One night in the early 1980s, Jay McInerney, then a twenty-something wannabe writer, stumbled home after an epic evening of partying and heard an insistent voice in his head saying, “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.” He dashed off a quick paragraph about the night he’d just spent at a club talking with a girl with a shaved head and wishing he could get his hands on some more “Bolivian Marching Powder.” A short time later, editor George Plimpton called him to say he’d liked a story McInerney had sent to The Paris Review and hoped McInerney had something else he might want to submit. Rooting through his old notebooks, McInerney found the scrawled paragraph about his night at the club, and in the space of a few hours, wrote an entire story in that angry, ironical, self-disgusted second-person voice. Plimpton published the story, “It’s Six A.M., Do You Know Where You Are?” in The Paris Review, and in 1984, with the help of his best friend from college, Random House editor Gary Fisketjon, McInerney turned it into a 182-page novel, Bright Lights, Big City, which became an instant bestseller, making McInerney at once among the most popular and most vilified writers in America. Three years later, the Village Voice labeled McInerney, along with Bret Easton Ellis and Tama Janowitz, as part of the Literary Brat Pack, setting off an orgy of media hype that continues to dog these authors to this day. Even now, as the novel marks its 30th anniversary, it is nearly impossible to separate one’s opinion of Bright Lights from one’s opinion of its author. This is in no small part McInerney’s fault. At the height of his fame, he partied hard and publicly; he dated models, said inane things in magazine profiles, and earned a rightful place in untold numbers of nasty gossip columns. He has married four times and written six more novels, many of them bad, one or two of them truly execrable. In latter years, McInerney has become almost a parody of his younger self: a red-faced dandy with presidential hair, married to a Hearst heiress, who writes wine columns for the Wall Street Journal. But forget all that. Forget, too, the unwatchable screen version of Bright Lights starring a painfully miscast Michael J. Fox. Forget the later books. Forget the careers of McInerney’s fellow Brat Packers, none of whom has written a good novel in the last twenty years. Set all of that aside, and just read the book. If you do, you may well find that, pried loose from the perpetual noise machine that surrounds its author and the lore of its publication, Bright Lights, Big City appears, hidden in plain sight, as one of the great undiscovered gems of post-World War II American literature. Put simply, Bright Lights, Big City is the story of a young, handsome man-child very much like Jay McInerney, who works in the Department of Factual Verification of a famous magazine very much like The New Yorker. Abandoned by his fashion-model wife, Amanda, and mourning a private sorrow, the novel’s narrator snorts enough cocaine to float a South American junta, gets fired from the famous magazine, and nearly has his hand bitten off by enraged ferret. In the end, he reunites with his family, meets a nice Princeton girl with freckles, and in a direct steal from the short story “A Small Good Thing” by McInerney’s mentor Raymond Carver, he finishes the book gorging on fresh bread, resolving “to learn everything all over again.” But, really, nothing about Bright Lights, Big City is as simple as it seems. Start with those autobiographical details. McInerney was in fact fired from a job as a fact-checker at the New Yorker. He had also been briefly married to a fashion model, Linda Rossiter, before he met a fresh-faced graduate student named Merry Reymond, to whom he dedicated the book. He was also, by his own admission, partying pretty hard and putting a good deal of Bolivia’s finest up his nose. But it’s a hall of mirrors, these connections between the novel’s protagonist and its author, making it hard to pass judgment on the fictional character without running headlong into his real-life doppelgänger, who has spent the last thirty years looking more fashion-plate-ish and sounding more pompously self-involved than any ordinary reader can be expected to endure. Perusing three decades of magazine-profile McInerniana, one longs to suggest he please stop with the preciously self-conscious comparisons to F. Scott Fitzgerald. One yearns to slip him a note suggesting he try getting his picture taken in something other than a black turtleneck or J. Press sport coat. He might also try being linked to a woman who is neither a model nor a scion to a great newspaper fortune. And would it kill him to go to Supercuts? One $19.95 haircut would do wonders for his literary reputation. The problem is, of course, that, with some crucial elisions and exaggerations for effect, the unnamed protagonist of Bright Lights, Big City is Jay McInerney, and to fully appreciate his book, we have to see past that to the boldness and prescience of his literary achievement. We live in an age of memoir. Today, every ambitious young person with a problem and a prose style is writing a memoir of his or her misspent youth to the bestseller list, and it isn't going out on much of a limb to suggest that if McInerney had had that cocaine-fueled moment of clarity today, he would have written a bestselling addiction memoir rather than a bestselling literary novel. In fact, it isn’t much of a stretch to suggest that if the other Brat Packers were starting out today they would be writing memoir rather than fiction – Janowitz about her freaky Lower East Side friends, Ellis about his monstrously vacuous early years in L.A. This may help answer the perennial question: “Whatever happened to the 1980s Literary Brat Pack?” What happened to them is what eventually happens to all young memoirists: they ran out of source material. But the secret to Bright Lights, Big City, what makes it feel so fresh thirty years later, is that it’s not a memoir. In 1984, the addiction memoir didn’t exist as a popular form the way it does today, so McInerney drew his stylistic guidance from an older tradition of voice-driven American literature that runs through J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The voice at the center of Bright Lights may be spoiled and petulant, but it also is unmistakably American: fatally romantic, distrustful of authority, and democratic to a fault, even as it sounds its barbaric yawp over the rooftop parties of the world. It may sound strange to call McInerney’s narrator, so famously obsessed with status and designer goods, democratic, but one of the things that emerges from a rereading of Bright Lights is how deeply middle American his voice sounds. For all his velvet-rope hopping and faux French phrases, deep down the narrator is just a wide-eyed kid gawking at the passing parade of humanity called New York City, and one of the pleasures of the book is how effortlessly it allows you to gawk along with him. The New York of Bright Lights, Big City is a city poised on the knife-edge of change. For decades, upwardly mobile young white people like McInerney’s narrator had been fleeing to the suburbs, where John Updike’s and John Cheever’s protagonists lived, leaving the five boroughs a cauldron of poverty, crime, and ethnic unrest. But in the years after the city nearly went bankrupt in the 1970s, the poles abruptly reversed. Knowledge industries like banking, media, and fashion design, which had stayed in New York even as its manufacturing base evaporated, hit their stride again, and upwardly mobile young white people – the adventurous ones, anyway – started beating a track back to the city, snapping up cheap apartments in formerly industrial and working-class neighborhoods like SoHo and the West Village. Bright Lights, Big City puts you at the heart of this historic shift, riding the subways where Hasidic Jews – “gnomes in black with briefcases full of diamonds” – study scripture beside Rastafarians reeking “of sweat and reefer”; and walking the streets where vendors sell everything from drugs and fake watches to real, live wild ferrets. The daily clash between this rougher, more tribal New York and the new college-educated elite flooding the city gives the novel its vivid backdrop and hastens the narrator toward his drug-fueled self-immolation. McInerney reports it all with great humor and a raptor’s eye for squirming detail, but it’s the second-person voice that makes it lasting literature. By telling his own story through a fictional avatar called “you,” McInerney manages the trick of creating three characters from one protagonist. On the one hand, the character is Jay McInerney, a real person who experienced misadventures very similar to those described in the book and who thus possesses the credibility granted to any memoirist. At the same time, he is a fictional construct for whom all the traditional rules of narrative apply: we can laugh at his foibles and voyeuristically feel his pain, all the while knowing he isn’t real. But finally – this is the magic part – he is literally “you,” each and every one of McInerney’s readers, the thousands of suburban-bred Americans who yearned to be this essentially decent, right-thinking guy who is also a wildly self-destructive drug addict. This was the substance of McInerney’s flash of insight when he turned that scrawled paragraph into a work of fiction: that thousands of readers secretly wanted to be like him. So he let them. In his book, you marry a fashion model. You work at The New Yorker and stay out partying every night till dawn. You own an Aston-Martin sports car that a friend has smashed up and know the waitress by name at the Lion’s Head bar. And when you let it all slip through your fingers, thanks to your unquenchable thirst for the edge, you are saved by the love of a good woman, who is prettier than the fashion model and a doctoral student at Princeton. The second-person voice performed one last magic act on McInerney himself: it opened him up. Throughout his career, in good books and bad, McInerney’s subject has been beauty and what it masks. Whether he’s writing about socialites or fashion models, writers or investment bankers, the engine of the plot is a dazzling surface that hides an ugly truth. Some books are better than others. His 1992 novel Brightness Falls is a smart, sharply observed take on the go-go Eighties. The Last of the Savages, published in 1997 and set in part in the American South, occasionally manages to rise above McInerney’s general cluelessness about the American South to deliver some moving scenes. More often than not, though, McInerney’s later novels fail because he is too in love with the surfaces in his characters. Only in Bright Lights, Big City does McInerney truly peel back the mask. What he reveals is not, in the great scheme of things, so awful. The novel’s hero isn’t a sadistic mass murderer like Patrick Bateman from Ellis’s American Psycho. He is merely needy and socially insecure. For this man, the primal scene isn’t catching his parents having sex, but “a ring of schoolchildren, like Indians surrounding a wagon train, laughing with malice, pointing their vicious little fingers to insist on your otherness.” He has since learned the art of appearing to belong, but he has “never quite lost the fear that you eventually would be discovered a fraud, an imposter in the social circle.” For a man obsessed with belonging – whose girlfriend must always be the prettiest in the room, who must always know the name of the waitress at the Lion’s Head – this is as ugly a truth as it is possible for him to admit. Indeed, his hunger to belong, to have the sexiest wife, the most prestigious job, the best vial of blow south of Fourteenth Street, nearly kills him. In the end, he is saved, but thirty years later, we know how that story turned out. He married the girl from Princeton – actually, she was teaching at Syracuse – and then they divorced, and two wives later, he is the red-faced man in a J. Press sport coat, condemned in every interview to talk about his first, best work.
Here's a common literary conundrum: who much should you assume your readers know going into your novel? Explain too much, you risk condescending; explain too little, you risk being esoteric and possibly confusing. With small aspects of a book, it's all about deciding what's necessary information. If a certain piece of information is absolutely vital, then err on the side of explicitness. If not -- if, say, the information is merely for thematic or subtextual reasons -- then depending on a reader's knowledge (or their inquisitiveness to go and look it up) is probably best. But what if your entire book is based on another one? What if a certain piece of information (in the cases of these books, a writer or a specific novel) is foundational to your text? How, then, should you proceed? Should you explain the referenced work so that those unfamiliar with it can enjoy your book? Or should you simply accept that some readers will fall behind and end up befuddled? It's a tricky enterprise, and since there are as many ways to pay homage to earlier literature as there are ways to create new literature, I thought it would be useful to see how some contemporary writers approach this finicky issue. Let's get right into some examples. The most straightforward way to pay homage to another writer is to simply write them into the narrative. Joyce Carol Oates's story collection Wild Nights! uses the voices of famous authors on their final days. In "Poe Posthumous; or, The Light-House," Poe keeps a diary tracking his new post as "Keeper of the Light" for a lighthouse in Viña de Mar. His first entry is dated October 7, 1849, which was the date of Poe's death (hence the title). Oates has a lot of fun playing with both Poe's style and his Gothic genre. On his second day, Poe wakes from "fitful" sleep that seems to "cast off totally the morbid hallucination, or delusion that, on a rain-lashed street in a city not familiar to me, I slipped, fell, cracked my head upon sharp paving stones, and died." Oates captures the language of Poe, as well as his ceaseless morbidity. Would readers unfamiliar with Poe's biography recognize this description of Poe's actual death in Baltimore? Or will they miss the hint? Will it matter if a reader does not know that "The Light-House" was the last piece of fiction the real Poe was writing before his death? And that Oates here even quotes from it? Does any of this really matter? Oates, consummate (and unbelievably prolific) storyteller that she is, makes the narrative compelling even for the uninitiated, but it's interesting to consider how knowing certain things will change the experience of reading the story. Those who know something about Poe will instantly spot the date of his death and know that this is the tale of some sort of afterlife, while those who don't know Poe will figure it out as the story unfolds. Which is the better experience? Who is reading the story in the right way? Of course, there are plenty of historical novels that feature authors as characters, but those aren't the kind I'm interested in here. I'm more interested in those works that aim to riff or play with past fiction, the kinds that are unafraid to run with the ideas of other writers, too, not merely their biographies. Michael Cunningham wrote two books that take as their inspiration other writers' works. His Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hours examines Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway via three women engaged with Woolf's novel in different ways: composing it, reading it, living it. But it's Cunningham's lesser-known Specimen Days that I'm interested in here, because it explores its foundational text in such unusual ways. Though its title is taken specifically from Walt Whitman's book of autobiographical essays and sketches, Cunningham's novel could be said to take Whitman himself as its foundational text––Specimen Days celebrates Whitman's spirit as much as any individual work, though obviously Leaves of Grass is the primary model. The novel is really three thematically linked novellas, each focusing on a man, a woman, and a young man. Whitman's presence pervades the stories, yet he remains elusive. In the first section, "In the Machine," Lucas, the boy, refers to the great poet as "Walt," like a close friend. Set in the late 19th century, "In the Machine" recounts a fire at the Mannahatta Company (named, of course, after a poem of Whitman's), a factory near Washington Square. As the blaze ravages the building and innocent workers leap from windows to escape the flame, Lucas thinks he sees something: "Was that Walt, far off, among the others, Walt with his expression of astonished hunger for everything that could occur?" "The Children's Crusade," the second piece, features a detective in 21st-century New York investigating a series of terrorist bombs instigated by an old woman who quotes Whitman. "What are you saying, exactly?" the detective asks the woman, who replies, "Urge and urge and urge, always the procreant urge of the world." To which the detective says: "You know your Whitman." Her minion of boys, who call her Walt, since she believes so much in the beauty of the world as Whitman wrote it: To someone a hundred years ago, as recently as that, this world would seem like heaven itself. We can fly. Our teeth don't rot. Our children aren't a little feverish one moment and dead the next. There's no dung in the milk. There's milk, as much as we want. The church can't roast us alive over minor differences of opinion. The elders can't stone us to death because we might have committed adultery. Our crops never fail. We can eat raw fish in the middle of the desert, if we want to. And look at us. We're so obese we need bigger cemetery plots. Our ten-year-olds are doing heroin, or they're murdering eight-year-olds, or both. We're getting divorced faster than we're getting married. Everything we eat has to be sealed because if it wasn't, somebody would put poison in it, and if they couldn't get poison, they'd put pins in it. A tenth of us are in jail, and we can't build new ones fast enough. We're bombing other countries simply because they make us nervous, and most of us not only couldn't find those countries on a map, we couldn't tell you which continent they're on. Traces of the fire retardant we put in upholstery and carpeting are starting to turn up in women's breast milk. So tell me. Would you say this is working out? Does this seem to you like a story that wants to continue? A far cry from the America Whitman described, isn't it? (Though the world of the first story, Whitman's world, serves to considerably undermine this nostalgic, revisionist view.) That Whitman would be used as motivation for terrorism seems plausible here. Cunningham engages with Whitman's texts (and Whitman-as-text) in as many ways as he can: what did Whitman's poetry mean to those who were alive when he wrote it, who could witness the same New York depicted in the pages of Leaves of Grass? What does Whitman's America say about our America now? What does all that suggest about the future (which is dealt with in the final story, "Like Beauty," set in New York 150 years from now)? I read Specimen Days concurrently with Leaves of Grass, which at the time I was reading for a class. It was a wonderful pairing: I grappled with Whitman's absorbing poetry at the same time I got to read a novelist do the same thing. Cunningham doesn't expect you to have read Whitman, as he provides quotes and even some analysis along the way, but I would wager that my experience was greatly enhanced by my immediate knowledge of Whitman's writing. For no matter how much shorthand Cunningham provides, Whitman defies summary. Leaves of Grass enfolds you with its endless lists and keen observations and joyous optimism. One can read Specimen Days and "get" Whitman's place in it without having read a word of his poetry, but to feel it, to attach more philosophical and emotional resonance to the book's themes, to understand its "multitudes," you need Whitman himself. Memories of those books ran through my mind as I read Maya Lang's debut novel The Sixteenth of June, which has the rare claim of being a book based on a book that's based on another book. The title date is, of course, Bloomsday, the day on which James Joyce's Ulysses is set. It is also the date fans of Joyce's modernist epic come together for an annual celebration. The Sixteenth of June features such a party, but not just any Bloomsday, but the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday. The party is thrown by the Portmans, a wealthy couple in Philadelphia. Their two sons, Stephen and Leopold, are name after Ulysses's protagonists, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom. Leo, the younger son, is engaged to a woman name Nora, like Joyce's wife. Long's novel has the same number of chapters as Ulysses and employs many of the same techniques. It is, in other words, wholly dependent on Joyce's novel. Ulysses, famously, is based on Homer's The Odyssey. The idea was to take one of literature's greatest epics and pare it down to a single day of a human life. The grand in the ordinary. But Joyce goes so much further: he meticulously crafted Ulysses to mirror Homer's tale of Odysseus and his journey home. He famously said of the book, "I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality." An egotistical claim, to be sure, but one that has yet to be disproved––here I am today, still writing about this goddamn book. In a letter to his Aunt Josephine, Joyce suggested that she read The Odyssey first. "Then buy at once," he continues, "the Adventures of Ulysses (which is Homer's story told in simple English and much abbreviated) by Charles Lamb…Then have a try at Ulysses again." Joyce, then, expected his readers to not only enter his book having already read The Odyssey, but he also wanted them to pore over the text to decipher its innumerable mysteries. Maya Lang, in The Sixteenth of June, expects no such thing. Her novel is a lovely, light-on-its-feet production, a flowing narrative of young people trying to find their way. Twenty-somethings Leo and Nora have reached an impasse in their relationship: engaged with no wedding date, in love but static, together but growing apart. Leo's brother Stephen, also Nora's best friend, plods along at grad school, seven years into his dissertation. Their day begins with the funeral of their grandmother, a woman the family had mostly forgotten about, relegated as she was to a nursing home ("And nursing home is a misnomer," their father says, "It's a social living community for seniors"). But before she died, Stephen had begun to pay visits to her, unbeknownst to the rest of the Portman clan. When Stephen's secret is exposed, questions abound about his intentions. Michael and June Portman, the parents, decide to hold their Bloomsday centennial despite the funeral happening on the same day, a decision that irks Stephen considerably. One needn't have read James Joyce to understand this kind of family dynamic. In fact, for the first 50 pages or so I wondered if maybe intimate knowledge of Ulysses might hinder my enjoyment of Lang's book. I couldn't help but trace Joyce's influence on every page, even occasionally spotting some passages lifted directly from Ulysses, as in the introduction of Stephen: "Stephen fills the white bowl with hot water. He cups the bowl in his hands and carries it to his desk, where a mirror and razor lay crossed." This echoes the famous opening of Ulysses, which goes: "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and razor lay crossed." A bit later, Leo recalls his time in London, where "[there] was no freak-out about cholesterol, fat. They ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls," which Leopold Bloom also did in the beginning of his day. Other references aren't direct quotes: as Stephen contemplates his life, he considers: How much easier to just go along and agree. To watch the trajectory of the ball long ago set in motion and see where it will land, as though you are not the product of its outcome. To watch as though you have no hand in your own life. As though the only words we have available to us were written long ago in a blue book. As though we cannot make our own stories, decide our own fates. Ulysses, when it was first published by Shakespeare and Company in 1922, featured a blue cover with white lettering, so people eventually referred to it surreptitiously as "the blue book." Lang is having a bit of funny in this pensive moment: Stephen, as a character, can't make his own story; he's stuck in someone else's. Strange that my knowledge of Ulysses actually distracted me from a story predicated on it. Typically, I would imagine the opposite being the case. But luckily Lang's wonderfully engaging prose and her believable characters overtook me, and soon I forgot to look for allusions and just enjoyed the novel. One of the most enjoyable things here is the way in which Lang traces her characters' thoughts. Leo, Stephen and Nora alternate the point of view, and Lang settles herself comfortably in their skin, a fitting technique for a predecessor of Joyce, who mastered free indirect discourse better than maybe any other modernist except for Virginia Woolf. But the spark that makes Lang's methodology unique in its own right is the way her characters think about the things they might have said to someone. Repeatedly, Leo and company imagine conversations that did not happened, almost as much as we're given conversations that actually did happen. This is not unlike the "double stream of consciousness" that Morris Ernst emphasized when he defended Ulysses in court in 1933, ("Your honor," Ernst said in court, "while arguing this case I thought I was intent only on the book, but frankly, while pleading before you, I've also been thinking about that ring around your tie, how your gown does not fit too well on your shoulders and the picture of John Marshall behind your bench.") except here it is as if Lang's characters, like all of us, are trying to live out a hypothetical other life for themselves, to experiment privately with a life that could have lead but ultimately did not. And sometimes these unspoken words contain within them the thing most necessary to say: Leo wishes he could ask Nora "what it feels like when she pulls" her hair, a condition known as trichotillomania that has afflicted Nora since her mother's death; Nora wishes to confront Leo's mother June for her haughty and cruel condescension; and Stephen dwells on the things he would have said to Nora about her relationship with Leo, which Stephen thinks has hindered her development as a person and artist. This kind of thinking takes up much of our lives. We regret the things we said as well as the things we didn't say, and moreover, we think about those things all the time, a constant process of rewinding and rewatching and dreaming of rewriting. But, as Joyce points out, "It’s always flowing in a stream, never the same, which in the stream of life we trace. Because life is a stream.” We can only move forward, but that doesn't mean our minds are not stuck in the past. Most of the characters in The Sixteen of June either don't like Ulysses or haven't read it (or, often, they attempted it and stopped). Stephen is even skeptical that his parents, the ones throwing the party, don't even really like Ulysses: "I sometimes think," he says, "they're more interested in what Ulysses says about them than what it actually says. Our truest relationship with books is private. I love Gatsby. I love Mrs. Dalloway. But I would never throw a party for them. A party ends up celebrating not the book but its title." Nora never got through and it seems that Leo never even tried. This accurately reflects contemporary attitudes of young people toward Ulysses. To them, it is not "the great repository of everything," as one character puts it, but a pretentious, irritatingly confounding book, with few rewards and annoying champions ("His work is Everest," the same character says, "No one climbs Everest and says nothing of it!"). Yet here they are, these young people, caught in a story, a world inescapably shaped by Joyce, for no matter what you think of his most notorious novel, it has influenced you, it has defined and refined your ideas of literature, art, obscenity, human thought––even if you disagree, even if you are indifferent. Homage is a way of acknowledging our forbearers, to celebrate where we came from by updating the past, calling back to it, poking fun at it, challenging it, embracing it, adoring it. Oates goes at it directly, Cunningham a little more abstractly, and Lang indirectly and directly. There is no right way to pay homage any more than there is a right way to love something. And asking yourself how much information you should expect your readers to know is ultimately fruitless. They'll come into your book with so much more baggage than a knowledge of or respect for a given writer or novel. They bring their pasts into it, too, with all its force and unaware influence. What they know doesn’t matter, because the division between a reader who isn't familiar vs. a reader who is amounts to a false dichotomy. There is actually an infinite number of ways to experience a story, and no writer can predict them all. Oates and Cunningham couldn't foresee how much their readers know, just as they couldn't foresee anything about them. Lang doesn't know if you've read Ulysses; probably she doesn't care. She wants you to feel her characters think and live (and think about living); the Ulysses stuff reinforces many of the themes, functions as a big blueprint, and serves as the occasion of the novel's central set piece, but its nuances are not crucial the work as a whole. So if you're paying homage to someone, to something, to anything, just write it the way you love it––passion is more important than knowledge, anyway.
A photograph of Mark Hofmann's the Oath of a Freeman (from Maine Antique Digest, December 1985, p. 26-A) 1. It has been a busy winter for talking about rare book crime, mostly thanks to one man: Massimo De Caro. The dismantling of his short-lived theft empire has been fodder for news outlets the world over, while the story of his excellent forgery of a Galileo book was just the subject of a long New Yorker piece. Separately, the United States was recently treated to its own rare book news-making event, though not of the illicit sort: the crown jewel of American printing, the Bay Psalm Book, earned some $14 million at a November auction. This all put me in the mind of an earlier tale that combined forgery, theft, and the earliest American imprint in one stranger-than-fiction saga. On March 14, 1985, Mark Hofmann, a Utah man just starting to make a name for himself in East Coast book collecting circles, phoned Justin Schiller, a New York rare book dealer with whom he had a relationship. Hofmann confided that he may have accidentally purchased “The Oath of a Freeman” on a recent trip to New York, a claim akin to that of finding the winning Powerball ticket on the sidewalk. “The Oath of a Freeman” is the Holy Grail of United States printing. A small broadside (a single sheet of paper, not much bigger than a greeting card) it was created at the same Cambridge Press as the Bay Psalm Book, around a year earlier. Unlike that psalter, of which eleven known copies exist, the “Oath” has long been thought extinct. The Bay Psalm Book was printed in a run of some 1,700, and many of its copies were preserved on the shelves of institutions likely to keep them – the one recently up for sale was owned by Boston’s Old South Church. But the “Oath” was printed in a much more humble number, and there was no natural constituency for its preservation. Most people who have studied the matter think the “Oath” is gone forever, so Schiller could be forgiven for reacting to Hofmann’s pronouncement with something closer to a yawn than a gasp. Anyway, with tidy regularity, people get their hands on what they assume to be valuable printed relics and bring them to rare book dealers and librarians with the hope that gold can be spun for brittle beige paper. Mostly what they find is that they own old junk. But in this case, Schiller had an established financial relationship with Hofmann – he was also getting ready to bid on his behalf at an upcoming Sotheby’s auction – and so he was obliged to take the claim more seriously than he otherwise might. Still, expectations were low; Schiller told Hofmann he would have to see the thing in person before they proceeded. To Hofmann this was a mixed blessing. It was definitely a potential windfall, something he badly needed. On the other hand, it meant that he would have to figure out how to create something that had not existed for three and a half centuries. 2. There is a formal aspect to authenticating works of recently discovered art. Because provenance, one of the three pillars upon which authenticity rests, is usually lacking in found items, connoisseurship and scientific analysis have to bear most of the load. But there is also another, less formal test with found art: the nature of the finder. The person who discovered the item, or, in this case, created it, has to convince potential buyers to believe in him. The meet-cute that supposedly put him together with this great catch has to be both incredible and believable; it has to at once explain not only how he discovered it, but why no one else before him did. All things considered, Hofmann’s story was not bad. He said he bought the “Oath” along with several other old broadsides, at the Argosy Bookstore – a Manhattan institution that had handled its fair share of bibliographic gems. A more believable Oath-find story would likely involve an estate library in hinterland South of England, but if you’re going to find the Holy Grail of American printing in the United States, the Argosy is as good a place as any. In the event, it also allowed him to create a receipt from the bookstore to show he had purchased, for $25, something with that title. Not quite two weeks after he told Schiller of its existence, Hofmann flew to New York with his “Oath.” The book dealer examined the document and, satisfied that it was not obviously wrong, called on Michael Zinman – the country’s most important private collector of early North American imprints. Zinman looked carefully at Hofmann’s “Oath” and, though he could not point to any particular thing that was amiss, said he felt the item was too good to be true. In particular, the color of the paper looked a shade too light. Still, this could be legitimately explained in a number of ways and was far from disqualifying. Zinman’s overall pronouncement, while not positive, was at least not negative – and in the long game of authenticating a 17th century document, a chain of “not negative” is as good as one “absolutely positive.” The next day, Schiller took the “Oath” to the New York Public Library, met with its curator of rare books, and compared the broadside with the NYPL’s Bay Psalm Book – the closest extant item from the Cambridge Press. In general, two items from the same press, printed by the same man within a year or so of one another, could be expected to have a lot of things in common. But of early Cambridge Press works, this is not necessarily true. The ink, the paper, the type – even the printer’s skill – all could have changed over the course of a matter of months. In fact, given the resources of the tiny press in the just-founded colony, inconsistency was expected. So, once again, there was nothing obviously disqualifying about Hofmann’s creation. It was at this point that Schiller, his bookselling partner, and Hofmann discussed the next steps – and figures. Instead of the standard commission, Hofmann insisted that Schiller and his partner become part owners of the document. “That,” Schiller later recalled, “is a way to get someone committed to a project!” Indeed. On March 28, Schiller called James Gilreath, the Americana specialist at the Library of Congress, and told him what he had. Gilreath was sent a photocopy of the “Oath” and, once he had a chance to examine it, decided it was good enough for him to go to New York to see the real thing in person. On April 5, Gilreath was put alone in a room with the document, which he scrutinized with a skeptic’s eye – also, a magnifying glass and ultraviolet light. Like the others who had looked at it, the document for the most part passed Gilreath’s muster. In fact, like Zinman before him, one of the only things Gilreath found disquieting was the shade of the paper, which he felt was not dark enough to match that of the Bay Psalm Book. As it happened, the lightness of the paper would later suggest its authenticity. The only known way to artificially age iron gall ink was to heat it, a process whose byproduct was darkening paper. So when the ink of the “Oath” appeared to be the right age, and the paper not unnaturally browned, what Gilreath and Zinman had thought was a liability looked very much like an asset. By that point, connoisseurship had not exposed the broadside as an obvious fake, so science was up to bat. Three days after Gilreath saw it in New York, the document was sent to the Conservation and Testing Offices of the Library of Congress. Among other things, a fiber analysis of the paper and x-ray fluorescence spectrometry of the ink were conducted. Again, while it was impossible to confirm the authenticity of the “Oath,” these scientific tests ultimately “revealed no evidence that would contravene a mid-seventeenth century date for the broadside.” It was difficult not to be optimistic. Aside from the scientific testing, other experts on 17th century documents had looked at the “Oath” while it was in Washington and come away impressed. No one could seem to put a dent in the thing. On May 8, less than two months since Hofmann “found” it at the Argosy, a representative of the Library of Congress phoned Schiller to ask after the terms of sale, and provenance. And that’s when the trouble started. There was no provenance to speak of because Hofmann’s “Oath” was about as old as a ripe banana. Worse yet, Hofmann had given Schiller orders not to reveal his name to potential buyers. Couple this with a $1.5 million price tag and the Library of Congress was spooked. As it happens, the provenance issue is not one that is meant to guard against forgery as much as it is against bad title. The 20th century saw a lot of transactions of works of art between parties neither of which owned the item, so public institutions are leery of buying things without knowing for sure who the rightful owner is. The Library of Congress passed. Mark Hofmann, for his part, was smart to insist his name be kept out of the discussion, even if his anonymity is what partially kept the Library of Congress from buying the document. Salt Lake City was far away from the East Coast, but it had telephone lines – and a few well-placed calls to Utah would reveal the fact that Hofmann had made something of a cottage industry of “finding” previously unknown documents and exchanging them, for many dollars, to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints. Undaunted, Schiller next offered the “Oath” to the American Antiquarian Society – the next logical place to go. Aware of the Library of Congress’s scientific evaluation, the AAS had its own experts examine the document. They ultimately came to a similar conclusion: it could not be proven to be a fraud. But like the LOC, the society had its reservations, and so lowered the offer considerably, to $250,000 (with the assumption that they might be able to go as high as $750,000). That ended the discussion. And though no one yet knew it, it also ended the life of Hofmann’s creation as a salable property – not because the “Oath” was exposed as a forgery, but because events in Utah overtook the authenticity discussions. On October 15, 1985, seven months after he first phoned Schiller with his news, Hofmann murdered, with homemade bombs, Kathleen Sheets and Steve Christenson. Up to his neck in debt, he had decided the best way to keep Salt Lake City creditors off his tail while he waited on a financial windfall was to stall and distract them with mayhem. Alas, the next day another of his bombs, meant for someone else, blew up his car. While he was in the hospital, police searched his house and discovered not only the equipment necessary to make the bombs, but also what he had used to construct so many of the forgeries he had sold, or was planning to sell, to collectors, dealers, and institutions. It is interesting to speculate about what would have happened if either the Library of Congress or the American Antiquarian Society had agreed to a purchase. Hoffman later said it would not then have been necessary for him to kill anyone, but that’s the hindsight of a sociopath – and one who, it should be noted, had a naïve understanding of the pace at which money is paid out by large institutions. As it turns out, making even a near-perfect copy of the most important item in American bibliographic history is not a good way to get quick cash. Still, as testament to how well-made it was, the question of authenticity outlasted even these events. Hofmann’s “Oath” was still being tested a year after it was clear not only that Hofmann was a bombmaker but, more damning still, that he claimed to have found yet another copy of the “Oath.” 3. Much of the information in this piece came from the efforts of James Gilreath. As an Americana specialist at the Library of Congress, he was not only one of the first folks to examine the broadside in 1985, but he wrote about his experience, and encouraged others to do so, in a 1991 collection he edited called The Judgment of Experts. I sometimes assign parts of this work for a class I teach on rare book crime. But what is never made clear in this otherwise excellent book is whether Gilreath, who had worked at the Library of Congress since 1974, was already stealing rare books from that library’s collection when he went to New York to help authenticate Hofmann’s “Oath.” The fiction writer in me likes to imagine it so: a rare book thief, called upon to authenticate what he has reason to believe is a genuine “Oath,” is left alone in a room with the document and exchanges it for another version he made from the photocopy. The rest of the story writes itself. The nonfiction writer in me will note only that the federal criminal indictment of Gilreath – issued almost exactly eleven years after Hofmann started serving his life sentence in a Utah prison – suggests that the Americana specialist’s thefts began only in the early 1990s. Of course, my experience with federal indictments is that they are fairly conservative on such things. Whenever Gilreath began stealing from the Library of Congress, we can be sure he only stopped in 1997 when he tried to sell a stolen French translation of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to a Boston bookseller. Later indicted for stealing five items valued at more than $1,000, and another seventeen valued at less than that, he pleaded guilty to two federal counts. In 1998, one of the last years of the fairly permissive era of punishing people who steal our cultural heritage, Gilreath was given five years probation and fined $20,000 – a debt not due to be fully paid until 2018. For the sake of a story, it is tempting to say that this was an episode when one of America’s greatest print forgers crossed paths with one of America’s greatest rare book thieves – but only part of that statement is true. Gilreath was not much of a thief, even by the standards of insiders. And this, as it happens, coincides nicely with the story of Massimo De Caro, a man who pulled off a good forgery but who is, by any standard, a mediocre thief. But that is the way it often goes with rare book thieves, especially those with inside access, who too often confuse having keys to the place with being clever. They don’t realize that stealing the books is easy; turning them into money and not getting caught is hard.
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. 1. 1Q84 4 months 2. 2. The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life 5 months 3. 3. The Marriage Plot 4 months 4. 6. Pulphead 2 months 5. 4. The Art of Fielding 4 months 6. 8. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains 2 months 7. 5. The Bathtub Spy 6 months 8. 7. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World 2 months 9. 10. The Book of Disquiet 2 months 10. 9. Lightning Rods 4 months It was a quieter month for our list, with no new titles breaking in and 1Q84 still enthroned at #1. The big movers on the list were John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead, which received a glowing write-up from our staffer Bill, and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, which Jonathan Safran Foer called a book that changed his life. With an array of hotly anticipated titles coming in February, we'll see if any newcomers can break in next time around. Near Misses: Train Dreams, The Sense of an Ending, Leaves of Grass, The Great Frustration, and A Moment in the Sun. See Also: Last month's list.
1. Chabon. Obreht. Franzen. McCann. Egan. Brooks. Foer. Lethem. Eggers. Russo. Possible hosts for Bravo’s America’s Next Top Novelist? Dream hires for the Iowa Writers' Workshop? Nope — just the “Murderer’s Row” of advance blurbers featured on the back of Nathan Englander’s new effort, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. And what an effort it must be: “Utterly haunting. Like Faulkner [Russo] it tells the tangled truth of life [Chabon], and you can hear Englander’s heart thumping feverishly on every page [Eggers].” As I marvel at the work of Knopf’s publicity department, I can’t help but feel a little ill. And put off. Who cares? Shouldn’t the back of a book just have a short summary? Isn’t this undignified? But answering these questions responsibly demands more than the reflexive rage of an offended aesthete (Nobody cares! Yes! Yes!). It demands, I think, the level-headed perspective of a blurb-historian... 2. Let’s be clear: blurbs are not a distinguished genre. In 1936 George Orwell described them as “disgusting tripe,” quoting a particularly odious example from the Sunday Times: “If you can read this book and not shriek with delight, your soul is dead.” He admitted the impossibility of banning reviews, and proposed instead the adoption of a system for grading novels according to classes, “perhaps quite a rigid one,” to assist hapless readers in choosing among countless life-changing masterpieces. More recently Camille Paglia called for an end to the “corrupt practice of advance blurbs,” plagued by “shameless cronyism and grotesque hyperbole.” Even Stephen King, a staunch supporter of blurbs, winces at their “hyperbolic ecstasies” and calls for sincerity on the part of blurbers. The excesses and scandals of contemporary blurbing, book and otherwise, are well-documented. William F. Buckley relates how publishers provided him with sample blurb templates: “(1) I was stunned by the power of [ ]. This book will change your life. Or, (2) [ ] expresses an emotional depth that moves me beyond anything I have experienced in a book.” Overwrought praise for David Grossman’s To the End of the Land inspired The Guardian to hold a satirical Dan Brown blurbing competition. My personal favorite? In 2000, Sony Pictures invented one David Manning of the Ridgefield Press to blurb some of its stinkers. When Newsweek exposed the fraud a year later, moviegoers brought a class action lawsuit on behalf of those duped into seeing Hollow Man, The Animal, The Patriot, or Vertical Limit (Manning on Hollow Man: “One hell of a ride!” — evidently moviegoers are easy marks). When did this circus get started? It’s tempting to look back no further than the origins of the word “blurb,” coined in 1906 by children’s book author and civil disobedient Gelett Burgess. But blurbs, like bullshit, existed long before the term coined to describe them ("bullshit," in case you were wondering, appeared in 1915). They were born of marketing, authorial camaraderie, and a genuine obligation to the reader, three staples of the publishing industry since its earliest days, to which we will turn momentarily. But before hunting for blurbs in the bookshops of antiquity, it’s important to get clear on what we’re looking for. Laura Miller at Salon writes: “The term ‘blurb’ is sometimes mistakenly used for the publisher-generated description printed on a book’s dust jacket — that’s actually the flap copy. ‘Blurb’ really only applies to bylined endorsements by other authors or cultural figures.” Miller can’t be completely right. For the consultants at Book Marketing Limited — and their numerous big-name clients — blurb describes any copy printed on a book, publisher-generated or otherwise, as evidenced by the criteria for the annual Best Blurb Award (ed note: as per the comment below, this is the typical British usage). So much for authorship. The term is often used of bylined endorsements that appear in advertisements. So much for physical location. And if we try to accommodate author blurbs, even Wikipedia’s “short summary accompanying a creative work” isn’t broad enough. What a mess. In the interest of time I’m going to adopt an arbitrary hybrid definition — blurb: a short endorsement, author unspecified, that appears on a creative work. So Orwell’s example and Manning’s reviews would be disqualified if they didn’t appear on a book or DVD case, respectively. I’ll leave that legwork to someone else, because we’ve got serious ground to cover. 3. If you needed beach reading in ancient Rome, you’d probably head down to the Argiletum or Vicus Sandaliarium, streets filled with booksellers roughly equivalent to London’s Paternoster Row. But how to know which books would make your soul shriek with delight? There was no Sunday Times; newspaper advertising didn’t catch on for another 1,700 years, and neither did professional book reviewers. Aside from word of mouth, references in other books, and occasional public readings, browsers appear to have been on their own. Almost. Evidence suggests that booksellers advertised on pillars near their shops, where one might see new titles by famous people like Martial, the inventor of the epigram (nice one, Martial). It’s safe to assume that even in the pre-codex days of papyrus scrolls, a good way to assess the potential merits of Martial’s book would have been to read the first page or two, an ideal place for authors to insert some prefatory puff. Martial begins his most well-known collection with a note to the reader: “I trust that, in these little books of mine, I have observed such self-control, that whoever forms a fair judgment from his own mind can make no complaint of them.” Similar proto-blurbs were common, often doubling as dedications to powerful patrons or friends. The Latin poet Catullus: “To whom should I send this charming new little book / freshly polished with dry pumice? To you, Cornelius!” For those who weren’t the object of the dedication, these devices likely served the same purpose that blurbs do today: to market books, influence their interpretation, and assure prospective readers they kept good company. Nearly fourteen hundred years passed before Renaissance humanists hit on the idea of printing commendatory material written by someone other than the author or publisher. (Or maybe they copied Egyptian authors and booksellers, who were soliciting longer poems of praise (taqriz) from big-shot friends in the 1300s.) By 1516, the year Thomas More published Utopia, the practice was widespread, but More took it to another level. He drew up the blueprint for blurbing as we know it, imploring his good friend Erasmus to make sure the book “be handsomely set off with the highest of recommendations, if possible, from several people, both intellectuals and distinguished statesmen.” This it was, by a number of letters including one from Erasmus (“All the learned unanimously subscribe to my opinion, and esteem even more highly than I the divine wit of this man...”), and a poem by David Manning’s more eloquent predecessor, a poet laureate named "Anemolius" who praises Utopia as having made Plato’s “empty words... live anew.” What would he have written about The Patriot? Hyperbole, fakery, shameless cronyism: though it will be another three hundred years before blurbs make their way onto the outside of a book, things are looking downright modern. In the 1600s practically everyone wrote commendatory verses, some of which were quite beautiful, like Ben Jonson’s for Shakespeare’s First Folio: “Shine forth, thou Star of Poets, and with rage / Or influence, chide or cheer the drooping stage, / Which, since thy flight from hence, hath mourned like night, / And despairs day, but for thy volume’s light.” (Interestingly, Shakespeare himself never wrote any — one can only imagine what a good blurb from the Bard would have done for sales.) It was only a matter of time before things got out of control. The advent of periodicals in the early 18th century facilitated printing and distribution of book reviews, and authors and publishers wasted no time appropriating this new form of publicity. Perhaps the best example is Samuel Richardson’s wildly successful Pamela, an epistolary novel about a young girl who wins the day through guarding her virginity. Richardson made excellent use of prefatory puff, opening his book with two long reviews: the first by French translator Jean Baptiste de Freval, the second unsigned but likely written by Rev. William Webster, which first appeared as pre-publication praise in the Weekly Miscellany, one of Britain’s earliest periodicals. Hyperbole? “This little Book will infallibly be looked upon as the hitherto much-wanted Standard or Pattern for this kind of writing”; “The Honour of Pamela’s Sex demands Pamela at your Hands, to shew the World an Heroine, almost beyond example...” Fakery? The book also had a preface by the “editor,” really Richardson himself, which concluded a laundry list of extravagant praise with the following: “...An editor may reasonably be supposed to judge with an Impartiality which is rarely to be met with in an Author towards his own Works.” Shameless cronyism? De Freval was in debt to Richardson when he wrote his review, as was Rev. Webster, whose Weekly Miscellany was funded partially by Richardson. All of this sent Henry Fielding over the edge. Nauseated as much by the ridiculous blurbs as the content of the novel, Fielding wrote a satirical response entitled Shamela, which he prefaced with a note from the editor to “himself,” a commendatory letter from "John Puff, Esq.," and an exasperated coda: “Note, Reader, several other COMMENDATORY LETTERS and COPIES of VERSES will be prepared against the NEXT EDITION.” While Fielding may have been the first to parody blurbs, it was another literary giant who truly modernized them. A master of self-promotion, Walt Whitman knew exactly what to do when he received a letter of praise from Ralph Waldo Emerson. The second edition of Leaves of Grass is, as far as I know, the first example of a blurb printed on the outside of a book, in this case in gilt letters at the base of the spine: “I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career / R W Emerson.” (Emerson’s letter appeared in its entirety at the end of the book along with several other reviews — three of which were written by Whitman — in a section entitled "Leaves-Droppings.") Whitman’s move wasn’t completely unprecedented. The earliest dust jacket in existence (1830) boasts an anonymous poem of praise on the cover, and printers had long been in the habit of putting their device at the base of the spine. Nevertheless, the impulse to combine them with a bylined review was sheer genius, and Emerson’s blurb can be read as greeting not only Whitman, but also the great career of its own updated form. 4. After Whitman there were further innovations. A century ago, fantasy author James Branch Cabell (unsung favorite of Mark Twain and Neil Gaiman) prefigured self-deprecators like Chris Ware by including negative blurbs at the back of his books: “The author fails of making his dull characters humanely pitiable. New York Post.” Or, as Ware put it on the cover of the first issue of Acme Novelty Library: “An Indefensible Attempt to Justify the Despair of Those Who Have Never Known Real Tragedy.” Unlike Cabell’s, Ware’s first negative blurb was self-authored, but those featured on Jimmy Corrigan were not. Marvel Comics followed suit when it issued its new “Defenders.” (A related strategy — Martin Amis’ The Information was stickered “Not Booker Prize Shortlisted.”) These satirical strategies highlight the increasingly common suspicion, nascent in Fielding’s parody of Richardson, that blurbs just aren’t meaningful. Publishers, however, have evidently concluded that blurbs may not be meaningful, but they sure help move merchandise. Witness the advent of two recent innovations in paperback design: the blap and the blover (rhymes with cover). The blap is a glossy page covered in blurbs that immediately follows the front cover. In deference to its importance, the width of the cover is usually reduced, tempting potential readers with a glimpse of the blap, and perhaps even accommodating a conveniently placed blurb that runs along the length of the book. The blover is essentially a blap on steroids, literally a second book cover, made from the same cardstock, that serves solely as a billboard for blurbs. Blovers are not yet widespread, but given the ubiquity of blaps it is only a matter of time. (For an extreme case see The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, where the blover’s edge sports a vertical banality from Entertainment Weekly — “I couldn’t put the book down.” — not to mention the 56 blurbs on the pages that follow.) Blovers and blaps... what next? For my part, I can see where Orwell, Paglia, and Miller are coming from, and I certainly wouldn’t bemoan the disappearance of blurbs. But not everyone is like me. Some people enjoy glancing at reviews, or choosing a book based on the endorsements of their favorite authors. Blurbs sell books (maybe), and they allow established writers to help out the newbies. Those are good things. And since regulating them is as unfeasible as banning reviews, as long as blovers don’t replace covers I guess blurbs are a genre I can live with. And who knows — one day Murderer’s Row might be batting for me. Previously: To Blurb or Not to Blurb Image credit: wikimedia commons
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. 1. 1Q84 3 months 2. 3. The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life 4 months 3. 2. The Marriage Plot 3 months 4. 5. The Art of Fielding 4 months 5. 4. The Bathtub Spy 5 months 6. - Pulphead 1 month 7. - The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World 1 month 8. - The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains 1 month 9. 6. Lightning Rods 4 months 10. - The Book of Disquiet 1 month While the top of our final list for 2011 included the same familiar names and 1Q84 still enthroned at #1, our year-end coverage helped push four eclictic new titles onto the lower half of our list. John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead was one of the most talked about books of 2011 and our own Bill and Garth offered glowing comments on the book in our Year in Reading. Jonathan Safran Foer touted Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows as a book that changed his life. (Our own Emily Mandel also wrote a fascinating essay inspired by the book over a year ago.) Colum McCann said of Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, "It was like opening Joyce’s back door and finding another genius there in the garden." Finally, Hannah Gerson came up with "12 Holiday Gifts That Writers Will Actually Use" but only one of them was a book, The Gift by Lewis Hyde. With all these new books showing up on our list, four titles got knocked off: Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending, John Sayles's A Moment in the Sun, and Whitman's Leaves of Grass Other Near Misses: Train Dreams and The Great Frustration 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 November. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. 1Q84 2 months 2. 3. The Marriage Plot 2 months 3. 7. The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life 3 months 4. 4. The Bathtub Spy 4 months 5. 5. The Art of Fielding 3 months 6. 10. Lightning Rods 3 months 7. 6. Leaves of Grass 5 months 8. 9. A Moment in the Sun 6 months 9. - The Swerve: How the World Became Modern 1 month 10. - The Sense of an Ending 1 month Haruki Murakami returned to our top spot this month with 1Q84 (read our review here), while Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot (read our review here) crept up to the second spot. Meanwhile, Ann Patchett's Kindle Single The Getaway Car jumped into our third spot and Helen DeWitt's Lightning Rods was also making a strong move higher. Another Kindle Single, Christopher Hitchens' timely The Enemy, and Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test graduate to our Hall of Fame. Don't miss Janet's review of the latter. Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern appears on our list shortly after winning the National Book Award, while the Booker Prize win propels Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending onto our list. Near Misses: How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, 11/22/1963, The Sisters Brothers, Salvage the Bones, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition 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 October. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. - 1Q84 1 month 2. 1. The Enemy 6 months 3. - The Marriage Plot 1 month 4. 4. The Bathtub Spy 3 months 5. 3. The Art of Fielding 2 months 6. 5. Leaves of Grass 4 months 7. 9. The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life 2 months 8. 6. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry 6 months 9. 7. A Moment in the Sun 5 months 10. - Lightning Rods 1 month The literary battle royale of 2011 played out and Haruki Murakami emerged the winner with 1Q84 (read our review here) debuting atop our October list. Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot (read our review here), meanwhile, debuted a bit farther down the list, but still put up an impressive showing. These two weren't the only novels to make a splash in October, though. As Garth wrote in his review, "in a just world, Helen DeWitt's Lightning Rods would be greeted with the same frenzy of publicity that attended Freedom last year, or The Marriage Plot just this month." The Murakami debut bumps Christopher Hitchens'The Enemy from the top spot, while Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric, that perhaps unlikely favorite of Millions readers graduates to our Hall of Fame. Don't miss the review that started it all. Falling off our list is Geoff Dyer's Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (our review). This is the second of Dyer's books (Out of Sheer Rage) to spend time on our list but fail to make our Hall of Fame. Also slipping from our list was Christopher Boucher's debut novel How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive (our review).Other Near Misses: The Missing of the Somme, The Sisters Brothers, and The Sense of an Ending. 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 September. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. The Enemy 5 months 2. 3. Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric 6 months 3. - The Art of Fielding 1 month 4. 10. The Bathtub Spy 2 months 5. 5. Leaves of Grass 3 months 6. 4. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry 5 months 8. 7. A Moment in the Sun 4 months 8. 9. How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive 2 months 9. - The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life 1 month 10. 9. Otherwise Known as the Human Condition 4 months David Foster Wallace's The Pale King graduates, along with The Hunger Games, to our Hall of Fame this month. Taking the vacated top spot is Christopher Hitchens' timely The Enemy. With Ann Patchett's The Getaway Car debuting on the list and joining another Kindle Single, The Bathtub Spy, it's becoming pretty clear that these bite-sized e-book originals are gaining some serious traction, a trend that the media has been taking note of, of late. Our other debut, meanwhile, is a plain old novel, certainly one of the big fiction releases of the fall, Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding. We first noted the book's headline-grabbing deal in early 2010, and we highlighted it in our big second-half preview. The big story next month will be seeing which heavyweight, literary new release will debut higher on our Top Ten, Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot (read the opening lines here) or Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 (read the opening lines here). Near Misses: The Missing of the Somme, The Magician King, Swamplandia!, A Dance with Dragons, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, and The Tiger's Wife. 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 August. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Pale King 6 months 2. 2. The Enemy 4 months 3. 4. Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric 5 months 4. 5. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry 4 months 5. 8. Leaves of Grass 2 months 6. 6. The Hunger Games 6 months 7. 7. A Moment in the Sun 3 months 8. 9. Otherwise Known as the Human Condition 3 months 9. - How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive 1 month 10. - The Bathtub Spy 1 month David Foster Wallace's The Pale King remains in our top spot, but it will be headed (most likely along with The Hunger Games), to our Hall of Fame next month where it will join this month's inductee, the book I co-edited, The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books. Thanks again to all the Millions readers who picked the book up. It was a great project, and I'm glad I had a chance to share it with you. We have a pair of newcomers this week. Readers were clearly intrigued by Emily St. John Mandel's review of Christopher Boucher’s unique new novel How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive. We also have another Kindle Single on our list. Tom Rachman, whose The Imperfectionists is already in our Hall of Fame, makes the list with The Bathtub Spy, a new short story published as an e-book original. Christopher Hitchens' timely The Enemy has already had a nice showing on our list, suggesting that readers are warming to the pricing and perhaps the more bite-sized nature of this new format. Do Kindle Singles (and similar pieces offered on other platforms) undermine books or are readers now being introduced to the work of writers like Hitchens and Rachman via these low-cost "samples?" Something to ponder. Meanwhile, the stay of George R.R. Martin's latest, A Dance with Dragons, on our list turns out to be brief. Other Near Misses: The Magician King, Swamplandia!, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, and The Art of Fielding. See Also: Last month's list
“I live in Brooklyn. By choice.” The mid-sentence pause for effect in this opening line from Truman Capote’s 1959 essay “A House on the Heights” suggests just how unlikely that choice might sound to readers of the time. A little more than a half century later, so many writers have chosen to live in Brooklyn that it can be hard to get a cup of coffee in the borough without tripping over two or three would-be Colson Whiteheads or Jhumpa Lahiris, earbuds in, tapping away on their latest magnum opus. Why Brooklyn? This is the question at the heart of Evan Hughes' new book, Literary Brooklyn, which traces the history of New York City’s most populous borough through its writers, from Walt Whitman to Park Slope’s own dynamic duo, the married literary wunderkinds, Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Safran Foer. In truth, Hughes doesn’t have a good answer to the question he has posed for himself. “We shouldn’t mistake a massive place for an aesthetic camp,” he writes. One experience Brooklyn’s writers have shared, however, is living just outside the colossal, churning center of the metropolis – across the river from what is still often referred to as “the city.” Some have used all their might to make the escape from impoverished Brooklyn neighborhoods to the urbane quarters of Manhattan... but in their work they have often returned to the scene of their early Brooklyn struggles. Other writers have chosen Brooklyn as an escape from the commercial clamor of Manhattan, seeking a retreat where the rent is lower, the pulse runs slower, and the buildings don’t crowd out the sky. Give Hughes points for honesty. This is as close as he comes to offering a unifying thesis or theme, and you don’t have to read that closely to see that he doesn’t really have one. A dozen or so of the writers in the book grew up in Brooklyn and wrote about it, directly or indirectly, the rest of their lives; others moved to Brooklyn at some point or else, in a number of cases, were simply passing through. In other words, what we have here is a grab bag of literary criticism and social analysis trying – albeit not very hard – to stand as a work of social history. Despite some deft writing and a G train full of literary gossip, the best that can be said for Hughes’ book is that it makes no grand promises that it can’t keep. This is unfortunate because anyone who lives and writes in Brooklyn today has to feel the winds of literary history at his or her back. On my one street in Brooklyn Heights, I live half a block from the 1829 row house where Arthur Miller was living when he met Marilyn Monroe and a block and a half from the Greek Revival mansion where Truman Capote read the New York Times squib describing the brutal murder of a Kansas farming family that got him started on In Cold Blood. Another block or so to the east is the corner of Cranberry and Fulton streets where, in 1855, Walt Whitman helped hand set into type the first edition of Leaves of Grass. There is something about Brooklyn and writers, but I’ll be damned if I know much more now about why that might be than I did before I read Literary Brooklyn. Hughes is best when his subjects know Brooklyn well and work that knowledge into the fabric of their books. In a chapter on Brooklyn’s rough pre-gentrification years in the 1960s and ’70s, for instance, Hughes nicely contrasts how the middle-aged novelist Paula Fox responded to the racial and class tensions in the neighborhood of Boerum Hill with how the much younger Jonathan Lethem, who grew up down the street from Fox, reveled in the grittiness of the same atmosphere. The white married couple at the center of Fox’s best-known novel Desperate Characters view the streets around them, in Hughes’ words, as “a landscape where they feel unwelcome and embattled, where they grimly contend with garbage dumped out on the streets, dogs tormented nearby, rocks thrown through friends’ windows.” To Lethem, whose autobiographical novel The Fortress of Solitude and his earlier breakout novel Motherless Brooklyn are set largely in Boerum Hill, the neighborhood and its denizens are frightening, but also fascinating – less dangerous antagonists, Hughes suggests, than “neighbors and potential allies in a new social order.” Too often, though, Hughes builds chapters around writers like Thomas Wolfe, W.H. Auden, and Richard Wright, who spent most of their lives elsewhere and stopped off in Brooklyn only briefly to write about those other places. Hughes also gets sidetracked by oft-told tales like that of February House, a shared house in Brooklyn Heights that, at different times, hosted Auden, Wright, Jane and Paul Bowles, Carson McCullers, and the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, who was writing a mystery called The G-String Murders. This menagerie is so odd it all but demands a book of its own – and of course, one has already been written by Sherill Tippins, whose February House Hughes admits plundering for his own version of the tale. In the case of February House, Hughes is open about his debt to an earlier author, but in several instances when I knew something about the topic, such as Walt Whitman or the neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights, I found myself troubled by the thinness of Hughes’ scholarship. As I wrote in an essay in July for The Millions, I go way back with Whitman, so I was disappointed to find that in his chapter devoted to the poet, Hughes has essentially stitched together, sophomore-term-paper style, two of the better-known recent biographies of Whitman, David Reynolds' Walt Whitman’s America and Jerome Loving’s Walt Whitman: Song of Himself. The stitching isn’t inartful, but it doesn’t add much to the conversation. Hughes gets off a good line about Whitman’s personally setting much of the type for the first edition of his poems – “the nineteenth century equivalent of self-publishing out of a Kinko’s” – but he has little new to say about Whitman or to add to the voluminous commentary on the poems. One senses that Whitman isn’t in the book because Hughes feels a deep connection to him as a poet, or because Hughes has something burning to say about him, but simply because Whitman happened to live in Brooklyn. Too much of this book is built around such accidents of geography. So, then, what is it with writers and Brooklyn? Like Hughes, I’m not sure I know. Lower rent does have a lot to do with it, though as Hughes points out, New Yorkers looking for cheaper apartments in the five boroughs could just as well live in Queens or the Bronx. After reading Literary Brooklyn and living in the real literary Brooklyn for nearly eight years, my own sense is that the attraction of writers to Brooklyn is an accident of history that, over time, has become a full-blown phenomenon. From Whitman’s time onward, writers have flocked to Brooklyn because it was close to but cheaper than Manhattan, but now that gentrification has opened up whole neighborhoods to the creative classes, Brooklyn has blossomed into a genuine literary scene replete with its own literary gatherings (the Brooklyn Book Festival), top-quality literary magazines (One Story, Slice), indie publishing houses (Akashic, Melville House), and scads of literary stars (Lahiri, Whitehead, Jennifer Egan, etc.). Someday, some smart someone will write about how that happened, but as yet that book remains unwritten.
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. 1. The Pale King 5 months 2. 2. The Enemy 3 months 3. 3. The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books 6 months 4. 5. Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric 4 months 5. 6. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry 3 months 6. 8. The Hunger Games 5 months 7. 9. A Moment in the Sun 2 months 8. - Leaves of Grass 1 month 9. 10. Otherwise Known as the Human Condition 2 months 10. - A Dance with Dragons 1 month David Foster Wallace's The Pale King is still in the top spot, and the rest of our top three are unchanged as well. New to our list is Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, which was the subject of a moving appreciation by Michael on the 4th of July. Meanwhile, Game of Thrones mania has hit our top ten, as George R.R. Martin's latest, A Dance with Dragons, lands in the tenth spot. Janet recently reviewed the epic series of books for us. And graduating to our Hall of Fame are a pair of breakout hits from summer 2010, The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman and Skippy Dies by Paul Murray. Near Misses: Cardinal Numbers, The Magicians, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, Swamplandia!, and How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. See Also: Last month's list
Walt Whitman. Bayley Collection, Ohio Wesleyan 1. It sounds absurd for me to say that Walt Whitman saved my life, but it is true that at a particularly vulnerable period in my late twenties, my copy of the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass was one of a very small handful of things that kept me from taking a flying leap off the Golden Gate Bridge. I was about to turn thirty and I was in graduate school in San Francisco, but that was less a legitimate occupation than an artfully crafted cover story for what was really going on in my life, which was that I was a drunk who’d stopped drinking and hadn’t yet found anything to replace the drug that had gotten me through the first twenty-odd years of my life. I went to class, I wrote papers, I taught my sections of comp, but really I was adrift. Anyone who has felt this way for any length of time knows that “adrift” isn’t a metaphor but a description of a physical fact. I would wake up in the middle of the night with the queasy sense that the bed I was in, the tatty little bedroom around me, the ground it all sat upon seemed strangely insubstantial. Temporary. Not to be trusted. Other nights I had dreams in which I simply ceased to exist. There I was, sitting in my parents’ living room or standing at the head of my classroom at school, screaming and screaming, but no one saw me, and worse, no one seemed to be particularly put out that I wasn’t there. The world went on its merry way as if I had never existed. Dreams like those made jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge sickeningly attractive. The fall would kill me, yes, but at least then I would be actually dead, at least then I would be missed. It was during this time of profound personal crisis that I first read the famous opening lines of Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: I celebrate myself, And what I assume you shall assume For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. I loafe and invite my soul, I lean and loafe at my ease…observing a spear of summer grass. I was doing a lot of leaning and loafing that year, but very little inviting of my soul. Like a lot of lost people, I assumed that my soul – “the other I am,” to use Whitman’s term for it – was the problem, and that inviting it too openly, too nakedly, would send me right over the side of the Golden Gate Bridge. This, I think, was the magic of Walt Whitman for me. Here was a poet who seemed on intimate terms with the darkest, most secret side of himself, but who, instead of running from that scarifying Other, embraced it, even celebrated it. “I exist as I am, that is enough,” Whitman writes. But how? How to find worth in that which I wished only to throw off a bridge? I probably read “Song of Myself” half a dozen times during that long, ugly summer in San Francisco. I read every Whitman biography I could find, and picked the brain of every scholar of American literature foolish enough to attend his own office hours, but in the end the answer was as simple as it was counterintuitive. You cannot escape your malevolent Other. It exists, as integral a part of you as your eyes and lungs, and there’s nothing to do except embrace it, open yourself to it and listen. “I believe in you my soul,” Whitman writes in “Song of Myself”: the other I am must not abase itself to you, And you must not be abased to the other. Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat, Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice. 2. Walt Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass on July 4, 1855, seventy-nine years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The publication date cannot have been accidental. Whitman was a journalist and a fierce believer in a united United States, and six years before the outbreak of the Civil War, with Kansas bleeding and the country riven by sectional strife, Whitman saw Leaves of Grass as, among other things, a sort of poetical pamphlet that could somehow sing the nation into unity. Things didn’t work out that way, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Because he knew he would never find a legitimate publisher for such a strange book, Whitman published the first edition himself, setting much of the type on his own in a print shop at the corner of Cranberry and Fulton streets in Brooklyn. The finished book is a marvel of enigmatic charm. The twelve poems, each of which fill many pages and make use of no traditional schemes of rhyme or meter, were untitled, and the title page makes no mention of an author, offering instead only an engraving of a young bearded man wearing a slouch hat and an insouciant expression, staring at the reader as if daring him or her to open the book. It is only much later, 499 lines into the first poem, that one hears of “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos,” who is, apparently, the all-seeing “I” of the poem, and maybe, too, its author. If you have read Leaves of Grass for a high school or college course or from a copy you found at a bookstore or library, chances are you have not read the 1855 edition. Until the very last weeks of his life, Whitman continued to put out new editions of Leaves of Grass, each time adding new poems and revising the old ones, so that by the time he published the 1892 so-called Death-Bed Edition, the version most often sold in stores or excerpted in anthologies, he had expanded the original twelve poems to 383. Some of these later poems are works of genius, from the long, symbol-rich elegy, “When Lilacs Last In the Dooryard Bloom’d,” to tiny sparkling gems like “O Captain! My Captain!” and “A Noiseless, Patient Spider.” But many of Whitman’s later poems, especially those written after he suffered a paralytic stroke in 1873, are truly godawful: windy, oracular, abstract, and just plain boring. Worse, his revisions of his earlier poems, especially “Song of Myself,” suffer from the same deadening impulse to edit out the slangy wit and quirky Yankeeisms and make the whole thing sound like Poetry with a capital P. So, if you care about American poetry, but have always found Whitman gassy and dull, you owe it to yourself – right now – to get your hands on the Penguin Classics edition of the 1855 Leaves of Grass. Read Malcolm Cowley’s brilliant, and extremely useful, introduction; skip Whitman’s own interminable prose introduction; and read the poems as they were originally meant to be read. 3. The first edition of Leaves of Grass is a poetical Declaration of Independence in so many ways it can be hard to keep track of them all. In Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography, David Reynolds makes the case for a largely political reading of Whitman, arguing that the poet, profoundly troubled by the turmoil of his time, was trying to heal the country with a poem. Cowley, in his introduction to the 1961 Penguin Classics edition, posits Whitman as a home-grown mystic, unconsciously translating the central tenets of Eastern religious thought for a nineteenth century Western reader. Students of literary history have claimed him as a master formal innovator, crediting him with freeing the poetic line from the strictures of rhyme and meter. More recently, queer theorists, citing Whitman’s close relationships with younger men and his homoerotic “Calamus” poems, have promoted him as the Good Gay Poet. What makes Whitman such an important figure, and makes “Song of Myself” the only true aspirant to the title of Great American Poem, is that these commentators are all basically right. Whitman was queer as a three-dollar bill, and though it’s unlikely he ever read the Bhagavad-Gita or any other foundational texts of Eastern religion, there is no question his poems espouse a deeply un-Western view on humanity and the divine. He was also an important formal innovator. Before Whitman, Western poetry adhered to rules of rhyme and meter built for a time when printing was an expensive, time-consuming process and poetry was largely an oral art form. Whitman, a newsman whose career coincided with technological advances in the printing press that paved the way for cheap, widely distributed pamphlets and newspapers, saw before anyone else how these advances could free verse from the restrictions of rhyme and meter. Finally, while some teachers may be guilty of playing up his more patriotic poems in order to play down his more uncomfortable private ones, it is clear that Whitman saw the 1855 edition as a poetical means toward a political end. The book’s central image, the leaf or blade of grass, is an overt symbol of democratic equality, “Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones/Growing among black folks as among white,/Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.” But for the non-specialist reader – which is to say for readers like myself – it is the personal side of his poetry that resonates most deeply. Much is made in the academic world of the omniscient, omnivalent “I” at the center of Leaves of Grass, but a lay reader is just as likely to note the second most important character in the poems, which is nearly always “you.” Whitman is the most intimate of poets, and surely among the most genuinely concerned for the comfort and welfare of his readers. “How is it with you?” he asks in the opening stanzas of “A Song for Occupations,” the second poem in the 1855 edition. “I was chilled with the cold types and cylinder and wet paper between us.” One of the primary effects of the relaxed poetic line is the way it turns that most formal of literary interactions – a person reading a poem – into a conversation, you and old Walt, bellies to the bar, shooting the shit about the state of your immortal soul. It was this intimacy, the sense Whitman creates in the original poems that not only is he talking to you but listening as well, that drew me in during that awful year in San Francisco. I was a young man who needed a good talking to, but also one yearning to be heard. I was living, like a lot of lost, lonely people, in a closed ecosystem of my own neuroses, which thrived on hours spent in bed mentally composing suicide notes that would, depending on my mood, devastate my loved ones or bring tears to their eyes at the lost promise of my genius. This was all so crazy I couldn’t possibly tell anyone, yet I desperately needed someone to tell. So, by some alchemical literary process I do not understand to this day, Walt Whitman became my confessor and courage-teacher. I sensed, correctly I think, that Whitman “got” it. He’d been there 150 years before I had, and if I could just teach myself how to listen to him, he might teach me how to stay alive. And he did. The central tension in the poems in the 1855 edition is between “I” and “you.” The poet is constantly yearning to reach out to you; or reeling from contact with you; or entering into you, thinking your thoughts and feeling your feelings. But who is this you? Sometimes it’s the reader, while at other times it is some stranger the poet has picked out of the crowd, and at still other times it is “my soul” or the “other I am.” After many readings and re-readings, it occurred to me that what I had at first taken to be a conflation of “you's,” or, worse, a simple confusion, was in fact the whole damn point. What Whitman is saying in Leaves of Grass is that we are all one and the same, not just in the political sense that the slave is equal in worth to the slave master, but that we are all intimately linked in one unbreakable chain of being. The fact that you exist is enough, because whether you have “outstript…the President” or are a “prostitute draggl[ing] her shawl,” by the mere fact of existing you take your rightful place in a miraculous, inter-connected system called the world. This is why Walt Whitman, or you, or I can cock our hats as we please indoors or out, because no matter who we are, we are just as good and just as necessary as everyone else. But for me it also offered a route out of my endless, self-constructed maze of Self. If there is no wall between I and you, if we are all one and the same, what’s the point of hiding one from the other? Why not acknowledge that part of myself that wanted to die? Why not tell someone that while I never wanted to drink again, I was afraid I might lose my mind if I didn’t? Why not tell my parents I wasn’t the perfect son I wanted them to think I was? Why not sit in a church basement full of strangers, as I did once toward the end of that summer, crying like a baby because a woman had left me and I couldn’t blame her? Why not, if only for this one day, dare to be fully and completely alive? 4. That awful year is now years behind me and it is hard for me to conjure up the mad cocktail of loneliness, despair and naivety that could make a grown man seek life-saving advice from a book of poems. But I also know that I am not alone. One day not long after I first read the 1855 edition I was at a meeting in a church basement near San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, when an older guy named Tom raised his hand to speak. I had always liked Tom. He was clean and well-kempt and we’d had a few very nice discussions about books, notwithstanding the fact that he was off-his-meds crazy and lived in a pup tent in a thicket of trees near Spreckels Lake in Golden Gate Park. In any case, on this day Tom stood up, and without preamble, began to speak: Through me many long dumb voices, Voices of interminable generations of slaves, Voices of prostitutes and of deformed persons, Voices of the diseased and despairing, and of thieves and dwarves, I am certain that I was the only person in the room who recognized this as Whitman, from Canto 24 of “Song of Myself.” I am just as certain that I was the only person who really listened to him. Tom was a known crazy, and after the first few lines the regulars went back to sipping their lukewarm coffee and checking out the cute young junkie fighting the shakes in her chair by the door. Me, I sat transfixed. It wasn’t just that I recognized the words; it was the way Tom was saying them, with great gusto and energy, as if he were not merely reciting the famous lines of a dead poet, but speaking spontaneously, one finger plugged into the godhead, saying whatever came into his mind. It occurred to me sitting there that Tom was Walt Whitman, or as close to him as I was going to get in my lifetime. He was everything I feared, that terrifying “other I am,” the nice, bright, well-educated guy who had somehow gone horribly wrong and ended up sleeping in a public park and reciting poetry to strangers. “Divine I am inside and out,” he raved, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from; The scent of these armpits is aroma finer than prayer, This head is more than churches or bibles or creeds. There were some chuckles when Tom got to the bit about the aroma of his armpits being finer than prayer, but I didn’t laugh. I didn’t feel pity, either. Instead, I leaned back in my chair, for once taking my mind off the lukewarm coffee in my hands and the cute junkie girl by the door, and just listened.
Two years ago I spent some time in Lenox, Massachusetts, at a house once owned by the poet Amy Clampitt. I slept in her bed, rifled through her books, gazed out the kitchen window at the tree by which her ashes are buried. Since 2001, the house has served as a residency for poets; as the ninth Amy Clampitt Resident Fellow, my boyfriend was awarded a six-month stay. On a January weekend I helped him move into the grey clapboard house with blue-green shutters. Just down the road, The Mount, the mansion built by Edith Wharton, stood in baronial splendor. Everything about the more intimate Clampitt house struck me as perfect: the cozy living room with its comfy upholstered chairs; the loft bedroom and writing nook overlooking the snowy street; the spare bedroom crammed with boxes of Clampitt’s manuscripts, correspondence, and photographs. We found a bin stacked with copies of Clampitt’s own books of poetry, and my boyfriend noted how cool it would be to read Amy Clampitt’s Amy Clampitt’s The Kingfisher. I reluctantly caught the bus back to New York, where I had an M.F.A. thesis to write. This meant churning out and polishing short stories, and also producing a critical essay. I decided to write about Clampitt. Now I had an excuse for riding the Greyhound to Lenox as often as possible: I had research to do. But I immediately ran into trouble. I wanted to write about both Clampitt’s poetry and her house, but what was the connection between the two? Clampitt, who grew up in Iowa and spent most of her adult life in New York City, bought the house in Lenox when she was seventy-two, after winning a MacArthur grant. The places that loom large in her poems are primarily the rural landscapes of her childhood, the Manhattan streets of her adulthood, the Maine beaches where she vacationed in the summer, and the Europe of her travels—not the Berkshire towns along the Housatonic River. Six months after Clampitt moved to Lenox, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died a year and a half later. On one of her bookshelves, between Dickens and Howard Moss, I found a spiral-bound workbook called Chemotherapy and You. Some of the pages were paper-clipped, marked for use. In a piece here at The Millions, Luke Epplin discusses his visit to Pablo Neruda’s house in Isla Negra. This house “is exceptional among existing writers’ houses,” Epplin observes, in that Neruda “managed to shape it into a manifestation of what a life dedicated to poetry might look like.” The design of the house, the attention to detail, the arrangement of treasured possessions—all seem to capture the spirit of the writer of Odes to Common Things. But even as he enjoys seeing the house as an extension of Neruda’s poetic sensibility, Epplin is suspicious of the way that such museums tend to present a limited portrait of the writers who once lived there. In his critique of the literary tourism industry, he calls on Anne Trubek’s recently published A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses, a book I find charming, if a bit oddly conceived. Trubek spends a lot of time describing places that irritate her. She finds writers’ houses that have been turned into museums dispiriting and even dumb. “[T]hey aim to do the impossible: to make physical—to make real—acts of literary imagination. Going to a writer’s house is a fool’s errand. We will never find our favorite characters or admired techniques within these houses; we can’t join Huck on the raft or experience Faulkner’s stream of consciousness. We can only walk through empty rooms full of pitchers and paintings and stoves.” But she keeps going, reporting on her half-hearted treks around the country with a curmudgeon’s pleasure in disparaging what she sees. The first writer’s house she visits is the Walt Whitman House in Camden, New Jersey, where Whitman published three editions of Leaves of Grass and an autobiography, Specimen Days. Whitman died in this house, but, Trubek notes, “The house is set up, as are most house museums, to fool us into thinking that Whitman was still living there.” His things, or replicas of his things, are staged in a way that Trubek finds false. Though writers’ houses are meant to make their former inhabitants come alive, Trubek observes, “They remind me of death.” In Lenox I became friendly with the poet Karen Chase, a great friend of Clampitt’s in the last few years of her life, and one of her literary executors. Karen was at Clampitt’s bedside when she died. We talked about this one morning in the kitchen of the house that Karen helped to furnish, taking her friend on “junking” trips to local antique stores. Karen told me that after the funeral the cleaning lady set up a little memorial to Clampitt: a table with a doily and an arrangement of Clampitt’s books, along with books by Edith Wharton. “I sort of messed it up,” Karen said with a touch of pride. “It was museum-like. It would have gone against her grain in the deepest way.” Trying to learn who Clampitt was (or Amy, as I really thought of her, longing for intimacy), I stared at the framed photograph of a woman both lanky and pixie-like, prim and hippieish, standing in a whirl of autumn leaves. I read her letters, filled with descriptions of European trips and anti-war rallies, the books on her nightstand and the flowers in her window box. And of course I read the four books that make up her Collected Poems, mostly on bus trips between Manhattan and Lenox. I was pleased to think of Clampitt herself, suddenly a poet in demand in her sixties, riding Greyhound to give readings and lectures. The poems that struck me the most, the poems I decided to focus on in my M.F.A. thesis essay, were her portraits of the dead, at once somber and lovely. “A Winter Burial” describes a woman’s death, which seems as lonely as her time in a nursing home: . . . one nightfall when the last weak string gave way that had held whatever she was, that mystery, together, the bier that waited—there were no planes coming in, not many made it to the funeral, the blizzard had been so bad, the graveyard drifted so deep, so many severed limbs of trees thrown down, they couldn’t get in to plow an opening for the hearse, or shovel the cold white counterpane from that cell in the hibernal cupboard, till the day after. This is bleak, indeed: an old forgotten woman literally buried even deeper by a snowstorm. Still, the music of the poem—those lovely incantatory final lines—dignifies the death in a way, placing it not in a sterile box, but in a space of privacy that the snow-covered earth allows. Clampitt’s poems memorialize the dead not by portraying the person who once lived, but by paying acute attention to place, sometimes places where the subject died or is buried, sometimes places that invoke the relentless flow of time and history. One of her most famous poems, “A Procession at Candlemas,” observes, “Sooner or later / every trek becomes a funeral procession.” She’s also wise to the way that paying tribute to a place can profane it, the kind of thing that troubles Trubek. “Amherst” refers to the worshippers who flock to Emily Dickinson’s house on the anniversary of her death: “the wistful, / the merely curious, in her hanging dress discern / an ikon; her ambiguities are made a shrine, / then violated.” Clampitt includes herself in this group: “we’ve drunk champagne above her grave, declaimed / the lines of one who dared not live aloud.” She wants to address her—“(Dear Emily, though, / seems too intrusive, Dear Miss Dickinson too prim)”—even as she knows this makes her part of the adoring crowd that reduces the woman to literary icon. As an alternative to preserving a writer’s house, Trubek suggests greater attention to his or her work. Reflecting on the plans to restore Langston Hughes’ former house in Cleveland’s Fairfax neighborhood, she asks, “Why not redirect our energy to reading Hughes rather than restoring his house . . . ? His books are plentiful and inexpensive. It would not be cost prohibitive to give every resident of Fairfax a book, or every teacher a classroom set of, say, Poetry for Young People.” After visiting Louisa May Alcott’s house, one of an exhausting number of literary sites in Concord, Massachusetts, Trubek reflects, “Here’s what I wish for Alcott, today: Her books assigned in schools as often as are Huck Finn or Catcher in the Rye; her reputation remade into that of the tortured romantic genius; it would also be nice to have a foundation in her honor dedicated to offering women writers grants or scholarships for female writers.” To promote the work, to elevate the status of a woman writer, to support other writers: these are worthy goals, and the Clampitt House, in its quiet way, fosters them. While the lavish Mount down the road lets tourists see where Wharton wrote The House of Mirth and other novels, perhaps increasing the readership of these books, it could be argued that the Clampitt House is better for writers (if only, so far, eleven of them) by providing a place to stay rent-free for an extended period of time and get work done. I imagine Trubek would approve of the Clampitt House: not a memorial, but a practical living space. I don’t think Clampitt envisioned that her house would one day serve, in her name, as a temporary home for other poets. Her husband, who lived for seven years after her death, came up with the idea for the residency program. I do know that she had some romantic ideas about the former dwelling places of writers she admired. In her essay “A Poet’s Henry James,” she writes, “When I made a pilgrimage to Rye a couple of summers ago, it was with the objective of standing on the spot where Henry James dictated The Ambassadors.” In the essay I completed as part of my M.F.A. thesis, I wrote about the experience of staying in the house of a writer who had died there, and I wrote about Clampitt’s poems that deal with death. I don’t think I quite found a successful way to link them. But though it puts me in danger of romanticizing Clampitt and the place she once lived, I can’t help but feel that her expansive poems about loss are connected to the cozy grey clapboard house in Lenox. According to Trubek, “writers’ houses are by definition melancholy.” There is something melancholy about the Clampitt House. As Clampitt observes about Dickinson’s house, the poet’s “ambiguities” are inevitably given over to strangers’ imaginings of what she must have been like. It’s a good kind of melancholy, though, the kind that allows us to miss people we’ve never met. During a talk she gave at Grinnell forty-five years after she had graduated from the small Iowa college, Clampitt addressed the question of what a writer needs to know. “In one word, I’d say, predecessors. I don’t know why it is that things become more precious with the awareness that someone else has looked at them, thought about them, written about them. But so I find it to be . . . .Writers need company. We all need it.” Image: Clampitt House, courtesy the author
The trenches of publishing can be equal parts reward and frustration. It is amazing to have a publishing house, no matter the size, respond to your work. You engage with the editor, work through drafts, commission an artist, read the proofs and then bam: boxes and boxes of books. The unrepentantly indie Fractious Press risked such a kindness with my collection of short stories, I Like to Keep My Troubles on the Windy Side of Things. What do you do with all of these books? Sell them, of course. Distribution can be a nightmare for large houses and indies alike. Marketing a book is more of an uphill battle than ever in our forget-me-now culture of constant media noise. And so were born internet literary stunts. While Tao Lin certainly didn’t invent the form (check out this April 25, 2000, Village Voice article about a McSweeney’s internet stunt) he sits high atop the virtual landfills of digital fodder created to promote the written word. Since 2005, Lin has dutifully maintained a blog that antagonizes and engages readers. Recently he ran a contest where his devotees were asked to watch a video of him reading and then guess what drug he was on (mushrooms). Everything Lin does online serves to promote his books. Or is it just about promoting himself? In the current issue of Bookforum Joshua Cohen examines this notion in his excellent review of Lin’s latest book. Regardless of what you think of Lin’s persona, or his writing, the extent of his influence on prioritizing an author’s persona can be seen in how this past May his publisher, Melville House, took it upon themselves to inaugurate the Moby Awards for Best and Worst Book Trailers. When it comes to internet stunts, Lin might be the most prolific but he isn’t the only writer hoping to go viral in the name of raising awareness about a new book. With my collection of stories, Fractious went the traditional promotional route, sending out galleys and finished review copies to both print and select online outlets. But nothing really came of it. Meaning that outside a small number of people, most of whom I know, no one really knows about this book. So, after reading on The Rumpus about Mickey’s Hess’s “I will blurb any book within 24 hours” literary stunt, I decided to send him a PDF for yucks. Sure enough, in about twelve hours he had something for me: “Buzz bares his soul in this book. Nothing is more frustrating than discovering an author’s troubles, but what it does do is really change my preconceived judgments about certain things.” A few weeks ago, Hess posted a revised blurb on his personal blog: “Buzz bares his soul in this book. Overcoming obstacles such as toothaches, his gently androgynous narrators (all fictional characters) are driven by two things: tough-minded exclamations and 21st-century anxieties.” Everything else aside, I can tell you that there is not a single toothache in the book. There is, however, a story that involves children losing their baby teeth, painlessly. Am I surprised that Hess hasn’t actually read all of the stories? Not really. Perhaps Hess’s ultimate motive was to create a spectacle of stunts? Make examples of those, like me, who take part in, fall for, such a stunt? Only he can say. I feel like asking would feed into the stunt more – and I acknowledge that writing this piece makes me truly complicit in engaging self-promotional activity. But thinking about it more, maybe Hess was really calling into question the validity of promotional blurbs, printed or otherwise. Litanies of hyperbolic praise have long adorned the front and back covers of books (writing at Red Room in 2009, Matthew Pearl credited Ralph Waldo Emerson with being the first author to blurb a book, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: "I greet you at the beginning of a great career"). The purpose of the jacket blurb is obvious: if you like Author A, then you’re sure to like Author B, whose debut has been raved about by Author A. Sit around with enough agents and editors and blurbs will come up – the bigger the name issuing the blurb, the better. Writers tend to know other writers, but many blurbs come in via professional associations – sharing an agent or publisher – so in a way they are also stunts, promoting one person’s words using someone else’s words by virtue of doing a favor for someone you may or may not know very well. Adjective-heavy, blurbs try to relay a book’s tone, its author’s approach to storytelling boiled down to a sentence, maybe two. While jacket blurbs might not be as connected to the cult of personality as certain online promotional tactics, they still aren’t really about the writing. They are more about the writer and what he or she does with the written word. The internet provides an outlet to anyone that wants to pipe up about something. This has changed how the public becomes aware of everything, whether a book, movie, storewide sale or a politician’s stance on an issue. In the pre-internet book trade, awareness was created through specific outlets, very much influencing the new books we found out about by via high-profile reviews and interviews. Today, with some degree of perseverance, you can find out about pretty much anything with a simple search and some mouse clicking. This leaves large and small publishers alike, as well as self-published authors, vying for attention. So, is there a difference between traditional promotional activities and internet stunts? I suppose people talk more about stunts, but then they are talking more about you and not your writing. Promotional marketing tools can be very savvy about blurring the line between objective critiques and ads. Which, after my little foray into this world makes me wonder, more than ever: How much of consumer culture is about actual content? (Image: for sale, from hive's photostream)
If you have not been paying attention to trends in grade school pedagogy over the last couple decades, the first thing you should know is this: The way public school students—and particularly those in low-performing, low-income districts—are taught to understand books looks little like the way most readers of this site, myself included, probably learned themselves. The changes have occurred in two somewhat contradictory directions. Instruction today is both more progressive and child-centered—where literacy instructors are discouraged from assigning one-size-fits-all whole class novels and students are expected to be given maximum freedom to choose books that they're interested in—and more rote—where students are drilled in the practice of a dozen or so "reading skills" that attempt to teach comprehension as a stepwise process similar to multiplying fractions or performing long division. My own view of this approach—which goes by the term "balanced literacy"—was conceived during two years teaching sixth grade literacy in the Bronx, NY, and it evolved from a dim initial reading to the more favorable opinion I hold today. The skills taught in balanced literacy are by themselves entirely uncontroversial. Students are expected to be able to read a text and perform these mental operations: summarizing, generalizing, drawing conclusions, making inferences, identifying main ideas and supporting details, making connections between the text and their own lives, identifying the author's purpose, analyzing poetic devices like simile and personification, and recognizing point of view. These are the modes of thinking that all literate adults apply when they read (and when they think about complex information in any setting) and the question is not whether students should be able to make generalizations, but rather whether explicitly teaching students what generalizations are and how to perform them is the best way to inculcate a skill that is as much an art as a science, and which many readers of this site probably learned osmotically, in the same way that they learned language. A main indictment of skill-based instruction is that it takes something like reading which should be wide-open, joyful and curious and turns it into a drab mechanistic procedure. This is the view that the educational historian Diane Ravitch has come to. In her latest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, she cites the work of two researchers who have questioned the wisdom of attempting to bring lagging students up to grade level through explicit instruction in how to think: “We have to consider the possibility that all the attention we are asking students to pay to their use of skills and strategies and to their monitoring of these strategies may turn relatively simple and intuitive tasks into introspective nightmares.” They suggested that “what really determines the ability to comprehend anything is how much one already knows about the topic under discussion in a text.” From the time I began teaching in 2003 until quite recently this about summed up my view of skill-based instruction. My critique was buttressed with arguments similar to the ones above, but really it was rooted in my own education as a reader: I had never been taught how to generalize or to draw conclusions; those skills had come as a matter of course through repeated encounters reading, talking, writing and thinking about books. Recently, though, I had the opportunity to write a reading curriculum for a well-regarded urban charter school and my thinking about skill-based instruction began to change. The curriculum typified the pedagogical approach critiqued by Ravitch: It was skills-based, attuned to the dictates of standardized tests, and it de-prioritized any specific content choices in favor of what could be termed "ways of thinking" about books. The more I delved into breaking down and sequencing the skills, however, the less I came to view them as "relatively simple" operations that amounted to droll fodder for standardized tests, and the more I thought of them as a high-stakes crash course in how to think that, when looked at in the right light, was more thrilling than just about anything I ever learned in middle school. Take summarizing, for example, which would seem to be as vanilla a skill as there is. To disprove the contention that knowing how to summarize comes naturally, all you need to do is ask a typical ten-year-old to distill the movie he saw over the weekend. What you'll get is a blow-by-blow of the plot that's longer than the movie itself. This is where the work of teaching a child how to think comes in: How do you weigh information as more or less important? What aspects of the characters, the setting, and the overall theme should be woven in among the plot, and at what point in the sequence of the summary should they be included? These are plain questions, maybe, but they also cut to the heart of the challenge of making sense of information in any situation—and even as an adult I find that I could be better at it when narrating my weekend to my brother or telling a friend about a book I just finished. Or take the skill of generalizing. Even if asked to make generalizations about a topic I know as well as any in the world—the members of my own family—it would still take me some time to get my bearings. I'd start with a surface generalization like "we all live in the northeast" and try to make my way to more substantive insights. I'd say "we all like adventures"—except that then I'd think that maybe my sister doesn't—and then I'd think she'd object to being labeled that way, so maybe either my definition of adventuresome or my assessment of her is off. There's no end to the way you can slice a topic, define essential qualities or sift for similarities, and there are no hard and fast rules for when degrees of difference turn a generalization into an overgeneralization. We all know how to generalize in the same way that we all know how to run—but can we leap hurdles, run a marathon, and launch our minds twenty feet through the air? It's not unreasonable to expect that students will need some help figuring out how to do these things on their own. Ravitch's argument says that the ability to apply comprehension skills depends largely on familiarity with the underlying topic—if I knew my family members better, the connections among them would be self-evident. This is true to a point. You obviously can't generalize about 19th-century American literature unless you've read a lot of it, but familiarity alone is not going to teach a student how to look for the less-obvious threads that tie Moby-Dick, Leaves of Grass, and Huck Finn together. Like most dichotomies that crop up around a topic as complex and difficult as teaching kids how to read, the "skills vs. content" divide is a false one. Students who have fallen off of grade level pace usually want for both, and it doesn't make sense to try and teach one without the other. But neither does it make sense to take comprehension skills—which is really just a euphemism for sophisticated thinking—for granted.