Those oft-quoted Amazon sales rankings don’t really tell you much. They just give a snapshot of how a book is selling at a particular moment. TitleZ can track how a book’s ranking moves over time. There’s some debate about how much those rankings really tell you, but this is a fun toy nonetheless. (via)
It may seem that we have drifted toward dragons when a satirist sits at a senator’s desk (Al Franken) and a comedian’s criticisms land so dry they are mistaken for affirmation (Stephen Colbert). Actually we’re repeating a journey traveled by Sir Thomas More exactly five-hundred years ago.
In 1509, Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus was struck by inspiration while horseback on his way to visit More. The two friends had translated Lucian’s satires together. Once installed in More’s home, Erasmus penned In Praise of Folly, an attack on the rampant stoicism of the age (think Dick Cheney) and a defense of More’s famous wit. More was fond of bawdy jokes and puns, and reportedly proud of the fact that his humor was sometimes so arid many didn’t even perceive it.
In 1516, More produced the short novel Utopia, a portrait of a happy island nation whose benevolent ruler advocates communal property, religious freedom, and marital separation. Utopia spawned an entire genre of literature, and apart from the Bible it’s hard to imagine a book that has proven to be so influential. Utopia borrows heavily from both Lucian and In Praise of Folly, which makes our current moment the quincentennial of the gestation period (1509-1516) of what is perhaps the most important novel in the history of mankind.
Oddly, the book succeeded only because most people misunderstood it.
More wrote Utopia as a young man. Erasmus published it, and as he prepared it for press More hustled after blurbs like any budding author. But even he would have admitted that the initial rollout didn’t go quite as planned. He had hoped to appeal to an audience that would understand the book’s classical puns as invitation to an ironic interpretation. (Greek: “Utopia” = “no place.”) In other words, he wanted to criticize everything to book seemed to stand for. In actuality, More was a monarchist who defended private property, participated in Lutheran-burning, and later lost his head because he refused to sanction his king’s divorce.
His arid wit backfired this time. Within More’s lifetime, Utopia was cited as justification for communal property in the Peasant War, and was used as a blueprint for civic organization in towns in southern Mexico.
“This fellow is so grim that he will not hear of a joke,” he complained. “That fellow is so insipid that he cannot endure wit.” Once officially a member of the court of Henry VIII, More suggested Utopia be burned.
It was too late. And given the impact of utopian thought since then – the basic tenets of communism, capitalism, fascism, and socialism all trace back to utopian texts – it’s fair to characterize the last five hundred years of human civilization as a history of not-getting-the-joke of Utopia. That history will repeat if the next five hundred years are best characterized by an affectless viewing of “The Colbert Report.” The evidence that our world too suffers from a kind of “irony-deficiency” doesn’t stop with satiric news. The mantra of Oliver Stone’s Gordon Gekko (“Greed is good”) is a witless business plan for many, and mocking recitals of dirty limericks by Andrew Dice Clay (a Jewish comedian) became revival for Italian misogynists who took them for rhyming mission statements.
Of course, the politics now are all reversed. The funny guys are all on the left; somber cowboys brood stage right. Were he alive today, Thomas More might feel most at home among neo-Stoics who under the guise of a “real America” plan to secede, plot for overthrow, or hope to coronate Sarah Palin.
Utopia – the un-ironic version of it that proved fruitful in shaping modern democracy – is the victim of all this. It’s now largely a pejorative term. Propagandists who currently target “hope” have already succeeded in making “utopia” synonymous with socialist idealism. They forget that free markets, mutually assured destruction, and peace through superior firepower are each just as easy to link back to utopian tracts. Utopia is the scope of the plan, not the nature of the product.
In America, it’s particularly tough to escape the influence of that un-got joke. President Obama offers frequent reminders that the United States is an ongoing experiment. Our goal, in our founding documents, is to become a “more perfect” union. Only tin ears remain deaf to the utopian echo. When our politicians deride one another’s plans as utopian, they forget that plans can be made and criticisms leveled only because we all live in a version of More’s joke. The far right thinks its views are those of the Founding Fathers, and that the country’s enemies are crazy utopians who would undo democracy. But the Founding Fathers were utopians to a man. They railed not against taxes, but against taxes without representation. Today’s conservative spirit applied to the late eighteenth century would have resisted even those changes. George W. Bush once described the benevolent dictator as the best form of government, and Cheney’s quest to expand executive power betrayed nostalgia for monarchy. Conservatives long for a despot like More’s ironically-intended “King Utopus.”
Yet it’s not just irony deficiency that links us to the past. We’re also becoming more bawdy. And in this regard, it doesn’t matter whether you’re Dick Cheney on the floor of Congress or Joe Biden at a presidential press conference.
The only thing that perhaps explains why viewers today prefer “The Daily Show” to CNN or Fox is that the same cultural mood that produced In Praise of Folly has come around again. But now that the politics have reversed we must ensure that the humor is not so subtle it becomes its opposite. In this regard there is, I dare say, hope.
Not long ago, Jon Stewart conducted a (mostly) sober debate on the financial crisis with a CNBC analyst (and admitted clown). It was a riveting interview – one in which an absence of artificial poise and stoicism appeared to enable a further depth of insight.
But when the CNBC clown dodged a question with banter, Stewart called him out on it: “This isn’t a fucking joke.”
And no one laughed.
I know it’s not too hard to peddle your wares on Amazon, but I have to say, when I stumbled across my name listed as “Editor” for something being sold on Amazon, it was quite a thrill. The book that I helped edit has been out for quite some time, but seeing it in Amazon made me realize that now might be a good time to mention it again. The book is called Two Letters, and I first mentioned it about a year ago when the book came out, but I didn’t really get into the details or how I came to be involved with the project; I was busy with school and deep in the depths of my first Chicago winter, but that’s no excuse, really.One of the great things about living in Los Angeles was that everyone there has a side project. People have day jobs, but they never talk about them. They’re always working on a short film or getting ready to open a gallery. Hollywood aside, it’s a very creative place. One such side project was conceived by a couple of friends of mine, Christopher Lepkowski and Mark Dischler. They wanted to create a publication that showcased talented writers and artists and they wanted it to look nice. If it ever got more high concept than that, I wasn’t told about it. In order to provide some structure to the book, my colleagues came up with the theme “sneaking in,” and decided that all of the work in the book would loosely adhere to that theme. I was brought on in the later stages, to recruit writers and help select work – fiction and non-fiction – for the book. I ended up getting some of my very talented friends involved. My friend Cem wrote about “sneaking in” to Burma and speaking to dissidents when he was living in Thailand. My friend Alexa wrote about unexpectedly assisting her photographer boyfriend on an erotic photo shot. My friend Joseph wrote the sort of boozy, heartbroken stories that he’s so good at. I helped my fellow editors get all the writing together, and then life intervened. I got into grad school, left Los Angeles, got married, and sort of forgot about the book. I’d almost given up hope that Two Letters would see the light of day, but then, in January of 2005 a few copies showed up in the mail. There had been delays with the printing, as is so often the case with these sorts of things, and the guys had wanted to get everything just right. I’m glad they took their time, because the book looks great. There’s tons of great art and comics, but my favorite part is that for each piece of writing, artist Michael Vecchio created an original illustration. It’s hard for young writers to get their work published, but to see it presented with such care was just a thrill. It was a great side project to be a part of, and I hope more side projects like it come my way soon. When I saw it there on Amazon the other day, I thought that I should really try to do better by Two Letters, even though it is coming a little late.A new installment of Two Letters may be on the way shortly. Here’s the website.
This month the book club that I help run read and discussed Jamesland by Michelle Huneven. We had our usual raucous and meandering discussion for the first hour, but for the second hour we had a real treat: a visit from Huneven herself. Over the past couple of years I’ve had the opportunity to meet a number of authors, and I’ve also become well-versed in the sort of dynamic that occurs at a typical book reading and signing between author and reader. This was different and refreshing. She sat down with the 12 or 15 of us who were there and let us poke and prod her book and very much participated in the action. It almost reminded me of the various creative writing workshops that I took in college, except our writer was not a beshawled or behatted fellow student recounting the fictionalized tale of their high school relationships, this is a writer who is published by a highly reputable publishing house, the author of a book recently dubbed notable by the New York Times. Nonetheless, she graciously allowed us our comments and criticisms and had quite a bit to share about the book and herself. First: for those who read the book and wondered why, after Alice’s first dream-like experience with the deer in her house, when she was trying to figure out if it had been real or not, she didn’t look in her washing machine to see if the towels she used to clean up after it were there in the morning, that scene was in the original manuscript. She and her editor went back and forth trying to decide if she should leave it in or not, and then, months later, when the book came out, she had forgotten that they had removed the scene and was surprised to see it gone. Other tidbits: Huneven found that writing the character Pete came most easily, and the rest were a struggle. Jonathan Gold, author of the best LA restaurant guide there is, Counter Intelligence, was a big fan of the Helen character. Huneven is on page nine of her next book, which will include a character who is a scrapbooker. As a writer, it was heartening to meet a fellow writer who, though she is published and successful, still sees her work as a challenge and even a struggle, a fact that some writers might not admit in that situation. And, by the way, the book is a great read, and I encourage anyone out there who is looking for a good novel to pick it up.An Intriguing List or TwoMy good and old friend Hot Face has taken a cue from the New York Times and… People Magazine to compile his list of most intriguing books of the year. Since he asks for additions, I put forward Bangkok 8 by John Burdett and Gilligan’s Wake by Tom Carson, but he’s pretty much got everything else I could think of there already. Meanwhile, my buddy Andy emailed me a link to this, a new take on the year end book list.
I’ve got an affinity for diagrams. I find the books of Edward Tufte fascinating, and my interest in such things extends even to the “infographics” contained in most newspapers. I like the idea of distilling something complex down to a visual representation.And what is more complex than Finnegans Wake, which was the subject of a dense and mysterious-looking diagram from the book Vision in Motion by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Richard Kostelanetz highlights the diagram in an essay about Moholy-Nagy, about whom he writes “Need it be said that no other modern artist wrote as well about literature?”Kostelanetz goes on to write “What Moholy established in Vision in Motion was a model of writing about all the arts as a single entity, to be called art, whose branches (literature, painting, etc.) were merely false conveniences conducive to specialization and isolation.” (via)This multi-discipline approach would seem to be of particular use in our multimedia world. It’s brings to mind another creative attempt to parse a complex work of literature via non-traditional means: the Pynchon wiki.