Before I worked at a bookstore, books were just things to be read. I never gave much thought to the big glossy volumes that occupy a lot of shelf space in many book stores. But the world of so-called “coffee table books” is surprisingly varied, going way beyond books of art or photographs of faraway places. With impressive production values – and hefty price tags – these books are closer to works of art than literature. I was reminded of this after an article London Review of Books pointed me to a book called Disruptive Pattern Material: An Encyclopaedia Of Camoflage: Nature, Military, Culture. The heft and glossiness of such a volume, despite – or perhaps because of – its esoteric focus, somehow make it inordinately desirable to me. Taschen, the eccentric European publishing house known for its expensive and eclectic selections, also occasionally puts out books that have this affect on me, like the Cabinet of Natural Curiosities. And I’m a sucker for atlases, the bigger and glossier and more stuffed with maps and diagrams and charts the better, like the National Geographic Atlas of the World. I am especially intrigued by atlases devoted to a narrow topic like the Atlas of Contemporary Architecture.
I am almost done reading a very remarkable book. Actually, it's not really a book, it's seven novellas about one man, a mysterious character by the name of Maqroll the Gaviero. He is too complex to really describe, but I suppose I might try: he is an adventurer first and formost, preferably by sea, but he is not in it for the excitment. His travels are constant because it is his compulsion. He is a lover of the world and ships and beautiful women. He is an excellent judge of character, though he is often drawn into disregarding his own judgements. He encounters many fascinating characters, and we follow as well the Gaviero's companions and trusted friends, Abdul Bashur (Dreamer of Ships) and Ilona Rubenstein (the Nymph of Trieste).The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis is, dare I say it, on par with and even surpasses the work of Borges and Garcia Marquez. These novellas span the globe like no book ever has. Maqroll visits every continent and sniffs out schemes and companions in every port. This Maqroll, he is no vain adventurer, no hero. He is tortured by his restlessness. He is at the same time a most exceptional man, well-read and loyal, courteous and brave when bravery is required. And yet he is so fragile. I worry about Maqroll as he is blown about the globe by the whims of a strange fate. I am almost done with the 7th and final novella. I have almost reached the last of the 700 pages, but I am not ready to say good bye. This Maqroll, he can really get ahold of you. I have read some books, and though I am by no means an expert, I can say that this book will have to be a classic. It is just so good.
I took a peek at the Amazon page for The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis and was surprised to find that the book has vaulted to #533 in their sales rankings (the book previously sported a ranking in the hundred thousands.) Now, I know that Amazon rankings are next to meaningless, but still, it's pretty cool to know that my appearance on Weekend Edition Sunday sent readers looking to pick up the book. I don't think they'll be disappointed.
There is a paperback on my bookshelf that doesn’t exist, but it managed to change my life anyway. I found this book among other homely paperbacks on the ninety-nine cent cart at the Montague Book Mill, a used bookstore in Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley. True to its slogan -- “Books you don’t need in a place you can’t find” -- nothing stocked is guaranteed to be there again, making this book a quintessential one-of-a-kind find. What arrested me first was its size: a little smaller than one of the classic mid-forties Penguin editions, narrow and flexible, ideal for slipping into a purse or pocket. What caught me next was its barefaced plainness. The jacket was entirely white, the cover crinkled from its stint as a coaster. Its title was an italicized Times New Roman second-cousin. It appeared to be a self-published book; inside, the author had written a note in an unassuming small-caps scrawl, wishing a friend the best of luck with his own career. Although I have searched the title and the author more than once, the novel remains nonexistent. Unlike I’d first imagined, this author had no website or author’s platform. Search engines brought up many potential origins of the title (it has a fantasy flair) but an exact match remained elusive. All signs point to the author not having “made it” as we expect authors to ascend in this century’s frenetic flux of multimedia attention. In effect, here lies the only copy; rest in peace. This novel has been on my bookshelf ever since, surrounded by the greats: Dante Alighieri and Leo Tolstoy, Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner. But this book has a special status compared to its neighbors, albeit an infamous one. It is my bad-mood effigy; I turn to this book for an adrenaline shot of self-indulgence whenever I’m in the throes of apathy, bad writing, and rejections. Simply put, the writing of this book is bad. In fact, it’s often laughably bad, an unremarkable and derivative species of the speculative genre. In my more magnanimous moments (or so I delude myself), I think self-righteously, This author -- the nerve! The self-published pretension! As my literary voodoo doll, I believed I could turn to this novel as a concrete specimen of the written word that was -- undeniably -- inferior to my own work. But books do not defer meekly to the morals we have assigned them. A bad book, so-called, has just as much to teach us as a good book. It is often a far better teacher than any work that is uniformly artful, where excellence disguises the nuts and bolts of craft. A bad book also teaches us something a better book cannot: humility. Not the humility of resignation -- that of admitting that we will never be very good at what we do, no matter how earnestly we try. Such humility can easily morph into the indulgent self-flagellation that either demands the commiseration of friends or brings our vocation to a standstill, where thereafter we are those people who petulantly claim we “could have been somebody.” Rather, it’s the humility of acknowledging that time and effort lead to changes in our abilities as writers. Instead of ascribing a moralistic verdict of good or bad, less or more, we humbly acknowledge that nothing more could be asked of us than what our creations can attest to at the time. The great works of literature are all relatively alike in their excellence. Their perfection is consummate, constantly out of reach. We become comfortable saying, amused and defeated, “I’m no Shakespeare,” as if that is that. But every bad specimen of writing is lit up by the harsh fluorescent lighting of reality. Each pockmark, scar, and slip-up is visible; we have our favorites to trot out in conversation like ghouls in chains. Moreover, what makes for a bad book is a constantly shifting parameter. Is a book bad if it is merely written poorly? Is a book bad if it’s successful with the masses? (Fifty Shades of Grey, for instance, being one of those “bad” novels that is known -- if not read -- by everyone.) But my own unique bad book quickly transformed from a voodoo doll to a mirror. This person’s writing is cheap and unmarketable, I start to think -- and before I finish the thought: So was your writing a year ago. A week ago. Yesterday. Bad books remind us of our failings and that such failings are always closer to us than we imagine. As writers, we have to be our own best advocate; we have to invest in the underdog. And by the same token, we must be our first critic, our arch nemesis. Anne Lamott posits in Bird by Bird that radio station KFKD ("K-Fucked") is playing in our heads each time we write, with “the endless stream of self-aggrandizement” blasting in the speaker of our right ear, while “out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing.” We can tune these out but not turn them off. Similarly, Orson Scott Card contends in How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, “Writers have to simultaneously believe the following two things: 1. The story I am now working on is the greatest work of genius ever written in English. 2. The story I am now working on is worthless drivel.” The bad book on my shelf reminds me that I will contend with both ideologies at any given moment, and at any given moment they are true. We are destined to be continuously judged and ranked on a scale of lesser to better in our work. In reality, art is a highly competitive realm with no real rules. By turns, we will be winning in the arena, and we will be losing. And KFKD is always playing in the background, whichever speaker is blaring louder at this moment. And thus the most marvelous lesson of the nonexistent book on my shelf: that of artlessness. We do not write good books or bad books. We are all teachers, capable of leaving a lesson behind.
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It's becoming a tradition of sorts, the Nobel jury gives the Prize to an author virtually unknown in the United States, and newspaper columnists grumble while small and university presses bask in a moment of publishing glory. Nobody outside a few square miles in New York cares that this year's Pulitzer or Booker winner was put out by Random House or HarperCollins, but even to the casual observer of the literary scene, there's something refreshing (and, for some, aggravating) about seeing yet another Nobel winner with only the faintest, most haphazard publishing footprint. The Nobel Prize, probably half the time, shines a huge spotlight some pretty obscure books. For small and university presses, the Prize is a rare moment of popular notice. Daniel E. Pritchard who works for David R. Godine, Publisher in Boston wrote as much a year ago reacting to J.M.G. Le Clézio's Nobel win, "Nobel Prizes are usually the playground for big boys. They were noticeably absent from this one, leaving all the fame and street-cred for small independents." Godine published Le Clézio's The Prospector. The University of Nebraska Press also published Le Clézio, with two books in print when the Nobel was announced last year: The Round and Other Cold Hard Facts and Onitsha. According to the press' publicity manager Cara Pesek, Nebraska sold just "a handful" of copies of both titles in 2007, but "since the prize was announced last year, those two titles have accounted for more than $100,000 in incremental sales." With Herta Müller's win, Nebraska has now struck Nobel gold two years in a row. Pesek said that the day after the Nobel was announced, the press had 3,000 backorders for Müller's book Nadirs. The director of University of Nebraska Press, Donna Shear, tempered the excitement somewhat, saying that the Nobel turns a book into "a steady backlist seller" as it finds its way onto University reading lists. But she added that a side-effect of the Nobel jury's idiosyncrasies is that the Prize becomes "a validation of the efforts of University presses." The Euro-centric Nobel also injects some commercial viability into the typically limited world of literature in translation. After winning the Nobel in 2002, Hungarian writer Imre Kertész went from university presses to Knopf and Vintage. Meanwhile, plans are already underway to bring Müller to a wider audience. Shear said Nebraska put in a bid for Müller's latest, Atemschaukel, recently shortlisted for the German Book Prize, but it's expected that the book will land with one of the big publishing houses. We expect our book prizes to confirm that a book or author's commercial success and positive reviews are well-deserved. Sometimes the Nobel plays this role - a validator of critical opinion - but, for the American audience, it often does something different. And this is where the grumbling comes in. We don't like to be told that an author we've never heard of is one of the greatest ever. But in cases like Müller and Kertész and Le Clézio, the Nobel serves as a reminder that in certain corners of the publishing industry, there are presses shepherding the work of these writers into print and keeping it available until such time as the rest of us are able to take notice.
Dubliners and James Joyce fans are celebrating Bloomsday in the town that Leopold Bloom wandered through on that epic day exactly 100 years ago. Revelers, among other things, ate "Gorgonzola sandwiches and sipped Burgundy wine in the sunshine in honour of the lunch enjoyed by the novel's hero Leopold Bloom, midway through his momentous day." The novel of course is Ulysses. and you can read more about this remarkable literary festival here.Ray Charles died last weekend. He made such soulful and happy music. Driving from New York to DC, we encountered several radio stations playing his music, some of them continuously, side after side of classic records. Now the tributes are over, and the radio stations are back to their regular rotations, so I was annoyed when I realized that I left my fantastic 5 cd set in storage in LA.Spencer Reece and his book The Clerk's Tale got a sizeable write up on the front page of the Washington Post Sunday Style section. Not bad for poetry.BookspottingHow powerful is Oprah? I spotted Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina mixed in with a couple of romance novels in the rest stops along the New Jersey Turnpike. Also spotted: On the Washington DC subway: The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman, Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz, and The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom; and in the back seat of my little brother's car: Our Posthuman Future by Francis FukuyamaFinally, check out the trilogy of Alice Munroe stories in the New Yorker fiction issue. It's worth a look if only to read the stories that the New Yorker deemed worthy of such prominent placement. You'll have to pick up the magazine to read all three. Only the first story is online.
It's been a while since I've mentioned Alvaro Mutis here. His book, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, is one of my all-time favorites. Unfortunately, though Mutis deserves to be counted among the greats of Latin American literature, aside from Maqroll, not much of his work is available in English, which is why I was excited to see that he's written the forward to a new book that sounds interesting in its own right. The Adventures of a Cello follows the path of a cello known as the Piatti that was made by Antonio Stradivari in 1720. According to the book description:Over the next three centuries of its life, the Piatti cello left its birthplace of Cremona, Italy, and resided in Spain, Ireland, England, Italy, Germany, and the United States. The Piatti filled sacred spaces, such as the Santa Cueva de Cadiz, with its incomparable voice. It also spent time in more profane places, including New York City bars, where it served as a guarantee for unpaid liquor tabs. The Piatti narrowly escaped Nazi Germany in 1935 and was once even left lying in the street all night.Since 1978, the Piatti has been owned by Carlos Prieto, the author of this book and friend of Alvaro Mutis.
Though her book may have more in common with the works of Jane Austen or Claire Messud, her satire is its own form of ostraneniye, as it successfully points out that the essential strangeness of what are now some of the most common elements of American life.