It’s officially been summer for coming up on two weeks, which means that, in accordance with typical publishing and bookselling practices, near the front of the bookstore there will be stacks of books by new and unknown authors all vying to become this summer’s “breakout hit.” Last year the winner of the “breakout hit” lottery was won by Alice Sebold whose book, The Lovely Bones, was much purchased and enjoyed by the majority and vehemently despised by the minority of readers who are not willing to shut off the part of the brain that determines what is tasteful and what is not. What’s funny about this way of selling books is that every bookstore that you walk into will try to make its customers think that their staff personally discovered these new authors and that the customers are among the lucky first few to enjoy these newcomers. In reality, the candidates for “breakout hit” are chosen months in advance by the publishing companies and aggressively marketed much in the same way that one would market a film. In a sense The Lovely Bones is not very different from The Hulk. In my opinion this year’s winner has already been declared: Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is already the book that recreational readers ask for by name when looking for a summer reading distraction. This non-threateningly clever, historical thriller acheived success in a couple of ways. First, like all of the other “breakout hit” candidates it is engagingly written and also contains a “hook,” in this case the idea is that embedded within da Vinci’s famous artwork are hidden clues that can solve a present day murder mystery while at the same time unravelling some of humanity’s great unsolved conundrums. Very Indiana Jones. Secondly, in the weeks leading up to the release of The Da Vinci Code, Doubleday reps blitzed bookstores to talk up the book, hand out advance copies, and put up teaser posters. Finally Doubleday’s publicists were able to get the book mentioned in all the weekly newsmags and grocery store aisle gossip rags. Voila! Breakout hit… There are lots of books sitting on either side of The Da Vinci Code on the “breakout hit” display, all are almost as heavily marketed but some might be a bit more rewarding: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon is narrated by a 15 year old autistic math savant who thinks he is Sherlock Holmes and tries to find out who murdered his neighbor’s dog. Liars and Saints by Maile Meloy is an example of what a multi-generational saga can look like when written by a young writer. Bangkok 8 is a debut by John Burdett. This one is perfect for those who like thrillers in exotic locals. (In this case, a U.S. Marine is dead in Thailand. Great cover art, too). Finally, Benjamin Cavell’s Rumble, Young Man, Rumble and Sherman Alexie’s Ten Little Indians are two much lauded short story collections. Bye now…
A while back I discussed the minor furor over proposed changes at the New York Times Book Review, including charges of dumbing down and sensationalism. Now the helm has been handed over to a new editor, Sam Tanenhaus, a widely published journalist and the author of a well received biography of Whitaker Chambers. It remains to be seen if the New York Times Book Review will change significantly. On another, much more visible front, the Jayson Blair affair has reemerged due to the release of the book in which he tells his side of the story, Burning Down My Masters’ House: My Life at the New York Times. It is hard to imagine that anyone will take seriously a book by someone whose claim to fame is his astounding lack of credibility. In fact, the venomous pans are already rolling in (Dallas Star Telegram, San Francisco Chronicle, and the Boston Globe. Even the Brits get into the act.) My favorite, though, is this headline from the Christian Science Monitor: “Jayson Blair: ‘I lied.’ Reader: ‘No kidding.’” I’m rather happy to see the level of outrage that Blair’s book is generating. Meanwhile some are reporting that the Times stands to benefit if Blair’s book does well (LINK). I’m not sure if that story has legs, though.
The boy wizard isn’t gay, but apparently his beloved professor is. J.K. Rowling “outed” Dumbledore at a Carnegie Hall reading, inspiring “gasps and applause” as well as wire stories. Over the years, Rowling hasn’t been particularly aggressive about being a self-promoter; she hasn’t had to as the Harry Potter books have made her rich and famous without her having to occupy too much of the spotlight. Still, this seems like an all too easy way to gin up a little controversy and keep Harry Potter in the headlines now that the series is over.Now I won’t deny that it makes plenty of sense for writers to flesh out the lives of their characters in their minds. Many writers take this a step further and put these fictional biographies on paper. And it’s quite probable that in writing Dumbledore over the years, Rowling decided that he was gay.As the creator of perhaps the most beloved set of characters in literary history, Rowling has a tremendous amount of power. This sort of power can be easily abused. Knowing they will get no more books from Rowling, fans will take each new tidbit about Harry and the gang like the starving might savor a crumb. Meanwhile, each of these out-of-thin-air details will be folded neatly into the growing pantheon of Potter companion literature.To me, though, there’s something terribly spare and arbitrary about these post-publication revelations. What are we as readers supposed to do with these out of context details? Can we ignore them? Should we?As a side note, have there been other examples of similar, post-publication, extra-textual revelations related to famous books? I tried to think of some, but came up empty.
I wanted to follow up on my attempt to review Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day by sharing a few resources I found helpful. After reading the book, which took 23 days, I barnstormed through a lot of reviews, many of them silly. A couple I found insightful are available in complete versions online. Luc Sante’s “Inside the Time Machine” appeared in The New York Review of Books. Michael Wood’s “Humming Along” appeared in The London Review of Books. Each of these reviews, in its own way, reaffirms the valuable role the long-form book-review plays, and speaks to the ongoing relevance of publications like the NYRB, the LRB, The Believer, and Bookforum.Even more useful, for me, was a recent phenomenon: the wiki. Though I still tend to privilege the O.E.D. over AskJeeves, I can’t think of an instance where the Internet has proven more congenial to literary study than it has in the case of the Pynchon wiki. Where readers of Joyce and Nabokov had to wait years for annotations of Ulysses and Lolita to appear, AtD annotations have appeared online at roughly the speed it takes to read the book. Annotations contributed collectively, and subject to collective revisions, help correct for ideological bias and factual error.Though obsessive decoding of texts can sometimes obscure the richer pleasures of a difficult novel, the wiki, because it’s a more casual reading experience than a thick volume of annotations, seems to make frivolous annotation more transparently frivolous. At the same time, it makes it easy for a novel reader to pause, retrieve crucial information, and then return to the book. I can only hope wikis for books like The Recognitions, The Tunnel, and Infinite Jest are forthcoming.
You may have heard about this. In October an 8 DVD set containing digital images of every page of the 4,109 issues of the New Yorker from February 1925 to February 2005 will hit stores (retailing for $100 – but cheaper at Amazon and other discounters). As a huge fan of the New Yorker, my eyeballs nearly popped out of my head when I first saw the NY Times story about this, but I’m trying to restrain myself. As some of you know, I’m extremely compulsive about the New Yorker, in fact it may be the only compulsion I have. I read he magazine cover to cover every week, and if my issue is late in arriving I’ve been known to panic. My fear is that once I got my hands on this set, I would be compelled to consume every word of it at the expense of school and work and everything else, possibly even eating and sleeping. I’m may have to put myself into forced hibernation starting in October in order to keep those DVDs from falling in to my hands. Also, normally I would find the subtitle of this collection – “Eighty Years of the Nation’s Greatest Magazine” – to be somewhat presumptuous, but I happen to agree with it.
“Calvin and Hobbes” has begun reappearing – in reruns – in newspaper funny pages around the country as a way to promote what will surely be among the big-ticket book gifts during the upcoming holiday season, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes. The 1440 page, 22 and a half pound, three volume, slipcased behemoth is an attempt by the publisher Andrews McNeel to recreate the success of its similarly mammoth offering from two years ago, The Complete Far Side. Judging from the current Amazon ranking of the Calvin and Hobbes book (81), it looks like another high-priced winner for the publisher. Meanwhile, Bill Watterson, the famously reclusive artist behind the strip, is still not speaking publicly, and newspapers around the country are notifying their readers of the beloved strip’s brief return with a palpable sense of disappointment. For example in the St. Petersburg Times:We announce their return with, shall we say, bridled joy. For starters, this is not permanent; Universal Press Syndicate is offering the feature only through Dec. 31. And the strips have been published before.Will Watterson ever make a comeback, as, I suspect, so many newspaper comics fans hope, or should we just shell out the dough for this voluminous shrine to the best strip to grace the funny pages, well, in my lifetime, anyway. (With apologies to “Bloom County.”)