If you’re arriving here after hearing my appearance on Weekend Edition Sunday, welcome! Just to give you a little background, I started The Millions in early 2003 when I was a bookseller at an independent bookstore in Los Angeles. I’ve since moved on from there, but the blog has stuck around. We now have seven contributors besides me, and we write nearly daily about books and other cultural topics.If you want to look around, a great place to start is the notable posts on the right-hand sidebar. You can get to the archives by scrolling down to the bottom of the page.Finally, in case you want to get more info on the books I mentioned during the segment, here are some links to the books on Amazon (I haven’t heard the segment yet, so not sure if they edited any of these out):Ragtime by E.L. DoctorowPastoralia by George SaundersEast of Eden by John SteinbeckOne Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia MarquezThe Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro MutisThanks for checking out The Millions!
As a reader, I’ve been fortunate to enjoy a wide variety of literary pieces – from potboiler mysteries to critically acclaimed tomes. I just like to read, I guess, and I like to talk about reading. And because I (unfortunately) don’t have a lot of people in my life to talk about reading with, I find myself simply reading more, filling the spaces usually reserved for discussion with another book or two.On the other hand, I’ve always cast a wary eye at the book club culture. Though sometimes desperate to speak about East of Eden and the themes therein, I hate the idea of joining a book club (or book group, or reading circle, or whatever you call it) and essentially being forced to read a specific novel, regardless of whether or not it’s on your list of “To Be Reads.”So here I sit, frightfully aware that I am shunning the most popular way to communicate about books while lamenting on the lack of literary conversationalists in my life. I mean, it’s hard to talk about books that I’ve read if the people I know haven’t read them as well. Hence, a book club would be a good idea.And with that, I will admit my defeat. I have crumpled. My wife, who has always wanted to start a book club (and has herself appeared in a few over time) convinced me that it was the proper way to go. We gathered some friends, chose a book, and made a date. I’m in a real book club now, no longer clinging to this faux book club gimmick that I’ve used here at Millions to reach a wider audience.The book of the month (both here and at home) is Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Have you read this? If so, can you believe that this is Zadie Smith’s first novel? (It is!) Can you believe that it first appeared on the scene in 1997, when she was just 22? (It’s true!) It’s amazing, actually, that I didn’t spontaneously combust while reading it. I was that jealous – of her writing, of her storytelling, and especially of her complex narrative – one that weaves through two generations of London outcasts so wonderfully that I felt attached to their stories, each one of them.White Teeth is a tale of immigration, albeit an angry and forlorn type of immigration. In it, we find a pair of immigrants, their friends (one of which is also an immigrant), and their children struggling with acceptance. Every character has a sort of pained disdain for every other character, which leads to a wonderfully rich web of alliances and experiences. It’s written with snark – as if Zadie had channeled the failed lives of her characters and funneled their speech through her pen.As far as first novels go, few are this good. Surprisingly, Smith doesn’t rely on clever writing and funny anecdotes to drive her characters. Instead, she delves deeply into the mindset of each character.There’s Samad Iqbal, a man who longs for his motherland and takes up a failed form of Islam, one that is constantly strained by both his wife, Alsana, and his location: 1980s London. There’s Archie Jones and his wife Clara – two amazingly simple people with amazingly complex friendships and pasts. And then there are the kids; three children who grow to despise their expected callings, forcing their way out of the caste and into an extreme and opposite version of their parent’s desires.Smith uses White Teeth to touch upon the bonds of parenthood. She searches for meaning within the failed expectations of a child led astray. She manages to grasp the bonds that tie us to our religion and sort them out while illustrating how complicated religion can be, even among people of the same beliefs. She shows us the difference between intent and action, leaving us to ask – which is more important? The intent to do good? Or the actual doing of good, even if on accident? And which, ultimately, will win out?Did I mention that she was 22? When I was that young, I was just learning how to drink alcohol properly. Damn it.White Teeth looks at immigration from a more resistive stance, one that is tense, sarcastic and angry. These people moved from high status to low, from small-town India and Jamaica to London, where they are easily lost and often mocked. Instead of helping to create the land they are moving to, they are expected to fit into the land, slowly fading into the background until they have become a forgotten relic of some ancient culture. Until they are more British, really, and less whatever they used to be. Instead of blending their beliefs with the culture around them, they are forced to become part of the culture, leaving their pasts behind.There’s a whole load of themes and discussion topics with White Teeth. I’ve probably missed a few: science vs. religion; nature vs. nurture; the power of a wonderfully planned, converging set of story lines. But one thing is for sure. I haven’t been more awed (and more jealous) of a book in a long time. Which is good.After all, I got the chance talk to more than just myself about it this time.Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC 2006.
Mrs. Millions has decided that if I’m going to do all this blogging she should get something out of it, too. She reads a lot, and it seems that I’m always digging through our bookshelves looking for another book for her to read. Well, I’m running out of ideas, so she’s decided to bypass me and go straight to you guys. She has thoughtfully provided her recent reading preferences to help you select something to her liking. You’ll notice here, as well, the attention Mrs. Millions pays to the look and feel of the books she reads, so you may want to factor that in.Like Max, I look forward to vacation because it demands that vast amounts of time be spent reading. Unlike Max, I do not have a reading queue but instead rely upon recommendations (always Max’s) for what to read next, or I search for an appealing title and cover from the Millions library, letting chance encounters determine my next choice. But now, Max is kindly letting me use the blog to place a request for suggestions… I call it “What’s next for Mrs. Millions?”My most recent read is Small Island by Andrea Levy, which I am presently halfway through and am enjoying because it is fiction that weaves itself through history without being too tightly bound to it. Levy’s book also has an incredibly intentional feel to it and it is filled with vivid detail. The book is printed on paper that is like newsprint with rough edges – the tactility of a book impresses me as much as the content. Prior to this was Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. This was not among my favorites, primarily because the story was too neat with not enough depth, and it’s a hardcover with bookjacket (which I immediately removed, as I often do). But it had a tough act to follow: The World According to Garp by John Irving is messy and endearing, pressing all the wrong and right buttons. Ours is an older copy, used before we acquired it which seemed in step with the novel – I even kept this one’s jacket on. And before that was John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, my favorite among this group.With that brief history in mind, please send Max your suggestions sothat I will be kept from interrupting his reading time. ; ]So got any ideas? Help me out here folks. Leave your suggestions in the comments below.
At the Happy Booker, Wendi points to a New York Daily News article which mentions that Oprah has been recommending Edward P. Jones’ 2003 novel The Known World to book clubs, leading to speculation that her own book club will return to contemporary fiction, and Jones’ book will be her choice.Great news for Jones, but I see no reason why Oprah can’t have both contemporary and classic picks at the same time. She only selects three or four books a year, so double that wouldn’t be a big deal, and getting millions of people to read books like East of Eden and Anna Karenina isn’t a bad thing.
I’ve crossed another classic off of my “to read” list, and boy am I happy I read this one. This was pure satisfaction from start to finish. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is an amazing book that embodies the intersection of literary weightiness and readability. There are plenty of epics out there that span generations: Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds or Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, for example. Those books are a joy to read and you can luxuriate in the authors’ virtuosity as characters are added to weaving storylines, but East of Eden seemed to have more weight to it. Unlike many epics, which seem to thrive on love, unrequited or forbidden, Steinbeck’s book focuses on the struggles of brothers seeking their father’s admirmation. From the title alone, it is obvious that this notion is Biblical, and the book’s Biblical quality becomes its center. For the first time in a very long time, I did not rush through the book’s last chapters, eager to get to my next conquest. I felt that pang that you sometimes get when you finish a truly magnificent book, the pang that is part sadness at the experience of reading the book being over and part a feeling of that book permanently lodging itself in your memory to be drawn from and remembered with reverence. There are, I think, very few books that can produce this sublime reading experience, but East of Eden is on that short list.
Tiffany writes in with this intriguing question:What qualifications does a book have to meet in order to be considered as a classic?This is probably an argument almost as old as the written word. Nearly everyone who reads has an opinion on what should or shouldn’t be a “classic,” and the criteria for this classification shifts with changing times and tastes. Only the very few, special books will be considered classics by generation after generation of readers. It’s safe to say that the halls of academia are where these arguments begin. Academics typically publish their findings in obscure journals, but some go straight to the masses like Harold Bloom, whose book The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages seeks “to define the essential masterworks of world literature.” Bloom’s book, when it came out was, as most of these books tend to be, quite controversial. The press, too, plays a role in these discussions. Book critics with long and distinguished careers encounter enough books to make their own judgments about the classics. Lists like Jonathan Yardley’s “State of the Art” add to the public discourse about what makes a book a classic. Publishers come up with lists of classics to get people talking about books; the Modern Library 100 Best Novels of the Century is a recent example. The discussion has even arrived on our televisions. Last summer the BBC put together the Big Read which searched for Britain’s best loved books. Even Oprah reinvented her book club by shifting the focus to classics last year. Oprah fans have read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and John Steinbeck’s East of Eden in recent months, and they’ll be reading The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck next. In the end there aren’t any official rules that determine what is a classic and what isn’t, but if we had to adopt some, I would recommend that we borrow the set of rules put forth by Italo Calvino in his book Why Read the Classics?The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: “I’m rereading…” and never “I’m reading…”The classics are those books which constitute a treasured experience for those who have read and loved them; but they remain just as rich an experience for those who reserve the chance to read them for when they are in the best condition to enjoy them.The classics are books which exercise a particular influence, both when they imprint themselves as unforgettable on our imaginations, and when they hide in the layers of memory disguised as the individual’s or the collective unconscious.A classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much a sense of discovery as the first reading.A classic is a book which even when we read it for the first time gives the sense of rereading something we have read before.A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.The classics are those books which come to us bearing the aura of previous interpretations, and trailing behind them the traces they have left on the culture or cultures (or just in the languages and customs) through which they have passed.A classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it, but which always shakes the particles off.The classics are books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them.A classic is the term given to any book which comes to represent the whole universe, a book on par with ancient talismans.”Your” classic is a book to which you cannot feel indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation even in opposition to it.A classic is a work that comes before other classics; but those who have read other classics first immediately recognize its place in the genealogy of classic works.A classic is a work which relegates the present to a background hum, which at the same time the classics cannot exist without.A classic is a work which persists as background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway.
I have returned to the subject of the big televised book clubs a number of times since I started this blog nearly a year ago. I have reacted to them, at times, with shock, confusion, and dismay as when I was startled by the emergence of a new Oprah’s Book Club, an event that necessitated placing a splashy red banner bearing Oprah’s name across the cover of an American classic. Later on I would mellow out, having observed the profound (and mostly positive) effect that Oprah’s new focus on classic literature was having on America’s reading habits. And there was, of course, the piece that one time Oprah author Kaye Gibbons wrote emphasizing how important she found the club to be in getting more people to read. For most people who observe the book industry I think that the angst surrounding Oprah and the rest is dissipating, and most folks have come to realize that the good done by these clubs far outweighs the damage. A year ago it was possible to see the occasional angry screed directed against the proliferation of on air reading groups, but now, as Caryn James explains in this New York Times article, the ambivalence is waning. And, in fact, Oprah deserves a good deal of praise for both her selection of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez classic One Hundred Years of Solitude and the depth of the Book Club section of her website (which unfortunately requires you to register if you want to see it). So, the consensus seems to be that these book clubs are mostly good intellectually, but the impact of these clubs on the industry commercially cannot be overestimated. As this interesting roundup of the last ten years of bestsellers in USA Today shows, Oprah’s club has become as important as blockbuster news stories and runaway cultural fads when it comes to creating mega-bestsellers. (By the way, how about the amazing five straight “book of the year” titles for the Harry Potter Series.)
Scanning the headlines for news about books:I noticed, after I’d been working at the book store for a while, that there is a religious book industry that shadows the mainstream book industry. There isn’t much crossover between the two: there are mainstream bookstores that sell exclusively mainstream books and Christian bookstores that sell exclusively Christian books. But now the Associated Press is reporting that the lines are blurring thanks to the success of the The Da Vinci Code and the odd cultural phenomenon of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ. According to the story, several psuedo-religious books, books that don’t fit neatly into either segment of the book industry, have become big sellers in the last year. The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels, Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, and The Woman With the Alabaster Jar: Mary Magdalen and the Holy Grail by Margaret Starbird are among the beneficiaries.Advanced Book Exchange is a giant online marketplace for used books. I happened to notice that they recently posted a list of their “top 50 bestselling used, rare and out-of-print books on Abebooks in 2003.” It’s an interesting list that includes current bestsellers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), classics (East of Eden), collectible magazines (National Geographic Magazine), and scholarly texts and reference books (Black’s Law Dictionary).And while we’re talking bestsellers, here’s Barnes & Nobles’ 100 bestselling books of 2003, including one of my favorite books of recent years, Ian McEwan’s Atonement coming in at number 46.
Last summer Oprah’s book club returned from its hiatus touting Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck’s East of Eden as “the book that brought Oprah’s Book Club back.” By doing this she turned her powerful book club on its head. Up until this point, book industry types had been treating the Oprah book club as a lottery of sorts by which a previously unknown (but hardworking and extremely talented writer) could be lifted from obscurity and delivered into the homes of readers everywhere. Apparently, after much behind-the-scenes horsetrading and Jonathan Franzen’s high profile disdain for receiving the award for The Corrections, Oprah became disgusted with the politics and controversy surrounding her club and suspended it. Then, months later she brought it back, and now she is sticking, more or less, to the classics. Recently, in fact, she announced her next selection, which happens to be one of my favorite books of all time, One Hundred Years of Solitude by another Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (Between the two Nobel Laureates, by the way, was Cry, the Beloved Country a largely forgotten book from the 1940s by Alan Paton.) Many serious readers, and perhaps I might suggest that they are being a bit snooty, are inconsolably annoyed that the covers of books that they have adored for decades are suddenly besmirched by book club logos. If anything is to be blamed, though, it is not Oprah for placing her mark on these “sacred” books; it is, perhaps, our greater culture of reading. In a better world, Steinbeck and Marquez, to give two examples, would be so widely read, that naming them for this book club would seem utterly ridiculous. Instead, and we should be happy about this, East of Eden, thanks to Oprah, was one of the most widely read books of 2003, and the same will likely be true of One Hundred Years of Solitude in 2004. So, perhaps the earlier incarnation of the Oprah Club was getting ahead of itself as it steered readers to somewhat more obscure books though they had never read, or perhaps even heard of, many of the classics. In the end, one can hardly fault Oprah for making readers out of millions of Americans, though the marketing effort behind the whole thing can make one a bit queasy. In an excellent guest post to The Millions a few months back, the author Kaye Gibbons (Ellen Foster, A Virtuous Woman) wrote about her experience of being plucked from relative obscurity and brought to national prominence after being selected for the Oprah Book Club. If you haven’t yet read it, here it is.
I recently reorganized my bookshelves. I straightened and categorized the books, and I separated out all of the books that I haven’t read and that I hope to read sooner rather than later. These are books that I’ve bought at the store, received as gifts, and unearthed on bookfinding expeditions. There are 31 of them. For a while now, I’ve had a quite large “to read” pile, and I add titles almost every week, it seems. The problem is that stacks of books are constantly getting pushed aside while I read whatever book I’m most excited about at the moment. There’s not really anything wrong with this except that there are books that I really would like to read, but never seem to get around to it. So, since I obviously am not to be trusted, I have decided to take some of the decision making out of my hands: I have set aside a special shelf to hold my new “Reading Queue.” On it are all of the books that I own and would like to read but haven’t yet. From this shelf full of books, I will randomly select the next one to read. Before I get into that though, here’s my reading queue, some of the books that will keep me occupied during the coming year:Without Feathers by Woody AllenThe Summer Game by Roger AngellOnce More Around the Park: A Baseball Reader by Roger AngellGame Time: A Baseball Companion by Roger AngellAn Army at Dawn by Rick AtkinsonThe Sheltering Sky by Paul BowlesThe Hole in the Flag by Andrei CodrescuDon Quixote by Miguel De CervantesParis Trout by Pete DexterThe Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre DumasThe Last Amateurs by John FeinsteinA Season on the Brink by John FeinsteinLiving to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia MarquezLast Train to Memphis by Peter GuralnickThe Great Fire by Shirley HazzardRound Rock by Michelle HunevenThe Known World by Edward P. JonesBalkan Ghosts by Robert D. KaplanShah of Shahs by Ryszard KapuscinskiThe Price of Admiralty by John KeeganEverything’s Eventual by Stephen KingLiar’s Poker by Michael LewisThe Coming of Rain by Richard MariusThe Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullersLooking for a Ship by John McPheeMoviegoer by Walker PercyFraud by David RakoffThe Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat by Oliver SacksEast of Eden by John SteinbeckQuicksilver by Neal StephensonMr. Jefferson’s University by Garry WillsOnce I had a full shelf to pick from, the only question was how to pick randomly. I thought about writing down names and picking out of hat, but that seemed like a pain, and I would have had to go look for a hat, so instead I located a random number generator to help me make my choice. I’m going back east tomorrow for two weeks, so I picked three books to take with me: Everything’s Eventual, Paris Trout, and Don Quixote. I’m guessing most folks will be pretty busy over the next couple of weeks, and so will I, so I’ll probably only post a couple of times while I’m gone. They should be good, though. Look for “My Year in Books” and a post about the books I gave as gifts. Happy Holidays, all.
Garth poses this topic:Here’s a fun, listy book question based solely on opinion (these are my specialty): titles. As you can tell from the blank subject line above, titles are hard for me. I’ve always admired Hemingway’s titles, and I was just reading East of Eden, when I thought, damn, that’s a good title. Most of Steinbeck’s books have great titles, as do the Mutis novellas. Perhaps you should solicit candidates for the greatest book titles of all time.I am still in transit throughout the East Coast so I won’t have time to take a crack at this one. Anyone else have favorites? Use the comments link below.
One more thing, I almost forgot. Oprah’s Book Club reappeared today with the odd selection of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. As always, there is a special new “Oprah” edition of the book. I think the cover for this one is by far her most self-aggrandizing yet, especially when you consider that this is a classic of American literature. Oprah’s cultish Book Club has, from the start, been offputting to real readers, and, despite the hiatus, it’s clear that little has changed. Maybe Oprah is trying to take the moral highground here by picking a book by a dead writer for whom winning the Oprah lottery could mean nothing (Steinbeck won’t be rocketing from obscurity to fame like some of Oprah’s previous annointed ones). Another plus: Steinbeck can’t pull a “Franzen” and complain about being selected. Furthermore by calling Steinbeck’s masterpiece “The book that brought back Oprah’s Book Club,” she can freely imply some kind of intellectual parity between the book and the Club. The phrasing of the blurb, as well as it’s huge font and placement on the cover, is just shocking, as though East of Eden. is some blockbuster of Oprah’s creation and not the staple of American fiction that most folks read in high school. It seems that Oprah is quite smug in her assumption that not only has the American public never read this great book, but we’d never even heard of it until Oprah was kind enough to bring it to our attention. Wonders never cease… Coming next week, another healthy dose of Harry Potter Mania. Open Wide.