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.
Richard Nash, the guy behind Brooklyn’s Soft Skull Press has started a blog. Aside from writing about Soft Skull’s books, Richard also plans to discuss matters of importance to small publishers. Look for his dispatches from the Frankfurt Book Fair coming soon.Another small publisher, Unbridled Books, presents its homepage in a blog-like format. Small publishers have to work hard to be heard among the media conglomerates that control most of the publishing industry. Using blogs give these little guys the opportunity to do something that their much bigger competitors have trouble doing, make individual connections with their readers.
Okay, here’s the thing: I’m not usually this inattentive. As a matter of fact, I’ve often prided myself on being a focused, interested listener. So it was with astonishment that I found myself lost in a memory of my own, not five minutes after author Clare Morrall began to read. Don’t blame her. She’s a fine reader, and indeed, from the part of the reading that I paid attention to, a fine writer as well. But it’s scarcely my fault either.She was introducing us to the principal characters of Natural Flights of the Human Mind whose lives would intersect along the Devon coast when suddenly, in the narrative, she drew our attention to a dinghy in the water. And then she mentioned the dinghy again. That’s all it took – and I was gone. I was suddenly ten years old, on holiday with my mother and father in Virginia Beach. My mother and I had taken our inflatable dinghy out for the afternoon and we were a fair distance away from the shore when we realized that the current was getting stronger and no amount of frantic paddling would right the course. Small and rather lopsided, I wasn’t the most accomplished oarsman. Then, adrift for what seemed like ages, we saw my father walking all the way out to our wayward craft, his head never once submerging, and then pulling it back to the shore, shaking his head while his human cargo was alternately sheepish and dumbfounded.So this is what played out in my head while Ms. Morrall progressed with her own dinghy-related narrative. If I were reading her story, I would simply have flipped back the requisite number of pages and resumed her tale beginning from where my attention was diverted. But I couldn’t very well interrupt her public reading and ask her to repeat.I was jolted back into her world, or at least to the no-man’s land of the auditorium, but I was hopelessly lost. I looked around and saw dozens of people, their eyes glued to the stage and their emotions being maneuvered this way and that – a chuckle, a gasp. I could’ve been one of them. I can chuckle and gasp with the best of them, but I simply couldn’t re-connect with her tale. It had passed me by. My own memory-narrative, however, was right there, within reach, and I had been paying full attention to that, so once again, while the reading progressed in that strange world around me, I resumed my own narrative – thinking about how each summer from when we immigrated to Canada when I was two, up until my mid-teens, we’d pack up the car and begin exploring our new continent, first tentatively throughout Ontario and then gradually, over several summers, Quebec, the Maritime provinces, and then down along the eastern seaboard from Maine to the Carolinas and points inland. Over several years we claimed dozens of cities and towns as our own.Even the most conscientious listener (and again, by that I mean me) must have an assortment of trigger words which will stop him dead in his tracks and spirit him away to some memory – a narrative itself, and one no less rich than one committed to the printed page. Tough competition for any author giving a reading. The worst thing would be for Ms. Morrall to take my negligence personally. Short of not using the word “dinghy” there’s nothing she could really have done to prevent this. The trigger was just too strong; and the memory powerful enough to trample on even the best public reader. It’s surprising, really, that with all the memories floating around in my head, each with its own set of trigger words, that I’m not spirited away more often.The funny thing is that with other art forms, this “spiriting away” would be acceptable, even encouraged. It’s high praise when a painting or a piece of music transports you somewhere else. But the printed word, especially when recited, is a fickle mistress. It tempts you with it’s suggestive powers, but then as soon as you succumb to the temptation, as soon as you’re transported somewhere else, it leaves you behind, lost and adrift.
The Guardian has a story in which some notable writers suggest what they think kids should be reading. While I don’t agree with British poet Laureate Andrew Motion who proffers Don Quixote, Ulysses and The Wasteland, I love that lots of more appropriate classics are suggested. I’ve long thought that young readers, perhaps having read all the Harry Potters and Lemony Snickets, should be pointed in the direction of classic books which often do not reside in “young adult” sections and thus are not always offered to young readers. Robinson Crusoe (suggested by JK Rowling), The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (suggested by Philip Pullman) and Great Expectations (suggested by Motion) are all great suggestions. Nick Hornby, meanwhile, declined to make any suggestions saying:I used to teach in a comprehensive school, and I know from experience that many children are not capable of reading the books that I wanted them to read. If I choose 10 books that I think would be possible for all, it wouldn’t actually be a list that I would want to endorse. I think any kind of prescription of this kind is extremely problematic.
Last May, I wrote a piece for this site titled “Are Picture Books Leading Our Children Astray?” It was a look at the messages secreted within books for young readers—messages promoting revolution, naïveté, and the unchecked spread of lice. The article drew a strong response, and I was dismayed by resistance to my vigorous quest for truth. One respondent wrote that I “need to relax;” another said, “Subversive plots can be found in anything even a cereal box.” As to that last, I don’t doubt it for a moment. The next time you’re in the supermarket, inspect a box of Alpha-Bits. What you’ll find in that milk-splashed bowl will shake you to your core.
As to the charge that I was too uptight about Ferdinand and its ilk, however, I must forcefully disagree. To the contrary, I don’t believe that I’ve been uptight enough. And in the months since the article ran, my son has amassed more books—books that, as you’ll soon see, want to mold him into an obsessive-compulsive Communist with a mad penchant for nudery. The quest, as always, continues.
Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown
A tale of unbearable emptiness, Goodnight Moon is at once a dusky nightmare and a paean to OCD. A young rabbit, wishing to escape the oppressiveness of its bedroom—a red-and-green Fauvist horror—must, in a brutal twist, neurotically catalogue the very items which torment its waking hours. In a steady incantation, the leveret bids farewell to the burdens of its world: a rancid bowl of mush; a stiff white comb; two cats who wait to pounce. All the while, the creature is menaced by an “old lady” who urges him to “hush,” annoyed by the youngster’s mewling (a bottle of sherry, no doubt, awaits her in the kitchen). Goodnight Moon’s message is unremittingly bleak: psychological escape is hard-won—yet the more necessary it is, the more transitory it becomes. Goodnight, fleeting hope.
If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff
Would you like to know what happens when you give a mouse a cookie? In Numeroff’s estimation, the result is relentless exploitation—the mouse will drink your milk, use your crayons, chew your bendy straws. It will sap you, leave you slumped and dirty—whereupon the parasite will demand more milk, keen to restart the cycle.
For the boy in the story, the relationship is presented as soul-eating toil—curious, given how tirelessly the mouse works to repay his kindness. It “sweep[s] every room in the house,” “wash[es] the floors,” draws a Walker Evans portrait of its indigent rural family. The picture lays bare the mouse’s hidden past: in its background we see a rickety shack, its roof held up by a brace of spindly twigs. We recall that when it arrived, the mouse was wearing a knapsack. Its overalls are faded, ill-fitting; its tiny feet are bare. It has found the boy at the end of a trying journey, perhaps parting ways with a coyote just a few short days before.
Yet we are not meant to sympathize. Quite the opposite. If You Give a Mouse a Cookie is a prescient endorsement of today’s anti-immigrant conservatism: though mice may scrub your floors and tidy your house, their presence portends catastrophe: they’ll want milk, straws, schools for their 14th Amendment “anchor babies.” No, best to keep your cookie, refuse the rodent at your front yard’s fence—which, in a perfect world, would feature camera towers, razor wire, and Skoal-dribbling Minutemen.
Mr. Clever by Roger Hargreaves
The orange, bespectacled Mr. Clever lives in “Cleverland,” a place of entrepreneurial bounty. Here, alarm clocks not only ring, but switch on lights, brew tea, and predict the weather. Toothbrushes “[squeeze] toothpaste onto the brush out of the handle”; toasters “spread [toast] with butter and jelly, AND cut off the crusts.” Ingenuity has liberated Cleverland’s citizens, none more than Mr. Clever himself—yet when he strolls into a neighboring town, he finds himself mentally neutered: in this nameless morass, Mr. Happy demands a joke, but Mr. Clever cannot recall one. Mr. Greedy requests a recipe, but Mr. Clever finds that he “doesn’t know any recipes.” And on and on, until Mr. Clever, dazed by confusion and craving intellectual succor, attempts to return home—yet in a final authorial dagger, staggers off in the wrong direction.
Mr. Clever is disdainful of its protagonist’s creativity, revels in the stupidity that eventually swallows him whole. Mr. Clever’s neighbors resist innovation—yet they mock him as a dullard. The book envisions a Maoist utopia in which the masses are freed by fetid thoughtlessness. Better to scoff at free markets than to consider what wonders—tea-making alarm clocks, say—they might confer.
But the story does not end there. As was revealed in a November 1987 International Affairs exposé, “Roger Hargreaves” was a pseudonym for Choe Yong-Nam—the notorious former head of North Korea’s culture ministry. Mr. Clever, indeed.
Once Upon a Potty by Alona Frankel
Once Upon a Potty is often hailed as a toilet-training aid, and perhaps rightly so (my son is still in diapers, so I can’t yet testify to the book’s efficacy). But on a gut level, Potty is plainly disturbing. For one, it features images of a toddler’s anus that, in any other context, would land Frankel on some sort of watch list. And its pages teem with coiled turds: dysentery-ridden waste rendered in loving burnt sienna. But there’s a more pressing issue at hand: after little Joshua—the story’s grinning, crapping hero—learns where to drop his bombs, he does not once wear pants. Empowered, he careens about in a flouncy pink tank-top, eager to showcase his bits. Has his mother been so successful in his toilet-training—which, in the introduction, Frankel says “enhances the child’s confidence and pride”—that she has created an exhibitionist? More troubling: will he ever wear pants again? Once Upon a Potty was first published in 1980, meaning that Joshua would now be in his early 30s. As such, it would be little surprise to soon see a harrowing sequel: Once Upon an Indecent Exposure Conviction.
I was looking at the list of “Top 10 Most Irritating Expressions in the English language,” which was linked to in our recent Curiosities installment (and which is culled from a new book, A Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare), and a thought occurred to me. The Millions has been around for nearly six years. Over our exactly 1,800 posts (not including this one), just how annoying have we been?Hoping for the best, but fearing the worst, I performed some searches. Here’s what I found:At the end of the day – We’ve used this clunker just three times, including way back in 2004 when it crept into a post called “Books of the Boom“. In my defense, I was referring to an actual day, and not the hypothetical one that is the target of those Oxford wordsmiths’ ire.Fairly unique – I’d never thought about it, but that is a fairly silly phrase. Thankfully, we’ve never used it at The Millions.I personally – Another redundancy, and this time I am guilty. I’ve used it twice, though not since 2004 when it crept into this roundup. I blame Kakutani.At this moment in time – That one hurts my ears, and indeed it has thankfully never made it into print at The Millions.With all due respect – A classic, used but once in 1,800 posts. The guilty party is Garth who was clearly struck briefly mad by a slight against his beloved Bolaño.Absolutely – This one, in that it is not a phrase, strikes me as a bit unfair, pernicious as this adverb may be. We’ve used it 41 times over the years, and I feel absolutely no guilt about that.It’s a nightmare – No nightmares here.Shouldn’t of – That’s just bad grammar, and we’ve never used it. Phrases like that keep us up at night.24/7 – We’ve used this one twice. Contributor emeritus Patrick gets a pass because he used it as part of this phrase: “24/7 mingle mode.” I can think of no better way to describe BEA in LA.It’s not rocket science – we’ve never used this one, but “rocket science” was used in one of my all-time favorite Millions posts, Andrew’s “Distinguished in a David Niven Mustache.”
When David Foster Wallace killed himself in 2008, he left behind an unfinished manuscript and a number of fragments that, with the efforts of his long-time editor Michael Pietsch, has become The Pale King, to be released next month amid the high expectations of the late writer’s many fans. The book’s lyrical opening sentence, printed below, may be familiar to Wallace completists. It opens a brief piece called “Peoria (4)” that appeared in the fall 2002 issue of Triquarterly. That piece, which can be found in PDF form here, in its entirety makes up the opening sentences of The Pale King. (Recently, according to handful of blogs, the opening of The Pale King was read on a BBC radio program and some incomplete transcriptions of this appeared online.)
The opening sentence of The Pale King by David Foster Wallace:
Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s‑quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek.