In the first wave of articles on Governor Sarah Palin at The New York Times, I came across a reader-comment that Ms. Palin looked like Geena Davis in the TV show Commander-in-Chief. In this short-lived 2005 drama, Davis played the first woman Vice President, who ascends to the presidency after the death of the President. The Times reader’s comment also reminded me of another fictional first president, 24’s President David Palmer (played by Dennis Haysburt). Had this wildly popular (and very long running – Haysburt played the president from 2001-2005) imaginary depiction of a black president helped acclimate Americans to the idea? I found myself wondering if shows like Commander-in-Chief and 24, which offer fictional visions of scenarios that have not yet come to pass, give history a nudge. Can art/entertainment (the distinction between these two being a debatable one) help us as a culture imagine historical changes – and so help to bring them into being?It would not be the first time in our history that art has given life – and particularly public opinion and national politics – a little push. There is the famous (and quite possibly apocryphal) story of Abraham Lincoln meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Or, Life Among the Lowly, in 1861, and greeting her with words, “So this is the little lady who started this Great War.” Apocryphal stories aside, Stowe’s novel from 1852, sometimes considered a direct response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 but more likely the result of Stowe’s lifelong belief that slavery was a sin in the eyes of God, sold 300,000 copies in the US in its first year and went on to be the first international American bestseller, and the best-selling book of the century, after the Bible. While the novel’s sentimentality and deeply Christian worldview can be alienating to some modern readers, its vivid narrative – by turns realist, gothic, and melodramtic – is undeniably haunting (though its perpetuation of black stereotypes has become proverbial). Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been credited with capturing the national imagination, raising national consciousness, and giving the issues of slavery and emancipation a national urgency that precipitated the Civil War.Stowe’s work – not that of the freed slave turned orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass – is more often assigned the role of cultural catalyst in the American move toward abolition. Douglass’ work, both for its status as a first-hand account of life as a slave, and for the power and intelligence of Douglass’ narrative voice, is far superior to Stowe’s, but it is Stowe’s – the more melodramatic, the more imaginative, the more comparable to television drama – that sold 10,000 copies in its first week, while Douglass’ best-selling 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave had 11,000 copies in circulation only after three years in print. Also suggestive of a television-esque quality, Stowe’s Uncle Tom was originally published serially in a magazine – in episodes. If popularity in fiction is any indication of a country’s readiness for a historical change in fact, it would seem that America is ready for a black president but perhaps not quite ready for a female running mate who stands a decent chance of ascending to the presidency (given McCain’s age and history of skin cancer). It’s all much more complicated than this, of course, but I find the idea that the imaginary can give shape to the real (in a non-Don Quixote-ish way) quite captivating.
As some of you may know, my very good friend Cem has been travelling through some remote parts of the world. The other day, in a very long email, he asked me whether or not I thought he should stay in northern Thailand or keep on moving toward the Middle East which is, ostensibly, his final destination… here is my advice (plus a little plug for the record label, which he had asked about): Sorry I haven’t gotten back to you sooner, your email took me 4 days to read. Seriously though, what I wouldn’t give to be in your place with your dilemma… should I go to this frighteningly exotic place or this other one? My jealousy aside, I’m not sure I can make this decision for you, but I might be able to give you a little insight. First, you have to decide, irrespective of the girl or whatever gig you have set up in Thailand, whether this adventure is all about getting to the destination (i.e. Cairo and the Middle East) or allowing yourself to be follow the whims of the world and just be wherever you end up… like Maqroll. I think both are perfectly admirable plans, but you have to pick one or the other. Secondly, I don’t know how tuned in you are to world events right now given your isolation, but American soldiers are dying every couple of days in Iraq, and the situation seems, to me anyway, to still be very much up in the air, with a guerilla war still a possibility, however remote. I’m sure that Cairo and Istanbul and Amman are all plenty safe, but I guess you should figure out if you prefer to be in the Middle East soon (while there is still uncertainty) or later when things have calmed down. So there you have it… no easy answers just more dilemmas. I love what you’re doing, and if and when you get settled somewhere, I am coming to visit. In other news, the website for my record label is www.realisticrecords.net so tell all your indie friends to check it out. There are mp3s up and pictures of the recoys reunion show/record release party. You can also buy the album there (It’s called Recoys Rekoys) and it’s a vinyl only run of 1000. Since that is almost sold out though, we’ll probably get a cd together soon enough.Now if there are any world travellers out there who are aspiring to do the sort of thing that my friend Cem is doing, I suggest you pick up The World’s Most Dangerous Places by Robert Young Pelton. It’s a very informative and wildly entertain look at some of the more hazardous corners of the planet. As if to underline his fealty for sticky situations, Pelton himself was kidnapped by leftist rebels in Columbia earlier this year. He was later released.
Some news stories that caught my this morning:People come into the bookstore all the time to make lists of books that they want to read. Then they head over to the library to try to find them. Every once in a while a doleful customer will remark that the book that he or she wants to read has an interminable waiting list. From these folks and from personal experience I know that it can be next to impossible to borrow a bestseller from the library. What I didn’t know is that adding your name to those waiting lists inspires libraries to buy more books. As this article describes, a waiting list of 296 people prompted the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Michigan library system to buy 96 copies of The Da Vinci Code. So, signing up for library waiting lists is a way to give a boost to the book industry, even if you never spend a buck.Amazon’s UK site has launched an interesting venue called the Authors’ Lounge. The Authors’ Lounge features video clips of authors talking about their books. Right now they’ve got John Le Carre talking about his new book Absolute Friends as well as several other folks.
The Using Books blog points to a Kansas City childrens’ book store, Reading Reptile, that is taking HarperCollins to task for allegedly doctoring the photo of Clement Hurd, illustrator of the childrens’ classic Goodnight Moon, on a recent edition of the book. It seems that Hurd was once pictured holding a barely visable cigarette and now the cigarette has disappeared. The Reading Reptile folks have put together Goodnight Reality, a Web site to protest the “censorship.” Though the comparisons to Stalin may be a bit over the top, I suppose you have to fight for what you believe in.And lest I be accused of taking things too seriously, the Reading Reptile folks are probably being a little tongue in cheek about this. Judging from their “About Us” page, they’ve got a sense of humor.Update: The New York Times looks at the Goodnight Moon cigarette controversy. HarperCollins plans to find a completely different photo of Clement Hurd for future printings of the book, so that no doctoring will be required.
Over at More Intelligent Life, you’ll find my reflections on the Joseph Mitchell centenary. Mitchell is, for my money, the greatest reporter-stylist of his era; the essay points to a few reasons why. In related news, The New York Times today reports on a blog version of the diaries of that other great reporter-stylist, George Orwell.
My wife and I are moving out of the apartment we’ve rented for the last five years and into another apartment in the same neighborhood. The onerous task of culling through our books has fallen to me – perhaps justly, since I’m the one who collected most of the damned things in the first place. My goal is to discard at least two boxes. I’ve been struck, though, by the number of books on my shelves that I found among other people’s discards.Indeed, hardly a day goes by in Brooklyn that I don’t see a box of cast-off books sitting on a stoop or by a curb, with a “Free – Take Me” sign, or (once) a glow-stick casting its alien light over the offerings. The entire borough, viewed from a certain angle, is like a great rotating library: you take my copy of Mules and Men, I’ll relieve you of your Sense and Sensibility.What follows, in no particular order, is a catalogue of the 30 books I’ve apparently taken from other people’s stoops over the last five years: a sort of portrait of a certain time and place. I’d be curious to hear about your own finds in the comments box below.Baker, Nicholson: Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, The End of CivilizationAckerman, Diane: A Natural History of the SensesMaugham, W. Somerset: The Razor’s EdgeElizabethan Plays (a 1933 anthology; no author)Heidegger, Martin: Being and Time (trans. Macquarrie & Robinson)Baldassare Castiglione: The Book of the CourtierGarcia Lorca, Frederico: Three PlaysBréton, André, ed.: What is Surrealism?Tsvetaeva, Marina: Selected PoemsMitchell, David: GhostwrittenHarvey, David: Spaces of HopeGrimm, Jacob and Wilhelm: Fairy TalesPinter, Harold: The Proust ScreenplayMarlowe, Christopher: Plays and PoemsWoolf, Virginia: Essays, vol. IIFaludi, Susan: Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American WomenMerot, Pierre: MammalsPope, Alexander: The Rape of the LockReed, Lou: Rock & Roll Heart (okay, it’s a VHS tape, but still pretty cool)Marcuse, Herbert: One-Dimensional ManCalvino, Italo: Italian FolktalesThompson, Willie: Postmodernism and HistoryCocteau, Jean: Five PlaysAmis, Martin: Visiting Mrs. NabokovGibbon, Edward: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. IVBissell, Tom: God Lives in St. PetersburgCalasso, Roberto: KaPortis, Charles: NorwoodDidion, Joan: MiamiSt. Augustine: The City of God[Image credit: steelight]
Davy Rothbart has taken the Powell’s blog by storm. He’s putting together the next FOUND magazine book (a sequel to the first one), and he’s taken to posting late at night, occasionally whilst drunk. He’s discussed “found” stuff, Scrabble and writing to inmates as well as a number of other topics.