Not really a literary item, but I thought some folks might be interested in a Web site I found recently. Postcrossing is a postcard trading site. When you sign up, you get the address of a randomly selected Postcrossing member. You send them a postcard, and when they receive it and enter it into the system, you get put into the queue to receive a postcard from another member. So far I’ve sent a postcard to Portugal and received one from Finland. For those with an interest in faraway places and/or postcards, Postcrossing is an extremely low impact but rewarding hobby. I’ve always liked getting postcards, but it seems like a somewhat rare method of correspondence these days given the ease and immediacy of electronic methods. In my travels I’ve often picked up postcards, not necessarily to send, just to have as keepsakes. I’m something of a map person, so I’ve often been drawn to postcards with maps on them. I’ve got a small stack of them filed away somewhere right now, but I’ve had this idea that one day I might display them all on a wall of cork in collage form.
To the panoply of guilty pleasures this world has to offer, I humbly add the New York Post. I'm a Daily News man myself, but really, stuck inside a stalled subway car somewhere under the East River with nothing to read but those creepy Dr. Z acne treatment ads, who cares which paper turns up on an empty seat?When it comes to reading, tabloid journalism is the Twinky at the tip of the food pyramid, and page one is its creamy center. When confronted with the new book assembled by the staff of the NY Post, Headless Body In Topless Bar: The Best Headlines from America’s Favorite Newspaper, I couldn't help myself. Knowing that a bellyache would accompany such indulgence, I still stuffed my face.Of course, we are in the midst of a particularly salacious period of news in the City, which makes the book a timely read, er, leaf-through. Eliot Spitzer's nightmare is a headline writer's wet dream. Have a look at some recent Post fronts (March 11th's "HO NO!" is one of our favorites). All in keeping with the paper's motto, "All the news that's fit to bury beneath a mountain of hooker photos."Ah, but a good hooker story comes along but once in a while. Luckily the Post has mastered the touchstone of any good tabloid front page: the cringe-inducing pun. On the conviction of a cybersex impresario: "YOU'VE GOT JAIL!" On the closing of a Dunkin' Donuts for rodents: "UNDER MOUSE ARREST." On earth's encounter with a worrisome piece of interstellar matter: "KISS YOUR ASTEROID GOODBYE!" The CIA should consider reading these headlines to prisoners as a substitute for waterboarding.Yet, like a guy with a megaphone at an otherwise urbane cocktail party, the Post does command attention. Sometimes it even gets it just right. I like the front page from June 27, 2007: a photoshopped picture of Paris Hilton hoisted aloft on the hands of a throng in Times Square with the headline "V-D DAY! PARIS LIBERATED, BIMBOS REJOICE." Then, sometimes there's just no need to dress up a headline, such as on July 30 1985: "EATEN ALIVE! GIANT TIGERS KILL PRETTY ZOO KEEPER WHO 'LOVED ALL ANIMALS.'"A New York Magazine survey named April 15, 1983's "HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR" the greatest NY Post headline of all time. As one Post editor puts it, "How do you tell a sensational story other than sensationally?" It's ironic though, that the title of this book is its climax. Sort of like the paper itself: the cover is generally the best part.
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Short short stories, that is. For nearly four years now, writer Bruce Holland Rogers has been offering an e-mail subscription to his short stories. For $5 a year, subscribers get 36 stories - 3 a month delivered by e-mail - that range in length from 500 to 1500 words. So far he's got 600 subscribers from about 60 countries. Rogers describes his stories as "an unpredictable mix of literary fiction, science fiction, fairy tales, mysteries, and work that is hard to classify." It's a neat idea and a good example of how writers can use the Internet to go directly to their readers rather than through publishers and literary magazines.
An unread book is all possible stories. It contains all possible characters, styles, genres, turns of phrase, metaphors, speech patterns, and profound life-changing revelations. An unread book exists only in the primordial soup of your imagination, and there it can evolve into any story you like. An unread book – any unread book – could change your life. Like most readers, I love browsing in bookshops and libraries. I like to run my fingers along the spines and read titles and authors' names. I pull the books out and flip through them, thinking about the stories inside them, the things I would learn from them, how my life would be subtly but surely different after I had read them. Sometimes I buy or borrow the books and read them. As much as I enjoy the books, I often find that the book I have read is somehow not as exciting as the book I had imagined reading. No book is ever quite as good as it potentially could have been. Last week I bought a book. I looked at the blurb and read the first paragraph, and I could feel the texture of the book in my mind. It was going to be a steadily-paced yet exciting coming-of-age story about three young girls who go camping in the woods, stumble across a couple holidaying in a cabin, and see things through the windows that upend their world. It would move from the girls in their clumsy tent, to their fable-like journey through the forest, to the glowing windows of the cabin. The story was going to be overflowing with the smell of mulching leaves, the stale sweetness of fizzy drinks on the tongue, the crackle of empty sweet wrappers. It was going to be honest and real and uncomfortably sensual. Except that it wasn't about that at all: it was a thriller about a woman having an affair. With every sentence I read, the book I had imagined shrank smaller and smaller. By the end of the third page, it had disappeared. The actual book was by no means bad, it just wasn't the book I thought it would be. I have about 800 unread books on my shelves. Some would find this excessive, and they would probably be right. But I take comfort in knowing that I will have appropriate reading material whatever my mood, that I will be spoiled for choice whenever I want a book, and that I will never, ever run out of new stories. From the cover design, the back blurb, and general absorption of cultural knowledge, I have a strong idea of what each one of my unread books is like. For example, I think that Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast Trilogy is at once claustrophobic and expansive. It has the texture of solid green leaves crunched between your molars. It tastes of sweetened tea and stale bread and dust. When I read it, I will feel close to my father because it is his favorite book. Reading the Gormenghast books will allow me to understand my father in ways I currently do not, and at certain points in the book I will put it down and stare into the middle distance and say "Oh. Now my childhood makes sense." Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness will make me sad and proud and indignant. I will no longer get tangled up in discussions about gender issues, because I will finally have clear-cut and undeniable examples of how gender stereotyping is bad for everyone. Reading it will make me feel like an integral part of queer history and culture, and afterwards I will feel mysteriously connected to all my fellow LGBT people. Perhaps I will even have gaydar. Roberto Bolaño's 2666 is an obsessive and world-shifting epic. When I read it, I will be completely absorbed by it. It will be all I think about. It will affect my daily life in ways I can't fully understand, and when I finish it I will have come to profound revelations about the nature of existence. I will finally understand all the literary theory I wrote essays on when I was at university. I have not read these books because I worry that they're not the books I think they are. Perhaps I will never read them. I'm sure they are wonderful books, but no book could possibly contain all the knowledge and understanding I am expecting from these. I know it's unrealistic, but I still hope. There is another reason to leave books unread: because I know I will love them. This might seem nonsensical, and I suppose it is. I am a writer, and I learn how to write by reading; I know that certain books will teach me more than others because they are similar in style and content to my own writing, though vastly better. This is why I have not read Fucking Daphne, an anthology of sex writing about and edited by Daphne Gottlieb; or Alice Greenaway's White Ghost Girls, a short and lyrical novel about sisters in 1960s Hong Kong; or Francesca Lia Block's fantastical erotica novellas, Ecstasia and Primavera; or anything ever written by Martin Millar. I know that I will love them and want to learn from them, and so I don't read them: firstly because it is tiring to read that way, with your eyes and ears and brain constantly absorbing; and secondly because once I read them they will be over, the mystery will be revealed. Sometimes I hold these books in my hands and imagine what I will learn from them. These books have affected my writing, and I haven't even read them. Maybe we can learn as much from our expectations of a story as we can from the actual words on the page. Go to your bookshelves and pick a book you have not read. Hold it in your hands. Look at the cover and read the description on the back. Think about what the story might be about, what themes and motifs might be in it, what it might say about the world you inhabit, whether it can make you imagine an entirely different world. I suggest that the literary universe you just created might be more exciting and enlightening than the one contained within those covers. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that book. It might prove to be a great book; the best book you have ever read. But your imagination contains every possible story, every possible understanding, and any book can only be one tiny portion of that potential world. Back | 1. I prefer my version, and still harbor a hope that my imagined story is out there. If you've read it, let me know. Back | 2. In my defense, I spent six years as a bookseller and am now the reviews editor for a magazine, so I accumulated a lot of paperbacks. Plus, I can't go past a second-hand bookshop without finding something that I must have. Back | 3. This is also why I have never reread my favorite books: Patrick Süskind's Perfume, Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss, Françoise Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse, or Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie's Lost Girls. They're just too good. [Image credit: Kenny Louie]
This morning I read this bittersweet story in the New York Times about the auctioning of Vladimir Nabokov's personal effects by his son Dmitri. As Dmitri has no heirs, it was agreed before the elder Nabokov's death that it would be best to sell the collection before the death of the younger Nabokov. Reading the story, with its descriptions of invented butterfly drawings for Nabokov's wife Vera -- "They have variegated colors, delicate artistry and fanciful names. Only on these pages appear the blue 'Colias verae' or the dark 'Maculinea aurora Nab.'" -- reminded me of how much I enjoyed reading Nabokov's lyrical memoir, Speak, Memory, when I was in college. I read it for a class called Transatlantic Identities, taught by the dandyish Professor Tucker (who was most of all devoted to John Ruskin). We read a dozen or so memoirs penned over the last 150 years on either side of the Atlantic. Among these, Speak, Memory, was transcendent, inspiring an interest both in lepidoptery and Nabokov's expressive prose. As I read the book, Nabokov, in my mind, was transformed from the scurrilous author of the scandalous Lolita to the quiet emigre with a fascination for butterflies, and whose expertise with these brightly- winged insects landed him the curatorship of the butterfly collection at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. Now that these butterflies have been scattered throughout the world, one can only hope that the hands that now hold them will cherish the butterflies as much as the hands that created them.
Where's Arthur's Gerbil?; A Pictorial Book of Tongue Coating; The Fangs of Suet Pudding: all real books apparently. Inspired by Bizarre Books: A Compendium of Classic Oddities, a new book collecting history's odd, obscure, and weird volumes, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Book Page is soliciting strange book titles from readers. The first entry might be the best: Cooking with Pooh, and why doesn't it surprise me that this one has become an Amazon collectors' item, with the cheapest copy on offer now going for the low, low price of $92.80.(Thanks Laurie)
I've got an affinity for diagrams. I find the books of Edward Tufte fascinating, and my interest in such things extends even to the "infographics" contained in most newspapers. I like the idea of distilling something complex down to a visual representation.And what is more complex than Finnegans Wake, which was the subject of a dense and mysterious-looking diagram from the book Vision in Motion by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Richard Kostelanetz highlights the diagram in an essay about Moholy-Nagy, about whom he writes "Need it be said that no other modern artist wrote as well about literature?"Kostelanetz goes on to write "What Moholy established in Vision in Motion was a model of writing about all the arts as a single entity, to be called art, whose branches (literature, painting, etc.) were merely false conveniences conducive to specialization and isolation." (via)This multi-discipline approach would seem to be of particular use in our multimedia world. It's brings to mind another creative attempt to parse a complex work of literature via non-traditional means: the Pynchon wiki.
Humans have at least one really redeeming quality. We are loath to abandon a good story. In light of cold, hard facts, our imagination, an engine fired by hope and curiosity, suspicion and fear, will and wish and programmed for storytelling, pushes back. For the last week of December, on Twitter, the Central Intelligence Agency rounded up #Bestof2014 -- its ten most-read blog posts and declassified documents from the past year. Number one was a somewhat gently redacted 272-page PDF about an overhead reconnaissance program tested outside of Las Vegas, at a site the agency acknowledges by name as Area 51. “Reports of unusual activity in the skies in the '50s?” the CIA tweeted. “It was us.” Lockheed spy planes flying at the then unheard altitudes of 60,000 feet and above, sure, but not extraterrestrials casing the planet in saucers. By simply cross-referencing UFO sightings with flight logs, the agency said it was able to rule out more than half of the reports. The reaction? To the bureaucratic dispelling of Area 51, one of the great American wonderlands? “@CIA Nope, I am still going with aliens from outer-space.” “@CIA Sorry, but this is STUPID! The USAF began investigations in the late 40s, and #UFOs were seen in abundance all over the US.” “@CIA with all those redactions 64 years later... who could deny Aliens.” Squinting into the night, thinking we are not alone...even believing we have routinely been visited upon by a greater intelligence, is one thing. But then there are the creatures presumed indigenous to Earth. From diehard mythos (vampires) to diversions in cryptozoology (the Skunk Ape). In November, BBC published news of an 18-month period in Scotland, which, for the first time since 1925, had failed to produce any confirmed sightings of the lake monster initially reported 1,500 years ago by the Irish abbot and missionary Saint Columba. (By the father’s account, Nessie roared and tore a man “with a most savage bite,” but was driven away by the sign of the cross.) “It’s very upsetting news,” an accountant who apparently moonlights as the registrar of sightings said of Nessie’s recent disappearance, “and we don’t know where she’s gone.” Fresh witnesses came forth shortly thereafter, but then so did a local forest conservation group, which had the bad taste to offer a reasonable explanation: the rivers were washing woodland deadfall into Lake Loch Ness, logs and branches, they suggested, which could look an awful lot like a brontosaurus-style neck on the water’s foggy stage. For believers this was, as one commentator put it, “profoundly unsatisfying.” (A more satisfying explanation, which the BBC noted, is the fact that circus elephants were sometimes exercised in that lake.) These episodes recall what happened in 2012, when Animal Planet broadcast Mermaids: The Body Found. The faux documentary blended some real science -- such as the aquatic ape hypothesis -- and legitimate mysteries -- such as an unexplained sound recorded during Navy sonar tests -- with the sexiest writing and editing television has to offer. It was a narrative feat of speculative biology that claimed merfolk actually exist, and here the proof. “As if we didn’t have enough probably fictitious but possibly real beings to worry about,” The New York Times pooh-poohed. But Mermaids became the station’s most-watched telecast since the Steve Irwin memorial special aired in September 2006. Indeed, it scored the highest ratings of any Animal Planet program, ever, and with so much of the public convinced, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration felt compelled to issue a statement. The official federal position was (is): “No evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found.” Tumblr, a mood board, erupted -- “95% of the ocean is undiscovered. You can’t tell me mermaids don’t exist yet.” There are, of course, deep, necessary reasons for all of the above. Mythology, as Karen Russell often observes, speaks to perennial aspects of human nature. Half-human creatures are vehicles for reconciling our species on the continuum of other beasts. Monsters are projections of an atavistic unease -- born of the sense that something bigger and badder is out to get us (because for the long course of mammalian history, something was). These stories get weird and totally out-of-hand, but they never end. I’m thinking of the hilarious Victorian novel Cranford. I was just about finishing it, and noticing the CIA’s roundup in the periphery, when the modern new year rang in. Here was a corner of civilization awash, clinging to habits and opinions morbidly out of date. In the last chapter, Peter Jenkyns returns to entertain the village women with tales from afar. He tells them about the time he was up in the heights of Himalaya, hunting, when he accidentally felled an angel. The Honorable Mrs. Jamieson does not call bullshit. “But, Mr. Peter,” she howls, “shooting a cherubim -- don’t you think -- I am afraid that was sacrilege!” Art by Ellis Rosen, illustrator of Woundabout by Lev Rosen, forthcoming from Little, Brown.
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