People are reading non-fiction, too. The big debut this week is Joan Didion’s new book Where I Was from. It’s part family history, part historical exploration of “where she was from,” the perplexing state of California, a fertile subject for analysis if ever there was one. People are already waving this book above their heads and extolling its virtues much in the same way as they did with her earlier book, Political Fictions. Another politically minded author garnering a wide readership is New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, whose op-ed pieces from the last three years have been collected in a single volume entitled, The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century. As the title indicates, his columns chronicle the collapse of the prosperity of the previous decade, and the former economist from Princeton feels that the current administration deserves much of the blame. If that’s too heavy, there are some less serious books that are or will soon be best sellers. Among them is a peculiar book that comes to us by way of England. Schott’s Original Miscellany by Ben Schott is an astoundingly clever and thorough little collection of trivia that manages to strike the perfect balance between being informative and being fun. For example, go to the official miscellanies website and get the official scoop on how palmistry works, and then feel free to troll around for other odd info at your leisure. Meanwhile, the more musically minded may have caught Martin Scorsese’s seven-part documentary about the blues which is currently airing on PBS. Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick helped compile the companion volume to the documentary entitled, Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: A Musical Journey, an attractive book that features new essays by David Halberstam, Hilton Als, Suzan-Lori Parks, Elmore Leonard, and others. And finally, all this talk of books about music reminds me of Chuck Klosterman. I may have mentioned a few weeks ago that I was reading Klosterman’s first book, Fargo Rock City, a terribly clever book that seeks to make a case for heavy metal in the annals of music history. The book started strong, and I found myself laughing out loud once every couple of pages; however, by the end, Klosterman’s personality, which is as much on display as the subjects about which he writes and which is an odd mix of self-effacement and shameless arrogance, began to grate on me. To make things worse, right after I finished the book, I read a couple of horrendous reviews of his new book which brought into even clearer focus what had bugged me so much about Klosterman. Nonetheless, the ranks of readers devoted to Klosterman’s absurd and witty social commentary seems to be growing, because his new book, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto seems to be selling at an ever quickening clip. Stayed tuned for the next installment… Paperbacks!
Melvyn Bragg, who hosts the terrific In Our Time program on BBC Radio, has put together a list of the twelve British books that have changed the world. The list is for a television series that he’ll be hosting. As an article in the Guardian explains, the most recent book on the list is from 1918, and there’s no fiction at all. What’s interesting about Bragg’s list is that they’re not so much books as they’re historical documents of political and scientific importance. The list:Principia Mathematica by Isaac NewtonMarried Love by Marie StopesThe Magna CartaThe Rule Book of Association FootballOn the Origin of Species by Charles DarwinOn the Abolition of the Slave Trade by William WilberforceA Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary WollstonecraftExperimental Researches in Electricity by Michael FaradayPatent Specification for Arkwright’s Spinning Machine by Richard ArkwrightThe King James Bible by William Tyndale and 54 Scholars Appointed by the KingAn Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam SmithThe First Folio by William Shakespeare
This morning I read this bittersweet story in the New York Times about the auctioning of Vladimir Nabokov’s personal effects by his son Dmitri. As Dmitri has no heirs, it was agreed before the elder Nabokov’s death that it would be best to sell the collection before the death of the younger Nabokov. Reading the story, with its descriptions of invented butterfly drawings for Nabokov’s wife Vera — “They have variegated colors, delicate artistry and fanciful names. Only on these pages appear the blue ‘Colias verae’ or the dark ‘Maculinea aurora Nab.'” — reminded me of how much I enjoyed reading Nabokov’s lyrical memoir, Speak, Memory, when I was in college. I read it for a class called Transatlantic Identities, taught by the dandyish Professor Tucker (who was most of all devoted to John Ruskin). We read a dozen or so memoirs penned over the last 150 years on either side of the Atlantic. Among these, Speak, Memory, was transcendent, inspiring an interest both in lepidoptery and Nabokov’s expressive prose. As I read the book, Nabokov, in my mind, was transformed from the scurrilous author of the scandalous Lolita to the quiet emigre with a fascination for butterflies, and whose expertise with these brightly- winged insects landed him the curatorship of the butterfly collection at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. Now that these butterflies have been scattered throughout the world, one can only hope that the hands that now hold them will cherish the butterflies as much as the hands that created them.
I love repetition. I love doing the same thing at the same time and in the same place, day in and day out. I love it because something happens in repetition: Sooner or later, the heap of sameness, accumulated through all the identical days, starts to glide. That’s when the writing begins.
The view from my window is a constant reminder of this slow and invisible process. Every day I see the same lawn, the same apple tree, the same willow. It’s winter, the colors are bleak, there are no leaves, and then it’s spring, the garden is bursting with green. Even though I see it every day, I’m not able to notice the changes, as if they take place in a different time frame, beyond the range of my eye, in the same way high-frequency sounds are out of reach of the ear. Then the slow explosion of flowers, fruits, heat, birds, and insane growth we call summer is here, then there’s a storm, and the apples lie in a circle under the tree. The snowflakes melt the instant they touch the ground, the leaves are brown and leathery, the branches naked, the birds all gone; it’s winter again.
In my youth, I considered Cicero’s claim, that all a man needs to be happy is a garden and a library, utterly bourgeois, to be a truth for the boring and middle-aged, as far as possible from who I wanted to be. Perhaps because my own father was somewhat obsessed with his garden and his stamp collection. Now, being boring and middle-aged myself, I have resigned. Not only do I see the connection between literature and gardens, those small areas of cultivating the undefined and borderless, I nurture it. I read a biography on Werner Heisenberg, and it’s all there, in the garden, the atoms, the quantum leaps, the uncertainty principle. I read a book about genes and DNA, it’s all there. I read the Bible, and there’s the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day. I love that phrase, “in the cool of the day,” it awakens something in me, a feeling of depth on sunny summer days that hold a kind of eternal quality, and then the winds from the sea come rushing in the afternoon, shadows grow as the sun sinks slowly on the sky, and somewhere children are laughing. All this in the cool of the day, in the midst of life, and when it’s over, when I’m no longer here, this view will still be. This is also what I see when I look out my window, and there’s a strange comfort in that, taking notice of the world as we pass through it, the world taking no notice of us.
Excerpted from Windows on the World by Matteo Pericoli. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Matteo Pericoli, 2014.
Recently, the innovative literary magazine One-Story launched a campaign to “Save the Short Story.” As the essay below suggests, we at The Millions found this effort admirable, and also puzzling. Is “the short story” even a single thing? And, if so, does it need saving? On both questions, the evidence seems mixed. We can agree, however, that short stories seem to have lost some of their prominence in the popular imagination. Mainstream book coverage tends to track the agendas of the publishing industry; those agendas, in turn, tend to be driven by coverage. With our “Short Story Week,” we aim to subvert the cycle. Between now and Friday, we hopeto revisit the work of living masters,to celebrate the writers who paved their way,to talk a bit about teaching the short story, and writing it,to link to interesting short-story sites and periodicalsto provide a selective bibliography of our favorite story collections,and, as always, to hear from you.In short: we hope you enjoy it. We’ll be linking to the week’s installments below.Inter Alia #8: Whither the Short Story?On BrevityExpat Laureate: Paul Bowles’s Too Far From HomeThe Elusive Thread of Memory: The Displaced World of Mavis GallantAdventures in Consciousness: A Review of Deborah Eisenberg’s Under the 82nd AirborneSome Recommended Short FictionAnthologies EvolvedAnd May We Also RecommendShort Story Week LinksOn Our Shelves: 45 Favorite Short Story Collections
The revelation of the so-called “Book of Judas” last week made for some good news stories. The newly discovered gospel claims that one of history’s oldest bad guys wasn’t so bad. It’s a provocative story and there’s an element of Indiana Jones to it all, as the lost text was found in Egypt and made its way to the public through years of intrigue and backchannel trading. Scholars, meanwhile, are already debating how relevant the document is. The New York Times article on the gospel gets into the scholarly debate somewhat, but an illuminating essay by David Kopel at the Volokh Conspiracy explains why the “Gospel of Judas” is not a lost book from the Bible, but rather a Gnostic text. But what interests me most are not the theological ramifications of the find, but how its public unveiling is tied to the release of so many books (and a movie).First of all, it’s unlikely that this news would be of such interest were it not for the success of The Da Vinci Code, which has made once obscure Gnostic texts mainstream reads for fans of Dan Brown’s book. It’s also worth noting that The Da Vinci Code movie comes out soon, on May 19th, which is sure to keep early Christian mysticism in the news. But then there are the books themselves. National Geographic, which officially made the documents public, has two related books out now: The Gospel of Judas, which is an annotated translation of the original documents, and The Lost Gospel, which is about the discovery of the gospel and the research that went into deciphering it. The David Kopel essay cited above mentions an AP story in which James M. Robinson, a rival to the National Geographic scholars, explains why the find is probably not all that important. It turns out Robinson has his own book on the gospel coming out, too, The Secrets of Judas, which gives his view on the find.So, for something that was portrayed in the media as a stunning new find, this all seems to be very stage managed to me. The Gospel of Judas itself has been floating around since the 70s, but the three books (and the National Geographic TV special) all seem timed to hitch onto The Da Vinci Code’s next wave of publicity as Dan Brown emerges from his court proceedings and his best seller hits the big screen.