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.
Alone (I’d be willing to bet) among the Millions staff, I am a reader of Vogue. Not, I often think, a sensible choice: Much of what one finds to read between the covers of the average monthly issue is utter tripe, I willingly admit – at least if you’re not an heiress. The ideal reader of Vogue is a lady who lunches (preferably in New York and on two lettuce leaves washed down with fine white wine) and many of the magazine’s readings reflect this demographic: For example, Sally Singer’s dead-earnest account of how hard it was for her to get back in shape for a gala at the Met after having a baby, or Tomasin Day-Lewis’ equally un-self-aware recounting of how scary it was when her son almost, sort-of got hurt while skiing. Depending on one’s mood, these pieces can be hysterical, infuriating, or fascinating (as anthropological bits of evidence in support of Fitzgerald’s assertion that “the rich are different from you and me”). But these are not what keep me a reader.No, I read Vogue for Jeffrey Steingarten – one of the finest food writers on the planet. The irony of finding The Man Who Ate Everything in the midst of pages and pages of photographs of 100 pound, six-foot-tall women is hardly one I am the first to note, but a man of Steingarten’s superbly well-developed sense of humor, I imagine, relishes this irony anew every month. Steingarten’s style of essay is a delightful mix of personal narrative and culinary reportage, and while he occasionally (not always) finds himself in rarified surroundings, he has the blessed sense not to pretend they’re otherwise (as many of Vogue’s contributors – to other, unintentionally comic ends – do). He is both dyed-in-the-wool food enthusiast, connoisseur, and self-deprecating comic hero, and his contribution to the November issue, “Temptation Island,” is a fine example of his gifts, both comic and culinary. (Which is to say that if you find yourself in a hair salon or a doctor’s office and see the issue with Jennifer Connolly in a dark blue dress on the cover, do yourself a favor and turn to page 379).Since I cannot offer a link to the text of this article, I offer instead a few liberal quotes from Vogue as a Steingarten-ian aperitif. This month’s article is an account of his trip to a resort in the Maldives with his wife, a trip he approaches with trepidation, fearing both resort group activities and (more grave) that there will be nothing good to eat. Reminiscing about resort group activities past, he writes:I particularly remember a nightmarish diving excursion off the coast of Maui into the spectacular crater of an extinct volcano called Molokini, led by a guy who believed he was Don Ho, and his partner, who answered to the name of Snorkel Bill and had an unbreakably amiable demeanor, at least until an unexpected storm arose and we all tried to climb back on board up a ladder that gyrated so violently that some of us were thrown back into Molokini and one was knocked out, while a half-dozen sharks circled beneath the boat – but that’s a story for another time.And of his wife’s spa treatments:By this time my wife was carefully plotting her visits to the spa. The first of these, an Ayurvedic treatment for her long-standing sinus condition, took place the next morning, before breakfast. The Ayurvedic practitioner had her lie on a wooden massage table, which he then tilted to lower her head as he squirted a mixture of 62 herbs into her nose. Before long, the liquid had flowed down into her mouth. The doctor was surprised when this caused my wife to throw up, but, she recalls, he got out of the way in time; once this emergency had passed, and for the following month, my wife’s sinus condition was cured! She was meant to return for two more meetings with the 62 herbs but quietly let the opportunity slip by.And, finally, a morsel about Maldivian food:Our first Maldivian dish was a clear tuna soup called Garudiya that, I had been told, every Maldivian family eats every day of the year; pieces of yellowfin tuna are boiled with vegetables and red and black pepper, and the result is pungent and deeply flavored. There were five other dishes, including a stir-fry of squash with mustard seeds and sweet ketchup; a redfish curry; a bright yellow sweet potato curry; a salad of the sweetest lettuces with fresh coconut, chili, and onion. It would have taken us a month or two to exhaust this place, in all of its novelty and variety, but far less time to exhaust our bank account.These morsels do not quite do Steingarten justice. Excerpts never do, I suppose, but I promise delight to those who seek out the full text.And, for those averse to Vogue reading, Steingarten can also be consumed in book form: The Man Who Ate Everything, and It Must’ve Been Something I Ate. (But you do thereby deny yourself the strange sensation of disjunction caused by reading about a spring roll binge on a page flanked by images of the waifiest of waifs.)
Yesterday my friend Yakut emailed me the article “Federer as Religious Experience” by David Foster Wallace, which appeared in the New York Times’ Play Magazine on August 20, 2006 (available here). Wallace penned an immaculate piece on Roger Federer, who also happens to be my favorite tennis player these days. As per his custom, Wallace resorts to 17 footnotes, provides detailed accounts of what he terms “Federer Moments” from the Nadal v. Federer Wimbledon Final of 2006, comments – in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, of course – on the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum and the tournament’s rules. It is a great ode to Federer, and contains a healthy rebuke of Nadal – who happens to be my least favorite pro these days. If you’re a tennis – and DFW – fan, enjoyed his essays in Consider the Lobster, and do not have the guts to restart Infinite Jest just yet, but would like to continue reading some brilliant prose, you should definitely check it out.
I’m not really one to analyze the New York Times Book Review, but I noticed that the section got a couple of mentions in the journalism industry magazine Editor & Publisher. The first points out that the section’s online version has introduced a new bestseller list, one devoted to politics. The usefulness of such lists aside, the introduction of a politics list highlights how important these books – often little more than lengthy screeds coming from the Left or Right – have become to the bottom line for the publishing industry. From the New York Times’ point of view, it’s “‘The more best-seller lists, the better,’ Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the Book Review, told E&P.”Separately, E&P published a piece about the glowing review that the Times gave to The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina by its own columnist Frank Rich. As E&P puts it: Ian Buruma, the well-known author, in a front-page review, offers enthusiastic praise both for the book and most of Rich’s commentary, which is extremely critical of the media for shirking its watchdog role in the runup to the Iraq war. The Times itself gets hit by its own columnist.So, to recap, the Times praises a book which is critical of the Times but is written by a Times columnist. It’s a small world, no?
I read with interest D.T. Max’s article in the recent Summer Fiction Issue of the New Yorker covering the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, which is, by the sound of it, one of the world’s most important literary archives. The piece mostly covered the library’s director Thomas Staley, and his impressive skill in locking down the papers of some of history’s greatest writers, but it also delved into descriptions of the papers themselves.I suppose I’d never really thought of it before reading this article, but I was surprised at the sheer mass that these collections represent. For example, Norman Mailer’s “archive – weighing twenty thousand pounds in all – came to the center in a tractor trailer.” And that’s just one of many, many archives. In all, the collection “contains thirty-six million manuscript pages, five million photographs, a million books, and ten thousand objects, including a lock of Byron’s curly brown hair.” The Texas is also old school in the way it approaches its collection.Staley’s conservatism extends beyond his literary taste. He does not want to place the Ransom’s archives online. He believes, quoting Matthew Arnold, that “the object as in itself it really is” can never be replaced by a digital reproduction. “Smell this,” he told me one time when I was in his office, as he picked up a manuscript box from the Edwardian British publisher Cecil Palmer. We inhaled the scent: tobacco, mold, dust. “See, there’s information in the smell, too,” he said.Be that as it may, the objects that Staley covets for the Texas collection may not be as plentiful in the coming years.I was fascinated, for example, by Don Delillo’s papers as described by D.T. Max in the New Yorker: Delillio’s manuscripts “were eerily immaculate – embalmed in acid-free manila folders inside blue legal-sized boxes, each about the size of an accordion folder.”Compare this to a recent article in the New York Times discussing the increasing use of technology and software in crafting fiction. The article’s centerpiece is Richard Powers, whose affinity for technology is well known. Instead of piles of paper, Powerspoured the background research into hyperlinked notebooks using Microsoft OneNote, a program more commonly used by businesses, which allows you to combine text documents, e-mail, images, spreadsheets and video and audio material into one searchable document. He then mapped out possible changing interactions between characters. “These notebook sections gradually grew into the kernels of individual dramatic scenes, which I could then work up in parallel,” Powers said. “The combination of software programs (each of which links seamlessly into the other) allowed for simultaneous top-down and bottom-up composition.”I would guess that some archivists might find it upsetting that, increasingly, modern day authors won’t leave dusty boxes of paper to sift through. Correspondence will be collected in email form, and background research will include hyperlinks and spreadsheets, images and video. This doesn’t jibe with the classic notion of doing literary research, but it will also open dazzling opportunities, as notable writers’ papers will exist in digital form from the outset, and won’t be physically limited to certain institutions. In this way we may trace the links and paths set down by writers as they crafted their work. We will be able to sift through the “dusty boxes” from our desks, wherever we are.
Don’t let the lame title fool you – James Ryerson’s Times Magazine essay on David Foster Wallace’s early philosophical writings is a valuable step toward understanding both the novelist and the intellectual situation in which he found himself. Most substantially, Ryerson’s reading of Wallace’s senior thesis reveals a writer concerned not with language qua language, but with the ostensibly discredited field of metaphysics – or rather, with the space between the two.Wallace was the kind of writer who could do anything with language, but seemed to see native gifts, including his own, as pitfalls rather than accomplishments. (Spare a thought for poor Orin Incandenza, trapped under glass.) His pyrotechnic prose style made it easy for some critics to miss, but even as an undergrad, Wallace was aiming higher than mere felicity.Characteristically (for anyone who made it through Everything and More), Wallace’s thesis defends the possibility of metaphysics through a kind of reductio proof. He shows the insufficiency of other philosophical premises, including those of the philosophy of language, for addressing the basic experience of being in the world. This phenomenological move seems to me be about as far as anyone has gotten in the modernist project of clearing the field of philosophy; it echoes the struggles of Wittgenstein, which in turn echo through Wallace’s two long novels. And it explains the sense of aesthetic aporia that hangs over discussions of contemporary fiction.At the same time, Wallace’s ostensible shift from philosophy to fiction points toward an exit. Most of what philosophers have achieved since the modernist moment has come in some genre other than the propositional argument: manifesto, koan, literary criticism… and, yes, literary fiction. And so the end point of Wallace’s thesis seems to mark the beginning of his career as a philosopher – a career he pursued by writing fiction. In literature, he found a “conceptual tool with which [to pursue] life’s most desperate questions” that shortened the “distance from the connections he struggled to make.” It will be the work of future critics to elucidate those connections, without neglecting or negating the singularity of their expression.