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!
Do you remember your last English teacher? Did he use colored chalk to diagram William Faulkner’s periodic sentences? Did she stand in the back of the room and read a poem from Denise Levertov, most of the words pushing past your ears, but a few, like “Aren’t there annunciations / of one sort or another / in most lives?” remaining like a refrain? Or was he forgettable, distributing misspelled study guides for The Merchant of Venice before playing a tired cassette recording? Think about your last year in a high school English classroom. The uneven rows. The loud radiator. The re-used posters, corners double-taped. You were 17, 18. Your mind and your heart were elsewhere. That tension between distraction and focus is healthy. If we do not wish that we were somewhere else, doing something else, the collective, focused breath on a single line of a poem would not be so sweet. Back then, you were full of cynicism and hope. What a mixture: your wounds and joys felt so sharp. I tell my seniors that I will likely be their last English teacher. They are enrolled in AP Literature and Composition, a difficult course that builds toward a three-hour exam. When I began teaching the course a decade ago, my classes were nearly half the size. Most students were hoping to major in English or philosophy. Now, out of two class sections of 55 students, it is a surprise to have three future English majors. I am lucky that they are no less talented and driven. They are ready to work. I realize that my situation is unique. My students often attend the most competitive colleges in the country. In order to do so, their high school schedules are strained. They are expected to perform highly in several intellectual disciplines a day, with only six minutes to move between classrooms within an enormous outdoor campus, and 40 minutes to be teenagers at lunch. Still, they are very fortunate. They have the support of the community and district. They are good kids. Curious kids, who stay with me when we examine the difference between mimetic and textual voice in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, or parse Wallace Stevens’s “A Comment on Meaning in Poetry.” I tell them that I am their last English teacher because many of these students will place out of composition or literature in college. They will spend the next four to eight years busy studying, and will go on to successful careers in medicine, law, and business. No one else will ever read them a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. You may think this is melodramatic talk. I admit that teachers were born to perform. We are actors without stages. In a recent interview, poet Paul Muldoon said that most students struggle with poetry because of how it is taught in high school: "What's usually happening is that the instructor, the teacher, is at pains to show what an extraordinary instructor or teacher he or she is, and the message I think that far too many of us get in high school is that poetry may only be read if you’ve got that instructor or teacher to show you what it’s really about.” I have heard this lament before, and it is not only about poetry. High school English teachers are responsible for flattening literature. We kill books. These constant, unfounded digs are what cause teachers to be defensive. Teaching in an American public school is an idealistic act. Politicians will have you believe we are an insufferable bunch, our chests full of blind union pride, tenure our ticket to stasis. English teachers, less than perhaps only editors, live their days surrounded with the hopes, fears, eccentricities, and failures of generations of writers. Those words, classic and contemporary, seep into our souls. Why teach Beloved if you do not close your eyes and feel 124 shaking; if you do not feel your own heart shaking? That sensitivity bleeds out of the classroom. In the latest round of testing frenzy, English teachers are unique targets. We teach the essential skill of communication -- the ability to turn students’ feelings into spoken and written words -- yet English is considered a light discipline compared to the rigor of sciences. I am not sure what an English teacher is supposed to be now. (I say that out of one side of my mouth; I strive to exceed the expectations of my district and state curriculum.) I mean in terms of my identity as an English teacher. I used to be considered a mentor. During my first few years as a teacher, I kept the prayer of St. Francis in my pocket: “grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.” I was only years removed from almost entering a seminary to become a priest. You never lose that call; it simply takes another shape. My shape was a room with 28 desks and a chalkboard. I teach every class like it is my last. It could be. When I started teaching, I thought my purpose was to create a legion of English majors. I have learned that my purpose is to pause the lives of my students for long enough that a line of poetry is the loudest sound they encounter during the day. I am uninterested in studies that assess the cognitive worth of reading poetry for future engineers. I don’t teach engineers. I teach people. My master is not a test; it is the belief that minutes reading beautiful language will stir souls. I want my students to see that words are sacraments, in the same way that Andre Dubus said each sandwich he made for his daughters was a sacrament: “physical, nutritious and pleasurable, and within it is love.” It is possible to be cold-hearted and teach, but why do so? Students experience enough private pain some days to fill a lifetime. Literature can be the salve for a weary heart. I do not mean directly; I do not think literature is a form of therapy. I mean that books enable students to experience an extraordinary range of emotions in 180 days. Most literature we read will pass from their memory. Some works will stick. One poem might change them. It is a beautiful possibility that such an epiphany can occur in as mundane a place as a classroom. That same hope keeps me from burning out in a profession that is as exhausting as it is exhaustive. I hate how teachers are portrayed by politicians and education reformers; I hate how we are reduced to caricatures. But I keep that frustration from my students. After all, it is for them that I am here. I believe in them, and I believe in words; I better believe in both, because I might be somebody’s last English teacher. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
1. In the building where I live, in the crevices of upper Manhattan, there also lives an Easter Bunny. This Easter Bunny leaves, every week or two (or three), one, or two, or a half dozen books in the foyer. These books are almost always fantastic. Sometimes, there are piles of lush NYRB Classics, waiting patiently to be coddled. Other times, they’ll be unreleased novels, obtained who knows where (this is how I read Karen Russell’s fantastic Swamplandia months before it was published). Sometimes the books will seem new, unread. More often then not, the mysterious fairy leaves more…used goods. 2. Lately, I’ve been into taking baths. Baths are pleasures that until recently I thought were reserved for the very young and the very old. After a semi-recent running injury, though, I found that a nice, long bath was just the thing to revitalize sore knees. The problem I have with baths is similar to my problem with massages. That is, no matter how pleasant they may feel, they are almost inherently boring, in that they consist of long minutes of doing absolutely nothing. I know some, more meditative people than myself would say that this is, in fact, the point, and I do think that taking time out of one’s hectic schedules to do precisely nothing is one of the great joys of life, but I still could never help feeling that long baths are simply boring. Compounded with this fact is the idea I’ve always had that reading in the bath would be a sort of primal pleasure. Sort of like in that episode of Seinfeld where George realizes that sex would never be perfect unless he was also concurrently watching t.v. and eating pastrami. When you’re bathing, you’re sitting, doing nothing, alone with your thoughts. It seems like the perfect place to read. Except. Except I have this thing against getting books dirty. The books I buy – whether they are new or used – tend to be in relatively good condition, and I try to keep them that way. I believe it is important to treat books, like people, with respect. Which makes it hard for me to do things like, for example, bring a fine book near a full bathtub, where it will more likely than not get wet. Enter the Easter Bunny. 3. Last night, I started an old, stained hardcover copy of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full left to me by the Easter Bunny a few months back. I started the book in the bathtub. Don’t worry, it wasn’t a first edition. The book got wet, yes, but the pages were already brittle, having been turned and spilled on by at least one and more like numerous hands before mine. There is some pleasure in reading a book and not caring about the surface the book is on. An aversion to this pleasure is one reason I have been reluctant to embrace e-readers. Books as books – as tangible things you can hold in your hands and show off to curious onlookers on the subway and friends who visit your apartment – are something I hold in high esteem. But there is, as I say, some pleasure in letting go, in allowing a book to get wet, in treasuring a book not for what it looks like but for what it says. As I began the novel of Atlanta society chronicled by the great Tom Wolfe, I felt free to lose myself in his well-wrought world, to ignore the splashes that were doubtlessly increasing the already significant wear the book had sustained. 4. Don’t get me wrong. I would still never take a book in good condition and do anything consciously to harm it. Books do have value, to me, as objects. There is something to be said for the cover, the pages, the (dare I say it) e-readers themselves. But, that said, it is nice to let go, sometimes. Everyone deserves to read a good book in the bathtub once in a while. (Image credit: accent on eclectic/Flickr.)
Three flights and twenty hours after departing New York, I arrived in Vilnius, Lithuania, the land of potato pancakes, sour cream, and Baltas beer, where "thank you" is pronounced "achoo," like a sneeze. Vilnius is the city closest to the geographical center of Europe, and because it's also at a cultural crossroads, the city has been hit hard by the forces of history. Napoleon's army liberated Lithuania from the Russians in 1812, and during their later retreat through Vilnius, forty thousand men died. The twentieth century saw both German and Soviet rule and genocides at the hands of the Nazis and the KGB. Independence came less than twenty years ago, when Lithuania was the first of the Baltic States to throw off Soviet rule. Even now, landlocked Vilnius is the hardest of the Baltic capital cities to travel to.I came to Vilnius by way of the Summer Literary Seminars, which is currently holding its first ever Lithuanian conference. Poets and writers have traveled from as far as Australia and South Africa to take classes with writers like Lynne Tillman, Phillip Lopate, Mac Wellman, and Peter Cole. Class days are interspersed with lecture days, and all days usually end with readings. The Lithuanian stage director Gytis Padegimas spoke about the state of contemporary Lithuanian drama and how critical resistance to new playwrights keep many of them from writing. Almantas Samalaviciu, the editor of Lithunia's largest cultural journal, traced the developments in twentieth century Lithuanian literature, from Soviet rule through the liberation. But not all of the focus is on Lithuanian literature. Catherine Tice of the New York Review of Books gave a lecture on the contemporary essay and its provinces. Max Winter of Fence and Mike Spry of Montreal's Matrix offered guidance on publishing with North American literary magazines.With Vilnius as our campus, the history of place, as well the new sights and sounds play a large role in the conference, too. Over a handful of entries, I plan to guide you through some of the more interesting discussions and events of the conference, and intersperse some Vilnius culture as well. If you want a head start, Open Letter recently published a translation of Ričardas Gavelis's Vilnius Poker, the preeminent postmodern Lithuanian novel. Or for more of a historical background, turn to Laimonas Briedis's City of Strangers. I'm on Lithuanian time, which is notorious for lagging behind, but more dispatches will be coming soon.
Strolling around the bookstore the other day, a book with a startling cover and a wacky title caught my eye. At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig is a humorous travelogue about one of South America's more obscure countries, Paraguay. Pig is the first book by John Gimlett who has written articles for a number of travel magazines over the years. This excerpt is definitely worth a peek.
Every few months, a peculiar compulsion comes over me. After dinner, instead of reading a book or lazing on the stoop, I’ll walk upstairs, sit down, and fit small blocks together, again and again and again. When I’m in the grips of this dependence, my wife knows exactly where I’ll be from 7:30 to 8:15 or so: in front of the TV, eyes glazed, drool at my mouth. Tetris fever has struck. Over the years, we’ve amassed a solid collection of Nintendo games, including Tecmo Super Bowl, Mega Man 2, and all three Super Marios. There is Baseball, Baseball Stars, and Bases Loaded 2. But when I’m feeling eight-bit, I almost always go with Tetris; with few exceptions, it stays in the console, safe as a joey. Like Pac-Man or Punch-Out!!, its pacing and graphics are as effective today as they were in the Reagan years, as good as they need to be. When I pop in, say, Tennis or Ice Hockey, I’m depressingly aware of the gap between them and their modern successors—grunting apes to today’s Gattaca humanoids. But Tetris is different. As with chess, efforts to update it have seemed superfluous, faintly sacrilegious. It’s one of the few entertainments that arrived fully formed, little improvement necessary. For me, this is evidenced by the ease and consistency with which it melts my brain. Once things get cooking, twenty or thirty rows in, I find myself on the fourteenth level—or is it fifteenth?—of consciousness. It’s a murky shade of purple there, with a tinge of lunar dust. Drifting through the door from The Twilight Zone intro, I find “Bitches Brew” the national anthem, Jim Woodring the national storyteller. In this place, everything undulates—yet stays, like, perfectly still, man. Outside of recreational drugs and a Ghibli film, few other things bring on such a strange and fluid state. And like ping-pong or fucking, the game demands a deep focus that must be both maintained and ignored; once you realize what you’re doing, you’re done. Floating through Tetris’ cranial hyperspace forces a natural introspection. Often, sort of insanely, I’ll dwell upon what my playing method can tell me about myself. My technique isn’t to plow through rows or shatter a score; I play Tetris for the tetris: the four-row clear that comes with the vertically-nestled “I” block. Self-denial is necessary for the maneuver, as all must be laid aside for the blessed piece’s arrival. Meanwhile, the pile mounts dangerously. When the block finally appears, this mild daring and asceticism are handsomely repaid: there’s a flash of light, a scream of sound, and the pile’s heavy fall. This approach correlates with who I am when the Nintendo is off: I’ve taught myself to stop drinking, but I reward my piousness by getting whacked on special occasions. I withhold myself from others until I’m comfortable, then gleefully let it rip. Most importantly, as a freelancer, my life has become a constant wait for the “I” block. That wait is often unbearable, but when it finally comes—via an editor’s e-mail or telephone call—there’s a flash of light and a scream of sound. I feel great for a time, smug with accomplishment. And then, inevitably, other bricks appear and I must hurry to place them, setting things up for the next big clear. My wife doesn’t live her life this way, and, tellingly, she doesn’t play Tetris in the same way I do. She takes each block at a time, concentrating on the present, never stalling for the tetris. Watching her careful style drives me nuts, but I understand it: she’s a pragmatist, preferring steadiness to risk, no matter how visceral the reward. Unlike me, she doesn’t need constant validation to get by, can cope with a regular job. Her way appeals to me—it’s calmer, less given to peaks and valleys. But I don’t think I’m capable of arranging my blocks any other way. It might seem absurd for an old Nintendo game to bring on such navel-gazing, but, hey, there it is. And that’s why Tetris, unlike others in its genre—Klax or Arkanoid or Dr. Mario—is consistently at or near the top of greatest-game lists. Because while its premise seems dull, its simple complexity allows us to project ourselves fully upon it. In a 2007 interview with Gamespot, Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov said, “Emotion comes from [the player,] and [the designer] can’t control that. As soon as I design drama for you, I take away your freedom.” That’s what Tetris brings: interior freedom through steadily-vanishing rows, a vehicle for thoughts that might not otherwise surface. We supply the drama. Pretty good for a game that was made in the age of Excitebike. [Image credit: Aldo Gonzalez]
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