A few months back there was some fuss about Penguin selling, for close to $8,000, the Complete Collection: More than 1000 of the Greatest Classics. Recently, used bookstore owner Jeff Sharman went through his inventory and found “a handful of forgotten Penguin Classics” – ones that didn’t make the cut. He raises an interesting point that not all classics stand the test of time.
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.
but I hope you don’t mind if I post about a couple of things that pertain to, well, me. The first is a fantastic and fantastic looking publication called Two Letters, which contains some very worthwhile writing and art, and for which I was the literary editor. I worked on this when I lived in Los Angeles. The selection process for the art and writing ended just before I moved to Chicago, so I wasn’t involved in the production of the book. I had no idea what it would look like until it showed up at my doorstep a couple of weeks ago. It looks terrific – great art and a very distinctive layout. All the writing is illustrated with subtle but expressive line drawings. I am also very happy with the writers I helped select (two of them, Cem and Alexa happen to be bloggers). If you want to pick up a copy visit the website, or, if you are in LA, please consider attending the release party at the venerable Book Soup in West Hollywood. It’s on Wednesday, January 26th at 7pm. It will be fun, and I would attend if I could.In other news about me: You may have noticed from my bio on the right that I’m currently a graduate student in the Medill school of Journalism at Northwestern, and today I reached a milestone that I felt I should share (because what else is a blog for, if not for moments like this.) Today, I got my very first byline in a daily newspaper, the Daily Herald. It’s a 100,000+ circulation paper that serves the suburbs of Chicago. The story isn’t about books. Since I’m studying business writing this quarter, it’s a business story. You’ll be happy to hear that I was able, if only just barely, to keep myself from nudging the news stand guy and saying, “I’m in this,” when I bought the paper today.
I like to travel but flying makes me anxious. On a plane, I am cramped in a seat for hours, with little to do but to inhabit the abyss of my mind. I wish I could shut out the world and sleep, but the incessant chatter of fellow passengers, drone of engines, and upright seats keep me awake. When I was fifteen, on a fourteen-hour sojourn from Hong Kong to Vancouver, the legroom was so scarce that my knees hit the seat in front of me. Somewhere near the International Date Line, I began eyeing the emergency exit doors. I wanted to open them and jump into the sky.
These days I live in Denver, where most major American cities are two to four hours away by plane. I travel often, whether for work or for pleasure, and on these short flights I see the proverbial light at the end of the aluminum tunnel before we depart, as long as I have earplugs and something to keep me occupied. I cannot seem to work or write, though I wish I could — imagine how much I could get done. What I need, I have found, is a good book. But there is airplane reading and airplane reading.
I write poetry, but I cannot read poetry on a plane. I picked up Cynthia Cruz’s third collection Wunderkammer when it came out and brought it with me to San Francisco the next day. Wunderkammer is saturated with images of old world Europe — the cover is a sepia photograph of James Joyce’s daughter Lucia dancing at a Parisian ball — yet the book made me think of California. Cruz’s poems blend decadent imagery with tense, controlled lines she pushes to breaking; perhaps I saw in her style an antidote to California’s excess. In any case, I wanted to read the book. But after two or three poems, I needed to take a walk and the trip down the aisle to the bathroom was nowhere near enough. I needed space to dwell in the silences of the work.
I also remember trying to read Djuna Barnes’s modernist novel Nightwood on a return flight from Miami. Granted, after a madcap Halloween weekend of drinking and boating on Biscayne Bay, I probably would not have been able to read a grocery list, but as much as I loved the gorgeous rhythms of Barnes’s language, I could not follow the ellipses in the story. I have not picked up the book again. I keep looking at it on my shelf, wanting to get back into the thorny opulence of its world, but Nightwood strikes me as a book that demands all of our inner resources, which lately I have not been able to marshal in my everyday life, much less in the brain fog I get at 35,000 feet.
Oddly, it’s the personal essay collection that seems to soothe my nerves on the plane. I read Melissa Broder’s essay collection So Sad Today on a recent flight to Charlotte, beginning when we took off from Denver, taking a break in transit in Minneapolis, and finishing just as I saw the lights of my destination in the night sky. It was a dream: the world fell away and reassembled just as I returned to land. So Sad Today is not an easy read: Broder writes about her experiences with anxiety, depression, addiction, and abjection, among other things. I especially loved her meditations on her husband’s chronic illness, their open marriage, and the love that sustains a long relationship. I had to close my eyes after each essay, reassessing the stories I tell myself about my life, but I kept reading. There is a thematic unity to the collection, but each essay could stand by itself, a perfect capsule of intensity that engaged my restless mind on the plane.
Another good experience: reading Wendy C. Ortiz’s Hollywood Notebook while flying to Boston last summer, on the way to Provincetown for a writing workshop. The book, which Ortiz calls a “prose poemish memoir,” was born out of a blog Ortiz kept when she lived in Hollywood in her late twenties. The ninety short chapters range from a few lines to two or three pages, from meditations to lists and quotes, charting the banalities and epiphanies of a young woman trying to figure out who she is as a person and an artist. In the three hours I spent with Hollywood Notebook, I reflected on my own circuitous path to writing, the places I want to go in my own work. I did not find answers, or even questions; for a moment, I was content that my thoughts remained amorphous.
As much as I love reading personal essays, I rarely write explicitly from my life. At this point, it is not the genre that best channels the questions I am asking in my work. But I learn a lot from these writers who examine the interstices of life that we — or at least I — tend to overlook. I learn a language to describe the recesses of my mind that I would rather avoid. And on the plane, I can read personal essays without the anxiety of comparison.
Some years ago, I met Chloe Caldwell in Portland. Her book Legs Get Led Astray, which chronicles her early twenties in New York, had just appeared that year. I said that I had read it on a plane — I don’t remember which now, but it might have been that very flight to Oregon. She wrote in my copy of the book, “A book for airplane rides.” I still have it on my shelf. I look to it as a reminder that we can write from the idiosyncrasies of our experiences, whether in life or in the sky.
Last week I wrote a brief post about football books and wondered why there aren’t more of them, especially compared to baseball. In yesterday’s Baltimore Sun, reporter Childs Walker takes that same idea and runs with it much farther than I did in his comprehensive article. Walker’s impetus for writing the piece is a trio of recently released football books: John Feinstein’s first pro football book, Next Man Up, David Halberstam’s book about Bill Belichick, The Education of a Coach, and Allen Barra’s bio of Bear Bryant, The Last CoachWalker cites many compelling theories as to why baseball books dominate the sports literature landscape even though football is the more popular sport (at least in terms of TV ratings).”It’s funny how few good books get written about the passions of people who don’t read books,” Michael Lewis wrote in the New Republic. “There are vast tracts of human experience that, because of the sort of humans having the experience, go ignored by talented writers. Football is one of them.”Baseball is the older game, having risen to popularity at a time when the written and spoken word were the only ways for many fans to experience players and games. Football, by contrast, found much of its audience through television, and its early history feels cut off.Walker goes on to run through several football books that are worthy of the mantle “sports literature,” starting with the two books I mentioned last week, George Plimpton’s Paper Lion and Instant Replay by Jerry Kramer, a guard for the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s, and Dick Schaap. Also mentioned are a pair of novels – progenitors of the Oliver Stone film Any Given Sunday, it seems – North Dallas Forty by former Cowboys receiver Peter Gent and Semi-Tough by Sports Illustrated writer Dan Jenkins. And finally several non-fiction books about football: H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger’s book “of a Texas town’s obsession with high school football” in Friday Night Lights (also recently a movie); Mark Bowden’s study of the Philadelphia Eagles, Bringing the Heat; When Pride Still Mattered, David Maraniss’ bio of Vince Lombardi and Mark Kriegel’s bio, Namath. These books all sound like a great way to pass the time for those six days between Sundays.
As a fun little tie in with the opening of his presidential library in Little Rock, Bill Clinton released a list of his 21 favorite books. First off, I wonder if he would have gotten in trouble if he hadn’t put Hillary’s book on the list. And I suspect he included Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings because they are friends. Other interesting picks: He includes a presidential biography, Lincoln by David Herbert Donald, perhaps hoping that he, too, will someday be the subject of such a biography. Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study of Ethics and Politics by Reinhold Niebuhr seems like a pretty bold choice considering certain of Clinton’s own, shall we say, indiscretions. But, alas, the book is about social justice more than anything else. Right up Clinton’s alley. For the most part, though, it’s a pretty good batch of books, and I must commend him for including one of my favorite books of all time, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Here’s the full article and list.