This morning I read this bittersweet story in the New York Times about the auctioning of Vladimir Nabokov’s personal effects by his son Dmitri. As Dmitri has no heirs, it was agreed before the elder Nabokov’s death that it would be best to sell the collection before the death of the younger Nabokov. Reading the story, with its descriptions of invented butterfly drawings for Nabokov’s wife Vera — “They have variegated colors, delicate artistry and fanciful names. Only on these pages appear the blue ‘Colias verae’ or the dark ‘Maculinea aurora Nab.'” — reminded me of how much I enjoyed reading Nabokov’s lyrical memoir, Speak, Memory, when I was in college. I read it for a class called Transatlantic Identities, taught by the dandyish Professor Tucker (who was most of all devoted to John Ruskin). We read a dozen or so memoirs penned over the last 150 years on either side of the Atlantic. Among these, Speak, Memory, was transcendent, inspiring an interest both in lepidoptery and Nabokov’s expressive prose. As I read the book, Nabokov, in my mind, was transformed from the scurrilous author of the scandalous Lolita to the quiet emigre with a fascination for butterflies, and whose expertise with these brightly- winged insects landed him the curatorship of the butterfly collection at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. Now that these butterflies have been scattered throughout the world, one can only hope that the hands that now hold them will cherish the butterflies as much as the hands that created them.
You’ve probably heard the news, Blockbuster is no more. Honestly, I was surprised by my reaction to it. Not sadness per se, just an empty feeling. I hadn’t been inside a Blockbuster in many years. But when that soothing NPR voice announced the final nail in the coffin, I lost a moment or two staring off into the middle distance, wrapped in some sad or perhaps pathetic moment of nostalgia. I worked at a Blockbuster all the way through high school in the mid-to-late 90s when VHS still ruled the world and going to the video store was a popular activity.
I remember when my family got our first VCR in the mid-1980s. The first time we entered the florescent-lit jungle of a video store, I was instantly enamored. I zeroed in on Pinocchio and my father picked up Cocoon, or at least something like Cocoon. The mere fact that these memories are still rattling around my head nearly 30 years later must have some significance, right?
A few years later, after my parents divorced and my mom and I were living on our own in a mid-century apartment building, she called in and won a radio giveaway providing a year’s worth of unlimited movie rentals at another now-defunct store. To put it simply, I was in heaven. That summer my attempts to catch up on the entire cinematic canon commenced. Two, three, sometimes four films a day. No sweat.
Eventually my mom remarried and we moved out south, past the Tulsa city limits to a rural land of sod farms and recreational tractor rides. When I was old enough to get a job more interesting than mowing yards, the choices were few but obvious. While my friends toiled away in the greasy haze of fast food restaurants, I would make it a Blockbuster night, every night. Not only did I get paid, I could take home movies every single day. For free.
Sam Peckinpah might not have recognized it, but in our own way we were a wild bunch, the most senior employees usually clocking in at a mere 18 or 19 years old. The time not spent straightening the shelves or restocking the candy racks usually involved things like sitting in the return bin, waiting for customers to walk up, and tossing their videos back out at them when they turned around. You might think such a stupid and juvenile act would get old after a while. It didn’t. These were the days when the Internet was new, cell phones were for stockbrokers, and if you missed a movie in the theater, you had to wait six months or even a year or more to catch up. We don’t have to wait for anything now. I’m not sure that’s an entirely good thing.
A few months ago while my wife and I were in Austin, Texas, we popped into a quirky spot called Vulcan Video that still sells and rents out VHS tapes to the hipster masses of the Lone Star State’s capitol city. Cue The Cranberries music. Bust out the Hypercolor shirts. I felt as if I’d literally stepped back into the 90s. And I loved it. No irony. No shame. I’m not entirely sure why some of us find comfort in obsolete technology and relics of the past. I love the modern world. I embrace technology. I honestly believe that the world of tomorrow will be better than today. But when something that’s been part of my life for a long time goes away, all I want to do is push Rewind.
Photo Credit: Flickr/yapsnaps
Welcome to what we hope will be a new (semi-regular!) feature, in which the Millions fam opens up about the books on our nightstands (and desks, and floors – seriously these things are like kudzu). As you might expect, it’s an eclectic mix about which we have ~strong feelings~.
From haikus to a macroeconomic treatise on American industrialism – with lots of novels and story collections in between, of course – here’s what we’re reading:
Jacob Lambert: I just finished Subtle Bodies by Norman Rush, and hated it with the passion of a thousand fiery suns. What a pretentious disaster. Up next is Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson, which hopefully won’t make me want to stick my head in the oven.
Tess Malone: I haven’t read one book by a straight white man this year, but I’m breaking the streak for Rob Delaney‘s memoir, Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage.
Edan Lepucki: I recently finished The Barbarous Coast by pulp L.A. Noir writer Ross MacDonald and I am #blessed to be an early reader of Susan Straight‘s new novel (!!!)…editors can email me if they want deets on that masterpiece.
Sonya Chung: A little past halfway through Jung Yun‘s Shelter [Ed. note: which was selected by our own Edan Lepucki as one of her most anticipated books of this year], I had to put to down. It’s an important book, and I’m sad that it had to be written, and Yun writes skillfully and unflinchingly. All that. But, it’s a hard story, and I needed a break. Will return to it surely.
I am on to Mat Johnson‘s Pym and Sue Miller‘s The Senator’s Wife for the long weekend. Yes, I started two novels simultaneously. Both take place in academic communities but could not be more different from each other; so somehow, it works to alternate between them.
I also always have a book of essays going on the side. Currently, John Berger‘s The Shape of a Pocket. (Film Forum has a documentary about Berger playing now; don’t miss it, New Yorkers! The final scene is priceless.)
Bill Morris: At the moment I’m reading two books that could not be more unalike, but which are fabulous in their own ways: James McBride’s exploration of James Brown’s life and its meaning, Kill ‘Em and Leave; and Robert J. Gordon’s work of macroeconomics, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, which examines the astonishing burst of changes in everyday life from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries.
Anne Yoder: Unbeknownst to me ’til now, my to-read pile is afflicted by planetary influence. I’m currently reading Kyle Coma-Thompson’s Night in the Sun – its story “27-B” contains an appallingly beautiful description of death at 30,000 feet, the stewardess holding the body back upon landing and yet: “The head moving in the most grotesque way, a sodden sunflower crown wagging on its rigid tough stem.”
Nick Moran: I was in Florida this weekend, so I’ve been revisiting Jai Alai Books’s essential poetry collections, Eight Miami Poets and Suicide by Jaguar. Amidst Miami’s Zika outbreak, I’ve developed a fresh appreciation for Dave Landsberger‘s South Beach Haiku #3: “My legs fit perfectly in my pants. / My leg bones fit perfectly in my legs— / shorts are for tourists.”
Dear Mr. M has an elegant structure that weaves together many strands, but one is about man named Herman who moves into the apartment below and stalks a famous writer, Mr. M. After spying, opening his mail, talking to his wife and kid, Herman finally approaches Mr. M under the guise of being a journalist wanting an interview.
I just interviewed Koch. In my emails, I addressed Koch as “Dear Mr. K” and signed off as “Herman.” I don’t know if he finds it funny or creepy, but no cease and desist order yet.
Hannah Gersen: the book on my nightstand that I have slowly been working through is Consolations by David Whyte, which is a beautiful book that gives definitions for everyday words, elaborating on their spiritual and philosophical meanings. It starts with the word “alone” and ends with “work.” It’s a quiet, thoughtful book, a really good way to start or end the day.
Kirstin Butler: I’ve been on both an essay- and thriller-reading tear lately, probably because those are the two things i’m working on myself ! In the former category I’ve gone for contemporary classics – John Jeremiah Sullivan‘s Pulphead and Eula Biss‘s Notes from No Man’s Land – with one old standby mixed in, John McPhee‘s Annals of the Former World. I will read anything McPhee you put in front of me. As for the latter genre, I’ve discovered I’m a pretty tough customer; I was excited to read The Hand That Feeds You by A.J. Rich (nom de plume for the writing team of Amy Hempel and Jill Ciment), but after one too many times of yelling ‘oh my god don’t fall for it’ at the heroine, had to give it up. If any readers have good thriller recs please get @ me on Twitter!
Nicholas Ripatrazone: I’m currently reading Ghostland by Colin Dickey, due out 10/4. It’s a creepy, smart trek through America’s haunted sites. He investigates how “ghost stories reveal the contours of our anxieties, the nature of our collective fears and desires, the things we can’t talk about in any other way.”
Oh and by the way: What you’re reading right now looks pretty awesome too.
(Image via Alie Edwards)
It’s been over a decade since James Wood came on the scene to reclaim literary criticism as its own kind of literature, and though all his enthusiasts have a top-ten list of the Wood essays with which they most strenuously disagree, he comes by his reputation as “our best critic” honestly. Indeed, disagreeing with Wood can be an education in and of itself; if I had to choose one critic to pan my own work, it would be Wood. But what if I could choose a critic to praise it?For several years, Wyatt Mason of Harper’s has quietly been reinvigorating an even more recondite form than the critical essay: the literary encomium. As with Wood’s considered corrections, one can disagree with Mason’s glowing appraisals of Mary Gaitskill or Charles Chadwick (I wasn’t as enamored of It’s All Right Now as Mason was), while still being provoked to think – and feel – more deeply about literature.Congenially, Mason’s tastes are closer to mine than are Wood’s. (Witness his translation of Eric Chevillard’s wonderfully weird Palafox.) I’m particularly in his debt for introducing me to the fiction of Leonard Michaels, and at the end of the month, harpers.org will be offering the essay in question to non-subscribers. For the time being, one can check out a brief, but interesting enough, interview about Michaels.
I once lived for furthering my collection of autographed books. Getting a book signed meant going to hear the author read, waiting in line with other fans, and then, finally, being presented with the chance to utter words of praise. Sometimes it meant getting teary-eyed with envy, worrying over whether I would ever write anything so poignant. This happened when Amy Tan walked by in purple velvet with her lap dog trailing behind her. During middle and high school, at the height of my obsession with autographs, I spent a lot of time writing letters, poems that exhibited the same longing for impossible love, and short stories that revealed I was fixated on the same themes of displacement and loneliness that I am now.
I heard Jamaica Kincaid read twice. The first time she read at the local university from her novel Lucy. I was in seventh grade and inexperienced in matters of love. She read a passage about sucking on a boy’s tongue and I was mesmerized. She stood before a large audience and I couldn’t help but see that she was someone important. The second time I went to hear her read, I got Lucy signed by her before she spoke. My father told her that I wanted to be a writer. She didn’t say anything, only proudly signed her name. Later, during the Q & A, she asked in perfectly enunciated words, “Where is that girl who wants to be a writer?” I shyly raised my hand. She went on to recommend Gertrude Stein to me. Following the reading, I began to imagine Jamaica Kincaid as my writing teacher. With her intimidating stature, I divined she would be just as intimidating of a teacher. I thought only she would be capable of whipping my writing into shape. I wanted her to treat my writing so harshly that my only option would be improvement.
Yevgeniy Yevtushenko read in Russian at the Jewish Community Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Neither my father nor I spoke Russian, but my father decided to expose me to culture. What I remember is Yevtushenko’s ostentatious blue jacket and his sweeping gestures when he spoke. I later learned Russian, partly thanks to falling in love with his incomprehensible poetic voice, I read some of the poems from his collected works, wondering which he might have read that evening.
When Jennifer Egan came to the suburban Barnes and Nobel to read from her novel The Invisible Circus, my mother and I were the only audience members. Afterwards, I asked Egan one of those typical questions about her writing schedule. I came away with the interesting information that she worked part-time as a detective. Later, I composed a letter to her, which led to another obsession. I spent a grand portion of the day waiting for the mail. A letter was just another passage into the literary world. Not only was I waiting for personal letters, I was also waiting for acceptances from literary journals.
The postman arrived after I got home from school, so I would sit in the armchair near the window and wait for his footsteps. They would culminate in the metal clamor of the mailbox closing. When he had moved on to the next house, I would open the door and collect the mail.
I received one response from Jennifer Egan and an acceptance from a neighborhood newspaper, but most often I received letters from my pen pal who lived on the other side of the city. I met her at a poetry reading at a café called Brewed Awakenings. I played Irish tin whistle and read some poetry. She came up to me afterwards and gave me a copy of the literary journal called Zink in which she had been published. She was also a writer and yet she was incredibly accessible. She asked for my address, and pulled a blank piece of paper from the pouch around her neck for me to write on. I felt uncomfortable about giving a stranger my address, but I did it anyway. At that time of my life I said “yes” to everything.
To my surprise, a few days later I received a typed letter from her in a handmade envelope. I wrote back and she was quick to respond. It wasn’t long before I began to live my life in order to write it to her in a letter. The events that occurred during the day, occurred so that I could describe them. It was then that my writing probably took on its autobiographical quality.
As an adult, I haven’t had such a faithful pen pal, another writer with whom to commiserate. The advent of email and real responsibilities make it impossible to live just for handwritten letters, but most of all, it’s hard to find someone who can be a friend and somewhat of an idol at the same time.
Though I once attended readings regularly and took great comfort in spending Sunday night at the fiction series at the KGB Bar, some of the luster has been lost. Writers seem so accessible that an autographed book doesn’t bring me the same pleasure as it once did and writers seem just as much friends as idols. Now a writer myself, I realize that writing isn’t such a magical process. Still, there are moments when I can happily transport myself to those simpler times of books and letters, the time when I was open to every ounce of experience. Just recently I came away from a reading with a signed copy of Joshua Cohen’s Witz, heard Mary Gaitskill read at the crowded Franklin Park Reading Series, and went to hear Cory Doctorow, Rivka Galchen, and Gary Schteyngart talk about the bleak future while drinking dark and stormys. I also went to hear Jennifer Egan read at Greenlight Bookstore. This time it was to a packed house, inspiring me with the possibility that my writing can also grow in this way.
[Image credit: Weston Boyd]