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…
I’d have thought that the whole concept of summer reading lists for high schoolers would have fallen by the wayside, as it would seem to lack usefulness in our testing- and extracurriculars-obsessed education system, but a CS Monitor article shows that it’s alive and well (and just in time for that last-two-weeks-of-summer cram).The article includes some interesting insights on the makeup of such lists and how they’ve changed over the years.For the most part, reading lists are still heavy on classics. But consider the differences between reading lists from the 1960s and those in the 1980s. Of the nine most commonly taught books in public high schools in 1963, only one (the 1938 play Our Town) was written in the 20th century. By 1988, the 10 most commonly taught novels in public schools included four books from the 20th century: The Great Gatsby (1925), Of Mice and Men (1937), Lord of the Flies (1954), and To Kill a Mockingbird (1960).But not all novels take a generation to catapult to required summer reading lists. Some new staples in summer reading lists: Life of Pi by Yann Martel, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, Monster by Walter Dean Myers, and The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.Ten years ago, these reading lists didn’t have new books like that,” says Alleen Nilsen, Arizona State University English professor and co-author of the textbook Literature for Today’s Young Adult. “These are really popular new books.”So what catapults Life of Pi and The Lovely Bones to the elusive reading list club? Both are bildungsromans, or stories of young people coming of age. Ms. Nilsen says this theme is crucial for reading list inclusion, as youth need to feel a connection to the literature.
Reuters reported today that The New York Sun is in financial trouble, and may be forced to close shop before the end of the month, unless it can find a backer. In some ways, this isn’t a surprising development. Global affairs, in the current, real-time sense of the term, require enormous resources to cover thoroughly, and economies of scale would seem to cut against a small-circulation newspaper. But the intellectual seriousness of the conservative-leaning Sun has helped it make inroads in an increasingly wide-open market: the book section.Under the editorship of the poet and critic Adam Kirsch (who has two books out this year), The Sun has become, for my money, the best newspaper book section in the country. Kirsch resembles James Wood in his donnish regard for literary tradition, but, more importantly, he shares with Wood an appreciation for the notion of writerly sensibility – and has been willing to assign books to writers whose well-honed sensibilities diverge from his own. Recent pleasures include Kirsch on canonical German Adalbert Stifter, Benjamin Lytal on contemporary master Marilynne Robinson, Otto Pinzler on the varieties of crime fiction, and Caleb Crain on the evolving English language. This breadth of interest and commitment to excellence (in reviewer and subject) are the key ingredients in the kind of book reviews worth reading. It would be sad, after such a promising start, to see The Sun go.[Correction: An attentive reader informs us that, although Adam Kirsch is “the book critic for The New York Sun“, and is, in some sense, the book section, he is not the section’s editor. That title, and presumably the role of assigning reviews, belongs to David Wallace-Wells.]
The first time I read Huckleberry Finn, I must’ve been nine, because I remember padding down the staircase one evening book in hand, and taking a left into the living room where my parents were sitting on the couch.
We moved away from the house I’m remembering when I was in fourth grade, so ten years old might be the upper limit here. I remember the book too. It was one of those editions designed to look old and expensive, with a faux-leather cover that had a padded feel to it, like the back seat of my parents’ minivan. The edges of the thin pages were “gilt,” giving the book a faintly biblical aspect.
I was walking down the stairs with the book in hand because, though a fairly precocious young reader, I’d come across a word I’d never seen before.
I held up the book, open to one of the early pages, and pointed. What does this word “nigger” mean?
My parents, I think, had not planned on doing any more parenting that day — maybe there were glasses of wine sitting on the coffee table — let alone having to carefully explain to a nine-year-old the gravity of this particular word. It wasn’t “where do babies come from?”, but it was close.
Nonetheless, and sensing, I assume, that they had better fully satiate my curiosity lest I bring this word carelessly with me to school the next day, they explained. I paraphrase: “this is a very, very bad word that white people used to call black people. You must never, ever use this word; it’s one of the worst things you can call someone.”
They did not, I note now, take the book away from me.
I went back to my room and kept reading, and eventually, some days or weeks later I finished the book.
To the best of my recollection, despite it appearing six times in the text, I never went back downstairs, book in hand, to ask my parents what the word “slave” meant.
“The poet makes himself a seer by a long, immense, and reasoned derangement of all the senses. All forms of love, suffering, and madness–he explores himself, he tries out all the poisons on himself and keeps only their quintessences.” So wrote a Paris-based Arthur Rimbaud in a letter to his friend Paul Demeny in 1871. Nearly one hundred years later, on the other side of the Atlantic, the artist David Wojnarowicz followed a parallel path on the streets of New York.
Both men had itinerant fathers–Rimbaud’s was a military man and Wojnarowicz’s, a sailor–they suffered at the hands of their parents and escaped their households at a young age. In Paris, Rimbaud slept under bridges and in army barracks, and was likely sexually assaulted by soldiers. Wojnarowicz, too, lived on the streets and worked as a child prostitute. By the age of fifteen he’d suffered an unimaginable list of abuses, including being “drugged, tossed out a second story window, strangled, smacked in the head with a slab of marble, almost stabbed four times, punched in [the] face at least seventeen times, beat about [his] body too many times to recount, almost completely suffocated.”
The two men shared a romance with violence and danger. Rimbaud was shot in the wrist by his lover, Paul Verlaine, as he tried to break off their affair. Wojnarowicz was shot at by a drag queen who mistook his knock at her door for the arrival of an unfaithful lover. Rimbaud, the poète maudit, and Verlaine were detained and questioned by the police after fabricating a story at a train station–they were murderers who had just escaped from prison, and spoke loudly enough for fellow travelers to overhear.
Wojnarowicz begins his memoir, Close to the Knives, with tales of roaming hot city streets with a friend, while carrying meat cleavers stolen from Macy’s and looking for someone to mug. And in his book Memories That Smell Like Gasoline, he describes his hunger for violent men: “I’m attracted to living like that, moment to moment, with very little piling up of information, breaking windows of cause and response.” Rimbaud and Wojnarowicz were aligned as miscreants, meddlers, thieves, deranged to the point of seeing, i.e., visionary.
Je est un autre. Another phrase Rimbaud famously wrote, “I is another.”
Similarly, Wojnarowicz wrote, regarding waking up in an altered state, or site, of consciousness: “The ‘I’ of my self had crawled through the thickness of memory and consciousness to some other place in the structure of the brain and emerged within a new gray coil.”
Wojnarowicz was deeply aware of the trajectory he shared with the youthful and precocious Rimbaud, with whose debauched and dangerous life he identified, and tried to align himself. One thing Wojnarowicz couldn’t have known in his late teens and early twenties was that he, like Rimbaud, would meet an untimely death, from AIDS.
In the late ‘70s, the young Wojnarowicz photographed a series of portraits of a man–a friend, perhaps–wearing a paper cut-out mask of Rimbaud’s face. This Rimbaud skulks through the settings of Wojnarowicz’s New York, alone. He sits in a graffiti-covered subway car, loiters outside movie houses, wanders under piers and through abandoned buildings, with a needle in his arm, with a gun to his head, in a passionate embrace, pissing in a toilet. Wojnarowicz’s photo series Rimbaud in New York 1978-9 distills the rawness, pain, and deprivation of living on the street to a beauty of mythic proportions. The youthful delicacy of this body is surrounded by weary decay and distanced by the mask, in what could otherwise appear a living hell.
To quote Wojnarowicz, “ Hell is a place on earth. Heaven is a place in your head.”
The mask obscuring identity–literally making this figure an “I” who is another, the savage poet who suffers to the point of seeing–recalls the lover in the Foolish Virgin/Hellish Bridegroom section of Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell:
I saw the whole decor he surrounded himself with in his own mind: clothes, sheets, furniture. I lent him weapons, another face. I looked at everything in relation to him, as he’d have liked to create it for himself. Whenever he’d look absent-minded, I’d follow him into weird and complicated strategies, far out, good or bad–I was sure I’d never get into his world. Next to his gorgeous sleeping body, how many hours I used to spend awake at night, wondering why he wanted to escape from reality so badly. No man ever had such a wish. I realized–without any fear for him–that he could be a threat to society.–Maybe he’s got secrets to change life?
“That he could be a threat to society,” resonates even more clearly following the removal of Wojnarowicz’s video Fire in My Belly from the Hide/Seek exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. In December, the government-run Smithsonian, under pressure from the Catholic League, removed his video because it depicts ants crawling over a crucifix. Much has already been written about this. The attention drawn and cacophony of protests have obscured the work by Wojnarowicz that remains present–a series of four devastating images from the Rimbaud in New York series. Images were like words to Wojnarowicz, he placed them against and within each other, in still life or video, “to construct a free-floating sentence that speaks about the world I witness…. A camera in some hands can preserve an alternate history.”