If you spend much time reading the various book blogs, you probably came across this National Book Award blind item at Beatrice. I did and I couldn’t stop wondering who this slighted author was. Speculation abounded at Tingle Alley, and I was stumped, too. But after stumbling upon a clue in the comments of a post at Mad Max Perkins, I did some snooping around, and I can now reveal that the slighted author is Jim Shepard. His books, Project X and Love and Hydrogen, were not submitted for consideration for the NBA because, according to Beatrice.com, his publisher did not follow the proper procedures. Now, I’m not so sure that either of Shepard’s books would have made the cut. But you never know. And you also have to wonder if everyone would be making such a big fuss if one of our women from New York were a man from Massachusetts.
In noting our new Nobel Laureate on Thursday, I also mentioned that “dating back to my bookstore days, out of all the major literary awards – the National Book Award, the Booker, and the Pulitzer – only the Nobel reliably drove significant interest. On the day the prize was announced, customers on the phone and in person would descend on the store, occasionally leading to problems when a relative unknown with little in print, like Imre Kertesz or Elfriede Jelinek, won the award.”Now, granted, this is purely anecdotal, but based on that experience and my haunting of various other bookstores over the years, I’d guess that generally speaking, the awards that generate chatter in the book pages are more important for burnishing writers’ reputations than for inciting genuine interest among the general reading public.It’s very different in the UK, of course, where the Booker Prize is a national event that lands on page one of the country’s newspapers. Even the gamblers get swept up in the action. In my experience, we Americans get swept up too, but it’s hard to get too wrapped up when American writers are excluded from the action. To give some specific examples. Winning the Booker undoubtedly helped The Life of Pi become a big seller in the US, but it was a slow building crescendo of word of mouth that made the book a mega hit. Vernon God Little, on the other hand, not so much. Still, if the Booker were to make American books eligible, a plan that has been proposed and scuttled in the past, I could see it becoming nearly as popular in the US as it is in the UKHere in the States, we have a pair of literary awards that are generally regarded as the most prestigious: the National Book Award and the Pulitzer. The National Book Award could be the US equivalent of the Booker, but it doesn’t market itself as well. The name is too… on the nose, and the judges have at times shown an odd predilection for the obscure.The Pulitzer, meanwhile, has plenty of name recognition, but it treats its “Letters” awards as little more than afterthought to its centerpiece journalism prizes. Bringing the book award to the forefront and creating a shortlist, as I have suggested, might be enough to create some Booker-esque excitement here in the States.And so, that leaves the Nobel, which in my experience, actually sells books. I think there are a few reasons for this. With its broad slate of awards and century old pedigree, it’s got serious name recognition. At the same time, it doesn’t push aside its literature award to put the spotlight on the other categories. Finally, it recognizes a body of work rather than a single volume, perhaps subconsciously appealing to people in that it presents readers with a reading list ready to be explored.In the end, these awards, even the Booker and the Nobel, are more fun to talk about than to get book recommendations from. I prefer to hear from my trusted fellow readers than any panels of judges.Some other favorite awards: The Lettre Ulysses, the IMPAC, the MacArthur Genius grants
It has, once again, been a long time since I wrote to The Millions. My hiatus this time around was due to constant travels and lack of time to read. I managed, nevertheless, to read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment as intended and began David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I do not dare comment on Crime and Punishment, since it is merely my introduction to Russian literature and so many people and scholars have already done a much better job than I can ever hope to do. Let it suffice that I really enjoyed every word in Crime and Punishment and look forward to continuing my Russian Lit. education through both Dostoevsky – Brothers Karamazov, I think, will be next – and Tolstoy – I have War and Peace in mind, please tell me your suggestions – before I move onto others such as Pushkin and Chekhov – whose The Cherry Orchard and some other plays I have read. Next I picked up Infinite Jest with the naive hope that I could make serious headway into it in one month. I enjoyed the 150 pages that I managed to read in my month-long quest to devour Wallace’s little monster. It was, I have to admit, very confusing and I constantly found myself in anticipation of stories that begun and were, in the mere 150 pages I read, not continued. The reason I stopped was not because of my growing frustration with the novel – as happened to a couple of my friends – but because I reported to the army to serve my mandatory military service. Infinite Jest is not quite the light read that I could manage in the barracks after a full day of marching and obeying orders barked at me, therefore I put it on hold. Thus far I have not managed to return to it.[See Also: Max’s thoughts on Crime and Punishment]While in the army I picked up Turkey’s bestseller Su Ciglin Turkler (Those Crazy Turks) by Turgut Ozakman. Ozakman studied both national and private archives related to the Turkish Independence War for over sixty years. About fifteen years ago the premise of his book and most of his research was complete and the novel in progress was turned into a movie script for a four-part TV series. I remember watching the series at a very young age and being very impressed by it. My father had read the newly published Su Ciglin Turkler during my parents’ visit to New York in January and left the novel for me to read. I took the novel to the army, where only pre-approved books are allowed into the barracks and subversive writers are banned, and began reading it there. Ozakman’s narrative is very simple and fluent. The story sticks to historic facts to the point of making Su Ciglin Turkler more of a history book than a novel. The author avoided writing a history book by narrating the individual lives and adventures of historic characters in fiction. The combination creates a very strong storyline that reflects the historic moments in Turkey’s three year long struggle to freedom following World War I and touches a nerve in the reader by relating the greatly humane stories of unheard heroes and heroines. Su Ciglin Turkler makes its readers laugh and cry out loud at certain points, infuses a healthy dose of nationality that makes the reader long for the determination and unity exhibited in the birth of the Turkish Republic – as well as wonder why such stamina and selfless goodwill is missing from the scene today – and provides a great glimpse of the nation’s foundations. Unfortunately, as with most Turkish novels I read, with the exception of Orhan Pamuk’s novels, Su Ciglin Turkler is only available in Turkish. If you know the language or the novel is ever translated, I strongly recommend it. That was my army novel, and I admit the setting proved perfect.See also: Part 2, 3
Do you remember your last English teacher? Did he use colored chalk to diagram William Faulkner’s periodic sentences? Did she stand in the back of the room and read a poem from Denise Levertov, most of the words pushing past your ears, but a few, like “Aren’t there annunciations / of one sort or another / in most lives?” remaining like a refrain? Or was he forgettable, distributing misspelled study guides for The Merchant of Venice before playing a tired cassette recording?
Think about your last year in a high school English classroom. The uneven rows. The loud radiator. The re-used posters, corners double-taped. You were 17, 18. Your mind and your heart were elsewhere. That tension between distraction and focus is healthy. If we do not wish that we were somewhere else, doing something else, the collective, focused breath on a single line of a poem would not be so sweet. Back then, you were full of cynicism and hope. What a mixture: your wounds and joys felt so sharp.
I tell my seniors that I will likely be their last English teacher. They are enrolled in AP Literature and Composition, a difficult course that builds toward a three-hour exam. When I began teaching the course a decade ago, my classes were nearly half the size. Most students were hoping to major in English or philosophy. Now, out of two class sections of 55 students, it is a surprise to have three future English majors. I am lucky that they are no less talented and driven. They are ready to work.
I realize that my situation is unique. My students often attend the most competitive colleges in the country. In order to do so, their high school schedules are strained. They are expected to perform highly in several intellectual disciplines a day, with only six minutes to move between classrooms within an enormous outdoor campus, and 40 minutes to be teenagers at lunch. Still, they are very fortunate. They have the support of the community and district. They are good kids. Curious kids, who stay with me when we examine the difference between mimetic and textual voice in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, or parse Wallace Stevens’s “A Comment on Meaning in Poetry.”
I tell them that I am their last English teacher because many of these students will place out of composition or literature in college. They will spend the next four to eight years busy studying, and will go on to successful careers in medicine, law, and business. No one else will ever read them a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
You may think this is melodramatic talk. I admit that teachers were born to perform. We are actors without stages. In a recent interview, poet Paul Muldoon said that most students struggle with poetry because of how it is taught in high school: “What’s usually happening is that the instructor, the teacher, is at pains to show what an extraordinary instructor or teacher he or she is, and the message I think that far too many of us get in high school is that poetry may only be read if you’ve got that instructor or teacher to show you what it’s really about.” I have heard this lament before, and it is not only about poetry. High school English teachers are responsible for flattening literature. We kill books.
These constant, unfounded digs are what cause teachers to be defensive. Teaching in an American public school is an idealistic act. Politicians will have you believe we are an insufferable bunch, our chests full of blind union pride, tenure our ticket to stasis. English teachers, less than perhaps only editors, live their days surrounded with the hopes, fears, eccentricities, and failures of generations of writers. Those words, classic and contemporary, seep into our souls. Why teach Beloved if you do not close your eyes and feel 124 shaking; if you do not feel your own heart shaking? That sensitivity bleeds out of the classroom.
In the latest round of testing frenzy, English teachers are unique targets. We teach the essential skill of communication — the ability to turn students’ feelings into spoken and written words — yet English is considered a light discipline compared to the rigor of sciences. I am not sure what an English teacher is supposed to be now. (I say that out of one side of my mouth; I strive to exceed the expectations of my district and state curriculum.) I mean in terms of my identity as an English teacher. I used to be considered a mentor. During my first few years as a teacher, I kept the prayer of St. Francis in my pocket: “grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.” I was only years removed from almost entering a seminary to become a priest. You never lose that call; it simply takes another shape. My shape was a room with 28 desks and a chalkboard.
I teach every class like it is my last. It could be. When I started teaching, I thought my purpose was to create a legion of English majors. I have learned that my purpose is to pause the lives of my students for long enough that a line of poetry is the loudest sound they encounter during the day. I am uninterested in studies that assess the cognitive worth of reading poetry for future engineers. I don’t teach engineers. I teach people. My master is not a test; it is the belief that minutes reading beautiful language will stir souls. I want my students to see that words are sacraments, in the same way that Andre Dubus said each sandwich he made for his daughters was a sacrament: “physical, nutritious and pleasurable, and within it is love.” It is possible to be cold-hearted and teach, but why do so? Students experience enough private pain some days to fill a lifetime. Literature can be the salve for a weary heart. I do not mean directly; I do not think literature is a form of therapy. I mean that books enable students to experience an extraordinary range of emotions in 180 days.
Most literature we read will pass from their memory. Some works will stick. One poem might change them. It is a beautiful possibility that such an epiphany can occur in as mundane a place as a classroom. That same hope keeps me from burning out in a profession that is as exhausting as it is exhaustive. I hate how teachers are portrayed by politicians and education reformers; I hate how we are reduced to caricatures. But I keep that frustration from my students. After all, it is for them that I am here. I believe in them, and I believe in words; I better believe in both, because I might be somebody’s last English teacher.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
If Carl Jung had lived to see Google Search, he might have had a thing or two to say about how its auto suggest function is revealing the Internet’s collective unconscious. For those who don’t know, auto suggest is a handy feature that helps you search when you don’t know what it is you’re searching for. As you type, Google tries to read your mind, offering helpful suggestions based on the letters you have already entered. If, for example, you were to type “the mill” Google might guess you are searching for “the millions” (you were, weren’t you?) and helpfully add the term to a list that appears below the search bar. On the other hand, it might suggest “the million dollar man.” We do, after all, have the technology.
Although it’s not entirely clear how Google generates suggestions, they are at least in part based on searches entered by other users. The more popular a search, the more likely it is to appear at the top of the list of suggestions. At first, this might seem like an innocuous feature, but on closer inspection, it turns out to be a powerful tool for peering into the murky depths of the collective unconscious. How murky, you ask? For a peek into the abyss, head over to autocompleteme (may be NSFW, if you can believe it….), where a team from among the legion of unsung Internet heroes has posted some of the bizarre treasures they have dredged up from Google’s auto suggest.
A quick peek at autocompleteme can tell you a lot about the state of the English-speaking world circa 2009. We’re stupid: “How come… a cupcake is not a mineral?”, paranoid “how to tell… your cat is planning to kill you?” and racist “I am… extremely afraid of Chinese people.” Its pages are full of bizarre, hilarious, and sometimes disturbing searches that are apparently so popular that Google assumes you, too, might find them useful. Of course, any number of the oddest results might just point to song lyrics, elaborate practical jokes, random hipster t-shirt slogans, and Simpsons quotes.
That’s all beside the point, though. Because what makes auto suggest most compelling is not the nonsense results or the unintentional comedy. It’s what it says about the human condition. Every day hundreds of millions of supplicants come to Google, the new Oracle, in search of answers. From innocence ( “how to… kiss”) to despondence (“I w… ant to die.”), they share their fantasies and desires, their deepest fears and anxieties. And every day, Google suggest lets them know they are not alone.
Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Gopnik, both incisive, witty journalists, staff writers at the New Yorker, and expat Canadians, return to Toronto this weekend for a live debate Sunday afternoon at the University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall.The topic: Canada: Nation or Notion? (And as a proud and sometimes confused Canadian myself, I’m eager to learn the answer)If you happen to be in the Toronto area, tickets can be purchased here. And I believe there are plans to air the debate, down the road, on CBC Radio.
I can’t believe I’ve never mentioned this: My landlord is the moderately famous French philosopher and Columbia University professor, Sylvere Lotringer. He co-wrote a book with Paul Verilio called Pure War, and gave us each copies when we signed the lease. He is married to Chris Kraus a novelist/filmmaker from New Zealand/Germany. Just now he called to talk about the plumber.