Hurry over to the LBC blog to see the first Read This! pick.
A new Colors magazine came out the other day. The theme of this issue is violence, and as always they go to the ends of the earth to track down haunting, though-provoking stories and photographs. The Colors website further illustrates each issue. On the lighter side of the newsstand is a magazine that I first noticed in Derek’s bathroom. It’s called Wax Poetics and it is all about the sublime art of “beat digging,” which is how all those DJs keep bringing hot new tracks to the turntables. They scrounge through the record bins looking for a long forgotten monster beat and then they mix it up on Saturday night. Wax Poetics serves the growing ranks of turntablists out there, but it’s also great for anyone who has a turntable and won’t pass up a Steely Dan LP for a buck when they come across one. It’s also real nice to look at, full high quality reproductions of classic album covers and retro urban graphic design.Retail NotesI was marooned at the cash register for a while today. I was keeping myself busy by finishing Feeding a Yen by Calvin Trillin when I noticed that in the course of a half hour I had sold three copies of the lastest by the ubiquitous Dalai Lama himself, The Art of Happiness. I do live in Southern California and our typical clientele is pretty much the target audience for Zen Buddhist self help with the Richard Gere stamp of approval, but these people were tourists and that book is pretty old, and it’s not supposed to be flying off the shelves right now. Then I realized that someone had put this book on the recommended shelf; probably it was the new girl. Like most independent book stores and like some of the chains, we have a prominently displayed shelf full of books especially recommended by the staff. Next to each book is a little blurb that we come up with to say, basically, “this book is good, buy it.” We rotate the books on this shelf pretty regularly and without fail whatever is up there flies out of the store. We could borrow a fetid sock from one of the many crazy homeless people who hang out on the block, put a card next to it that says “This moving tale of loss and redemption will not fail to enrich and entertain,” and it would be bought and paid for in under five minutes. Luckily, we try to take the moral highground and we recommend books that are better than what the customers would select if left to their own devices. The “recommend shelf phenomenon” has gotten me thinking about the current state of literature. There are many people out there who love to read, but for some reason, people have no idea which specific books they want to read. They look at the piles of books and they grow disoriented and dizzy, unwilling or unable to trust their instincts and judge a book by its cover, which is what they must do since only the smallest fraction of people read book reviews or even seem to be aware of their existence. That is where we come in. We tell them what to read. It’s no wonder that people read so much crap. I can’t imagine what tripe the typical Barnes & Noble clerk must be pushing on his confused customers.I have already done a great deal of planning for when I’m rich. I know what sort of yacht I would like to own, my air of disinterested aloofness has become ingrained after months of practice, and I have prepared myself to feel perfectly at peace when purchasing a particularly expensive pair of Italian loafers. I also, thanks to my delightful customers, have acquired an hilarious little joke with which I can entertain the various clerks and barkeeps who will provide me with goods and services. It goes like this: Select a moderate quantity of goods, bring them to the cash register, and whip out a hundred dollar bill from amongst a clutch of other one hundred dollar bills. When the clerk uses the counterfeit marker to ensure that the bill is not a fake (which he is REQUIRED to do by his bosses and might just LOSE HIS JOB if he doesn’t) chuckle and wink and say “I just printed it this morning,” in your very best ironic voice. Watch the clerk stare back at you blankly, barely able to conceal his rage, accept your change, go to the next establishment, and repeat. See! I can’t wait. It will be so much fun.
A Salon.com piece from last week is creating a buzz among publishing industry watchers. In it, an anonymous “midlist” author bemoans the consolidation of publishing companies and the ever shallower tastes of the reading public for contributing to the demise of authors who don’t write blockbusters. Almost taunting the reader, she drops clues throughout the article, tempting diligent gossips to discover her true identity. (Were she outed, I suspect she wouldn’t mind the publicity.) First, here is the article. (Use the day pass to view the article… you just have to watch an ad first). As soon as the article was published, the gossip erupted at, where else, gawker.com. Here the speculation begins, readers begin jumping into the fray, and, finally, Gawker, wanting to put the subject to rest, guesses: Amy Bloom. As they freely admit, though, Bloom is not a perfect fit, and I’m not convinced either. I’m on the case, though. Maybe I can figure it out. As far as whether or not I agree with her: I agree that publishing industry consolidation makes for a dull literary marketplace, but I refuse to believe that quality writing, no matter how uncommercial, is unsellable. The American people are not as dumb as some like to think, but I’ll tell you one thing, they don’t like whiners. Possibly more on this later.A PunditI always enjoy hearing from people who have been willing to publicly change their opinions on things. Somehow I find them more believable than the one note folks who populate the right and the left. This is why I like reading Christopher Hitchens. He is incredibly prolific, putting out what seems like a book a year and appearing almost daily in newspapers articulately presenting his singular points of view. As an example, check out his review in Canada’s Globe and Mail of the new book by Ian Baruma (another frequently-published commentator whose writing I enjoy).
One of the good things about working at my bookstore is that I can peruse any magazine I want without having to pay for it. Today’s unlikely canditate was Vogue which I was skimming looking for anything by my favorite food writer Jeffrey Steingarten. No dice. Instead I came across an article about NPR’s Anne Garrels who NPR listeners will recall from her gut wrenching reports from Bagdhad during the war. According to the writer of the article Farrar, Straus & Giroux will be releasing Garrel’s book about the war, Naked in Baghdad, this September. Something to look forward to. In other news, I’m about to get my phone number put on the new nationwide do not call list because there are few things that I dislike more than telemarketers. Have a good weekend…
I stepped into a book store in the old city of Barcelona. It was spacious and well lit with dark wood shelves and floors. Many langauges were well represented including a wide selection of English language books. It is very easy to take a shot at American bookstores when comparing them to bookstores overseas, and it’s really remarkable to see the difference in person. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be an expat, estranged from my country, but sometimes yearning for contact. I think I would spend a lot of time in a bookstore like that and it would fill the void for me. With the jet lag and all that, I was having trouble diving into another book. I guess I needed a change of pace to reflect the change of scenery, so I fished into the bag of books I brought with me and came up with this beauty: Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware. I have always been drawn to certain of the visual story telling forms: typically not so much the action hero stuff, but certain “graphic novels” have caught my attention. I also like to flip through a collection of “newspaper funnies” from time to time, Calvin and Hobbes, for example, is always a delight. Rarely, however, have I encountered a book that transcends the genre like Jimmy Corrigan. This book has already received a chorus of praise and numerous awards. In a lot of cases, in fact, no one had ever considered that a graphic novel might be eligible to win certain of the awards, but this one was just too good to be ignored. I have been on a good stretch with books lately; I haven’t been disappointed in while, but my next book is a bit riskier: The Lonely Hearts Club by Raul Nunez… I’ll let you know how it goes…I’m off to Ireland tomorrow, and there might not be internet there, but I will try my best; if not, we’ll catch up when I get back to the states.
Not long ago, I lived in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where I wrote stories about, among other topics, a meet-up of Twitter users, a dire sandstorm that befell a mixed-gender rock show, a tour of one of Riyadh’s oldest hotels, and what happens when the most Islamic country in the world attempts to hold a festival to “celebrate culture.”
I was young and proud and eager to share my work. So every month or so, I’d send out an email to friends and associates with a link to my latest. Not too many complained. Some, apparently, even enjoyed what I sent.
But among my harshest critics was a writer friend, who in a scorching series of emails said mine was this obnoxious, privileged gaze, that in every description of Saudi lives, I mainly revealed that I wanted Saudis to grow up and be good democratic Westerners — which was an impossible goal, he said, because good democratic Westerners are monsters who started wars and were a menace to the whole world.
Years later, I lived in Beirut, where I was still writing stories. As part of an effort to do better this time, I began to read The Innocents Abroad, a record of traveling by Mark Twain.
As a traveler, I had always written earnestly about my observations. Twain, it seemed, was all too eager to write wryly about his own ignorance. There was probably a lot I could learn.
In 1867, a crew of Americans set sail for Europe, Asia, and the Holy Land. For the benefit of the reader and to fulfill his duties as a columnist for The New York Herald Tribune, one of the passengers, Mark Twain, set to writing a book about what happened.
In the first pages, the reader encounters Twain’s unease with the basic notion of trying to be original in a travel book. “A little after noon on that distinguished Saturday I reached the ship and went on board. All was bustle and confusion. [I have seen that remark somewhere.]”
Then the ship sees its first island, and Twain isn’t too excited about the Azores. “All the opera glasses in the ship were called into requisition to settle disputes as to whether mossy spots on the uplands were groves of trees or groves of weeds, or whether the white villages down by the sea were really villages or only the clustering of tombstones or cemeteries.” Better to temper any real enthusiasm with a protective cloak of detachment and humor.
In Riyadh, I faced the same problem, but I tried to write with kindness and heart, explaining what I saw with detail and nuance. Twain? “Out of our whole ship’s company there was not a solitary individual who knew anything whatever about them,” he writes of the Azores. It’s a sly trick — substituting his fellow shipmates for the reader. “These considerations move me to put in a paragraph of dry facts here,” he writes — but of course the paragraph isn’t dry.
Twain has protected himself and us by suggesting no normal person would know the Azores, then he protects himself further by saying any information about the strange place would be “dry.” Then he unloads: “The donkeys and the men, women, and children of a family all eat and sleep in the same room, and are unclean, are ravaged by vermin, and are truly happy.” Twain writes simultaneously with contempt and fondness, and we’re left to puzzle out what he’s trying to do, and where in the mess we should stand.
What he’s doing, it seems, is deploying a constantly changing mix of both sincerity and irreverence, making his position on things hard to pin down. Take the way he grapples with the tired subject of a famous church. “We went to see the Cathedral of Notre Dame,” he writes. “We had heard of it before. It surprises me sometimes to think how much we do know and how intelligent we are.”
Twain was making himself hard to take seriously, protecting himself from the question of whether writing like this made the world a better understood place. The whole situation was captured in the way he recounted the story of Abelard and Heloise, the 12th-century French lovers:
With infinite pains I have acquired a knowledge of that history, and I propose to narrate it here, partly for the honest information of the public and partly to show the public that they have been wasting a good deal of marketable sentiment very unnecessarily…Heloise was born seven hundred and sixty-six years ago. She may have had parents. There is no telling. She lived with her uncle Fulbert, a canon of the cathedral of Paris. I do not know what a canon of the cathedral is, but that is what he was.
I have come to admire that paragraph very much. In it, Twain is humorous and self-deprecating about the project of historical storytelling, but he is also contemptuous of stupid readers and of disinformation and false sentimentality, but then he acknowledges again that he himself doesn’t actually know much — for instance, what on earth is a canon? There’s a kind of crazy disregard for accountability, a carnival of intention and expectation. You sense a plan, but it’s hard to divine where, if at all, Twain is willing to draw a line. In a storm of riotous laughter, who could quiet the room and suggest to Twain that what he does has serious consequences?
But there’s no need to lecture; Twain’s well aware of his power. “In Marseille, they make half the fancy toilet soap we consume in America, but the Marseillaise only have a vague theoretical idea of its use, which they have obtained from books of travel, just as they have acquired an uncertain notion of clean shirts, and the peculiarities of the gorilla, and other curious matters.” Books of travel change the world, Twain is ready to acknowledge. But all you’ll probably remember is that line about the clean shirt.
In the end, travel books — or personal essays — are doomed. Try to describe the gorilla and you fail. Words are never enough, and most will ultimately be forgotten. And if that gorilla is a man? Maybe better not to have begun at all.
The other day, the American-born Nigerian writer Teju Cole posted a line on Twitter: “I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.”
Cole was probably right. “I have camped with the Indians,” Twain writes. “I have been on the warpath with them, taken part in the chase with them…I have roamed with them, scalped them, had them for breakfast. I would gladly eat the whole race if I had a chance.”
Illustration by Dominick Rabrun.
Very interesting article from the NY Times today about Amazon and used books. Many assume that Amazon’s ample selection of used books represents a grave threat to authors and publishers, but some economists who looked into the issue found evidence that just the opposite is true. The key point: “When used books are substituted for new ones, the seller faces competition from the secondhand market, reducing the price it can set for new books. But there’s another effect: the presence of a market for used books makes consumers more willing to buy new books, because they can easily dispose of them later.” Read the whole article here.