The Best American Essays 2007

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The Story in the Storm: An Accomplished Author on How to Write Journalistic Nonfiction

In his introduction to The Best American Essays of 2007 David Foster Wallace described the challenge of writing non-fiction like this: “Writing-wise, fiction is scarier but non-fiction is harder—because non-fiction’s based in reality, and today’s felt reality is overwhelmingly, circuit-blowingly huge and complex.”

This spring I reviewed a work of non-fiction for The Christian Science Monitor called The Beekeeper’s Lament by Hannah Nordhaus that I thought met Wallace’s challenge better than most books I’ve read. It is about migratory beekeeping (and one curmudgeony migratory beekeeper in particular) and the role that factory farmed bees play in the maintenance of American agribusiness. Over the course of the book Nordhaus uses a somber, lyrical writing style to make bees into just about the most fascinating subject you’ve ever encountered while at the same time crafting an elegiac metaphor for the contingency of modern American life.

After I’d finished writing the review I decided to contact Hannah to ask her how she’d produced such a remarkable book. I was curious about everything: how she’d chosen this esoteric vein to mine; what it had been like spending weeks in the field with oddball beekeepers and their stinging swarms; how, exactly, she’d transformed reams of field notes and a mountain of bee trivia into a graceful volume that feels as effortless as a spring breeze. Still, my abundant curiosity aside, I doubted that she’d write back. A day later, she did.

What follows, then, is a veritable how-to for writing a book of journalistic non-fiction in which Hannah talks about everything from selling her manuscript to courting her sources to settling into the one and only position on her couch in which she can actually get any writing done.

The Millions: As a freelance writer you can write about just about anything and everything, and you pretty much have: bees, dildo-art thieves, nuclear weapons, litigious prostitutes. Choosing a topic is a significant commitment (what sounds like several years of your life in the case of The Beekeeper’s Lament). Given that, out of all the ways you might spend your professional time, how do you decide what to write about?

Hannah Nordhaus: First, the subject has to interest me. I’m not terribly successful at doing things that I find boring, which is, I guess, why I’ve chosen to be a freelance journalist who hops from story to story. That said, I am interested in all manner of subjects, including many that would seem boring to most everyone else. Dildo art thieves and litigious prostitutes are easy; but I’ve also dedicated months of my life to documenting the lives of lawyers who draft bills for Congress. And that subject interested me too: What I find most absorbing to write about are the little hidden corners of the human experience, the people who do weird things or scary things or difficult things by choice, and who persist in doing those things even when it’s clear they’d be much better off choosing another path through life.

So that’s how I have chosen magazine subjects, and it’s a formula that’s worked for me—but often, when I’m done with the article, I’m also done with the topic, and I really don’t want anything else to do with it. I don’t want to read about it; I don’t want to hear about it; I certainly don’t want to write about it. In the case of The Beekeeper’s Lament, though, I found that even after I had published a 4,500-word feature on the crisis in modern beekeeping, I still had more to say. Luckily, so did my protagonist, John Miller, who is a wonderfully eloquent, funny, thoughtful, sometimes petulant but always entertaining subject to follow. John Miller’s life was so rich with narrative possibility, and honey bees, the creatures he tends, are so rich with metaphor, that it never even occurred to me that I might get sick of the subject two or three years down the line. And I never did.

TM: Before we get into the specifics of what went into writing The Beekeeper’s Lament, could you give readers an overview of the stages of the book’s creation from conception to publication?

HN: I first interviewed John Miller in 2004 while researching an article for a natural foods magazine about a honey-based energy gel company in which he is a partner. He told me about his work as a migratory bee guy with thousands of hives, pollinating huge crops all over the West. I was intrigued, so I called him back, and I ended up paying my own way to visit him twice—once in California, once in North Dakota—to learn more about his life and his work. My timing was propitious (for a writer of non-fiction, that is; for a beekeeper, it was not good at all): about a year after I first met John Miller, his outfit suffered a catastrophic collapse, and he lost about 40% of his bees because of diseases vectored by a nasty little parasite called the varroa mite. I sold the story to High Country News, a small environmental magazine in Colorado, and just as the article was about to go to press in early 2007, the national bee herd began suffering from a mysterious new problem named “Colony Collapse Disorder,” or CCD.

I was seven months pregnant with my first child when the magazine story ran, and thus in no condition to dash off a quick topical book that would address the CCD mystery. Instead, I took my time, had my kid, got an agent, and took a leisurely year to put together a proposal and write a sample chapter to submit to publishers. In the meantime, a number of other books came out about the honeybee crisis. This didn’t improve my odds for generating a bidding war (there wasn’t one) and netting a big advance (ditto), but I think in the end the more relaxed timeline actually did me a favor. I couldn’t write another newsy, topical book about bees—there were enough of those already. So instead, I pitched a more character-oriented work about humans and bees that would follow one particular human, John Miller, through the seasons and the years of the recent honey bee crisis, and in so doing also explain this weird institution of modern beekeeping.

I sold the book in Dec 2008, took a trip to attend a beekeeping conference with Miller that winter, signed a contract in March; and three days later, while in California doing research on queen breeders, I found out I was pregnant again—with a baby due date that fell about seven months before the book due date. This complicated matters for me majorly, and after running around in circles for a few days wondering how I was going to get it done, I decided that the most important thing was to get something—anything—down on paper while I still had a few powers of concentration left. So I set the goal of writing a terrible draft before the baby came. And that’s what I did. I put my head down and wrote a terrible chapter every three weeks, had the baby, took three months off, and then embarked on the hard but rewarding work of turning a bad draft into a serviceable one. I turned the book in in June 2010. There were a couple of months of relatively painless back-and-forth editing with my excellent editor, Michael Signorelli at Harper Perennial, and then it was off to production.

TM: Of those stages- (i.e. interviewing and field work, research, writing)- what parts do you enjoy the most? Any that you look forward to less than the others?

HN: My favorite part of the writing process is always editing. I love taking this raw mass that is a first draft and then shaping it into something I might actually enjoy reading. I do like the research, though I sometimes dread calling random people on the phone, and I find that research trips can be lonely. And writing a first draft—well, I hate it. The act of corralling information and making it into a cohesive narrative is not a pretty one, and I tend to beat myself up for how bad my writing is. But in the last few years, I have made it a point of pride to write my first draft as quickly and poorly as possible, without consulting my notes or laboring over it. It makes the editing work a little harder, but by writing from memory and not belaboring all the minutiae in my notes, I tend to remember only those facts and points that are most salient to the narrative. And then I can always flesh out the things I missed later, though often I decide the things I forgot in the first draft really weren’t all that important. So now I do much of the heavy-lifting in the editing process, once I have gotten the bones of the story down. That’s when I spend the time agonizing over word choice and rhythm and flow and what information needs to stay or go, over what’s missing and whether it all makes sense. And that is the fun part for me—I love tinkering, and I love finding connections I never saw the first time through.

TM: The main character in your book is a gregarious migratory beekeeper named John Miller. I got the impression that you two spent a lot of time together, and I’m always curious how those types of relationships work- how would you describe the dynamic between the two of you?

HN: John has been an incredibly gracious guide into his life and world. He likes to talk, and to write, and he’s passionate about what he does, which made him a wonderful subject for this book. He’s also very conscious of his failings—as a Mormon, as a husband, and especially as a beekeeper—which adds a sense of poignancy to his story that isn’t always easy for a journalist to find. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner in creating this book.

But of course, he’s still human, and I don’t think any human wants another human, especially one they barely know, following him around for months on end. So I was pretty careful with my visits, trying not to stay too long or hang around too much. I didn’t want to wear out his (quite limited) patience.

Fortunately, John is a prolific emailer—he writes these wonderful, lengthy free-verse odes about his life and his work and anything else that pops into his head. So I asked him, once this project got started, if he could email me regular updates about what he was doing between visits. He did, and if I didn’t hear from him for a while I’d send a quick note asking him what was new or plying him with questions about queens or honey or his new truck, and he always obliged me with a long, detailed, oddball explanation of the current goings-on in the bee industry and the life of John Miller. And those emails formed the backbone of the book, and really helped bring him to life.

After I’d finished a polished second draft but before I turned it in to the publisher, I asked John to read the book. And nothing was scarier—not submitting the proposals to publishers; not giving the draft to my editor; not even showing it to my mother. But he really seemed to love it—though he did take exception to me calling him “peevish” (for a month or so afterwards signed all his emails, “Mr. Peev”). This was my first book, and I’m not sure how other people handle that long-term and intense connection between journalist and subject that book-length projects require.

But I guess in the end I felt that we—like bees and flowers, like beekeepers and farmers—were engaged in a symbiotic relationship that seemed to be beneficial to both of us—I got to write a book about a really cool topic; he had a venue through which to get the word out about the importance of bees and beekeepers in these trying times. Like all symbiotic relationships, ours depended on a delicate balance, which I was very careful to nurture: I gave him veto power on anything he felt was too personal, and I also tried to write the book in such a way that he wouldn’t have to exercise that veto. I wanted the book to explore his nature and his character, but not at the expense of his good name. And that seemed to be okay with him. In the end, he asked that I change nothing.

TM: In his introduction to The Best American Essays of 2007 David Foster Wallace wrote, “Writing-wise, fiction is scarier but non-fiction is harder—because non-fiction’s based in reality, and today’s felt reality is overwhelmingly, circuit-blowingly huge and complex.” How does his description of the challenge of writing non-fiction strike you?

HN: To write strong, journalistic non-fiction, you have to do a lot of research. You have to make a lot of phone calls, do a lot of reading, visit as many people and locations as you can, and then try to somehow combine all that undigested information into something that a reader can stomach. But honestly, while reporting is hard and requires a lot of effort and elbow grease and legwork and chutzpah, I think the most challenging thing about writing non-fiction is turning that information into a story. Because if the narrative isn’t unfolding the way you want it, you can’t just change the details to make it better, the way you would when writing fiction. You have to represent the truth.

It’s very hard to be both a storyteller and a chronicler of reality. So to tell a true story that readers want to follow to the end, you’ve got to be very conscious of your craft—of your characters, chronology, pacing, setting, foreshadowing, backstory, detail—all those same elements that are so important in fiction writing. And then you’ve got to make double-sure you’re not making anything up.

TM: Continuing on Wallace’s point, The Beekeeper’s Lament covers a lot of ground—almond farming, a history of the Miller family, the international honey trade, bee pests and contagions. How did you keep all that information organized and accessible as you wrote?

HN: This was a tough book to organize, because there wasn’t an easy A to B to C chronological narrative of John Miller’s life as a beekeeper. There was no “man meets bee, man loses bee, man gets bee back” plot to rely on. His life is seasonal, and there are ups and downs, and though there were lots of good stories scattered throughout, there was not one particular thread that drove the story from start to finish. But I knew I needed to have some sense of time moving forward and to pique reader interest in a way that might appeal to those who aren’t bee fanatics as well as those who are. I needed to give those who looked at the first chapter a reason for moving on to the next one.

So as I started thinking about chapter structure and the overall flow of the book, I tried to pose some questions so that readers would keep turning the page, and I returned to them regularly. Why did so many of John Miller’s bees die in 2005? What’s been killing everyone else’s bees in the years since? Is John Miller’s outfit going to survive? Why has he chosen to remain in such a difficult profession? And I used those questions to keep readers interested (I hope) and string them along from chapter to chapter.

I also approached the individual chapters as more independent thematic units, organizing each one by subject. I [also] tried to touch on some larger themes, like migration, and risk, and symbiosis, and persistence—concepts that make people think on another level, and that, when you boil it down, are what make works of non-fiction “literary,” and not glorified long-form encyclopedia entries.

TM: Writers are always interested in other writers’ writing processes. Where do write? When do you write? Any rituals, tics, frustrations, moments of grace that attend the writing process for you?

HN: Let’s see. Hmmm. Well I dally a lot before I get started on a first draft. I check a lot of email. And google myself. Facebook suddenly seems very pressing. Twitter, too. And then when I can’t find any other excuse, I sit down on the couch and just start spewing. I sit at my desk when I’m writing emails or paying bills, but when I’m composing—when I’m really concentrating—I have to sit on a couch with my legs up and my laptop perched on a cushion on my thighs. I must be semi-reclining, apparently, to get any real writing done.

TM: Are there any non-fiction writers whose work has influenced your writing? And if so, what particular things have you taken from their writing?

HN: There are two books that particularly influenced my approach to The Beekeeper’s Lament: The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean and Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder. Both have in common their singular focus on one character, who then opens up an entirely new world to the reader. The Orchid Thief isn’t about orchids; it tells the story of one man’s weird obsession with the plants, and in so doing teaches the reader more about orchids, and Seminoles, and Florida, than they ever realized they wanted to know. I love the playfulness of Orlean’s language.

Mountains Beyond Mountains also uses character to open narrative and thematic doors—by examining the life and work of Dr. Paul Farmer, we learn about Haiti, and health care in the developing world, and the medical profession, and the philanthropic world, and human decency. What I particularly love about Kidder’s book is the depth of feeling that he conveys through Farmer’s story. It’s not mawkish at all, but you feel so strongly Farmer’s own depth of feeling—and when all the details of that book have faded away, that feeling still remains. John Miller, like Paul Farmer, carries with him a profound sense of mission, though Miller’s involves bees, not humans, and you would never mistake Miller for a saint as you might Paul Farmer. Both books are so rich in detail, so effortless in their storytelling, so attentive to character, and so smart.

TM: Any particular advice you’d relay to writers beginning to work on an extensive non-fiction project?

HN: I guess my main piece of advice would be to give yourself the time to be deliberate when you craft the book. It’s not enough to organize it chronologically and then go; you need to think about how you’re going to keep readers interested, about the major themes that you want the sprinkle throughout the book, about how you are going to keep it tight. So many books lose their focus, and you’ve got to be really conscious throughout to keep the reader coming back to the reason you’re writing the book, the story you’re telling, and the questions you’re asking and that you plan, in due time, to answer. You’ve got to be ruthless with yourself. People don’t want to read every word that emerges from your brain just because you’re brilliant and you wrote it; there has to be a reason behind every chapter, every paragraph, every sentence. Every word you write should serve your overall narrative and thematic structure. That doesn’t mean you can’t go off on flights of whimsy—I certainly did, and I can’t say that I succeeded uniformly in keeping the book as tight as I am recommending that others do—but you do need to know, ultimately, where you’re going, and not lose sight of that.

And then, at some point, when your deliberation has run its course, you’ve got to stop agonizing, stop doing research, stop aiming for perfection, and just sit down and write the damn thing.

Reading Wallace in Qatar

I didn’t expect to see the green book in our library here at Northwestern University in Qatar, but there it was, the 2007 volume of The Best American Essays, guest edited by the late David Foster Wallace, a book I read in Chicago a few years ago and now again in Doha. I had been living in the Arabian Gulf for about six weeks when I learned of Wallace’s suicide in September 2008. The tragic event received a good amount of newspaper coverage and, later, expanded magazine pieces in such places as The New Yorker.

Some have called Wallace a postmodern writer, and others, dropping the ideology, claimed that he had serious qualms with modern obsessions and with the complacency and low quality of thought they reward. If the latter is true, then Wallace was part of an undercounted demographic of people who have sustained dissatisfaction with the ways things are and who doubt that things can actually change anytime soon. A thoughtful writer of Wallace’s sensitivity and cynicism does not address the problem in a straight line; instead he makes it the bezel of the narrative and even style so that it’s never far from the reader’s indirect attention. As an essayist and novelist, Wallace had a skilled hand at shrewd deconstruction—someone who can take apart, for example, cultural staples of leisure, like a county fair or cruise trip, to reveal what he sees as stifling banality that distracts and sedates.

I’m a regular reader of the Best American series, but I generally skip reading the guest editors’ introductory essays, doing my best to avoid the word “Montaigne” and explanations of how the essay defies a crisp definition. But this time in Doha I went directly to Wallace’s introduction to see what I had missed, and there he mentioned Montaigne (Chesterton, too) and he remarked that “essay” is not his word of choice for what is really “literary non-fiction.” Still, Wallace’s piece turned out to be especially meaningful because he confronted some “bad news” about our times and supported it in his introduction with very clever meta-interpretation of the editor’s role, and he supported it more implicitly with his choice of essays.

The 2007 green anthology has an urgency to it that goes beyond what is commonly said about thoughtful and well-written essays. The writers speaking in Wallace’s volume don’t do Disney. Rather, they confront the pathologies of our age that apparently won’t go away. I realize that three or four years isn’t a long time, but there’s something about this passage of time and its indolence (despite compelling promises of change) that speak about the collective lethargy that spooked Wallace and, actually, many others who live with their eyes open.

In his introduction, Wallace writes almost cordially about his part in the “deciderization” process, but he then breaks character to rail against the American loss of mental free agency. Just as he is part of an outsourcing tradition of a venerable anthology, Wallace notes that “we are starting to become more aware of just how much subcontracting and outsourcing and submitting to other Deciders we’re all now forced to do, which is threatening (the inchoate awareness is) to our sense of ourselves as intelligent free agents.” True to his style, Wallace couldn’t help but see symbolism in an otherwise flattering role as guest editor. The impish shape he saw in the shadow of an editorial temp was the burden of human thought and moral resolve gladly surrendering to others because, in part, big issues are made to seem too complex and impossible to grasp, which, of course, suggests that we need specialists to delegate our minds to. He says, “And yet there is no clear alternative to this outsourcing and submission. It may possibly be that acuity and taste in choosing which Deciders one submits to is now the real measure of informed adulthood. Since I was raised with more traditional, enlightenment-era criteria, this possibility strikes me as consumerist and scary.”

An intrepid literary voice associates scariness with the outsourcing of individual thought and decision making to others, which means that powerful people (fewer and more messianic than usual) become deciders for things far more serious than essays. But I think that Wallace’s fears are evinced more by the fact that these kinds of penetrating and honest essays (and others widespread for many years now, including many books) have shown little power to change minds, alter course, or even slow down the descent, which infers that the very conscience of society is badly wounded. Wallace says, “In sum, to really try to be informed and literate today is to feel stupid nearly all the time, and to need help.”

Wallace admitted important essays into the book, including lengthy pieces on the war in Iraq; torture; the right to offend; Mel Gibson’s inebriation and anti-Semitism; warfare of neo-absolutists; the sexualizing of youth and the modern marketing imagination; rifles and race; a gripping narrative that is non-fiction, but you wonder about the amazing details that you would expect in omniscient third-person fiction; an imaginary letter from a real Darwinist to a phantom pastor; and personal essays about pain, music, and other such things. There’s also a piece on earth when it shakes and a Cynthia Ozick short essay on mysticism that’s not really believable. Still, the weight-bearing essays of the book, its abs, are really those that examine the “issues” of the very modern era and its listlessness, with a subtext that raises the pounding question about how these things passed public approval in the first place. Malcolm Gladwell has a piece on the work of a pet psychologist, which interests me for some reason, a rather thoughtful narrative about a dog and sensitive family dynamics. Gladwell’s piece does not throw the reader off-scent to the pathos that Wallace’s choices bring to the fore. Gladwell’s essay, in a way, brings indoors those global matters that the other essays probe.

Most anthologies make no requirements of order. You can start anywhere with no consideration to your place in a narrative, if there is one. Wallace’s anthology, organized alphabetically, has a quasi-narrative kept related by a number of contemplative accounts of recent human blunders and their etiology. When taken altogether there’s something like an indictment in the black box, especially when you allow into the reading experience those events and non-events of the recent past—winners of an anti-war platform making more war; a thriving fear-Islam industry as a pretext for many disagreeable decisions that touch upon core issues, like privacy; debilitating debt to rescue debilitating debt; the blurred line between happiness and appetite, between what is important and what is popular; and the defeat of shame.

Mark Danner’s essay, “Iraq: War of Imagination” (originally published in the New York Review of Books and the longest piece in the green book), includes an anecdote of a policy believer who is filled with speaking-in-tongue certitude that the referendum of Iraq’s constitution will land in favor of the proposed constitution in unlikely Anbar province. Per Danner, “With all his contacts and commitment, with all his energy and brilliance, on the most basic and critical issue of politics on the ground [in Iraq] he had been entirely, catastrophically wrong.” Being wrong in itself is not worthy of a 12,000-word essay. But Danner’s devastating point is that the salvation narrative for Iraq was all wrong. And my point is that no matter how widespread the news has spread about the “wrong,” intentional or errant, no one has been taken to task over the years; in fact, a broader war has been waged elsewhere. And long before that, in 2004, the sitting president was rewarded with reelection, about which Wallace proffers, “There is just no way that 2004’s reelection could have taken place—not to mention extraordinary renditions, legalized torture, FISA-flouting, or the passage of the Military Commissions Act—if we had been paying attention and handling information in a competent grown-up way.”

It’s not the politics behind these scenarios that interests me at all but those forces of modern life that condition the soul to be either uncaring or unequipped to make a sacred stand for what is right. Read, then, the essay by Marilynne Robinson (“Onward, Christian Liberals”), who writes almost thematically about holiness and sacred tradition and still does well in the mainstream secular publishing. (Her remarkable book Gilead won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.) Robinson says in her essay, “Emily Dickinson wrote, ‘The abdication of Belief/ Makes the Behavior small.’ There is a powerful tendency also to make belief itself small, whether narrow and bitter or feckless and bland, with what effects on behavior we may perhaps infer from the present state of the Republic.”

For many reasons, I recommend the volume, which, in my view, is the most relevant of the Best Essays series. There are no pieces about the death of a goldfish as a pretext to dive into tendentious discussions about the theories of life and consciousness. Nor is there a reverie about a childhood hideout or one’s first encounter with a private part. If you’re worried that product placement of good ideas is the modern hope for truth and transcendence and are even vaguely sure that there must be a better way—a better discourse—then the voices of this volume will resonate.

The best line in the anthology goes to Jo Ann Beard in her essay “Werner,” a detailed piece about a man who works in a catering outfit. After work on a cold December evening, Werner goes home and calls his mom as usual. But it so happens that in the wall of his building an exposed electrical wire begins what will eventually become a full-blown fire. The essay moves like silk through the details of a 1991 fire; it’s a narrative that speaks of memory, survival, desperation, time, and human dignity. Werner at one point, a poignant and perhaps symbolic point, finds himself like this: “He was trapped, nearsighted and naked in a burning building.” Of course I don’t know for sure, but I imagine that Wallace stopped at that line and said, “This essay is in.”

Postscript: Decades back, another author that I enjoy reading, John Gardner, died before he too was done with literature. In September 1982 he crashed his motorcycle at the age of 49. I have a vague, decades-old memory of standing before a glass case in the surprisingly elegant atrium of Morris Library of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, looking at the cover of an SIU Press book of Gardner’s. For a while, Gardner taught at SIU, which is just a couple of hours south of where Wallace once taught, Illinois State University in Bloomington.

The early 1980’s was probably the start of the inertia that many writers now comment about. The overrated activism of the 1960’s slowly gave way to the underrated idealism and pop culture of the 1970’s, which itself surrendered (after John Lennon’s murder) to the ethos of such things as Reagan’s trickle down theories of economics, which overly and foolishly trusted the collective greed of a people to take care of the spread of prosperity and relief for the underprivileged—a notion that confronts thousands of years of sacred tradition and its obligations of charity. Trickle-down economics did not create self-adoration, as some claim, but it promoted it as a virtue, almost part of economic patriotism. This probably infected many other notions, including the realm of high ideas: this notion of a passive and undirected development of enlightenment and responsibility.

Wallace says, “Part of our emergency is that it’s so tempting to do this sort of thing now, to retreat to narrow arrogance, pre-formed positions, rigid filters, the ‘moral clarity’ of the immature. The alternative is dealing with massive, high-entropy amounts of info and ambiguity and conflict and flux; it’s continually discovering new areas of personal ignorance and delusion.”

A Year in Reading: Traver Kauffman

Traver Kauffman is the proprietor of the blog Black Garterbelt.Oh the Things You Can Think, Dr. Seuss: Many of my reading choices are dictated to me by a extremely repetition-tolerant two year old, and I’m bloody well sick of most of her library. Try as I might, however, I never tire of this one, a book that exists for no reason other than a delight in invention and wordplay.Everyday Drinking, Kingsley Amis: Kingsley Amis is the Virgil of boozing. Of course, given Amis’s long, alcohol-related decline, the whole charming bon vivant routine here comes with the queasy sepulchral undertone that you’re burdened with when you have lived beyond the sad ending of someone else’s story. Christopher Hitchens’s Introduction gives this a nod, acknowledging that “the booze got to [Amis] in the end, and robbed him of his wit and charm as well as of his health.” But so it goes, shrugs Hitchens, who ends by quoting Churchill on the benefits of drinking. In some circles, this is known as the Gentleman’s Godwin.Deciderization 2007 – a Special Report (David Foster Wallace’s introduction to The Best American Essays 2007): Here again, I suffer a twinge of sadness as I read along, even if it’s better to try and forget and simply enjoy DFW at his open-hearted best. On the other hand, with DFW so carefully dissecting what it’s like to try to think and live in the face of Total Noise – his coinage describing “the sound of our U.S. culture right now, a culture and volume of info and spin and rhetoric and context” that’s too much for a person to absorb and decipher in any meaningful way – how could I fail to extrapolate the author’s desperate final act from the lament expressed here, in spite of myself?The Best of Leonard Cohen (Liner notes): I paged through the booklet to this CD this summer while at my horrific, short-lived corporate job, looking for any kind of relief. I was supposed to be working. Other than lyrics and song rights, you get notes penned by Cohen for each song, which typically amounts to a few sentences. Some of these are straightforward and utilitarian, some lyrical, and all of them are pretentious in one way or another. I guess I’m trying to say that Cohen’s project here is demystification and the re-mystification at the same time. Several of the blurbs work as exquisite short fiction. My favorite is the entry for “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye”: This song arises from an over-used bed in the Penn Terminal Hotel in 1966. The room is too hot. I am in the midst of a bitter quarrel with a blonde woman. The song is half-written in pencil but it protects us as we manoeuvre, each of us, for unconditional victory. I am in the wrong room. I am with the wrong woman.Philip Larkin, Collected Poems: Usually alone at night. Always for comfort.2666 (The first 250 pages), Roberto Bolaño: “She had a hoarse, nasal voice and she didn’t talk like a New York secretary but like a country person who has just come from the cemetery. This woman has firsthand knowledge of the planet of the dead, thought Fate, and she doesn’t know what she’s saying anymore.” Yep.More from A Year in Reading 2008

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