My travels to the East coast last weekend swept away any doubt about the importance of the current wave of bestselling books about the Bush administration. In airport lounges, on planes, and in the New York City subways people everywhere are getting their news, not from the Times or from the weekly newsmagazines, but from a handful of books by people who enjoyed unfettered access to the current administration. I especially noticed an abundance of copies of Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack as well as a handful of copies of Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies, (which, at the moment, come in at number one and number six respectively on Amazon’s Top 100). The content of these books is interesting, but so is the phenomenon behind them. According to many who have been following this trend, we are in uncharted territory. In the Times, David K. Kirkpatrick explains why all of this is unprecedented and suggests that the administration’s vigilance over the information that ends up in newspapers and magazines has caused a spillover into books. Here is the article.
So, What’s new this week? Studs Turkel might be the originator of the “oral history” genre that seems to be reaching market saturation of late. After a while, it just seems like a lazy way to write a history book, even if it is the undeniably rockin’ history of punk. Turkel strays from these glorified interviewers in a couple of ways. First, he is adept at picking broad but compelling subjects and at finding the common and divergent threads that run through these subjects. His huge seller from 1972, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, is an incredibly readable chronicle of the most common of American experiences. Second, as I have already implied, Turkel is able to paint history in the words of everyday people, not famous folks who practically make a living giving interviews, sketch comedy actors, for example. His new book, Hope Dies Last is the study of his most esoteric subject yet, America’s collective loss of hope and the decline in social activism that has accompanied it. Once again, he solicits the views of people from different generations and walks of life. Speaking of different walks of life, lots of folks out there seem to be excited by the general who is ready trade in his stars for a chance to become the President. Those curious to know more about Democratic hopeful Wesley Clark can see him showing off his military chops in his new book Winning Modern Wars: Iraq, Terrorism, and the American Empire.Those in a fictional frame of mind should look out for David Guterson’s long-awaited followup to Snow Falling on Cedars, a book called Our Lady of the Forest. To paraphrase what Guterson was saying this afternoon on a local public radio show, Our Lady of the Forest is about the occurrence of a mystical, Catholic phenomenon in a destitute Pacific Northwest logging town and the effect it has on four characters. 16-year-old runaway, Anne Holmes, believes that she is having visions of the Virgin Mary. This produces in the young town priest, Father Don Collins, a crisis of conscience. For sometime drifter and mushroom-picker, Carolyn Greer, the apparitions mean money and opportunity, and for guilt-ridden former logger Tom Cross, they signal a chance for redemption. It was especially interesting to hear Guterson talk about how he tried to infuse the book with both the beauty of the rainforests of the Northwest and the squalor of the once-prospering logging towns nearby. Also new in fiction: Shipwreck, another spare and haunting novel by Louis Begley, the author of About Schmidt. Also just out is Train, a must-read LA noir novel by Pete Dexter. I read it and loved it. Here is my review. In paperback people are buying Koba the Dread, Martin Amis’ powerful indictment of Stalin and his Western sympathizers, The Art of Seduction, Robert Greene’s almost-creepy investigation of the ways in which people manipulate one another, and Songbook, Nick Hornby’s paean to his own considered and considerable music collection.AwardwinningThis year’s Booker Prize has been awarded to Australian author D.B.C. Pierre for his debut novel, Vernon God Little.
At 8 a.m. on a recent Monday, my first morning back in New York City after a year and a half away, I looked up from my newspaper – a Wall Street Journal, given away for free at my Financial District hotel – and saw that I was the only rider on the R train leaving South Ferry at the base of Manhattan reading print. Every other rider on the subway car was staring at a screen.
In 2004, when I first moved to Brooklyn, the commute on the New York subways was a world of paper. In the evenings most people read books or magazines, and in the morning it was newspapers. Riders from the outermost neighborhoods read the Post and the Daily News while those closer in read the Times and the Journal, fussily folding the broadsheet pages into quarters for easy reading on crowded trains. Here and there, a few younger kids might be sporting earbuds connected to then-newfangled iPods, but even most of them had at least a freebie AM New York parked in front of their faces.
To friends living elsewhere I described the New York subway system as a rolling public library. It was like one of those big, messy city library reading rooms where homeless men passing the time reading the day’s news sat next to uptight city-college profs correcting student papers minutes before class. New York is the only place I have ever enjoyed my commute. Each morning, as soon as the doors slid shut behind me I opened up my book and entered a different world for the twenty minutes it took me to get from my Brooklyn neighborhood to Midtown Manhattan.
A decade later, like real libraries across the country, New York’s rolling library is going digital. That first morning on the R train turned out to be an extreme example, but on every train I rode during my week back in New York, screens outnumbered printed pages, sometimes by a factor of two to one. When I’ve peeked, some of those screens have been displaying news stories and magazine pages and even a few books, but far more often my fellow subway riders were watching TV shows or playing Candy Crush on their phones.
None of this should come as a surprise, of course. The demise of the printed newspaper is by now very old news and it’s hard to imagine a venue where the shift from printed pages to screens makes more sense than on a crowded subway. Still, the speed and starkness of the change is a shock. A decade ago, none of the devices my R train companions were so avidly viewing even existed. Back then, if you didn’t want to read on your morning subway commute, you stared off into space.
When we talk about books, we tend to think in terms of great works of art and forget that for most people books, like newspapers and magazines, are merely a handy thing to have around for that idle moment when there isn’t something else better to do. Now, more and more often, those idle moments – on subway cars, on airplanes, in dentist’s offices – are being filled by games and movies and social media. By screens.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the end is nigh for literature as we know it. The golden age of American theater came in the 1940s and 1950s, a generation after radio and talking pictures seemingly outmoded live theater. Arguably, some of the greatest movies American directors have ever produced debuted in the 1970s, a generation after television seemingly outmoded movies. Still, a vibrant art form has to serve a utilitarian function in ordinary people’s lives or it gradually becomes relegated to the museum and the specialist viewer, as has happened to visual art and, more recently, to live theater. And if the printed page can’t survive on a New York City subway car, that once-great rolling library, where else can it survive?
Image via Erwin Bernal/Flickr
A small but satisfyingly eclectic batch of blurbs from the pen of Zadie Smith. Prior to today, I don’t think I’d ever seen the phrase “the mutt’s nuts” printed on the back of a book.On Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi – “This is an excellent comic book, that deserves a place with Joe Sacco and even Art Spiegelman. In her bold black and white panels, Satrapi eloquently reasserts the moral bankruptcy of all political dogma and religious conformity; how it bullies, how it murders, and how it may always be ridiculed by individual rebellions of the spirit and the intellect”On Love, Sex & Tragedy: How the Ancient World Shapes Our Lives by Simon Goldhill – “It’s great, and great fun… a sparkling, erudite and amusing remedy for our collective historical amnesia”On Dogwalker by Arthur Bradford – “Arthur Bradford’s stories are quite simply the mutt’s nuts: One of the funniest, smartest, tallest writers working in America today.”On The Pharmacist’s Mate by Amy Fusselman “Ms. Fusselman’s book, brief as it is, affected me deeply. Not only that, the talent displayed therein was somewhat unnerving.”On Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z.Z. Packer – “The kind of brilliance for narrative that should make her peers envious and her readers very, very grateful.”See Also: The Collected Blurbs of Jonathan Safran Foer, The Collected Blurbs of David Mitchell
File under odd marketing ploy: Penguin UK is offering up 30 audio samples from their catalog of books for intrepid djs to incorporate into their mashups. (I think of got the lingo straight here, no?) Spoken word snippets are available from classic titles like The Great Gatsby, Moby Dick, and Nick Hornby’s How to be Good. So, as all media continue to converge toward a single point do not be surprised to find some “Call me Ishmael” in your hip hop.
When: Late Afternoon 10/2/03Where: Walking down my street in a leisurely sort of way.Who: On older gentleman wearing a really sharp fedoraWhat: The Hot Zone by Richard PrestonDescription: “The true story of how a deadly virus from the central African rain forest suddenly appears in a Washington, D.C., animal test lab. In a matter of days, 90% of the primates exposed to the virus are dead, and secret government forces are mobilized to stop the spread of this exotic ‘hot’ virus.”Anyone else like to go bookspotting?
Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Hours was one of the biggest hits of the last ten years, so it’s fair to say that his follow-up Specimen Days is being anticipated by many readers. Like The Hours, Specimen Days is composed of three interrelated stories. The title of the novel is borrowed from Walt Whitman’s autobiography, and much as Virginia Woolf was the inspiration for The Hours, Whitman provides raw material for Specimen Days. The book gets a gushing review in the New York Observer: Specimen Days is “an extraordinary book, as ambitious as it is generous; and the depth of its kindness, or grace, is to convey that it is we ourselves, the multitude, who are extraordinary, or might be.”Another anticipated follow up is Dai Sijie’s Mr. Muo’s Traveling Couch, which comes on the heels of Sijie’s popular novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Traveling Couch (no relation to the Traveling Pants as far as I know) is about a French-trained psychoanalyst who returns to his native China where his sweetheart is a political prisoner. You can read an excerpt of the book here.Terry Gamble has new book out, Good Family, her second novel after her 2003 debut, Water Dancers. Good Family starts like this: “In the years before our grandmother died, when my sister and I wore matching dresses, and the grown-ups, unburdened by conscience, drank gin and smoked; those years before planes made a mockery of distance, and physics a mockery of time; in the years before I knew what it was like to be regarded with hard, needy want, when my family still had its goodness, and I my innocence; in those years before Negroes were blacks, and soldiers went AWOL, and women were given their constrained, abridged liberties, we traveled to Michigan by train.”Kaui Hart Hemmings is the author of a debut collection of stories, House of Thieves, that sounds very interesting. Hemmings is Hawaiian, and PW says “a dusty, dreamy Hawaii rife with sexual frustration, loneliness and adolescent heartbreak is the setting for the nine stories of Hemmings’s bold debut collection.” Her story “The Minor Wars” appeared in the 2004 Best Nonrequired Reading, and here you can read an excerpt of the title story which appeared in Zoetrope: All Story.