I have discovered these past few days that there are two types of people: those who like daylight saving time, and those who do not. The folks who like daylight saving are like me. They are optimists who look forward to a long summer of sun-drenched evenings, where you can spend the evening hours outside in the warm, lingering dusk. Those who don’t like daylight saving moan about losing a single hour on one weekend of a year of weekends. These people’s lives are mercilessly scheduled, and they apparently find no way to derive joy from the extra daylight, they instead cling to that lost hour as an example of the many ills that befall them. I don’t like those people.
When: Early afternoon Monday 9/15/03Where: A park bench in Larchmont (A tony neighborhood in L.A.)Who: Twenty-something manWhat: Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There by David Brooks.Description: “Once it was easy to distinguish the staid Bourgeois from the radical Bohemians. This field study of America’s latest elite–a hybrid Brooks calls the Bobos–covers everything from cultural artifacts to Bobo attitudes towards sex, morality, work, and leisure.”Anyone else like to go bookspotting?
Pete Dexter has been in the news around here lately, and keeping that ball rolling, I’ve contributed a piece to The Rumpus series “The Last Book I Loved” about Dexter’s collection of columns, Paper Trails. Technically, it’s not the last book I’ve loved (more recently there’s been Waiting for the Barbarians, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Shadow Country, A Mercy, and a few others), so let’s just call it “One of the Last Books I Loved.”
Using Amazon.com bestseller rankings as his data set, a physicist at UCLA, Didier Sornette, and his coauthors have just completed a study to investigate which phenomena lie behind the creation of best-selling books. While Sornette acknowledges that a big sales spike occurs after a book receives a prominent review or a mention on television, “the slower peaks tend to generate more sales over time.” He finds that word of mouth is — scientifically — the best way to sell books. Or, to put it another way, it appears as though the laws of physics decree that creative marketing will win out over the more aggressive variety. Here’s the abstract for the original study with all its scientific mumbo-jumbo.A Baseball Book MiracleAs Janet Maslin notes in her review of Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season, Stephen King and Stewart O’Nan couldn’t have picked a better year than this one to write a fan’s-eye-view book about their beloved Boston Red Sox. Maslin likes the book and I’m not surprised; passion for the subject matter often leads to inspired and entertaining writing.
Film and literature are two vastly different mediums of communication, an argument best captured in the sentiments a friend wrote to me recently:”I identify books with age and place. It’s a nasty habit as it carries with it a certain sentiment that is not in the book itself, rather the impressions of habitat where and when I was reading a particular book, not to mention my desires at the time.”I replied to my friend that he had defined and distilled the reading experience. It’s those precise differences in approach that make the reading experience so monumental. No two people can read a book the same way, particularly people with different life histories.But film is a visual medium. Movies give us iconic images that last a lifetime. Or so I believed until recently.In early 2004 I wrote a series of 28 blithely interconnected short stories for L.A. Stories. One of the tales, “Bill’s Bottle,” is a first-person narrative that provides a voyeuristic look at the tragic death of film icon William Holden from the point of view of the fatal bottle of vodka that contributed to his passing.Immediately after “Bill’s Bottle” appeared on the fiction page at the L.A. Stories website I received perplexed e-mails from my readers, all asking the same question: “Who the hell is William Holden?””I just looked up his movies on the Internet Movie Database,” one reader wrote, “and I have to say that I am not familiar with the man or his work.”Not familiar with the star who appeared in a bevy of classic motion pictures? Consider just a small handful of Holden’s iconic roles: The struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Major Shears in David Lean’s epic The Bridge on the River Kwai. Max Schumacker in Paddy Chayefsky’s clairvoyant Network. Pike Bishop in Sam Peckinpah’s blood-soaked western The Wild Bunch.There was a time when Billy Wilder’s 1953 classic Stalag 17 – set in an Allied POW camp in World War II during one memorable Christmas, starring Holden as rough-hewn Sergeant Sefton – was a holiday perennial on television. Not anymore. This year I was compelled to rent the movie on video in order to add it to my plate of favorite Christmas movies.I purchased a previously viewed VHS of Stalag 17 at my local Blockbuster just a few days before Christmas. Pawing through the bin of discarded videotapes I discovered a virtual treasure trove of William Holden films being chased out the door for a mere $4.99 apiece: Picnic, Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, the original Sabrina. (A further irony is that every title mentioned possesses either a theatrical or literary pedigree but that’s another matter entirely.)William Holden was an alcoholic for much of his adult life. Biographer Bob Thomas points out in his book Golden Boy that the ruggedly handsome actor was embarrassed to make a living as an actor, believing the profession to be not only unmanly but downright humiliating. Holden began having a snort or two before scenes, a shyness killer that would eventually kill the man himself in a most gruesome and embarrassing manner.Holden was no Olivier but he was one of the greatest stars who ever graced the silver screen. In 1995 – fourteen years after his death – Empire Magazine selected Holden as one of the 100 Sexiest Stars in Film History. Securing Holden’s lofty place in the often-strange intersection between literature and film is this interesting factoid: J.D. Salinger got the name for protagonist Holden Caulfield in the classic book The Catcher in the Rye from the movie Dear Ruth, which starred William Holden and Joan Caulfield.Today, though, William Holden, sadly, is largely unknown. I moved “Bill’s Bottle” to my website earlier this year and reading the site meter for that page provides an excuse to ponder where our culture is going and has gone. “Bill’s Bottle” receives less than two page views per month. On the other hand, “Dead Porn Stars,” a trade magazine piece I wrote for X Biz World exploring those in cyberspace who are cashing in on late, great porn stars, receives over 1,000 page views per week.One thousand page views for dead porn stars per week. Two page views for Bill Holden.You do the math.
I got the latest catalog from Soho Press in the mail recently. Soho is an independent press in New York that puts out a few books of literary fiction a year. They’ve also got a crime imprint. A flip through the catalog drives home Soho Crime’s reputation for detective stories set in exotic locales. This time around there’s New York’s Chinatown, Bethlehem, and Paris, as well as paperback editions for recently released hardcovers set in Seoul, Florence, Granada, and Paris again.Also on the way is a mystery set during World War II called Billy Boyle by James R. Benn. Billy Boyle is a Boston cop who gets unexpectedly thrown into the war and ends up investigating the death of an official of the Norwegian government in exile. It’s the first in a three book series about Boyle. The catalog also has word of the paperback edition of The White Earth, Andrew McGahern’s multigenerational tale set in Australia that I read and discussed in January.If you are a publisher and would like to send me your catalog, please email me.
Do you remember your last English teacher? Did he use colored chalk to diagram William Faulkner’s periodic sentences? Did she stand in the back of the room and read a poem from Denise Levertov, most of the words pushing past your ears, but a few, like “Aren’t there annunciations / of one sort or another / in most lives?” remaining like a refrain? Or was he forgettable, distributing misspelled study guides for The Merchant of Venice before playing a tired cassette recording?
Think about your last year in a high school English classroom. The uneven rows. The loud radiator. The re-used posters, corners double-taped. You were 17, 18. Your mind and your heart were elsewhere. That tension between distraction and focus is healthy. If we do not wish that we were somewhere else, doing something else, the collective, focused breath on a single line of a poem would not be so sweet. Back then, you were full of cynicism and hope. What a mixture: your wounds and joys felt so sharp.
I tell my seniors that I will likely be their last English teacher. They are enrolled in AP Literature and Composition, a difficult course that builds toward a three-hour exam. When I began teaching the course a decade ago, my classes were nearly half the size. Most students were hoping to major in English or philosophy. Now, out of two class sections of 55 students, it is a surprise to have three future English majors. I am lucky that they are no less talented and driven. They are ready to work.
I realize that my situation is unique. My students often attend the most competitive colleges in the country. In order to do so, their high school schedules are strained. They are expected to perform highly in several intellectual disciplines a day, with only six minutes to move between classrooms within an enormous outdoor campus, and 40 minutes to be teenagers at lunch. Still, they are very fortunate. They have the support of the community and district. They are good kids. Curious kids, who stay with me when we examine the difference between mimetic and textual voice in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, or parse Wallace Stevens’s “A Comment on Meaning in Poetry.”
I tell them that I am their last English teacher because many of these students will place out of composition or literature in college. They will spend the next four to eight years busy studying, and will go on to successful careers in medicine, law, and business. No one else will ever read them a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
You may think this is melodramatic talk. I admit that teachers were born to perform. We are actors without stages. In a recent interview, poet Paul Muldoon said that most students struggle with poetry because of how it is taught in high school: “What’s usually happening is that the instructor, the teacher, is at pains to show what an extraordinary instructor or teacher he or she is, and the message I think that far too many of us get in high school is that poetry may only be read if you’ve got that instructor or teacher to show you what it’s really about.” I have heard this lament before, and it is not only about poetry. High school English teachers are responsible for flattening literature. We kill books.
These constant, unfounded digs are what cause teachers to be defensive. Teaching in an American public school is an idealistic act. Politicians will have you believe we are an insufferable bunch, our chests full of blind union pride, tenure our ticket to stasis. English teachers, less than perhaps only editors, live their days surrounded with the hopes, fears, eccentricities, and failures of generations of writers. Those words, classic and contemporary, seep into our souls. Why teach Beloved if you do not close your eyes and feel 124 shaking; if you do not feel your own heart shaking? That sensitivity bleeds out of the classroom.
In the latest round of testing frenzy, English teachers are unique targets. We teach the essential skill of communication — the ability to turn students’ feelings into spoken and written words — yet English is considered a light discipline compared to the rigor of sciences. I am not sure what an English teacher is supposed to be now. (I say that out of one side of my mouth; I strive to exceed the expectations of my district and state curriculum.) I mean in terms of my identity as an English teacher. I used to be considered a mentor. During my first few years as a teacher, I kept the prayer of St. Francis in my pocket: “grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.” I was only years removed from almost entering a seminary to become a priest. You never lose that call; it simply takes another shape. My shape was a room with 28 desks and a chalkboard.
I teach every class like it is my last. It could be. When I started teaching, I thought my purpose was to create a legion of English majors. I have learned that my purpose is to pause the lives of my students for long enough that a line of poetry is the loudest sound they encounter during the day. I am uninterested in studies that assess the cognitive worth of reading poetry for future engineers. I don’t teach engineers. I teach people. My master is not a test; it is the belief that minutes reading beautiful language will stir souls. I want my students to see that words are sacraments, in the same way that Andre Dubus said each sandwich he made for his daughters was a sacrament: “physical, nutritious and pleasurable, and within it is love.” It is possible to be cold-hearted and teach, but why do so? Students experience enough private pain some days to fill a lifetime. Literature can be the salve for a weary heart. I do not mean directly; I do not think literature is a form of therapy. I mean that books enable students to experience an extraordinary range of emotions in 180 days.
Most literature we read will pass from their memory. Some works will stick. One poem might change them. It is a beautiful possibility that such an epiphany can occur in as mundane a place as a classroom. That same hope keeps me from burning out in a profession that is as exhausting as it is exhaustive. I hate how teachers are portrayed by politicians and education reformers; I hate how we are reduced to caricatures. But I keep that frustration from my students. After all, it is for them that I am here. I believe in them, and I believe in words; I better believe in both, because I might be somebody’s last English teacher.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The people behind the JT Leroy* scam (our other literary scam), must be happy about the breathing room that the James Frey saga has given them. But is that it? They were called out by the press, but does it end there? As far as I know (and please correct me if I’m wrong), there has been no public declaration by Savannah Knoop, Geoffrey Knoop and Laura Albert in which they come clean, apologize and promise to donate all their ill-gotten gains to charity. Frey did it; shouldn’t they?Meanwhile, adding to the list of people who are unburdening themselves of their unwilling involvement with this scam, actress Ann Magnuson, with whom I had the pleasure of discussing Leroy during my recent trip to Los Angeles, lays out her correspondence with Leroy and also discusses how the scammers demeaned the state of West Virginia.*Now that we know Leroy isn’t a real person, I suppose I should quit making his name boldface, a stylistic treatment that I usually reserve for real people.