One of the interesting things about being the author of an obscure blog is seeing how much I influence world culture. A day doesn’t go by without my opinions being parroted on music video channels and being reprinted on the backs of cereal boxes. Why just the other day I happened to be watching opening round action of this year’s NCAA Basketball Tournament, and I couldn’t help but hear CBS Sportscaster Dick Enberg describe as worthy of Don Quixote, a speech that Mike Gillespie, coach of the 16th seeded Florida A&M Rattlers, was giving to his team before sending them out on the floor to face basketball powerhouse Kentucky. I, of course, immediately assumed that Enberg made this comment because, as an avid reader of The Millions, he knew that I was reading the Edith Grossman translation of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and reading along at home, he felt comfortable throwing the literary reference into his broadcast. Or there is another explanation that, I will concede, is equally plausible. Don Quixote, like other literary first ballot hall of famers, Hamlet, Gatsby, and Holden Caulfield, is so ingrained in the public consciousness that such a reference will be understood by nearly all who hear it. Not bad for a 17th century Spanish epic. Enberg was using the name Don Quixote the way most folks do, to describe a foolhardy quest. And yet it would seem that Enberg was implying that there was something noble in all this, to use another often cited reference, something akin to David and Goliath. Before I ever cracked open the book, I had this impression as well, that there was something noble about this knight who wears a bowl on his head and tilts at windmills. I see it a bit differently now, even though, admittedly, I am only a quarter of the way through the book. Certainly in telling the story, Cervantes is turning the idea of chivalry on its head, and in doing so is nobly attempting to undo some of the harmful social mores of his time, but the character of Quixote isn’t particularly noble. In fact he is a rather sad specimen who is either totally mentally ill or utterly incapable of recognizing the consequences of his actions; probably he is a little of both. So far, he has inadvertently caused a servant boy to be beaten by his master, he has bludgeoned a number of innocent passersby, and he has allowed his faithful squire, the very likeable Sancho Panza, to be repeatedly thrown to the wolves. In fact, I am starting to see that it is perhaps a disservice to compare the coaches of underdog basketball teams and others who embark on impossible quests to Don Quixote, who, I should also mention, is turning out to be rather unhygenic. Better that these noble folks be compared to Cervantes, who, even 300 years later is still managing to take on the big shots. Like I said, though, I’m only a quarter of the way through. Once, I have finished, and once I have read the Harold Bloom essay that precedes the text, I may have different take on the whole thing, so stay tuned, America.
There were a few readers among the sleepyheads on the train this morning. I have to say, I’m impressed with my fellow readers this morning for the caliber of the books they were reading. Here’s what I spotted:Black Boy by Richard Wright (I read this book in high school. Still one of my favorites.)Sabbath’s Theatre by Philip Roth (One of the books that made The Prizewinners list I put together last month.)The Magic Mountain by Thomas MannThe Way of the Flesh by Samuel Butler (V.S. Pritchett called it “one of the time-bombs of literature.”)Granta 91: Wish You Were Here (I love Granta. This issue includes Ismail Kadare, Margaret Atwood, Thomas Keneally and James Lasdun.)Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician by Anthony Everitt (For all the classicists out there.)Three Junes by Julia GlassAnd a couple of bestsellers:Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. DubnerHarry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
No, Amazon isn’t tagging its customers, but apparently, customers are beginning to tag Amazon. (For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, “tagging” is basically adding pieces of meta-data, descriptive keywords for example, to an object (in Amazon’s case, books and electronics). Right now there are a lot of sites that let their audience do the “tagging,” in an effort to harness the collective descriptive power of the community.) A few months back, I surmised that Amazon was entering the realm of tagging with features like “Capitalized Phrases” and “Statistically Improbable Phrases.” Now they are allowing customers to add descriptors to book pages. Apparently Amazon is still testing this out, so if you can’t see it yet (and you want to), go to Kokogiak where he’s got the full rundown including links to screenshots.I also noticed that Amazon has expanded slightly on its wildly popular “Amazon.com Sales Rank” feature. Now you can see where the book in question ranked yesterday compared to today. For example, as of this writing, The Kite Runner is ranked at “#16 in books,” while yesterday it ranked “#17 in books.”
Genevieve Tucker, the blogger behind Reeling and Writhing (formerly known as You Cried for Night) has penned an article for The Australian about book blogs that covers briefly the medium’s numerous squabbles and scuffles (have there really been that many? I blame Ed) in what amounts to a history of the nascent “litblogosphere.” A handy sidebar of prominent litblogs is included, though, sadly, The Millions has been left off. (Perhaps that will serve as fodder yet another litblog battle? Nah, I’m used to it.)
Last month, when I started reading War and Peace again, this time with the intention of finishing it, I decided that I would do so methodically, opening the book at least once every day, and not closing it until I’d finished a chapter (which, in that novel, is relatively short — a handful of pages at most). I would read it on the train or I would read it before sleep. I would read it while standing in the kitchen making toast. This way, I thought, the book would become a habit as much as a pastime. It would become part of my routine. I would get through it little by little, even if my pace would be that of a tortoise.
There was the danger, of course, that I was approaching the book as a chore — measuring my progress too closely, not enjoying it as much as I ought to have been, or could have been. But I was amenable to that. I mean that if this is what it took (approaching the book as a chore) in order for me to finish it, then that is what I was prepared to do. For I had decided that if I did not read the book now, at this point in my life, then I would never. And for some reason this scared me.
One day, about two weeks ago, having finished the first 150 pages (my paperback version, a Signet Classic, contains 1,455) I walked into a bar to have a beer before going home. It was a Saturday afternoon, sunny, and I had gone to the park to read. But I hadn’t got much reading done. There were people everywhere, and I’d felt distracted, restless, bored. Maybe there was a reason for this feeling and maybe there wasn’t. I wouldn’t say it was the book’s fault.
In the bar was another man, older than me by about 20 years, and he said to me, when he saw the book (for I didn’t have a backpack or satchel to hide it in), “It’s too nice a day out to be reading.” And when I casually agreed with him, not wanting to start a conversation but not wanting to avoid one, he said, in an irritable voice, not looking at me but away from me, as if he didn’t expect an answer, or desire one, “Then why are you doing so?”
It would have been easy then for me to get in an argument. I wanted to, in fact, because I was irritable myself and because I was embarrassed now about the way I must have appeared. Fortunately, however, the bartender was there, and she said to the man, before I could reply, “Listen, you, just because you’re in a bad mood doesn’t mean you have the right to take it out on others.”
The man, surprisingly, apologized. “Sorry,” he said to me, in a chastened voice.
And because I felt as though my embarrassment now had lessened, and in fact had been ridiculous, I said to him, “It’s fine, it’s fine,” or something to that effect.
The bartender got me a beer, and when she placed it on the coaster in front of me, she said, having noticed the book herself, “War and Peace. Now that sounds like a book that covers everything.”
I smiled at this, but the man said, as if he’d been waiting to say something and now had the opportunity, “It doesn’t actually. It should’ve been called War and War. Even the parts about domestic life aren’t tranquil.”
We all considered this a moment in silence.
“How far along are you?” the man said.
I thought back to the chapter I’d just read, where Prince Andrei leaves his father’s estate to join the Russian army at the front, which at that point is in Austria. “There’s about to be a battle scene,” I said.
“I like battle scenes in movies,” the bartender said.
“I like them in movies, but in books they can be better,” said the man.
A trio of girls came in, and the bartender moved away to greet them.
“I’m sorry about what I said,” the man said to me again, this time in a confiding voice. “I’m having a bad day.”
“Why?” I asked him.
“No reason,” he said. “Or you could pick any reason, and that would be it. This city used to be different. I used to have a job I liked. I used to be happier.”
“Why?” I asked again, and immediately I regretted it. Not because I didn’t want to hear him, but because I was afraid that if I did hear him then I’d have to respond to what I’d heard. And I knew that in a conversation like this, at some point my responses would seem inadequate, or blasé. Not because I intended them to, but because conversations between strangers require an energy that other conversations do not. And I knew that I lacked that energy, or that I possessed it but couldn’t maintain it for long.
But for some reason, anyway, the man didn’t reply.
He got up and went to the restroom.
And when he returned he didn’t sit down again, but continued on out through the front door of the bar, and out onto the sidewalk, where he disappeared past the windows, on his way to wherever he was going.
When the bartender returned to get me another beer, she didn’t seem surprised that the man was gone. She had a pleasant, unworried look on her face. And when I said to her, “Where did that guy go?” hoping she’d shed light on who he was (for now I was curious, if not interested), she said, “Probably home. He’s been coming in here every day for years.”
And that was that.
I mean it was the end of my conversation with the bartender, though I did stick around and finish my beer.
As I walked home it was sunny, and I thought I’d sit on the stoop of my building and read another chapter of War and Peace. But when I got there I was tired, and I went inside and up to my apartment and fell asleep on my bed.