Mayor Daley announced the latest “One Book, One City” selection for Chicago today. I don’t know if anyone pays much attention to these recommendations now that the OBOC craze has faded a bit, but the book is worth reading. The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark is a somewhat forgotten classic from 1940, a spare but stirring tale of morality in the lawless Old West. I recommend it highly whether you live in Chicago or not.
I’m deciding which books to take on a trip to Austin next week. I get excited every time I choose a new book to read, obviously, but I get especially keyed up about choosing books to take on a trip. Vacation books are important. A lot of people use vacation as a time to read lighter, dare I say trashier books, with pictures of women’s calves on the front or authors in bomber jackets on the back. This convention is predicated on the notion that you’ll be able to read for longer periods of time, and books that are heavier – thematically and physically so – will overtax your brain at a time when you are meant to give it a break.
I don’t think this notion gives our brains or our books enough credit. The deep immersion in a book that long bouts of reading produces is suited to books with the richest, deeply-buried treasures. A good book invites you to sever your connection with the real world and come into the one it creates; the longer you read it, the more that connection is severed, the more you exist in the interior world of the book rather than this one. Just imagine how this effect is heightened when the world you are in is alien to you, one where you’re just visiting and don’t know the people or your way around, and therefore the book’s world becomes the familiar one. This is when the magic happens.
I read the second and third volumes of In Search of Lost Time on a trip to Santorini during which I would spend whole afternoons – whole days! – reading Proust on a sun-soaked terrace. I may sound like Marie Antoinette advocating cake here, but those 300-page dinner party scenes are best read in one sitting. It does take a while to adjust to Proust’s rhythms, but once you’re there, my goodness, stay there as long as possible.
Taking a book on vacation, reading it in this leisurely, savoring manner, stacks the odds that it will become special to me. For this reason, I take a long time choosing, because I know that when I remember the vacation, it will be intertwined with my memories of the book I was reading. I associate Proust with Santorini the way I associate On Photography with Marseilles, Cloud Atlas with a train ride to Kansas City, Out Stealing Horses with a 9-hour plane ride, Home with Grenoble, and The Fault in Our Stars with a cabin in Colorado.
This theory of vacation books, which I subscribe to so heartily, all began with a vacation I took, to London, which was one of the worst decisions I ever made, and the book I took along, Banvard’s Folly, which was one of the best.
I spent my junior year studying in London. I fell in love with the city, and also with one of its men. He was my first real love and is still one of my favorite people in the world, but when the year was through and it was time for me to go back to my senior year in the States, we saw no other option than to break up. About two months later, he saw no other option than to start dating the girl who had been my best friend and roommate in London.
Oh, readers, the drama! The professions of anger and confusion and betrayal and regret and understanding and forgiveness and serenity. Peace was restored, hard feelings were said to be lacking, we all decided to move past it. Eighteen months later, another friend was getting married in London, and I was going over to attend. Ask yourself who the worst person I could have stayed with was. Then ask yourself if I stayed with her.
It wasn’t a fiasco, but it was pretty bad. It was a lot easier for the three of us to be past it when we were an ocean apart rather than in the same room. The folly of our decision to spend five days together was apparent from the first one. When things got weird — and they got weird a lot — I read my book.
I was an author events coordinator in Boston at the time, and we had just hosted Paul Collins. Of the several dozen author events I worked during my years there, his remains my favorite. His 40-minute talk was warm, engaging, informative, surprising, funny, inspiring, and delivered without notes. Every person in attendance, a tragically small number, purchased every one of his books. I did the same, and I’d been saving what I’d heard was the best.
Each of Banvard’s Folly’s 13 chapters tells the story of a person whose genius, ambition, or imagination far exceeded their success. The paperback’s subtitle is “Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn’t Change the World.” They are therefore forgotten, but in Collins’s hands unforgettable. There’s the titular Banvard, a famous painter who squandered his fortune trying to compete with PT Barnum. There’s the guy who first bred the Concord grape before you could patent that sort of thing. There was a French physicist who thought he’d discovered a new source of radiation and a woman who tried to prove Francis Bacon was Shakespeare.
Paul Collins is a gentleman to his subjects, always, and this book neither smirks nor condescends. It had the same lively curiosity and optimism that I’d witnessed in Collins’s talk, and when I needed to escape an awkward room or a conversation I wasn’t a part of, I would excuse myself to be introduced to more of these admirable, doomed people. Each of them was quixotically devoted to an idea that didn’t work out. I actually only just realized, 10 years later, as I’m writing this, that I was devoted to a doomed idea myself. I thought I could maintain two friendships that could not be maintained, and I was watching that idea fail. Maybe I needed to be in the company of someone who never smirks nor condescends.
Banvard’s Folly is very special to me. It was my best friend on that trip. I turned the last page as my plane was taking off from Heathrow. Then I closed the book, and hugged it, and I cried.
I choose my vacation books carefully. I can’t imagine one of them will ever be as significant as Banvard’s Folly was to that trip to London, but they’re important. Choose wisely.
I don’t know why I bother to cover the One Book, One Chicago program. I haven’t seen any evidence that the locals actually read the books that are selected two times a year. As far as I can tell, on the day of the announcement, the local paper writes it up, and then nobody talks about One Book, One Chicago until six months later when they pick a new book. (I am impressed that Mayor Daley presides at all of these unveilings; it seems like a duty he would have handed off to an underling by now.) I think maybe I’m interested in it because I’m curious to see what a government bureaucracy is able to come up with in such a circumstance. Rarely do we get a recommendation from our government so simple as “read this book,” and rarely is the government called upon to advise people on a subject so ephemeral as literature. Given all of this, I think they do reasonably well with their selections – some uninspired, others quite good. And while it would be great to see people spontaneously talking about the latest pick in the trains and on the sidewalks of Chicago, it would be quite odd if that actually happened.All of this brings me to todays pick, as always, unveiled by Mayor Daley: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a great selection if you ask me.
I started 2004 with Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn. It surprised me greatly as I had finished Tropic of Cancer only about a month prior and expected more of what I imagined to be crazy real life accounts – starvation, the artists’ world in 1930s Paris, heavy boozing, sex, sex, and more sex. There’s a glimpse of this, but instead of more scandalous stories, I found in Tropic of Capricorn Miller’s inspiration for Tropic of Cancer. In this heavy, philosophical work, Miller puts forth his disgust for New York and everything it represents, draws a great picture of Brooklyn during the 1920s, and shows the first signs of his status as a misfit. Tropic of Capricorn is greatly revealing as the source of Miller’s genius, and it is by no means the easy going, fun, weird read that Tropic of Cancer is.Next came two Turkish novels by Tuna Kiremitci, both of which moved me deeply. Both Git Kendini Cok Sevdirmeden and Bu Iste Bir Yanlizlik Var are pop culture page turners that also managed in depth character studies. Unfortunately, the novels are not available in English, hence I shall cut the description short.A Confederacy of Dunces was the second English language novel I read in 2005, and a mighty one at that. The genius of this novel is even quoted in the coolest movie of late, Sideways. It is rather unfortunate that John Kennedy Toole committed suicide and left us with only one piece, because after reading about the funny, and brilliantly lazy Ignatius, I am left to wonder what else Toole was capable of. Ignatius’ addiction to hot dogs, the costumes, the literary efforts, the complicated love affair, a disgruntled mother, and finally, the closing of the valves make for an amazing, laugh-out-loud read.
When Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude came out, there was much discussion of how the novel paralelled Lethem’s own upbringing in pre-gentrified Brooklyn. Now we’re getting the real Lethem story for those who want to compare and contrast. It arrives in the form of a book of essays, The Disappointment Artist, which comes out in two weeks. An excerpt, which depicts a young Lethem immersed in obsessions with books, movies and music while trying to come to turns with his mother’s death appeared in last week’s New Yorker (but it’s not available online). I’m beginning to wonder if this exercise in autobiography (with the New Yorker as the stage) has become a rite of initiation for American novelists who have made the big time. Most prominent among them is Jonathan Franzen, who has had a number of meandering autobiographical essays in the magazine over the last few years. I wonder what drives the phenomenon. Do people really want to know about their lives or are these novelists just good at telling a story?
I spotted this essay by James Wood in the Guardian about endings that disappoint. I agree that there is hardly anything more disheartening than a novel that just peters out at the end. To me reading a book is like making an investment. You put in the time, and at the end you hope to walk away with some pleasure. A bad ending screws up the whole arrangement. I tried to think of some really good endings and off the top of my head I came up with a couple. In terms of paying off on an investment, one of my favorites is John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. The “a ha!” moment is almost too perfect but Irving has set it up so well that you can’t help but believe it. Another great ending that comes to mind is John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. After such a long journey, one almost expects the book to run out of steam, but Steinbeck magnificently collects everything together at the end and sends you out of the book with real emotional force. When I read the last words of that book and put it down, I said to myself, “Wow, that was worth it.”
Unwholesomely, my “office” is the campus studio apartment where I also eat and sleep, and there are more days than I’d like when I don’t leave it at all. Today was such a day – and for all my self-cloistering, it was a day of little progress on my wretched heap of dissertation. And this reminds me of a passage from Jonathan Swift’s Tale of a Tub:Whatever Reader desires to have a thorow Comprehension of an Author’s Thoughts, cannot take a better Method, than by putting himself into the Circumstances and Postures of Life, that the Writer was in, upon every important Passage as it flow’d from his Pen; For this will introduce a Parity and strict Correspondence of Idea’s between the Reader and the Author. Now, to assist the diligent Reader in so delicate an Affair, as far as brevity will permit, I have recollected, that the shrewdest Pieces of this Treatise, were conceived in Bed, in a Garret: At other times (for a Reason best known to my self) I thought fit to sharpen my Invention with Hunger; and in general, the whole Work was begun, continued, and ended, under a long Course of Physick, and a great want of Money.I offer this miscellany of shards from my lost day:Coyahoga: Not just a nonsense word made up by R.E.M. (Buckeyes are laughing at me): it is the Iroquois name of a winding Ohio river that feeds into Lake Erie and had a nasty habit of catching on fire in the first half of the twentieth century (a fact that seems to have been a spur to the environmentalist movement).The iTunes Essentials 1989: Neneh Cherry’s “Buffalo Stance”. White Lion’s “When the Children Cry”. Oh, and more (Martika – Roxette – Phil Collins). Quite the walk down memory lane for those who remember the San Francisco Earthquake interrupting the World Series at Candlestick Park, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the Berlin Wall coming down.Hillsborough disaster: Another from 1989, but across the pond: 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death at Hillsborough stadium during an FA cup match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Investigations of the incident have never fully explained how the crush happened. I’ve been watching the British crime drama “Cracker”, starring Robbie Coltrain (the actor who plays Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies) and Christopher Eccleston, and one of its episodes was almost impossible to follow without background on Hillsborough.The death of Orpheus: Considered by the ancients the first among poets and musicians, Orpheus was said to charm beasts and fish with his song, and even to make rocks and trees dance. With his music he could restore Edenic harmony to the natural world, and through the Renaissance he was a sort culture hero – a benevolent, civilizing influence – a mythic bringer of tranquility and joy. After the death of his wife Eurydice, Orpheus took a vow of chastity. The Maenads, a group of women votaries of Bacchus, saw Orpheus and, taken with his beauty, wanted him to join in their Bacchanalian orgies. Orpheus refused and they tore him limb from limb. His head washed up on the shores of Lesbos, and so the people of that island were said to be endowed with the gift of song. (There’s a great John William Waterhouse painting of two nymphs finding Orpheus’ head.) Swift refers to this death by dismemberment in The Tale, and Milton, in “Lycidas“, describes Orpheus as he,Whom Universal nature did lament, [ 60 ]When by the rout that made the hideous roar,His goary visage down the stream was sent,Down the swift Hebrus to the Lesbian shore.Such are the disastrous fragments of my day.