In his contribution to our Year in Reading series last year, Joseph O’Neill, author of Netherland, began, “Prompted by a writing assignment, I’ve been re-reading the novels and stories of Saul Bellow for the first time in years – and I’m completely smitten all over again, only more deeply.” I was curious to know what that assignment was, but my digging at the time turned nothing up. Now, however, I have an answer. The new edition, coming in November, of Bellow’s 1997 novella The Actual will include an introduction by O’Neill.
A few posts back I touched upon the idea of the “style guide.” As a newly minted journalism student, I have been taught that these guides are essential for creating the “clean copy” that my editors will want to see. They are fascinating books in a way. In my AP Stylebook some entries are brief, just one word: tiptop says one, instructing me not hyphenate. Other entries go on for a few pages like the one for possessives, which explains how to deal with “nouns the same in singular and plural,” “special expressions,” and “quasi possessives.” I know, exciting. One of the undercurrents of journalism school seems to be that writing is a lot more than just putting words on paper. There are rules to be followed and facts to be vetted. The rules are covered by the Stylebook, but vetting the facts can often be done with The World Almanac and Book of Facts, where one might discover a daily astronomy calendar, a list of popes, and the name of every town in Alabama with more than 5,000 people. Armed with these two books, I ought to have much of the guidance I need, but I have also been known to refer to a couple of my favorite writing reference books when necessary. The Elements of Style is a thin, little book that is so elegant and efficient in teaching proper usage it supersedes many of the fatter, drier grammar books you may have encountered in your studies. I also love my The Synonym Finder, which I bought when I worked at the book store after a customer became misty when describing her devotion to it. I’m glad I bought it. Every time I go looking for a synonym, I find one so good that it feels like I’m cheating somehow. My reference library is by no means complete, however. I’m still looking for that perfect dictionary (any recommendations?). And though I’m always dropping hints that I’d love to get a nice hefty atlas for a gift, I still haven’t received one.
Last time I was at the book store I noticed an interesting cultural history sort of book called Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants. The “city” is, of course, New York City and the book uses rats as a vehicle to explore the New York’s intricacies and tribulations. The author of the book, Robert Sullivan, is known for his quirky, narrative-based non-fictions, The Meadowlands and A Whale Hunt. If you’re into the whole rat thing check out this Newsday journalist’s account of an evening spent “ratting” with Sullivan. From rats to elephants: during my daily travels the other day I caught an interview with the author of an interesting-sounding book on one of the local public radio shows. Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear is a history of the magic act written by a master magician, Jim Steinmeyer. The book describes the origins of tricks that have become magic cliches, like sawing a lady in half. He also seeks to describe the interesting blend of mystery, showmanship, and hucksterism that embodied the turn of the century magic show. Finally, I mentioned the other day the centennial of the birth of Dr. Suess. It turns out that there is a sturdy coffee table book to commemorate this event. It displays his life and work and bears the somewhat dubious title: The Seuss, the Whole Seuss and Nothing But the Seuss.
Perhaps you’ve seen it on the news. A historic and potentially catastrophic storm, Hurricane Katrina, is about 24 hours from plowing into New Orleans. If there ever was a “big one,” this is it. Sustained winds are at 175 mph, and some experts think it may maintain this strength all the way to landfall. Despite the fact that New Orleans lies below sea level and needs levies and pumps to keep out the water, Mayor C. Ray Nagin has only just now ordered a mandatory evacuation. Many experts think it’s already too late. If you want to keep an eye on this storm here are some links. Blogs: Dr. Jeff Masters, Steve Gregory, Eye of the Storm, Brendan Loy, Fresh Bilge. Links to TV coverage on the web at Lost Remote. The National Hurricane Center. I may add more to this post as I find more links.
As a fun little tie in with the opening of his presidential library in Little Rock, Bill Clinton released a list of his 21 favorite books. First off, I wonder if he would have gotten in trouble if he hadn’t put Hillary’s book on the list. And I suspect he included Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings because they are friends. Other interesting picks: He includes a presidential biography, Lincoln by David Herbert Donald, perhaps hoping that he, too, will someday be the subject of such a biography. Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study of Ethics and Politics by Reinhold Niebuhr seems like a pretty bold choice considering certain of Clinton’s own, shall we say, indiscretions. But, alas, the book is about social justice more than anything else. Right up Clinton’s alley. For the most part, though, it’s a pretty good batch of books, and I must commend him for including one of my favorite books of all time, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Here’s the full article and list.
I found an interesting interview with Jonathan Safran Foer today. I’ll be including this in an upcoming post about books to look forward to this year, but I wanted to post it separately first because I think it’s pretty interesting, and I can’t recall seeing it posted anywhere else. In the interview he talks about his forthcoming novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which will include photography along with the text, and which seems to be a continuation of the rule-breaking, avant-garde style he has been cultivating. The rest of the interview provides an interesting picture of this young author. The only annoying thing is that the interview is kind of hard to get to. First go to this link, click on Foer and then click on “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.”
While working on an essay, I found myself needing to use a word that meant “related to the study of proper names.” I knew exactly the word I wanted, because I’d just come across the same usage while re-reading David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. In the essay on tennis player Michael Joyce, Wallace has this really cool throw-away paragraph about how the Association of Tennis Professionals’ weekly world rankings “constitute a nomological orgy that makes for truly first-rate bathroom reading.” He goes on to celebrate such names as Mahesh Bhupathi, Jonathan Venison, Cyris Suk (!), Leander Paes, Udo Riglewski, and Martin Zumpft — and that’s just like a fifth of them. It truly is good reading.
Except it isn’t “nomological.” That was the word I went looking for, but I found this definition of it instead: “relating to or denoting certain principles, such as laws of nature, that are neither logically necessary nor theoretically explicable, but are simply taken as true.” For instance, the idea that two parallel lines will run forever and never touch is nomological, at least within Euclidean geometry.
But that really doesn’t sound like what Wallace was trying to say. It’s pretty clear he meant to say “the rankings constitute an [adjective related to the study of proper names] orgy.” A quick search indicated that the word Wallace was probably looking for was “onomastic,” which means “of or relating to the study of the history and origin of proper names.”
Where Wallace probably went wrong was in confusing the Greek nomos, meaning “law,” with onoma, meaning “name.” Consider that a variation of onoma was onuma; the switch from omicron to upsilon — the latter of which tends to enter English as a Y — helps form the root “-nym,” as in “synonym,” “antonym,” and “homonym.”
So the clause should read, “and the rankings constitute an onomastic orgy that makes for truly first-rate bathroom reading.”
I guess we should all take comfort in the fact that a titan like Wallace could make a mistake like this. On the other hand, it’s a testament to the late master’s genius that any of us even care.
At first glance, Beaux Arts Video didn’t look like much. A cramped storefront on Tenth and Spruce Streets in Philadelphia, it was a few hundred square feet of worn carpet, handmade shelves, and ceilings that dripped when it rained. The front of the shop, bright and neatly kept, was devoted to new releases; a larger, scruffier section, down a short flight of steps, held the rest of its aging stock, VHS to DVD, classics to pure dreck.
Despite its shortcomings, Beaux Arts managed a modest greatness. Its overstuffed racks spoke like an ardent fan who loved Tootsie, Marty, and Zardoz pretty much equally. When my wife and I moved to Philadelphia in the summer of 2001, we found ourselves there most nights, our eyes aglaze with choice. Kirsten browsed upstairs, moving slowly from row to row; I poked around downstairs, searching for something weird: Delicatessen, Logan’s Run, maybe A Boy and His Dog. A section of “Great Directors” included Hawks, Wilder, and for some reason, Zemeckis. A shadowy horror section held oversized VHS cases that I’d invariably inspect while muttering, “What the fuck is this?” This was where I discovered some of our culture’s crowning glories: Invasion of the Blood Farmers, Humanoids From the Deep, and Basket Case 3: The Progeny.
The early 2000s were a time of growing pressure for Beaux Arts, and it worked admirably to keep up. Rather than add porn or Jujubes—tactics that succeeded briefly for some small video stores—it responded with cinematic novelty, as if that might stanch the bleeding. They stocked the obscure, the foreign, the Criterion-collected. Short of a spike in Tarkovsky rentals, these would never turn a profit, but their presence made a statement: someone, at least on one corner of one city, still tried to give a shit.
By the latter half of the decade, though, the slide was irreversible: if Blockbuster had been injurious, Netflix was a cancer. And so was On Demand, Hulu, and the thousand other ways we now put stories before our eyes. Suddenly, the shop was superfluous; it might as well have sold whale oil. I’d sometimes spend twenty minutes there, seeking hidden treasure, and become acutely aware that I was the only customer.
Inevitably, Kirsten and I drifted away from Beaux Arts as well, an act of civic hypocrisy. We lived in a city in part because of places like Beaux Arts—shops and parks and streets that, like remote island flora, cannot exist elsewhere in exactly the same form. Beaux Arts had Lance, the quiet and amiable manager, who ran a site inspired by films that disturbed him as a kid. A shoebox near the register was filled with scraps of paper, each bearing a title—Alphaville was one—for the indecisive renter. A dry-erase board behind the counter, its margins filled with doodles, bore a list of new releases. When a movie was out, a frowny-face was drawn next to its title. In the last couple of years, there were very few frowny faces, and we were rarely there to see them.
Say what you will about the dehumanizing effects of technology—I’m not kidding here; I will never tire of it—but its speed and ease eventually erodes all argument. Rather than walk a few pleasant blocks and chat with a friendly clerk, we clicked and clicked and clicked until Beaux Arts finally fell. The decline was graceless and swift.
First, prices rose. Then the “Recent New Releases” section gave way to shelves of snacks—sad, hand-bagged Ziplocs of almonds and cashews. Last came the sale of “Vintage Entertainment Ware,” half of the store inexplicably given to antique snifters and china. My “What the fuck is this?” was now reserved for the shop itself, and I instinctively stayed away. Its desperation was too plain.
The “Final Days” signs went up a couple of weeks ago. A sheet of paper taped to the door read, “All DVDs $2.00.” I went in to see if, like the boy in The Giving Tree, I could strip my old friend of everything as it died of what I’d caused. The leavings were appropriately grim: Stuck on You, Corky Romano, disc two of Kirstie Alley’s Big Life. I wasn’t disappointed, though; I didn’t really want anything. Since we’d opened our account a decade before, the concept of ownership had changed. The impressive stoutness of a two-tape set—Nixon or Titanic—now seemed faintly insane. Home DVD collections were beginning to feel like clutter, and I needed no more of that. My eyes ran across the shelves. This was where my wife and I had fallen for Paul Newman, Katherine Hepburn, Freaks and Geeks. It had brought us Miyazaki and Kurosawa, Ashby and Altman. I’d once run here in the rain to get more episodes of Six Feet Under.
Such a thing would never happen again. Through no fault of its own, Beaux Arts had become a room full of junk. I nodded to the clerk, who I didn’t recognize, and got the hell out of there. Beaux Arts Video was dead—and despite all it had given me, I felt a shameful relief.
(Image copyright the author)