Jonathan Yardley, the Washington Post book critic, has named his best books of the year and – you’re not going to believe this (I can hardly believe it as I’m typing this) – he singles out John Grisham (The Broker) and Michael Connelly (The Closers and The Lincoln Lawyer) for praise. Those three books mentioned above are officially on his “best books” list. Connelly I can understand, but Grisham? That’s a huge surprise. I think it’s great. For a critic of Yardley’s stature, giving high praise to Grisham takes serious balls. Don’t believe me? See for yourself.
We at The Millions are fans of great sports journalism and of Michael Lewis, so recommending Lewis’ New York Times Magazine feature on Houston Rockets forward Shane Battier is a no-brainer. The hook:Here we have a basketball mystery: a player is widely regarded inside the N.B.A. as, at best, a replaceable cog in a machine driven by superstars. And yet every team he has ever played on has acquired some magical ability to win.Lewis goes on to make the (slightly Gladwellian) case for a new statistical approach to basketball. Nonetheless, his piece implicitly underscores what we’ve suspected all along… nothing captures “the intangibles” like good writing.
Apropos of a post earlier this month on limiting and culling overflowing book collections, Scott McLemee takes on the topic (via) in Inside Higher Ed. Leaving aside whether we are somehow seeing (in a trend that would fly in the face of publishing industry gloom-and-doomers) an explosion of ill advised impulse book buying around the world, lets have a look at the solutions recently proposed. Recall that the article mentioned in the above linked post suggested conducting “regular inspections of your library;” following “the ‘one in, one out’ rule;” spending “more to buy less by sticking with hardbacks;” using the library more, and “beginning to follow the ‘Google Books’ rule.McLemee looks at a professor, overrun by books, who has reached a breaking point. A case study of sorts:At the start, my correspondent estimated that he had 130 feet of books occupying his office. That works out to the equivalent, with ordinary bookshelves, of about 40 to 50 shelves’ worth. He said the moment of decision came when he realized that reducing the collection to “the hard core of actually useful information [without] a lot of filler” would have a fringe benefit: “I could fit a comfortable reading chair in my office.”It sounded like the first thing to go was the dream of reducing his holdings to just two or three dozen titles necessary for preparing lectures. This extreme ambition was revised to trimming down to roughly 60 feet of books. The effort would take a few days, he thought; and he hoped to finish before leaving on a trip that would take him away from the office for a week or so.Along the way the gamut of emotions are felt:There is a kind of exhilaration to it. But it requires full acceptance of the reality that there will be pain later: the remorse over titles you never retrieved from the discard pile.Not sure why I’m dwelling on this topic of late, but I suspect has to do with the fact that we’re moving again soon, and with that comes inevitable book culling, though this time the damage should be limited. Best of all, we’re finally (finally!) going to be moving somewhere where we’ll be living for more than a year, so I can unbox all the books and put them on some sort Mrs. Millions-created shelving masterpiece. Brilliant.
Jonathan Franzen occupies the cover of this week’s Time, and, as the magazine will happily point out, he’s the first novelist to do so in “more than a decade.” The Franzen cover—and the Franzen headline: “Great American Novelist”—is a pretty transparent bit of attention-mongering. After all, Franzen’s predecessor, Stephen King, got only one paragraph in his cover story, and Time profiled Franzen only four years ago. (Both Franzen stories include lots of bird watching and Lev Grossman.)
Still, Time could use a boost as much as literature, and it’s hard to fault the magazine. In fact, its choice of Franzen provides an opportunity to look back at Time‘s long history as literary arbiter and evangelist.
In The Powers That Be, David Halberstam writes that Time impresario Henry Luce
had a powerful sense of what people should read, what was good for them to read, and an essential belief worthy of the best journalist, that any subject of importance could be made interesting. Thus the cover story, the personalizing of issues so that a lay reader could become more interested and more involved in serious reading matter.
This same impulse seems to be at work in Time‘s Franzen cover. (Under the headline it reads: “His characters don’t solve mysteries, have magical powers or live in the future.”) Franzen himself has remarked on it. In his famous Harper’s essay “Perchance to Dream,” he writes that “my father, who was not a reader, nevertheless had some acquaintance with James Baldwin and John Cheever, because Time magazine put them on its cover.”
Franzen ends up arguing that a shift in Time‘s cover choices—from James Joyce to Scott Turow—offers more proof of America’s cultural decline. But just about every interaction between Time and a literary type has been characterized by a waffling between reaching out and selling out that, today, we’d describe as Franzean. Two favorite examples: When Bennett Cerf tried to convince William Faulkner to do a second Time cover, 15 years after his first, Faulkner asked for an estimate on how much it would add to Random House’s bottom line so that he could simply reimburse the publisher. In The Prisoner of Sex, Norman Mailer—who seems to have married Jeanne Campbell, Luce’s former mistress, for revenge as much as for love—recalls Time‘s offer of “a cover story on the author’s reactions to the most prominent phenomenon of the summer season: the extraordinary surge of interest in Women’s Liberation.” Despite having a movie to promote, Mailer decides that “only a fool would throw serious remarks into the hopper at Time.”
In 1923, Joseph Conrad appeared on Time‘s first bookish cover and its sixth overall. The story began:
Joseph Conrad, rover of the seven seas, has never set foot in the United States. Now he is coming. At about the end of this month the man who holds probably the most exalted position in contemporary English letters is to arrive here for a visit which it is hoped will last through May.
And that’s about it. Conrad’s entire cover story ran only 425 words, a standard length for early Time articles, and this first batch of literary covers were mostly linked to reviews. Thanks to the magazine’s short and punchy house style, these reviews always managed to include some biographical information. (The section on “The Author” came right after the one on “The Significance.”)
By the 1930s, though, you could see a formula beginning to set — a personalized opening, a capsule biography, some detailed description (Willa Cather “looks and talks like a kindly, sensible Middle-Western housewife, stout, low-heeled, good at marketing and mending“), and, above all, a few kind words about the author’s latest. Given Time‘s practice of deploying multiple reporters, these profiles were often the most thorough or invasive of their time. (The J. D. Salinger cover story is a good example of this.) Given Time‘s goal of reaching the broadest possible audience, these profiles also turned their subjects into rather flat characters: Cather the housewife, Hemingway the hunter, and so on.
The other thing to say about Time‘s audience is that, from the beginning, the magazine has paid attention to lowbrow lit. Its cover story on E. Phillips Oppenheim praises his “light fiction” and opens with a mutually flattering comparison to Henry Ford, and this is one of many such examples. In fact, after surveying its literary history, I’m more surprised that Time hasn’t put Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer on its cover than that Jonathan Franzen made the cut. (Time did put Harry Potter on its cover for what was essentially a profile of J. K. Rowling.)
Below, you too can survey this history through links to the covers and cover stories for each of Time‘s literary stars. Read them to chuckle at the magazine’s weakness for hype (Robinson Jeffers is someone “a considerable public now considers the most impressive poet the U. S. has yet produced“). Read them to get a contemporary perspective on some historical figures (though don’t expect the best and the brightest: Lillian Ross‘s New Yorker profile of Hemingway, for example, is much better than Time‘s). Read them to marvel at Time‘s uncanny ability to feature the best writers’ worst books. Most of all, read them to watch how this red-bordered cultural institution ferries between the high and the low. The Virginia Woolf cover story is especially good at this, but all of them do it to one degree or another. Even Jonathan Franzen’s.
Time put 14 authors on its cover in the 1920s, 23 in the 1930s, seven in the 1940s, 11 in the 1950s, 10 in the 1960s, eight in the 1970s, four in the 1980s, four in the 1990s, one in the 2000s, and, now, Franzen in 2010. That adds up to an objective-sounding 83, but I should explain my principles in compiling this list. While Time also likes to revive dead authors—Faulkner, for example, submitted to that second cover in 1964, two years after his death—I included only living authors who wrote primarily imaginative work: novels, plays, or poetry. These criteria still left room for some judgment calls—William Allen White did not make the list because he’s better known for his politics and his newspapering (and because White’s cover story focuses on his Kansas gubernatorial campaign), but I kept Upton Sinclair and the cover story on his California gubernatorial campaign. Feel free to dispute my choices or to add anyone I missed in the comments.
Each entry includes the author’s name and, where applicable, the name of the work that prompted the profile. There are also links to a print-friendly version of the cover story and to an image of the cover itself. In fact, thanks to Time‘s new paywall, the Franzen cover story is the only one you can’t read online.
Israel Zangwill. “Imaginary Interviews: Israel Zangwill, Englishman of Letters.” September 17, 1923. Cover image.
Amy Lowell / John Keats. “Miss Lowell Eulogizes, Analyzes, Forgives the Poet.” March 2, 1925. Cover image.
August 6th marked the 64th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and today marks the anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki. As part of its op-ed page this weekend, the Los Angeles Times offered several firsthand accounts of the bombings by survivors, taken from a documentary made by the Hiroshima Peace Cultural Center. You can find the complete, translated transcripts of these testimonies at this link.Here is an excerpt from the testimony of Akihiro Takahashi who was 14 at the time of the Hiroshima bombing:That was the moment when the blast came. And then the tremendous noise came and we were left in the dark. I couldn’t see anything at the moment of explosion just like in this picture. We had been blown by the blast. Of course, I couldn’t realize this until the darkness disappeared. I was actually blown about 10 m. My friends were all marked down on the ground by the blast just like this. Everything collapsed for as far as I could see. I felt the city of Hiroshima had disappeared all of a sudden. Then I looked at myself and found my clothes had turned into rags due to the heat. I was probably burned at the back of the head, on my back, on both arms and both legs. My skin was peeling and hanging like this. Automatically I began to walk heading west because that was the direction of my home. After a while, I noticed somebody calling my name. I looked around and found a friend of mine who lived in my town and was studying at the same school. His name was Yamamoto. He was badly burnt just like myself. We walked toward the river. And on the way we saw many victims. I saw a man whose skin was completely peeled off the upper half of his body and a woman whose eye balls were sticking out. Her whole baby was bleeding. A mother and her baby were lying with a skin completely peeled off. We desperately made a way crawling. And finally we reached the river bank. At the same moment, a fire broke out. We made a narrow escape from the fire. If we had been slower by even one second, we would have been killed by the fire.
Three and a half years ago in some brief comments on Michael Lewis’ seminal memoir of Wall Street in the 1980s, Liar’s Poker, I noted,While the period that Lewis chronicles is interesting in its own right, its impact is somewhat diminished by the many corporate scandals and Wall Street improprieties that have occurred since the book was first published. Against this backdrop, Liar’s Poker is no longer an exceptional story that defined an era, it is merely another moment in the cycle of Wall Street corruption and ensuing retribution that continues today.In a remarkable piece for Portfolio magazine this week, Lewis revisits Liar’s Poker amid the wreckage of Wall Street and readily admits that the book now seems “quaint,” tragically so:I thought I was writing a period piece about the 1980s in America. Not for a moment did I suspect that the financial 1980s would last two full decades longer or that the difference in degree between Wall Street and ordinary life would swell into a difference in kind. I expected readers of the future to be outraged that back in 1986, the C.E.O. of Salomon Brothers, John Gutfreund, was paid $3.1 million; I expected them to gape in horror when I reported that one of our traders, Howie Rubin, had moved to Merrill Lynch, where he lost $250 million; I assumed they’d be shocked to learn that a Wall Street C.E.O. had only the vaguest idea of the risks his traders were running. What I didn’t expect was that any future reader would look on my experience and say, “How quaint.”And:In the two decades since then, I had been waiting for the end of Wall Street. The outrageous bonuses, the slender returns to shareholders, the never-ending scandals, the bursting of the internet bubble, the crisis following the collapse of Long-Term Capital Management: Over and over again, the big Wall Street investment banks would be, in some narrow way, discredited. Yet they just kept on growing, along with the sums of money that they doled out to 26-year-olds to perform tasks of no obvious social utility. The rebellion by American youth against the money culture never happened. Why bother to overturn your parents’ world when you can buy it, slice it up into tranches, and sell off the pieces?In the long piece, Lewis posits, convincingly, that the obit for Wall Street that he wrote more than twenty years prematurely is finally relevant, though rendered absurd by the cataclysmic collapse.The essay is a must read. In it he profiles a few who will, when the dust eventually settles, be known as – not the heroes; there are no heroes – the ones who saw it coming. And at the end he sits down with the legendary Gutfreund, whose career Liar’s Poker ruined, for the first time since Lewis left Solomon Brothers back in the 1980s.Kottke also highlighted the Lewis article today and he points out that this essay is likely material (along with several others Kottke points to) for a forthcoming book that Lewis intends to write about the death of Wall Street as we knew it. There’s little doubt that this new book will be the obit that Liar’s Poker was meant to be.
The discussion about the future of book criticism can seem like a bubble sometimes, but I was reminded, in A.O. Scott’s charming tribute to Roger Ebert in Sunday’s New York Times, that book reviewers and their readers should not feel singled out in these challenging times. Scott noted the disappearance of movie critics as well at papers across the country, due to layoffs, buyouts, and cutting costs, adding:Such attrition is hardly limited to movie reviewers, and it has more to do with the economics of newspapers than with the health of criticism as a cultural undertaking. If you spend time prowling the blogs, you may discover that the problem is not a shortage of criticism but a glut: an endless, sometimes bracing, sometimes vexing barrage of deep polemic, passionate analysis and fierce contention reflecting nearly every possible permutation of taste and sensibility.I noted a year ago that the this same issue of the “economics of newspapers” had more to do with the demise of newspaper book coverage than anything else:The important thing to remember, I think, is that the disappearance of book sections isn’t a book section problem, it’s a newspaper industry problem, and the solution to book section woes will come with the solutions to the larger newspaper industry problems.Scott also takes umbrage at the notion that Ebert’s famous TV career (which first brought him recognition with a show called “Sneak Previews”) was somehow damaging to film criticism as a whole:It seems to me that “Sneak Previews” and its descendants, far from advancing the vulgarization of film criticism, extended its reach and strengthened its essentially democratic character.The same, perhaps, could be said of the role of personal publishing in film and book criticism which revels in the “essentially democratic character” of these pursuits.I also noticed at one point in Scott’s profile that he describes Ebert as an “enthusiast.” This word can be derogatory, comparing the “amateur” critic to the professional one, but Scott uses it in a different sense, making clear a difference in attitudes and aims – enthusiasm versus criticism. This isn’t to suggest that an enthusiast blindly loves every film he sees and that the critic is filled with disdain, it merely describes two different approaches, both useful and neither mutually exclusive and each speaking to audiences in certain ways. Part of the tension felt right now, perhaps, is that blogging and the internet have allowed for enthusiasm to encroach upon the terrain of criticism at a time when the arts landscape itself seems to be shrinking. Ebert (and Scott in his praise for him), however, provide a useful reminder that audiences perhaps gravitate most towards unique voices that are able to offer both enthusiasm and criticism rather than attempt to demarcate the boundaries between the two.