Not to make excuses, but when you’re helping plan a wedding, it doesn’t leave a lot of time for things like blogging. I’ll keep posting as often as I can, though. So without further ado, here are three interesting news items that caught my eye today. The first, from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is the suggestion that Harry Potter may not survive the series of books that bears his name. (LINK). At csmonitor.com, Amazon’s list of bestselling books among US Military Personnel (LINK). And, from the Guardian UK, John Updike tells the Brits that they don’t have to be jealous of American novelists any more because those Brits are pretty good after all (LINK).
“If an ox begins to sicken,” Cato the Elder writes in his treatise on Roman farm management, “give him without delay a raw hen’s egg and make him swallow it whole. The next day make him drink from a wooden bowl a measure of wine in which has been scraped the head of an onion. Both the ox and his attendant should do these things fasting and standing upright.”
This passage has stuck with me, for reasons I don’t entirely understand, since the time I first read it, whenever that may have been. I’m less interested in the questionable medicine it prescribes than in the image of the ox and his attendant — who, on the farm described by Cato, was most likely a slave — together: the attendant going about his work, the ox patiently enduring his ministrations. The two at once familiar and yet gazing across an unfathomable distance of incomprehension as they stand facing one another, both unfed save the ox’s hen’s egg and measure of wine.
I’ve been thinking of the passage often lately, as my novel, That’s Not a Feeling, is, to my surprise, filled with animals. The novel is set on the rural campus of a boarding school, so it isn’t entirely unexpected that animals should appear. But a brief catalogue of non-human animals seen and discussed in its pages would include deer, bees, ducks, a turkey, cats, a caterpillar, a goat, a pig, some chickens, an owl, two wasps, a peahen, horses, bats, some birds that are not further identified, and a snake. This seems to me, if not quite excessive, then at least curious. It’s the kind of thing I try not to think much about while I’m writing, but now that the book is in its final form, I don’t really see what harm it can do.
In the eighth of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, the poet contrasts animals’ way of being in the world with that of people. “The creature gazes into openness,” he writes, in A. S. Kline’s translation, “… and when it moves, it moves / in eternity, as streams do.” Humans, however, are always looking inward, “our eyes are / as if they were reversed.” I’m sure that making this type of distinction is not what I was up to. First of all, I find it too romantic, too idealized. And the animals I’ve written about aren’t the free, sure beasts described by Rilke. They are often frightened, in the wrong place, or sick, like the ox in Cato.
In this way, they are mirrors of the human characters in the book, who are also often unsettled, ill at ease, or worse. And these characters’ confusion and anxiety is analogous to the opacity that, it seems to me, exists between people and animals. “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him,” Wittgenstein says. I take this to mean that a lion’s life, his experiences and concerns, are so foreign to us that even if he shared our language, we wouldn’t know what he was talking about. Just before making this point in the Philosophical Investigations, a point I think we can safely assume applies to all animals and not only to lions, Wittgenstein discusses the transparency, or lack thereof, between people. He says, “…one human being can be a complete enigma to another.” And, Freud might have added, a complete enigma to himself or herself as well.
This begins to feel more like what I may have been after, populating the margins of my book with unsteady animals. They stand (or crawl, or fly) as reminders that proximity doesn’t dispel mystery. Just as Cato’s ox and his attendant can live and work together without claiming to know one another completely, we can live among animals and among people without assuming that we comprehend them. This is less a philistine’s incuriosity about his surroundings than a degree of humility as regards the limits of our understanding. Just as psychoanalysis shows us how we are always telling the truth though we do not know the truth, and can be ourselves — can’t help being ourselves — though we remain strangers to ourselves. And yet we are never so resigned that we stop trying to find out more. I like the way animals in books, what John Berger called “animals of the mind,” can serve as emblems of this. From the meadows and the trees, they gaze out at the human characters, who cannot help but wonder what it is the animals see.
Nearly three years ago, I mentioned the El Bulli cookbook, which contains the mad scientist recipes of the famous Catalan chef Ferran Adria. At his restaurant, El Bulli, Adria popularized techniques like creating foams and gelatins using unexpected ingredients and layering flavors and temperatures in his dishes in disconcerting ways. In keeping with what some might call the inaccessibility of his cuisine, his cookbook is large, expensive, and pretty hard to get a hold of. A new edition out in 2005 made it a little easier to take a peak at Adria’s recipes, though, even on sale at Amazon, it’ll still set you back almost $200. This hasn’t kept chefs from coveting the book, according to a recent article in the Contra Costa Times. With Adria’s mystique, and the book’s steep price tag, El Bulli would likely be a jewel in any cookbook collection.
There is a paperback on my bookshelf that doesn’t exist, but it managed to change my life anyway. I found this book among other homely paperbacks on the ninety-nine cent cart at the Montague Book Mill, a used bookstore in Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley. True to its slogan — “Books you don’t need in a place you can’t find” — nothing stocked is guaranteed to be there again, making this book a quintessential one-of-a-kind find.
What arrested me first was its size: a little smaller than one of the classic mid-forties Penguin editions, narrow and flexible, ideal for slipping into a purse or pocket. What caught me next was its barefaced plainness. The jacket was entirely white, the cover crinkled from its stint as a coaster. Its title was an italicized Times New Roman second-cousin. It appeared to be a self-published book; inside, the author had written a note in an unassuming small-caps scrawl, wishing a friend the best of luck with his own career.
Although I have searched the title and the author more than once, the novel remains nonexistent. Unlike I’d first imagined, this author had no website or author’s platform. Search engines brought up many potential origins of the title (it has a fantasy flair) but an exact match remained elusive.
All signs point to the author not having “made it” as we expect authors to ascend in this century’s frenetic flux of multimedia attention. In effect, here lies the only copy; rest in peace.
This novel has been on my bookshelf ever since, surrounded by the greats: Dante Alighieri and Leo Tolstoy, Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner. But this book has a special status compared to its neighbors, albeit an infamous one. It is my bad-mood effigy; I turn to this book for an adrenaline shot of self-indulgence whenever I’m in the throes of apathy, bad writing, and rejections.
Simply put, the writing of this book is bad. In fact, it’s often laughably bad, an unremarkable and derivative species of the speculative genre. In my more magnanimous moments (or so I delude myself), I think self-righteously, This author — the nerve! The self-published pretension! As my literary voodoo doll, I believed I could turn to this novel as a concrete specimen of the written word that was — undeniably — inferior to my own work.
But books do not defer meekly to the morals we have assigned them. A bad book, so-called, has just as much to teach us as a good book. It is often a far better teacher than any work that is uniformly artful, where excellence disguises the nuts and bolts of craft. A bad book also teaches us something a better book cannot: humility. Not the humility of resignation — that of admitting that we will never be very good at what we do, no matter how earnestly we try. Such humility can easily morph into the indulgent self-flagellation that either demands the commiseration of friends or brings our vocation to a standstill, where thereafter we are those people who petulantly claim we “could have been somebody.”
Rather, it’s the humility of acknowledging that time and effort lead to changes in our abilities as writers. Instead of ascribing a moralistic verdict of good or bad, less or more, we humbly acknowledge that nothing more could be asked of us than what our creations can attest to at the time.
The great works of literature are all relatively alike in their excellence. Their perfection is consummate, constantly out of reach. We become comfortable saying, amused and defeated, “I’m no Shakespeare,” as if that is that. But every bad specimen of writing is lit up by the harsh fluorescent lighting of reality. Each pockmark, scar, and slip-up is visible; we have our favorites to trot out in conversation like ghouls in chains. Moreover, what makes for a bad book is a constantly shifting parameter. Is a book bad if it is merely written poorly? Is a book bad if it’s successful with the masses? (Fifty Shades of Grey, for instance, being one of those “bad” novels that is known — if not read — by everyone.)
But my own unique bad book quickly transformed from a voodoo doll to a mirror. This person’s writing is cheap and unmarketable, I start to think — and before I finish the thought: So was your writing a year ago. A week ago. Yesterday.
Bad books remind us of our failings and that such failings are always closer to us than we imagine. As writers, we have to be our own best advocate; we have to invest in the underdog. And by the same token, we must be our first critic, our arch nemesis. Anne Lamott posits in Bird by Bird that radio station KFKD (“K-Fucked”) is playing in our heads each time we write, with “the endless stream of self-aggrandizement” blasting in the speaker of our right ear, while “out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing.” We can tune these out but not turn them off. Similarly, Orson Scott Card contends in How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, “Writers have to simultaneously believe the following two things: 1. The story I am now working on is the greatest work of genius ever written in English. 2. The story I am now working on is worthless drivel.” The bad book on my shelf reminds me that I will contend with both ideologies at any given moment, and at any given moment they are true.
We are destined to be continuously judged and ranked on a scale of lesser to better in our work. In reality, art is a highly competitive realm with no real rules. By turns, we will be winning in the arena, and we will be losing. And KFKD is always playing in the background, whichever speaker is blaring louder at this moment. And thus the most marvelous lesson of the nonexistent book on my shelf: that of artlessness. We do not write good books or bad books. We are all teachers, capable of leaving a lesson behind.
It’s been a while since I’ve mentioned Alvaro Mutis here. His book, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, is one of my all-time favorites. Unfortunately, though Mutis deserves to be counted among the greats of Latin American literature, aside from Maqroll, not much of his work is available in English, which is why I was excited to see that he’s written the forward to a new book that sounds interesting in its own right. The Adventures of a Cello follows the path of a cello known as the Piatti that was made by Antonio Stradivari in 1720. According to the book description:Over the next three centuries of its life, the Piatti cello left its birthplace of Cremona, Italy, and resided in Spain, Ireland, England, Italy, Germany, and the United States. The Piatti filled sacred spaces, such as the Santa Cueva de Cadiz, with its incomparable voice. It also spent time in more profane places, including New York City bars, where it served as a guarantee for unpaid liquor tabs. The Piatti narrowly escaped Nazi Germany in 1935 and was once even left lying in the street all night.Since 1978, the Piatti has been owned by Carlos Prieto, the author of this book and friend of Alvaro Mutis.
Let’s say that you’re on the couch tearing through a great weekend book, you know, one of those novels you completely devour in two days or less, and you come upon a cute little piece of paper hiding between pages 216 and 217. It’s not colorful, fairly unassuming, and not much larger than a Polaroid picture. The top of the page reads “Erratum.” This Latin word sounds important, fancy even, but it’s really just a sneaky way of saying “We screwed up.” And not just “We screwed up,” but “We had multiple people, whose full-time paid job is to find these errors, look through this book with a fine-toothed comb, and we still let a few things get past us.” I agree, “Erratum” sounds much, much better.
I hadn’t really thought about them in years. Why would I? They’re just not the kind of things you see every day. I read all the time, far more than average, yet I find four-leaf clovers more frequently than these elusive declarations.
It wasn’t even a book that got me thinking about these.
I was reading a recent issue of Interview magazine (which unlike the rare “Erratum” has far too many inserts) in which Miranda July was asked 20 questions by 20 different people. Among these inquiring minds were It-Lit icons including Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders, Dave Eggers and Lorrie Moore to name a few. To be completely honest, most of the questions were a little too cute or ironic for my taste. I won’t say who ridiculously asked, “If you were told that you had to live inside a work of art, which would you choose?” And it wasn’t even an author that asked the most interesting question, it was harp-playing, pixie-voiced songstress Joanna Newsom. I’m paraphrasing, but her question was basically this; name one thing you don’t care about but most people do, and name one thing you do care about that most people disregard. July’s answer to part one? Alcohol. Part two? Errata. Wait a second. What? Do you mean those little lists of corrections found in books? That is exactly what she meant, and she collects them.
I can’t quite explain why, but this caught me off guard. I guess I was expecting her to say something more along the lines of Rivers Cuomo bootlegs. She could have said she collected stuffed albino chinchillas and I would have been less surprised.
Unlike most things you might collect, say unopened action figures or LPs, you can’t just go into the local resale shop or flea market to look for them. Over the past 25 years, July said she has only been able to find a dozen or so. A dozen? That is certainly not a bountiful harvest by any means. But it certainly is patient. And I love that. It might even be a little bit lazy. To build his or her collection, the collector of this niche item has to do nothing more than sit around and read. Didn’t find one? Well, maybe next time. No big deal. It was still a pretty good book, right?
If I had to put my finger on the one thing I like most about Erratum sheets, it would have to be this; it is a tangible piece of evidence that proves that famous Alexander Pope quote to be true, to err really is human. And thank goodness for that. In this world, that is increasingly becoming mistake free, it’s nice to see an honest up-front admission of human error. Not that I want people to screw up, I don’t. But when you can clear up every blemish with Photoshop, spell check every misspelling, and delete and re-post a drunken status update, it’s a breath of fresh air to hear three little words… I. Screwed. Up. But if you want to sound fancy, you can say Erratum.
[Image source: Emran Kassim]
I am almost done reading a very remarkable book. Actually, it’s not really a book, it’s seven novellas about one man, a mysterious character by the name of Maqroll the Gaviero. He is too complex to really describe, but I suppose I might try: he is an adventurer first and formost, preferably by sea, but he is not in it for the excitment. His travels are constant because it is his compulsion. He is a lover of the world and ships and beautiful women. He is an excellent judge of character, though he is often drawn into disregarding his own judgements. He encounters many fascinating characters, and we follow as well the Gaviero’s companions and trusted friends, Abdul Bashur (Dreamer of Ships) and Ilona Rubenstein (the Nymph of Trieste).The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis is, dare I say it, on par with and even surpasses the work of Borges and Garcia Marquez. These novellas span the globe like no book ever has. Maqroll visits every continent and sniffs out schemes and companions in every port. This Maqroll, he is no vain adventurer, no hero. He is tortured by his restlessness. He is at the same time a most exceptional man, well-read and loyal, courteous and brave when bravery is required. And yet he is so fragile. I worry about Maqroll as he is blown about the globe by the whims of a strange fate. I am almost done with the 7th and final novella. I have almost reached the last of the 700 pages, but I am not ready to say good bye. This Maqroll, he can really get ahold of you. I have read some books, and though I am by no means an expert, I can say that this book will have to be a classic. It is just so good.
I haven’t mentioned any art or photography books on The Millions in a while, but the other day a book caught my eye that I thought was worth mentioning. New York Underground: The Anatomy Of A City by Julia Solis is a collection of photographs taken in the myriad of passageways and tunnels that make up New York’s unnamed subterranean sister city. You can have a look at some of the pictures here. If you’re still interested after looking at those, snoop around Dark Passages, where you’ll find lots more photos of New York’s creepy, forgotten places.
Buzz Poole’s Madonna of the Toast documents the mysterious appearance of icons sacred and profane, in rock formations, housewares, and foodstuffs the world over. A potato chip shaped like Bob Hope? It’s here. Vladimir Lenin on a shower curtain? Likewise. And it wouldn’t very well be Madonna of the Toast without the titular grilled cheese, which – you guessed it – NEVER GOES BAD.Poole has launched a blog where observers of related paranormal phenomena can document their encounters. If you’ve recently run across a Charlotte Bronte-shaped underarm stain, or a puddle that looks like William Shatner, we can only suggest you head over to the blog and share your experience… Inquiring minds, after all, want to know.