As I recall there was a brief burst of interest in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo when the movie came out in 2002. It makes sense because the movie does a good job of capturing this story of intrigue and revenge, and, in fact, the novel lends itself well to the screen because it is so packed full of brilliant schemes and vivid characters. At the start of the book Edmond Dantes, a young French sailor, gets unwittingly wrapped up in the political machinations of his day, and ends up getting hauled off to the Chateau d’If, an island prison as sinister as it sounds. At this point, though we feel sorry for Dantes, we are treated to 50 or so pages of his struggle against hopelessness and his friendship with a priest named Faria. Dumas’ account of Dantes time in prison is thrilling both for its emotional weight and for the ingenious plans that Dantes and Faria concoct. By the next stage of the book, when the mysterious Count of Monte Cristo begins stirring up trouble among the Parisian elite, you wonder what else could be in store, since so many adventures have already occurred. But it turns out there’s a whole lot more. Dozens of characters are introduced, and though at times it becomes a bit overwhelming trying to remember who is romantically involved with whom and who is trying to kill whom, the whole massive web manages to untangle itself wonderfully in the end. The book is a real joy to read and Monte Cristo is a brilliant character. You will find him to be both enthralling and terrifying.
To paraphrase the critic Georges Poulet: a poet of written poems does not necessarily aim only to write a poem; he or she aims to become, and for those who read his or her poems to become. Becoming is an activity that many young African Americans are engaged in today — whether it be formal, revolutionary, or informal — and it is an activity that requires undivided dynamism. If Kendrick Lamar’s chant “we gon’ be alright” — four words that when repeated meld a fight song to a primordial moment in the foundation and the defense of a collective and its culture — is now considered the foremost musical expression of this era’s black activism, Nate Marshall’s poem “repetition & repetition &”, the very first poem from his book Wild Hundreds, should be considered the foremost articulation of contemporary blackness’s dynamism in literature. It’s an engine of becoming.
Our is a long love song,
A push into open air,
A stare into the barrel
With those three lines, Marshall begins an epic comparable to Robert Hayden’s renowned “The Middle Passage” and other black epics; but this is an epic of guidance and instruction. It’s built on the thesis that black “works,” as painful as it may be to be black. The poem begins by posing the question What do I feel as a black person, its title “repetition & repetition &” having given us the context. The opening of the poem removes any ambiguity we might attribute to the poem’s message, plunging us into the poet’s project.
We are a pattern,
A percussive imperative,
A break beat
“repetition & repetition &” quickly comes to feature the collective “we” as fundamental to the poem. Marshall uses the word “we” as the black community loves for it to be used. If “I” is modernism, and postmodernism, Marshall pushes it aside for the beloved “we” — the “we” of the hard road to salvation and joy. Sorry, he seems to be saying: despite claims that our sentiment is tribalism or that we are just Americans, the black community remains a place where a black “we” is a beautiful way of saying “me.” With “we” he expresses the blackness that has us all feeling, one that cannot be found in oh-so-many poems that center the lonely “I” or “me.”
“We” is brilliantly defined in the line “we are love.” We = love, in convivial crowds and effective political rallies.
Baby we are hundreds:
Wild until we are free.
Wild like Amnesia
This is an epic of identity. It proposes black identity (love, being wild) to its reader, as a written articulation of “black is beautiful”; it functions as a model of identity to adhere to and trust.
Identity is an old and persistent question in black life, to the point where passing, pretending that one is not black or not claiming one’s blackness, has been a theme of many black novels (see Nella Larsen’s Passing). Faith in blackness and in one’s own blackness is a feature in our age of contradictions: of a black president, of interracial marriages, of a growing middle class, of foreclosures of homes owned by blacks, of predatory and racist practices, of the killings of young black men and women, of Black Lives Matter. It’s an age of youthful comic modernities, where tragedy is not the sort of thing that co-workers of other races want to talk about. Should I be happy in public? Who am I in all of this? Marshall answers these questions and others with an epic that can guide, in terms of how to think about blackness or being black.
The black identity being proposed is not a simple one. As John Edgar Wideman wrote as a blurb for Mitchell Jackson’s novel The Residue Years, it embraces the English language as a means of expression, saying loud and clear, Despite my difference, I am culturally a descendent of the English language and of poetry in English. It is perhaps the most complex aspect of the poem — the poet does not want to settle for blackness as some sort of noble savagery. His language tells us that a black person can read French theory and find solace in Modernist English poetry all the while feeling the pain and rage that comes from seeing a dead black child on a television; all of it combined being who “we” are or “I” am as a black person.
In the end, Marshall offers an engine for the pursuit of self that can only be the undercurrent of black production — ranging from Beyoncé’s Lemonade, or Greg Osby’s many great yet unknown albums of genius Jazz blackness, or a teacher’s persistence with children — but also a vehicle for any non-black person to think about the blackness of co-citizens and friends. His poem is an epic of strength in love and in numbers, where in despite “a stare into the barrel,” and “repetition,” as he ends the poem, ‘we are 1’ and will remain it.
This week’s New Yorker gives word of two more new new books that I am excited about. Robert Polidori is an architectural photographer by trade. If you look at his photographs, though, you will see that he is also something more. He is gifted in his ability to draw out the stunning colors that lay dormant within his subjects as an astronomer might reveal fantastical nebulae somehow hidden from the naked eye. His last book, Havana, is an exploration of the wilted beauty of a crumbling city (click here for some photos). His new book, Zones of Exclusion: Pripyat and Chernobyl, is a study in the deadlier decay of one of the twentieth century’s greatest disasters.I’ve often thought to myself that Knopf would do well to put out a comprehensive collection of John Updike’s short stories, and it appears as though this will come to pass this fall in the form of The Early Stories, 1953-1975. There are many who have claim to the mantle of best American Short Story writer, and Updike is incontrovertibly among them.
There’s a good reason for me to be sitting in my pjs at my desk at 9 o’clock in the morning on a Thursday, which is this: I am cutting back to 3 days a week at the bookstore. I already mentioned this in one of the comment things, and Aeri and I had an intersting little conversation about it. There are many complicated reasons for me to be phasing myself at out the bookstore. I have many things going on in my life that require more of my time than I have to offer, not to mention the fact that I need more time to write and be creative and figure out what to do with myself. For the various misguided twenty-somethings out there, this must sound familiar. I probably wouldn’t afford myself this luxury of changing jobs if it weren’t for the peanuts they pay me at the book store. When I look at my paycheck, I realize that my time could be better and more economically spent doing something else, even not working, so long as the not working is productive. So here I am in my pjs going slowly broke. No matter how sick of the bookstore I am though, I can’t get around the fact that this job changed my life. It made me realize that I was a book lover who didn’t really know anything about books. Now, after nearly two years I am aware of the full breadth of what is out there, and it is a magnificent thing to be cognizant of. When I told Aeri about this phasing out, she expressed some dismay that I would fall out of the book loop. This is something I have thought about too, but I have come to realize that being aware of books is not contigent on my working at a book store. It is a skill that I have acquired, it is knowledge that I have stowed away. I’d rather step into a different realm of the literary world now that I have this greater awareness of it. So basically I need a new job, and isn’t it annoying that Craigslist has the only online job postings that are worth a damn, and even those are suspect? So if anyone has any tips on job hunting, or better yet any jobs for me let me know. I especially would like to do more freelance writing; I would like to get paid to do research; I would like to tutor kids; I would like to do something literature/publishing related; I would like to do anything interesting that isn’t soul-crushing (Lord knows I have had plenty of those gigs); most of all I’d like to be able to pay my rent. So, thanks for listening guys. More books soon, I promise.
If you need to get your Murakami fix, but can’t stomach the idea of picking up After Dark, here’s your solution.Written in 1980, Pinball, 1973 was Murakmai’s second novel. It was published by Kodansha and has been out of print for several years, although it’s available at Amazon for a whopping $225.The book is part of the “Trilogy of the Rat” (actually four books), which begins with Murakami’s first book, Hear the Wind Sing and includes A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance (probably my favorite of his books). Apparently, Murakami refuses to allow either Hear the Wind Sing or Pinball, 1973 to be published outside of Japan, which is ironic, considering both of them are, in my opinion, far superior to either Sputnik Sweetheart or After Dark. This translation, linked below, along with Hear the Wind Sing, was done by Alfred Birnbaum for Japanese readers trying to learn English.The story is classic Murakami, before that became a bad thing. A rootless man who loves Dostoevsky spends his days looking for a hard to find part for a classic pinball machine. Mysterious twins move into his apartment. There’s a well and a cat. While it’s no masterpiece, it’s a good read for Murakami fans and those looking for a place to get started with his oeuvre.Here’s a link to a PDF of Birnbaum’s translation of Murakami’s Pinball, 1973.Bonus link: Some fan-translated short stories I stumbled on while researching this.Update 9/17: The link to the PDF has been fixed.Update 3/8/09: The link to the PDF has been fixed again!
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]
Slash’s memoir, Slash, became the surprise hard-rock book hit of the year after it received two votes from two Charleses (D’Ambrosio and Bock) in our 2008 Year in Reading roundup. In contrast, the recent Axl Rose biography, W.A.R.: The Unauthorized Biography of William Axl Rose, received none. Slash’s honesty and openness endear him to us – the book literally begins with a bang, with an account of his defibrillator implant going off mid-show – whereas the reports of Axl’s anger and manipulation in W.A.R. make it far easier to identify with the former band members he forced out. Is The Millions yet another outlet that participates, as Axl claims, in the pro-Slash, pro-old Guns media bias? Let’s just say we won’t be granted an interview with Axl anytime soon.Amazingly, twenty years post Appetite for Destruction and fifteen years after the dissolution of the original band, the members have made a resurgence of noise and headlines. Axl breaks his nine-year print-interview silence on recording matters and the possibility of reuniting with Slash, but still thinks everyone’s out to get him, Duff McKagan debuts as Playboy’s new financial analyst, and former drummer Steven Adler’s appetite for self-destruction continues. A related article in this week’s New York Times Magazine remarks on the paradox of Adler’s camera-dodging on “Sober House”: “He was trying to escape reality, and the desire to escape reality is – on ‘Sober House,’ anyway – the height of reality.”