Following the lead of powerhouses Bookforum and The New York Review, the interdisciplinary magazine BOMB appears to be in the middle of a major project to make a lot of its content available free, online. This should be a boon to highbrow bibliophiles. For years, BOMB‘s author interviews have offered deep perspective on the state of the art, while its monthly publication schedule has indemnified it against the faddishness that characterizes so much cultural coverage. Visitors to the new version of www.bombsite.com can browse interviews with the likes of Peter Nadas and Roberto Bolano (archived from 2001)… as well as the current cover-story: a conversation with Kate Valk, my favorite actor in New York and “a national treasure.” Be sure also to peruse the BOMB’s excellent literary supplement, First Proof.
Skimming through the CS Monitor book section I came upon a capsule review describing Because She Can by Bridie Clark as the latest example of “assistant lit.” I assume that this trend hit the big time with the success of The Devil Wears Prada, and the subsequent movie version. But just as some see Jane Austen as a precursor to so-called “chick lit,” I wonder if “assistant lit” has some historical antecedents.One fairly obvious example that comes to mind is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, perhaps the ur-assitant lit, in which the sympathetic Bob Cratchit is put upon by his terrible boss Ebenezer Scrooge, who has become something of a model for penny-pinching bosses ever since. But in that case, the action focuses on the boss, and we don’t get much of Cratchit being forced to do Scrooge’s laundry.Another, much more recent example – which actually came out after Prada – might be Rick Moody’s ambitious novel The Diviners, which offers a bleak (and not altogether successful) take on the humiliating plight of the assistant, while also, more or less, attempting to chronicle the downfall of our vacuous, celebrity-obsessed civilization.Then again, it might just be that the book that many consider to be the father of the novel, Don Quixote, also happens to be the very first example of “assistant lit.” Sancho Panza fits the bill as he is endlessly put upon by a boss who manages to both domineering and moronic. For those who have been assistants, as I once was, Don Quixote and his maddening whims will likely call up memories of capricious bosses.But certainly there must be other examples of assistant lit that long predate the current trend, or like The Diviners turn it on its head. Can anyone think of some other good examples? Share in the comments.
In August, Atul Gawande published an article in The New Yorker on end of life care which referenced a 2008 study by the Coping with Cancer project that attempted to assess how the manner in which a person dies affects the mental health of the family and friends who watch him go. The study found that the survivors of cancer patients whose last days were spent in mechanized intensive care units tended to suffer post-mortem depression three times more often than the survivors of terminal patients whose last days had been spent at home under hospice care. The implication was that holding on for too long, and in the wrong ways, can disrupt the natural rhythms of grieving.
Recently I’ve been thinking about how this framework—the idea that there are better and worse ways to let someone go—might be applied to the Facebook era of human relations, in which friendships don’t really end so much as they attenuate into superficial voyeurism and token gestures. This past February, for example, I received good wishes (prompted of course by an auto-generated reminder) on my birthday from elementary school acquaintances who I had not spoken with in nearly twenty years (and I’m only 29!). Jake F., who I played Little League with but have not seen since, was one of them: “Hope it’s a good one!” he wrote on my wall.
On a gut level, I couldn’t figure out what to make of this. Was I supposed to feel happy to hear from long lost Jake? Was I supposed to write back “thanks” as though it were completely natural to be wished a happy birthday by a person whose existence is barely more real to me than a character’s in a novel? There seemed to be no categories or schema in the evolutionarily designed layout of my brain to process an encounter that bore qualities in common with a person coming back from the dead.
This feeling of interpersonal vertigo was particularly acute a few months ago when an item in my newsfeed announced that Josh W. was engaged. Josh and I had become friends in the first half of the George W. Bush era, during a year in which we taught sixth grade together in New York City. We were the same age and both liked to play basketball and by Columbus Day we were spending a lot of time together. I’d hang out in his classroom in the mornings before the kids arrived and after school we’d sometimes go play pool and drink Budweiser at an Irish bar located improbably in the midst of what by then had become a Latino neighborhood of the Bronx. We talked about a lot of things, but mostly we never tired of talking about the students we had in common.
When that school year ended, I left teaching and New York to travel. While I was abroad, and then afterwards when I settled in Philadelphia, Josh and I kept in touch over email and occasional phone calls, and a couple times when I was back in New York I looked him up. Those encounters dwindled, though. I was sad when we began to lose touch and I missed the feeling that I associated with the easy period in my life when Josh and I had become friends. But at the same time I was all right with the idea that we weren’t going to be important parts of each other’s lives going forward. Our friendship was tied to a place and a time that had passed and it didn’t diminish how much the friendship had meant to me (or to Josh either, I hope), that we wouldn’t be calling each other up when we were 60 to shoot the shit.
But then there I was, some years after we’d last talked, staring at my computer screen and the news that Josh was going to be getting married. I saw that a few dozen people “Liked” the announcement and I clicked the thumbs-up icon, but immediately I felt a little ill, like I’d just cheapened the memory of our friendship somehow. I thought about adding a small note—”Congratulations” or “So excited to hear the news!!”—but that seemed off, too.
I could have called Josh, or written him a personal email, but I didn’t, although maybe I should have. We all trail a line of relationships behind us as we grow older, and we all have our own standards that define when and how we let go of people who were once important in our lives (and when and how we accept being let go of ourselves). I could see why it might be rewarding or interesting or comforting to know that with Facebook you never really need to put a friendship to rest completely. But to me it’s comforting and disorienting in the way of ventilators and feeding tubes that sustain a narrow definition of life long after the real thing has run its course.
The revelation of the so-called “Book of Judas” last week made for some good news stories. The newly discovered gospel claims that one of history’s oldest bad guys wasn’t so bad. It’s a provocative story and there’s an element of Indiana Jones to it all, as the lost text was found in Egypt and made its way to the public through years of intrigue and backchannel trading. Scholars, meanwhile, are already debating how relevant the document is. The New York Times article on the gospel gets into the scholarly debate somewhat, but an illuminating essay by David Kopel at the Volokh Conspiracy explains why the “Gospel of Judas” is not a lost book from the Bible, but rather a Gnostic text. But what interests me most are not the theological ramifications of the find, but how its public unveiling is tied to the release of so many books (and a movie).First of all, it’s unlikely that this news would be of such interest were it not for the success of The Da Vinci Code, which has made once obscure Gnostic texts mainstream reads for fans of Dan Brown’s book. It’s also worth noting that The Da Vinci Code movie comes out soon, on May 19th, which is sure to keep early Christian mysticism in the news. But then there are the books themselves. National Geographic, which officially made the documents public, has two related books out now: The Gospel of Judas, which is an annotated translation of the original documents, and The Lost Gospel, which is about the discovery of the gospel and the research that went into deciphering it. The David Kopel essay cited above mentions an AP story in which James M. Robinson, a rival to the National Geographic scholars, explains why the find is probably not all that important. It turns out Robinson has his own book on the gospel coming out, too, The Secrets of Judas, which gives his view on the find.So, for something that was portrayed in the media as a stunning new find, this all seems to be very stage managed to me. The Gospel of Judas itself has been floating around since the 70s, but the three books (and the National Geographic TV special) all seem timed to hitch onto The Da Vinci Code’s next wave of publicity as Dan Brown emerges from his court proceedings and his best seller hits the big screen.
Three months ago, after HarperCollins parent News Corp reported fiscal fourth quarter earnings, I noted comments from HarperCollins’ CEO Jane Friedman regarding sales of religious books. “Religious publishing is in a lot of trouble” was the pull quote. More recently, I pointed to the latest hot publishing trend, books about atheism, signalling something of a backlash against the religiosity that has pervaded our culture in recent years.News Corp reported its fiscal first quarter numbers this week, and once again the Publishers Lunch newsletter went back to Friedman to get her thoughts on HarperCollins’ performance (no link since it’s only available by email). This time her language seemed even stronger on this topic:As she noted last quarter, Friedman observes, “I’ve got big softness in Zondervan [HarperCollins’ Christian imprint] — and that is something we’re going to have to be watching all year… It’s not getting better.” She reports that spiritual books are “going steadily upward,” like the books published by Harper San Francisco, but “there’s a softness in the bible business” and “this is the most disturbing news, since that’s our staple.”With the Republicans so recently trounced in the elections, one has to wonder if the cultural enthusiasm for the type of Christianity that yields these sorts of books is waning (and indeed if earlier sales softness was a predictor of what would happen with the elections.)
The latest catalog to cross my desk is from the Soft Skull Press, the daring Brooklyn-based publishing house that always manages to deliver books from well outside the mainstream. Their books strike a balance between rage and art, and I like looking through their catalog because I know there will almost nothing familiar in it; I will be introduced to new writers and artists.Coming in May is Delia Falconer’s The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers, a historical novel about Custer’s Last Stand as told by Captain Frederick Benteen who managed to survive the massacre. Benteen’s account is told from a distance of twenty years, and the catalog calls the book “an exploration of our dawning age of celebrity (the lionization of Custer, carefully tended to by Custer himself while alive), and what it is to be a soldier (in this era of Iraq memoirs.)”Soft Skull, which often publishes books in translation, is putting out three books originally published in French this time around. One of these, a graphic novel called Siberia by Nikolai Maslov, sounds particularly intense. In the mold of Marjane Satrapi, this is a memoir, and it tells of the brutality of Maslov’s life in the Soviet Union. According to Soft Skull, it’s the first ever Russian graphic novel published in the U.S. The book is already outAlso originally published in France are SuperHip JoliPunk by Camille de Toledo and Electric Flesh by Claro. SuperHip JoliPunk is a “manifesto, examining present day counterculture from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the present. He asks what it is, exactly, his generation is protesting against.” Harry Houdini is at the center of Electric Flesh, but its protagonist is Howard Hourdinary, who claims to be the bastard grandson of the great magician.Publishers, if you’d like to send me your catalog, please email me.