Last summer Oprah’s book club returned from its hiatus touting Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck’s East of Eden as “the book that brought Oprah’s Book Club back.” By doing this she turned her powerful book club on its head. Up until this point, book industry types had been treating the Oprah book club as a lottery of sorts by which a previously unknown (but hardworking and extremely talented writer) could be lifted from obscurity and delivered into the homes of readers everywhere. Apparently, after much behind-the-scenes horsetrading and Jonathan Franzen’s high profile disdain for receiving the award for The Corrections, Oprah became disgusted with the politics and controversy surrounding her club and suspended it. Then, months later she brought it back, and now she is sticking, more or less, to the classics. Recently, in fact, she announced her next selection, which happens to be one of my favorite books of all time, One Hundred Years of Solitude by another Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (Between the two Nobel Laureates, by the way, was Cry, the Beloved Country a largely forgotten book from the 1940s by Alan Paton.) Many serious readers, and perhaps I might suggest that they are being a bit snooty, are inconsolably annoyed that the covers of books that they have adored for decades are suddenly besmirched by book club logos. If anything is to be blamed, though, it is not Oprah for placing her mark on these “sacred” books; it is, perhaps, our greater culture of reading. In a better world, Steinbeck and Marquez, to give two examples, would be so widely read, that naming them for this book club would seem utterly ridiculous. Instead, and we should be happy about this, East of Eden, thanks to Oprah, was one of the most widely read books of 2003, and the same will likely be true of One Hundred Years of Solitude in 2004. So, perhaps the earlier incarnation of the Oprah Club was getting ahead of itself as it steered readers to somewhat more obscure books though they had never read, or perhaps even heard of, many of the classics. In the end, one can hardly fault Oprah for making readers out of millions of Americans, though the marketing effort behind the whole thing can make one a bit queasy. In an excellent guest post to The Millions a few months back, the author Kaye Gibbons (Ellen Foster, A Virtuous Woman) wrote about her experience of being plucked from relative obscurity and brought to national prominence after being selected for the Oprah Book Club. If you haven’t yet read it, here it is.
To the panoply of guilty pleasures this world has to offer, I humbly add the New York Post. I’m a Daily News man myself, but really, stuck inside a stalled subway car somewhere under the East River with nothing to read but those creepy Dr. Z acne treatment ads, who cares which paper turns up on an empty seat?When it comes to reading, tabloid journalism is the Twinky at the tip of the food pyramid, and page one is its creamy center. When confronted with the new book assembled by the staff of the NY Post, Headless Body In Topless Bar: The Best Headlines from America’s Favorite Newspaper, I couldn’t help myself. Knowing that a bellyache would accompany such indulgence, I still stuffed my face.Of course, we are in the midst of a particularly salacious period of news in the City, which makes the book a timely read, er, leaf-through. Eliot Spitzer’s nightmare is a headline writer’s wet dream. Have a look at some recent Post fronts (March 11th’s “HO NO!” is one of our favorites). All in keeping with the paper’s motto, “All the news that’s fit to bury beneath a mountain of hooker photos.”Ah, but a good hooker story comes along but once in a while. Luckily the Post has mastered the touchstone of any good tabloid front page: the cringe-inducing pun. On the conviction of a cybersex impresario: “YOU’VE GOT JAIL!” On the closing of a Dunkin’ Donuts for rodents: “UNDER MOUSE ARREST.” On earth’s encounter with a worrisome piece of interstellar matter: “KISS YOUR ASTEROID GOODBYE!” The CIA should consider reading these headlines to prisoners as a substitute for waterboarding.Yet, like a guy with a megaphone at an otherwise urbane cocktail party, the Post does command attention. Sometimes it even gets it just right. I like the front page from June 27, 2007: a photoshopped picture of Paris Hilton hoisted aloft on the hands of a throng in Times Square with the headline “V-D DAY! PARIS LIBERATED, BIMBOS REJOICE.” Then, sometimes there’s just no need to dress up a headline, such as on July 30 1985: “EATEN ALIVE! GIANT TIGERS KILL PRETTY ZOO KEEPER WHO ‘LOVED ALL ANIMALS.'”A New York Magazine survey named April 15, 1983’s “HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR” the greatest NY Post headline of all time. As one Post editor puts it, “How do you tell a sensational story other than sensationally?” It’s ironic though, that the title of this book is its climax. Sort of like the paper itself: the cover is generally the best part.
I love repetition. I love doing the same thing at the same time and in the same place, day in and day out. I love it because something happens in repetition: Sooner or later, the heap of sameness, accumulated through all the identical days, starts to glide. That’s when the writing begins.
The view from my window is a constant reminder of this slow and invisible process. Every day I see the same lawn, the same apple tree, the same willow. It’s winter, the colors are bleak, there are no leaves, and then it’s spring, the garden is bursting with green. Even though I see it every day, I’m not able to notice the changes, as if they take place in a different time frame, beyond the range of my eye, in the same way high-frequency sounds are out of reach of the ear. Then the slow explosion of flowers, fruits, heat, birds, and insane growth we call summer is here, then there’s a storm, and the apples lie in a circle under the tree. The snowflakes melt the instant they touch the ground, the leaves are brown and leathery, the branches naked, the birds all gone; it’s winter again.
In my youth, I considered Cicero’s claim, that all a man needs to be happy is a garden and a library, utterly bourgeois, to be a truth for the boring and middle-aged, as far as possible from who I wanted to be. Perhaps because my own father was somewhat obsessed with his garden and his stamp collection. Now, being boring and middle-aged myself, I have resigned. Not only do I see the connection between literature and gardens, those small areas of cultivating the undefined and borderless, I nurture it. I read a biography on Werner Heisenberg, and it’s all there, in the garden, the atoms, the quantum leaps, the uncertainty principle. I read a book about genes and DNA, it’s all there. I read the Bible, and there’s the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day. I love that phrase, “in the cool of the day,” it awakens something in me, a feeling of depth on sunny summer days that hold a kind of eternal quality, and then the winds from the sea come rushing in the afternoon, shadows grow as the sun sinks slowly on the sky, and somewhere children are laughing. All this in the cool of the day, in the midst of life, and when it’s over, when I’m no longer here, this view will still be. This is also what I see when I look out my window, and there’s a strange comfort in that, taking notice of the world as we pass through it, the world taking no notice of us.
Excerpted from Windows on the World by Matteo Pericoli. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Matteo Pericoli, 2014.
As I write this my old friend Cem is nearing home after almost nine months of traveling the world. Here’s a little note he sent me about Maqroll.i dont think ive told you. i never finished the book. i have been slowly savoringthe entirety Maqroll throughout the whole of this trip. i have managed to spreadthe 700 pages out, making the book my only constant through the time zones. thiswas partly an attempt to reflect the character himself, his love for that deadfrench scribbler whose name i cannot pronounce or remember, his careful rereadingof the text. another element of my devoted fanaticism is the habit i have developed of scratchingor writing certain quotes from the book certain places ive been. most of thesequotes have been the memorable bathroom wall etchings from ‘the snow of theadmiral’, and indeed some of these quotes have been etched onto the walls of filthybathrooms. under mattresses in the most tranquil places in southern thailand. i have been trying to put them in places where travelers and english/spanishspeakers might find them, but this has been somewhat difficult at times (easternmyanmar). im sure some people have seen them already. i did not limit thequotations with actual quote marks. after all of my bags have been unpacked, i will read the last 5 pages. then thetrip is over. Welcome back Cem!
I ran a piece in last week’s New York Observer reviewing William Goetzmann’s intellectual history, Beyond the Revolution: A History of American Thought from Paine to Pragmatism. A dry title, I know, and somewhat dry inside the cover, too. Goetzmann is near the end of a long academic career and the book felt a little like cleaning out the closet. Still, I found it an interesting read. There’s a novel synthesis running through all the facts and anecdotes, one that I think is particularly useful in our time:There were few things America’s charter citizens agreed on, but one was that the government should be agnostic about what makes the good life. That neutrality left the field open for utopian projects like Brook Farm and Modern Times, and makes room today for everything from mega-churches to television ads that hawk deodorant as a lifestyle. In fact, Beyond the Revolution argues, the entire frenzy of American enterprise from the founding to the present can be understood as an effort to invent, peddle, connive or discern, a model for how to choose and what to value in country where anything is possible.
Posting has been light because I’m nearing the end of the quarter at school, and I am in the final stages of a very big project. And posting will probably continue to be light because I’ll be heading off on vacation as soon as school is done. I’m thinking about taking my laptop with me, but even if I do, I’m not sure how close I’ll be to the Internet. I’m excited about this vacation (we’ll be joining my family at the beach in North Carolina) not just because it’ll be a much needed break from school, but also because there’s no place I’d rather read than on vacation. On a proper vacation there are seemingly endless hours to spend with your books. I also love the way certain reading experiences become associated with certain exotic locales – and by “exotic” I mean simply “not home.” For example, last summer Mrs. Millions both read Walker Percy’s classic The Moviegoer during our honey moon in St. Maarten. The unfamiliarity of that island paradise mingled with the humidity of New Orleans where Percy’s Binx Bolling is trying to keep “despair” at bay. The book and the place where I read it combined to form a peculiar sort of dreamy memory that I love. Though I haven’t even gotten the suitcase out of the closet, I already know which four books I’ll be taking with me. I plan to finish The Count of Monte Cristo on the plane ride there. I’ve been enjoying the book immensely, by the way. After that I’m going to read Belly, a debut novel by Lisa Selin Davis that will be coming out later this summer. The publisher’s publicity compares her writing to that of Jane Smiley and Richard Russo. I’m also bringing a couple of nonfiction books: David Lipsky’s account of following a class of cadets through West Point, Absolutely American. Lipsky was originally assigned to write an article for Rolling Stone about the military academy but ended up sticking with the story for four years. I’m also bringing The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki, the resident business writer at the New Yorker. The book’s premise, which is borrowed from the world of economics, is that the collective choices of large populations of people are often correct, and that it’s even possible, by setting up what amounts to a futures market for ideas, to use this effect to predict the future. A good example of this is a futures market where one can bet on who will be elected president. Such markets have been very good predictors of actual events over the years. None of these books particularly strike me as “summer reading,” but I’ll just be happy that it’s summer and that my only obligation is to read.
I’ve been submitting my fiction to magazines big and small for six years, since I was a senior in college. It took two years to receive my first acceptance, and another two years to receive my second. Since then, my record has improved: I had a story published last year, and two more are forthcoming. Still, the rejections come. My first year at Iowa, I took a seminar with Cole Swensen called Poetics of the Book. Our first assignment was to make a book out of unconventional materials. One student wrote a poem on gingersnap cookies; another student silkscreened words onto panes of glass. I took my big pile of rejection slips and sewed them together with some ugly brown thread. The stitching was poor (I can’t even replace a button), and because I hadn’t done much planning, the book unfolded in many different directions and was difficult to puzzle back together. Still, my work was impressive (Wow, look how many times I’ve been turned down!), and also pathetic (Wow, look how many times I’ve been turned down!). At the very least, it was proof of my tenacity. I’ll admit, the process was therapeutic. Those slips, some small enough to fit in the palm of my hand, now had an artistic function, and if my stories weren’t going to be bound, at least something could be. I continued to sew new rejections to the collection, and it didn’t take long for the thing to grow unwieldy. Finally, I put it aside. Now I’ve got a drawer stuffed with new rejections. What should I do with them? Sometimes I imagine having a dress made out of the slips, a shift maybe, or some slinky thing with an open back, to wear on a future book tour. Or I consider building a mobile to hang above my desk – as a threat, perhaps? I’ve heard that Amy Tan wallpapered her home’s bathroom with past rejections, and in his book On Writing, Stephen King talks about the spike on which he impaled his rejections. And there’s always this idea. But why I am keeping the damn things anyway? On author M.J. Rose’s blog, Dr. Susan O’Doherty explains: It is the childish, hypersensitive, irrational aspects of our psyche that connect us with the deep, primal themes and images that drive our most powerful writing. That primitive self is woven into the manuscripts we have the highest hopes for–and that self experiences every rejection as a blood wound, no matter what we know intellectually. I suspect that it’s this self that doesn’t want to let the slips go.Dr. Sue suggests a ritual of letting this pain go, perhaps by lighting a fire and burning each rejection, bidding goodbye or a fuck you to each one. I found Dr. Sue’s advice via Literary Rejections on Display, a blog devoted to the anger, pain and frustration that follows every “Good luck with placing your work elsewhere” from an agent or editor. This blog is itself an answer to what to do with your rejections: throw them away, but first, complain about them on the internet! The posts, penned anonymously, are sometimes funny, but the bitterness and wrath sadden me, especially when they’re aimed at small literary journals. Stop blaming them, and start subscribing. As much as I fret about my rejection slips, and get pissed off when I get a new one, or wonder when such-and-such magazine will get back to me, I try my hardest not to encourage the fixation. Too much attention on publication means less attention on the work itself: to the sentences, the images, the characters. Whenever I get frustrated by a rejection, I remember something my teacher Lan Samantha Chang once told me. “Publishing a story won’t change your life,” she said, “but revising it until it’s the best it can be, will.” Let’s all remember that the next time the mail comes.