Last fall, a student at Academy of Art University in San Francisco was expelled for writing an extremely violent short story for a creative writing class. In the fallout, the instructor was dismissed after it was revealed that she had assigned the class to read a somewhat graphic story by David Foster Wallace prior to the incident. At the end of March the San Francisco Chronicle broke the story and incited a furor among a number of the country’s literary luminaries. I first heard about this at Scott McCloud’s blog (scroll down to 4/4). McCloud had heard about the scandal from Neil Gaiman (author of American Gods and many others), who had been the recipient of an email sent out by Daniel Handler AKA Lemony Snicket, the children’s author, after Handler was barred from speaking at the Art Academy. Handler’s forceful ejection was recounted here, where we also see that Dave Eggers and Michael Chabon are going on the attack. All of which brings us to today’s opinion piece in the New York Times, in which Pulitzer prizewinner (for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) Chabon muses in a pleasantly obscure way about being a teenager under a headline that, rather oddly, references Jonathan Lethem’s most recent novel. So, what does this all mean? Here’s my prediction: Team American Contemporary Writers will place enough pressure on the Academy of Art that it will be forced to issue a public apology. The fired instructor will get hired at another liberal-leaning university, and the expelled student will sign a lucrative book deal on his way to becoming the next Bret Easton Ellis. Most folks who are commenting on this believe that it is indicative the American fear of the teenager that lingers from Columbine. That is most definitely true, but it is also indicative of the fact that the Academy of Art University in San Francisco faculty and administration don’t seem to be very adept at handling a minor crisis, nor are they particularly well-read. Gaiman mentions this on his blog: “according to Daniel Handler they got a letter of remonstrance from Salman Rushdie, and didn’t recognize the name,” and according to the Chronicle story, “[the Academy of Art administration was] none too pleased that the instructor was teaching Wallace’s story. “Nobody had ever heard of him,” [the instructor] said. “In fact, they kept calling him George Foster Wallace.” (Thanks to my friend Brian for forwarding the Times op-ed to me this morning.)
I had such a good time reading the Count of Monte Cristo that it made me wonder why I don’t read more so-called “classics.” So many times I have wandered into a book store or browsed through Amazon fruitlessly, when I might have gone for the known quantity that is the classic. First, let me define what I’m talking about here. People shy away from classics for two reasons: because they are old. You worry that the book will seem moldy and out of touch. And a classic is the sort of book that is assigned in middle school and high school, and therefore it doesn’t seem like the sort of book you’d want to read for fun (it might bring back bad memories, after all). But again and again I find that this is the wrong way to look at it. I am almost never disappointed when I read a classic novel. So, for all you casual readers out there, consider the classic.But classics aren’t just great for us grown ups, they’re perfect for precocious young readers. When I worked at the book store, I would often encounter parents trying to find books for kids who had read all the kids books. These young readers had read all the Harry Potter, all the Lemony Snicket, and the parents were looking for more of the same. I realized that classic novels are the perfect way to graduate these young readers to the next level of reading. Sure they may get assigned some of these books in school, but I know that when I was young, I found reading books for fun to be far more gratifying than reading for school. Here’s a quick list of classics that I like to recommend to precocious young readers (I’m only recommending books that I have read, so if you’ve got any ideas please share – there are so many more!):The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark TwainThe Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel HawthornePride and Prejudice by Jane AustenGreat Expectations by Charles DickensGulliver’s Travels by Jonathan SwiftFrankenstein by Mary ShelleyOr you could just get ALL of themUpdate: From the comments:Awakening by Kate Chopin (suggested by edan)Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (suggested by edan)Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (suggested by erin)The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (suggested by The Happy Booker)Related: Ask a Book Question: The 27th in a Series (Classifying Classics)Related: Giving Kids the Classics
In a recent issue of The New York Times, Tina Brown explained the rationale behind her nascent Book Beast project thusly:
There is a real window of interest when people want to know something. . . . And that window slams shut pretty quickly in the media cycle.
As a diagnosis, this is accurate – there is a real window (or at least a figurative one) – but it begs a number of relevant questions. For instance: Isn’t the erstwhile “Queen of Buzz” part of the problem of dwindling attention spans, rather than part of the solution? (I suppose you can’t unslam a window any more than you can unring a bell, but still…)
Ms. Brown’s remedy is, characteristically, to get books out there even faster, publishing topical e-books and paperbacks “on a much shorter schedule than traditional books.” However, the imminent arrival of Going Rogue – whose gestation period was shorter than a goat’s – would seem to suggest that Beast Books will differ from today’s “traditional books” more in degree than in kind. (On the other hand, from a marketing standpoint, I suppose Ms. Brown was right: six months was long enough for me to realize I’m tired of reading about Sarah Palin. If it had been available in March, I might have bought the sucker.)
Now, at The New Republic, Damon Linker has blogged a pretty succinct summation of Beast Books’ weird commingling of the redundant, the oxymoronic, and the inevitable:
Opining is fun, and so is ideological combat. But a book is, or should be, something different: A chance to slow down. An opportunity to raise one’s sights a little higher. . . . To reflect instead of react. What Beast Books is proposing . . . is (in Truman Capote’s words) the reduction of writing to typing.
Presumably, this is just the sort of “something” that might merit book-length treatment…were the whole subject not so last week.
Bonus link: The Art of Fashionable Lateness
Not too long ago, on a book finding expedition, I found a whole cache of old Granta magazines. Granta is very cool journal devoted to both short fiction and on the ground reporting of international conflicts and events. It attracts fantastic writers who tend to be relatively unknown to Americans, and so it tends to deliver angles on stories that you don’t see in the American press. Case in point: the other day I was, briefly, between books, and I picked up one of the old Grantas that I have lying around (this one was Autumn 1989). One of the stories I read was a first hand account of the Tiananmen Square massacre by a BBC journalist named John Simpson. I have always found first-hand accounts of these sorts of events to be the most fascinating type of news reporting. (The best I read this year were John Lee Anderson’s “Letters From Baghdad” in the New Yorker.) Simpson’s story on Tiananmen Square was both enthralling and terrifying, he captures a brutality that most of the Western world did not see. Immediately after I finished the article I wondered: is this piece in a book somewhere and has this guy written anything else like this? This answer to both questions is yes. Simpson’s World: Tales from a Veteran War Correspondent came out in August and it’s filled with close encounters with dictators and on the scene dispatches from all the major world conflicts from the last couple of decades.
In August, Atul Gawande published an article in The New Yorker on end of life care which referenced a 2008 study by the Coping with Cancer project that attempted to assess how the manner in which a person dies affects the mental health of the family and friends who watch him go. The study found that the survivors of cancer patients whose last days were spent in mechanized intensive care units tended to suffer post-mortem depression three times more often than the survivors of terminal patients whose last days had been spent at home under hospice care. The implication was that holding on for too long, and in the wrong ways, can disrupt the natural rhythms of grieving.
Recently I’ve been thinking about how this framework—the idea that there are better and worse ways to let someone go—might be applied to the Facebook era of human relations, in which friendships don’t really end so much as they attenuate into superficial voyeurism and token gestures. This past February, for example, I received good wishes (prompted of course by an auto-generated reminder) on my birthday from elementary school acquaintances who I had not spoken with in nearly twenty years (and I’m only 29!). Jake F., who I played Little League with but have not seen since, was one of them: “Hope it’s a good one!” he wrote on my wall.
On a gut level, I couldn’t figure out what to make of this. Was I supposed to feel happy to hear from long lost Jake? Was I supposed to write back “thanks” as though it were completely natural to be wished a happy birthday by a person whose existence is barely more real to me than a character’s in a novel? There seemed to be no categories or schema in the evolutionarily designed layout of my brain to process an encounter that bore qualities in common with a person coming back from the dead.
This feeling of interpersonal vertigo was particularly acute a few months ago when an item in my newsfeed announced that Josh W. was engaged. Josh and I had become friends in the first half of the George W. Bush era, during a year in which we taught sixth grade together in New York City. We were the same age and both liked to play basketball and by Columbus Day we were spending a lot of time together. I’d hang out in his classroom in the mornings before the kids arrived and after school we’d sometimes go play pool and drink Budweiser at an Irish bar located improbably in the midst of what by then had become a Latino neighborhood of the Bronx. We talked about a lot of things, but mostly we never tired of talking about the students we had in common.
When that school year ended, I left teaching and New York to travel. While I was abroad, and then afterwards when I settled in Philadelphia, Josh and I kept in touch over email and occasional phone calls, and a couple times when I was back in New York I looked him up. Those encounters dwindled, though. I was sad when we began to lose touch and I missed the feeling that I associated with the easy period in my life when Josh and I had become friends. But at the same time I was all right with the idea that we weren’t going to be important parts of each other’s lives going forward. Our friendship was tied to a place and a time that had passed and it didn’t diminish how much the friendship had meant to me (or to Josh either, I hope), that we wouldn’t be calling each other up when we were 60 to shoot the shit.
But then there I was, some years after we’d last talked, staring at my computer screen and the news that Josh was going to be getting married. I saw that a few dozen people “Liked” the announcement and I clicked the thumbs-up icon, but immediately I felt a little ill, like I’d just cheapened the memory of our friendship somehow. I thought about adding a small note—”Congratulations” or “So excited to hear the news!!”—but that seemed off, too.
I could have called Josh, or written him a personal email, but I didn’t, although maybe I should have. We all trail a line of relationships behind us as we grow older, and we all have our own standards that define when and how we let go of people who were once important in our lives (and when and how we accept being let go of ourselves). I could see why it might be rewarding or interesting or comforting to know that with Facebook you never really need to put a friendship to rest completely. But to me it’s comforting and disorienting in the way of ventilators and feeding tubes that sustain a narrow definition of life long after the real thing has run its course.
The book that sent the most people to this site this week via the search engines was Moneyball by Michael Lewis. This book and the flap surrounding it has been a huge story on sports radio so it’s no surprise that there are quite a few people looking for more info. The new books that have people talking this week are not a big surprise. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 by Robert Dallek a noted presidential biographer, revealed the news that JFK had an ongoing ralationship with an 19 year old intern codenamed “Mimi.” “Mimi” then broke her 40 year silence and went to the press. Don’t be surprised if her book shows up soon. The other book in the news is The Clinton Wars by Sidney Blumenthal which is, according to the reviews I’ve read unabashed in annointing the Clinton years as paradise on earth. The book I talked about most this week was The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis. It is by far the best book I have read in a long time, and now that several friends have read it, our new hobby seems to be speculating on the whereabouts of the mysterious Maqroll the Gaviero. Read it…Judge a book by its coverI have come to notice during my time at the bookstore that, compared to the Brits, American book cover design is pretty dull. It seems that publishers are convinced that the only way to sell books to Americans is to make the covers as bland and non-threatening as possible. Compare the American cover of Hunter S. Thompson’s new book to the British one and you’ll see what I mean.
The people behind the JT Leroy* scam (our other literary scam), must be happy about the breathing room that the James Frey saga has given them. But is that it? They were called out by the press, but does it end there? As far as I know (and please correct me if I’m wrong), there has been no public declaration by Savannah Knoop, Geoffrey Knoop and Laura Albert in which they come clean, apologize and promise to donate all their ill-gotten gains to charity. Frey did it; shouldn’t they?Meanwhile, adding to the list of people who are unburdening themselves of their unwilling involvement with this scam, actress Ann Magnuson, with whom I had the pleasure of discussing Leroy during my recent trip to Los Angeles, lays out her correspondence with Leroy and also discusses how the scammers demeaned the state of West Virginia.*Now that we know Leroy isn’t a real person, I suppose I should quit making his name boldface, a stylistic treatment that I usually reserve for real people.