One of the great joys of parenting toddlers for me has been the newly acquired skill to perform basic human functions while half asleep. Specifically, I’ve found much pleasure in recent years reading aloud to my kids, and silently to myself, in a state approaching unconsciousness. Having never come close to mastering the art of lucid dreaming, which always sounded so fun, this may be as close as I will get to operating in the plane of the surreal (unless you count an ill-conceived game my 3-year old and I play sometimes called “Food Coloring and Shaving Cream”). I find the benefits—strange connections between the text and various subconscious flights of my own weary, wandering mind—usually outweigh the drawbacks, which have included the replacement of P. D. Eastman’s deathless prose with my own inappropriate word salad. My biggest complaint about reading half asleep is the simple inevitability of falling totally asleep within a few paragraphs or pages, and frequently forgetting most of what I’ve read. But I figured there must be writing that lends itself to this mode of consumption, and after a brief quest for the perfect book to read in a half asleep state, I believe I’ve found it.
In fact, I’m pleased to report that Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles is the first book I’ve read from cover to cover in a semi-conscious state. While I may have been awake each time I opened it, I was half or completely asleep at the conclusion of each session spent with the book, and it seems almost written to be read in this way. Schulz’s masterpiece is an episodic fictional memoir of his childhood in Drohobych, a city which now lies within the borders of Ukraine, but during the author’s own life was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then Poland. The book’s weirdness calls to mind the wondrous and grotesque imagery of a David Lynch film, perceived through the nostalgic lens of a guileless, good-natured boy, who called to my mind no one so much as Jean Shepherd’s classic witness to postwar Americana, Ralphie from A Christmas Story . An odd combination to be sure, but the parallels are there, particularly in the Street of Crocodiles narrator’s focus on the antics of an outsized father, whose strange obsessions with an attic aviary, late night cockroach hunting, and the multi-colored scraps produced by seamstresses working in his home dominate the book. Like my own readings of it, most of the book’s short chapters have straightforward beginnings, but become increasingly hallucinogenic as the episodes progress, be they recollections of a stuffed condor the boy comes to believe is his own missing father, a violent windstorm that blows all the saucepans, buckets, barrels and utensils in the city into a cacophonous, sentient mob, or the boy’s encounters with strange, feral people living in city parks. Schulz’s prose, translated from Polish, forms a kind of imagistic confection for a brain reading as its faculties wink out one by one. And the book’s lack of a central plot allows one to return for successive readings without really missing crucial information.
So, if the long summer days have you collapsing into bed just past sunset, weary but restless, grab this or another of these titles handpicked for a sleepy brain. Rest up, but there’s no need to hibernate in the coming days when we close to move into an amazing new space, doors (and eyes) to open July 26th with an action-packed day of events. The clock will stop on fines when we’re closed, but you can still pick up holds during certain hours, and most of all, it will be a great time to get acquainted with our multi-talented new catalog. It’s like Amazon, Goodreads, and the good old card catalog all in one. You can make and share lists, follow friends, log in with an actual username instead of a 13-digit number, rate and write reviews of books and movies, see new items and staff picks, and, maybe best of all, wield a power heretofore held only by the highly secretive cabal of librarians who came up with the term “United States—History—Civil War—1861-1865” to describe what normal Americans refer to as the Civil War, and “cookery” to refer to what most call cooking: you can now create and assign your very own subject headings in the library catalog. Hard to believe, but I’m serious. And between us, you can even do it while you’re half asleep. – Dan Coleman, Collection Development