I’m in the middle of the most recent National Book Award winner The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard. It’s an oppressive book both in style and content. Each description comes with an aside or a qualification. When one character, a young Australian soldier, relieves himself on the side of the road during a break in a drive across the Japanese countryside, Hazzard describes it this way: “The young driver, profiting from the hiatus, had meanwhile peed behind bushes.” Everywhere there are these odd little inclusions like “profiting from the hiatus.” The book is about the occupation of a shattered, destroyed, and conquered place, specifically the Allied occupation of post-war Japan. There is still everywhere the lingering hysteria of war, which Hazzard, like the occupiers she describes, tries to forget or ignore by imposing a false civility on the situation. The interplay of the conquered and the conquerors thus leads to dense language and curious juxtaposition. The Great Fire reminds me a lot of what was probably the first truly difficult book I ever read, Graham Greene‘s, The Power and the Glory. In that book, the “civilized” is a priest and the uncivilized is the tropical criminality of Mexico. Luis Bunuel once suggested to Alvaro Mutis, purveyor of his own brand of magical realism and author of the incomparable The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, that it is not possible to write a gothic novel that is set in the tropics. Mutis supposedly refuted this by writing The Mansion & Other Stories, though I can’t comment because (as of yet) I have been unable to lay my hands on that book. So, at this point, I would have to agree with Bunuel. In order to invoke the tropics one must also invoke the oppressiveness of the conditions there; content dictates style, which brings me back to The Great Fire. Though the book is not set in the tropics, its setting is oppressive, and thus so is the writing. And though I’m only a little ways into the book, it doesn’t seem like this is a bad thing.
Last week, online used book retailer Alibris announced a new program called Alibris Basic targeting “small and moderate booksellers,” i.e. non-professionals. The program appears to differ from Alibris’ main offering in terms of pricing:You can list up to 1,000 items for sale, and you only pay $1 plus a small commission for each one that you sell. If you don’t sell anything, you don’t pay anything except the annual subscription charge of $19.99.This compares to the flat monthly fee (plus commissions) that larger scale booksellers are required to pay. For folks who have a lot of collectible books, the Alibris program is probably worth checking out, as the site specializes in this sort of inventory. As much as Alibris would like people to list all of their books for sale, however, there are better options for readers who are looking to unload their old non-collectible books.Amazon lets you very easily list your books for sale in just a couple of steps through their “Sell Your Stuff” page. Amazon charges 99 cents plus a 15% commission on the books you sell. The main upside of going with Amazon, as I see it, is that it probably has the widest reach of all the bookselling programs out there.Still, creating and managing listings for dozens of different books can be time consuming, and one must also deal with shipping off books that get sold to various individual buyers. If this sounds like a pain, then Barnes & Noble’s book buying program might be a better bet. You need only enter the book’s ISBN to get started. B&N will tell you if it’s buying that title and how much it’ll pay. After you’ve entered your books into the system, you print out an invoice and shipping label that allows you to send the books off to B&N for free. A few weeks later you get a check in the mail. I’ve tried B&N’s program, and I found it remarkably simple. You may not be getting the best price for your books, but it’s a lot easier than the other options. The main drawback I found is that B&N is somewhat limited in the books it is willing to buy. Textbooks are the best bet, and it’s a good way to try to unload any older ones you might have lying around.Beyond the above programs, there’s always eBay, which in the realm of non-collectible books is more trouble than it’s worth (though I have had luck putting up a few dozen books at once, charging $1 a piece to start, and cross-promoting across all my other listings as a “$1 book sale.”) And then there’s the local used book shop. Buying policies at these stores vary greatly, but some pay well – and often much better if you’re willing to get paid in store credit. Of course, these “trade in” policies are how many of us ended up with such big collections of books in the first place.Feel free to share any basement bookselling tips in the comments.
Longtime Millions reader Laurie sent in her reaction to all these “top ten” book lists that have been floating around in recent months, while also, of course, sharing her own:In the wake of the release of The Top Ten, [there is also a Web site] a collection of top ten books chosen by 125 British and American writers, the Washington Post is soliciting readers’ top ten picks.These exercises are fun, but I hope no one takes them seriously. The lists they receive (like mine) will lean toward American/British books, with a smattering of European titles, partly because American schools emphasize Western literature. Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber should be as well known as War and Peace, but most Americans have never heard of it. Even when we have read the non-Western classics, we tend to favor the familiar — my list included The Old Man & the Sea and To Kill A Mockingbird, but Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji and Abolqasem Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh are probably greater works.What do you want to bet, though, that like the Modern Library a few years ago, they get inundated with a lot of lists that include Battlefield Earth?!My top ten (not set in stone, except for Heart of Darkness):The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark TwainThe Old Man and the Sea – Ernest HemingwayHeart of Darkness – Joseph ConradPortrait of the Artist As a Young Man – James JoyceTo Kill A Mockingbird – Harper LeeDon Quixote – CervantesThe Iliad & The Odyssey – HomerThe Dream of the Red Chamber – Cao XueqinWar & Peace – Leo TolstoyOedipus the King – SophoclesThanks Laurie!
NY-based readers are invited to “Step Inside the Book” at a reading/party I’m doing this Friday with Alex Rose (The Musical Illusionist) and Alex Itin (Orson Whales). Alex will be working his narrative/surroundsound magic, Other Alex will be screening his multimedia books, and I’ll be showing art and reading fiction from A Field Guide to the North American Family. Drinks are on the house, I’m told, so if you’re free, stop by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Swing Space, at 125 Maiden Lane, between 7 and 9 p.m. We now return to our regularly scheduled programming…
I am a loyal subscriber to The Paris Review, which, for my money, is still the best literary journal on the market. With the most recent issue came a bookmark noting the launch of a new Paris Review online feature. It seems that founder and long-time editor George Plimpton had always wanted to make the hundreds of interviews the journal had published as part of its series “The Art of Fiction” available to anybody, anywhere, anytime. Now, thanks to the miracle of the interweb, that dream is a reality. “The DNA of Literature” is a complete catalogue of every interview The Paris Review has ever published. The series is being posted by decade every few weeks. The 1950s are up there right now, available as easily printable PDFs. The best of the excerpts shown on the page: William Saroyan on when he writes: “I like to stay up late at night and get drunk and sleep late…. The afternoon is the only time I have left…”Also, the DNA of Literature was paid for by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. I encourage anyone and everyone to check it out, if only so they may one day say to their grandkids, “There once was this thing called the National Endowment for the Arts…”And for anyone who is more into the whole aural side of interviews, I recommend the very strange yet wonderful “Live from Prairie Lights” series. This is a live interview show taped right here in Iowa City featuring interviews with writers like Marilynne Robinson, Max Allan Collins, Jeff Shaara, and many more. The interviewer is a rather eccentric woman who has become a local celebrity around this town. You can listen to the events live or hear clips from previous interviews via Real Player. It’s a hoot!
I’m not a gamer, in any conventional sense. I like Brickbreaker, that insanely addictive game that seems to come standard on the Blackberry, and I can lose myself for twenty minutes or so in Tetris, especially if I’m on an airplane, but that’s about the extent of it. There are games that I’ve sometimes been tempted to play because I’ve heard that their worlds are beautiful, but I’ve resisted on the grounds that the absolute last thing I need is an absorbing beautiful thing to lose time in.
Given all this, I was surprised by how thoroughly I fell for Molleindustria’s Every Day The Same Dream when I encountered it a month or so ago. It’s a strange, somewhat harrowing little game that you play in your web browser, beautiful in the bleakest possible way. The world of the game is grey, constrained, populated by ghosts. The set-up is simple: your avatar gets up every morning and goes to work. Except that it isn’t quite every morning; after one or two rounds, you realize that your avatar’s caught in a repeating dream. And the thing is, chances are you’ve been here before: if you’ve ever felt trapped in a job that you hated, if you know what it’s like to get up every morning and set out into a pale workday that far too closely resembles yesterday and the day before and the day before that, then you may find this world suffused with a chilly familiarity. I did.
The game begins with your avatar standing next to his bed. The graphics are simple: he’s a white undifferentiated silhouette of a man. You walk him to the wardrobe and he puts on a suit. He walks past his wife, who’s perpetually cooking breakfast; she tells him that he’s running late. He walks down the corridor, descends in the elevator, gets in his car, drives to work, is yelled at by his silhouette boss, and walks down an endless line of cubicles populated by silhouette men who look exactly like him, until he finds a cubicle that’s empty. When he sits down in the empty cubicle the game begins again; he’s standing in his boxers by his bed.
The point of the game seems to be to break this numbing routine. Options and variations begin to reveal themselves: you can decline to put on your suit and then get fired for showing up at work in your underwear. Instead of getting in your car you can walk in the opposite direction to a desolate intersection, where just once in the game you’ll encounter a robed and hooded homeless man. “I can take you to a quiet place,” he tells you, and then he takes you to a graveyard where you linger for just a moment before you wake up standing by the bed again. You can get out of your car on the freeway, walk into a field and pet a cow. You can catch an orange leaf as it falls from a monochrome tree outside your office. You can walk past the endless row of cubicles onto a rooftop, and throw yourself over the edge.
Several commentators on various online forums devoted to gaming describe it as “a creepy little game.” I can’t really disagree, but it’s also beautiful.
The game was created two months ago by Molleindustria, which describes itself as “an Italian team of artists, designers and programmers that aims at starting a serious discussion about social and political implications of videogames.” Molleindustria was founded by Paolo Pedercini, born “somewhere in northern Italy” in 1981. He describes Every Day The Same Dream as “a slightly existential riff on the theme of alienation and refusal of labor.”
One can spend hours trying to decipher the meaning of the game (and people have, endlessly, in the afore-mentioned gaming forums.) But meaning aside, and even aside from the sad beauty of the game’s gray world, I was thinking about it the other day and I realized part of its appeal: it reminds me, in its very existence, of what the Internet used to be.
I came online in the mid-90s. People were pouring online in those days, but not everyone was there yet; I was far enough over on the leading edge of the curve that my classmates at The School of Toronto Dance Theatre thought I was exotic for having a computer and an email address, but far enough behind that astonishing things had already been done. The artistic potential of the Web had become apparent over the previous several years, and some of the websites I encountered were absolutely beautiful. I began teaching myself HTML code in my bedroom at night.
“The web is still artistically driven by unaffiliated labors of love,” the website designer Paul Frost wrote, sometime during that period.
I’m sometimes nostalgic for what the web was back then. I don’t claim that it was better. It was just different. There were high barriers for entry, and it wasn’t nearly as useful: aspects of the web that I take for granted today (buying groceries online, booking plane tickets, etc.) weren’t really there yet. But at the same time it was a stranger, wilder, in some ways more beautiful place.
Every Day The Same Dream reminds me of that lost web. It’s nothing if not an unaffiliated labor of love.