First, fiction. It almost goes without saying that people are still reading The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem, but last week I noticed some other new fiction making inroads among the reading public. Mailman the fourth novel by J. Robert Lennon takes its title from the occupation of the main character, Albert Lippencott, “a loner who reads the mail before delivering it.” Ever since I read Thomas Pynchon’s paranoiac masterpiece, The Crying of Lot 49, I’ve thought that there is a wealth of material that might be mined from the machinations of the Postal Service. When you look at it in a certain way, mail is a pretty crazy thing; billions of pieces of paper crisscrossing one another invisibly from one end of the world to the other and so many stories in those letters. Also proving popular, due at least in part to impeccable reviews, is The Known World by Edward P. Jones. And lastly, lots of people are looking to read Charles Baxter’s latest, Saul and Patsy. Like his previous novels, Baxter’s latest is thoughtful, reflective and “quietly triumphant.” Several of my trusted fellow readers have singled out Saul and Patsy as a book they are dying to read.
Under a lank and sunsmeared sky the man took the tattered map from his knapsack and smoothed it on the grittened flat of a boulder. Over endless months the map had been worn to practically nothing, incomprehensible in parts. Mended with yellowing scotchtape, rusted paperclips. West Virginia now read West Virgin and it always made him laugh. He knew it wasnt funny, but the world had been boached and heatraped, stripped to its meanest need. No more Patton Oswalt monologues or George Saunders shortstorys. No more catchphrases or oneliners. Only he and the boy and the road and West Virgin. Tee hee.
We cross a bridge here, he said, pointing to a beansmudge in the southern corner. It looks to be about eight miles, or two kilometers. See this green dotted line? That means it’s a scenic route.
The boy smiled. Will it be pretty, Papa?
No. Everything will be dead. But we might see an interesting corpse, he said, mussing the boy’s hair. Twisted into a neat shape in a ditch or something. Or maybe even hung from a branch with its legs eaten off.
Oh boy. That sounds like fun.
Now this is the river, he said, indicating a random mapcrease. We follow the road here along the eastern slope of the mountains. These are our roads, the black lines here. See these roads? The boy seemed confused. What’s the matter, the man said.
I thought it was singular. You know. “The Road.”
The man’s eyes went wide. Where did you get those?
The quotation marks.
The boy looked at his feet. Ive. Ive been saving them, Papa.
Well you can’t just use them like that. He took the boy’s face in his hands, more roughly than intended. Everything is precious. Everything. Do you understand?
The boy looked a little bit frightened. Yes Papa. I wont ever use them again. I promise.
The man turned back to the map, shaken by the boy’s profligacy. Had he learned nothing from the unending
trudge? The harrowing woap? The rampled skoon?
Now, he said, turning back to the map. These are the state roads.
Why are they state roads?
Because they used to belong to the states.
But there arent any more states?
What happened to them?
I dont know exactly.
The boy thought about that. Everything is very nebulous, isnt it, Papa?
Yes, said the nameless man to the nameless child, gazing out at the ruin caused by some massive anonymous catastrophe. Thats how we keep things interesting.
They came upon him shuffling along the road before them, dragging one leg slightly and stopping from time to time to scratch at his mealy nethers before lurching forth again.
What should we do, Papa?
We’re all right. Let’s just follow and watch.
They walked in silence.
He really scratches at his nethers a lot, the boy whispered.
Yes he does. They must be pretty mealy.
They followed behind a good ways until he just sat in the road and did not get up again. The boy clung to his father’s arm as they neared the huddled figure. They could see that the old man’s skin was badly quimpled beneath his ragged coat. One of his eyes was burnt fully shut and his hair was but a riggled mirkin upon his charred and dadgy headskull. A piece of scalp had been ripped off, mended with mudcrusted papier-mâché. Part of an ear chewn away, as if by swarming possums. An old coathanger for an arm, the bent hook forming a rude hand. A woolen scarf that totally clashed with his pants. As they passed they saw that he wore mittens on his feet. Upon his one good hand was a shoe. He sat in silence, exploring a nostril with his coathanger. He found something and brought it out for examination, grinning at the nosecrust before going in for more. The boy kept looking back as they walked. Let that be a lesson to you, said the man, keeping his voice low. Never wear a black scarf and brown pants.
The man had carried his billfold till it wore a cornershaped hole in his trousers. Then one day he sat by the roadside and took it out and went through the contents. A few dollar bills, a pair of credit cards. A holepunched card from a coffeeshop. A photograph of his wife, radiant in white. He looked at that a long time. When he and the boy had eaten and continued into the valley, he left the billfold and the cards where they lay. A final proof of his wife given to the blind and godless void. He looked back as they walked and was overcome with grief. He had been one holepunch away from a free twelve ounce coffee.
They stood in the high chiggerfilled wheatgrass and called to him. Prancing sprites in their natty Sunday best, wispy and shauntled. Across the dancefloor of a heatdried waste where the deathberm had lifted. A lie between verities. Gumption and woe among the mumbling bindlestiffs. A feastless smorgasbord. Was, not was. Mama said knock you out. Kid kid icarus, kid kid icarus. Google it if you must. The figures sunk into their narrow earthen spriteholes, inscrutable message delivered. He woke and lay in the dark, vaguely disappointed. He preferred the dreams with vaginas in them.
Sure, today Apple unvailed the “iPod phone” and the superslim iPod Nano, but the real news is that for the first time, via iTunes, the entire Harry Potter series will be available on digital audio (that’s $249 for the whole set). This is more interesting to me for what it represents. As iPods and other high-capacity digital audio players have become ubiquitous and as digital audio delivery (via podcasts and/or services like audible.com) has become more user friendly, the stage has been set for a revolution in reading. Though digital audio books will never overtake paper ones, they will only grow in popularity and sometime soon we may see a mini-revolution in the way people consume literature.
In my parents’ home, tucked into the bottom drawer of the dresser in the spare room, there’s a small stack of papers bound together with a rubber band.
I stumbled upon this last week. The rubber band virtually disintegrated as I began to flip through the pages. There, in my hand, were long, hand-written excerpts from all sorts of books. Plays, poetry, philosophy, science, history. Fully attributed, with annotations on the side. I was holding a bit of family history, notes that my grandfather had made to himself as he devoured plays by George Bernard Shaw and writings by Bertrand Russell, meticulously written half-page excerpts, with his own comments here and there. There were also bits of history and science – all transcribed when my grandfather was about 80 years old, during the final couple years of his life.
My grandfather, a pharmacist in his younger days, lived with us in his final years until he died at age 81. I was six years old when he died. House-bound in those final years, these must’ve been library books that my mother brought home for him, which he read and then made these detailed notes on the back of whatever scraps of paper he had handy.
I knew that in those last few years of his life he’d written a half-dozen short stories – children’s stories, each centered on the fantastical exploits of a five-year old named Andy. Lots of secret gardens and magical lands. Those I knew about. I remember them at the time, and I’ve stumbled upon them since. But I had no idea that at the same time he was intently reading, transcribing, and making detailed notes on Shaw’s Androcles And The Lion. I had no idea that he was so immersed in Bertrand Russell’s humanism. There were also bits of verse, quite a bit of science, even a few unattributed jokes and riddles.
I was moved by not only the breadth of his interests but the many similarities to my own. Also his thought process, his attention to detail, his humanism, even his appreciation of the cryptic, the clever, the silly.
And I was suddenly in a role I hadn’t assumed in decades – a grandson. By the time I was nine, all my grandparents had passed away. I haven’t thought of myself in that way in a lifetime.
I was flooded with memories of him. Though I was a small child when he died, I remember his presence. I remember the kindly, gentle man who lived with us. But one thing I don’t have is any memory of his voice. Long-since drowned out by decades of noise, I don’t remember what my grandfather sounded like. And unless a mystery tape-recording suddenly surfaces, I guess that detail is lost forever.
But in these hand-written excerpts and notes, tracking his reading habits in those last few years – perhaps marking his attention to detail, perhaps an attempt, near the end, to make sense of it all, to put things in perspective, perhaps all these things – I’ve been given a sudden and surprising connection to my past. To a part of my past that I thought was fixed and limited. A part of my life which has suddenly expanded, and now reaches into the present and into the person I’ve become.
My soon-to-be-father-in-law has a huge collection of radio programs that he has taped and cataloged over the last two or three decades, and recently he gave me a couple of interesting tapes from the late 80’s. They contain a recorded performance of a baseball-themed show put on by the late baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti and one of my favorite writers, Roger Angell. The show, which is about two hours long, consists of readings of baseball essays, stories, and poetry. The work of John Updike is represented as is that of Garrison Keillor. I was most interested in an excerpt from a book called The Glory of Their Times: The Story of Baseball Told By the Men Who Played It, a book that was put together by Lawrence Ritter, an economics professor at NYU. Ritter also happens to be a baseball fan, and shortly after Ty Cobb’s death in 1961, inspired by the outpouring of myth and legend that occasioned Cobb’s passing, Ritter decided to record for posterity an oral history of the early years of professional baseball. Over the next several years Ritter traveled 75,000 miles, crisscrossing the country, tape recorder in hand, seeking out the game’s grizzled veterans. The result is a book that is, I am now learning, cherished by aficionados of baseball literature, and since, I suppose, I must consider myself a member of this group, my copy should be arriving via post shortly.An AddendaI knew I had forgotten at least one of the books I read last year, and I think I forgot because I didn’t actually read it; I listened to it. Thanks to a friend who gave me a copy, Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion’s World Series of Poker by James McManus was my driving companion for a week or so, which both doubled my reading output and made that much more tolerable the vast amount of time that I, like any Angeleno, must spend in his car.
The Rake put together a terrific column on lazy reviews, the prevalence of lists masquerading as criticism, and the army of meta-critics that has emerged online. I’m late in linking to it, but it’s a very worthwhile read. A taste:Yes, Virginia, your pal the Rake has been willing witness to countless hours of VH1’s laziest programming. He’s not made of stone. The professional listmakers’ core insanity lies in the way in which they hold up sub-B list comedians and other cultural freaks as insightful, worthy commentators. Certainly there are subjects upon which Ron Jeremy is an expert, but the Top 100 Scorchtastic Movie Kisses is not one of them, not least of all because the very object of his commentary is chimerical.There’s more, too.
Borders’ plan to display more books face-out and, as a result, to stock fewer titles has generated quite a bit of discussion. On our own post about the plan, we received several interesting comments, but I was most intrigued by what commenter Matthew had to say:The Froot Loops example is classic thinking from retailers who enter bookselling from another retail environment.The next time I go down to my local chain Cerealseller to choose my cereal for this week from among the 150,000 cereals on offer Mr Froot Loop can come and offer me some buying advice.Finally, the point of facing out is to attract attention to specific titles from the larger product range. The larger product range sells fewer copies of individual titles, but sells well by total volume… it also serves to attract serious bookbuyers and lend kudos to the bookstore.If chains chose to employ staff with knowledge (and local control) of that enormous range then they’d have a most effective sales tool. These retail gurus need to spend less time in supermarkets and more time at beauty counters and in cell phone stores. Books are a knowledge product requiring retail guidance and salesmanship… do these guys spend as long with their Wheaties as they do with a novel?Emphasis mine. What Matthew has so deftly put into words is something I’ve mulled over since my bookselling days but never quite found the right words for. I’ve always known that knowledgeable booksellers are a huge asset to any bookstore – I was lucky to be surrounded by many when I worked at one – but I had never fully grasped what it means to sell a “knowledge product” as opposed to a “commodity product,” nor had it occured that generally products can be described as one or the other.What’s key here is the distinction between how knowledge products are sold versus commodity products. To use Matthew’s example, when buying a cell phone or going to the beauty counter, you are confronted with many dozens of choices offering an array of specific features suited to a variety of specific needs – bluetooth or dry skin, for example. When it comes to breakfast cereal, you don’t need the guidance as much. The product is cheaper, “wrong” choices cost less, and cereal box mascots aside, one type is generally as good as another.Viewed in this light, it’s crazy to try to sell books as a commodity product because, (and this is just a guess) out of all the retail categories out there, bookstores by far offer the widest array of products, and therefore would require the most guidance and the best systems to help customers find what they are looking for. Undoubtedly, there are many knowledgeable booksellers at chain stores, but if the chains continue to view books as commodity products, their booksellers’ efforts will be futile. It’s also clear why Amazon has been so hugely successful. The site is the ultimate resource for selling knowledge products, with a wealth of information at the ready for anyone looking for a book. It’s possible that, thanks to the internet, the costs are simply too high for chains to go the knowledge-product route, but running in the other direction, towards Froot Loops, hardly seems the answer.For those still interested in this issue even after all this, check out these links:GalleyCat wonders if face-out books will put more emphasis on cover design and follows up with further questions about the co-op payment aspect of this.The Stranger guesses we’ll see more extremely popular and/or bad books face-out at the expense of those hidden gems.A dissenting opinion