The lovely Mrs. Millions decided that she really ought to be keeping better track of what she reads, especially since she reads so much these days. Hamstrung by various reading obligations and by my harebrained scheme for selecting what to read next, I don’t always get to read the books I want to read right away. Instead I hand them over to Mrs. Millions. Unlike me, she didn’t burden herself with literature classes in college, nor has she tried to make a career out of writing and reading, so she reads purely for fun, a fact that makes me a little jealous sometimes. Perhaps she’ll share her thoughts on some of the books she reads, as she has done here on one or two occasions, but probably not as that would take some of the fun out of the reading. Mrs. Millions’ reading list will live way down near the bottom of the far right column, but so you don’t have to go to the trouble of scrolling down, here’s what she’s been reading lately:
Last week I wrote a brief post about football books and wondered why there aren't more of them, especially compared to baseball. In yesterday's Baltimore Sun, reporter Childs Walker takes that same idea and runs with it much farther than I did in his comprehensive article. Walker's impetus for writing the piece is a trio of recently released football books: John Feinstein's first pro football book, Next Man Up, David Halberstam's book about Bill Belichick, The Education of a Coach, and Allen Barra's bio of Bear Bryant, The Last CoachWalker cites many compelling theories as to why baseball books dominate the sports literature landscape even though football is the more popular sport (at least in terms of TV ratings)."It's funny how few good books get written about the passions of people who don't read books," Michael Lewis wrote in the New Republic. "There are vast tracts of human experience that, because of the sort of humans having the experience, go ignored by talented writers. Football is one of them."Baseball is the older game, having risen to popularity at a time when the written and spoken word were the only ways for many fans to experience players and games. Football, by contrast, found much of its audience through television, and its early history feels cut off.Walker goes on to run through several football books that are worthy of the mantle "sports literature," starting with the two books I mentioned last week, George Plimpton's Paper Lion and Instant Replay by Jerry Kramer, a guard for the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s, and Dick Schaap. Also mentioned are a pair of novels - progenitors of the Oliver Stone film Any Given Sunday, it seems - North Dallas Forty by former Cowboys receiver Peter Gent and Semi-Tough by Sports Illustrated writer Dan Jenkins. And finally several non-fiction books about football: H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger's book "of a Texas town's obsession with high school football" in Friday Night Lights (also recently a movie); Mark Bowden's study of the Philadelphia Eagles, Bringing the Heat; When Pride Still Mattered, David Maraniss' bio of Vince Lombardi and Mark Kriegel's bio, Namath. These books all sound like a great way to pass the time for those six days between Sundays.
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1. A friend of mine told me this story. He was sitting in a medical office waiting to get a CAT scan, trying to read Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pnin. He’d started the book some years before, then lost it, found it again, and started over. He didn’t like it all that much (it wasn’t as good as Lolita or Pale Fire, the novels that had driven him to pick it up in the first place), and as he sat there reading in the waiting room, he thought about the CAT scan he was about to undergo. I may have only a few months to live, he thought. Is this the book I want to spend my remaining hours on? 2. My friend is fine, it turns out. The CAT scan came back normal. But as he told me this story, I thought back to a recent evening when I lay in my bed reading The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel. Like Wallace’s oeuvre in general, the book has some absolutely stunning sections that command your attention and make you feel intensely alive and aware (see chapters 6, 19, 22, or 46, e.g.), along with some that drive you batty with their dullness and perseverating detail. I was struggling with the long, tedious section in which “David Wallace” is caught in a traffic jam outside the Peoria IRS office. In the next room, my two daughters, five and seven, were not going to sleep. I was getting more and more irritated with them and their demands for water, etc., which kept interrupting me from concentrating on the book. Underlying my irritation was another anxiety: my sense that here I was, yelling at my kids to go to sleep just so that I could finish reading something that I myself found incredibly boring, a book that I had no practical need to read, a book whose own author had committed suicide before he was able to finish. A precious, irreplaceable moment of my own life was slipping away. I was declining a chance to interact with my children in a more positive way. And why? To read something that might best have been left on the cutting room floor. 3. I’ve read a fair number of short story collections. In most of them, there’s at least one and usually several stories that seem so clearly inferior to the rest that I have to wonder, Why is this in here? Does the author know that this story is bad? Is it here merely to serve as filler? These questions remind me of an old Kurt Vonnegut appearance on Charlie Rose in which Vonnegut explains that he has graded all of his own novels. Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five received A pluses. Slapstick got an F. The book he was on the show to plug at the time (I think it was Timequake) was a B minus. Vonnegut’s admirable candor makes me think that writers must have a sense of the relative merits of their works. Indeed, the placement of mediocre stories in short story collections is usually a good indicator of the grade the writers would give them. Such stories tend to be buried in the middle of the second half of a collection, or sandwiched in between two more successful pieces. But why publish them at all? Why not spare us readers that experience of feeling that we’re spending finite moments of our lives on something that is less than the best? 4. Zadie Smith wasn’t addressing these particular questions at the time, but she pointed nevertheless to one answer to them when she wrote that “writers do not write what they want, they write what they can.” If Vonnegut could have written nothing but A pluses, he would have. He couldn’t, however. No writer can. Yet Vonnegut still had contracts to fulfill, bills to pay. He had to publish books. It was in his job description. Moreover, I suspect that, for Vonnegut and for most writers, there comes a time when they just need to accept that a novel or a story or a song is as good as it’s going to get, even if it’s not an A plus. The book needs to come out. The collection of stories needs to be a certain length. The writer’s time has been spent on the piece, for good or ill. It might as well see the light of publication as long as someone is willing to publish it. Who knows: some reader or critic might actually like it. Even if no one does, the writer needs to move on to the next story, the next novel. 5. It’s a delicate calibration. When do we, as writers, accept that a piece is as good as it will ever be, even if it’s not that great? When do we decide that a piece will never be good enough to be published? As readers, when do we decide that a book or a story is simply not going to be worth reading? When do we decide to press on in the face of boredom? The CAT scan might come back normal, but in the larger sense, we’re all dying anyway. Our lives as writers, as readers, as human beings, will come to an end. What we write, what we read, what we spend our time on—these are incredibly weighty choices, though we may fool ourselves into thinking otherwise. There’s a danger in perfectionism, in the compulsive attempt to make every novel and story and essay an A plus, or to finish reading everything we start. Yet there’s also a danger in easy abandonment, in the lack of persistence needed to push through the slow parts of War and Peace or Infinite Jest, or in the lack of writerly belief in one’s powers of revision and discovery. In this way, as in so many others, writing and reading are metaphors for living. In the end, you do the best you can, and then, in one way or another, you let it go and move on. (Image: fading contrail from dnorman's photostream)
Adam Langer has an entertaining essay at The Book Standard which is full of discarded titles for classic books and films. But the fact is that Thomas Wolfe's original title O, Lost doesn't have quite the same ring as Look Homeward, Angel, nor does Margaret Mitchell's Fontenoy Hall, which became Gone with the Wind. If F. Scott Fitzgerald had gone with Trimalchio in West Egg, one of his working titles for The Great Gatsby, God knows what we'd have studied in high school.In the essay, Langer also reveals that his next book is tentatively titled The Washington Story.
One of my many side projects is coming to fruition right now. A while ago my friend Derek and I started a record label called Realistic Records. After planning for almost a year, we have released our first record. The Recoys are the former band of current members of The Walkmen and The French Kicks This is an album that never was, but probably should have been, so we've put together a vinyl only run of 1000. It's called Recoys Rekoys. The record is fantastic and if you like the Walkmen or the French Kicks or any of the great new rock that's out right now, then you'll love this album. You can buy it either here or here and hopefully it will soon be available in your local record store. Also, the Recoys will be reuniting for one night only to celebrate the long awaited release of this album. Here are the details:Friday June 20thkingsland taverncorner of kingsland and nassau in greenpointHopefully I'll see you there.
Pulitzer winner Junot Díaz talks with his fellow "Year in Reading" contributor Meghan O'Rourke in the debut episode of the online video series Open Book, co-sponsored by Slate and my alma mater. I'm thrilled that the producers elected to keep the same zany voice-over guy who reads Slate's audio podcasts. Future interviews, we're told, will include John Ashbery, Charles Simic, and Jonathan Safran Foer.
Time to have some fun with Google. Using the wildcard "*" character I searched Google to see how different famous writers are characterized on random Web pages. I entered searches like "Jonathan Franzen is * writer" to see what would come up for the "*" and pulled the adjectives all into one sentence for each writer. The links go to the sites where the adjectives came from. Arbitrary, but oddly poetic:Jonathan Franzen is... an accomplished, incredibly gifted, curmudgeonly Luddite, talented, serious, rare, amazing, better, American writer.Zadie Smith is... a talented, talented, talented, terribly talented, young, Dickensian, gifted, terrible, very good writer.Jonathan Safran Foer is... a great great, young, great, prehensile, no ordinary, Generation X, very talented, definitely a wunderkind, very talented, uniquely gifted and imaginative writer.Ok, that was fun. How about these guys:James Frey is... an amazing, great, Bestselling, hardly the first, still a great, only, wonderful writer.J.T. Leroy is... a critically acclaimed, fabulous, Incredible, active, the best, truly amazing, fantastic, fiction writer.