I got a neat book in the mail the other day out of the blue. It’s a smartly packaged collection of drawings by an artist named Don Nace. The book is called Drawn Out. Nace’s strokes are like dark scratches on the page, and at first glance the drawings seemed full of tiresome, and possibly adolescent, angst. But after only a few pages I found myself quite mesmerized – drawn in, as it were – by the deceptive simplicity, the deep emotion and dark humor of the drawings. Thanks to a pointer from Ron, I see that Nace has a website where he posts a new drawing nearly every day. It’s worth checking out.
I met several Chicago natives while I was there last weekend, and as we discussed the city’s various merits and drawbacks, the subject of bookstores came up. The Chicago natives, being aspiring reporters, astutely asked me what I look for in a “good” bookstore, and why a chain store is unlikely to bear this mantle.When it comes to hanging out, it’s hard to beat the chains. Your nearest Barnes and Noble probably has dozens of plush chairs and couches where you can sit for as long as you want. The stores are vast wide open spaces with a controlled climate and a bit of piped in music wafting just overhead. The shopper can make a day of it, grabbing a snack and a coffee from the cafe and lounging through the uncrowded weekday afternoon. Stay as long as you want, they won’t tell you to leave until they’re closing down for the night. If you want to kill an afternoon, it’s hard to beat Barnes and Noble, likewise if you need to pick up a specific title, but don’t expect to walk away with anything unexpected from these forays. Don’t plan for a literary discovery.And therein lies the problem with the chains, they are designed not to surprise you. Their displays will, as decreed from the home office, contain a calculated mix of bestsellers assembled from the major lists. The information that they disseminate is predetermined by prevailing tastes; they are not, themselves, tastemakers. And yet, if there is any more important generator of tastes, trends, and shared knowledge in the commercial world than the bookstore, then I don’t know about it. Nonetheless, there are very few bookstores that serve this purpose. And that, precisely, is what I am looking for.To my mind, a good bookstore will have on display the “important” books not just the bestselling books, though there will always be bestsellers among those important books. For example, The Da Vinci Code is important because it is a cultural phenomenon, but not simply because it sits at number one on the Times bestsellers. There are all sorts of reasons why a book can be important. The idea is that one should be able to walk into the bookstore and be able to grasp, based upon which books are on display and based upon conversations with staff and fellow customers, what matters at that moment both in the wider world and in the neighborhood, from Presidential exposes to burgeoning local talent. At a good bookstore you can place your confidence in the people who run the place.At Barnes and Noble you can get any book you want if you can find it in the vast fluorescent retail gymnasium, but at a good indie, the kindly book clerk will take his favorite book off the shelf and hand it to you, as if a gift. Most cities of any size have at least one of these good bookstores, and thanks to some recommendations that I have already received, I’m confident that I’ll find what I’m looking for in Chicago.
The big sellers around my neck of the woods this week were: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown was the big seller in hardcover fiction. This book is no big surpise as it has already taken the New York Times bestseller list by storm. This looks like a pretty exciting read, definitely one for the summer. It’s got a real Indiana Jones vibe to it, full of puzzles and unravelling the mysteries of the past, in this case the source material is the Mona Lisa. In hardcover non-fiction there’s Reefer Madness by Eric Schlosser, who wrote the book that blew the lid off McDonalds and the rest of the burger slingers: Fast Food Nation. Now, I found Fast Food Nation to be a bit preachy and I felt that sometimes he went over the top trying to get his point across, but at the same time I was impressed by his feats of investigative journalism. So when I first heard about Reefer Madness, ostensibly an expose on the illegal drug industry, I was looking forward to reading it. The reviews I have read have tempered my enthusiasm, however. Michiko Kakutani wasn’t very impressed, and I was especially disappointed to find that the book consists of three distinct essays cobbled together to represent a discussion of “the underground economy,” in this case pornography, the plight of illegal migrant workers, and the domestic marijuana industry. After the book came out, I realized that I had already read most of the section on pornography when it appeared in the New Yorker a few months ago. I hadn’t really been that into it at the time. So, unfortunately, it seems like Schlosser, instead of attacking a new subject with the zeal he displayed in his attack on fast food, has thrown together a follow up and slapped a catchy title on it, knowing that his name will sell the book. For now, at least, it seems to be working. In the realm of paperback fiction, Life of Pi by Yann Martel and The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis were the big sellers. I have already talked about both of these books, but it is good to see more and more people coming around to old Maqroll the Gaviero.My trip to EuropeNext week, I am travelling to Barcelona and then to Ireland. I have some serious airplane time ahead of me so I am packing several books. I had a thought that it might be a fun idea to read a novel that takes place in Barcelona while flying over there. I did a little research and found myself an intriguing little book: The Lonely Hearts Club by Raul Nunez. Apparently it is about a lonely man in Barcelona, who joins “a lonely hearts club” to alleviate his solitude. Instead, it throws him into contact with the most eccentric characters in an eccentric city. Sounds like fun.
I am pleased to report that Tin House Books will soon be publishing a long-awaited volume of Zak Smith’s Gravity’s Rainbow Illustrated. The book features one illustration for every page of the Penguin edition of the Thomas Pynchon novel – a total of 760 allusive, elusive images. Release is scheduled for November 28. Gravity’s Rainbow Illustrated will not, of course, feature the text of the novel on facing pages, but should fit neatly on bookshelves beside the dog-eared paperbacks of junior Slothrops everywhere. A limited-edition, signed hardcover will likely appear as part of a larger print run, to be distributed well and widely. Steve Erickson pens the introduction.Serendipitously for Pynchoniacs (Pynchofiles? Pynchaholics?), Pynchon himself is also supposed to release a book that month: the sprawling, 960-page (?) Against the Day – as Ed reported back in June.I know little about the Pynchon book… having followed Pynchon rumors for a while back in the 90s, I’ve decided to not allow myself to get excited about the novel until it’s in my hands. But a book of Zak Smith’s illustrations is something I’ve been longing for ever since the 2004 Whitney Biennial, where I first saw them mounted. All 760 of them, on one wall. Even before I knew what they were, the meticulous draftsmanship and vivid colors and narrative urge of the illustrations pulled me across the gallery like a tractor beam. Or like Disney World beckoning to a child initiate… a kind of how-long-will-it-take-to-experience-all-of-this effect. I think I only had time to look at like 30 of the images. Then I read the little plaque – Gravity’s rainbow – and thought… I want to take this home with me. I want to read these pictures, over and over. I looked in vain for a print version in the gift-shop, and then on line. I even resorted to clipping the handful of illustrations that ran in Bookforum’s Pynchon tribute last year and wedging them into the pages of my Gravity’s Rainbow. So I was pretty excited to learn at a reading last night by the poet Alex Lemon (whose book Mosquito is also published by Tin House) that the complete project would be published right in time for my birthday.Which presents a conundrum: do I then plunge back into Gravity’s Rainbow again, or do I save my attention for Against the Day? Is it sane, or even possible, to read 1,720 pages of Pynchon consecutively? Wait… did I say I wasn’t allowed to get excited?[Note from Max: Garth, whose musings have appeared at The Millions from time to time, has joined us as a contributor – his bio will appear with the others shortly. This is his first post in that capacity.]
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.
HarperCollins, which has been more and more active in many facets of the online world, is rolling out a “virtual book tour” with the BlogHer Advertising Network and Community. With hundreds of blogs in the network, BlogHer represents an ample crop of writers and readers for HarperCollins, which is spurred on by BlogHer’s data that among women who read blogs in the network “32 percent spent at least $100 purchasing books online in the past six months.” The idea is that HarperCollins will make review copies of several books available for bloggers in the network to read and review “and participate in book title discussions on their own blogs and on BlogHer.org.”It all seems like a perfectly reasonable plan to build an Oprah-like grass roots phenomenon, but I have two reservations. First, Oprah doesn’t have a special arrangement with any specific publisher, and while there is likely some corporate horse-trading behind the scenes when she makes her picks, at least we know she isn’t limited to only talking about selections from a small subset of all the books out there. Secondly, BlogHer operates an ad network. From the press release, it doesn’t appear as though HarperCollins will be buying ads through the network, but if that does happen, then this initiative will have crossed a line. Obviously, I have no problem with advertising on blogs and/or getting review copies from publishers, but advertising shouldn’t be explicitly tied to an initiative like this.Update: Some of the concerns I raised have been addressed in a followup post.