Joel Stein of the LA Times is bravely calling the wrath of legions of Harry Potter fans down upon himself, but I can’t say that I agree with what he’s trying to say. First there’s the headline: “Hogwarts fans, you’re stupid, stupid, stupid.” Not mincing any words there. Stein is apparently infuriated that so many adults are excited about the upcoming Harry Potter book. “Next Saturday, when the sixth Harry Potter book comes out, at the very least I want you to stammer excuses when I see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince on your nightstand. I want you to claim you’re reading it to make sure it’s OK for your kids, or your future kids, or even, if you have to, for kids in general,” he writes. He goes on to bash adults who enjoy C.S. Lewis, E.B. White and J.R.R. Tolkien (“Isn’t it a clue that you should be ashamed of reading these books past puberty when the adults who write them are hiding their first names?”) and Finding Nemo. Stein’s grating tone aside, there are two points I’d like to make: First, some of the best books and movies we have were written for kids (or kids AND adults). It must be sad to go through life avoiding “kid stuff” because you don’t deem it to be intellectually up to par. Secondly, what do you think all these adults who are reading Harry Potter will read instead? It will be Dan Brown and James Patterson on their nightstands, if they read at all. Is that really so much better? I say that if people are reading it’s a good thing for the book industry and for our culture – even if it is just a kids’ book.
I’m guessing that Oprah’s latest choice for her book club was timed to coincide with BEA (the big book expo) going on in New York right now. Despite recent pleas for a return to contemporary fiction, Oprah has decided to stick with the classics. The latest pick is notable in that it’s not just one book, it’s three. Vintage Books has combined three novels by William Faulkner – As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury and Light in August – into one Oprah-branded set called The Summer of Faulkner which retails for close to 30 bucks. To my mind, the selection is also notable in that these novels are probably the most challenging books that Oprah has ever recommended. I’ve said before that I don’t think that Oprah’s focus on classic books is a bad thing, but I have to wonder if this latest pick won’t provoke a backlash. Among the literary types there is already much consternation over Oprah co-opting classic novels for use on her TV show, and this latest pick, which repackages three of the greatest American novels into a “summer of” set, might be enough to stir critics into a frenzy. From the standpoint of the regular Oprah Book Club readers, Oprah may lose some fans who find Faulkner tough going and resent the 30 dollar price tag that got slapped on this pick. On the other hand, if this really does turn out to be the “Summer of Faulkner” and hundreds of thousands of Americans read his novels, I’ll be hard-pressed to say that this was a bad choice.See also: All of Oprah’s classic picks.
Next, I turned to my second William Boyd novel Stars and Bars. This modern day comedy is the story of Henderson Dores, an English specialist on Impressionism who moves from London to New York in an effort to switch from academia to the lucrative business of art auctioning and to re-establish his relationship with an ex-girlfriend, who recently divorced her husband and has a teenager daughter. In Stars and Bars, Boyd exploits the differences between the English and American cultures to relate the South through the shocked eyes of Henderson. The protagonist faces a lot of challenges and his efforts to conform his lifestyle to certain English ideas do not necessarily pay-off in the good ol’ U.S. of A. Henderson defines unlucky in his exploits and his misfortunes make for a grand laugh. Need I mention that Stars and Bars is also an amazing page turner?I wanted to go on reading Boyd, but decided to take a rather unfortunate break and read Vladimir Nabokov’s Look at the Harlequins!. This is the first novel I read by Nabokov, and I realized what a bad choice it was halfway into it, but finished it nevertheless. Look at the Harlequins is an autobiographical piece and has a ton of references to other works by Nabokov, none of which I understood. So, if youre not well versed in Nabokov, do not look at the harlequins.To cheer up after my terrible defeat to Nabokov, I picked up Joseph Hellers Catch As Catch Can, a collection of his pre and post Catch-22 short stories, some published in magazines, others not. I really enjoyed the collection and left the book with my dad when I was visiting Turkey over the summer (he lobbied for 6 tireless years for me to read Catch-22, the day he bought me the book and saw me start reading it must have been one of his happier days. Actually he was so inspired by Major Major Major Major, that he wanted to name me judge in Turkish, thinking that it would prevent future jeopardy when I began drunk driving. E.g. when the cop pulls me over I tell him I am “Judge Peker,” and he would be intimidated into letting me go.) Regardless, Catch As Catch Can reveals an interesting and rather dark side of Heller before he wrote Catch-22. His subjects are all very interesting people. Among them are: old men, poor working class Brooklyners, junkies, and seamen, all in the wonderful city of New York. Catch As Catch Can also includes some stories that tell of Yossarian and Milo in their later days, which are written in the same manner and tone of Catch-22 and maintain the same level of hilarity. As in Milo sells non-existent fighter jet to the U.S. Air force to fight communists. Yes, it is great. My dad approved of the follow up Yossarian and Milo stories too.Previously: Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
The bad news is that the intensity of my grad school program is forcing me to post links in lieu of more substantial efforts. The good news is that I have really good links to tell you about.Some of you may see yourselves in “Thomas H. Benton” an assistant professor whose book collecting is “more than a gentle madness.”A remarkable collection of the top 100 American speeches of all time. There’s a transcript available for each one, and, in many cases an mp3 of the audio.Do you remember diagramming sentences in elementary school grammar class? I sure do. If only there had been a computer to do it for me. (use “guest” for login and password so you don’t have to register.)As I was mentioning before, grad school is getting to be very time-consuming, and, since I want to keep The Millions viable, I am currently soliciting the services of guest posters. It could be a one time thing or you could be a regular. If you’re interested, email me and we’ll discuss.
The other day I found a fascinating blog devoted to words, linguistics, languages and other related topics called Languagehat. I have been meaning to mention it for a while, and today I have good reason to. I don’t often talk about reference books on The Millions even though I use them every day. Lucky for us, Languaghat keeps track of these sorts of things. Today, he posts links to interesting reviews of new editions of two popular reference books, The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition.
This story has been all over the news lately: British novelist Carole Matthews accepts payment from Ford Motor Company in exchange for having her hip main character drive a Ford Fiesta. They were loving this story on NPR, too. There is a pretty obvious knee-jerk response to this sort of thing: that it sullies the world of books, that even our hallowed bookshelves are being invaded by corporate sales pitches. But before we get hysterical, let’s take another look at this. The book in question, The Sweetest Taboo, bears the tagline: “Is nothing sacred?” and its cover is a giant shopping bag. So the main character trades in her VW for a Fiesta. So what. I’m sure she’s still wearing Fendi, drinking Starbucks, and eating biscuits. Matthews might as well get paid for all this product placement. It’s not as though this is Saul Bellow we’re talking about here. We should just expect, as a culture, that the literary equivalent of Spiderman 2 will include this sort of merchandising and move on. Speaking of which… after I’m done writing this, I think I’m going to have a nice big bowl of Cheerios (the official breakfast cereal of The Millions), and I’ll wash it down with a nice, cold Michelob Ultra (the official low carb beer of The Millions). Aaahhh refreshing.The Los YorkerAnd here’s an interesting story for all the disgruntled Californians who are tired of New Yorkers looking down their noses at them: the Villiage Voice reports that more Californians read New Yorker magazine than New Yorkers. To me, it’s not a question of which coast is more culturally significant, it’s that the national media should recognize that Los Angeles in particular represents the future of this country. The small segment of this city that gets all the press, Hollywood, is not, by far, the most compelling thing about Los Angeles. LA is important because of the huge immigrant population and because legislation that starts in Sacramento inevitably filters across the country. It doesn’t surprise me in the least to see how many Angelenos read the New Yorker. When I was told, soon after I began working at the book store, that Southern California is the country’s largest book market, I was very surprised, but having been in the middle of it, I see that it is true. The entertainment industry takes the scrutiny off of other aspects of LA. While the media is focused on premieres and award shows, hundreds of book clubs and readings and other literary events abound unnoticed and unsullied by the press. It’s a rather interesting phenomenon. As for the New Yorker, I have indeed noticed that they have been writing about California recently, but if I could suggest something to David Remnick it would be that he run more pieces in the vein of the one about the LA River a few weeks back and fewer pieces about Hollywood. Even better: someone should start a New Yorker-style magazine that’s all about Los Angeles.