Books aren’t too long, they’re too big. They don’t fit in your pocket or purse. You have to cram them into backpacks or shove them under your arm. And I’m not even talking about hardcovers (I can’t afford those); I’m talking about these big paperbacks. Sure, some of them look pretty but wouldn’t it be great to have a paperback stowed in my jacket pocket, ready for an idle moment? If you’ve ever been to a used book store, you’ve seen that they used to make books like this, small and pocket-sized. These books weren’t limited to the mysteries, romances, and mega-bestsellers that garner “mass-media” releases these days. On my bookshelves I have editions of The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, for example. They aren’t the editions you’ll find by clicking the links I’ve provided, instead they fit very nearly in the palm of my hand. I’ve always been enamored by those little books, the Dells, the Bantams, the Penguins and the rest, but I’ve been thinking about these little books a lot more of late because I spend a lot of time on public transportation these days. And, frankly, it’s a pain to maneuver a big book around on a crowded bus or train. It’s no fun trying to extricate my book from my bag only to cram it back in hastily when I arrive at my destination. I can tell my fellow travelers experience the same difficulties, too. I would make a plea for publishers to bring back the pocket-sized books that I love, but I know that probably won’t happen. I’m told that publishing company consolidation in the 1980s and an ever-growing concern for the bottom line have made that impossible. But if you want to relive the glory days of the paperback, take a look at these very cool sites: The Paperback Revolution (a stunning presentation of the glory days of the paperback book) and Edward Gorey’s legendary covers for Anchor books (read the article and then click the link at the bottom to see the covers).
Pat Conroy recently unleashed a verbal beating on a West Virginia school district that, prodded by complaints from parents, suspended the teaching of two of his novels. English teachers, in particular, will smile when they read this. It begins:I received an urgent e-mail from a high school student named Makenzie Hatfield of Charleston, West Virginia. She informed me of a group of parents who were attempting to suppress the teaching of two of my novels, The Prince of Tides and Beach Music. I heard rumors of this controversy as I was completing my latest filthy, vomit-inducing work. These controversies are so commonplace in my life that I no longer get involved. But my knowledge of mountain lore is strong enough to know the dangers of refusing to help a Hatfield of West Virginia. I also do not mess with McCoys.Keep reading.
Nolo Press, which puts out “trustworthy and approachable legal guides,” spent “two years and ‘hundreds of thousands'” coming up with a redesign for its book covers, according to Publishers Weekly. What did Nolo come up with? Dogs. Chip Kidd, book designer extraordinaire, happened to be guest blogging at Powell’s this week and registered his horror. (Thanks Laurie)
In my parents’ home, tucked into the bottom drawer of the dresser in the spare room, there’s a small stack of papers bound together with a rubber band.
I stumbled upon this last week. The rubber band virtually disintegrated as I began to flip through the pages. There, in my hand, were long, hand-written excerpts from all sorts of books. Plays, poetry, philosophy, science, history. Fully attributed, with annotations on the side. I was holding a bit of family history, notes that my grandfather had made to himself as he devoured plays by George Bernard Shaw and writings by Bertrand Russell, meticulously written half-page excerpts, with his own comments here and there. There were also bits of history and science – all transcribed when my grandfather was about 80 years old, during the final couple years of his life.
My grandfather, a pharmacist in his younger days, lived with us in his final years until he died at age 81. I was six years old when he died. House-bound in those final years, these must’ve been library books that my mother brought home for him, which he read and then made these detailed notes on the back of whatever scraps of paper he had handy.
I knew that in those last few years of his life he’d written a half-dozen short stories – children’s stories, each centered on the fantastical exploits of a five-year old named Andy. Lots of secret gardens and magical lands. Those I knew about. I remember them at the time, and I’ve stumbled upon them since. But I had no idea that at the same time he was intently reading, transcribing, and making detailed notes on Shaw’s Androcles And The Lion. I had no idea that he was so immersed in Bertrand Russell’s humanism. There were also bits of verse, quite a bit of science, even a few unattributed jokes and riddles.
I was moved by not only the breadth of his interests but the many similarities to my own. Also his thought process, his attention to detail, his humanism, even his appreciation of the cryptic, the clever, the silly.
And I was suddenly in a role I hadn’t assumed in decades – a grandson. By the time I was nine, all my grandparents had passed away. I haven’t thought of myself in that way in a lifetime.
I was flooded with memories of him. Though I was a small child when he died, I remember his presence. I remember the kindly, gentle man who lived with us. But one thing I don’t have is any memory of his voice. Long-since drowned out by decades of noise, I don’t remember what my grandfather sounded like. And unless a mystery tape-recording suddenly surfaces, I guess that detail is lost forever.
But in these hand-written excerpts and notes, tracking his reading habits in those last few years – perhaps marking his attention to detail, perhaps an attempt, near the end, to make sense of it all, to put things in perspective, perhaps all these things – I’ve been given a sudden and surprising connection to my past. To a part of my past that I thought was fixed and limited. A part of my life which has suddenly expanded, and now reaches into the present and into the person I’ve become.
The National Book Foundation announced the young writers that it will be honoring with its annual “5 Under 35” selections, which the Foundation calls “a celebration of bright new voices.”Mostly I wanted to bring this up because two of the five have recently been featured at The Millions in posts arranged/conducted by Edan. Nam Le, whose book The Boat has been garnering much praise, was the subject of a highly entertaining interview last month. And Sana Krasikov, author of the equally praised One More Year, recently penned a guest post for us about reading Andre Dubus in Iowa.Also on the list is Keith Gessen, author of All the Sad Young Literary Men, who once made an appearance in the only all out comment war ever to transpire at The Millions. Rounding out the five are Matthew Eck who wrote The Farther Shore and Fiona Maazel who wrote Last Last Chance.
In the back of the winter issue of n+1, you’ll find both a revised version of the defense of literary weblogs I posted here last spring and a response from Marco Roth. It speaks well of the magazine that it would publish dissent as well as invite it (which is also, of course, a hallmark of the “lit-blog.”) And, as I’m still doing my best to puzzle out some of the pros and cons of this new and evolving medium, I thought I might call your attention to an object lesson: the debate over B.R. Myers’ review, in The Atlantic Monthly, of Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke.It’s often a blessing that comment-thread controversies blow over without getting wider notice. Ideas that seem vital one week may seem irrelevant the next. But in my view, the conversation developing around Myers and Johnson – at Rake’s Progress, at The Beiderbecke Affair, and now at Ed’s place – illustrates some of the positive critical capacities of the medium.That conversation began in the kind of intemperate name-calling n+1 might deride – “B.R. Myers is Satan”; “Who’s the Wanker?” – but it has broadened to encompass a number of substantial controversies – the responsibilities of the reviewer; the state of American fiction; politics and the English language. And it has helped me better understand Denis Johnson’s prose style.When I read, and enjoyed, Tree of Smoke in June, I felt that its style was both an asset and a liability. Certainly, Johnson is an unusual stylist. And yet, when the first reviews and blurbs began to appear, I was surprised at how little attention was paid to his diction and syntax. “Prose of amazing power and stylishness,” Philip Roth said, without bothering to explain how or why. Jim Lewis’ piece in The New York Times Book Review amounted to a bizarre kind of abdication. Only John Jeremiah Sullivan, writing in Harper’s, engaged with Johnson at the level of the sentence.In my own review (which I’m embarrassed to note also references n+1; this is turning into a bad habit), I attempted to account for what I felt was Johnson’s wide margin of error. “Though there are passages and even pages through which I itched to run my workshopper’s pencil,” I wrote, “I would trade a dozen finely calibrated domestic comedies for a single chapter of Tree of Smoke.[Johnson’s] sentences and dialogue, flirting with the poetic, violate the canons of understatement. Like the sentences of D.H. Lawrence, they seem to depend on the supernatural for inspiration. They may not always find it, but they are alive to the possibilities of language.To his credit, B.R. Myers, too, would pay attention to Johnson’s sentences. Regrettably, he would pay little attention to anything else (the context in which those sentences appear, for example). His review does make a couple of copy-editorial catches: Would Buddhists think of their own icons as “bric-a-brac?” Can “someone standing in […] a noisy place hear even his heartbeat, let alone his pulse?” In never moving beyond fastidiousness, though, Myers’ Atlantic review takes on the flavor of agenda-driven cherry-picking. It attempts to persuade us, by fiat, that a sentence such as the novel’s first – “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed.” – is bad.Critiques of Myers’ motivations and methods are abundant elsewhere; I won’t rehearse them here. But I wanted to point out what lit-blogs managed to do with that last sentence, which hadn’t been done elsewhere. In an anonymous comment at The Beiderbecke Affair (anonymous because overheated and not fully thought through), I wrote: I like the way that pluperfect “had,” strategically ungrammatical, sets us up to expect something to happen in the imperfect. Something has happened, the sentence tells us. Yes, Kennedy has died, but something else…something, presumably, more personal. Thus does the book announce (quietly) its aspirations to be something more than the settled history Myers – a myopic literalist – seems to wish it was.Then a commenter named Alan (who disagreed with some of my bloviations), suggested, This is quite right. Kennedy died at 1 PM US Central Time, which would have been 1 AM in Vietnam. So the sentence “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed” is not actually trying to say that Kennedy died (perfect tense) at that time. That wouldn’t make sense. What the sentence is doing is evoking the experience of a character who is awoken in the middle of the night in Vietnam to the news that Kennedy HAD BEEN killed. This narrative immersion in a character’s point of view can also be seen in the following passage… Alan’s comment is, I think, a small but meaningful exemplar of the critical capacities of an interactive medium, and of what close-reading actually does. Were this a seminar (which, at its best, the comment-thread approximates), the instructor might be saying, “Yes. Yes!” Rather than dismiss an unusual sentence, Alan moves from a puzzle over its meaning (centered on the verb tense) to an intuition (we’ve been thrown, without comment, deep into a character’s point of view) that illuminates an important part of the formal architecture of the whole work.One wants only to add that a serious literary essay has at least two possible registers of persuasion. It can persuade those who haven’t read the book, and then it can persuade those who have. I often feel that Myers is addressing himself almost exclusively to an audience that hasn’t read the work under review, and that his aim is to convince them not to bother. Like Myers, I’ve been disappointed by Annie Proulx and Rick Moody in the past. But, having read them, I’m troubled by the gap between my experience of their work and the experience of their work Myers constructs. A good-faith critic should aim to write an essay that can be revisited after one has read the work and that will not then seem to collapse into flatulence. I admire this about James Wood. His essays are attempts to understand, rather than attempts to seem in-the-know, and they challenge me even when I disagree with them. In this way, he, too, offers a model of what literary discourse on the web can be. On the other hand, the valuable lit-blog conversation about Tree of Smoke seems to have arisen despite, rather than because of, the merits of B.R. Myers’ remarks in print.
Joel Stein of the LA Times is bravely calling the wrath of legions of Harry Potter fans down upon himself, but I can’t say that I agree with what he’s trying to say. First there’s the headline: “Hogwarts fans, you’re stupid, stupid, stupid.” Not mincing any words there. Stein is apparently infuriated that so many adults are excited about the upcoming Harry Potter book. “Next Saturday, when the sixth Harry Potter book comes out, at the very least I want you to stammer excuses when I see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince on your nightstand. I want you to claim you’re reading it to make sure it’s OK for your kids, or your future kids, or even, if you have to, for kids in general,” he writes. He goes on to bash adults who enjoy C.S. Lewis, E.B. White and J.R.R. Tolkien (“Isn’t it a clue that you should be ashamed of reading these books past puberty when the adults who write them are hiding their first names?”) and Finding Nemo. Stein’s grating tone aside, there are two points I’d like to make: First, some of the best books and movies we have were written for kids (or kids AND adults). It must be sad to go through life avoiding “kid stuff” because you don’t deem it to be intellectually up to par. Secondly, what do you think all these adults who are reading Harry Potter will read instead? It will be Dan Brown and James Patterson on their nightstands, if they read at all. Is that really so much better? I say that if people are reading it’s a good thing for the book industry and for our culture – even if it is just a kids’ book.