In an item posted last weekend, we wrote, “Senator Arlen Specter realizes that there’s no way to endear yourself to Republican primary voters like writing for The New York Review of Books.” The item should have read: “Democratic primary voters.” We apologize for the error.
Somehow I waited two months to take a look at the “best of 2003” column from my favorite book critic Jonathan Yardley. For him 17 rather interesting books make the cut, and his two picks for best of the year are The Known World by Edward P. Jones and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s memoir Living to Tell the Tale. Both of these are on the reading queue, and I’m very much looking forward to reading them. Here is Yardley’s column.
Those of you out there who have your own websites have probably noticed how the sorts of things that send people your way from the search engines is very unpredictable. In July I wrote about a fantastic poem called “The Clerks Tale” by Spencer Reece which appeared in the New Yorker new fiction issue this past summer. So many people have come here looking for it that I thought it worth mentioning again, and also because it really is a terrific poem. Here is my original post. Here is the poem, and as an extra treat, here is a link to Reece reading the poem.
I met several Chicago natives while I was there last weekend, and as we discussed the city’s various merits and drawbacks, the subject of bookstores came up. The Chicago natives, being aspiring reporters, astutely asked me what I look for in a “good” bookstore, and why a chain store is unlikely to bear this mantle.When it comes to hanging out, it’s hard to beat the chains. Your nearest Barnes and Noble probably has dozens of plush chairs and couches where you can sit for as long as you want. The stores are vast wide open spaces with a controlled climate and a bit of piped in music wafting just overhead. The shopper can make a day of it, grabbing a snack and a coffee from the cafe and lounging through the uncrowded weekday afternoon. Stay as long as you want, they won’t tell you to leave until they’re closing down for the night. If you want to kill an afternoon, it’s hard to beat Barnes and Noble, likewise if you need to pick up a specific title, but don’t expect to walk away with anything unexpected from these forays. Don’t plan for a literary discovery.And therein lies the problem with the chains, they are designed not to surprise you. Their displays will, as decreed from the home office, contain a calculated mix of bestsellers assembled from the major lists. The information that they disseminate is predetermined by prevailing tastes; they are not, themselves, tastemakers. And yet, if there is any more important generator of tastes, trends, and shared knowledge in the commercial world than the bookstore, then I don’t know about it. Nonetheless, there are very few bookstores that serve this purpose. And that, precisely, is what I am looking for.To my mind, a good bookstore will have on display the “important” books not just the bestselling books, though there will always be bestsellers among those important books. For example, The Da Vinci Code is important because it is a cultural phenomenon, but not simply because it sits at number one on the Times bestsellers. There are all sorts of reasons why a book can be important. The idea is that one should be able to walk into the bookstore and be able to grasp, based upon which books are on display and based upon conversations with staff and fellow customers, what matters at that moment both in the wider world and in the neighborhood, from Presidential exposes to burgeoning local talent. At a good bookstore you can place your confidence in the people who run the place.At Barnes and Noble you can get any book you want if you can find it in the vast fluorescent retail gymnasium, but at a good indie, the kindly book clerk will take his favorite book off the shelf and hand it to you, as if a gift. Most cities of any size have at least one of these good bookstores, and thanks to some recommendations that I have already received, I’m confident that I’ll find what I’m looking for in Chicago.
A new Colors magazine came out the other day. The theme of this issue is violence, and as always they go to the ends of the earth to track down haunting, though-provoking stories and photographs. The Colors website further illustrates each issue. On the lighter side of the newsstand is a magazine that I first noticed in Derek’s bathroom. It’s called Wax Poetics and it is all about the sublime art of “beat digging,” which is how all those DJs keep bringing hot new tracks to the turntables. They scrounge through the record bins looking for a long forgotten monster beat and then they mix it up on Saturday night. Wax Poetics serves the growing ranks of turntablists out there, but it’s also great for anyone who has a turntable and won’t pass up a Steely Dan LP for a buck when they come across one. It’s also real nice to look at, full high quality reproductions of classic album covers and retro urban graphic design.Retail NotesI was marooned at the cash register for a while today. I was keeping myself busy by finishing Feeding a Yen by Calvin Trillin when I noticed that in the course of a half hour I had sold three copies of the lastest by the ubiquitous Dalai Lama himself, The Art of Happiness. I do live in Southern California and our typical clientele is pretty much the target audience for Zen Buddhist self help with the Richard Gere stamp of approval, but these people were tourists and that book is pretty old, and it’s not supposed to be flying off the shelves right now. Then I realized that someone had put this book on the recommended shelf; probably it was the new girl. Like most independent book stores and like some of the chains, we have a prominently displayed shelf full of books especially recommended by the staff. Next to each book is a little blurb that we come up with to say, basically, “this book is good, buy it.” We rotate the books on this shelf pretty regularly and without fail whatever is up there flies out of the store. We could borrow a fetid sock from one of the many crazy homeless people who hang out on the block, put a card next to it that says “This moving tale of loss and redemption will not fail to enrich and entertain,” and it would be bought and paid for in under five minutes. Luckily, we try to take the moral highground and we recommend books that are better than what the customers would select if left to their own devices. The “recommend shelf phenomenon” has gotten me thinking about the current state of literature. There are many people out there who love to read, but for some reason, people have no idea which specific books they want to read. They look at the piles of books and they grow disoriented and dizzy, unwilling or unable to trust their instincts and judge a book by its cover, which is what they must do since only the smallest fraction of people read book reviews or even seem to be aware of their existence. That is where we come in. We tell them what to read. It’s no wonder that people read so much crap. I can’t imagine what tripe the typical Barnes & Noble clerk must be pushing on his confused customers.I have already done a great deal of planning for when I’m rich. I know what sort of yacht I would like to own, my air of disinterested aloofness has become ingrained after months of practice, and I have prepared myself to feel perfectly at peace when purchasing a particularly expensive pair of Italian loafers. I also, thanks to my delightful customers, have acquired an hilarious little joke with which I can entertain the various clerks and barkeeps who will provide me with goods and services. It goes like this: Select a moderate quantity of goods, bring them to the cash register, and whip out a hundred dollar bill from amongst a clutch of other one hundred dollar bills. When the clerk uses the counterfeit marker to ensure that the bill is not a fake (which he is REQUIRED to do by his bosses and might just LOSE HIS JOB if he doesn’t) chuckle and wink and say “I just printed it this morning,” in your very best ironic voice. Watch the clerk stare back at you blankly, barely able to conceal his rage, accept your change, go to the next establishment, and repeat. See! I can’t wait. It will be so much fun.
Tonight at Housing Works Bookstore & Cafe, I’ll be competing in the sixth NYC Literary Death Match, sponsored by Opium Magazine. I’ll be reading a ten-minute story representing Canteen, three readers will do the same on behalf of three other publications, and then an illustrious panel of judges – including The New Yorker’s Ben Greenman – will evaluate us, “American Idol” style. Intrigued? Me, too. The $10 cover includes a free copy of Opium’s latest issue. Hope to see you there.
…is what I will again be forced to do this year, my darling, barring some eleventh-hour issuing of press credentials or a sudden reduction in ticket prices.For a while now, you – the greatest magazine in the history of American magazines – have tantalized me annually with your Festival’s smorgasbord of literary talent. And yet, as much as the word-hungry reader in me would love to see, e.g., Lorrie Moore in conversation with Jeffrey Eugenides, the starving artist in me rebels.To be frank, your $25 cover charges cheapen you, New Yorker. After all, in this city which not to look upon would be like death, any given night already offers the discerning gentleman a bevy of comely talent reading for no charge. A nd then, several times per year, events like the PEN World Voices festival present stimulating citywide literary programming for free or at a nominal price.Indeed, with the notable exception of events like your dance party or your gastronomic tour with Calvin Trillin, your Festival strikes this correspondent as a way of charging the public for a publicity junket. And, at current ticket prices, the Festival highlights your worst feature, dearest: your habit of reaffirming the upper class’s satisfaction with its own refined sensibility and unimpeachable taste. I mean, who else can afford to get in the door?New Yorker, don’t you know you’re at your best when you’re challenging the status quo from your perch within it? Wouldn’t it be subversive to take Conde Nast’s money and put on these readings for free, so that any old philistine could attend? I love you, New Yorker, more than you’ll probably ever know, but I can’t support your Festival. I can’t afford to. Why would I buy your cow when I can enjoy your milk for the low, low price of $52 per year?
Last summer Oprah’s book club returned from its hiatus touting Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck’s East of Eden as “the book that brought Oprah’s Book Club back.” By doing this she turned her powerful book club on its head. Up until this point, book industry types had been treating the Oprah book club as a lottery of sorts by which a previously unknown (but hardworking and extremely talented writer) could be lifted from obscurity and delivered into the homes of readers everywhere. Apparently, after much behind-the-scenes horsetrading and Jonathan Franzen’s high profile disdain for receiving the award for The Corrections, Oprah became disgusted with the politics and controversy surrounding her club and suspended it. Then, months later she brought it back, and now she is sticking, more or less, to the classics. Recently, in fact, she announced her next selection, which happens to be one of my favorite books of all time, One Hundred Years of Solitude by another Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (Between the two Nobel Laureates, by the way, was Cry, the Beloved Country a largely forgotten book from the 1940s by Alan Paton.) Many serious readers, and perhaps I might suggest that they are being a bit snooty, are inconsolably annoyed that the covers of books that they have adored for decades are suddenly besmirched by book club logos. If anything is to be blamed, though, it is not Oprah for placing her mark on these “sacred” books; it is, perhaps, our greater culture of reading. In a better world, Steinbeck and Marquez, to give two examples, would be so widely read, that naming them for this book club would seem utterly ridiculous. Instead, and we should be happy about this, East of Eden, thanks to Oprah, was one of the most widely read books of 2003, and the same will likely be true of One Hundred Years of Solitude in 2004. So, perhaps the earlier incarnation of the Oprah Club was getting ahead of itself as it steered readers to somewhat more obscure books though they had never read, or perhaps even heard of, many of the classics. In the end, one can hardly fault Oprah for making readers out of millions of Americans, though the marketing effort behind the whole thing can make one a bit queasy. In an excellent guest post to The Millions a few months back, the author Kaye Gibbons (Ellen Foster, A Virtuous Woman) wrote about her experience of being plucked from relative obscurity and brought to national prominence after being selected for the Oprah Book Club. If you haven’t yet read it, here it is.