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When Literary Opposites Attract

Greg Zimmerman

Staff Writer

Greg Zimmerman blogs about contemporary literary fiction at The New Dork Review of Books and holds down a full-time gig as a trade magazine editor. Follow him on Twitter: @NewDorkReview.

People often ask me — since I’m always reading more than one book at once — how do you keep ’em straight? Don’t you get plots or settings or the characters’ favorite colors confused, etc.? Nope, never have.

Here’s why: I always make my concurrent reads as different as possible. Usually, this involves having both a nonfiction book and a novel going at the same time. But if it must be two (or three) fictional tales, they should be about as different as they can be — indeed, as close to literary opposites as possible. This strategy may not be for everyone, but if it sounds intriguing to you, here are some suggested literary opposites to give you the right idea.

If you’re reading Gravity’s Rainbow, why not throw in some Harry Potter? Yep, I actually did this two years ago. It was fun — switching from Pynchon’s graphic accounts of deviant sex and drug use to those three sweet Hogwarts kids. The funny thing is the magic in Harry Potter seems downright realistic compared to what Pynchon’s got going on here.

Nicole Krauss or Marilynne Robinson: atmospheric, moving. Nicholas Sparks: Cheesy, sentimental.  Far be it for me to ever suggest you read Sparks, but if you love the Krauss/Robinson style, you should throw in a Sparks at the same time for the sole reason that, to be a well-rounded bibliophile, sometimes you need to read the bad just to recognize how good the good is. And while these styles are similar, they’re polar opposites as far as quality, in my humble opinion.

Bring out the flavor of War and Peace with a spicy spy thriller. Often, when I was reading War and Peace, I wished it would just speed the hell up. I enjoyed it thoroughly, but I threw in a few Vince Flynn novels to remind myself that not every bit of action requires another 100 pages of philosophical meanderings and character catharsis.

Infinite Jest blowing your mind? Try assuaging it with some Hemingway. There may not be two writers further apart on the style spectrum than David Foster Wallace and Papa Hemingway — Hemingway’s simple, unadorned, straightforward sentences/narratives vs. DFW’s 200-word, what-the-hell-is-that-word/phrase, what-the-hell-is-he-on-about-now sentences/narratives. Reading these two at the same time, you’ll end up right in the sweet spot of maybe-too-many-but-awesome vs. maybe-too-few-but-awesome words.

Margaret Atwood vs. Philip Roth — Brilliant feminist storyteller vs. brilliant male-centric storyteller. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

Of course, the possibilities here are infinite. What would be on your “opposites attract” reading list?

(Finally, here’s this. Happy Tuesday!

I take two steps forward
I take two steps back
We come together
Cuz opposites attract

And you know it ain’t fiction
Just a natural fact
We come together
Cuz opposites attract

Sorry, and good luck getting that out of your head for the rest of the day.)