So who are the lucky people who own the The Penguin Classics Library Complete Collection, which costs nearly $8,000, weighs 700 pounds and is available exclusively through Amazon.com? Well, a New York Times article estimates that there’s only about two dozen people who have purchased the mammoth set. According to the article, one of them is Kate Bolton an avid reader who lost her entire library when her house burned down in a forest fire. I’d love to own that collection, but I’d need a separate apartment just to house it.
Humans have at least one really redeeming quality. We are loath to abandon a good story. In light of cold, hard facts, our imagination, an engine fired by hope and curiosity, suspicion and fear, will and wish and programmed for storytelling, pushes back. For the last week of December, on Twitter, the Central Intelligence Agency rounded up #Bestof2014 — its ten most-read blog posts and declassified documents from the past year. Number one was a somewhat gently redacted 272-page PDF about an overhead reconnaissance program tested outside of Las Vegas, at a site the agency acknowledges by name as Area 51. “Reports of unusual activity in the skies in the ’50s?” the CIA tweeted. “It was us.” Lockheed spy planes flying at the then unheard altitudes of 60,000 feet and above, sure, but not extraterrestrials casing the planet in saucers. By simply cross-referencing UFO sightings with flight logs, the agency said it was able to rule out more than half of the reports. The reaction? To the bureaucratic dispelling of Area 51, one of the great American wonderlands?
“@CIA Nope, I am still going with aliens from outer-space.”
“@CIA Sorry, but this is STUPID! The USAF began investigations in the late 40s, and #UFOs were seen in abundance all over the US.”
“@CIA with all those redactions 64 years later… who could deny Aliens.”
Squinting into the night, thinking we are not alone…even believing we have routinely been visited upon by a greater intelligence, is one thing. But then there are the creatures presumed indigenous to Earth. From diehard mythos (vampires) to diversions in cryptozoology (the Skunk Ape). In November, BBC published news of an 18-month period in Scotland, which, for the first time since 1925, had failed to produce any confirmed sightings of the lake monster initially reported 1,500 years ago by the Irish abbot and missionary Saint Columba. (By the father’s account, Nessie roared and tore a man “with a most savage bite,” but was driven away by the sign of the cross.) “It’s very upsetting news,” an accountant who apparently moonlights as the registrar of sightings said of Nessie’s recent disappearance, “and we don’t know where she’s gone.” Fresh witnesses came forth shortly thereafter, but then so did a local forest conservation group, which had the bad taste to offer a reasonable explanation: the rivers were washing woodland deadfall into Lake Loch Ness, logs and branches, they suggested, which could look an awful lot like a brontosaurus-style neck on the water’s foggy stage. For believers this was, as one commentator put it, “profoundly unsatisfying.” (A more satisfying explanation, which the BBC noted, is the fact that circus elephants were sometimes exercised in that lake.)
These episodes recall what happened in 2012, when Animal Planet broadcast Mermaids: The Body Found. The faux documentary blended some real science — such as the aquatic ape hypothesis — and legitimate mysteries — such as an unexplained sound recorded during Navy sonar tests — with the sexiest writing and editing television has to offer. It was a narrative feat of speculative biology that claimed merfolk actually exist, and here the proof. “As if we didn’t have enough probably fictitious but possibly real beings to worry about,” The New York Times pooh-poohed. But Mermaids became the station’s most-watched telecast since the Steve Irwin memorial special aired in September 2006. Indeed, it scored the highest ratings of any Animal Planet program, ever, and with so much of the public convinced, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration felt compelled to issue a statement. The official federal position was (is): “No evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found.” Tumblr, a mood board, erupted — “95% of the ocean is undiscovered. You can’t tell me mermaids don’t exist yet.”
There are, of course, deep, necessary reasons for all of the above. Mythology, as Karen Russell often observes, speaks to perennial aspects of human nature. Half-human creatures are vehicles for reconciling our species on the continuum of other beasts. Monsters are projections of an atavistic unease — born of the sense that something bigger and badder is out to get us (because for the long course of mammalian history, something was). These stories get weird and totally out-of-hand, but they never end.
I’m thinking of the hilarious Victorian novel Cranford. I was just about finishing it, and noticing the CIA’s roundup in the periphery, when the modern new year rang in. Here was a corner of civilization awash, clinging to habits and opinions morbidly out of date. In the last chapter, Peter Jenkyns returns to entertain the village women with tales from afar. He tells them about the time he was up in the heights of Himalaya, hunting, when he accidentally felled an angel. The Honorable Mrs. Jamieson does not call bullshit. “But, Mr. Peter,” she howls, “shooting a cherubim — don’t you think — I am afraid that was sacrilege!”
Art by Ellis Rosen, illustrator of Woundabout by Lev Rosen, forthcoming from Little, Brown.
I’ve noticed lately that a couple of Web sites have put together litblog roundups. At Notes from the (Legal) Underground, they take a break from lawyering most weeks for the “The Monday Morning Books Blogging Post“. Chekhov’s Mistress, meanwhile, has a “Headlines” page which aggregates the headlines from dozens of litblogs and lists them on one easy to find page. (This is similar to what I’ve done in my “Book News via RSS” section which aggregates feeds from newspaper book sections.) Finally, I recently discovered a new participant in the litblog roundup racket. At New West, Allen M. Jones has put together the first two of what I hope will be many litblog roundups. Roundups aside, in my capacity as a graduate journalism student, I recommend that anyone with an interest in citizen or community journalism poke around the New West site.
Ms. Millions, who listens to KCRW (LA’s hipster/NPR beacon) while at work, heard somebody mentioning quirky holiday book gifts on the NPR show Day to Day and immediately thought of me. I’m a lucky guy. From a list, which she scrawled in her delicate feminine hand, I’ve gleaned a few books worth mentioning… and I commend the folks at Day to Day for coming up with some quirky books. The Girl Who Played Go is a novel by Shan Sa, a Chinese writer by way of France, who won a number of international awards for her previous novels, including the French heavyweights the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Cazes. This book, her first to appear in English, tells the story of a 16-year-old Manchurian girl and a Japanese soldier who tragically fall in love in the midst of war in the 1930s. From Manchuria to Tuscany: the NPR culture mavens also mentioned a new book by the photographer Joel Meyerowitz, who is pretty well known for landscape photography that is rich in color and clever with light. Tuscany: Inside the Light is a pleasant take on a charming place. And now from Tuscany to….. the bomb shelter? 100 Suns is an eerie collection of photographs of mushroom clouds from atomic bomb testing sites at the height of the cold war. The mushroom cloud is a familiar, iconic symbol, and seeing so many in one place with such a stark presentation is an oddly moving experience. The book was put together by Michael Light, who salvaged and reprinted the photographs. He did the same thing a few years back with NASA’s collection of lunar photography in a book called Full Moon. Thanks to the little lady for giving me some books to talk about
Goodreads is a vibrant and feisty place – if you can even call an online community a place. Its slogan boasts, “it’s what your friends are reading!” and perhaps that’s true: the site’s more dedicated members are so busy posting the books they’ve read, and want to read, or are currently reading, that you might assume they no longer have time to actually read. But the opposite is true for me – since joining the site, and becoming obsessed with it, I’ve been reading quite voraciously. Chalk it up to a pure-hearted love of sharing my thoughts about literature; or to some illusory sense of accountability (“Everyone’s breathlessly awaiting my opinion of Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao!”); or to my desire to read a novel as soon as it’s lauded by a friend (“Wow, Katie gave 5 stars to The Dud Avocado, I must see what’s so great about it!”). Or maybe it’s just a primitive lust to build up my roster of books read, to assert myself as the most bookish.Goodreads allows you to organize your books in self-created bookshelves (mine include “Theory” and “Tried but Failed to Read”), and to see if you and a friend have similar reading tastes (apparently, my taste is 100% similar to the aforementioned Katie’s, which is just creepy). Most importantly, the site lets you rate books on a star system, one star signifying “I didn’t like it,” and five signifying, “It was amazing.” The fact that there isn’t an “I hated this piece of crap” option suggests that Goodreads is generally promoting a positive reaction to books. You can, however, say whatever you want in your reviews, and your friends can respond as they wish in the comments section. On my page, for instance, there’s a 33-comment thread that covers Jonathan Lethem (the original subject of my review), Haruki Murakami, Miranda July, Michael Chabon, hipsters, blonde women, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Kelly Ripa and Faith Ford (that is, who’s hotter), Rushmore, irony, Colson Whitehead, and more. Another friend’s two-star rating (denoting “It was okay”) of On The Road caused another friend to comment, “You also gave two stars to The Stranger, you tool. For that I should bypass this comment box and toss a flaming bag of shit at your house.” This, unsurprisingly, led to a heated ping-ponging of comments. My, my, reading is more fun than I thought.I’d say more, but I must get back to that Junot Diaz novel – which is definitely already 4 stars-good, if not 5.
Not too long ago, on a book finding expedition, I found a whole cache of old Granta magazines. Granta is very cool journal devoted to both short fiction and on the ground reporting of international conflicts and events. It attracts fantastic writers who tend to be relatively unknown to Americans, and so it tends to deliver angles on stories that you don’t see in the American press. Case in point: the other day I was, briefly, between books, and I picked up one of the old Grantas that I have lying around (this one was Autumn 1989). One of the stories I read was a first hand account of the Tiananmen Square massacre by a BBC journalist named John Simpson. I have always found first-hand accounts of these sorts of events to be the most fascinating type of news reporting. (The best I read this year were John Lee Anderson’s “Letters From Baghdad” in the New Yorker.) Simpson’s story on Tiananmen Square was both enthralling and terrifying, he captures a brutality that most of the Western world did not see. Immediately after I finished the article I wondered: is this piece in a book somewhere and has this guy written anything else like this? This answer to both questions is yes. Simpson’s World: Tales from a Veteran War Correspondent came out in August and it’s filled with close encounters with dictators and on the scene dispatches from all the major world conflicts from the last couple of decades.