Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Atkinson stopped by yesterday to sign copies of An Army at Dawn. This book is intended to be the first installment of a trilogy that will describe the liberation of Europe in World War II. This first book is about the liberation of North Africa, and the next two will cover Italy and France. Naturally, I asked him how the books were coming along, and he told me that he had put them on hold while he was embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq, and now he is writing a book about that experience. It will be exciting to see the many quality books that are being written by journalists and writers who spent time over there. We also discussed John Keegan, who seems to be the authority when it comes to popular histories of war. Atkinson professed to loving both The Mask of Command, which studies generals and commanders in wars from Ancient Greece to the present, and The Face of Battle, which gives similar treatment to the common soldier. Later on, while I was reading about those two Keegan books, I was pleased to discover that he has a new book that is a mere two weeks from hitting the shelves. It is enticingly titled, Intelligence in Warfare: From Nelson to Hitler.
I only took the train one way today – Mrs. Millions was kind enough to pick me up this afternoon – but I still spotted at least three people reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in various stages of completion while riding the El this morning including one young man who was vigorously finishing the final pages. I wasn’t surprised to see Harry Potter on the train this morning, nor will I be surprised to see it a lot in the coming weeks considering the astonishing sales numbers the book generated this weekend. According to Scholastic Books, Potter sold 6.9 million copies over the weekend – that’s 250,000 copies an hour, more copies than 99.9% of books will sell in a lifetime. Barnes and Noble reported selling about 105 copies a second. You can get all the numbers here. Here’s my favorite stat, though. From the Guardian: “Retailers said that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince had sold more copies in a day than The Da Vinci Code sold in one year.”All of this reminded me of my days selling Harry Potter books when I worked at a bookstore. As I recall, the day Part 5 came out, we sold more copies of that book than all the other books we sold that day combined, and this was at an independent bookstore on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, not exactly the kind of place that caters to kids. People can banter back and forth about whether or not Harry Potter books are any good – or whether or not adults should read them – but I know that they were good for our bookstore. For an independent, a big seller like Harry Potter can subsidize that less profitable business of trying to supply good literature to a dwindling group of interested readers.
When I was growing up, there were few books on my parents’ bookshelves and most of those were in Greek or French, with a smattering of volumes from the Time-Life series (the ones on jazz and opera). But among the very small handful of books in English, there was one with a thick spine of military green and one word printed in a thin, elongated font: Ulysses. When I was about ten, I first took the book down from the shelf. I’d been raised on my father’s bedtime stories from The Odyssey and a family-cultivated belief that the heroes of ancient Greece were my ancestors. I flipped to the first page, but I couldn’t make anything of it at all. That first sentence looked like normal English. It had no words I didn’t recognize. But something about it was off (was “Buck” someone’s name or a noun? And what was a “Stately plump”?). And as I moved on deeper into that first page, I became more confused.
I don’t remember now whether I paged through to the other sections I would come to know as “Laestrygonians,” “Oxen of the Sun,” or “Circe”. If I had, I would most certainly have had even more reason to do what I did then, at age ten: put the book back, shaking my head and vowing to try again in a few months. For years afterwards, I would pull Ulysses off the shelf every few months or so, start reading, become confused, and replace the book, deciding that I was still not ready to understand it.
The funny thing is that the only reason my father owned the book in the first place was that he belonged to the Book of the Month Club and he had chosen this particular tome, instead of his usual crime novels, thinking it was about the Greek hero. Which it is, in a way, but not in the way my father expected. So that made two of us who couldn’t understand Joyce’s masterpiece. My father’s Greco-chauvinistic book-buying was as far as he got into Joyce’s oeuvre. But I eventually went on to study Joyce in college and graduate school, and to spend one summer reading every page of Finnegans Wake, watching the words flicker into meaning every now and then as I prepared to write my dissertation.
For many years, June 16, Bloomsday, found me in cities ranging from Monte Carlo to Milwaukee, at the annual Joyce conferences that were my scholarly bread and butter. The conferences spanned several days, and depending on the calendar each year, it wasn’t always possible to set the keynote address on the 16th itself. This meant that, for all the intense focus on Ulysses and Joyce’s other works during the days around Bloomsday, the day of Ulysses’ narrative often got lost in the more general hubbub of the conference. Someone would invariably exclaim, while in line at the cash bar or to see that year’s Derrida protégé, “It’s the 16th!” and the rest of us would beam with pleasure for a moment.
I never happened to be at a Joyce conference in one of Joyce’s home cities—Dublin, Trieste, or Zurich. Mine were Copenhagen, Venice, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Monte Carlo, a nice mixture of the exotic and the mundane (no offense to Philadelphia or Milwaukee, but Venice they’re not). Monte Carlo is where I missed the sighting of Princess Caroline, but did witness one of the most memorable scholarly Joyce spats of the 90s, over the publication of a new edition of the sacred tome. But the geography never mattered. Even if we weren’t in Dublin where people dressed as Leopold and Molly, Stephen Dedalus, and Buck Mulligan decorated the streets, we brought the world of Ulysses to, say, the Tivoli, or the Grand Canal, or the Art Museum and the Rocky statue. We clambered into a gondola making jokes about Gertie MacDowell’s exposed drawers, and we circled the Tivoli Ferris wheel over and over, commenting on Joyce’s confirmation that there is nothing new under the sun.
Does this mean that Ulysses has a universal reach and a universal appeal? That it applies to all of us everywhere and anywhere? Well, ok. But who makes jokes about James Joyce in the real world, anyway? I mean, you had to be there. But most people aren’t, and with good reason.
The Joyce conferences were, in a way, the wrong way to celebrate Bloomsday, since they required you to be surrounded by people with rarefied intellectual concerns. We were all Stephens then, with not enough of us taking Leopold’s approach to life, mixing rumination and delight. So this Bloomsday, I’ll open one of my copies of Ulysses and I’ll start out with stately plump Buck Mulligan. I’ll touch down briefly in the melodious bar of “Sirens,” and I’ll let Molly’s long sentence carry me from Gibraltar to Dublin to Howth and to that lovely final affirmation that could be in any city at all. And I’ll think of my father, whose loyalty to his country and his culture opened the door for his daughter to enter into a new world.
Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Gopnik, both incisive, witty journalists, staff writers at the New Yorker, and expat Canadians, return to Toronto this weekend for a live debate Sunday afternoon at the University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall.The topic: Canada: Nation or Notion? (And as a proud and sometimes confused Canadian myself, I’m eager to learn the answer)If you happen to be in the Toronto area, tickets can be purchased here. And I believe there are plans to air the debate, down the road, on CBC Radio.
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.