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 switched gears with Henry Miller’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, which describes the author’s travels through the South upon his return to the United States. Miller was very disgruntled when he returned to New York from Paris. He thought the outlook of the community was narrow, the morals corrupt, and the industrial greed an instrument of spiritual death. Hence, he embarked on a drive that took him down south and west to California, a trip during which he marvels at how the rural, farming South kept its soul and culture and did not succumb to the machines and skyscrapers of the North. It is an interesting account, a praise for the warm, hospitable South, and a big outburst at, and a rejection of, what the North offers. An Air Conditioned Nightmare is entertaining and deep, filled with interesting characters and encounters along the way, and depressing with regards to the industrial monster of a picture Miller paints regarding the United States.At this time, I felt the urge for a break and picked up J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories. The genius of Salinger is probably unparalleled and Nine Stories is a good testimony to it. The bizarre stories and intricate web of characters leaves the reader dazzled at the end of the 6 hours in which you fly through the pages. Nine Stories is a great collection that you can keep in your bathroom, on your coffee table or on the bedside table, and pick at any random moment for instant joy. Nine Stories put me in such a good mood that I decided to give Italo Calvino, whose Invisible Cities I read under undesirable circumstances and did not enjoy much, a second try. The novel was The Baron in the Trees. The book is one of Calvino’s earlier novels and is heavily influenced by his studies of Italian folk literature. The rebellion of the heir baron to his family’s strict rules places him on top of a tree, which he refuses to leave. From these circumstances a character is born who is at first considered a lunatic and then a hero, who fights fires and supports Napoleon’s troops, lectures the town on citizenship, falls in love with a duchess, and meets other people who are exiled to tree tops by the Spanish church. A marvelous story, with great wit and imagination, and all the characteristics of love, chivalry, betrayal, family ties, dilemmas and unreal circumstances found in the favorite tales of childhood. A very happy book indeed.
It seems like there’s a new magazine debuting every week. After Brigid Hughes was ousted at the Paris Review, she started her own litmag called A Public Space, the debut issue of which has just arrived. Contained within: work by Charles D’Ambrosio, Kelly Link, Haruki Murakami, Marilynne Robinson, Rick Moody, and others. Here’s the full TOC.
Just as I (and several others) suspected! The New York Times piece on the best novels of the last 25 years was just a ploy to get mentioned on blogs. By way of proof, check out what I found in the traffic logs for The Millions today:Time/Date: Thu_Jun__1_13:09:16_2006_DSTVisitor IP: nytgate05.nytimes.comReferred by: www.technorati.com/search/www.nytimes.com/2006/05/21/books/fiction-25-years.htmlSeriously, I think it’s great that folks at the Times read blogs, and I’m glad they care that bloggers read the Times, but it seems like a lot of trouble to go to just to get mentioned by us.(For those of you unfamiliar with traffic logs, the above basically means that someone at the Times arrived at The Millions after checking Technorati to see which blogs referenced its 25 best books story.)Update: Well, I figured out why the Times was wondering what I wrote about their list. They were putting together this page. So kudos to the Times for acknowledging that this list was the start of a conversation and not a decree and for being willing to host some of the resulting conversation on its site. I’d love to see more of this in the future.
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.
The holidays are nearly upon us, and longtime Millions reader Laurie wrote in to share a number of ways to give back with books this year.Room to Read works in developing countries with low literacy rates to create kids books in local languages using local writers and artists.A Peace Corps rep asks for books in Honduras.Laurie also adds: “Our local B&N is conducting a book drive to put new books into the hands of local kids who would otherwise not have any to call their own. B&N will only accept books bought in the store, though (or, one clerk told me, ‘possibly books that look new if you can show a receipt for them’). I understand the need to provide a poor kid something new, not a ‘hand-me-down,’ but this approach is so self-serving it detracts from the charitable aspect. Then again, it puts more new books in the hands of kids who have none in their homes, so maybe turning charity into a for-profit business tactic isn’t totally evil? Or maybe donating to a nonprofit like First Book is a better choice.”Here are more links to nonprofit book charities:Directory of Book Donation ProgramsBring Me a BookEthiopia Reads