This week is turning out to be a mini-family reunion for me. My parents and two of my brothers are in town as are some aunts and uncles and cousins. Yesterday evening at a family barbecue near Venice Beach I fell into a conversation with my aunt and uncle about the reading habits of my young cousin, Tim, who is 10. He’s a very precocious reader and has finished off nearly all of the highly recommended children’s series that are out there right now: Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket, and Brian Jacques’ Redwall Series (I recommended Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy since he hasn’t gotten to that yet.) The thing is, there’s a limited amount of high quality young adult fiction out there, so what do you do if your kid has read it all? Since I started working at the bookstore I have occasionally been posed this question by parents. It’s actually a crucial moment in the life of a young a reader, the point where they could very easily lose some interest reading because they have read all the kids’ books and aren’t allowed to read adult books. What folks sometimes forget is that there are quite a few books that, though they are shelved in the adult fiction section, are perfect books to help segue strong, young readers into the wider world that lies beyond the young adult section. Some people call these books classics, but they are perfect for challenging kids and keeping them interested in reading: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Time Machine, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Journey to the Center of the Earth, to name just a few. I would also recommend that these children read the books in their original forms, not the abridged versions. I remember reading abridged versions of various classics when I was younger, and I think lots of other folks do as well, but looking back it just doesn’t seem necessary. In fact, as an eleven or twelve year old, I learned a lot of complex things about the world around me from the books I read, and these important details, the harsh language in Huck Finn, for example, seem to be just the things that are excised in order to create the kid friendly versions. We challenge kids in many aspects of their lives, why not challenge them to explore the big questions that arise from reading the classics. I hope that the children’s book industry continues to move in this direction, and a lot of the intelligent and challenging kids’ books that are out there indicate that it will. On the other hand, my friend Edan pointed out to me the other day the upcoming release of a “Student Edition” of Yann Martel’s international bestseller Life of Pi, from which, one can assume, the editors have removed anything that might distress, and therefore challenge, a young reader. Here’s hoping that this doesn’t kick off a new trend.
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!
Tao Lin, a young writer with a flair for cleverly drawing attention to his work, is in the news again. His latest scheme is to take investments from “the public” in his novel-in-progress in exchange for a portion of the royalties.The move appears to have been successful; shares are no longer available and Lin got written up in several mainstream publications, including a fairly lengthy piece in the Telegraph, and dozens of blogs. What nobody mentioned, however, is that this has been done before, some 40 years ago, by another outsized, New York personality.In the early years of his career, playwright and actor Wallace Shawn did the same thing, according to a John Lahr piece that originally ran in the New Yorker and is collected in his book of profiles, Show and Tell published in 2000. Shawn, son of legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn, was a struggling writer going out of his way to achieve literary success without tapping into his father’s considerable influence. Lahr writes:Back then, Wally was forced to follow his own quirky, unconventional path. He told me he’d “sold stock in himself” – his way of rationalizing a twenty-five-hundred-dollar loan he took from a consortium of friends in the sixties, in order to go off and write his plays. (To this day, the investors receive a small yearly check).The juxtaposition of the two schemes presents an interesting notion. $2,500 40 years ago got you some small percentage of a budding artist’s career in perpetuity. $2,000 now only gets you 10% of the royalties for a novel. Inflation, I suppose.Finally, despite Shawn’s scheme (I believe) initially being revealed in a New Yorker piece and despite Shawn’s obvious ties to the magazine, The New Yorker, in its (admittedly very brief) mention of Lin’s plan on its own blog, did not catch the Shawn connection.Given the fractured state of publishing and the enthusiasm for trying new models, perhaps this shareholder form of patronage will take off, but it will have been Shawn, not Lin, who was the first innovator.
Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Atkinson stopped by yesterday to sign copies of An Army at Dawn. This book is intended to be the first installment of a trilogy that will describe the liberation of Europe in World War II. This first book is about the liberation of North Africa, and the next two will cover Italy and France. Naturally, I asked him how the books were coming along, and he told me that he had put them on hold while he was embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq, and now he is writing a book about that experience. It will be exciting to see the many quality books that are being written by journalists and writers who spent time over there. We also discussed John Keegan, who seems to be the authority when it comes to popular histories of war. Atkinson professed to loving both The Mask of Command, which studies generals and commanders in wars from Ancient Greece to the present, and The Face of Battle, which gives similar treatment to the common soldier. Later on, while I was reading about those two Keegan books, I was pleased to discover that he has a new book that is a mere two weeks from hitting the shelves. It is enticingly titled, Intelligence in Warfare: From Nelson to Hitler.
Books aren’t too long, they’re too big. They don’t fit in your pocket or purse. You have to cram them into backpacks or shove them under your arm. And I’m not even talking about hardcovers (I can’t afford those); I’m talking about these big paperbacks. Sure, some of them look pretty but wouldn’t it be great to have a paperback stowed in my jacket pocket, ready for an idle moment? If you’ve ever been to a used book store, you’ve seen that they used to make books like this, small and pocket-sized. These books weren’t limited to the mysteries, romances, and mega-bestsellers that garner “mass-media” releases these days. On my bookshelves I have editions of The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, for example. They aren’t the editions you’ll find by clicking the links I’ve provided, instead they fit very nearly in the palm of my hand. I’ve always been enamored by those little books, the Dells, the Bantams, the Penguins and the rest, but I’ve been thinking about these little books a lot more of late because I spend a lot of time on public transportation these days. And, frankly, it’s a pain to maneuver a big book around on a crowded bus or train. It’s no fun trying to extricate my book from my bag only to cram it back in hastily when I arrive at my destination. I can tell my fellow travelers experience the same difficulties, too. I would make a plea for publishers to bring back the pocket-sized books that I love, but I know that probably won’t happen. I’m told that publishing company consolidation in the 1980s and an ever-growing concern for the bottom line have made that impossible. But if you want to relive the glory days of the paperback, take a look at these very cool sites: The Paperback Revolution (a stunning presentation of the glory days of the paperback book) and Edward Gorey’s legendary covers for Anchor books (read the article and then click the link at the bottom to see the covers).
I’ve talked about “sale books” once or twice here at The Millions, but since I just a got a great deal on some “sale books,” I decided to revisit the topic. “Sale books” are also known in the book biz as remainders. These are the books you see in your local Barnes & Noble, usually near the front, piled together in bins or on shelves under signs that say things like “clearance” or “all books on this shelf $5.99 or less.” It’s usually a rather odd assortment of books: super cheap hardcovers that mere months (or even weeks) ago were selling for full price. If you dig around you can sometimes find some decent books, but usually the titles are a who’s who of bad books, kind of like the mangled sale rack at your local department store. However, the path from frontlist to remainder bin can be a lot more circuitous than path from shop window to sale rack. And so I present the life cycle of the remaindered book. The remaindered book starts out as a regular old frontlist book, that is, one of the season’s new offerings from a publisher. Let’s call our new book Voyage to Hoboken, a widely anticipated coming of age story by a best-selling author. Since the book is expected to be a big seller, your local Barnes & Noble places a frontlist order of 60 copies from Turnpike Press. The book is released, and amid bad reviews and underwhelming publicity the book is a dud, an outright disappointment. After three months only nine people have bought the book at the full price of $26.95. Now, the book industry is rather odd in that, if a book doesn’t sell, the retail establishment can simply return it to the publisher and get most of their money back. Sometimes, when you work at a bookstore, you begin to get the eerie feeling that rather than selling books, you’re merely storing them until the publisher is willing to take them back. So, the time comes when the buyer at Barnes & Noble decides enough is enough and returns 50 copies to Turnpike Press, leaving one copy on the shelf in case some unwitting reader decides to buy it. At a Turnpike Press warehouse, thousands of copies of Voyage to Hoboken come in from all over the country. But the folks at Turnpike aren’t worried, they are ready to cut their losses. They have negotiated with “remainder houses,” companies that deal with these unwanted books, to get rid of our unfortunate novel in bulk, lets say $1.50 per copy. The remainder house then turns around and calls up the very same book buyer at Barnes & Nobel and sells back this once bought book at a severely reduced price, $3.00 per copy, and then Barnes & Noble tries to sell it to you, the reader, for $6.00. And, in the end, most folks can’t resist the bargain. So, such is the odd journey that bargain books take before arriving in their bargain bin. What inspired me to write about this? Well, the other day I got a catalog in the mail from one of those remainder houses, Daedalus Books, and, since shopping from a catalog is a lot easier than picking through the bargain bin, I got myself four fantastic books for about sixteen bucks. Not bad, eh? Here they are: The Island of Lost Maps by Miles Harvey, Pastoralia by George Saunders, Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones, and The Founding Fish by John McPhee. By the way, bargain books can be found at Amazon, too.Speaking of Amazon, here is an interesting article about what those sales rankings at Amazon actually mean. It’s written from the perspective of a self-publishing expert.One last thing. During my time at the bookstore, one of the hottest sellers was a collection of short stories by David Schickler called Kissing in Manhattan. Now Schickler has a novel coming out called Sweet and Vicious. It looks interesting.
Time to have some fun with Google. Using the wildcard “*” character I searched Google to see how different famous writers are characterized on random Web pages. I entered searches like “Jonathan Franzen is * writer” to see what would come up for the “*” and pulled the adjectives all into one sentence for each writer. The links go to the sites where the adjectives came from. Arbitrary, but oddly poetic:Jonathan Franzen is… an accomplished, incredibly gifted, curmudgeonly Luddite, talented, serious, rare, amazing, better, American writer.Zadie Smith is… a talented, talented, talented, terribly talented, young, Dickensian, gifted, terrible, very good writer.Jonathan Safran Foer is… a great great, young, great, prehensile, no ordinary, Generation X, very talented, definitely a wunderkind, very talented, uniquely gifted and imaginative writer.Ok, that was fun. How about these guys:James Frey is… an amazing, great, Bestselling, hardly the first, still a great, only, wonderful writer.J.T. Leroy is… a critically acclaimed, fabulous, Incredible, active, the best, truly amazing, fantastic, fiction writer.
“The poet makes himself a seer by a long, immense, and reasoned derangement of all the senses. All forms of love, suffering, and madness–he explores himself, he tries out all the poisons on himself and keeps only their quintessences.” So wrote a Paris-based Arthur Rimbaud in a letter to his friend Paul Demeny in 1871. Nearly one hundred years later, on the other side of the Atlantic, the artist David Wojnarowicz followed a parallel path on the streets of New York.
Both men had itinerant fathers–Rimbaud’s was a military man and Wojnarowicz’s, a sailor–they suffered at the hands of their parents and escaped their households at a young age. In Paris, Rimbaud slept under bridges and in army barracks, and was likely sexually assaulted by soldiers. Wojnarowicz, too, lived on the streets and worked as a child prostitute. By the age of fifteen he’d suffered an unimaginable list of abuses, including being “drugged, tossed out a second story window, strangled, smacked in the head with a slab of marble, almost stabbed four times, punched in [the] face at least seventeen times, beat about [his] body too many times to recount, almost completely suffocated.”
The two men shared a romance with violence and danger. Rimbaud was shot in the wrist by his lover, Paul Verlaine, as he tried to break off their affair. Wojnarowicz was shot at by a drag queen who mistook his knock at her door for the arrival of an unfaithful lover. Rimbaud, the poète maudit, and Verlaine were detained and questioned by the police after fabricating a story at a train station–they were murderers who had just escaped from prison, and spoke loudly enough for fellow travelers to overhear.
Wojnarowicz begins his memoir, Close to the Knives, with tales of roaming hot city streets with a friend, while carrying meat cleavers stolen from Macy’s and looking for someone to mug. And in his book Memories That Smell Like Gasoline, he describes his hunger for violent men: “I’m attracted to living like that, moment to moment, with very little piling up of information, breaking windows of cause and response.” Rimbaud and Wojnarowicz were aligned as miscreants, meddlers, thieves, deranged to the point of seeing, i.e., visionary.
Je est un autre. Another phrase Rimbaud famously wrote, “I is another.”
Similarly, Wojnarowicz wrote, regarding waking up in an altered state, or site, of consciousness: “The ‘I’ of my self had crawled through the thickness of memory and consciousness to some other place in the structure of the brain and emerged within a new gray coil.”
Wojnarowicz was deeply aware of the trajectory he shared with the youthful and precocious Rimbaud, with whose debauched and dangerous life he identified, and tried to align himself. One thing Wojnarowicz couldn’t have known in his late teens and early twenties was that he, like Rimbaud, would meet an untimely death, from AIDS.
In the late ‘70s, the young Wojnarowicz photographed a series of portraits of a man–a friend, perhaps–wearing a paper cut-out mask of Rimbaud’s face. This Rimbaud skulks through the settings of Wojnarowicz’s New York, alone. He sits in a graffiti-covered subway car, loiters outside movie houses, wanders under piers and through abandoned buildings, with a needle in his arm, with a gun to his head, in a passionate embrace, pissing in a toilet. Wojnarowicz’s photo series Rimbaud in New York 1978-9 distills the rawness, pain, and deprivation of living on the street to a beauty of mythic proportions. The youthful delicacy of this body is surrounded by weary decay and distanced by the mask, in what could otherwise appear a living hell.
To quote Wojnarowicz, “ Hell is a place on earth. Heaven is a place in your head.”
The mask obscuring identity–literally making this figure an “I” who is another, the savage poet who suffers to the point of seeing–recalls the lover in the Foolish Virgin/Hellish Bridegroom section of Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell:
I saw the whole decor he surrounded himself with in his own mind: clothes, sheets, furniture. I lent him weapons, another face. I looked at everything in relation to him, as he’d have liked to create it for himself. Whenever he’d look absent-minded, I’d follow him into weird and complicated strategies, far out, good or bad–I was sure I’d never get into his world. Next to his gorgeous sleeping body, how many hours I used to spend awake at night, wondering why he wanted to escape from reality so badly. No man ever had such a wish. I realized–without any fear for him–that he could be a threat to society.–Maybe he’s got secrets to change life?
“That he could be a threat to society,” resonates even more clearly following the removal of Wojnarowicz’s video Fire in My Belly from the Hide/Seek exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. In December, the government-run Smithsonian, under pressure from the Catholic League, removed his video because it depicts ants crawling over a crucifix. Much has already been written about this. The attention drawn and cacophony of protests have obscured the work by Wojnarowicz that remains present–a series of four devastating images from the Rimbaud in New York series. Images were like words to Wojnarowicz, he placed them against and within each other, in still life or video, “to construct a free-floating sentence that speaks about the world I witness…. A camera in some hands can preserve an alternate history.”