Like we did last year, we thought it might be fun to compare the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books contenders. Book cover design never seems to garner much discussion in the literary world, but, as readers, we are undoubtedly swayed by the little billboard that is the cover of every book we read. Even in the age of the Kindle, we are clicking through the images as we impulsively download this book or that one. I’ve always found it especially interesting that the U.K. and U.S. covers often differ from one another, suggesting that certain layouts and imagery will better appeal to readers on one side of the Atlantic rather than the other. These differences are especially striking when we look at the covers side by side. The American covers are on the left, and clicking through takes you to a page where you can get a larger image. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments.
Lent is an annual search, which might explain the popularity of this post. I continue to hear from writers — Christians and non-Christians alike — who are curious about the meaning and significance of Lent. The season is all about the appeal of story; the dramatic power of the Passion narrative. We’ve decided to re-publish this post with updated dates in hopes that it can be a literary companion for the next few weeks — and that it might demonstrate the diversity and range of ways that writers have imagined the season.
“Lent,” wrote Thomas Merton, “is not just a time for squaring conscious accounts: but for realizing what we had perhaps not seen before.” Lent is the most literary season of the liturgical year. The Lenten narrative is marked by violence, suffering, anticipation, and finally, joy. Jesus Christ’s 40 days of fasting in the desert are the spiritual and dramatic origin for the season that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday.
While Advent is a time of giving, Lent is a time of reflection, penance, and reconciliation, all revealed through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Holy Week is a solemn sequence of days leading to the grace of Easter. It is a different form of joy than Christmas; Easter joy is cathartic and transformational. Lent, then, is a time of complex and contrasting emotions. Highs and lows. A time to be shaken and surprised.
Jamie Quatro, whose collection I Want To Show You More arrived like a literary revelation, says that reading is like “the mystery of the Lord’s Supper…a form of communion: author, text, and reader rapt in an intimate yet paradoxically isolated collusion of spirits.” Here is a literary reader for Lent: 40 stories, poems, essays, and books for the 40 days of this season. (Sundays have never been part of the Lenten calendar). Some pieces are inspired by feast days and Gospel readings, while others capture the discernment of the season. Some works are written by believers, while others are crafted by writers who choose the literary word over any Word. This reader is intended to be literary, not theological; contemplative rather than devotional. Bookmark this page and come back each day. Save it for upcoming years. The dates will change, but the sequence of readings and reflections will stay the same: a small offering of communion that might transcend our isolation.
Day 1: Wednesday March 1
Reading: “Ash Wednesday” by T.S. Eliot
Lent begins with dust and darkness. Black-crossed foreheads are the rare time when true ritual bleeds into public view. As Lent is a time of change, it is appropriate to start with Eliot’s famous conversion text. Eliot said “skepticism is the preface to conversion;” The Wasteland and “The Hollow Men,” however desolate, capture the impersonal sense of art Eliot would associate with his new faith. “Ash Wednesday” is the start of a labor. When he writes “suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood,” he knows belief is not easy.
Day 2: Thursday March 2
Reading: Townie by Andre Dubus III
In Luke 9:22-25, Jesus warns his disciples that following him will be a struggle. Self-denial must be followed by a willingness to suffer “daily.” The disciples act on the hope of salvation, much like children following a father. In Townie, Andre Dubus III writes of his father, a man he both loved and hated. Dubus père dies in the final chapters of the memoir, and Andre and his brother Jeb build their father’s coffin, “a simple pine box.” It was a promise, the final chapter of reconciliation to heal a broken family.
Day 3: Friday March 3
Reading: “The Habit of Perfection” by Gerard Manley Hopkins
This Friday is the first real test of fasting for most (Ash Wednesday services make for strength in numbers). William G. Storey writes that fasting “help[s] the body share in the sufferings of Jesus and of the poor.” Hopkins, a 19th-century British Jesuit who has influenced as many secular poets as he has religious ones, dramatizes the ascetic life in his verse. His poems press against the borders of his forms; he wrings multiple meanings out of his language. “The Habit of Perfection” is an acceptance of denial: “Palate, the hutch of tasty lust, / Desire not to be rinsed with wine: / The can must be so sweet, the crust / So fresh that come in fasts divine!” What others think sour, Hopkins turns sweet.
Day 4: Saturday March 4
Reading: “Why I’m Still a Catholic” by Nicole Soojung Callahan
If I could suggest one single essay that dramatizes the difficulty of faith, the struggle of this season, it would be Callahan’s heartfelt essay. She sometimes feels like a “bad Catholic” in the same way as her adoptive parents, who were “lapsed old-school Cleveland Catholics brought back into the fold by a firecracker of a nun in Seattle.” Callahan notes that as “a child, my faith was almost the only thing in my life that made me feel that I was part of something larger —– the only thing that constructed a kind of bridge between my own little island and the larger continents on which other families and clans and communities seemed to reside. Letting it go would mean jettisoning a huge part of who I am, severing that long-cherished connection to a kind of universal family.” Like so many, Callahan is sometimes frustrated with the institution of the Church, and yet this Catholic identity formed by her youth — “annual May crownings, years of lectoring and serving at Mass, First Communion and Confirmation parties, and that dusty bottle of holy water on our bookshelf that my mother never allowed to run dry. I had a catalog of prayers I knew by heart; ancient hymns paired with terrible folk-Mass songs written in the 1970s; the familiar rhythm and beauty of the liturgical seasons” — is something she will always be grateful for, and that she has passed on to her own children. The final section of her essay is lyric, poetic, and worthy of being read aloud: as fine a credo of measured faith as I can imagine.
Day 5: Monday March 6
Reading: “The Tree” by Dylan Thomas
The feast day of Saint Polycarp, who, according to John J. Delaney’s Dictionary of Saints, “was ordered burned to death at the stake…[but] when the flames failed to consume him, he was speared to death.” Polycarp’s martyrdom is one of the oldest, and helps usher the peculiar Catholic genre of saint tales. Polycarp’s fantastical narrative is matched by “The Tree,” a story by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Although a “holy maker” who became “tipsy on salvation’s bottle” as a child, Thomas was no fan of Catholicism (his friend William York Tindall said Thomas was “essentially Protestant without being Christian”). “The Tree” is no devotional tale. Surreal and imagistic, it is the story of an inquisitive but easily misguided boy who crucifies a transient to a tree on a hill in Wales.
Day 6: Tuesday March 7
Reading: “Disgraceland” by Mary Karr
A week into Lent, one’s patience might begin to wear thin with all of this suffering (few human endeavors go awry as quickly as devotion). Mary Karr is the antidote to complacency. In “Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer,” Karr outed herself as a Catholic convert, “not victim but volunteer…after a lifetime of undiluted agnosticism.” “Disgraceland,” from her 2006 collection Sinners Welcome, begins with an account of her birth, whirled into this world to “sulk around” while “Christ always stood / to one side with a glass of water.” She ends on a gorgeous note: “You are loved, someone said. Take that / and eat it.”
Day 7: Wednesday March 8
Reading: “The Teaching of Literature” by Flannery O’Connor
Today’s reading from Luke 11:29 sounds rather harsh: “This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah.” This sign will be revealed in the death and resurrection of Christ, which makes this indictment of a crowd feel particularly heavy. While it might be heretical to wait seven days to introduce the work of Flannery O’Connor into a Lenten reader, this is the moment she becomes appropriate. Her fiction will appear later in the reading list, but today is in the spirit of her essay, “The Teaching of Literature,” most often collected in Mystery and Manners. O’Connor laments how fiction is taught to students, particularly when fiction is used as mere symbol: “I have found that if you are astute and energetic, you can integrate English literature with geography, biology, home economics, basketball, or fire prevention — with anything at all that will put off a little longer the evil day when the story or novel must be examined simply as a story or novel.” Pity the generation that sparks O’Connor’s ire.
Day 8: Thursday March 9
Reading: Radical Reinvention by Kaya Oakes
Christ tells his disciples “seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Secular criticism of religion offers the refrain that faith — as practiced by those who claim to be religious — often sounds like certainty, and certainty leads to judgment. (Most believers would benefit from conversations and friendships with atheists). Kaya Oakes’s memoir of rediscovery, Radical Reinvention, traces her search from skeptic to measured believer to reinvented believer. Oakes is funny and thoughtful, and shares the wisdom of her spiritual directors, including a Father Mellow, who says “The Church is both sinner and holy. So are all of us.” She is still undergoing her search, but one thing she’s discovered is that “living a life of faith is not about following marching orders. It’s about finding God in other people, feeling the movement of the Spirit, living the compassion of Christ as best we can.”
Day 9: Friday March 10
Reading: Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen
Saint Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows died from tuberculosis at 24. Gabriel’s popularity in America is marginal, based on his supposed patronage of handgun users (an absurdly apocryphal tale where Gabriel shoots a lizard to scare off Giuseppe Garibaldi’s soldiers). A more likely tale is that his devotion to the Virgin Mary and the Passion were a correction to the extreme vanity of his youth. Gabriel reflects the titular character of Ron Hansen’s novel, Mariette in Ecstasy, a 17-year-old novitiate at a convent in upstate New York. She is first introduced in the novel while standing naked in front of a floor mirror, aware of her beauty, and thinks “Even this I give You.” Hansen’s novel is what would happen if James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime converted. Now a deacon in a Cupertino, California parish, Hansen continues to write powerful fiction.
Day 10: Saturday March 11
Reading: “You Are Not Christ” by Rickey Laurentiis
In today’s Gospel selection from Matthew, Christ tells his disciples to “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” He ends his exhortation with a call to be “perfect,” a sharp expectation, an impossible goal. I often think of Laurentiis’s title in relation to that call. It arrives, first, as a phrase of forgiveness, but Laurentiis’s verse is unforgiving: “For the drowning, yes, there is always panic. / Or peace.” Only nine lines, the poem unfolds and exits like a deep breath, and, like much of Laurentiis’s poetry, weds the sensual with the spiritual. Lent is nothing if not the most physical of seasons.
Day 11: Monday March 13
Reading: “Idiot Psalms” by Scott Cairns
March begins with a scene from Capernaum: Jesus drives an “unclean spirit” from a man. Exorcisms are the perfect fodder for Hollywood — black-clad heroes chant Latin while they struggle with demons — but have a less theatrical role in Lent. Unclean is not a permanent condition. The narrator of “Idiot Psalms” “find[s] my face against the floor, and yet again / my plea escapes from unclean lips.” He seeks forgiveness, which is not as dramatic as Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller performing the Roman rite, but his desire “to manage at least one late season sinlessly, / to bow before you yet one time without chagrin” is palpable.
Day 12: Tuesday March 14
Reading: “The Didache” by Paul Lisicky
Lisicky’s short piece appears in his book Unbuilt Projects. The title is a reference to an apocryphal, anonymous document of early Jewish-Christians, although Lisicky’s narrative is focused on his relationship with his mother. “The Didache” begins with a question: “What were you like the last time I saw you whole?” The piece follows with more questions and considerations, while noting “It’s funny how we end up where we do.” The language of the final sentences becomes comfortably Biblical: “As the broken bread was scattered on the hillsides, and so was gathered and made one, so may the many of you be gathered and find favor with one another.” The lines are a lyrical refiguring of a Didache hymn, and lead toward the conclusion of Lisicky’s piece: “Take. Eat, says the mother, given up and broken, and pushes the sandwich into the lunch bag, and sends me on my way.” A nice reminder that our present, prosaic world is capable of being legendary and graceful.
Day 13: Wednesday March 15
Reading: The Grace That Keeps This World by Tom Bailey
Variations of faith sustain the characters of Bailey’s novel in the face of despair. The novel contains several first-person narratives, beginning with Susan Hazen, who says her parish priest “plants the wafer that leavens hope in my palm.” Susan’s faith is tested, along with that of her husband, Gary David (an act of violence cleaves their family). The book ends with Gary’s narrative section: “The pines have reawakened me to something that as a forester I’ve long known by heart: The work we live to do is work we’ll never see completed. The snow will continue to fall. The geese will come back, just as they will continue to go. I have my faith. The strength of belief. But this is the truth in our story the pines need to relate. This, they whisper, this is the grace that keeps this world. Honor it.”
Day 14: Thursday March 16
Reading: “The Our Father” by Franz Wright
“The Our Father” appears in Wheeling Motel, Wright’s 10th collection of poems. The poem’s relative brevity is inversely related to its power. To title a poem after such an iconic prayer is to locate the work as both ritual and rhythm. The first stanza reads: “I am holding cirrhosis / with one hand and AIDS / with the other, in a circle.” Wright’s poetry is so pared, having the feeling of being wrung through the emotion of being and distilled into the truest possible language. This first stanza establishes the sense of community: this is truly a collective father. As is often true with those suffering from addition or disease, that which causes the pain overwhelms the self. Wright’s lines break from those diseases toward the shape, “a circle,” that leads to comfort and forgiveness (Wright has written about how his own conversion has helped lift his life from addiction). “The Our Father” moves forward from this first stanza to the actual prayer, which is “simple” and “august,” though Wright compares and connects the bareness of the phrasing to the profound nature of Christ’s life: “you briefly took on tortured / human form to teach / us here, below–” The poem’s honesty continues, though, because the final lines speak to an awareness of the ephemera of existence: “What final catastrophe sent / to wean me from this world.”
Day 15: Friday March 17
Reading: “After Cornell” by Joe Bonomo
Bonomo’s essay, which appears in his collection This Must Be Where My Obsession with Infinity Began, reflects on the darkness and silence of the traditional confessional box: “To intellectually comprehend moral and ethical transgressions—regardless of how domestically petty they might feel to the confessor (last night I bit my little brother) — the confessor must shed anatomy’s garment and step in unencumbered. The fragmented reminder that we are always flesh filtered through the shadowy screen between priest and penitent, and such a reminder could not have been allowed to distract.” Bonomo laments the shift to face-to-face confessions, though he has prepared himself for the change, and the previous box felt “akin to stepping into the Old Age, of black, black, black.” Bonomo’s words bring me back to the confessions of my past: I made the same shift from darkness to (uncomfortable) light. Now my parish opts for the face-to-sheet-to-face confession in a lighted room, and we are given printed Acts of Contrition, columned in the center on a pink sheet. I agree with Bonomo, that something has been lost, or at least transferred, in this coming to light.
Day 16: Saturday March 18
Reading: “Second Avenue” by Frank O’Hara
Critic Micah Mattix writes that “O’Hara believed that poetry was a ‘testament’ of the self and that love was real. Drawing from his Catholic schooling and James Joyce’s aesthetics, in some poems he expressed the view that the artist was as a sort of Christ-figure who suffers to renew our experience of the world.” Mattix notes that O’Hara’s long poem, “Second Avenue,” although a “sprawling amalgam of absurd images, disconnected phrases and quotation, newspaper clippings, short dramatic scenes, anecdotes, gossip, and literary artistic references,” also reinforces this idea of “the image of the artist as God,” and “reverses…the biblical trope of God as light.” Mattix’s reading has altered my perception of O’Hara’s verse, which I have always thought as being more interested in play than profundities. Lent truly is the season of change, as long as one’s eyes are open.
Day 17: Monday March 20
Reading: “The Heart, Like a Bocce Ball” by Luke Johnson
Johnson’s poem begins with the characters “dead drunk,” “cannonballing across the lawn, gouging / handful divots, each of us still nursing / a tumbler of scotch brought home from the wake.” Although temporarily wasted, these “sons and brothers and cousins” aren’t wasting away: they are players, certainly, in this simple game of bocce, but there’s a real sense of connection here. The poem ends with the lines “The heart, like a bocce ball, is fist-sized / and firm; ours clunk together, then divide.” If there were ever a poetic form made for brief devotions meant to stretch throughout a day, it would be the sonnet.
Day 18: Tuesday March 21
Reading: “Their Bodies, Their Selves” by Andrew McNabb
Dray and Sarah Maguire “had lived a clothed life,” but “An accident had changed that.” The center of McNabb’s tight story unfolds in less than an hour, but stretches across the years of this elderly couple’s relationship. One Saturday afternoon, while using the bathroom, Dray falls, smacking his skull on the porcelain. Sarah, “scarred from shingles, melanoma, three ungrateful children and an undiagnosed depression,” fears blood, but instead sees her husband nearly bare (he’d gotten used to taking off his pants when using the bathroom “so he wouldn’t get caught up when he stood”). Sensing her husband’s embarrassment, Sarah undresses herself. Their bodies are in the open; “That is just you, and this is just me.” What starts as a moment of communion becomes a daily act, a presentation of bodies as a means of preservation.
Day 19: Wednesday March 22
Reading: Love & Salt by Amy Andrews and Jessica Mesman Griffith
Andrews and Griffith met in a graduate school creative writing workshop, and their shared literary interest in God soon became personal searches. Love & Salt is their collected correspondence, as well as letters that remained, unsent, as notes. Their epistles are layered and lyric, documents of friendship that are as intimate as they are inviting. In Griffith’s first letter, she longs to finally get Lent right, to live up to the words of Saint Ephraim’s prayer: “How many times have I promised, / Yet every time I failed to keep my word. / But disregard this according to Thy Grace.” The collection will make you long to find as worthy a correspondent as Andrews and Griffith (each of their letters could serve as daily devotions, bringing to life the statement they share from Vivian Gornick: “The letter, written in absorbed silence, is an act of faith.”).
Day 20: Thursday March 23
Reading: “From a Window” by Christian Wiman
Halfway through Lent, the heart can harden. Reflection leads to regret. Christian Wiman, the former editor of Poetry magazine, is the perfect poet for this time. Wiman’s verse has the uncanny ability to swiftly and believably transition from melancholy to joy. His memoir, My Bright Abyss, documents his unlikely journey back to Christian belief after being diagnosed with incurable cancer. Speaking about his return to belief, Wiman says “I have no illusions about adding to sophisticated theological thinking. But I think there are a ton of people out there who are what you might call unbelieving believers, people whose consciousness is completely modern and yet who have this strong spiritual hunger in them. I would like to say something helpful to those people.” “From a Window,” written during an admitted time of despair, says something. “Incurable and unbelieving / in any truth but the truth of grieving,” Wiman watches a flock of birds rise from a tree, “as if the leaves had livelier ghosts.” He presses his face against the window and wonders if the birds were “a single being undefined / or countless beings of one mind,” and admits that their “strange cohesion / [is] beyond the limits of my vision.” He pulls back, his skeptic’s mind reassured that the tree he is watching with a shaken heart is no different now save for the observer, and yet that same independence of existence — the fact that this beautiful, simple moment did not need him to observe it, and that recognition “is where the joy came in.”
Day 21: Friday March 24
Reading: “I Was Never Able to Pray” by Edward Hirsch
Gabriel, Hirsch’s book-length poem about the life and death of his adopted son, contains an unbeliever’s admonition: “I will not forgive you / Indifferent God / Until you give me back my son.” “I Was Never Able to Pray” predates his loss, but presents a similar song. Why would an unbeliever care about God? Designations of believer and atheist, pious and heretic are only useful as generalizations. Hirsch’s critical interests have always dealt with God-wounded writers (including James Joyce and W.B. Yeats), so it is not surprising to see that language extend to his own narrators. In this poem, the speaker wishes to be taken to the shore, where the “moon tolls in the rafters” and he can “hear the wind paging through the trees.” His lines of unbelief arrive on the tongue of faith: “I was never able to pray, / but let me inscribe my name / in the book of waves” as he looks up to the “sky that never ends.”
Day 22: Saturday March 25
Reading: “The Widow of Naim” by Thomas Merton
The non-fiction meditations of Thomas Merton could fill an entire Lenten reading schedule, but his poetic considerations of faith and Scripture are also worthy. Merton studied poetry at Columbia, and was “turned on like a pinball machine by Blake, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Meister Eckhart, Coomaraswamy, Traherne, Hopkins, Maritain, and the sacraments of the Catholic Church.” Yet like Hopkins, Merton lamented his more creative self, “this shadow, this double, this writer who had followed me into the cloister.” Although less than half of Merton’s verse was specifically religious, he did enjoy recasting Scripture into poetry (in pieces like “The Evening of the Visitation,” “An Argument: of the Passion of Christ,” “The Sponge Full of Vinegar,” “The House of Caiaphas,” “Aubade — The Annunciation,” and “Cana”). The Naim sequence only lasts seven verses, and is often lost between the Capernaum centurion and Christ’s reflection on John the Baptist. In Luke’s version, Christ arrives at Naim along with his disciples at the same time a man “who had died was being carried out.” Christ tells the mother of the man, the titular widow, to not weep. He touches the bier, a support for the coffin, and the “bearers stood still.” Christ tells the dead man to arise, and he does. Merton’s poetic recasting begins by moving the initial focus from the arrival of Christ to “the gravediggers and the mourners of the town, who, ‘White as the wall…follow / to the new tomb a widow’s sorrow.’” The mourners meet a crowd of strangers who “smell of harvests…[and] nets,” and who question the mourners: “Why go you down to graves, with eyes like winters / And your cold faces clean as cliffs? / See how we come, our brows are full of sun.” These strangers allude to the “wonder” of the miracle to come. Yet Merton’s twist arrives as an address to the reader that the “widow’s son, after the marvel of his miracle: / He did not rise for long, and sleeps forever.” The man was resuscitated, not resurrected; his gift of life was an ephemeral one. This allows Merton to place the miracle along a continuum, to place the weight of an ancient tale on the shoulder of modern humanity, the crowd.
Day 23: Monday March 27
Reading: “Girls” by Andre Dubus
Dubus contemplates the altar girl at Mass, she being the “only altar girl I have ever seen.” That observation opens to a short reflection about Mary, the “first priest.” He catalogues her potential fears, which begin with her encounter with the angel Gabriel, continue with her need to find shelter to have the child, and then the knowledge “she would lose Him because he was God.” He thinks about how he and this girl at Mass see the “cross as a sign of love,” but for Mary it was “wood and a dying son and grief.” I’ve written a few appreciations of Dubus, but in brief: pair “Girls” with his fiction, particularly “A Father’s Story,” and you have a portrait of a writer, a father, for whom faith is essential.
Day 24: Tuesday March 28
Reading: “Back in Ireland” by Thomas McGuane
St. Patrick would be proud of McGuane’s prose, as close to an American Joyce as possible (particularly his earlier, more sardonic novels like The Sporting Club). His more recent content has moved out West, capturing the spirit of breeding and raising cutting horses in Montana, but his prose retains its Celtic rhythms. “Back in Ireland” is the memory of a long-ago “meandering trip” to fish in southern Ireland: “I was at that blissful stage in my life when my services were sought by no one. I didn’t know how good I had it.” He is thankful for the guidance of a local angler, the type of person “who could never recall when they began fishing, so undivided was it from the thread of their lives.” McGuane notices that the entire town blessed themselves nearly constantly, “a rakish bit of muscle memory that I found myself imitating.” Church might have been a bit too much of a commitment, but the shadow of devotion “seemed to help before a difficult presentation…[of] the listless slob of a brown trout, curd fattened at the outlet of a small creamery on the Loobagh River.” McGuane’s sentences slather as heavy as fellow lapsed Irish-Catholic Joyce: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”
Day 25: Wednesday March 29
Reading: “Prophecy” by Dana Gioia
Gioia’s poetry, essays, and arts advocacy have long made him an essential writer. His recent, spirited essay, “The Catholic Writer Today,” has reignited the debate about the role of writing of faith within secular literary culture. Gioia’s own poems never proselytize. “Prophecy” contains a few direct questions, but is all wonder. What does a child staring out of a window think about? “For what is prophecy but the first inkling / of what we ourselves must call into being?” The prophetic sense can’t be prayed or willed into existence, there is “No voice in thunder.” The necessary “gift is listening / and hearing what is only meant for you.” “O Lord of indirection and ellipses,” the speaker says, “ignore our prayers. Deliver us from distraction…And grant us only what we fear.”
Day 26: Thursday March 30
Reading: “Life of Sundays” by Rodney Jones
Years ago, Jones visited my first undergraduate poetry workshop, and was given a packet of student work. My poem about fishing was in the bunch. Jones read the poem aloud to the class, and then went on to praise my lines. I don’t think they were worthy of his good words, but he wasn’t there to criticize. I might think that he was merely playing a part, but Jones’s poetry tends to be rather forgiving and observant. “Life of Sundays” is no different. Although the speaker doesn’t go to church anymore, “I want to at times, to hear the diction / And the tone.” What happens at the service “is devotion, which wouldn’t change if I heard / The polished sermon, the upright’s arpeggios of vacant notes.” He wonders: “What else could unite widows, bankers, children, and ghosts?” Although his belief has passed, he feels “the abundance of calm” from this ritual of Sundays, a day when the “syntax of prayers is so often reversed, / Aimed toward the dead who clearly have not gone ahead.” “And though I had no prayer,” the speaker says, “I wanted to offer something / Or ask for something, perhaps out of habit.”
Day 27: Friday March 31
Reading: “First Day of Winter” by Breece Pancake
It is difficult to not write about Breece Pancake in elegiac terms. Even one of his closest mentors, the great James Alan McPherson, said “there was a mystery about [him] that I will not claim to have penetrated.” His friend John Casey felt the same way, saying Pancake, who converted in his 20s, “took faith with intensity, almost as if he had a different, deeper measure of time.” Pancake’s fiction does arrive with an almost overwhelming sense of inevitability, from “The Way It Has To Be” to “Time and Again.” “First Day of Winter” is equally unsparing, although Pancake wrings a drop of hope from these characters. “Hollis sat by his window all night, staring at the ghost in glass, looking for some way out of the tomb Jake had built for him.” That tomb is his parents’ farm. His mother’s “mind half gone from blood too thick in her veins,” his father blind. Jake would not take in his parents at his own home. Hollis wrestles with a car that won’t start, its “grinding echoed through the hollows, across the hills.” His knuckles bloodied from the cold, he tells his father about Jake’s rejection, but Jake is the prodigal son. Hollis’s plan is no better: he intends to take his parents to the state nursing home. As often occurs in Pancake’s stories, there seems no way out, particularly not for Hollis, whose jealousy of his brother is clear (he has to watch his mother fawn over a photo of Jake and his family). Hollis snaps and tells his mother of Jake’s rejection, and that breaks his father’s spirit. They leave the room, and Hollis goes outside, where their “land lay brittle, open, and dead.” Back inside, Hollis hears “the cattle lowing to be fed, heard the soft rasp of his father’s crying breath, heard his mother’s humming of a hymn.” Like that, in the span of a sentence, Pancake breaths light, however faint, into this world: “The sun was blackened with snow, and the valley closed in quietly with humming, quietly as an hour of prayer.”
Day 28: Saturday April 1
Reading: The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert
Echoing the language he used to describe his writing of Emma Bovary, Flaubert said “I was in Saint Anthony as Saint Anthony himself.” Flaubert began the novel in 1848 but it was not published until 1874. An early audience of friends said he should burn the book and never speak of it. Flaubert, undeterred, said “It is my whole life’s work.” That work is a novel in the form of a play, a dramatization of St. Anthony’s tempestuous night in the desert. Michel Foucault called Flaubert’s phantasmagoric masterpiece “the book of books.”
Day 29: Monday April 3
Reading: Resuscitation of a Hanged Man by Denis Johnson
Johnson was once asked how he would “characterize the theological questions you ask about religion or to God in your work,” and responded in turn: “Ah, now — this is a question I’ve learned to run from, and it’s the chief reason I avoid giving interviews. If I’ve discussed these things in the past, I shouldn’t have. I’m not qualified. I don’t know who God is, or any of that. People concerned with those questions turn up in my stories, but I can’t explain why they do. Sometimes I wish they wouldn’t.” He owes the question to Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, a novel the main character of which fails at the action of the title, and then replaces despair with drugs and work as a radio DJ. Leonard English “didn’t kneel in prayer each night out of habit, but fell to his knees on rare occasions and in a darkness of dread, as if he were letting go of a branch. To his mind, God was a rushing river, God was an alligator, God was to be chosen over self-murder and over nothing else.” He prays to sleep with a woman he likes, but he doesn’t “pray anymore for faith, because he’d found that a growing certainty of the Presence was accompanied by a terrifying absence of any sign or feeling or manifestation of it. He was afraid that what he prayed to was nothing, only this limitless absence. I’ll grow until I’ve found you, and you won’t be there.”
Day 30: Tuesday April 4
Reading: “The Lord’s Day” by J.F. Powers
Although Powers won the National Book Award in 1963 for his novel Morte D’Urban, critic Denis Donoghue writes “I think Powers knew that his native breath was that of the short story.” Powers was the poet laureate of the Midwestern priesthood. His “priests are shown in the world, quarreling with their colleagues and pastors, grubbing for money, angling for promotion, playing golf, drinking beer, passing the time. If they have an intense spiritual life, we are not shown it…[and yet] no matter how commonplace or compromised the priest there is still are relation between him and the Christian vision he has acknowledged.” The daily life of a priest is not a sequence of miraculous highs and ecstatic visions. It is hard, slow work. A priest is a counselor, writer, politician. Powers capture this splendid service like no other writer. “The Lord’s Day” is the best introduction to his work, a slice of clerical domesticity. An unnamed priest has been stung twice by bees attracted to a mulberry tree near the rectory porch. Despite the pleading of a nun, he takes an axe to the tree. His body, “a fat vision in black,” is a contrast to the 12 women of the house, “the apostles” (“It was the kind of joke they could appreciate, but not to be carried too far, for then one of them must be Judas, which was not funny.”). Their shared home is not quite the picture of joy. The house is “sagging” and “daily surpassed itself in gloominess and was only too clean and crowded not to seem haunted.” The sisters sit around a table to count the collection from Mass. The parish has bills to pay. One nun says “Come on, you money-changers, dig in!” Another: “Money, money, money.” Powers smirks his way through his tales (my own experience with nuns is that they are the most hilarious and pious people I have ever met, their Baltimore Catechism shadows long since replaced with light). Not all the sisters find humor in this work; some wish Sundays were days of rest. It is a day of rest for the priest — he is off to a round of golf. The lead sister, “determined to make up for the afternoon, to show them that she knew, perhaps, what she was doing,” creates a ruse to hold-up the priest. She asks him to inspect the stove, which has been smoking. Annoyed, he says the problem is not the stove, but the only remaining mulberry tree, the one he’d spared. “If you want your stove to work properly, it’ll have to come down.” Rather than end the story with grace, Powers leaves the reader with the nun’s curt thanks. Frustrated, she leaves the priest, “only wanting to get upstairs and wash the money off her hands.”
Day 31: Wednesday April 5
Reading: “Annunciation Overheard from the Kitchen” by Mary Szybist
Szybist’s Marian poems appear in Incarnadine, which won the National Book Award. Szybist’s epigraph for the collection is from Simone Weil: “The mysteries of faith are degraded if they are made into an object of affirmation and negation, when in reality they should be an object of contemplation.” Szybist’s entire book is concerned with the Annunciation. As a young Catholic, Szybist “reached a point where I found myself unable to pray. I was devastated by it. I missed being able to say words in my head that I believed could be heard by a being, a consciousness outside me. That is when I turned to poetry.” In “Annunciation Overheard from the Kitchen,” the narrator is “washing the pears in cool water,” listening. This might not be the annunciation, but it is an annunciation. That leveling of experience is not meant to devalue the precedent — Szybist might be lapsed, but she is certainly not spiteful — but to rather raise the contemporary moment. The speaker more than simply listens, she is open to sound as “Windows around me everywhere half-open– / My skin alive with the pitch.”
Day 32: Thursday April 6
Reading: “Blessing the Animals” by R.A. Villanueva
Villanueva crafts quite the scene to begin this poem from his debut, Reliquaria: “In a parking lot beside the church, cleared / save for bales of hay and traffic horses,” are goats, llamas, border collies, and terriers. Someone “will garland parakeets with rosaries.” Cats are held like children as the priest crosses himself “beside the flagpole where I learned to pledge allegiance.” The narrator’s daily ritual is to fold the flag into triangles and bring it to the headmaster. Villanueva’s poems contain two planes: the devoted, lyric representations of faith and tradition, and the mischievous human impulse to break free. However responsible the narrator might be, he is still a young man who would dare a friend to “throw a bottle of Wite-Out” at the statue of Jesus in that same parking lot, who would taunt God one moment while kneeling to pray to him the next.
Day 33: Friday April 7
Reading: “Quid Pro Quo” by Paul Mariani
Mariani’s poem is set in an empty university classroom, where a colleague asks the narrator “what I thought now / of God’s ways toward man” after his wife’s miscarriage. The colleague merely expects a downward gaze, a smirk. Instead, the narrator raises his middle finger “up to heaven,” taunting God. Later, the narrator and his wife have a successful birth; it’s no small feat, this miracle, and the narrator is aware, leading to his wonder: “How does one bargain / with a God like this, who, quid pro quo, ups / the ante each time He answers one sign with another?”
Day 34: Saturday April 8
Reading: “The Road to Emmaus” by Spencer Reece
Reece, an Episcopal priest, has found inspiration in the “spiritual journey” of T.S. Eliot, often feeling “in conversation with him.” Although “The Road to Emmaus” alludes to a resurrection appearance of Christ, Reece’s verse, like so much poetry in the spirit of Lent, brings the ancient world to our seemingly mundane present. His first line, “The chair from Goodwill smelled of mildew,” sets the atmosphere for a conversation the narrator has with Sister Ann, a Franciscan nun. “Above her gray head, / a garish postcard of the Emmaus scene…askew in its golden drugstore frame.” Cleopas and an unnamed disciple, while speaking about the disappearance of Christ, are joined by the “resurrected Christ masquerading as a stranger.” The narrator of the poem has lost a love, and Sister Ann comforts him as he reflects on the past, including an AA meeting in a Lutheran church basement, when they “ate salads out of Tupperware,” but felt “like first-century Christians — /a strident, hidden throng, electrified by a message.” The poem moves in many directions, not least of all Sister Ann’s grace when she tells him “Listening…is a memorable form of love.”
Day 35: Monday April 10
Reading: “Gilding the Lily” by Lisa Ampleman
If we think of Lent as a season of re-naming, of reconsidering who we are and how we are, then Lisa Ampleman’s prose poem, “Gilding the Lily,” is a perfect representation of the season. “To keep anxiety at bay, my friend called chemo dragonfly love.” Ampleman’s poem is like a work of pastoral care; her narrator shows how we may weather grief and suffering by transforming them. Her friend “called nausea erotica. Just the same, we name our storms to lessen them — not a tropical cyclone, but Arabella, with ballet shoes and bun…Not hair loss, but deep conditioning.” The poem’s final line is terminal: “At the funeral I learned she was born Passalacqua: to cross the river, to pass a glass of water.” Our contemporary idea of the religious sense is hampered by the criticism that religion or belief feels like a whitewashing, or worse, an opiate. This is to misunderstand and neuter the power of faith. Poems like “Gilding the Lily” remind us that poems, like prayers, can be small salves. Sometimes they are enough.
Day 36: Tuesday April 11
Reading: “Saint Monica Wishes on the Wrong Star” by Mary Biddinger
Biddinger’s Saint Monica chapbook places St. Augustine’s pious mother in a Midwestern present. Young, modern Monica is imperfect. She fails. She even gives incorrect “details / outside the psychic’s booth at the fair.” Monica, like Walker Percy’s Binx Bolling, is transfixed by film. She has always wanted to be different, but “Who could blame / her, though? They lived in Michigan, / where nothing ever changed.” While working at a local pub, Monica wonders what would happen if she breaks a pint glass while washing it: “Would she have to wait for the flush / of blood, or would the transformation / be instantaneous?” Biddinger’s poetry makes any transfiguration seem possible.
Day 37: Wednesday April 12
“The River” (pdf) by Flannery O’Connor
Although “Greenleaf” (pdf) has been considered her “Lent” story, O’Connor’s entire canon is fodder for the season. “The River” is the story of Harry Ashfield, a boy of “four or five” years, who spends the day with a sitter, Mrs. Connin. She is the prototypical O’Connor character: stern, judgmental, witty, and closer to God that anybody else she knows. She decides to take the boy to the river, where a preacher has been healing believers. The boy smirks his way through the story, and takes on the name of the preacher — Bevel — before the sitter learns his real name. She feels it is her Christian duty to right the wrongs of his upbringing. O’Connor tells the story filtered through his voice, and his day with Mrs. Connin is illuminating: “He had found out already this morning that he had been made by a carpenter named Jesus Christ. Before he had thought it had been a doctor named Sladewall, a fat man with a yellow mustache who gave him shots and thought his name was Herbert.” Later, Mrs. Connin presents Harry to the preacher for baptism in the river, and also says “He wants you to pray for his mamma. She’s sick.” The preacher asks the boy for explanation, and it is simple: “She hasn’t got up yet…She has a hangover.” O’Connor’s next line — “The air was so quiet he could hear the broken pieces of the sun knocking the water” — captures the atmosphere of her fiction. O’Connor’s Catholic sense was a skeptical sense. Her skepticism can easily be misread as cynicism. The boy is baptized, but, like so many of O’Connor’s stories, “The River” ends on a solemn note. Yet that is not why she is appropriate to Lent. O’Connor belongs to this season because she offers no easy paths toward God. In fact, those who think they know the route — who might even deny it from others in word or deed — are due the severest rebuke.
Day 38: Thursday April 13
Reading: The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
If there ever were a writer willing to dine with “tax collectors and sinners,” it was Greene. If I ever get too sentimental about faith, reading Greene keeps me in check. He was the first to admit he was no saint (he would probably admit to being the antithesis), but novels like The Power and the Glory capture the tension between belief and sin. Greene’s novel plays it serious, but his essays and letters about his conversion are predictably wry. He once received useful advice from a Father Trollope: “See the danger of going too far. Be very careful. Keep well within your depth.” Greene’s novel about an atheist lieutenant chasing a “whiskey priest” across Mexico is part thriller, part theological treatise, all Lenten document. Take off work on Holy Thursday, get this book, and read it cover to cover.
Day 39: Friday April 14
Reading: “Today is Friday” by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway claimed to receive “extreme unction” from a priest while on an Italian battlefield in July 1918. A decade later, he would claim to be a “very dumb Catholic,” and planned to not speak about his Catholic conversion because he knew “the importance of setting an example.” Matthew Nickel, one of the few critics to resurrect Hemingway’s found faith, explains what while Hemingway was not publically “comfortable being known as a Catholic writer,” he was no nominal believer, having “performed the rituals of Catholicism for forty years: attending Mass, eating fish on Fridays, having Masses said for friends and family, donating thousands of dollars to the churches in Key West and Idaho, celebrating saints days, and visiting and revisiting important pilgrimage sites and cathedrals.” The Old Man and the Sea, The Sun Also Rises, and “Hills like White Elephants” hit loud and soft religious notes, but “Today is Friday” has always unsettled me in a particularly Lenten fashion. Only hours after Christ is crucified, three Romans soldiers are drinking at a bar with a “Hebrew wine-seller” named George. Add Hemingway’s oddly contemporary speech (“Lootenant”), and “Today is Friday” is an odd play. Two soldiers banter about the wine while one feels sick; his pain is “Jesus Christ.” The first soldier says “He didn’t want to come down off the cross. That’s not his play.” The second soldier wonders “What became of his gang?” The first soldier, who “slip[ed] the old spear into him…because it “was the least I could do,” says Christ’s disciples “faded out. Just the women stuck by him.” “Today is Friday” sounds like how Hemingway would have explained the Passion while seated at a bar. The uncomfortably comedic play ends with a sting. The soldiers leave the bar and the third, uneasy soldier speaks truth: “I feel like hell tonight.”
Day 40: Saturday April 15
“Christ’s Elbows” by Brian Doyle
Novelist, essayist, and poet Doyle is the literary antidote to cynicism. I’ve never seen a writer so good be so positive, and do so without lapsing into sentimentality. Doyle’s Mink River is a gem of a novel, but his shorter pieces make for effective reflection. His essay “Joyas Voladores” is a personal favorite, and “What do poems do?” shows how Doyle turns every narrative moment into an opportunity for revelation and epiphany. The narrator visits a kindergarten, where children ask ridiculous questions before arriving at the eternal query of the poem’s title. Doyle delivers, starting with the observation that poems “swirl / Leaves along sidewalks suddenly when there is no wind.” The next 10 lines are the best appreciation I’ve ever seen of the power of poetry. Doyle’s poem should be required reading for all teachers. “Christ’s Elbows,” an essay from his collection Leaping: Revelations & Epiphanies, is the perfect end to a season of change. Doyle asks us to think about the physicality of Christ, a man who died at his physical peak. He admits that scriptural “accounts of [Christ’s] body in action are few and far between,” so Doyle wants us to act on faith, imagining a young man serving as a carpenter’s apprentice or running in fields. Doyle wonders: “Did his hand swallow the hand of the girl he raised from the dead?” Christ, an itinerant preacher, likely had a form much like a marathon runner. Doyle considers the one moment — other than as he hung on the cross — when Christ’s physicality was in full view: “when he lets himself go and flings over the first moneychanger’s table in the temple at Jerusalem.” Like a good priest, Doyle pauses his discussion, and says “think of the man for a second, not the eternal Son of Light.” Think of a man charged and ready. A man who, after the drama of the moment, “would resume the life and work that rivet us to this day.” A life and work that “upends our world, over and over.” The glory and the grace of tomorrow will come soon enough, but for now, Doyle suggests, “Perhaps the chaos of our plans is the shadow of his smile.”
Image Credit: Flickr/echiner1
“I can show you a sacred book that might interest a man such as yourself” – Jorge Luis Borges, “The Book of Sand”
Like many people who love to read, I exist in a paradoxical state of having both far too many books and far too few. I probably don’t have many more than the average literature lover of my age, but I live in a smallish apartment, and it often feels hazardously, almost maniacally overcrowded with books. A precarious obelisk of partially read paperbacks rises from my bedside table, coated in a thin film of dust. My shelves are all two rows deep, stuffed with a Tetris-like emphasis on space-optimization, and pretty much every horizontal surface holds some or other type of reading material. I haven’t read nearly all of these books (many of them I haven’t even made a serious attempt to get started on) but that doesn’t stop me from accumulating more at a rate that neither my income nor my living space can reasonably be expected to sustain.
This is, on occasion, a source of mild tension between my wife and me. She’s a reader too, and likes having a lot of books about the place, but she also likes to have space for all those other objects that you need to have around if you want your home to look like a home, and not a drastically mismanaged second-hand bookshop. Every time I come through the door with a couple of new purchases, or carefully rip open a padded envelope from Amazon, I can’t help being aware that I am engaging in a small act of domestic colonization, claiming another few cubic inches in the name of the printed page, in the struggle of Lesensraum against Lebensraum.
The situation has been deteriorating for years now and, up until very recently, wasn’t showing any signs of potential resolution. Then a friend gave me a gift of a Kindle, slyly mentioning that he was doing so, at least in part, as a benevolent intervention into my shelf space situation. I’m not sure I would necessarily have chosen to buy an e-reader myself. I am more or less your typical bibliophile, in that I have always loved books almost as much for their physical properties as for their intellectual ones. I like the way a well-made paperback flops open in the hand, the briskly authoritative slap of its pages as it closes. I enjoy the feel of a hardback, its solidity and self-enclosure, its sober weight, the whispering creak of its stretching spine. I like the way they smell, too: the slightly chemical tang of new books and the soft, woody scent of old ones. (If you’re picturing me crouched in a corner of your local bookstore like some sort of mental case, a Library of America edition of Pale Fire pressed to my face, you can stop right there: it’s an incidental pleasure, not something I pursue with any kind of monomaniacal intensity).
My point is that I, like a lot of other people, enjoy books as objects. Despite the difficulties that can arise from their accumulation, I like that they occupy physical as well as mental space. In fact, I quietly entertained the futile hope that the whole idea of e-books and e-readers would prove to be a transitory fad, that everyone would just somehow forget that books were cumbersome and comparatively expensive to produce and not especially good for the environment and that they could very easily be replaced by small clusters of electronic data that could be beamed across the world in seconds without ever taking up any actual space. I did not want what happened to CDs to happen to books. But then I took this small, smoothly utilitarian rectangle of grey plastic out of its box and fired it up. Within minutes, I was beginning to understand its crazy potential. In no time at all, I had downloaded a small library of free, out-of copyright classics. There is, obviously, something to be said for being able to walk around with the complete works of Tolstoy on your person at all times without fear of collapsed vertebrae or public ridicule. There is also, just as obviously, something to be said for having immediate access to a vast, intangible warehouse of books from which you can choose, on a whim, to purchase anything and begin reading it straight away. It occurred to me that Borges would have been thrilled and horrified in equal measure by the Kindle. In fact, in a weird way, he sort of invented it (in the same way that Leonardo “invented” the helicopter and various other gadgets).
At the beginning of his story “The Book of Sand,” the unnamed bibliophile narrator — like Borges himself, a retired librarian at the Argentine National Library — hears a knock on the door of his apartment. At the door is a Scottish Bible salesman. When the narrator informs him, somewhat superciliously, that he has more than enough Bibles to be getting on with, and in more than enough rare editions, the salesman replies that he is also in possession of a strange volume he bought for a few rupees and a Bible from an illiterate untouchable in Bombay (“people could not so much as step on his shadow,” we are informed, “without being defiled”). He shows the narrator this clothbound octavo volume and, as he examines it, “the unusual heft of it” surprises him. The Bible salesman tells the narrator that the illiterate from whom he bought the volume “told me his book was called the Book of Sand because neither sand nor this book has a beginning or an end.” The narrator then tries to find the book’s first page, and quickly realizes that this is impossible, because it is as though the pages “grew from the very book.” He encounters the same problem in trying to find its final page, and stammers his disbelief at the impossible object he holds in his hands:
“It can’t be, yet it is,” the Bible peddler said, his voice little more than a whisper. “The number of pages in this book is literally infinite. No page is the first page; no page is the last.”
The narrator realizes that he has to have the book, and offers the salesman the entirety of his pension along with an extremely rare edition of Wyclif’s black-letter Bible (thus repeating the salesman’s previous symbolic exchange of holy scripture for this impossible text that seems at once to encompass and to blaspheme against the natural, Godly order). The Book of Sand now in his possession, the narrator spends his days and nights in contemplation of its mysteries, gorging himself at its inexhaustible font of texts. Before long, he begins to realize that the book itself is “monstrous,” and that his possession of it — and its possession of him — has made him somehow monstrous too. “I felt it was a nightmare thing,” he tells us, “an obscene thing, and that it defiled and corrupted reality.” He considers burning it, but fears that “the burning of an infinite book might be similarly infinite, and suffocate the planet in smoke.” He decides that “the best place to hide a leaf is in the forest,” and the story ends with his discarding the Book of Sand on a shelf of damp periodicals in the basement of the library, taking care not to take note of where he’s hidden it so that it is effectively lost to him and, he hopes, the world.
I’m very fond of my Kindle. For the reasons I’ve outlined above, I think it’s an ingenious little gadget. But in my more hysterically Borgesian moments, I also think that there is something obscene about it, something that defiles and corrupts a reality I don’t want to see defiled and corrupted. It’s a tiny thing, really — smaller, in fact, than my paperback Penguin Classics edition of The Book of Sand. And yet the number of pages it contains is, if not quite “literally infinite,” at least potentially infinite. No page is its first page; no page is its last. If I place it on one of my shelves, if I slip it between, say, two creased and dog-eared volumes of Borges’ stories, it sits there unobtrusively, slimmer than any of the books around it. And yet it has the uncanny, shape-shifting potential to encompass all of them, to embody them all both individually and as a whole. Unsettlingly, it makes all those other books appear suddenly unnecessary, superfluous, seeming to haunt them with the imminent prospect of their own redundancy. It’s an elegant coincidence that the microprocessors that facilitate its mysterious magic are made from silicon, which is extracted from the silica contained in sand. The Kindle is therefore, in an oddly literal sense, a book of sand.
What I think gives Borges the jitters about his Book of Sand is the way in which it — like the Aleph in his earlier story “The Aleph” — paradoxically contains an infinity within a finite space. Like so many of the uncanny objects in his work, it exerts a terrible, transformative pressure on reality. And the Kindle exerts its own transformative pressure, albeit in a more banal fashion. I don’t mean to imply that e-readers frighten me, because they don’t. They are no more monstrous or evil than any other example of a new technology replacing an old one (and the book itself is, after all, a piece of technology: a gadget of ink and paper and glue). But their ascendency does make me a little sad, because I know when I use my Kindle that, even though there are important ways in which it can’t even hope to compete with civilization’s greatest invention, there are equally important ways in which it effortlessly surpasses it, and that these are the reasons why the e-reader will end up replacing the bound book.
This was brought home to me recently when I received a copy of Adam Levin’s colossal debut novel The Instructions, which I recklessly agreed to review for a newspaper. The thing is over a thousand pages and is, in its hardback edition, considerably larger and heavier than any other book I currently possess (including a Norton Complete Shakespeare that, until The Instructions arrived, did bestride its narrow shelf like a Colossus, and ruled it with an iron fist). By way of illustrating the physical magnitude of Levin’s novel, let me make the following peculiar admission: during a moment of whimsical distraction one day last week, I discovered that it was possible to insert into the generous space between the book’s spine and its inner binding not one but two standard-sized mouth organs that happened to be lying on my desk as I read it. Whatever obscure advantage might be gained from being able to secrete two wind instruments inside the binding of a book, any object of that size is going to be difficult to carry around (with or without mouth organs). And if you’re reading a 1,030 page novel to a reviewing deadline, you’re faced with a tricky conflict of practicalities: in order to get it read, you want to be able to take it with you if you have to leave the house, but lugging the thing around on a train or a bus is no joke, given that its volume and weight are roughly comparable to that of a hotel minibar.
So I did the obvious thing, and decided to see whether I could download The Instructions from the Kindle Store. When I found that the e-book version wasn’t yet available, I was briefly seized by that most contemporary (and stupid) of irritations: that of being denied a convenience that didn’t even exist until very recently. Granted, Levin’s novel is an extreme example, but it got me thinking about the unassuageable forces that the book as an object, as a cultural artifact, is up against. The history of what we call progress is a catalogue of ways in which the desire for convenience has trumped almost every other concern. As I’ve said already (and perhaps even overstated to a suspicious degree), I love books, and I would rather not live in a world where they might end up as little more than interior décor affectations or, like vinyl records, fetish objects for a small but dedicated coterie of analogue cultists. E-books are not perfect, and the experience of reading them is, I think, still inferior enough to that of reading a real book that, all things being equal, I’d almost always choose the former. But the CD, as any audiophile will gladly tell you, is a far superior format to the MP3 in terms of sound quality and fidelity, and when was the last time you bought a CD? When was the last time anyone you know even bought a CD? Even my dad gets his music from iTunes now. I still have a small bookcase filled with CDs, but I haven’t added to it for years at this stage and, because I don’t even have a CD player anymore, they basically just sit there reminding me of a rapidly receding past in which recorded music used to have a physical presence.
No matter how badly I want to, I can’t quite imagine a possible future in which ink and paper books might somehow avoid the same fate. The insatiable desire for ever more and ever newer forms of convenience that drives our global economy and our technological culture leaves a scattered trail of obsolescence in its wake. As much as I don’t want my bookshelves to become part of this trail of obsolescence, I can already see early warning signs of my own desire for convenience — for instantly getting what I want, for not having to deal with mere objects in all their cumbersome actuality — beginning to outrank my love of the book as a physical thing. I don’t want my identity as a consumer, as a ruthless pursuer of the most user-friendly and cost-effective option, to supersede my identity as a booklover. I don’t look forward to a future in which my Kindle (or whatever device inevitably succeeds it) is the only book on the shelf. But it’s a future I’m fairly convinced is awaiting us, and it’s one that I, as a consumer, am playing my part in advancing us toward. There are moments when I wish I could follow the lead of Borges’ retired librarian and bury my book of sand on some obscure shelf in a library basement and just forget all about it. But then I realize that the thing is just too useful, too crazily convenient a tool to not embrace. And then I tell myself that it’s not possible, anyway, to shelve the advance of technology, and that history is filled with examples of beautiful things being supplanted by more efficient versions of those things. Ultimately, you’re never going to win an argument against convenience, no matter how much you love the anachronistic, heavy, unwieldy, and beautiful thing you want to save.
Image via the author
I happened to notice recently, in my daily online wanderings, that the nominees have been announced for “The Seventh Annual Weblog Awards.” As usual, the organizers have listed a couple dozen categories, and as usual the same handful of blogs, more or less, are in the running. Many of the usual suspects are there, Boing Boing, PostSecret, Dooce, Gizmodo, Instapundit, Daily Kos, Lifehacker, and the rest – blogs that are now big business, some of which are owned by big businesses.The omission of “literary bloggers” from this long list of nominees naturally seemed glaring to me, having had a front row seat for the last four or so years as an amorphous and very loosely affiliated movement of bloggers has greatly expanded the realm of literary discourse in the U.S. and elsewhere. And though there has sometimes been an unhealthy “us against them” mentality between bloggers and professional critics, in many ways this friction has melted away as critics have become bloggers themselves and as a number of talented bloggers have begun to invade the book pages, providing a pool of talent and a new voice to book review sections that were shrinking and stultified.This is a big deal. Bloggers have helped create a new literary discourse that benefits readers, writers, and critics – a place where reading and discussing books for pleasure can augment the sometimes joyless drudgery that newspaper criticism has become. (Note how Jerome Weeks, now of book/daddy, jumped from his regular newspaper gig: “So it’ll be a relief to read for pleasure again. One reason it’s particularly appealing these days is that it’s so counter-culture — so counter to our prevailing techno-bully rapid-response profit-margin mindset.”).Yet we need those sometimes bullying newspapers. As Kassia wrote in a post in the early days of the LBC, “Books don’t have endless windows opening for them.” This sentiment was echoed in an Orlando Sentinel essay by movie critic Roger Moore late last year: “Reviewers, in general, are canaries in the print journalism coal mine, the first to go. Classical music, books, visual arts and dance are dispensed with, or free-lanced off the bottom-line. That’s happened everywhere I’ve ever worked.” But as the big windows close, and criticism sections shrink or disappear, hundreds of smaller windows have opened.In Kassia’s LBC essay, she went on to write, “It’s interesting to me that readers are leading the charge to discover and promote new, often overlooked fiction. Traditional avenues of literary coverage are necessarily limited in scope, even with the Internet.” I have come to believe, and I hope people agree with me, that book blogging is more than just a hobby. I say this not in a self-promotional or self-aggrandizing way (so many others are better book bloggers than I), but looking at how the public discourse about books has changed over the last few years. So, the truth is, having thought about it, I’m not disappointed that not a single book blog – not even some of the best (TEV, Ed, Bookslut, Conversational Reading… I could go on and on) – was singled out for recognition by the Weblog Awards. Litblogs have somehow gone too far down the path of assimilation to be considered for such distinctions, I think. Book blogs and traditional book criticism have intermingled sufficiently that they are now, except in a few remaining dusty corners, one.My declaring it doesn’t make it so, but perhaps now, the us versus them mentality between the bloggers and the professional critics is mostly behind us. Which is good, because there are so many more books still to write about.
Ah, 1999… We laughed along with Chandler and Phoebe, invested our surplus Benjamins with Lehman Brothers, danced a national macarena. Those days seem like the distant past now, and in many ways, the first decade of the 21st Century has been quite different from the giddy future we might have projected. In one way, though, the new millennium has delivered: we’ve gotten great fiction, often from unexpected quarters. When The New York Times named “The Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years” in 2006, none of the finalists was younger than 69, and the most recent publication date was 1997. But the ’00s have introduced us to new voices, spurred others to new levels of achievement, and ushered in the late masterworks that have capped distinguished careers.
It’s a bit early, of course, to pass definitive judgment on the literary legacy of the ’00s, or how it stacks up against that of the 1930s, or 1850s. Who knows what will be read 50 years from now? But, with the end of the decade just a few months away, it seemed to us at The Millions a good time to pause and take stock, to call your attention to books worthy of it, and perhaps to begin a conversation.
To that end, we’ve conducted a poll of our regular contributors and 48 of our favorite writers, editors, and critics (listed below), asking a single question: “What are the best books of fiction of the millennium, so far?” The results were robust, diverse, and surprising.
We’ve finished tabulating them, and this week, we’ll be counting down the Top 20 vote-getters, at a rate of five per day. Each book will be introduced by one of the panelists who voted for it. On Friday, we’ll reveal Number One, along with the results of a parallel reader poll conducted via our Facebook group. And next week, we’ll run follow-up posts including Honorable Mention and “Best of the Rest” lists.
This page, updated as we post the list, will become an index. You can use it to navigate the series, or can check back at our home page; we also invite you to consider subscribing to The Millions via RSS feed or Kindle. We hope you’ll share your thoughts here or on the entries for the individual books throughout the week as our list is revealed.
#20: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
#19: American Genius, A Comedy by Lynne Tillman
#18: Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link
#17: The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
#16: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
#15: Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis
#14: Atonement by Ian McEwan
#13: Mortals by Norman Rush
#12: Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg
#11: The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
#10: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
#9: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro
#8: Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
#7: Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
#6: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
#5: Pastoralia by George Saunders
#4: 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
#3: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
#2: The Known World by Edward P. Jones
#1: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
Sam Anderson is the book critic for New York Magazine.
Rosecrans Baldwin is the author of the forthcoming You Lost Me There and a founding editor of The Morning News.
Elif Batuman is the author of the forthcoming The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
Mark Binelli is the author of Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die and is a contributor to Rolling Stone.
Elise Blackwell is the author of Hunger and other books
Patrick Brown is a contributor to The Millions.
Sonya Chung is the author of Long for This World and is a contributor to The Millions.
Elizabeth Crane is the author of You Must Be This Happy to Enter and other works of fiction.
Ben Dolnick is the author of Zoology.
Ben Ehrenreich is the author of The Suitors.
Stephen Elliot is the author of The Adderall Diaries and other books and is founding editor of The Rumpus.
Scott Esposito is the founding editor of Conversational Reading and The Quarterly Conversation.
Joshua Ferris is the author of Then We Came to the End and the forthcoming The Unnamed.
Rivka Galchen is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances.
Lauren Groff is the author of Delicate Edible Birds and The Monsters of Templeton.
Garth Risk Hallberg is the author of A Field Guide to the North American Family and is a contributor to The Millions.
John Haskell is the author of Out of My Skin and American Purgatorio.
Jeff Hobbs is the author of The Tourists.
Michelle Huneven is the author of Blame and other novels.
Samantha Hunt is the author of The Invention of Everything Else and The Seas.
Sara Ivry is a senior editor of Tablet.
Bret Anthony Johston is the author of Corpus Christi: Stories and is director of the Creative Writing Program at Harvard University.
Porochista Khakpour is the author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects.
Lydia Kiesling is a contributor to The Millions.
Benjamin Kunkel is the author of Indecision and is a founding editor of N+1.
Paul La Farge is the author of Haussmann, or The Distinction.
Reif Larsen is the author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.
Dorothea Lasky is the author of Awe and other books.
Edan Lepucki is a contributor to The Millions.
Yiyun Li is the author of The Vagrants
Margot Livesey is the author of The House on Fortune Street and other books.
Fiona Maazel is the author of Last Last Chance.
C. Max Magee is the founding editor of The Millions.
Sarah Manguso is the author of the memoir The Two Kinds of Decay and other books.
Laura Miller is the author of The Magician’s Book and is the book critic at Salon.
Meghan O’Rourke is the author of Halflife: Poems and is a founding editor of DoubleX.
Ed Park is the author of Personal Days and is a founding editor of The Believer.
Emre Peker is a contributor emeritus to The Millions.
Arthur Phillips is the author of The Song is You and three other novels.
Nathaniel Rich is the author of The Mayor’s Tongue and is a senior editor at The Paris Review.
Marco Roth is a founding editor of N+1.
Andrew Saikali is a contributor to The Millions.
Mark Sarvas is the author of Harry, Revised and is the proprietor of The Elegant Variation.
Matthew Sharpe is the author of Jamestown and other works of fiction.
Gary Shteyngart is the author of Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.
Joan Silber is the author of The Size of the World.
Martha Southgate is the author of Third Girl From the Left and other books.
Lorin Stein is a senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Felicia Sullivan is the author of The Sky Isn’t Visible from Here and is the founding editor of Small Spiral Notebook.
Jean Thompson is the author of Do Not Deny Me and other books.
David Ulin is book editor of the Los Angeles Times
Amanda Eyre Ward is the author of Love Stories in This Town and other books.
Dan Wickett is executive director and publisher of Dzanc Books.
John Williams is founding editor of The Second Pass
Anne K. Yoder is a contributor to The Millions.
Todd Zuniga is the founding editor of Opium Magazine
Each panelist could name up to five books available in English with an original-language publication date no earlier than Jan. 1, 2000. We then tabulated the votes of our panelists, along with those of our contributors. Books were ranked according to number of votes received. In the few cases where more than one book received the same number of votes, our contributors, believing firmly that ties are like “kissing your sister,” voted to break them.
How long do you expect the books on your shelves to last? The oldest book I own is a Victorian-era edition of The Collected Poetical Works of Samuel T. Coleridge, purchased from a street vendor for $15 some years ago. It’s an absolute beauty: a heavy little volume, solidly constructed, cloth-bound in bright blue with hand-painted vines and gold lettering on the front. The paper is thick and smooth, and—this is what I find most remarkable about it—hardly discolored by time. Well over a hundred years after publication, the paper is a bright and even cream. I fully expect that this book will outlast me. I can see no reason why it shouldn’t persist for another century or far longer.
I don’t, of course, expect this kind of longevity of all my books. I recently pulled my copy of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient down from the shelf for the first time in some years, and was surprised to discover that the pages had gone yellow. I’m used to thinking of yellowed pages as a sort of pre-existing condition among books of my acquaintance, something I’d expect to find in the 1965 editions of books picked up in second-hand stores. But for all that, the yellowing and increasing brittleness weren’t entirely unreasonable: my copy of The English Patient is a trade paperback, and while trade paperbacks occupy something of a gray area in terms of paper quality—typically nicer than a mass market paperback, but in most cases not as nice as a hardcover—one doesn’t really expect them to last forever.
Hardcover books are a different matter. I’ve been buying a fair number of first edition hardcovers recently, one every two or three months. I happen to know a few people who are in the habit of publishing novels and I feel very strongly about supporting writers, so I often find myself buying first editions at readings and book launches. This is an expensive habit, and I tell myself that if I didn’t know the authors in question I’d just wait for the paperback, but I can’t say that the expenditure bothers me—hardcovers are beautiful, and they look so solid on my shelves. They look like they should last forever.
But a few months ago I purchased a book that rattled this assumption. An acquaintance published his debut novel with one of the major New York houses, and I acquired it at a book launch party. When I picked it up in the store, I was startled by how light it was: a hardcover with the weight of a paperback. Later, flipping through the book at home, I discovered why this was. The paper was so thin that I could read the words “Chapter One” through the title page. For all intents and purposes, the book was printed on tracing paper.
I had essentially purchased a disposable first edition hardcover, and it made me a little angry. Aside from the obvious—I’d just spent $26.95 for a book that will turn yellow and become brittle in a matter of years—I found that I was angry on the writer’s behalf. He’d spent years of his life on his novel, a book lauded as an astounding debut, but his publisher didn’t value him highly enough to print his book on paper that might reasonably be expected to outlast him. In another decade or so, perhaps sooner, the pages of his book will be as yellowed as the paperback of The English Patient that my aunt gave me for Christmas when I was fourteen.
I spoke recently with Melissa Klug on the subject of paper quality. Melissa is a director of marketing at Glatfelter, a paper manufacturer with locations on three continents, and she’s involved with their Permanence Matters initiative. I met her online a year and a half ago or so, when I ventured nervously onto Twitter to promote my first book, and we’ve run into one another in person a few times since. She’s one of my favorite people online, an avid reader, and she’s the person I vent to in private when I buy an expensive book that turns out to have been printed on tracing paper.
The Millions: How did you wind up in the paper business? Did you always have an interest in the field?
Melissa Klug: I grew up in a small town called Chillicothe, Ohio, where the major industry of the town was, and still is today, a large paper mill. At the time I was growing up it was a part of a company called Mead (which most people know from school supplies like my childhood favorite, the Trapper Keeper.) It is such an integral part of the community that people called it “The Mead.” For readers of The Millions, it might be most interesting to know that the paper mill is about 5 miles away from the setting of Knockemstiff, and the author of that book, Donald Ray Pollock, was a papermaker at the mill for several decades before becoming published.
At the end of college I had interviewed at a lot of places, and was deciding on the path my life might take. I had offers that would take me in different directions, but the one that felt the most right was to become an employee at the paper mill. I sold paper in New England for two years, and after that went back to Ohio to the mill and have been in several different positions since then, mostly in the sales and marketing field. In 2006, the paper mill in Chillicothe was purchased by Glatfelter, who has been making paper for books since the 1800’s. As a result of that, we began making book paper in Ohio, and I was fortunate to become the Director of Marketing for several lines, including the one closest to my personal love—books.
TM: I wonder if you would tell us a little bit about the Permanence Matters initiative.
MK: Eight years ago we started to notice the shift in buying patterns from free-sheet Permanent Paper to groundwood paper for hardcover books. Groundwood is the type of paper used in newspapers and mass market paperbacks, and its production is such that it is much lower-quality and degrades more quickly than traditional book publishing paper—this is called free-sheet, or what we at Glatfelter term Permanent Paper. Groundwood is certainly an acceptable paper for some categories of publishing—few people would expect a $6 mass-market paperback to look pristine for years.
However, what we began to notice around eight years ago was a shift to the use of groundwood for first edition hardcover books. This has accelerated with the decline in newspaper print sales—the paper mills which used to manufacture newsprint for papers now have a tremendous amount of open capacity that has to go into something, and they’ve shifted to groundwood publishing papers.
In 2008, we decided that we wanted to take a more public stand about this issue. We launched the Permanence Matters campaign to educate and activate the literary community about the rapid degradation of the quality of books. While we realize that much of the publishing industry is moving their attention to e-books, we still believe there is an important place for print books in the future of publishing, and want people to recognize that e- and p- books are not an either/or proposition, but rather an “and.”
TM: It’s an interesting issue. It seems to me that most people don’t really notice the paper quality in the books they buy, unless the quality’s either exceptionally good or exceptionally bad, but we expect our books to last a long time. How pervasive has this problem become?
MK: Many people know about the “acid paper crisis” which got a lot of publicity in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Many authors and other publishing industry notables banded together, and publishers lobbied for paper mills to produce only acid-free paper. After this, people felt comfortable that books would endure because the paper mills began producing only alkaline paper (which allowed the paper to endure much longer.) But as I mentioned, approximately eight years ago we started to notice a shift in order patterns, as more publishers were moving some titles to groundwood.
As the years progressed, more and more titles began to shift from free-sheet Permanent Paper to groundwood, until now, when well over 50% of the New York Times hardcover bestseller list is now printed on groundwood. Someone recently challenged me on this, saying that the New York Times list isn’t necessarily what literary people would consider the most important works of current literature. This degradation in paper quality isn’t only happening to non-literary works—many award-winning works, including many of the 2009 National Book Award nominees and one of the major category winners, are also not printed on free-sheet Permanent Paper.
This is what I know professionally. But personally I am, first and foremost, a reader. I have noticed a marked decline in the quality of the paper in the books I’m reading personally (almost all hardcover books, first or second editions.) In the past six months, I have had a number of books whose paper is so flimsy feeling and looking that I was extremely frustrated to have spent money on it. I read a book on vacation in March which was literally almost see-through—words from the opposite pages showed through (by the way, major bestselling author, big five publisher.) My personal feeling is, as publishing turns its head increasingly to e-books, the physical production values of print books will decline even more (all the attention will go to e, few will be paying attention to physical print copies.) This is saddening both personally and professionally.
TM: As you see it, what is at stake here?
MK: I truly believe that we are at a critical crossroads in publishing. As the attention, bandwidth and energy of publishing turns to e-books, we are concerned that what is currently a trend toward lesser quality print versions of books will then become a landslide. Our stance in a world of e- and digital, very simply, is: If you are going to print a book, it should be on permanent paper. Our concern is the longevity of print books in the future—if many book editions will be digital, this is less permanent than a print version—as our CEO recently said, “My last laptop lasted 3 years”—and if a print version itself is not permanent, these words will not endure. Digitization is not a fail-safe answer to preservation, especially as formats change almost constantly. Print is still the most enduring way to preserve a work. As we see it, it’s the future of the printed word.
I also don’t want to lose sight of the “book as object” or “book as art”—I believe it’s important to still view important works as permanent artistic objects. I get an email each day from the Metropolitan Museum of Art with the “piece of the day” which I enjoy looking at–but I still wish to know that I could go see it in person to gain the nuances of that work. Books are no different.
TM: Have publishers been receptive to the Permanence Matters message? Have you encountered any resistance?
MK: We do try to be careful and walk a bit of a tightrope on the initiative, as we are a paper supplier to both major publishers as well as smaller publishers, and it is not our goal to alienate or upset them—they are incredibly important to us. One of our goals is to educate publishing employees as well—to help them make thoughtful decisions about the print production of books, and to start a dialogue with them.
TM: What’s next for Permanence Matters?
MK: We launched a new website at Book Expo America, www.permanencematters.com, one that will have more educational components rolling out this summer. One of the great aspects of the new site is a video interview with the director of book conservation at Johns Hopkins University, and we have educational components about the true costs of print books, among many other features. Additionally, we are launching a blog called “Gutenberg Girls” which will be co-written by myself and a coworker, which will allow us to more casually discuss issues within the book publishing industry as well as write about the books we’re reading.
Although we are in the business of making and selling paper, I can tell you that we have many employees who are extremely avid readers and are troubled by this issue, and thus Permanence Matters is much more a personal passion than a business initiative. Also, we are not the only company that makes free-sheet book publishing paper, and we support the shift back to permanent paper whether we are the beneficiary or not.
TM: Has the decline in paper quality impacted your buying habits at all? I know you’re an avid reader, and given your line of work, I imagine you must find yourself noticing the quality of the paper in all the books you buy. I’m wondering if you ever find yourself hesitating to buy a first edition hardcover because you can tell it won’t last.
MK: It has absolutely changed my buying habits. Professional hazards make me more cautious about what I buy—often, when I know a book is on groundwood, I will either wait for it to come out in paperback, or I will get it on audiobook instead of spending the money to buy a book which will yellow and degrade on the shelf. I buy a lot of books, so there is a financial impact of me choosing to shift what would have been hardcover purchases to either a library lend of an audiobook or a paperback purchase. Based on comments I’ve heard from book buyers, and an increasing number of articles I come across on the internet about book quality, I believe we may be on a precipice of people starting to change their purchases based on the poor quality of the finished product.
An interesting facet of all of this is that we’re not talking about enormous cost differentials here: according to the Permanence Matters website, the savings a publisher might expect to realize by printing a book on groundwood rather than higher-quality paper amounts to about ten cents a book. And yes, in the current publishing environment every cent counts, but I’d like to respectfully suggest here that some things are worth paying for.
The day after our interview, Melissa sent me some photographs. The below images, courtesy of Permanence Matters, show what happens to a book printed on groundwood when it’s left out in the sun for a mere two days. A sticky note was left on the page for the entire two-day period to show contrast.
I think our books deserve better.
Not too long ago, the idea that “you are your brain” was the revolutionary mantra of a handful of scientists, but today it raises hardly an eyebrow among the general public. The brain has become, for many, synonymous with the biological machinations of the self, and the self-knowledge promised by neuroscience has ignited a hunger to understand how it weighs in on age-old questions: Do we have free will? How do we make decisions? What happens when we fall in love? Why do we make art? Imagine, Jonah Lehrer’s polymathic new book is poised to feed this hunger. Blurring the lines between science writing, self-help, and cultural criticism with virtuosic ease, Imagine explores fields as disparate as neuroscience, sociology, and urban planning with the promise not only to explain how creativity works, but how you, too, can use these secrets to unlock your own creativity, and how we can collectively build a more creative culture.
The book ranges across a dizzying array of examples of the creative process, from Bob Dylan to the team at Pixar to the tech boom in Tel Aviv, creating a mash-up of anecdotes, science reporting and associative interjections from the humanities. In the second chapter alone, we get the guy who invented Scotch Tape; a psychologist who uses EEG to study the brain while people solve puzzles; a neuroscientist who studies insight; a passage from David Hume; a neurologist who is studying daydreaming; the invention of Post-Its; the classic children’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon…and the list goes on. To say that the density and diversity of sources marshaled here are impressive would be a massive understatement. As in Proust Was a Neuroscientist and How We Decide, Lehrer has invited an eclectic mix of guests to his dinner party, and getting them all in the same room to see what happens is a rare achievement. But his real talent lies in the way he plays all these sources off each other in order to build a coherent argument, leaping from the story of how Barbie dolls were born when an American housewife saw a pornographic doll in the window of a German cigar shop to how seeing ones’ work with fresh eyes is “one of the central challenges of writing” to the neural pathways involved in reading and writing in order to demonstrate that “the only way to be creative over time — to not be undone by our expertise — is to experiment with ignorance, to stare at things we don’t fully understand.” To cap off this particular moment, Lehrer offers a toast to the poet Samuel Coleridge, who said he attended public chemistry lectures in London to “renew my stock of metaphors.”
Imagine uses the same mash-up method that was so successful in How We Decide, but the science of creativity simply isn’t as developed as the science of decision-making. Because of this, it turns out that Lehrer’s tried-and-true method doesn’t work quite as well. The difficulty with pinning down creativity — scientifically or otherwise — becomes obvious when you consider the diversity of anecdotal examples in the book. Is writing a song comparable to coming up with new uses for glue or solving a puzzle that has only one correct answer? Is the person who writes twenty cookie-cutter novels engaged in the same activity as the person who writes one book so unprecedented that it changes the trajectory of literature? Are any two creative processes really the same? At most, it seems that one could point out patterns, but Lehrer boldly sets his sights on formula.
Imagine argues that “creativity is a catchall term for a variety of distinct thought processes” and that by understanding these processes we can all learn to be more creative. The more people you talk with, and the more diverse those people are, the better. Companies that wish to encourage creativity should have everyone use a bathroom in a centralized place, like Pixar does. If we want to be a more creative society, we should lighten up on copyright laws and share ideas, like they do in Silicon Valley and Tel Aviv. The scope widens until, by the end, Lehrer is advocating policy changes in areas such as education, copyright law, and immigration. He argues, for example, that because immigrants submit a disproportionate number of patent applications in the U.S., it seems that, as measured by the metric of patents, at least, more immigrants could make America a more creative country.
Trumpeted as “something of a popular science prodigy” by The New York Times, Lehrer has become a translator and ambassador, someone readers trust to explain what is going on in all those ivory towers full of beakers and cell cultures and genetically-engineered mice. Besides his two hugely successful books, he is a contributing editor at Wired, a frequent guest on WNYC’s RadioLab, a regular contributor to The New Yorker, and a science columnist for The Wall Street Journal. For many readers he is the face of science in popular culture. And for good reason. He has repeatedly proven his skill at wrestling complex scientific ideas into nuanced and accurate discussions accessible to non-scientists. Take, for example, his excellent Wall Street Journal column in which he writes insightfully about the limitations of fMRI, a widely used brain-imaging technology with difficult-to-interpret data that ignites heated disputes both inside and outside scientific circles. Lehrer is also an expert and captivating storyteller, and Imagine aims high in grappling with the extremely difficult task of communicating subtle and complex ideas in an engaging way.
But Lehrer’s role as liaison comes with a degree of responsibility; most readers trust that he is explaining science accurately and drawing reasonable conclusions based on the data at hand. Lehrer’s polished style, affable enthusiasm, and obvious intelligence make it tempting not to question the science as he sees it. All the more troubling, then, that right from the outset of Imagine there are signs that science may be taking a backseat to story:
Most cognitive skills have elaborate biological histories, so their evolution can be traced over time. But not creativity — the human imagination has no clear precursors…The birth of creativity, in other words, arrived like any insight: out of nowhere.
If there are any truths in biology, one is that nothing arrives “out of nowhere.” For almost the whole recorded history of science, people believed that we may be the exception. For years, scientists thought we were different because we use tools. Not so, as it turned out. Chimpanzees have us there. And gorillas and orangutans and some other primates. And birds. And elephants. And a few bottlenose dolphins. Even ants use grain to carry honey. Until very recently, many scientists thought language set us apart, but in the past ten years, researchers have observed precursors to human speech in primate vocalizations and striking similarities between how infants learn to speak and songbirds learn to sing. Even self-awareness, a treasured feature of human consciousness, is no longer considered unique to humans. It’s tempting to think that we are special, but today most researchers agree with Darwin’s eloquent observation that humans are animals, too; we are different in degree rather than kind. There’s no reason to think that creativity will be the exception.
The real problem is that claiming creativity’s exceptional status makes for a better story: if creativity is what sets us apart from the animals, understanding this faculty is tantamount to unlocking the mystery of who and what we are. As Lehrer writes, “Until we understand the set of mental events that give rise to new thoughts, we will never understand what makes us so special.” This claim raises the stakes for the book. The problem is, it’s probably just not true.
These few sentences set off some unexpected alarm bells, so we decided to take a closer look at some of the science upon which Imagine is built, specifically neuroscience, as that’s what Lehrer is best known for and where his greatest expertise lies. In the fourth chapter, for example, Lehrer assembles an impressive array of anecdotes and neuroscience results to explain why “letting go” is “an extremely valuable source of creativity.” “The act of letting go,” he declares, “has inspired some of the most famous works of modern culture, from John Coltrane’s saxophone solos to Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings.” So how does letting go, Lehrer asks, lead to creativity? “The story begins in the brain,” he claims, and turns to a neuroimaging experiment in which jazz pianists were asked to improvise new tunes while in a brain scanner. During improvisation, the scanner picked up a surge of activity in a brain area previously linked to self-expression. At the same time, the scientists also observed a sharp decrease in brain activity in an area previously linked to impulse control. Lehrer concludes, “This suggests that the musician was engaged in a kind of storytelling, searching for the notes that reflected her personal style…The musicians were inhibiting their inhibitions, slipping off those mental handcuffs.” At first pass, this interpretation sounds pretty convincing: the self-control center of the brain shuts down to clear the path for unfettered self-expression.
Except that it’s impossible to draw that conclusion from the data at hand. This is an example of a common logical fallacy that plagues the interpretation of neuroimaging data. Say you notice a crowd of people at your neighbor’s house one night, and then find out she is throwing a party. You can correctly conclude that whenever your neighbor throws a party, there will be people at her house. On another night, you again notice a crowd of people at her house, and you conclude she is throwing a party — but this time you’re wrong. She is hosting a church group. While you can conclude that a party means there will be people, you cannot conclude that people means a party.
This reasoning fails because brain regions, like houses, have many functions. If you scan the brains of 100 people while they add 2+2, and in every case the same little patch of cortex jumps into action, it’s safe to infer that the cognitive act of adding 2+2 is related to activity in that brain region. So far so good. (What the region might actually be doing — adding, focusing on the number 2, catching errors — is whole separate problem). It’s tempting to say, then, that every time researchers observe that little patch of cortex lighting up, it must mean that the person in the scanner is engaged in adding 2+2. After all, it’s the 2+2 part of the brain, right? That’s where intuition can lead you astray. There is not a measurable one-to-one mapping between any brain region and any particular cognitive process; the same little patch of cortex is likely involved in multiple functions, just as a house can be filled with people for many different reasons. So when you see the patch of cortex light up under the scanner, you can’t say the person is adding 2+2. Likewise, if a brain region previously linked to “self-expression” lights up while improvising music, you can’t say — as Lehrer does — that the musician was “engaged in a kind of storytelling.”
This claim is all the more surprising because Lehrer is clearly familiar with this logical fallacy. In the Wall Street Journal column about fMRI data mentioned earlier, he offers an elegant discussion of this very problem:
Consider an op-ed piece recently published in the New York Times, which used fMRI results to demonstrate, purportedly, that people “literally love their iPhones.” The evidence? When the researchers showed subjects a video of a ringing cellphone, a part of the brain called the insula exhibited a spike in activity. Because previous studies have linked the insula with feelings of love, the authors concluded that the gadget had become a “romantic rival” for husbands and wives.
But here’s the problem: The insula is also activated by feelings of disgust and bodily pain. It plays an important role in coordinating hand movement, maintaining balance and monitoring bodily changes. In fact, activity in the insula has been implicated in nearly a third of all fMRI papers. Because the brain is such a vast knot of connections, it’s often impossible to understand what’s happening based on local patterns of activity. Perhaps we’re disgusted by our iPhones, or maybe the insula is just preparing the fingers to move. The pretty picture can’t reveal the answer.
So what’s going on? It’s baffling, really, that in Imagine Lehrer makes statements so similar to ones he thoroughly discredits in his column.
And the problems continue to arise. Near the end of the same chapter, Lehrer presents what appears to be the most convincing piece of evidence yet that inhibiting self-control enhances creativity. He reports a study in which the researcher used a harmless technique called TMS to disrupt brain activity in regions previously implicated in impulse control while the subjects drew sketches of animals. Before TMS, Lehrer reports that their drawings were “crude stick figures.” But during TMS, they exhibited “strange, new talents.” Their figures were “suddenly filled with artistic flourishes.” The section concludes with the comforting bromide that we all have inner artists, if only the brain’s inhibitory mechanisms wouldn’t “constantly hold back our latent talents.”
We were curious to see these “before” and “after” drawings, so we looked up the study. Upon viewing the drawings we felt a bit misled by Lehrer’s claim that dampening activity in the brain area he connects to impulse control led to “strange, new talents.” These before and after drawings, for example, seem to be just slightly different versions of a horse:
Savant-like skills exposed in normal people by suppressing the left fronto-temporal lobe. Allan W. Snyder, Elaine Mulcahy, Janey L. Taylor, D. John Mitchell, Perminder Sachdev, and Simon C. Gandevia, Journal of Integrative Neuroscience, Vol 2, No. 2, 149-158, © 2003, World Scientific.
One might even argue that the saddle in the “before” drawing on the left represents an “artistic flourish” absent in the “after” drawings on the right. In the paper, even the researchers themselves did not claim to have observed any great shift in artistic performance. They concluded that the technique “did not lead to a systematic improvement in naturalistic drawing ability,” although the drawings did show a “change of scheme or convention.” These less-than-definitive results, coupled with the fact that the details of how TMS affects brain activity are poorly understood, renders any hypothesis about this brain area and “creativity” speculative. The researchers do argue for such a link elsewhere, and even if this unproven hypothesis turns out to be true, to say that this study supports the chapter’s claims that “the timid circuits of the prefrontal cortex keep us from risking self-expression” is still problematic. The book is representing speculation as fact. While isolated moments like these may or may not be indicative of a larger pattern, they do raise doubts about both how science is represented throughout the book and the way it is used to support Lehrer’s claims.
If dubious interpretations of scientific data appeared only once in Imagine, it might be a worrisome fluke; but they appear multiple times, which is cause for real concern. Lehrer steps over the line again when connecting amphetamine use to creativity. He states that “Because the dopamine neurons in the midbrain are excited…the world is suddenly saturated with intensely interesting ideas.” Such definitive statements imply that neuroscience has already charted a causal course from neurotransmitter chemistry to a complex cognitive process — which simply isn’t true. That it should have come from a writer who so clearly has the ability to write about science critically and intelligently still comes as a bit of a surprise.
All writers who translate neuroscience for the general public today work under a tremendous pressure to provide easy answers. And it’s not just writers who feel this pressure. So do scientists. It’s possible that Imagine is reflecting the sometimes unsavory habits of scientists who are worried about getting the sort of results that will ensure the millions of dollars in funding necessary to continue their research and move forward in their scientific careers. These habits often bleed over into the way scientists relate their work to journalists. The researcher who had subjects draw the “before” and “after” horses was quoted in The New York Times as calling TMS “a creativity-amplifying machine.” This sort of comment implies a causal link that has not yet been scientifically established, and it can tempt journalists into overstatement. Nevertheless, it is the job of the science writer to represent science as it is, to report on the often ambiguous reality of the scientific process — not to suggest certainty where it does not exist, even if it may seem more appealing to readers.
Everyone is looking for answers. By understanding the brain, the thinking goes, we can better understand ourselves and therefore change — our habits, diets, workplaces — in order to be better, happier versions of ourselves. This promise fuels neuroscience’s great popular appeal. However, while today’s neuroscience offers a deeper understanding the brain than ever before, it is still incomplete. It is far from providing the answers, or advice, that readers might find most satisfying. In the introduction, Imagine promises to deliver “what creativity is…how creativity works” and how “we can make it work for us” by revealing different types of creativity at work in different regions of the brain. This promise defies the reality of current brain science: despite the incredible progress of the past century, scientists really know very little about how the organ works, and can only postulate how neural mechanisms might be related to mind and behavior. People are looking, too soon, to neuroscience for answers.
We need good translators of science to the general public, and Lehrer has the public’s ear and the public’s trust. He is at his best when putting his considerable talents to the task of telling a story that is true according to the facts as we know them, rather than telling a story people want to hear.