Adonal Foyle, the former basketball standout at Colgate who has had a long career with the Golden State Warriors, has an impressive Web site that includes his very own book club. The club’s current pick, The Da Vinci Code isn’t terribly inspired, but I’m nonetheless impressed that an NBA star is broadcasting his love of reading. Note as well Foyle’s “Top 10 Books” which includes an ample mix of basketball books and political non-fiction with a leftward-leaning bent.
[Recent studies] suggest that children learn best when they are allowed to select their own books… [According to one researcher,] “I don’t think the majority of these kids ever read during the summer, but [being] given the opportunity to select their own books and discuss what they knew… was, in itself, motivating to them.” –The New York Times
My Summer Book Report
By Zach McCormick
Mrs. Bianco’s class, Grade 4
The book I picked to read during my summer vacation was Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth. I picked Portnoy’s Complaint because it was right on my dad’s bookshelf and also because the cover was very yellow and the writing on the cover was very swirly. And I was also pretty curious about Portnoy and his complaint. What is he complaining about, I wondered? I like to complain sometimes, like when my mom forgets to put Fruit By the Foot in my lunchbox, or if she puts a plum in there instead of Fruit By the Foot. So I thought it would be neat to see what he’s complaining about.
The first thing he complains about is his mom. I don’t think he likes her very much, because she does really bad things to him. She won’t even let him eat French fries or hamburgers! She says, “Don’t eat French fries with Melvin Weiner after school.” My mom doesn’t want me to eat French fries that much either, but Portnoy can’t EVER have them or he’ll get in trouble.
Portnoy also complains about his dad, because he doesn’t know how to hold a baseball bat! Portnoy also talks a lot about his dad’s rectum, which is WEIRD. I never read a book that had the word “rectum” in it before, except maybe the dictionary. I know it’s in there because I looked it up when I was reading “Portnoy’s Complaint.” It means “tush.”
Also, besides “rectum,” there are a LOT of bad words in Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth! Portnoy says the “f” word a LOT. I felt kind of bad when I was reading it, because I knew I wasn’t supposed to see those words, and my dad might catch me and then I wouldn’t be able to watch “Phineas and Ferb” for a whole week. That’s what happened when I used his drill, even though I was wearing goggles and I didn’t go ALL the way through the car door. He never caught me reading Portnoy’s Complaint, though.
Portnoy also says “bullshit” and “nipple” and “bitches” and “whore” and “ass.” Also, he says “prick” and “tits” and “sex.” And also, “suck” and “crap” and “diarrhea.” (Sorry, Mrs. B!)
There are a lot of words in Portnoy’s Complaint that I didn’t really get, like shtupp and schlong and shmutzig and punim. I don’t know what they mean, but they’re really fun to say! Shtupp shtupp shtupp shtupp schlong schlong schlong schlong!
There’s a whole part in Portnoy’s Complaint called “WHACKING OFF” that I didn’t really get. Philip Roth, who wrote Portnoy’s Complaint, keeps talking about penis, so maybe it’s about peeing? Which I like, especially after asparagus, so it smells like asparagus pee. But Portnoy doesn’t talk about asparagus pee at all. Maybe Portnoy isn’t talking about peeing?
What’s a “vaselined upright”?
I guess the main part of Portnoy’s Complaint is how he has all of these girlfriends, but he doesn’t really like them, and that’s sort of WEIRD. I don’t have a girlfriend really, but I think if I did, I would like her. DON’T TELL HER, Mrs. B, but I had a SUPER HUGE CRUSH on Danielle S. last year. She wasn’t my girlfriend because I never talked to her, but I really sort of liked her and never threw at her in dodgeball, except the one time when I hit her in the ear and she had to go home. But Portnoy even calls one of his girlfriends a monkey! Monkeys are cool, especially ones that wear clothes, but I don’t think I’d want a monkey for my girlfriend. She’d probably smell bad and have bugs on her, and also she’d try to eat my Fruit By the Foot.
I wonder if you had a monkey girlfriend though, if you could play baseball with her. I saw a movie one time where a monkey was a pitcher on a baseball team. That was the best movie. If my monkey girlfriend could play baseball than maybe it would be okay if she was a monkey. Portnoy never did that with his monkey. They were always doing something else, I think.
But Portnoy doesn’t like his monkey girlfriend, especially when he calls her a “crazy bitch.” (Sorry, Mrs. B!) He doesn’t like ANYTHING, to tell you the truth. He doesn’t like his parents, or his girlfriends, or even himself, really! He says he’s a barbarian, and a pig, and also “psychoneurotic,” which I’m not sure what that means, but it doesn’t really sound very great. We had an assembly last year where they did this play, and it was all about how you should like yourself. They sang “I’m unique and unrepeatable” a bunch of times, and it got stuck in my head for about a month! I don’t think Portnoy saw this play, which had puppets in it.
I didn’t really like Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth, even if it had a yellow cover and swirly letters. It was pretty hard to read, because I didn’t understand a lot of the words, and it made me feel kind of gross, like the time I ate all those Rice Krispies treats at the beach. There were a lot of curses, and Portnoy was angry all the time. He complained about EVERYTHING. I probably should’ve picked Diary of A Wimpy Kid for my summer reading book.
P.S., Mrs. B—what does “Jewish guilt” mean?
Not long ago, I lived in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where I wrote stories about, among other topics, a meet-up of Twitter users, a dire sandstorm that befell a mixed-gender rock show, a tour of one of Riyadh’s oldest hotels, and what happens when the most Islamic country in the world attempts to hold a festival to “celebrate culture.”
I was young and proud and eager to share my work. So every month or so, I’d send out an email to friends and associates with a link to my latest. Not too many complained. Some, apparently, even enjoyed what I sent.
But among my harshest critics was a writer friend, who in a scorching series of emails said mine was this obnoxious, privileged gaze, that in every description of Saudi lives, I mainly revealed that I wanted Saudis to grow up and be good democratic Westerners — which was an impossible goal, he said, because good democratic Westerners are monsters who started wars and were a menace to the whole world.
Years later, I lived in Beirut, where I was still writing stories. As part of an effort to do better this time, I began to read The Innocents Abroad, a record of traveling by Mark Twain.
As a traveler, I had always written earnestly about my observations. Twain, it seemed, was all too eager to write wryly about his own ignorance. There was probably a lot I could learn.
In 1867, a crew of Americans set sail for Europe, Asia, and the Holy Land. For the benefit of the reader and to fulfill his duties as a columnist for The New York Herald Tribune, one of the passengers, Mark Twain, set to writing a book about what happened.
In the first pages, the reader encounters Twain’s unease with the basic notion of trying to be original in a travel book. “A little after noon on that distinguished Saturday I reached the ship and went on board. All was bustle and confusion. [I have seen that remark somewhere.]”
Then the ship sees its first island, and Twain isn’t too excited about the Azores. “All the opera glasses in the ship were called into requisition to settle disputes as to whether mossy spots on the uplands were groves of trees or groves of weeds, or whether the white villages down by the sea were really villages or only the clustering of tombstones or cemeteries.” Better to temper any real enthusiasm with a protective cloak of detachment and humor.
In Riyadh, I faced the same problem, but I tried to write with kindness and heart, explaining what I saw with detail and nuance. Twain? “Out of our whole ship’s company there was not a solitary individual who knew anything whatever about them,” he writes of the Azores. It’s a sly trick — substituting his fellow shipmates for the reader. “These considerations move me to put in a paragraph of dry facts here,” he writes — but of course the paragraph isn’t dry.
Twain has protected himself and us by suggesting no normal person would know the Azores, then he protects himself further by saying any information about the strange place would be “dry.” Then he unloads: “The donkeys and the men, women, and children of a family all eat and sleep in the same room, and are unclean, are ravaged by vermin, and are truly happy.” Twain writes simultaneously with contempt and fondness, and we’re left to puzzle out what he’s trying to do, and where in the mess we should stand.
What he’s doing, it seems, is deploying a constantly changing mix of both sincerity and irreverence, making his position on things hard to pin down. Take the way he grapples with the tired subject of a famous church. “We went to see the Cathedral of Notre Dame,” he writes. “We had heard of it before. It surprises me sometimes to think how much we do know and how intelligent we are.”
Twain was making himself hard to take seriously, protecting himself from the question of whether writing like this made the world a better understood place. The whole situation was captured in the way he recounted the story of Abelard and Heloise, the 12th-century French lovers:
With infinite pains I have acquired a knowledge of that history, and I propose to narrate it here, partly for the honest information of the public and partly to show the public that they have been wasting a good deal of marketable sentiment very unnecessarily…Heloise was born seven hundred and sixty-six years ago. She may have had parents. There is no telling. She lived with her uncle Fulbert, a canon of the cathedral of Paris. I do not know what a canon of the cathedral is, but that is what he was.
I have come to admire that paragraph very much. In it, Twain is humorous and self-deprecating about the project of historical storytelling, but he is also contemptuous of stupid readers and of disinformation and false sentimentality, but then he acknowledges again that he himself doesn’t actually know much — for instance, what on earth is a canon? There’s a kind of crazy disregard for accountability, a carnival of intention and expectation. You sense a plan, but it’s hard to divine where, if at all, Twain is willing to draw a line. In a storm of riotous laughter, who could quiet the room and suggest to Twain that what he does has serious consequences?
But there’s no need to lecture; Twain’s well aware of his power. “In Marseille, they make half the fancy toilet soap we consume in America, but the Marseillaise only have a vague theoretical idea of its use, which they have obtained from books of travel, just as they have acquired an uncertain notion of clean shirts, and the peculiarities of the gorilla, and other curious matters.” Books of travel change the world, Twain is ready to acknowledge. But all you’ll probably remember is that line about the clean shirt.
In the end, travel books — or personal essays — are doomed. Try to describe the gorilla and you fail. Words are never enough, and most will ultimately be forgotten. And if that gorilla is a man? Maybe better not to have begun at all.
The other day, the American-born Nigerian writer Teju Cole posted a line on Twitter: “I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.”
Cole was probably right. “I have camped with the Indians,” Twain writes. “I have been on the warpath with them, taken part in the chase with them…I have roamed with them, scalped them, had them for breakfast. I would gladly eat the whole race if I had a chance.”
Illustration by Dominick Rabrun.
Another installment of Ask the Librarians has arrived at emdashes, and it provides another fascinating look at the New Yorker.In this issue you can learn how the magazine got writers in its early years; who has had the most short stories published in the magazine all time and in a single year; all about the now defunct horse racing column; and most interesting of all, a history of the magazine’s editorial “Comment” column and how it took on a political tone over the years.
In the Guardian, Tim Adams bemoans the shrinking selection and big budget marketing fees wrought by ongoing consolidation in the British bookselling industry (taking their cues from the American chain stores, it seems.) Behind this trend is the head buyer of Waterstone’s, a man named Scott Pack.(via Using Books Weblog)
Between July 1 and November 5th, I don’t think I read anything longer than a three-page spread on Politico or anything more literary than a New Yorker cartoon. Political campaigns are experiments in all sorts of deprivations. The days are long and narrow, filled with fast food containers and the sounds of vibrating Blackberries. I started on the Obama campaign back in January in South Carolina. Many of my colleagues on the general election campaign in Pennsylvania had been at this for almost two years, a stunning feat of endurance that stretched from hours spent knocking doors after dark in frozen New Hampshire, straight through to the week of all-nighters that preceded Election Day.Among the things I lost to an around-the-clock schedule, books were not the most precious. On any given day I missed talking with my friends, or going for a run, more. But if books were not the things I missed most, their absence was in one way the most profound. While the hurly-burly of the campaign never caused me to question the importance of calling my dad or cooking a meal, it did cast doubt over the value of reading.In this past Sunday’s Times Book Review Jonathan Lethem wrote of the author Roberto Bolano, that he “never tires of noting how a passion for literature walks a razor’s edge between catastrophic irrelevance and sublime calling.” The frantic activity of a campaign questions the relevance of a reading life. It was energizing these past few months to feel myself so squarely in the flow of history, and coming down the homestretch in October, it would have felt like I was stepping out of the current to have spent an afternoon reading. But just as one can only subsist on almonds and M&Ms for so long (I made it a week), after awhile I found I needed books as much as I needed vegetables. Literature is sublime when it invigorates awareness of the world around us, and we rely on the store of that awareness in times, like campaigns, when there is not a lot of opportunity to assess where we are or to question where we’re going. Now that it’s over and I’m reading again, I find that stories are not so much a refuge or a pause as they are a way for me to put my feet on the ground again.