I added several books to the reading queue today. In New York last weekend I found a half price paperback copy of Jon Lee Anderson’s Guerrillas: Journeys in the Insurgent World. As you may know, Anderson is a stellar war reporter for the New Yorker. His writing combines thrill and adventure and danger with an unmatched depth of knowledge on the conflicts he covers. Guerrillas collects his reporting on “the mujahedin of Afghanistan, the FMLN of El Salvador, the Karen of Burma, the Polisario of Western Sahara, and a group of young Palestinians fighting against Israel in the Gaza Strip.” A few weeks earlier, at Myopic Books, an unbelievably well-stocked used bookstore in Wicker Park, I picked up a couple of late 20th century classics, Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow and Winter’s Tale (on Emre’s recommendation) by Mark Helprin. I was also lucky enough to receive in the mail from my publisher friends: The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson (I’m a big Ronson fan), Rick Moody’s upcoming novel The Diviners, and the Booker longlister The People’s Act of Love by James Meek, which I’m a quarter of the way through. Recently, I finished the five LBC nominees for the fall, and in the meantime, with the additions of the books listed above, the queue has ballooned to it’s largest size yet, 48 titles – so much to read, so little time.
I’ve been a little out of loop lately, but today I picked up a copy the Chicago Reader, having noticed that it was their “Spring Books Special.” Among the many reviews and briefs is an entertaining article called “So This is the Blog Revolution” by Laura Demanski AKA OGIC. It’s a short history of the litblog phenomenon and an attempt to gauge its importance (unfortunately the article is not available online). As both a reviewer and blogger, Demanski understands that part of the draw of such blogs is to watch as non-professionals turn book criticism into a conversation and review the reviewers. The tendency of litblogs to critique mainstream book coverage directly (eg. the Brownie watch, The LATBR Thumbnail, etc.) has no doubt raised their visibility. What better way to get noticed by journalists and reviewers than to repeat their names incessantly? Everyone gets a thrill out of Googling themselves. In terms of elbowing its way into mainstream book coverage, it may be that the LBC will represent the pinnacle of the litblog movement.I love my fellow litblogs dearly, and I have enjoyed watching the community grow. But I also think that one can keep a blog about books that does not exist to be the David to the New York Times’ Goliath, and, no, I’m not going to deliver The Believer’s anti-snark manifesto here. There is a certain joy that is derived from reading a good book and discussing that book with a fellow reader. Having a blog has allowed me to direct this inward act outward. My blog is essentially a reading journal, and my reading journal exists to interact with other readers (and with their reading journals, if they have them). Although many of my fellow members in the LBC have garnered a certain amount of fame by holding mainstream book coverage to a high standard, I am relieved that the LBC seems to arise from a different sort of urge. I look at the LBC as twenty readers getting together to recommend to you a book that they hope you’ll enjoy.(Mark your calendars, LBC selection #1 is just 6 days away).
Those oft-quoted Amazon sales rankings don’t really tell you much. They just give a snapshot of how a book is selling at a particular moment. TitleZ can track how a book’s ranking moves over time. There’s some debate about how much those rankings really tell you, but this is a fun toy nonetheless. (via)
They’re starting to get excited about Adam Langer’s next book here in Chicago. I’m not sure how much of this is new information, but it looks like the new book, Washington Story, is a sequel to his debut, Crossing California. From the Sun-Times:In it, Jill Wasserstrom and Muley Wills, the young heroes of the first novel, are now high school students. Over the five years from 1982 to 1987, the world around them expands from the boundaries of Rogers Park and changes immensely including the Chicago mayoralty (Harold Washington is a character in the story).It’s due out August 18th.
Are you in the mood to read a page-turner? If you’re not afraid to read something in the mystery section at your local bookstore, try Paranoia by Joseph Finder. I keep hearing people talking about it, and it’s getting good reviews. Check out this one at Slate.com (the reviewer gets to it after he reviews John Le Carre’s latest, Absolute Friends).
My appetite for fiction comes and goes and recently it’s been hard to find. It’s no coincidence that during this period in which my bookmark has not moved from page 87 of Emma I’ve been feeling a little like Ishmael at the beginning of Moby-Dick, possessed of the urge to step into the street and begin knocking people’s top hats off. I have a hard time enjoying fictional characters when I’m feeling dreary towards the people who inhabit my real life. When I think about these recent months, and other times in my life when fiction has held less appeal, it occurs to me that a yen for fiction is something like my canary in the coal mine, an early indication, when it’s ebbs, that something else is wrong.
Over dinner the other night I asked my wife Caroline to describe what moods, for her, correlate with a desire to read fiction. After a moment she said, “When I’m feeling stimulated, I like to read fiction, and when my life feels sterile, I don’t.” This rang true to me and I think it captures one of the essential paradoxes of fiction and art more generally: that to engage it requires a withdrawal from life, but to appreciate it requires a deep immersion in that very same thing.
I was feeling sterile last week on a night when I spent hours working at the very tedious task of formatting a long outline on the computer. It was the type of mind-numbing process we’re all familiar with, and by the end of it I felt like a very thin man with a very narrow outlook on the world. As I tried to fall asleep that night, I found that my whole life felt like one large unimaginative outline: Bullet points for the errands I needed to do the next day, bold 14-point headings for the things I hoped to accomplish over the next five years. In this limited state of mind, the idea of reading fiction was not just unappealing—it was completely incomprehensible—in the same way that aspiration must make very little sense to a cat.
All forms of desire have their natural enemies and I find that nothing saps my desire to read fiction like the Internet does. This is partly physiological—too much time at the computer withers my brain—but it’s partly dispositional, too. After the last round of primaries a couple Tuesdays ago, I spent an hour reading articles about the Tea Party. When I came up for air I was in an explicitly present-tense state of mind where anything written more than an hour ago seemed to be based on a world that had already been subsumed. Novels, which require a willingness to attend to more enduring themes, don’t hold up very well by this perspective.
Politics as a whole has a fairly degrading effect on my fiction drive. It’s not just that it’s depressing to watch the way Congress operates—it’s that it’s depressing in such an unredeemable way. Fiction can be depressing too, of course, but there’s something intrinsically optimistic about the process by which tragedy and frailty are turned into art.
There’s no similar silver lining when reform legislation gets gutted by special interests, (even writing the term “special interests” I can feel a requisite vigor drain from my body), or the country slides deeper into another foreign quagmire. One friend I talked to about this said that he had the opposite impulse, that he inclines towards fiction when he can’t bear to look at the world anymore. I get this, but I also think that the impulse to create fiction, and to read it, derives from a fundamentally hopeful place—in which life is interesting enough to write about and meaningful encounters remain possible. If it is ever known that the world is sliding irretrievably into ruin, I don’t think I’ll be reading a novel on the way down.
The more I’m engaged with life—and particularly with other people—the more I want to read fiction. At the peak of a wedding reception or in the throes of a night out when the crowd has given itself over to celebration, I often want to sneak off and read a novel. It’s a contradictory impulse, to want to retreat into a book at the precise moment I am most enthralled with life, but such are the circumstances we live by. What I’m after, I think, is a kind of synergy that can only happen when I approach a novel while my body is still charged with the feeling of being present and alive.
At the same time, several of my most memorable encounters with fiction have taken place when I’ve been my most alone. In January 2008 I spent a month in Florence, South Carolina volunteering on a presidential campaign. The days were long and tiring, but it was exhilarating to feel like I was midstream in history. Late at night I’d return to the attic bedroom where I was staying in the home of a local resident and I’d read Anna Karenina until I couldn’t stay awake any longer. I’ve rarely had so clear a view of the outline of my own skin as I did then, reading about Anna’s fall and Lenin’s angst in a house where everyone else was asleep, in a town where I didn’t know anyone’s last name.