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.
Gogol’s The Overcoat and Flaubert’s A Simple Heart have in common narrators who are, at least initially, satisfied with what I think many would consider very meager lives. They are both poor, single, friendless, both workers whose work (a clerk who copies documents in a Russian government office, and a maid of all work in a French bourgeois household) does not seem particularly meaningful or interesting. And yet they are both content. Deeply content: “After working to his heart’s content, he would go to bed, smiling at the thought of the next day and wondering what God would send him to copy. So flowed on the peaceful life of a man who knew how to be content with his fate.” This is Gogol describing his hero, but the description easily applies to Flaubert’s Felicité.Teaching these stories this week, I was not surprised exactly, but bemused, by the various shades of contempt my students showed toward these characters’ lives – By and large, they found Akaky and Felicité sad, pathetic, depressing. These brightest of the bright seemed to view with horror the notion of being satisfied with so little, with such colorless, pleasureless lives. And who can blame them, when their own lives have already delivered so much more?Hobbes wrote, “For as to have no desire, is to be Dead.” And I can see that the sort of lean, desire-less lives that Flaubert and Gogol’s heroes live are a sort of death-in-life. But I also envy their contentment. Contentment – the state of having all you want – is so rare. The peacefulness of such a state seems incomprehensible to me and somewhat otherworldly. It also seems that the possession of such a state erases, for the possessor at least, what appears from the outside to be small and sad life. (“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so,” as Hamlet tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.)A final note on these questions, in the form of an anecdote: Diogenes of Sinope, a Greek philosopher who lived by choice as a beggar and rejected all concepts of property, manners, and social and political organization, was visited one day by Alexander the Great. Diogenes was sunning himself on a hillside as Alexander approached and when Alexander asked if there was anything he could offer the philosopher, Diogenes replied: “Stand out of my sunlight.” According to Plutarch, Alexander then declared: “If I was not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.”
I caught a few minutes of Fresh Air on NPR while I was out running a quick errand today. Terri Gross was interviewing David Denby, the New Yorker film critic who has a new book out. The book is called American Sucker and it is a memoir of the boom years. In 2000 Denby and his wife split, and he decided that he wanted to keep the Upper West Side apartment that had been their home for many years. In order to do this, Denby hatched a plan to buy out his wife’s share of the apartment. Lacking the funds to make the apartment his and cast adrift by the collapse of his marriage, Denby threw himself wholeheartedly into the mania of the stock market boom with the hopes that he, like so many others seemed to be doing, could hit it big. It would be the solution to all of his problems. A sort of addiction to his quest set in and American Sucker was the result. Today, Terri Gross, in her way, was trying to get him to relate his experience to some classic gambling films, Denby being a film critic and all. Denby, however, begged off and mentioned two interesting books that he feels are most analogous to the way he felt during his ordeal. Dostoevsky’s The Gambler and a somewhat forgotten Victorian classic by Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now, to Denby’s mind, best portray a sense of monetary desperation in the midst of a boom. I’m hoping that over the next few years there will be more books that look at the boom of the late nineties through a literary lens. It was a strange and fascinating time. Denby’s colleague at the New Yorker, James Surowiecki has penned a less personal book about business and money called The Wisdom of Crowds which is slated to come out at the end of May. A quick look reveals that Surowiecki has put together a readable tome meant to illustrate a principle that many economists hold dear: the idea that decisions can be made, problems can be solved, and the future can be predicted by the market. Imagine the Nasdaq but replace companies with possible outcomes. At the end of the day the outcome that is trading at the highest level is probably the correct answer to whatever problem was trying to be solved. Using markets you can, as Surowiecki terms it, unlock the “wisdom of crowds.” Last summer there was much public outcry when it was announced that one of our government agencies was considering setting a market that was meant to predict future terrorist attacks. The idea of people profiting off of this sort of speculation was abhorrent to many people and the plans were shelved, but, in The Wisdom of Crowds, Surowiecki will likely argue that the plan would have worked.
My book-loving friends keep writing me great emails that I feel compelled to share with all of you. Here’s one from my friend John about the great books he’s been reading:Currently reading Libra by Don Delillo. I’ve heard from a few people that it’s a modern classic, and though I don’t know if I necessarily agree with that, it is very good. Fictional retelling of the assassination of JFK. I think it might be overshadowed by Oliver Stone’s JFK, but I would say it’s an even more plausible a version of what happened. Just finished reading Dispatches by Michael Herr. Don’t know if you’ve read it, but you probably should. He was a freelance journalist in Vietnam (which is what the book is about) and was also the screenwriter for Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. Probably the most readable book about the Vietnam War; haven’t read that much though. I also saw The Sheltering Sky on your queue. Amazing book. That really got me into reading again. Very stark, but somehow it struck a chord. Something about wanting to be an ex-pat, but also seeing the hubris that we Americans have, especially in relation to foreign cultures. Some things never change. Probably my fave author of right now is T.C. Boyle. Love his stuff. His last novel, Drop City, is a great read. The thing about him is that his stories are highly readable. Great stories, great characters.A couple of quick comments: I’ve been wanting to read Dispatches for a very long time, and I think most of you know how I feel about T.C. Boyle. Also, everyone should check out John’s new band The Vanity Fair, they were sent here to rock. I also got a great email from longtime Millions contributor Brian that I’d like to share with all of you:Not a lot of time, but just wanted to drop an e-mail, let you know I read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Fantastic. He went to Spain to write about the Spanish Civil War but felt so strongly he joined the fight. He was in the trenches, fought, got shot in the throat, recovered, took part in street battles in Barcelona, was pursued by the police for being a member of the Marxist group P.O.U.M., fled to England and wrote the book. This passage is from just before he fled: “I seemed to catch a momentary glimpse, a sort of far-off rumour of the Spain that dwells in everyone’s imagination. White sierras, goatherds, dungeons of the Inquisition, Moorish palaces, black winding trains of mules, grey olive trees and groves of lemons, girls in black mantillas, the wines of Malaga and Alicante, cathedrals, cardinals, bull-fights, gypsies, serenades — in short, Spain. Of all Europe it was the country that had had most hold upon my imagination.”Great stuff guys. Thanks! If anyone else out there wants to contribute, just drop me an email. Remember, my Millions is your Millions. I have tons of stuff to write about, including the two books I finished last week, but I’m off to New York tomorrow for a few days, maybe a week, so it may have to wait until I get back.
Ed hones in on a favorite excuse that wannabe writers use to explain why they don’t have an agent or aren’t getting published:The point of all this is that if you’re a writer clinging to the stubborn notion that someone is out there to “steal” your work, and if you are letting this get in the way of writing, submitting, or pitching, then I ask you for the good of humanity to step out of the way.Like Ed, I have encountered a number of writers (and a couple of musicians) who insist that they would be published and even famous were it not for concerns that the moment they let anyone see or hear their work it would be snapped up by a greedy opportunist. As Ed rightfully illuminates, this is almost always a stock excuse to cover up a lack of motivation, confidence, or even the fact that their work doesn’t yet exist.
Perhaps all crystal balls are cloudy, at least where literary fiction is concerned. In 2006, as publishers seemed inclined to keep the heavy artillery under wraps until the lucrative holiday season, our January “Most Anticipated” round-up could not help but overlook Pynchon, Edward P. Jones, Richard Powers, or Claire Messud, as well as a number of eminently worthy books from independent publishers.That said, the “Most Anticipated” post can help register some of the early buzz that later gets drowned out by other books’ more formidable marketing campaigns. Readers who tend to keep their own private lists of titles to check out may have remembered to pick up Brief Encounters with Che Guevara in August, when the talk of the town (at least my town) was Special Topics in Calamity Physics. And so, in the spirit of getting the word out early, I offer an otherwise completely silly alert about a couple of books slated for publication in 2008.Jonathan Littell’s Les Bienveillantes, winner of last year’s Prix Goncourt, has sold over a quarter of a million copies in France. This novel presents the first-person confession of a homosexual SS officer. I first heard about it on NPR, where a number of francophone readers praised the power of the story and of Littell’s prose – remarkable, given that Littell is actually an American. And if these raves are accurate, readers have a lot to look forward to: in French, Les Bienveillantes (The Furies or The Kindly Ones) runs over 900 pages. HarperCollins has purchased the American rights, and is waiting for the translation to be finished, according to the December/January issue of Bookforum. I’m tempted to just buy the damn thing in en francais, but fear that it would take me all winter to read… and I’m already committed to Against the Day.Another huge novel discussed in Bookforum’s “The Insider” column is the Chilean author Roberto Bolano. FSG is bringing out a Bolano novel this year, but fans of monumentality might wish to wait for 2066, an 1100-pager about a series of slayings in Ciudad Juarez.Maybe it’s just the frisson of delayed gratification, or my big-book fetish, but these two – a cumulative 2,000 pages – are my Most Anticipated novels. Now let’s see if, a year and a half from now, when they actually hit the market, they will have been worth the wait.