Spotted today under the arm of a student at a New York college: Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. I’ve written here about the speed of this author’s induction into the pantheon. Nonetheless, it was remarkable – to me, anyway – to learn from this student that TSD had popped up on an English class syllabus. For the record, the student reports that he likes the book so far. (Me, too, kid. Raciest required reading this side of The Kama Sutra. Comparative religion rules!) His other classmates? Not so much. I guess in our world – unlike Bolaño’s – youth is sometimes wasted on the young.
One of the nice things about working at a bookstore is that after constant exposure to thousands of books I tend to have a sizable stash of titles and authors that I know are worth reading stored in the back of my head. Lately, during my day-off wanderings around LA, I make sure to duck into any good will/Salvation Army type places I come across, in order to make good use of this extra information that I lug around involuntarily. Luckily, in my neighborhood there seems to be an inexhaustable supply of such stores. Almost all of these places have a ramshackle shelf of books against the back wall. The standard pricing is fifty cents for a paperback and an even dollar for a hardcover, so it's worth it to wade through the broken appliances and dusty clothing racks in order to do a little treasure hunting. I invariably am able to walk away with a gem or two. A couple of weeks ago I came across hardcovers of The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen and White Teeth by Zadie Smith. I swiftly decided to rescue them from an extremely seedy second hand store a few blocks from MacArthur Park, but before I left a third book caught my eye. A hardcover copy of Prize Stories of the Seventies from the O. Henry Awards was tucked away among some lesser books, so I grabbed that too. I was especially pleased to find this book for two reasons. First, in my opinion the O. Henry short story collections are the best out there, far superior to the Best American Short Story series, which, while always filled with excellent stories, never does anything to surprise you. Second, my contemporary liturature classes and creative writing workshops in college taught me that the '70s were an especially fertile time for the short story. The editor of this collection, Willie Abrahams, rightly states that the collection of stories he has assembled "repudiate altogether the notion -- widely held in the previous decade -- of the story as an endagered or outmoded species." This collection, in fact, represents the last time that the form was commercially viable, a time when there were many more publications devoted to the form, the heyday of Raymond Carver, Donald Barthelme, John Cheever, John Updike, and Tim O'Brien, all of whom are represented here. While it is always a joy to read stories by these luminaries, the beauty of the short story collection is that it will almost always yield a writer or two whom I have never encountered. This collection included several. Judith Rascoe's story "Small Sounds and Tilting Shadows" is remarkable; it is the tale of an addled woman who insinuates herself into taking care of a mysterious man's vacant apartment. As time passes the apartment becomes both her prison and her haven, and the presence of apartment's missing owner looms ever larger. After just a handful of stories it's hard not to see that many are inhabited by addled women "The Dead" by Joyce Carol Oates (a breathtakingly masterful story), "Last Courtesies" by Ella Leffland, and "My Father's Jokes" by Patricia Zelver. These struggling women are neatly countervailed by stories about creaking, crumbling families: Updike's "Separating" and "Alternatives" by Alice Adams, to name just two. The remaining stories, with a couple of notable exceptions, fall neatly into a third catagory, the experimental, post-modern story, betraying the mirthless, helpless rage of the author toward the frustrations that the decade presented. These were both dated and barely readable, but their themes were consistent with rest of the stories in the collection.In the movie "Dazed and Confused" set in 1976, the middle of this forsaken decade, Cynthia, the red headed dreamer who's too smart for her backward Texas town says "The fifties were boring, the sixties rocked. The seventies, oh my God they obviously suck. Maybe the eighties will be radical." As I recall, the eighties comment got a big laugh in the theatre, but, in terms of the general well-being of the populace, she wasn't very far off. The seventies really did suck. Americans were disillusioned, over-medicated, and terrified of cities that had turned into war zones. This level of disgust is so palpable that it is both the surface and the subtext of nearly every story in the collection. The characters are irreconcilably distraught by the failures of the previous decade. A startling proportion of the characters are addicted to pills, and not a few commit suicide if they aren't killed first, whether by neighbors or the Vietcong. It is a painful collection to read, and it is remarkable to see how bleak a picture of the decade is painted. At the same time, the pain produces beautiful emotional prose. Most of the stories, though imbued with sorrow, were a joy to read. And my favorite "A Silver Dish" by Saul Bellow was perhaps the most sorrowful of all.Why Dontcha Take a Picture, It'll Last LongerTwo very cool photography books came in today. One was called The Innocents, a collection by the photographer Taryn Simon. The book is a chronicle of former death row inmates who have been exonerated. The book combines faces with stories to powerful effect. The second photo book of note today is no less political, though it is far more colorful. Photographer Jamel Shabazz was responsible for one of the coolest books of the last few years, Back In The Days, a collection of street photgraphy from the early hip hop era, before the look was commodified, back when it was real. His new book The Last Sunday in June chronicles New York city's yearly gay pride parade. Days brims with solemn authenticity while Last Sunday explodes with audacious color. Both are worth more than a look.
The Internet was the big bogeyman, the great scapegoat of 2010. In September, I wrote about how social networking was perverting my friendships. In October Millions contributor Emily wrote about how it had eroded her attention span. And at a certain point, it seemed like every time my wife and I had friends over the conversation turned to the ways the Web was ruining all of our lives: how it was destroying our productivity, sapping our sex drives, devouring our precious time on earth. But in 2011, I say enough with all this bellyaching! The Internet is just a thing that sits on my desk, if it sits anywhere at all. If I close the lid of my laptop, it can't get me. If I walk outside it, can't follow me. Blaming the Internet for the novel I didn't write is a little like blaming a plush sofa for the marathon I didn't run. Sure, the couch gave me a comfy place to hide while I was busy not being the man I want to be, but it's hardly the cause of my problems. Replace the couch with a straw mat and suddenly I'll run 26 miles? I doubt it. Scuttle the Internet and suddenly I'll be the writer I've always dreamed of being? Hardly. So, my resolution for 2011 is to stop blaming the Internet for all the ways my days go awry. There are two reasons, abstracted from recent experiences, that make me think this is achievable. The first is that the Internet is not actually that addictive. I know we talk about email and Facebook and the latest headlines on ESPN like they're allurements on par with strippers and cigarettes, but really? I spent the week around Christmas at my in-laws' house which is kind of in the woods and where you can’t pick up a wi-fi signal unless you stand with your computer above your head while balanced on the top railing of the porch on a perfectly clear day. So I didn't use the Internet much during that time, and if what followed counts as Internet withdrawal, then the Internet is pretty weak sauce indeed. A few times I fantasized about my inbox filling up with unread emails and on Christmas Day I wished I could have checked the Celtics score. But there were no cold sweats, no shakes or shimmies, no aching in my groin. What this made me realize is that the Internet does not have a strong magnetic pull of its own. It's more like water, ingenious at filling negative space, at seeping into cracks. So in 2011, I'm going to stop fretting over the Internet and instead think about it the way I think about my bathtub: caulk and forget it. The second experience took place a few days ago. It was in the morning and I was about to sit down to work and I told myself, "Today I'm not going to waste time on the Internet." I've given myself that same pep talk on thousands of mornings but it resounded differently this time: Suddenly it seemed like such a plainly impoverished ambition. "That's it," I thought to myself, "That's all you hope to get out of the day, to not refresh the nytimes.com over and over?" What I realized then is that the opposite of the Internet is not concentration. That morning I was indeed successful at staying off the Web, but so what? I fiddled with my pen, adjusted my socks, stared out the window, filled and refilled my water bottle, went to the bathroom. It turns out there are a lot of ways to fritter away time that don't involve a computer screen. What I'm after—what I think most of us are after—is sustained, focused engagement in a meaningful task. If only the Internet were the only thing standing between me and that. So, resolved for 2011, no more complaining about the Internet's role in my life! If failures do happen to accrue this year, I'll place the blame instead where it belongs: on my parents. (Image: 2/365 from fenris117's photostream)
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