In their quest to add more and more arcane content to every page, Amazon recently added Statistically Improbable Phrases to their pages for books that have the “Search inside…” feature. Apparently, Amazon is using an algorithm to determine which phrases in particular books are less likely to appear in other books with some interesting, though not terribly useful, results. Or so it would seem to me. (Although there is the prospect of a third party using this data to come up with some interesting applications). Anyway, to see it in action, let’s look at the page for Oblivion by David Foster Wallace, and you’ll see this near the top of the page: ” SIPs: consultant caste, executive intern, snoring issue, head intern, dominant village,” those, apparently, being some of the Statistically Improbable Phrases contained within the book. Then, if you want you can click on one of the SIPs to see other books that contain it. Here’s the short list of books that contain the phrase “snoring issue.”
I usually listen to the BBC World Service when I listen to radio online, but Millions contributor Andrew recently told me about an excellent programme (as they say) on BBC4. "In Our Time" is hosted by Melvyn Bragg who, each week, is joined by three guests as he explores "the history of ideas." To give an idea of the varied topics the program touches upon, the most recent show was about Samuel Johnson, 18th century author of Lives of the Poets among many other books (here's his greatest hits), and "England 's most famous and well connected man of letters," while next week's show is on asteroids. All the old shows are archived and organized by subject.
I like to travel but flying makes me anxious. On a plane, I am cramped in a seat for hours, with little to do but to inhabit the abyss of my mind. I wish I could shut out the world and sleep, but the incessant chatter of fellow passengers, drone of engines, and upright seats keep me awake. When I was fifteen, on a fourteen-hour sojourn from Hong Kong to Vancouver, the legroom was so scarce that my knees hit the seat in front of me. Somewhere near the International Date Line, I began eyeing the emergency exit doors. I wanted to open them and jump into the sky. These days I live in Denver, where most major American cities are two to four hours away by plane. I travel often, whether for work or for pleasure, and on these short flights I see the proverbial light at the end of the aluminum tunnel before we depart, as long as I have earplugs and something to keep me occupied. I cannot seem to work or write, though I wish I could -- imagine how much I could get done. What I need, I have found, is a good book. But there is airplane reading and airplane reading. I write poetry, but I cannot read poetry on a plane. I picked up Cynthia Cruz’s third collection Wunderkammer when it came out and brought it with me to San Francisco the next day. Wunderkammer is saturated with images of old world Europe -- the cover is a sepia photograph of James Joyce’s daughter Lucia dancing at a Parisian ball -- yet the book made me think of California. Cruz’s poems blend decadent imagery with tense, controlled lines she pushes to breaking; perhaps I saw in her style an antidote to California’s excess. In any case, I wanted to read the book. But after two or three poems, I needed to take a walk and the trip down the aisle to the bathroom was nowhere near enough. I needed space to dwell in the silences of the work. I also remember trying to read Djuna Barnes’s modernist novel Nightwood on a return flight from Miami. Granted, after a madcap Halloween weekend of drinking and boating on Biscayne Bay, I probably would not have been able to read a grocery list, but as much as I loved the gorgeous rhythms of Barnes’s language, I could not follow the ellipses in the story. I have not picked up the book again. I keep looking at it on my shelf, wanting to get back into the thorny opulence of its world, but Nightwood strikes me as a book that demands all of our inner resources, which lately I have not been able to marshal in my everyday life, much less in the brain fog I get at 35,000 feet. Oddly, it’s the personal essay collection that seems to soothe my nerves on the plane. I read Melissa Broder’s essay collection So Sad Today on a recent flight to Charlotte, beginning when we took off from Denver, taking a break in transit in Minneapolis, and finishing just as I saw the lights of my destination in the night sky. It was a dream: the world fell away and reassembled just as I returned to land. So Sad Today is not an easy read: Broder writes about her experiences with anxiety, depression, addiction, and abjection, among other things. I especially loved her meditations on her husband’s chronic illness, their open marriage, and the love that sustains a long relationship. I had to close my eyes after each essay, reassessing the stories I tell myself about my life, but I kept reading. There is a thematic unity to the collection, but each essay could stand by itself, a perfect capsule of intensity that engaged my restless mind on the plane. Another good experience: reading Wendy C. Ortiz’s Hollywood Notebook while flying to Boston last summer, on the way to Provincetown for a writing workshop. The book, which Ortiz calls a “prose poemish memoir,” was born out of a blog Ortiz kept when she lived in Hollywood in her late twenties. The ninety short chapters range from a few lines to two or three pages, from meditations to lists and quotes, charting the banalities and epiphanies of a young woman trying to figure out who she is as a person and an artist. In the three hours I spent with Hollywood Notebook, I reflected on my own circuitous path to writing, the places I want to go in my own work. I did not find answers, or even questions; for a moment, I was content that my thoughts remained amorphous. As much as I love reading personal essays, I rarely write explicitly from my life. At this point, it is not the genre that best channels the questions I am asking in my work. But I learn a lot from these writers who examine the interstices of life that we -- or at least I -- tend to overlook. I learn a language to describe the recesses of my mind that I would rather avoid. And on the plane, I can read personal essays without the anxiety of comparison. Some years ago, I met Chloe Caldwell in Portland. Her book Legs Get Led Astray, which chronicles her early twenties in New York, had just appeared that year. I said that I had read it on a plane -- I don’t remember which now, but it might have been that very flight to Oregon. She wrote in my copy of the book, “A book for airplane rides.” I still have it on my shelf. I look to it as a reminder that we can write from the idiosyncrasies of our experiences, whether in life or in the sky.
Today, while I was driving, I caught a review of Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle on Fresh Air. It was a very favorable review (in fact the book has been getting great reviews in most places). I would love to read the book and comment on it here, but I can't forsee myself getting to it any time soon. And therefore, I won't get to talk about it here. The stack of books is just too high. Yet I happen to have an advance copy of Triangle, and I hate to see it gather dust. So here is my idea: whoever among you would like to read this book and put together a little review or comment or whatever on it for this site, email me and I will send you the book. Then I was thinking, I am lucky enough to have access to advance copies of books from time to time, and wouldn't it be great if I could pass them along to people so they can write a little something which I can then post on The Millions. It sounds like good fun to me. So... if you would like to review Triangle for The Millions email me and I will send you the book. (By the way Triangle is about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, an unconscionable tragedy that proved to be a watershed event in improving working conditions [and especially working conditions for women] in America.) As I get other new books, I will offer them up for review as well. Also, if you happen to have access to review copies of books, and would like to help stock my guest review program, well, that would be really sweet.
Earlier today it was announced that Lan Samantha Chang has been named the new director of the Iowa Writers Workshop. Here's what my friend in Iowa had to say about the choice:So, yeah, Sam Chang. The gossip had her picked since last week. The students as a whole, are somewhat disappointed. Ben Marcus was definitely the favorite among everyone...for his exciting workshop and even more exciting craft talk, if not for his reading. We all knew he wouldn't get it though. Too much craziness, perhaps? Sam's workshop, as I reported, was great, and it's my hope that her leadership and fundraising skills match her teaching abilities. Since she's a workshop grad, I don't think much will change around here, which is both good and bad. It would've been nice to get some new blood around here.Lots of related links can be found at Babies are Fireproof.
This story has been all over the news lately: British novelist Carole Matthews accepts payment from Ford Motor Company in exchange for having her hip main character drive a Ford Fiesta. They were loving this story on NPR, too. There is a pretty obvious knee-jerk response to this sort of thing: that it sullies the world of books, that even our hallowed bookshelves are being invaded by corporate sales pitches. But before we get hysterical, let's take another look at this. The book in question, The Sweetest Taboo, bears the tagline: "Is nothing sacred?" and its cover is a giant shopping bag. So the main character trades in her VW for a Fiesta. So what. I'm sure she's still wearing Fendi, drinking Starbucks, and eating biscuits. Matthews might as well get paid for all this product placement. It's not as though this is Saul Bellow we're talking about here. We should just expect, as a culture, that the literary equivalent of Spiderman 2 will include this sort of merchandising and move on. Speaking of which... after I'm done writing this, I think I'm going to have a nice big bowl of Cheerios (the official breakfast cereal of The Millions), and I'll wash it down with a nice, cold Michelob Ultra (the official low carb beer of The Millions). Aaahhh refreshing.The Los YorkerAnd here's an interesting story for all the disgruntled Californians who are tired of New Yorkers looking down their noses at them: the Villiage Voice reports that more Californians read New Yorker magazine than New Yorkers. To me, it's not a question of which coast is more culturally significant, it's that the national media should recognize that Los Angeles in particular represents the future of this country. The small segment of this city that gets all the press, Hollywood, is not, by far, the most compelling thing about Los Angeles. LA is important because of the huge immigrant population and because legislation that starts in Sacramento inevitably filters across the country. It doesn't surprise me in the least to see how many Angelenos read the New Yorker. When I was told, soon after I began working at the book store, that Southern California is the country's largest book market, I was very surprised, but having been in the middle of it, I see that it is true. The entertainment industry takes the scrutiny off of other aspects of LA. While the media is focused on premieres and award shows, hundreds of book clubs and readings and other literary events abound unnoticed and unsullied by the press. It's a rather interesting phenomenon. As for the New Yorker, I have indeed noticed that they have been writing about California recently, but if I could suggest something to David Remnick it would be that he run more pieces in the vein of the one about the LA River a few weeks back and fewer pieces about Hollywood. Even better: someone should start a New Yorker-style magazine that's all about Los Angeles.