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.
In his contribution to our Year in Reading series last year, Joseph O'Neill, author of Netherland, began, "Prompted by a writing assignment, I've been re-reading the novels and stories of Saul Bellow for the first time in years - and I'm completely smitten all over again, only more deeply." I was curious to know what that assignment was, but my digging at the time turned nothing up. Now, however, I have an answer. The new edition, coming in November, of Bellow's 1997 novella The Actual will include an introduction by O'Neill.
Recommended Collections:The Coast of Chicago and I Sailed with Magellan by Stuart DybekDybek owns a specific part of the literary universe, a several square-block section of the south side of Chicago. He focuses on that, hones it, and reproduces it beautifully. His stories - sentimental (but not sappy), funny, and moving - describe a world where cultures and generations rub against each other, sometimes producing sparks. If you don't read collections in order, or if you happen upon Dybek's stories in an anthology, start with "Hot Ice," "Pet Milk," or "Orchids."Sixty Stories, by Donald Barthelme and In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William H. GassBoth of these are challenging collections, or at least they were for me, yet both are also adventurous and mind-altering. Barthelme, who has experienced a renaissance of late, did more with the form of the story than anyone I can think of. His stories - brief, wild, audacious - will cure whatever boredom might have possessed you. Gass' stories, typically quite long, describe the emotionally bleak and unforgiving Midwest, with its brief moments of untold beauty buried within quotidian horrors. At one moment, a Gass character might be counting the peas in his pot pie; in the next, he's contemplating freedom in the backyard. The titular story contains what is, at the moment, my favorite sentence: "It's true there are moments--foolish moments, ecstasy on a tree stump--when I'm all but gone, scattered I like to think like seed, for I'm the sort now in the fool's position of having love left over which I'd like to lose; what good is it now to me, candy ungiven after Halloween."Recommended Stories:"The Christian Roommates" from Early Stories by John UpdikeAn ode to the classic freshman double. This story pretty much was my first year of college. I played it pretty straight in high school, and had my mind completely blown open by all the nuts I met in school, including my freshman roommate [God bless you, Glen, you beautiful bastard]. Updike captures that so well that the first time I read this, I couldn't believe it had been written before I was born."The Fall of Edward Barnard" from The Collected Stories of W. Somerset MaughamSort of a precursor to The Razor's Edge, this is the story of a man who goes to Tahiti to find his best friend, Edward Barnard, who's fallen off the grid and who also happens to be engaged to his best friend. I spent two years of my life trying to adapt this story for the screen to no avail. If I were pressed, I'd say this is my favorite story.
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.
I'm going to digress from the book talk here, if I may. I've been blogging for a couple of years now, and I really enjoy it. I post when I feel like it, I write about books, and a handful of people visit every day. Discussions ensue; it's all very fun. But when I see folks blogging in Iraq and other dangerous locales, I wonder if I would join the fray in a situation where blogging is more than a diversion or a hobby - where blogging is an act of courage or defiance.Lately, I've been following the situation in Nepal. The king has dissolved the government and basically shut down the press. I was curious to see if any blogs in Nepal are defying the press ban, and I found this one: a group blog called United We Blog! The most recent post from the blog's administrator concludes with this warning, "Do Not Blog About Political Matters for the time being," but a previous post puts it this way, "Because of my basic human rights, like right to express, speak and writing, are suspended and I am in no position to express my feeling or opinion regarding the royal takeover. Here in Nepal, press freedom is being curtailed and, according to the government, our website can't report on political issues."He also says this about the ban: "For the first time in my life, I knew the importance of this site, a place to express myself, ourself... A great forum to share ideas."Part of me wants to write to these guys to let them know that their words, despite the censorship, are reaching us, but at the same time, I would not want to encourage them to put themselves in danger by communicating with us. I think, perhaps, the larger point I'm trying to make is that - thanks to blogs - we can now peer behind walls of censorship to see the people oppressed by it. If anyone else stumbles onto any more Nepalese blogs, please let us know.
1. I’m deciding which books to take on a trip to Austin next week. I get excited every time I choose a new book to read, obviously, but I get especially keyed up about choosing books to take on a trip. Vacation books are important. A lot of people use vacation as a time to read lighter, dare I say trashier books, with pictures of women’s calves on the front or authors in bomber jackets on the back. This convention is predicated on the notion that you’ll be able to read for longer periods of time, and books that are heavier - thematically and physically so - will overtax your brain at a time when you are meant to give it a break. I don’t think this notion gives our brains or our books enough credit. The deep immersion in a book that long bouts of reading produces is suited to books with the richest, deeply-buried treasures. A good book invites you to sever your connection with the real world and come into the one it creates; the longer you read it, the more that connection is severed, the more you exist in the interior world of the book rather than this one. Just imagine how this effect is heightened when the world you are in is alien to you, one where you’re just visiting and don’t know the people or your way around, and therefore the book’s world becomes the familiar one. This is when the magic happens. I read the second and third volumes of In Search of Lost Time on a trip to Santorini during which I would spend whole afternoons - whole days! - reading Proust on a sun-soaked terrace. I may sound like Marie Antoinette advocating cake here, but those 300-page dinner party scenes are best read in one sitting. It does take a while to adjust to Proust’s rhythms, but once you’re there, my goodness, stay there as long as possible. Taking a book on vacation, reading it in this leisurely, savoring manner, stacks the odds that it will become special to me. For this reason, I take a long time choosing, because I know that when I remember the vacation, it will be intertwined with my memories of the book I was reading. I associate Proust with Santorini the way I associate On Photography with Marseilles, Cloud Atlas with a train ride to Kansas City, Out Stealing Horses with a 9-hour plane ride, Home with Grenoble, and The Fault in Our Stars with a cabin in Colorado. This theory of vacation books, which I subscribe to so heartily, all began with a vacation I took, to London, which was one of the worst decisions I ever made, and the book I took along, Banvard’s Folly, which was one of the best. 2. I spent my junior year studying in London. I fell in love with the city, and also with one of its men. He was my first real love and is still one of my favorite people in the world, but when the year was through and it was time for me to go back to my senior year in the States, we saw no other option than to break up. About two months later, he saw no other option than to start dating the girl who had been my best friend and roommate in London. Oh, readers, the drama! The professions of anger and confusion and betrayal and regret and understanding and forgiveness and serenity. Peace was restored, hard feelings were said to be lacking, we all decided to move past it. Eighteen months later, another friend was getting married in London, and I was going over to attend. Ask yourself who the worst person I could have stayed with was. Then ask yourself if I stayed with her. It wasn’t a fiasco, but it was pretty bad. It was a lot easier for the three of us to be past it when we were an ocean apart rather than in the same room. The folly of our decision to spend five days together was apparent from the first one. When things got weird — and they got weird a lot — I read my book. I was an author events coordinator in Boston at the time, and we had just hosted Paul Collins. Of the several dozen author events I worked during my years there, his remains my favorite. His 40-minute talk was warm, engaging, informative, surprising, funny, inspiring, and delivered without notes. Every person in attendance, a tragically small number, purchased every one of his books. I did the same, and I’d been saving what I’d heard was the best. Each of Banvard’s Folly’s 13 chapters tells the story of a person whose genius, ambition, or imagination far exceeded their success. The paperback’s subtitle is “Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn’t Change the World.” They are therefore forgotten, but in Collins’s hands unforgettable. There’s the titular Banvard, a famous painter who squandered his fortune trying to compete with PT Barnum. There’s the guy who first bred the Concord grape before you could patent that sort of thing. There was a French physicist who thought he’d discovered a new source of radiation and a woman who tried to prove Francis Bacon was Shakespeare. Paul Collins is a gentleman to his subjects, always, and this book neither smirks nor condescends. It had the same lively curiosity and optimism that I’d witnessed in Collins’s talk, and when I needed to escape an awkward room or a conversation I wasn’t a part of, I would excuse myself to be introduced to more of these admirable, doomed people. Each of them was quixotically devoted to an idea that didn’t work out. I actually only just realized, 10 years later, as I’m writing this, that I was devoted to a doomed idea myself. I thought I could maintain two friendships that could not be maintained, and I was watching that idea fail. Maybe I needed to be in the company of someone who never smirks nor condescends. Banvard’s Folly is very special to me. It was my best friend on that trip. I turned the last page as my plane was taking off from Heathrow. Then I closed the book, and hugged it, and I cried. I choose my vacation books carefully. I can’t imagine one of them will ever be as significant as Banvard’s Folly was to that trip to London, but they’re important. Choose wisely.
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