Avery, a new literary magazine out of Madison, Wisconsin, bears the subtitle, “an anthology of new fiction.” They’ve just come out with their third issue (I haven’t bought it yet but I am lusting over the beautiful cover), and already they’ve been featured in Poets & Writers, and published writers like Dan Chaon and Ander Monson.Today the Avery blog starts a series of interviews with authors, either about writing or some other topic. The inaugural interview is with one of my favorite writers, Lorrie Moore, who chats with co-editor Emma Straub about music:I don’t believe writers are mopier than anyone else. I think dentists are famously depressive. And writers, when writing, are usually having a really good time. There are certain kinds of songs I just love, the knife-in-the-heart kind, also the Live in Vegas kind, but the writers I know tend not to share my taste. In fact, when referring to it, they refuse even to use the word “taste.”
With the launch of Apple’s iPad, some of the literary web is focusing on the impending doom and loss that the e-book revolution will bring. Though some of the major publishing houses have welcomed the iPad with open arms, others are less eager to sign on.
Yet beyond the publishing houses, there’s a whole group — the consumers of books — that is very much concerned with the way in which e-readers will change how we read. It’s the readers of books, after all, that will be affected most by a switch from print to digital. Lost will be the days of curling up with a yellowed and musty book adopted from your local library. Farewell to those nights when you, on an impulse, run to your local bookstore and return with more than you ever intended to purchase and sit up reading until the wee-hours. Adios to those cookbooks with grandmama’s annotations, sprinkled with splotches of her world famous pasta sauce. While these moments have the potential to be lost to modernity, they will be replaced by new experiences with the written word — albeit, perhaps less fragrant
And yet still, there are those who are now, as in Mokoto Rich’s article in the New York Times, lamenting another loss, the culture of reading. You know the scenario, but here’s my anecdote. I’m sitting on the shuttle to my gym. The girl sitting across from me is about my age, she’s dressed similarly to me, wearing glasses, and she has a yoga mat strapped to her bag. In other words — she could or could not be my future best friend. In her lap is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I think to myself, “I wonder if that book is any good.” Maybe I go home and read reviews of the book. Maybe I take a leap of faith and purchase it right away. But regardless, I’m now seeing the book as something of interest to me because I see myself in its readers.
These types of encounters happen all of the time in the culture of reading, and yet as e-books are clearly the way of the future, the likelihood of the scenario happening will certainly decrease. Years (maybe even months) from now, the others on the shuttle will be immersed in their e-readers — much in the same way that many of them are currently focused on their iPhones or Blackberries. And I, looking at each of them, won’t have the slightest idea of what they are reading or looking at. The yoga mat will be there, and the clothes will still be similar, but the only cue I will gather is that I too should be looking down at a device.
But of course, we don’t just get our book recommendations from random people on public transportation. Amazon has virtually changed the way we can browse and buy books, and online communities such as Goodreads have sprouted up to connect forlorn readers to other like-minded folks on the internet. If you are a supporter of the independent bookstore movement, you know that a good bookstore is like a great wine store — its shelves are curated by experts (or maybe just people with a lot of time to read) you trust. And there will always be the world of web reviews.
“Yes,” you say, “all of this is true. But what about when I am on a bus?” With some certainty I’ll say that we can look to the iPhone to get an idea of the possibility for the iPad. Though there are far too many applications available for the iPhone than one could ever keep track of, one category has been getting lots of attention — location-based social networking apps. Gowalla, Foursquare and Whrrl are the big three, but I’m sure there are others out there. What these apps all provide is the ability to know where your friends are and let others know where you are by “checking in” to restaurants, bars, bookstores, etc. The apps also identify your location and then tell you “What’s Trending” near you. Right now, for instance, the coffee shop up the street from my office is trending (10 people have checked in).
So what does all of this have to do with the iPad and the culture of reading? Currently, when I search ‘Literature’ or ‘Books’ or ‘Reading’ in the App Store, I come up with pages and pages of apps. Many of them help you read e-books or listen to audio books. Some of them are actual compilations of certain types of literature (Classics, Shakespeare, etc.). And there are others, such as Electric Literature or Small Chair that operate like magazines, feeding subscribers weekly or monthly exclusive bits. From my cursory view, only one of the apps, the Goodreads app, actually has a community element baked into it. There is potential here and I’m not a product person so I can only imagine a sliver of the myriad, though I will try.
What if there were a way to know what people near me were reading? What if I could find out what other books they’ve read to know better if they’re a compatible recommender of books? What if I couldn’t judge a book by a yoga mat? Would I find better matches, or perhaps more accurate ones? Because though the girl across from me might look like my type of friend, I may actually hate The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and let’s be honest, what 20-something girl in San Francisco doesn’t practice yoga. Certainly not all of them share my literary tastes. Perhaps, even, my taste in literature is more compatible with the quinquagenarian sitting at the back of the shuttle.
While it sounds like a huge invasion of privacy to know that someone near me named Ed is reading the Twilight Saga, if Ed wants me to know, then I could potentially learn from Ed by knowing that not just is he reading New Moon, but he’s also a huge fan of Poe and just finished a collection of short stories by Joyce Carol Oates that I didn’t even know existed. By not judging Ed for the fact that he is a fifty-five-year-old male wearing tube socks, I transcend the shackles of whom I imagine I can identify with — as a reader and beyond. I can identify with anyone, and that’s really the point of technology: to open up the world.
We are social creatures by nature and we like to observe the people around us — public transportation sometimes gives us no other choice. But just because technology will change the way we read does not mean that a new culture of reading won’t be born of it. Indeed, our constant has always been change. Though seemingly scary now, I’m confident that whatever amount of visual transparency we lose from going digital we will gain in learning a bit more about ourselves and the world outside of our walls of judgment.
[Image credit:Bruce Clay]
Today’s Elliot Spitzer scandal sent me back to the New Yorker archives, to revisit Nick Paumgarten’s excellent profile, from December 10. This time around, I was struck less by the “what you see is what you get” thesis of some Spitzer intimates, than by this proposition, from an unnamed source: “Spitzer lunges. He seems not to be a person of strategy. He slipped on a banana peel, or six, and once down has thrashed around.” It remains to be seen if, amid the thrashing, his newfound talent for “extracting oneself from an intractable position” holds up.
A new issue of the excellent online literary review, The Quarterly Conversation has been posted. There are plenty of goodies on offer, but perhaps the most intriguing is a piece by François Monti about Zone, a French novel by Mathias Énard that has certain literary corners of Europe buzzing. It’s got quite a hook:Zone, as has been much noted, is a 517-page sentence, and its rhythm is one that draws readers inevitably toward the end, much faster than you would have thought. It’s difficult to stop for a breather, to try and reflect on what’s being read. Somehow, form and content stymie a consideration of the meaning of the narration and the way it works. I thought I liked it perhaps more than I really did.The book will be published in English by Open Letter in summer 2010.
This story brought me back to my bookselling days.A consumer alert for the millions who have seen the Sex and the City movie: There is no such book as Love Letters of Great Men, which Carrie Bradshaw reads while in bed with Mr. Big.The closest text in the real world apparently is Love Letters of Great Men and Women: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day, first released in the 1920s and reissued last year by Kessinger Publishing, which specializes in bringing back old works.Rarely a day went by at the bookstore without a strange request: books long out of print or requests for misremembered titles were common. I can imagine beleaguered booksellers across the country taking pains to untangle the confusion wrought by Carrie Bradshaw et al. Meanwhile, Sex and the City fans who have purchased Love Letters of Great Men and Women – the book has achieved an astonishing #123 sales rank at Amazon – are becoming acquainted with the likes of Victor Hugo, Goethe, and Alexander Pope, according to the bits of the book and table of contents available at Google Books. Sometimes it is a strange world we live in.(Via my mom, who made a good point when she directed me to this story: “sounds like an opportunity for a fast writer.”)
The modern world swooned last month when the bones found under a parking lot in Leicester, England were confirmed to be indeed those of Richard III. Part of the fuss was due to the wonderfully incongruous image of a 15th century king entombed under this age’s most banal and omnipresent architectural fixture — “What’s under my parking lot?” we mused breathlessly. And, to be sure, Anglophilia is ascendant in these tremulous days of “Downton” and Hilary Mantel’s fittingly titled historical novel Bring Up the Bodies. But the real business with the skeleton of course had to do with Richard’s status as a hated historical king, the deformed, dissembling, and nephew-smothering arch-bad guy whose downfall mercifully concluded the grisly War of the Roses.
It’s more or less agreed among people who take the time to review these things that Richard was the target of a posthumous smear campaign orchestrated by the triumphant Tudor dynasty (whose founder Henry VII defeated Richard in 1485). Official Tudor chroniclers during the mid-16th century purposefully blackened Richard’s character, and Shakespeare followed suit by putting a hunchbacked tyrant on stage in the electrically charged history, The Tragedy of King Richard The Third. Rightly or wrongly, Richard went down in history as a regal punching bag, a ruler who embodied the worst of late-medieval chicanery.
But now, with even the American media reporting at fever pitch on the miraculous discovery, the contested reburial plans, and digital facial renderings (evidently, Richard III resembled Shrek’s Lord Farquaad), it appears that England’s most reviled king may just get a reappraisal. Richard’s apologists hope that his newfound celebrity will encourage us all to submit our old Shakespearean prejudices to a round of honest fact-checking. It’s a simple procedure, in which historical evidence is marshaled to root out the mythology inherent in literary representation, to the point where the literary work in question can be dismissed as little more than myth itself.
The technique has its fair uses — we might be grateful for it when dealing with, say, Kipling’s odes to imperialism. But its corollary is nearly always the driving of a wedge between art and history, two disciplines, we are admonished, that best not consort with one another. Already we can see the process at work with Richard III. Even Harold Bloom, high priest of American Bardolatry, recently averred in Newsweek that “Shakespeare’s ironic, self-delighting, witty hero-villain has a troubling relation to actual history.” This is defensible enough, yet we should remember that there is no corrective for propaganda like a reader’s awareness thereof. If we arm ourselves with this knowledge, Shakespeare’s art can yield deeper, more illuminating insights into Richard’s life and times than we might imagine. However, if we divorce Richard III from the “actual history” we are insensitive to literature and, worse, we weaken our own understanding of monarchy, power, and history itself.
In Shakespeare we encounter Richard III as an evil genius, one theatric-evolutionary step beyond the Vice character of medieval morality plays. Richard deceives and beguiles his way to the crown, killing off his rivals and then his friends until he has only ghosts to attend him. There is a clear logical schema for all this hell raising: the man is a monster, a hideous swamp-world creature, “Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time / Into this breathing world scarce half made up.” His monstrosity served him in wartime, yet now civil conflict has given way to stable Yorkist supremacy under his brother Edward IV, and the bellicose Richard finds himself without suitable vocation. The weapons have been hung up on the walls, and the lutes come down for seduction and other trifles of peace. “Since I cannot prove a lover / I am determined to prove a villain,” Richard intones, and that’s that.
And yet Shakespeare just doesn’t come sans complication. Richard is too clever a thespian, too candid a soliloquist, and, belatedly, too tormented by conscience to lose all title to sympathy from the audience. He is too conflicted and desperate in his final scenes to bunk amicably with Iago in the prison of Shakespearean opprobrium — Iago who, like a mischievous alien beamed down to Venice exclusively to fuck with Othello, just sort of shuts down after Desdemona is murdered. In fact, Richard’s near-remorse on the eve of the fatal Battle of Bosworth Field provides material for some of the most contorted, dialogic, and self-conscious lines in the Complete Works. After a night of visitations from the ghosts of his victims, a frightened Richard “Starteth up out of a dream”:
What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by.
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am.
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why:
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?
…Alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself!
I am a villain. Yet I lie, I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well. Fool, do not flatter.
What happened to the cool calculation and protean slipperiness of the old sly Richard? Whence this fabulously split subject, marooned by his own malfeasance? This Richard improbably presages the dazzling self-doubt of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the late-19th-century disconsolate and poet of brooding, rhyme-packed, sprung-rhythm verse. Turns out this most detestable of English kings, killer of little boys, and bane of decent folk everywhere also clutches that thing Hamlet purports to have, “that within which passes show,” a deeper interiority, a nagging conscience, an ego turned on itself. And yet Richard, like a good schoolboy intent on completing an assignment, has proved a villain. So why does he quake?
The pith of the tale, for modern viewers at least, is that even as Richard proves a villain, he disproves the concept of pure villainy — at the end of the day, a much more consequential disproof than proof. The question at hand is not whether Richard kills people, rides roughshod over morality, or perversely revels in doing so. The problem for us — we distant modern viewers who have seen so many kings come and go in these history plays — is that as soon as Richard affixes the label of villainy to himself the label starts to lose its distinction, to melt into the milieu of political violence.
The other part of the “story” in the exhumation of Richard III — the interest over and beyond monarchic infatuation and historical import — also had to do with our abiding lust for proof. This time it came not from Tudor ideology but from the de-politicized precincts of scientific empiricism. And what proof: the identity of the bones of Richard the Third has been settled in a bravura display of genetic testing, radiocarbon dating, and advanced anthropological sleuthing. Mitochondrial DNA found in a tooth pulled from Richard’s jaw matches mitochondrial DNA of two descendants of his sister, one Michael Ibsen, furniture maker of London, and a second anonymous relation.
As the story broke I joined the multitudes of media viewers in satiating my curiosity and awe. I read the articles, gaped at the curved spine, scrutinized the nasty blow to the head. I went on YouTube and found the videos produced by the University of Leicester detailing all of the digging, extracting, and testing done to get to the elusive bones, and then to their precious DNA cargo. Suddenly Richard III became a marvel of scientific certitude, a job-well-done of today’s sophisticated epistemological techniques. Now we know.
“What do we know? Know Richard? There’s none else by…” So the bones are Richard’s. As he might have said, “I am I.” But the tautology does us as much good as it did the roles’ first interpreter, Richard Burbage, when he declared it before an Elizabethan audience. It was as if the moment Richard’s mortal remains hit the Internet, he ceased to be a villain or a politician and became merely a curiosity, stripped of intrigue or depth, a subject of pop historian enthusiasm.
To be sure, it was a banner day for the Richard III Society, the organization which, since 1924, has dedicated itself to promoting a rehabilitated Richard. Members of the group, which as it happens is patronized by the current Duke of Gloucester, raised $250,000 to support the search for Richard’s grave and his genetic testing. It was money well spent. As one organizer told the New York Times, “Now we can rebury him with honor, and we can rebury him as a king.” This defanged, refurbished king was a civic-minded administrator who improved the commons’ channels for airing grievances and lifted bans on printing. His violence was understandable given the times. As for the young princes in the Tower — who really knows what happened.
We all want to be remembered well, and that’s a hard proposition when you die on the losing side of bitter dynastic struggle. The Richard III Society may be correct in asserting that Richard was vilified without substantial proof. There is proof Richard did enact some nice, forward-thinking policies — as solid proof that the parking lot bones once fit together to form Richard’s scoliotic frame. But there’s something meretricious, or perhaps just distracting, about the whole question of proof in this case. If Richard wasn’t as bad as we think he is, there also seems to be no need to truly pal around with his ghost. To invoke a touchstone of modern political affability, Richard probably wasn’t a guy you’d want to have a beer with, a power-hungry warlord at best. And it remains likely that much of the evidence that would prove or disprove Richard’s rotten reputation has been lost.
That’s no reason to gag Richard’s supporters — let them toast to their gallant White Boar if they want — but the lessons worth drawing from the whole business are too important to be lost in the penumbras of medieval recordkeeping or the weirdness of historical fanclubs. This is true especially when the crux of the lesson can be found in Shakespeare’s plays. By this I mean that, besides celebrating the Tudor ascension, Richard III and the other history plays demonstrate time and again the precarity, anxieties, and senselessness of the whole monarchical enterprise. No one belongs on the throne, not Richard and not Henry Tudor, but each must believe he does. Thus, it’s not that Richard III is so off the mark in representing the spirit of its subject. Rather, the great falsehood, deeply rooted and insidious to this day, is the belief that all the other players in the sordid history were so dissimilar from the scheming Duke of Gloucester. The theatrical Richard’s manic fear of self-harm (“Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?”) bespeaks the big idea here: his violence is selfsame with a larger violence, a culture of conflict that will undo him.
Thus, a fascinating paradox is at work in Richard III, one with far-reaching implications for our notions about the proper relationship between art and history. It so happens that a piece of literature drenched in historical revisionism nonetheless captures Richard’s zeitgeist with impressive moral and political clarity. Our own pop-historical gaze seems downright blurry by contrast. How can this be? It seems the paradox is an effect of repression: due to our liberalist preference for transparency, information, and empiricism, we refuse to peddle in political myths. But our romance with regalia suggests their attractiveness; we maintain an unacknowledged appetite for a power system whose very structure rests upon the myth and spectacle of an unverifiable claim to kingship.
Shakespeare’s art, on the other hand, luxuriates in this kind of myth. Writing centuries later about Dostoevsky, the critic Mikhail Bakhtin described how the great Russian novelist transformed the monologic “idea” into the living “image of an idea,” the irreducible dialogue that composes a single idea. This is precisely the mechanism of Richard III, a dramatic work that is not interested in dispelling myths, but rather in giving them life, and then subjecting them to the logical pressures of experience. Long before Richard’s bones were exhumed and his identity finally proven, Shakespeare had already unearthed from the pit of Richard’s soul the essence of his character, the self-contradiction of his idea: “Is there a murderer here?” No/Yes. It’s not villainy, it’s politics: monarchic despotism that sanctions horrific violence. It’s the stuff of kingship, and it’s still going on. The embattled Bashar Al-Assad is, after all, a king in trouble too. He might pause to think on Richard.
Image via Wikipedia
It is a ubiquitous feature in bookstores – especially at airports: The New York Times Best Seller List. The words “From The New York Times Best-Selling Author” flash at a reader from the top of a book cover, capturing interst and, well, dollars.The Times’ Public Editor Clark Hoyt explains the selection process, why the list is more widely followed and valued than other, competing “best seller” compilations – from USA Today and Rupert Murdoch’s (ouch) Wall Street Journal – in an informative column.Apparently an NYT Best Seller sticker can drive up sales by as much as 57 percent for a first-time author. Publishers are, naturally, conscious of this priceless marketing tool and accordingly try to rig the market, Hoyt writes. Not to worry, the editors at the Times safeguard readers against such shams.But Times editors too might not fully understand the procedure, according to Hoyt. And while the Times might make sure that “evergreens” like Catcher in the Rye or an SAT study guide don’t stay on the list forever, Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point – which came out in paperback in 2002 – has been on it for a stunning 164 weeks.The column might leave you a tad confused, but at least you won’t ask yourself what the heck an “NYT Best Seller” is next time you are idling at an airport bookstore.
The discussion about the future of book criticism can seem like a bubble sometimes, but I was reminded, in A.O. Scott’s charming tribute to Roger Ebert in Sunday’s New York Times, that book reviewers and their readers should not feel singled out in these challenging times. Scott noted the disappearance of movie critics as well at papers across the country, due to layoffs, buyouts, and cutting costs, adding:Such attrition is hardly limited to movie reviewers, and it has more to do with the economics of newspapers than with the health of criticism as a cultural undertaking. If you spend time prowling the blogs, you may discover that the problem is not a shortage of criticism but a glut: an endless, sometimes bracing, sometimes vexing barrage of deep polemic, passionate analysis and fierce contention reflecting nearly every possible permutation of taste and sensibility.I noted a year ago that the this same issue of the “economics of newspapers” had more to do with the demise of newspaper book coverage than anything else:The important thing to remember, I think, is that the disappearance of book sections isn’t a book section problem, it’s a newspaper industry problem, and the solution to book section woes will come with the solutions to the larger newspaper industry problems.Scott also takes umbrage at the notion that Ebert’s famous TV career (which first brought him recognition with a show called “Sneak Previews”) was somehow damaging to film criticism as a whole:It seems to me that “Sneak Previews” and its descendants, far from advancing the vulgarization of film criticism, extended its reach and strengthened its essentially democratic character.The same, perhaps, could be said of the role of personal publishing in film and book criticism which revels in the “essentially democratic character” of these pursuits.I also noticed at one point in Scott’s profile that he describes Ebert as an “enthusiast.” This word can be derogatory, comparing the “amateur” critic to the professional one, but Scott uses it in a different sense, making clear a difference in attitudes and aims – enthusiasm versus criticism. This isn’t to suggest that an enthusiast blindly loves every film he sees and that the critic is filled with disdain, it merely describes two different approaches, both useful and neither mutually exclusive and each speaking to audiences in certain ways. Part of the tension felt right now, perhaps, is that blogging and the internet have allowed for enthusiasm to encroach upon the terrain of criticism at a time when the arts landscape itself seems to be shrinking. Ebert (and Scott in his praise for him), however, provide a useful reminder that audiences perhaps gravitate most towards unique voices that are able to offer both enthusiasm and criticism rather than attempt to demarcate the boundaries between the two.