There was lots of discussion late last week about Ed Wyatt’s NY Times article talking about publishers “offering books by lesser-known authors only as ‘paperback originals,’ forgoing the higher profits afforded by publishing a book in hardcover for a chance at attracting more buyers and a more sustained shelf life.” I’m all for this development as are many other folks. Sarah at GalleyCat commented, as did Miss Snark, who led me to Levi Asher making some very good points at LitKicks. I’m not a big fan of hardcovers, either. Personally, I prefer pocket paperbacks when I can get them.
When I was in pharmacy school, the most coveted reference books were the ones which placed a wealth of information at your fingertips. The Drug Information Handbook offered what you’d need to know about any available drug, from pharmacological use to dosage to adverse reactions. The Merck Manual, too, listed just about every disease imaginable and provided enough of a description to let me, like a good hypochondriac, believe that I’d contracted every one of them. I’ve been out of pharmacy school for a while now, but there is a new medical resource that I’d add to the list, the fall issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, Medicine.
This issue of Lapham’s Quarterly caters to a different kind of medical knowledge: the history of medicine. It features doctors who are also writers, patients who reflect on their medical treatments, and fictional depictions of botched procedures. One could call the issue a humanist’s guide to medicine, as much of what’s chronicled focuses on the human experience of illness, cures, and pharmaceuticals. William Carlos Williams tells how being a doctor gives him access to the intimate lives of patients, which in turn informs his writing. Former president of Doctors Without Borders, James Orbinski, writes about treating scores of maimed patients after an attack during the Rwandan genocide. Anatole Broyard wishes his doctor were a man of letters who nursed his spirit as well as his physical body. Also, there are instances of quackery, body snatching, and bloodletting. The miscellany includes old treatments that would now be considered outrageous, such as a Womb Spell to cure a moving womb—considered a cause of hysteria—and a curative spell that involves writing the word abracadabra on a piece of paper and wearing it on a string around one’s neck.
Lapham’s Quarterly derives its name from its founding editor, Lewis Lapham, who edited Harper’s magazine over a span of thirty years. It’s no surprise, then, that there are parallels between the way the two publications are organized. The issue opens with an essay written by Lapham, and the main body consists of excerpts that remind me of the Readings section in Harper’s, only more focused. The excerpts date as far back as 2650 BC and come from sources all over the globe. They are divided into subsections about symptoms and diagnoses, doctors and patients, and remedies and treatments. There are selections from Hippocrates, Galen, and Maimonides, interspersed with accounts, both fictional and non, from writers such as Mikhail Bulgakov, Ken Kesey, and Jean-Dominique Bauby. Lapham should be considered as much a curator as an editor, it seems, for one gets the sense that he and his team have scoured a library’s bookshelves to compile this volume.
Original essays are also featured. Meehan Crist, the reviews editor for the Believer, writes about holding a human brain in her hands, and reflects on the way that watching a dissection challenges one’s perception of the human body. An essay by John Crowley, which is available in its entirety on the website, explains his theory of death (and hence, of the nature of life), which is inspired by the historical figure Giordano Bruno (who plays a lead role in one of Crowley’s novels). What first seemed like an endpoint in itself has now become a starting point. As I close the pages, I have a new list of books to read, including Broyard’s Intoxicated by My Illness, a posthumously published memoir about his experience as a patient with metastisized prostate cancer, as well as Bulgakov’s autobiographically inspired short stories contained in Country Doctor’s Noteboook. If as Yeats wrote, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire,” there’s enough tinder here to ignite a blaze.
It is a ubiquitous feature in bookstores – especially at airports: The New York Times Best Seller List. The words “From The New York Times Best-Selling Author” flash at a reader from the top of a book cover, capturing interst and, well, dollars.The Times’ Public Editor Clark Hoyt explains the selection process, why the list is more widely followed and valued than other, competing “best seller” compilations – from USA Today and Rupert Murdoch’s (ouch) Wall Street Journal – in an informative column.Apparently an NYT Best Seller sticker can drive up sales by as much as 57 percent for a first-time author. Publishers are, naturally, conscious of this priceless marketing tool and accordingly try to rig the market, Hoyt writes. Not to worry, the editors at the Times safeguard readers against such shams.But Times editors too might not fully understand the procedure, according to Hoyt. And while the Times might make sure that “evergreens” like Catcher in the Rye or an SAT study guide don’t stay on the list forever, Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point – which came out in paperback in 2002 – has been on it for a stunning 164 weeks.The column might leave you a tad confused, but at least you won’t ask yourself what the heck an “NYT Best Seller” is next time you are idling at an airport bookstore.
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.
As others have noted, the current issue of The New York Review of Books features a long Deborah Eisenberg essay on the Hungarian novelist Péter Nádas (now available online courtesy of Powell’s Bookstore). I’ve been interested in Nádas for some time (though the sheer size of A Book of Memories requires putting it off until next year) and in Eisenberg for longer, and so it may come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that I found her essay completely beguiling.Unlike certain other NYRB contributors – one can barely turn around these days without running into John Updike or Joyce Carol Oates, you know, appreciating this or reconsidering that – Eisenberg’s critical corpus has so far been small. Possibly nonexistent. You won’t find her penning introductions and encomiums and toasts; they’d probably run to 15,000 words and take her a year to write. All I knew of her literary taste, prior to reading “The Genius of Peter Nádas,” was that it overlapped with mine (Robert Walser, Humberto Constantini).As it turns out, Eisenberg brings to nonfiction the same philosophical and perceptual rigor, the same psychological acuity, and the same metaphorical daring that animate her stories. “After finishing [A Book of Memories], I, for one, felt irreversibly altered, as if the author had adjusted, with a set of tiny wrenches, molecular components of my brain,” she writes, before going on to cover totalitarianism, war, literary style, and the situation of the American writer. It is almost enough to make one wish for more Eisenberg essays. Alas, time being finite, that might deprive us of Eisenberg fiction.
Some weeks my New Yorker shows up on Tuesday; other weeks it doesn’t arrive until the weekend. This week it showed up late, and that’s why I’m writing about it even as it’s being removed from news stands to make way for next week’s issue. But I was glad to finally get to it, especially after noting that it was the summer fiction issue. But it’s not the typical summer fiction issue and certainly doesn’t fit the accepted idea of “Summer Reading.” This issue is about war, and I’m glad that the New Yorker decided to put together an issue like this, since it is shockingly easy – three years after we invaded Iraq – to forget that this country is at war right now. It’s also fitting since we’ve been discussing war quite a bit at The Millions lately. Last month I reviewed An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson, which led readers to help me compile lists of World War 2 fiction and nonfiction. Vasily Grossman appeared on both lists, and his story “In Kislovodsk” (not available online) is in this New Yorker. Also contributing is Uwem Akpan with “My Parents’ Bedroom.” Akpan was in last year’s debut fiction issue.But more broadly, the issue is a nice reminder that as life goes on here in the States, war rages on in Iraq. The New Yorker has done this most vividly by providing “Soldiers’ Stories: Letters, e-mails, and journals from the Gulf.” The magazine has also created an audio slide show for the online version of the piece:This week, The New Yorker publishes a selection of letters, journal entries, and personal essays by soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines who served in the current war in Iraq. The writings are part of a project sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts called Operation Homecoming. An anthology of the work, edited by the historian Andrew Carroll, will be published this fall by Random House. Here, in an Audio Slide Show produced by Matt Dellinger, five of the servicemen read from their work, accompanied by their photographs.