In his lifetime, Vladimir Nabokov travelled widely, logging many years each in St. Petersburg, Berlin, and Ithaca, New York, where he wrote Lolita while teaching at Cornell. His peripatetic history explains why few people know he spent a summer in Utah, during which he spent a lot of time chasing butterflies and fishing in the streams. In The American Scholar, an excerpt of Nabokov in America, an upcoming book by Richard Roper. You could also read our own Garth Risk Hallberg on Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor.
Those of you with some knowledge of Pale Fire and Lolita won’t be surprised to learn what Nabokov thought of dinner parties. Namely, he thought they were awful, vaguely surreal events, held largely by drunkards with overriding appetites for drama. At The Paris Review Daily, Sadie Stein quotes a passage from “The Vane Sisters” to explain why “It’s hard to think of someone you’d want less at a midcentury faculty tea, save maybe a seething Shirley Jackson.” You could also read our own Garth Risk Hallberg on Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor.
In an essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Peter Birkenhead goes back to Nabokov’s Speak, Memory and considers “the way our memories tell themselves to us: in hints, collisions, and rushes, overlapping, upside down, out of order.” Pair with our own Garth Risk Hallberg’s piece on reading Ada, or Ardor.
Over the course of a half-century, Vladimir Nabokov wrote hundreds of letters to his wife Vera, which are being published in book form this week for the first time. Among other things, they reveal the absurd pet names he invented for her (such as Goosykins and Monkeykins) and display Nabokov musing over whether or not to borrow a friend’s castle for the summer. Also worth reading: our own Garth Risk Hallberg on Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor.
Six months ago, I rounded up a list of my favorite literary Tumblr accounts. Half a year later, I’m pleased to see those blogs still going strong. I’m also pleased to see that a pile of the names on my Wish List came around to the land of likes and reblogs. In that regard, some shout outs are in order: Picador Book Room (and its “Sunday Sontags”) has become a favorite of The Millions’ social media team; The Strand made its way onto the blogging platform and we’re all better because of it; Poetry Magazine continues to draw from its enviable archives to bring some really exciting content to our Dashboard; and — whether it’s due to my friendly dig or their own volition — The Paris Review’s presence has been especially awesome of late. Indeed, the literary community on Tumblr is growing stronger by the day, and it has to be noted that a lot of that growth is due to Rachel Fershleiser’s evangelism and infectious enthusiasm. (An example of Rachel’s work was recapped recently by Millions staffer Lydia Kiesling as part of our own Emily M. Keeler’s Tumblr-centric #LitBeat column.)
Alas, six months in the real world is different from six months online, and Tumblr now has not only its own Storyboard curatorial system (run by the vaguely Soviet-sounding Department of Editorial), but it’s also grown by a few million blogs. The site boasts a growing number of blogs that have inked book deals. Rachel maintains a running tally of poets and writers who use the platform in exciting ways. This past week, Molly Templeton organized a blog, The How-To Issue, specifically aimed at countering the gender imbalance in the recent “How-To” installment of The New York Times Book Review. As a testament to the number of smart, engaged literary folks on the site, that blog has since received posts from a Salon writer, a former New Yorker staffer, and quite a few artists and freelancers.
So with all of that in mind, I’ve decided it’s time for another list — a better list, a bigger list. This list aims not only to cover blogs I missed last time, but also new blogs that have been born only recently. To that end, my rubric has been simple: 1) I’ve chosen blogs I not only believe to be the best and most compelling accounts out there, but also blogs that were overlooked on the last list — in some cases, readers helped me out in the last post’s comment thread. 2) I’ve done my best to ensure that these blogs are active members of the Tumblr community. 3) I’ve tried to make sure that the content on these blogs is “safe for work,” however I am but mortal, and perhaps some NSFW material will slip in between now and when you read this list. For that reason I can only caution you to use your judgment as you proceed.
For your convenience, I’ve organized the list in a similar manner as last time. “Single-Servings” are blogs organized around one or two particular, ultra-specific themes. The rest of the categories should be self-explanatory.
Please feel free to comment and shout out the ones I omitted or did not cover in Part One.
0. Shameless Self-Promotion
The Millions: duh!
Book and Beer: The combination of everybody’s favorite duo will tease you from your office chair.
Match Book: Or is it, instead, that books and bikinis are an even better pair?
Movie Simpsons: An encyclopedic recap of every film reference in The Simpsons. Now open to submissions.
Underground NYPL: Pairs well with CoverSpy. I’ve yet to find a match, however.
The Unquotables: Brought to you by Dan Wilbur (Better Book Titles, which is going to be a book!) and Robert Dean. The premise is simple: Gandhi didn’t say that.
Infinite Boston: A catalog of the locations mentioned in The Great Bandana’s Infinite Jest.
Write Place Write Time: Remember our WriteSpace project? (Which we Storify’d?) This is ongoing.
The Composites: Composite sketches of characters in famous literature. Creepy ones, at that.
Poets Touching Trees: Happy Arbor Day, poets!
You Chose Wrong: The tragic fates of mistaken “Choose Your Own Adventure” readers. It’s like reading The Gashlycrumb Tinies.
Doodling on Famous Writers: Those warped lines beneath Proust’s eyes really suit him.
Old Book Illustrations: A visual treat for nostalgic book nerds.
Visual Poetry: Exactly what it says it is, yet also much more.
PBS’ This Day in History: So much better to get this stuff on your Dashboard than in your inbox.
Historical Nonfiction: This blog pairs well with the one above. Follow both and you’ll rival Howard Zinn in no time.
Writers and Kitties: I have often wondered about that particular feline-author bond.
Page Twenty Seven: The text from one reader’s collection of twenty seventh pages.
Book Storey: Eye candy for lovers of book design.
2. Requisite “F*** Yeah!” Blogs
3. Foundations, Organizations and Writing Centers
826 Valencia: Dispatches and success stories from the California writing center focused on kids aged six to eighteen. It was co-founded by Dave Eggers.
The National Book Foundation: They’ll announce finalists for their big awards in October, so you’ve got some time to get acquainted with the foundation.
The Moth: Fabulous stuff from the story gurus. I’ll let Kevin Hartnett take it from here.
The Poetry Society of America: Nice to see the nation’s oldest poetry non-profit embrace one of the newest mediums for storytelling.
Harry Ransom Center: They have more than David Foster Wallace’s papers, you know.
The Academy of American Poets: The organizers of National Poetry Month deliver some excellent Tumblr material, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t super relieved when they finally found Rob.
PEN Live: A great example of a fresh, exciting way to use the blogging platform. PEN Live covers events put on by the PEN American Center.
Poets & Writers: A great source of guidance for creative writers.
Button Poetry: Performance poetry delivered straight to your Dashboard from the Twin Cities.
VIDA Community: The creators of publishing’s annual gender-imbalance list curate a really interesting list of updates on women, culture, and writing.
Sh*t My Students Write: Proof positive that more MFA graduates should be teaching in secondary schools.
The Monkeys You Ordered: These literal New Yorker cartoon captions are topped only by this one comment applicable to all of them.
What Should We Call Poets: Based on the grandmother that started them all. This is the GIF blog poets deserve, but not the one they need right now.
Title 2 Come: You can never follow too many GIF blogs. This one is for for writers of every stripe.
News Cat GIFs: Same as above. Last but not least, this one is for journalists. (Who like cats.)
Least Helpful: The worst of the worst reviews from the annals of the internet.
Hey, Author: It’s like a Regina George’s Burn Book for the literati.
Alt Lit Gossip (Can be NSFW): HTMLGiant is leaking.
5. Literary, Cultural and Art Magazines or Blogs
Recommended Reading: Home of the marvelous ongoing fiction series run by Electric Literature.
Words Without Borders: Spreading the gospel of international and translated literature one Tumblr post at a time.
Tin House: You (should) know the magazine. Now you should know their blog.
VQR: The brand new companion to the invaluable source for great long-form and narrative journalism.
n+1: They recently decided to kill off their Personals blog, so perhaps this one will become more active.
New York Review of Books: Need I introduce them? Also, not to be missed, check out the NYRB Classics blog, A Different Stripe.
Granta: Follow these guys for updates on the magazine’s new releases and competitions.
Guernica: Hey, you’re spilling your art into my politics!
Full Stop: Who else would recommend Errol Flynn’s memoir, posit an alternate Olympics Opening Ceremony, and then review the work of Victor Serge?
Vol. 1 Brooklyn: As their banner says, “If you’re smart, you’ll like us.”
Rusty Toque: An online literary and arts journal backed by Ontario’s Western University.
Book Riot: How can you help loving the kind of people who reblog photos of Faulkner’s oeuvre alongside galleries of literary tattoos?
Berfrois: Some highbrow curiosities for that eager, eager brain of yours.
Literalab: Dispatches from Central and Eastern Europe, which as anybody who knows me knows to be my favorite parts of Europe.
Triple Canopy: The online magazine embraces yet another means of communicating.
fwriction review: Finally an honest banner: “specializing in work that melts faces and rocks waffles.” (See also: fwriction)
Little Brother: The latest project from our own Emily M. Keeler.
Asymptote: Dedicated to works in translation and world literature.
Glitterwolf Magazine: Devoted to highlighting UK writers and writers from LGBT communities.
The Essayist: Aggregated long-form writing from all over the place.
6. Major, General and More Well-Known Magazines
Smithsonian Magazine: “Retina” consists of the best visual content from Smithsonian Magazine.
The American Scholar: Follow them. You’ll be more fun to talk to at cocktail parties.
Boston Globe: News and photos, and we all know they’ve got plenty of both.
Salon: Finally! We get to read Salon without actually having to go to Salon.com!
The Morning News: Our friends who host the annual Tournament of Books have a Tumblr presence, too.
Mother Jones: Politics and current events, ahoy!
Tomorrow Mag: Ann Friedman & Co.’s new venture.
Lively Morgue: Typically awesome photos from The New York Times archives.
Bonus: This article covers the ways in which twelve news outlets are using Tumblr in innovative, fresh ways.
7. Publishers (Big Six) — Note: Many of these blogs are used by the imprint or publisher’s marketing team, but you’ll find that some of the most successful publisher Tumblrs are getting more focused and specific. This is an interesting development, and I encourage more of the same. Also: This list is only a small sampling of the publisher Tumblrs on the site — just naming all the ones from Penguin would amount to its own post!
Random House Digital: Dispatches from the Random House digital team.
Vintage Books Design: As they say, “vintage design from Vintage designers.”
Harper Books: The publisher’s flagship imprint sets up shop on Tumblr.
The Penguin Press: They publish Zadie Smith, in case you need validation of their taste.
Simon Books: Straight from Rockefeller Center to your Dashboard!
Pantheon: News and miscellany from Random House’s literary fiction and serious nonfiction imprint.
Penguin English Library: Celebrating the Classic Penguins we all love so much. Plus, get a load of that animated masthead!
Back Bay Books: Little, Brown’s paperback pals. Their list of authors is incredible.
Mulholland Books: This group fully embraces Tumblr’s multimedia capabilities. A solid A+ in my book.
Penguin Teen: Excellent content for younger readers.
Free Press Books: Let’s just say these folks enjoyed the week Michael Phelps had at the Olympics.
HMH Books: Be sure to check out their Translation and Poetry blogs, too.
Riverhead: Of all the publisher Tumblrs, they boast the cutest mascot.
Little, Brown: Their Daily First Line posts are tantalizing.
8. Publishers (University Presses)
Duke: Hate the basketball team, love the press. (And their blog.)
Chicago: Their posts are excellent. Continually substantial and interesting.
McGill-Queens: Fun Fact: some folks up North would have it that Harvard is “America’s McGill.”
Cambridge Exhibitions: Alerts and updates on the myriad academic conferences and events attended by the CUP staff.
9. Publishers (Indies and Little Ones)
Chronicle: These folks have been known to turn Tumblr blogs into books, so of course they know their way around the platform.
Grove Atlantic: I’m not a tough sell, but giving away books related to The Wire is my kryptonite.
Open Road Media: Worth a follow for their YouTube discoveries alone.
Two Dollar Radio: They published Grace Krilanovich’s book (the one I recommended), so you know they’re good.
Timaş Publishing Group: These Turkish publishers are so generous, they give away eBook credits on a bi-weekly basis.
Quirk Books: These Philadelphia-based publishers sure find a lot of pretty bookshelves to reblog.
The Feminist Press: The important indie operating out of NYC delivers some really interesting, innovative stuff in addition to the classics they “rescue.”
The Lit Pub: Recommendations from The Lit Pub‘s staff.
Muumuu House: No doubt this account is run by Tao Lin’s legion of interns.
Overlook Press: Their About page even features a TL;DR version. They get Tumblr.
Arte Público Press: Your dashboard destination for U.S. Hispanic literature.
Coffee House Press Interns: Bonus “little” points because it’s run by their interns.
Unmanned Press: They just joined Tumblr, but their “Sunday Rejections” posts seem promising.
10. Authors (Direct Involvement) — The Tumblr “Spotlight” list can be found here; it’s not comprehensive, but it lists accounts you’re sure to enjoy. I’ve listed one of each author’s books alongside their names. Additionally: YA Highway, an excellent resource for fans of Young Adult books, maintains a great directory of YA Authors.
Emily St. John Mandel: Millions staffer whose most recent book is The Lola Quartet.
Edan Lepucki: Millions staffer whose most recent book is If You’re Not Yet Like Me.
Patrick Somerville: This Bright River.
Neil Gaiman: American Gods.
Roxane Gay: Ayiti.
Sheila Heti: How Should a Person Be?
Emma Straub: Other People We Married.
Jami Attenberg: The Middlesteins. Bonus: check out her advice, too.
Nathan Englander: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.
Matthew Gallaway: The Metropolis Case.
Miles Klee: Ivyland.
John Green: Looking for Alaska.
Alexander Chee: Edinburgh.
Tayari Jones: Silver Sparrow.
Rosencrans Baldwin: Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down.
Tao Lin: Richard Yates.
Dan Chaon: Stay Awake.
Christopher Dickey: Securing the City.
11. Authors (Indirect Involvement)
Reading Ardor: Two readers go through Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle.
Chuck Palahniuk: Don’t forward this blog to any Turkish publishing houses.
John Banville Spectates Tennis: Serving up some observations on tennis. (I’ll excuse myself now.)
Martin Amis Drinking: This should really just be a livestream video feed of Amis at all times.
A. O. Scott Zingers: The film critic’s best one-liners.
Fitzgerald Quotes: F. Scott’s got lines for days.
Reading Markson Reading: Brainchild of Millions contributor, Tyler Malone.
12. Poets — As with the authors list, Tumblr’s poetry “Spotlight” can be found here.
Leigh Stein: Dispatch From the Future.
Michael Robbins: Alien vs. Predator.
Paolo Javier: The Feeling Is Actual. Full disclosure: Paolo was one of my college professors.
Zachary Schomburg: Fjords Vol. 1. He’s also one of the founders of Octopus Magazine.
Saeed Jones: When the Only Light is Fire. This blog is really cool. It’s like the poet’s global travelogue.
13. Bookstores — I’ll list the location of each one.
Unabridged: Chicago’s Lake View neighborhood.
Community Bookstore: Park Slope, Brooklyn.
McNally Kids: Manhattan.
Skylight Books: Los Angeles.
Open Books: Chicago.
Emily Books: The Internet.
Mercer Island Books: Seattle.
Luminous Books: East London.
Politics & Prose: Washington D.C.
Micawber’s: St. Paul.
City Lights: San Francisco.
57th Street Books: Chicago’s Hyde Park.
The Little Book Room: Melbourne, Australia.
Tattered Cover: Denver.
Uncharted Books: Chicago.
Green Apple Books: San Francisco.
Taylor Books: Charleston, WV.
Darien Library: Excellent posts from one of the best libraries in the nation.
Looks Like Library Science: “Challenging the librarian stereotype.”
Live From the NYPL: Events and goings-on at the NYPL.
Library Journal: The editors of LJ share what they’re reading.
School Library Journal: Ditto for their scholastic counterparts.
Espresso Brooklyn: The Brooklyn Public Library has an espresso on-demand book printing machine. How cool is it that it has its own blog, too?
15. BONUS SECTION DEVOTED TO @Horse_ebooks — Everybody’s favorite Dadaist Twitter handle has a devoted following on the blogging platform.
Horse_ Fan Fiction: Look no further than your Twitter timeline for the best writing prompts on earth.
Annotated Horse_: A valuable resource for the inevitable scholarly study of Horse_’s oeuvre.
33, Pyramid, and Dalton: Max Read’s impressive catalog of recurring Horse_ themes.
16. Wish List
Oxford American: Maybe not the best time for the magazine at the moment, but my wish from last time still stands.
Garden & Gun
Oxford University Press
More authors and poets!
Last summer, several sheets to the wind, a novelist friend of mine and I found ourselves waxing nostalgic about 1997 – the year when Underworld, American Pastoral, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Mason & Dixon came out. (It was also probably the year both of us finished working our way through Infinite Jest, which had been published a year earlier.) Ah, sweet 1997. I was tempted to say that times like those wouldn’t come around again.
This year, however, Pisces must have been in Aquarius, or vice versa, or something. The number of novelists with a plausible claim to having published major work forms a kind of alphabet: Aira, Amis, Bolaño, Boyd, Carey, Cohen, Cunningam, Donoghue, Flaubert (by way of Davis), Grossman, Krauss, Krilanovich, Lee, Lipsyte, Marlantes, McCarthy, Mitchell, Moody, Ozick, Shriver, Shteyngart, Udall, Valtat, Yamashita… A career-defining omnibus appeared from Deborah Eisenberg, and also from Ann Beattie. Philip Roth, if the reviews are to believed, got his groove back. It even feels like I’m forgetting someone. Oh, well, it will come to me, I’m sure. In the meantime, you get the point. 2010 was a really good year for fiction.
Among the most enjoyable new novels I read were a couple that had affinities: Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies and Adam Levin’s The Instructions. (Disclosure: Adam Levin once rewired a ceiling fan for me. (Disclosure: not really.)) Each of these huge and hugely ambitious books has some notable flaws, and I wanted to resist them both, having developed an allergy to hyperintelligent junior high students. But each finds a way to reconnect the hermetic world of the ‘tween with the wider world our hopes eventually run up against. Murray and Levin are writers of great promise, and, more importantly, deep feeling, and their average age is something like 34, which means there’s likely more good stuff to come.
Another book I admired this year was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, but since everybody else did, too, you can read about it elsewhere in this series. Let me instead direct your attention to Matthew Sharpe’s more modestly pyrotechnic You Were Wrong. Here Sharpe trains his considerable narrative brio on the most mundane of worlds – Long Island – with illuminating, and disconcerting, results. You Were Wrong, unlike The Instructions et al, also has the virtue of being short. As does Bolaño’s incendiary Antwerp (or any of the several great stories in The Return). Or Cesar Aira’s wonderful Ghosts, which I finally got around to. Hey, maybe 2010 was actually the year of the short novel, I began to think, right after I finished a piece arguing exactly the opposite.
Then, late in the year, when I thought I had my reading nailed down, the translation of Mathias Énard’s Zone arrived like a bomb in my mailbox. The synopsis makes it sounds like rough sledding – a 500-page run-on sentence about a guy on a train – but don’t be fooled. Zone turns out to be vital and moving and vast in its scope, like W.G. Sebald at his most anxious, or Graham Greene at his most urgent, or (why not) James Joyce at his most earthy, only all at the same time.
When it came to nonfiction, three books stood out for me, each of them a bit older. The first was Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, an utterly unclassifiable, conspicuously brilliant, and criminally entertaining magnum opus about consciousness, brains, and formal systems that has been blowing minds for several generations now. The second was Alberto Manguel’s 2008 essay collection, The Library at Night. No better argument for the book qua book exists, not so much because of what Manguel says here, but because the manner in which he says it – ruminative, learned, patient, just – embodies its greatest virtues. And the third was The Magician’s Doubts, a searching look at Nabokov by Michael Wood, who is surely one of our best critics.
Speaking of Nabokov: as great a year as 2010 was for new fiction, it was also the year in which I read Ada, and so a year when the best books I read were classics. In this, it was like any other year. I loved Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children for its language. I loved Andrey Platonov’s Soul for its intimate comedy and its tragic sensibility. I loved that Chekhov’s story “The Duel” was secretly a novel. I loved the Pevear/Volokhonsky production The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories for making a third fat Tolstoy masterpiece to lose myself in. About A House for Mr. Biswas, I loved Mr. Biswas.
And then there were my three favorite reading experiences of the year: Péter Esterházy’s Celestial Harmonies, a book about the chains of history and paternity and politics that reads like pure freedom; Dr. Faustus, which I loved less than I did The Magic Mountain, but admired more, if that’s even possible; and The Age of Innocence. Our own Lydia Kiesling has said pretty much everything I want to say about the latter, but let me just add that it’s about as close to perfection as you’d want that imperfect beast, the novel, to come. She was wild in her way, Edith Wharton, a secret sensualist, and still as scrupulous as her great friend Henry James. Like his, her understanding of what makes people tick remains utterly up-to-the-minute, and is likely to remain so in 2015, and 2035… by which time we may know about which of the many fine books that came out this year we can say the same thing. Ah, sweet 2010, we hardly knew ye.
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Jonathan Franzen occupies the cover of this week’s Time, and, as the magazine will happily point out, he’s the first novelist to do so in “more than a decade.” The Franzen cover—and the Franzen headline: “Great American Novelist”—is a pretty transparent bit of attention-mongering. After all, Franzen’s predecessor, Stephen King, got only one paragraph in his cover story, and Time profiled Franzen only four years ago. (Both Franzen stories include lots of bird watching and Lev Grossman.)
Still, Time could use a boost as much as literature, and it’s hard to fault the magazine. In fact, its choice of Franzen provides an opportunity to look back at Time’s long history as literary arbiter and evangelist.
In The Powers That Be, David Halberstam writes that Time impresario Henry Luce
had a powerful sense of what people should read, what was good for them to read, and an essential belief worthy of the best journalist, that any subject of importance could be made interesting. Thus the cover story, the personalizing of issues so that a lay reader could become more interested and more involved in serious reading matter.
This same impulse seems to be at work in Time’s Franzen cover. (Under the headline it reads: “His characters don’t solve mysteries, have magical powers or live in the future.”) Franzen himself has remarked on it. In his famous Harper’s essay “Perchance to Dream,” he writes that “my father, who was not a reader, nevertheless had some acquaintance with James Baldwin and John Cheever, because Time magazine put them on its cover.”
Franzen ends up arguing that a shift in Time’s cover choices—from James Joyce to Scott Turow—offers more proof of America’s cultural decline. But just about every interaction between Time and a literary type has been characterized by a waffling between reaching out and selling out that, today, we’d describe as Franzean. Two favorite examples: When Bennett Cerf tried to convince William Faulkner to do a second Time cover, 15 years after his first, Faulkner asked for an estimate on how much it would add to Random House’s bottom line so that he could simply reimburse the publisher. In The Prisoner of Sex, Norman Mailer—who seems to have married Jeanne Campbell, Luce’s former mistress, for revenge as much as for love—recalls Time’s offer of “a cover story on the author’s reactions to the most prominent phenomenon of the summer season: the extraordinary surge of interest in Women’s Liberation.” Despite having a movie to promote, Mailer decides that “only a fool would throw serious remarks into the hopper at Time.”
In 1923, Joseph Conrad appeared on Time’s first bookish cover and its sixth overall. The story began:
Joseph Conrad, rover of the seven seas, has never set foot in the United States. Now he is coming. At about the end of this month the man who holds probably the most exalted position in contemporary English letters is to arrive here for a visit which it is hoped will last through May.
And that’s about it. Conrad’s entire cover story ran only 425 words, a standard length for early Time articles, and this first batch of literary covers were mostly linked to reviews. Thanks to the magazine’s short and punchy house style, these reviews always managed to include some biographical information. (The section on “The Author” came right after the one on “The Significance.”)
By the 1930s, though, you could see a formula beginning to set — a personalized opening, a capsule biography, some detailed description (Willa Cather “looks and talks like a kindly, sensible Middle-Western housewife, stout, low-heeled, good at marketing and mending“), and, above all, a few kind words about the author’s latest. Given Time’s practice of deploying multiple reporters, these profiles were often the most thorough or invasive of their time. (The J. D. Salinger cover story is a good example of this.) Given Time’s goal of reaching the broadest possible audience, these profiles also turned their subjects into rather flat characters: Cather the housewife, Hemingway the hunter, and so on.
The other thing to say about Time’s audience is that, from the beginning, the magazine has paid attention to lowbrow lit. Its cover story on E. Phillips Oppenheim praises his “light fiction” and opens with a mutually flattering comparison to Henry Ford, and this is one of many such examples. In fact, after surveying its literary history, I’m more surprised that Time hasn’t put Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer on its cover than that Jonathan Franzen made the cut. (Time did put Harry Potter on its cover for what was essentially a profile of J. K. Rowling.)
Below, you too can survey this history through links to the covers and cover stories for each of Time’s literary stars. Read them to chuckle at the magazine’s weakness for hype (Robinson Jeffers is someone “a considerable public now considers the most impressive poet the U. S. has yet produced“). Read them to get a contemporary perspective on some historical figures (though don’t expect the best and the brightest: Lillian Ross’s New Yorker profile of Hemingway, for example, is much better than Time’s). Read them to marvel at Time’s uncanny ability to feature the best writers’ worst books. Most of all, read them to watch how this red-bordered cultural institution ferries between the high and the low. The Virginia Woolf cover story is especially good at this, but all of them do it to one degree or another. Even Jonathan Franzen’s.
Time put 14 authors on its cover in the 1920s, 23 in the 1930s, seven in the 1940s, 11 in the 1950s, 10 in the 1960s, eight in the 1970s, four in the 1980s, four in the 1990s, one in the 2000s, and, now, Franzen in 2010. That adds up to an objective-sounding 83, but I should explain my principles in compiling this list. While Time also likes to revive dead authors—Faulkner, for example, submitted to that second cover in 1964, two years after his death—I included only living authors who wrote primarily imaginative work: novels, plays, or poetry. These criteria still left room for some judgment calls—William Allen White did not make the list because he’s better known for his politics and his newspapering (and because White’s cover story focuses on his Kansas gubernatorial campaign), but I kept Upton Sinclair and the cover story on his California gubernatorial campaign. Feel free to dispute my choices or to add anyone I missed in the comments.
Each entry includes the author’s name and, where applicable, the name of the work that prompted the profile. There are also links to a print-friendly version of the cover story and to an image of the cover itself. In fact, thanks to Time’s new paywall, the Franzen cover story is the only one you can’t read online.
Israel Zangwill. “Imaginary Interviews: Israel Zangwill, Englishman of Letters.” September 17, 1923. Cover image.
Amy Lowell / John Keats. “Miss Lowell Eulogizes, Analyzes, Forgives the Poet.” March 2, 1925. Cover image.
There is a kind of Turkish music called Arabesk. I’m not an expert, but by rough definition it is very sad and melodramatic, the kind of music to which old men sit and drink a booze called rakı (lion’s milk, to the Arabesk crowd) and wave their hands and sing along and get teary-eyed and feel sad. Arabesk songs have titles like “God Hates a Lie,” “Woman in Pain,” “Am I not a Human Being?,” and “I Have the Suffering, You Have the Cure” (Dert Bende, my personal favorite, by Ajda Pekkan). Sometimes Turkish people laugh at me when I say I like this kind of music, but I think it’s the most beautiful music alive. I can’t understand all of it (maybe that’s why I like it so much), but in the right mood, it makes my heart crack in a thousand pieces. (I’m not kidding about the booze, by the way. On YouTube, under songs by the famous Arabesk singer Bergen, there are comments like “I’m listening and drinking rakı,” to which someone will respond “Drink, brother, drink. I’m having a beer.”)
Arabesk is music for indoors smoking and lost love and breaking up or knocking up or beating up. Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence is like an Arabesk song, as written by Marcel Proust. It opens like this:
It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn’t know it. Had I known, had I cherished this gift, would everything have turned out differently? Yes, if I had recognized this instant of perfect happiness, I would have held it fast and never let it slip away…
Someone get me a drink.
In the streets in Beyoğlu, close to where the novel takes place, there are lots of shops selling postcards and posters and old magazines and all manner of stuff. Once I bought an Efes beer advertisement from the seventies showing a lively technicolored family around the kitchen table–Mom and Dad enjoying a glass of the national brew. These were the triumphant modern citizens of Atatürk’s Turkey! Look how bright and forward-thinking! Examine Ma’s stylish permanent wave. Of course, what you can’t see in the ad is the perpetual struggle between the ultra-nationalists, the leftists, the Islamists, the fascists, and other Ists, a struggle punctuated by the military, which every ten years or so marched in and told everyone to fuck right off. Nor do you see the eternal struggle between secularity and religion, the eternal embarrassment of the rich and urbane for the poor and benighted, or the eternal wrangling over virginity.
Orhan Pamuk, of course, can see all this, although his central character is a citizen of that swinging, modern Turkey, for whom the nation’s sociopolitical struggles are not a primary concern. Kemal, the novel’s protagonist, is one of the sophisticated rich who gets imported liquor for parties at the Hilton (rather than the provincial rich, who gape at uncovered women and get fruit sodas). By chance or destiny or whatever, Kemal, engaged to a fellow bright young thing, starts an affair with an unpedigreed relative, Füsun. There has been big talk on the dearth of sex in the writing of contemporary men–this book has sex, by God. Right from the get-go, there are big pear breasts and honey skin and nipples like strawberries and trysts in an airless apartment. The affair (and Kemal’s engagement) end rather quickly, but the ensuing anguish and thwarted desire and inscrutable looks stretch on almost a decade.
In an effort to win back the unsophisticated relative, Kemal spurns the trendy restaurants and cafes of his peers, going instead to her family’s shabby home to sit, night after night after night. The beloved Füsun, an aspiring actress whose emotional depths are for the most part unplumbable, appears to be happy with her chubby husband, a screenwriter and director. Cousin Kemal, they are all agreed, will finance the film that will propel her to success, and in the meantime they drink in seedy film hangouts (probably with Ajda Pekkan) and smoke an obscene number of cigarettes. All the while, everyone behaves as though brooding Kemal isn’t dying of love, and brooding Kemal, displaying markedly kleptomaniac traits, pockets everything his beloved touches. One day, these objects will populate his museum. At about year six of the family sitting, you’re not sure whether Kemal is a crazy as a loon, if this woman wants anything to do with him, if she’s a moron, if she’s a victim, if he’s one of the world’s great lovers, or if he’s just an asshole. I can’t say more, for fear of spoilers.
Meanwhile, Istanbul is happening all around, the sounds and the smells and the politics and the writhing humanity. It’s no secret that Orhan Pamuk knows and loves his city, and it is a character here as in his other books. Beyond Kemal and his Arabesk yearning, the story is about Turkey, about the collective life of the Turks, sitting in their living rooms, smoking their cigarettes, watching the state channel, and soothing themselves with food and drink and china dogs. In the streets, the politically-minded thrash around and exchange bullets toward an obscure purpose.
Essays about Turkish literature and criticism often seem obsessed with the idea of “belatedness.” Even those scholars who wish to protest this characterization seem to reify it through constant iteration–that Turkey is always behind. Pamuk’s novel engages this idea in a comic way, describing the wounds sustained by Kemal and his hip cohort as they attempt to use another mysterious gadget imported from the West (can openers and the like). Of an evening in Paris, Kemal writes:
I caught myself asking the questions that occur to every Turk who goes abroad (if he has some education and a bit of money): What did these Europeans think about me? What did they think about us all?
(I’ve always felt that the United States and Turkey have a number of things in common, especially in this regard, but that’s another essay).
Even as Pamuk writes of a country running to catch up, he writes of a country that is so unlike anywhere else, and so much itself and as a consequence so desirable, that the rest of the us find ourselves scratching at its door like puppies hoping to be let in. For all that Pamuk the citizen has been embroiled in legal struggles with the Turkish state, he strikes me in one sense as an elemental patriot. To chronicle something obsessively is a form of love, and Pamuk documents the details of his Istanbul obsessively, just as his character Kemal creates his museum of innocence out of the universe of meaningless bric-a-brac surrounding his beloved.
The last Orhan Pamuk novel I read was The Black Book, which was so esoteric that I found it a struggle. This book seems more straightforward, but that’s in style only. Its themes run deep and dark, even if they mirror the preoccupations of a seventies crooner. The style’s simplicity is, of course, deceptive; it’s not easy to write hundreds of pages of sitting, smoking, drinking, brooding. Nor has Pamuk abandoned his solemn post-modern playfulness. Deliberately, I believe (particularly since he mentions them), he invokes Nabokov (especially Ada and The Gift) and Proust. Furthermore, the extraordinary man is actually creating a real Museum of Innocence, in which he will display the various knick-knacks and impedimenta of daily life. That’s so many posts past modern, I don’t know what it is.
One day I hope to be able to read this in Turkish. I’m on page 8 of Kar (Snow), which I bought in 2006, so I have a lot of work to do. But The Museum of Innocence is not a novel that seems to suffer in translation, which is beautifully executed by Maureen Freely. I was spellbound for four days.
It’s really a remarkable book. Read it, and bring your rakı and your nicorette. Bring your sad songs and your broken heart. If you have the suffering, I have the cure.
Lawrence Weschler has observed, astutely, that writers tend to move from Romanesque to Gothic. The early work will be thick, solid, even heavy; only with decades of experience does the writer learn to chisel away excess, as the builders of Notre Dame did: to let in the light. In the case of Vladimir Nabokov, however, the converse seems to obtain. Of the major edifices he erected in English, his last, Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969), is his most excessive, both in its difficulty and in the pleasures it affords the (re)reader.
That excess begins with sheer length. At 589 pages (plus endnotes!), Ada is twice the size of your average Nabokov paperback. Nor would it be fair to call Ada a page-turner; even as it hews to the plot of the “family chronicle,” it elaborates on the textual gamesmanship of its immediate predecessor, Pale Fire (1962). Riddles, anagrams, and puns abound. This is not to mention the density of intertextual allusion, which makes Humbert Humbert look like Duran Duran.
What I’ve come to think of (somewhat unfairly) as the grad-school response to such allusiveness – treating each sentence like a puzzle to be solved – isn’t always the best way to approach to a tough text. With Finnegans Wake, for example, a willingness to let things wash over you can be the difference between sublimity and seasickness. With Ada, however, if you aren’t playing along at home with your Nabokov decoder ring, you’re probably missing something. And the anagrammatic annotator “Vivian Darkbloom” has left us a set of valuable hints in the end matter. (A brilliant, if half-complete, online annotation offers further assistance. Would that one of these sites existed for each of our Difficult Books!)
Ada’s greatest puzzle, in all senses, is its setting. The opening line – a misquotation from “Anna Arkadievitch Karenina” – signals that the world of this novel will be a somewhat garbled translation of our own: an “anti-Terra.” In place of Borges, Anti-Terra has Osberg. In place of French Canadians, it has Russian Estotians. It is sometimes called Demonia. “Our demons,” we are told, “are noble iridescent creatures with translucent talons and mightily beating wings; but in the eighteen-sixties the New Believers urged one to imagine a sphere where our splendid friends had been utterly degraded, had become nothing but vicious monsters, disgusting devils.” In short, Nabokov has thrown us into the deep end, and expects us to stitch our own life preservers.
Doing so means reconstructing the history and geography not only of anti-Terra, but also of “Terra” – the mythical “sphere” alluded to above. This mirror-world turns out to be, from our standpoint, nearer to reality, but from the perspective of of anti-Terra, as far-out as Zembla. Who but those wacky New Believers could possibly credit the existence of Athaulf the Future, “a fair-haired giant in a natty uniform…in the act of transforming a gingerbread Germany into a great country?”
The novel’s other key dyad is Van and Ada Veen – the first cousins-cum-siblings (long story) whose love lies at the heart of the book. The incestuous nature of their affair would seem to present readers with yet another difficulty. But Ada is “about” incest only in the way that Lolita is “about” pedophilia, or Moby-Dick is “about” fishing. Which is to say, it isn’t. In his wonderful book The Magician’s Doubts (which prodded me to pick up Ada in the first place), the critic Michael Wood proposes that the novel’s subject is in fact “happiness” – generally felt to be the hardest thing to write about. And in the face of Nabokov’s superheated imagination, even Wood’s generous reading feels a little reductive. Ada is also about freedom, writing, desire, passion, and what time and distance do to all of the above.
Ultimately, Nabokov manages a kind of Proustian magic trick: he recovers, through evocation, the very things whose losses he depicts. His exquisite, synesthetic sentences render the past present, the time-bound timeless. And they bring this author, not noted for his sympathetic disposition, so close to his hero that the difference disappears. Van Veen’s peculiar ardor becomes universal; to read the description is to share in the experience:The males of the firefly, a small luminous beetle, more like a wandering star than a winged insect, appeared on the first warm black nights of Ardis, one by one, here and there, then in a ghostly multitude, dwindling again to a few individuals as their quest came to its natural end.And:After the first contact, so light, so mute, between his soft lips and her softer skin had been established – high up in that dappled tree, with only that stray ardilla daintily leavesdropping – nothing seemed changed in one sense, all was lost in another. Such contacts evolve their own texture; a tactile sensation is a blind spot; we touch in silhouette.Aesthetically, intellectually, and even morally, this is a Difficult Book par excellence. It demands a lover’s patience. But sentences like these are our steadfast consolation for submitting to the wiles of Ada.