Rex Sorgatz is a writer, designer, producer, and entrepreneur based in New York City. He currently works for Saturday Night Live and is a contributor at Wired magazine. His writing has appeared in New York, Gawker, Radar, and Spin. Former careers include being Executive Producer of msnbc.com and butchering fish in Alaska. He blogs the internet in real time at Fimoculous.com.I lack conviction.I planned to use this space to step up to the plate. I wanted to go to bat for something published in 2008. But I feared how you would perceive my choice: a sarcastic plea for a post-literate society? a cynical prognostication for the death of the book? a blatant mockery of the written word? a sneering wink to the puerile blogosphere for overthrowing the printed page?Yep, my favorite book published in 2008 was Hot Chicks With Douchebags.Wait!I reserve the right to define “favorite” for a specialized sort of pleasure: this was the book that I kept picking up and paging through, the one I wanted other people to experience, the one that made me wish had a book club because it’s so goddamn mysterious and I needed other people to help guide me through its mystery.You think I’m kidding.But I dare you to page through this weird little picture book spun off from a blog – bustling with Hellenic characters, breathless photographic drama, complex anthropological signage, post-porn frisson, and a glossary! – and not feel entranced (or at least pleasantly beguiled). It’s a crazy mix of post-op feminism and hall-of-mirrors desire. Lacan would have eaten this shit up.Nonetheless, despite the ponderous appeal of lechery on display, and my spineless inability to support low culture when it most needs it, declaring the douchebag tome as my favorite read this year would be a lie. Instead, a book released in 2002 about a television show that started in 1975 towered over all else for me this year.But it requires a story….Through an arcane sequence of unexpected events, I started working for Saturday Night Live at the end of 2008.It made no sense to me either. But there I was, not as a writer, and definitely not as a performer, but as an internet dork trying to push SNL further into the digital age. Holding meetings in the writers’ room on the notorious 17th floor of 30 Rock, I could only think one thing:I have no fucking business being here.Every day I’d walk through the corridor where pictures of 34 seasons of cast members hung from walls. To say I was intimidated is like saying Belushi dabbled.Like you, and maybe like your mom, I grew up on Saturday Night Live, through good years and bad years. And also probably like you, a newfound appreciation of the show arrived this year, as critics seemed to treat its satiric value as the second-coming of A Modest Proposal.Though an avid fan, I was not a historical one – yet at work I was trapped in a sea of historical experts. When a name was dropped that I didn’t recognize, I would sheepishly ask who it was referring to. An answer like “He wrote Coneheads” would magnify my ignorance.I clearly needed to study.My girlfriend, who is one of those people who knows the show’s history like others know the Torah, recommended Live From New York, an oral history collected by Tom Shales and Jim Miller. Of course I soon discovered it was not only the definitive book about the show, but also one of the most revered popular culture books of all time.Did you know there was an adult version of “The Muppets” in the show’s first season? Did you know that Howard Cosell had a show called Saturday Night Live at the same time? Did you know the show started because Johnny Carson wanted to stop running re-runs of The Tonight Show on Saturday nights? Did you know that Bill Murray and Chevy Chase got into a fistfight right before Chevy went on for his monologue in the second season? Did you know that innocuous phrases like “that sucks” couldn’t get past the sensors in the early years? Did you know about the drugs? (Okay, you probably knew about the drugs.)This isn’t so much a history of a show as it is a history of an era. Having come of age around media startups, I love stories about how things begin. And this oral history is essentially the rattling, sputtering, clanking noises made when trying to start something new.More from A Year in Reading 2008
Studs Terkel died at 96 on Friday. In Chicago, Terkel’s adopted home, he was regarded as a local treasure. Terkel had a long radio career hosting shows on which he conducted wide-ranging interviews, but he was perhaps best known for his series of oral histories.The genre is now quite popular, encompassing topics from punk rock to Saturday Night Live to George Plimpton, but Terkel was, if not its inventor, then its popularizer and most accomplished practitioner. He used his oral histories not to get the inside dirt on celebrities, but as a way to illuminate the lives of everyday people. Terkel’s best known books include Working, in which he found the everyday dramas in the working lives of dozens of Americans, and The Good War, a Pulitzer winning oral history of World War II. More recently, Terkel’s Hope Dies Last was published. The book is a study of a subject at the core of Terkel’s efforts in preserving the voices of the 20th century, America’s collective loss of hope and the decline in social activism that has accompanied it.Bonus Link: The Chicago Tribune tells us “Why Studs Terkel Mattered“.
So, What’s new this week? Studs Turkel might be the originator of the “oral history” genre that seems to be reaching market saturation of late. After a while, it just seems like a lazy way to write a history book, even if it is the undeniably rockin’ history of punk. Turkel strays from these glorified interviewers in a couple of ways. First, he is adept at picking broad but compelling subjects and at finding the common and divergent threads that run through these subjects. His huge seller from 1972, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, is an incredibly readable chronicle of the most common of American experiences. Second, as I have already implied, Turkel is able to paint history in the words of everyday people, not famous folks who practically make a living giving interviews, sketch comedy actors, for example. His new book, Hope Dies Last is the study of his most esoteric subject yet, America’s collective loss of hope and the decline in social activism that has accompanied it. Once again, he solicits the views of people from different generations and walks of life. Speaking of different walks of life, lots of folks out there seem to be excited by the general who is ready trade in his stars for a chance to become the President. Those curious to know more about Democratic hopeful Wesley Clark can see him showing off his military chops in his new book Winning Modern Wars: Iraq, Terrorism, and the American Empire.Those in a fictional frame of mind should look out for David Guterson’s long-awaited followup to Snow Falling on Cedars, a book called Our Lady of the Forest. To paraphrase what Guterson was saying this afternoon on a local public radio show, Our Lady of the Forest is about the occurrence of a mystical, Catholic phenomenon in a destitute Pacific Northwest logging town and the effect it has on four characters. 16-year-old runaway, Anne Holmes, believes that she is having visions of the Virgin Mary. This produces in the young town priest, Father Don Collins, a crisis of conscience. For sometime drifter and mushroom-picker, Carolyn Greer, the apparitions mean money and opportunity, and for guilt-ridden former logger Tom Cross, they signal a chance for redemption. It was especially interesting to hear Guterson talk about how he tried to infuse the book with both the beauty of the rainforests of the Northwest and the squalor of the once-prospering logging towns nearby. Also new in fiction: Shipwreck, another spare and haunting novel by Louis Begley, the author of About Schmidt. Also just out is Train, a must-read LA noir novel by Pete Dexter. I read it and loved it. Here is my review. In paperback people are buying Koba the Dread, Martin Amis’ powerful indictment of Stalin and his Western sympathizers, The Art of Seduction, Robert Greene’s almost-creepy investigation of the ways in which people manipulate one another, and Songbook, Nick Hornby’s paean to his own considered and considerable music collection.AwardwinningThis year’s Booker Prize has been awarded to Australian author D.B.C. Pierre for his debut novel, Vernon God Little.