The emergence of the New York Review of Books publishing arm has been a treasure. They have managed, with this line of books, to package the feeling of falling suddenly in love with a book that you only even opened on a whim, perhaps being drawn in by an intriguing cover or title. They have hand selected the most deserving of the unknown and the out of print and returned them to bookshelves. Among the hundred or so titles that they have put out in their four or fve years is the book that I will keep mentioning until everyone on the planet has read it: The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis. Thanks to the Book Expo’s being in town this weekend, I had the opportunity to talk to Edwin Frank the editor of the New York Review of Books series. We discussed Maqroll at length, of course, trading theories as to whether or not the Gaviero will appear in print again, or whether it is up to us readers to track down his further adventures on our own. (Read the book; you’ll understand). We also talked about uncovering lost treasures in used bookstores, at good will, and at sidewalk book stalls. We also discussed several of the other titles in the series. When I asked him for the hidden gem among the hidden gems, he passed this title my way: To Each His Own, a Sicilian mystery by Leonardo Sciascia. He rated this one among the very best of the series, and since he’s the one who picks the books, I can’t help but trust him.
I won’t be posting again until Monday because I’m leaving for Las Vegas tomorrow. I’ve got plenty of books to read right now (and anyway, I’m not sure if I’ll do much reading), but I was wondering what I might pick up if I wanted to do some Vegas-themed reading. The obvious choice is Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a book that I read years ago and loved, though I prefer some of HST’s other books. But, no, that’s far to cliched. Or I could read John O’Brien’s Leaving Las Vegas, the devastating novel of alcoholism that was turned into an Oscar-winning triumph for Nicolas Cage, but that would be far, far too depressing. A little research reveals that Larry McMurtry wrote a book set in Vegas called The Desert Rose. I’ve never read McMurtry, so this might be a reason to start. But, as usual, I have a hankering for some non-fiction as well. There happens to be a good, recent book about Vegas called The Money and the Power: The Making of Las Vegas and Its Hold on America by Roger Morris and Sally Denton, which might help explain why we are drawn to this desert fantasyland like so many moths to the flame.
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.
Though I’m a little late in getting around to it, I wanted note Scott’s recent essay on literary nonfiction at Conversational Reading. Inspired by the recent discussion of Ryszard Kapuscinski following his death, Scott highlights three notable practitioners of the form: Lawrence Weschler, Jonathan Raban, and Geoff Dyer. I am a huge fan of literary non-fiction (or long-form journalism), so I enjoyed Scott’s in depth look at these three writers.Those who are interested in this form and who are looking to fill out a “to be read” pile with some literary non-fiction should take a look at couple of fairly comprehensive booklists that have been posted here in the past. The first is a list inspired by Robert Boynton’s The New New Journalism a collection of interviews of some of the top names in literary non-fiction. Ours is a companion reading list of the books by the writers featured in Boynton’s book. We also have a reading list from a class at NYU taught by Lawrence Weschler. Millions contributor Garth took the class a couple of years ago and jotted down titles and names that the class delved into or just touched upon. It’s a terrific resource.
There’s an article in the New York Times today about a Princeton undergrad who used statistical analysis to illuminate the biases of New Yorker fiction editors. Katherine L. Milkman read 442 stories printed in The New Yorker from Oct. 5, 1992, to Sept. 17, 2001, and “one main conclusion was that male editors generally publish male authors who write about male characters who are supported by female characters.” The 9/11 Commission will release its findings to the public in book form. It’s available for preorder at Amazon. And now hitting shelves, the paperback edition of Edward P. Jones’ Pulitzer-winning novel, The Known World. I highly recommend this book.
I’ve been getting emails extolling the virtues of Nicole Krauss’s new novel, The History of Love lately. She, by the way, is also known as the wife of Jonathan Safran Foer, and there has been some suggestion that her new novel suspiciously resembles his. Seems like sour grapes to me, but it did get me thinking about contemporary literary couples, and how it seems like there’s a lot of them. There’s Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt. And then there’s the couples where the woman is the bigger star like Zadie Smith and Nick Laird (he’s a poet… does that even count?) and Alice Sebold and Glen David Gold. There must be others… writers attract writers it seems.This, of course, is not a new trend. Here’s a list of some of history’s literary power couples that I borrowed from a UPenn english department Web site: Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris, and Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson.
Are you in the mood to read a page-turner? If you’re not afraid to read something in the mystery section at your local bookstore, try Paranoia by Joseph Finder. I keep hearing people talking about it, and it’s getting good reviews. Check out this one at Slate.com (the reviewer gets to it after he reviews John Le Carre’s latest, Absolute Friends).