One of the world’s great photographers and perhaps the greatest portrait photographer ever, Richard Avedon died today. Avedon started out in the fashion world, and then he became equally well known as a portraitist in the documentary style. He was known for placing his subjects in front of an all white background, for eliciting hidden emotions from his subjects, and for his meticulous darkroom work. Photos, a timeline, and various other goodies can be found here. Here are his most comprehensive collections: Evidence: 1944-1994 and An Autobiography
The New York Times is reporting that David Foster Wallace died Friday at his California home. In lieu of more coherent reflections – at least for the time being – we at The Millions would like to salute a novelist whose achievements will stand in the company of American giants, and whose best work should have been ahead of him.
When my first novel was published in the summer of 1992, I was working a full-time day job as a newspaper columnist. But every weekend I would fire up my 1954 Buick – which figured largely in the novel – and drive from my North Carolina home to far-flung independent bookstores to give readings, answer questions and sign books. I’m sure I spent way more on gas than I made selling books.
One of the first stores I visited was Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., where I was greeted warmly by the owners, an effusive woman named Carla Cohen and her more reserved partner, Barbara Meade. Only later did I learn that Meade thought she worked like a cat (“unobtrusively”) while Cohen worked more like a dog (“joyfully”). They readily agreed to let me park my Buick right on the sidewalk in front of the store. Cohen and Meade understood that it pays to advertise, especially when the advertising is free and sports a two-tone paintjob and a glittering “Dagmar” front bumper. The reading was a success for all of us.
So naturally I was saddened to learn that Carla Cohen died on Monday at the age of 74 from a rare form of bile duct cancer.
But I was also heartened to learn that Politics and Prose, which Cohen and Meade opened in 1984, has become a cultural institution in our nation’s capital and that crowds routinely line up down the block to attend readings by the likes of Bill Clinton, J.K. Rowling and Tom Wolfe. The secret of the store’s success has been that the owners loved books and weren’t afraid to have opinions or share them with their customers. And the customers responded to that passion.
When news of Cohen’s cancer diagnosis got out last summer, she and Meade put the store up for sale. They received about 50 offers and narrowed them down to half a dozen. While some book lovers in Washington are anxious, it appears likely the popular store will live on.
Other independent bookstores I visited during those long-ago selling trips have not fared as well. Books First in Richmond, for one, is gone. Many others have succumbed to chain stores, on-line retailing and the sad fact that serious readers of serious writing, always a tiny minority in America, are beginning to look like an endangered species. Yet some of the stores I visited are not only surviving, but thriving. In addition to Politics and Prose there are The Regulator in Durham, N.C., Prince Books in Norfolk and Burke’s Books in Memphis. Patrick Brown recently wrote an enlightening essay in these pages about other independents that are beating the odds.
Almost always there are passionate book lovers like Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade involved in those successful stores. When Matt Drudge asked to give a talk at Politics and Prose, Cohen turned him down, saying he wasn’t a journalist, he was a “rumormonger.”
Thanks for doing that. And thanks for letting me park my Buick in front of your store, Carla Cohen. You will be missed.
I’ve been meaning to post for a couple of days, but as those in the blog world have probably noticed, blogger was down for a while. But it’s back, and so am I. In the meantime, there was a piece of sad literary news. Once hugely famous, but now somewhat forgotten novelist Leon Uris passed away. When I was about fifteen and too young to know that my taste in literature wasn’t particularly cutting edge, I happened to pick up a copy of his book Trinity. It is a historical novel about the strife in Northern Ireland, and even then, when I was a youngster, I knew it was a masterful book. People are no longer used to the sweeping period pieces set in exotic locations that used to be so popular. They have fallen by the way side and been repaced by realism, flashiness, and dry modernity. Alongside all the stark reality that masquarades as fiction these days, a Uris book can be comforting in its ability to fix you in a distant place and time and to compell you to feel a visceral connection with his antipodean characters. If you like Uris at all, you will also like his contemporary James Michener. I still remember listening to Hawaii on cassette on one of the many interminable car trips of my youth. I’m not sure what compelled my parents to choose this form of entertainment, since I had never known them to be audiobook fans or Michener fans. Against all odds (or so it seemed at the time), I loved Hawaii in much the same way that I would later love Trinity. It’s the power of a really good story. That’s all for now… More soon I hope.
I can’t believe it… Just caught the headline. George Plimpton died today. He was one of my favorite writers. I met him twice: once in college when he signed a copy of his The Best of Plimpton collection and again a few months ago when he came by the book store to promote the new Paris Review collection. Both times he regailed everyone present with a vast array of stories that placed him as an observer or a bystander to some remarkable moments (for example he was in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel when Robert F. Kennedy was killed.) But he didn’t mind being the center of attention either, like when he stepped in the ring with Archie Moore or ran out on the field as quarterback of the Detroit Lions. He put himself in many situations like this because he knew that most folks had, at one time or another, wondered what it might be like to be a modern day gladiator. It wasn’t a stunt really; it felt more like a favor to his friends. And though he wrote a lot about sports, that was only one dimension of his life. He also founded the The Paris Review, perhaps the most significant literary magazine of the last fifty years. It is notable for having published early works by many great writers, and it is also well-known for the “Art of Fiction” (or Poetry, or Drama) interviews included in each issue. There is a wealth of knowledge in each interview; the worlds greatest writers talking about how they write. Most of all he simply seemed like someone who truly loved life. You could see it in his face when he spoke and you could see it in his writing. Whether he was ringside for the Thrilla in Manilla or running with bulls in Pamplona it was really about the joy of it all. Here’s the obit.