It’s during the White House years that Mr. Meacham’s story takes hold. We see Andrew Jackson making the hard trip east from Tennessee to Washington where the political permanent class waits in judgment, wary of Jackson’s frontier background and fearful of the source of his power. Jackson’s landslide victory in 1828 marked the first time that a president was elevated entirely on the strength of popular support, and the Founders’ low regard for the common intelligence still percolated through Washington.
When I was growing up, there were few books on my parents’ bookshelves and most of those were in Greek or French, with a smattering of volumes from the Time-Life series (the ones on jazz and opera). But among the very small handful of books in English, there was one with a thick spine of military green and one word printed in a thin, elongated font: Ulysses. When I was about ten, I first took the book down from the shelf. I’d been raised on my father’s bedtime stories from The Odyssey and a family-cultivated belief that the heroes of ancient Greece were my ancestors. I flipped to the first page, but I couldn’t make anything of it at all. That first sentence looked like normal English. It had no words I didn’t recognize. But something about it was off (was “Buck” someone’s name or a noun? And what was a “Stately plump”?). And as I moved on deeper into that first page, I became more confused.
I don’t remember now whether I paged through to the other sections I would come to know as “Laestrygonians,” “Oxen of the Sun,” or “Circe”. If I had, I would most certainly have had even more reason to do what I did then, at age ten: put the book back, shaking my head and vowing to try again in a few months. For years afterwards, I would pull Ulysses off the shelf every few months or so, start reading, become confused, and replace the book, deciding that I was still not ready to understand it.
The funny thing is that the only reason my father owned the book in the first place was that he belonged to the Book of the Month Club and he had chosen this particular tome, instead of his usual crime novels, thinking it was about the Greek hero. Which it is, in a way, but not in the way my father expected. So that made two of us who couldn’t understand Joyce’s masterpiece. My father’s Greco-chauvinistic book-buying was as far as he got into Joyce’s oeuvre. But I eventually went on to study Joyce in college and graduate school, and to spend one summer reading every page of Finnegans Wake, watching the words flicker into meaning every now and then as I prepared to write my dissertation.
For many years, June 16, Bloomsday, found me in cities ranging from Monte Carlo to Milwaukee, at the annual Joyce conferences that were my scholarly bread and butter. The conferences spanned several days, and depending on the calendar each year, it wasn’t always possible to set the keynote address on the 16th itself. This meant that, for all the intense focus on Ulysses and Joyce’s other works during the days around Bloomsday, the day of Ulysses’ narrative often got lost in the more general hubbub of the conference. Someone would invariably exclaim, while in line at the cash bar or to see that year’s Derrida protégé, “It’s the 16th!” and the rest of us would beam with pleasure for a moment.
I never happened to be at a Joyce conference in one of Joyce’s home cities—Dublin, Trieste, or Zurich. Mine were Copenhagen, Venice, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Monte Carlo, a nice mixture of the exotic and the mundane (no offense to Philadelphia or Milwaukee, but Venice they’re not). Monte Carlo is where I missed the sighting of Princess Caroline, but did witness one of the most memorable scholarly Joyce spats of the 90s, over the publication of a new edition of the sacred tome. But the geography never mattered. Even if we weren’t in Dublin where people dressed as Leopold and Molly, Stephen Dedalus, and Buck Mulligan decorated the streets, we brought the world of Ulysses to, say, the Tivoli, or the Grand Canal, or the Art Museum and the Rocky statue. We clambered into a gondola making jokes about Gertie MacDowell’s exposed drawers, and we circled the Tivoli Ferris wheel over and over, commenting on Joyce’s confirmation that there is nothing new under the sun.
Does this mean that Ulysses has a universal reach and a universal appeal? That it applies to all of us everywhere and anywhere? Well, ok. But who makes jokes about James Joyce in the real world, anyway? I mean, you had to be there. But most people aren’t, and with good reason.
The Joyce conferences were, in a way, the wrong way to celebrate Bloomsday, since they required you to be surrounded by people with rarefied intellectual concerns. We were all Stephens then, with not enough of us taking Leopold’s approach to life, mixing rumination and delight. So this Bloomsday, I’ll open one of my copies of Ulysses and I’ll start out with stately plump Buck Mulligan. I’ll touch down briefly in the melodious bar of “Sirens,” and I’ll let Molly’s long sentence carry me from Gibraltar to Dublin to Howth and to that lovely final affirmation that could be in any city at all. And I’ll think of my father, whose loyalty to his country and his culture opened the door for his daughter to enter into a new world.
Nolo Press, which puts out “trustworthy and approachable legal guides,” spent “two years and ‘hundreds of thousands'” coming up with a redesign for its book covers, according to Publishers Weekly. What did Nolo come up with? Dogs. Chip Kidd, book designer extraordinaire, happened to be guest blogging at Powell’s this week and registered his horror. (Thanks Laurie)
The eulogies are already being written, but there are still six weeks of life left in Toronto’s best bookshop. There’s no escaping reality though: Pages, that literary hotbed amid the faux-cool of Queen Street West, is shutting its doors at the end of August.A casualty of skyrocketing rents, Pages has been THE place to go – for me, anyway – whenever I wanted something new and interesting. Independent, central, staffed by knowledgeable, friendly and literate people, the shop was always a pleasure to pop into. I often walked out with something I’d never heard of before.The discount table near the back was always an affordable, eclectic mix. Walls of shelves were devoted to cult favorites and small-press publications. (This was one of the first shops in the city to display Garth’s Field Guide to the North American Family. Art, music, photography, gender studies, cultural studies, belles lettres, poetry, and a damn fine literature section – Pages had it all.Yes, there are still many fine bookshops in Toronto: Book City, particularly its Annex location, is good. BMV, with its mix of new, remaindered and used, has become a bright, lively, late-night Annex haunt. And my favorite second-hand shops still seem to be going strong – chief among them Balfour Books in Little Italy and Seekers in the Annex. But head right downtown and Pages stood out, offering a bracing tonic to the flat fizz of the big chains.Fortunately, the long-running, Pages-sponsored “This Is Not A Reading Series” – a performance series held at various venues where writers and artists can do anything except read – will continue under the leadership of Mr. Pages himself, Marc Glassman.[Image Credit: Sweet One]
My friend Brian read yesterdays musings on libraries and wrote in with a couple of addenda…two things:1) you need to include tam tam books in your links… not only b/c it’s tosh [a co-worker and the founder of Tam Tam Books], but b/c it’s a very idiosyncratic, interesting, eccentric, and different site (much like the man himself…)2) loved the piece about “library angels and book fairies”, and very happy to see mention of borges (one of my all-time favorties), but you must make specific mention of his story “The Library of Babel” which is, without a doubt, the greatest story about a library ever written — the library… as a/the universe. a magical story that when i first read on the NYC subway, on my way downtown from hunter college, caused me to miss many a stop… i found myself in brooklyn, and so caught up in a borgesian daze and full of inspiration was i, that i chose not to go back the other way, but exited the subway in a strange part of town and explored, got myself dinner at a greek restaurant, chatted up a one-eyed drunk, then hopped back on the train and went home late that night, all hopped up on borges… (oh, how i miss the whirlwind that is nyc life!) – anyway, if you haven’t read this story, it’s short and ESSENTIAL. enjoy! [see page 112 of Borges’ Collected Fictions]Heard on the RadioToday while I was running errands, I was pleasantly surprised by some decent mid-day public radio that mentioned a couple of books that sound pretty interesting. First, I caught the end of a show that airs twice a month on KCRW called DnA. It’s devoted to design and architecture issues. Today’s guest was design writer Michael Webb who talked about his new book Brave New Houses: Adventures in Southern California Living. According to Webb, over the course of the last century, cutting edge architects have used the single-family home as a kind of laboratory in which they could try out some of their more avant-garde ideas on a smaller, less risky scale. Since, in comparison to most cities, Los Angeles is a very new place, it is home to many of these houses. RM Schindler, Richard Neutra, and Frank Gehry all built single family homes in L. A., and Webb’s book is a photographic record of this adventurous ground-breaking architecture.After spending a considerable amount of time in the post office, I got back in my car in the middle of an interview with compilers of another interesting-sounding book (I think the show was The World, by the way). Embedded: The Media At War in Iraq is an oral history of the journalistic experience of the war in Iraq. During and after the war, the two writers, Bill Katovsky and Timothy Carlson wandered from Kuwait City to Baghdad to Amman, and interviewed every journalist they crossed paths with. As they tell it, the resulting book inculudes many tales of both danger and poignency, which, taken as a whole, represent a singular record of the journalistic experience on the front lines.
After more than a month of intense reading I’ve finally finished Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. As some of you may remember from a post a while back, this was my first serious excursion into the golden era of 19th century Russian fiction. After seeking the advice of several trusted fellow readers (aside: see how well it works! Make sure to Ask a Book Question if you ever find yourself in a similar predicament. We’re here to help!) We collectively decided that C & P was the best place to start. I reacted to the book in a couple of different ways. My first reaction, from almost the very beginning, was that the book felt like a Dickens novel to me. I saw similarities in both the gothic overwrought characters and the lurking shady characters who alternately seemed for or against young Raskolnikov. The friendship between Raskolnikov and Razumikhin, in particular, reminded me of the friendship between Pip and Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations. Other similarities, I think, are structural. Both books were written serially, and as with Dickens, I looked forward to the cliffhanger at the end of each chapter which would ensure that readers would look forward to the next installment. When I read a book like this, it always occurs to me that it’s too bad books aren’t written that way any more. It seems like it would be a really fun way to read a book. (Now that I think of it, I’m pretty sure that Stephen King has experimented with this in recent years). My other reaction was how psychological and modern the book seemed. I never read this or any other Russian novels in school (not sure how that happened) so I had neither expectations nor preconceptions when I began. The book was, in its own verbose way, a very profound discussion of morality and power. More specifically, I was interested in the relationship between the power of murder and the power of wealth and social class. These themes were buried beneath layers of prose. The book seemed to be divided almost equally between action and Raskolnikov’s internal monologue. It was very readable, but occasionally overwhelming. A final observation: the book is filled with events and real people drawn from real life in 1860s St. Petersburg. In the present day, as an established classic, it gives the book a historical context, but I couldn’t help but think about how it must have appeared at the time of its publication. In this day and age, writers are often derided for relying too much on current events and pop culture. Critics claim the these books will lose their cultural significance as they become quickly dated. Yet, in C&P, Dostoyevsky’s practice of referring to specific scandals and amusements that were the hot topics of conversation at the time serves to cement the book very specifically in a time and place and it manages to make the story feel real and complete. I should also mention that I really enjoyed the particular edition that I read. A multitude of informative notes augment the text, and the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky felt inventive and engaging. But now I am done, and I am looking forward to a change of pace. I’ve already embarked upon Jamesland by LA author Michele Huneven. The book club that I help run is reading it, and Huneven herself is planning to make an appearance at the end of our meeting so that she can answer our questions. Should be lots of fun.