Those of you out there who have your own websites have probably noticed how the sorts of things that send people your way from the search engines is very unpredictable. In July I wrote about a fantastic poem called “The Clerks Tale” by Spencer Reece which appeared in the New Yorker new fiction issue this past summer. So many people have come here looking for it that I thought it worth mentioning again, and also because it really is a terrific poem. Here is my original post. Here is the poem, and as an extra treat, here is a link to Reece reading the poem.
The folks at Google have set up a blog dedicated to Google Book Search. Google’s plan to digitize the world’s books has been one of the most interesting and controversial publishing industry stories of the last couple of years. Is anyone surprised that it’s Google using a blog to get its side of the story out and not the publishers? Me neither.
I ran a piece in last week’s New York Observer reviewing William Goetzmann’s intellectual history, Beyond the Revolution: A History of American Thought from Paine to Pragmatism. A dry title, I know, and somewhat dry inside the cover, too. Goetzmann is near the end of a long academic career and the book felt a little like cleaning out the closet. Still, I found it an interesting read. There’s a novel synthesis running through all the facts and anecdotes, one that I think is particularly useful in our time:There were few things America’s charter citizens agreed on, but one was that the government should be agnostic about what makes the good life. That neutrality left the field open for utopian projects like Brook Farm and Modern Times, and makes room today for everything from mega-churches to television ads that hawk deodorant as a lifestyle. In fact, Beyond the Revolution argues, the entire frenzy of American enterprise from the founding to the present can be understood as an effort to invent, peddle, connive or discern, a model for how to choose and what to value in country where anything is possible.
Okay, here’s the thing: I’m not usually this inattentive. As a matter of fact, I’ve often prided myself on being a focused, interested listener. So it was with astonishment that I found myself lost in a memory of my own, not five minutes after author Clare Morrall began to read. Don’t blame her. She’s a fine reader, and indeed, from the part of the reading that I paid attention to, a fine writer as well. But it’s scarcely my fault either.She was introducing us to the principal characters of Natural Flights of the Human Mind whose lives would intersect along the Devon coast when suddenly, in the narrative, she drew our attention to a dinghy in the water. And then she mentioned the dinghy again. That’s all it took – and I was gone. I was suddenly ten years old, on holiday with my mother and father in Virginia Beach. My mother and I had taken our inflatable dinghy out for the afternoon and we were a fair distance away from the shore when we realized that the current was getting stronger and no amount of frantic paddling would right the course. Small and rather lopsided, I wasn’t the most accomplished oarsman. Then, adrift for what seemed like ages, we saw my father walking all the way out to our wayward craft, his head never once submerging, and then pulling it back to the shore, shaking his head while his human cargo was alternately sheepish and dumbfounded.So this is what played out in my head while Ms. Morrall progressed with her own dinghy-related narrative. If I were reading her story, I would simply have flipped back the requisite number of pages and resumed her tale beginning from where my attention was diverted. But I couldn’t very well interrupt her public reading and ask her to repeat.I was jolted back into her world, or at least to the no-man’s land of the auditorium, but I was hopelessly lost. I looked around and saw dozens of people, their eyes glued to the stage and their emotions being maneuvered this way and that – a chuckle, a gasp. I could’ve been one of them. I can chuckle and gasp with the best of them, but I simply couldn’t re-connect with her tale. It had passed me by. My own memory-narrative, however, was right there, within reach, and I had been paying full attention to that, so once again, while the reading progressed in that strange world around me, I resumed my own narrative – thinking about how each summer from when we immigrated to Canada when I was two, up until my mid-teens, we’d pack up the car and begin exploring our new continent, first tentatively throughout Ontario and then gradually, over several summers, Quebec, the Maritime provinces, and then down along the eastern seaboard from Maine to the Carolinas and points inland. Over several years we claimed dozens of cities and towns as our own.Even the most conscientious listener (and again, by that I mean me) must have an assortment of trigger words which will stop him dead in his tracks and spirit him away to some memory – a narrative itself, and one no less rich than one committed to the printed page. Tough competition for any author giving a reading. The worst thing would be for Ms. Morrall to take my negligence personally. Short of not using the word “dinghy” there’s nothing she could really have done to prevent this. The trigger was just too strong; and the memory powerful enough to trample on even the best public reader. It’s surprising, really, that with all the memories floating around in my head, each with its own set of trigger words, that I’m not spirited away more often.The funny thing is that with other art forms, this “spiriting away” would be acceptable, even encouraged. It’s high praise when a painting or a piece of music transports you somewhere else. But the printed word, especially when recited, is a fickle mistress. It tempts you with it’s suggestive powers, but then as soon as you succumb to the temptation, as soon as you’re transported somewhere else, it leaves you behind, lost and adrift.
Art Spiegelman has a new book out about 9/11, and it appears to be generating some controversy. USA Today and most other papers are praising the new book, which is short on pages but big on production value. Others, like the customer reviews at Amazon, are very disappointed. Meanwhile, controversial cartoonist Ted Rall has written a scathing indictment of Spiegelman in the Village Voice.
Before I worked at a bookstore, books were just things to be read. I never gave much thought to the big glossy volumes that occupy a lot of shelf space in many book stores. But the world of so-called “coffee table books” is surprisingly varied, going way beyond books of art or photographs of faraway places. With impressive production values – and hefty price tags – these books are closer to works of art than literature. I was reminded of this after an article London Review of Books pointed me to a book called Disruptive Pattern Material: An Encyclopaedia Of Camoflage: Nature, Military, Culture. The heft and glossiness of such a volume, despite – or perhaps because of – its esoteric focus, somehow make it inordinately desirable to me. Taschen, the eccentric European publishing house known for its expensive and eclectic selections, also occasionally puts out books that have this affect on me, like the Cabinet of Natural Curiosities. And I’m a sucker for atlases, the bigger and glossier and more stuffed with maps and diagrams and charts the better, like the National Geographic Atlas of the World. I am especially intrigued by atlases devoted to a narrow topic like the Atlas of Contemporary Architecture.