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.)
Every so often in a reader’s life, he stumbles upon two books that complement each other like red meat and red wine. Such a happy accident befell me last month, when I happened to read Michael Lewis’ Liar’s Poker hard on the heels of Thomas Frank’s One Market Under God.The Frank book, an evisceration of the free-market discourse and management culture of the 90s, was a fine read on its own: funny, incisive, and angry. And yet, in its argumentation, it at first struck me as inferior to Frank’s more recent What’s the Matter With Kansas? Like Lewis Lapham, who published excerpts from both books in Harper’s, Frank has a tendency to preach to the choir. This often doesn’t bother me; I sit right in the middle of that choir. When Frank demonstrates the tension between a free market and economic democracy, I say “Amen.” When he decries the commodification of the counterculture, I shout “Hallelujah.”When Frank gets down to naming names, however, I get uneasy. One Market Under God does not hesitate to lay the sorry state of the world at the feet of specific, individual evildoers, and I, raised to try to see the best in people, prefer to blame systemic ills. And so I’m not sure if Frank’s depiction of scheming, iniquitous fat cats is a workable belief or a bit of populist wishful thinking.Or I wasn’t sure, until I picked up Liar’s Poker. Here Michael Lewis, himself a former stockbroker, takes us inside Salomon Brothers, the investment bank where he worked in the rip-roaring 80s. Lewis establishes his centrist credentials early and often, and generally eschews editorializing. It is especially appalling, then, (if weirdly engrossing) to discover that Salomon Brothers is full of…scheming, iniquitous fat cats!Liar’s Poker is like a nonfiction version of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (IMDb). The visionary salesmen and traders of Solomon Brothers screw the little guy at every turn, and we get to see every dirty detail. They rip off investors, lie to the public, devalue successful companies, inflate worthless ones, lay off employees, throw phones at underlings, grope secretaries, consume conspicuously, and generally turn themselves into caricatures of the worst kind of capitalist exploitation. The free-market they promote is, in fact, far from free.In an ideal marketplace, knowledge is symmetrical. The vulgar version: buyer and seller are in possession of the same set of facts, and prices reach equilibrium according to the law of supply and demand. This is why there are laws against rolling back odometers, and against making false claims in advertisements. But investment banks, as Lewis portrays them, rely on the market’s inefficiency at distributing information – its tendency to allow those most heavily invested in a market to control the flow of knowledge within and about that market – to buy below fair-market value, and to sell well above it.Of course, we are assured, such excesses have since been curbed by regulation. (This is part of the 90s market populism analyzed in One Market Under God, wherein Wall Street is brought to heel by Main Street.) Insider trading laws are now stringent, we are told; firewalls have arisen between the trading floors where commodities are sold and the equity departments where they are underwritten. But Wall Street is still raking it in, while Main Street drifts and eddies on stagnant wages.Perhaps the current investment bank bonanza is merely the financial industry’s reward for its own newfound virtuousness. Still, the next time you hear an I-banker lamenting the regulatory climate, or claiming that Sarbanes-Oxley is driving all the moneymen to London, ask him what kind of bonus he got last year, and whether he’s still living in New York. Then tell him you’ve got a bridge you’re looking to sell…See also: Max’s review of Liar’s Poker
Trevor and Jeff at Syntax of Things polled a number of litbloggers to put together a fantastic list of underrated writers. From their introduction:As you’ll see, the results are interesting. We were able to compile a list of 55 writers from 15 different litbloggers who hailed from four continents (North and South America, Europe, and Australia). Of these 55 writers, we had only two who received more than one vote. In addition, the writers ranged from obscure Brazilian poets to a surrealist painter to young adult science fiction writers. Some names are familiar; others we’re sure you won’t recognize.They were kind enough to ask me to participate and I contributed some names that will be familiar to long-time Millions readers: Pete Dexter, Michelle Huneven, Ryszard Kapuscinski and Alvaro Mutis. Trevor and Jeff dug up lots of great links to go along with the blurbs provided for each author, and they included one for Mutis that I hadn’t seen before. It’s a translation of a poem called “Tequila.”
We got back late last night from Los Angeles (where we had attended the wedding of two great friends), and are now wading through stacks of boxes in our still freshly moved into apartment in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, it turns out that when you go on vacation two days after moving, you don’t return to find all of your things miraculously unpacked and where you want them to be.However, after a few days of catch up (and thanks to the resourcefulness of Mrs. Millions) we should eventually approach normalcy. As for the digital realm, I still have many emails to respond to and my Bloglines “unread items” number in the thousands, but regular posting will ramp up again here over the next couple of days.In the meantime, I noticed that Philadelphia announced its 2007 One Book, One City selection this week Carlos Eire’s Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, a National Book Award winning memoir. It tells the tale of Eire’s boyhood uprooting from Cuba and the subsequent “rootlessness” of his life in the United States. The selection puts the focus on our country’s immigration issues, though the question of Cuba has been less “hot button” of late. I, for one, prefer to “One Book” programs select fiction as I think there is something more special about a whole city reading a novel together. And anyway (though I read as much non-fiction as fiction), fiction is more in need of support from our public institutions. However, some consolation can be found in the fact that Waiting for Snow in Havana is literary and not just topical.
I spotted this essay by James Wood in the Guardian about endings that disappoint. I agree that there is hardly anything more disheartening than a novel that just peters out at the end. To me reading a book is like making an investment. You put in the time, and at the end you hope to walk away with some pleasure. A bad ending screws up the whole arrangement. I tried to think of some really good endings and off the top of my head I came up with a couple. In terms of paying off on an investment, one of my favorites is John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. The “a ha!” moment is almost too perfect but Irving has set it up so well that you can’t help but believe it. Another great ending that comes to mind is John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. After such a long journey, one almost expects the book to run out of steam, but Steinbeck magnificently collects everything together at the end and sends you out of the book with real emotional force. When I read the last words of that book and put it down, I said to myself, “Wow, that was worth it.”
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.