I’ve posted an introduction to my nominee for this round at the LBC. Unfortunately the book didn’t win, but it was still a great read. You’ll have to go to the LBC blog to find out who it is.
Whither the book? A question we at The Millions struggle with on a semi-regular basis, and one that has inspired the National Library of Spain to commission a project entitled “The Last Book.” Uruguayan artist Luis Camnitzer has been entrusted with the task, and he in turn is calling for the writers (and readers) of the world to contribute.The book, which will be displayed in the library’s entry hall, is projected to serve as both a paean to the golden age of reading, and a reminder of what it is we stand to lose every time we choose the TV over a book. The book itself (if the installation ends up being one…) will incorporate visual and written elements from contributors famous, infamous and unknown and serve as “a stimulus for a possible reactivation of culture in case of disappearance by negligence, catastrophe or conflagration.” Presumably, the book will also come in useful in the event of subjugation by damn, dirty apes.Although I am far from convinced that books (or human civilization) are in danger of extinction, I intend to contribute something just in case. If we’re taking a mulligan on human civilization, after all, I can think of a few things I’d like changed. Contributions to the book are being accepted through October 15.
Okay, here’s the thing: I’m not usually this inattentive. As a matter of fact, I’ve often prided myself on being a focused, interested listener. So it was with astonishment that I found myself lost in a memory of my own, not five minutes after author Clare Morrall began to read. Don’t blame her. She’s a fine reader, and indeed, from the part of the reading that I paid attention to, a fine writer as well. But it’s scarcely my fault either.She was introducing us to the principal characters of Natural Flights of the Human Mind whose lives would intersect along the Devon coast when suddenly, in the narrative, she drew our attention to a dinghy in the water. And then she mentioned the dinghy again. That’s all it took – and I was gone. I was suddenly ten years old, on holiday with my mother and father in Virginia Beach. My mother and I had taken our inflatable dinghy out for the afternoon and we were a fair distance away from the shore when we realized that the current was getting stronger and no amount of frantic paddling would right the course. Small and rather lopsided, I wasn’t the most accomplished oarsman. Then, adrift for what seemed like ages, we saw my father walking all the way out to our wayward craft, his head never once submerging, and then pulling it back to the shore, shaking his head while his human cargo was alternately sheepish and dumbfounded.So this is what played out in my head while Ms. Morrall progressed with her own dinghy-related narrative. If I were reading her story, I would simply have flipped back the requisite number of pages and resumed her tale beginning from where my attention was diverted. But I couldn’t very well interrupt her public reading and ask her to repeat.I was jolted back into her world, or at least to the no-man’s land of the auditorium, but I was hopelessly lost. I looked around and saw dozens of people, their eyes glued to the stage and their emotions being maneuvered this way and that – a chuckle, a gasp. I could’ve been one of them. I can chuckle and gasp with the best of them, but I simply couldn’t re-connect with her tale. It had passed me by. My own memory-narrative, however, was right there, within reach, and I had been paying full attention to that, so once again, while the reading progressed in that strange world around me, I resumed my own narrative – thinking about how each summer from when we immigrated to Canada when I was two, up until my mid-teens, we’d pack up the car and begin exploring our new continent, first tentatively throughout Ontario and then gradually, over several summers, Quebec, the Maritime provinces, and then down along the eastern seaboard from Maine to the Carolinas and points inland. Over several years we claimed dozens of cities and towns as our own.Even the most conscientious listener (and again, by that I mean me) must have an assortment of trigger words which will stop him dead in his tracks and spirit him away to some memory – a narrative itself, and one no less rich than one committed to the printed page. Tough competition for any author giving a reading. The worst thing would be for Ms. Morrall to take my negligence personally. Short of not using the word “dinghy” there’s nothing she could really have done to prevent this. The trigger was just too strong; and the memory powerful enough to trample on even the best public reader. It’s surprising, really, that with all the memories floating around in my head, each with its own set of trigger words, that I’m not spirited away more often.The funny thing is that with other art forms, this “spiriting away” would be acceptable, even encouraged. It’s high praise when a painting or a piece of music transports you somewhere else. But the printed word, especially when recited, is a fickle mistress. It tempts you with it’s suggestive powers, but then as soon as you succumb to the temptation, as soon as you’re transported somewhere else, it leaves you behind, lost and adrift.
In the first wave of articles on Governor Sarah Palin at The New York Times, I came across a reader-comment that Ms. Palin looked like Geena Davis in the TV show Commander-in-Chief. In this short-lived 2005 drama, Davis played the first woman Vice President, who ascends to the presidency after the death of the President. The Times reader’s comment also reminded me of another fictional first president, 24’s President David Palmer (played by Dennis Haysburt). Had this wildly popular (and very long running – Haysburt played the president from 2001-2005) imaginary depiction of a black president helped acclimate Americans to the idea? I found myself wondering if shows like Commander-in-Chief and 24, which offer fictional visions of scenarios that have not yet come to pass, give history a nudge. Can art/entertainment (the distinction between these two being a debatable one) help us as a culture imagine historical changes – and so help to bring them into being?It would not be the first time in our history that art has given life – and particularly public opinion and national politics – a little push. There is the famous (and quite possibly apocryphal) story of Abraham Lincoln meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Or, Life Among the Lowly, in 1861, and greeting her with words, “So this is the little lady who started this Great War.” Apocryphal stories aside, Stowe’s novel from 1852, sometimes considered a direct response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 but more likely the result of Stowe’s lifelong belief that slavery was a sin in the eyes of God, sold 300,000 copies in the US in its first year and went on to be the first international American bestseller, and the best-selling book of the century, after the Bible. While the novel’s sentimentality and deeply Christian worldview can be alienating to some modern readers, its vivid narrative – by turns realist, gothic, and melodramtic – is undeniably haunting (though its perpetuation of black stereotypes has become proverbial). Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been credited with capturing the national imagination, raising national consciousness, and giving the issues of slavery and emancipation a national urgency that precipitated the Civil War.Stowe’s work – not that of the freed slave turned orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass – is more often assigned the role of cultural catalyst in the American move toward abolition. Douglass’ work, both for its status as a first-hand account of life as a slave, and for the power and intelligence of Douglass’ narrative voice, is far superior to Stowe’s, but it is Stowe’s – the more melodramatic, the more imaginative, the more comparable to television drama – that sold 10,000 copies in its first week, while Douglass’ best-selling 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave had 11,000 copies in circulation only after three years in print. Also suggestive of a television-esque quality, Stowe’s Uncle Tom was originally published serially in a magazine – in episodes. If popularity in fiction is any indication of a country’s readiness for a historical change in fact, it would seem that America is ready for a black president but perhaps not quite ready for a female running mate who stands a decent chance of ascending to the presidency (given McCain’s age and history of skin cancer). It’s all much more complicated than this, of course, but I find the idea that the imaginary can give shape to the real (in a non-Don Quixote-ish way) quite captivating.
Scott’s Friday Column is a thoughtful look at why independent bookstores in the Bay Area, and everywhere else, seem to be disappearing.All this has taken a toll on me, the book shopper. Whereas I once aimlessly browsed through local bookstores thinking of nothing other than a new book, I now keep an eye out for warning signs, wondering which one will be the next to fall.
From Michael Chabon’s site, an update on his forthcoming novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and a preview of The Best American Short Stories 2005, which Chabon is editing. The inclusion of “at least four” genre stories, including ones by Dennis Lehane and Tom Bissell, will surely rankle literary purists.Letters to Frank Conroy from his studentsThe AP’s books guy, Hillel Italie, profiles FSG and highlights their penchant for publishing award-winning books.