Between July 1 and November 5th, I don't think I read anything longer than a three-page spread on Politico or anything more literary than a New Yorker cartoon. Political campaigns are experiments in all sorts of deprivations. The days are long and narrow, filled with fast food containers and the sounds of vibrating Blackberries. I started on the Obama campaign back in January in South Carolina. Many of my colleagues on the general election campaign in Pennsylvania had been at this for almost two years, a stunning feat of endurance that stretched from hours spent knocking doors after dark in frozen New Hampshire, straight through to the week of all-nighters that preceded Election Day.Among the things I lost to an around-the-clock schedule, books were not the most precious. On any given day I missed talking with my friends, or going for a run, more. But if books were not the things I missed most, their absence was in one way the most profound. While the hurly-burly of the campaign never caused me to question the importance of calling my dad or cooking a meal, it did cast doubt over the value of reading.In this past Sunday's Times Book Review Jonathan Lethem wrote of the author Roberto Bolano, that he "never tires of noting how a passion for literature walks a razor's edge between catastrophic irrelevance and sublime calling." The frantic activity of a campaign questions the relevance of a reading life. It was energizing these past few months to feel myself so squarely in the flow of history, and coming down the homestretch in October, it would have felt like I was stepping out of the current to have spent an afternoon reading. But just as one can only subsist on almonds and M&Ms for so long (I made it a week), after awhile I found I needed books as much as I needed vegetables. Literature is sublime when it invigorates awareness of the world around us, and we rely on the store of that awareness in times, like campaigns, when there is not a lot of opportunity to assess where we are or to question where we're going. Now that it's over and I'm reading again, I find that stories are not so much a refuge or a pause as they are a way for me to put my feet on the ground again.
Yesterday, the mayor, who doesn't bear much resemblance to Fitzwilliam Darcy, announced that the latest "One Book, One Chicago" selection is Jane Austen's classic Pride and Prejudice. Now, I have no problem with Jane Austen, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book in high school or whenever it was, but this strikes me as just about the blandest, safest pick you can make for one of these "one book, one city" programs. It's hard to see the point of these citywide reading initiatives if all they do is push their way through a high school reading list. Much more valuable would be a book that would get the city buzzing. The program could also be a platform to introduce Chicagoans to a less well-known writer, or, failing that, the "one Book" selection might hinge upon issues more pressing to present day Chicago. That they got it right with the last selection, Walter Van Tilburg Clark's dark Western novel The Oxbow Incident, a book that is both far more underappreciated and which asks much tougher questions than Pride and Prejudice, makes the latest selection even more disappointing. Link: One Book, One Chicago.
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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).
Barnes & Noble is buying used books. They're marketing it as a way to sell your old textbooks, but they're buying other books too. They've set up a simple site that lets you check titles and find out if they'll take them and how much they'll pay. You then send your books to Barnes & Noble and they cover the shipping. As far as I can tell, the prices are fairly comparable to what you might get selling your books to your local used bookstore, maybe even a little better.