I’ve noticed lately that a couple of Web sites have put together litblog roundups. At Notes from the (Legal) Underground, they take a break from lawyering most weeks for the “The Monday Morning Books Blogging Post“. Chekhov’s Mistress, meanwhile, has a “Headlines” page which aggregates the headlines from dozens of litblogs and lists them on one easy to find page. (This is similar to what I’ve done in my “Book News via RSS” section which aggregates feeds from newspaper book sections.) Finally, I recently discovered a new participant in the litblog roundup racket. At New West, Allen M. Jones has put together the first two of what I hope will be many litblog roundups. Roundups aside, in my capacity as a graduate journalism student, I recommend that anyone with an interest in citizen or community journalism poke around the New West site.
The books that parents read to their very young children don’t change much from generation to generation. When my son was born two years ago I was surprised to find that with few exceptions, the titles we welcomed into our Philadelphia apartment were the same ones that three decades earlier had served as my own introduction to storytelling.
I made an informal study of the Amazon sales rankings of the books I enjoyed having read to me most as a kid. It seemed to confirm that taste in books for young children is remarkably constant. Here are just a handful of popular titles with their publication years and their overall Amazon ranks:
The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969), #169
Goodnight Moon (1947), #227
Where the Wild Things Are (1963), #314
The Giving Tree (1964), #342
Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955), #559
Pat the Bunny (1940), #743
Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day (1968), #817
For comparison’s sake, consider Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, which was a bestseller only a few years ago and enjoys strong residual sales. It’s currently ranked #2,194, which leaves it well behind the leading titles in the Dr. Seuss canon (Green Eggs and Ham, #1,050; The Lorax, #1,063).
The reason children’s books endure seems clear enough: The books that toddlers read are determined entirely by adults, and when adults select books for kids they naturally gravitate towards the books they loved as kids. As a result, the market for children’s books is probably more resistant to cultural churn than just about any other slice of the consumer economy; it’s a closed circuit that reproduces itself one generation after another.
There are benefits to this system. For one, it helps to ensure that passing fads doesn’t wash quality books away. It’s doubtful, for example, that toddlers would opt for Goodnight Moon as often as their parents do, so maybe it’s just as well that they don’t have a say. For two, the persistence of children’s books yields a kind of experience we don’t get so often in a culture that has relatively few traditions: the chance to revisit childhood experiences through an older set of eyes.
Just the other weekend I took my two-year-old son to Barnes and Noble to buy a birthday present for a friend of his. I browsed the aisles while my son emptied a carousel of Berenstain Bears books onto the floor. After a few minutes I spotted Caps for Sale (#5057), a book that had once meant a great deal to me but which I had not thought about in decades. It was nice to see that it had managed to last all this time without my attention. We bought two copies, one for the friend and one for us.
That night I put my son in his pajamas, filled his cup with milk, sat him in my lap and began to read Caps for Sale. It only took a few lines before the entire story came back to me: an old world peddler walks around a village with a stack of caps on his head; one luckless afternoon he leans back against a tree to take a nap and when he wakes up he finds his caps have been confiscated by a troop of monkeys in the tree branches above him; he demands the monkeys give him his caps back by shaking his fists and stomping his feet but the monkeys mock his efforts and for a moment it seems like he’ll never get them back.
In addition to remembering the plot, I was somewhat stunned by how vividly the feelings the book had elicited in me as a kid came tumbling back. It’s noted several times in the book, for example, that the peddler always stacks his caps on his head in the same order—“first his own checked cap, then the gray caps, then the brown caps, then blue caps, then the red caps on the very top.” As I read this to my son I found myself flush with the same covetousness for the red caps, so bright and distinct above the rest, that I’d felt as a child.
I had a similar experience at the end of the story. In order to get his caps back, the peddler remonstrates the monkeys every way he can: he shakes his fists, stomps his feet, jumps up and down. The monkeys repeat his actions back to him but the simple peddler doesn’t see what’s going on. He thinks the monkeys are mocking his suffering when really they’re just aping (monkeying?) him like the lower-order mammals that they are. In despair the peddler takes his own checked cap off his head—the one cap that’s not for sale, and the only cap the monkeys didn’t take—and throws it to the ground and starts to walk away.
As my son finished his milk and started to fall asleep, I found myself awash in the same anguish I’d felt at this point in the story as a child. I couldn’t have explained why at the time, but as a child I knew there was something deeply sad about the peddler throwing his own cap to the ground. Now as an adult, I can put words to that sadness; I can see that by throwing his own cap to the ground the peddler is effectively saying that without his caps, nothing in the world matters anymore.
I was surprised by the complexity of the reaction to Caps for Sale I’d had as a kid. As a four-year-old I had no firsthand experiences that would have taught me there is such a thing as despair in the face of an unforgiving world, but on an intuitive level I understood that what the peddler was experiencing went beyond mere frustration.
When the peddler throws down his cap the monkeys throw their caps down too, and tragedy is averted. The peddler collects his caps from the ground, stacks them back atop his head, and walks back to town calling “Caps for sale, fifty cents a cap.” It is not exactly a happy ending—the fact that the peddler became so desperate over the loss of a few caps reveals just how precarious his life really is—but there is a melancholic satisfaction in knowing that he gets to go on selling for one more day at least.
For me, the feeling I had after I’d closed Caps for Sale and laid my son down in his crib was melancholic and satisfying, too. It was an unexpected gift to have glimpsed myself as a child through the pages of the book, and a wonder to imagine that if trends hold, my son might one day have the same experience himself.
Bonus Link: Are Picture Books Leading Our Children Astray?
I have a short article in the latest issue of Poets & Writers.The piece grew out of a post here on the blog a while back about LibraryThing, the Web-based book cataloging community. For the record, I haven’t yet put all of my books into LibraryThing, though I probably will at some point. I’ve been putting it off because I know that once I get started I won’t be able to stop and, well, I just don’t have the free time at the moment.
Those of you who’ve read this blog for a while know that during the summer I tend to pen the occasional post about baseball. Feel free to skip them if you like, but I just can’t help myself. Now, on with it. In Chicago, I’m finding that the start of baseball season seems to awaken a collective joy across the city. Riding the El on Friday, I was startled by the conductor’s gleeful announcement that the slowness of our train was due to the Cubs home opener. I also learned that the Cubs typically eschew night games at Wrigley Field because, essentially, night games would wake up the neighbors. Most modern stadiums are surrounded by moats of asphalt, but ancient Wrigley is nestled into a city block and surrounded by rowhouses and city traffic and streets lined with bars and diners. Driving north on Clark Street, the stadium explodes into view, surrounded on game day by throngs of fans. A whole section of the city turns into a clamoring carnival of baseball ferment. And then, a few blocks beyond, one returns to quiet streets lined with leafy trees and brick three flats. In the past few days I have noted the pleasure with which the Cubs fan declares that the season has returned. In my experience, they don’t talk about the team’s chances this year or the strength of the bullpen or anything pulled from the sports pages, they talk about how it feels to have baseball back. They tell me that it’s so great to see people drinking beer in Cubs gear on their front porches and shouting “hey” to fans walking to the game. But mostly they sort of cock their heads back so as to gather in some springtime sun, still new enough to be a novelty. In Chicago, baseball doesn’t just mean baseball, it means that the gloomy, icy, sunless winter is over. No more trudging through the ankle-deep snow in the pre-dawn darkness to the El, and no more returning by the same route – stepping in the same holes my feet made that morning – in darkness to a home whose clanging radiators provide a cozy warmth, which, over time, simply seems to be the temperature they have set for your prison cell. But, if you see Cubs fans marching through Wrigleyville, all that can be put to rest and forgotten until October, a whole baseball season away from now. There are some grizzled Chicago vets who insist to me that we’re not out of the woods yet, that April chills and snows are not unheard of, but I ignore them because, well, baseball is here!(I should note that my already considerable happiness at the return of baseball season has been further enhanced by the book I’m reading right now, a collection of baseball writing by the incomparable Roger Angell called Game Time : A Baseball Companion)
If you are like me, you are probably getting tired of politics. Politicians, political news, television ads from concerned citizens for this or that, conventions finally almost past, and debates still to come, I’m tired of all of it. Thank god someone decided that it was ok for people to make up big, long stories (or collect little, short ones) and for other people to read those stories. A diversion, if you like. So, what will divert us this month? T. C. Boyle, who has over the years become a bigger and bigger name in American fiction, has a new novel coming out called The Inner Circle. Set in 1940, the book is about a young man who works as an assistant for the sex researcher, Alfred Kinsey (a real historical figure), and quickly becomes embroiled in the sort of bizarreness one might expect from a novel by T. C. Boyle. I hope to read that one soon. If you’re the type of person who likes to know about the next big thing, have a look at Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel. You’ll be hearing about this book a lot for the next few months, so you might as well read it. Touted as, what else, Harry Potter for grown ups, this debut novel by Susanna Clarke is set to release simultaneously in the US, Britain, and Germany with a first run of 250,000 copies (astronomical for a debut by an unknown writer). Part of the buzz stems from the subject matter; it’s about magic, magicians, and mysticism, and with the success of Potter and Da Vinci Code these topics seem like a sure bet. But, according to many accounts, the book is not just timely, it’s a great read. Those looking to avoid the buzz may want to try another debut novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne by Esi Edugyan. Tyne is an African immigrant who has raised his family in Canada. Circumstances and yearning for a better life lead him to relocate to Aster, a small town with a utopic history. He finds there a different set of struggles. For readers in the mood for something a little lighter and with a quicker pulse try The Little White Car a speedy little novel from Britain that sounds as energetic as Run, Lola, Run. The book was supposedly written by a new French talent, a young woman named Danuta de Rhodes, but skeptical British critics were quick to announce that de Rhodes is merely the alter ego of Dan Rhodes, known trickster and acclaimed author of Timoleon Vieta Come Home. Finally, those with a hankering for short stories might consider When The Nines Roll Over And Other Stories by David Benioff who previously wrote the novel The 25th Hour (which later was made into a movie by Spike Lee), and also The Secret Goldfish by David Means. Sounds a lot better than politics to me.The Inner Circle by T.C. Boyle — Boyle’s blogJonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel by Susanna Clarke — previewThe Second Life of Samuel Tyne by Edi Edugyan — excerptThe Little White Car by Danuta de Rhodes — the scoop, reviewWhen The Nines Roll Over And Other Stories by David Benioff — excerptThe Secret Goldfish by David Means — excerpt, review
Jennifer 8. Lee in the New York Times describes the “Washington read.” A practice in which Washington insiders peruse the index of a current political best seller, Plan of Attack or Against All Enemies, for example, to see if they have been mentioned. It is sort of a test one’s own importance inside the beltway, and many, prematurely certain of their own historical significance, are crushed to find that they have been omitted from history’s first draft. Washington, however, does not have a monopoly on such practices. I lived in Washington D.C. for most of my life before moving to Los Angeles, and I have observed many times the similarities between the two cities’ chief industries. I don’t know if I coined this analogy, but I’ve always thought that politics is just Hollywood for ugly people. And so it makes sense that I discovered, over the last couple of years, that there is such thing as a “Hollywood read.” It usually goes something like this: an older guy stands at the front of the store flipping through the latest Hollywood tell-all. He is deeply tanned and his shirt is unbuttoned to reveal tufts of silver chest hair. He is wearing ridiculously oversized sunglasses and smells of cigar smoke. He leans over to me and points to the book and says, “I used to work with this guy,” and then he goes back to scanning the index to make sure his old buddy mentioned him. Samuel Fuller’s posthumously published A Third Face generated this reaction. And those in the music biz went straight to the index of Walter Yetnikoff’s Howling at the Moon. Last fall, a mention in Down and Dirty Pictures by Peter Biskind meant that you officially matter in today’s Hollywood. But to have been mentioned in Robert Evans’ The Kid Stays in the Picture indicates a special sort of notoriety.
I recently reorganized my bookshelves. I straightened and categorized the books, and I separated out all of the books that I haven’t read and that I hope to read sooner rather than later. These are books that I’ve bought at the store, received as gifts, and unearthed on bookfinding expeditions. There are 31 of them. For a while now, I’ve had a quite large “to read” pile, and I add titles almost every week, it seems. The problem is that stacks of books are constantly getting pushed aside while I read whatever book I’m most excited about at the moment. There’s not really anything wrong with this except that there are books that I really would like to read, but never seem to get around to it. So, since I obviously am not to be trusted, I have decided to take some of the decision making out of my hands: I have set aside a special shelf to hold my new “Reading Queue.” On it are all of the books that I own and would like to read but haven’t yet. From this shelf full of books, I will randomly select the next one to read. Before I get into that though, here’s my reading queue, some of the books that will keep me occupied during the coming year:Without Feathers by Woody AllenThe Summer Game by Roger AngellOnce More Around the Park: A Baseball Reader by Roger AngellGame Time: A Baseball Companion by Roger AngellAn Army at Dawn by Rick AtkinsonThe Sheltering Sky by Paul BowlesThe Hole in the Flag by Andrei CodrescuDon Quixote by Miguel De CervantesParis Trout by Pete DexterThe Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre DumasThe Last Amateurs by John FeinsteinA Season on the Brink by John FeinsteinLiving to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia MarquezLast Train to Memphis by Peter GuralnickThe Great Fire by Shirley HazzardRound Rock by Michelle HunevenThe Known World by Edward P. JonesBalkan Ghosts by Robert D. KaplanShah of Shahs by Ryszard KapuscinskiThe Price of Admiralty by John KeeganEverything’s Eventual by Stephen KingLiar’s Poker by Michael LewisThe Coming of Rain by Richard MariusThe Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullersLooking for a Ship by John McPheeMoviegoer by Walker PercyFraud by David RakoffThe Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat by Oliver SacksEast of Eden by John SteinbeckQuicksilver by Neal StephensonMr. Jefferson’s University by Garry WillsOnce I had a full shelf to pick from, the only question was how to pick randomly. I thought about writing down names and picking out of hat, but that seemed like a pain, and I would have had to go look for a hat, so instead I located a random number generator to help me make my choice. I’m going back east tomorrow for two weeks, so I picked three books to take with me: Everything’s Eventual, Paris Trout, and Don Quixote. I’m guessing most folks will be pretty busy over the next couple of weeks, and so will I, so I’ll probably only post a couple of times while I’m gone. They should be good, though. Look for “My Year in Books” and a post about the books I gave as gifts. Happy Holidays, all.
Fans of historical fiction set in far flung lands will likely enjoy Jane Alison’s new book Natives and Exotics. It’s a multigenerational tale set in South America and Australia that spans the twentieth century. The publisher notes liken the book to W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, which is a lot to live up to. PW describes the book thusly: “More impressionistic than narrative, Alison’s third novel is a lush evocation of the way people love and alter (and are altered by) the environments they inhabit.”Closer to home is Steve Amick’s debut The Lake, the River & the Other Lake. The center of the book is the small town of Weneshkeen, Michigan. And as is so often the case, this small town buzzes with odd characters and neighborly conflicts which are exacerbated by the summer presence of inconsiderate tourists. PW says this: “Bitterly comic and surprisingly meaty, this roiling tale of passion, anger, regret and lust is dark fun for the Garrison Keillor demographic.” So I guess it’s like a much less saccharine Lake Wobegon. There’s an excerpt available here. And if that’s not enough for you, try this short story from the Southern Review.Rick Bass’ new novel, The Diezmo, is garnering comparisons to a pair literary adventure classics, The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, both favorable and unfavorable. Still, I love this sort of book so my interest has been piqued. Bass’ setting for the novel is the rough borderlands between Mexico and the Republic of Texas in 1842. Here’s a mixed review of the book from the Denver Post, and here’s an excerpt so you can make up your own minds.Ann Beattie doesn’t need much of an introduction. She’s one of America’s better-known short story writers, and her latest collection, Follies received the hard to come by Michiko Kakutani seal of approval with the declaration, “Ms. Beattie has hit her stride again.” Here’s an excerpt.