I’m going to Buffalo for a wedding this weekend, so you may not hear from me for a couple of days. But if you are in dire need of something to read in the intervening time, allow me to make a suggestion, or two. Most people have read one or two books by Kurt Vonnegut, and most people enjoy them. Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions, and Cat’s Cradle are probably the most widely read Vonnegut books. Most folks enjoy those books, and then never read any Vonnegut again. This is a big mistake! There are number of other amazing Vonnegut books, so allow me to present to you the best of the rest (along with brief descriptions): The Sirens of Titan (“The richest and most depraved man on Earth takes a wild space journey to distant worlds, learning about the purpose of human life along the way.”); Galapagos (“A small group of apocalypse survivors stranded on the Galapagos Islands are about to become the progenitors of a brave new human race.”); Hocus Pocus (“A small, exclusive college in upstate New York is nestled along the frozen shores of Lake Mohiga… and directly across from a maximum-security prison. The two institutions manage to coexist peacefully, until 10,000 prisoners break out and head directly for the college.”); Welcome to the Monkey House (“This collection of Vonnegut’s short masterpieces share his audacious sense of humor and extraordinary creative vision.”); and finally God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (“Eliot Rosewater, drunk, volunteer fireman, and president of the fabulously rich Rosewater foundation, is about to attempt a noble experiment with human nature… with a little help from writer Kilgore Trout.”)
I think I may have mentioned the USA Today bestseller list before. It’s fun because it ranks the top 150 books, not just the top 20 like most lists, and I also like it because it doesn’t separate books by category, so you can see how those self-help books stack up against those mystery novels. I also think it’s interesting to see which classic novels make appearances on the list. For example, this week – barring classics making the list due to movie tie-ins – we’ve got Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird at 93. I also recently noticed that you can use the search box at the top of the list to search its entire ten year history. For example, I now know that Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (which happens to be next to me on the shelf) was on the list for six weeks in late 2003, peaking at 108. Interesting.
In early 2002, the mogul for whom I worked began reimagining his prize property, The Atlantic Monthly. For a few weeks, I and other David Bradley employees at The Advisory Board Company received emails asking how The Atlantic might be improved. Would expanded political coverage make us more likely to subscribe? How about an expanded travel section? And: Could we recommend a witty British essayist to round out the list of contributors? (I’m pleased to say I botched this last question, and so can claim no credit for Christopher Hitchens.)Indeed, for a while, I wanted nothing to do with The Atlantic at all. Though the changes inaugurated that year improved the circulation numbers, they seemed to me to damage The Atlantic’s brand. The palpable rightward lurch; the proliferation of infographics, polls, and lifestyle coverage for the country-club set; and especially the breathless editorial hooks – “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” “Was Rumsfeld Right?” “Is Feminism Bad for Women?” – had made this intellectual institution everything it once wasn’t. While reading an article pegged to season five of The Wire, I could practically hear cut-and-paste mouseclicks turning good reporting into vacuous bloviating. (The Wire’s chief offense? It’s fiction!)It was around this point that I began to toy with an essay called, “Is The Atlantic Monthly the Death of Journalism?”The most telling weakness of The Atlantic circa 2005 – 2007, I would have argued, was the way that it had assimilated in print form a quality conventional wisdom assigns to online writing: i.e., an instinct to manufacture controversy, at the expense of common sense. This pseudo-blogginess was on vivid display in the magazine’s letters section, wherein master sophists such as Caitlin Flanagan hectored any reader who dared to point out the tendentiousness of their logic.Even as the editorial standards of the print magazine slipped, however, a stealthy inversion was happening on the magazine’s blogs, whose readership numbers soon eclipsed newsstand sales. Marc Ambinder sought some middle ground in our contentious political discourse. James Fallows and Clive Crook, freed from their editorial overlords, offered thoughtful feuilletons. And even as Ross Douthat and I got into a mini-contretemps about presidential fiction, I came to admire the high standards of logos and ethos he brought to that mire of pathos, the Internet.Now, with a new design and a new slogan, the print and online arms of The Atlantic have perhaps reached some happy accommodation. The current print issue reveals the virtues of editorial patience; Hannah Rosin’s piece on transgender juveniles, in particular, is a model of probity. By far the most interesting aspect of the redesign, however, can be found on the web. The new version of www.theatlantic.com sports a svelte and user-friendly index of the magazine’s blog offerings (a.k.a. “Voices”). Moreover, the central panel of the homepage features a rotating selection of current content, making no distinction between print and online provenance. It’s a credit to The Atlantic’s intrepid bloggers – and a nod to the possibilities of the blog as a medium – that readers won’t miss the distinction.
Book blog fans: you may want to point your browsers to Beatrix, a new blog at ArtsJournal by Ron Hogan, the proprietor of the well-know blog Beatrice. With this impressive bit of branding, Ron has really locked down the “women’s names that begin with Beatri-” market.
I saw this a while back on another blog, and I should have posted it here then, but I forgot, and now all this recent talk of Ryszard Kapuscinski has reminded me of it again. It’s Kapuscinski’s recent essay about World War II in Granta, and I would link to the blog where I found it originally but I can’t remember which one it was.And for those who, like me, enjoy learning about food, spend some time with the Food Timeline.
The Association for Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) met in Chicago this week for their annual conference and book fair. Tin House was there. Granta was there. Every university press known to mankind was there. One Story delivered valentines, and Avery offered lollipops. Many, many writers showed up to network, get ideas, and press the flesh. You wanted to be there.Alas, I wasn’t. L.A. is far from Chicago, and I’m broke, and I had to work. Thankfully, there was an alternative…L.A.D.W.P., which might stand for the Los Angeles Department of Writers and Poets, or, say, Los Angeles Drinking Writing People, hosted its first event on Friday for all us Angelino writers who had missed the events in Chicago. We congregated in the back room at the beloved H.M.S. Bounty, a nautical-themed bar on the first floor of the famous Gaylord apartment building in Koreatown. We wore name tags. We drank martinis, beer, and even the occasional shot (who invited the poets?). There were writers working on short stories, or on their first novel, or their second or third, or, in the case of Mark Haskell Smith, on their fourth. The kids from the Hipster Book Club even made an appearance.We talked shop. The paperback of Janelle Brown’s first book, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, is coming out soon, and we discussed how to get it on the enviable fiction table at Skylight. (Good thing I work there now.) I asked the students at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert MFA program if there was a rivalry with the M.F.A. program at Riverside’s main campus; a consensus was not reached. Fiction writer and Los Angeles Times book blogger Carolyn Kellogg suggested we hold these events fairly regularly – perhaps one during the book festival?A painter who had been dragged to the event by her writer-friend asked me what I was reading, and then apologized, saying, “Is that an okay question to ask at these sorts of things?” I told her of course it was, and that I was almost done with Mrs. Dalloway.Antoine Wilson, author of the riveting novel The Interloper, had just flown home from a family trip to Mexico. From the plane window, he said, he had witnessed Los Angeles in its glittering, sprawling vastness, and just driving from his house on the westside, to the Bounty on the east, he had experienced the various, wildly different landscapes and milieus the city has to offer. Between my first and second martini (or, was it my second and my third?) Antoine and I talked about trying to write the L.A. Novel. We both agreed that capturing our hometown on the page might make your head explode. Thinking about it now, I know we’ve got Play as it Lays, The Day of the Locust, Ask the Dust, The Big Sleep, and Their Dogs Came With Them, among many, many others; but can a single book capture the entire city? (And don’t you dare say Bright Shiny Morning.)I asked Karen Moulding, who has recently come from New York, what L.A. was like for a writer. She said, “Oh my God! Writers are so nice in Los Angeles!” Author Janet Fitch added, “Yeah… because there’s so little at stake.” Perhaps YA author Cecil Castellucci had the wisest answer: “Bette Davis said, ‘Take Fountain.’ I say, ‘Take Franklin.'” Everyone agreed.
Call me Galadriel.
(Also Rosalind, Tyrion Lannister, Remus Lupin, and Fanny Price.)
Do you know me now?
The rash of character personality quizzes that recently popped up on my Facebook was delightful at first. Of course I wanted to know what Harry Potter or Shakespeare character I was. What ’90s rocker, what Downton lady, what David Bowie.
It was fun. I took them too. I am in favor any declaration of readerly passion.
But, as the quizzes multiplied, I started to get an awful, queasy feeling. I was troubled as I saw post after post that read: I am this person in this book. We are the same. This is me.
For a character to feel relatable, of course, is one of the great joys and strengths of fiction, and I myself travel with a posse of characters who have spoken to me as if from inside my own heart: Harriet Welch, Seymour Glass, Fleur Pillager, Joelle Van Dynne, Eugene Henderson, and Mick Kelly, to name a few.
But the most powerful reading experiences I’ve had all happened when I was seduced into the specific and alien lives of characters who are not like me at all. Characters who do things I would never do. Characters with whom I likely do not share common party styles or desired vacation destinations or favorite Beyoncé songs. I’ve gone along for the ride with Úrsula Iguarán’s matriarchal ferocity, Billy Pilgrim’s disorienting despair, Rat Kiley’s misdirected bravado, and Peter Jernigan’s magnificently self-destructive gin drinking. I have loved Lolita with Humbert Humbert and wondered how I felt about myself after. Raskolnikov made me kill an old woman with an axe. I screwed around as Yunior in ways that hurt me more than the girls in question. Jay McInerny told me that YOU, that I, was doing all manner of things I assure you I never had any intention of doing. Hell, Rajesh Parameswaran once showed me what is was like to be a TIGER who brutally mauled person after person in a confused expression of love.
Call it radical empathy, as Colum McCann does. Call it the moral necessity of metaphor, as Cynthia Ozick does. Call it containing multitudes, as Walt Whitman does. Call it anything you like — so long as you think it’s important. So long as you understand that gaining access to identities, consciousness, and experiences different than your own is one of the most powerful and humanizing things a piece of art, particularly a book, can do for you.
This is perhaps never so clear to me as when I am teaching.
When an older, continuing-ed student, so shy she typically blushes when she has to talk, says that she really liked the parts of Persepolis where Marjane was a confident loudmouth who spoke out against the post-war Iranian regime. When a Floridian frat guy says he likes “ghetto-nerd” Oscar Wao and understands how hard it is to not be the person everyone expects you to be. When the orthodox Jewish boy who hadn’t participated all semester was the only one who didn’t think “For Esmé With Love and Squalor” was about a pedophile and defended it to the class by saying: “They’re trying to save each others’ lives.” When the young African-American guy in the nursing school who was only in my class because it was required came to life during our unit on August: Osage County and demanded to read the part of Violet, the cruel Okie-mother. When a kid named Frankie performed the greatest Lear I’ve ever seen in the trailer under the West Side highway that was our classroom with an umbrella for a scepter because it was raining that day…these are the times that I remember why I write and why I teach.
You might point out that there are more important things than a proliferation of online personality quizzes happening in the world this week. There is upheaval in Ukraine. There are protests in Venezuela and Bosnia-Herzegovina. At home, there is Jan Brewer’s terrifying consideration of SB 1062. But I’ll go ahead and say that humans who engage in radical empathy with characters unlike themselves, who experience things beyond the scope of their lives, are more likely to know and care about these events too. Are more likely to do something about them.
So do not ask us which characters we are most like. Forget: “Who Are You?”
Ask us our favorites. Ask us who we love. (And in truth, and in the spirit of February, what says more about a person really, than who they love?)
Because when you list your favorite characters, when you tell us who it is you love, are these the characters and people who are the most like you? I hope not. If you find yourself encouraged to love only characters who are just like you, I want you to worry about that; it means your art isn’t doing its job.
Image Credit: Wikipedia