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.
The American press’ characterization of the late Roberto Bolaño as a one-time heroin addict is “stupid,” according to people close the the celebrated Chilean writer. The novelist Enrique Vila-Matas, in a recent El País column, joined European bloggers in suggesting that The New York Times Book Review’s allusion – “Bolaño was a heroin addict in his youth” – was “a biographical error.” Now, apparently, Bolaño’s widow, Carolina López, has written a letter to the Times clarifying the point.The letter, which we’re told will be published soon, will likely reiterate López’ comments after a recent festchrift for Bolaño’s work. At that celebration, the audience was treated to a dramatic reading of the story “La Playa” (“The Beach”), in which the narrator recalls his struggles to kick heroin. Afterward, concerned that there might be some confusion, López reiterated to performer Subal Quinina that “La Playa” was fiction.As we reported last week, “La Playa,” published as a newspaper column several years ago, was the source for Natasha Wimmer’s characterization of Bolaño as a recovering addict in the introduction to the paperback edition of The Savage Detectives. It was also the only specified source for Daniel Zalewski’s earlier mention of a heroin habit in The New Yorker. (Whence, presumably, it made its way onto the Bolaño Wikipedia page). Since then, heroin has become a ubiquitous detail in the American media blitz for 2666, and though the NYTBR may be the most recent example, references can be found in sources from The Buffalo News to Time to The Texas Observer…and The Millions.As we suggested last week, the myth of Bolaño as junkie neither honors nor dishonors the work; the two long novels, over time, will prove unassailable. However, if the heroin story is false, we owe it to the man to correct the record. And perhaps in the future we should all be more careful readers.
Spotted today under the arm of a student at a New York college: Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. I’ve written here about the speed of this author’s induction into the pantheon. Nonetheless, it was remarkable – to me, anyway – to learn from this student that TSD had popped up on an English class syllabus. For the record, the student reports that he likes the book so far. (Me, too, kid. Raciest required reading this side of The Kama Sutra. Comparative religion rules!) His other classmates? Not so much. I guess in our world – unlike Bolaño’s – youth is sometimes wasted on the young.
Why is it that so many people are turned off by the classics? Is it because would-be readers are afraid they won’t “get it?” Or does reading a well-known tome on the subway or in a cafe exude an air of pretentiousness, when it’s more likely that the reader just never followed through on that English lit assignment?In talking about his latest book, Classics for Pleasure, the Pulitzer Prize winning critic, Michael Dirda, said he not only hopes to make the classics appear less daunting and more accessible to the general public, but he also wants to “encourage people to read more widely.”Dirda, a columnist for The Washington Post’s Book World, said his goal is to get people to “read beyond the recognized classics and read beyond the contemporary.” He made his remarks Tuesday during a lecture, co-sponsored by the English-Speaking Union, at the Women’s National Democratic Club in Washington, D.C.Classics for Pleasure consists of about 90 essays, written by Dirda, that describe the importance of lesser-known authors such as Sheridan Le Fanu and Abolqasem Ferdowsi as well as literary giants like Henry James and Christopher Marlowe.Each essay, ranging from two to five pages, serves as a primer on the era and author, with excerpts from famous works. They also offer some much-needed perspective, even for the seasoned reader, and are grouped together with topical headings such as Realms of Adventure, The Dark Side and Love’s Mysteries.But why should these classics, or any others for that matter, deserve a kind of sacred reverence?”Truly distinctive voices, once heard, ought never to be forgotten,” Dirda writes. “More than anything else, great books speak to us of our own very real feelings and failings, of our all-too-human daydreams and confusions.”From Dirda’s point of view, some of those failings and confusions are commonplace on the Web, perpetrated by those who dabble in his trade. He said that while “blogs and the online bookish universe are a wonderful thing… there are no oversights for the most part,” meaning no editorial review like the kind he gets from The Washington Post.He went on to say that some online book critics have a tendency to make a name for themselves by writing “vulgar, rude, outrageous” reviews, and such pieces should not be the standard for literary criticism.While that eventuality seems unlikely, Dirda’s nonetheless uses the book to re-establish his high bar for criticism while drawing in readers to “discover” the classics of yesteryear. One is certainly easier to achieve than the other.See Also: Classifying Classics; Nothing is Dead Yet: The Era of the Trusted Fellow Reader; Literature and History