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.
Some things I’ve noticed today:This review of a new biography of one the founding fathers of fantasy and science fiction, H. P. Lovecraft. What’s interesting about this bio is that it is done in the form of a graphic novel, a fitting medium in which to describe the life of a visionary. Lovecraft was almost a movie before it was adapted by Keith Giffen from a script by Hans Rodinoff and illustrated by Enrique Breccia.Great capsule reviews at the Christian Science Monitor of the nominees for National Book Critics Circle awards in the criticism category, “far and away the most intimidating [category].” The nominees are Gritos by Dagoberto Gilb, Songbook by Nick Hornby, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King, River of Shadows by Rebecca Solnit, and Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag. The winners are announced on March 4th in New York.And a group reads all of Shakespeare in one day, which reminded me of this awesome big ticket item.
One of the guests on Fresh Air today was former cop named Edward Conlon, a Harvard grad and fourth generation NYPD officer who used to pen an anonymous column in the New Yorker. Now he has a new book called Blue Blood in which he recounts his life as a beat cop. It looks to be a literary take on macabre subject matter. Speaking of which, Ian McEwan, most recently the author of Atonement, a book adored by both readers and critics, has revealed some details about his forthcoming book. According to this Reuters story, it appears as though McEwan will return to the more visceral subject matter of his earlier novels with a book that centers on the life of a brain surgeon. He will finish it “within months.” This new McEwan book will almost certainly be reviewed by the New York Times Book Review, where, after much skeptical anticipation, Sam Tanenhaus has been appointed as editor. As beatrice.com pointed out yesterday, some in the literary world are skipping the grace period and sticking with the skepticism, cf. David Kipen’s San Francisco Chronicle piece. This changing of the guard, you may remember, was a topic a few months back here at The Millions.
NY-based readers are invited to “Step Inside the Book” at a reading/party I’m doing this Friday with Alex Rose (The Musical Illusionist) and Alex Itin (Orson Whales). Alex will be working his narrative/surroundsound magic, Other Alex will be screening his multimedia books, and I’ll be showing art and reading fiction from A Field Guide to the North American Family. Drinks are on the house, I’m told, so if you’re free, stop by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Swing Space, at 125 Maiden Lane, between 7 and 9 p.m. We now return to our regularly scheduled programming…
I have been living in a room in a house perched on a cliff that overlooks the Oregon coast for almost a month. A window with an ocean view spans the width of my desk, but when I sit down to write, I often find myself doing anything but that. I stare at the sea and the rolling clouds, or follow the beachcombers, the joggers, the surfers, and the fishing vessels further out with the binoculars my aunt uses to spot whales in the winter. The setting is striking to the point of distraction for this city dweller accustomed to skylines punctuated by skyscrapers, to glimpses of rivers from the Manhattan Bridge, to lawns circumscribed by park walls.
In Newport, Oregon, nature dominates. The only depiction of this town I’ve encountered beyond a travel guide is in Jon Raymond’s story “The Coast” from his collection, Livability. Raymond’s eye is attuned to the landscape of the Pacific Northwest. In his story, he describes the coastline in quadrants and colors as if he’s painting: “The wind was blustery and the sky was all over the place–dark in one quadrant and pale blue in another, with splashes of magenta, orange, and streaks of hot pink in the lower regions. The billowing cumulus clouds gliding over the ocean were like slow-moving buildings of water and air. I skirted the edge of the tide, avoiding heaps of bullwhip kelp and seagull carcasses and blobs of broken jellyfish.” The sea, the wind, and labile sky capture the tableau precisely.
The first few days after I arrived, I found myself spouting dumbfounded phrases such as, “The clouds! The mountains! Like a painting!” as if I were severely nature deprived. I’m sure I sounded like the equivalent of a yokel visiting the city, jaw dropping at the sight of yellow taxi-filled roads and towering buildings–just like the movies! I am smitten with the sea lions, the sand dunes, the washed up bivalves and cracked crab shells that litter the beach. The open skies have cleared the smog in my mind. The landscape works its way into my stories and it infuses my essays (as you can see).
It’s difficult not to notice the differences here, and not respond to the surroundings. When I was at the local library, a man found a pocket knife on the floor and turned it in to the lost and found. Hitchhikers walk backward along the coastal highway, carrying sleeping bags nestled atop oversize backpacks. More abundant and less haggard than the east coast variety, they make me think of ranch hand and expert hitchhiker Sissy Hankshaw and her magnificent thumbs, straight out of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. The fluorescent red and green sea anemones in the tide pools mimic the Day-Glo hues made popular by the Merry Pranksters, so it’s fitting that head Prankster Ken Kesey grew up in Oregon, just outside of Eugene.
I took up with Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test out of curiosity about Kesey, his writing, and his influence on the sixties West Coast acid scene. Wolfe emphasizes Kesey’s tremendous physicality and soft country drawl, which owe much to his upbringing in Oregon’s outdoors. Kesey’s father “had started him and his younger brother … shooting and fishing and swimming as early as they could in any way manage it, also boxing, running, wrestling, plunging down the rapids of the Williamette and the McKenzie Rivers, on inner-tube rafts, with lots of rocks and water and sartin’ death foamin’ down below.” He came off as a country boy, but when he moved to San Francisco as a Stegner fellow, his physical prowess and charisma made him popular with the bohemian literary set.
The Northwestern terrain also infused Kesey’s fiction. His second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, is set in a logging town near the Oregon coast where a family of loggers break from the unionized strikers by supplying lumber to a local mill. Kesey researched the book while living in Florence, a coastal town just south of Newport. He lived the logging life, in a way. By day he rode in the pick-up trucks that bussed loggers to and from their camps and by night he hung out at the loggers’ watering holes. The novel opens already anchored in the landscape, the pages suffused by passages describing the contours of the land: “ Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range … come look: the hysterical crashing of tributaries as they merge into the Wakonda Auga River … ”
After Kesey wrote the novel, his artistic focus shifted from writing to life. He devoted himself to living in the moment, to making experimental movies and bringing fantasies to life, to reaching higher states of awareness tripping on LSD. “I’d rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph,” was Kesey’s reason for quitting writing. Wolfe adds, “He talked about something called the Acid Test and forms of expression in which there would be no separation between himself and the audience. It would be all one experience, with all the senses opened wide, words music, lights, sounds, touch–lightning–” Even Kesey’s metaphors reference the outdoors–acting as a conduit for electricity rather than recording the earth’s movements with ink.
A Harvard undergrad on the staff of the campus literary magazine in 1970 spoke to The New York Times about her extracurricular reading habits and the irresistible appeal of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. She said, “Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Air [sic] Acid Test really gets to some of us. I had to stop reading it half way through because I never would have gotten my work done. I wanted to freak out on acid, and like Ken Kesey take a bus onto the road and just live!”
How does one get work done when it becomes obvious there are fantasies to enact, road trips to take, rules to flout? How does one write when nature, and life, beckon from beyond the window? Put the book down. Close the blinds. Or don’t. There’s a delicate balance to strike. Even Kesey, magnificent lightening rod that he was, wrote more books after the acid tests ended. And without Tom Wolfe’s assemblage of interviews and documentation of the Pranskters’ escapades in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, I would know far less about Kesey, his medium, and his life. I know I will soon pack my bags and go home. But I am lucky to have witnessed the landscape, and to know there is the possibility of return.
[Image credit: Anne Yoder]
February 23rd marks the 20th anniversary of the original publication of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and on that date, his publisher Little, Brown is putting out a new edition of the now classic novel with a new introduction by Tom Bissell. To recognize, as Little, Brown put it, ” the deep way that so many readers have connected with the book over the last twenty years,” the publisher held a contest allowing fans to submit their designs for the new cover.
The winner, we can reveal, is Ohio-based designer Joe Walsh, who has dispensed with the sky imagery that has adorned all prior U.S. editions of Infinite Jest. Walsh’s cover is spare and employs symbolic imagery with a playful undertone. After seeing the cover, we reached out to Michael Pietsch, CEO of Little, Brown parent Hachette Book Group, and David Foster Wallace’s editor, to get his thoughts.
The Millions: Beyond the commercial considerations, why is now the right moment to issue a new edition of Infinite Jest and what does the book have to say to today’s readers?
Michael Pietsch: I’m astonished that ten years have passed since our 10th anniversary edition with a foreword by Dave Eggers. It’s the publisher’s job to find ways to keep books fresh, and an anniversary like this seemed an unmissable occasion to highlight how alive the book still is. Infinite Jest is embraced and discussed by ever larger numbers of readers with each passing year. This new edition is a celebration of that vitality and an invitation to those who haven’t yet turned the first page.
The book’s main ideas—that too much easy pleasure may poison the soul, that we’re awash in an ocean of pain, and that truly knowing another person is the hardest and most worthwhile work in the world—are truer now than they’ve ever been. Tom Bissell’s brilliant new Foreword calls attention to this far better than I can.
TM: Why did Little, Brown decide to go with a fan-designed cover and what would David have made of that decision?
MP: The internet has made it possible to see the massive amount of creative response readers have to Infinite Jest. I’d seen a lot of art connected to the book online, and it seemed that allowing readers who have loved it to submit cover designs for the anniversary edition was a way of honoring and highlighting all that creativity.
I never presume to comment on what David would have made of this or any other aspect of our work. The David Foster Wallace Literary Trust wholeheartedly supported the idea of inviting fans to submit cover art.
MP: David sometimes made suggestions for cover art. For Infinite Jest he proposed using a photo of a giant modern sculpture made of industrial trash—an interesting idea, but one that our creative director felt was too subtle and detailed to work as a cover image. The cover image for the paperback of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is one he suggested, and that I’ve always loved.
Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote has been on my reading list for a long time. Upon Max Magee’s suggestion I picked up the recent translation by Edith Grossman sometime in January 2004. It took me a good 11 months to work up the appetite, desire and guts to indulge in this phenomenal piece of writing. Described by many as the beginning of modern novel, Don Quixote relates a crazed Alonso Quixano’s sallies from his native La Mancha to various provinces of Spain. Beyond the usual adventures of the windmills, freeing of the slaves, and fair Dulcinea – all of which are a part of every child’s introduction to fairy tales and literature – lies the second part of the novel. Cervantes published two Don Quixote novels, and whereas the first one colors our imaginations as children, the Part II – published ten years after Part I, in 1615 – brings forth Cervantes as a witty author who employs Don Quixote’s insanity to illustrate the genius of his loyal servant Sanco Panza; the trivial entertainments of the Duke and the Duchess, whose cunning knowledge of the first novel, which is referred to numerous times in Part II, provide for the creative and chivalric plots that the nobles employ to ridicule Don Quixote; and a grand finale of sobriety that settles for once and all the history of Don Quixote. Cervantes ends the illustrious misadventures of Don Quixote to prevent new issues of fake Don Quixote novels from appearing. Cervantes’ answer to authors who attempted to profit on the first Don Quixote’s success, one Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda in particular, is derisive and rash – bordering on self flattery through his diatribe on other authors. Don Quixote opened a new window in my mind with its accessible language – thanks mostly to Grossman’s spectacular translation – and cunning use of word plays, romantic approach to the bygone days of knight errantry, mockery of social dogmas, integration of tangent plots – oh yes, you read at least 3 unrelated short stories in the novel – and eternally modern style. The novel’s mix of fantasy and reflections on society definitely place it in the pile of books the are must re-reads, albeit not in the short term – it will certainly take me a while to put aside another chunk of time for the second serving.I was distracted at times from reading Don Quixote by Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Other Writings. Matt Clare, a close friend and literary fiend, was kind enough to present me with this magnificent work that captures a unique time period in British society. Clare’s inscription on the cover reads “no Baron [on the Trees, by Italo Calvino, which I had presented to him earlier] to be sure, [but] the Lord may still have something to teach us.” Indeed, Lord Henry Wotton quickly became a new idol of mine, decadent and lost, with no particular interest in anything that the London high society of the 1880s held dear, nor any high aspirations that provided for the chatter at tea parties. The Jekyll and Hyde nature of The Picture of Dorian Gray presents vain struggles and trivial issues in an intentionally serious tone, which mocks the core of British culture at the time. There is much to be said about the twists and turns of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which keep the reader on his toes and makes the story an amazing, insightful and philosophical page turner. What follows in the 4 plays and final ballad also collected under the same volume (Lady Windermere’s Fan, Salome, An Ideal Husband, The Importance of Being Ernest, and The Ballad of Reading Gaol) is not as intense as the opener, but nevertheless very entertaining and universal. Oscar Wilde’s only drawback is the limited nature of his subjects, but he does a phenomenal job in conveying the stuck up nature of the crowd that he once was a part of.Related: Max’s thoughts on Don Quixote
Most fiction is about people breaking up, right? So why not collect a bunch of fiction together and call it what it is.Two years ago Philadelphia based writer Meredith Broussard decided to do just this. She put together an anthology of stories about relationships gone wrong: 26 of them – arranged alphabetically – by various female authors. The result was The Dictionary of Failed Relationships, which includes stories by Heidi Julavits, Anna Maxted, Thisbe Nissen and Jennifer Weiner. Now Broussard is back with a follow up anthology from the men’s point of view – again, 26 stories about love troubles arranged alphabetically – called The Encyclopedia of Exes with stories by, among others, Adam Langer, Jonathan Lethem, Jonathan Ames, Gary Shteyngart and Neal Pollack. Tou can find out more about both books at failedrelationships.com.