If my college had offered a class on the New Yorker, I definitely would have taken it, but it didn’t, and, until today, I wasn’t aware that any colleges did. What a great idea for a class. Last fall, Prof. Bryant Mangum of Virginia Commonwealth University taught a class called Literature in Society: The New Yorker. Each class is constructed like an issue of the magazine with the assignments divided into these parts: Goings on About Town, The Talk of the Town, Features: Fact/Fiction, The Critics, Poems. Aside from the magazine itself, required reading includes classic New Yorker fiction. Perhaps coolest of all is Mangum’s Miscellany page which includes scans of a New Yorker rejection slip, note and check.
Flip to the back of a new book. What do you see? Blurbs. Line after line of praise, proclamations, and predictions. Tucked in a small corner square is an author’s photo, a passport-size acknowledgment of the face behind the book. Often those faces are hidden inside a jacket flap. Bring back the book jacket photo. Bring back those full-page portraits that pronounced I wrote a book, damn it. For The Reivers, William Faulkner stands in front of a bookshelf full of Modern Library titles. He wears a tie and suspenders, with The Philosophy of Nietzsche and Cities of the Plain at his back. He doesn’t look at us, but at the book open in his hands. Framed in gold and set against black, Louise Erdrich’s photo for Tales of Burning Love feels pronounced. The novel begins: “Holy Saturday in an oil boomtown with no insurance. Toothache.” You can hear Erdrich, confident yet controlled, spin that yarn for us. I’m a little afraid for Richard Ford on the back of Rock Springs, his collection of stories. Ford stands in the middle of a snow-lined Montana dirt road, against a backdrop of mountains. He doesn’t seem too concerned, and the pose matches the prose, after all. The first line of the title story is “Edna and I had started down from Kalispell, heading for Tampa-St. Pete where I still had some friends from the old glory days who wouldn’t turn me in to the police.” A novel is an accomplishment, something to be celebrated. Paradise by Toni Morrison got a fuller photo treatment than Beloved and Song of Solomon, and the author deserves it. Morrison’s countenance tells us: here is a story. Read it. “Even a selected display of one’s early work,” John Cheever writes in the preface to The Stories of John Cheever, “will be a naked history of one’s struggle to receive an education in economics and love.” Cheever, wearing an open-necked shirt and sport jacket, smiles on the back. He looks pleasantly resigned. John Steinbeck channels Vincent Price on the back of The Winter of Our Discontent. Appropriate for the novel’s ominous epigraph: “Readers seeking to identify the fictional people and places here described would do better to inspect their own communities and search their own hearts, for this book is about a large part of America today.” Published in 1992, Susan Minot’s shot on the back of Folly is early '90s cool: hair up, back, and messed, with an unbuttoned denim jacket. An interesting contrast with a work of historical fiction prefaced by an endlessly appropriate quote from Blaise Pascal: “Man is so necessarily foolish that not to be a fool is merely a varied freak of folly.” Previously: Edan Lepucki on Marion Ettlinger
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A few posts back I touched upon the idea of the "style guide." As a newly minted journalism student, I have been taught that these guides are essential for creating the "clean copy" that my editors will want to see. They are fascinating books in a way. In my AP Stylebook some entries are brief, just one word: tiptop says one, instructing me not hyphenate. Other entries go on for a few pages like the one for possessives, which explains how to deal with "nouns the same in singular and plural," "special expressions," and "quasi possessives." I know, exciting. One of the undercurrents of journalism school seems to be that writing is a lot more than just putting words on paper. There are rules to be followed and facts to be vetted. The rules are covered by the Stylebook, but vetting the facts can often be done with The World Almanac and Book of Facts, where one might discover a daily astronomy calendar, a list of popes, and the name of every town in Alabama with more than 5,000 people. Armed with these two books, I ought to have much of the guidance I need, but I have also been known to refer to a couple of my favorite writing reference books when necessary. The Elements of Style is a thin, little book that is so elegant and efficient in teaching proper usage it supersedes many of the fatter, drier grammar books you may have encountered in your studies. I also love my The Synonym Finder, which I bought when I worked at the book store after a customer became misty when describing her devotion to it. I'm glad I bought it. Every time I go looking for a synonym, I find one so good that it feels like I'm cheating somehow. My reference library is by no means complete, however. I'm still looking for that perfect dictionary (any recommendations?). And though I'm always dropping hints that I'd love to get a nice hefty atlas for a gift, I still haven't received one.
Along with the New Yorker, the only magazine that I read regularly is Colors. Since it comes out every two months or so, spotting a new one on the newsstand is a real treat. Each issue is devoted to a specific theme, from the very broad like Water, to the very narrow; at one point an entire issue was devoted to a South American wood chopper named Rolando Trujillo. The new issue that I read today is all about the city of Birmingham, Engand. In typical Colors fashion, this issue combines the testimony of individuals with statistics and striking photography to give a surprisingly insightful picture of its subject. Colors is one of the few examples of putting the magazine medium to good use.Heard on the RadioThere was a quick review of The Kalahari Typing School for Men by Alexander McCall Smith on All Things Considered this afternoon. I've heard from several people that his series of books (this new one is the fourth) is worth reading. They are detective novels. The hero is a woman named Precious Ramotswe. The setting is Botswana. I'm told that this exotic locale sets these already charming stories apart. And since I have always loved stories set in faraway places, I hope to get around to this set sooner rather than later.
The New Yorker has unveiled a new version of its Web site, and while I applaud its clean look, the addition of much more content accessible from the front page, and RSS feeds, there is one major problem: links to much of the site's content from the years the magazine has been online are, as of this writing, broken. This means the many, many links to New Yorker articles and stories in The Millions archives no longer work, rendering posts like my roundup of the magazine's fiction in 2005 much less useful. On the other hand, perhaps they used the redesign as an opportunity to clear out the archives so that more folks would buy the Complete New Yorker.See also: Kottke takes a more in depth look at the redesign.
The long-awaited Iraq Study Group Report has been making headlines for months as Americans, weary of the war and our continuing struggles in Iraq, look for some fresh angles on this seemingly intractable mess. It should come as no surprise then that the book version of the report, which hit stores today, is shaping up to be a bestseller, as the Amazon ranking makes clear (and as has been discussed in a couple of wire stories today).In this respect, it follows in the footsteps another report by an independent bipartisan group that turned out to be a hit in stores, The 9/11 Commission Report, which was deemed sufficiently well-crafted to be named a National Book Award finalist. Not only that, a Graphic Adaptation of the book was created as well. The (salacious) granddaddy of this genre, of course, was the Starr Report, which sold approximately one million copies in book form but is now more or less out of print. (It will interesting to see if the two books mentioned above are still in print eight years from now. I suspect they will be.)Americans are often derided here and abroad for not being readers and for being disengaged with current events, but I think the success of these books goes a long way toward suggesting otherwise.Update: If you'd prefer to read the whole Iraq Study Group Report online (or print off a copy) you can get it at the United States Institute of Peace Web site, where, according to a Washington Post article (which has a lot of great tidbits about the report and how popular its been bookstores) "400,000 people downloaded the report within hours" of its release.
I once lived for furthering my collection of autographed books. Getting a book signed meant going to hear the author read, waiting in line with other fans, and then, finally, being presented with the chance to utter words of praise. Sometimes it meant getting teary-eyed with envy, worrying over whether I would ever write anything so poignant. This happened when Amy Tan walked by in purple velvet with her lap dog trailing behind her. During middle and high school, at the height of my obsession with autographs, I spent a lot of time writing letters, poems that exhibited the same longing for impossible love, and short stories that revealed I was fixated on the same themes of displacement and loneliness that I am now. I heard Jamaica Kincaid read twice. The first time she read at the local university from her novel Lucy. I was in seventh grade and inexperienced in matters of love. She read a passage about sucking on a boy’s tongue and I was mesmerized. She stood before a large audience and I couldn’t help but see that she was someone important. The second time I went to hear her read, I got Lucy signed by her before she spoke. My father told her that I wanted to be a writer. She didn’t say anything, only proudly signed her name. Later, during the Q & A, she asked in perfectly enunciated words, “Where is that girl who wants to be a writer?” I shyly raised my hand. She went on to recommend Gertrude Stein to me. Following the reading, I began to imagine Jamaica Kincaid as my writing teacher. With her intimidating stature, I divined she would be just as intimidating of a teacher. I thought only she would be capable of whipping my writing into shape. I wanted her to treat my writing so harshly that my only option would be improvement. Yevgeniy Yevtushenko read in Russian at the Jewish Community Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Neither my father nor I spoke Russian, but my father decided to expose me to culture. What I remember is Yevtushenko’s ostentatious blue jacket and his sweeping gestures when he spoke. I later learned Russian, partly thanks to falling in love with his incomprehensible poetic voice, I read some of the poems from his collected works, wondering which he might have read that evening. When Jennifer Egan came to the suburban Barnes and Nobel to read from her novel The Invisible Circus, my mother and I were the only audience members. Afterwards, I asked Egan one of those typical questions about her writing schedule. I came away with the interesting information that she worked part-time as a detective. Later, I composed a letter to her, which led to another obsession. I spent a grand portion of the day waiting for the mail. A letter was just another passage into the literary world. Not only was I waiting for personal letters, I was also waiting for acceptances from literary journals. The postman arrived after I got home from school, so I would sit in the armchair near the window and wait for his footsteps. They would culminate in the metal clamor of the mailbox closing. When he had moved on to the next house, I would open the door and collect the mail. I received one response from Jennifer Egan and an acceptance from a neighborhood newspaper, but most often I received letters from my pen pal who lived on the other side of the city. I met her at a poetry reading at a café called Brewed Awakenings. I played Irish tin whistle and read some poetry. She came up to me afterwards and gave me a copy of the literary journal called Zink in which she had been published. She was also a writer and yet she was incredibly accessible. She asked for my address, and pulled a blank piece of paper from the pouch around her neck for me to write on. I felt uncomfortable about giving a stranger my address, but I did it anyway. At that time of my life I said “yes” to everything. To my surprise, a few days later I received a typed letter from her in a handmade envelope. I wrote back and she was quick to respond. It wasn’t long before I began to live my life in order to write it to her in a letter. The events that occurred during the day, occurred so that I could describe them. It was then that my writing probably took on its autobiographical quality. As an adult, I haven’t had such a faithful pen pal, another writer with whom to commiserate. The advent of email and real responsibilities make it impossible to live just for handwritten letters, but most of all, it’s hard to find someone who can be a friend and somewhat of an idol at the same time. Though I once attended readings regularly and took great comfort in spending Sunday night at the fiction series at the KGB Bar, some of the luster has been lost. Writers seem so accessible that an autographed book doesn’t bring me the same pleasure as it once did and writers seem just as much friends as idols. Now a writer myself, I realize that writing isn’t such a magical process. Still, there are moments when I can happily transport myself to those simpler times of books and letters, the time when I was open to every ounce of experience. Just recently I came away from a reading with a signed copy of Joshua Cohen’s Witz, heard Mary Gaitskill read at the crowded Franklin Park Reading Series, and went to hear Cory Doctorow, Rivka Galchen, and Gary Schteyngart talk about the bleak future while drinking dark and stormys. I also went to hear Jennifer Egan read at Greenlight Bookstore. This time it was to a packed house, inspiring me with the possibility that my writing can also grow in this way. [Image credit: Weston Boyd]
I have a short article in the latest issue of Poets & Writers.The piece grew out of a post here on the blog a while back about LibraryThing, the Web-based book cataloging community. For the record, I haven't yet put all of my books into LibraryThing, though I probably will at some point. I've been putting it off because I know that once I get started I won't be able to stop and, well, I just don't have the free time at the moment.