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.
I wanted to follow up on my attempt to review Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day by sharing a few resources I found helpful. After reading the book, which took 23 days, I barnstormed through a lot of reviews, many of them silly. A couple I found insightful are available in complete versions online. Luc Sante’s “Inside the Time Machine” appeared in The New York Review of Books. Michael Wood’s “Humming Along” appeared in The London Review of Books. Each of these reviews, in its own way, reaffirms the valuable role the long-form book-review plays, and speaks to the ongoing relevance of publications like the NYRB, the LRB, The Believer, and Bookforum.Even more useful, for me, was a recent phenomenon: the wiki. Though I still tend to privilege the O.E.D. over AskJeeves, I can’t think of an instance where the Internet has proven more congenial to literary study than it has in the case of the Pynchon wiki. Where readers of Joyce and Nabokov had to wait years for annotations of Ulysses and Lolita to appear, AtD annotations have appeared online at roughly the speed it takes to read the book. Annotations contributed collectively, and subject to collective revisions, help correct for ideological bias and factual error.Though obsessive decoding of texts can sometimes obscure the richer pleasures of a difficult novel, the wiki, because it’s a more casual reading experience than a thick volume of annotations, seems to make frivolous annotation more transparently frivolous. At the same time, it makes it easy for a novel reader to pause, retrieve crucial information, and then return to the book. I can only hope wikis for books like The Recognitions, The Tunnel, and Infinite Jest are forthcoming.
Yesterday, on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show, Salman Rushdie discussed the choices he made as guest-editor of Best American Short Stories 2008. A comparison with our recent post on the year’s New Yorker fiction reveals that several of his picks date to 2007. Still, Rushdie’s taste is excellent, and it’s always fun to hear him talk off-the-cuff.
As has been the tradition for the last several years, The New Yorker closed out 2008 with a fiction double issue. But astute readers may have noticed that this year’s installment was markedly slimmer than that of years’ past.Perhaps it is common knowledge, but I was surprised to discover a few years back that it is not the amount of “news” that principally determines the length of individual issues of newspapers and magazines. The length is actually determined by the amount of advertising that’s been sold. This is why, for example, issues of dot-com-focused Wired magazine were nearly as fat as phone books at the turn of the millennium but slimmed down considerably soon after.The New Yorker is one of the enduring success stories of magazine publishing and is generally able to command attractive advertising rates only dreamed of at other publications, thanks to its affluent and “thought-leading” mix of subscribers, but even The New Yorker may be feeling the ad spending pinch that is impacting the entire media industry right now.This year, the year-end fiction double issue came in at 120 pages. That’s noticeably smaller than the 154 pages in 2007 and 2006 and the 152 pages in 2005.The New Yorker has been exempt from the barrage of negative headlines about the news business, but in 2009, readers used to a hefty helping of long-form journalism and fiction may find themselves with a slimmer serving each week.
Nolo Press, which puts out “trustworthy and approachable legal guides,” spent “two years and ‘hundreds of thousands'” coming up with a redesign for its book covers, according to Publishers Weekly. What did Nolo come up with? Dogs. Chip Kidd, book designer extraordinaire, happened to be guest blogging at Powell’s this week and registered his horror. (Thanks Laurie)
Those of you who’ve read this blog for a while know that during the summer I tend to pen the occasional post about baseball. Feel free to skip them if you like, but I just can’t help myself. Now, on with it. In Chicago, I’m finding that the start of baseball season seems to awaken a collective joy across the city. Riding the El on Friday, I was startled by the conductor’s gleeful announcement that the slowness of our train was due to the Cubs home opener. I also learned that the Cubs typically eschew night games at Wrigley Field because, essentially, night games would wake up the neighbors. Most modern stadiums are surrounded by moats of asphalt, but ancient Wrigley is nestled into a city block and surrounded by rowhouses and city traffic and streets lined with bars and diners. Driving north on Clark Street, the stadium explodes into view, surrounded on game day by throngs of fans. A whole section of the city turns into a clamoring carnival of baseball ferment. And then, a few blocks beyond, one returns to quiet streets lined with leafy trees and brick three flats. In the past few days I have noted the pleasure with which the Cubs fan declares that the season has returned. In my experience, they don’t talk about the team’s chances this year or the strength of the bullpen or anything pulled from the sports pages, they talk about how it feels to have baseball back. They tell me that it’s so great to see people drinking beer in Cubs gear on their front porches and shouting “hey” to fans walking to the game. But mostly they sort of cock their heads back so as to gather in some springtime sun, still new enough to be a novelty. In Chicago, baseball doesn’t just mean baseball, it means that the gloomy, icy, sunless winter is over. No more trudging through the ankle-deep snow in the pre-dawn darkness to the El, and no more returning by the same route – stepping in the same holes my feet made that morning – in darkness to a home whose clanging radiators provide a cozy warmth, which, over time, simply seems to be the temperature they have set for your prison cell. But, if you see Cubs fans marching through Wrigleyville, all that can be put to rest and forgotten until October, a whole baseball season away from now. There are some grizzled Chicago vets who insist to me that we’re not out of the woods yet, that April chills and snows are not unheard of, but I ignore them because, well, baseball is here!(I should note that my already considerable happiness at the return of baseball season has been further enhanced by the book I’m reading right now, a collection of baseball writing by the incomparable Roger Angell called Game Time : A Baseball Companion)
If I’m planning on seeing a movie, I don’t typically look at reviews of it beforehand. I prefer to go into the experience with an open mind. And even though newspaper movie reviewers don’t tend to “spoil” the key plot points, I’d just as well not know anything about the plot so that every twist and turn is unexpected. The same thing goes for book reviews. There have even been times when I’ve stopped reading a book review halfway in when I realized that I wanted to read the book being reviewed. Setting the review aside, I’ll revisit it once the book is complete.And so with early reviews of books I’d like to read trickling in, I’m setting them aside to pour over once I’ve read the books. At the top of my list is The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. I was able to get my hands on an early copy, and I’ll be eagerly jumping in as soon as I finish this week’s New Yorker. Bookforum, meanwhile, has already posted its review of the book. In the third paragraph, reviewer Benjamin Anastas writes “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is many things at once: a work of alternate history, a medium-boiled detective story, an exploration of the conundrum of Jewish identity, a meditation on the Zionist experiment, the apotheosis thus far of one writer’s influential sensibility.” I haven’t read further than that, though, as I don’t want anything to put a dent into my anticipation.Elsewhere, hungry readers have cracked into some other hotly anticipated novels. Bookdwarf has a look at Ian McEwan’s slim new tome On Chesil Beach. She initially calls it an “odd, intimate book,” but ultimately gives it her seal of approval, calling it “superb.”Anne Fernald landed a copy of Don DeLillo’s new novel, Falling Man and offers up her initial thoughts. The book is yet another entrant in the “9/11 novel” category, but Anne clearly didn’t find it hackneyed or overwrought. Instead she calls it “wonderful… excellent but not the very, very best of his work.” Later on she declares, “Oh, the marvel of watching DeLillo reveal the poisonous thoughts of an ordinary unhappy woman to us.”Finally, Haruki Murakami has a new book, After Dark, on its way. For those who seek them out, early looks at Murakami novels can nearly always be found since his books come out in Japan well in advance of the English translations. One need only find a bilingual reader to share his thoughts in English. An excerpt, however, is harder to come by, but that’s what was recently offered up at Condalmo, where Matthew Tiffany recently shared the book’s opening sentences.Previously: The above books are just a few of the most anticipated books of 2007.