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On Repetition

“On Repetition” was delivered as a craft talk at the 2010 Tin House Writers Workshop.

1.
Not long ago, James Wood wrote a review of Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi that struck me as a bit myopic. It wasn’t what Wood said about Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi that seemed short-sighted to me – it was what he said about the rest of Dyer’s career. Wood just didn’t get it, he admitted. None of Dyer’s books seemed to fit together – they were all about different things! And they’d all been executed in different ways too, almost as though they weren’t even by the same writer! What’s a critic supposed to do when a writer keeps on trying new things? Read it all? Sheesh! Who’s got time for that? Don’t you people understand deadlines?

I’m picking on James Wood here – and I like James Wood, I think the literary world is vastly richer for James Wood’s voice and presence in it – because he sort of duffed this one. There is a kind of common denominator in Dyer’s work, and tapping into it, I think, is central to coming to an understanding of at least one way to approach the craft of creative nonfiction, and it says something too about the state of literature today.

2.
Also not long ago, Geoff Dyer wrote a review of Don Delillo’s Point Omega that was also myopic. Dyer complained that what Delillo had done in Point Omega had been done before and better, by Delillo himself. This is interesting not just because it’s the exact opposite of Wood’s criticism of Dyer. It’s interesting because it’s a crime – if it’s a crime – of which Geoff Dyer is also guilty. That guy whose books are a problem because they aren’t anything like one another has also made the mistake of saying the same thing over and over. I’m quite sure this accounts for Geoff Dyer’s wide-ranging popularity.

As I see it, Dyer has two modes as a writer. First he has a kind of rakish mode in which he serves himself up as a leaner, wimpier version of James Bond, that post-Empire Brit superspy who shuttles around the world bedding as many women as he can. Truth be told, Dyer’s travel writing can seem a bit like this at times. But of course while James Bond saves the planet again and again – reminding the rest of the world that, while the Empire might be over, and England has surely seen her best days, the world still needs her (which suggests in turn that James Bond is a kind of Frodo Baggins with a tuxedo and a Beretta) – Dyer, by contrast, in his rakish mode, just seems to limp around and hang out and say funny, foolish things and get girls anyway. But the Dyer/Bond parallel is there. Don’t get me wrong. I like Geoff Dyer, and I even like the rakish mode of Dyer. I like it even though it creates arguments every time my girlfriend and I take turns reading Dyer passages back and forth in the bathtub. But it’s also this Dyer mode that is susceptible to repetition. I’m not going to list examples here (and I guess I’m not surprised that Wood didn’t note them), because that’s not what this essay is trying to do, but suffice it to say that Dyer’s guilt over having hiked back across terrain his work had already mapped enabled him to recognize when Delillo was doing the same thing. One can imagine Dyer’s stream of thought: Ah-ha, Delillo, I see you! I see what you’re doing. I do it myself from time to time, though maybe I don’t recognize it until later, and even though I can acknowledge that there might be good reasons why a writer would repeat himself, I’m not, in a spirit of writerly camaraderie, going to let it pass this time. No! Instead, I will make a big fucking deal about it in the New York Times because that’s what James Fucking Wood just did to me.

Perhaps now is a good time to mention that I think the literary world is vastly richer for Geoff Dyer’s voice and presence in it.

3.
All of which adds up to a kind of contradictory set of truths about books and publishing in the abstract: don’t repeat yourself, and don’t write books that are too different from one another. Other writers will pillory you for the first, and publishers will be more than happy to pigeonhole you from the moment you achieve anything like success. Blow out your advance? Great. Now write the same exact book again.

Thinking about books and publishing in the abstract was exactly what I was doing around about 1999, when I was a decade out from my degree at Iowa, had a dozen short stories but no collection published, and the pages of a failed novel sat scattered all over my crappy apartment as though to collect the droppings of a huge collection of homing pigeons that never came home. I was working then as a part-time casino dealer in Atlantic City, and though I’d once turned up my nose at nonfiction, I was now at least trying to turn up my nose at a career as a casino dealer in Atlantic City. After a not inconsiderable effort I had managed to sell an idea for a book of nonfiction. I say I’d been thinking in the abstract because it wasn’t really until I’d signed the contract – nonfiction tending to sell by way of book proposal (the writer is a kind of sub-contractor, perhaps like a plumber who shows up only occasionally and always late once he’s so underbid his competitors that he’s barely making enough to feed himself, let alone be on time) – not until then did it really occur to me that I’d actually have to write a book of nonfiction. This realization manifested itself physiologically as panic, a sudden peculiar sensation all across the body: it felt, instantaneously, as though every piece of myself was being worked on by some occult vibration, that every part of me had begun to jiggle with manic energy, and every cell, every nucleus, every mitochondria, seemed on the brink of imploding like a cathode-ray tube or a dwarf star going supernova. In other words, I fucking freaked out.

In a way, it was good that I lived in Atlantic City at this time. I’d had a number of writer friends, of course, from previous stints in graduate school, but after I went to Atlantic City these relationships had tended to fade, as is perhaps only natural. I say this is good because it meant that I had only one writer friend I could call and fucking freak out to. And I did. This friend had written several books by then, and what I did – working on the theory that previous experience writing books gives one insight as to how the process can and should be embarked upon – was call him and ask, well, so, how do you write a book? My friend didn’t know. My friend had no idea how to write a book. It turned out that he had managed to write several books without ever either acquiring the first thing one should know or formulating any general principle about writing books. Our conversation quickly became a discussion of how on earth he was going to figure out how to write his next book. When I hung up, I was left alone with my book contract and my panic in my empty roost in Atlantic City.

4.
So here’s what I did: I invented the idea of the book.

The book was to be about chess – the game, chess. In Atlantic City, I’d gotten to know an African American chess master named Glenn Umstead, a kind of quirky guy with a difficult personality who was nevertheless one of just forty black men in the history of the world to have achieved chess’s master ranking. That’s sounds pretty straightforward, but saying you’re going to write a buddy story/subculture book – which is pretty much what I said in my book proposal – is a whole lot easier than coming up with a way of actually executing it. I’m exaggerating a bit when I say I invented the idea of the book, but that’s how it felt as I was doing it – it felt as though I was inventing literature wholesale. And that moment when I acquired my essential strategy was recorded in the book itself:

…I wanted to write something about the game. But I still didn’t know what it was.

My relationship with Glenn began to change. Now that I was a lay historian, our bond became a version of the classic conflict between player of the game and student of the game… We were an even odder couple now. He was black and I was white, and we were like chessmen opposed on a board that was the game itself.

From there, the book came not easily but possibly – it was possible now. What I’d learned was that the way to write a book was to let the subject matter tell you how it ought to be written about.

5.
And it turns out that’s the common denominator of Geoff Dyer’s other mode as a writer: the mode when he stops trying to lay girls and gets down to the hard work of reading, writing, and thinking. A couple examples. Dyer’s book-length fret over D.H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, emphasizes on a number of occasions that its method is lifted from its subject: “If this book aspires to the condition of notes that is because, for me, Lawrence’s prose is at its best when it comes closest to notes.” And in introducing the partially imagined narratives of But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz, Dyer again lets the subject inspire the form he’ll use to examine it:
These episodes are part of a common repertory of anecdote and information – “standards” in other words, and I do my own versions of them, stating the identifying facts more or less briefly and then improvising around them, departing from them completely in some cases. This may mean being less than faithful to the truth but, once again, it keeps faith with the improvisational prerogatives of the form.
There are many examples of this outside of Dyer. One is Andrei Codrescu’s recent The Post Human Dada Guide, which executes a Dadaist encyclopedia of Dada. Another is Jay Kirk’s soon to be released Kingdom Under Glass, which reassambles the facts of the biography of taxidermist Carl Akeley so as to create an Akeley-inspired diorama of his life. But what’s already apparent is that this divining of one’s method from one’s subject is not only a way to make a book seem possible as you approach it, it’s also a way to avoid repetition, to bring to every work the excitement of invention while retaining some essential version of the self: the common denominator of one’s books being not their subject matter, but their organizing intellect, their animating spirit – their author, after all.

6.
Not long after my book about chess appeared and chalked up a handful of prominent, promising reviews, my editor asked me to come to New York. She bought me lunch, chatted me up. We talked about the future. She wanted me to write another book about chess. “Maybe a chess mystery,” she said, jiggling her shoulders in what was either a fair imitation of a stripper twirling her pasties or a hopeful anticipation of the reaction readers might have to the book she proposed. I actually considered this offer for a moment. There is a true story about a famous chess player being called in to assist with a serial killer investigation. But that moment didn’t last long. I realized almost at once that I would simply be repeating myself.

And the truth is, I don’t want to be a writer like that: a writer so imprisoned by their subject matter – chess writer, food writer, religion writer, etc. – that if they ever depart from it, if their publishers ever let them depart from it, you can be pretty sure that their departures will have only that level of appeal, the appeal of something attempting, straining, struggling and probably failing to branch out. I don’t think that’s the ideal literary life. And yet, to reiterate, this is something writers are more or less forever doing – repeating themselves, writing figurative if not literal sequels, trying to please again and again the same readers they pleased once – and other writers who are guilty of the same thing admonish them for it, again and again.

7.
So I have tried to be a little different. I went on to write a Jamesian biography of William James, and I cringed anew when my (new) editor told me that he wished the book had been a bit more like my first. Whatever, dude. From there, I set out to write a history of utopian thought and literature that would stylistically emulate Thomas More’s original Utopia, which blended a kind of analytical discourse with what scholars called “speaking pictures” – narrative.

There were two basic problems with this. First, I had already written about utopian concepts. I had grown up on a street called Utopia Road in a master-planned community, “Utopia Road” was the title of both my MFA thesis and one of my early short stories, and, to be fully honest, there was palpable utopian fascination in both my chess and James books. In other words, I was repeating myself. No, no – worse than that! I was repeating the shit out of myself! The second problem was that Thomas More had been repeating, too. He was repeating Lucian and Plato and Erasmus and Machiavelli. And soon enough, others were repeating More, repeating Utopia. In fact, others repeated Utopia so often that it became its own genre of literature – a genre so powerful that “utopia” not only became a word, it completed the demigod leap from noun to adjective. You’ll probably better appreciate Thomas More’s Utopia if I tell you not that it’s the most influential novel in the history of mankind, but that it’s the only book whose author is known that has its own index entry in the Chicago Manual of Style. It’s pretty damn impressive – and it’s all a function of repetition. Sort of.

And there’s another problem too – a third problem – because thinking about these two modes of Utopia, discourse and narrative, makes it pretty clear that I’ve been unfair to Geoff Dyer, that his two modes, critic and rake, basically fall under this same description. Indeed, it seems to me now that Dyer’s entire career can be understood as a Utopia-like toggling back and forth – sometimes within a single book, sometimes from book to book – between narrative and analytic modes, and this is what James Wood couldn’t see, couldn’t appreciate, and which I came to appreciate only as a function of the panic that set in when I had to stop thinking about books in the abstract and actually write one.

8.
In 1936, James Agee, two years out from a book of poems and “on loan from the Federal Government,” was assigned to write a series of documentary articles about Alabama tenant farmers for Fortune magazine. One can be pretty sure that Agee’s editor had some ideas about what he wanted to print – his readers had certain expectations based on what they’d read in the magazine before, and Agee’s assignment was to repeat that formula. That’s not what he did. Instead, he produced hundreds of pages of wildly poetic, passionate description of a few families from which he had strived to maintain no objective distance at all. The series of articles was promptly canceled; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was not published until 1941; sales remained dismal until the book was rediscovered in 1960.

What’s relevant about Let Us Now Praise Famous Men for us, in this essay, is that right in the middle of it Agee pauses in his narrative and delivers a lengthy discussion of what he’s trying to do. It is the bit of analytical discourse to which he has toggled from his narrative descriptions of tenant farmer life. As a kind of set piece, this section of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, written long before Truman Capote and John McPhee and Geoff Dyer, serves as almost a post-facto manifesto of “creative nonfiction.” This manifesto insists on a stark distinction between creative prose and journalism, and in discussing an attempt to describe a hypothetical street it distinguishes Agee’s methodology from “naturalism:”
As nearly as possible in words (which, even by grace of genius, would not be very near) you try to give the street in its own terms: that is to say, either in the terms in which you…see it, or in a reduction and depersonalization into terms which will as nearly as possible be the “private,” singular terms of that asphalt, those neon letters, those and all other items combined, in that alternation, that simultaneity, of flat blank tremendously constructed chords and of immensely elaborate counterpoint which is the street itself.
I take Agee to mean that subjects ought to reveal themselves to you, that the writer’s job, the writer’s craft, is to be attentive to that which shall be rendered. A street will reveal to you the terms, the vocabulary, with which it ought to described just as surely as an abstract concept like William James or taxidermy or chess will proffer its proper strategy after some lengthy period of measured, painful, and above all, literary, meditation. Agee goes on to argue that words necessarily fail, and in so doing he echoes – or rather, anticipates – Dyer’s hope for what a creative use of language and form can bring to a consideration of jazz:
Words cannot embody; they can only describe. But a certain kind of artist, whom we will distinguish from others as a poet rather than a prose writer, despises this fact about words or his medium, and continually brings words as near as he can to an illusion of embodiment. In doing so he accepts a falsehood but makes, of a sort in any case, better art.
9.
Ostensibly, this is an essay about the craft of creative nonfiction. But I think what I’m ultimately trying to say is that it’s dangerous to say too much too definitively about craft in the abstract. If you feel absolutely overwhelmed by a project – that’s good. If you have absolutely no idea how or where to begin – that’s good too. No matter where one is in one’s career, a writer, it seems to me, ought to feel more or less completely at sea as they begin to approach the question or the subject they hope to address. There are two kinds of repetition. There is the kind we find inside our work, the themes that burble up lava-like from our subconscious again and again, and which we cannot resist and should not, I think, criticize in others. And then there is the repetition that ought to be resisted, that which gives us a program, a strategy that can be applied to any subject. This we should criticize in others. Art should never be the result of habit, it should strive eternally for the fresh and the new even when we work in forms we did not invent. Craft, we should vigilantly remind ourselves, means to make something absolutely new where before there was nothing at all.

The Millions Quiz: Essential Reference

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So that you may get to know us better, it’s The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.Today’s Question: In the age of Google and Wikipedia, reference books seem anachronistic, but some have not been superseded by the internet in their usefulness and convenience and even in their ability to divert and entertain. What is the one reference book you couldn’t live without?Andrew: It doesn’t fit on my bookshelves, and it dwarfs everything on my coffee table, so when not in use, I stand it up on the floor, where it leans casually against a pillar near my stereo speaker. Big, blue and glossy, my National Geographic Atlas of the World (Eighth Edition) has been with me for just over two years now, the result of a rare moment of book-buying extravagance.Admittedly, everything in it can probably be found somewhere online, and indeed if I’m at work I’m the first to be glad of Google or Mapquest if searching for something specific. But if I’m at home, there’s nothing like opening this massive book on my lap, or seeing it sprawl in front of me on the dining room table, seeing the world open up before me. Even if I’m not searching for something specific – indeed especially if I’m not – the very bigness of the atlas leaves me with an appreciation of the bigness of the world, and there’s little I enjoy more than getting lost in its pages.Lydia: My dear editor, there are some circles where you will get cut for talking about reference books like that. It was my great pleasure to spend the last two years working for an antiquarian bookseller, and as a result I encountered a bewildering number of bibliographies and reference books, many of which are not online and which have no useful online equivalent. The fourth edition of Besterman’s World Bibliography of Bibliographies, if you please, is five enormous volumes, and that was published in 1965. Some industry standards have made the switch to digital, but I think it will be a long time before the antiquarian (anachronistic?) book trade mulches all of its physical reference libraries. That said, I’m willing to be pragmatic about the eventual digitization of everything because it seems so unlikely that I would be able to amass a legitimate reference collection of my own. The Dictionary of National Biography, for example, is now available online by subscription for around 200 pounds a year, or free if your library subscribes. The set of 60 volumes, on the other hand, is a $5,000 proposition, not to mention the price of the square footage it sits on. But none of this answers your question. My favorite reference book is the book my boss told me to read when he hired me, John Carter’s legendary ABC For Book Collectors. It explains books as objects and commodities from A (advance copy) to Y (yellow-back) in a straightforward and engaging manner. It’s inexpensive, it’s small, it’s been around forever, and it’s fun to read. It is, dare I say, a must-have.Kevin: The key part of the question for me is “has not been superseded by the internet in its usefulness and convenience.” This leads me to pick that most common of all reference books, the dictionary. Mine is a Webster’s New Collegiate won as a prize in high school.When thinking about this question, I considered the ways the Internet typically holds an advantage over physical books. They are, I think, four: first, the Internet is dynamic and easily edited, allowing it to respond to changes in knowledge; second, the Internet takes up little room in your house, making it a nice alternative to a cabinet full of encyclopedias; third, the Internet is associative, allowing you to look up one thing in Wikipedia, and then click through to five other related topics you had not thought about before; and fourth, the Internet has multimedia.The dictionary, though, neither needs nor responds well to the type of advantages the Internet has to offer. It’s content is largely consistent from year-to-year and never needs revising. It takes up little room. It’s not used in a way that benefits that much from associate or multimedia options. In sum, the Internet can no more improve on the dictionary than it can on the wheel.Garth: I have three desk references that I find indispensable. One is the Oxford English Dictionary; I’ve got the two-volume compact edition with the magnifying glass, which I picked up for $37 at a used bookstore. Not every writer will find himself resorting to hippopotomonstrosesquipedalia such as “quiptificate,” or “horripilating,” but, perhaps to my discredit, I sometimes do. Luxuriating in the etymological swarf of the O.E.D. is also a great way to procrastinate, in that it gives me the illusion of time usefully spent. Right next to the thick two volumes is the American Map Corporation’s remarkable Truckers Atlas for Professional Drivers. If you need to locate a character within an American state or major city, the 400-page Truckers Atlas is your man. Finally, the Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature comes in handy for blog pieces. The entries are fairly bland, but are great for fact-checking, and the book has a nice globalist bent.Anne: I fear I’m far too digitized. Despite the Mennonite origin of my last name, I am by no means a Luddite. My favorite reference is the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary on CD-ROM – it’s an amazing tool, with the definition of every word in the the English language only a few taps away at the keyboard, and without the heft of the paper dictionary. It’s also great for finding words when you only half recall the word, because when you enter a word that’s not in the dictionary, it suggests a list of words you may be looking for. You can do a reverse word look-up as well as a search for words that rhyme. Also useful, though not quite as nifty, is the online version, which has all the benefits of the CD-ROM except you have to pay a yearly fee for the service and if you’re without web access, you’re without your dictionary. (Plus, an open web browser makes for an easy distraction when writing.)I love the breadth of the Oxford English Dictionary, especially because it shows a word’s origins and the ways the use has changed over time, but I haven’t had access to the online version since college and there isn’t room for the old-fashioned form in my Brooklyn apartment. Despite its unreliability, I am madly in love with Wikipedia for the expansive information it offers about seemingly everything. I still consult Abrams’ Glossary of Literary Terms as well as the Merriam Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, one was a staple in my college literature classes and the other I purchased for ten dollars in a discount bookstore. They’re both useful but not irreplaceable. When I was working as a copy editor and proofreader, I lived by Fowlers and The Chicago Manual of Style. Now they’re both gathering dust on my bookshelf.Emily: I’m a sucker for etymology. English words and phrases aren’t only the means by which stories are told, they have stories to tell themselves about our past – about ancestors and mores and customs long dead. Cobweb, for example, tells of a time in England’s Anglo-Saxon past when a spider was a coppe. Corduroy, “corde du roi” or “cord fit for a king,” tells of a time when what we know as a sturdy, humble fabric was made of silk instead of cotton and was used exclusively by French royalty for their hunting costumes. The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) is a great source of etymological lore, and so long as my generous patrons at Stanford University continue to allow me remote access, the online version of the OED is the reference I can’t do without, and the reference that Wiki and Google just can’t touch. For example, did you know that the sports term “hat trick” comes to us from cricket?2. a. Cricket. The feat of a bowler who takes three wickets by three successive balls: orig. considered to entitle him to be presented by his club with a new hat or some equivalent.1877 J. LILLYWHITE Cricketers’ Compan. 181 Having on one occasion taken six wickets in seven balls, thus performing the hat-trick successfully. 1882 Daily Tel. 19 May, He thus accomplished the feat known as the ‘hat trick’, and was warmly applauded. 1896 WEST 1st Year at School xxvi, The achievement of the hat~trick afforded Eliot the proudest moment of his life.b. Hence gen., a threefold feat in other sports or activities.When Stanford gives me up and I am cut off from my beloved OED, there is William and Mary Morris’ Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins. It’s not as comprehensive as the OED, but its entries have an old-fashioned quality that sometimes verges into a delightfully colorful tastelessness (without sacrificing historical accuracy!). Take donnybrook:A true donnybrook consists of a knock-down-drag-out brawl with anywhere from a handful to a mob of participants. It takes it name from the town of Donnybrook, a suburb southeast of Dublin. There, from medieval times up to the middle of the nineteenth century, were held annual fairs, which for riotous debauchery rivaled the Saturnalian revels of Caesar’s time. They always wound up in fisticuffs and worse—much worse.Over the centuries the Irish have displayed a notable disinclination to avoid a good fight. Indeed, their hankering for a brawl is as legendary as their ability at handling their traditional weapon, the shillelagh. So it’s hardly to be wondered at that the annual spectacle of thousands of Irishmen flailing light-heartedly about with splendid disregard for the Marquis of Queensbury’s rules should have made the name donnybrook synonymous with brawling.Ah, yes, Irishmen and their shillelaghs. I think they also eat nothing but potatoes and babies and live in caves. No?Max: Even as a kid I always loved map books and encyclopedias. In the case of the latter I spent many hours with a well-worn set of Golden Book Encyclopedias and then later, many more with the family’s World Book set. With all the moving around I did after college, a reference library wasn’t a luxury I could afford to lug, but I do have a couple reference books I use regularly. One is my AP Stylebook, the one required reference of my journalism school years. I still keep it within reach for quick answers to questions like when to capitalize “chief justice” and what precisely is meant by the term “prime rate.”Also still getting ample use is a fat paperback, The Synonym Finder. When I was working at the bookstore in Los Angeles, a writer from out of town came in. She was suffering a bout of writer’s block and the only cure was The Synonym Finder. We had a single, very beat-up copy tucked away on our shelves, but she bought it gladly and with a sense of relief that was visible on her face. The episode convinced me, and I secured my own copy as soon as I could. She was right. It’s a superior thesaurus, and it has never disappointed me.With this Millions Quiz, we decided to try something new. We also polled members of The Millions Facebook Group to get their answers to our question. Here a few of the responses:Matthew Tiffany: Omit needless words. Omit. Needless. Words. Strunk & White.Anne Fernald: The Oxford Companion to English Literature (ed Margaret Drabble – it’s her voice I love) followed closely by M. H. Abrams’ Glossary of Literary Terms.Mike Lindgren: Chicago Manual of Style. It would not be readily reproducible online, and it is essential for anyone serious about the business of words.So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What are your essential reference books?

The Millions Quiz: Nightstand Reader

So that you may get to know us better, we introduce The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life the like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments.Today’s Question: What’s on your nightstand right now?Emily: Deciding where the nightstand stops in my dorm room is something of a quandary. And sadly, in this final dissertation push, pleasure reading is a thing of the past (Swift Studies 2006, Romanticism, Nationalism, and the Revolt Against Theory, The Chicago Manual of Style…). But among the piles that daily encroach on my bed are two recent purchases: Dover’s paperback editions of Goya’s print series Los Caprichos and The Disasters of War. If you haven’t seen them, take a look. I hesitate to call either a pleasure, but they are, in their ways.Edan: I’m about to read The Great Man by Kate Christensen, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award this year. I enjoyed her previous novel, The Epicure’s Lament, and this one, about a recently deceased painter and the women in his life, sounds like something to dive into.After that, I’m going to give Edith Wharton my attention, beginning with The Age of Innocence. I also have a galley of Joan Silber’s novel, The Size of the World, the follow-up to her terrific and pleasing story collection Ideas of Heaven (which was nominated for a National Book Award).I just snagged the latest issue of Field, the poetry journal published by the Oberlin College Press, and a copy of Darcie Dennigan’s debut poetry collection, Corinna A-Maying the Apocalypse. Aside from this poetry reading, I’ll be steamrolling through months of unread New Yorker and Gourmet magazine issues.Garth: I seem to be having a big books problem this summer; my nightstand is about to collapse under the weight of three of them. The first is Roberto Bolano’s 2666, which I’m about 600 pages into (out of 900). The second is Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, which I’m about 300 pages into (also out of 900)… and let’s just say that, for all that she does well. Gertrude lacks the, shall we say, narrative velocity of Mr. Bolano. Finally, clocking in at over 1000 pages, I’ve got Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men, which seems insane and brilliant and possibly unfinishable. I keep thinking there are only a finite number of gigantic books, and that once I get them out of the way I can move on, and then I learn about writers like McElroy. I’m also hoping to get to Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker this summer. Seriously. In order not to get hopelessly depressed about my rate of reading, I try to read really, really short things in between the long things. My current favorite amuse-bouche or palate-cleansers are Lydia Davis’ Varieties of Disturbance and Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets. It occurs to me that I may be suffering from some variety of disturbance myself. Call it gigantobibliomania.Ben: I have 18 books on my nightstand at the moment, three of which I think I’m supposed to be reviewing. Most interestingly, I have two autobiographical accounts by historians who retraced the steps of Mao’s Long March. When I learned would be going to China this summer, I briefly toyed with the idea of spending a few months traveling along the route taken by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as they fled from the Kuomingtan. The three year journey was a harrowing race across thousands of miles of China’s most unforgiving wilderness, and it would eventually go on to become the founding myth of the CCP. Its story is replete with violence and political intrigue and following in its steps while observing how China has changed in the intervening years “would make one great book,” I thought. I was wrong. It has made two mediocre books. The Long March by Ed Jocelyn and The Long March by Sun ShuyunAndrew: It would appear that thirty or so books have taken up occupancy on or near my nightstand. This is where the triage happens. Every few weeks, books seem to show up, sometimes all at once, sometimes individually. Compulsive second-hand book-buyer that I am, I’m afraid I can’t control the in-flow.Like an ER, this may seem to be a chaotic place, but it’s functional and I give prompt attention to the book that demands to be read next. When completed, the book is transferred to the recovery area (aka the bookcases in my den), a much more orderly place. Calm. Perhaps too calm.I began M.G. Vassanji’s The In-Between World of Vikram Lall a few weeks ago, then had to abruptly stop when my life took a chaotic turn, and now that calm reigns once again, I’ve restarted it. Up next will likely be A History of the Frankfurt Book Fair, by Peter Wiedhaas, unless some literary emergency comes in off the street.Emre: My oft-cluttered, permanently dusty nightstand is home to months-old copies of Harper’s and New Yorker magazines, the occasional New York Times Magazine and four books. The books are all byproducts of articles I read in the aforementioned publications. Yet, despite the enticing reviews/mentions I find myself unable to read any of them. Top of the list is Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. After reading an article about the Bronx’s revival and realizing that as an adopted New Yorker with literary vices it is a sin not to have read a single Wolfe novel, I immediately picked up a used copy. Despite my best intentions to get going with it right after finishing Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, I am still only some 20 pages into the book. But it remains my top priority. Kind of.I might have a commitment problem. The second book is Parag Khanna’s The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order. A book review in the NYT, as well as an excerpt from the book which appeared in the Times Magazine, sounded oh so interesting and timely that the politics wonk in me returned from the depths, turning me into the four-eyed nerd that I actually am to begin reading about how global powers – U.S., EU, China – are attempting to wrest control of the Second World – a term formerly ascribed to the communist bloc, which now may be morphing to describe emerging-market and resource-rich countries. Despite its accessible, Thomas Friedman-ish language, however, I am stuck at the end of Chapter 1. I blame my job for it. Part of my work description is to read news all day. After reading the Wall Street Journal, NYT, the FT and assorted other publications all day long, I have little appetite left for politics and business. On the other hand, I do feel an urgency – as in, lest I read this in the next six months, it may be obsolete.Sharing the third spot and making for a potential good duo-read are my girlfriend’s birthday presents to me: Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion and John Dewey’s The Public and Its Problems. The gifts were, of course, not coincidental. They were conceived in the aftermath of a New Yorker article about the dying news industry (damn you, Huffington Post, et al.!) and born of our conversations regarding, well, the dying news industry. As conceptually interesting as Lippmann and Dewey’s books are, they also fall into the realm of thought-provoking, attention-requiring books, a la The Second World, which these days is a far stretch from the TV-watching couch potato I am after work. I might have to add a new book to my nightstand. Something in the 200-300 page range that involves fiction and is a light read – as in Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go!-light. Any suggestions?Max: I’ve got just one book on my nightstand: Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, which Mrs. Millions recently finished and which is waiting to be put back on the Reading Queue shelf. I’ve also got a teetering stack of magazines – issues of The New Yorker, The Week, and The Economist – that keep from reading my books. The book that I’m currently reading, meanwhile, is more often in the same room as me (or in my laptop bag if I’m on the go). This does make for occasional overnight stops on the nightstand.So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What’s on your nightstand right now?

For Our Reference

The other day I found a fascinating blog devoted to words, linguistics, languages and other related topics called Languagehat. I have been meaning to mention it for a while, and today I have good reason to. I don’t often talk about reference books on The Millions even though I use them every day. Lucky for us, Languaghat keeps track of these sorts of things. Today, he posts links to interesting reviews of new editions of two popular reference books, The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition.

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