In the current issue of Bookforum, David L. Ulin of the Los Angeles Times picks up and runs with a topic we’ve written about here – the current boom in fiction about the counterculture of the ’60s. Ulin’s long essay, called “Go Start Anew,” revisits recent books by Christopher Sorrentino, Dana Spiotta, Hari Kunzru, and Zachary Lazar (whose “Year in Reading” picks bespeak a certain fascination with the ’60s). Moreover, Ulin asks why the curdling of Aquarian idealism speaks so strongly to the current moment. I’m not sure I agree with his answer, but the argument is, as usual, provocative and deeply felt. It’s a Bookforum highlight, as is the entire “Fiction and Politics” supplement, and we urge you to check it out.
A lengthy article in the Financial Times takes on America’s squeamishness with that most perplexing of punctuations, the semi-colon. Personally, I’m a big semi-colon fan (if one can be said to be a fan of a particular piece of punctuation), but Michael Kinsley, for example, is more cautious:”I use semicolons and I never really enforced a hard-and-fast rule,” Kinsley responded recently by e-mail from the West Coast, where he has been running The Los Angeles Times’ opinion pages for the past year.”But if abuse is going to be common,” he continued, “it’s simpler and safer to have a flat-out rule. It’s like drug regulation. Drugs are banned sometimes because a minority of users will have negative side effects, or because taking them correctly is complicated, although many people could get it right and would find them helpful. Actually, I’m opposed to that kind of thinking re drugs, but I am OK with it regarding punctuation. Punctuation can’t save your life.”
Millions contributor Garth pointed me to a funny little piece by Calvin Trillin in the New York Times in which the New Yorker writer is asked to test out the new Lexus “Advanced Parking Guidance System.” Perhaps you’ve heard of this; it supposedly enables the car to park itself. Trillin, as he indicates, believes that he has been asked to try this newfangled technology out because he was the author of Tepper Isn’t Going Out, “which is considered by most scholars to have been the first parking novel” and because in 1964 he was the founding co-editor of Beautiful Spot: A Magazine of Parking, which, Trillin says, “I’ve seen referred to as a one-issue publication even though we prefer to say that the second issue hasn’t come out yet.” Indeed, Trillin views himself as something of a parking expert:If I were asked to name my talent – talent, that is, in the way the Miss America pageant uses the word talent, as in “Miss West Virginia will now do her talent” – I would say “parallel parking.” For the second issue of Beautiful Spot: A Magazine of Parking, I’ve been preparing an article on how I came up with the term “slicing the bread” to describe maneuvering into a spot that leaves only the width of a bread slice between your bumpers and the bumpers of the cars ahead of and behind you. In a later issue, I intend to discuss “breaking the matzo” – getting into a spot so small that a matzo would crack if you tried to place it between the relevant bumpers. Just for the record, the last time I broke a matzo was May 1994, on Riverside Drive, between 83rd and 84th; unfortunately, there were no witnesses.Good stuff.
How does an independent bookshop not only survive, but remain vital amid the encroaching chains? How does a tightly-knit community bolster its authors in a cut-throat industry? Independent bookshop owner Heidi Hallett has tackled both these issues by doing what the best independent shopkeepers do – opting for the intimate, the local.As this recent Globe and Mail article explains, Hallett’s Halifax bookshop, Frog’s Hollow, has its fortunes interwoven with that of her community. By hosting book launches and in-store author appearances of regional scribes, Hallett keeps her dream alive: “Local literature is a vital part of our culture here, and I am concerned that if more independent bookstores like mine start going under, we risk losing that history and heritage forever.”
This morning’s David Brooks column has reinvigorated my long-running discomfort with pop-intellectuals. “We’re entering an era of epic legislation,” his column begins. “There are at least five large problems that will compel the federal government to act in gigantic ways over the next few years.” The bold assertion is a classic move of the pop-intellectual, who I think of as one who puts forth an idea as a new idea while lacking expertise in the field in which that idea would carry weight. The blending of disciplines is also a tell-tale pop-intellecual trait, and in the opening of his column, Brooks presents as a historian, a sociologist, and a political scientist, even though he is in fact none of the above.One thing I always think about when I read pop-intellectuals like Brooks or Malcolm Gladwell (if Brooks is prince of the practice, Gladwell is king), is the shift over the last couple centuries or so from lay intellectualism to professional intellectualism (I’m not an intellectual historian and I don’t know exactly where to date it – in my mind the the change took place concurrently with the the rise of method, around about the time of Darwin). Two hundred years ago it was good enough to be a well-educated citizen with a ruminative soul and you could write with authority about anything – philosophy, history, the natural world. Now to be taken seriously on any of those topics, to be seen as adding to our store of knowledge, you have to have a PhD and work in a university. In part, the change is due to the overall increase in knowledge – it required less learning to be an expert in mathematics a hundred years ago than it does now – but more than that, the change reflects the modern insight that learning shaped by disciplines simply produces better knowledge.Journalists like Brooks and Gladwell can still add value by bringing academic discoveries to the public, but books like Bobos in Paradise and Blink make me cringe for the lack of rigor with which they synthesize anecdotes to produce new ideas. The problem is not so much the content, benign as it usually is, but the methods. Brooks’ column, for example, actually promotes a tendency opposite of the one he intends. It makes people less effectively thoughtful, not more.
Yesterday in a crowded elevator, I watched a man punch furiously at the door-close button, trying to guard his territory from further invasion. And I thought back to the April 21 New Yorker, in which Nick Paumgarten dropped this bombshell:In most elevators, at least in any built or installed since the early nineties, the door-close button doesn’t work. It is there mainly to make you think it works. (It does work if, say, a fireman needs to take control. But you need a key, and a fire, to do that.) Once you know this, it can be illuminating to watch people compulsively press the door-close button. That the door eventually closes reinforces their belief in the button’s power. It’s a little like prayer. Elevator design is rooted in deception.For me, this was a Lewinski-sized revelation. Granted, Paumgarten phrases it as a kind of aside (much as Lawrence Wright broke the news in the January 21 issue that he’s been the subject of FBI wiretapping.) Still, I expected this news to spread rapidly – and to lead to a sharp decline in door-close-button pushing. Of course, my assumption that hundreds of thousands of Americans share my enthusiasm for Nick Paumgarten’s writing about just about anything appears, in retrospect, to have been misguided. I’ll be curious to see whether The Millions, with its vast readership among elevator riders, can finish what Mr. Paumgarten started. The Door-Close Button Doesn’t Work – pass it on!
Hillary Clinton may have bested Barack Obama at the voting box in New Hampshire, but Obama remains a big winner at bookstores, according to a recent report:According to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 70 per cent of industry sales, [Clinton’s] Living History averaged around 1,000 sales a week in December and early January, compared with more than 7,000 a week for [Obama’s] Audacity of Hope and more than 2,000 for Dreams From My Father.Elsewhere, it turns out that recently assassinated former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto submitted her memoir to HarperCollins just days before her death. As the world watches Pakistan, the publisher is rushing to get the book out, according to Reuters:”No one could have known that these would be Benazir Bhutto’s final words, and somehow that makes them carry even more weight, especially at a time like this,” said Tim Duggan, the editor at HarperCollins who acquired the rights to the book.
I myself prefer only to read books that have been described as “unputdownable,” but Joe Queenan has his own preferred adjective which appears to be serving him well:Several years ago, overwhelmed by the flood of material unleashed annually by the publishing industry, I decided to establish a screening program by purchasing only books that at least one reviewer had described as “astonishing.”Previously, I had limited my purchases to merchandise deemed “luminous” or “incandescent,” but this meant I ended up with an awful lot of novels about bees, Provence or Vermeer.