I have returned to the subject of the big televised book clubs a number of times since I started this blog nearly a year ago. I have reacted to them, at times, with shock, confusion, and dismay as when I was startled by the emergence of a new Oprah’s Book Club, an event that necessitated placing a splashy red banner bearing Oprah’s name across the cover of an American classic. Later on I would mellow out, having observed the profound (and mostly positive) effect that Oprah’s new focus on classic literature was having on America’s reading habits. And there was, of course, the piece that one time Oprah author Kaye Gibbons wrote emphasizing how important she found the club to be in getting more people to read. For most people who observe the book industry I think that the angst surrounding Oprah and the rest is dissipating, and most folks have come to realize that the good done by these clubs far outweighs the damage. A year ago it was possible to see the occasional angry screed directed against the proliferation of on air reading groups, but now, as Caryn James explains in this New York Times article, the ambivalence is waning. And, in fact, Oprah deserves a good deal of praise for both her selection of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez classic One Hundred Years of Solitude and the depth of the Book Club section of her website (which unfortunately requires you to register if you want to see it). So, the consensus seems to be that these book clubs are mostly good intellectually, but the impact of these clubs on the industry commercially cannot be overestimated. As this interesting roundup of the last ten years of bestsellers in USA Today shows, Oprah’s club has become as important as blockbuster news stories and runaway cultural fads when it comes to creating mega-bestsellers. (By the way, how about the amazing five straight “book of the year” titles for the Harry Potter Series.)
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.
The first time I read Huckleberry Finn, I must've been nine, because I remember padding down the staircase one evening book in hand, and taking a left into the living room where my parents were sitting on the couch. We moved away from the house I'm remembering when I was in fourth grade, so ten years old might be the upper limit here. I remember the book too. It was one of those editions designed to look old and expensive, with a faux-leather cover that had a padded feel to it, like the back seat of my parents' minivan. The edges of the thin pages were "gilt," giving the book a faintly biblical aspect. I was walking down the stairs with the book in hand because, though a fairly precocious young reader, I'd come across a word I'd never seen before. I held up the book, open to one of the early pages, and pointed. What does this word "nigger" mean? My parents, I think, had not planned on doing any more parenting that day -- maybe there were glasses of wine sitting on the coffee table -- let alone having to carefully explain to a nine-year-old the gravity of this particular word. It wasn't "where do babies come from?", but it was close. Nonetheless, and sensing, I assume, that they had better fully satiate my curiosity lest I bring this word carelessly with me to school the next day, they explained. I paraphrase: "this is a very, very bad word that white people used to call black people. You must never, ever use this word; it's one of the worst things you can call someone." They did not, I note now, take the book away from me. I went back to my room and kept reading, and eventually, some days or weeks later I finished the book. To the best of my recollection, despite it appearing six times in the text, I never went back downstairs, book in hand, to ask my parents what the word "slave" meant.
“If an ox begins to sicken,” Cato the Elder writes in his treatise on Roman farm management, “give him without delay a raw hen’s egg and make him swallow it whole. The next day make him drink from a wooden bowl a measure of wine in which has been scraped the head of an onion. Both the ox and his attendant should do these things fasting and standing upright.” This passage has stuck with me, for reasons I don’t entirely understand, since the time I first read it, whenever that may have been. I’m less interested in the questionable medicine it prescribes than in the image of the ox and his attendant -- who, on the farm described by Cato, was most likely a slave -- together: the attendant going about his work, the ox patiently enduring his ministrations. The two at once familiar and yet gazing across an unfathomable distance of incomprehension as they stand facing one another, both unfed save the ox’s hen’s egg and measure of wine. I’ve been thinking of the passage often lately, as my novel, That’s Not a Feeling, is, to my surprise, filled with animals. The novel is set on the rural campus of a boarding school, so it isn’t entirely unexpected that animals should appear. But a brief catalogue of non-human animals seen and discussed in its pages would include deer, bees, ducks, a turkey, cats, a caterpillar, a goat, a pig, some chickens, an owl, two wasps, a peahen, horses, bats, some birds that are not further identified, and a snake. This seems to me, if not quite excessive, then at least curious. It’s the kind of thing I try not to think much about while I’m writing, but now that the book is in its final form, I don’t really see what harm it can do. In the eighth of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, the poet contrasts animals’ way of being in the world with that of people. “The creature gazes into openness,” he writes, in A. S. Kline’s translation, “… and when it moves, it moves / in eternity, as streams do.” Humans, however, are always looking inward, “our eyes are / as if they were reversed.” I’m sure that making this type of distinction is not what I was up to. First of all, I find it too romantic, too idealized. And the animals I’ve written about aren’t the free, sure beasts described by Rilke. They are often frightened, in the wrong place, or sick, like the ox in Cato. In this way, they are mirrors of the human characters in the book, who are also often unsettled, ill at ease, or worse. And these characters’ confusion and anxiety is analogous to the opacity that, it seems to me, exists between people and animals. “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him,” Wittgenstein says. I take this to mean that a lion’s life, his experiences and concerns, are so foreign to us that even if he shared our language, we wouldn’t know what he was talking about. Just before making this point in the Philosophical Investigations, a point I think we can safely assume applies to all animals and not only to lions, Wittgenstein discusses the transparency, or lack thereof, between people. He says, “…one human being can be a complete enigma to another.” And, Freud might have added, a complete enigma to himself or herself as well. This begins to feel more like what I may have been after, populating the margins of my book with unsteady animals. They stand (or crawl, or fly) as reminders that proximity doesn’t dispel mystery. Just as Cato’s ox and his attendant can live and work together without claiming to know one another completely, we can live among animals and among people without assuming that we comprehend them. This is less a philistine’s incuriosity about his surroundings than a degree of humility as regards the limits of our understanding. Just as psychoanalysis shows us how we are always telling the truth though we do not know the truth, and can be ourselves -- can’t help being ourselves -- though we remain strangers to ourselves. And yet we are never so resigned that we stop trying to find out more. I like the way animals in books, what John Berger called “animals of the mind,” can serve as emblems of this. From the meadows and the trees, they gaze out at the human characters, who cannot help but wonder what it is the animals see.
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Another comprehensive collection by a short story master is hitting shelves this week. Bradbury Stories is a collection of 100 stories by, who else, Ray Bradbury. Aside from being delightful reading, this collection displays his mastery of the form, providing whatever "proof" might be necessary that Bradbury diserves to be considered one of our best writers. Here's a good interview with Bradbury from The Onion.A Letter to ThailandHere's a letter to my friend Cem. He's world travelling and I thought I might recommend him some books.Cem...Checking in. Southern Turkish still in Northern Thailand I presume. From my little hammock of paradise, it's hard to imagine your jungle roamings. I don't know if you have the time to read or the ability to acquire these books, but I've got two more for you: War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges. He talks about the effect of national conflict on individuals, and, more specifically, he explores his own addiction to war, which has led him around the world. Also, I'm reading a surreal mystery novel called Bangkok 8 by John Burdett. As the title suggests, it's set in the country where you hang your hat.It's all picnics and baseball here in the states. I hope you're enjoying an appropriate Thai substitute.Dreaming of Ships,Max[Note: These books are great for the general populace, too. Not just world travelers]
My good and old friend Garth, while describing what struck at his most recent visit to a book store, alerted me to an intriguing first novel by a 26 year old writer. According to the Washington Post, "Matthew McIntosh, young and despondent though he may be, is the real thing." His book is called Well, and every review I've found so far is very positive and at times a touch awed. This is definitly in the "yes pile." You can find an excerpt on the official page.
There are two types of people in this world: (Segment One) people who adhere, as a point of pride, to every last comma and period of the laws of punctuation, and then there the people who just don't have the time (Segment Two) and, frankly, are a little tired of hearing about these numerous and arcane rules that are supposedly all that separates us from the animals. Bearing in mind that Segment One would be offended that anyone might suggest that punctuation rules are not self-evident and that Segment Two will tell you to blow it out your ear, a book aimed at teaching the populace the in and outs of punctuation doesn't seem likely to be a blockbuster. Yet just such a book was a huge seller in England last year. Are the Brits crazy or are we Americans missing out on the pleasurable nuances of punctuation? We're about to find out. Next week, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss comes out, and its current sales ranking of 6 at Amazon indicates that it will indeed be a success on this side of the Atlantic. And the New York Times seems to like it, which can't hurt. The success of this book will cement the notion that Americans appreciate this British brand of book that delivers dull subject matter contained in a humorous package and prove that the big sales of last year's most delightfully useless British book, Schott's Original Miscellany, was not a fluke. (I hope that I punctuated everything correctly in that post.)