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.
The New Yorker opened the week in a lather of controversy surrounding the cover of its latest issue. The Barry Blitt illustration is a rather heavy-handed satire of the various smears that have circulated about Barack and Michelle Obama. Essentially, that he is a closet Muslim extremist and she a closet militant. Blitt’s unsubtle drawing portrays them in the garb of these personas.Speaking as a New Yorker fan, I can’t stand these political satire covers. Aside from them not being very funny or interesting to look at, they lower the New Yorker to the level of the fray. The key to the New Yorker’s success, however, has been its ability to place itself above all that.Yes, the New Yorker is quite obviously a left leaning publication, but its journalism strives for even-handedness and the entire enterprise is built on a reverence for the facts, as its legendary fact-checking operation attests. By “the fray” I do not just mean politics, I also mean the “here today, gone tomorrow” jokes and the offhanded irony that seem to permeate most of our culture. The New Yorker, meanwhile, has always been so (justifiably) secure in its status, that neither its contents nor even its ideological leanings require an advertisement on the cover, which historically has been given over instead to a piece of art that exists simply for its own sake.The political covers come across as jarring in this context. A couple of years ago another political cover caused a bit of controversy. The Bush/Cheney cover was a tired Brokeback Mountain rehash that got people riled up, and, as it turned out, it bumped a cover that was more topical and far more meaningful and in the spirit of the magazine.Apparently, I may have been in the minority in this view, as the Mark Ulriksen Brokeback cover, along with a political Blitt cover, won awards.It’s not even the political content of these covers that bugs me – there have occasionally been some good political covers – it’s their heavy-handed unfunniness that paints the magazine’s readers with a very broad brush. I don’t find the Obama cover to be offensive in the least, just easy and dumb.If you feel the same way I do (or even if you think I’ve lost it), dig into the archives and enjoy the hundreds of sublime and clever covers that have graced the New Yorker over the years.
In early 2002, the mogul for whom I worked began reimagining his prize property, The Atlantic Monthly. For a few weeks, I and other David Bradley employees at The Advisory Board Company received emails asking how The Atlantic might be improved. Would expanded political coverage make us more likely to subscribe? How about an expanded travel section? And: Could we recommend a witty British essayist to round out the list of contributors? (I’m pleased to say I botched this last question, and so can claim no credit for Christopher Hitchens.)Indeed, for a while, I wanted nothing to do with The Atlantic at all. Though the changes inaugurated that year improved the circulation numbers, they seemed to me to damage The Atlantic’s brand. The palpable rightward lurch; the proliferation of infographics, polls, and lifestyle coverage for the country-club set; and especially the breathless editorial hooks – “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” “Was Rumsfeld Right?” “Is Feminism Bad for Women?” – had made this intellectual institution everything it once wasn’t. While reading an article pegged to season five of The Wire, I could practically hear cut-and-paste mouseclicks turning good reporting into vacuous bloviating. (The Wire’s chief offense? It’s fiction!)It was around this point that I began to toy with an essay called, “Is The Atlantic Monthly the Death of Journalism?”The most telling weakness of The Atlantic circa 2005 – 2007, I would have argued, was the way that it had assimilated in print form a quality conventional wisdom assigns to online writing: i.e., an instinct to manufacture controversy, at the expense of common sense. This pseudo-blogginess was on vivid display in the magazine’s letters section, wherein master sophists such as Caitlin Flanagan hectored any reader who dared to point out the tendentiousness of their logic.Even as the editorial standards of the print magazine slipped, however, a stealthy inversion was happening on the magazine’s blogs, whose readership numbers soon eclipsed newsstand sales. Marc Ambinder sought some middle ground in our contentious political discourse. James Fallows and Clive Crook, freed from their editorial overlords, offered thoughtful feuilletons. And even as Ross Douthat and I got into a mini-contretemps about presidential fiction, I came to admire the high standards of logos and ethos he brought to that mire of pathos, the Internet.Now, with a new design and a new slogan, the print and online arms of The Atlantic have perhaps reached some happy accommodation. The current print issue reveals the virtues of editorial patience; Hannah Rosin’s piece on transgender juveniles, in particular, is a model of probity. By far the most interesting aspect of the redesign, however, can be found on the web. The new version of www.theatlantic.com sports a svelte and user-friendly index of the magazine’s blog offerings (a.k.a. “Voices”). Moreover, the central panel of the homepage features a rotating selection of current content, making no distinction between print and online provenance. It’s a credit to The Atlantic’s intrepid bloggers – and a nod to the possibilities of the blog as a medium – that readers won’t miss the distinction.
It’s becoming a tradition of sorts, the Nobel jury gives the Prize to an author virtually unknown in the United States, and newspaper columnists grumble while small and university presses bask in a moment of publishing glory.
Nobody outside a few square miles in New York cares that this year’s Pulitzer or Booker winner was put out by Random House or HarperCollins, but even to the casual observer of the literary scene, there’s something refreshing (and, for some, aggravating) about seeing yet another Nobel winner with only the faintest, most haphazard publishing footprint. The Nobel Prize, probably half the time, shines a huge spotlight some pretty obscure books.
For small and university presses, the Prize is a rare moment of popular notice. Daniel E. Pritchard who works for David R. Godine, Publisher in Boston wrote as much a year ago reacting to J.M.G. Le Clézio’s Nobel win, “Nobel Prizes are usually the playground for big boys. They were noticeably absent from this one, leaving all the fame and street-cred for small independents.” Godine published Le Clézio’s The Prospector.
The University of Nebraska Press also published Le Clézio, with two books in print when the Nobel was announced last year: The Round and Other Cold Hard Facts and Onitsha. According to the press’ publicity manager Cara Pesek, Nebraska sold just “a handful” of copies of both titles in 2007, but “since the prize was announced last year, those two titles have accounted for more than $100,000 in incremental sales.”
The director of University of Nebraska Press, Donna Shear, tempered the excitement somewhat, saying that the Nobel turns a book into “a steady backlist seller” as it finds its way onto University reading lists. But she added that a side-effect of the Nobel jury’s idiosyncrasies is that the Prize becomes “a validation of the efforts of University presses.”
The Euro-centric Nobel also injects some commercial viability into the typically limited world of literature in translation. After winning the Nobel in 2002, Hungarian writer Imre Kertész went from university presses to Knopf and Vintage. Meanwhile, plans are already underway to bring Müller to a wider audience. Shear said Nebraska put in a bid for Müller’s latest, Atemschaukel, recently shortlisted for the German Book Prize, but it’s expected that the book will land with one of the big publishing houses.
We expect our book prizes to confirm that a book or author’s commercial success and positive reviews are well-deserved. Sometimes the Nobel plays this role – a validator of critical opinion – but, for the American audience, it often does something different. And this is where the grumbling comes in. We don’t like to be told that an author we’ve never heard of is one of the greatest ever. But in cases like Müller and Kertész and Le Clézio, the Nobel serves as a reminder that in certain corners of the publishing industry, there are presses shepherding the work of these writers into print and keeping it available until such time as the rest of us are able to take notice.
I’m deciding which books to take on a trip to Austin next week. I get excited every time I choose a new book to read, obviously, but I get especially keyed up about choosing books to take on a trip. Vacation books are important. A lot of people use vacation as a time to read lighter, dare I say trashier books, with pictures of women’s calves on the front or authors in bomber jackets on the back. This convention is predicated on the notion that you’ll be able to read for longer periods of time, and books that are heavier – thematically and physically so – will overtax your brain at a time when you are meant to give it a break.
I don’t think this notion gives our brains or our books enough credit. The deep immersion in a book that long bouts of reading produces is suited to books with the richest, deeply-buried treasures. A good book invites you to sever your connection with the real world and come into the one it creates; the longer you read it, the more that connection is severed, the more you exist in the interior world of the book rather than this one. Just imagine how this effect is heightened when the world you are in is alien to you, one where you’re just visiting and don’t know the people or your way around, and therefore the book’s world becomes the familiar one. This is when the magic happens.
I read the second and third volumes of In Search of Lost Time on a trip to Santorini during which I would spend whole afternoons – whole days! – reading Proust on a sun-soaked terrace. I may sound like Marie Antoinette advocating cake here, but those 300-page dinner party scenes are best read in one sitting. It does take a while to adjust to Proust’s rhythms, but once you’re there, my goodness, stay there as long as possible.
Taking a book on vacation, reading it in this leisurely, savoring manner, stacks the odds that it will become special to me. For this reason, I take a long time choosing, because I know that when I remember the vacation, it will be intertwined with my memories of the book I was reading. I associate Proust with Santorini the way I associate On Photography with Marseilles, Cloud Atlas with a train ride to Kansas City, Out Stealing Horses with a 9-hour plane ride, Home with Grenoble, and The Fault in Our Stars with a cabin in Colorado.
This theory of vacation books, which I subscribe to so heartily, all began with a vacation I took, to London, which was one of the worst decisions I ever made, and the book I took along, Banvard’s Folly, which was one of the best.
I spent my junior year studying in London. I fell in love with the city, and also with one of its men. He was my first real love and is still one of my favorite people in the world, but when the year was through and it was time for me to go back to my senior year in the States, we saw no other option than to break up. About two months later, he saw no other option than to start dating the girl who had been my best friend and roommate in London.
Oh, readers, the drama! The professions of anger and confusion and betrayal and regret and understanding and forgiveness and serenity. Peace was restored, hard feelings were said to be lacking, we all decided to move past it. Eighteen months later, another friend was getting married in London, and I was going over to attend. Ask yourself who the worst person I could have stayed with was. Then ask yourself if I stayed with her.
It wasn’t a fiasco, but it was pretty bad. It was a lot easier for the three of us to be past it when we were an ocean apart rather than in the same room. The folly of our decision to spend five days together was apparent from the first one. When things got weird — and they got weird a lot — I read my book.
I was an author events coordinator in Boston at the time, and we had just hosted Paul Collins. Of the several dozen author events I worked during my years there, his remains my favorite. His 40-minute talk was warm, engaging, informative, surprising, funny, inspiring, and delivered without notes. Every person in attendance, a tragically small number, purchased every one of his books. I did the same, and I’d been saving what I’d heard was the best.
Each of Banvard’s Folly’s 13 chapters tells the story of a person whose genius, ambition, or imagination far exceeded their success. The paperback’s subtitle is “Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn’t Change the World.” They are therefore forgotten, but in Collins’s hands unforgettable. There’s the titular Banvard, a famous painter who squandered his fortune trying to compete with PT Barnum. There’s the guy who first bred the Concord grape before you could patent that sort of thing. There was a French physicist who thought he’d discovered a new source of radiation and a woman who tried to prove Francis Bacon was Shakespeare.
Paul Collins is a gentleman to his subjects, always, and this book neither smirks nor condescends. It had the same lively curiosity and optimism that I’d witnessed in Collins’s talk, and when I needed to escape an awkward room or a conversation I wasn’t a part of, I would excuse myself to be introduced to more of these admirable, doomed people. Each of them was quixotically devoted to an idea that didn’t work out. I actually only just realized, 10 years later, as I’m writing this, that I was devoted to a doomed idea myself. I thought I could maintain two friendships that could not be maintained, and I was watching that idea fail. Maybe I needed to be in the company of someone who never smirks nor condescends.
Banvard’s Folly is very special to me. It was my best friend on that trip. I turned the last page as my plane was taking off from Heathrow. Then I closed the book, and hugged it, and I cried.
I choose my vacation books carefully. I can’t imagine one of them will ever be as significant as Banvard’s Folly was to that trip to London, but they’re important. Choose wisely.