Dave Eggers, as you may have heard, was tapped to write a new introduction to the 10th anniversary edition of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. The piece glows with praise for the gigantic novel, as one might expect (since such intros are, in many cases, packaging to sell the novel.) However, as The Rake has discovered, this isn’t the only time that Eggers has written about Infinite Jest. He was, in a 1996 review, very disparaging of the book. Perhaps Eggers has changed his mind about Infinite Jest, or perhaps the offer to write the intro was simply too tempting to turn down. As ever, I’m willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, but this smacks of opportunism.
Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Gopnik, both incisive, witty journalists, staff writers at the New Yorker, and expat Canadians, return to Toronto this weekend for a live debate Sunday afternoon at the University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall.The topic: Canada: Nation or Notion? (And as a proud and sometimes confused Canadian myself, I’m eager to learn the answer)If you happen to be in the Toronto area, tickets can be purchased here. And I believe there are plans to air the debate, down the road, on CBC Radio.
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)
First, fiction. It almost goes without saying that people are still reading The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem, but last week I noticed some other new fiction making inroads among the reading public. Mailman the fourth novel by J. Robert Lennon takes its title from the occupation of the main character, Albert Lippencott, “a loner who reads the mail before delivering it.” Ever since I read Thomas Pynchon’s paranoiac masterpiece, The Crying of Lot 49, I’ve thought that there is a wealth of material that might be mined from the machinations of the Postal Service. When you look at it in a certain way, mail is a pretty crazy thing; billions of pieces of paper crisscrossing one another invisibly from one end of the world to the other and so many stories in those letters. Also proving popular, due at least in part to impeccable reviews, is The Known World by Edward P. Jones. And lastly, lots of people are looking to read Charles Baxter’s latest, Saul and Patsy. Like his previous novels, Baxter’s latest is thoughtful, reflective and “quietly triumphant.” Several of my trusted fellow readers have singled out Saul and Patsy as a book they are dying to read.
In the back of the winter issue of n+1, you’ll find both a revised version of the defense of literary weblogs I posted here last spring and a response from Marco Roth. It speaks well of the magazine that it would publish dissent as well as invite it (which is also, of course, a hallmark of the “lit-blog.”) And, as I’m still doing my best to puzzle out some of the pros and cons of this new and evolving medium, I thought I might call your attention to an object lesson: the debate over B.R. Myers’ review, in The Atlantic Monthly, of Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke.It’s often a blessing that comment-thread controversies blow over without getting wider notice. Ideas that seem vital one week may seem irrelevant the next. But in my view, the conversation developing around Myers and Johnson – at Rake’s Progress, at The Beiderbecke Affair, and now at Ed’s place – illustrates some of the positive critical capacities of the medium.That conversation began in the kind of intemperate name-calling n+1 might deride – “B.R. Myers is Satan”; “Who’s the Wanker?” – but it has broadened to encompass a number of substantial controversies – the responsibilities of the reviewer; the state of American fiction; politics and the English language. And it has helped me better understand Denis Johnson’s prose style.When I read, and enjoyed, Tree of Smoke in June, I felt that its style was both an asset and a liability. Certainly, Johnson is an unusual stylist. And yet, when the first reviews and blurbs began to appear, I was surprised at how little attention was paid to his diction and syntax. “Prose of amazing power and stylishness,” Philip Roth said, without bothering to explain how or why. Jim Lewis’ piece in The New York Times Book Review amounted to a bizarre kind of abdication. Only John Jeremiah Sullivan, writing in Harper’s, engaged with Johnson at the level of the sentence.In my own review (which I’m embarrassed to note also references n+1; this is turning into a bad habit), I attempted to account for what I felt was Johnson’s wide margin of error. “Though there are passages and even pages through which I itched to run my workshopper’s pencil,” I wrote, “I would trade a dozen finely calibrated domestic comedies for a single chapter of Tree of Smoke.[Johnson’s] sentences and dialogue, flirting with the poetic, violate the canons of understatement. Like the sentences of D.H. Lawrence, they seem to depend on the supernatural for inspiration. They may not always find it, but they are alive to the possibilities of language.To his credit, B.R. Myers, too, would pay attention to Johnson’s sentences. Regrettably, he would pay little attention to anything else (the context in which those sentences appear, for example). His review does make a couple of copy-editorial catches: Would Buddhists think of their own icons as “bric-a-brac?” Can “someone standing in […] a noisy place hear even his heartbeat, let alone his pulse?” In never moving beyond fastidiousness, though, Myers’ Atlantic review takes on the flavor of agenda-driven cherry-picking. It attempts to persuade us, by fiat, that a sentence such as the novel’s first – “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed.” – is bad.Critiques of Myers’ motivations and methods are abundant elsewhere; I won’t rehearse them here. But I wanted to point out what lit-blogs managed to do with that last sentence, which hadn’t been done elsewhere. In an anonymous comment at The Beiderbecke Affair (anonymous because overheated and not fully thought through), I wrote: I like the way that pluperfect “had,” strategically ungrammatical, sets us up to expect something to happen in the imperfect. Something has happened, the sentence tells us. Yes, Kennedy has died, but something else…something, presumably, more personal. Thus does the book announce (quietly) its aspirations to be something more than the settled history Myers – a myopic literalist – seems to wish it was.Then a commenter named Alan (who disagreed with some of my bloviations), suggested, This is quite right. Kennedy died at 1 PM US Central Time, which would have been 1 AM in Vietnam. So the sentence “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed” is not actually trying to say that Kennedy died (perfect tense) at that time. That wouldn’t make sense. What the sentence is doing is evoking the experience of a character who is awoken in the middle of the night in Vietnam to the news that Kennedy HAD BEEN killed. This narrative immersion in a character’s point of view can also be seen in the following passage… Alan’s comment is, I think, a small but meaningful exemplar of the critical capacities of an interactive medium, and of what close-reading actually does. Were this a seminar (which, at its best, the comment-thread approximates), the instructor might be saying, “Yes. Yes!” Rather than dismiss an unusual sentence, Alan moves from a puzzle over its meaning (centered on the verb tense) to an intuition (we’ve been thrown, without comment, deep into a character’s point of view) that illuminates an important part of the formal architecture of the whole work.One wants only to add that a serious literary essay has at least two possible registers of persuasion. It can persuade those who haven’t read the book, and then it can persuade those who have. I often feel that Myers is addressing himself almost exclusively to an audience that hasn’t read the work under review, and that his aim is to convince them not to bother. Like Myers, I’ve been disappointed by Annie Proulx and Rick Moody in the past. But, having read them, I’m troubled by the gap between my experience of their work and the experience of their work Myers constructs. A good-faith critic should aim to write an essay that can be revisited after one has read the work and that will not then seem to collapse into flatulence. I admire this about James Wood. His essays are attempts to understand, rather than attempts to seem in-the-know, and they challenge me even when I disagree with them. In this way, he, too, offers a model of what literary discourse on the web can be. On the other hand, the valuable lit-blog conversation about Tree of Smoke seems to have arisen despite, rather than because of, the merits of B.R. Myers’ remarks in print.
Longtime Millions reader Laurie writes in with news of a sale on classic lit at Barnes & Noble. These Barnes & Noble-branded editions are sometimes criticized for cannibalizing the editions of other publishers because the chain store offers them so cheaply. Then again, some might argue that cheap books (and especially cheap classics) are always a good thing. It appears that the series Laurie mentions is now sold out (at least on the B&N Web site), but I thought the issues Laurie raised about the series interesting enough to merit posting anyway. Laurie writes:Here’s another item for your “book deals” section, if you’re comfortable with it (I have no affiliation with this publisher; I just like a bargain. Comments on the moral dimensions welcome.):Barnes & Noble publishes their own editions of classic literature. One series, the “Collector’s Library,” focusing mainly on works of the 19th century, went on sale the day after Christmas. Each pocket sized (6 inch x 4 inch) edition is hardbound in red cloth with an attached red ribbon placeholder held in firmly a stitched binding (at least it appears well-made) that also holds the printed work in small but sharp type, on good quality, gilt-edged paper. These little books look good and feel nice. Marked down from $5 or $6, which was already cheaper than most paperbacks, they are now marked for clearance at $2.00 each. About the worst thing you can say about them is that the striped dustjackets are pretty unimaginative. Want a copy of Moby Dick or Treasure Island, though, that can fit in the back pocket of your jeans and that also looks nice on a bookshelf (probably sans dustjacket)? Scour your local B&N — they’re going fast.Two further notes about this series:B&N’s choice of titles here is pretty eclectic — of the 65 or so I could find (they have no published list of all the titles and have not yet responded to a request for such a list), they’ve published Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina but not his War & Peace; Dickens’ Great Expectations but not David Copperfield or Oliver Twist; Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, but no other poets of the era (Tennyson was incredibly popular but appears left out, ditto Byron, Shelley, Browning, Wordsworth, etc.), the French Revolution drama A Tale of Two Cities is present but not Les Miserables. On the plus side, there’s a good mix of adventure (Treasure Island, Three Musketeers, Ivanhoe), horror (Frankenstein, Dracula, Phantom of the Opera), and human interest (Little Women, Sense & Sensibility, The Scarlet Letter), among others.The books are printed in China, which probably accounts for their cheap price, but that may be objectionable to environmentalists (industrial waste laws are weaker there) or supporters of U.S.-based printers. Or it may be a moot point – just what percentage of American books are printed overseas these days anyway?
I got a free cd through work the other day. It’s called Stars and it’s by Kazufumi Kodama. I’ve been trying to track down more info on this guy, but so far I haven’t uncovered much. The music, though, is wonderful. It has a dub base to it, but it’s skeletal with computerized beats and the spare plinking of steel drums and xylophones. Over top of all that is a soaring layer of trumpet. At times it reminds me of the background music to video games back before they had their own soundtracks full of real songs. It is a very interesting listen though. I haven’t heard much else like it.
Ed hones in on a favorite excuse that wannabe writers use to explain why they don’t have an agent or aren’t getting published:The point of all this is that if you’re a writer clinging to the stubborn notion that someone is out there to “steal” your work, and if you are letting this get in the way of writing, submitting, or pitching, then I ask you for the good of humanity to step out of the way.Like Ed, I have encountered a number of writers (and a couple of musicians) who insist that they would be published and even famous were it not for concerns that the moment they let anyone see or hear their work it would be snapped up by a greedy opportunist. As Ed rightfully illuminates, this is almost always a stock excuse to cover up a lack of motivation, confidence, or even the fact that their work doesn’t yet exist.
In an article on Washington Post’s Outlook Sunday, book critic Ron Charles explores the Harry Potter phenomenon, dissects – rather unfavorably – J.K. Rowling’s writing and discusses issues that are larger than the teenage wizard. Yes, larger than Potter – if you can believe it.With the seventh installment hitting the shelves July 21, Potter-mania is reaching new heights. Charles points out that millions of people will receive or buy Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows in a single day, a great marketing success that also bonds readers across the world. But, Charles also points out, according to the National Endowment for the Arts, half of all Americans will not buy a single novel in 2007.The widespread belief that the Potter series is to books what marijuana is to drugs does not hold, Charles argues. He also reflects on his tenure as an English teacher, saying that he should have structured his courses to enable kids to craft their own taste in literature – instead of having them read all the classics. An interesting approach which, as an aspiring journalist, intrigues me as I think of how the media is trying to adapt – quite unsuccessfully – to the post-baby boomer generations’ habits in following news, or lack thereof.Slightly condescending and very witty, Charles’s funny reporting and commentary is worth your five minutes as you try to ease in to Monday. Check out “Harry Potter and the Death of Reading“, it’ll give you some good food for thought. Not to worry, if you are a Potter fan like me, you won’t be terribly turned off.See Also: The Grinch Who Hates Harry Potter