It makes little sense to come up with another list of “best” Chicago books. To select a “top” 10 (or 20 or 1,000) has always seemed arbitrary and destined for accusations of unjustified boosterism and hyperbole, even in a city built on a foundation of unjustified boosterism and hyperbole. Fairly or unfairly, Chicago often serves as a general proxy for American cities. Love or hate this idea of ostensible representativeness (most Chicagoans kind of just roll their eyes), to embrace it can prove helpful in one respect: looking at ambition, failed policies, immigration, founding myths, and contemporary life in Chicago, you find resonance elsewhere in America. When thinking through issues confronted by American cities today (and maybe always) -- unequal distribution of resources, violent policing, persistent de facto segregation, administrative corruption, privatization of public services, neoliberal coddling of gentrification, fallout from decades of environmental degradation, and others -- Chicago serves as a vital case study. The local commentariat here works itself into spitting rages whenever any outsider -- especially if that outsider bears a New York Times business card -- parachutes into the Loop for 36 hours to explain Chi-Town (seriously, stop it: no one here calls it that) to the rest of the world. So, designed as a “Chicago 101” syllabus, these books serve as starting points rather than final judgments. They place Chicago at the center of ideas about city life, in some case pressing back on prevailing narratives about American urbanism. Instead of best Chicago books, this selection focuses on books that use a Chicago-centric perspective to address challenges that other places similarly confront. And given that I’m leaving town this fall and casting my lot with the outsiders when I transplant to -- I cringe, really, it feels like betrayal -- Brooklyn, I wanted to get this thing together before the movers arrive. Much is missing: I chose not to focus on novels because so many others have done so, and poetry is almost entirely absent. Nelson Algren and Carl Sandburg were not on this list because they are prerequisites for the list. But with the excuses that I don’t intend on completeness and the movers at the gates, I hope it’s acceptable to leave gaps that conversation might fill. 1. “It Really Wasn’t Much of a Place at All.” Dominic A. Pacyga opens Chicago: A Biography, his sweeping history of the Midwest’s largest city, with Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet. The priest and explorer first came upon a portage between the Chicago and Illinois Rivers in 1673. To build a canal here would be to connect the Great Lakes to the Mississippi, creating the largest inland waterway in the world and facilitating transportation from New York Harbor to the Mississippi along the entire midsection of the continent. There’s a lot in between and after, and the last page of Pacyga’s book makes it to Barack Obama’s inauguration as President of the United States. That Pacyga covers so much -- from the fire that destroyed one third of Chicago in 1871, to the city’s subsequent explosive growth (Chicago had a 1.7 million residents by 1900), to the Haymarket riot, to the 1968 DNC -- should give a sense of the book’s scope. With so much terrain to cover, it comes as little surprise that even major events get relatively little space. Pacyga does, however, provide an especially detailed account of labor upheavals that characterized Chicago around the turn of the 20th century, providing context for understanding the city’s pushback against the rampant capitalism for which it earned its reputation. Chicago: A Biography represents an essential starting point, primarily because it tracks the evolution of the city from a mucky swamp to a “global city.” 2. “Natural Advantages” William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis and Donald Miller’s City of the Century both present meticulously detailed and conceptually riveting pictures of Chicago in the 1800’s -- a century of incredible expansion. Chicago’s founding hustlers (to borrow Nelson Algren’s term for his fellow Chicagoans) proclaimed as early as the 1830’s that a marsh named for stinking onions by indigenous people, seated aside gloriously fertile grasslands on the shores of an inland ocean, would one day represent “the most important point in the great west.” By the time of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, the climax of Chicago’s ascendant century, that destiny had been realized. Cronon and Miller interrogate the stakes of this transformation, asking about the lives it altered and about the enduring epistemic shifts that Chicago’s rise implied for the United States. Chicago transformed America’s relationship with the West and with capital itself, producing not only a vast urban expanse but also structuring what we would come to understand as “rural,” “suburban,” and “hinterland.” Cronon helps us understand how the city transformed goods into abstract commodities, reshaping our relationship to the food we buy and the environment we consume. He shows how rail transit didn’t just connect distant places, but rather restructured our very understanding of space and time. In notable contrast, Miller’s history dives into the enormous cast of characters that built Chicago and chronicled its rise. City of the Century’s meticulous characterization of the “hustlers” that poured concrete into Chicago’s foundations provides singular descriptions of this cast’s influence on the city’s trajectory. 3.“High Strung, Contagious Enthusiasm” Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City has become standard literary fare for newcomers to Chicago, and one will often find multiple copies in a transplant’s household. Larson dramatizes the planning of the aforementioned World’s Columbian Exposition, which marked the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to America. Planning required construction of an enormous classical-inspired city in Jackson Park on the South Side, involving many of the city’s (and nation’s) architectural and economic leaders, and marking Chicago’s global coming-out party. Lurking in the crowds, H.H. Holmes -- the book’s eponymous devil -- became one of America’s first serial killers. He committed scores of murders silently throughout the fair, the urban anonymity afforded him by the crowds facilitating his crimes. Larson’s book has become important, not just as a document that depicts this contradiction between glorious spectacle and urban underbelly, but also because his romanticized vision of Chicago squares with how the city still views the fair. Its spectacle (and specter) looms large in Chicago’s self-conception. Where Larson spends time examining the drama among fair planners, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Kid on Earth presents an imaginative -- and sparely, gorgeously rendered -- view of the event’s history through a child’s eyes. An emotionally paralyzed man living in present-day Chicago, Jimmy attempts to reconnect with his father. In scenes from the 1800s, the monumental fair casts similar shadows over an inter-generational Corrigan family history. Ware depicts how the tendrils of Chicago’s past reach to its present in a city with a complicated history. 4. Plans for Chicago To understand how American cities thought of their futures at the turn of the 20th century, one must consider two very different city planners in Chicago. Jane Addams founded Hull-House in 1889, well before the Columbian Exposition’s electric lights flickered on. Her settlement house ultimately comprised an enormous complex of buildings in one of Chicago’s poorest immigrant neighborhoods. In Twenty Years at Hull House, one gets the sense of Addams’s determination to reformulate the way that cities treated the poor and immigrant classes -- with dignity and a focus on individuals. She charted a course for services and advocacy for the poor that formed the foundation of social work and emphasized that communities matter in urban development. Concurrently, Daniel Burnham -- architect of the Columbian Exposition -- moved on from the fair to create an urban plan that would transform Chicago and cement the city’s status as a global metropolis. Carl Smith’s The Plan of Chicago makes it clear that Burnham’s monumental visions leave a complicated legacy. Despite “sincere” hopes that “City Beautiful” concepts would ennoble the poor, the Plan of Chicago deserves criticism for overlooking conditions of daily life for those to whom Addams ministered. As much as it marks a culmination of optimism in city planning, it lays some of the foundation for abysmal policies that would haunt public housing in Chicago and in many other cities. Moreover, it marks a kind of opening chapter in “public-private partnerships” that govern contemporary efforts to encourage markets to solve urban problems. 5. Bigger Ambitions for Chicago-Born Novels Native Son and The Adventures of Augie March belong at the heart of any serious conversation about Chicago novels (though I find Augie difficult to get through). The ambitions of Richard Wright and Saul Bellow in these two midcentury novels rise to the level of Chicago’s ambitions for itself. Their alternatingly devastating and ennobling investigations of individual agency and social determination in two unforgettable protagonists -- Augie and Bigger Thomas -- make them essential to an understanding of American ideas about selfhood, race, and ambition. It can be easy to forget that these novels take place in Chicago; they belong to us all and not to any one city. “I am an American,” Augie declares right at his beginning. “Chicago born” comes only second, though it acts as validation of his Americanness. Upon reflection, one cannot imagine either novel taking place in any other American city -- one of huge immigrant classes fragmented into neighborhoods bitterly segregated along racial and ethnic lines. Reading these novels together with a spatial understanding of Chicago deepens one’s appreciation for how wide a gulf exists between the lives of their protagonists and the populations they represent. Augie and Bigger find themselves in Hyde Park, for example (which still boasts of its veneer of racial diversity relative to other neighborhoods), but their experiences there are utterly separate. From this smallest of details -- the incongruity of lives despite physical proximity -- emerges persistent truths about the structure of racial dynamics in American cities. 6. Making the Most of Migration The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson's mammoth history of the Great Migration, won the 2015 Chicago Reader’s poll of “Greatest Chicago Book.” Chicago shares billing with LA and NYC as important destinations for those whose lives Wilkerson traces from the rural south to the urban north and west, but there can be no doubt that the Great Migration wrought indelible changes in the social fabric of every region in the United States from World War I through the 1970s; and in this story, Chicago plays a central role. Unwavering in her depictions of the political and physical violence of Jim Crow and nuanced in both her telling of personal stories and descriptions of broader effects of the migration on cities and people, Wilkerson's book is the seminal text on the largest internal migration in American history. Meanwhile, Adam Green’s Selling the Race provides an incisive contribution to conversations about how black Chicagoans carved a place for culture in modern America. Against prevailing narratives that cast black Americans (including many new migrants to Chicago) as victims of modernity, swept up by forces that looked to capitalize on anxieties of belonging, Green argues that they became powerful agents of cultural production. Examples from Mahalia Jackson to Ebony and Jet magazine (product of the Chicago-based Johnson Publications) present a rich picture of how much of black culture was generated and packaged for sale to wide audiences in Chicago. 7. Obsessions with the Ordinary No city values the “ordinary” so dearly as Chicago. And if Studs Terkel stands as the everyman’s greatest champion, his Division Street America best ties the city’s affection for ordinariness to American identity. It would be a mistake to suggest that Terkel shilled the myth of a “city that works” (a term coined by Richard J. Daley). Rather, his no-nonsense portrayals of everyday Chicagoans -- rich, poor, Democrat, Republican, racist, gay, jag-baggy, and others -- coalesce to create this affecting hodgepodge. As Alex Kotlowitz (no slouch himself in the department of spotlighting and writing movingly about injustice in Chicago) has observed, there’s always Studs in the background -- curious, probing, insisting, and asking questions that prompt often-ignored individuals to tell their stories. Vivian Maier, whose recently discovered work also transacts in Chicago’s obsession with the ordinary, may outshine Terkel decades from now. She embodies the perfect female flâneur (or, as historian Lauren Elkin has rightly insisted, flâneuse). Maier spent most of her life as a nanny in Chicago, secretly capturing some 100,000 images on the city’s streets. The domestic nature of her work all but guaranteed invisibility, given chauvinistic structures of artistic production and labor valuation. But when John Maloof was researching the Northwest Side neighborhood of Portage Park in 2007, he came upon Maier’s forgotten images. He bought and disseminated them. Vivian Maier: A Photographer Found is a great introduction and Maier now belongs in discussions about great American street photographers. Hers is an utterly Chicago story. 8. Daley’s Siege Richard J. Daley reigned over much of 20th-century Chicago. He ruled the city from 1955 until 1971, dominated Democratic Machine politics, and earned all of his enemies. Several books on this list describe Daley, and his complicated legacy plays out differently in their assessments. For this reason, I have left out of this list any Daley biographies. Perhaps no account of Daley proves as brutal as Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago. In his run-up to descriptions of protests and Chicago police reprisals, Mailer writes, “Daley was no national politician, but a clansman.” The 1968 DNC, convened by Daley, proved a flashpoint in American political history. The chaos fragmented the Democratic Party nationally, and set the stage for Richard Nixon’s victory in November. In Mailer’s description of Chicago, his clear affection for the city makes it all the more heartbreaking (despite his intimations of inevitability) that the fractures of American society should appear on live television broadcasts from Michigan Avenue. Algren-esque musings notwithstanding, Mailer remains a Chicago outsider. So it feels appropriate to add Chicagoan Haskell Wexler’s film Medium Cool to this list of books. Combining documentary footage of the convention protests with a fictional film, Wexler enlivens and deepens Mailer’s account. He depicts the tumult of 1968 like perhaps no other text from that stormy year. As a bonus, Medium Cool echoes experiments happening in documentary at places like Kartemquin films, which would go on to produce the now-canonical Chicago films Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters. 9. Out in Chicago The most recently published addition to this list is Timothy Stewart-Winter’s Queer Clout. In it, Stewart-Winter troubles the dominant narrative of 20th-century gay rights activism in the United States, which typically treats New York and San Francisco as the two central cities, often to the exclusion of the Midwest. He fills this narrative with a cacophonous history of LGBTQ culture and activism in Chicago, where firings, shakedowns, police bribes, and bar raids were just as much a part of life throughout the city as anywhere else. Effective action depended ultimately on collaborations between gay rights and black civil rights groups, and the pursuit of delicate coalitions. Queer Clout traces the fits and starts of these collaborations and coalitions. Post-Orlando, Stewart-Winter’s discussion of the importance of gay bars for LGBTQ individuals -- historically and presently -- seems especially valuable. Bars served ground zero for exploitation by law enforcement, but also as meeting places and (most of the time) safe havens. Stewart-Winter cautions against readily equating the gay rights movement with the civil rights movement; the layering of race, sexual orientation, and gender identification necessitates a more complicated picture. And his affecting description of unequal access to healthcare among Chicagoans affected by AIDS creates a devastating picture of failed policies. In a city divided between a black south and white north, lack of access to educational resources, preventive care, and treatment becomes a reminder of how segregation produces injustice that communities and policymakers must continue to fight to address. 10. Humboldt Park To understand gentrification in Chicago, head to the Humboldt Park neighborhood, where protests against rising rents, tax hikes, and teardowns took place recently on the 606. This park, built on a former rail line, echoes efforts in other cities to erase industrial infrastructure from urban landscapes. Having whetted the appetite of developers, The 606 has accelerated the pace at which Humboldt Park is becoming unaffordable for longtime residents. Sandra Cisneros grew up in Humboldt Park. Her beloved The House on Mango Street takes place in a similar fictional neighborhood. Traditional readings peg the novella as the coming-of-age story of Esperanza, a daughter of Mexican immigrants. Cisneros experiments with form -- the book is a series of short vignettes -- to explore Esperanza’s struggles with sexuality, national identity, class, and the Spanish language. The poetic language of these depictions alone makes an argument for the work’s importance. To read Mango Street alongside Chris Ware’s Building Stories widens the lens through which readers can examine the relationship between individual and community identity. Ware’s unnamed protagonist, who loses a leg in a childhood accident, lives in Humboldt Park. Her story unfolds across 14 pamphlets, broadsheets, books, and other objects. Like Cisneros, Ware’s formal cartwheels advance conversations about identity. As with Cisneros, the book’s themes center on self-description -- again, a disjointed and chronologically jumbled task (there’s no “right” way to read the book). He’s also interested in the evolving neighborhood, as the heroine moves away and revisits the three-flat in which so much life happens. 11. Whose City? What does Chicago look like today? Natalie Moore’s The South Side, published last year, combines history and memoir to describe neighborhoods in the city that are too often represented in national news media in one-dimensional stories of gun violence. Her book draws productively from her own biography of a childhood in middle-class and largely black Chatham, and feels less concerned with comprehensiveness than with augmenting and correcting the record. As the current South Side reporter for the local NPR affiliate, Moore brings a great deal of connections and numerous voices to this project. By contrast, Larry Bennett’s The Third City offers a picture of contemporary Chicago that seems at times too rosy in its assessment of the younger Richard M. Daley’s infrastructure investments (the book was published before the first term of Mayor Rahm “One Percent” Emanuel). Visions of Chicago as a global city -- one that attracts entrepreneurs to ride the next wave of innovators was for a time called “Silicon Prairie" -- ring with the optimism of the 19th century. It presents a picture of Chicago that has become popular among elected officials looking to attract private money and foreign tourists. This vision of Chicago’s third incarnation (a vision of privatization premised on the notion that a city’s chief ambition should be to attract capital to its core) looks like a new version of Burnham’s century-old Plan. It has fans elsewhere. How to square this vision with the neighborhoods that sustain Chicago, and other cities, remains an unanswered question. 12. There Are No Two Finer Words... Among garrulous Chicagoans, most will grudgingly agree: we miss Hot Doug’s. Chicago treasure Doug Sohn’s sausage emporium was not only a celebration of encased meats, but equally a democratizing force on a desolate block on California Avenue in the Avondale neighborhood. One waited in line (often for more than an hour) whether one was Anthony Bourdain, Aziz Ansari, or even Doug’s dad. In Hot Doug's, the coffee table book that cashed in on Doug’s decision to close the shop not long ago, local voices weigh in on The Line: when they waited, how long they waited for, who got engaged to whom while waiting, who had to rush to the hospital to deliver a baby, etc. Doug reminded us all (always calling us “my friend”) that in Chicago, one waits in line like civilized people. The snow, cold, heat, wind, and rain be damned. 13. Coda: Next Steps There’s so much more to read and through-lines to trace from Carl Sandburg to Gwendolyn Brooks to Aleksandar Hemon to Chance the Rapper. Those interested in extensive lists of Chicago novels should consult, all kidding aside, several best-of lists already out there. My favorite was published by the dearly departed local site Gapers Block, and it organizes novels by neighborhood. Chicago magazine published a fun list of new Chicago-centric reads for the summer. I’m excited to read Margo Jefferson’s Negroland and Darryl Pinckney’s Black Deutschland. And Curbside Splendor Publishing (a local house) recently put out The Empty Bottle Chicago: 21+ Years of Music / Friendly / Dancing, a history of one of the Northwest Side’s most-loved venues. But now, it’s time to get to packing. Image Credit: Pixabay.
The comics theorist Scott McCloud has a status no one in the comics community should have. At the MLA Conference in Vancouver last January, I attended a comics studies panel at which the respondent chastised academics who cite McCloud and only McCloud, ignoring the 22 years of scholarship that followed the publication of his book Understanding Comics. McCloud compares himself to Sigmund Freud. He may be wrong about everything, he says, but he was the first in his field -- or almost the first -- and everyone still has to grapple with his ideas. Whatever his status, McCloud is really a professional amateur, a journeyman who’s spent most of his career pursuing a series of intriguing small projects. In the late '80s and early '90s, he wrote and drew Zot!, an independent black-and-white superhero series. He maintains a website, where, pivoting off of ideas from his 2000 book Reinventing Comics, he develops “inventions” that rethink the comics form for the digital age. In 2006, he wrote the instructional book Making Comics. Last month, First Second published his first graphic novel, The Sculptor, which one approaches with the curiosity one once approached the first novels of Lionel Trilling or James Wood. It is the ambitious first attempt by an important critic to write and draw if not the Great American Graphic Novel, then at least a good American graphic novel. The Sculptor tells the story of a 26-year-old man trying to make it as an artist in New York. He strikes a Faustian bargain with Death that allows him to sculpt any matter his hands touch into the visions he carries in his mind’s eye. In return, he will die in 200 days. He has no immediate family left, and only a few friends he will be leaving behind. After agreeing to the deal, he falls in love with a woman. I talked to McCloud in Seattle on February 12. We met at a café in the U-District a couple hours before his appearance at the University Bookstore. The following is a pared-down transcript of a one-hour conversation. The Millions: After reading the [Understanding Comics] trilogy and looking at all the experiments you’ve been doing online, it surprised me to discover that The Sculptor is, formally-speaking, a very conservative book. Scott McCloud: I agree. I’d describe it the same way. TM: You’re not playing any tricks. There’s no Chris Ware Building Stories attempt along the lines of “let’s see all the games I can play with this idea called the book.” These are the tried-and-true techniques of graphic-novel storytelling. Why was it so conservative? SM: Well after trying to make visible all of these various techniques, I wanted, as much as possible, to bury them, to conceal them. I am something of a formalist and one of the formalist tricks that we like to check off as we’re going down the list of things we can do is to impersonate our opposite number. To become a more intuitive pure storyteller and not necessarily call attention to formal artifacts that previously we were hoping to call attention to. At the same time, I don’t think it was necessarily backwards looking. I was trying to move towards a sort of comic that I wasn’t seeing being done. I would say that in the past decades, there weren’t that many comics like this one, in terms of the way it incorporates reader participation, [which is] something I see in manga but rarely see in American comics. The use of lettering and coloring choices [are] geared towards mapping out the intention and consciousness of the protagonist. I haven’t seen that done much, but I was employing [these concepts] all in the interest of the story. So they lurked quietly in the background and they helped buttress the story. TM: The question of reader participation is a tricky one. I can read a prose novel and forget that I’m reading words on a page, but it’s impossible for me to read a comic and remain unaware of the fact that I’m reading a comic. That awareness leads to reader participation. SM: I agree with you to an extent about there being a fundamental reader participation component to comics and that achieving that transparency in comics is a lot harder than it is in novels. But I don’t think it’s impossible. And I think younger readers achieve it much more often than we do as adults. And I wanted to see if I could get that across. It wasn’t easy, but I think I achieved it and I am getting a lot of feedback from people who do have that sensation of being lost, and getting caught up in the story and just seeing the characters as human beings. In comics, if you open with a street scene, people are going to see drawings of a street scene. And every time they move from one artist to the next those drawings are going to be different. And each change of style just becomes a reiteration of the fact that those are just lines on paper. And I don’t think that’s the case with film and I don’t think that’s the case with prose because...they both relate a world in a relatively seamless way. In the one case [it’s] from the verisimilitude that comes from straight photography. In the other case, [it’s] with the verisimilitude that comes from the consistent texture of our imagination. Comics puts up a lot of barriers. I think one way to get around those barriers is consistency of approach and length. This is a very long book, so people have time to adjust to my style. It’s not just a little 22-page packet. [Hopefully in my case], by paying close attention to the rhythms of real people in conversation and things like facial expressions and body language, [I] managed to bring a little life into the characters so they pop from the page more than in things I’ve done in the past. TM: Your characters are good-looking. This isn’t Daniel Clowes. SM: No, they come from a more attractive, heroic tradition, partially because I don’t have the skill to pull off something less generic. TM: Are there any other reasons for that? SM: I’m drawn as a viewer to that, and as a romance I think it would have been entirely possible to tell a story like this while creating characters that were physically unappealing, but I’m just not that good. And so this fell into that general familiar realm of a romance in which both characters are on some level attractive. It’s not a barrier I was prepared to cross when I was trying to cross so many others. Certainly, the business of learning to write and of learning to draw was going to keep me busy from beginning to end. Trying to do something more subtle or more unconventional with the character design just wasn’t within my skill set. TM: Zot!, by your own admission is filled with many mistakes. It’s not slick. SM: No, not at all. It was my very first book. TM: You were learning. The movements aren’t right. You don’t always know where your eye is supposed to go based on the composition of the page. I won’t continue on, because that’s just mean. I have to say for myself that part of what drew me to reading comics or what drew me back to comics when I was 19, wasn’t so much about looking for masterpieces. It was about enjoying the mistakes, enjoying comics as a form of handwriting, enjoying the lack of slickness. I often feel that what we call great comics have a problem, because the better and more slick you make them the more you lose something. This medium makes these mistakes look aesthetically pleasurable in a way that they’re not in a prose novel. SM: I’ve long been aware of that way of looking at comics and sometimes I share that perspective. But then there are other artists who are prominent exceptions to that. It’s not my primary passion to look for that. It’s not what I hope for in comics. It’s something I accept as something that can make comics warmer and more appealing. But it’s not a prerequisite for things I love in comics. And I do enjoy comics that are much more finely tuned. I think that Jim Woodring, for example, very rarely has a line out of place. His craftsmanship is absolutely impeccable. I don’t wish that his line was more unsteady or that his pen would run out of ink halfway through. I’m glad that those lines are complete because I think it enhances the work. Likewise, I think Chris Ware’s control is one of the elements of his work that I value. Nevertheless, when I was working on The Sculptor, even though it was done digitally, I went through great pains to make sure that the line that I used was, if anything, somewhat uneven. [I designed] my brushes in photoshop [with] a pretty grotty line. If you look closely you’ll see that it’s very knobby and imprecise. But that’s simply because I thought it gave it a warmth that I liked rather than that clean vector line. TM: You made a point in Understanding Comics about how time equals space in comics. These full-page panels at the end of The Sculptor are meant to represent the elongation of a moment. [Note: We are not showing you these pages in order to avoid spoilers.] It’s the comics equivalent of slow-motion. As a reader, I feel it’s my responsibility to read these pages very slowly. SM: Actually, could I just say that as an artist and writer I don’t feel that it’s the reader’s responsibility. It’s the responsibility of me as the storyteller to give the reader cues that would encourage them to quite naturally read at a slower pace. TM: Yes, but it’s very easy to flip through this and not feel the duration of time. SM: My hope as a storyteller is that I embedded enough density of detail, enough narrative density that the eye would begin to slow as well. That I put enough speed bumps [in] the growing complexity of those pages, that people would more naturally slow down. I can’t control that, but it’s my intention to give the eye more incentive to move more slowly through those pages, to slow down time. I don’t think the reader has any responsibility at all. The reader, technically, doesn’t have any responsibility to read from left to right. But it’s usually to the mutual benefit of reader and artist to do it that way. TM: So you don’t believe the reader should be doing work? SM: No, I just don’t believe in the idea of responsibility. The reader should encounter the work in whatever way the reader thinks is beneficial to themselves. And 99 times out of 100 that means reading the work in the expected way. TM: How do you handle the differing experiences various readers will have based on the various paces with which they will approach these pages? SM: Well, there’s an ideal duration and I’m trying to pitch the delivery in such a way that to the best of my abilities most readers will experience it as I intended. I just accept that it’s not mine to control. I can only encourage it. TM: In a review I wrote of Best American Comics 2014 [which McCloud guest-edited], I noted that great comics, unlike great fiction, are allowed to be sentimental. I think The Sculptor is a case in point. It is a very sentimental book. SM: I think so. I think that’s fair. TM: Is sentimentality something you’ve run away from or is it something you’ve actively embraced? SM: Neither. I’ve just come to recognize it. I’ve been aware of it for some time. It was pointed out to me early enough. I’ve tried to reign it in when I felt it was toxic. In this particular story, I tried to maintain a balance to the benefit of the story. I’ll leave it to others to gauge whether I’ve managed to achieve that balance. I’ve never been sentimental as a deliberate aesthetic choice. It’s more just a natural outgrowth of my own personality. My protagonist in the book is described at one point in the book as having an “irony deficiency.” This is a phrase I copped from Leonard Bernstein’s kids who described their dad that way. I always thought that was pretty funny and also pretty on the mark. And when [I heard] it I realized it was probably true of me too. And so I’ve tried to gain a wider aspect of that part of myself. And to try to be more on guard for the ways that can trip up my work. In this particular story, I tried to earn whatever emotional effect it might have on people through a number of avenues that I felt at least would cut that sentimentality with something else. But I was looking for a strong emotional effect. It’s what I felt when approaching these themes. I had strong emotional associations with them. So I wanted to convey that, but I wanted to earn those emotions, not just try to go straight from A to B, which I think is one of the downsides, one of the toxic effects of excess sentimentality. Quickly, cheaply conjuring strong emotions, especially sadness. But there’s no way I’m going to completely change my stripes overnight. I’m not going to stop being a sentimental person, no matter how I approach the work. All I can do is just try to be more self-aware in that respect. And I do think that the book is far more self-aware than say my early stuff like Zot!, where I think I was too eager to go from A to B, A to Z in that emotional journey. TM: What are the talents that you don’t have that you would most like to have? SM: Simplicity. Eloquence. An automatic drawing instinct that would allow me to invent life naturally in improvisation, rather than having to refer to models, which was a necessary evil in this book. I needed to get a lot of life reference, to get across these gestures. I still feel strongly that the very simple rendering approach can be effective. It just wasn’t appropriate for this particular story, so I was stuck in a more realistic mode of drawing than I might have necessarily chosen. You know I tried some early experiments where this was rendered in a much more simple style and it just wouldn’t have worked, partially because of the sensuality that was involved in parts of the story and partly because it was very much concerned with people as things and that’s better conveyed by a more representational style. Mostly though, in terms of what I want to improve, it’s not so much that I want to improve it as that I want to expand. There are other things I want to do. I want to explore color. I want to explore much more radical styles. I still have a very, very long wish list in terms of digital comics that I would like to embark on. So yeah, I just want to run to all four corners of the globe, if that’s not a mixed metaphor. TM: In Reinventing Comics in 2000, you noted that we have yet to get the War and Peace of comics. What for you is the closest we’ve come? SM: I think for me my favorite graphic novel right now is Market Day by James Sturm. I wouldn’t compare it to War and Peace. I think that’s silly. Actually, I think using War and Peace as a comparison point was silly, but I was younger. I don’t know. There’s a lot we’re still waiting for. But we’re beginning to build that shelf of reliable, strong, perennial works that can give us some comfort that this form does have this potential that we’ve talked about. I pick Market Day because it is one of a very small number of works in comics that I consider bulletproof. I think it’s a bulletproof book. And that’s something I’d like to see more of. TM:What do you mean by bulletproof? SM: There’s not a line out of place. There are no excess artifacts to the book. It’s the visual equivalent of the perfectly crafted sentence. I think if it was just all words then E.B. White would be proud of the way he omitted everything needless [if he had written it]. And I think the story is very moving. What it says to me is sufficiently inscrutable that it rewards repeat readings. I like that book a lot. TM: Do you feel the graphic novel is overrated? At least within the medium. Do you think we grant it a certain prestige that unfairly places it above other forms the comic may take? SM: I think some graphic novels are overrated. But it goes project by project. I don’t think Jim Woodring is overrated. I think some people treat us with kid gloves. You know there’s an arbitrariness to critical perception. I think a lot of what you’re asking has to do with the arbitrariness of critical communities’ approach to graphic novels. We have a long critical bias against comics as a form. And I think as that bias has melted away, I certainly think some are willing to give us a pass and be much gentler with some of our flaws. TM: I’m sorry, Scott, but I don’t think you’ve heard me right. SM: Oh, I’m sorry. Let’s do it over. TM: Okay. Do [you think] we honor the graphic novel above webcomics or comic-book serial storytelling in a way we shouldn’t? For a very long time we all considered television beneath movies, but now we consider it the place where really innovative work is being done. Is a similar thing going on in comics? SM: No, actually I don’t. And the reason is that I think right now the most impressive work that’s been done in the last 20 years is in graphic novels. In my favorite work, the most complex, the most ambitious, and the most gratifying work to me as a reader has been in that realm. There’s some great work in webcomics, but it’s scattered. I think there’s some great work in rethinking serial comics. But I think there’s a reason why the best and the brightest in comics are moving towards lengthier works. Obviously, it would be a mistake to think there’s something inherently better about the format. There’s not. It was just a mountain a lot of very good climbers wanted to tackle. And that’s still true. I know some people hate the term “graphic novel,” because some people still use it [to signify] an art form. It’s not. It’s a format. But there’s an implicit challenge in the words “graphic novel.” I think a lot of cartoonists see in their mind’s eye when they hear it something they think is worth making but that very rarely comes into existence. And so it makes sense that they would like to give it a try themselves.
1. “Comics Not Just For Kids Anymore, Reports 85,000th Mainstream News Story,” The Onion announced on July 10, 2012. There’s truth there, but only so much. Critics in The New York Times Book Review, Slate, NPR and The New Yorker now appraise individual comics without questioning the value of the medium as a whole. The cliché still appears in outlets whose editors should know better, but it’s unlikely The Onion could tell the same joke in another 10 years. The best way to kill a debate is to avoid acknowledging it and comics artists are as guilty as anyone else of prolonging the argument. In 2004, I attended a talk by Art Spiegelman on his September 11 book. He explained his layout methods in detail. It was a good discussion. He also kept defending the right of comics artists to sit at the adults’ table. That was irritating. In 2006, Houghton Mifflin added comics to its Best American series list. Alison Bechdel, the guest editor of the 2011 edition, was ambivalent about working in a “newly legitimized art form.” The problem is generational. Younger comics writers and artists tend not to defend the seriousness of their vocation. If they inhabit the margins of culture, they know there’s nothing intrinsic to the medium that places them there. Scott McCloud, the guest editor of the 2014 edition of Best American Comics, -- the series editor is now Bill Kartalopoulos -- is famous for improving the debate. In the early '90s, McCloud wrote Understanding Comics, a comic book about comic books that explained how the medium reinvents time and space and imagines realities that can’t be adapted to other media. Reinventing Comics, which was published in 2000, was a prescient analysis of how the Internet and the digital world would affect comics readers and creators. He can be as defensive as Spiegelman, but he’s also a smarter interpreter. Like the earliest political philosophers, McCloud points out the obvious and makes it sound profound only because no one before him wrote the obvious down. The Best American Comics 2014 reads as a sequel to McCloud’s theoretical studies. Previous guest editors instructed readers to thumb through the anthologies and choose work that interests them most just as they would browse the shelves in a comics shop. McCloud asks that you read his anthology in order, cover-to-cover, and that you treat it as a critical narrative. He divides his book into discrete sections, presenting a taxonomy of genres. The book is an argument on the state of comics in the second decade of the 21th century. 2. What makes a great comic great? McCloud summarizes the criteria: Is the story built around quiet everyday events or autobiography? Check. Does it have a dark satiric undercurrent? Check. Does our protagonist have a low opinion of him/herself? Check. Is there a complete absence of anything that might remotely remind you of a superhero comic? Check. He’s being facetious, but the gatekeepers, those who honor what Ted Rall once told me was “the Fantagraphics crowd,” seem to always honor comics that follow at least one of these criteria. Many of the comics McCloud selected from an enormous pile Kartalopoulos gave him follow at least one of the first three and pretty much all of them follow the fourth. (McCloud wanted but was unable to include Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye comics.) “Great Comics” are not the same as “Great Fiction” or “Great Non-Fiction.” Any New York Times critic would have savaged the sentimentality in Craig Thompson’s Blankets if it came packaged in a prose novel. Bechdel needs her images to sell her wit; in a comic the famous “Bechdel Test” is astute, but the average male reader would roll his eyes if he first encountered her theory in one of the online essays it spawned. A great comic does not have to be sentimental nor simple, but sentimentality and simplicity are not problems for comics. "High Road to the Shmuck Seat" by Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Robert Crumb from Best American Comics 2014 edited by Bill Kartalopoulos. Originally appeared in Viewotron #2. Copyright (c) 2013. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved. That much is obvious in the opening section of McCloud’s anthology, dedicated to the recent work of old masters. In “High Road to the Schmuck Seat,” R. Crumb portrays himself as a happily married aging pervert and not as a raging Mickey Sabbath. His grotesque line drawing, which he’s used throughout his career to express an unrelenting sexual anxiety, now obscures a sweet loving heart. In Charles Burns’s The Hive, teenagers bond over anatomical drawings. Burns’s cleanly-drawn entrails sit comfortably next to his old-before-their-time adolescents. It’s a touching scene. Call it dark sentimentality. "Drama" (excerpt) by Raina Telgemeier from Best American Comics 2014 edited by Bill Kartalopoulos. Originally appeared in Drama. Copyright (c) 2012. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved. “Dark sentimentality.” I put the phrase in a Google search and out came a list of indie rock reviews. Take from that what you will, but it’s the dominant mood in the anthology and it bleeds from one comic to the next and one section to the next, from adventure comics to family memoirs. “Raising Readers,” a section dedicated to children’s comics, contains excerpts from two devastating depictions of childhood loneliness, Raina Telgemeier’s Drama and Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault’s Jane, the Fox and Me. The excerpt from Drama ends with a full-page panel of an empty playground. A small-scale strip from Chris Ware’s Building Stories, which McCloud names as the best book of the year, serves as a grim counterpoint with its depiction of a mother discovering the pain of solitude as her child grows older and more independent. Ware and Raina Telgemeier understand the eerie power of bold block colors and negative space. They make clichés sublime. They make small emotions huge. Hip Hop Family Tree" (excerpt) by Ed Piskor from Best American Comics 2014 edited by Bill Kartalopoulos. Originally appeared in Hip Hop Family Tree. Copyright (c) 2013. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved. You may not have to adjust your mood from one comic to the next or one section to the next, but you do have to adjust your eye. The “Testimonials” section includes excerpts from two histories of American music, Frank M. Young and David Lasky’s wonderful The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song and Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree. Both books are infused with melancholic nostalgia in as much as modern country and hip hop no longer express the joy of emerging subcultures. They are staid institutions. And Lasky and Piskor explore that nostalgia by employing the grammar of vintage comics. Lasky borrows from early 20th-century comics strips. His stars achieve iconic status thanks to his careful, simple lines. The panels follow a clear linear trajectory, like the steady beat of a country song. Hip Hop Family Tree is a campy re-rendering of a 1980s de-saturated comic. The motive for each comic is the same, but like the subjects they depict, they belong to separate realms. McCloud asks his readers to notice the ways the comics in his anthology talk to each other. They do talk to each other, but they spend more time talking to themselves. With the exception of the work of Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, not a single character from one comic here could find a home in another. Everyone owns the particularities of their sadness. 3. In Reinventing Comics, McCloud admitted that no one has written the War and Peace of comics. In the 14 years since, we may have come closer with Fun Home and Julio’s Day. The Japanese may have come even closer, but the truth is comics, at least American comics, don’t need a Tolstoy any more than country music or hip hop needs a Beethoven. Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, the most widely read comic in this collection, could only have come from someone robbed of worldly ambitions. Her crudely-drawn webcomic describes the wreckage of mental illness, outwardly describing exactly how a depressive feels herself and the world around her. Her style is primitive and humorous and according to McCloud “rewire[s] a million ideas of what ‘good’ comics look like.” She’s writing postcards from the abyss and she’s giving her audience fleeting moments of comfort. And that should be enough. Question: Why does “Great Non-Fiction” about depression produce a William Styron, but “great” comics about depression produce an Allie Brosh? Why do we accept dark sentimentality from our comics but not from our novels? The modern novel is made up of words printed in a uniform font, but the comic is made up of drawings, clearly the work of another human being, the closest thing our culture still has to handwritten letters. Reading a comic, like reading a novel, is a private experience, but the texture of the thin paper of a comic is far more powerful than that of the pages of a novel, thanks to the presence of the communicator’s human hand. Even a computer drawing that you read on a laptop is connected to an organic body, in the sense that you can acknowledge the presence of a human hand on a mouse or a digital pen. When you read a comic, you are accepting a direct message from one singular honest soul. Your hand touches theirs. That soul can be strange. That soul can be sick. And it can also be oh-so earnest… The comic book emancipates adults from irony.
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader's Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name. Despite being tucked away three-quarters into the calendar, September is the start of many things: school, fall, football, the biggest publishing season, the return to work after the end of summer. It’s also the beginning of months whose awkwardly Latinate names rhyme with little except themselves. Some poets, understandably, have neglected them: in all his works, for instance, Shakespeare makes no mention of September, October, or November (he refers to March, April, and May dozens of times). But in a title “September” can stand squarely; it’s weightier and more declarative than the short and flighty names of the summer and spring months. There’s “September, 1819,” for instance, in which Wordsworth found spring and summer “unfaded, yet prepared to fade.” Transposing two digits in her title a century later in “September, 1918,” Amy Lowell caught the familiar beauties of early fall—including an afternoon that’s “the colour of water falling through sunlight”—but she stored them away without tasting them, like a harvest of berries. With the world war not yet over, she was too busy balancing herself “upon a broken world” to enjoy them yet. The best-known September poem also was born in a broken world, at the beginning of the next world war. In the days after Germany invaded Poland, at the “end of a low dishonest decade,” W. H. Auden wrote “September 1, 1939,” in which an “unmentionable odour of death...offends the September night” even far from the fighting in his newly adopted home of New York City. Auden spent the rest of his life disowning the poem and its popularity, or at least “loathing” the “trash” of its hopeful line “We must love one another or die,” which he quickly came to see as self-congratulatory (in one later version he substituted “We must love one another and die”). But that line, among others, is what has brought people back to the poem in later Septembers. Lyndon Johnson paraphrased it, ending his apocalyptic “Daisy” ad (which aired just once, on September 7, 1964) with the words “We must either love each other, or we must die.” And the entire poem began circulating again in mass media and in forwarded e-mails in September 2001, when its visions of “blind skyscrapers” and death in September, along with its final call for an “affirming flame,” felt suddenly, movingly contemporary. I don't know about you, but this September the world seems broken too. Let's read one another nevertheless. Diary of Samuel Pepys (1660-69; 1825) Part of the pleasure of the British naval administrator's journals is their witty and open portrait of the everydayness of life, but they are deservedly famous as well for their dramatic peaks, including the great fire that engulfed London in the early days of September 1666, in which pigeons, Pepys noticed, hovered by their burning homes for so long their wings were singed. The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902) and The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher (1906) by Beatrix Potter Potter's tales for children began with two illustrated letters she sent to the sons of a friend on September 4 and 5, 1893: the first the story of a mischievous bunny and the second, written the next day so the younger brother wouldn't feel left out, of a frog who dines on "roasted grasshopper with lady-bird sauce." The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905) September is early in the New York social season, but for Lily Bart it’s already getting a little late. She still has her beauty, but she’s twenty-nine and has no money of her own, and the decisions she makes—and doesn’t make—in the first month of Wharton’s great novel will set her course for its remainder. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein (1933) "I may say," Alice B. Toklas was made to say in this book by Gertrude Stein, "that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken": Pablo Picasso, Alfred North Whitehead, and Stein herself, "a golden brown presence" in a "warm brown corduroy suit," whom Toklas met in September 1907 after arriving in Paris from San Francisco. Act One by Moss Hart (1959) One of the most dazzlingly entertaining of all backstage memoirs comes to its climactic curtain at the September opening night of Once in a Lifetime, the collaboration between Broadway veteran George S. Kaufman and the young Hart, who is transformed in that moment from a poor, stage-struck nobody into a hit playwright. Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (1964) “JANIE GETS STRANGER EVERY YEAR. MISS WHITEHEAD’S FEET LOOK LARGER THIS YEAR.” Return to school with Harriet M. Welsch, self-appointed sixth-grade spy and future writer, who reckoned with the slippery ethics of observing and reporting long before Janet Malcolm wrote The Journalist and the Murderer. Stoner by John Williams (1965) The “campus novel” is almost always a comedy, but Stoner, long overlooked but now becoming a classic, is a campus tragedy, and not less of one because of the petty academic quarrels, which in other hands might be turned into farce, that drive its hero’s inexorable disappointment. Instant Replay by Jerry Kramer (1968) There had been few glimpses into the mind of an offensive lineman (in fact, few suspected lineman had minds) before Kramer, the all-pro right guard of the Green Bay Packers, published this diary of the 1967 season, in which he quoted Shakespeare without shame, analyzed the motivational genius of his coach, Vince Lombardi, and observed the NFL growing from a part-time job into the beginnings of the entertainment leviathan it has since become. Levels of the Game by John McPhee (1969) A few years after launching his career by profiling Bill Bradley at Princeton, McPhee painted a double portrait of two American tennis stars via their U.S. Open semifinal match at Forest Hills, Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, opposites on the court and off: black and white, liberal and conservative, artistic and businesslike, free-swinging and stiff, cool and anxious. Deliverance by James Dickey (1970) It’s a little weekend trip for four men from the suburbs into the nearby wilderness, canoeing down a Georgia river about to be dammed. If everything goes right, they’ll get back in time for the second half of the Sunday football game on TV. In the meantime, they might get in touch with something real. Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner (1984) All is gray: the garden, the lake beyond, “spreading like an anaesthetic towards the invisible farther shore.” It’s late September, well into the off-season, with reduced rates for the few visitors to the Hotel du Lac, where Edith, a romance novelist with a romance problem of her own, escapes for a “mild form of sanctuary.” We’re in Switzerland, but we’re also in Brookner country, home of isolation, disappointment, and quiet determination. White Noise by Don DeLillo (1985) Every September the station wagons—they’d now be minivans—arrive on campus, disgorging tanned kids and dorm supplies in a ritual that begins the school year at DeLillo’s generic midwestern college, where education has become untethered from any meaning beyond a nervous self-consciousness. The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm (1990) The central document in Malcolm's ruthless vivisection of the seductions and betrayals of journalism is a September letter in which reporter Joe McGinniss wrote to his subject, the just-convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald--long after McGinniss was convinced of MacDonald's guilt--"It's a hell of a thing--spend the summer making a new friend and then the bastards come along and lock him up. But not for long, Jeffrey--not for long." Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby (1992) It's not only in the U.S. that the end of summer means the start of football season, and for 11-year-old Nick Hornby, made vulnerable by divorce, a new home, and a new school, his first professional soccer match, at Arsenal's home ground in September 1968, began the glorious and inexplicable tyranny that Arsenal football has held over his life ever since. Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shuh-Lien Bynum (2008) Every September Ms. Hempel turns to write on the blackboard, “First Assignment,” and soon, as in each of her other fall semesters, the American colonists will rebel and their revolution will be won. Not much older than the middle-school kids she’s instructing in history, and not much more sure of what she’s becoming, Bynum’s raw young teacher is open to experience and, most thrillingly, unprotected from it. Building Stories by Chris Ware (2012) There are many layers of time and space diagrammed in the fourteen books and pamphlets contained in Ware's big box of comics about a small Chicago apartment building, but one pamphlet narrows his tales to a single September day, a quiet Saturday the seems so morosely typical that it spins the building's inhabitants into despair until, for one of them at least, it becomes an anniversary to remember. Image via rvoegtli/Flickr
Two years ago I wrote a holiday gift guide for writers after I realized that I had a drawer full of blank journals that I had never used, all given to me by friends and family wanting to support my writing habit. I knew I couldn’t be the only writer with this particular surplus, so I decided to draw up a list of items that writers might actually use. I repeated the exercise in 2012, coming up with ten new suggestions. This year’s list is an updated version of those two lists, now all in one place with a few new items added to the end, for a grand total of 25 writer-friendly gifts. 1. A Cheesy New Bestseller One of the best presents I ever got was a hardcover copy of The Nanny Diaries from my roommate. I really wanted it, but there were over 300 people on the library’s waiting list and I wasn't going to shell out $25 for something I was unlikely to read twice. The funny thing was that I never told my roommate that I wanted to read The Nanny Diaries. She just guessed that I had a secret craving for it. Of course, it can be as hard to gauge your friend’s taste in pop culture as it is in high culture, but it’s better to guess wrong in the pop culture arena, because your friend is more likely to exchange it for something she likes better. Whereas, if you give her Gravity’s Rainbow, she’ll keep it for years out of obligation. 2. Good lipstick Writers are often broke. If they have $30 to spare, they are going to spend it on dinner, booze, or new books. Not lipstick. But writers are pale from spending so much time inside and could use some color. Make-up can be a tricky gift because it suggests that you think your friend’s face could use improvement. That’s why it’s important to go to a department store make-up counter and buy something frivolous and indulgent, like a single tube of red lipstick or some face powder or blush in a nice-looking case. 3. Foreign language learning software Most writers wish they knew more languages. It can also be relaxing to be rendered inarticulate in a new language, in that it offers a real break from personal expression, nuance, and irony. At the same time, learning a new language sharpens your native tongue, and expands your vocabulary. It’s sort of like cross training. 4. A Bathrobe John Cheever famously donned a suit every morning in order to write. But as Ann Beattie revealed, and as a generation of bloggers already knows, most writers wear awful clothing while they are working. Help your writer friend out by giving her a beautiful robe to cover up her bizarre ensembles. Even if she already has one, she probably hasn't’t washed it in a long time, and could use another. 5. A Manicure I bite my nails, especially when I’m writing. I've noticed that a lot of other writers have suspiciously short nails, too. Manicures help. Also, manicures get writers out of the house and out for a walk. 6. “Freedom”, the internet-blocking software “Freedom” is a computer program that blocks the internet on your computer for up to eight hours. I don’t understand why it’s effective, since it’s relatively easy to circumvent, but as soon as I turn it on, I stay off the internet for hours at a time. (There is also a program called “Anti-social”, which only blocks the social parts of the internet, like Facebook and Twitter.) 7. Booze, coffee, and other stimulants Find out what your friend likes to drink and buy a really nice version of that thing. If your friend is a coffee or tea drinker, find out how he brews it and buy him really good beans or tea leaves. Even better, find out what cafe he frequents and see if they sell gift certificates. 8. Yoga Classes Yoga does wonders for anxiety, depression, and aching backs, three afflictions common in writers. Most yoga classes also incorporate some kind of meditation practice, which is also very helpful. 9. A pet This is not a gift to be given casually and definitely not as a surprise, but if you live with a writer and you've been on the fence on whether or not to get a furry companion, consider this advice on how to be more prolific, from Muriel Spark: “If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat... The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.” Another prolific writer, Jennifer Weiner, recommends dogs on her website, where she's posted a list of tips for aspiring writers. Dogs, she explains, foster discipline, because they must be walked several times a day. Furthermore, Weiner notes, walking is as beneficial for the writer as it is for the dog: “While you're walking, you're thinking about plot, or characters, or that tricky bit of dialogue that's had you stumped for days.” 10. Freezable homemade foods: casseroles, soups, breads, and baked goods. This is a potentially Mom-ish gift, but if your friend is on deadline, a new parent, or just far from home during the holidays, a home-cooked meal could be a lovely gesture. I emphasize freezable because it should be something that you make at home and leave with your friend to eat later. If you can’t cook, buy a pie. 11. A hand-written letter When I first recommended this gift, two years ago, I pointed out that a lot of writers still get rejection letters through the U.S. mail, so it would be a nice change of pace to receive a note from a friend. But over the past couple years, I’ve noticed that magazines are sending most of their rejections via email. However, that simply means that a handwritten card would be an even more astonishing and special occurrence. 12. The Gift, by Lewis Hyde The Gift examines the role of artists in market economies and is the perfect antidote to all the earnest, helpful guides that aim to teach writers how to be more publishable, saleable, and disciplined. Where most writing guides make writers feel they could succeed if only they were more productive and efficient, The Gift argues that productivity and efficiency are market-based terms that have little meaning in gift economies, which is where many creative writers exchange and share their work. Another way of putting it is to say that The Gift makes writers feel less crazy. 13. A Bookshelf Portrait If every bookshelf is a portrait of its owner, then why not commission an actual portrait of a bookshelf? That’s what Your Ideal Bookshelf allows booklovers to do, offering hand-painted portraits of “the books that changed your life, that defined who you are, that you read again and again.” If that seems like too much pressure, you can purchase prints of other people’s ideal bookshelves, as well as drawings of ideal bookshelves organized by genre, subject, and author. Harry Potter fanatics can find portraits of the entire series, while home cooks can choose from several different shelves of culinary classics. The creators of Your Ideal Bookshelf have also produced a book, My Ideal Bookshelf, which showcases the favorite bookshelves of a variety of writers and artists, including Patti Smith, Junot Diaz, Miranda July, and Judd Apatow. 14. Bookends Bookends are underrated. Not only do they keep books from falling off the shelf, they allow you to make a bookshelf anywhere — on a desk, in a windowsill, or atop a bedside table. Even ugly bookends end up being used, so go ahead and spring for ones in the shape of golden pigs or poodles. 15. Clothing With a Literary Print Last year, I highlighted the prints of fashion designer Mary Katranzou’s fall 2012 collection, which included a dress whose bodice was dominated by a red Olivetti typewriter. This year, I was hoping to recommend Tommy Hilfiger’s library shirt dress, but unfortunately, it is already sold out. (Maybe you can find it on ebay.) For a more reliable purveyor of book-inspired clothing, check out Out of Print, an online shop that sells tee shirts and other items that feature “iconic and often out of print book covers.” 16. An Elaborately Beautiful Book 2012 brought Chris Ware’s graphic novel, Building Stories, a book that was included on several “Year In Reading” lists, and which got me thinking about other beautifully designed books: Anne Carson’s poem Nox; Lauren Redniss’s biography of Marie and Pierre Curie, Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout; and Vladimir Nabokov’s unfinished novel-in-index-cards, The Original of Laura. To this list I would like to add two 2013 titles: David Rakoff’s novel-in-verse: Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish and Samantha Hahn’s book of illustrations of fictional heroines, Well-Read Women. 17. A subscription to Journal of the Month Literary journals! There are so many of them, and so many of them are good, and almost all of them would like you to read a copy before you submit your stories to them. Journal of the Month helps writers sample a wide variety of journals by sending subscribers a different journal each month. Each month’s selection is a surprise, and you can buy subscriptions of 3, 6, or 12 months. You can also choose to receive magazines on a quarterly basis. 18. Draw It With Your Eyes Closed This unusual, practical, gossipy, eclectic, and highly entertaining anthology is a collection of assignments for fine arts students. But it’s unexpectedly useful for writers, too — or, at least, it was useful to me, helping me to think about the writing process in new ways. I bought if for my brother-in-law, who teaches drawing, but found myself unable to put it down after reading a couple of entries. With contributions from art teachers, art students, artists, and art professionals, Draw It With Your Eyes Closed delves into the creative process of artists by focusing on their art school training. If there’s an equivalent to this book from the world of creative writing MFAs, I’d love to read it, but I doubt it’d be as raucous or mischievous. 19. The Dictionary of American Regional English When I was growing up, my parents had a slang dictionary, which I dorkily consulted in order to learn the meanings of certain colorful insults. But I quickly found the dictionary to be more interesting when I browsed beyond the curse words. The Dictionary of American Regional English is kind of like the slang dictionary except that it is six volumes, and based on fifty years of research. The final volume was completed last year, an event that one of its founding researchers did not live to see. Long a resource for editors and lawyers, it’s the kind of book that any word nerd could appreciate. 20. A Quill Pen Okay, this is a ridiculous gift idea, I admit it. But with the current enthusiasm for typewriters going strong, can quill pens be far behind? There are hundreds on Etsy, from turkey feather models to Harry Potter-inspired models. 21. A Fireplace According to poet Adam Kirsch, “Every writer needs a fireplace”: On publication day, an author should burn a copy of his book, to acknowledge that what he accomplished is negligible compared to what he imagined and intended. Only this kind of burnt offering might be acceptable to the Muse he has let down. The ultimate in old-school technology, a fireplace (or perhaps, a fire table?) allows writers to dispose of unsatisfying drafts in a dramatic fashion. Sometimes the trashcan icon at the bottom of your computer screen just doesn’t feel definitive enough. 22. A Place to Write Virgina Woolf said it best when she wrote that a woman “must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Poet Brenda Shaughnessy put a somewhat finer point on it in Poets & Writers, when she speculated that the happiness of her marriage to fellow poet Craig Morgan Teicher depended on a shared rented writing studio: This might be the true secret of the sane poet-couple: Rent writing space. Make it as private as possible. This single thing has completely changed our lives. How do you give someone a place to write? It could mean finding someone a cubicle in your office, renting a studio, lending a summer cottage or winter cabin, helping someone to finance a residency, or simply rearranging a shared space to make room for a bookshelf, a comfy chair, or a desk. 23. Childcare If you are the spouse of a writer and the two of you have a small or even medium-sized child (or children) here is a foolproof gift idea: Take yourself and the kiddos away for a long weekend. Go to the grandparents, the zoo, the casino, wherever. Leave early Friday morning; do not come back until late Sunday night. 24. A Donation to a Literary Charity A gift to the literary community is a gift to your writer-friend. Almost all literary magazines, libraries, and writer’s residencies are non-profit organizations. You can also help build and create new literary communities by donating to a charity that promotes literacy. Here is a partial list of groups whose work brings books, literature, and writing resources to those who might not otherwise have access (please feel free to leave additional suggestions in the comments): First Book provides new books to kids; Reading Is Fundamental delivers books and reading resources directly to the homes of families in need; 826 National is a network of free writing centers (pioneered by author Dave Eggers); Literacy Partners is a New York City-based non-profit that helps adults learn to read; and finally, Books Through Bars, another non-profit based in New York City, provides books to prisoners. 25. A Blank Journal I realize I am contradicting myself with this last recommendation, but earlier this fall, when I was interviewing Dani Shapiro for The Millions, she mentioned that she often starts new projects in a fresh notebook, saying “there’s such freedom in a notebook.” Her comment made me think of my drawer full of blank journals, those gifts I never used but for some reason cannot not give away. I always thought I kept them out of guilt but maybe the truth is that I keep them because they are hopeful reminders of the freedom that writing can provide—that sense of openness and possibility that comes not only at the beginning of projects but sometimes in the midst of composing a sentence. So, go ahead and give your writer friend a beautiful blank notebook. She may never write a word in it but will likely keep it as a symbol of the elusive beauty of the writing process.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for July. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 3. Taipei 2 months 2. 4. Stand on Zanzibar 5 months 3. 5. The Middlesteins 5 months 4. 7. The Orphan Master's Son 3 months 5. 8. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk 5 months 6. - The Interestings 1 month 7. 9. Vampires in the Lemon Grove 4 months 8. - Visitation Street 1 month 9. - The Pioneer Detectives 1 month 10. - Fox 8 1 month Big changes on our list this month as four titles graduate to our illustrious Hall of Fame. Let's run through new Hall of Famers quickly: Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever: As many of our readers are already aware, staff writer Mark O'Connell's shorter-format ebook was The Millions' first foray into ebook publishing. We have been thrilled by the great reader response. And, if you haven't had a chance to check it out yet, why not mark its graduation to the Hall of Fame by checking out this special, little book (for only $1.99!) Tenth of December: 2013 opened with the book world agog over George Saunders' newest collection. He famously graced the cover of the New York Times Magazine under the banner "Greatest Human Ever in the History of Ever" (or something like that) and the book figured very prominently in our first-half preview. Unsurprisingly, all the hype helped drive a lot of sales. It also led our own Elizabeth Minkel to reflect on Saunders and the question of greatness in a thoughtful essay. Building Stories: Chris Ware has reached the point in his career (legions of fans, museum shows) where he can do whatever he wants. And what he wanted to do was produce a "book" the likes of which we hadn't seen before, a box of scattered narratives to be delved into any which way the reader wanted, all shot through with Ware's signature style and melancholy. Ware appeared in our Year in Reading last year with an unlikely selection. Mark O'Connell called Building Stories "a rare gift." Arcadia: Lauren Groff is another Millions favorite, though it took a bit longer for her book, first released in March 2012, to make our list. Our own Edan Lepucki interviewed Groff soon after the book's release, and Groff later participated in our Year in Reading, discussing her "year of savage, brilliant, and vastly underrated female writers." That leaves room, then, for four debuts on this month's list: The Interestings: Though Meg Wolitzer is already a well-known, bestselling author, her big novel seems to be on the slow burn trajectory to breakout status, with the word-of-mouth wave (at least in the part of the world that I frequent), building month by month. That word of mouth was perhaps helped along the way by Edan Lepucki's rollicking review, in which, among other things, she posited what it means for a "big literary book" to be written by someone other than a "big literary man." Visitation Street: Ivy Pochoda's new thriller featured prominently in our latest preview and carries the imprimatur of Dennis Lehane. That seems to have been enough to land the book on our list. The Pioneer Detectives: As one Millions Original graduates from our list, another arrives. The Pioneer Detectives, which debuted in the second half of July, is an ambitious work of page-turning reportage, the kind of journalism we all crave but that can often be hard to find. Filled with brilliant insights into how scientific discoveries are made and expertly edited by our own Garth Hallberg, The Pioneer Detectives is a bargain at $2.99. We hope you'll pick it up. Fox 8: And as one George Saunders work graduates from our list, another arrives. This one is an uncollected story, sold as an e-single. Meanwhile, Tao Lin's Taipei easily slides into our top spot. For more on the book's unlikely success in our Top Ten, don't miss my commentary for last month's list. Near Misses: They Don't Dance Much, Speedboat, My Struggle: Book 1, The Flamethrowers and Life After Life. See Also: Last month's list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for June. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever 6 months 2. 2. Tenth of December 6 months 3. - Taipei 1 month 4. 4. Stand on Zanzibar 4 months 5. 5. The Middlesteins 4 months 6. 6. Building Stories 6 months 7. 9. The Orphan Master's Son 2 months 8. 7. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk 4 months 9. 8. Vampires in the Lemon Grove 3 months 10. 10. Arcadia 6 months We had one debut on our list this month, and it may come as a surprise for readers who have been following the site. Our own Lydia Kiesling read Tao Lin's Taipei and came away viscerally turned off by a book that has received quite a lot of attention both for its attempt to forge a new style and for the aura of its author, who has an army of followers and is, as New York once called him, "a savant of self-promotion." Despite Lydia's misgivings, the book has been on balance reviewed positively, including in the Times. Still, Lydia's review - negative as it was - was utterly compelling (Gawker thought so too), and because of that, as I watched the sales of Taipei pile up last month, I was not completely surprised. After all, the last target of a stirring and controversial pan (don't miss the angry comments) at The Millions was Janet Potter's fiery takedown of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, and two of those three of those books now sit in comfortable retirement in our Hall of Fame. In the case of Taipei, the lion's share of credit of course goes to Lin for writing a book that readers are evidently very curious to read, but I think it is also true that a well crafted, properly supported, and strongly opinionated review like Lydia's can have the odd effect of compelling the reader to see what all the fuss is about. In fact, this phenomenon has been studied and a recent paper showed that, "For books by relatively unknown (new) authors, however, negative publicity has the opposite effect, increasing sales by 45%." (I think in the context of this study, it is fair to call Lin "relatively unknown." While Lin may be well-known among Millions readers, he is not a household name outside of certain households in Brooklyn, and when readers flocked to read the review from Gawker and other sites that linked to it, they may have been compelled to check the book out for themselves.) As we have known for a while at The Millions, to cover a book at all is to confer upon it that we believe the book is important, and whether you believe the book is "good" or "bad," Taipei was certainly worthy of our coverage. Otherwise, June was another quiet month for our list with the top two positions unchanged, including Millions ebook Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever at number one, while An Arrangement of Light, Nicole Krauss's ebook-only short story graduates to our Hall of Fame. Next month, things will get interesting on our list as we may see as many as four books graduate to the Hall of Fame, opening up plenty of room for newcomers. Near Misses: Fox 8, The Interestings, All That Is, The Round House, and The Flamethrowers. See Also: Last month's list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for May. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever 5 months 2. 2. Tenth of December 5 months 3. 3. An Arrangement of Light 6 months 4. 5. Stand on Zanzibar 3 months 5. 4. The Middlesteins 3 months 6. 6. Building Stories 5 months 7. 7. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk 3 months 8. 10. Vampires in the Lemon Grove 2 months 9. - The Orphan Master's Son 1 month 10. 8. Arcadia 5 months May was quiet for our list, with the top three positions unchanged, including Millions ebook Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever at number one. Our one debut, an number eight, is Adam Johnson's much lauded The Orphan Master's Son, recent recipient of both the Pulitzer and the Rooster. Johnson's book pushes the David Foster Wallace essay collection Both Flesh and Not off the list. Other Near Misses: Fox 8, The Round House, All That Is, and Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. See Also: Last month's list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for April. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever 4 months 2. 2. Tenth of December 4 months 3. 3. An Arrangement of Light 5 months 4. 4. The Middlesteins 2 month 5. 7. Stand on Zanzibar 2 months 6. 5. Building Stories 4 months 7. 8. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk 2 months 8. 9. Arcadia 4 months 9. 10. Both Flesh and Not 5 months 10. - Vampires in the Lemon Grove 1 month In September 2012, we interviewed Sadie Stein, one of the Paris Review editors behind Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story, a book that seems tailor-made to appeal to Millions readers. In it, a handful of accomplished short story writers -- Ann Beattie, Jeffrey Eugenides, Joy Williams, and so on -- were asked to pick a favorite story from the journal’s archive, then write a brief introduction explaining how the story spoke to them. After a six-month run, the book has now graduated to our Hall of Fame. Otherwise, our list doesn't see a whole lot of movement, with the top four positions unchanged, including Millions ebook Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever at number one. Karen Russell's Vampires in the Lemon Grove is our one debut this month. We've interviewed Russell twice, in 2011 and again early this year. Vampires was also featured in our big 2013 book preview. Near Misses: The Round House, The Orphan Master's Son, Fox 8, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, and Dear Life. See Also: Last month's list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for March. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever 3 months 2. 3. Tenth of December 3 months 3. 4. An Arrangement of Light 4 months 4. - The Middlesteins 1 month 5. 5. Building Stories 3 months 6. 6. Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story 6 months 7. - Stand on Zanzibar 1 month 8. - Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk 1 month 9. 8. Arcadia 3 months 10. 7. Both Flesh and Not 4 months Last fall saw the arrival of three hotly anticpated titles from a trio of the most popular literary writers working today. Now those three titles are ending their run in our Top Ten by graduating to our Hall of Fame: This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz, NW by Zadie Smith, and Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon. Those graduations made room for three debuts. Jami Attenberg's The Middlesteins pops up at number four. Attenberg made an appearance in our Year in Reading in December. The most popular piece on The Millions last month, by a wide margin, was Ted Gioia's unearthing of John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar and the remarkably prescient predictions contained within. The essay sent readers running to check out the book. Finally, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain completed its long, stead ascent onto our list. Fountain also appeared in our Year in Reading, and Edan Lepucki interviewed him in these pages last June. Our first ebook original, Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever by staff writer Mark O'Connell, stayed atop our list and continues to win praise from readers and critics. An exerpt is available here and you can learn more about the book here. Near Misses: The Round House, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Dear Life, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, and Sweet Tooth. See Also: Last month's list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for February. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever 2 months 2. 2. This Is How You Lose Her 6 months 3. 3. Tenth of December 2 months 4. 4. An Arrangement of Light 3 months 5. 5. Building Stories 2 months 6. 8. Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story 5 months 7. 9. NW 6 months 8. - Arcadia 2 months 9. 10. Telegraph Avenue 6 months 10. 7. Both Flesh and Not 3 months With our top five remaining unchanged, the big action in February was the graduation of a pair of books to our Hall of Fame. Gillian Flynn's juggernaut Gone Girl won over Millions readers with help from Edan Lepucki and Janet Potter's entertaining tag-team reading of the book in September, though copies were already flying off the shelves in the months prior. Meanwhile, D.T. Max's Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace was hotly anticipated by Millions readers from the moment the book was announced. We ran an excerpt and interviewed Max. Those graduations made room for the return of Lauren Groff's Arcadia (recently interviewed in our pages) and, appropriately enough, David Foster Wallace's Both Flesh and Not. Our first ebook original, Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever by staff writer Mark O'Connell, stayed atop our list and continues to win praise from readers and critics. An exerpt is available here and you can learn more about the book here. Near Misses: Dear Life, Sweet Tooth, The Round House, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, and Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. See Also: Last month's list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for January. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. - Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever 1 month 2. 1. This Is How You Lose Her 5 months 3. - Tenth of December 1 month 4. 5. An Arrangement of Light 2 months 5. - Building Stories 1 month 6. 4. Gone Girl 6 months 7. 2. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace 6 months 8. 3. Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story 4 months 9. 6. NW 5 months 10. 7. Telegraph Avenue 5 months To kick off a new year of our Top Ten lists at The Millions, we made a slight adjustment to our calculations. The change has to do with how we account for lower-priced, shorter-form ebook originals that have become popular with our readers and effectively gives a modest penalty to the cheaper ebooks and recognizes that a purchase of a $1.99 ebook is different from buying a hardcover costing $20 or more. Despite this change, thanks to the overwhelmingly positive response from our readers, our first ebook original, Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever by staff writer Mark O'Connell, lands atop our list. So far, the feedback from readers has been great, and we hope more will be inspired to pick it up. An exerpt is available here and you can learn more about the book here. Also debuting is Tenth of December by George Saunders, one of our Most Anticipated books and a title that has gotten a ton of positive press. Finally, also debuting is Chris Ware's Building Stories, reviewed in these pages by none other than Mark O'Connell. Ware also participated in our Year in Reading in December. Dropping from the list were David Foster Wallace's Both Flesh and Not, Lauren Groff's Arcadia and Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan Other Near Misses: Dear Life and The Round House. See Also: Last month's list.
1. When Christopher Tolkien recently broke a 40-year public silence in Le Monde, he did not have kind words for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: “They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25, and it seems that The Hobbit will be the same kind of film.” Tolkien snubbed an invitation to meet with Jackson, and, as his father’s literary executor, he has sworn not to allow adaptations of material over which he has control (like The Silmarillion). Had it been his choice, Jackson’s blockbusters would likely never have been produced, and certainly not in their present form. But it wasn’t his choice. In 1969, United Artists made a prescient purchase from the elder Tolkien: £100,000 for full rights to movies and derived products for The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. And that was that. The result, according to Christopher Tolkien, was nothing less than disastrous: “[J.R.R.] Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed into the absurdity of our time. The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing.” Admirers of Jackson’s work may find such comments a touch melodramatic, if not downright inaccurate. Salman Rushdie, for instance, appears to favor the films over the originals: “Jackson’s cinematic style, sweeping, lyrical, by turns intimate and epic, is greatly preferable to Tolkien’s prose style, which veers alarmingly between windbaggery, archness, pomposity, and achieves something like humanity, and ordinary English, only in the parts about hobbits.” Then again, there's A.O. Scott on The Hobbit: “Tolkien's inventive, episodic tale of a modest homebody on a dangerous journey has been turned into an overscale and plodding spectacle.” Taste is a difficult thing to arbitrate, making debates like these fun but virtually irresolvable. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that the participants all share a common assumption, which often remains unexamined. Rushdie puts it simply: “Everyone accepts that stories and movies are different things.” Indeed. But how, exactly? Is one a higher art form than the other? More illuminating? More demanding? Does one strengthen children’s brains while the other is more likely to rot them? Perhaps it would be best to leave pronouncements of relative quality to the critics, and instead take this opportunity to reflect on the objective differences between books and movies. 2. There is no better place to start than with J.R.R. Tolkien himself, who analyzes precisely this issue in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” which appears in Tree and Leaf. Concerned about the potentially deleterious effect of illustrating fantasy, he devotes a long footnote to the difference between “true literature” and all art (including drama and the “cinematograph”) that offers a visible presentation: Literature works from mind to mind and is thus more progenitive. It is at once more universal and more poignantly particular. If it speaks of bread or wine or stone or tree, it appeals to the whole of these things, to their ideas; yet each hearer will give to them a peculiar personal embodiment in his imagination. Should the story say “he ate bread,” the dramatic producer or painter can only show “a piece of bread” according to his taste or fancy, but the hearer of the story will think of bread in general and picture it in some form of his own. If a story says “he climbed a hill and saw a river in the valley below,” the illustrator may catch, or nearly catch, his own vision of such a scene; but every hearer of the words will have his own picture, and it will be made out of all the hills and rivers and dales he has ever seen, but especially out of The Hill, The River, The Valley which were for him the first embodiment of the word. This is strong language from a man whose color illustration of The-Hill-at-Hobbiton served as the frontispiece for most early editions of The Hobbit. Was Tolkien ruining his own book, forcing impressionable readers to accept his picture, denying them the opportunity to exercise their imaginative capacities? The idea that books leave more room for the imagination is a commonplace, and this quality is usually understood as a virtue. Books, even trashy ones, require some effort from the reader, while movies allow for unadulterated passivity and laziness. Tolkien’s so-called “dramatic producer” does the work for you, making the artwork easy and less personal. Yet the notion that movies are by nature limiting needs to be nuanced. Sure, there are no visuals in an unillustrated book. But it is not therefore true, as Jen Doll asserts at The Atlantic Wire, that books are simply “a compelling descriptive outline,” which you can “play your own way, seeing the characters and their motivations exactly as you like.” One virtue of books is that authors can reveal characters’ inner motivations in great detail — a virtue that limits the readers’ ability to speculate about those motivations. (Proust’s Narrator isn’t exactly up for grabs in In Search of Lost Time.) Another virtue of books is their length — which allows authors to narrate scenes that in films must be left to the readers’ imagination. And while we’re on the subject, what’s intrinsically great about freedom? If we push Tolkien’s logic a little bit further, authors do readers a disservice whenever they narrow the scope of imaginative possibilities. James Joyce turns me into a passive lump of receptivity when he describes his protagonist, Gabriel, in “The Dead”: He was a stout, tallish young man. The high color of his cheeks pushed upwards even to his forehead, where it scattered itself in a few formless patches of pale red; and on his hairless face there scintillated restlessly the polished lenses and the bright gilt rims of the glasses which screened his delicate and restless eyes. Better: “He was a young man.” Now my imagination can run wild! Similarly, dramaturges would be doing us a disservice by putting on plays, directors would be cheating us by bringing screenplays to life, and chefs would be destroying the pure literature of recipes by specifying both appearance and flavor. One rarely hears complaints about vividly detailed descriptions as such. Nor do people assert that “adaptations” of screenplays into movies or plays into stage productions somehow reduce aesthetic and philosophical impact. The upshot of all this is that exercising the imagination, whatever that means, is not always best, and books aren’t necessarily better at doing it than movies. (Which is a great relief to me, since I don’t want to feel bad about passively populating Roald Dahl’s entire universe with Quentin Blake’s fantastic illustrations.) 3. Even the most die-hard critics of cinematic adaptation have their own favorite exceptions. I love Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest so much that I don’t want to risk ruining it by reading Kesey’s book. And so, if we accept that books aren’t formally superior to movies and adaptations aren’t necessarily ruinous, a new question arises: what is it about the process of adapting a book that so often leads to disappointment? Part of the answer is that Tolkien is wrong: when we read about bread, we don’t just think of bread in general. Our minds fashion a specific image of the bread upon first encountering it, and then that image stays with us, in all its specificity, as we continue reading. The Elvish bread known as lembas does not change form each time it appears in Tolkien’s ouevre: my mind decided what lembas looked like when I first read the word, and it supplies that initial vision whenever I read it again. These fixed images then compete with the fixed images provided by a director, and the power of first impressions is difficult to overcome. For that reason, even skillful novelizations of good movies (like Alan Dean Foster’s Star Wars novels) can feel like they miss the mark. Attachment to original experience is a powerful force. Another problem is that adaptations are usually inspired by masterpieces. Richard Brody puts it well: “A director is likely to stumble when taking on the work of a writer who is a greater artist. Many directors of moderate merit do well in capturing their own experience or that of others... but when they lay hold of works of genius, they simply aren’t up to the material and reveal not the vastness of the author’s imagination but the limits of their own.” Asymmetry of ability favors the more talented artist, regardless of form. That’s why Orson Scott Card’s novelization of The Abyss is better than Cameron’s original. Arthur C. Clarke + Stanley Kubrick = Great. Arthur C. Clarke + Pretty Much Anyone Else = Doubtful. That said, there is one quality of films that makes them susceptible to being lousy. They are expensive. Studios must ensure the profitability of their product, and when it comes to good art, the customer — or the product placement sponsor — is not always right. Limiting artists with the demands of consumers often hampers the creative process and product. (In a similar vein, the limitations on filmmakers imposed by MPAA ratings are nicely documented in This Film is Not Yet Rated.) In this sense, Christopher Tolkien is right to bemoan commercialization. The upcoming adaptation of Candyland from board game to film will undoubtedly fail to do justice to the original. Why? Well, I don’t think I’m remiss in suggesting that Hasbro Studios, the force behind films like Battleship, Transformers, G.I. Joe, and Candyland, might be less concerned with good art than with profit. The same principle explains the frequency of bad film sequels (a phenomenon that is substantially less common with books). The recent explosion of extraordinary graphic novels is evidence that bias against a particular art form is likely unjustified. (A comic book? scoffs my mother when I recommend Chris Ware’s Building Stories.) Contra Tolkien, “true literature” is not inherently more progenitive. Great art of any kind can work from mind to mind. And, in the end, it is not books but great art that is sacrosanct, and it is great art that is threatened by adaptation. That’s why the goons at Hasbro would do well to heed Brody’s cautionary words before reducing the aesthetic and philosophical impact of Eleanor Abbott’s Candyland: “Those of us who are standing on the shoulders of giants shouldn’t try to wrestle with them; only giants can wrestle with giants, and adaptation, if it’s any good, is no mere mark of respect but an active and dangerous contention, an assertion and self-assertion that is as brave and as daring as it is potentially catastrophic.”
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for December. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. This Is How You Lose Her 4 months 2. 3. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace 5 months 3. 4. Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story 3 months 4. 8. Gone Girl 5 months 5. - An Arrangement of Light 1 month 6. 5. NW 4 months 7. 6. Telegraph Avenue 4 months 8. 7. Both Flesh and Not 2 months 9. - Arcadia 1 month 10. - Sweet Tooth 1 month After an impressive run, A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava graduates to our Hall of Fame (check out Garth Hallberg's profile of De La Pava that introduced many of our readers to this unusual book). This makes room for Junot Díaz's This Is How You Lose Her (our review) to be crowned our new number one. Also joining our Hall of Fame is The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn (see our review of the last book in the series). Debuting on our list is Nicole Krauss's An Arrangement of Light, a bite-sized ebook original. And Krauss is joined on our list by Lauren Groff's Arcadia (selected by Alexander Chee, Emily St. John Mandel, and Janet Potter in our recent Year in Reading series; Groff was also a participant) and Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan (which we recently reviewed). Dave Eggers' A Hologram for the King slipped off the list. Other Near Misses: Dear Life, Building Stories, The Round House, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, and Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. See Also: Last month's list.
Another year, another Year In Reading. Another year, a bigger Year In Reading. The site gets older, the site continues to grow – for that we thank everyone who wrote and shared the pieces in this series, as well as everyone who read along. The numbers this year were simply bonkers. Up from 2011, our 2012 totals amounted to a whopping 74 participants and 261 different books. These books run the gamut from graphic memoirs to cookbooks, and they were written by 238 authors – we’re happy to note that 15 of those authors submitted their own pieces in the series. Our participants included a finalist for this year’s National Book Award; a past winner of the Pulitzer Prize; not one, but two authors whose books appeared on The New York Times’s “10 Best Books of 2012” list; a longtime New Yorker staff writer; and a comedian who, for a few incredible months, made the life of Mitt Romney’s social media director into a living hell. The mission of the series is to put good books – regardless of publication date – into the minds of our readers. In that regard we’ve succeeded. The “average” year of publication for all 261 books was 1992. (No doubt that date has something to do with Michael Robbins’s recommendation of The Temple, which dates back to 1633.) But in order to highlight the true range of the books selected, I feel there are some awards in order. So here we have it. Presenting the 2012 edition of The Millions’s annual Year In Reading Wrap-Up Awards: The Golden TARDIS for Excellence in Time Travel is hereby bestowed unto Emma Straub. We recognize Emma’s ability to read in the past year four different books that will not hit shelves until 2013. Tell us, Emma, where do you keep your flux capacitor? (I know, I know, I’m mixing time travel references here. Apologies to the nerds.) Runner-up: Michael Robbins, who went the other way and tapped two books from the 1600s. The George Wallace Commemorative Airhorn for Multiple Shout Outs goes to none other than Alexander Chee, who, before settling on Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai as his favorite read of the year, gave much-deserved props to no fewer than twenty-three different books and authors. Runner-up: Kate Zambreno, who named fifteen texts – two of which are actually blogs, which is awesome – in her Year In Reading (Apparently Everything there is to Read). “Mr. Consistent” is from now on the epithet we’ll use to describe Scott Esposito, who recommended fourteen different Oulipo books. (Out of respect for Scott’s theme, none of the words in that first sentence included the letter “a”.) Runner-up: David Haglund, who laid out a literary and historical tour of the real Mormon faith. The Bob Ross Memorial Golden Paintbrush is awarded to Matt Dojny, whose Year In Reading entry is beautiful and succinct, but also comprehensive and fresh. That book on his list from The RZA? It wasn’t a mistake. There aren’t mistakes. Just happy accidents. Runner-up: Chris Ware. (Duh.) Not for his text-based Year In Reading post, but for his most recent book. The George Washington Cup for Honesty goes, of course, to Michael Schaub for his elegant, heart wrenching essay about his brother, his family, and A. M. Homes’s latest book. Thank you for this one, Michael. Runner-up: Mark O’Connell, who finally came clean. Those books on his shelf? Hasn’t read most of ‘em. (One additional prize is in order as well. The “Oh Man, Please Don’t Accuse Me of Stealing Your Idea” Memorial Fruit Basket should go to Janet Potter, whose list of literary awards served at least in some way as inspiration for this post.) Overall, a collection of seven books were named by more than three Year In Reading participants. These lucky few are: Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (picked by Edan Lepucki, Janet Potter, Ed Park, Michael Bourne, and Jennifer duBois); Chris Ware’s Building Stories (picked by Zadie Smith, Mark O’Connell, and Reif Larsen); David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (picked by Janet Potter, Matt Dojny, and Elizabeth Minkel); Edward St. Aubyn’s The Patrick Melrose Novels (picked by Meg Wolitzer, Elliott Holt, and Alix Ohlin); Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins (picked by Emma Straub, Roxane Gay, and Robert Birnbaum); Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians (picked by Alexander Chee, Ed Park, and Antoine Wilson); and Lauren Groff’s Arcadia (picked by Alexander Chee, Emily St. John Mandel, and Janet Potter) And so we come to the end of 2012. May 2013 be better than the year that led into it. May your eyes fly quickly over the page. We hope you enjoyed the time, and we’ll see you again next year. P.S. Special shout outs are due to C. Max Magee, founder of The Millions, without whom none of this would be possible – and also to Ujala Sehgal and Adam Boretz, our tireless editors, without whom all of these posts would look horrendous. Last but not least, shout outs are owed to Rhian Sasseen and Thom Beckwith, both of whom have helped make this our biggest Year In Reading to date. Thanks to you all, and to all a Happy New Year! More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 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, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
My favorite book of 2012 was Chris Ware’s Building Stories. Perhaps I should not even be calling it “a book” since Building Stories comes in a box and contains 14 different comic book artifacts -- thin pamphlets and hardbound volumes, broadsheets and fold-out posters -- but I like how calling such a treasure trove “a book” wonders at the edges of that word. What, exactly, is a book? This turns out to be a topic that I’m perennially fascinated with, and as I perused Ware’s amalgamation, I found myself reconsidering some of my basic assumptions about what constituted bookishness: was a book defined by its composition? By an expectation of narrative? By a currency of pages? By its singular thingness? Indeed, Building Stories subverts more than a couple mainstays of the medium. There is no table of contents. No set of instructions. No “if this then that.” No beginning, middle, or end. You must pick up one of the objects (I went for one of the hardbound books first, as it somehow felt like a more legitimate starting point) and then simply launch into the ether. But gradually, through the slow, exquisite visual pacing that defines Ware’s storytelling, a narrative emerges, or not so much a narrative but a life. Or not so much a life but lives -- interconnected by a slightly dilapidated three-story Chicago brownstone that occasionally offers its own silent advice to its resident cast of characters. The top floor apartment is occupied by our anti-heroine, an unnamed melancholic woman with a prosthetic leg who works in a flower shop and worries the days alone with her cat. The middle floor is haunted by a couple trapped in one of those restless equilibriums two clicks short of love, and on the ground floor we find the aging landlady, who has seen enough to know that loneliness is a gift. As one booklet ended and I picked up the next, I found myself skipping back and forth through time, in a happenstance hopscotch of my own design. In one pamphlet, the woman was in art school, in another, she was married with a child, in still another she was just out of school and au pairing for a rich couple. Temporality was undermined, shorn, skirted. And yet the sum of such dislocation began to work its magic on me. The sequence of booklets was like one of Ware’s pages, where the panels are not always delivered in obvious sequence but rather in an orbiting constellation of possibility. At first, you want to know which is the right way to read a page, so that you can get it right, but once you give up this need for direction, the potential for multiple narratives frees you from the responsibility of linearity. You begin to read as one lives life -- out of sequence, with stops and starts, with side plots that take all of our attention and then just as quickly evaporate into nothing. What I find particularly effective about Building Stories is the combination of this narrative multiplicity with the beautifully rendered banality of Ware’s subject matter. Ware has such a gift for tracking the seductive rhythms of life’s more ordinary moments. A cat on a bed. A woman shifts positions. The cat, still on the bed. Snow falls. The woman shifts again. The cat shifts. It is no longer snowing. The medium of graphic novels -- caught somewhere between the pacing of a movie and a book -- is especially suited for clocking such passage of time. Each of Ware’s panels becomes a choice to capture a certain moment, but why capture the moment when nothing has seemingly happened? Yet the choice to do so, the choice to represent that moment, makes something happen. The cat shifting becomes all cats who have ever shifted, who will ever shift. It is why we love literature; it is why we love photographs; it is why we love to hear stories over a cup of coffee. Let me tell you this so we can make it realer than real. In this regard, Ware’s onomatopoetics are deceivingly evocative. Here he uses a well-worn tool from the comic book artist’s cabinet -- that is, the representation of an action sound through a word (kerplam!) -- and lovingly reapplies it to his wheelhouse of his melancholic domestic oblivion. Set goes the tea kettle onto the countertop, plop goes a warm body into a couch, fff goes a pair of jeans as she pulls them up over the last inch of waistline flesh. This symphony of normalcy is composed of imperfect approximations, but their imperfections are what makes them so delicious because we know these gestures, this last inch of flesh. That fff is louder than any kerplam can hope to be. Building Stories gives me hope for the future of storytelling. Our increasing reliance on visuals and our tendency to now digest, capture, and broadcast media in bite-sized chunks does not necessarily spell the end of nuance and pathos. Rather, faced with the splintering of old media, today’s storytellers must execute their craft with even more precision and restraint, even as the boundaries of the book become increasingly blurred. More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 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, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
For me, 2012 has been at least as much a Year in Not Reading as a Year in Reading. Like a lot of members of the book-based community, I’m prone to making aspirational purchases, as though buying a book were somehow the first link in an unbroken chain of causation that ends, inevitably, with having read it. For me, it’s become increasingly clear that this is a form of magical thinking, but there’s no sign of my changing my ways just because I’ve had this realization. I'm always buying books on the basis that they are exactly the books I should be reading, while knowing that the likelihood of my ever starting them, let alone finishing them, is vanishingly small. I am, as we say in Ireland, a divil for it. I have no idea how many works of academic literary criticism I have bought on this basis, but it is, I fear, a number approaching shitloads. There’s one book in particular that I have spent much of this year not reading, and that’s Adorno: A Biography by Stefan Müller-Doohm. I’m pretty sure that my relationship with this book is a lot more intimate and emotionally fraught than it would be if I’d actually read it. For the past nine months or so it has been squatting on my desk, in all its arrogant bulk and imperious disdain -- like Ray Winstone in scholarly-volume form -- taunting me with the fact of my not having read it. The thing about Adorno: A Biography is that it couldn’t care less that I haven’t read it; in fact, it seems to derive a kind of smug enjoyment from my continuing failure to do so. It knows all about the life and writings of Theodor Adorno, and will continue knowing all about them regardless of whether I read it. It also knows me better than I know myself, this book; it knows that I’m the type of person who will buy a 648-page biography of Theodor Adorno, but not, crucially, the type of person who will read it. I allowed that domineering bastard into my life in the first place after reading -- as opposed to merely purchasing -- Adorno’s Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (which, ironically, I wrote about here in the context of its bucking the trend of my failures of readerly steadfastness). It’s an amazing book of short essays and elegant aphorisms on a vast array of topics -- love, capitalism, war, fascism, children’s toys, architecture, psychoanalysis -- that contains some of the most beautiful accumulations of sentences I’ve ever come across. Like this, for instance: Waking in the middle of a dream, even the worst, one feels disappointed, cheated of the best in life. But pleasant, fulfilled dreams are actually as rare, to use Schubert’s words, as happy music. Even the loveliest dream bears like a blemish its difference from reality, the awareness that what it grants is mere illusion. This is why precisely the loveliest dreams are as if blighted. I also sat down and properly read a couple of books by Susan Sontag -- Against Interpretation and Where the Stress Falls -- and loved more or less every word of both, especially the stuff I vehemently disagreed with. I also dipped in and out of the first volume of her journals. As with so many of the best cultural commentators, Sontag’s critical persona was itself a kind of ongoing work of art. I love the spectacle of her hawkish aestheticism; for its own sake, certainly, but also for the way it forced me to think more clearly about my own cultural values. (Right now, I couldn’t tell you exactly what these are, but I do remember having a sense of them at the time). The most fun I had with a book all year was definitely the Sunday I spent reading David Rees’s How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening, for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, and Civil Servants, with Illustrations Showing Current Practice. (With a title like that, it’s basically immoral to shorten it to its first four words.) It’s a deeply funny and fascinating exercise in sustaining a rarified tone in the face of an apparently absurd subject matter, and it’s also a covert quasi-memoir about obsession and coming to terms with difficulties and disappointment in life and art. Primarily, though, it’s a very, very detailed guide to sharpening the bejesus out of a pencil, and it’s stood me in good stead in that regard. The second most fun I had with a book all year was the second time I read it, about three weeks later. As for fiction, I spent quite a lot of time this year harassing friends, acquaintances and perfect strangers to read the Portuguese writer Gonçalo M. Tavares, who I feel confident is lurking somewhere in the general vicinity of genius. I read his “Kingdom” series of novels -- Jerusalem, Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique, and Joseph Walser’s Machine -- straight through, one after the other, and the experience was a full-on revelation. He’s one of those writers (like, say, Kafka or Beckett) who makes almost all other writers seem not fully serious, as if they are, on some crucial level, just messing about. Not everyone I bullied into reading him was as impressed as I told them they would be; a couple of people said they found his fictional world too cold and inhuman, but this is, I think, exactly what so enthralls me about him. In the best possible way, he writes like an alien. Chris Ware’s Building Stories was also a rich and remarkable experience. I don’t really know what else to say about it, except that it’s definitely a masterpiece. More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 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, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
The book that meant most to me this year was Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. I don't have anything intelligent to say about it. I just thought it was very beautiful. Other favorites: The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson, Building Stories by Chris Ware, and an old book about the salad days of my new neighborhood: Kafka Was the Rage by Anatole Broyard. More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 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, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Once again, it’s time to buy a gift for the writer in your life, that fickle person who probably already has more classic novels and Moleskine notebooks than he knows what to do with. Last year’s guide was inspired by my own collection of blank notebooks and high-quality pens, beautiful gifts that I had never found occasion to use. This year’s list is inspired by my e-reader, which I received last year as a Christmas present. It took me most of the year to incorporate it into my reading routine, but now, as more of my reading happens electronically, I’m feeling nostalgic for all things bookish and old-fashioned. Judging by the market for vintage typewriters, I know I’m not the only one feeling this way. So, here it is, a list for the sentimental writer, with a couple of book recommendations thrown in for good measure. 1. A Bookshelf Portrait If every bookshelf is a portrait of its owner, then why not commission an actual portrait of a bookshelf? That’s what Your Ideal Bookshelf allows booklovers to do, offering hand-painted portraits of “the books that changed your life, that defined who you are, that you read again and again.” If that seems like too much pressure, you can purchase prints of other people’s ideal bookshelves, as well as drawings of ideal bookshelves organized by genre, subject, and author. Harry Potter fanatics can find portraits of the entire series, while home cooks can choose from several different shelves of culinary classics. The creators of Your Ideal Bookshelf have also produced a book, My Ideal Bookshelf, which showcases the favorite bookshelves of a variety of writers and artists, including Patti Smith, Junot Diaz, Miranda July, and Judd Apatow. 2. Bookends Bookends are underrated. Not only do they keep books from falling off the shelf, they allow you to make a bookshelf anywhere — on a desk, in a windowsill, or atop a bedside table. Even ugly bookends end up being used, so go ahead and spring for ones in the shape of golden pigs or green poodles. 3. Typewriter-inspired clothing The prints in fashion designer Mary Katranzou’s fall 2012 collection were partially inspired by old school office equipment, and included a cape printed with the circular numbers of a rotary phone dial, skirts printed with classic yellow #2 pencils, and most striking of all, a dress whose bodice was dominated by a red Olivetti typewriter. The runway items are hard to come by (not to mention, several thousand dollars), but you can purchase a Katranzou rotary-phone dial tee shirt here, with the proceeds going to charity. 4. An Elaborately Beautiful Book The recent publication of Chris Ware’s graphic novel, Building Stories, got me thinking about the many beautifully designed books that have been released in the past few years. To name a few: Anne Carson’s poem Nox; Lauren Redniss’s biography of Marie and Pierre Curie, Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout; and Vladimir Nabokov’s unfinished novel-in-index-cards, The Original of Laura. In addition to being wonderful literary works, they are also beautiful objects, the kind of book that simply cannot exist in electronic form, and which readers will keep for a lifetime. 5. A subscription to Journal of the Month Literary journals! There are so many of them, and so many of them are good, and almost all of them would like you to read a copy before you submit your stories to them. Journal of the Month helps writers sample a wide variety of journals by sending subscribers a different journal each month. Each month’s selection is a surprise, and you can buy subscriptions of 3, 6, or 12 months. You can also choose to receive magazines on a quarterly basis. 6. Draw It With Your Eyes Closed This unusual, practical, gossipy, eclectic, and highly entertaining anthology is a collection of assignments for fine arts students. But it’s unexpectedly useful for writers, too — or, at least, it was useful to me, helping me to think about the writing process in new ways. I bought if for my brother-in-law, who teaches drawing, but found myself unable to put it down after reading a couple of entries. With contributions from art teachers, art students, artists, and art professionals, some within the academic community and some without, Draw It With Your Eyes Closed delves into the creative process of artists by focusing on their art school training. If there’s an equivalent to this book from the world of creative writing MFAs, I’d love to read it, but I doubt it’d be as raucous or mischievous. 7. The Dictionary of American Regional English When I was growing up, my parents had a slang dictionary, which I dorkily consulted in order to learn the meanings of certain colorful insults. But I quickly found the dictionary to be more interesting when I browsed beyond the curse words. The Dictionary of American Regional English is kind of like the slang dictionary except that it is six volumes, and its contents are fifty years in the making. Based on hundreds of years of historical documents, as well as interviews taken from across the country, it is a comprehensive record of American dialect. The final volume was completed earlier this year, an event that one of its founding researchers did not live to see. Long a resource for editors and lawyers, it’s the kind of book that any word nerd could appreciate. 8. A Quill Pen With the current enthusiasm for typewriters going strong, can quill pens be far behind? There are hundreds on Etsy, from turkey feather models to Hunger Games-inspired arrow-feather quills. 9. A Fireplace According to poet Adam Kirsch, “Every writer needs a fireplace”: On publication day, an author should burn a copy of his book, to acknowledge that what he accomplished is negligible compared to what he imagined and intended. Only this kind of burnt offering might be acceptable to the Muse he has let down. The ultimate in old-school technology, a fireplace (or perhaps, a fire table?) allows writers to dispose of unsatisfying drafts in a truly dramatic fashion. Sometimes the trashcan icon at the bottom of your computer screen just doesn’t feel definitive enough. 10. A Place to Write Virgina Woolf said it best when she wrote that a woman “must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Poet Brenda Shaughnessy put a somewhat finer point on it in Poets & Writers, when she speculated that the happiness of her marriage to fellow poet Craig Morgan Teicher depended on a shared rented writing studio: This might be the true secret of the sane poet-couple: Rent writing space. Make it as private as possible. This single thing has completely changed our lives. As I write this, I have been displaced from my own writing desk for almost a month, courtesy of Hurricane Sandy, and without that space it has been very hard to sit down and get to work. Laptops and abundant wi-fi access have turned us all into nomads, but there’s something to be said for returning to the same place every day. How do you give someone a place to write? It could mean finding someone a cubicle in your office, renting a studio, lending a summer cottage or winter cabin, helping someone to finance a residency, or simply rearranging a shared space to make room for a bookshelf, a comfy chair, or a desk.
The end of another year is here (so soon? Ah, I'm getting old), and with it a flood of valedictory lists and wrap ups, accountings and scorecards. Each year, as these lists spill out across the landscape, the onslaught becomes difficult to parse and begins to feel suspiciously (to us, anyway) like a marketing boondoggle to support the promotional-book-cover-sticker-and-blurb industry. There are so many "best of the year" lists that everything is the best (and sometimes also the worst). So, how can we have some year-end fun while still extracting something meaningful from the effort? We readers tend to be a thoughtful bunch, noting down the titles we have read or lining them up one by one on a shelf. We are intellectually omnivorous as well and not too overly prejudiced toward the new or the old, picking up a 130-year-old classic of Russian literature and then following it up with the bestselling, beach read of the moment. Taken together, a long list of books read is a map of our year, and the best of these books are the year's pinnacles, and the challenging books, its rewarding treks. The "10 best books of 2012" list is so small next to this. And so in preparing our annual Year in Reading series, we've asked our esteemed guests to take us on a tour of these pinnacles and to give an accounting of these treks. With this in mind, for a ninth year, some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers will look back, reflect, and share. Their charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2013 a fruitful one. As in prior years, the names of our 2012 "Year in Reading" contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we publish their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along that way. Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat. Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Emma Straub, author of Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures. Choire Sicha, co-proprietor of The Awl. Jeffrey Eugenides, author of Middlesex. Madeline Miller, author of The Song of Achilles. Gideon Lewis-Kraus, author of A Sense of Direction. Rob Delaney, comedian and writer. Nick Harkaway, author of The Gone-Away World. Tania James, author of Atlas of Unknowns. Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh. Maria Popova, founder and editor of Brain Pickings. Lauren Groff, author of Arcadia. David Vann, author of Dirt. Helen Schulman, author of This Beautiful Life. Roxane Gay, author of Ayiti. Hari Kunzru, author of Gods Without Men. Rachel Fershleiser, co-editor of Not Quite What I Was Planning. Bill Morris, author of All Souls' Day, staff writer for The Millions. Scott Esposito, co-author of The End of Oulipo?, proprietor of Conversational Reading. Nick Moran, social media editor for The Millions. Emily St. John Mandel, author of The Lola Quartet, staff writer for The Millions. Edan Lepucki, author of If You're Not Yet Like Me, staff writer for The Millions. Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions, blogger at At Times Dull. David Haglund, writer and editor at Slate. Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth. Chris Ware, author of Building Stories. Kevin Smokler, author of Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven't Touched Since High School, on twitter as @weegee. Thomas Mallon, author of Watergate. Geoff Dyer, author of Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room. Susan Orlean, staff writer for The New Yorker, author of Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend. Michael Schaub, book critic for NPR.org. Matt Dojny, author of The Festival of Earthly Delights. Nell Freudenberger, author of The Newlyweds. Ed Park, author of Personal Days. Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer for the rock band The Walkmen. Meg Wolitzer, author of The Interestings. Sheila Heti, author of How Should a Person Be?. Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies. Elliott Holt, author of You Are One of Them. Jami Attenberg, author of The Middlesteins. Antoine Wilson, author of Panorama City. Paul Ford, author of Gary Benchley, Rock Star, writer at Ftrain.com. Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family. Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions. Mark O’Connell, staff writer for The Millions. Christian Lorentzen, editor at the London Review of Books. Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions. Emily M. Keeler, editor of Little Brother Magazine. Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions. Nichole Bernier, author of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. Alix Ohlin, author of Inside. Lars Iyer, author of Exodus. Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Malcolm Jones, senior writer at Newsweek/The Daily Beast, author of Little Boy Blues. Susan Straight, author of Between Heaven and Here. Christine Schutt, author of Prosperous Friends. Patrick Somerville, author of This Bright River. Lydia Millet, author of Magnificence. Jennifer duBois, author of A Partial History of Lost Causes. Nick Dybek, author of When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man. Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet. Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise. Ellen Ullman, author of By Blood. Jane Hirshfield, author of Come, Thief. Michael Robbins, author of Alien vs. Predator. Jeet Thayil, author of Narcopolis. Thomas Beckwith, intern for The Millions. Benjamin Anastas, author of Too Good to Be True. Kate Zambreno, author of Heroines. Carolyn Kellogg, staff writer for the LA Times, a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle. Buzz Poole, author of Madonna of the Toast. Robert Birnbaum, editor-at-large at Identity Theory. Brian Joseph Davis, creator of The Composites, co-publisher of Joyland Magazine. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 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, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr. Year in Reading Graphics by LK Magee
This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year list is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books as well: Arcadia by Lauren Groff (a Staff Pick, Paradise Regained: An Interview with Lauren Groff) At Last by Edward St Aubyn (Most Anticipated, Illicit Pleasures: On Edward St Aubyn’s At Last) Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain (Everything is Political: An Interview with Ben Fountain, National Book Award Finalist) Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Booker Prize Winner) Building Stories by Chris Ware (Infographics of Despair: Chris Ware’s Building Stories) By Blood by Ellen Ullman (Who We Are Now: On Ellen Ullman’s By Blood) Canada by Richard Ford (Across the Border: Richard Ford’s Canada) City of Bohane by Kevin Barry (The Mad Music of Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane) Fobbit by David Abrams (Post-40 Bloomer: David Abrams Taking As Long As It Takes) The Forgetting Tree by Tatjana Soli (Going Back to the Page: An Interview with Tatjana Soli, A Millions contributor) Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru (Plot, Rhyme, and Conspiracy: Hari Kunzru Colludes with His Readers, Fractured World: Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men) HHhH by Laurent Binet (Exclusive: The Missing Pages of Laurent Binet’s HHhH) A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers (National Book Award Finalist) Home by Toni Morrison (Where the Heart Is: Toni Morrison’s Home) Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander (So, Nu?: Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy) How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti (How Should a Writer Be? An Interview with Sheila Heti) NW by Zadie Smith (Lamenting the Modern: On Zadie Smith's NW, Exclusive: The First Lines of Zadie Smith's NW) The Round House by Louise Erdrich (National Book Award Winner) Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (National Book Award Winner) Shout Her Lovely Name by Natalie Serber (Mothers and Daughters: On Natalie Serber’s Shout Her Lovely Name) Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan (The Lies We Tell: Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth) Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (Booker Shortlisted) Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon (Golden Oldie: Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, Exclusive: The First Lines of Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue) This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz (The ‘You’ In Yunior: Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, A Brief Wondrous Interview with Junot Díaz) Watergate by Thomas Mallon (I Am Not A Character: On Thomas Mallon’s Watergate) What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander (Speaking of Anne Frank…) The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (National Book Award Finalist)
Building Stories, by the comics artist Chris Ware, comes in a large, flat box, roughly the size and shape of the boxes that contained those boardgames you used to play as a child, and which children everywhere have presumably now abandoned for digital diversions. I ordered it online, and because I wasn’t home when it arrived (and because the thing was never going to fit into my postbox) I had to put aside some time later that week to pick it up from a delivery depot about a mile and a half from where I live. When I got there, I rang a little bell at an unmanned hatch. A guy eventually appeared and asked for my name and address, then went away and came back with this large package, which I then signed for, took out to my car, lay across the back seat, and drove home. I say all of this by way of establishing that this is a sizable and intractably physical object, and that I had to endure some (admittedly minor) inconveniences to get to where I could sit down and spend time with it. My point, I suppose, is that having to go a little out of your way might actually be the most appropriate way of arriving at Building Stories, a work of art whose quietly monolithic presence lies well beyond the central marketplace of contemporary literary culture. I call it a work of art, by the way, not in order to rhetorically elevate it, but rather to avoid having to call it a “book,” which is more or less exactly what it isn’t. Firstly, it’s a great big box, and then, once you’ve opened that, it’s a whole paper treasury of beautiful odds and ends – a series of small booklets and pamphlets, a couple of variously sized hardbound volumes, a massive and aggressively cumbersome broadsheet, a series of folded panels that opens out into a tetraptych – all of which is bound together by a clear plastic band. These things have to be removed and laid out, as though they were the contents of an aesthetic care-package, and they have to be appreciated before they can be read. So the first thing about Building Stories, the initial way in which it asserts itself, is that it feels like opening an unexpected gift. But once you stop merely looking at it and begin reading it, the delight and sheer fun of its form – of the gift’s presentation – is revealed as a beautiful irony. Because although the content of the box is bright and surprising, full of remarkable nested pleasures, the content of the art itself (the content, as it were, of the box’s content) is something very different: full-color infographics of stoically-borne despair, sadness, and boredom. Building Stories is, essentially, a sprawling assemblage of cartoons about the inhabitants of a single building in Chicago. On the ground floor is the elderly landlady, and above her lives a youngish woman and her sullen, undermining husband, who once played guitar in a rock band, but who now works night shifts as a security guard. For the most part, though, Ware focuses on the life of an unnamed woman with one leg amputated at the knee who lives on the third floor. There seems to be no particular order in which the stories should be read – no one way in which the parts unite to form a whole – and so you glimpse this life at various points and at the various degrees of its loneliness. You pick up one booklet and she is in her twenties, living alone in her apartment with her cat, working as a florist; you pick up another and she is married to an architect (who looks very much like Chris Ware) and living in the suburbs with a young daughter; in another, she is just out of art school, working as an au pair with a wealthy couple and their son. And yet despite this haphazardness, whereby the reader pieces this fractured graphic narrative together in whatever way comes to hand, there is always a forceful sense of the steady passage of time. We see the woman’s face change, her sadness seeming to settle into its structure; and, in Ware’s many unclothed depictions of her, we see the inevitable slump and spread of her body, her shoulders hunched under a private history of tolerable defeats. The only part of her that doesn’t grow old, that isn’t sliding along an illustrated continuum of decay, is the part that is already dead – her prosthetic left leg. In one of the most emotionally affecting panels, she stands in pear-shaped nakedness by the door of her bedroom, her clothes bunched on the floor around her. Her husband lies stretched out on their bed, also naked, his long legs crossed at the ankle, his slackly oblivious cock reclining away from her across his right thigh, his chest and face illuminated by the unreal glow of the iPad he is holding in his hands. The expression on her face is one of helpless misery, like a child prematurely exposed to adult disillusionments. It’s heartbreaking to look at everything that Ware somehow manages to imply in the simple lines of her face: her doubts about her husband’s desire for her and her own desire for him, her sudden dismay about the shape of her life, and of the body with which she is moving through it. It’s precisely the ordinariness of all this that is surprising; she is, in other words, not a nude, but – far more beautifully and movingly – a naked woman. The passing of time, with its slow devastation of bodies and lives, is a major dimension of Building Stories. One of the comics focuses on the building’s elderly landlady; its entire front page is given over to a wordless scene in which she snoozes in her armchair by the television, sitting out what little time she has left, as a maid hoovers around her. Ware zooms in repeatedly on her left hand, a seized arthritic claw with its bulbous knuckles, resting on the arm of the chair. At one point a fly lands on the back of her hand without her noticing; it’s only when it moves to her face that she brushes it away, like a thought about the approach of death. Inside the comic, she thinks about the uneventful life she led, working as a shop assistant, trapped at home caring for a bedridden mother. A central double-page spread opens out into a diagram of the building’s stairwells, and as we move downward, reading from left to right, the process of aging is illustrated. First she is a little girl playing on the stairs, then a woman mopping it, then finally a frail and crotchety old lady rebuking her maid as she cleans the floor. Ware has a way of making the most banal visual details unaccountably touching; in particular, I found the sight of the old lady’s hands removing the plastic wrap from a pre-prepared lunch plate (triangular sandwich, half a banana, two apple slices) desperately sad. Again, it’s the ordinariness of the image that is affecting. Like Philip Larkin, or the Joyce of Dubliners – a book with which Building Stories has a great deal in common – Ware has an extraordinary instinct for the empathic illumination of banality. He makes plain – beautifully and unsentimentally plain – the fact that nothing is more ordinary than to be lonely and despairing and dying. Perhaps this sounds depressing. It isn’t. Only bad art is depressing; good art, no matter what its subject, is exhilarating. Building Stories takes everyday sadness and makes something very beautiful of it, something powerfully human and true. That is a rare gift, and I'm very thankful to have received it.
October kicks off with a mega-dose of new fiction: Ancient Light by John Banville, The Round House by Louise Erdrich, It's Fine By Me by Per Petterson, The Heart Broke In by James Meek, In Sunlight and in Shadow by Mark Helprin, Live by Night by Dennis Lehane, and Have You Seen Marie? by Sandra Cisneros. And that doesn't even include debuts Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, That's Not a Feeling by Dan Josefson, and Safe As Houses by Marie-Helene Bertino. And there's more: graphic novel master Chris Ware's Building Stories, The Paris Review's collection Object Lessons (we interviewed one of the Steins behind the book) and this year's Best American Short Stories collection. Finally, Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim is out in a new NYRB Classics edition with an introduction by Keith Gessen.