One of the good things about working at my bookstore is that I can peruse any magazine I want without having to pay for it. Today’s unlikely canditate was Vogue which I was skimming looking for anything by my favorite food writer Jeffrey Steingarten. No dice. Instead I came across an article about NPR’s Anne Garrels who NPR listeners will recall from her gut wrenching reports from Bagdhad during the war. According to the writer of the article Farrar, Straus & Giroux will be releasing Garrel’s book about the war, Naked in Baghdad, this September. Something to look forward to. In other news, I’m about to get my phone number put on the new nationwide do not call list because there are few things that I dislike more than telemarketers. Have a good weekend…
Not long ago, I lived in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where I wrote stories about, among other topics, a meet-up of Twitter users, a dire sandstorm that befell a mixed-gender rock show, a tour of one of Riyadh’s oldest hotels, and what happens when the most Islamic country in the world attempts to hold a festival to “celebrate culture.”
I was young and proud and eager to share my work. So every month or so, I’d send out an email to friends and associates with a link to my latest. Not too many complained. Some, apparently, even enjoyed what I sent.
But among my harshest critics was a writer friend, who in a scorching series of emails said mine was this obnoxious, privileged gaze, that in every description of Saudi lives, I mainly revealed that I wanted Saudis to grow up and be good democratic Westerners — which was an impossible goal, he said, because good democratic Westerners are monsters who started wars and were a menace to the whole world.
Years later, I lived in Beirut, where I was still writing stories. As part of an effort to do better this time, I began to read The Innocents Abroad, a record of traveling by Mark Twain.
As a traveler, I had always written earnestly about my observations. Twain, it seemed, was all too eager to write wryly about his own ignorance. There was probably a lot I could learn.
In 1867, a crew of Americans set sail for Europe, Asia, and the Holy Land. For the benefit of the reader and to fulfill his duties as a columnist for The New York Herald Tribune, one of the passengers, Mark Twain, set to writing a book about what happened.
In the first pages, the reader encounters Twain’s unease with the basic notion of trying to be original in a travel book. “A little after noon on that distinguished Saturday I reached the ship and went on board. All was bustle and confusion. [I have seen that remark somewhere.]”
Then the ship sees its first island, and Twain isn’t too excited about the Azores. “All the opera glasses in the ship were called into requisition to settle disputes as to whether mossy spots on the uplands were groves of trees or groves of weeds, or whether the white villages down by the sea were really villages or only the clustering of tombstones or cemeteries.” Better to temper any real enthusiasm with a protective cloak of detachment and humor.
In Riyadh, I faced the same problem, but I tried to write with kindness and heart, explaining what I saw with detail and nuance. Twain? “Out of our whole ship’s company there was not a solitary individual who knew anything whatever about them,” he writes of the Azores. It’s a sly trick — substituting his fellow shipmates for the reader. “These considerations move me to put in a paragraph of dry facts here,” he writes — but of course the paragraph isn’t dry.
Twain has protected himself and us by suggesting no normal person would know the Azores, then he protects himself further by saying any information about the strange place would be “dry.” Then he unloads: “The donkeys and the men, women, and children of a family all eat and sleep in the same room, and are unclean, are ravaged by vermin, and are truly happy.” Twain writes simultaneously with contempt and fondness, and we’re left to puzzle out what he’s trying to do, and where in the mess we should stand.
What he’s doing, it seems, is deploying a constantly changing mix of both sincerity and irreverence, making his position on things hard to pin down. Take the way he grapples with the tired subject of a famous church. “We went to see the Cathedral of Notre Dame,” he writes. “We had heard of it before. It surprises me sometimes to think how much we do know and how intelligent we are.”
Twain was making himself hard to take seriously, protecting himself from the question of whether writing like this made the world a better understood place. The whole situation was captured in the way he recounted the story of Abelard and Heloise, the 12th-century French lovers:
With infinite pains I have acquired a knowledge of that history, and I propose to narrate it here, partly for the honest information of the public and partly to show the public that they have been wasting a good deal of marketable sentiment very unnecessarily…Heloise was born seven hundred and sixty-six years ago. She may have had parents. There is no telling. She lived with her uncle Fulbert, a canon of the cathedral of Paris. I do not know what a canon of the cathedral is, but that is what he was.
I have come to admire that paragraph very much. In it, Twain is humorous and self-deprecating about the project of historical storytelling, but he is also contemptuous of stupid readers and of disinformation and false sentimentality, but then he acknowledges again that he himself doesn’t actually know much — for instance, what on earth is a canon? There’s a kind of crazy disregard for accountability, a carnival of intention and expectation. You sense a plan, but it’s hard to divine where, if at all, Twain is willing to draw a line. In a storm of riotous laughter, who could quiet the room and suggest to Twain that what he does has serious consequences?
But there’s no need to lecture; Twain’s well aware of his power. “In Marseille, they make half the fancy toilet soap we consume in America, but the Marseillaise only have a vague theoretical idea of its use, which they have obtained from books of travel, just as they have acquired an uncertain notion of clean shirts, and the peculiarities of the gorilla, and other curious matters.” Books of travel change the world, Twain is ready to acknowledge. But all you’ll probably remember is that line about the clean shirt.
In the end, travel books — or personal essays — are doomed. Try to describe the gorilla and you fail. Words are never enough, and most will ultimately be forgotten. And if that gorilla is a man? Maybe better not to have begun at all.
The other day, the American-born Nigerian writer Teju Cole posted a line on Twitter: “I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.”
Cole was probably right. “I have camped with the Indians,” Twain writes. “I have been on the warpath with them, taken part in the chase with them…I have roamed with them, scalped them, had them for breakfast. I would gladly eat the whole race if I had a chance.”
Illustration by Dominick Rabrun.
Most folks have probably heard that Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road on a 120 foot long continuous roll of paper, but now you can seen it. “Beginning this week at the Orange County History Center in Orlando, Fla., and ending with a three-month stay at the New York Public Library in 2007, Kerouac’s “On the Road” scroll will make a 13-stop, four-year national tour of museums and libraries.“One great byproduct of the new translation of Don Quixote is that it has given way to many reconsiderations of the classic. Now the Atlantic Monthly weighs in.Also from the Atlantic, a great piece explaining how they choose which books to review and why their reviews may sometimes come across as atypical. It’s a great read for anyone who is tired of the prevalence of cookie-cutter picks and pans.
In late 2004, I received this question from a reader:I’m wondering when the next volume of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s autobiography is coming out – anyone know?At the time I didn’t have an answer, but I instead managed to stumble upon the news, then ricocheting across the Spanish-speaking world, that he had finished a new novel, Memories of My Melancholy Whores. (The Millions was, in fact, the first English-language publication to report the news, and that post gave us our first big shot of readers.)Now, however, we have received word that Marquez may be starting in on volume two of his proposed three volume biography. The first volume covered his childhood, and Marquez has said that the second volume may carry us through to his being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1982. Reporting on the occasion of Marquez’s 80th birthday, the LA Times said:His longtime friend and collaborator Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza said by telephone last week from Portugal that “Gabo,” as Garcia Marquez is known here, is picking up with his memoirs in Paris in the mid-1950s, where his first bestselling volume, Living to Tell the Tale, left off.It’s welcome news for fans, as Marquez “last year gave friends the disappointing news that he had ‘run out of gas’ and was quitting writing. The author was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1999, and after treatment at UCLA Medical Center, he recently was pronounced free of the disease.”As an aside, it was Marquez’s trips to Los Angeles to be treated that gave me the opportunity to meet him in the very early (and slightly embarrassing) days of this blog. (You’ll have to scroll down. I don’t know what I was thinking – How could I not lead that post with Marquez!)
I recently noticed a couple of interesting books about the newspaper biz, and, more specifically, the New York Times. City Room is Arthur Gelb’s memoir of his career with the paper. He was there from 1944 to 1999, a career that saw him rise from night copyboy to managing editor. The book is an account of the vast changes in the business over that time, both in process of producing the paper and in the business itself. Over time, manual typewriters and wise guy reporters have given way to laptop computers and media conglomerates; Gelb, however, retains the ability to see the inherent specialness that lies at the center of the “paper of record.” Backstory: Inside the Business of News, on the other hand, is a more critical exploration of the news media. Ken Auletta is the media reporter for the New Yorker, and this collection of articles from the last ten years serves to paint a picture of the thorough modernization of mass media. The centerpiece of the book is a profile of Howell Raines the controversial executive editor of the Times who was ousted in the aftermath of the Jayson Blair scandal. I’ve always enjoyed Auletta’s articles, so it would have been nice to see new material from him rather than this collection of previously published material, some of which is no longer extremely relevant.Vintage This and Vintage ThatIf you’ve been inside a bookstore in the last few days, you may have noticed a display featuring a collection of sleek new books. Vintage, a paperback division of Random House devoted to putting out paperback editions of modern literary fiction, has put out a classy series of “readers” which compile various snippits of work from 12 of the most luminous 20th century writers into individual volumes. The selection of writers is interesting and fairly eclectic (necessarily so, for reasons I will get into shortly). Martin Amis, James Baldwin, Sandra Cisneros, Joan Didion, Richard Ford, Langston Hughes, Barry Lopez, Alice Munro, Haruki Murakami, Vladimir Nabokov, V. S. Naipaul, and Oliver Sacks each have their own attractive little book. Now, there are two schools of thought on this sort of thing. The first is that by pulling easily digestible segments from this or that book you can snare the more cautious, less adventurous reader by offering something that seems less daunting. I can imagine this scenario: cautious reader is a bit intimidated by the idea of picking up a book by Nabokov or Hughes and diving in, but when they see these slim, little Vintage “readers,” they think, “Hey, I can handle this, I’ll give it a go.” After reading a “teaser” chapter from Lolita, our cautious reader is hooked, and everybody is happy. The world has gained a more adventurous reader and Vintage (which is to say Random House) has sold an additional book, Lolita. But don’t throw a parade just yet. “Readers” like this, or digests as they are sometimes known, have been around for a very long time, perhaps hundreds of years. Individual books are something of a luxury compared to earlier times, when condensed versions of books and digests were far more affordable than the real thing, in terms of bang for the buck, for the general reading public. Nonetheless, I think there are problems with this particular series, primarily that it is a little too easy to look at these books as “movie trailers” or catalogs with pricetags for other Vintage publications. And, indeed, at just $9.95, these books aren’t meant to land on readers’ bookshelves, they are meant to sell more books. Even if I try to keep things in perspective, to acknowledge that it is better that they are hawking Didion and Munro and Naipaul rather than the Atkins diet or American Idol, I would still prefer that if someone is going to walk into a bookstore with intention of purchasing a single book (as is so often the case), that they read an entire book by any author at all, whether he or she measures up to James Baldwin or not. I don’t know if the inherent “goodness” of the Vintage writers can overcome the sales pitch packaging, which brings me to another point. Though these books are marketed as a collection of the best of the best, the really only represent the best of Vintage books. A reader who is overly devoted to this series will miss countless amazing writers. Finally, there is a predictably PC, overly marketed quality to the whole endeavor: among the twelve, there are two African American writers, two Hispanics, and two non-minority women, and since the folks in editorial feel like they’ve got their bases covered in that department, the folks in marketing worked up a catchy sales pitch, Vintage this and Vintage that, though it sounds to me like they are selling Vodka, not Murakami.So, thoughts? Am I overreacting? Let me know by pressing the “comments” button below.
I get a fair amount of catalogs from publishers these days, and since they’re always chock full of new and interesting books that I’m guessing people will want to know about, I’m thinking about instituting a semi-regular feature called Covering the Catalogs wherein I pick out a handful of items that I deem interesting from the most recent catalog to cross my desk. And since I received the newest Grove Press/Atlantic Monthly Press/Black Cat/Canongate catalog yesterday, this one’ll be the first.Recently, Maud was expressing her discomfort with the impending media coverage of the upcoming Samuel Beckett centenary: “I await commemorative events like this centenary with excitement that tends to mutate, as the press coverage appears, into dread, then lamentation, and finally, resigned disgust.” The “news” that arises from the anniversary of the birth of a dead writer isn’t always scintillating, but, on the upside, such occasions give publishers – wanting to cash in on said press coverage – an opportunity to reissue and repackage the work of the great writer. As such, Grove is putting out two different items to mark Beckett’s centenary. The first is a bilingual edition of Waiting for Godot. The play was originally written in French by Beckett, and he translated it into English himself. This edition provides both texts, side-by-side. Grove is also putting out a four volume set of Beckett’s collected works with introductions by well-known writers. The first volume of novels is introduced by Colm Toibin and the second volume of novels is introduced by Salman Rushdie. The volume of collected dramatic works is introduced by Edward Albee, and the volume of collected poems, short fiction and criticism is introduced by J.M. Coetzee.Coming in April from the author of Black Hawk Down, Mark Bowden is Guests of the Ayatollah. Bowden is well-known for his immersive coverage of armed conflict, and in this book he is setting out to provide an account of, as the book’s subtitle calls it, “the first battle in America’s war with militant Islam,” the Iran hostage crisis.Coming in July from Atlantic Monthly Press is Tom Drury’s first new novel in six years, The Driftless Area. Drury was among the “Best of Young American Novelists” named by Granta, and his stories regularly appear in the New Yorker, including “Path Lights” from last fall in which a bottle falls from the sky.I plan on continuing to cherry pick items that interest me from other catalogs as I receive them, so stay tuned. If you are a publisher and would like to send me your catalog, please email me.