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.
Rick Atkinson, sometime reporter for the Washington Post and author of several books, most recently An Army at Dawn and In the Company of Soldiers, stopped by school today and gave a brief talk to a gathering of students and faculty. Atkinson describes himself as a narrative non-fiction writer and “recovering journalist,” and he divided his writing into three categories: journalism, instant history and true history – or history’s first, second and third drafts. He also said that great events like World War II are “bottomless” and thus can have no final draft. Atkinson called journalists “paid eyewitnesses.”During the talk, he listed a series of books that are examples of first-hand accounts of war, several of which he encountered researching An Army at Dawn, which is about the Allied liberation of North Africa. Atkinson’s list fits into that second category, instant history in the form of the battle memoir:The Battle is the Pay-Off by Ralph Ingersoll – WWII, North AfricaRoad to Tunis by David Rame – WWII, North AfricaBrave Men by Ernie Pyle – WWII, EuropeSlightly Out of Focus by Robert Capa (the famous war photographer) – WWII, North Africa and EuropeThe Road Back to Paris by A.J. Liebling (writing for the New Yorker) WWII, EuropeThe End in Africa by Alan Moorhead – WWII, North AfricaMartyr’s Day: Chronicle of a Small War by Michael Kelly (who died in a humvee accident in Iraq in 2003) – Persian Gulf War
Just as I (and several others) suspected! The New York Times piece on the best novels of the last 25 years was just a ploy to get mentioned on blogs. By way of proof, check out what I found in the traffic logs for The Millions today:Time/Date: Thu_Jun__1_13:09:16_2006_DSTVisitor IP: nytgate05.nytimes.comReferred by: www.technorati.com/search/www.nytimes.com/2006/05/21/books/fiction-25-years.htmlSeriously, I think it’s great that folks at the Times read blogs, and I’m glad they care that bloggers read the Times, but it seems like a lot of trouble to go to just to get mentioned by us.(For those of you unfamiliar with traffic logs, the above basically means that someone at the Times arrived at The Millions after checking Technorati to see which blogs referenced its 25 best books story.)Update: Well, I figured out why the Times was wondering what I wrote about their list. They were putting together this page. So kudos to the Times for acknowledging that this list was the start of a conversation and not a decree and for being willing to host some of the resulting conversation on its site. I’d love to see more of this in the future.
Did you ever wonder: “What is the longest English word?” “Are there any English words containing the same letter three times in a row?” “Are there any words that rhyme with orange?” “How many words are there in the English language?” “What is the longest one-syllable English word?” The answers to these questions and more can be found at the Oxford Dictionary FAQ.
As some of you may know, my very good friend Cem has been travelling through some remote parts of the world. The other day, in a very long email, he asked me whether or not I thought he should stay in northern Thailand or keep on moving toward the Middle East which is, ostensibly, his final destination… here is my advice (plus a little plug for the record label, which he had asked about): Sorry I haven’t gotten back to you sooner, your email took me 4 days to read. Seriously though, what I wouldn’t give to be in your place with your dilemma… should I go to this frighteningly exotic place or this other one? My jealousy aside, I’m not sure I can make this decision for you, but I might be able to give you a little insight. First, you have to decide, irrespective of the girl or whatever gig you have set up in Thailand, whether this adventure is all about getting to the destination (i.e. Cairo and the Middle East) or allowing yourself to be follow the whims of the world and just be wherever you end up… like Maqroll. I think both are perfectly admirable plans, but you have to pick one or the other. Secondly, I don’t know how tuned in you are to world events right now given your isolation, but American soldiers are dying every couple of days in Iraq, and the situation seems, to me anyway, to still be very much up in the air, with a guerilla war still a possibility, however remote. I’m sure that Cairo and Istanbul and Amman are all plenty safe, but I guess you should figure out if you prefer to be in the Middle East soon (while there is still uncertainty) or later when things have calmed down. So there you have it… no easy answers just more dilemmas. I love what you’re doing, and if and when you get settled somewhere, I am coming to visit. In other news, the website for my record label is www.realisticrecords.net so tell all your indie friends to check it out. There are mp3s up and pictures of the recoys reunion show/record release party. You can also buy the album there (It’s called Recoys Rekoys) and it’s a vinyl only run of 1000. Since that is almost sold out though, we’ll probably get a cd together soon enough.Now if there are any world travellers out there who are aspiring to do the sort of thing that my friend Cem is doing, I suggest you pick up The World’s Most Dangerous Places by Robert Young Pelton. It’s a very informative and wildly entertain look at some of the more hazardous corners of the planet. As if to underline his fealty for sticky situations, Pelton himself was kidnapped by leftist rebels in Columbia earlier this year. He was later released.
As any student of the history of the English language – or of Walter Scott – knows, our having, as English speakers, different words for food on the hoof and food on the table is no idle fact. Consider the opening scene of Ivanhoe, in which the swineherd Gurth and Wamba the jester debate this very point:Why, how call you those grunting brutes running about on their four legs?” demanded Wamba.”Swine, fool, swine,” said the herd, “every fool knows that.””And swine is good Saxon,” said the Jester; “but how call you the sow when she is flayed, and drawn, and quartered, and hung up by the heels, like a traitor?””Pork,” answered the swine-herd.”I am very glad every fool knows that too,” said Wamba, “and pork, I think, is good Norman-French; and so when the brute lives, and is in the charge of a Saxon slave, she goes by her Saxon name; but becomes a Norman, and is called pork, when she is carried to the Castle-hall to feast among the nobles; what dost thou think of this, friend Gurth, ha?””It is but too true doctrine, friend Wamba, however it got into thy fool’s pate.”After the Norman Invasion in 1066, Norman French became the language of power in Britain, spoken by the king and court and any who wanted favor from them. The conquered residents of Britain, speakers of the Germanic Old English, were those who raised, tended, and hunted animals: Thus, cow (kuh), calf (kalb), swine (schweine), deer (deor), sheep (schaf), and hen (huhn) for living animals, while the wealthy Norman conquerors tended to be those who enjoyed the animals at table: Thus, beef (boeuf), pork (porc), mutton (mouton), and poultry (poulet).The English words have always seemed to me more sturdy – as well as more coarse. Like chewing a mouthful of rocks or biting into the branch of a sapling – too fibrous to chew, sour with sap. The French words seem like tiny exhalations of essence – bouef, mouton – the soul of the thing rather than sinews and bones.I think brains can take the character of their mother tongues. I am quite sure my brain is Anglo-Saxon – all sap and fibers and rocks and bones.
I have written in the past about the importance of a bookstore’s “front table.”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.To me, this epitomizes what separates the engaging indie from the faceless chain, but this selling point has not helped indies win out in a climate that has been tough for all book retailers. Among the many struggles indies have faced is how to translate the relevance and ambiance described above to the internet, where a large portion of book buying, selling, and discussion now takes place.2008’s launch of IndieBound, an aggregated indie web presence that is a vast improvement over its precursor BookSense, shows that the indies are hard at work trying to unlock the online conundrum.Recently, Scott pointed to another far smaller but particularly resonant example of online experimentation by an indie bookstore. The Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago has started replicating its front table on its blog. This book curation done by a knowledgeable staff rather than the chains’ corporate number crunchers, fulfills the bookstore mission that I noted above, giving readers “what matters at that moment both in the wider world and in the neighborhood.” (This notion of curation is important. In many ways, I’d argue that it’s a key mission of The Millions. Our “staff” selects and sheds light upon certain books at the exclusion of others, bringing to bear our different areas of expertise, interest, and taste.)The front table alone, however, is not enough to make a bookstore. A truly great bookstore and its front table will inspire conversation in the aisles among patrons and staff. Seminary Co-op is part of the way towards making its front table live on its web site, but, as the “comments are closed” message at the bottom of the page indicates, it’s not all the way there. However, the sight of all those covers, laid out neatly, makes me think that we may not be far from an indie bookstore website that makes you feel like you are walking into the store itself.See also: Niche Bookstores: A Dying Breed, Islands in the Stream: A Walking Tour of New York’s Independent Booksellers