I read The Children’s Book, and I sort of didn’t like it that much. But I’m putting at the top of my Year in Reading because it disturbed me profoundly, and that has to count for something. I finished it late at night while my beloved was sleeping, and when I turned off the light I clutched him, feeling terrified.
I liked its Arts and Crafts conceit, but sometimes it seemed a conceit alone, an excuse for a nifty Morris-esque cover design. Occasionally I found myself wanting to glaze a bowl, but I also found myself thinking: “This is no Possession.”
Then everyone started dying, and I thought, “Wow, A.S. Byatt is mean.” And A.S. Byatt is probably not mean, but I was overwhelmed by the union of war’s indiscriminate horror with the steely moral judgment of her universe. It’s a serious business, the kind that keeps you up at night.
Freedom, to echo Garth and Stephen and Dan. Freedom was a book that I read pretty much straight through, and when it was over I started again, only to find, for the nth time, that it doesn’t work that way. You can’t have it again, there being no time like the first time and all that. I also felt that way about The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and The Museum of Innocence, as I’ve said before.
I unwittingly read wonderful books that turned out to be part of trilogies: The Lyre of Orpheus (Cornish) and Independence Day (Bascombe) and The Persian Boy (Alexander). So that turned into six more books to read, and to date I’ve only finished Mary Renault’s Alexandriad. But I’m all about Richard Ford for 2011. And Robertson Davies–he’s kind of like a male Iris Murdoch.
I read non-fiction now, which has been an adjustment. Non-fiction does not often leave me clutching my beloved in the night, although it probably should. I liked Rebel Land, about eastern Turkey, Armenians, and Kurds, because it made more meaningful gestures toward readability than many works aiming to inform; in fact, in the end I think it turned out to be more enjoyable than informative.
It helps that Christopher de Bellaigue, in addition to having a life that generates maximum personal envy (speaking fluent Turkish and Persian; writing things in the NYRB), knows a thing or two about a well-placed vignette. He might not be a bona fide historian, but there’s a story about a cardoon seed and a cuckoo that almost had me turning to the adjacent bus-rider to say “Lemme read you this part.”
A good year, all told.
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This is the first book review I’ve written in nearly three years, since I hung up my reviewing socks following a stint at Publishers Weekly’s online division, where I was paid handsomely in American currency to review books about sports and music. Those books were assigned to me based on a rough affinity for the subject matter. I liked baseball and Phil Spector music and funny writing, so I was assigned books about baseball, Phil Spector and the music industry, naturally.
Despite my purported interest in the subject matter, however, I often disliked the books assigned to me. Perhaps this was a residual effect of years of assigned reading at school. These books, looming over my reading list like a colonoscopy, found me angry and tired. Still, I gave them a fair shake. A few rose above to really impress me. Others offered diversion or momentary entertainment before lapsing into unrelenting mediocrity. Several were nearly too dreadful to finish.
When I reviewed books, I tried to find their best qualities first. To do so, I often imagined a book’s ideal reader. Every book, after all, has its intended audience, and maybe an underemployed, poorly paid book reviewer wasn’t it. Perhaps somebody else, someone with a different background and no taste, might find merit in a memoir about the early days of off-shore gambling. Stranger things have come to pass. Still, it seems rare that a book finds it ideal reader, and rarer still that said reader is also in a position to write a long and self-referential review of it.
Occasionally, though, God reaches down and places the right book in the right reader’s hands. Such a moment occurred a few weeks ago when I received a new book in the mail. In this particular scenario, however, God was a New York publicist named Kate.
This prelude exists largely to explain why you might not like Richard Rushfield’s memoir Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost as much as I did. You might not be able to access its bleak, wintry setting. Perhaps the events of the narrative, the college experiences of the wayward young Rushfield, won’t appeal to you. If so, I understand. Maybe you went to a state school.
On the face of it, Richard Rushfield and I are not that similar. I went to a competitive academic school in the late 1990s while Rushfield toiled (figuratively) at weirder-than-thou Hampshire College in the 1980s. I made friends relatively easily and dragged myself to class with frequency. Rushfield joined an infamous band of outsiders, The Supreme Dicks, eventually achieving full pariah status in only a few years. And yet, of all the people in the world who might read this book, none would enjoy it as much as I. For one thing, I love campus literature. My favorite novel is Lucky Jim, and my favorite Updike story is “The Christian Roommate.” I also enjoy books whose characters simply can’t get out of their own way. Toby Young (who blurbed this book, I notice) wrote an excellent memoir in much this fashion, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. There’s just something about people lighting themselves on fire, I suppose.
Rushfield begins to self-immolate almost immediately upon setting foot on the Hampshire College campus. Located in Amherst, Massechusetts, Hampsire is part of the five college system, along with Amherst, UMass, Smith and Mount Holyoke. It’s committed to alternative education, meaning it gives no grades and offers its students the opportunity to craft their own education around the subject matter that interests them. It’s this freedom that attracts him. Well, that and the promise of a single room.
Hindered in part by his aversion to marijuana, Rushfield has some difficulty navigating the social world of Hampshire, with its abundance of Hippies and “Preppy Deadheads”: students who came from elite prep schools but embraced aspects of hippie culture, such as hackysack, the Grateful Dead and dreadlocks (another term for this demographic is the Frisbee Elite). Rushfield drifts along on the periphery of the school, skipping nearly every class and living a mostly solitary life.
When he’s caught scrawling some graffiti on someone’s Bob Marley poster, he’s exiled from the dorms and forced to find a new place to live. He turns to The Supreme Dicks, the most reviled people on campus.
It’s here that the book hits its stride, finding its heroes and establishing a rich mythology that few memoirs ever achieve. One part commune, one part experimental post-punk band, The Supreme Dicks live in one of the college’s modular housing units deep in the woods. From their remote location, they operate as their own world, complete with its own philosophy, a bastardized version of the teachings of Wilhelm Reich.
Richard, it turns out, had been warned about the Dicks from the very beginning:
Back in my first week at Hampshire, Lonnie had taken me aside, in his characteristic manner that was the more terrifying for its seeming concern that he was anxious for my safety, and warned me that there was a group of evil, despicable people at the school. Horrible, dreadful, terrible, he said, spitting adjectives until he was gasping for breath. He didn’t want to scare me but he had reason to believe that these people, who called themselves “the Supreme Dicks,” might try — he kneaded my shoulder with a caring hand — might try to talk to me. You see, he continued, he had noticed that I bore a resemblance to one of them — one of their leaders who had left the school after, Lonnie went on, eyebrow arched, his brother had died…My heart raced. Weird people, with some tragic secret, will want to talk to me?
Talk to him they do, and eventually Rushfield takes refuge in their ranks. It’s there, in the woods, that he discovers that life with the Dicks is a surreal and often directionless experience. For instance, roughly thirty pages is given to describing a night when the group, hungry and cold, plots a trip to the new Denny’s two towns over. Despite a mounting panic about whether they’d have anything to eat that night, their inability to organize an expedition, even in the face of hunger pains, takes on an hallucinogenic quality, as they wander around the campus like Bedouin scavengers, looking for the path of least resistance.
To pigeonhole the Dicks as anti-hippie would be to simplify a mysterious movement, a group composed of people from across the racial, sexual and generational spectrum (several of the Dicks are approaching their second decade as Hampshire College students when the book begins). One couldn’t rightly call them nihilists, as they have a core of beliefs, what with their Reichian theories and their belief in celibacy and vegetarianism. And yet, they seem to oppose more or less everything and everyone else. And therein, I think, lies the greatness of this book.
At its heart, Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost is a memoir of opposition, of resistance. Rushfield and the Dicks position themselves as the “other” at a school that is all about embracing that which is different or marginalized, so long as that marginalization feels earned by genuine oppression. The Dicks, a mix of rich and poor, white and non, straight and gay, defy easy categorization, and unsurprisingly, meet with scorn.
That the Dicks emerge as the unlikely heroes of the book is testament to Rushfield’s storytelling abilities. He has talent for exposing the hypocrisies and idiocies of the typical Hampshire armchair revolutionary. The more the college slides further and further into left-wing, politically correct fascism, the more Rushfield and his friends seem like the voices of reason.
Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost contains many elements of the typical college narrative: the confusion of orientation, the perils of dorm life, the relationships formed and dissolved in a matter of days or hours. There’s even a ridiculously ill-conceived trip to Daytona Beach for spring break. But nothing at Hampshire happens as one would expect. Every situation is coated with a thick haze of drugs and radical politics, rendering it both familiar and foreign at the same time. The effect is a small, messy, often infuriating world, a world I nevertheless enjoyed inhabiting for a few hundred pages. By the end of the book, I found myself agreeing with the graffiti Rushfield finds in the library soon after arriving at Hampshire: “Supreme Dicks rule, OK.” But then again, they’re preaching to the choir with me.
I think it’s a symptom of the internet age, or my impending old age, or doom, that while I used to amble into a used book shop with no particular book in mind and leave satisfied with a bulging grocery bag, now I find myself a slave to a roster. Before, I would keep a vague running list of books I wanted to read, which basically encompassed the whole of literature as I understood it, so that any pile of two dollar books was bound to yield several items of interest. And now I want what I want when I want it.
Under the Net was a long-time bee in my bonnet. There are so many Iris Murdoch novels, in so many printings; they are a fixture in secondhand book shops. When I realized that this one, her first, was on the Modern Library list, I thought I was bound to come across it before too long. For nine months it eluded me, although in pursuit of that title I managed to read five other Murdoch novels. In the same way, I read Black Boy instead of Native Son, and Young Torless instead of The Man Without Qualities, and loathsome Henderson the Rain King instead of Herzog. Which is a good thing! I’m better for having read them all. But every year that goes by finds me less happy to cast the net in this haphazard fashion (hence my summer of discontent). I require specific titles now. I’ve undergone a paradigm shift. It’s kind of a bummer, actually.
(I do know all about libraries, and I cherish them. But I like to own the books that I read, and I like to read books that I own. In case there is an emergency. It’s a thing about me.)
Anyway, I wanted to read Under the Net, and I got sick of looking in vain and reading things other than Under the Net, and I finally outsourced the job to the internet. I felt sort of guilty about this, like buying a pet instead of adopting. I did it media mail, which seemed more virtuous, in the manner of hard church pews and wooden teeth. After eight days, the novel arrived. All things considered, the experience was obscenely convenient.
Someone once said (it was me) that Iris Murdoch wrote so many novels that if you are in the mood to read something by her, there is probably a fresh one available. It’s like having a harem wherein all the inmates are related to one another and look alike, yet retain sterling qualities of their own. I quote myself not because I’m the last word on Iris Murdoch, but because the metaphor has useful application here. If Murdoch’s huge oeuvre is a harem of related women, then reading Under the Net is like going in back in time to meet their matriarch, coltish and sepia-toned on the day she was plucked from her village.
I have always thought that The Sea, The Sea stands apart from the other Murdoch novels I’ve read, largely because of the spicy and pitch-perfect first person narrative. I thought, perhaps, that it was a prime example of late-ish Murdoch at the height of her powers. So I was surprised to discover find that her first novel, published in 1954, has more in common with The Sea² (1978), than any of the works published between (that I’ve read, of course). Like The Sea², Under the Net is written in the first person. The earlier novel’s narrator, translator and occasional writer Jack Donoghue, is kind of a feckless, easier-going, impoverished prototype of Charles Arrowby, who came a quarter century later. I suppose they really don’t have much in common, since Arrowby’s whole being is centered on being the opposite of feckless and easy-going and impoverished. But they are both educated, afraid of commitment, and very funny. They are memorable, varying somewhat from the stock cast of awful aesthetes and academes who populate the majority of her novels. Not that Donoghue isn’t one of those, but his way with words is considerably more amusing. Here, kicked out of one rent-free situation, he ponders the future:
It was certainly something of a problem to know where to go next. I wondered if Dave Gellman would harbour us. I fondled the idea, though I suspected it was no good. Dave is an old friend, but he’s a philosopher, not the kind that tells you about your horoscope and the number of the beast, but a real one like Kant and Plato, so of course he has no money.
The whole experience of Under the Net was surprising. Unless one has made a pointed effort to study them, one can have only a hazy sense of the zeitgeist of decades and places in which one hasn’t lived. That said, Iris Murdoch is so relentlessly urbane and modern that Under the Net seemed to me much younger than its 55 years. I’m aware that drinking and being feckless and running around was not unheard of in the 1950s–I did read Lucky Jim (also published 1954. In fact, I think Jim Dixon could conceivably have enjoyed a matey bender with Jack Donaghue and company). But the people of Under the Net seemed very hip, or at least as though they could have easily populated a later novel. Perhaps it’s not that Murdoch was cutting-edge, but that her eternal engagement with the pedantic, the bachanalian, and the emotionally stunted will never go out of style.
The plot of Under the Net doesn’t bear summarizing. It is farcical and, I dare say, “rollicking;” there’s even a dog who stars in movies. I am unused to feeling so little feminist rage during a Murdoch novel; this one was light-hearted and lacked the sinister undertones present in, for example, The Sacred and Profane Love Machine and Message to the Planet. Under the Net could even be called a buddy novel; Donoghue and his Irish familiar, Finn, reminded me not a little of my favorite John Irving book, The Water Method Man, and the adventures of Bogus Trumper (also a translator), and Merrill Overturf described therein.
I find it odd that this novel would make it onto the Modern Library list over TS². It’s a little fluffy. But, as we’ve been hearing so much recently, lists are problematic, and the Modern Library list is so problematic on so many levels that its defects no longer shock. Pluralities are weird. Still, Under the Net’s presence on the list caused me to hunt it down and read it, which not only caused me to have a nice Sunday afternoon (it’s short), but freed up a spot on the roster. That’s one for the list. Then again, the existence of a list only serves to codify things and thus intensify the need for a roster, which causes me to have fewer pleasant afternoons digging through bookshops, and more neurotic episodes on the internet. That’s one against.
Anyway, Under the Net was fun and I liked it. I’ll leave you with a word from Jack, who has troubles of his own:
I glanced hastily through the manuscripts. Once before, in a rage, Magdalen had torn up the first sixty stanzas of an epic poem called And Mr Oppenheim Shall Inherit the Earth. This dated from the time when I had ideals. At that time too it had not yet become clear to me that the present age was not one in which it was impossible to write an epic. At that time I naively imagined that there was no reason why one should not attempt to write anything that one felt inclined to write. But nothing is more paralyzing than a sense of historical perspective, especially in literary matters . . . But to return to Mr Oppenheim; my friends had criticized the title because it sounded anti-Semitic, though of course Mr Oppenheim simply symbolized big business, but Madge didn’t tear it up for that, but out of pique, because I broke a lunch date with her to meet a woman novelist. The latter was a dead loss, but I can back to find Mr Oppenheim in pieces. This was in the old days, but I feared that the performance might have been repeated. Who knows what thoughts were passing through that girl’s mind while she was deciding to throw me out? There’s nothing like a woman’s doing you an injury for making her incensed against you. I know myself how exasperating it is of other people to put themselves in positions where you have to injure them.
I’m sorry to be redundant and mention books about which I have just written, but I wanted to remark on a phenomenon.So, last week, discovering that I was out of things to read, I visited a secondhand book shop with ten minutes to spare and grabbed, basically at random:The Heart of the Matter by Graham GreeneThe Rachel Papers by Martin Amis (which I had never heard of but which was attached to Lucky Jim)Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy (an outre pick for me. I had heard of it, but until I bought it I had no idea I wanted to read it)First I read The Heart of the Matter, then The Rachel Papers. In The Rachel Papers, young Charles Highland mentions the books in his childhood room, among them, The Heart of the Matter, which he later quotes. That’s not particularly interesting. Graham Greene is hardly obscure. But then, Highland’s Oxford tutor Bellamy says, apropos of basically nothing “…I believe a distant encestor [sic] of mine wrote a utopia novel. Looking Beckwards [sic] it was called…”Throughout my life as a reader I have noticed this thing happening over and over; a book I read after finishing a seemingly unrelated book turns out to be linked to the previous book in some way, however small or irrelevant. I know I’m not totally alone, because if you Google “reading coincidences” (I know, I know, pathetic Googling), the top three results sort of address what I’m talking about.The cynical among you will point out that, given the extreme narrowness of canonical Western literature in general, and the extreme narrowness of my mind and reading habits in particular, it’s no wonder that everything starts to refer and self-refer in an endless, inbred loop. You have a point. But, all the same, doesn’t it sometimes happen to you? Every book you read in a short period of time mentions one of the other books you just read, or a movie you saw last week, or even, like, a dream someone told you against your will? Doesn’t it? And isn’t it weird?What is it called? Is there, perhaps, a pertinent volume of Remembrance of Things Past to which I should address myself? And don’t mention the madeleine. This is not a moment for the goddamned madeleine.
If you have more than one copy of a beloved book, you can be the charming, laissez-fair book owner who lends freely and says “return it never,” instead of the saturnine turd who continues to brood over a two-dollar copy of Lonesome Dove which someone may have, but probably did not, fail to return in 2003.With this in mind, I was glad recently to find a paperback “twofer” (or whatever it is called), with Lucky Jim (Kingsley) on one side and The Rachel Papers (Martin son of Kingsley) upside down on the other. Lucky Jim is, of course, one of the most wonderful books every written, and thus in perpetual danger (in my mind) of theft disguised as borrowing. I am sort of dubious about this two-in-one format, but the price was unbeatable, and the Lucky Jim cover reproduces the delightful Edward Gorey illustration from the dust jacket of the first American edition (which, as Edan’s poignant last post reminded me, was the first nice book I ever bought, and which I bought for someone as a gift, and which I sort of wish I had kept for myself. That’s me, a real peach). [Ed. Note: That same Gorey illustration now graces the cover of the new Penguin classics edition pictured above]Anyway, the bonus of purchasing this Lucky Jim insurance policy was that I got to read The Rachel Papers. I haven’t read much Martin Amis, only Time’s Arrow, which I thought was painfully great (painful because of subject and painful because demonstrative of real live contemporary virtuosity, and not the non-threatening dead sort). The Rachel Papers, his first novel (written when he was 24, the bastard), is not, understandably, in the same class as Time’s Arrow, but it is retro and foul and a lot of fun to read.It is similar in its theme to Lucky Jim (which explains the cutesy father-son edition): there’s an obsessive, ostensibly relatable comic Everyman, who outwits frauds and gets the girl. But The Rachel Papers is a post-Sexual Revolution fairy tale – Jim Dixon thinks about putting his hand on a breast, while Charles Highway (the the younger Amis’s protagonist, just out of high school), masturbates furiously to his sister and talks about genitals smelling like wounds. Unlike Jim, Charles inspires rather less admiration than he does pity and mild horror. But he’s precocious, and he’s got a way with words, and I like any book that can make me laugh aloud.Here’s Charles in his room, preparing for seduction:”Not knowing her views on music I decided to play it safe; I stacked the records upright in two parallel rows; at the head of the first I put 2001: A Space Odyssey (can’t be wrong); at the head of the second I put, after some thought, a selection of Dylan Thomas’s verse, read by the poet. Kleenex well away from the bed: having them actually on the bedside chair was tantamount to a poster reading “The big thing about me is that I wank a devil of a lot.”In other passages, I was reminded of Nabokov, and also Günter Grass. Charles has a distinctly Oskar Matzerath quality, smart and disgusting. Here’s Charles with his tutor:Twenty-minute Maths lesson with Mr Greenchurch. Vacuum-chamber office redolent of dead man’s feet; hairless, cysty-eared octogenarian sucking noisily and ceaselessly on his greying false teeth (I thought at first he had a mouthful of boiled sweets; on the Wednesday he allows the coltish dentures to spew out half-way down his chin before drinking them back into place); mind like a broken cuckoo-clock, often forgets you’re there). Ten minutes in the hall, talking to Sarah, the less ugly girl.The novel also recalled a dim memory of a book I read years ago called Wilt, written by Tom Sharpe in 1976. Wilt (and its sequels) came after The Rachel Papers, but they seem born of a similar raunchy zeitgeist, although I seem to recall the eponymous hero being a grown-up, and thus significantly more pathetic than young Charles.Ultimately, The Rachel Papers’ snazzy style could only elevate its lacklustre plot so far. Nearing the end I was the slightest bit bored with Charles and the lessons he learns about girls and love (here’s a hint: the main lesson is skidmarks). I prefer old-fashioned Lucky Jim, where we relish only the triumph, and don’t have to hear about Jim breaking up with Christine because her slightly imperfect teeth and large breasts begin to try his nerves. That said, I think even if you didn’t know that Martin Amis would become one of the bigger deals in living novelists, when you finish the book you suspect that both he and Charles (still vile, but Oxford-bound and one year older), have extraordinary things in store.
Bryan wrote in with this question:I’m a 2007 graduate of Columbia. I majored in American Studies with a concentration in 20th century American literature. I’m a huge fan of the Millions. I’m attaching a recent reading list, if there’s any chance you’d be interested in giving a book recommendation [based on it], that would be totally awesome. Here goes:Currently reading:Heart of Darkness by Joseph ConradRecently read (sep 07 – april 08):Elementary Particles by Michel HoullebecqA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave EggersMan In The Dark by Paul AusterPortnoy’s Complaint by Philip RothWhat We Should Have Known – n+1The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullersLook Back In Anger by John OsborneThe Road by Cormac MccarthyPages From A Cold Island by Frederick ExleyUltramarine by Raymond CarverThe Unbearable Lightness Of Being by Milan KunderaThe Country Between Us by Carolyn ForcheLiterary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice by Charles BresslerA Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O’ConnorGoodbye, Columbus by Philip RothWinesburg, Ohio by Sherwood AndersonThe Big Sleep by Raymond ChandlerMeditations In An Emergency by Frank O’HaraSwann’s Way by Marcel ProustThe Sound And The Fury by William FaulknerLife Studies and For The Union Dead by Robert LowellFor Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest HemingwayIncidences by Daniil KharnsJourney To The End Of The Night by Louis-Ferdinand CelineBryan’s recent reading list is an interesting one, and in discussions among Millions contributors, several interesting observations were made. Emily noted, for example, that it is a “very testosterone-y” reading list and added, “I think all testosterone diets are bad for the soul. (as are all estrogen diets).” Her prescription? Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Ben, meanwhile, noted several “upgrades” that Bryan might consider to the books above. Instead of Goodbye, Columbus, read Saul Bellow’s Herzog. If you’re going to read Exley, read A Fan’s Notes, and “Infinite Jest should be on there, probably the greatest work of 20th century literature,” Ben adds. Garth said that Bryan “needs urgently to read is Mating by Norman Rush, which is like an amalgam of Conrad, Roth, Proust, F. O’Hara, and Hemingway,” all authors featured on Bryan’s list.In thinking and discussing Bryan’s list, we also hit the idea of a “staff picks” for recent grads – a year out of school, Bryan qualifies, and with another round of graduates set to be expelled from academia, we figured that it might be both timely and useful. Below follows a handful of suggestions. This list is woefully incomplete though, so we ask you to help us out with your own reading suggestions for recent graduates in the comments.Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson recommended by EdanThis novel-in-verse is a contemporary retelling of the myth of Geryon and Herakles. In the original myth, Herakles kills Geryon, a red-winged creature who lives on a red island; Carson’s version is a kind of coming of age story, in which Geryon falls in love with Herakles. If the form intimidates you, don’t let it: this is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read.The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams recommended by EdanThree teenage girls, a bitch of a ghost, and the apathetic desert. The Quick and the Dead is an odd and very funny novel that has pretty much no narrative drive but is nonetheless a joy (no pun intended!) to read because of its wondrous prose.Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy by Dave Hickey recommended by EdanThis is a fun collection of essays that will feel far more entertaining than any criticism you read in college (though maybe not as mind blowing). The best piece in the book, I think, is Hickey’s argument for why Vegas (where he lives) is so terrific.George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London recommended by AndrewSo you’re holding your degree in one hand and, with the other, you’re untangling a four-year growth of ivy from your jacket. All the while maintaining that cool, detached air that you’ve been carefully cultivating. Well, before you join the real world and settle into the routine that will destroy your soul bit by bit, each and every day FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, take a breath, find a copy of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, and shake your foundations one last time.Orwell was probably about your age – mid-twenties or so – when he found himself out of the army and living in the underbelly of Paris and then in London, living in poverty, working as a plongeur and doing other assorted subsistence-level jobs, and scraping by. A largely autobiographical account of those years, Down and Out in Paris and London exposes Orwell’s social soul. “I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny.”Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway recommended by MaxTo me, the post-college years are characterized by two often warring desires, to become a contributing member of society despite the horrifying drudgery of those first post-college jobs and to extend the second childhood of undergraduate life for as long as possible. Lucky Jim riotously encapsulates the former, as junior lecturer Jim Dixon finds himself surrounded by eccentric buffoonish professors and overeager students at a British college. He wants what many of us want: to escape the dull life before it traps us forever. The Sun Also Rises famously depicts the pitfalls of the other path. Brett and Jake and their burned out gang live life in a perpetual day-after-the-party fog. The Pamplona bullfights, aperitifs, and camaraderie may be tempting, but the attendant spiritual weariness gives pause.
There’s a charming story about the power of independent bookstores in the Seatle PI.Book sales can have a curious alchemy. They have been spurred by all sorts of things, such as happenings in the news or mentions on Oprah, but seldom in the history of bookdom has one title ridden to new readership all because of a T-shirt from Texas.In this case a customer and a bookseller struck up a conversation because of the t-shirt the bookseller was wearing. The conversation soon turned to books and the customer recommended A Small Death in Lisbon, a World War II mystery from 2002 by Robert Wilson. The bookseller read and enjoyed the book and then set into motion one of the unique and amazing things about independent bookstores. She put it on the “staff recommendations” shelf, and started pushing the book. It wasn’t long before A Small Death in Lisbon was a local phenomenon.The article reminded me of what was probably my favorite thing about working in a bookstore, the ability to give people my favorite books. At independent bookstores in particular, customers really trust booksellers, who can then have a noticeable impact on the reading community. For example, I remember watching excitedly as books that I recommended — The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis and The Horned Man by James Lasdun were two — climbed the store’s bestseller list. Patrick, a sometime Millions contributor, had people all across town talking about Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim and Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day (both of which I read on his recommendation).And this is why I love independent bookstores. Chain stores are clean and comfortable like hotel lobbies, but, walking into one, you never feel as though you are about to discover something new. For more on why I like indies better than chains, check out my post on the topic from a couple years ago: What Makes a Bookstore.
Here in Iowa City, the only town in America whose economy is fueled entirely by football, alcohol and literature, we get more than our share of readings to attend. While I don’t make it to all of them, I did manage to hear Marilynne Robinson read a few weeks ago. Ms. Robinson is an enchanting reader, and her new book Gilead was atop many “best of” lists for 2004. As anyone who has read a review of Gilead knows, it is Robinson’s first novel since Housekeeping was published 24 years ago, and the way many in the media talk about it, it might as well have been 224 years ago. While Robinson has written two non-fiction books about such varied topics as John Calvin and Great Britain’s nuclear policy, Gilead is indeed her first new work of fiction in many years. But so what? I for one would like to see more authors take their time between novels. One of my favorite writers, J.F. Powers, wrote only two novels and wrote them nearly 30 years apart. They’re both nearly perfect, and I don’t find myself wishing he wrote more. In fact, the scarcity makes it that much more likely that I’ll actually read one of his books a second or third time, something I rarely do. I don’t think I’ll find myself diving into Kingsley Amis’ very fine Old Devils as I’ve been poisoned by the vast sea of mediocrity that separates that book from his masterpiece Lucky Jim. So hats off to the Marilynne Robinsons, the J.F. Powers, and the Donna Tarts of the world. I sometimes wish we had a few more of them and a few less mediocre novels.
The Guardian gives us Booker-winner Line of Beauty “condensed in the style of the original.”Some of you may have already seen this one: The 100 Greatest Books of all Time, also from the Guardian. How many have you read? I’m at 24, and I love that Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim makes the list. To anyone who is looking for a recommendation on what to read right now: get Lucky Jim, you’ll love it.Weren’t we talking about ISBNs the other day? Here’s a new blog about ISBNs and “book information” by a former Amazon employee and the creator of isbn.nu.Steve Landsburg asks: Too many books? I’m not completely sure I see his point. He seems to be implying that people only read one book a year. Furthermore, publishers fall all over themselves trying to create a blockbuster book; it’s far more cost-effective to promote a few guaranteed big sellers than a lot of risky titles. Sad but true. Perhaps the better thing to do is not to bemoan the inevitable Da Vinci Codes but to instead look for creative, cost-effective ways to promote riskier books.Malcolm Gladwell, author of the trendsetting book about trendsetting, The Tipping Point, has new book coming out called Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, in which he “reveals that what we think of as decisions made in the blink of an eye are much more complicated than assumed.”
Arts & Letters Daily links to a Washington Post article by a former Amazon.com employee, James Marcus, picking up on February’s story about a programming glitch at Amazon.ca. He gives us a little insider perspective on the customer review phenomenon, but perhaps more interesting for Amazon-watchers is the prospect of his upcoming book: Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut chronicling the early days of the online superstore through the internet bust. This will likely be an interesting portrait of the dot-com era.Also at aldaily.com, a link to a review of Kingsley Amis’ comic masterpiece Lucky Jim in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication. Believe the hype, this book is fantastic.Folks in Los Angeles, and probably most big cities, have probably noticed the proliferation of stencil and paste-up graffiti appearing on sidewalks and walls. The images range from blatant advertisements (usually for bands) to beguiling and intriguing symbols. The British artist Tristan Manco has collected these odd hybrid art forms into a couple of good-looking volumes, Stencil Graffiti and the soon to be released Street Logos. Here are some images from the first book: Stencil GraffitiI’ve added The Clerk’s Tale by Spencer Reece to the Reading Queue, and I’m almost done with The Known World by Edward P. Jones. It is fantastic.