I can’t believe it… Just caught the headline. George Plimpton died today. He was one of my favorite writers. I met him twice: once in college when he signed a copy of his The Best of Plimpton collection and again a few months ago when he came by the book store to promote the new Paris Review collection. Both times he regailed everyone present with a vast array of stories that placed him as an observer or a bystander to some remarkable moments (for example he was in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel when Robert F. Kennedy was killed.) But he didn’t mind being the center of attention either, like when he stepped in the ring with Archie Moore or ran out on the field as quarterback of the Detroit Lions. He put himself in many situations like this because he knew that most folks had, at one time or another, wondered what it might be like to be a modern day gladiator. It wasn’t a stunt really; it felt more like a favor to his friends. And though he wrote a lot about sports, that was only one dimension of his life. He also founded the The Paris Review, perhaps the most significant literary magazine of the last fifty years. It is notable for having published early works by many great writers, and it is also well-known for the “Art of Fiction” (or Poetry, or Drama) interviews included in each issue. There is a wealth of knowledge in each interview; the worlds greatest writers talking about how they write. Most of all he simply seemed like someone who truly loved life. You could see it in his face when he spoke and you could see it in his writing. Whether he was ringside for the Thrilla in Manilla or running with bulls in Pamplona it was really about the joy of it all. Here’s the obit.
Relative to, say, Balloon Boy, the recent death of Claude Levi-Strauss has received scant media attention here in the U.S. This is surely indicative of something, anthropologically speaking: the rate at which the world is going to hell, perhaps, or maybe just the low esteem in which we hold intellectuals – a vestige of the Protestant work ethic. But to write off Levi-Strauss, the great pioneer of structural anthropology, as an ivory tower egghead is to lose sight of the man completely. Few thinkers – you could probably count them on two hands – ranged more widely or had more impact on the humanities in the Twentieth Century.
Levi-Strauss’ most important ideas would become so ubiquitous that you probably already know them, even if you don’t know you know. From him, we got a dismantling of the notion of the “primitive” that has more or less stuck. We got the notion of culture as a kind of language, and of the “transformation” that can reveal the myths, kinship rituals, and exchanges of one culture to be homologous to those of seemingly disparate others. His work foreshadowed, that is, much of what we postmoderns take for granted.
What this account of Levi-Strauss and his poststructuralist legatees leaves out, however, is his almost modernist ambition to find the final homology, the original difference that transcends individual, tribe, and nation: left and right, or female and male, or The Raw and The Cooked. Levi-Strauss aimed, in his own complicated way, for the universal.
Many of his theoretical positions have since come under attack from subsequent generations of philosophers and anthropologists. But their durability attests to one of the overlooked secrets of Levi-Strauss’ influence. Almost uniquely among the thinkers with whom he is often grouped, Levi-Strauss is fun to read. (Well, Roland Barthes is fun, and a certain kind of person finds Derrida fun, but you know what I mean…) I have no training in anthropology, and my dabblings in intellectual history, as you can probably tell from the above, have been idiosyncratic in the extreme, but Triste Topiques, a hybrid of travel writing and anthropological investigation, engrossed me when I read it in graduate school. With the humane, passionate voice and insatiable curiosity of its author transparently clear, Tristes Topiques reminded me then, as it does now, of what anthropology literally promises to be: the science of man. It will be some time before anyone comes as close as Claude Levi-Strauss did to making good on that promise.
Over at Beatrice, I saw the posting that Will Eisner has died. Eisner is credited by many with inventing the graphic novel — or at least turning it into the form we recognize today (A Contract with God is his landmark work). Many of today’s most prominent graphic novelists cite Eisner as a major influence. At the moment, none of the major news sites have posted an obit (aside from this brief piece at E&P), but you can expect to see some soon.UPDATE: Here come the obits: DenisKitchen.com, WaPo, NYT
I’ve been meaning to post for a couple of days, but as those in the blog world have probably noticed, blogger was down for a while. But it’s back, and so am I. In the meantime, there was a piece of sad literary news. Once hugely famous, but now somewhat forgotten novelist Leon Uris passed away. When I was about fifteen and too young to know that my taste in literature wasn’t particularly cutting edge, I happened to pick up a copy of his book Trinity. It is a historical novel about the strife in Northern Ireland, and even then, when I was a youngster, I knew it was a masterful book. People are no longer used to the sweeping period pieces set in exotic locations that used to be so popular. They have fallen by the way side and been repaced by realism, flashiness, and dry modernity. Alongside all the stark reality that masquarades as fiction these days, a Uris book can be comforting in its ability to fix you in a distant place and time and to compell you to feel a visceral connection with his antipodean characters. If you like Uris at all, you will also like his contemporary James Michener. I still remember listening to Hawaii on cassette on one of the many interminable car trips of my youth. I’m not sure what compelled my parents to choose this form of entertainment, since I had never known them to be audiobook fans or Michener fans. Against all odds (or so it seemed at the time), I loved Hawaii in much the same way that I would later love Trinity. It’s the power of a really good story. That’s all for now… More soon I hope.
Glenn Goldman, founder and owner of Book Soup, an independent book store in West Hollywood died yesterday. Goldman died of pancreatic cancer, an illness that came on suddenly, and he leaves behind two sons and his store. Glenn created, almost out of nothing, a great treasure of a book store that has meant a lot to me, and I’ll always be thankful to him for that.I started working at Book Soup in late 2001. I needed money and jobs were tough to come by, and I had been fairly discouraged by what I’d been doing in Los Angeles to that point.Book Soup became special to me for three reasons. First, almost immediately it broadened my reading horizons. I’d always been an active, curious reader but within weeks of working at Book Soup, I realized how proscribed my knowledge of books had been. Despite growing up in a house full of books and despite taking more than a few literature classes in college, my true introduction to the world of literature and publishing was being surrounded by books for three years and meeting dozens of writers who stopped by the store. Glenn handled all the book ordering at the store, and every book I read during that time was at my fingertips because of him.Secondly, I met a bunch of amazing people, several of whom I’m still in touch with today (including Edan, who writes for this blog, and her husband Patrick who used to). Los Angeles isn’t exactly the intellectual wasteland that east-coasters (and San Franciscans) make it out to be, but the concentration of wonderful minds and vibrant personalities at that store was a very special thing, particularly in that city, but anywhere really. However different we all were, we shared a love for books and an appreciation for the sublime wackiness inherent in a book store on the Sunset Strip. I met a lot of smart people in Los Angeles, but the bookstore that Glenn built was the intellectual center of the city for me. Right there, in the neon, limousine wasteland of the Sunset Strip were thousands of books. It was a crazy, brilliant idea.Finally, looking back, it seems clear to me that my job at Book Soup was one of those pivotal experiences that set my life on a certain course.More than five years ago, I decided to use this blog to write about books, and that decision was almost solely based on my experience working at Book Soup and wanting to bring it home with me. The blog and what I learned from running it, propelled me to go to graduate school for journalism and it introduced to me to hundreds of new people. I was able to put this great team of writers together and I landed on the radio and have seen my name in newspapers and magazines.The point is: I owe quite a lot to this blog. This blog owes everything to Book Soup. And Book Soup owes everything to Glenn Goldman. He will be missed.More: The LA Times obit, Edan remembers, Patrick remembers