At 8 a.m. on a recent Monday, my first morning back in New York City after a year and a half away, I looked up from my newspaper – a Wall Street Journal, given away for free at my Financial District hotel – and saw that I was the only rider on the R train leaving South Ferry at the base of Manhattan reading print. Every other rider on the subway car was staring at a screen. In 2004, when I first moved to Brooklyn, the commute on the New York subways was a world of paper. In the evenings most people read books or magazines, and in the morning it was newspapers. Riders from the outermost neighborhoods read the Post and the Daily News while those closer in read the Times and the Journal, fussily folding the broadsheet pages into quarters for easy reading on crowded trains. Here and there, a few younger kids might be sporting earbuds connected to then-newfangled iPods, but even most of them had at least a freebie AM New York parked in front of their faces. To friends living elsewhere I described the New York subway system as a rolling public library. It was like one of those big, messy city library reading rooms where homeless men passing the time reading the day’s news sat next to uptight city-college profs correcting student papers minutes before class. New York is the only place I have ever enjoyed my commute. Each morning, as soon as the doors slid shut behind me I opened up my book and entered a different world for the twenty minutes it took me to get from my Brooklyn neighborhood to Midtown Manhattan. A decade later, like real libraries across the country, New York’s rolling library is going digital. That first morning on the R train turned out to be an extreme example, but on every train I rode during my week back in New York, screens outnumbered printed pages, sometimes by a factor of two to one. When I’ve peeked, some of those screens have been displaying news stories and magazine pages and even a few books, but far more often my fellow subway riders were watching TV shows or playing Candy Crush on their phones. None of this should come as a surprise, of course. The demise of the printed newspaper is by now very old news and it’s hard to imagine a venue where the shift from printed pages to screens makes more sense than on a crowded subway. Still, the speed and starkness of the change is a shock. A decade ago, none of the devices my R train companions were so avidly viewing even existed. Back then, if you didn’t want to read on your morning subway commute, you stared off into space. When we talk about books, we tend to think in terms of great works of art and forget that for most people books, like newspapers and magazines, are merely a handy thing to have around for that idle moment when there isn’t something else better to do. Now, more and more often, those idle moments – on subway cars, on airplanes, in dentist’s offices – are being filled by games and movies and social media. By screens. This doesn’t necessarily mean the end is nigh for literature as we know it. The golden age of American theater came in the 1940s and 1950s, a generation after radio and talking pictures seemingly outmoded live theater. Arguably, some of the greatest movies American directors have ever produced debuted in the 1970s, a generation after television seemingly outmoded movies. Still, a vibrant art form has to serve a utilitarian function in ordinary people’s lives or it gradually becomes relegated to the museum and the specialist viewer, as has happened to visual art and, more recently, to live theater. And if the printed page can’t survive on a New York City subway car, that once-great rolling library, where else can it survive? Image via Erwin Bernal/Flickr
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Louis Menand is one of my favorite regular contributors to the New Yorker, so I was excited to discover a Web site devoted to "the foremost modern scholar of American studies." The Essential Menand includes commentary by three contributors as well as a handy collection of links to dozens of Menand essays in the New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and Slate.
Over the past couple of weeks I've been reading two illuminating books about the Soviet Union. Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum is the first compresive account of the Soviet system of forced labor and random terror. Now that the shroud of secrecy and propaganda is lifted, the reality of twentieth century Soviet Union, and especially the period of Stalin's rule, is of a catastrophically malfunctioning totalitarian state. At times the horror of the Gulag is almost unfathomable. Applebaum's research here is clearly very thorough. She makes ample use of survivor memoirs, recently opened Soviet archives, and interviews. Gulag is an unwavering look at a piece of human history that is difficult to behold. Any inclination to sympathise with the Soviets is dispelled by this remarkable book. If Gulag is a book about the rot at the center of the Soviet system, then Lenin's Tomb by David Remnick chronicles the point at which the rot became more powerful than the Communist Party's iron fist. Remnick is a storyteller telling the story of a riveting period in history. As he writes, "To live anywhere between Bonn and Moscow in 1989 was to be witness to a year-long polical fantasy. You had the feeling you could run into history on the way to the bank or the seashore." Lucky for us, Remnick spent 1989 (as well as the years before and after) in Moscow. Reading these two books simultaneously has provoked in me a minor obsession with 20th century Russian history, which is fantastic because in the last year alone several compelling books about the subject have come out. I'll let you know if and when I read them.Some Good BookfindingToday, on my day off, I went by a nearby Goodwill store and found a mini treasure trove of good reading. The best find was 7 old issues of Granta, each one chock full of fantastic writers, including some of my favorites like Ryszard Kapuscinski, T. C. Boyle, and Haruki Murakami. Flipping through the tables of contents, I can see I'm in for some great reading. I let you know what I find. I also bought an old issue of Story magazine from 1997 featuring stories by Heidi Julavits and Bobbi Ann Mason among several others. I don't know who is giving away old literary magazines but I was more than happy to find them. I also found two history books that look pretty great: Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan which is about Eastern Europe and The Price of Admiralty by John Keegan, a history of naval warfare. And just in case all these books are too serious I found a copy of The Essential Calvin And Hobbes for only two bucks... yes!Don't ForgetGo to Realistic Records to get a copy of the Recoys album. And go see them play Friday June 20th 9pm... Kingsland Tavern at the corner of Kingsland and Nassau in Greenpoint (that's Brookyn by the way). I'll be there!
"Under a black cloud, the prison. And within the prison, a bright rebel. The walls were extremely high, and although this was not possible, they appeared to lean inward yet also to bulge outward, and they were topped with a luminous frosting of broken glass." This, of course, is an excerpt from Marlon Brando's posthumous (and swash-buckling) novel Fan-Tan. If you really want to get into it, the rest of the excerpt is here, mateys.Previously: Ask a Book Question: The 29th in a Series (I Coulda Been a Contendah)
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I had no idea that I was the one who introduced Scott of Conversational Reading to Lawrence Weschler. I'm glad I did because otherwise he might not have attended Weschler's visit to the City Arts & Lectures series and given us an excellent report. Every time I hear about Weschler I get more and more interested. I think, eventually, I'll read all of his books.I was also happy to see Scott's report that Weschler described Joseph Mitchell "as possibly the greatest writer he's ever read." I was introduced to Mitchell in an offhand sort of way in a literature course in college, and after reading Joe Gould's Secret and dipping into Up in the Old Hotel from time to time, he remains one of my favorites.