Mark Kurlansky is one of the primary practitioners of an interesting type of history book in which he takes a specific type of object or group of people and uses it as a lens through which he views history. Kurlansky has recently gained notoriety with three books that followed this sort of historical exploration: Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, Salt: A World History, and The Basque History of the World, all of which are clever and very readable and which, with their success, have spawned a sort of cottage industry (see: The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World by Larry Zuckerman, Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization by Iain Gately, How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It by Arthur Herman, and many, many others.) Kurlansky, meanwhile, has a new book coming out that is a new twist on the one subject history book. It’s called 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, and it’s thesis is that 1968 was the year when the world grew up, so to speak. A book like this will probably be pretty fun for a couple of reasons: Kurlansky is a skilled writer and historian, who is sure to produce the sort of engaging history that is always a thrill to read; at the same time, it is always fun to take sides along the way when a writer decides to choose a such a specific thesis, one that will undoubtedly prove difficult to defend against claims of selective inclusion and omission of events in order to prove the point. I’m curious to see if he is able to pull it off.
It’s that time of year. “Best books of 2003” lists have begun to appear. So let’s dive in: the editors over at Amazon have released their Best Books of 2003: Top 50 Editors’ Picks list. According to them, the best book of the year is James Frey’s addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces. I know a lot of people who read this book and really enjoyed it, but I personally am not a huge fan of addiction memoirs or messed-up-childhood memoirs. I think I find them to be too internal and personal, and I’m not usual that interested in getting up close and personal with someone I’ve never met. So, does it deserve to be named best book of the year? Maybe top 25, but not number 1. Some books that I actually did read and enjoyed that appear on this list: Moneyball by Michael Lewis, which my friend Patrick anointed “book of the year” months ago, comes in at #4. The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem is #6, and Positively Fifth Street by James McManus is #9. Publisher’s Weekly has a very interesting interview with one of Amazon’s editors, who explains how this list was created, justifies the inclusion of certain titles, and comments on how relevant this list is to the prevailing tastes of the reading public. It’s a good read.
Scott’s Friday Column is a thoughtful look at why independent bookstores in the Bay Area, and everywhere else, seem to be disappearing.All this has taken a toll on me, the book shopper. Whereas I once aimlessly browsed through local bookstores thinking of nothing other than a new book, I now keep an eye out for warning signs, wondering which one will be the next to fall.
I’m heading to Chicago this afternoon to scope the place out. This summer, after Miss Millions and I get hitched, we’re moving to Chicago where I’ll be attending the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern. Chicago will be a big change for us… the weather alone is a little daunting, but I’m excited about getting to know a new city, and I will do my best to keep The Millions going while I’m in school. In fact, one of the things that keeps the Millions going is the great book stores in LA where I can keep track of the latest books and even meet authors from time to time. I happened upon Golden Rule Jones, which will keep me informed of readings and other literary events, but I need to find a good book store that can be my home base in Chicago, preferably somewhere on the North side of the city, since that’s where we’ll be living. So, I probably won’t be blogging for the next few days, but I will be checking back here. I’m hoping that those of you with knowledge of Chicago will leave some bookstore recommendations in the comments area so that I can check them out. Thanks guys!
A friend of mine told me this story. He was sitting in a medical office waiting to get a CAT scan, trying to read Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pnin. He’d started the book some years before, then lost it, found it again, and started over. He didn’t like it all that much (it wasn’t as good as Lolita or Pale Fire, the novels that had driven him to pick it up in the first place), and as he sat there reading in the waiting room, he thought about the CAT scan he was about to undergo. I may have only a few months to live, he thought. Is this the book I want to spend my remaining hours on?
My friend is fine, it turns out. The CAT scan came back normal. But as he told me this story, I thought back to a recent evening when I lay in my bed reading The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel. Like Wallace’s oeuvre in general, the book has some absolutely stunning sections that command your attention and make you feel intensely alive and aware (see chapters 6, 19, 22, or 46, e.g.), along with some that drive you batty with their dullness and perseverating detail.
I was struggling with the long, tedious section in which “David Wallace” is caught in a traffic jam outside the Peoria IRS office. In the next room, my two daughters, five and seven, were not going to sleep. I was getting more and more irritated with them and their demands for water, etc., which kept interrupting me from concentrating on the book.
Underlying my irritation was another anxiety: my sense that here I was, yelling at my kids to go to sleep just so that I could finish reading something that I myself found incredibly boring, a book that I had no practical need to read, a book whose own author had committed suicide before he was able to finish. A precious, irreplaceable moment of my own life was slipping away. I was declining a chance to interact with my children in a more positive way. And why? To read something that might best have been left on the cutting room floor.
I’ve read a fair number of short story collections. In most of them, there’s at least one and usually several stories that seem so clearly inferior to the rest that I have to wonder, Why is this in here? Does the author know that this story is bad? Is it here merely to serve as filler?
These questions remind me of an old Kurt Vonnegut appearance on Charlie Rose in which Vonnegut explains that he has graded all of his own novels. Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five received A pluses. Slapstick got an F. The book he was on the show to plug at the time (I think it was Timequake) was a B minus.
Vonnegut’s admirable candor makes me think that writers must have a sense of the relative merits of their works. Indeed, the placement of mediocre stories in short story collections is usually a good indicator of the grade the writers would give them. Such stories tend to be buried in the middle of the second half of a collection, or sandwiched in between two more successful pieces.
But why publish them at all? Why not spare us readers that experience of feeling that we’re spending finite moments of our lives on something that is less than the best?
Zadie Smith wasn’t addressing these particular questions at the time, but she pointed nevertheless to one answer to them when she wrote that “writers do not write what they want, they write what they can.”
If Vonnegut could have written nothing but A pluses, he would have. He couldn’t, however. No writer can. Yet Vonnegut still had contracts to fulfill, bills to pay. He had to publish books. It was in his job description.
Moreover, I suspect that, for Vonnegut and for most writers, there comes a time when they just need to accept that a novel or a story or a song is as good as it’s going to get, even if it’s not an A plus. The book needs to come out. The collection of stories needs to be a certain length. The writer’s time has been spent on the piece, for good or ill. It might as well see the light of publication as long as someone is willing to publish it. Who knows: some reader or critic might actually like it. Even if no one does, the writer needs to move on to the next story, the next novel.
It’s a delicate calibration. When do we, as writers, accept that a piece is as good as it will ever be, even if it’s not that great? When do we decide that a piece will never be good enough to be published? As readers, when do we decide that a book or a story is simply not going to be worth reading? When do we decide to press on in the face of boredom?
The CAT scan might come back normal, but in the larger sense, we’re all dying anyway. Our lives as writers, as readers, as human beings, will come to an end. What we write, what we read, what we spend our time on—these are incredibly weighty choices, though we may fool ourselves into thinking otherwise.
There’s a danger in perfectionism, in the compulsive attempt to make every novel and story and essay an A plus, or to finish reading everything we start. Yet there’s also a danger in easy abandonment, in the lack of persistence needed to push through the slow parts of War and Peace or Infinite Jest, or in the lack of writerly belief in one’s powers of revision and discovery.
In this way, as in so many others, writing and reading are metaphors for living. In the end, you do the best you can, and then, in one way or another, you let it go and move on.
(Image: fading contrail from dnorman’s photostream)
The New York Times has a little piece about books that have been blurbed by recently discredited authors. Taking the cake is Nic Kelman’s Girls which was blurbed by both JT Leroy and James Frey.Just for fun, here are some more blurbs from each.Frey:”[This] should join Catch-22 and The Things They Carried as this generation’s defining literary expression of men at war.” for The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell by John Crawford (Note how he cites two works of fiction in blurbing a memoir.)”Charlie Huston is a bad-ass writer, Six Bad Things is a bad-ass book. I loved it, absolutely loved it, as I did his first book. Can’t wait for whatever else comes from him.” for Six Bad Things by Charlie Huston”Blue Blood is real, authentic, true. Beautiful and inspiring, terrifying and heartbreaking. It is a great book.” for Blue Blood by Edward Conlon”Perverse and somewhat depraved, Rod Liddle’s fiction is a sexy but not too beautiful montage of what happens when people succumb to their urges and fantasies without considering the consequences.” for Too Beautiful for You by Rod Liddle”I have read many translations of this ancient text but Mitchell’s is by far the best.” for Tao Te Ching translated by Stephen MitchellAnd finally there’s an “Amazon.com exclusive” where Frey reviews Jay McInerney’s new novel, The Good Life (review available here until Amazon realizes it and gets rid of it): “It’s also a deeply personal book, McInerney’s most personal since Bright Lights, and it feels to me like I’m reading about variations of McInerney’s own life. He, like Fitzgerald, is at his best when he’s putting his own experiences into the lives of his characters, and I’ve never felt more of McInerney, or felt more vulnerability, which to me is a sign of strength in a writer, Unfortunately, Fitzgerald’s life was unsustainable. He died drunk, penniless, alone, forgotten. McInernery could have followed his path, and it sometimes seemed like he would. Thankfully he didn’t. People wondered what kind of writer Fitzgerald might have been had he lived. McInerney, his closest succesor, is starting to show us.”And two more from Leroy:”Corgan steps to the plate at the first scent of menace, prepared, as one who is born into the language of battle. His hands might be balled tight, but his soul absorbs what his fists cannot truly deflect. Never just the spectator, Corgan transforms his world into the palpable, lyrical beauty of the heartbreak of one who cannot turn away, allowing us to get as close as we dare without blinking.” for Blinking with Fists: Poems by Billy Corgan”Really, really great…close-to-the-nerve honesty, severe suffering, intertwined with that leavening cynical humor.” for Important Things That Don’t Matter by David Amsden
You recall a couple of weeks ago when I previewed The Morning News 2007 Tournament of Books. As it turns out, they’ve incorporated a contest for readers – an office pool – into this year’s Tournament and I’m involved. How to play along:Here’s how the contest works. In addition to this year’s brackets, below you’ll find a set of brackets filled out by each of our selected Office Pool Book Bloggers. Review them, then select the one you think is the most likely to win – the bloggers will be scored for each match they predict correctly, with scores updated each day of the Tournament. Email us at the address below with the name of the blogger you like in the email subject line, and your full contact information in the body of the email. (You can only enter once.) We’ll randomly select one reader for each blogger to “play for,” and the winning blogger’s reader will win every book in the tournament, courtesy of Powell’s Books. Note: The contest will close at 6 p.m. EST this Wednesday, March 7So, go there and pick The Millions’ bracket, there could be a whole bunch of books in it for you.