There’s an article in the New York Times today about a Princeton undergrad who used statistical analysis to illuminate the biases of New Yorker fiction editors. Katherine L. Milkman read 442 stories printed in The New Yorker from Oct. 5, 1992, to Sept. 17, 2001, and “one main conclusion was that male editors generally publish male authors who write about male characters who are supported by female characters.” The 9/11 Commission will release its findings to the public in book form. It’s available for preorder at Amazon. And now hitting shelves, the paperback edition of Edward P. Jones’ Pulitzer-winning novel, The Known World. I highly recommend this book.
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]
Faced with a stark choice – where to buy books in New York congressional district 8 – I have decided to endorse my new employer, the Housing Works Used Bookstore & Cafe. As any American who’s attended a reading or browsed the shelves at HWUBC’s SoHo location knows, the store is a home away from home for bibliophiles. Better still, all of the store’s profits go to Housing Works, a nonprofit that supports homeless New Yorkers living with HIV. Recently, Housing Works has entered the online book business. So this election season, if you want a candidate who will protect your pocketbook while working for social change, look no further than the Housing Works page at half.com. I’m Garth Risk Hallberg, and I approved this message.
The man wanted the box I was carrying. I’d almost made it to the front door of a Goodwill in Brooklyn, and I had no idea how he’d guessed the box was full of books. There were no labels and the top flaps were closed. I was staggering a bit under its weight, but I could have been donating kitchen supplies, clothes, or old toys. Anything! He came toward me, a man probably in his 30s, ragged, living on the edge. His face opened into a smile and he closed the distance between us fast, holding out his arms.
“Books?” he asked. “Are those books?”
“Yes,” I said. Then I realized I was in the wrong place. A sign on the door of the Goodwill said we needed to use another entrance around the corner.
“Can I have them?” he asked. “I love books. I love reading.”
I looked at my husband. He was holding two boxes of books and staggering more than I. I looked at my children, who were looking up at me, waiting.
I am uncomfortable shedding books. The three boxes my husband and I were holding, plus three more in the trunk of the car, were the result of a careful purge executed after living abroad for a year. We’d been home only a few weeks and it was clear our bookcases were too crowded to hold all the books we’d bought in Germany. In the days I’d spent weeding the shelves, I’d very nearly given up my college edition of Ulysses before confessing on Twitter and being saved by a bookseller friend who suspected I was making a mistake while still addled by jetlag. But I did a few unthinkable things, such as keeping only my favorite McEwan novels. I told myself only collectors keep complete sets and I am fundamentally not a collector, especially in a Manhattan apartment.
“You like to read?” I asked weakly, stalling.
“Yeah!” he said.
His enthusiasm seemed genuine, but given his general condition, I couldn’t convince myself he wasn’t going to go around the corner and sell the books on the sidewalk. Did I want the sale of the books to benefit Goodwill more than him? That didn’t seem right. But I was committed to the idea that the books would sit, dry and cared for, until someone came along and chose them. My husband’s grandmother, an amazing reader, bought all her books at the Goodwill in Norfolk, Va., I guess I was picturing someone like her.
“Mom?” my nine-year-old daughter said. She looked worried and a bit confused. She loves books, too, and this is what she was taking in: My reluctance to give a box of books to someone who had just told us he loved to read. I didn’t know what to do.
“You really want them?” I said. “You want to read them?”
I gave him the box and smiled at my daughter, but I was aware of making a choice that had more to do with how I wanted to teach her to treat people than how I actually wanted to treat the books I was holding. And then, unable to shake the feeling that I was abandoning some part of myself to an uncertain fate, I followed him and my daughter followed me. My husband and son headed to the correct Goodwill entrance; the man with my books crossed the street, put the box down, and opened it. He sorted through the books, picked up a few for closer inspection, and ultimately put several in a bag he was wearing over his shoulder. I wanted to know which books he was taking, books I’d lived with for nearly 20 years, but his back was to me and I couldn’t see.
“What’s he doing?” my daughter asked. We were standing behind a parked car across the street.
“Well, I think he’s picking out the ones he wants,” I said.
“He’s not taking them all?” she asked.
“Maybe not. The box is heavy.”
The man closed the box, picked it up, and started walking again. Half-a-block along, and now directly across the street from the Goodwill entrance my husband had gone to, he appeared to run into a friend who was unloading a truck. They talked for a minute, then he put the box down and his friend went through the books, also taking a few for himself. The exchange seemed spontaneous and magnanimous.
I hugged my daughter.
My husband passed by with the last two boxes. “How’s it going?” he asked.
“He’s sharing some of the books with a friend!” I announced.
While my husband was in the Goodwill, the man crossed the street, put the box on the sidewalk in front of the correct entrance, and walked away.
In the car on the way home, my husband said that the workers inside the Goodwill had been truly grumpy about receiving five boxes of books. He’d found it disheartening, and on top of it all, we’d gotten a parking ticket, the fact that we were making a donation not impressive enough to save us.
I turned around and looked at my tired children. “Isn’t it so lucky we bumped into a reader on the street?”
“Do you really think he was?” my daughter asked.
“I do,” I said. And I do.
Image Credit: Flickr/Beaufort’s TheDigitel
“The gizmo, the golden, deceptive, brass-filled gizmo, was gone at last.” So reads the final sentence of Jim Thompson’s con-man sleaze-romp The Golden Gizmo, which I finished last week. Though it ran under 200 pages, the story was crammed with double-crosses, faked deaths, and a massive talking dog. There were shady gold dealers and exiled Nazis, a femme fatale and a hag of a wife. I’d been mildly confused throughout, but the ending tied things up efficiently enough. I had questions, but not many complaints. After rereading the final line, I admired the cover image: a grainy photo of hundreds being shuffled. I flipped to the last page and inspected books “Also Available From Jim Thompson.” And with that, I had squeezed all that I could from The Golden Gizmo. I returned it to its narrow gap on the shelf, scanning the books that I hadn’t yet read. But I didn’t pick a new one, not just yet.
In recent months, that moment of lingering, of browsing my own library, has become one of my favorite aspects of reading. In the past, I’d immediately swap the book I’d just read for a new one, a literary chain-smoker. But now I take my time—luxuriating in possibility, enjoying expectation, and pondering what’s next with a real, idle pleasure.
And after finishing the Thompson book, my options seemed endless. I’ve lately been in stockpile mode, picking up The Curious Case of Sidd Finch, Lush Life, and A Prayer For the City. A friend had given me Lonesome Dove, The Bronx is Burning, and Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life. There was The Punch, about Kermit Washington’s near-fatal swing at Rudy Tomjanovich during a 1977 NBA game. And of course, the dozens of titles—by T.C. Boyle and Frank Herbert, Pete Dexter and Chris Elliot—that I’ve owned for years and have never quite gotten to. From all of these, I happily chose nothing.
Instead, I let my mind drift around the books’ edges, nourished by thoughts of what they would bring: Plimpton’s erudite humor, Price’s ordered chaos, Bissinger’s knowing outrage. I could conjure T.C. Boyle’s dexterity and Pete Dexter’s toughness. Though I denied myself the satisfaction of engagement, I also avoided disappointment: did I really need to read a 1,000-page western—or, for that matter, anything by Chris Elliot? I don’t even really like westerns, and Get a Life was axed when I was still in Reebok Pumps. Better, perhaps, to let those remain abstract and idealized.
In this nebulous state, anticipation is also fed by jacket design. The Punch looks especially awesome: the cover is spare, with bright orange type over a blown-out picture of the titular incident. It’s violent, discomfiting, hard to ignore. The book looks so good that, to be honest, I don’t want to spoil things by actually reading it—getting bogged down, as I suspect I will, in the minutiae of Carter-era neurology and Kermit’s deep regret. Nonetheless, The Punch calls to me. Knowing the sex won’t be as good as you’ve dreamed is no reason to keep your pants on.
Post-Gizmo, I spent five days like this—weighing my options, considering my desires. I caught up on my comic books and magazines, cleared out unread newspapers. And then, with private fanfare, I walked upstairs for a book. I’d recently bought And Here’s the Kicker, a collection of comedy interviews—but after glancing through it, I found I wasn’t in the mood. Mamet’s Bambi vs. Godzilla was enticing, but something—maybe its candy-colored fight-night cover—pushed me past. The Punch, too, would have to wait. In the end, I picked Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life. It looked breezy and smart, and had come highly recommended. I took it down, laid in bed, and began to read. It was wry and nostalgic, serious and absurd. I’d made the right choice. It even contained a line I found relevant to my dilatory new habit: “Most of us go about our duties of commerce and leisure in a state of perpetual longing.” I thought about that. My postponement of reading was a way to embellish that longing, to make it even more deliciously perpetual. After thirty years, I’d found one more way to wring enjoyment from books—even as they sat on the shelf.
Three flights and twenty hours after departing New York, I arrived in Vilnius, Lithuania, the land of potato pancakes, sour cream, and Baltas beer, where “thank you” is pronounced “achoo,” like a sneeze. Vilnius is the city closest to the geographical center of Europe, and because it’s also at a cultural crossroads, the city has been hit hard by the forces of history. Napoleon’s army liberated Lithuania from the Russians in 1812, and during their later retreat through Vilnius, forty thousand men died. The twentieth century saw both German and Soviet rule and genocides at the hands of the Nazis and the KGB. Independence came less than twenty years ago, when Lithuania was the first of the Baltic States to throw off Soviet rule. Even now, landlocked Vilnius is the hardest of the Baltic capital cities to travel to.I came to Vilnius by way of the Summer Literary Seminars, which is currently holding its first ever Lithuanian conference. Poets and writers have traveled from as far as Australia and South Africa to take classes with writers like Lynne Tillman, Phillip Lopate, Mac Wellman, and Peter Cole. Class days are interspersed with lecture days, and all days usually end with readings. The Lithuanian stage director Gytis Padegimas spoke about the state of contemporary Lithuanian drama and how critical resistance to new playwrights keep many of them from writing. Almantas Samalaviciu, the editor of Lithunia’s largest cultural journal, traced the developments in twentieth century Lithuanian literature, from Soviet rule through the liberation. But not all of the focus is on Lithuanian literature. Catherine Tice of the New York Review of Books gave a lecture on the contemporary essay and its provinces. Max Winter of Fence and Mike Spry of Montreal’s Matrix offered guidance on publishing with North American literary magazines.With Vilnius as our campus, the history of place, as well the new sights and sounds play a large role in the conference, too. Over a handful of entries, I plan to guide you through some of the more interesting discussions and events of the conference, and intersperse some Vilnius culture as well. If you want a head start, Open Letter recently published a translation of Ričardas Gavelis’s Vilnius Poker, the preeminent postmodern Lithuanian novel. Or for more of a historical background, turn to Laimonas Briedis’s City of Strangers. I’m on Lithuanian time, which is notorious for lagging behind, but more dispatches will be coming soon.
Filthy magazine is debuting at the Los Angeles Times Book Fair this weekend. And it will also be available at the lovely internet book store First Cut Books. The hippest online book store ever. The debut issue of this pitching quarterly includes a piece by yours truly about the seaon I spent as a ghost in Little League… Sounds intriguing, eh? Believe me, this is one good looking magazine; think McSweeney’s but all about Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Barry Zito, and countless other fireballing luminaries. Also, yesterday George Plimpton was joined by Maile Meloy and Bernard Cooper at the book store to present the new Paris Review. Plimpton is fascinating, a throwback to a literary culture that has likely disappeared, both times I have seen him speak he has told stories about his sporting (and writing) youth that are as entertaining as they are valuable as artifacts of a different time. I should add that the new Paris Review book is a really fantastic collection.
While most kids were playing with G.I. Joes or Barbies, we at The Millions were more likely to have our nose in a book. Finally, there are molded plastic figurines for us too, though its not clear whether they are fully posable or offer kung-fu grip action. We’ll take what we can get. Who among us wouldn’t enjoy staging our own literary roundtables with the likes of Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, and Charles Dickens? Those who prefer their literary action heroes to be more macrocephalic, might prefer the Edgar Allen Poe bobblehead (pictured here).For those with less of a literary bias, there are actually quite a few of these “historical figures” on offer, from Marie Antoinette to Harry Houdini to Carl Jung.
News that Stuart Dybek, a great and overlooked short-story writer, had been awarded a MacArthur grant sent me back to the archives of the now-defunct Fabulous World of Hot Face for this review of 2003’s I Sailed With Magellan. As you can see below, I recommend that Dybek neophytes may want to skip around in this collection, or start with The Coast of Chicago.I Sailed With MagellanLike the Joyce of Dubliners, Stuart Dybek writes with an exquisite sense of place and an amazing sensitivity to the dreams and dislocations one encounters in the borderland between childhood and adulthood. His last work of fiction, The Coast of Chicago, is one of my favorite books, and I approached I Sailed With Magellan with high expectations. If The Coast of Chicago, with its unified setting, its young-to-old chronology, and its careful patterning (alternating short stories with lyrical “short shorts”), seemed more like a latter-day Winesburg, Ohio than a mere collection of stories, I Sailed With Magellan feels more like a group of very good stories than the “Novel-in-Verse” its title page insists it is. Here, Dybek preserves the setting and tone of his earlier work, but organizes his stories loosely around a central character: Perry Katzek. Like Kerouac’s Jack Duluoz, Perry seems pretty clearly to be a stand-in for his author, and the richness of lived experience fills to bursting the strongest stories here – “Song,” “Undertow,” “Blue Boy,” and “Je Reviens.” All four offer glimpses of Perry’s childhood in the Bronzeville section of Chicago. Another excellent quartet of stories – “Lunch at the Loyola Arms,” “Orchids,” “We Didn’t,” and “Que Quieres” – show Perry in various stages of a deferred maturity, and although they seem slightly less finished… well, so does adulthood; I’ll call it “evocative disarray” and chalk it up to authorial intent. Throughout, images and characters recur in the background. We see again and again morning glories and the spray of fire hydrants in summer and Perry’s uncle Lefty. These devices may justify the inclusion of “Breasts,” a novella largely unrelated to Dybek’s attempt at bildungsroman, but here, Dybek indulges his weaknesses – stagy dialogue, purple eroticism, and scenes and characters seemingly lifted from TV.Even sans “Breasts,” I Sailed With Magellan doesn’t succeed as a novel. Broken into discrete chunks, Perry’s journey seems stripped of causality. For example, his mother’s madness – alluded to in several stories – can remain, in a story collection, undramatized. In a novel, however, such a powerful influence on the protagonist wouldn’t remain merely implicit. Other experiences that seem to lie at the heart of Perry’s (and perhaps Dybek’s) character stay in the background, as well, and while Dybek gestures in a few stories toward focusing this book on the relationship between Perry and his Uncle Lefty, the uncle disappears for long stretches. It is always a pleasure to read Dybek, and some of his best work is here, but I Sailed With Magellan argues less for a reenvisioning of the novel’s possibilities than the creation of some genre between collection and novel that might serve Dybek’s intentions better than the “Novel in Stories” seems to.