Among the first to announce their lists of best books of the year is the CS Monitor, which delivers a solid but unsurprising batch of books. Here’s fiction and here’s nonfiction. Am I just out of the loop or was this year’s crop generally lacking in books by exciting, young authors? Was 2004 the year of the old reliable?
Posting has been light because I'm nearing the end of the quarter at school, and I am in the final stages of a very big project. And posting will probably continue to be light because I'll be heading off on vacation as soon as school is done. I'm thinking about taking my laptop with me, but even if I do, I'm not sure how close I'll be to the Internet. I'm excited about this vacation (we'll be joining my family at the beach in North Carolina) not just because it'll be a much needed break from school, but also because there's no place I'd rather read than on vacation. On a proper vacation there are seemingly endless hours to spend with your books. I also love the way certain reading experiences become associated with certain exotic locales - and by "exotic" I mean simply "not home." For example, last summer Mrs. Millions both read Walker Percy's classic The Moviegoer during our honey moon in St. Maarten. The unfamiliarity of that island paradise mingled with the humidity of New Orleans where Percy's Binx Bolling is trying to keep "despair" at bay. The book and the place where I read it combined to form a peculiar sort of dreamy memory that I love. Though I haven't even gotten the suitcase out of the closet, I already know which four books I'll be taking with me. I plan to finish The Count of Monte Cristo on the plane ride there. I've been enjoying the book immensely, by the way. After that I'm going to read Belly, a debut novel by Lisa Selin Davis that will be coming out later this summer. The publisher's publicity compares her writing to that of Jane Smiley and Richard Russo. I'm also bringing a couple of nonfiction books: David Lipsky's account of following a class of cadets through West Point, Absolutely American. Lipsky was originally assigned to write an article for Rolling Stone about the military academy but ended up sticking with the story for four years. I'm also bringing The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki, the resident business writer at the New Yorker. The book's premise, which is borrowed from the world of economics, is that the collective choices of large populations of people are often correct, and that it's even possible, by setting up what amounts to a futures market for ideas, to use this effect to predict the future. A good example of this is a futures market where one can bet on who will be elected president. Such markets have been very good predictors of actual events over the years. None of these books particularly strike me as "summer reading," but I'll just be happy that it's summer and that my only obligation is to read.
As anyone with a Gmail account knows, to send or receive an e-mail through Google's electronic mail service is to have the impression that someone else is reading your mail. Mention the military in an e-mail - even disparagingly - and you will see, in the sidebar, beside the composition window, an ad for GoArmy.com. Mention Premier League football and you'll get links to a panoply of stores selling Newcastle and Arsenal jerseys. This feeling of being watched and plied with goods and services that someone or something thinks you are likely to desire is rather odd at first (perhaps even creepy in a post-Patriot Act era). But it abates. You become a jaded "old boy" and don't even notice the sidebar ads attempting to draw you in by 'reading' your missives. (Except, perhaps, for the odd time when, in writing to a student about plagiarism, the Google sidebar offers you a variety of online warehouses apparently chock-full of the same sort of stolen merchandise you are attempting to rail against.)At least until recently. A few weeks ago I began sending myself pieces of my dissertation as a means of backing them up. The sidebar's offerings were unremarkable for several weeks (so unremarkable that I do not remember them and so cannot share them with you so that you too might remark on their unremarkableness).But this past weekend, something changed. As before, I attached the chapter, a Word document named Chapter 2, and wrote "Charke" in the subject line. ("Charke" refers to Charlotte Charke, a notoriously outlandish eighteenth-century actress famous for cross-dressing on and off the stage, whose autobiography is the subject of my chapter.) I pressed send. And suddenly my sidebar was INNUNDATED WITH ALPACAS: "How to get free Alpacas," "Alpacas for fun & profit," "Are Alpacas profitable?," "Enjoy an alpaca lifestyle!"In that moment (a moment that has been repeated now several times - every time, in fact, that I send the Charke chapter to myself again), my whole concept of Gmail changed. I believe that Gmail is trying to tell me something about my future, and that future involves alpacas. What that future seems not to involve is recuperative literary analyses of neglected autobiographies by marginal eighteenth-century actresses.In that moment, I realized that the Gmail sidebar might be much more than we all thought it was. It might, in fact, be just the thing to fill those gaping holes in our post-modern psyches. Like the oracle at Delphi, haruspication, and all of the other delightful methods of divination devised by the Greeks, bibliomancy in the Renaissance and 18th century (aka "Bible dipping" for those of you familiar with Running With Scissors), seances in the 19th, and the Magic 8 Ball in the eighties and nineties, (not to mention tea leaves, crystal balls, Jim's hairball in Huckleberry Finn...), the Gmail sidebar might just be the medium - I mean the clairvoyant medium - of our age. And it's so much tidier than haruspication.I've got alpacas (free alpacas no less!), how bout you?
At 8 a.m. on a recent Monday, my first morning back in New York City after a year and a half away, I looked up from my newspaper – a Wall Street Journal, given away for free at my Financial District hotel – and saw that I was the only rider on the R train leaving South Ferry at the base of Manhattan reading print. Every other rider on the subway car was staring at a screen. In 2004, when I first moved to Brooklyn, the commute on the New York subways was a world of paper. In the evenings most people read books or magazines, and in the morning it was newspapers. Riders from the outermost neighborhoods read the Post and the Daily News while those closer in read the Times and the Journal, fussily folding the broadsheet pages into quarters for easy reading on crowded trains. Here and there, a few younger kids might be sporting earbuds connected to then-newfangled iPods, but even most of them had at least a freebie AM New York parked in front of their faces. To friends living elsewhere I described the New York subway system as a rolling public library. It was like one of those big, messy city library reading rooms where homeless men passing the time reading the day’s news sat next to uptight city-college profs correcting student papers minutes before class. New York is the only place I have ever enjoyed my commute. Each morning, as soon as the doors slid shut behind me I opened up my book and entered a different world for the twenty minutes it took me to get from my Brooklyn neighborhood to Midtown Manhattan. A decade later, like real libraries across the country, New York’s rolling library is going digital. That first morning on the R train turned out to be an extreme example, but on every train I rode during my week back in New York, screens outnumbered printed pages, sometimes by a factor of two to one. When I’ve peeked, some of those screens have been displaying news stories and magazine pages and even a few books, but far more often my fellow subway riders were watching TV shows or playing Candy Crush on their phones. None of this should come as a surprise, of course. The demise of the printed newspaper is by now very old news and it’s hard to imagine a venue where the shift from printed pages to screens makes more sense than on a crowded subway. Still, the speed and starkness of the change is a shock. A decade ago, none of the devices my R train companions were so avidly viewing even existed. Back then, if you didn’t want to read on your morning subway commute, you stared off into space. When we talk about books, we tend to think in terms of great works of art and forget that for most people books, like newspapers and magazines, are merely a handy thing to have around for that idle moment when there isn’t something else better to do. Now, more and more often, those idle moments – on subway cars, on airplanes, in dentist’s offices – are being filled by games and movies and social media. By screens. This doesn’t necessarily mean the end is nigh for literature as we know it. The golden age of American theater came in the 1940s and 1950s, a generation after radio and talking pictures seemingly outmoded live theater. Arguably, some of the greatest movies American directors have ever produced debuted in the 1970s, a generation after television seemingly outmoded movies. Still, a vibrant art form has to serve a utilitarian function in ordinary people’s lives or it gradually becomes relegated to the museum and the specialist viewer, as has happened to visual art and, more recently, to live theater. And if the printed page can’t survive on a New York City subway car, that once-great rolling library, where else can it survive? Image via Erwin Bernal/Flickr
One of the guests on Fresh Air today was former cop named Edward Conlon, a Harvard grad and fourth generation NYPD officer who used to pen an anonymous column in the New Yorker. Now he has a new book called Blue Blood in which he recounts his life as a beat cop. It looks to be a literary take on macabre subject matter. Speaking of which, Ian McEwan, most recently the author of Atonement, a book adored by both readers and critics, has revealed some details about his forthcoming book. According to this Reuters story, it appears as though McEwan will return to the more visceral subject matter of his earlier novels with a book that centers on the life of a brain surgeon. He will finish it "within months." This new McEwan book will almost certainly be reviewed by the New York Times Book Review, where, after much skeptical anticipation, Sam Tanenhaus has been appointed as editor. As beatrice.com pointed out yesterday, some in the literary world are skipping the grace period and sticking with the skepticism, cf. David Kipen's San Francisco Chronicle piece. This changing of the guard, you may remember, was a topic a few months back here at The Millions.
Tonight's installment of the Pacific Standard Fiction Series here in Brooklyn features two Millions favorites: Paul Beatty, author of Slumberland and The White-Boy Shuffle, and Matthew Sharpe, author of Jamestown and The Sleeping Father. Books will be for sale on-site, and drink specials will be chosen by dartboard. The reading starts at 7 p.m. at Pacific Standard. Hope to see you there!Bonus link: Matthew Sharpe's "Year in Reading" 2007