The LBC has announced its latest pick.
In early 2002, the mogul for whom I worked began reimagining his prize property, The Atlantic Monthly. For a few weeks, I and other David Bradley employees at The Advisory Board Company received emails asking how The Atlantic might be improved. Would expanded political coverage make us more likely to subscribe? How about an expanded travel section? And: Could we recommend a witty British essayist to round out the list of contributors? (I’m pleased to say I botched this last question, and so can claim no credit for Christopher Hitchens.)Indeed, for a while, I wanted nothing to do with The Atlantic at all. Though the changes inaugurated that year improved the circulation numbers, they seemed to me to damage The Atlantic’s brand. The palpable rightward lurch; the proliferation of infographics, polls, and lifestyle coverage for the country-club set; and especially the breathless editorial hooks – “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” “Was Rumsfeld Right?” “Is Feminism Bad for Women?” – had made this intellectual institution everything it once wasn’t. While reading an article pegged to season five of The Wire, I could practically hear cut-and-paste mouseclicks turning good reporting into vacuous bloviating. (The Wire’s chief offense? It’s fiction!)It was around this point that I began to toy with an essay called, “Is The Atlantic Monthly the Death of Journalism?”The most telling weakness of The Atlantic circa 2005 – 2007, I would have argued, was the way that it had assimilated in print form a quality conventional wisdom assigns to online writing: i.e., an instinct to manufacture controversy, at the expense of common sense. This pseudo-blogginess was on vivid display in the magazine’s letters section, wherein master sophists such as Caitlin Flanagan hectored any reader who dared to point out the tendentiousness of their logic.Even as the editorial standards of the print magazine slipped, however, a stealthy inversion was happening on the magazine’s blogs, whose readership numbers soon eclipsed newsstand sales. Marc Ambinder sought some middle ground in our contentious political discourse. James Fallows and Clive Crook, freed from their editorial overlords, offered thoughtful feuilletons. And even as Ross Douthat and I got into a mini-contretemps about presidential fiction, I came to admire the high standards of logos and ethos he brought to that mire of pathos, the Internet.Now, with a new design and a new slogan, the print and online arms of The Atlantic have perhaps reached some happy accommodation. The current print issue reveals the virtues of editorial patience; Hannah Rosin’s piece on transgender juveniles, in particular, is a model of probity. By far the most interesting aspect of the redesign, however, can be found on the web. The new version of www.theatlantic.com sports a svelte and user-friendly index of the magazine’s blog offerings (a.k.a. “Voices”). Moreover, the central panel of the homepage features a rotating selection of current content, making no distinction between print and online provenance. It’s a credit to The Atlantic’s intrepid bloggers – and a nod to the possibilities of the blog as a medium – that readers won’t miss the distinction.
I was looking at today’s installment of the Publishers Lunch newsletter (which I highly recommend for those interested in the book business, even if you only get the free version like I do), and something jumped out at me. News Corp reported fiscal fourth quarter earnings this week, including the regular update on HarperCollins, which is owned by Murdoch and company. Publishers Lunch got some additional color on the news from HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman. It’s not linkable because it’s an email newsletter, but here’s the quote:Segment by segment, Friedman says the general books group continued to grow sales and profits significantly in the US, as did the children’s group. “There’s one area where we are having a lot of problems–religious publishing is in a lot of trouble.” Though religious books “have had a fantastic run for the entire 9 years I’ve been at this company,” Friedman observed, “it is starting to see hard times. Right now we are seeing heavy returns–product that just didn’t work, but more significantly, we’re seeing a contraction in the CBA, which is what we went through with the ABA.” Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Life still sells more “than almost any other book” on the religious list, but Friedman has “concerns about the whole religious sector.”Emphasis mine. I was surprised to read this because, as Friedman indicates and as book industry-watchers know, religious books have been a huge seller in recent years, growing much faster than most other types of books.As I read this, though, it occurred to me that peoples’ reading tastes, taken broadly, might be a good indicator of the philosophical mood of the country. It may be that HarperCollins’ religious titles were duds this year, but it’s also possible that the fervent hold of religion — and when we talk about “religious books” we’re talking primarily about born-again Christian themes — on this country is loosening. I don’t want to read to much into this, but is it possible that, among the broader public, conservative Christianity was a cultural fad, with its own attendant movies, music, and books, and that people who don’t have too much invested in it will move onto the next thing that promises to help them with their lives? I’d be curious to see if there’s any other evidence out there that lends itself to this idea.
The depth of Ignatius’ wisdom gave me an urge to read history, and I started with Napoleon: A Political Life, by Steven Englund. Englund is a notable scholar and the book was released to wide acclaim. Napoleon is a personal, political and military approach to one of the most influential leaders of history. I picked the book especially because I did not know much about Napoleon and sought enlightenment, which I got thanks to the book’s thorough historical content, the presentation of Napoleon’s personal background, and a very scholarly – yet novelistic – narrative. It is for certain that Englund is extremely passionate regarding Napoleonic studies and the controversies that surround it. His determination to relate to the reader both the specifics of Napoleon himself (character quirks, political ideas, practical implementations, the myth) and the historical evolution of the time (the French Revolution, Continental power struggles, trade issues) without any high opinions leads the reader to ask questions and wonder about different interpretations of the Napoleons life and actions.I was so moved by the joy of reading on historical matters that I picked up on Ryszard Kapuscinski – a foreign correspondent for the Polish press during the communist era who was recommended to me by the very C. Max Magee of The Millions and Cem Ozturk, great friend and emissary to Japan. I started with The Shadow of the Sun and realized once again how ignorant I was with regards to Africa. Since reading The Shadow of the Sun I feel ashamed to refer generally to Africa, as if it were one country, and it’s inhabitants as strictly African. Kapuscinski’s accounts are a mix of personal adventures that make James Bond stunts lame, coup d’etats surrounding the liberation of African colonies, and detailed descriptions of various cultures and peoples of Africa. Of course, immediately after finishing The Shadow of the Sun I picked up Imperium, Kapuscinski’s account of his visits to the USSR. Kapuscinki’s visit to the world behind the iron curtain, the different cultures that the USSR housed and worked diligently to eradicate and replace with communism, and the succinct description of the big brother situation is full of wonders. Imperium is a great read that is thrilling and unnerving at the same time. I still long to read The Soccer War, Kapuscinki’s accounts of the revolutions he witnessed in Latin America but rein myself not to finish all his works in one breath.See also: Part 1
Advance readers copies, the paperbacks sent out early to book reviewers, often contain special notes from authors or editors that impart a little back story or extol the virtues of the book at hand, but I’ve never seen an author’s note quite like the one that Pete Dexter penned for the advance readers copies of his forthcoming novel Spooner: As far as I know, sometime in November of last year, the book you have in your hands was three years late. There are many reasons it was three years late, probably the most conspicuous being that it was once 250 pages or so longer than the version you hold, and it takes maybe half a year to write an extra 250 pages, and at least twice that to subtract them back out. I realize this leaves another year and a half unaccounted for, and all I can say about that, readers, is get in line. Whole decades are missing from my life and I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have it any other way.At any rate; it turns out that bringing a book home three years past deadline presents problems for the publisher. Publications have to be set (again), covers drawn, generous comments collected – god knows how many of my greatest admirers have died while I’ve been diddling around with this thing – and so you can understand, perhaps, that in the end someone had to put his/her foot down and say enough, and in the end somebody did. Be assured it wasn’t me. I could have kept this up for another five years. Oh, and a title. They thought a title might be nice.All to say that what you have here, while not exactly a first draft, is further away from the finished product than most advanced readers’ editions are, and when you come across sentences you particularly don’t like, keep in mind that I probably didn’t like them either. On the odd chance that the bad sentences are still there when the book comes out, then you should keep in mind that you’re reading somebody who is still missing 18 months of the last 36, and has no idea about 2006 at all.This isn’t the first time that Dexter has prefaced a book with an introduction that threatens to divide his readers into those who get his sense of humor and those who don’t. The introduction to Paper Trails (this time in the actual published edition), which collects Dexter’s columns and articles from his legendary newspaper career, lets us know that he had little interest in collecting his columns in the first place. He tells us that the 82 columns and articles we are about to read will lack dates and any indication as to where they first appeared because, basically, he and his editor Rob Fleder didn’t want to dig them up. He also calls the venerable Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley a “worn-out old whore.”What’s interesting to me about Dexter is that, while his fiction is quite good, his wry, impolitic sense of humor doesn’t always shine through in his noirish, almost hard-boiled novels. Instead, you need to read his (essential) Paper Trails or keep an eye out for things like the remarkable author’s note quoted above.
Today at the bookstore I had the pleasure of meeting a young author named Felicia Luna Lemus. Her debut novel, published by FSG, is titled Trace Elements of Random Tea Parties. This book is about both “princess dykes” and the chicana life, a blend that could only occur in Los Angeles. She seemed almost giddy at seeing her book on the shelves, and understandably so. She is diligently at work on another novel which she foresees finishing in about five years, which is about how long the first one took. In the meantime, she is actively seeking a position teaching creative writing, which should be well within reach considering this first novel and her MFA from Cal Arts. If you want to hear more check out this review at the San Francisco Chronicle and here is a double interview with her and one of the original outlaws of queer fiction, John Rechy (City of Night is the book that made him famous), which appeared in The Advocate magazine.
In the first wave of articles on Governor Sarah Palin at The New York Times, I came across a reader-comment that Ms. Palin looked like Geena Davis in the TV show Commander-in-Chief. In this short-lived 2005 drama, Davis played the first woman Vice President, who ascends to the presidency after the death of the President. The Times reader’s comment also reminded me of another fictional first president, 24’s President David Palmer (played by Dennis Haysburt). Had this wildly popular (and very long running – Haysburt played the president from 2001-2005) imaginary depiction of a black president helped acclimate Americans to the idea? I found myself wondering if shows like Commander-in-Chief and 24, which offer fictional visions of scenarios that have not yet come to pass, give history a nudge. Can art/entertainment (the distinction between these two being a debatable one) help us as a culture imagine historical changes – and so help to bring them into being?It would not be the first time in our history that art has given life – and particularly public opinion and national politics – a little push. There is the famous (and quite possibly apocryphal) story of Abraham Lincoln meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Or, Life Among the Lowly, in 1861, and greeting her with words, “So this is the little lady who started this Great War.” Apocryphal stories aside, Stowe’s novel from 1852, sometimes considered a direct response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 but more likely the result of Stowe’s lifelong belief that slavery was a sin in the eyes of God, sold 300,000 copies in the US in its first year and went on to be the first international American bestseller, and the best-selling book of the century, after the Bible. While the novel’s sentimentality and deeply Christian worldview can be alienating to some modern readers, its vivid narrative – by turns realist, gothic, and melodramtic – is undeniably haunting (though its perpetuation of black stereotypes has become proverbial). Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been credited with capturing the national imagination, raising national consciousness, and giving the issues of slavery and emancipation a national urgency that precipitated the Civil War.Stowe’s work – not that of the freed slave turned orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass – is more often assigned the role of cultural catalyst in the American move toward abolition. Douglass’ work, both for its status as a first-hand account of life as a slave, and for the power and intelligence of Douglass’ narrative voice, is far superior to Stowe’s, but it is Stowe’s – the more melodramatic, the more imaginative, the more comparable to television drama – that sold 10,000 copies in its first week, while Douglass’ best-selling 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave had 11,000 copies in circulation only after three years in print. Also suggestive of a television-esque quality, Stowe’s Uncle Tom was originally published serially in a magazine – in episodes. If popularity in fiction is any indication of a country’s readiness for a historical change in fact, it would seem that America is ready for a black president but perhaps not quite ready for a female running mate who stands a decent chance of ascending to the presidency (given McCain’s age and history of skin cancer). It’s all much more complicated than this, of course, but I find the idea that the imaginary can give shape to the real (in a non-Don Quixote-ish way) quite captivating.