I saw some clip of him discussing how wind technology is bad for energy because if it’s not a windy day, you won’t be able to watch TV. I got so frustrated that I turned off the TV after that. I couldn’t stand looking at him, but what you just said he’d said is even more ridiculous. I can’t believe this guy says these things and there’s only so much of that I can take. So, I have to make sure I’m not listening to podcasts about Trump all night long or I will never sleep. Books have become way more important to me now, because it’s like ‘Well, I’m going to spend an hour before bed reading because I just can’t watch CNN all night long.’ 

AD: I definitely understand. I mean, when you hear these outlandish claims it’s just exasperating. You don’t need to be an expert to know those claims are without merit. It’s just common sense. And then, on top of that, when people question those claims he has similarly outlandish responses. For example, when someone questioned his claims about windmills, he actually said ‘I am the evidence,’ thereby implying that he either has cancer from windmills — which he does not — or that we should blindly believe whatever he says — which is what I think he would prefer — which is extremely troubling. So, I definitely need a break from all that coverage from time to time myself. Otherwise, it just becomes a bit too much, and books are a great way to sort of shift gears a bit. At least as long as they aren’t books about this administration, of course — or politics, for that matter.

VF: Yeah. When people compare him to dictators, his supporters always roll their eyes and they say ‘Oh, you liberals are just being way too reactionary,’ but when he says something like ‘I am the evidence,’ that is essentially dictatorial behavior. That’s how it sort of begins. This idea of ‘Trust me and not any other authority or news source because they’re lying, they’re fake.’ Discrediting everyone but yourself is terribly frightening to me. I just can’t believe he can say these things and get away with it. If I can speculate a little bit and get back to the idea of practicing literacy, you said you don’t need to be an expert to know some things or at least have a sense of things and to know that what he is saying is absurd and ridiculous. I’m not a scientist. I’m not an environmental expert. I’m not a political scientist. I’m not a lot of things, but I can read. I think it is important to keep up with things and go a little bit further than accepting a surface level story shared in a very facile way — like through social media. However, so many people get their news that way. I think that’s where a lot of the misinformation comes from. I think it’s all sort of born from incuriosity. 

People aren’t really reading as widely as I think they should and I hate to sound preachy here — because God knows I don’t read as widely as I feel I should — but the more we practice literacy and the more we engage with different forms of media — literature, novels, poetry and stories or else something like print news and long-form journalism — I think we do develop the ability to discern good news sources from bad sources. I think so many people lack that and it’s scary. I never wanted to believe people lacked it as much as they do, but I can’t understand any other explanation for the rise of Donald Trump. 

AD: Absolutely. As you’re alluding to, I think that media literacy — even just understanding what constitutes a truly legitimate news source and knowing how to differentiate a legitimate news source from an illegitimate one — just doesn’t seem to be there among certain segments of the population. There is almost no distinction between a Facebook post from a friend down the street who, in turn, got it from an unknown source — where you sometimes cannot even determine the origins of the post or the story — and something published by a legitimate news source like The New York Times or The Washington Post. It’s somehow inexplicably viewed as being equally valid. 

VF: I don’t get it and I know the problem is that if The New York Times or The Washington Post or Rolling Stone reports a story and it later turns out to be somehow flawed or there’s some issue with it, it immediately becomes like ‘Well, we have to equate that with the other sources of information, which are Facebook posts and misinformation, because you can’t trust any of it.’ Again, the media has always been imperfect. It’s not a perfect machine, but it’s the best one we have and, the older I get, the absolute distrust of media that I am noticing really scares me. 

AD: You also say the need to collect is based, in part, upon the notion that there was once this ‘golden time’ you’re sort of trying to recapture. You’re looking to get that feeling back. 

VF: That’s definitely a thing I realized when I was writing the book. So many of the books I was looking at that were sort of inspiring sections of the book and essays, I realized these are the books that are important to me, and I had to ask myself why are these the important books. A lot of them are tied towards times in my life where something was going on that was exciting or that I am nostalgic about. I have a whole long thing about Jack Kerouac in there, and I don’t really read Kerouac at all any more. Nevertheless, he was obviously very important to me when I was younger, and there are a lot of books that were important to me when I was younger. That’s why I don’t want to let go of them, even though I don’t really care for them now. That’s because that time, when I was reading, was probably a time when I was the most excited to be someone who is practicing literacy, I guess. When I was eighteen or so, I started to read books seriously for pleasure, I’d always kind of resisted that stuff in high school because I didn’t really like what they were assigning. I wasn’t a really great student in high school and found a teacher who was very influential. I found the books that I liked, and then I started to realize that I really, really liked reading these things. You just want to start reading everything. You want to start playing catch up. Simultaneously, you start getting introduced to authors when you’re really young, who I think you then cherish. Books like Catcher in the Rye and writers like Kafka, who of course seem very gloomy and exciting and weird. You want to get into this because you’re going through all kinds of things yourself and it seems to be the perfect thing for you. 

Now that I am in my forties, if I look back on a lot of that stuff, some of it still holds up but a lot of it doesn’t, but I don’t want to get rid of the books because when I look at them — and I remember who I was back then and I don’t want to let go of that a little bit. The same thing with the book The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. I bought my 24th copy last week in Portland, Oregon, while I was at the AWP conference. So, now I have 24 copies of that book. I realized the reason I keep obsessively buying new copies whenever I happen to see one in a bookstore that has a different cover or something is because it was such an important book to me when I read it. I was so excited to find this book. It’s the recreation of that experience, of happening upon that thing in a bookstore and getting really excited about it and taking it to Starbucks, then spending three hours with it and just being amazed. I’ll probably never have that same level of excitement again, or I worry I’ll never have that same level of excitement again, at least from a book. I’m sure I will. I keep finding new books all the time that are amazing and excite me, but that was such a huge thing for me. I just fixate on certain books for some reason and I think it really is tied to that nostalgia. I usually am fairly annoyed by nostalgia. I find it to be kind of too sentimental and syrupy and just kind of roll my eyes a little, but I am getting older, so I’m allowed to be a little bit more nostalgic than I was ten years ago, I think.

AD: I can definitely get that. I think that different books definitely appeal to you at different times in your life. Like, for example, I have always been a reader. That said, I think that what I read now, as an adult, is very different from, for example, what I read when I was younger. For a little while there, there was definitely a Goosebumps phase. I think anything that gets you reading is a good thing. Later on, as I got older, I branched out drastically and began to read more and more widely — as you would hope that one does. I suppose the one thing that may not have changed all that much is that I still tend to gravitate toward the more contemporary than perhaps toward the classics — not that I’m averse to the classics, either. I try and read pretty broadly. I think that is part of what helps us to continue to learn and grow in adulthood and I think that often, when you are little, there is that one book — whether it’s something like Goosebumps or the Harry Potter series or whatever else — that gets you excited about reading that you definitely remember and, hopefully, you just keep reading throughout your life. One book leads you to another and another and so on and so forth. 

VF: I think there’s always a core of books we develop that are sort of our favorites. I used to joke that I have one favorite book, but it was actually an eight-way tie for my favorite book. I could never rank them, but could probably pick eight novels that I thought were important to me that were all sort of tied for first place. I still feel like there’s the possibility of another book out there that’s going to become the ninth favorite or tenth favorite book of mine. 

AD: I certainly think it’s always good to be exploring and on the lookout for that next great read.

VF: Last year I read Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai and I can’t believe I waited a couple years to read that. It’s probably one of the best books I’ve read in a decade. I never could’ve imagined a book like that existing and how much I would enjoy it. There are still books out there that are coming out that are being written that are going to surprise me, and I’m not trying to shut myself off to that.

AD: I know I’ve definitely discovered some of my favorites in the last few years. I certainly think that there’s always something else out there.

VF: There is. The other thing you can always do is go-back and re-read things. I’m doing more of that, too. I used to have this idea I didn’t want to re-read too much, because I always wanted to keep reading new things and to make my Goodreads list bigger and bigger, but I’m kind of enjoying going back and looking backward as well. You mentioned the Goosebumps series. I actually ordered a book I read as a kid that I remember really liking. This is when I was really, really little. It’s a tiny little ten page book — one of those kids’ books — and decided I had to have it. So, I found a copy on Amazon for about a nickel and bought it.

AD: The one thing about the Goosebumps books was that I always had to make sure someone was around when I read them. I enjoyed the books, but then they also seemed a bit scary to me — which I think is, at least in part, what keeps a lot of children coming back to a series like that. 

VF: My first real deep dive into an author was definitely Stephen King. I actually had a teacher who assigned us a Stephen King book as well as a Charles Dickens book, because he had the idea that we might actually enjoy reading something contemporary and something that was genre. He was right because that’s when I first decided books can be fun. I think I read Pet Sematary. After that, I felt as though I had to read all of them because I really liked it. I was scared to death reading them. I remember staying up all night and reading It in my bedroom and just being like ‘Well, I’m going to stay up because I’m too scared to go to sleep.’ I just couldn’t wait to get through all of them for that same reason. I was sort of repelled by them and terrified, yet I was just hooked from an early point. 

AD: What’s funny about it is that now I don’t really tend to gravitate toward that kind of thing — or toward the adult version, anyway — and I have never been someone who likes horror films. I like certain things like the Agatha Christie mysteries or some of the British mysteries on PBS and things like that. Most of the British mysteries on PBS are really compelling, but they don’t really seem to have a lot of blood and guts and gore — which is a good thing, from my perspective. They seem to be much more about figuring out who committed the crime and on catching the perpetrator. I far prefer that to some of the other stuff I know is out there that seems to be all about the blood and guts and gore. That’s just not my thing. However, whatever gets people reading and interested in literature is, by and large, a good thing.

VF: Absolutely. That’s why, when the Harry Potter books came out, I would hear mixed things from a lot of people my age who are just sort of rolling their eyes at the idea of it. I could not understand why, because maybe the Harry Potter series isn’t meant for you because you like reading something else, but not everything is meant for you. So, who cares? Kids are devouring these books. How can this be seen as anything other than a good thing?

AD: You also talk about your concern that ‘the lure and accessibility of popular culture is supplanting materials requiring your greater effort and attention.’ 

VF: Of all the essays in the book, the one that still troubles me the most — I mean, I’m happy with it, but every time I look back at it, I wonder ‘What is going on?’ Even in this essay, I talk a little bit about the accusation of elitism. I have this whole point in there that I am trying to make where I do think there are levels of reading. This is very personal, for sure, but I do think there are books that I could maybe consider to be somewhat better than other forms of literature. That doesn’t dismiss things like genre novels. Vampire novels are probably fantastic. I’ve read lots of them. I’m not very fond of them now but, again, they were important for me and critical in my development at one point. I do feel like a lot of academic attention is paid toward some kinds of camp and pop culture. That’s fine because I love all of that stuff, too. I guess the biggest thing I was trying to communicate is that I don’t always feel the need to apply a theory to any of this stuff. I’m happy reading a mystery novel just because it’s a pleasure to read a mystery novel. 

AD: Another thing I found interesting is where you talk about the benefits of reading a book versus watching a TV show or a movie. The benefits of active versus passive pursuits.

VF: TV is great and it’s gotten better. TV was terrible when I was a kid. I watched a lot of it, but it was probably just junk. We are in some sort of golden age of television, where there is an endless series of amazing shows. The danger of that is I do spend more time watching television than I would want. I don’t want to say reading is superior, but it does require a different set of muscles in the brain that require you to be engaged and active. If you’re not active, you are just sort of staring at ink on paper. I can still absorb television in a fairly passive way. There are plots that you have to keep up with and subtle things that are going on in the best TV shows, but I still don’t have to create the character’s image in my head. It’s been created for me. I love visual mediums like TV. I think they’re great but there is something I still privilege about literature that I think is always making me feel a bit better than when I am watching a show. I just binge-watched the first season of Barry and I was like ‘Wow. I love this show. This is great!’ but, again, it’s easily digestible. Whenever you have something in a 22 minute package, it’s sort of meant to be consumed quickly, and I don’t re-watch a lot of shows as much as I’ll re-read a book. I feel like there’s more that I’ll discover upon re-reading a book than by re-watching a show. 

AD: I can relate. Though I think I read more than I watch TV, I certainly can watch a fair amount of television at times as well. So, I’m definitely not demonizing television. My two most recent obsessions, for example, are Mrs. Wilson on PBS and then For the People on ABC. Both shows, although very different, are excellent. For the People is just so well written and so well acted and is very relevant to the times we’re living in — whether it’s an episode that deals with immigration or one that deals with a judge who funnels children to a private, for-profit detention center. Last night’s episode was about a judge who made sure to send the kids who came before him exclusively to this particular detention center in exchange for cash, basically. 

VF: That sounds pretty great because I think that TV, in particular, has this opportunity to be a little more representative of what’s going on politically and culturally. Literature does that, too, but I feel like it maybe takes longer to create books than it does some of these shows. I mean, you have to spend time writing and producing them. I know they’re not just churned out in one day, but sometimes I see a lot of really interesting, contemporary things reflected in films and TV that it perhaps takes literature a little while to catch up with. So, that’s interesting. You also mention it’s on ABC, which makes me want to watch it, because I think the problem with me is that I had no problem making time to read before Netflix and streaming. TV was contained to my living room. I would watch it at the end of a work day and then go to sleep, but I take books with me everywhere. I can read on the train, in cafés, on an airplane. I can find more places to experience books than I can TV. That’s changing now that I can watch TV on my phone or iPad or laptop. I try my hardest not to do that, because as soon as I know that I can bring TV and movies with me everywhere I go, just as I can do with books, then maybe I will sacrifice more of my reading time for that. So, I’m a bit scared of that future. 

AD: I will say that I was one of the later adopters of the smart phone. It wasn’t until 2015 that I had one. Similarly, I am also a late adopter of an unlimited data plan. Or, more accurately, I still have not. So, I have an additional incentive not to watch TV or movies or what have you while on-the-go. If I do, I am essentially burning through my data plan and potentially encouraging overages or have to buy additional data, which can get expensive if you make it a habit. Plus, I feel like we all spend so much of our lives looking at screens, when I’m out and about, I don’t really feel compelled to spend more time staring at screens. So, I’m definitely not demonizing television, but there is definitely an argument to be made that reading is still a more active pursuit than watching television or film — or that’s often the case, anyway. 

VF: Sure. And downtime is important. We cannot always be switched on. When a lot of my students are writing their papers about technology and how much they love Netflix, they will find studies in academic peer-reviewed journals that argue for the necessity of disconnecting a little bit and having a little downtime to decompress after a long day, but I think they take that one point too far. So, for example, every single moment they can is downtime and decompression, so it becomes ‘I have two hours of free time. There’s a book I could read, but I don’t want to do that because I have to have my downtime now.’ Books can be decompressing. They can be relaxing. That can be downtime. 

AD: I think that it’s safe to say there’s a fairly wide variety of issues that your book touches on. Is there anything else you wanted to discuss?

VF: I like the book. This is my second book. My first book was a memoir that I like a lot, too, but — at the risk of drawing sales away from that one — I really kind of like the new one a lot. I think this is a thing where whatever the new thing I have is what I’m going to like the most, but I was pretty happy with the way this came out. I was really surprised it came out the way it did, because I think it’s first draft was really somber and kind of unreadable and I salvaged it in a way that I think is pretty interesting for me personally. It’s a very bookish book, as we’ve been discussing, and a lot of people in my life who are giant avid readers who are graciously going to read it anyway have gotten back to me and said ‘It was very funny. Very entertaining. I thought I wasn’t going to get half the references and you were just going to be doing literary criticism and I’m not really into that, but there’s enough stories and things like that and jokes that kind of made it fun.’ 

So, I hope I pulled that off and it sounds like I did, but we’ll see. I hope people like it. I guess the biggest thing I want people to get out of the book is definitely a renewed interest in literature — or a continued or confirmed interest in the value of literature. Not just of reading but of what I call ‘The Soft Lunacy’ — which is the slight insanity of book collecting, the whole hoarding mentality there that I think is a thing that a lot of people have. You know, we’re living in this era now where people are being asked to reduce things and get rid of the clutter. You know, there’s Marie Kondo and that whole show of asking yourself if everything sparks joy and getting rid of some of it. I’m sure there’s something really wonderful about all of that but, apparently, I’m very opposed to that because I can’t get rid of any of the books. Even the ones I’ve sold, I’m so mad that I sold them back in 2016. What was I thinking? I’m sure there was something in there I would probably still want. So, a lot of people do come over to my house or hear about this and go ‘Yeah. I have books, too, but why do you continually collect them or buy multiple copies of the same one?’ I just really wanted to confront that with this book. I don’t even know that I came up with a really clear answer, so much as I just think it’s something I can’t be alone in. So, there have to be other soft lunatics out there. I’m hoping that they find this book and feel like we are part of a club and maybe the club is worth continuing. 

AD: Yeah. First of all, no offense to Marie Kondo, but all of the books I own bring me joy. So, I don’t know what she means or how I’d begin to choose. I think someone said that she has a specific number of books that she recommends keeping or something. I don’t know how you sort of do that, though. I wouldn’t even know where to begin to eliminate some from my collection — and, I should note, I have no intention of doing so.

VF: I don’t think you can. I did meet a guy once who would get rid of every book after he read it. He’d buy a book he wanted to read, he would read it and then he would just sell it or give it away to someone. So, he had a collection of maybe 20 books he kept, for whatever reason. Those were mostly reference books and things, and I never understood that guy at all. To me, you buy a book and it shouldn’t be disposable. It should be something you read — or even if you don’t read it and it sits for years — it has a certain purpose, or maybe a certain promise. 

So, there are books I’m looking at right now, as we’re talking, that I haven’t read yet but don’t want to get rid of because I know there’s a day where I might want to read it. The fact that it’s there is like a promise of a book to come that I could read someday. I always get really, really excited when I finish a book and then the question is ‘What am I gong to read next?’ and I have this great collection of choices before me that I can look at and go ‘Well, maybe it’s time to finally give this a try, or maybe this is finally the year that I’m going to read this book.’ Or maybe there’s a new book that I’d been reading about that I can’t wait to get to and now I have a chance to. So, I always feel like an overstuffed bookcase and a room full of books is a huge amount of possibilities. It’s like a choose-your-own-adventure book when you’re a kid. You have a little bit of control there. You can pick how this thing is going to go. I don’t see how people who always talk about the beauty of having satellite TV or cable and having hundreds of channels — and who talk about having this amazing amount of choices and how it’s a good thing — if anybody has that attitude and then doesn’t also have that attitude about books, I don’t get it. It’s the same thing. They are just islands of possibility waiting to be discovered.

AD: I completely agree. I feel the same way and I think that we’re all guilty of that — of buying a book here or there and somehow leaving it unread, even though that was the farthest thing from what was intended.

VF: Yeah. I’m sure there are books with me at this very second that I’ll never read. It’ll just be a book that I kept for my life for whatever reason. That’s okay with me. Again, I just feel books have a lot of purposes. The main purpose is for them to be read and for them to share ideas or stories but, to me, there’s a little bit of an argument to be made for books as an aesthetic thing — as an object that sparks joy the way that a painting sparks joy. I’m not getting rid of any of the art that I have. I have paintings in my apartment, too. I would never sell those, even though their function is fairly simple. I can look at them. That’s it. Just because I have a book I haven’t read doesn’t mean it’s not a beautiful object that somehow makes my apartment feel warmer or cozier or makes me feel better. So, it sounds a little ridiculous because you’re not supposed to judge a book by it’s cover and because books have this one utility that people assign to it, but I don’t agree. I love when I stumble upon a publisher that has a certain aesthetic to their book packaging. Then, if I have a shelf of all their books put together, it looks beautiful. So, to me it’s decorative as well. 

AD: And last, but not least, what books would you recommend? Do you have any favorites that you would like to share? 

VF: Sure. I can choose one I’m currently reading. It’s called If by Nicholas Bourbaki. I just found it last week at the AWP conference. It’s from a small press called Livingston. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure book for adults, but that’s a little bit of a red herring, frankly, because it’s basically like several novels in one book, all of them written in the second person. So, it’s all ‘You do this and then you do this,’ without ever really naming who you are. It is a book where it’s like Hopscotch by [Julio] Cortázar. You skip around through the whole thing. You’re not necessarily supposed to read it from front page to back page, but you can. I also just found out the name Nicholas Bourbaki is not a real name, but there’s actually a group of mathematicians from France — I want to say in the thirties — who came up with the fake name for themselves. So, this author is clearly inspired by these avant-garde European mathematicians. Ultimately, I’m reading this and I don’t necessarily know what I think of it yet. I like it. It could be a big avant-garde experiment that doesn’t pay off, but I’m intrigued by it and it’s reminding me that books can do a lot of things. They can be inventive and novel. We haven’t run out of ideas yet. So, I would definitely recommend that for anybody who’s interested.

I also re-read a lot of books lately that I thought are pretty great that still hold up. I’m kind of a James Joyce nut, so I re-read Ulysses last year. It still holds up to me as being pretty fantastic. I know it’s a pick for a lot of literary folk. I was really resistant to James Joyce for most of my life, and then a couple years ago I read him and I was like ‘This guy is amazing! What was I waiting for all these years?’ So, I would definitely give a shout-out to that as one of my favorites. 

I like to read a lot of translated literature, too. So, I’m really excited to read this book that I haven’t yet looked at. I picked it up a couple of weeks ago and it seems like it’s pretty amazing. It’s a Hungarian book called Night School: A Reader for Grownups by Zsófia Bán. Apparently, every chapter ends with a weird self-help parody, if that makes any sense. I can’t wait to give that a try because it’s published by Open Letter. They always put out really interesting things and I read a couple of snippets of it when I was at a convention where the publisher also was. I thought this is pretty amazing. It looked like one of the stranger books I’ve come across in a while. So, I’m really excited to read that. 

Then I’m also looking forward to reading this book that I started and then I lost and then just found a few weeks ago. It’s called Slow Horses by a British writer, Mick Herron. It’s a kind of a spy novel but it’s about all these British intelligence agents who screwed up a case and they dumped into this sort of collection of people who they don’t give a lot of serious assignments to and they’re referred to as the Slow Horses, because they’re not very fast. I guess one of the heroes of the Slow Horses ends up solving this huge mystery, so it’s kind of a genre spy book that I think is really fun and I cannot wait to finish because I only read half of it before I lost it. 

Vincent Francone is the author of the memoir Like a Dog and the essay collection The Soft Lunacy. His poems, stories, and essays have appeared in Rhino, New City Magazine, The Oklahoma Review, among other publications. He is at work editing a book of poems slated for 2020 publication. Check out his website.

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