With recent postings devoted to the second Litblog Co-op pick, Steve Stern’s Angel of Forgetfulness, the LBC Blog is living up to its promise. This weekend, Stern’s editor Paul Slovak posted his comments about the book and also delved into details about some of the other writers he works with including T.C. Boyle and William T. Vollmann. Also making a guest appearance was Stern himself, who responded to the dialogue about his book that Derik and Dan had going last week.
I’m going to pretend to be a music blog for a second — The new Walkmen album, Bows & Arrows, is coming out on February 3rd. They played some of their new songs at the last show I went to, and I have been looking forward to this cd for a while now. Here’s the tracklist:Track List:What’s In It For MeLittle House of SavagesMy Old ManNo Christmas While I’m TalkingThe Rat138th St.The North PoleHang On, SiobhanNew Year’s EveThinking of a Dream I HadBows & Arrows
The books that parents read to their very young children don’t change much from generation to generation. When my son was born two years ago I was surprised to find that with few exceptions, the titles we welcomed into our Philadelphia apartment were the same ones that three decades earlier had served as my own introduction to storytelling.
I made an informal study of the Amazon sales rankings of the books I enjoyed having read to me most as a kid. It seemed to confirm that taste in books for young children is remarkably constant. Here are just a handful of popular titles with their publication years and their overall Amazon ranks:
The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969), #169
Goodnight Moon (1947), #227
Where the Wild Things Are (1963), #314
The Giving Tree (1964), #342
Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955), #559
Pat the Bunny (1940), #743
Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day (1968), #817
For comparison’s sake, consider Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, which was a bestseller only a few years ago and enjoys strong residual sales. It’s currently ranked #2,194, which leaves it well behind the leading titles in the Dr. Seuss canon (Green Eggs and Ham, #1,050; The Lorax, #1,063).
The reason children’s books endure seems clear enough: The books that toddlers read are determined entirely by adults, and when adults select books for kids they naturally gravitate towards the books they loved as kids. As a result, the market for children’s books is probably more resistant to cultural churn than just about any other slice of the consumer economy; it’s a closed circuit that reproduces itself one generation after another.
There are benefits to this system. For one, it helps to ensure that passing fads doesn’t wash quality books away. It’s doubtful, for example, that toddlers would opt for Goodnight Moon as often as their parents do, so maybe it’s just as well that they don’t have a say. For two, the persistence of children’s books yields a kind of experience we don’t get so often in a culture that has relatively few traditions: the chance to revisit childhood experiences through an older set of eyes.
Just the other weekend I took my two-year-old son to Barnes and Noble to buy a birthday present for a friend of his. I browsed the aisles while my son emptied a carousel of Berenstain Bears books onto the floor. After a few minutes I spotted Caps for Sale (#5057), a book that had once meant a great deal to me but which I had not thought about in decades. It was nice to see that it had managed to last all this time without my attention. We bought two copies, one for the friend and one for us.
That night I put my son in his pajamas, filled his cup with milk, sat him in my lap and began to read Caps for Sale. It only took a few lines before the entire story came back to me: an old world peddler walks around a village with a stack of caps on his head; one luckless afternoon he leans back against a tree to take a nap and when he wakes up he finds his caps have been confiscated by a troop of monkeys in the tree branches above him; he demands the monkeys give him his caps back by shaking his fists and stomping his feet but the monkeys mock his efforts and for a moment it seems like he’ll never get them back.
In addition to remembering the plot, I was somewhat stunned by how vividly the feelings the book had elicited in me as a kid came tumbling back. It’s noted several times in the book, for example, that the peddler always stacks his caps on his head in the same order—“first his own checked cap, then the gray caps, then the brown caps, then blue caps, then the red caps on the very top.” As I read this to my son I found myself flush with the same covetousness for the red caps, so bright and distinct above the rest, that I’d felt as a child.
I had a similar experience at the end of the story. In order to get his caps back, the peddler remonstrates the monkeys every way he can: he shakes his fists, stomps his feet, jumps up and down. The monkeys repeat his actions back to him but the simple peddler doesn’t see what’s going on. He thinks the monkeys are mocking his suffering when really they’re just aping (monkeying?) him like the lower-order mammals that they are. In despair the peddler takes his own checked cap off his head—the one cap that’s not for sale, and the only cap the monkeys didn’t take—and throws it to the ground and starts to walk away.
As my son finished his milk and started to fall asleep, I found myself awash in the same anguish I’d felt at this point in the story as a child. I couldn’t have explained why at the time, but as a child I knew there was something deeply sad about the peddler throwing his own cap to the ground. Now as an adult, I can put words to that sadness; I can see that by throwing his own cap to the ground the peddler is effectively saying that without his caps, nothing in the world matters anymore.
I was surprised by the complexity of the reaction to Caps for Sale I’d had as a kid. As a four-year-old I had no firsthand experiences that would have taught me there is such a thing as despair in the face of an unforgiving world, but on an intuitive level I understood that what the peddler was experiencing went beyond mere frustration.
When the peddler throws down his cap the monkeys throw their caps down too, and tragedy is averted. The peddler collects his caps from the ground, stacks them back atop his head, and walks back to town calling “Caps for sale, fifty cents a cap.” It is not exactly a happy ending—the fact that the peddler became so desperate over the loss of a few caps reveals just how precarious his life really is—but there is a melancholic satisfaction in knowing that he gets to go on selling for one more day at least.
For me, the feeling I had after I’d closed Caps for Sale and laid my son down in his crib was melancholic and satisfying, too. It was an unexpected gift to have glimpsed myself as a child through the pages of the book, and a wonder to imagine that if trends hold, my son might one day have the same experience himself.
Bonus Link: Are Picture Books Leading Our Children Astray?
So, I just landed about three hours ago, and it’s good to be back. Travelling is great fun, but it wears you out too. I am looking forward to my own bed and getting rid of my suitcase for a while, plus, I was running out of books. I read a bunch while I was in Ireland, but I didn’t get a chance to post here. (Sorry). Surprisingly, the internet cafes in Ireland all had fast connections and good computers, but I was never able to sit at one for than fifteen minutes. There was too much to see and do. So…. where was I? Before I left Barcelona I read The Lonely Hearts Club by Raul Nunez, which took only about a day. First and formost, the book suffers from a poor translation by a gentleman named Ed Emery. The text is littered with annoying British drivel like “he wondered what colour knickers she wore” and “I’m also very fond of this girl with a squint.” To be more precise, it wasn’t just a regular BBC British but more of an in your face Guy Ritchie movie British. I had to make an effort to keep the British accent from creeping into my head while I was reading, which was annoying because I was trying to relish the experience of reading this little novel set in the sweaty apartments of Barcelona while I was sitting in a sweaty apartment in Barcelona. The whiny British voice in my head just didn’t fit the scene. To be fair, Serpent’s Tail, the publisher, is a British press so I guess they’re just serving their audience. The book itself is very brief and somewhat derivative in a John Fante or Charles Bukowski sort of way in both style and theme. There are especially parallels to Fante’s Ask the Dust. Nunez’s hero, Antonio aka Frankie, shares with Fante’s Arturo Bandini a rooming house lifestyle, girl troubles, and a drinking problem. Bandini, though, is a noble character. He is struggling to be a writer, and he wants to find love. Frankie is just down on his luck, and this little book merely recounts a bizarre episode in his life. With spare prose, Fante manages to go deep into the psyche of his character. Nunez substitutes shock value for depth of character with predictable results. For a book that can be read in an afternoon, though, I’d say it’s worth a look, if only because it is entertaining in an enjoyable voyueristic sort of way. More later….
I know that some folks out there are interested in the travels of our friend Cem. But because he is currently somewhere near the border of Thailand and Burma, it has become difficult for him to update as often as he (or we) would like. Therefore I have taken it upon myself to excerpt some of the emails that we have been exchanging. I do this partly because it’s another way to keep track of this wily character but also partly because I always find talk of travels to be a good igniter of interesting discussion. So, lets leave it at that for now. His last email bore some good news for Realistic Records (from halfway around the world no less!!) as well as the sort of scheming that would make Maqroll and Bashur proud ( You should really read this book! Gabriel Garcia Marquez loves it. And frankly, I think it might be the best book I’ve ever read. I gave it to Cem to read while he travels around the world. You can see how it has already attached itself to his psyche):max,couple things.1.a qoute from my friend kevin, a serious music junkie and collector, whose taste in music i respect more than anyone i know. this email was sent to me before i told him to buy your record:”music-wise, soulseek is still saving my life. i’m watching out for the RIAA these days, though. $150,000 a song! http://www.cnn.com/2003/TECH/internet/07/01/download.music.ap/index.htmlmy top 8 albums in 2003 so far: (no particular order)junior senior : d-d-d-don’t stop the beatdelgados : haterecoys : rekoysdat politics : plugs pluspostal service : give uporanges band : all arounderlend oye : unrestbroken social scene : you forgot it in people”thats right fooo! realistic up an runnin![2 is of little interest to you, faithful reader, so let’s move on to 3.]3.i think that ill be following maqroll, thanks very much. as you know and i now fear, this will mean going dead broke and having to figure a way out of it. i have already begun the most basic level of planning for a small import venture involving Burmese laquerware from Mandalay and/or ethnic textiles for sale in small markets and possibly wholesale to shops. i need to speak with Thibault. i am not kidding max – the stuff is beautiful, cheap, pleantiful, and there is noone selling it that i can find in the US. you will hear more on this later – i really think that it might work.. if it aroused your interests, Mr Bashur, we could both perhaps share in the success.all for now,cem.Indie Rockers kan rede 2Cem’s friend Kevin and his fantastic list of this year’s best indie rock reminded me of, what else, a book. If you walk down the music aisle in any bookstore you will see shelves and shelves of books about the Beatles and the Stones and their compatriots in classic rock. There will also be bulging shelves of books on jazz, blues, and even world music. Punk rock, once the vanguard of the antiestablishment even warrants it’s own chunck of shelf space (Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil is by far the best book on punk, by the way). But what about indie rock? Should a fan of this lowly but noble genre of music go without adequate reading material? No longer. A couple of years ago music journalist Michael Azerrad put together a book called Our Band Could Be Your Life that chronicles the rise and fall of thirteen seminal indie rock bands. Detailed chapters on Black Flag, The Minutemen (whose line from Double Nickels on the Dime supplies the title of the book), Mission of Burma, Minor Threat, Husker Du, The Replacements, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Big Black, Fugazi Mudhoney, and Beat Happening, effectively constitute the history of rock and roll for a generation of music fans.Hey Hey L. A.I’ve been in LA for almost 3 years now, and it long ago lost it’s shiny newness for me, but it’s still a big enough place that it continues to reveal itself to me bit by bit. The other day I was driving home from work and something I heard on the radio reminded me of the way radio stations in other towns that I’ve lived in used to do spoof versions of popular songs to make them refer to something going on in that city; like when I was growing up Washington DC and the morning drive guys were always playing Aerosmith songs that had been turned into spoofs of Mayor (for life) Marion Barry and his crack habit. For a second, whatever I was hearing on the radio made me think that they were playing a goofy made up song about LA. Then I realized that I wasn’t listing to a spoof song, but a real song, probably a song that’s very popular among the kids right now. It just so happened that this song, subconsciously almost, heavily references Los Angeles. The more I thought about this and the more I let it inform my music listening and TV watching and movie viewing, the more I realized that a huge portion of American pop entertainment consciously or, more frequently, subconsciously references Los Angeles in such a way that you could only really be aware of it if you have spent a decent chunk of time in this odd city. The implications of all this are somewhat startling. Many folks get upset that America’s monopoly on popular entertainment results in a monopoly of American values and beliefs. The reality, though, is that America’s popular effluvia is simply the values of Los Angeles and its accompanying entertainment culture masquerading as American culture. It’s possible that because I am simultaineously a Los Angeles insider and a Los Angeles outsider I am particularly apt to find this disturbing. Nonetheless, I can’t shake the feeling that this is not a particularily good thing.A couple more quick notesYesterday when I was out driving, I saw a car with this vanity plate: FAKE TAG. I gave a chuckle and then decided that it’s only funny if the plates really are fake.
I was poking around Amazon today and I came across a listing for a new book by Pete Dexter called Paper Trails: True Stories of Confusion, Mindless Violence, and Forbidden Desires, a Surprising Number of Which Are Not About Marriage. I’m a fan of Dexter’s (see my review of Train, my review of Brotherly Love, and my review of Paris Trout), so I’m excited to see he’s got a new book, but what has me especially thrilled is that, if the subtitle is to be believed, the book is non-fiction. I had the chance to attend one of Dexter’s signings once, and he rattled off story after story, many of them from his days as an old newspaper guy in Philadelphia; it was definitely one of the most entertaining readings I’ve ever been to. This new book is being put out by Ecco. If anyone knows anything else about the book (or can get me a copy), let me know.
I discovered the other day that an ambitious project to publish the complete run of Charles Shulz’s seminal comic, Peanuts, has begun. The books are very attractive and they have rounded up some notable folks to pen the introductions. The first volume, which covers 1950-1952, includes an introduction by Garrison Keillor and is already in book stores. Volume two (1953-1954) will be released this fall with an introduction by Walter Cronkite. According to the publisher, Fantagraphics, the 25 book series will span the full 50 year run of the comic and the books will be released at a rate of two books per year. When it is all said and done, the collection (along with the introductions within) should provide an interesting look into the second half of the twentieth century in America.