Big Empty: On the Demise of Blockbuster

You’ve probably heard the news, Blockbuster is no more. Honestly, I was surprised by my reaction to it. Not sadness per se, just an empty feeling. I hadn’t been inside a Blockbuster in many years. But when that soothing NPR voice announced the final nail in the coffin, I lost a moment or two staring off into the middle distance, wrapped in some sad or perhaps pathetic moment of nostalgia. I worked at a Blockbuster all the way through high school in the mid-to-late 90s when VHS still ruled the world and going to the video store was a popular activity. I remember when my family got our first VCR in the mid-1980s. The first time we entered the florescent-lit jungle of a video store, I was instantly enamored. I zeroed in on Pinocchio and my father picked up Cocoon, or at least something like Cocoon. The mere fact that these memories are still rattling around my head nearly 30 years later must have some significance, right? A few years later, after my parents divorced and my mom and I were living on our own in a mid-century apartment building, she called in and won a radio giveaway providing a year’s worth of unlimited movie rentals at another now-defunct store. To put it simply, I was in heaven. That summer my attempts to catch up on the entire cinematic canon commenced. Two, three, sometimes four films a day. No sweat. Eventually my mom remarried and we moved out south, past the Tulsa city limits to a rural land of sod farms and recreational tractor rides. When I was old enough to get a job more interesting than mowing yards, the choices were few but obvious. While my friends toiled away in the greasy haze of fast food restaurants, I would make it a Blockbuster night, every night. Not only did I get paid, I could take home movies every single day. For free. Sam Peckinpah might not have recognized it, but in our own way we were a wild bunch, the most senior employees usually clocking in at a mere 18 or 19 years old. The time not spent straightening the shelves or restocking the candy racks usually involved things like sitting in the return bin, waiting for customers to walk up, and tossing their videos back out at them when they turned around. You might think such a stupid and juvenile act would get old after a while. It didn’t. These were the days when the Internet was new, cell phones were for stockbrokers, and if you missed a movie in the theater, you had to wait six months or even a year or more to catch up. We don’t have to wait for anything now. I’m not sure that’s an entirely good thing. A few months ago while my wife and I were in Austin, Texas, we popped into a quirky spot called Vulcan Video that still sells and rents out VHS tapes to the hipster masses of the Lone Star State’s capitol city. Cue The Cranberries music. Bust out the Hypercolor shirts. I felt as if I’d literally stepped back into the 90s. And I loved it. No irony. No shame. I’m not entirely sure why some of us find comfort in obsolete technology and relics of the past. I love the modern world. I embrace technology. I honestly believe that the world of tomorrow will be better than today. But when something that’s been part of my life for a long time goes away, all I want to do is push Rewind. Photo Credit: Flickr/yapsnaps

When Costner Was King: An Actor’s Rise and Fall (and Rise?)

I’ve never really believed in God, but for a brief time in the late '80s and early '90s, Kevin Costner came pretty close. Last weekend, Costner won an Emmy for his lead role in the History Channel miniseries, Hatfield & McCoys, his first major prize since the 1991 Academy Awards where he took home Best Director and Best Picture for Dances with Wolves. At the time, he seemed poised for many, many more. Twenty-five years ago this summer, those titans of testosterone, Brian De Palma and David Mamet, teamed up to deliver a film adaptation the Camelot-era television series, The Untouchables. With marquee names like Sean Connery and Robert DeNiro in supporting roles, the lead role of famous lawman Eliot Ness was given to a then relatively unknown Costner. Barely into his 30s at the time, this film would kick off one of the most impressive runs in the history of American cinema. Just two months after The Untouchables, the Cold War thriller No Way Out debuted to both box office and wide critical success. On the popular online review database Rotten Tomatoes, No Way Out maintains an amazing 97 percent approval rate. To put that in perspective, that’s better than The Graduate (88 percent) and just shy of The Godfather, Part II (98 percent). Famously cut from The Big Chill in 1983, and more visible in a commercial that same year for Apple’s failed “Lisa” computer, by Labor Day 1987, Kevin Costner was a household name. I had just turned seven when Costner broke big. In 1952, when my father was the same age, Gene Kelly was singing in the rain while Gary Cooper watched the clock in High Noon. Films like The Untouchables, No Way Out, and Bull Durham (released June 1988) were all a bit mature for my innocent eyes. But with 1989’s Field of Dreams, my Costner man crush truly began. I honestly don’t remember seeing it in the theater. It must have been VHS. Either way, I remember the feeling. That film, pie-in-the-sky as it may be, still gets me. For many years I told myself that I would eventually make the trip to Iowa and visit the real “Field of Dreams.” It was the closest thing I’ve ever had to Mecca. In September of 2002, just after my 22nd birthday, I led an impromptu road trip to Iowa with a couple of my female coworkers. None of us knew each other very well, but it was just the kind of spontaneous thing that makes being 22 so great. We ate cheap food, slept in questionable motels, and attempted to solve the mysteries of the universe through conversation and hipster music. I’m not certain if it was part of their original plan, but after the first couple of days, the girls talked me out of visiting “the field.” We opted for the urban pleasures (shopping) of Chicago. I might still be bitter about the whole experience had I not fallen in love with and subsequently married one of them. I tease her about it to this day. It’s still there. I could go. But for some reason that I can’t fully explain, I don’t need to anymore. In October 1975, Bruce Springsteen famously appeared concurrently on the covers of Time and Newsweek. After two consecutive commercial failures and his career on the line, Born to Run made “Bruce Springsteen” possible. In much the same way, though with a bit more success behind him, Kevin Costner appeared on the June 26, 1989 cover of Time. Looking into the distance, his eyes on the proverbial prize, Costner’s face somehow lives up to the magazine’s hyperbolic headline, “The new American hero -- smart, sexy, and on a roll.” Big words. Big expectations. Little more than a year later, Rolling Stone would declare him, “An American Classic.” At the 62nd Academy Awards on March 26, 1990, Field of Dreams went 0 for 3, losing Best Score (The Little Mermaid), Best Adapted Screenplay (Driving Miss Daisy), and Best Picture (again, Driving Miss Daisy). At the 63rd Academy Awards, Costner faired a bit better. Dances with Wolves, his directorial debut, was the fourth highest-grossing film of 1990 ($424 million) behind Ghost, Home Alone, and Pretty Woman. It would go on to win seven Oscars including Best Director and Best Picture. Say what you will in retrospect, but this was a BIG film, one of those event movies that everyone, even 5th grade kids (this one at least) were talking about. Think Titanic. Think The Dark Knight. Costner was able to do this with an often-subtitled Civil War-era film about Native Americans. No small feat. 1991. The Gulf War. Nirvana. Magic Johnson’s HIV. JFK. Half a decade after bursting onto the scene as do-gooder Eliot Ness, Costner returned to crusade for justice as New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison in Oliver Stone’s controversial film on the events of November 22, 1963. That summer, with Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Costner gave us a fun if forgettable summer adventure. But few were ready for the cultural phenomenon that was JFK. Even Seinfeld referenced the “Magic Bullet Theory.” Having recently re-watched this film for the first time in years, I was shocked at how well it’s held up over the past two decades. JFK was the sixth highest-grossing film of 1991, taking in more than $200 million. For a 189-minute film about conspiracy theories and legal minutia, this is utterly amazing. Much of the success can be chalked up to the buzz and controversy, but my money’s on Costner. By this point, he’d crossed that invisible line of trust with the general public. Every now and then, we (Americans) make a collective silent decision about an actor/actress. We love them. We like them. They’re one of us. We’ll follow their lead. Jimmy Stewart. Tom Hanks. Kevin Costner. Well, almost. Even though his streak wasn’t completely over, I feel that JFK marks the end of Costner’s golden age. His next release, 1992’s The Bodyguard, was a huge hit, but more for its soundtrack than anything else. Perhaps sensing a change, Costner took on his first villain/anti-hero role in Clint Eastwood’s criminally underrated 1993 film, A Perfect World. Playing an escaped convict who befriends a young boy, Costner finally gets to show his full range. He’d been the everyman (The Untouchables, Field of Dreams), the charismatic liar (No Way Out), and the sexy rebel (Bull Durham). But with this little movie, shot on the back roads of rural Texas, Costner is able to mix those ingredients together for something new. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen it since. The Golden Raspberry Award or “Razzie” as it’s better known, is an annual award for the worst in movies, the polar opposite of the Oscars. In 1991, Kevin Costner was awarded the Razzie for “Worst Actor” in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. It was his first nomination and first win. No big deal. The movie made a ton of money. Many great and well-respected actors have had the (dis)honor of taking home a Razzie or two. It happens. But Kevin Costner, through bad luck, bad choices, or a combination of the two, has since received an additional six Razzie nominations for “Worst Actor,” winning twice for Wyatt Earp (1994) and The Postman (1997). The debacle that was Waterworld has been written and talked about ad nauseum. I have nothing to contribute to the conversation other than to say that it wasn’t as bad as everyone said it would be and it made more money than was expected. As for The Postman? That one will forever be in the WTF file. I’m 32 now. I’m sad to say that for more than half of my life, I’ve been living in a post-Costner world. For many years I held out hope that he would return to form.  There were moments. Tin Cup had a Bull Durham-esque appeal. And Costner, who seems to naturally take himself way too seriously, is very appealing when he lightens up and goofs around. Open Range was a good western. Not a great one, but pretty damn good. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter earlier this year, Costner seemed ready for a vibrant third act. "I don't give up. I'm a plodder. People come and go, but I stay the course." Who knows, with the success of Hatfields & McCoys, perhaps some of the sparkle is returning to Costner’s star. Next summer he plays Clark Kent’s father in the hotly anticipated reboot, Man of Steel. But much of the audience, many born in the post-Waterworld era, will have no idea that for a brief but glorious period in my formative years, Kevin Costner was, at least cinematically speaking, Superman himself. Image Credit: Wikipedia

A Year in Reading: Jeff Martin

Confession time. I’ve never been an avid reader of short stories. Nine Stories, Dubliners, yes, I’ve read those. And I enjoyed them. It’s not that I really have anything against the form itself, I’ve just historically been more drawn to essays and longer works of fiction. A matter of taste, I suppose. But as someone interested and somewhat involved in the literary world, I have always felt a great deal of intellectual inferiority for my lack of knowledge regarding the contemporary short story. For my birthday last July, my wife gave me a subscription to the tablet version of The New Yorker. I’ve been a subscriber to the print version forever, and its presence in my life was a valued, consistent, and enjoyable one. Over the years, my reading of the New Yorker short stories was quite inconsistent. If I heard a rave review from a friend or if the author was a writer whose work I already enjoyed, I might give it a try. But sadly, those moments were few and far between. With the interactive features provided by the tablet version, including the occasional option of an audio version of the story in the author’s own voice, I began a reappraisal of my interest in stories. The story that permanently transformed me into a borderline-obsessive story consumer was “Sun City” by Michigan-based author Caitlin Horrocks. “Sun City” is the story of a young woman in Arizona cleaning out the belongings of a recently deceased grandmother. Emotional without even a touch of sentimentality, the piece perfectly captures the questions, assumptions, and mysteries that arise from combing through the material past of a loved one. Since this great find, I have also read Horrocks' equally compelling collection, This Is Not Your City (Sarabande Books, July 2011). 2011 is the year that I rediscovered the short story. And when I think of the infinite pages (or screens?) that await me, both past and future, I am completely, and happily overwhelmed. More from A Year in Reading 2011 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

Family ‘Tree’

I recently had the opportunity to see The Tree of Life while sitting two rows in front of Terrence Malick’s 99-year-old mother. The special screening took place in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, a small town north of Tulsa. Malick spent part of his youth in Bartlesville and recently returned to film his still-untitled next project (though some have called it The Burial) starring Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams. The film was screened in a fairly unassuming shopping mall located just off of state highway 75. Okay, so it wasn’t the most majestic setting possible, but it was good enough. Not scheduled to be officially released in Oklahoma and the surrounding region until later this month, I heard about this “secret” happening a couple of days before from an acquaintance that lives in the area. It was touch and go until the day of the screening as to whether or not I would be able to attend, but I was greeted with an early morning text that simply said, “You’re in.” I’ve been a Terrence Malick fan since my late teens when my father, having loved Badlands since its original release in 1973, took me to the video store to rent a somewhat-scratchy VHS copy of that landmark road movie.  The films that followed, Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), and The New World (2005) all mean a great deal to me both artistically and personally. So it’s no surprise that I was just a little excited several years ago when word first began to circulate about The Tree of Life.  I followed the rumors, the casting changes, the false starts, and the rest with a great deal of attention. With each new morsel of information (dinosaurs, space, asteroids) my hunger grew. It’s hard to explain, but I wanted to both know everything and absolutely nothing about this film before I saw it. I left work a little early the day of the screening, giving myself ample time for the 45-minute drive from Tulsa to Bartlesville. The road between is straight and flat, peppered with occasional cattle, goats and abandoned cars. I blasted classical music, recalled my previous experiences with his films, and pretended the late evening light was meant just for this moment. I sat in the second row back from the screen. The theater was small and I wanted as much of my field of view as possible to be taken up by the film. Among the other attendees were relatives and friends of the Malick family, none more important than the director’s mother, Irene, sitting behind me in a wheelchair. According to Malick’s wife, Alexandra “Ecky” Malick, who spoke briefly before the film, this was Irene Malick’s first time seeing the film. Malick himself was characteristically absent, as was his father, Emil. If you’ve seen or even read the copious amount of press this film has already received, you know what a personal statement it is. The central story is set in Waco, Texas in the 1950’s and follows a father, mother and three brothers through the eyes of the eldest boy, Jack. Terrence Malick was the oldest of three brothers. He lived as a boy in Waco. One of the brothers in the film dies at 19 under mysterious circumstances. Malick’s brother, Lawrence, is said to have taken his own life around the same age. Terrence Malick’s remaining brother, Chris, died in 2008 at age 60. A cause of death was not released. Though it’s been portrayed as obtuse in its telling and abstract in its ideas, this film is as starkly autobiographical as any by Fellini. On the drive back to Tulsa, completely wrecked by what I’d just experienced, I couldn’t get Malick’s mother out of my head. What did she think? Was it obvious to her? Did she get it? In the film, the mother is portrayed as an ethereal, almost angelic archetypal figure of grace and beauty. Yet sitting behind me, in a stainless steel wheelchair, having lived on this earth for nearly a full century, was the woman herself in flesh and blood.  As images of an imagined afterlife flickered on the screen, I wondered if it would ever cross her mind that her son may have created for her, the only true afterlife that really exists.

A Speculative 20 Under 40, from 40 Years Ago

Most people in the literary world are now aware that the New Yorker has selected the “best” 20 writers under age 40. This is a follow-up to the magazine's 1999 list, which was fairly prescient in spotting some soon-to-be superstars in the book universe. There are some wonderful writers on the new list. The ages range from the early 20’s to right on the cusp of the big 4-0. The list is evenly split between men and women. From the names alone you get a much more international flair this time, reflecting how the world has changed in the past decade. But when you look at the 1999 list and the 2010 list side by side, one must wonder if the predictions will play out in a similar fashion. There is no doubt that within this group there will be some Pulitzers and National Book Awards to throw around. But I do worry if the world had changed so much that these young authors, despite talent or skill, won’t be able to reach the same level as their predecessors. The majority of these writers are in their mid-to-late 30’s and are just now at the start of what we hope will be a long and fruitful career. But if you look back 40 years to the year 1970, there were many more established, award-winning authors under the age of 40. They were often times both critical and commercial successes. If the New Yorker had released a “20 under 40” list 40 years ago, it might have looked something like this… 1970 Philip Roth Joyce Carol Oates Raymond Carver Donald Barthelme John Updike Shirley Hazzard John Barth Thomas Pynchon Susan Sontag Toni Morrison Frank Conroy Ken Kesey Don Delillo E.L. Doctorow Jerzy Kozinski Hunter S. Thompson Alice Walker Michael Crichton Tom Wolfe Cormac McCarthy 2010 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Chris Adrian Daniel Alarcón David Bezmozgis Sarah Shun-lien Bynum Joshua Ferris Jonathan Safran Foer Nell Freudenberger Rivka Galchen Nicole Krauss Yiyun Li Dinaw Mengestu Philipp Meyer C. E. Morgan Téa Obreht Z Z Packer Karen Russell Salvatore Scibona Gary Shteyngart Wells Tower 1999 George Saunders David Foster Wallace Sherman Alexie Rick Moody A.M. Homes Allegra Goodman William T. Vollmann Antonya Nelson Chang-rae Lee Michael Chabon Ethan Canin Donld Antrim Tony Earley Jeffrey Eugenides Junot Diaz Jonathan Franzen Edwidge Danticat Jhumpa Lahiri Nathan Englander Matthew Klam Bonus Link: The Risks of Fiction: On The New Yorker Writers Under 40 List

A Year in Reading: Jeff Martin

Gold Medal Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry by Leanne Shapton: I’ve seen the future of books, and it has nothing to do with Amazon. Well, let me back up a little. 2009, as far as books are concerned, may go down as the Year of the Kindle. Good, bad, or otherwise, they were everywhere. I don‘t use a Kindle and haven‘t quite made my mind up about them. But over the past year I‘ve made a point to talk to everyone I see using one. And aside from Nicholson Baker, who curiously prefers reading on his iPod touch, I would say that over 90% of the responses I got were positive, ebullient even. The guy on the plane to Nashville loved reading his Vince Flynn novels on a Kindle. The girl at the sandwich shop was electronically advancing through the Stephenie Meyer books at breakneck speed. But there was one book I read this year that I could never imagine reading on a Kindle. Written, or perhaps I should say designed as an auction catalog, this slim volume from Leanne Shapton made me question the meaning of narrative and how stories are told. I heard recently that it‘s being adapted for the silver screen. Honestly, I have no idea how that will work. But I do know that I’ll be there when it opens. Silver Medal X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking by Jeff Gordinier: I was a couple of months past my 11th birthday when I first heard Nirvana. Singles was far from my favorite movie, partly because I didn’t get it, but mostly because it wasn’t very good. And a couple of years later when Reality Bites was encouraging less showers, I was much more interested in films and music that frankly I’m still too ashamed to admit. Let’s just say one rhymes with Boyz II Men. Okay, it was Boyz II Men. My point? I was a little bit too young to really take part in the real Generation X experience. And to tell the truth, I always felt that I’d missed out on something. On the whole I’m not really into putting labels on generations, but if I were, I’m not sure that “Generation X” was even proper name to begin with (damn you, Douglas Coupland). I think “Late Bloomers” might be more appropriate. And that gives me hope for the future. Bronze Medal (3-way-tie) Hand To Mouth by Paul Auster: The best book I’ve ever read on why we write. Snark by David Denby: Funny. True. Usually both at the same time. Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon: Going into this one I hoped it would suck. No one should be this good in every format. More from A Year in Reading

Phil Spector: Guilty of Creating the Greatest Christmas Album Ever

If I told you that the single greatest Christmas album ever made was created by a murderer, you might think I was talking about the plot of some holiday horror b-movie like Silent Night, Deadly Night. But no, the album I’m referring to is none other than the 1963 classic A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector. Before the crazy hairdos and trials, Phil Spector produced some of the most exciting music of the 20th century. Best known for his work on girl group hits like “Be My Baby” and “He’s A Rebel”, Spector also produced albums by John Lennon, Leonard Cohen and The Ramones to name just a few. But for my money, his most important contribution was this album of Christmas favorites. If you look at the track listing, you might not think there’s anything special to be heard. The titles, for the most part, are familiar to nearly everyone. “White Christmas”, “Winter Wonderland”, “Sleigh Ride”, the favorites are all here. But the heart of this album lies in the one track written by Spector, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)". I think the first time I remember hearing this song was during the opening credits for the film Gremlins and later in Goodfellas. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m not really a Christmas person. The entire season usually leaves something to be desired as far as I’m concerned. But here’s the thing, I have always secretly envied those people who get into the “Christmas spirit”. Over the years I’ve looked for something to spark that feeling. And the only thing to do it so far is this song and the album that contains it. The song is performed by the great Darlene Love, a Spector favorite and someone who isn’t nearly as well known as she deserves to be. Don’t get me wrong, I love Aretha, Gladys and Diana. But if I had to choose only one, I’m taking Darlene Love hands down. When I think of the 1960s, I don’t really look at it like your traditional decade. You know, the kind that are ten years long. No, the sixties had a late start and a wild finale. The post-war idealism of the 1950s actually extended a few years into the 1960s. The last day of that period, that Father Knows Best era, was November 22nd, 1963. When John F. Kennedy’s pulse stopped, the real sixties began. November 22nd, 1963 was also the day A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector was released. It’s certain that Phil Spector had no idea while he was recording this material that the entire world would change on the day of its release. And that simple coincidence is the beauty of it. This music, intended to fit in with the happy-go-lucky mood of the day, ended up being a much-needed dose of joy in a dark and confusing time. Even though I could listen to this album year-round and enjoy it, I make it a point not to until after Thanksgiving. It gives me something to look forward to the way others look forward to the holidays. If only Phil Spector had been listening to this music on February 2, 2003, he might not be serving 19 years to life. But who listens to Christmas music in February?

Where the Wild Things Are: The Best Short Film of 2009

If I had any sway in Hollywood, which I don’t, I would currently be urging Spike Jonze, Dave Eggers and the brass at Warner Bros. to begin an aggressive Oscar campaign for Where the Wild Things Are. But not for the actual film, no way (maybe cinematography). I’m talking about the trailer. I know, I know. Trailers can’t win Oscars, much less be nominated. But what if it wasn’t submitted as a “trailer," but as a “short film?” A really short film. A film that run less than two and a half minutes in length. Why not? I hate to say it, but the film left me cold for the most part. However the trailer was and remains to be a revelation. I remember sitting in the theater and seeing it the way I remember seeing full-length films. It all begins so quietly, forest sounds and footsteps. We see Max, in his famous wolf suit, being carried by one of the Wild Things. As if to prepare the audience for the experience that is to come, the Wild Thing says to Max “I really want to show you something.” In the remaining 90 or so seconds we learn that Max is a lonely child, he runs away from home, takes a boat over rough seas to an island full of Wild Things and has many adventures. That is the book. The pace of the trailer speeds up, emphasized by the brilliant musical backdrop Arcade Fire's “Wake Up”. I was so hoping to hear this song in the finished version, but that didn’t happen. As we near the end, nearly every character is running, playing and behaving like real children behave. Spike Jonze says that this is a film about childhood, not necessarily a film for children. If he is talking about the trailer, he is absolutely right. One of the main criticisms of the film has been the argument that there simply wasn’t enough content in the source material to warrant a feature film. After seeing the film, I spent the better part of two weeks trying desperately to find some way to disagree. But I can’t. Part of this could be attributed to the ridiculously high expectations I brought with me into that theater. What was I really expecting, some sort of transformational experience? Yep. Call me crazy, but I was absolutely certain that I would have some sort of epiphany by the time the end credits were rolling. Why? That damn trailer. I won’t say that I was depressed about the overall film experience. But then again, I can’t think of any other accurate way to express how I felt. A few days ago, for reasons I can’t explain, I felt the urge to see the trailer again. There have been several versions since that first one, some edited differently, some made for television. It took a few minutes to find the original cut. But when I watched it again, I realized that I had no reason to be depressed. Sure, the film was a letdown, but I didn’t need it. The experience I longed for was fully contained in this little gem. The emotions, the energy, the music, it was all there. The same way a tight little pop song can be more effective and memorable than a lengthy concept album, this trailer captured the spirit of Maurice Sendak’s book in its entirety. I don’t regret my Where the Wild Things Are experience in any way. I’ve come to think of the full-length film the way I think of those indulgent overlong director’s cuts that always seem to show up on DVD. I know what the real film is and it doesn’t bother me at all. I feel bad for Spike Jonze, but I don’t blame him. He set out to make something great, and in a roundabout way, he has. He has created one of the best (and certainly most expensive) short films in the history of cinema. And I, for one, am thankful. See Also: The Savages: Where The Wild Things Are, Revisited

Domo Arigato, Mr. Erratum

Let’s say that you’re on the couch tearing through a great weekend book, you know, one of those novels you completely devour in two days or less, and you come upon a cute little piece of paper hiding between pages 216 and 217. It’s not colorful, fairly unassuming, and not much larger than a Polaroid picture. The top of the page reads “Erratum.” This Latin word sounds important, fancy even, but it’s really just a sneaky way of saying “We screwed up.” And not just “We screwed up,” but “We had multiple people, whose full-time paid job is to find these errors, look through this book with a fine-toothed comb, and we still let a few things get past us.” I agree, “Erratum” sounds much, much better. I hadn’t really thought about them in years. Why would I? They’re just not the kind of things you see every day. I read all the time, far more than average, yet I find four-leaf clovers more frequently than these elusive declarations. It wasn’t even a book that got me thinking about these. I was reading a recent issue of Interview magazine (which unlike the rare “Erratum” has far too many inserts) in which Miranda July was asked 20 questions by 20 different people. Among these inquiring minds were It-Lit icons including Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders, Dave Eggers and Lorrie Moore to name a few. To be completely honest, most of the questions were a little too cute or ironic for my taste. I won’t say who ridiculously asked, “If you were told that you had to live inside a work of art, which would you choose?” And it wasn’t even an author that asked the most interesting question, it was harp-playing, pixie-voiced songstress Joanna Newsom. I’m paraphrasing, but her question was basically this; name one thing you don’t care about but most people do, and name one thing you do care about that most people disregard. July’s answer to part one? Alcohol. Part two? Errata. Wait a second. What? Do you mean those little lists of corrections found in books? That is exactly what she meant, and she collects them. I can’t quite explain why, but this caught me off guard. I guess I was expecting her to say something more along the lines of Rivers Cuomo bootlegs. She could have said she collected stuffed albino chinchillas and I would have been less surprised. Unlike most things you might collect, say unopened action figures or LPs, you can’t just go into the local resale shop or flea market to look for them. Over the past 25 years, July said she has only been able to find a dozen or so. A dozen? That is certainly not a bountiful harvest by any means. But it certainly is patient. And I love that. It might even be a little bit lazy. To build his or her collection, the collector of this niche item has to do nothing more than sit around and read. Didn’t find one? Well, maybe next time. No big deal. It was still a pretty good book, right? If I had to put my finger on the one thing I like most about Erratum sheets, it would have to be this; it is a tangible piece of evidence that proves that famous Alexander Pope quote to be true, to err really is human. And thank goodness for that. In this world, that is increasingly becoming mistake free, it’s nice to see an honest up-front admission of human error. Not that I want people to screw up, I don’t. But when you can clear up every blemish with Photoshop, spell check every misspelling, and delete and re-post a drunken status update, it’s a breath of fresh air to hear three little words… I. Screwed. Up. But if you want to sound fancy, you can say Erratum. [Image source: Emran Kassim]