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.
Last week I wrote a brief post about football books and wondered why there aren’t more of them, especially compared to baseball. In yesterday’s Baltimore Sun, reporter Childs Walker takes that same idea and runs with it much farther than I did in his comprehensive article. Walker’s impetus for writing the piece is a trio of recently released football books: John Feinstein’s first pro football book, Next Man Up, David Halberstam’s book about Bill Belichick, The Education of a Coach, and Allen Barra’s bio of Bear Bryant, The Last CoachWalker cites many compelling theories as to why baseball books dominate the sports literature landscape even though football is the more popular sport (at least in terms of TV ratings).”It’s funny how few good books get written about the passions of people who don’t read books,” Michael Lewis wrote in the New Republic. “There are vast tracts of human experience that, because of the sort of humans having the experience, go ignored by talented writers. Football is one of them.”Baseball is the older game, having risen to popularity at a time when the written and spoken word were the only ways for many fans to experience players and games. Football, by contrast, found much of its audience through television, and its early history feels cut off.Walker goes on to run through several football books that are worthy of the mantle “sports literature,” starting with the two books I mentioned last week, George Plimpton’s Paper Lion and Instant Replay by Jerry Kramer, a guard for the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s, and Dick Schaap. Also mentioned are a pair of novels – progenitors of the Oliver Stone film Any Given Sunday, it seems – North Dallas Forty by former Cowboys receiver Peter Gent and Semi-Tough by Sports Illustrated writer Dan Jenkins. And finally several non-fiction books about football: H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger’s book “of a Texas town’s obsession with high school football” in Friday Night Lights (also recently a movie); Mark Bowden’s study of the Philadelphia Eagles, Bringing the Heat; When Pride Still Mattered, David Maraniss’ bio of Vince Lombardi and Mark Kriegel’s bio, Namath. These books all sound like a great way to pass the time for those six days between Sundays.
Pete Dexter has been in the news around here lately, and keeping that ball rolling, I’ve contributed a piece to The Rumpus series “The Last Book I Loved” about Dexter’s collection of columns, Paper Trails. Technically, it’s not the last book I’ve loved (more recently there’s been Waiting for the Barbarians, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Shadow Country, A Mercy, and a few others), so let’s just call it “One of the Last Books I Loved.”
In late 2001 among the people I knew, cellphones went from being a gadget of the technorati to something that everyone had. I was living in a dorm with five roommates at the time and one consequence of the change was that we no longer ever spoke with each other’s parents. Previously parents had called the room line and whoever was around would pick up. I enjoyed shooting the breeze with my friends’ moms (it was mostly moms who called) and I regretted that there was no longer much opportunity to do that once cellphones allowed our parents to call each of us directly.
Ereaders today feel somewhat like cellphones just before 2001. They are not yet ubiquitous, but they are well past the early-adopter stage and their growth seems poised to go geometric. When the Kindle came out in 2007 I poopooed it as the future face of reading; the hyperactivity of the Internet just seemed like a bad match with the meditative experience of reading a book. But the other day while watching my eight-month-old son knock around a pile of books, I knew suddenly and viscerally that I was wrong. The clunky objects he was playing with seemed like relics.
The Millions has written previously about the externalities of e-readers. Edan has commented on how they portend a drawing down of the public space in which we read—with the Kindle you don’t know what the person next to you is reading, or how far along in it they are, or whether their copy of the book is dog-eared or brand new (because it’s neither).
One of the most prominent losses in this regard stands to be the loss of bookshelves. A chief virtue of digital books is said to be their economical size—they take up no space at all!—but even a megabyte seems bulky compared to what can be conveyed in the few cubic feet of a bookshelf. What other vessel is able to hold with such precision, intricacy, and economy, all the facets of your life: that you bake bread, vacationed in China, fetishize Melville, aspire to read Shakespeare, have coped with loss, and still tote around a copy of The Missing Piece as a totem of your childhood. And what by contrast can a Kindle tell you about yourself or say to those who visit your house? All it offers is blithe reassurance that there is progress in the world, and that you are a part of it.
Of the bookshelves I’ve inspected in my life, two stand out as particularly consequential. The first was my mother’s, which was built into the wall of the bedroom where she grew up. When I would visit my grandparents in the summer I would spend hours inspecting that bookshelf. The books were yellowed and jammed tightly together, as though my mother had known it was time to leave home once she no longer had any room left on her shelves. In the 1960s novels, the Victorian classics, and the freshman year sociology textbooks fossilized on the bookshelf, I got the clearest glimpse I ever had of my mother as a person who existed before me and apart from me, and whose inner life was as bottomless as I knew my own to be.
And then there was my wife, whose bookshelves I first inspected in a humid DC summer, while her parents were away at work. The shelves were stuffed full of novels—Little House on the Prairie, The Andromeda Strain, One Hundred Years of Solitude—that described an arc of discovery I had followed too. At the time we met, her books still quivered from recent use and still radiated traces of the adolescent wonder they’d prompted. In the years since, on visits home for the holidays and to celebrate engagements and births, I’ve watched her bookshelves dim and settle. Lately they’ve begun to resemble a type of monument I recognize from my mother’s room. They sit there waiting for the day when our son will be old enough to spend his own afternoons puzzling out a picture of his mother in the books she left behind.
It remains to be seen how many more generations will have the adventure of getting to know their parents in just this way. One for sure, and maybe two, but not much beyond that I wouldn’t think. To the extent that bookshelves persist, it will be in self-conscious form, as display cases filled with only the books we valued enough to acquire and preserve in hard copy. The more interesting story, however, the open-ended, undirected progression of a life defined by books will surely be lost to a digital world in which there is no such thing as time at all.
[Image source: David Goehring]
Mrs. Millions and I are headed to Los Angeles for a few days starting tomorrow morning. We’re excited to see how LA is doing since we moved away, and we’re especially enamored with the idea of taking few days off from the Chicago winter (although it hasn’t been too bad here these last few days.) Among many other activities, I plan to visit the book store where I used to work. That’ll bring me back to the roots of this blog, remind me of the good old days. All in all, it should be a pretty busy trip; lots of friends to see and some family, too, and lots of In ‘n’ Out Burgers to eat. Wifi isn’t free at the hotel, apparently, and we’ll be staying with friends some of the time too – so expect little or no blogging.However, I implore you to please direct your browsers toward The LitBlog Co-op on Monday morning where the newest LBC pick will be revealed with much fanfare. The nominees will be announced over the course of the week, as well, (and there will be an appearance by yours truly.) Next week is LBC Week. See you then.