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.
This past weekend, I had the opportunity to see an amazing exhibit at UCLA’s Hammer Museum. I first read about Lee Bontecou in the New Yorker a month or so ago. The article described a young woman artist who had been poised to become a household name, but instead quietly excused herself from the art world for a secluded life in rural Pennsylvania. Now, more than 30 years later she has been coaxed out of hiding for a retrospective that includes the work that first brought her notoriety as well as everything she’s done since then, while working out of the spotlight. I had never heard her name mentioned in art history classes nor had I seen any of her work in New York galleries, yet the article made her work sound undeniably compelling. Having now seen these remarkable wall hangings, constructions, mobiles, and drawings in person, I can say quite frankly that I was truly amazed by her work. It is very difficult to describe Bontecou’s work since it only obliquely relates to the work of other artists of her generation. The intricately fashioned constructions and mobiles are somehow simultaneously emotional and technical, intricate and organic. I implore everyone to see this retrospective. It is a remarkable event. Here’s the deal: 10/5/03 to 1/11/04 at the UCLA Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; 2/14/04 to 5/30/04 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; and 7/30/04 to 9/27/04 MoMA QNS, New York. Abrams has put out a lovely companion volume for the retrospective. Also in art, yesterday at the bookstore I noticed a good-looking new book by the whimsical architectural illustrator, Matteo Pericoli. In 2001 Pericoli put out a book called Manhattan Unfurled, a hard bound fold out drawing of the Manhattan skyline as viewed from the perimeter of the island. In a simple yet playful continuous line drawing, the whole of the city is captured from viewpoints across the Hudson and East Rivers. His new book Manhattan Within is another hard bound fold out drawing, but this time it takes an insider’s view of the city. In the same style as before, he draws the skyline of the city as seen from within the confines of Central Park. Both books include journals full of Pericoli’s musings and observations as he trekked inside and outside of the city trying to capture its spirit with pen and paper. Taken together, the two books are a refreshingly new take on an old and much used subject. Visit Matteo Pericoli’s website to see his work.
I’ve never been shy about my love for long form journalism – my love for the New Yorker is based on it – so I was intrigued to hear about a pair of books that collect some recent stand-out examples of the work from two other venerable magazines: New York and Harper’s. The former is represented in New York Stories and the latter in Submersion Journalism Both were reviewed a few weeks back in the LA Times. I was particularly intrigued by Submersion Journalism which includes work by Wells Tower, an excellent but not terribly well-known journalist who contributes to Harper’s, The Believer, Washington Post Magazine and others. We wrote about him a while back in an “Ask a Book Question” post. Unfortunately, a bunch of comments from readers listing several of Tower’s pieces were lost in the Great Comments Purge of 2006, but the post nonetheless provides some background.Tower is best known for the remarkable Harper’s piece “Bird-Dogging the Bush Vote,” for which he, as the LA Times puts it “embeds himself with some Bush boosters in Florida during the 2004 campaign in order to know thine enemy.” The article is, unfortunately, not available online for free, but it is included in Submersion Journalism. I’ve read it, and I think it rates up there with Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail as a piece of tragicomic political journalism.Stepping back, it’s always exciting to see collections like these come out, if only for the fact that they highlight some of the best, most entertaining journalism ever written. I concur with reviewer Marc Weingarten in the LA Times who writes, “The Web is clearly where the media is headed. But long, well-informed literary journalism like the stories found in these books is still the province of print. If readers forsake this stuff, well, shame on all of us.”See Also: The New New Journalists
My friend Brian read yesterdays musings on libraries and wrote in with a couple of addenda…two things:1) you need to include tam tam books in your links… not only b/c it’s tosh [a co-worker and the founder of Tam Tam Books], but b/c it’s a very idiosyncratic, interesting, eccentric, and different site (much like the man himself…)2) loved the piece about “library angels and book fairies”, and very happy to see mention of borges (one of my all-time favorties), but you must make specific mention of his story “The Library of Babel” which is, without a doubt, the greatest story about a library ever written — the library… as a/the universe. a magical story that when i first read on the NYC subway, on my way downtown from hunter college, caused me to miss many a stop… i found myself in brooklyn, and so caught up in a borgesian daze and full of inspiration was i, that i chose not to go back the other way, but exited the subway in a strange part of town and explored, got myself dinner at a greek restaurant, chatted up a one-eyed drunk, then hopped back on the train and went home late that night, all hopped up on borges… (oh, how i miss the whirlwind that is nyc life!) – anyway, if you haven’t read this story, it’s short and ESSENTIAL. enjoy! [see page 112 of Borges’ Collected Fictions]Heard on the RadioToday while I was running errands, I was pleasantly surprised by some decent mid-day public radio that mentioned a couple of books that sound pretty interesting. First, I caught the end of a show that airs twice a month on KCRW called DnA. It’s devoted to design and architecture issues. Today’s guest was design writer Michael Webb who talked about his new book Brave New Houses: Adventures in Southern California Living. According to Webb, over the course of the last century, cutting edge architects have used the single-family home as a kind of laboratory in which they could try out some of their more avant-garde ideas on a smaller, less risky scale. Since, in comparison to most cities, Los Angeles is a very new place, it is home to many of these houses. RM Schindler, Richard Neutra, and Frank Gehry all built single family homes in L. A., and Webb’s book is a photographic record of this adventurous ground-breaking architecture.After spending a considerable amount of time in the post office, I got back in my car in the middle of an interview with compilers of another interesting-sounding book (I think the show was The World, by the way). Embedded: The Media At War in Iraq is an oral history of the journalistic experience of the war in Iraq. During and after the war, the two writers, Bill Katovsky and Timothy Carlson wandered from Kuwait City to Baghdad to Amman, and interviewed every journalist they crossed paths with. As they tell it, the resulting book inculudes many tales of both danger and poignency, which, taken as a whole, represent a singular record of the journalistic experience on the front lines.
In a recent issue of The New York Times, Tina Brown explained the rationale behind her nascent Book Beast project thusly:
There is a real window of interest when people want to know something. . . . And that window slams shut pretty quickly in the media cycle.
As a diagnosis, this is accurate – there is a real window (or at least a figurative one) – but it begs a number of relevant questions. For instance: Isn’t the erstwhile “Queen of Buzz” part of the problem of dwindling attention spans, rather than part of the solution? (I suppose you can’t unslam a window any more than you can unring a bell, but still…)
Ms. Brown’s remedy is, characteristically, to get books out there even faster, publishing topical e-books and paperbacks “on a much shorter schedule than traditional books.” However, the imminent arrival of Going Rogue – whose gestation period was shorter than a goat’s – would seem to suggest that Beast Books will differ from today’s “traditional books” more in degree than in kind. (On the other hand, from a marketing standpoint, I suppose Ms. Brown was right: six months was long enough for me to realize I’m tired of reading about Sarah Palin. If it had been available in March, I might have bought the sucker.)
Now, at The New Republic, Damon Linker has blogged a pretty succinct summation of Beast Books’ weird commingling of the redundant, the oxymoronic, and the inevitable:
Opining is fun, and so is ideological combat. But a book is, or should be, something different: A chance to slow down. An opportunity to raise one’s sights a little higher. . . . To reflect instead of react. What Beast Books is proposing . . . is (in Truman Capote’s words) the reduction of writing to typing.
Presumably, this is just the sort of “something” that might merit book-length treatment…were the whole subject not so last week.
Bonus link: The Art of Fashionable Lateness
I had no idea that I was the one who introduced Scott of Conversational Reading to Lawrence Weschler. I’m glad I did because otherwise he might not have attended Weschler’s visit to the City Arts & Lectures series and given us an excellent report. Every time I hear about Weschler I get more and more interested. I think, eventually, I’ll read all of his books.I was also happy to see Scott’s report that Weschler described Joseph Mitchell “as possibly the greatest writer he’s ever read.” I was introduced to Mitchell in an offhand sort of way in a literature course in college, and after reading Joe Gould’s Secret and dipping into Up in the Old Hotel from time to time, he remains one of my favorites.
I won’t be posting again until Monday because I’m leaving for Las Vegas tomorrow. I’ve got plenty of books to read right now (and anyway, I’m not sure if I’ll do much reading), but I was wondering what I might pick up if I wanted to do some Vegas-themed reading. The obvious choice is Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a book that I read years ago and loved, though I prefer some of HST’s other books. But, no, that’s far to cliched. Or I could read John O’Brien’s Leaving Las Vegas, the devastating novel of alcoholism that was turned into an Oscar-winning triumph for Nicolas Cage, but that would be far, far too depressing. A little research reveals that Larry McMurtry wrote a book set in Vegas called The Desert Rose. I’ve never read McMurtry, so this might be a reason to start. But, as usual, I have a hankering for some non-fiction as well. There happens to be a good, recent book about Vegas called The Money and the Power: The Making of Las Vegas and Its Hold on America by Roger Morris and Sally Denton, which might help explain why we are drawn to this desert fantasyland like so many moths to the flame.