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.
So, What’s new this week? Studs Turkel might be the originator of the “oral history” genre that seems to be reaching market saturation of late. After a while, it just seems like a lazy way to write a history book, even if it is the undeniably rockin’ history of punk. Turkel strays from these glorified interviewers in a couple of ways. First, he is adept at picking broad but compelling subjects and at finding the common and divergent threads that run through these subjects. His huge seller from 1972, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, is an incredibly readable chronicle of the most common of American experiences. Second, as I have already implied, Turkel is able to paint history in the words of everyday people, not famous folks who practically make a living giving interviews, sketch comedy actors, for example. His new book, Hope Dies Last is the study of his most esoteric subject yet, America’s collective loss of hope and the decline in social activism that has accompanied it. Once again, he solicits the views of people from different generations and walks of life. Speaking of different walks of life, lots of folks out there seem to be excited by the general who is ready trade in his stars for a chance to become the President. Those curious to know more about Democratic hopeful Wesley Clark can see him showing off his military chops in his new book Winning Modern Wars: Iraq, Terrorism, and the American Empire.Those in a fictional frame of mind should look out for David Guterson’s long-awaited followup to Snow Falling on Cedars, a book called Our Lady of the Forest. To paraphrase what Guterson was saying this afternoon on a local public radio show, Our Lady of the Forest is about the occurrence of a mystical, Catholic phenomenon in a destitute Pacific Northwest logging town and the effect it has on four characters. 16-year-old runaway, Anne Holmes, believes that she is having visions of the Virgin Mary. This produces in the young town priest, Father Don Collins, a crisis of conscience. For sometime drifter and mushroom-picker, Carolyn Greer, the apparitions mean money and opportunity, and for guilt-ridden former logger Tom Cross, they signal a chance for redemption. It was especially interesting to hear Guterson talk about how he tried to infuse the book with both the beauty of the rainforests of the Northwest and the squalor of the once-prospering logging towns nearby. Also new in fiction: Shipwreck, another spare and haunting novel by Louis Begley, the author of About Schmidt. Also just out is Train, a must-read LA noir novel by Pete Dexter. I read it and loved it. Here is my review. In paperback people are buying Koba the Dread, Martin Amis’ powerful indictment of Stalin and his Western sympathizers, The Art of Seduction, Robert Greene’s almost-creepy investigation of the ways in which people manipulate one another, and Songbook, Nick Hornby’s paean to his own considered and considerable music collection.AwardwinningThis year’s Booker Prize has been awarded to Australian author D.B.C. Pierre for his debut novel, Vernon God Little.
It may seem that we have drifted toward dragons when a satirist sits at a senator’s desk (Al Franken) and a comedian’s criticisms land so dry they are mistaken for affirmation (Stephen Colbert). Actually we’re repeating a journey traveled by Sir Thomas More exactly five-hundred years ago.
In 1509, Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus was struck by inspiration while horseback on his way to visit More. The two friends had translated Lucian’s satires together. Once installed in More’s home, Erasmus penned In Praise of Folly, an attack on the rampant stoicism of the age (think Dick Cheney) and a defense of More’s famous wit. More was fond of bawdy jokes and puns, and reportedly proud of the fact that his humor was sometimes so arid many didn’t even perceive it.
In 1516, More produced the short novel Utopia, a portrait of a happy island nation whose benevolent ruler advocates communal property, religious freedom, and marital separation. Utopia spawned an entire genre of literature, and apart from the Bible it’s hard to imagine a book that has proven to be so influential. Utopia borrows heavily from both Lucian and In Praise of Folly, which makes our current moment the quincentennial of the gestation period (1509-1516) of what is perhaps the most important novel in the history of mankind.
Oddly, the book succeeded only because most people misunderstood it.
More wrote Utopia as a young man. Erasmus published it, and as he prepared it for press More hustled after blurbs like any budding author. But even he would have admitted that the initial rollout didn’t go quite as planned. He had hoped to appeal to an audience that would understand the book’s classical puns as invitation to an ironic interpretation. (Greek: “Utopia” = “no place.”) In other words, he wanted to criticize everything to book seemed to stand for. In actuality, More was a monarchist who defended private property, participated in Lutheran-burning, and later lost his head because he refused to sanction his king’s divorce.
His arid wit backfired this time. Within More’s lifetime, Utopia was cited as justification for communal property in the Peasant War, and was used as a blueprint for civic organization in towns in southern Mexico.
“This fellow is so grim that he will not hear of a joke,” he complained. “That fellow is so insipid that he cannot endure wit.” Once officially a member of the court of Henry VIII, More suggested Utopia be burned.
It was too late. And given the impact of utopian thought since then – the basic tenets of communism, capitalism, fascism, and socialism all trace back to utopian texts – it’s fair to characterize the last five hundred years of human civilization as a history of not-getting-the-joke of Utopia. That history will repeat if the next five hundred years are best characterized by an affectless viewing of “The Colbert Report.” The evidence that our world too suffers from a kind of “irony-deficiency” doesn’t stop with satiric news. The mantra of Oliver Stone’s Gordon Gekko (“Greed is good”) is a witless business plan for many, and mocking recitals of dirty limericks by Andrew Dice Clay (a Jewish comedian) became revival for Italian misogynists who took them for rhyming mission statements.
Of course, the politics now are all reversed. The funny guys are all on the left; somber cowboys brood stage right. Were he alive today, Thomas More might feel most at home among neo-Stoics who under the guise of a “real America” plan to secede, plot for overthrow, or hope to coronate Sarah Palin.
Utopia – the un-ironic version of it that proved fruitful in shaping modern democracy – is the victim of all this. It’s now largely a pejorative term. Propagandists who currently target “hope” have already succeeded in making “utopia” synonymous with socialist idealism. They forget that free markets, mutually assured destruction, and peace through superior firepower are each just as easy to link back to utopian tracts. Utopia is the scope of the plan, not the nature of the product.
In America, it’s particularly tough to escape the influence of that un-got joke. President Obama offers frequent reminders that the United States is an ongoing experiment. Our goal, in our founding documents, is to become a “more perfect” union. Only tin ears remain deaf to the utopian echo. When our politicians deride one another’s plans as utopian, they forget that plans can be made and criticisms leveled only because we all live in a version of More’s joke. The far right thinks its views are those of the Founding Fathers, and that the country’s enemies are crazy utopians who would undo democracy. But the Founding Fathers were utopians to a man. They railed not against taxes, but against taxes without representation. Today’s conservative spirit applied to the late eighteenth century would have resisted even those changes. George W. Bush once described the benevolent dictator as the best form of government, and Cheney’s quest to expand executive power betrayed nostalgia for monarchy. Conservatives long for a despot like More’s ironically-intended “King Utopus.”
Yet it’s not just irony deficiency that links us to the past. We’re also becoming more bawdy. And in this regard, it doesn’t matter whether you’re Dick Cheney on the floor of Congress or Joe Biden at a presidential press conference.
The only thing that perhaps explains why viewers today prefer “The Daily Show” to CNN or Fox is that the same cultural mood that produced In Praise of Folly has come around again. But now that the politics have reversed we must ensure that the humor is not so subtle it becomes its opposite. In this regard there is, I dare say, hope.
Not long ago, Jon Stewart conducted a (mostly) sober debate on the financial crisis with a CNBC analyst (and admitted clown). It was a riveting interview – one in which an absence of artificial poise and stoicism appeared to enable a further depth of insight.
But when the CNBC clown dodged a question with banter, Stewart called him out on it: “This isn’t a fucking joke.”
And no one laughed.
Check out an excerpt of the Art of Fiction with Haruki Murakami from The Paris Review. If you are a Murakami fan like me, you should buy the issue and read the complete interview. If you do, you will find a discussion of Murakami’s upcoming novel Kafka on the Shore, which is due out in January. And from the British Library: “On this site you will find the British Library’s 93 copies of the 21 plays by Shakespeare printed in quarto before the theatres were closed in 1642.” (LINK)
Gather.com, the folks who put together a chat with Jonathan Safran Foer not too long ago, have announced a new writing contest. Online writing contests are a dime a dozen, but the cool thing about this one is that the four winning short pieces (fiction or non-fiction) will be “published and sold on Amazon Shorts,” which would undoubtedly be a terrific venue for any aspiring writer. In fact, it’s along the lines of what I hoped Amazon would do with its Shorts program.
A while back I discussed the minor furor over proposed changes at the New York Times Book Review, including charges of dumbing down and sensationalism. Now the helm has been handed over to a new editor, Sam Tanenhaus, a widely published journalist and the author of a well received biography of Whitaker Chambers. It remains to be seen if the New York Times Book Review will change significantly. On another, much more visible front, the Jayson Blair affair has reemerged due to the release of the book in which he tells his side of the story, Burning Down My Masters’ House: My Life at the New York Times. It is hard to imagine that anyone will take seriously a book by someone whose claim to fame is his astounding lack of credibility. In fact, the venomous pans are already rolling in (Dallas Star Telegram, San Francisco Chronicle, and the Boston Globe. Even the Brits get into the act.) My favorite, though, is this headline from the Christian Science Monitor: “Jayson Blair: ‘I lied.’ Reader: ‘No kidding.’” I’m rather happy to see the level of outrage that Blair’s book is generating. Meanwhile some are reporting that the Times stands to benefit if Blair’s book does well (LINK). I’m not sure if that story has legs, though.
In fiction, people are reading a new novel by a former sports writer, Mitch Albom. Perhaps you recall an earlier book of his: Tuesdays with Morrie, it sold millions of copies. This new book, Five People You Meet in Heaven, though fictional, covers much of the same life and death territory that his bestseller did. Also big right now is the latest incisive and sharply funny novel by Diane Johnson, L’Affaire. From what I’ve heard, her books are character driven, modern, droll, and witty. Johnson is a two-time Pulitzer finalist and a three-time National Book Award finalist, so she is the real deal. Also, a new book by newly minted Nobel Laureate, J. M. Coetzee, has been rushed to stores. Originally intended for release in November, Elizabeth Costello, was released early to take advantage of and celebrate Coetzee’s latest honor.And in non-fiction??? Plath-mania continues with the release of what is apparently one of the best books yet written about the deeply troubled poet and her husband Ted Hughes. Her Husband: Hughes and Plath, Portrait of a Marriage by Diane Middlebrook is another in a long line of books that look at Sylvia Plath and Hughes, and from what I hear it’s quite good. Steel yourself for a tremendous resurgence in interest in Sylvia Plath, as the release of a biopic starring Gwyneth Paltrow approaches. For those of you intending to keep it real, get a copy of The Bell Jar quick before they put Gwyneth’s face on it. Meanwhile, true crime aficionados and Mafia watchers are rushing to get their copies of The Brass Wall by New York Times journalist David Kocieniewski which is about an NYPD detective who infiltrated the mob, but was later betrayed by a fellow officer. Apparently this one reads as though written directly for the screen.Lots of movie talk today, which is good because it allows me to mention that Phillip Roth’s highly-regarded novel, The Human Stain, while always a strong seller, has kicked it up a notch in anticipation of what is apparently a highly-regarded film version. (As I mentioned a few weeks ago, ditto Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River). The other paperback that people are buying is a bit less serious, but it seems like a pretty terrific gag gift for David Beckham fans as well as anyone who watches Queer Eye for the Straight Guy: The Metrosexual Guide to Style: A Handbook for the Modern Man.
Reuters writes up The Yale Book of QuotationsShowman P.T. Barnum never said “There’s a sucker born every minute” although he wished he had. And Civil War Admiral David Farragut probably never said “Damn the Torpedoes! Full Speed Ahead” — words that have inspired generations of fighting men.To make things even more complicated, it is doubtful that Paul Revere warned that “The British are coming” when he would have at the time of the American Revolution thought himself British, although a revolting one. He probably would have said “The Redcoats are coming.”A new, meticulously researched book of quotations attempts to set the record straight on those beloved phrases that have crept into everyday use as signs of wisdom and wit, including Sigmund Freud’s sage advice that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” (He didn’t quite say that, although his biographer thinks he would have approved of the idea.)The Yale Book of Quotations has a simple thesis: famous quotes are often misquoted and misattributed. Sometimes they are never said at all but are, instead, little fictions that have forged their way into public consciousness.More
Posting has been light because I’m nearing the end of the quarter at school, and I am in the final stages of a very big project. And posting will probably continue to be light because I’ll be heading off on vacation as soon as school is done. I’m thinking about taking my laptop with me, but even if I do, I’m not sure how close I’ll be to the Internet. I’m excited about this vacation (we’ll be joining my family at the beach in North Carolina) not just because it’ll be a much needed break from school, but also because there’s no place I’d rather read than on vacation. On a proper vacation there are seemingly endless hours to spend with your books. I also love the way certain reading experiences become associated with certain exotic locales – and by “exotic” I mean simply “not home.” For example, last summer Mrs. Millions both read Walker Percy’s classic The Moviegoer during our honey moon in St. Maarten. The unfamiliarity of that island paradise mingled with the humidity of New Orleans where Percy’s Binx Bolling is trying to keep “despair” at bay. The book and the place where I read it combined to form a peculiar sort of dreamy memory that I love. Though I haven’t even gotten the suitcase out of the closet, I already know which four books I’ll be taking with me. I plan to finish The Count of Monte Cristo on the plane ride there. I’ve been enjoying the book immensely, by the way. After that I’m going to read Belly, a debut novel by Lisa Selin Davis that will be coming out later this summer. The publisher’s publicity compares her writing to that of Jane Smiley and Richard Russo. I’m also bringing a couple of nonfiction books: David Lipsky’s account of following a class of cadets through West Point, Absolutely American. Lipsky was originally assigned to write an article for Rolling Stone about the military academy but ended up sticking with the story for four years. I’m also bringing The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki, the resident business writer at the New Yorker. The book’s premise, which is borrowed from the world of economics, is that the collective choices of large populations of people are often correct, and that it’s even possible, by setting up what amounts to a futures market for ideas, to use this effect to predict the future. A good example of this is a futures market where one can bet on who will be elected president. Such markets have been very good predictors of actual events over the years. None of these books particularly strike me as “summer reading,” but I’ll just be happy that it’s summer and that my only obligation is to read.