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A Tender Buttons play and other ways to experience difficult books

By Tiffany Gibert

Get the best of great books...without, you know, reading them. Look, we always recommend reading the book first—but we know it's not easy. After all, it takes about 22 hours to read Don Quixote; some books are just massive (and you already have 61 wonderful things to do in New York in October!). And, yes, some books are confusing (hi, James Joyce). So when we saw that the Van Reipen Collective is putting on a theatrical adaptation of Gertrude Stein's dense poetic book, Tender Buttons, at Theater for the New City, we thought, "How nice of them to re-imagine that wonderful work in a new format, perfect for people who don't read experimental literature!"

But they aren't the only ones with this cross-medium idea; including Tender Buttons, here are four opportunities to experience literature a little differently:

Tender Buttons play, Oct 2–19, Theater for the New City

The book includes paragraphs like: "A charm a single charm is doubtful. If the red is rose and there is a gate surrounding it, if inside is let in and there places change then certainly something is upright. It is earnest."

Experience it: The Van Reipen Collective puts on "a spectacle in three parts," presenting each section of Stein's tripartite book on different nights and complementing the author's words with music and dramatic performances. The Collective describes the "Objects" adaptation as an American operatta, "Rooms" as a shape-shifting collage and "Food" as an absurdist dining room drama. The plays may not be easier to follow than the book, but they sure as hell will be entertaining.

Inherent Vice film, Oct 4, The 52nd Annual New York Film Festival, Lincoln Center

The book includes bits like: "Doc had outrun souped-up Rollses full of indignant smack dealers on the Pasadena Freeway, doing a hundred in the fog and trying to steer through all those crudely engineered curves, he’d walked up back alleys east of the L.A. River with nothing but a borrowed ’fro pick in his baggies for protection, been in and out of the Hall of Justice while holding a small fortune in Vietnamese weed, and these days had nearly convinced himself all that reckless era was over with, but now he was beginning to feel deeply nervous again."

Experience it: Though probably one of Thomas Pynchon's more digestible books, Inherent Vice retains much of the mysterious author's signature complexity and ambiguity. If Pynchon's style doesn't do it for you, Paul Thomas Anderson's much-anticipated film adaptation offers the same compelling story and stars Joaquin Phoenix. Watch the just-released trailer, and then snag your ticket to one of the New York Film Festival's four screenings (or wait until December for the release).

The Belle of Amherst play, opens Oct 7, Westside Theater

Emily Dickinson's writings include verses like: "There's a certain Slant of light, / Winter Afternoons – / That oppresses, like the Heft / Of Cathedral Tunes – // Heavenly Hurt, it gives us – / We can find no scar, / But internal difference – / Where the Meanings, are – // None may teach it – Any – / 'Tis the seal Despair – / An imperial affliction / Sent us of the Air –"

Experience it: William Luce's one-woman play The Belle of Amherst mashes up Dickinson's notoriously enigmatic writing, including her poems, diaries and letters, to present a fuller image of the poet's personality, creative spirit and isolation. A new production opens next month at the Westside Theater, starring Joely Richardson and directed by Steve Cosson. Dickinson wrote more than 1,700 poems, and if you haven't gotten through them all—or any of them—give the poet a theatrical chance.

Moby-Dick Marathon Reading, Nov 14–16, various locations

The book includes an entire chapter on cetology (the study of whales): "(Hump-Back).—This whale is often seen on the northern American coast. He has been frequently captured there, and towed into harbor. He has a great pack on him like a peddler; or you might call him the Elephant and Castle whale. At any rate, the popular name for him does not sufficiently distinguish him, since the sperm whale also has a hump though a smaller one. His oil is not very valuable. He has baleen."

Experience it: If you've tried to pick up Melville's classic but couldn't quite make it through the overwhelming details about ships and whaling, this second annual marathon reading will help you see the depths of beauty, absurdism and horror in Moby-Dick. Prominent writers and literary enthusiasts read from the novel over three days—using their best Ahab voices, of course. Tied to the book's U.S. publication anniversary, the event surpasses any straightforward reading by adding sea shanties, drinking and clam chowder.


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