I’m a map person. There are random maps all over the walls of my house, mostly freebies that my coworkers at the book store, knowing my interest, have passed along to me. Looking around right now I can see a “Rail Map of Europe,” “World Terrorism: a Reference Map,” and this odd, black and white, line drawing map of Illinois, among several others. When I live somewhere with enough room, I intend to have several atlases. Thus, I was excited to find today a book called You Are Here by Katharine Harmon. It’s sort of a popular history of maps with heavy focus on amateur maps, folk art maps, and maps that are related to popular culture. She is especially interested in what maps can tell us about the way we see the world. I’m looking forward to getting this one.
When I was a student at the University of Delaware in the late 1990s, there were a handful of options for buying books in town. One was a midsized shop called Rainbow Books and Records, located amid the downtown’s Main Street bustle. I have few memories of actually buying anything there (though I did steal, for no good reason, a used Cypress Hill CD from the store; hopefully the crime’s statute of limitations has run out). There was a mediocre campus bookstore from which I bought a copy of Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland that I read eight or nine pages of. The best, by a wide margin, was the airy, endless Bookateria, where I spent afternoons searching for titles by Edward Abbey, Tom Robbins, Robert Pirsig, and whatever else might bolster my developing self-image as a chin-stroking bongside intellectual. Twenty years on, The Bookateria is still there — or so says the internet — and just thinking of it puts me there, my Birkenstocks (I was looking for Tom Robbins, remember) soft on its creaking hardwood floors.
There was also a fourth option, and I have no idea what it was called. In a wide alley off of Main Street, a miniscule bookstore existed for an equally miniscule length of time. Its lifespan, as I recall, was just a few months, but it might have been less than that. It was heavily curated, blue of carpet, and run by a prim white-haired woman with a courteous smile. Its metal shelves were home to midcentury cookbooks and color-plate nature guides, their prices written, almost apologetically, in the corners of their inside covers. The shop, so small and quiet — save for the waft of classical music — lent it the feeling of the quarters of a bibliophilic monk. Entering the store always reminded me that I was wearing dirty track pants and an old Phillies cap.
On one of my few trips there — I could feel the owner’s eyes, as if my CD-lifting reputation had preceded me — I came across a row of hardbacked, dark-blue novels. Their jackets were gone, and they stood together, naked, as if huddling against danger. Each spine bore the stamped name of the books’ author — Kurt Vonnegut— and, in smaller type, the title. I’d heard of Vonnegut, and vaguely knew that I should read him. I picked up Breakfast of Champions, read a few lines (“I think I am trying to make my head as empty as it was when I was born onto this damaged planet fifty years ago.” “I have no culture, no humane harmony in my brains. I can’t live without a culture anymore.”), and felt a surge in my chest. I paid the owner the lightly-penciled price of five dollars plus tax, waited for her pointlessly elaborate receipt, said thanks, and tore the fuck out of there. I had to read this book.
Breakfast of Champions felt, like a handful of other works — The Catcher in the Rye, of course, and later T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain and the stories of George Saunders — wholly new to me, modes of communication that kicked through my mind’s thin walls. I’d never — and still have never — read anything like it. I suppose that any Vonnegut book would have had this effect, so distinctive is his style — that of a brilliant depressive, the vitality of his talent battling his downbeat vision — but Breakfast of Champions is Vonnegut’s loosest book, full of drawings and nonsense lines (“Dwayne Hoover had oodles of charm. I can have oodles of charm when I want to. A lot of people have oodles of charm.”) that gain menace as they mount. It seemed somehow right for this to be my first, the best route into his world.
Breakfast of Champions isn’t my favorite Vonnegut novel, but it smacked me in the head with more force than any of his others — and possibly more than any other book I’ve read. I haven’t read it since that day in 1998, and I have only a dim memory of what it was about — something about a used-car salesman; something about cows. But that initial excitement has stuck; when I picked it up before writing this piece, something tightened in my throat. It was an artifact that had shoved me towards the person I would become.
And it seems somehow insane to me that I could have gotten it — this rousing, angry work that shook me by my spine — at that cramped and nameless store, overseen by a woman who, I’m guessing, had gone into business to occupy her time. Maybe her husband had recently died, and the quiet of her home had become unbearable — so she opened a shop that was just as quiet as the place she had escaped. Maybe she’d wanted to bring a touch of politesse to downtown Newark, Delaware, where music blasted from low riders and fistfights proliferated when the bars let out. Maybe she was engaging in a quiet fight of her own, selling pleasant books to the few students who might appreciate the gesture. Obviously — judging by its swift closure — there weren’t enough of us.
That I could have found a book that so enflamed me in such a serene, well-meaning place now seems to me a rude and minor marvel, like a tabernacle choir breaking into “Fuck tha Police.” The store has been gone for nearly 20 years, and its owner, I assume, has passed on as well. But they slipped me something important in the time we had together — and for that, I can only offer thanks.
The title of this post is taken from a poem called “Chicago” by Carl Sandburg. The reference is to the men of the meat-packing industry, and the nickname came to represent the burly, blue-collar mentality of the place. At least, that’s what I’ve gathered so far. Mrs. Millions and I are more or less fully relocated in Chicago. We found an apartment and we’ll be moved in by the first of the month. The apartment is located in a neighborhood called Ravenswood. It sounds like something out of Edgar Allan Poe, no? We’ve been here about a week, and we’ve spent a lot of time driving around, looking for a place to live and getting to know the city. So far, it seems like a great place. Around every corner there seems to be a row of shops, cafes and restaurants, and driving by Wrigley when a game is on is remarkable. I can see that Chicago has its own very distinct identity, and being here makes me want to read some books that are about or set in the city. Some candidates: American Pharaoh by Adam Cohen, The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, Crossing California by Adam Langer, and The Coast of Chicago by Stuart Dybek.
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’ve been getting emails extolling the virtues of Nicole Krauss’s new novel, The History of Love lately. She, by the way, is also known as the wife of Jonathan Safran Foer, and there has been some suggestion that her new novel suspiciously resembles his. Seems like sour grapes to me, but it did get me thinking about contemporary literary couples, and how it seems like there’s a lot of them. There’s Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt. And then there’s the couples where the woman is the bigger star like Zadie Smith and Nick Laird (he’s a poet… does that even count?) and Alice Sebold and Glen David Gold. There must be others… writers attract writers it seems.This, of course, is not a new trend. Here’s a list of some of history’s literary power couples that I borrowed from a UPenn english department Web site: Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris, and Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson.
Last night, caught in some sort of TV doldrums, Mrs. Millions and I ended up watching “The National Scrabble Championships” on ESPN2. Two pasty guys hunched over a table doesn’t typically qualify as a sport, but we figured we’d allow ESPN2 this digression from its usual content. Or maybe since the poker shows have been such a hit, they’re trying to introduce more “seated around a table” activities to their lineup. Regardless, since we’re known to whip out the Scrabble board, we watched. It was mildly entertaining. One of the commentators was Stefan Fatsis, sportswriter for the Wall Street Journal and author of Word Freak, a look into the odd world of competitive Scrabble. A couple of years ago I gave the book to Mrs. Millions, and let her know that I’d like to read it when she was done. She ripped through it, and started talking about “bingos” and “combos” and other strange things. She read the book so intently that the it literally fell apart – torn binding, pages scattered everywhere – totally unreadable. So, I’ve never read the book. And she’s beaten me at Scrabble ever since.