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.)
Dubliners and James Joyce fans are celebrating Bloomsday in the town that Leopold Bloom wandered through on that epic day exactly 100 years ago. Revelers, among other things, ate “Gorgonzola sandwiches and sipped Burgundy wine in the sunshine in honour of the lunch enjoyed by the novel’s hero Leopold Bloom, midway through his momentous day.” The novel of course is Ulysses. and you can read more about this remarkable literary festival here.Ray Charles died last weekend. He made such soulful and happy music. Driving from New York to DC, we encountered several radio stations playing his music, some of them continuously, side after side of classic records. Now the tributes are over, and the radio stations are back to their regular rotations, so I was annoyed when I realized that I left my fantastic 5 cd set in storage in LA.Spencer Reece and his book The Clerk’s Tale got a sizeable write up on the front page of the Washington Post Sunday Style section. Not bad for poetry.BookspottingHow powerful is Oprah? I spotted Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina mixed in with a couple of romance novels in the rest stops along the New Jersey Turnpike. Also spotted: On the Washington DC subway: The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman, Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz, and The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom; and in the back seat of my little brother’s car: Our Posthuman Future by Francis FukuyamaFinally, check out the trilogy of Alice Munroe stories in the New Yorker fiction issue. It’s worth a look if only to read the stories that the New Yorker deemed worthy of such prominent placement. You’ll have to pick up the magazine to read all three. Only the first story is online.
Under a lank and sunsmeared sky the man took the tattered map from his knapsack and smoothed it on the grittened flat of a boulder. Over endless months the map had been worn to practically nothing, incomprehensible in parts. Mended with yellowing scotchtape, rusted paperclips. West Virginia now read West Virgin and it always made him laugh. He knew it wasnt funny, but the world had been boached and heatraped, stripped to its meanest need. No more Patton Oswalt monologues or George Saunders shortstorys. No more catchphrases or oneliners. Only he and the boy and the road and West Virgin. Tee hee.
We cross a bridge here, he said, pointing to a beansmudge in the southern corner. It looks to be about eight miles, or two kilometers. See this green dotted line? That means it’s a scenic route.
The boy smiled. Will it be pretty, Papa?
No. Everything will be dead. But we might see an interesting corpse, he said, mussing the boy’s hair. Twisted into a neat shape in a ditch or something. Or maybe even hung from a branch with its legs eaten off.
Oh boy. That sounds like fun.
Now this is the river, he said, indicating a random mapcrease. We follow the road here along the eastern slope of the mountains. These are our roads, the black lines here. See these roads? The boy seemed confused. What’s the matter, the man said.
I thought it was singular. You know. “The Road.”
The man’s eyes went wide. Where did you get those?
The quotation marks.
The boy looked at his feet. Ive. Ive been saving them, Papa.
Well you can’t just use them like that. He took the boy’s face in his hands, more roughly than intended. Everything is precious. Everything. Do you understand?
The boy looked a little bit frightened. Yes Papa. I wont ever use them again. I promise.
The man turned back to the map, shaken by the boy’s profligacy. Had he learned nothing from the unending
trudge? The harrowing woap? The rampled skoon?
Now, he said, turning back to the map. These are the state roads.
Why are they state roads?
Because they used to belong to the states.
But there arent any more states?
What happened to them?
I dont know exactly.
The boy thought about that. Everything is very nebulous, isnt it, Papa?
Yes, said the nameless man to the nameless child, gazing out at the ruin caused by some massive anonymous catastrophe. Thats how we keep things interesting.
They came upon him shuffling along the road before them, dragging one leg slightly and stopping from time to time to scratch at his mealy nethers before lurching forth again.
What should we do, Papa?
We’re all right. Let’s just follow and watch.
They walked in silence.
He really scratches at his nethers a lot, the boy whispered.
Yes he does. They must be pretty mealy.
They followed behind a good ways until he just sat in the road and did not get up again. The boy clung to his father’s arm as they neared the huddled figure. They could see that the old man’s skin was badly quimpled beneath his ragged coat. One of his eyes was burnt fully shut and his hair was but a riggled mirkin upon his charred and dadgy headskull. A piece of scalp had been ripped off, mended with mudcrusted papier-mâché. Part of an ear chewn away, as if by swarming possums. An old coathanger for an arm, the bent hook forming a rude hand. A woolen scarf that totally clashed with his pants. As they passed they saw that he wore mittens on his feet. Upon his one good hand was a shoe. He sat in silence, exploring a nostril with his coathanger. He found something and brought it out for examination, grinning at the nosecrust before going in for more. The boy kept looking back as they walked. Let that be a lesson to you, said the man, keeping his voice low. Never wear a black scarf and brown pants.
The man had carried his billfold till it wore a cornershaped hole in his trousers. Then one day he sat by the roadside and took it out and went through the contents. A few dollar bills, a pair of credit cards. A holepunched card from a coffeeshop. A photograph of his wife, radiant in white. He looked at that a long time. When he and the boy had eaten and continued into the valley, he left the billfold and the cards where they lay. A final proof of his wife given to the blind and godless void. He looked back as they walked and was overcome with grief. He had been one holepunch away from a free twelve ounce coffee.
They stood in the high chiggerfilled wheatgrass and called to him. Prancing sprites in their natty Sunday best, wispy and shauntled. Across the dancefloor of a heatdried waste where the deathberm had lifted. A lie between verities. Gumption and woe among the mumbling bindlestiffs. A feastless smorgasbord. Was, not was. Mama said knock you out. Kid kid icarus, kid kid icarus. Google it if you must. The figures sunk into their narrow earthen spriteholes, inscrutable message delivered. He woke and lay in the dark, vaguely disappointed. He preferred the dreams with vaginas in them.
One of my favorite magazines, which I now finally subscribe to thanks to a surplus of frequent flier miles, is The Week. It’s done in the “digest” format, taking the week’s news, events, and cultural goings on from hundreds of sources – newspapers, magazines, etc. – and distilling it down to about 45 pages. It’s a great way to fill in the small gaps left by my other two standbys, the New Yorker and The Economist.One of my favorite features in The Week is called “The Book List,” (not available online) in which the magazine asks a notable person to recommend a handful of books. This week’s featured recommender was Lionel Shriver, whose new book The Post-Birthday World comes out soon. Her list of six books caught my eye because it includes two of my favorite books, Atonement by Ian McEwan and Paris Trout by Pete Dexter, as well as a book recently read and enjoyed by Mrs. Millions, Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers (which I hope to read soon, too). So, naturally, I was curious to see what else Shriver was recommending since our tastes seem to be aligned.As it turns out, rounding out her list are two more books I’ve wanted to read and a third I’ve never heard of. The first two are The Age of Innocence and Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. The third book – new to me – is As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann.
I’m deciding which books to take on a trip to Austin next week. I get excited every time I choose a new book to read, obviously, but I get especially keyed up about choosing books to take on a trip. Vacation books are important. A lot of people use vacation as a time to read lighter, dare I say trashier books, with pictures of women’s calves on the front or authors in bomber jackets on the back. This convention is predicated on the notion that you’ll be able to read for longer periods of time, and books that are heavier – thematically and physically so – will overtax your brain at a time when you are meant to give it a break.
I don’t think this notion gives our brains or our books enough credit. The deep immersion in a book that long bouts of reading produces is suited to books with the richest, deeply-buried treasures. A good book invites you to sever your connection with the real world and come into the one it creates; the longer you read it, the more that connection is severed, the more you exist in the interior world of the book rather than this one. Just imagine how this effect is heightened when the world you are in is alien to you, one where you’re just visiting and don’t know the people or your way around, and therefore the book’s world becomes the familiar one. This is when the magic happens.
I read the second and third volumes of In Search of Lost Time on a trip to Santorini during which I would spend whole afternoons – whole days! – reading Proust on a sun-soaked terrace. I may sound like Marie Antoinette advocating cake here, but those 300-page dinner party scenes are best read in one sitting. It does take a while to adjust to Proust’s rhythms, but once you’re there, my goodness, stay there as long as possible.
Taking a book on vacation, reading it in this leisurely, savoring manner, stacks the odds that it will become special to me. For this reason, I take a long time choosing, because I know that when I remember the vacation, it will be intertwined with my memories of the book I was reading. I associate Proust with Santorini the way I associate On Photography with Marseilles, Cloud Atlas with a train ride to Kansas City, Out Stealing Horses with a 9-hour plane ride, Home with Grenoble, and The Fault in Our Stars with a cabin in Colorado.
This theory of vacation books, which I subscribe to so heartily, all began with a vacation I took, to London, which was one of the worst decisions I ever made, and the book I took along, Banvard’s Folly, which was one of the best.
I spent my junior year studying in London. I fell in love with the city, and also with one of its men. He was my first real love and is still one of my favorite people in the world, but when the year was through and it was time for me to go back to my senior year in the States, we saw no other option than to break up. About two months later, he saw no other option than to start dating the girl who had been my best friend and roommate in London.
Oh, readers, the drama! The professions of anger and confusion and betrayal and regret and understanding and forgiveness and serenity. Peace was restored, hard feelings were said to be lacking, we all decided to move past it. Eighteen months later, another friend was getting married in London, and I was going over to attend. Ask yourself who the worst person I could have stayed with was. Then ask yourself if I stayed with her.
It wasn’t a fiasco, but it was pretty bad. It was a lot easier for the three of us to be past it when we were an ocean apart rather than in the same room. The folly of our decision to spend five days together was apparent from the first one. When things got weird — and they got weird a lot — I read my book.
I was an author events coordinator in Boston at the time, and we had just hosted Paul Collins. Of the several dozen author events I worked during my years there, his remains my favorite. His 40-minute talk was warm, engaging, informative, surprising, funny, inspiring, and delivered without notes. Every person in attendance, a tragically small number, purchased every one of his books. I did the same, and I’d been saving what I’d heard was the best.
Each of Banvard’s Folly’s 13 chapters tells the story of a person whose genius, ambition, or imagination far exceeded their success. The paperback’s subtitle is “Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn’t Change the World.” They are therefore forgotten, but in Collins’s hands unforgettable. There’s the titular Banvard, a famous painter who squandered his fortune trying to compete with PT Barnum. There’s the guy who first bred the Concord grape before you could patent that sort of thing. There was a French physicist who thought he’d discovered a new source of radiation and a woman who tried to prove Francis Bacon was Shakespeare.
Paul Collins is a gentleman to his subjects, always, and this book neither smirks nor condescends. It had the same lively curiosity and optimism that I’d witnessed in Collins’s talk, and when I needed to escape an awkward room or a conversation I wasn’t a part of, I would excuse myself to be introduced to more of these admirable, doomed people. Each of them was quixotically devoted to an idea that didn’t work out. I actually only just realized, 10 years later, as I’m writing this, that I was devoted to a doomed idea myself. I thought I could maintain two friendships that could not be maintained, and I was watching that idea fail. Maybe I needed to be in the company of someone who never smirks nor condescends.
Banvard’s Folly is very special to me. It was my best friend on that trip. I turned the last page as my plane was taking off from Heathrow. Then I closed the book, and hugged it, and I cried.
I choose my vacation books carefully. I can’t imagine one of them will ever be as significant as Banvard’s Folly was to that trip to London, but they’re important. Choose wisely.