You may have heard about this. In October an 8 DVD set containing digital images of every page of the 4,109 issues of the New Yorker from February 1925 to February 2005 will hit stores (retailing for $100 – but cheaper at Amazon and other discounters). As a huge fan of the New Yorker, my eyeballs nearly popped out of my head when I first saw the NY Times story about this, but I’m trying to restrain myself. As some of you know, I’m extremely compulsive about the New Yorker, in fact it may be the only compulsion I have. I read he magazine cover to cover every week, and if my issue is late in arriving I’ve been known to panic. My fear is that once I got my hands on this set, I would be compelled to consume every word of it at the expense of school and work and everything else, possibly even eating and sleeping. I’m may have to put myself into forced hibernation starting in October in order to keep those DVDs from falling in to my hands. Also, normally I would find the subtitle of this collection – “Eighty Years of the Nation’s Greatest Magazine” – to be somewhat presumptuous, but I happen to agree with it.
Millions contributor Kevin has an incisive review of Jon Meacham’s popular new biography American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House in the New York Observer:It’s during the White House years that Mr. Meacham’s story takes hold. We see Andrew Jackson making the hard trip east from Tennessee to Washington where the political permanent class waits in judgment, wary of Jackson’s frontier background and fearful of the source of his power. Jackson’s landslide victory in 1828 marked the first time that a president was elevated entirely on the strength of popular support, and the Founders’ low regard for the common intelligence still percolated through Washington.
First, fiction. It almost goes without saying that people are still reading The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem, but last week I noticed some other new fiction making inroads among the reading public. Mailman the fourth novel by J. Robert Lennon takes its title from the occupation of the main character, Albert Lippencott, “a loner who reads the mail before delivering it.” Ever since I read Thomas Pynchon’s paranoiac masterpiece, The Crying of Lot 49, I’ve thought that there is a wealth of material that might be mined from the machinations of the Postal Service. When you look at it in a certain way, mail is a pretty crazy thing; billions of pieces of paper crisscrossing one another invisibly from one end of the world to the other and so many stories in those letters. Also proving popular, due at least in part to impeccable reviews, is The Known World by Edward P. Jones. And lastly, lots of people are looking to read Charles Baxter’s latest, Saul and Patsy. Like his previous novels, Baxter’s latest is thoughtful, reflective and “quietly triumphant.” Several of my trusted fellow readers have singled out Saul and Patsy as a book they are dying to read.
I’m going to Buffalo for a wedding this weekend, so you may not hear from me for a couple of days. But if you are in dire need of something to read in the intervening time, allow me to make a suggestion, or two. Most people have read one or two books by Kurt Vonnegut, and most people enjoy them. Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions, and Cat’s Cradle are probably the most widely read Vonnegut books. Most folks enjoy those books, and then never read any Vonnegut again. This is a big mistake! There are number of other amazing Vonnegut books, so allow me to present to you the best of the rest (along with brief descriptions): The Sirens of Titan (“The richest and most depraved man on Earth takes a wild space journey to distant worlds, learning about the purpose of human life along the way.”); Galapagos (“A small group of apocalypse survivors stranded on the Galapagos Islands are about to become the progenitors of a brave new human race.”); Hocus Pocus (“A small, exclusive college in upstate New York is nestled along the frozen shores of Lake Mohiga… and directly across from a maximum-security prison. The two institutions manage to coexist peacefully, until 10,000 prisoners break out and head directly for the college.”); Welcome to the Monkey House (“This collection of Vonnegut’s short masterpieces share his audacious sense of humor and extraordinary creative vision.”); and finally God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (“Eliot Rosewater, drunk, volunteer fireman, and president of the fabulously rich Rosewater foundation, is about to attempt a noble experiment with human nature… with a little help from writer Kilgore Trout.”)
The summer, that great season of reading, is now on the wane. And as the autumn swings into view, you might be looking for a book to prolong the escapism of the season or perhaps to provide you with some comfort as the cooler months settle in. August is not traditionally a great month for new books. It’s too late for “summer reads” and too early yet for the holiday retail push. Still, this August there will be several books that will be worth a look. It’s an eclectic and intriguing list, and I’ll start with the title that I am most looking forward to. Harbor is a novel about an Algerian immigrant named Aziz who has stowed away in a tanker’s hold for 52 days in order to illegally enter the United States. Upon his arrival, however, there isn’t much stopping him from becoming an unwitting participant in the war on terror. The book was written by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Lorraine Adams. For those who enjoy short stories, check out a new collection by young writer named Courtney Eldridge. Unkempt consists of seven stories as well as a novella entitled “The Former World Record Holder Settles Down” in which the “world record” refers to the now happily married title character’s past life as a porn star. The Wasp Eater, a debut novel by William Lychack, sounds especially intriguing. The book is set in New England in 1979 and is about a nine-year-old boy who is caught between his estranged parents. It is, I’m told, beautifully written, and both wrenching and uplifting. For those looking for a more light-hearted book there’s another debut effort: An Evening of Long Goodbyes by Paul Murray. The lead character, Charles Hythloday, is a loveable drunkard from an eccentric family, and his life of leisure is about to be severely curtailed by his feisty sister and the return of his long lost mother. This one is being described as a hilarious update on classic British humor and it was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award no less. Also sure to tickle your funny bone is Eating Crow by Jay Rayner about a restaurant reviewer named Marc Basset whose cruel review drives a chef to suicide. Basset is compelled to make an apology, and, after discover the palliative effects of such an act, decides to make a career of it, eventually becoming Chief Apologist for the United Nations. Viciously funny, I’m told. Two better-known authors will be releasing books in August as well. Arthur Phillips will release The Egyptologist, which is supposed to be even better than his big selling debut Prague. Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk has a new book out as well, Snow. Pamuk’s previous book, My Name is Red, was a favorite among many readers, but this new offering is supposed to be dense and challenging. Still, some believe that a dense and challenging book is the best way to counteract a summer’s worth of fluffy beach reading.Harbor by Lorraine Adams — excerptUnkempt by Courtney Eldridge — short storyThe Wasp Eater by William Lychack — interviewAn Evening of Long Goodbyes by Paul Murray — excerptEating Crow by Jay Rayner — excerpt, The Apology LogThe Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips — excerptSnow by Orhan Pamuk — excerpt
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.