I’m going to Buffalo for a wedding this weekend, so you may not hear from me for a couple of days. But if you are in dire need of something to read in the intervening time, allow me to make a suggestion, or two. Most people have read one or two books by Kurt Vonnegut, and most people enjoy them. Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions, and Cat’s Cradle are probably the most widely read Vonnegut books. Most folks enjoy those books, and then never read any Vonnegut again. This is a big mistake! There are number of other amazing Vonnegut books, so allow me to present to you the best of the rest (along with brief descriptions): The Sirens of Titan (“The richest and most depraved man on Earth takes a wild space journey to distant worlds, learning about the purpose of human life along the way.”); Galapagos (“A small group of apocalypse survivors stranded on the Galapagos Islands are about to become the progenitors of a brave new human race.”); Hocus Pocus (“A small, exclusive college in upstate New York is nestled along the frozen shores of Lake Mohiga… and directly across from a maximum-security prison. The two institutions manage to coexist peacefully, until 10,000 prisoners break out and head directly for the college.”); Welcome to the Monkey House (“This collection of Vonnegut’s short masterpieces share his audacious sense of humor and extraordinary creative vision.”); and finally God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (“Eliot Rosewater, drunk, volunteer fireman, and president of the fabulously rich Rosewater foundation, is about to attempt a noble experiment with human nature… with a little help from writer Kilgore Trout.”)
Perhaps you've heard the recent news that Random House is suing to recover a $300,000 advance from P. Diddy for an autobiography he failed to deliver back in 1999. In the Guardian, Blake Morrison argues that Random House's litigousness represents a departure from gentlmanly publishing practices of the past. It is most certainly the only article that I've ever come across that manages to find what P. Diddy and Marcel Proust have in common.Of course, P Diddy is not a poet starving in a garret. In fact, thanks to his business interests, which range from ownership of Bad Boy Entertainment to the Sean John clothing line, he could probably afford to buy every garret in Manhattan - and still have something left over. Moreover, Random House could put that £160,000 to good uses - to encourage a first-time novelist, for instance.Still, a worrying precedent is being set here. What will the world of literature come to if every late-delivering author is held to account? Authors have been slow to deliver ever since Moses came down from Mount Sinai with his tablets of stone (40 days and nights late, according to his editor). In the 19th century, those who failed to produce their promised magnum opus ranged from Coleridge and de Quincey (both of whom suffered an opium habit) to Casaubon in George Eliot's novel Middlemarch, with his grandiose plans to write a scholarly Key to All Mythologies.In the 20th century, it was Proust who set the appropriate tortoise pace.Link
Somehow I waited two months to take a look at the "best of 2003" column from my favorite book critic Jonathan Yardley. For him 17 rather interesting books make the cut, and his two picks for best of the year are The Known World by Edward P. Jones and Gabriel Garcia Marquez's memoir Living to Tell the Tale. Both of these are on the reading queue, and I'm very much looking forward to reading them. Here is Yardley's column.
On the eve of the release of the final Harry Potter, I offer Millions readers a few brief intuitions - alas, grounded more in literary convention than in second sight - about the events to come in The Deathly Hallows.My chief intuition, based largely on the over-determined association of Dumbledore with the phoenix throughout the series, is that everyone's favorite headmaster is not dead (X-Men, anyone?). Recall that Harry "thinks he sees" a phoenix emerge from the smoke of Dumbledore's funeral pyre. Based on this intuition, I also maintain that Snape is not, in fact, a Death Eater, and that he and Dumbledore staged a fake murder with Harry as witness. This will allow Snape to become more deeply embedded in Voldemort's ranks. Dumbledore's wisdom would be too seriously undermined if Snape really and truly betrayed him. Regardless of the rightness or wrongness of this particular tea-leaf vision, more must emerge about how Snape gained Dumbledore's trust. This will be one of the central revelations of the new book.Of lesser intuitions:R.A.B., the initials on the note found in the locket that was supposed to be a horcrux, belong to Sirius' brother, Regulus Black, whom we have heard vaguely was a follower of Voldemort and then attempted to leave the ranks of the Death Eaters, only to be killed by them for his betrayal. This may mean that Slytherin's locket is concealed somewhere in the Black family house that Sirius left to Harry.As to whether Hogwarts will remain open during this seventh year with Harry, I suspect that it will remain open in some capacity - if only as a larger and better fortified headquarters for the Order of the Phoenix and their allies.I hope that, in the less than illustrious cooking-sherry-drinking tradition of Professor Trelawney, I am wrong about all of these things. I think The Deathly Hallows would be a better book for it.
The Guardian recently posted a collection of short pieces by different authors on the books they reread, and what they gain from the practice. There even seems to be a sort of tradition among writers and serious readers, related to these perennial rereadings. Faulkner read Don Quixote once a year, “the way some people read the Bible,” and isn’t there a place in the Bascombe books where Frank invokes the old idea that all Americans everywhere ought to make an annual reading of The Great Gatsby? Perhaps Gatsby isn’t your choice for yearly touchstone fiction (although it is mine, and Mark Sarvas’ (see below), and was, in fact, the most commonly mentioned “rereadable” in that Guardian piece). Regardless, and no matter which one you favor, it shows adulthood and devotedness, I think, to try and get back to a book you love, every four seasons or so. That’s why I asked a few people about the books they reread, and why. Adam Ross, author of Mr. Peanut and Ladies and Gentlemen, spent a decade reading The Odyssey once a year. Matt Bell, editor of The Collagist and author of How They Were Found and the forthcoming Cataclysm Baby, makes a yearly reading of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which he first read at age 21. He says that, while almost every other book he revered back then has receded into the background of his personal canon, Jesus’ Son has gone the opposite way, and gained in its power to move him. The aforementioned Mark Sarvas (whose blog, The Elegant Variation, you should definitely check out,) reads The Great Gatsby once a year -- in fact, for 18 years, it’s been the first book he reads every January, and he always tries to do it in a single sitting. Changes in his own life have tracked these readings: he’s read it as a single man in his 30s, “very Nick Carraway-like;” he’s read it as a husband and a divorcee; he’s read it from the perspective of a writer and, more recently, as a teacher of writers. And, lately, reading it as a father, he’s found himself appalled at the way Daisy Buchanan treats her small daughter (although, frankly, there are very few characters in Gatsby whom Daisy’s treatment of couldn’t be described as appalling). After well over 30 readings, Mark’s never bored, never tempted to skim or skip, and the scene where Gatsby tosses his shirts on the bed always chokes him up. He also points out that a book not worth rereading is probably not worth reading in the first place. Hard to argue with that. Speaking of “inveterate rereading,” The Millions’s own Lydia Kiesling has a slightly different approach to her touchstones. She has an ever-changing list of books she makes it a point to reread every one to three years. Currently, the list includes The Sea, The Sea, The Chronicles of Narnia, Till We Have Faces, Cloud Atlas, Of Human Bondage, The Berlin Stories, The Blind Assassin, Burmese Days, Possession, Lucky Jim, The Corrections, The Stand, and A Suitable Boy. She rereads these books in part because they’re “witty even when they are sad,” and because they manage to deposit her in another world with minimal effort on her part, which is as perfect a definition of great fiction writing as any I’ve ever heard. Speaking of Stephen King’s The Stand, my wife, Jennifer Boyle, makes it a point to reread that one once a decade. Considering the book’s monstrosity -- both in size and subject matter -- every 10 years sounds just about right. Eric Shonkwiler, former regional editor for The Los Angeles Review of Books, reads Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream once a year. He likes the way it transports him to the Gulf, and for all the “standard Hem charms” we know and love. (Can we all agree to start using “Hem” as the favored adjective for anything Papa-related?) Finally, Emily M. Keeler, The New Inquiry book editor and LitBeat editor for The Millions, reads Zadie Smith’s White Teeth once a year, usually in September. She discovered the book in the autumn of 2003, when she was a 16-year old high school student. Her favorites back then were all dead white guys (Orwell, Steinbeck, Hem, Maugham, Waugh) and she was in a used bookstore, jonesing for more Hem, when White Teeth’s colorful spine sparked her interest. It was the most exhilarating book she’d ever read at that point, and she goes back to it every fall, “in an effort to remember that feeling of discovery,” the moment when she became aware that “literature lives both back in time and forward through it.” So which books do you all reread yearly, or biannually, or quadrennially, or decennially, and why? We’d love to hear about them in the comments section. Please share. Image Credit: Flickr/Sapphireblue.
It may seem that we have drifted toward dragons when a satirist sits at a senator’s desk (Al Franken) and a comedian’s criticisms land so dry they are mistaken for affirmation (Stephen Colbert). Actually we’re repeating a journey traveled by Sir Thomas More exactly five-hundred years ago. In 1509, Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus was struck by inspiration while horseback on his way to visit More. The two friends had translated Lucian’s satires together. Once installed in More’s home, Erasmus penned In Praise of Folly, an attack on the rampant stoicism of the age (think Dick Cheney) and a defense of More’s famous wit. More was fond of bawdy jokes and puns, and reportedly proud of the fact that his humor was sometimes so arid many didn’t even perceive it. In 1516, More produced the short novel Utopia, a portrait of a happy island nation whose benevolent ruler advocates communal property, religious freedom, and marital separation. Utopia spawned an entire genre of literature, and apart from the Bible it’s hard to imagine a book that has proven to be so influential. Utopia borrows heavily from both Lucian and In Praise of Folly, which makes our current moment the quincentennial of the gestation period (1509-1516) of what is perhaps the most important novel in the history of mankind. Oddly, the book succeeded only because most people misunderstood it. More wrote Utopia as a young man. Erasmus published it, and as he prepared it for press More hustled after blurbs like any budding author. But even he would have admitted that the initial rollout didn’t go quite as planned. He had hoped to appeal to an audience that would understand the book’s classical puns as invitation to an ironic interpretation. (Greek: “Utopia” = “no place.”) In other words, he wanted to criticize everything to book seemed to stand for. In actuality, More was a monarchist who defended private property, participated in Lutheran-burning, and later lost his head because he refused to sanction his king’s divorce. His arid wit backfired this time. Within More’s lifetime, Utopia was cited as justification for communal property in the Peasant War, and was used as a blueprint for civic organization in towns in southern Mexico. “This fellow is so grim that he will not hear of a joke,” he complained. “That fellow is so insipid that he cannot endure wit.” Once officially a member of the court of Henry VIII, More suggested Utopia be burned. It was too late. And given the impact of utopian thought since then – the basic tenets of communism, capitalism, fascism, and socialism all trace back to utopian texts – it’s fair to characterize the last five hundred years of human civilization as a history of not-getting-the-joke of Utopia. That history will repeat if the next five hundred years are best characterized by an affectless viewing of “The Colbert Report.” The evidence that our world too suffers from a kind of “irony-deficiency” doesn’t stop with satiric news. The mantra of Oliver Stone’s Gordon Gekko (“Greed is good”) is a witless business plan for many, and mocking recitals of dirty limericks by Andrew Dice Clay (a Jewish comedian) became revival for Italian misogynists who took them for rhyming mission statements. Of course, the politics now are all reversed. The funny guys are all on the left; somber cowboys brood stage right. Were he alive today, Thomas More might feel most at home among neo-Stoics who under the guise of a “real America” plan to secede, plot for overthrow, or hope to coronate Sarah Palin. Utopia – the un-ironic version of it that proved fruitful in shaping modern democracy – is the victim of all this. It’s now largely a pejorative term. Propagandists who currently target “hope” have already succeeded in making “utopia” synonymous with socialist idealism. They forget that free markets, mutually assured destruction, and peace through superior firepower are each just as easy to link back to utopian tracts. Utopia is the scope of the plan, not the nature of the product. In America, it’s particularly tough to escape the influence of that un-got joke. President Obama offers frequent reminders that the United States is an ongoing experiment. Our goal, in our founding documents, is to become a “more perfect” union. Only tin ears remain deaf to the utopian echo. When our politicians deride one another’s plans as utopian, they forget that plans can be made and criticisms leveled only because we all live in a version of More’s joke. The far right thinks its views are those of the Founding Fathers, and that the country’s enemies are crazy utopians who would undo democracy. But the Founding Fathers were utopians to a man. They railed not against taxes, but against taxes without representation. Today’s conservative spirit applied to the late eighteenth century would have resisted even those changes. George W. Bush once described the benevolent dictator as the best form of government, and Cheney’s quest to expand executive power betrayed nostalgia for monarchy. Conservatives long for a despot like More’s ironically-intended “King Utopus.” Yet it’s not just irony deficiency that links us to the past. We’re also becoming more bawdy. And in this regard, it doesn’t matter whether you’re Dick Cheney on the floor of Congress or Joe Biden at a presidential press conference. The only thing that perhaps explains why viewers today prefer “The Daily Show” to CNN or Fox is that the same cultural mood that produced In Praise of Folly has come around again. But now that the politics have reversed we must ensure that the humor is not so subtle it becomes its opposite. In this regard there is, I dare say, hope. Not long ago, Jon Stewart conducted a (mostly) sober debate on the financial crisis with a CNBC analyst (and admitted clown). It was a riveting interview – one in which an absence of artificial poise and stoicism appeared to enable a further depth of insight. But when the CNBC clown dodged a question with banter, Stewart called him out on it: “This isn’t a fucking joke.” And no one laughed.
What do you do when your nemesis (who you secretly sort of love) up and moves away? How do you fight the emptiness? How do you carry on? These are the questions I imagine Gawker has been pondering for the past two weeks. Lost in the to-do over the 9/11 anniversary was the last night of MisShapes. For those not in the loop (for shame, people, for shame), MisShapes are a trio of DJs whose weekly dance parties at Don Hill's were, for a time, a modern day Studio 54. With their motley collection of absurdly hip hipsters, sporting self-styled monikers like Jonny Makeup and Tommy Hottpants, MisShapes created a party so phosphorous-hot hip it attracted a diverse crowd of celebrities, artists, and trust-fund brats. Max Minghella, Cindy Sherman, David Byrne, Leelee Sobieski - they all partied at MisShapes.While MisShapes flourished as a media phenomenon (the trio themselves became darlings of the fashion world), the backlash against them proved more entertaining. Nowhere was the bile better than on Gawker's weekly feature Blue States Lose. Each week, Gawker took the best photos from websites like MisShapes, Last Night's Party, and The Cobrasnake, and lampooned the partygoers pictured within. Dubbing MisShape member Leigh Lezark "Princess Coldstare," and referring to the crowd at Misshapes as "hiptards," Blue States Lose became weekly reading for anyone who ever saw a guy wearing American Apparel stretch pants, aviator sunglasses, and a Cherokee headdress and thought, "Maybe I should just kill myself now, if people like this are going to be free to breathe my air?" But all of that's over now. Blue States Lose will have to soldier on without the MisShapes. They won't have Leotard Fantastic to kick around anymore.To cope with the loss, Gawker is following MisShapes' lead and publishing a book. It's a first for the blogging giant, and it's still unclear exactly what the Gawker book is all about. Is it a chapbook of old posts? Is it new material? Is it really a "guide to conquering all media?" Regardless of its content, the Gawker book should be a litmus test for how well the blog format can translate into print. Gawker, with its of-the-moment focus, its pithy snarkiness, is the epitome of "blogginess," at least from where I stand. It's sort of the Platonic ideal of a blog, so to imagine it in book form is, well, difficult. If it's successfully carried off, readers can expect to find The Millions Guide to Reading on Public Transportation (Forward by Kaye Gibbons) at their local Barnes and Noble sometime in the near future.
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