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.
Pulitzer winner Junot Díaz talks with his fellow “Year in Reading” contributor Meghan O’Rourke in the debut episode of the online video series Open Book, co-sponsored by Slate and my alma mater. I’m thrilled that the producers elected to keep the same zany voice-over guy who reads Slate’s audio podcasts. Future interviews, we’re told, will include John Ashbery, Charles Simic, and Jonathan Safran Foer.
To paraphrase the critic Georges Poulet: a poet of written poems does not necessarily aim only to write a poem; he or she aims to become, and for those who read his or her poems to become. Becoming is an activity that many young African Americans are engaged in today — whether it be formal, revolutionary, or informal — and it is an activity that requires undivided dynamism. If Kendrick Lamar’s chant “we gon’ be alright” — four words that when repeated meld a fight song to a primordial moment in the foundation and the defense of a collective and its culture — is now considered the foremost musical expression of this era’s black activism, Nate Marshall’s poem “repetition & repetition &”, the very first poem from his book Wild Hundreds, should be considered the foremost articulation of contemporary blackness’s dynamism in literature. It’s an engine of becoming.
Our is a long love song,
A push into open air,
A stare into the barrel
With those three lines, Marshall begins an epic comparable to Robert Hayden’s renowned “The Middle Passage” and other black epics; but this is an epic of guidance and instruction. It’s built on the thesis that black “works,” as painful as it may be to be black. The poem begins by posing the question What do I feel as a black person, its title “repetition & repetition &” having given us the context. The opening of the poem removes any ambiguity we might attribute to the poem’s message, plunging us into the poet’s project.
We are a pattern,
A percussive imperative,
A break beat
“repetition & repetition &” quickly comes to feature the collective “we” as fundamental to the poem. Marshall uses the word “we” as the black community loves for it to be used. If “I” is modernism, and postmodernism, Marshall pushes it aside for the beloved “we” — the “we” of the hard road to salvation and joy. Sorry, he seems to be saying: despite claims that our sentiment is tribalism or that we are just Americans, the black community remains a place where a black “we” is a beautiful way of saying “me.” With “we” he expresses the blackness that has us all feeling, one that cannot be found in oh-so-many poems that center the lonely “I” or “me.”
“We” is brilliantly defined in the line “we are love.” We = love, in convivial crowds and effective political rallies.
Baby we are hundreds:
Wild until we are free.
Wild like Amnesia
This is an epic of identity. It proposes black identity (love, being wild) to its reader, as a written articulation of “black is beautiful”; it functions as a model of identity to adhere to and trust.
Identity is an old and persistent question in black life, to the point where passing, pretending that one is not black or not claiming one’s blackness, has been a theme of many black novels (see Nella Larsen’s Passing). Faith in blackness and in one’s own blackness is a feature in our age of contradictions: of a black president, of interracial marriages, of a growing middle class, of foreclosures of homes owned by blacks, of predatory and racist practices, of the killings of young black men and women, of Black Lives Matter. It’s an age of youthful comic modernities, where tragedy is not the sort of thing that co-workers of other races want to talk about. Should I be happy in public? Who am I in all of this? Marshall answers these questions and others with an epic that can guide, in terms of how to think about blackness or being black.
The black identity being proposed is not a simple one. As John Edgar Wideman wrote as a blurb for Mitchell Jackson’s novel The Residue Years, it embraces the English language as a means of expression, saying loud and clear, Despite my difference, I am culturally a descendent of the English language and of poetry in English. It is perhaps the most complex aspect of the poem — the poet does not want to settle for blackness as some sort of noble savagery. His language tells us that a black person can read French theory and find solace in Modernist English poetry all the while feeling the pain and rage that comes from seeing a dead black child on a television; all of it combined being who “we” are or “I” am as a black person.
In the end, Marshall offers an engine for the pursuit of self that can only be the undercurrent of black production — ranging from Beyoncé’s Lemonade, or Greg Osby’s many great yet unknown albums of genius Jazz blackness, or a teacher’s persistence with children — but also a vehicle for any non-black person to think about the blackness of co-citizens and friends. His poem is an epic of strength in love and in numbers, where in despite “a stare into the barrel,” and “repetition,” as he ends the poem, ‘we are 1’ and will remain it.
…is what I will again be forced to do this year, my darling, barring some eleventh-hour issuing of press credentials or a sudden reduction in ticket prices.For a while now, you – the greatest magazine in the history of American magazines – have tantalized me annually with your Festival’s smorgasbord of literary talent. And yet, as much as the word-hungry reader in me would love to see, e.g., Lorrie Moore in conversation with Jeffrey Eugenides, the starving artist in me rebels.To be frank, your $25 cover charges cheapen you, New Yorker. After all, in this city which not to look upon would be like death, any given night already offers the discerning gentleman a bevy of comely talent reading for no charge. A nd then, several times per year, events like the PEN World Voices festival present stimulating citywide literary programming for free or at a nominal price.Indeed, with the notable exception of events like your dance party or your gastronomic tour with Calvin Trillin, your Festival strikes this correspondent as a way of charging the public for a publicity junket. And, at current ticket prices, the Festival highlights your worst feature, dearest: your habit of reaffirming the upper class’s satisfaction with its own refined sensibility and unimpeachable taste. I mean, who else can afford to get in the door?New Yorker, don’t you know you’re at your best when you’re challenging the status quo from your perch within it? Wouldn’t it be subversive to take Conde Nast’s money and put on these readings for free, so that any old philistine could attend? I love you, New Yorker, more than you’ll probably ever know, but I can’t support your Festival. I can’t afford to. Why would I buy your cow when I can enjoy your milk for the low, low price of $52 per year?
My recent post about the Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions has generated an interesting thread at The Comics Journal Message Board. Included is word of upcoming additions to the Penguin series as well as a great round of pairing famous comics artists with classic novels to come up with such combinations as R. Crumb doing a cover for Lolita and Tony Millionaire doing the cover for Gulliver’s Travels.
Tonight’s installment of the Pacific Standard Fiction Series here in Brooklyn features two Millions favorites: Paul Beatty, author of Slumberland and The White-Boy Shuffle, and Matthew Sharpe, author of Jamestown and The Sleeping Father. Books will be for sale on-site, and drink specials will be chosen by dartboard. The reading starts at 7 p.m. at Pacific Standard. Hope to see you there!Bonus link: Matthew Sharpe’s “Year in Reading” 2007
I’m pleased to report that Freebird Books & Goods, the terminal stop on our “Walking Tour of New York’s Independent Booksellers,” has reopened its doors. With its packed wooden shelves, comfortable chairs, creaky floors, selection of fine teas, and breathtaking view of Manhattan, Freebird has been my favorite used bookstore since I first moved in around the corner three years ago. I’m not alone in my enthusiasm; guest-blogging at The Elegant Variation earlier this year, Joshua Ferris, author of Then We Came to the End, wrote of “a palpable feeling that you’re in a place where books, no matter how old, are alive and well.”Premature nostalgia afflicted me and many of my neighbors when we heard that owners Rachel London and Samantha Citrin were moving on to other endeavors. But it turns out that Freebird is in good hands. New owner Peter Miller is a bibliophile and all-around nice guy. He’s dedicated to building on the traditions of the store, while introducing new amenities to draw in new customers.One such innovation is the Freebird blog, where Mr. Miller’s been posting images of (and commentary on) the wonderful oddities he’s come across in his journey through the stacks. Lively events and a renewed liquor license (coming soon, I’m told), should further burnish the store’s reputation. As Mr. Ferris put it, “It’s the kind of place that reminds you why you read.” So if you’re in New York this holiday season, hop the F train to Bergen and make your way down to the waterfront…and be reminded!
I took Stendhal’s The Red and the Black along on a recent trip to Paris. It’s only now though that I’m back in Philadelphia that young Julien Sorel has finally arrived in La Ville-Lumiere.It took me awhile to get into the book. I began it hoping for the same pleasures I recently found in Middlemarch, but it quickly became apparently that it’s for different reasons that Stendhal’s classic is still read today. It lacks, or does not even attempt, Eliot’s perspicaciously drawn characters and lyrical insights. Sorel, though by turns beguiling and irritating, is drawn more as a cipher than a real person. Instead, The Red and the Black is a determinedly political novel, engaged in direct and often obscure conversation with the 19th-century French society to which it was submitted.Nevertheless, halfway through, The Red and the Black has me gripped. It is exhilarating to read a novel so urgently engaged with the culture and society of which it’s a part. The Red and the Black feels like an act of revolution, and it is not hard to imagine the discomfiture it must have caused among the King’s court and clergy. At the same time, it is just this potency that gives The Red and the Black the quality of an artifact. It is nearly impossible to imagine a novel having anything approaching Stendhal’s intended effect on contemporary society, French or American. All polemical notes have already been sounded and absorbed and we’re too inured to blush much anymore.