In what must be a first, a literary author is being praised for her fashion sense. Zadie Smith has been named one of Britain’s top 10 “fashion icons” by Harpers & Queen magazine. Here’s a look at Smith in some of those stylish duds.
Some new books that are getting lots of praise, and some excerpts from those books:Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis — review, excerptLittle Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt — review, excerptYou Remind Me of Me by Dan Chaon — review, excerptCrossing California by Adam Langer — reviewAlso of note: the creation of the Man Booker International Prize has been announced. From the press release, “Worth £60,000 to the winner, the prize will be awarded once every two years to a living author who has published fiction either originally in English or whose work is generally available in translation in the English language. The first winner will be announced in mid 2005.” Now Americans will finally be able to get their hands on a Booker.
Recently perusing the course offerings for Temple University’s continuing education program here in Philadelphia, Season Evans uncovered what has to be one of the more unsavory market research strategies ever employed by the publishing companies. A course titled (and misspelled) “A Sneak Peak at Next Year’s Bestsellers,” is described as follows:Every fall publishers introduce and promote a new crop of novels, books they hope are future bestsellers. This unprecedented course is your chance to get a sneak preview of five forthcoming novels from major publishers. You will read special advance copies of the books and then, as a class, critique each book and predict what readers and critics will say when the books are actually published. Contributing publishers will include: W.W. Norton, Knopf, Random House and others to be determined.Though it’s not explicitly stated that the students’ output will be delivered to the publishers, it seems likely that the publishers would only participate if this were the case. As Season points out, this would mean that students will be paying the publishers to do market research for them under the guise of learning. The course is taught by Lynn Rosen, “a publishing consultant with twenty-plus years of experience in the book industry as an editor and literary agent,” though its not clear if the concept for this course came from her.Some questions I have: do other people out there agree that this sounds unsavory? I think it is, though I’m having trouble articulating exactly why (beyond the fact that students will be paying for this “privilege.”) Also, is anyone aware of this practice going on elsewhere? Is it commonplace, or is this Temple course an anomaly?
An unread book is all possible stories. It contains all possible characters, styles, genres, turns of phrase, metaphors, speech patterns, and profound life-changing revelations. An unread book exists only in the primordial soup of your imagination, and there it can evolve into any story you like. An unread book – any unread book – could change your life.
Like most readers, I love browsing in bookshops and libraries. I like to run my fingers along the spines and read titles and authors’ names. I pull the books out and flip through them, thinking about the stories inside them, the things I would learn from them, how my life would be subtly but surely different after I had read them. Sometimes I buy or borrow the books and read them. As much as I enjoy the books, I often find that the book I have read is somehow not as exciting as the book I had imagined reading. No book is ever quite as good as it potentially could have been.
Last week I bought a book. I looked at the blurb and read the first paragraph, and I could feel the texture of the book in my mind. It was going to be a steadily-paced yet exciting coming-of-age story about three young girls who go camping in the woods, stumble across a couple holidaying in a cabin, and see things through the windows that upend their world. It would move from the girls in their clumsy tent, to their fable-like journey through the forest, to the glowing windows of the cabin. The story was going to be overflowing with the smell of mulching leaves, the stale sweetness of fizzy drinks on the tongue, the crackle of empty sweet wrappers. It was going to be honest and real and uncomfortably sensual. Except that it wasn’t about that at all: it was a thriller about a woman having an affair. With every sentence I read, the book I had imagined shrank smaller and smaller. By the end of the third page, it had disappeared. The actual book was by no means bad, it just wasn’t the book I thought it would be.
I have about 800 unread books on my shelves. Some would find this excessive, and they would probably be right. But I take comfort in knowing that I will have appropriate reading material whatever my mood, that I will be spoiled for choice whenever I want a book, and that I will never, ever run out of new stories. From the cover design, the back blurb, and general absorption of cultural knowledge, I have a strong idea of what each one of my unread books is like.
For example, I think that Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy is at once claustrophobic and expansive. It has the texture of solid green leaves crunched between your molars. It tastes of sweetened tea and stale bread and dust. When I read it, I will feel close to my father because it is his favorite book. Reading the Gormenghast books will allow me to understand my father in ways I currently do not, and at certain points in the book I will put it down and stare into the middle distance and say “Oh. Now my childhood makes sense.”
Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness will make me sad and proud and indignant. I will no longer get tangled up in discussions about gender issues, because I will finally have clear-cut and undeniable examples of how gender stereotyping is bad for everyone. Reading it will make me feel like an integral part of queer history and culture, and afterwards I will feel mysteriously connected to all my fellow LGBT people. Perhaps I will even have gaydar.
Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is an obsessive and world-shifting epic. When I read it, I will be completely absorbed by it. It will be all I think about. It will affect my daily life in ways I can’t fully understand, and when I finish it I will have come to profound revelations about the nature of existence. I will finally understand all the literary theory I wrote essays on when I was at university.
I have not read these books because I worry that they’re not the books I think they are. Perhaps I will never read them. I’m sure they are wonderful books, but no book could possibly contain all the knowledge and understanding I am expecting from these. I know it’s unrealistic, but I still hope.
There is another reason to leave books unread: because I know I will love them. This might seem nonsensical, and I suppose it is. I am a writer, and I learn how to write by reading; I know that certain books will teach me more than others because they are similar in style and content to my own writing, though vastly better. This is why I have not read Fucking Daphne, an anthology of sex writing about and edited by Daphne Gottlieb; or Alice Greenaway’s White Ghost Girls, a short and lyrical novel about sisters in 1960s Hong Kong; or Francesca Lia Block’s fantastical erotica novellas, Ecstasia and Primavera; or anything ever written by Martin Millar.
I know that I will love them and want to learn from them, and so I don’t read them: firstly because it is tiring to read that way, with your eyes and ears and brain constantly absorbing; and secondly because once I read them they will be over, the mystery will be revealed. Sometimes I hold these books in my hands and imagine what I will learn from them. These books have affected my writing, and I haven’t even read them. Maybe we can learn as much from our expectations of a story as we can from the actual words on the page.
Go to your bookshelves and pick a book you have not read. Hold it in your hands. Look at the cover and read the description on the back. Think about what the story might be about, what themes and motifs might be in it, what it might say about the world you inhabit, whether it can make you imagine an entirely different world. I suggest that the literary universe you just created might be more exciting and enlightening than the one contained within those covers. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that book. It might prove to be a great book; the best book you have ever read. But your imagination contains every possible story, every possible understanding, and any book can only be one tiny portion of that potential world.
Back | 1. I prefer my version, and still harbor a hope that my imagined story is out there. If you’ve read it, let me know.
Back | 2. In my defense, I spent six years as a bookseller and am now the reviews editor for a magazine, so I accumulated a lot of paperbacks. Plus, I can’t go past a second-hand bookshop without finding something that I must have.
Back | 3. This is also why I have never reread my favorite books: Patrick Süskind’s Perfume, Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss, Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse, or Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls. They’re just too good.
[Image credit: Kenny Louie]
The Using Books blog points to a Kansas City childrens’ book store, Reading Reptile, that is taking HarperCollins to task for allegedly doctoring the photo of Clement Hurd, illustrator of the childrens’ classic Goodnight Moon, on a recent edition of the book. It seems that Hurd was once pictured holding a barely visable cigarette and now the cigarette has disappeared. The Reading Reptile folks have put together Goodnight Reality, a Web site to protest the “censorship.” Though the comparisons to Stalin may be a bit over the top, I suppose you have to fight for what you believe in.And lest I be accused of taking things too seriously, the Reading Reptile folks are probably being a little tongue in cheek about this. Judging from their “About Us” page, they’ve got a sense of humor.Update: The New York Times looks at the Goodnight Moon cigarette controversy. HarperCollins plans to find a completely different photo of Clement Hurd for future printings of the book, so that no doctoring will be required.
“My name is Marina Abramović and I think I’m an artist,” were the first words the performance artist spoke at a post-show panel last week, two days after the conclusion of her eleven-week performance, The Artist Is Present, at the Museum of Modern Art. I observed the artist twice during this time, once in March and again in April. The only visible differences were her sitting partners and the color of her dress, the first floor-length in blue and the second identical, in red. The colors were selected to aid her endurance: blue to calm, red to invigorate, and in May she wore white for purification. Although I had watched Abramović sit for hours (though not face to face) I’d never heard her speak. In fact, I’d barely seen her move. The way she held her pose with her shiny face gazing forward, she resembled a wax figure from Madame Toussads. Abramović sat quietly with strength, but when she finally spoke, she spoke with command–her husky voice issuing words in an Eastern European accent.
“Anger,” she claimed, was a driving force for staging the re-performances of her work. She listed the mass media, the fashion and design industries, theater, and MTV as culprits who have re-appropriated images and performances from her oeuvre without giving attribution. She would like to lend order to re-performances of performance art, something she also emphasized with her re-performances in Seven Easy Pieces at the Guggenheim in 2005. She acknowledges that re-performed pieces inevitably change, but likens these adjustments to new interpretations of Beckett or Mozart. Abramović added that she won’t allow re-performances that endanger the performers’ lives–such as one piece that involved a pistol and bullet. Still, she dismisses her own, prior self-endangerment with brio: “It was the seventies. I was crazy.”
Abramović’s The Artist is Present played on similar restraints to those in her MoMA performance in the 1980s. Nightsea Crossing consisted of 22 performances in 19 locations where Abramović and her partner Ulay sat facing each other motionless seven hours a day for days on end. Of the powers one gains through stilling oneself in this way, Abramović has commented: “Kafka said in one of his stories, ‘Just sit at a table and do nothing and the whole world will be revealed in front of you.’” Which is exactly what happened with The Artist Is Present, and not only on a metaphorical level. The world came to Abramović. Over two-and-a-half months, 1,545 people sat across from her (while even more waited for the chance) and over 700,000 museum-goers witnessed her atrium performance. Who knows how many more observed from the virtual world as the performance was streamed online. Celebrities sat. Many people cried. Other performance artists co-opted her performance. At the Wednesday evening panel, the exhibition’s curator, Klaus Biesenbach, admitted that when he first envisioned Abramović’s performance, he thought the second seat would often remain empty. He seemed pleased to be wrong.
Also in attendance Wednesday evening were the thirty-six performers who re-performed Abramović’s five pieces within the exhibition. It was revealed that several of the performers had fainted the first day, unaccustomed to the duration and the physical demands of the performances. Marco Anelli, the photographer who sat behind Abramović and took portraits of each sitter’s face, was present. As was Paco Blancas, a makeup artist whose visage resembles Edgar Allan Poe. Paco sat across from Abramović twenty-one times during her performance–more than anyone else–and commemorated the experience by having the number 21 tattooed on his arm. Another woman in the audience said she was overseas when the exhibition started. She began watching Abramović’s performance over the internet, and it quickly turned into an obsession.
Why this sudden obsession with Abramović? Yes, there were nude performances. And Abramović, the artist, was present. But that alone doesn’t offer much of an explanation. Abramović’s re-performances in Seven Easy Pieces garnered less attention even though the pieces were more sensational. Consider her re-performance of Vito Acconci’s Seedbed, where museum-goers listened while Abramović masturbated under the stage and related her fantasies about the observers above her over a loudspeaker. Her re-performance of her own Lips of Thomas involved cutting a pentagram into her stomach with a razor blade and then lying naked on a cross of ice.
The Artist Is Present was on camera. It was interactive and online. Abramović has spoken many times about how her duration pieces have the capacity transform both herself and the viewer. But I also wonder if the interactive and ever-changing nature of the piece influenced the popularity of the performance, which by the end had become a media phenomenon. Gauging the endurance of each sitter was like sport. As my friends and I observed from the sidelines, we speculated how long each person would last. Catherine Lacey at HTMLGiant compared Abramović ’s performance to Zen meditation. There was a competitive and a meditative side, but was there also a gimmick? We the museum-goers were invited to participate in a work of art greater than ourselves, where we became creative subjects as well as voyeurs. Is the overwhelming response to this participatory performance much different than our attraction to reality TV, to YouTube, to monitoring status updates on Facebook? Did The Artist Is Present also respond to a cultural habituation to the constant update? To our narcissism? Abramović said that as she stared into her sitting partners’ eyes she acted as a mirror so that they could look inside themselves.
Or was Abramović’s act of sitting for more than 700 hours and sacrificing sleep each night (waking every 45 minutes to rehydrate) in order to share herself and her art with her audience an act of tremendous benevolence and generosity? I would say both. Abramović called the experience the most profound of her life. She claims, “My spirit is different.” And perhaps that is enough.
[Image credit: Jim Kuhn]