Remember Karen Russell whose story “Haunting Olivia” appeared in the 2005 Debut Fiction issue of the New Yorker when she was 23? Her first collection of stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is now out. NPR has another of her stories on its Web site, “Ava Wrestles the Alligator.”
Why is it that so many people are turned off by the classics? Is it because would-be readers are afraid they won’t “get it?” Or does reading a well-known tome on the subway or in a cafe exude an air of pretentiousness, when it’s more likely that the reader just never followed through on that English lit assignment?In talking about his latest book, Classics for Pleasure, the Pulitzer Prize winning critic, Michael Dirda, said he not only hopes to make the classics appear less daunting and more accessible to the general public, but he also wants to “encourage people to read more widely.”Dirda, a columnist for The Washington Post’s Book World, said his goal is to get people to “read beyond the recognized classics and read beyond the contemporary.” He made his remarks Tuesday during a lecture, co-sponsored by the English-Speaking Union, at the Women’s National Democratic Club in Washington, D.C.Classics for Pleasure consists of about 90 essays, written by Dirda, that describe the importance of lesser-known authors such as Sheridan Le Fanu and Abolqasem Ferdowsi as well as literary giants like Henry James and Christopher Marlowe.Each essay, ranging from two to five pages, serves as a primer on the era and author, with excerpts from famous works. They also offer some much-needed perspective, even for the seasoned reader, and are grouped together with topical headings such as Realms of Adventure, The Dark Side and Love’s Mysteries.But why should these classics, or any others for that matter, deserve a kind of sacred reverence?”Truly distinctive voices, once heard, ought never to be forgotten,” Dirda writes. “More than anything else, great books speak to us of our own very real feelings and failings, of our all-too-human daydreams and confusions.”From Dirda’s point of view, some of those failings and confusions are commonplace on the Web, perpetrated by those who dabble in his trade. He said that while “blogs and the online bookish universe are a wonderful thing… there are no oversights for the most part,” meaning no editorial review like the kind he gets from The Washington Post.He went on to say that some online book critics have a tendency to make a name for themselves by writing “vulgar, rude, outrageous” reviews, and such pieces should not be the standard for literary criticism.While that eventuality seems unlikely, Dirda’s nonetheless uses the book to re-establish his high bar for criticism while drawing in readers to “discover” the classics of yesteryear. One is certainly easier to achieve than the other.See Also: Classifying Classics; Nothing is Dead Yet: The Era of the Trusted Fellow Reader; Literature and History
Subscribers to the literary magazine One Story receive, you guessed it, one story in the mail about every three weeks. The magazine isn’t as chic as it could be (the choice of title font, for instance, sometimes makes me cringe), but the issues are lightweight and easy to stuff in your purse or back pocket. The stories vary in style and content, and I’ve been impressed with quite a few. And plus, they’re fun to receive in the mail, and even more fun to give away once you’ve finished them.The magazine recently unveiled a prettier website, which still includes the features I’ve always liked. You can check out the first lines of every story published by the magazine, as well as short interviews with each writer about his or her story and the process of creating it. It’s interesting to see how different everyone’s process is: one writer wrote his story in three nights, while another worked on hers for over a year. In these interviews, One Story always asks the writer to share the best writing advice ever received. Some people quote secondhand advice, while others share nuggets of wisdom from a past instructor. On a few occasions, I’ve written this stuff down, either for myself or for my students (or both).
If Carl Jung had lived to see Google Search, he might have had a thing or two to say about how its auto suggest function is revealing the Internet’s collective unconscious. For those who don’t know, auto suggest is a handy feature that helps you search when you don’t know what it is you’re searching for. As you type, Google tries to read your mind, offering helpful suggestions based on the letters you have already entered. If, for example, you were to type “the mill” Google might guess you are searching for “the millions” (you were, weren’t you?) and helpfully add the term to a list that appears below the search bar. On the other hand, it might suggest “the million dollar man.” We do, after all, have the technology.
Although it’s not entirely clear how Google generates suggestions, they are at least in part based on searches entered by other users. The more popular a search, the more likely it is to appear at the top of the list of suggestions. At first, this might seem like an innocuous feature, but on closer inspection, it turns out to be a powerful tool for peering into the murky depths of the collective unconscious. How murky, you ask? For a peek into the abyss, head over to autocompleteme (may be NSFW, if you can believe it….), where a team from among the legion of unsung Internet heroes has posted some of the bizarre treasures they have dredged up from Google’s auto suggest.
A quick peek at autocompleteme can tell you a lot about the state of the English-speaking world circa 2009. We’re stupid: “How come… a cupcake is not a mineral?”, paranoid “how to tell… your cat is planning to kill you?” and racist “I am… extremely afraid of Chinese people.” Its pages are full of bizarre, hilarious, and sometimes disturbing searches that are apparently so popular that Google assumes you, too, might find them useful. Of course, any number of the oddest results might just point to song lyrics, elaborate practical jokes, random hipster t-shirt slogans, and Simpsons quotes.
That’s all beside the point, though. Because what makes auto suggest most compelling is not the nonsense results or the unintentional comedy. It’s what it says about the human condition. Every day hundreds of millions of supplicants come to Google, the new Oracle, in search of answers. From innocence ( “how to… kiss”) to despondence (“I w… ant to die.”), they share their fantasies and desires, their deepest fears and anxieties. And every day, Google suggest lets them know they are not alone.
On the eve of the release of the final Harry Potter, I offer Millions readers a few brief intuitions – alas, grounded more in literary convention than in second sight – about the events to come in The Deathly Hallows.My chief intuition, based largely on the over-determined association of Dumbledore with the phoenix throughout the series, is that everyone’s favorite headmaster is not dead (X-Men, anyone?). Recall that Harry “thinks he sees” a phoenix emerge from the smoke of Dumbledore’s funeral pyre. Based on this intuition, I also maintain that Snape is not, in fact, a Death Eater, and that he and Dumbledore staged a fake murder with Harry as witness. This will allow Snape to become more deeply embedded in Voldemort’s ranks. Dumbledore’s wisdom would be too seriously undermined if Snape really and truly betrayed him. Regardless of the rightness or wrongness of this particular tea-leaf vision, more must emerge about how Snape gained Dumbledore’s trust. This will be one of the central revelations of the new book.Of lesser intuitions:R.A.B., the initials on the note found in the locket that was supposed to be a horcrux, belong to Sirius’ brother, Regulus Black, whom we have heard vaguely was a follower of Voldemort and then attempted to leave the ranks of the Death Eaters, only to be killed by them for his betrayal. This may mean that Slytherin’s locket is concealed somewhere in the Black family house that Sirius left to Harry.As to whether Hogwarts will remain open during this seventh year with Harry, I suspect that it will remain open in some capacity – if only as a larger and better fortified headquarters for the Order of the Phoenix and their allies.I hope that, in the less than illustrious cooking-sherry-drinking tradition of Professor Trelawney, I am wrong about all of these things. I think The Deathly Hallows would be a better book for it.
Some media pundits suggest that, as the new owner of the Wall Street Journal, Rupert Murdoch has set his sights on taking down the New York Times, or at least giving the paper a run for its money. So it was with no doubt some glee that the Times was able to report that the WSJ is a bit more thin skinned than Murdoch would have you believe.The Times yesterday reported on a parody of the WSJ, My Wall Street Journal, created by Tony Hendra and with contributions from Andy Borowitz, Richard Belzer and Terry Jones. Apparently, the WSJ wasn’t too keen on the tabloid format send-up and actually sent people around the city trying to snatch up copies before they landed in the hands of the general public. Or as the Times cheekily put it: “It seems someone at The Wall Street Journal really likes a biting new parody of the paper – likes it enough, in fact, to leave at least one newsstand with no copies remaining for anyone else to buy.”Media spat aside, it is also interesting to see an attempt at a one-off publication like this, particularly in the age of the internet. Fishbowl NY explained the business model:The goal is to break even and, ideally, make money on the printing. “The business model is pretty simple, Hendra says. “Sell a lot of them.” Manhattan Media will be “well into break even territory” if half of the 200,000 available on newsstands are sold (an additional 50,000 will be sold in bookstores). At $3.95 per paper, the company will gain almost $1 million in revenue – an amount Murdoch “loses on the New York Post before lunch,” Hendra jokes – if the print run sells out.They are even available at Amazon, sold as a “Single Issue Magazine.”
Tonight at Housing Works Bookstore & Cafe, I’ll be competing in the sixth NYC Literary Death Match, sponsored by Opium Magazine. I’ll be reading a ten-minute story representing Canteen, three readers will do the same on behalf of three other publications, and then an illustrious panel of judges – including The New Yorker’s Ben Greenman – will evaluate us, “American Idol” style. Intrigued? Me, too. The $10 cover includes a free copy of Opium’s latest issue. Hope to see you there.