Not too long ago, on a book finding expedition, I found a whole cache of old Granta magazines. Granta is very cool journal devoted to both short fiction and on the ground reporting of international conflicts and events. It attracts fantastic writers who tend to be relatively unknown to Americans, and so it tends to deliver angles on stories that you don’t see in the American press. Case in point: the other day I was, briefly, between books, and I picked up one of the old Grantas that I have lying around (this one was Autumn 1989). One of the stories I read was a first hand account of the Tiananmen Square massacre by a BBC journalist named John Simpson. I have always found first-hand accounts of these sorts of events to be the most fascinating type of news reporting. (The best I read this year were John Lee Anderson’s “Letters From Baghdad” in the New Yorker.) Simpson’s story on Tiananmen Square was both enthralling and terrifying, he captures a brutality that most of the Western world did not see. Immediately after I finished the article I wondered: is this piece in a book somewhere and has this guy written anything else like this? This answer to both questions is yes. Simpson’s World: Tales from a Veteran War Correspondent came out in August and it’s filled with close encounters with dictators and on the scene dispatches from all the major world conflicts from the last couple of decades.
It’s been over a decade since James Wood came on the scene to reclaim literary criticism as its own kind of literature, and though all his enthusiasts have a top-ten list of the Wood essays with which they most strenuously disagree, he comes by his reputation as “our best critic” honestly. Indeed, disagreeing with Wood can be an education in and of itself; if I had to choose one critic to pan my own work, it would be Wood. But what if I could choose a critic to praise it?For several years, Wyatt Mason of Harper’s has quietly been reinvigorating an even more recondite form than the critical essay: the literary encomium. As with Wood’s considered corrections, one can disagree with Mason’s glowing appraisals of Mary Gaitskill or Charles Chadwick (I wasn’t as enamored of It’s All Right Now as Mason was), while still being provoked to think – and feel – more deeply about literature.Congenially, Mason’s tastes are closer to mine than are Wood’s. (Witness his translation of Eric Chevillard’s wonderfully weird Palafox.) I’m particularly in his debt for introducing me to the fiction of Leonard Michaels, and at the end of the month, harpers.org will be offering the essay in question to non-subscribers. For the time being, one can check out a brief, but interesting enough, interview about Michaels.
Whither the book? A question we at The Millions struggle with on a semi-regular basis, and one that has inspired the National Library of Spain to commission a project entitled “The Last Book.” Uruguayan artist Luis Camnitzer has been entrusted with the task, and he in turn is calling for the writers (and readers) of the world to contribute.The book, which will be displayed in the library’s entry hall, is projected to serve as both a paean to the golden age of reading, and a reminder of what it is we stand to lose every time we choose the TV over a book. The book itself (if the installation ends up being one…) will incorporate visual and written elements from contributors famous, infamous and unknown and serve as “a stimulus for a possible reactivation of culture in case of disappearance by negligence, catastrophe or conflagration.” Presumably, the book will also come in useful in the event of subjugation by damn, dirty apes.Although I am far from convinced that books (or human civilization) are in danger of extinction, I intend to contribute something just in case. If we’re taking a mulligan on human civilization, after all, I can think of a few things I’d like changed. Contributions to the book are being accepted through October 15.
“The gizmo, the golden, deceptive, brass-filled gizmo, was gone at last.” So reads the final sentence of Jim Thompson’s con-man sleaze-romp The Golden Gizmo, which I finished last week. Though it ran under 200 pages, the story was crammed with double-crosses, faked deaths, and a massive talking dog. There were shady gold dealers and exiled Nazis, a femme fatale and a hag of a wife. I’d been mildly confused throughout, but the ending tied things up efficiently enough. I had questions, but not many complaints. After rereading the final line, I admired the cover image: a grainy photo of hundreds being shuffled. I flipped to the last page and inspected books “Also Available From Jim Thompson.” And with that, I had squeezed all that I could from The Golden Gizmo. I returned it to its narrow gap on the shelf, scanning the books that I hadn’t yet read. But I didn’t pick a new one, not just yet.
In recent months, that moment of lingering, of browsing my own library, has become one of my favorite aspects of reading. In the past, I’d immediately swap the book I’d just read for a new one, a literary chain-smoker. But now I take my time—luxuriating in possibility, enjoying expectation, and pondering what’s next with a real, idle pleasure.
And after finishing the Thompson book, my options seemed endless. I’ve lately been in stockpile mode, picking up The Curious Case of Sidd Finch, Lush Life, and A Prayer For the City. A friend had given me Lonesome Dove, The Bronx is Burning, and Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life. There was The Punch, about Kermit Washington’s near-fatal swing at Rudy Tomjanovich during a 1977 NBA game. And of course, the dozens of titles—by T.C. Boyle and Frank Herbert, Pete Dexter and Chris Elliot—that I’ve owned for years and have never quite gotten to. From all of these, I happily chose nothing.
Instead, I let my mind drift around the books’ edges, nourished by thoughts of what they would bring: Plimpton’s erudite humor, Price’s ordered chaos, Bissinger’s knowing outrage. I could conjure T.C. Boyle’s dexterity and Pete Dexter’s toughness. Though I denied myself the satisfaction of engagement, I also avoided disappointment: did I really need to read a 1,000-page western—or, for that matter, anything by Chris Elliot? I don’t even really like westerns, and Get a Life was axed when I was still in Reebok Pumps. Better, perhaps, to let those remain abstract and idealized.
In this nebulous state, anticipation is also fed by jacket design. The Punch looks especially awesome: the cover is spare, with bright orange type over a blown-out picture of the titular incident. It’s violent, discomfiting, hard to ignore. The book looks so good that, to be honest, I don’t want to spoil things by actually reading it—getting bogged down, as I suspect I will, in the minutiae of Carter-era neurology and Kermit’s deep regret. Nonetheless, The Punch calls to me. Knowing the sex won’t be as good as you’ve dreamed is no reason to keep your pants on.
Post-Gizmo, I spent five days like this—weighing my options, considering my desires. I caught up on my comic books and magazines, cleared out unread newspapers. And then, with private fanfare, I walked upstairs for a book. I’d recently bought And Here’s the Kicker, a collection of comedy interviews—but after glancing through it, I found I wasn’t in the mood. Mamet’s Bambi vs. Godzilla was enticing, but something—maybe its candy-colored fight-night cover—pushed me past. The Punch, too, would have to wait. In the end, I picked Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life. It looked breezy and smart, and had come highly recommended. I took it down, laid in bed, and began to read. It was wry and nostalgic, serious and absurd. I’d made the right choice. It even contained a line I found relevant to my dilatory new habit: “Most of us go about our duties of commerce and leisure in a state of perpetual longing.” I thought about that. My postponement of reading was a way to embellish that longing, to make it even more deliciously perpetual. After thirty years, I’d found one more way to wring enjoyment from books—even as they sat on the shelf.
I’ve talked about “sale books” once or twice here at The Millions, but since I just a got a great deal on some “sale books,” I decided to revisit the topic. “Sale books” are also known in the book biz as remainders. These are the books you see in your local Barnes & Noble, usually near the front, piled together in bins or on shelves under signs that say things like “clearance” or “all books on this shelf $5.99 or less.” It’s usually a rather odd assortment of books: super cheap hardcovers that mere months (or even weeks) ago were selling for full price. If you dig around you can sometimes find some decent books, but usually the titles are a who’s who of bad books, kind of like the mangled sale rack at your local department store. However, the path from frontlist to remainder bin can be a lot more circuitous than path from shop window to sale rack. And so I present the life cycle of the remaindered book. The remaindered book starts out as a regular old frontlist book, that is, one of the season’s new offerings from a publisher. Let’s call our new book Voyage to Hoboken, a widely anticipated coming of age story by a best-selling author. Since the book is expected to be a big seller, your local Barnes & Noble places a frontlist order of 60 copies from Turnpike Press. The book is released, and amid bad reviews and underwhelming publicity the book is a dud, an outright disappointment. After three months only nine people have bought the book at the full price of $26.95. Now, the book industry is rather odd in that, if a book doesn’t sell, the retail establishment can simply return it to the publisher and get most of their money back. Sometimes, when you work at a bookstore, you begin to get the eerie feeling that rather than selling books, you’re merely storing them until the publisher is willing to take them back. So, the time comes when the buyer at Barnes & Noble decides enough is enough and returns 50 copies to Turnpike Press, leaving one copy on the shelf in case some unwitting reader decides to buy it. At a Turnpike Press warehouse, thousands of copies of Voyage to Hoboken come in from all over the country. But the folks at Turnpike aren’t worried, they are ready to cut their losses. They have negotiated with “remainder houses,” companies that deal with these unwanted books, to get rid of our unfortunate novel in bulk, lets say $1.50 per copy. The remainder house then turns around and calls up the very same book buyer at Barnes & Nobel and sells back this once bought book at a severely reduced price, $3.00 per copy, and then Barnes & Noble tries to sell it to you, the reader, for $6.00. And, in the end, most folks can’t resist the bargain. So, such is the odd journey that bargain books take before arriving in their bargain bin. What inspired me to write about this? Well, the other day I got a catalog in the mail from one of those remainder houses, Daedalus Books, and, since shopping from a catalog is a lot easier than picking through the bargain bin, I got myself four fantastic books for about sixteen bucks. Not bad, eh? Here they are: The Island of Lost Maps by Miles Harvey, Pastoralia by George Saunders, Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones, and The Founding Fish by John McPhee. By the way, bargain books can be found at Amazon, too.Speaking of Amazon, here is an interesting article about what those sales rankings at Amazon actually mean. It’s written from the perspective of a self-publishing expert.One last thing. During my time at the bookstore, one of the hottest sellers was a collection of short stories by David Schickler called Kissing in Manhattan. Now Schickler has a novel coming out called Sweet and Vicious. It looks interesting.
Last night the winners of this year’s National Book Awards were announced:Fiction: The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard (I’ve got this book lying around somewhere, and I’ve been somewhat interested in reading it… and I’m still somewhat interested in reading it.)Non-Fiction: Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy by Carlos Eire (I was hoping that Gulag by Anne Applebaum would win. Of course, in these situations, I always want the book that I’ve read to win. It’s more fun that way.)Poetry: The Singing by C.K. Williams (This is exciting. C.K. Williams has been one of my favorite poets for a very long time. Here’s an anti-war poem of his called “The Hearth.”)Young People’s Literature: The Canning Season by Polly Horvath (I’m no expert on kid’s books, but I’m actually pretty familiar with Horvath. A few years back I worked at an agency that repped the film and TV rights for a huge catalog of books. Polly Horvath’s books were among them, and they were favorites around the office.)Additional info: Past National Book Award WinnersDexter SpeaksI found this great mini-profile of author Pete Dexter yesterday. It helps illuminate the qualities of his character that I was unable to quite describe in a post a while back about seeing him read. He is a very old-fashioned hard-nosed guy, a newspaper man. He’s got a great sense of humor too. They sort of gloss over it in the article, but I think it’s pretty remarkable that he’s driving himself around the country for this book tour. He clearly enjoys doing that sort of thing. I do, however, happen to disagree with the remarks he makes about Stephen King and the American reading public. King himself admits that he has written several clunkers along the way, but he has also written some astoundingly good books that, given a little perspective years from now, will be thought of as some of the best books of our era. I know it’s a bold statement, but think about how good The Stand, It, and The Shining are (just to pick a few of the many good books he’s written). Just because he sells as many or more books than Tom Clancy or John Grisham doesn’t mean he writes at their level. I also disagree with this: “The winner of a National Book Award argued that the reason John Grisham and James Patterson novels are so popular ‘has something to do with our lack of attention span.'” Dexter mentioned this at the reading I attended with unironic and grave concern. It’s true that millions of people read books by those authors, but I don’t think that it’s due to a lack of attention span. My theory is that people read the same types of formulaic books over and over again because it is comfortable. The vast majority of the people out there lead busy, stressful lives and they read for fun and for an escape. They don’t have time to browse endlessly at bookstores seeking out a hidden gem. They don’t want to risk buying a book that is unknown to them and that might not serve their needs, when there is a shelf full of books that they know with certainty will give them what they need. A lot of these same people would gladly be more adventurous readers if their lives permitted it, they just don’t have the time or the money to support it. This is why all those polemical right-wing and left-wing books do so well even though they bring no new discussions to the table. This is why Jerry Bruckheimer movies do so well. It is an unfortunate fact that our modern lives do not typically leave room for the adventurous consumption of creativity, and to say that people consume all this stuff that is “bad” because they are deficient in some way misses the point entirely. (I know I made essentially the same point in a post last week, but I’ve had this idea on my mind a lot lately).