The Novel: A Biography

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Ten Ways to Look at the Color Black

1.One of the most poignant of all passages in English literature occurs in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, serially published between the years of 1759 and 1767, when its author Laurence Sterne wrote: “████████████████████████████████████ ██████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████” Such is the melancholic shade of the 73rd page of Tristram Shandy, the entirety of the paper taken up with black ink, when the very book itself mourns the death of an innocent but witty parson with the Shakespearean name Yorick. Said black page appears after Yorick went to his doors and “closed them, – and never opened them more,” for it was that “he died… as was generally thought, quite broken hearted.”

Tristam Shandy is more than just an account of its titular character, for as Steven Moore explains in The Novel: An Alternative History 1600-1800, the English writer engaged subjects including “pedantry, pedagogy, language, sex, writing, obsessions… obstetrics, warfare and fortifications, time and memory, birth and death, religion, philosophy, the law, politics, solipsism, habits, chance… sash-windows, chambermaids, maypoles, buttonholes,” ultimately concluding that it would be “simpler to list what it isn’t about.” Sterne’s novel is the sort that spends a substantial portion of its endlessly digressive plot with the narrator describing his own conception and birth. As Tristam says of his story, “Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; – & they are the life, the soul of reading; – take them out of this book for instance, – you might as well take the book along with them.”

Eighteenth-century critics didn’t always go in for this sort of thing. Dr. Johnson, with poor prescience, said “Nothing odd will do long. Tristam Shandy did not last,” while Voltaire gave it a rather more generous appraisal, calling it “a very unaccountable book; an original.” Common readers were a bit more adventuresome; Moore records that the “sheer novelty of the first two volumes made Tristam Shandy a hit when they were reprinted in London in the early 1760s.” Sterne arguably produced the first “post-modern” novel, long before Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Central to Tristam Shandy are its typographical eccentricities, which Michael Schmidt in The Novel: A Biography describes: “mock-marbling of the paper, the pointing hands, the expressive asterisks, squiggles, dingbats…the varying lengths of dashes.” None of those are as famous as poor Yorick’s pitch-black page, however.

It’s easy to see Sterne’s black page, its rectangle of darkness, as an oddity, an affectation, an eccentricity, a gimmick. This is woefully inconsiderate to English language’s greatest passage about the blankness of grief. Sober critics have a tendency to mistake playfulness with lack of seriousness, but a reading of Tristram Shandy shows that for all of its strangeness, its scatological prose and its metafictional tricks, Sterne’s goal was always to chart the “mechanism and menstruations in the brain,” as he explained, to describe “what passes in a man’s mind.”

Which is why Tristram Shandy’s infamous black page represents grief more truthfully than the millions of pages that use ink in a more conventional way. Sterne’s prose, or rather the gaping dark absence where prose normally would be, is the closest that he can get to genuinely conveying what loss’s void feels like. What’s clear is that no “reading” or “interpretation” of Yorick’s extinction can actually be proffered, no analysis of any human’s death can be translated into something rationally approachable. Sterne reminds us that grief is not amenable to literary criticism.  For anyone that has ever lost someone they loved, seen that person die, you can understand that there is an inability for mere words to be commensurate with the enormity of that absence. Concerning such emotions beyond emotions, when it comes to “meaning,” the most full and accurate portrayal can only ever be a black hole.

2.Black is the most parsimonious of all colors. Color is a question of what it is we’re seeing when contrasted with that which we can’t, and black is the null zero of the latter. Those Manichean symbolic associations that we have with black and white are culturally relative—they are contingent on the arbitrary associations that a people project onto colors.  Yet true to the ballet of binary oppositions, they are intractably related, for one could never read black ink on black paper, or its converse. If with feigned synesthesia we could imagine what each color would sound like, I’d suspect that they’d either be all piercing intensity and high pitches, or perhaps low, barely-heard thrum—but I’m unsure which would be which.

Their extremity is what haunts, allowing either only absorption or only
reflection, the two colors reject the russet cool of October and the blue chill
of December, or the May warmth of yellow and the July heat of red. Black and
white are both voids, both absences, both spouses in an absolutism. They are
singularities. Hardly anything is ever truly black, even the night sky awash in
the electromagnetic radiation of all those distant suns. Black and white are
abstractions, they are imagined mathematical potentials, for even the darkest
of shades must by necessity reflect something back. Save for one
thing—the black hole.

As early as 1796 the Frenchman Pierre-Simon Laplace conjectured the existence of objects with a gravitational field so strong that not even light could escape. Laplace, when asked of God, famously told Napoleon that he “had no need for that hypothesis,” but he knew of the black hole’s rapacious hunger. It wouldn’t be until 1916 that another scientist, the German Karl Schwarzschild, would use Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity to surmise the existence of the modern black hole. Physicist Brian Greene explains in The Elegant Universe that Schwarzschild’s calculations implied objects whose “resulting space-time warp is so radical that anything, including light, that gets too close… will be unable to escape its gravitational grip.”

Black holes were first invented as a bit of mathematical book-keeping, a theoretical concept to keep God’s ledger in order. However, as Charles Seife writes in Alpha and Omega: The Search for the Beginning and End of the Universe, though a “black hole is practically invisible, astronomers can infer its presence from the artifacts it has on spacetime itself.” Formed from the tremendous power of a supernova, a blackhole is a lacuna in space and time, the inky corpse of what was once a star, and an impenetrable passage from which no traveler may return.

A black hole is the simplest object in the universe. Even a hydrogen atom is composed of a proton and an electron, but a black hole is simply a singularity and an event horizon. The former is the infinitely dense core of a dead star, the ineffable heart of the darkest thing in existence, and the latter marks the point of no return for any wayward pilgrim. It’s at the singularity itself where the very presuppositions of physics breakdown, where our mathematics tells us that reality has no strictures. Though a black hole may be explained by physics, it’s also paradoxically a negation of physics. Obvious why the black hole would become such a potent metaphor, for physics has surmised the existence of locations for which logic has no dominion. A cosmological incognito if you will, where there be monsters.

God may not play dice with the universe, but as it turns out She is ironic. Stephen Hawking figured that the potent stew of virtual particles predicted by quantum mechanics, general relativity’s great rival in explaining things, meant that at the event horizon of a black hole there would be a slight escape of radiation, as implied by Werner Heisenberg’s infamous uncertainty principle. And so, from Hawking, we learn that though black may be black, nothing is ever totally just that, not even a black hole. Save maybe for death.

3.“Black hole” is the rare physics term that is evocative enough to attract public attention, especially compared to the previous phrase for the concept, “gravitationally collapsed object.” Coined by physicist Robert H. Dicke in the early ’60s, he appropriated it from the infamous dungeon in colonial India that held British prisoners and was known as the “Black Hole of Calcutta.” In Dicke’s mind, that hot, fetid, stinking, torturous hell-hole from which few men could emerge was an apt metaphor for the cosmological singularity that acts as a physical manifestation of Dante’s warning in Inferno to “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”

Dante was a poet, and the word “black hole” is a metaphor, but it’s important to remember that pain and loss go beyond language, they are not abstractions, but very real. That particular Calcutta hole was in actuality an 18-foot by 14-foot cell in the ruins of Ft. William that held 69 Indian and British soldiers upon the fall of that garrison in 1756, when it was taken by the Nawab of Bengal. According to a survivor of the imprisonment, John Zephaniah Howell, the soldiers “raved, fought, prayed, blasphemed, and many then fell exhausted on the floor, where suffocation put an end to their torments.” On the first night 46 of the men died.

What that enclosure in Calcutta signified was its own singularity, where meaning itself had no meaning. In such a context the absence of color becomes indicative of erasure and negation, such darkness signaling nothing. As Lear echoes Parmenides, “Nothing can come of nothing: speak again.” There have been many black holes, on all continents, in all epochs. During the 18th century the slave ships of the Middle Passage were their own hell, where little light was allowed to escape.

In Marcus Redicker’s The Slave Ship: A Human History, the scholar speaks of the “horror-filled lower deck,” a hell of “hot, crowded, miserable circumstances.” A rare contemporary account of the Middle Passage is found in the enslaved Nigerian Olaudah Equiano’s 1789 The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African. Penned the year that French Jacobins stormed the Bastille, Equiano’s account is one of the rare voices of the slave ship to have been recorded and survived, an account of one who has been to a hell that they did not deserve and who yet returned to tell tale of that darkness. Equiano described being “put down under the decks” where he “received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experience in my life: so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat…I now wished for the last friend, death.”

There’s a risk in using any language, any metaphor, to describe the singularities of suffering endured by humans in such places, a tendency to turn the lives of actual people into fodder for theorizing and abstraction. Philosopher Elaine Scary in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World argues that much is at “stake in the attempt to invent linguistic structures that will reach and accommodate this area of experience normally so inaccessible to language… a project laden with practical and ethical consequence.” Any attempt to constrain such experience in language, especially if it’s not the author’s experience, runs a risk of limiting those stories. “Black hole” is an affective metaphor to an extent, in that implicit within it is the idea of logic and language breaking down, and yet it’s all the more important to realize that it is ultimately still a metaphor as well, what the Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago described as “the dark infinity.”

David King in The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia provides a chilling warning about what happens when humans are reduced to such metaphor, when they are erased. King writes that that the “physical eradication of Stalin’s political opponents at the hands of the secret police was swiftly followed by their obliteration from all forms of pictorial existence.” What’s most disturbing are the primitively doctored photographs, where being able to see the alteration is the very point. These are illusions that don’t exist to trick, but to warn; their purpose is not to make you forget, but rather the opposite, to remind you of those whom you are never to speak of again. Examine the Damnatio memoriae of Akmal Ikramov, first secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan, who was condemned by Stalin and shot. In the archives his portrait was slathered in black paint. The task of memory is to never forget that underneath that mask there was a real face, that Ikramov’s eyes looked out as yours do now.

4.Even if the favored color of the Bolsheviks was red, black has also had its defenders in partisan fashion across the political spectrum, from the Anarchist flag of the left to the black-shirts of Benito Mussolini’s fascist right and the Hugo Boss-designed uniforms of the Nazi SS. Drawing on those halcyon days of the Paris Commune in 1871, anarchist Louis Michel first flew the black flag at a protest. His implications were clear—if a white flag meant surrender, then a black flag meant its opposite. For all who wear the color black certain connotations, sometimes divergent, can be potentially called upon; including authority, judiciousness, piety, purity, and power. Also, black makes you look thinner.

Recently departed fashion designer, creative director for the House of Chanel, and noted Teutonic vampire Karl Lagerfeld once told a Harper’s Baazar reporter that “Black, like white, is the best color,” and I see no reason to dispute that. Famous for his slicked-back powdered white pony-tail, his completely black suits, starched white detachable collars, black sunglasses, and leather riding gloves, Lagerfeld is part of a long tradition of that fabled French design firm. Coco Chanel, as quoted in The Allure of Chanel by Paul Morand and Euan Cameron, explains that “All those gaudy, resuscitated colors shocked me; those reds, those greens, those electric blues.” Chanel explains rather that she “imposed black; it’s still going strong today.”

Black may be the favored monochromatic palette for a certain school of haute couture; think black tie affairs and little black cocktail dresses—but the look is too good to be left to the elite. Black is the color of bohemians, spartan simplicity as a rebellion against square society. Beats were associated with it, they of stereotypical turtlenecks and thick-framed glasses. It’s always been a color for the avant-garde, signifying a certain austere rejection of the superficial cheerfulness of everyday life. Beats like Allen Ginsberg in his epic poem Howl, with its memorable black cover from City Lights Books, may have dragged himself through the streets at dawn burning for that “ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo,” but his friend William S. Burroughs would survey the fashion choices of his black-clad brethren and declare that the Beats were the “movement which launched a million Gaps.”

Appropriated or not, black has always been the color of the outlaw, a venerable genealogy that includes everything from Marlon Brando’s leather jacket in The Wild One to Keanu Reeves’s duster in The Matrix. Fashionable villains too, from Dracula to Darth Vader. That black is the color of rock music, on its wide highway to hell, is a given. There is no imagining goth music without black’s macabre associations, no paying attention to a Marilyn Manson wearing khaki, or the Cure embracing teal. No, black is the color of my true love’s band, for there’s no Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, or the members of Bauhaus in anything but a monochromatic darkness. When Elvis Presley launched his ’68 comeback he opted for a skin-tight black leather jumpsuit.

Nobody surpasses Johnny Cash though. The country musician is inextricably bound to the color, wearing it as a non-negotiable uniform that expressed radical politics. He sings “I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down, /Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town.” Confessing that he’d “love to wear a rainbow every day,” he swears allegiance to his millennial commitments, promising that he’ll “carry off a little darkness on my back, /’Till things are brighter, I’m the Man in Black.” Elaborating later in Cash: The Autobiography, cowritten with Patrick Carr, he says “I don’t see much reason to change my position today…There’s still plenty of darkness to carry off.”

Cash’s sartorial choices were informed by a Baptist upbringing; his clothes mourned a fallen world, it was the wardrobe of a preacher. Something similar motivates the clothing of a very different prophetic figure, the pragmatist philosopher Cornel West, who famously only wears a black three-piece suit, with matching scarf. In an interview with The New York Times, West calls the suit his “cemetery clothes,” with a preacher’s knowledge that one should never ask for whom the bell tolls, but also with the understanding that in America, the horrifying reality is that a black man may always need to be prepared for his own funeral when up against an unjust state. As he explained, “I am coffin-ready.” West uses his black suit, “my armor” as he calls it, as a fortification.

Black is a liturgical, sacred, divine color. It’s not a mistake that Cash
and West draw from the somber hue of the minister’s attire. Black has often
been associated with orders and clerics; the Benedictines with their black
robes and Roman collared Jesuits; Puritans and austere Quakers, all unified in
little but clothing. Sects as divergent as Hasidic Jews and the Amish are known
for their black hats. In realms of faith, black may as well be its own temple.

5.Deep in the Finsterwalde, the “Dark Forest” of northwestern Switzerland, not far from Zurich, there is a hermitage whose origins go back to the ninth century. Maintained by Benedictine monks, the monastery was founded by St. Meinard. The saint lived his life committed to solitude, to dwelling in the space between words that can stretch to an infinity, a black space that still radiates its own light. In his vocation as a hermit, where he would find the monastery known (and still known) as the Einsiedeln Abbey, he had a single companion gifted to him by the Abbes Hildegard of Zurich—a carved, wooden statue of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Christ, who was himself clutching a small bird as if it was his play companion.

For more than a millennium, that figure, known as the “Lady of Einsiden,” has been visited by millions of pilgrims, as the humble anchorage has grown into a complex of ornate, gilded baroque buildings. These seekers are drawn to her gentle countenance, an eerie verisimilitude projecting some kind of interiority within her walnut head. She has survived both the degradations of entropy and Reformation, and is still a conduit for those who travel to witness that material evidence of that silent world beyond. Our Lady of Einsiden is only a few feet tall; her clothing is variable, sometimes wearing the celestial, cosmic blue of the Virgin, other times in resplendent gold, but the crown of heaven is always upon her brow. One aspect of her remains unchanging, however, and that’s that both her and Christ are painted black.

In 1799, during a restoration of the monastery, it was argued, in the words of one of the workers, that the Virgin’s “color is not attributable to a painter.” Deciding that a dose of revisionism was needed alongside restoration, the conclusion of restorer Johann Adam Fuetscher was that the Mary’s black skin was the result of the “smoke of the lights of the hanging lamps which for so many centuries always burned in the Holy Chapel of Einsideln.”

Fuetscher decided to repaint the statue, but when visitors saw the new Virgin they were outraged, and demanded she be returned to her original color, which has remained her hue for more than 200 years. Our Lady of Einsideln was not alone; depictions of Mary with dark skin can be found the width and breadth of the continent, from the famed Black Madonna of Czestochowa in Poland to Our Lady of Dublin in the Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church; in the Sicilian town of Tindari, to the frigid environs of Lunds Domkyrka Lund Cathedral in Sweden. Depending on how one identifies the statues, there are arguably 500 medieval examples of the Virgin Mary depicted with dark skin.

Recently art historians have admitted that the hundreds of Black Madonnas are probably intentionally so, but there is still debate as to why she is so often that color. One possibility is that the statues are an attempt at realism, that European artists saw no compunctions about rendering the Virgin and Christ with an accurate skin-tone for Jews living in the Levant. Perhaps basing such renderings upon the accounts of pilgrims and crusaders who’d returned from the Holy Land, these craftsmen depicted the Mother of God with a face that wasn’t necessarily a mirror of their own.

Scholar Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum has her own interpretation of these carvings in her study Black Madonnas: Feminism, Religion, and Politics in Italy. For Birnbaum, the statues may represent a multicultural awareness among those who made them, but they also have a deep archetypal significance. She writes that “Black is the color of the earth and of the ancient color of regeneration, a matter of perception, imagination, and beliefs often not conscious, a phenomenon suggested in people’s continuing to call a madonna black even after the image had been whitened by the church.”

China Galland in Longing for Darkness: Tara and the Black Madonna, her account of global pilgrimage from California to Nepal, asks if there was in the “blackness of the Virgin a thread of connection to Tara, Kali, or Durga, or was its mere coincidence?”  These are goddesses, which as Galland writes, have a blackness that is “almost luminous,” beings of a “beneficent and redeeming dark.” Whatever the motivations of those who made the statues, it’s clear that they intended to depict them exactly as they appear now, candle smoke and incense besides. At the il Santuario della Madonna del Tindari in Sicily there is a celebrated Virgin Mary with dark skin. And just to dispel any hypothesis that her color is an accident, restorers in 1990 found inscribed upon her base a quotation from Song of Songs 1:5, when the Queen of Sheba declares to Solomon: “I am black but beautiful.”

6.Very different deities of darkness would come to adorn the walls of the suburban Madrid house that the Spanish painter Francisco Goya moved to 200 years ago, in the dusk of the Napoleonic conflicts (when Laplace had dismissed God). Already an old man, and deaf for decades, Goya would affix murals in thick, black oil to the plaster walls of his villa, a collection intended for an audience of one. As his biographer Robert Hughes would note in Goya, the so-called black paintings “revealed an aspect of Goya even more extreme, bizarre, and imposing” than the violent depictions of the Peninsular War for which he was famous. The black paintings were made for Goya’s eyes only. He was a man who’d witnessed the barbarity of war and inquisition, and now in his convalescence he chose to make representations of witches’ sabbaths and goat-headed Baphomet overseeing a Black Mass, of Judith in the seconds after she decapitated Holofernes, and of twisted, toothless, grinning old men. And, though now it hangs in the Museo del Prado, it was painted originally on the back wall of the first story of the Quinta del Sordo next to one window and perpendicular to another, was his terrifying depiction of a fearsome Saturn devouring his own young.

In the hands of Goya, the myth of the Titan who cannibalized his progeny is
rendered in stark, literal, horrifying reality. For Goya there is no forgetting
the implications of what that story implies, his Chronos appears as shaggy,
wild-eyed, orangish monstrosity; matted, bestial white hair falls uncombed from
his head, and past his scrawny shoulders. Saturn is angular, jutting bones and
knobby kneecaps, as if hunger has forced him to this unthinkable act. His eyes
are wide, and though wild, they’re somehow scared, dwelling in the darkness of
fear.

I wonder if that’s part of Goya’s intent, using this pagan theme to express something of Catholic guilt and death-obsession, that intuitive awareness of original sin. It makes sense to me that Saturn is the scared one; scared of what he’s capable of, scared of what he’s done. Clutching in both hands the dismembered body of a son, whose features and size are recognizably human, Chronos grips his child like a hoagie, his son’s right arm already devoured and his head in Saturn’s stomach, with the Titan biting directly into the final remaining hand. Appropriately enough for what is, after all, an act of deicide, the sacrificed god hangs in a cruciform position. A fringe of blood spills out from inside. His corpse has a pink flush to it, like a medium rare hamburger. That’s the horror of Chronos—of time—emerging from this undifferentiated darkness. When considering our final hour, time has a way of rendering the abstraction of a body into the literalism of meat. Saturn Devouring His Son hung in Goya’s dining room.

His later paintings may be the most striking evocation of blackness, but the
shade haunted Goya his entire life. His print The Sleep of Reason Produces
Monsters, made two decades before those murals in the Quinta del
Sordo, is a cross-hatched study of the somber tones, of black and grey.
Goya draws himself, head down on a desk containing the artist’s implements, and
above him fly the specters of his nocturnal imagination, bats and owls flapping
their wings in the ceaseless drone that is the soundtrack of our subconscious
irrationalities, of the blackness that defines that minor form of extinction we
call sleep.

7.The blackness of sleep both promises and threatens erasure. In that strange state of non-being there is an intimation of what it could mean to be dead. Telling that darkness is the most applicable metaphor when describing both death and sleep, for the bed or the coffin. Sigmund Freud famously said of his subject in The Interpretation of Dreams that they were the “royal road to the unconscious.” Even the laws of time and space seem voided within that nocturnal kingdom, where friends long dead come to speak with us, where hidden rooms are discovered in the dark confines of homes we’ve known our entire lives. Dreams are a singularity of sorts, but there is that more restful slumber that’s nothing but a calm blackness.

This reciprocal comparison between sleep and death is such a cliché precisely because it’s so obvious, from the configuration of our actual physical repose to our imagining of what the experiences might share with one another. Edmund Spenser in the Faerie Queene writing “For next to Death is Sleepe to be compared;” his contemporary the poet Thomas Sackville referring to sleep as the “Cousin of Death;” the immaculate Thomas Browne writing that sleep is the “Brother of Death;” and more than a century later Percy Shelley waxing “How wonderful is Death, Death and his brother Sleep!”

Without focusing too much on how the two have moved closer to one another on the family tree, what seems to unify tenor and vehicle in the metaphorical comparisons between sleep and death is this quality of blackness, non-existence of color the same as non-existence. Both imply a certain radical freedom, for in dreams everyone has an independence, at least for a few hours. Consider that in our own society, where our totalizing system is the consumerism which controls our every waking moment, that the only place where you won’t see anything designed by humans (other than yourself) is in dreams, at least until Amazon finds a way to beam advertisements directly into our skulls.

Then there is Shakespeare, who speaks of sleep as the “ape of death,” who in Hamlet’s monologue writes of the “sleep of death,” and in the Scottish play calls sleep “death’s counterfeit.” If centuries have a general disposition, then my beloved 17th century was a golden age of morbidity when the ars Moriendi of the “good death” was celebrated by essayists like Browne and Robert Burton in the magisterial Anatomy of Melancholy. In my own reading and writing there are few essayists whom I love more, or try to emulate more, than the good Dr. Browne. That under-read writer and physician, he who both coined the terms “literary” and “medical,” among much else besides, wrote one of the most moving and wondrous tracts about faith and skepticism in his 1642 Religio Medici. Browne writes “Sleep is a death, /O make me try, /By sleeping, what it is to die:/And as gently lay my head/On my grave, as now my bed.” Maybe it resonates with me because when I was (mostly) younger, I’d sometimes lay on my back and pretend that I was in my coffin. I still can only sleep in pitch blackness.

8.Far easier to imagine that upon death you go someplace not unlike here, in either direction, or into the life of some future person yet unborn. Far harder to imagine non-existence, that state of being nothing, so that the most accessible way that it can be envisioned is as a field of black, as being the view when you close your eyes. That’s simply blackness as a metaphor, another inexact and thus incorrect portrayal of something fundamentally unknowable. In trying to conceive of non-existence, blackness is all that’s accessible, and yet it’s a blackness where the very power of metaphor ceases to make sense, where language itself breaks down as if it were the laws of physics at the dark heart of the singularity.

In the Talmud, at Brachot 57b, the sages tell us that “Sleep is 1/60th of death,” and this equation has always struck me as just about right. It begs certain questions though: is the sleep that is 1/60th of death those evenings when we have a pyrotechnic, psychedelic panoply of colors before us in the form of surrealistic dreams, or is it the sleep we have that is blacker than midnight, devoid of any being, of any semblance of our waking identities? This would seem to me to be the very point on which all questions of skepticism and faith must hang. That sleep, that strangest of activities, for which neurologists still have no clear answers as to its necessities (though we do know that it is), is a missive from the future grave, a seven-hour slice of death, seems obvious to me. So strange that we mock the “irrationalities” of ages past, when so instrumental to our own lives is something as otherworldly as sleep, when we die for a third of our day and return from realms of non-being to bore our friends with accounts of our dreams.

When we use the darkness of repose as metaphor for death, we brush against the extremity of naked reality and the limitations of our own language. In imagining non-existence as a field of undifferentiated black, we may trick ourselves into experiencing what it would be to no longer be here, but that’s a fallacy. Black is still a thing. Less than encouraging, this inability to conceive of that reality, which may be why deep down all of us, whether we’re to admit it or not, are pretty sure that we’ll never die, or at least not completely. And yet the blackness of non-existence disturbs, how couldn’t it? Epicurus wrote as an argument against fear of our own mortality that “Death… is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.”

Maybe that’s a palliative to some people, but it’s never been to me. More of
sophistry than wisdom in the formulation, for it eludes the psychology of being
terrified at the thought of our own non-existence. Stoics and Epicureans have
sometimes asked why we’re afraid of the non-existence of death, since we’ve
already experienced the non-existence before we’re born? When I think back to
the years before 1984, I don’t have a sense of an undifferentiated blackness,
rather I have a sense of…. well…. nothing. That’s not exactly
consoling to me. Maybe this is the height of egocentricity, but hasn’t anyone
ever looked at photographs of your family from before you’re born, and felt a
bit of the uncanny about it? Asking for a friend.

In 1714, the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz asked in the Monadology “Why is there something rather than nothing,” and that remains the rub. For Martin Heidegger in the 20th century, that issue remained the “fundamental question of metaphysics.” I proffer no solution to it here, only to notice that when confronted with the enormity of non-existence, prudence forces us to admit the equivalently disturbing question of existence. Physicist Max Delbrück in Mind from Matter: An Essay on Evolutionary Epistemology quotes his colleague Niels Bohr, the father of quantum theory, as having once said that the “hallmark of any deep truth [is] that its negation is also a deep truth.” Certainly, the case with existence and non-existence, equally profound and equally disquieting. If we’re to apply colors to either, I can’t help but see oppositional white and black, with an ambiguity to which is which.

9.If there can be a standard picture of God, I suspect that for most people it is a variation on the bearded, old man in the sky trope, sort of a more avuncular version of Michelangelo’s rendering from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Such is an embodied deity, of dimensions in length, breadth, and width, and also such is the Lord as defined through that modern heresy of literalism. The ancients were often more sophisticated than both our fundamentalists and our atheists (as connected as black and white). Older methods of speaking about something as intractable as God were too often pass over in silence, with an awareness that to limit God to mere existence was to limit too much.

In that silence there was the ever-heavy blossom of blackness, the all-encompassing field of darkness that contains every mystery to which there aren’t even any questions. Solzhenitsyn observed that “even blackness [can]… partake of the heavens.” Not even blackness, but especially blackness, for dark is the night. Theologians call this way of speaking about God “apophasis.” For those who embrace apophatic language, there is an acknowledgement that a clear definition of the divine is impossible, so that it is better to dwell in sacred, uncertainties. This experience of God can often be a blackness in itself, what St. John of the Cross spoke of in his 1577 Spanish poem “The Dark Night of the Soul.” Content with how an absence can often be more holy than an image, the saint emphasized that such a dark night is “lovelier than the dawn.” A profound equality in undifferentiated blackness, in that darkness where features, even of God, are obscured. Maybe the question of whether or not God is real is as nonsensical as those issues of non-existence and death; maybe the question itself doesn’t make any sense, understanding rather that God isn’t just black. God is blackness.

10. On an ivory wall within the National Gallery, in Andrew Mellon’s palace constructed within this gleaming white city, there is a painting made late in life by Mark Rothko entitled Black on Grey. Measuring some 80 inches by 69.1 inches, the canvas is much taller than the average man, and true to its informal title it is given over to only two colors—a dark black on top fading into a dusty lunar grey below. Few among Rothko’s contemporaries in his abstract expressionist circle, that movement that moved the capital of the art world from Paris to New York, had quite the sublimity of color as he did. Jackson Pollock certainly had the kinetic frenzy of the drip, Willem de Kooning the connection to something still figurative in his pastel swirl. But Rothko, he had a panoply of color, from his nuclear oranges and reds to those arctic blues and pacific greens, what he described to Selden Rodman in Conversations with Artists as a desire to express “basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom.”

Black on Grey looks a bit like what I imagine it would be to survey the infinity of space from the emptiness of the moon’s surface. These paintings towards the end of the artist’s life, made before he committed suicide by barbiturate and razor blade in his East 69th Street studio, took an increasingly melancholic hue. Perhaps Rothko experienced what his friend the poet Frank O’Hara had written about as the “darkness I inhabit in the midst of sterile millions.” Rothko confirmed that his black paintings were, as with Goya, fundamentally about death.

In a coffee-table book, Rothko’s work can look like something from a paint
sample catalog. It does no justice compared to standing before the images
themselves, of what Rothko described as the phenomenon of how “people break
down and cry when confronted with my pictures.” For Rothko, such reactions were
a type of communion, these spectators were “having the same religious experience
I had when I painted them.” When you stand before Black on Grey, when
it’s taken out from the sterile confines of the art history book or the
reductions of digital reproduction, you’re confronted with a blackness that
dominates your vision, as seeing with your eyes closed, as experiencing death,
as standing in the empty Holy of Holies and seeing God.

With a giant field of black, the most elemental abstraction that could be
imagined, this Jewish mystic most fully practiced the stricture to not make any
graven image. He paradoxically arrived at the most accurate portrayal of God
ever committed to paint. For all of their oppositions, both Infinity and
Nothing become identical, being the same shade of deep and beautiful black, so
that any differences between them are rendered moot.

Image credit: Unsplash/David Jorre.

The Millions 2015 Gift Guide for Readers, Writers and the People Who Love Them

Welcome to The Millions 4th Annual Gift Guide! As usual, we’ve got gifts sure to delight all the writers and readers in your life, and maybe something for your niece—the one you don’t know that well, but who apparently likes books.

For the Champion of the Written Word

Book & Hero bookend, $25

Do you have a friend who wrinkles her nose at the sight of your e-reader? Who uses actual bookmarks? Who may be single-handedly responsible for the solvency of your local independent bookstore? Then this is the perfect bookend for her—or anyone who thinks literature needs saving.

For the Autodidact

The Novel: A Biography, by Michael Schmidt, $30

This is an ambitious book for ambitious reader. To quote Jonathan Russell Clark, writing for this site, it’s a big book, really big: “At just under 1,200 pages, the book tackles the subject of the novel in English, a 700-year history. Its pages are densely researched and necessarily erudite. The print is small, and the thing weighs over six pounds. It took me over two months to read it in its entirety. Like I said, it’s big.”

Buy this for anyone who is trying to catch up on all the literature classes they didn’t get around to taking—which is basically anyone who majored in English.

For the Aspiring Writer

The Small Magazine Publication Kit

Many writers get their start with publications in small magazines. But, as anyone who has submitted to small magazines knows, it’s a time-consuming and sneakily costly process. So, help out your aspiring friend with what I’m calling “The Small Magazine Publication Kit”, which includes subscriptions to Poets & Writers magazine ($16.95), Duotrope ($50), and Journal of the Month ($40-105), along with The Rumpus’s inimitable Write Like A Motherfucker mug ($15). Maybe include a pound of coffee, too.

For the Writer-in-Residence

Lumio Book Lamp, $190

The ideal travel lamp for the writer who wants to bring a touch a style to his hotel room, Yaddo cabin, or Amtrak berth. It folds up like a real book, for easy portability.

For the Sensible Nostalgist 

A Visual Compendium of Typewriters, $29

This print is perfect for the person who loves the look of typewriters but is too practical to use anything but a laptop.

For the Pyromaniac Perfectionist

Banned Books Matchbooks, $9.95

Why throw away your first draft when you could torch it? Why throw a book across a room when you could light it on fire? Like the banned books they commemorate, these matches are almost too beautiful to burn.

For the Romantic

What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford, $40

Until this year, Frank Stanford’s poetry has been available mainly through used booksellers, but in April, Copper Canyon Press published his collected poems, a 732-page volume that deserves to be read by moonlight — preferably a hot summer night when the air-conditioning is broken and the only entertainment is a bottle of whiskey and a slightly out-of-tune piano. Raw and emotional, Stanford’s poems will floor the uninitiated and thrill the already converted.

For the Literary Critic

Squirrel in Underpants Ornament, $14.95

Every literary critic has an appetite for the ridiculous. As James Wood once wrote for The New Yorker, “How absurd that I should be paid to write book reviews!” The best thing about this gift is that you can never have too many of them.

For The Millions Completist

All of the Books in the Millions Hall of Fame, ~$1,200

You know those ads where it’s Christmas morning and somebody—usually the wife—says, “look out the window, honey” and there’s a shiny new car parked outside in the driveway? Well, this is the literary equivalent of that gift, except it’s several thousand dollars cheaper and you don’t need to track down an enormous red bow—though, you may need to buy a new bookshelf.

In Honor of Paris

Joie de Livres print, $45

Paris, we love you, we love your books, we love your booksellers, we love your cafes, and most of all, we love your spirit—one that has provided inspiration and refuge to writers from around the world.

The Millions Top Ten: April 2015

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for April.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
3.

My Brilliant Friend
5 months

2.
8.

All the Light We Cannot See
6 months

3.
5.

The Strange Library

5 months

4.
7.

Dept. of Speculation

5 months

5.
6.

The David Foster Wallace Reader

4 months

6.
10.

The Buried Giant

2 months

7.
9.

Loitering: New and Collected Essays

4 months

8.


The First Bad Man: A Novel
1 month

9.


The Girl on the Train
1 month

10.


The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing
1 month

 

Major shake-ups this month as we bid adieu to three Top Ten fixtures of the past six months. After half a year of consistent success, Michael Schmidt’s door-stopping biography of the novel goes to our Hall of Fame, along with Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. This is the third time a Millions staffer has had their own work graduate to the site’s Hall of Fame, and in so doing, Emily St. John Mandel joins site founder C. Max Magee (The Late American Novel) and site writer Mark O’Connell (Epic Fail) on the list.

How fitting it is, too, that in our first Springtime Top Ten, we welcome three new, fresh additions to our list!

Checking in at #8 is Miranda July’s The First Bad Man, which was previewed in our Great 2015 Book Preview. July was also interviewed for our site in January, and at the time she described the inspiration for her novel in terms sure to salt the wound of anyone who’s ever struggled with writer’s block:
Well, the inspiration came very suddenly. I literally just had the idea on a long drive: of Cheryl and Clee, and their relationship and how it changed. I even knew that there would be a baby at the end and that Cheryl would end up alone with it. So that all came in a few minutes, which was very lucky and I still thank the gods for that.
Next on our list is Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train, which was recently shouted out by Jon Ronson in his By the Book column for the New York Times Book Review. Hawkins’s novel has been described elsewhere as “an ingenious slant on the currently fashionable amnesia thriller,” and “a gripping, down-the-rabbit-hole thriller.”

Keeping with our “Spring” motif, we also welcome Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up to our April list, most likely as we all begin in earnest to at least think about finally doing some Spring cleaning. In her review, our own Janet Potter noted that Kondo’s work lays out “a method for cleaning and reorganizing your home that might be crazy and might be brilliant, but works either way.”

Next month, we should clear up at least one spot for another newcomer. Will it be one of these “Near Misses” at the bottom of this post, or will it be something else entirely?

Near Misses: To Rise Again at a Decent HourMy Struggle: Book 1An Untamed State, The Paying Guests and Everything I Never Told You. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: March 2015


 

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for March.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

The Novel: A Biography
6 months

2.
2.

Station Eleven
6 months

3.
3.

My Brilliant Friend
4 months

4.
5.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

6 months

5.
7.

The Strange Library

4 months

6.
6.

The David Foster Wallace Reader

3 months

7.
9.

Dept. of Speculation
4 months

8.
8.

All the Light We Cannot See

5 months

9.
10.

Loitering: New and Collected Essays

3 months

10.


The Buried Giant
1 month

 

Well, folks, it’s happened. The enduring success of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks has pushed the author to a Millions echelon so high that it’s never before been reached. That’s right: Mitchell is now the only author in site history to reach our hallowed Hall of Fame for three (count ’em!) different works.

And with The Bone Clocks joining his past works, Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Mitchell’s latest achievement puts him ahead of David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest,The Pale King), Junot Díaz (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, This Is How You Lose Her), Stieg Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon TattooThe Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest), Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies), Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, Freedom), George Saunders (Tenth of December, Fox 8), and Dave Eggers (Zeitoun, The Circle), each of whom authored two Hall of Fame titles. Maybe this repeated success will be enough to coax him into a Year in Reading 2015 appearance. (ARE YOU LISTENING, PUBLICISTS?)

Joining this month’s list thanks to The Bone Clocks’s graduation is Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, The Buried Giant. It’s a book “about war and memory,” wrote Millions staffer Lydia Kiesling in her extremely personal review of the work for this site. “But it is also about love and memory, and you don’t need to have lived through an atrocity to get it.”

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that our own Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which is poised to graduate to our Hall of Fame next month, was the recent winner of The Morning News’s annual Tournament of Books. (It beat out Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, which is also on our Top Ten.) The novel, which has earned the praise of George R. R. Martin, took the final match-up by a score of 15-2, which should be decisive enough to persuade all of you who haven’t yet bought the book to do so immediately.

Join us next month as we graduate three books and open the doors for three newcomers. Will they be among the “Near Misses” below, or will they be something new entirely?

Near Misses: My Struggle: Book 1, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, An Untamed State, The Paying Guests and The First Bad Man. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: February 2015


 

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for February.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

The Novel: A Biography
5 months

2.
2.

Station Eleven
5 months

3.
4.

My Brilliant Friend
3 months

4.
3.

The Bone Clocks

6 months

5.
5.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North
5 months

6.
6.

The David Foster Wallace Reader

2 months

7.
7.

The Strange Library
3 months

8.
8.

All the Light We Cannot See

4 months

9.
9.

Dept. of Speculation

3 months

10.
10.

Loitering: New and Collected Essays
2 months

 

I’m not going to pull any punches with you, Millions readers. This is the most boring update to our Top Ten in the history of the Top Ten. Not a single new title has cracked our list, and the flipping of My Brilliant Friend and The Bone Clocks is the only movement on the list whatsoever.

That in mind, let’s take a look at this month’s crop.

In first place is the hefty Novel: A Biography, a book that has been on the list for five months. Last month, it was also the first on the list. The hardcover book is 1,200 pages long, published by Belknap Press, and measures 2.2 x 6.5 x 10.5 inches. Its ISBN-13, which serves as its identification number to industry insiders and computer systems alike, is 978-0674724730. There is also an ISBN-10 used for identifying the book on Amazon, and in our website’s shortlink system. That number is 0674724739. The list price of the book is $39.95, which at the time of this writing translates to approximately ¥4,776.62, £25.98, and R$116.18 in Japanese, English, and Brazilian currencies, respectively.

Next on the list is Station Eleven, which is exactly 6 inches wide and 8.5 inches long. You would need to lay 185,614,983.5 copies of this book end-to-end if you wanted them to circle the Earth. The book’s shipping weight of 1.2 pounds means it weighs more than three fully-grown pygmy marmosets, which each account for only 4.9 ounces apiece. There are three unique vowels in the first word used for this book’s title; the second word in this book’s title uses the same vowel three times.

My Brilliant Friend is the book in third place this month, and this is the book’s third month on our list. The book’s cover features an illustration of three little girls, and there are three words in the book’s title. It is three hundred and thirty one pages long. So far I have written three sentences in this paragraph, excepting this one.

The fourth book on the Top Ten this month is The Bone Clocks, which is published by Random House. Random House’s United States headquarters are located in New York City, but the publisher’s contact information page lists addresses in Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Germany, India, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, United Kingdom, Uruguay, and Venezuela as well. The chief exports of Uruguay are meat, wool, and hides and skins. Uruguay declared independence in 1825, but that independence was not recognized by Brazil until 1828.

At 352 pages, a hardcover copy of The Narrow Road to the Deep North is exactly 1.3 inches thick. You could stack 66 copies of the book in a pile and that pile would be slightly taller than Shaquille O’Neal. Because this book is 9.6 inches tall and 6.5 inches wide, and because a stack of 66 copies would top off above seven feet in height, you could lie down on the floor staring up at the stack and it would appear, in a certain way, and with the right perspective, as if the stack of Narrow Road to the Deep North books was forming a sort of narrow road to the deep sky, if that makes any sense at all, which perhaps it doesn’t.

Sixth on this month’s list is The David Foster Wallace Reader. A Google search of David Foster Wallace’s name yields 31,400,000 results in 0.22 seconds. That same search on Bing results in 2,050,000 results. My attempt to search AltaVista did not yield any results, as apparently Googling for AltaVista now directs people to Yahoo’s search page. A similar nostalgic search did prove to me that Ask Jeeves is still alive and kicking, however.

The New York Knicks had a pitiful 4-15 record on December 2nd, the day The Strange Library was published in America. Since then, the Knicks have “improved” to 12-46 at the time of this writing. The Strange Library, meanwhile, has reached the seventh spot on our Top Ten.

All the Light We Cannot See remains in the eighth spot this month. The ninth spot belongs to Dept. of Speculation. In tenth position is Loitering: New and Collected Essays. If you bought all three of these books and put them in a tote bag with a can of Coca-Cola, the contents of that bag would weigh a total of 3.6 pounds.

Join us next month to see if we can shake things up a bit further!

Near Misses: My Struggle: Book 1, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, An Untamed State, The Paying Guests and The First Bad Man. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: January 2015


 

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for January.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

The Novel: A Biography
4 months

2.
2.

Station Eleven
4 months

3.
3.

The Bone Clocks
5 months

4.
5.

My Brilliant Friend

2 months

5.
6.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North
4 months

6.


The David Foster Wallace Reader

1 month

7.
7.

The Strange Library
2 months

8.
8.

All the Light We Cannot See

3 months

9.
10.

Dept. of Speculation

2 months

10.


Loitering: New and Collected Essays
1 month

 

Happy New Year and glad tidings to you and yours. It’s 2015 now; the year we’ve been promised hoverboards and self-lacing sneakers. We have half of these things (so far), and we also have two new entrants to our hallowed Hall of Fame: Reading Like a Writer and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.

Overall, though, there is little change beyond the calendar. Our top-ranking book, The Novel: A Biography, remains the same for a second consecutive month, a second consecutive year. It’s followed by our own Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which concerns itself with, among other things, a contagious disease that brings about the disintegration of civilization. (Et tu, California*?)

And yet, the dawn of the new year does come with some new additions as well. Cracking our list in the tenth position is two-time Year in Reading alumnus (one, two) Charles D’Ambrosio’s widely acclaimed essay collection, Loitering. In her review for our site, staffer Hannah Gersen identified the qualities of the work that make it so impressive:
What I admired most about these essays is the way each one takes its own shape, never conforming to an expected narrative or feeling the need to answer all the questions housed within. D’Ambrosio allows his essays their ambivalence, and this gives ideas space to move freely across time, so that even “Seattle, 1974,” which was published twenty years ago, reflecting upon a time twenty years before, speaks to the present day.
Higher up on the list, in the sixth spot, we find Little, Brown’s nearly 1,000-page long omnibus, The David Foster Wallace Reader. It’s a collection composed of excerpts and full-length pieces from David Foster Wallace’s oeuvre, as selected by a dozen writers and critics, such as Hari Kunzru and Anne Fadiman. These pieces and their afterwords, wrote Jonathan Russell Clark, appeal equally to new readers and longtime devotees alike:
For those unfamiliar with Wallace, the Reader will hopefully spark enough interest in his work to help some readers get over just how damned intimidating his writing can be. … For Wallace fans, however, TDFWR is a chance to go back and read some of his most inventive and brilliant pieces, but more than that it’s an opportunity to reassess Wallace’s work, to judge it chronologically and thus progressively, and by doing so reacquaint one’s self to this incredible writer and thinker and person.
Next month, we’ll watch closely to see if David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks will come one month closer to the Hall of Fame. As I noted last September, doing so would make Mitchell the only author to have reached The Millions’s Hall of Fame for three separate works.

*Was that a measles reference, or a pun related to another Millions staffer’s recent novel? Why not both?

Near Misses: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, My Struggle: Book 1, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of PilgrimageAn Untamed State, and The Paying Guests. See Also: Last month’s list.

Biography: The Incredible Expanding Form

A biography, according to my American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, is “an account of a person’s life written, composed, or produced by another.” Yet, in recent years, a number of writers have been stretching this definition. Nowadays, human beings are no longer the sole suitable subjects for a biography, which is coming to mean an account of just about anything’s life, or history, or essence. These things include cities, literary forms, integers, currency, animals, and automobiles, to name a few.

Why are people writing biographies of such things now? Is it because contemporary writers are more imaginative and open-minded than their predecessors? Or are they simply more desperate for subject matter that hasn’t already been chewed to death? Or could it be some combination of the two?

While I don’t claim to know the answer, I do have a theory that the expanding field of worthy subjects for biographies is related to the expanding field of worthy subjects for serious academic and historical inquiry. The latest example of this high-low trend is Harvard history professor Jill Lepore’s current bestseller, The Secret History of Wonder Woman. It joins a growing shelf of serious books about such everyday objects as salt, cod, pop songs, and the pencil (and, yes, how to sharpen a pencil).

Here is a sampling of a half dozen things that have become the subject of biographies by writers who have stretched the conventional definition of the form, to sometimes stunning effect.

A City
Scott Martelle, a former reporter for The Detroit News, like so many people who grew up in Detroit or spent a sizeable chunk of time there, became fascinated by the place. The result is Detroit: A Biography, a book that makes no pretense of being an exhaustive history, but is, rather, “a book about life, and human nature, and about a city as a living and breathing thing.”

And it succeeds at telling the remarkable story of this city’s life, beginning with its “difficult childhood” as a French trading outpost in the early 18th century, its adolescence as a manufacturer of stoves, carriages and rail cars, its brawny adulthood as the center of the world’s automobile industry, and its surprisingly swift decline into decrepit old age. But Martelle, like many smart observers in recent years, does not write Detroit off, nor does he buy into the hackneyed theories about what caused the city to fall so far, so fast — such tidy scapegoats as the bloody 1967 riot, or the troubled 20-year reign of Mayor Coleman Young. The city’s population peaked in 1950, Martelle notes, the point at which government policies, corporate business practices, and century-old racial animosities began to drain the city of jobs and population.

“White flight wasn’t the only force emptying Detroit,” Martelle writes. “During the 1950s the Big Three automakers and other leading industrial concerns embarked on massive decentralization plans to build factories closer to regional customer bases around the country, but also to try to reduce one of the main pressure on profit margins: the cost of labor.” White flight was also greased by aggressive highway building and entrenched (and racist) real-estate policies that benefited the suburbs at the expense of the inner city. In hindsight, there was almost no way for Detroit to fail to fail.

This biography ends on a cautiously hopeful note. The Motor City may be gone forever — “Large-scale industry will not lead whatever comeback might be possible,” Martelle correctly writes — but he sees signs of hope, including a newly vibrant downtown, many solid neighborhoods, an influx of entrepreneurs, urban farmers, and creative people, a growing sense that Detroit still matters and that it still has a chance.

Recent developments indicate Martelle’s optimism might not be misplaced. His book was published in 2011, two years before Detroit became the largest city to declare bankruptcy in American history. The city has just emerged from bankruptcy, far more quickly than expected, and with many valuable assets, including its coveted Institute of Arts, intact. Maybe a new chapter is opening in the life story of this impossibly tortured, impossibly resilient city.

A Literary Form
In setting out to write the life story of our age’s dominant literary form, Michael Schmidt decided to bypass critics, historians, and, yes, biographers. Instead, The Novel: A Biography is “mainly told by novelists and through novels,” or what Schmidt, echoing Ford Madox Ford, calls “artist practitioners.” The book is staggering — it covers more than 700 years and runs to more than 1,000 pages. Jonathan Russell Clark tried to grasp the scope of Schmidt’s achievement in an essay here at The Millions, noting that a key to its success is the author’s avoidance of literary theory in favor of a dissection of literary influences. It proves to be a wise choice. And Schmidt, for all his erudition, isn’t shy about injecting his personal opinions, which contribute to this biography’s rumbustious vitality. He prefers David Foster Wallace’s essays to his novels; he disses Samuel Richardson and Michael Crichton; he’s very fond of Virginia Woolf, Hilary Mantel, and Martin Amis; he adores Miguel de Cervantes; and he sticks up for Stephen King. In a nice bit of symmetry, he concludes that the novel is every bit as elastic as the elastic notion of biography that inspired him to write this book. The novel’s great strength, in Schmidt’s view, is its slipperiness, its ability to change shapes, its capacity to absorb material from endless sources, including music, art, history, life, and, of course, other novels. In a final twist, Clark argues in his essay that this biography isn’t a biography after all: “The Novel, I believe, is a novel, the protagonist a murky, somewhat indescribable figure ––the ultimate unreliable narrator — that Schmidt renders as real and human and flawed as anyone else before him.”

An Integer
In his anecdotal, entertaining book, Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, the mathematician Charles Seife describes his subject as “infinity’s twin,” adding that “zero is different from the other numbers. It provides a glimpse of the ineffable and the infinite. This is why it has been feared and hated — and outlawed.”

Ranging over 30,000 years, from the carvings of prehistoric man to the musings of today’s astrophysicists, Seife’s biography notes that Babylonians were using zero 300 years B.C., and Alexander the Great carried zero to India. But the resistance to zero in the West was not overcome until the Renaissance, with the advent of the vanishing point in art, an innovation that could accommodate the twinned concepts of zero and infinity. Since then it has proven useful to everyone from accountants to people trying to envision black holes as stars packed into “zero space.”

Seife concludes, “All that scientists know is that the cosmos was spawned from nothing, and will return to the nothing from whence it came. The universe begins and ends with zero.” A worthy subject for a biography, indeed.

A Currency
Pity the poor almighty dollar. There are 760 billion of them circulating in the world, but two-thirds of them live far from home, in chilly places like the central bank vault in Seoul, South Korea. The dominant global currency since the end of the Second World War, the dollar has recently come under attack, most directly by the European Union’s solid euro and China’s newly muscular yuan, but also by shortsighted policies of the U.S. government. Things have gotten so dire that in his near-future satire, Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart has Americans spending nearly worthless “yuan-pegged dollars.” The funny thing about the joke is that it isn’t all that far-fetched.

In Biography of the Dollar, his story of the rise and suddenly precarious position of this once-almighty currency, Wall Street Journal reporter Craig Karmin lays out an astonishing fact. Since the United States went off the gold standard in 1971, the dollar’s value has been built on the thinnest of tissues: faith in the idea of America. And we all know how flimsy that is.

Karmin notes that the dollar’s historical solidity has done much to lift many global economies. But there is a downside: “Enduring demand for the dollar has also encouraged the United States to run up enormous — some would say unsustainable — foreign debts and record deficits.” The U.S., he adds, pays $1 million each day for every man, woman, and child living in the country — just to service its debt. Which leads Karmin to a scary conclusion: “Too many dollars may be circulating the planet and could be setting the greenback up for a big fall.” Which explains his subtitle: How the Mighty Buck Conquered the World and Why It’s Under Siege.

Be afraid. Be very afraid. And you might want to consider buying gold — or euros or yuan — while you’re at it.

An Animal
Writing biographies about non-human subjects, it turns out, is not an invention of our times. Back in the late 19th century, a prolific author, wildlife artist, and environmentalist named Ernest Thompson Seton wrote a delightfully weird novel that purported to reveal the inner life of a grizzly bear. The Biography of a Grizzly tells the story of Wahb, a grizzly cub in western Canada who watches as his mother and three siblings are gunned down by a bad bag of applesauce named Old Colonel Pickett, the cattle king. The orphaned Wahb nurses his own wound and lives a long, lonely, bitter life, so traumatized by the killing of his family that he never takes a mate. Wahb is a sensitive giant, besieged by enemies on every side, as when a beaver trap snaps shut on his paw: “He did not know what it was, but his little green-brown eyes glared with a mixture of pain, fright and fury as he tried to understand his new enemy.”

The book was preceded by Seton’s Wild Animals I Have Known, which portrayed wolves and other animals as compassionate individualistic beings. It became one of the bestselling books of its day, part of a wave of books advocating animal rights by featuring anthropomorphic wild animals that had emotions and were capable of learning, teaching, and reasoning. Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty and Jack London’s White Fang were part of the wave, which eventually inspired a backlash by critics who derided such books as “yellow journalism of the woods.” President Theodore Roosevelt, whose love for the outdoors was surpassed only by his love for slaughtering wild animals, weighed in with a magazine article in 2007, dismissing Seton and company as “nature fakers.” Teddy had nerve.

A Car
Earl Swift published a book this year called Auto Biography, which is, quite literally, the story of the life of a single car — a 1957 Chevrolet station wagon. Swift, a pit-bull of a reporter, tracked down the man who bought the shiny new car in Norfolk, Va., in 1957, and every one of the dozen people who have owned it since, right up to a bruiser named Tommy Arney who rescued the car from the scrap heap and lovingly restored it to its original glory. The car’s owners, Swift writes, represent “a cross section of America in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first, all of them players in a single narrative for having sat behind the wheel of this Chevy.”

Swift’s ingenious narrative strategy reminds me of Marguerite Yourcenar’s in her novel A Coin In Nine Hands, which follows the journey of a 10-lira coin as it passes through the hands of nine very different people on a single day in Rome in 1933. These nine people, like the dozen owners of the ’57 Chevy, are linked in ways they cannot explain or understand. But in the hands of a gifted writer, just about anything — a car, a coin, a ring, a book, a smell, a memory — can be an opening into the mysteries of human connectivity.

In closing — and in the interest of full disclosure — I should tell you that my interest in the elastic nature of biography dates back more than 20 years. In the early 1990s, I was driving a luscious lipstick-red and black 1954 Buick Special, a car that became my Muse and a central character in my first novel, which told the story of a fictional publicity campaign built around the sale of the 500,000th Buick in 1954, when Buick and rival Plymouth were locked in an actual sales war for the number three slot behind Chevy and Ford. Since the novel’s arc followed that particular Buick from conception to birth to infancy — from the drawing board to the assembly line to the showroom to the first buyer’s driveway and finally onto a magazine cover — I came to think of the novel as the life story of the car. And so my working title was Biography of a Buick.

As publication neared, my editor contacted Buick’s PR people in Detroit, hoping they might somehow help us promote the book. Instead they bristled, threatening legal action if a General Motors brand name appeared in the title. My editor had no desire to go up against GM’s legal department, and so he persuaded me, kicking and screaming, to change the title to Motor City.

With time I’ve grown to like the title, maybe because I ended up getting a consolation prize. The novel also sold in Great Britain and Germany, and my publishers there, unfazed by the huffing of GM’s legal department, stuck with my original title. So the book came out in England as Biography of a Buick and in Germany as Biographie eines Buick. I got to have it both ways, and the life story of my car was destined to have a life of its own.

The Millions Top Ten: December 2014


 

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for December.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
4.

The Novel: A Biography
3 months

2.
2.

Station Eleven
3 months

3.
1.

The Bone Clocks
4 months

4.
6.

Reading Like a Writer
6 months

5.


My Brilliant Friend
1 month

6.
7.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

3 months

7.


The Strange Library
1 month

8.
10.

All the Light We Cannot See

2 months

9.
3.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

6 months

10.


Dept. of Speculation
1 month

 

Ohio State over Alabama wasn’t the only New Year’s upset: in the first Top Ten of 2015, Millions readers propelled a mammoth, scholarly 1,200-page history of the novel ahead of David Mitchell’s latest. That’s right. The Novel: A Biography is our new number one. Let us all join hands as we usher in a new age dominated not by the Crimson Tide and kaleidoscopic fiction but instead by the Buckeyes and literary history. (Or you could read the review that started it all.)

And that’s not the only surprise this month, either. Two fixtures in our most recent Top Ten lists — Haruki Murakami and Karl Ove Knausgaard — saw their latest works — Colorless Tsukuru and My Struggle — drop out of our standings altogether. (Have no fear, Murakami fans: your darling remains on this month’s list with the debut of The Strange Library, which Buzz Poole recently described as a heavily illustrated 96-page paperback that “like … so much of Murakami’s fiction, questions the differences between what is real and what is not, and whether such a distinction even matters.”)

Moving along, it seems apparent that our recent Year in Reading series motivated a good number of Millions readers to purchase works by Elena Ferrante and Jenny Offill. In the case of Ferrante, whose My Brilliant Friend debuts this month in our list’s fifth spot, we probably have Charles Finch to thank. He’s the one who wrote, “I read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy this year. I read it twice, actually. It made me want to quit writing.” For her part, Offill’s Dept. of Speculation earned heaps of praise in the series entries from Rachel Fershleiser, Scott Cheshire, and Dinaw Mengestu. (And Sam Lipsyte, way back in ’13.)

Meanwhile our own Emily St. John Mandel maintains a strong presence on the list with Station Eleven, and next month we’ll likely see the graduation of two works— Reading Like a Writer and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves — to our Hall of Fame.

Near Misses: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, My Struggle: Book 1, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, Loitering: New and Collected Essays, and An Untamed State. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Best of The Millions: 2014

The Millions is going to be very quiet this week, a great opportunity for readers to catch up on some of the most notable pieces from the site during the year. To start, we’ll divide the most popular posts on The Millions into two categories, beginning with the 20 most popular pieces published on the site in 2014:

1. Sam Anderson and David Rees decided, for science, to do a deep dive on Dan Brown’s thriller Inferno. The result was Dumbest Thing Ever: Scribbling in the Margins of Dan Brown’s Inferno and some of the funniest marginalia you’ll ever read.

2. Oh, The Favorites You’ll Give: Literary Twitter’s Best Tweets: Many readers are well aware of the many charms that literary Twitter has to offer. We looked at the most “popular” tweets of some of the most well-known literary personalities on Twitter.

3. Style Sheet: A Conversation with My Copyeditor: Our own Edan Lepucki’s made waves this year with her bestselling novel California, and as the book hit shelves, she took the opportunity to show us how the sausage is made. Among several behind-the-scenes interviews, Edan’s visit with her copyeditor proved to be the most fascinating for our readers.

4. Read Me! Please!: Book Titles Rewritten to Get More Clicks: 2014 was the year of clickbait, snippets of twisted English pumped full of hyperbole and lacking in specificity, a concoction designed to wring maximum clicks from readers. Our own Janet Potter and Nick Moran pondered how some literary classics might have employed this same strategy. The results are hilarious… and terrifying.

5. 28 Books You Should Read If You Want To: Leery of proliferating lists exhorting us to read these 100 books (or those 100 completely different books) before we die, Janet Potter concocted her own reading list, one that feels more true to how we find the books that shape our lives. It begins: “You should read the book that you hear two booksellers arguing about at the registers while you’re browsing in a bookstore.”

6. Our pair of Most Anticipated posts were popular among readers looking for something new to read. Our 2015 book preview is coming soon.

7. Commercial Grammar: It’s easy to shrug off bad grammar in a logorrheic age, but Fiona Maazel outlined the danger of letting our language be manhandled by marketers.

8. 55 Thoughts for English Teachers: “All of a sudden, I have been teaching public school English for a decade.” Our own Nick Ripatrazone with some powerful reflections on teaching high school English.

9. Italo Calvino’s Science Fiction Masterpiece: Calvino is beloved for his unique brand of literary fiction, but Ted Gioia argued persuasively that more attention should be paid to Calvino’s “science fiction masterpiece” Cosmicomics.

10. Our star-studded Year in Reading was a big hit across the internet.

11. Only at The Millions could a review — albeit an undeniably persuasive one — of a 1,200-page work of literary criticism be one of the most popular pieces of the year. Jonathan Russell Clark painted a compelling picture of Michael Schmidt’s mammoth The Novel: A Biography

12. The Common Core Vs. Books: When Teachers Are Unable to Foster a Love of Reading in Students: The debate over Common Core standards raged across the U.S. in 2014. Alex Kalamaroff urged readers to reflect on what these standards might mean for the next generation of readers.

13. Shakespeare’s Greatest Play? 5 Experts Share Their Opinions: For the Latest in his series of roundtables, our own Kevin Hartnett asked five experts to name the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays.

14. There Are Two Kinds of Novelists…: Let’s be honest. Our own Matt Seidel is right. When you boil it down, there are really only two kinds of novelists…

15. We Cast The Goldfinch Movie so Hollywood Doesn’t Have To: Word of a film adaptation gave us all the excuse we needed to keep talking about Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Our own Janet Potter and Edan Lepucki saved everyone a lot of trouble and went ahead and put together a cast for the movie.

16. Judging Books by Their Covers 2014: U.S. Vs. U.K.: This unscientific look at book covers had readers taking sides in a trans-Atlantic design debate.

17: Thug: A Life of Caravaggio in Sixty-Nine Paragraphs: Pimp, brawler, Old Master. Stephen Akey introduced us to the epic life of Caravaggio.

18. Here Come the Americans: The 2014 Booker Prize Longlist: Readers love playing along during the annual literary prize season, but the addition of Americans to this year’s Booker Prize was cause for heightened curiosity (and consternation).

19: How to be James Joyce, or the Habits of Great Writers: It’s tempting to think that by copying the habits of the greats, you can become one. Elizabeth Winkler looked at some books about how history’s greatest writers wrote and found habits as widely varied as the books they produced.

20: Cooking with Hemingway: Maybe it’s easier then to simply eat like the greats? Stephanie Bernhard tried cooking like Hemingway and came away sated, if sometimes perplexed.

There are also a number of older pieces that Millions readers return to again and again. This list of top “evergreens” comprises pieces that went up before 2014 but continued to find new readers.

1. The Weird 1969 New Wave Sci-Fi Novel that Correctly Predicted the Current Day: Ted Gioia profiled John Brunner’s uncanny novel Stand on Zanzibar, which included, way back in 1969, a President Obomi and visionary ideas like satellite TV and the mainstreaming of gay lifestyles.

2. Dickens’s Best Novel? Six Experts Share Their Opinions: Kevin Hartnett polled the experts to discover the best on offer from the prolific 19th century master.

3. The Ultimate List: 25 Gifts That Writers Will Actually Use: For the picky writers in your life, Hannah Gerson delivered an array of ideas that will keep the creative juices flowing.

4. The Greatest American Novel? 9 Experts Share Their Opinions: Kevin Hartnett convened a panel of experts to offer their answers on a high-stakes literary question, What is the Great American Novel? The answers he received are thought-provoking, enlightening, and, of course, controversial.

5. The Best of the Millennium (So Far): Our late-2009 series invited a distinguished panel of writers and thinkers to nominate the best books of the decade. The ensuing list stoked controversy and interest that has lingered. The write-ups of the “winner” and runners-up have also remained popular. We also invited our readers to compile a “best of the decade” list. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the readers’ list seemed to receive a warmer reception.

6. Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? 8 Experts on Who’s Greater: Readers also returned to Kevin Hartnett’s Russian lit throwdown, for which he asked eight scholars and avid lay readers to present their cases for Tolstoy or Dostoevsky as the king of Russian literature.

7. A Year in Reading 2013: 2013’s series stayed popular in 2014.

8. Hard to Pronounce Literary Names Redux: the Definitive Edition: Seven years on, our “definitive” literary pronunciation guide is still a favorite at The Millions. There must be a lot of people name-dropping Goethe out there.

9. Ask the Writing Teacher: The MFA Debate: Writers pondering “To MFA or not to MFA” keep finding Edan Lepucki’s thoughtful advice from her popular Ask the Writing Teacher column.

10. How Many Novelists are at Work in America? At the end of 2013, Dominic Smith pondered a scary question. The answer? More than you think.

Where did all these readers come from? Google (and Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and Reddit) sent quite a few of course, but many Millions readers came from other sites too. These were the top 10 sites to send us traffic in 2014:

1. Flavorwire
2. Arts & Letters Daily
3. MetaFilter
4. The Paris Review
5. BookRiot
6. Longform.org
7. The Hairpin
8. The Rumpus
9. NPR
10. New York Times

The Millions Top Ten: November 2014


 

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for November.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

The Bone Clocks
3 months

2.
6.

Station Eleven
2 months

3.
3.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
5 months

4.
4.

The Novel: A Biography
2 months

5.
5.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

4 months

6.
7.

Reading Like a Writer
5 months

7.
10.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

2 months

8.
9.

My Struggle: Book 1

5 months

9.
8.

Cosmicomics
4 months

10.


All the Light We Cannot See
1 month

 

Let it be known that Millions readers are nothing if not prescient: right as Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See enters our Top Ten, he submits a Year in Reading post to our annual series. Not only that, but the series also received an entry from Karen Joy Fowler, whose novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves has been a fixture on the Top Ten for five months now. Y’all were on to something, weren’t you?

Meanwhile, two books graduated out of the Top Ten this month. After appearing on last year’s Most Anticipated round-up, Rachel Cantor’s A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World sustained its dominance of the Top Ten for six straight months. It now joins Samantha Hahn’s Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines — back on the list after a month-long absence — as the 85th and 86th entries to our Hall of Fame.

As an update to past lists, on the other hand, it should be pointed out that we recently ran a review of Richard Flanagan’s Booker-winning novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which now enters its second month on our Top Ten. “There is an endearing overabundance of almost everything in this book, which in its enthusiasm, becomes part of the pleasure,” Anna Heyward wrote. “Readers of this book should do away with all suspicions, and get ready for an avalanche of feeling and sincerity.”

Further down, Karl Ove Knausgaard holds fast in the Top Ten with My Struggle, which advances from the ninth position to eighth on the list. If you haven’t yet seen it, we ran a nice little “Quick Hit” by the Norwegian author a few weeks ago. “I love repetition,” he wrote. “I love doing the same thing at the same time and in the same place, day in and day out.” When it comes to being listed on our Top Ten, who wouldn’t?

Near Misses: The Round House, The Laughing Monsters, The Children Act, 10:04, and Not That Kind of a Girl. See Also: Last month’s list.

Beyond Bookmarks: 10 Gifts For Readers

For the past three years, The Millions has offered a holiday gift list for writers. This year we’d like to give readers their due, with a list of bookish treats. Because where would writers be without readers? Also, let’s face it: discriminating and avid readers can be as difficult to shop for as cranky writers. It’s hard to pinpoint the tastes of a truly omnivorous reader and you always run the risk of buying something they’ve already read. So, for this year’s list, we’ve tried to go beyond book recommendations (although a few snuck in) with a list of items and services that’s a mix of the cozy, the classic, and the curated.

1. An Excellent Reading Chair.
Some swear by an Adirondack chair on the front porch, while others prefer the classic wing chair. For me, the quintessential reading chair is a folding butterfly chair, which you lug out to the backyard with a glass of iced tea and park beneath the shade of a large locust tree. (But since I live on the second floor of a building without a backyard, I’ll have to settle for an apartment-friendly version.) If you live with a reader, maybe this is the year to finally buy them that big, cozy lounger they’ve always wanted, the one that doesn’t have anything to do with your minimalist decorating scheme but which will provide hours of reading pleasure.

2. A Cozy Blanket or Throw.
You’ll need the right blanket to go with that chair. My own personal favorite is a Woolrich blanket, a preference that, like the butterfly wing chair, goes back to childhood. Others might prefer a lightweight throw or wrap. There are thousands of options available this time of year, for a range of budgets. You can spend upwards of $200 on the perfect cashmere blanket, or you can spend $3.99 on a fleece throw from IKEA. Only someone who exclusively reads in the bath would not have a use for this gift.

3. Snacks.
When you’re settling in for a marathon reading session, you need the right snack to keep you going. The subject of snack food always spurs passionate debate, so I decided to contact an expert, Dan Pashman, host of the WNYC podcast The Sporkful and the Cooking Channel web series You’re Eating It Wrong, and the author of the new book Eat More Better: How To Make Every Bite More Delicious for his advice: “There are several considerations when snacking while reading. First and foremost, you don’t want to have to take your eyes off the book. So you need a snack you can eat blind. Second, you may not want to get food all over your hands, because that food will end up all over your book. Therefore I recommend a drinkable snack that you can enjoy through a straw. For some people that might be a smoothie — for others it’s a milkshake. Either way, this option is clean, tidy, and delicious without being distracting.” Of course, it’s hard to give someone a smoothie, especially if you’re mailing it from afar, but you could certainly send a blender, or perhaps an immersion blender, which are handy for making single-servings of milkshakes and smoothies. Reading is, after all, a solitary activity.

For those who to take a more traditional approach to snacks, there’s always tea, cookies, and bon-bons. Opinions vary on whether or not it is wise to enjoy alcoholic beverages while reading, but if you want to match your tipple with your title, you can’t go wrong with this list of book and booze pairings over at Abe Books.

4. Curated Book Subscription.
I grew up with The Library of America, my parents amassing a collection of classic books that I rarely read because the editions were so austerely bound and boxed. But there is a new breed of book subscription out there, services that aren’t in the canon-making business and instead aim to connect readers to writers they might not otherwise discover. Emily Books offers its subscribers one carefully selected e-book per month, for an annual price of $159.99 (or a monthly price of $13.99). It’s an excellent list that leans feminist, autobiographical, and gutsy. At Quarterly Co., Book Riot will send you a surprise package “books and bookish stuff” every three months. Packages are $50 a piece and you can sign up for a year’s worth or just one delivery. Powell’s Books hosts a similar subscription service, Indispensable, which, for $39.95 per mailing, sends readers a special edition of a new book every six weeks. Just the Right Book sends “hand-picked books chosen by a literary expert based on your personal reading tastes and individual preferences.” Subscribers fill out a questionnaire to assess their tastes and choose a subscription plan to meet their price point, which ranges from $90 to $395 per year. Finally, Stack, a U.K.-based company, sends subscribers a different independent magazine every month. These are the beautifully-printed, idiosyncratic magazines you see in bookstores and secretly want to take home, but would never buy for yourself. An annual subscription is £72, about $112.

5. Small Press Book Subscription.
Many small presses also offer book subscriptions, and this is another great way to find titles for adventurous readers who are willing to take a chance on less well-known writers as well as foreign and translated works. If there’s a small press you already know and love, check to see if they offer a subscription package. Otherwise, here are a few recommendations: Coffee House Press and Archipelago Press offer annual subscriptions to their consistently excellent catalogs, at considerable savings. (Coffee House press’s current season is $100, while Archipelago’s 2015 subscription, which includes 10 hardcover books, is $150.) New Vessel Press, which publishes new English translations of foreign literature, offers a subscription to their current season for $75. For $12.99/month (or $6.99 for a digital subscription), Melville House will send you two books from their award-winning “The Art of the Novella” series. Wave Books, an independent poetry publisher based in Seattle, offers signed hardcover and paperback subscriptions to their 2015 season, at $375 and $100, respectively. For a truly extravagant gift, you can make your friend a subscribing partner of Copper Canyon Press. They’ll receive signed copies of all Copper Canyon’s new titles and the knowledge that they are supporting poets around the world.

6. Books About Reading.
For those who really love to read, there are books about reading. I recently enjoyed Rebecca Mead’s My Life In Middlemarch, about reading and rereading George Eliot’s masterpiece. Other titles to consider are 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, by Jane Smiley; Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose; How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster, and Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography, which received a rave review here on The Millions a couple months ago.

7. A Wearable Book.
It’s easy to find tote bags and tee shirts emblazoned with quotations from great books, but how many tee shirts contain the entire text of the book on one tee shirt? Litographs offers strangely mesmerizing posters, tote bags, and tee shirts, that from a distance look like simple graphic designs, but up close contain the entire texts of classic novels and poems. You have to see them to believe them and you have to squint to read them, but you really can carry around Moby-Dick or Hamlet or Walden in tote bag form. That way, even if you finish the books you’re carrying around, you’ll still have something to read.

8. Special Editions of Treasured Books.
At a recent Millions meet-up, there was a debate about special editions of books. Some staffers love a fancy version of a classic novel, while other prefer a grubby paperback they can underline to their heart’s content. I tend toward grubby, but I do treasure a hardcover edition of The World According To Garp that I received as a gift many years ago. It’s not a pristine or valuable copy but I liked seeing the original cover art as well as the slightly idiosyncratic type-setting. You don’t have to spend a lot to find a special version of a favorite book; Etsy and Ebay are fun to browse for collectibles and just plain bizarre titles. For more serious buyers, Abe Books and The Strand have online rare book shops. If you’re looking for pure beauty, check out Folio Books, which reprints classic books in lavishly bound and illustrated editions.

9. Gift Certificate to a Local Independent Bookstore.
Sure, you could email your book-loving friend a gift card to an online bookseller and they probably wouldn’t complain. But why not send them a gift certificate to their local independent bookstore, a place they’d probably love to have an excuse to visit? If your friend lives in a different area, you can use this handy store finder to figure out what bookstore is closest to them.

10. Time to Read.
How do you give someone time to read? It might be as simple as giving permission. A lot of people have trouble putting aside a Saturday afternoon of errand-running/housework/babysitting/gym-going/family-visiting/etc., in order to finish The Goldfinch. So, if there is such a person in your life, take the kid/dog/visiting family out of the house and tell them you’ll be back in a few hours — with dinner.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Millions Top Ten: October 2014


 

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for October.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

The Bone Clocks
2 months

2.
2.

A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World
6 months

3.
3.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
4 months

4.


The Novel: A Biography
1 month

5.
4.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

3 months

6.


Station Eleven
1 month

7.
9.

Reading Like a Writer

4 months

8.
5.

Cosmicomics

3 months

9.
8.

My Struggle: Book 1
4 months

10.


The Narrow Road to the Deep North
1 month

 

Oh, hello there, Emily St. John Mandel! How nice it is to see you on our latest Top Ten, and on the heels of your appearance on an even loftier list, at that!

Since 2010, Emily’s thoughtful reviews and essays have highlighted dozens of novels for Millions readers, and made them aware of both un(der)heralded classics and new releases alike. So in a karmic sense, it’s about time we turn our attention toward Emily’s own fiction. In the words of fellow Millions staffer Bill Morris, “her fourth novel, Station Eleven, [is] a highly literary work set in the near future that focuses on a Shakespearean troupe that travels the Great Lakes region performing for survivors of a flu pandemic that wiped out most of mankind and ended civilization.” (It’s a premise that by Emily’s own admission was made possible at least in part by the success of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.)

Looking at it more generally, though, Morris notes that Station Eleven’s near-future setting affords Emily with some luxuries not typically available to writers focused on the past, or even present, state of the world:
The near future is an alluring time to set fiction because it frees the writer’s imagination in ways that writing about the past does not. Fiction set in the near future frees the writer to build a plausible and coherent world on a known foundation – in a sense, to extrapolate where today’s world is going. It’s a liberating strategy since the future is so patently unknowable; and it’s a timely strategy since people in an anxious age like ours are especially eager to know – or imagine – where we’re headed.
Sounds pretty enticing, if I do say so myself. But, decide on your own. You can whet your appetite by reading the book’s first chapter over here.

Moving along, I turn my attention toward the debut of another newcomer on the Top Ten: The Novel: A Biography. If I’m being honest, I must admit that I feel a distinct sense of pride for being affiliated with a book site whose readers are purchasing enough copies of a 1,200-page history of “the novel” that the tome ranks among our bestsellers. Be proud of yourselves, fellow nerds. The hefty book was tackled by Jonathan Russell Clark in an engaging review in September.

Rounding out this month’s list, we welcome Richard Flanagan’s Booker-winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North to the party (we reviewed the book here), and we bid adieu — probably only for a short time — to Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines, which has fallen out of the rankings after a strong six-month showing, and as a result has missed our Hall of Fame by the skin of its teeth.

Near Misses: The Round House, Well-Read Women, The Children Act, 10:04, and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Art of “The Novel”

Alright, look: Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography is big. Like, really big. In every sense of the word. At just under 1,200 pages, the book tackles the subject of the novel in English, a 700-year history. Its pages are densely researched and necessarily erudite. The print is small, and the thing weighs over six pounds. It took me over two months to read it in its entirety. Like I said, it’s big.

But I am going to try to convince you that The Novel is one of the most important works of both literary history and criticism to be published in the last decade, surpassing even such monumental works as Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors’s A New Literary History of America and John Sutherland’s The Lives of the Novelists. The reason Schmidt’s book is so effective and important has to do with its approach, its scope, and its artistry, which all come together to produce a book of such varied usefulness, such compact wisdom, that it’ll take a lot more than a few reviews to fully understand its brilliant contribution to literary study.

Do I sound hyperbolic? Well, hear me out. First, let’s begin with Schmidt’s approach and its relation to his project’s inevitable place in the canon. Schmidt states, in his introduction, his intention to allow the story of the novel to be “mainly told by novelists and through novels.” Thus he completely eradicates the presence of critics. Rather than a snide excision, this technique enormously improves his enterprise, for what is the most basic element of the novel’s narrative than influence from one practitioner to another? Here we are given Edith Wharton’s preference of calling the Gothic “the eerie,” and Virginia Woolf referring to same as “a parasite, an artificial commodity, produced half in joke in reaction against the current style, or in relief from it.” Here we learn of Jane Austen’s commendation of Maria Edgeworth and how Charles Dickens’s viewed the estate of Sir Walter Scott as “a warning to himself”:

I saw in the vile glass case the last clothes Scott wore. Among them an old white hat, which seemed to be tumbled and bent and broken by the uneasy, purposeless wandering, hither and thither, of his heavy head. It so embodied Lockhart’s pathetic description of him when he tried to write, and laid down his pen and cried, that it associated itself in my mind with broken powers and mental weakness from that hour.

We learn which of H.G. Wells’s novels Henry James viewed as expressing Wells’s “true voice.” We learn that Jonathan Franzen puts Elmore Leonard in the same “entertainer” category as P.G. Wodehouse. We read Michael Crichton’s review of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: “The ultimate difficulty with Vonnegut is precisely this: that he refuses to say who is wrong…He ascribes no blame, sets no penalties.” (Schmidt refers to Crichton’s career as “almost cynically contrived, fiction as speculation.”) I could go on and on with examples, but the point is that, here, collected in one place, we have the largest repository of the greatest novelists’ opinions and views on other novelists. It would take the rest of us going through countless letters and essays and interviews with all these writers to achieve such a feat. Schmidt has done us all a great, great favor.

The approach coupled with the scope (covering, as it does, a huge swath of time) results in maybe the most complete history of the novel in English ever produced. As Schmidt writes early on, he “set out to write this book without an overarching theory of the novel,” which basically means he precludes strict emphasis on historicity, movements, and linear evolution. Instead, he focuses on influence––that beautifully organic (yet inexact) process of thoughts begetting thoughts, ideas begetting ideas and styles begetting styles––which, Schmidt’s book implicitly argues, matters much more than the cultural context of any of the works.

Take, for example, Thomas Love Peacock, a marginal figure now but an important one in his time and, in many ways, the history of literature. The way in which Peacock is presented in The Novel typifies Schmidt’s multitudinous achievement. First of all, Schmidt gives Peacock (like he does for every writer discussed at any length) a short biography, replete with insights into how his circumstances relate to his work: after a lengthy hiatus, it was only after Peacock’s wife died that he “began again, more fluently” to write. Secondly, Schmidt, an uncannily astute critic, punctuates this section (like all sections) with critiques of the authors’ work: Peacock’s “masterpiece,” Crochet Castle (1831) is “marred by a strain of anti-Semitism” and “complemented by a vexing hostility to the Scots and their Caledonian hubris.” Moreover, Peacock himself…

…is memorable for the brightness of the entertainment, the leavening and sweetening of the verses breaking the dialogue, changing the key of a description. How various are Peacock’s poetic registers: he can do the voices of the Romantics (Byron in particular), and he can do his own voice.

But what makes Peacock as rendered by Schmidt so fascinating (and Schmidt makes countless writers function this same way) is way he’s contextualized within the framework of other writers. John Fowles, Schmidt tells us, referred to him as “Austen-drowned Peacock,” as Peacock “came in the wake of another writer whose success eclipses his as surely as Shakespeare’s eclipses Ben Jonson’s.” Austen has, in the centuries since, become the esteemed figure; Peacock may have had a better position in the canon if it weren’t for such basically arbitrary timing. Moreover, Peacock was the man who inspired Percy Shelley’s A Defense of Poetry, a vital work of criticism, “though all references to Peacock have been edited out of modern editions.” Further, Peacock relationship to Shelly and his wife Mary, leads to many odd synchronicities. Peacock’s book Nightmare Alley (which itself has much in common with Austen’s Northanger Abbey) was published the same year as Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, 1818. Shelley’s novel nearly succumbed to the same legacy of Peacock, namely that it almost didn’t have one. “Half a century ago,” Schmidt writes, “in The English Novel, Walter Allen did not mention Mary Shelley,” for her book “remained a feature of children’s horror literature” and “was not taken seriously.” But Shelley, who resented her husband’s patronage of Peacock (who became her husband’s executor), has since been critically reconsidered, while Peacock remains in the formidable shadows of extraordinary contemporaneous women.

I’ve barely even scratched at the first third of Schmidt’s book here, but I have to accept certain limitations reviewing Schmidt’s masterpiece. There is simply too much to represent to you. Later, as the story moves closer to the present and the structure of his book takes considerably more radical forms (such as the virtuoso chapter “Truths in Fictions, the Metamorphosis of Journalism”), Schmidt furthers his technique and, more importantly, his almost/kind of/sort of thesis, which is that the novel’s refusal to be accurately categorized, or concretely defined by such-and-such characteristics, is its principal quality. It has an almost osmotic ability to absorb features from various other sources, to combine elements from art and reality to depict something closer to actual lived experience, yet still remain stubbornly artificial, autonomous, so that the distinctions between art and life are starkly clear. Consequently, the novel form’s multiplicity allows, like novels themselves, for dimensions of inexpressible depth. Despite all of Schmidt’s hundreds of thousands of words on the subject, in the end the only term he has for this quality is a “something.”

Which brings me to Schmidt’s astounding artistry. None of what I’ve described above would have mattered in the least had Schmidt’s prose been a snoozer to read. But in every way possible––from entertaining style to convincing authority to elements of undeniable personality––Schmidt’s writing is a triumph of critical acumen and aesthetic elegance. Unafraid to insert his opinions, Schmidt declares, for example, that David Foster Wallace’s “importance as writer…is in the essays he wrote and the original ways in which he wrote them,” not his novels. About Samuel Richardson, Schmidt proclaims in exasperation: “Yet how tedious Samuel Richardson can be!” He defends Stephen King, saying that although his “bibliography is vast…the novels are generally substantial and serious in intent.” Again, I could go on and on. Similarly, Schmidt is willing to invoke personal memories while discussing a text. On James Fenimore Cooper, he notes that his father read The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 (1826) to him and his brother because Cooper’s novels were “assumed to be good books for reading aloud,” and that he, Schmidt, was “haunted” by “scenes of brutality.”

Schmidt occasionally surprises with the beauty of his prose––as when he writes of William Beckford that in Vathek: an Arabian Tale (1786), “The reality of the novel merges with the stage paste of romantic masque”––as well as his humor. He notes that Mary Shelley was “linked to that of the American writer Washington Irving,” but that a romance was unlikely, “Irving being a confirmed bachelor or, modern biographers suggest, ‘a confirmed bachelor.'” Or when he finally arrives at a full-on chapter about Modernism, he opens it with this cheeky introduction: “It is not possible to postpone the high tides of modernism any longer,” as if, like history itself, he tried valiantly to resist it.

But it is the narrative, as told by Schmidt, that wows. He is able make a story with no “characters,” a novel with no “plot,” feel as dramatic and absorbingly propulsive as the best kinds of fiction. Part of this has to do with Schmidt’s apparent passion, which appears on every single page, but most of the tome’s energy comes straight from Schmidt’s preclusion of a strict critical approach. He wants to tell a story, not espouse indirectly the import of a given critical approach. Thus, he combines biography, analysis, memoir, and history into a hybrid monster, a modern Prometheus revitalized by Schmidt’s ambition and skill. He’s just so damned sensible, it’s hard to not follow his voice wherever it goes.

That Schmidt refuses, in such a lengthy work, to provide an overall assessment of the novel itself (save for his “something”) remains the book’s greatest strength. As Susan Sontag points out in her seminal essays “Against Interpretation” and “On Style,” the tendency to reduce a given work down to what it’s really saying is gravely erroneous. The illusory distinction between “form” and “content” is needless and harmfully furthers the notion that a “curtain could be parted and the matter revealed.” Style is not, in other words, the mere packaging of content, to be ripped open for the present inside. For anyone to try to objectively name the true “meaning” of an individual novel––i.e. to state the work’s content––would be, ultimately, doing a disservice to the art. Schmidt, too, understands this, that novels––as well as the story of the novel––are not to be reduced to an ingestible and comfortable conclusion. Rather, the story itself is all the meaning we need.

To reiterate: Schmidt has done me, you, all of us, a heroic favor in telling this story. In one single volume, he has synthesized myriad biographies of vastly contrasting artists, the nonlinear trajectory of their influence (good and bad) on each other, the various forms the novel has taken over its celebrated history, and a singular voice that pushes this complex tale along. The Novel: A Biography is a big book, yes, but it is also a big book, a piece of academic, intellectual work that doesn’t succumb to the insular (and boring) habits of much academic, intellectual work. It is a monumental achievement, in its historical importance and its stylistic beauty. The Novel, I believe, is a novel, the protagonist a murky, somewhat indescribable figure––the ultimate unreliable narrator––that Schmidt renders as real and human and flawed as anyone else before him. It is, itself, a work of art, just as vital and remarkable as the many works it chronicles.

The Art of Close Writing

Jonathan Russell Clark sits at his desk, writing an essay about free indirect discourse. Surrounding him are books by authors who employ the technique with considerable skill: Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Stephen Dixon, and Joshua Ferris. He recalls a time when he did not even know what free indirect discourse was, and a time, later, when he knew the term but viewed it more as a descriptor than a crucial component. He remembers how his relationship to the term evolved over the years: his initial distrust of it, as many of his favorite writers cavalierly disregarded the tactic; his frustration with its limitations: how would he communicate the thoughts of other characters if he couldn’t leave the brain of the protagonist?; his eventual understanding of its importance while reading James Wood’s illuminating (though much debated) book How Fiction Works, in which he refers to it as “close writing”; and then, finally, his acceptance and full embrace of the method. Though he still admired novelists who could successfully avoid using free indirect discourse, he knew he would never break from it himself. It was just too liberating, the way close writing allowed his sentences to spill out of him, effortlessly, like thoughts, rapid and rabid and rampant, just spit out onto the page––it was so easy, or, well, easier, because it’s not as if he’s without problems, creatively speaking, oh he has problems, like how is he supposed to know which thoughts are important and which simply aren’t? and why is he unable to write economically, why are his pieces always longer than they need to be?––but yeah anyway, he now loved close writing because it made writing fun.

To be clear: close writing is not vital to all fiction. In fact, it doesn’t even speak to most fiction. For instance, first-person narrations cannot use free indirect discourse. When a character is speaking directly to a reader, the aim of close writing is already happening; no technique required. Also, novels and stories that feature an omniscient narrator are similarly excluded––all-knowing narrators simply tell us information. The skill required to pull off such a voice is its own subject. No, close writing only relates to third-person limited narrations, and, even more specifically, ones with an active interest in the inner lives of the characters. Not all fiction cares about that.

Here’s how James Wood explains close writing:

So-called omniscience is almost impossible. As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking. A novelist’s omniscience soon enough becomes a kind of secret sharing.

And later:

Note the gain in flexibility. The narrative seems to float away from the novelist and take on the properties of the character, who now seems to “own” the words.

Without being able to articulate it, free indirect discourse appealed to Clark greatly. Novels that used the style effectively gave him a giddy sensation, the prose seeming to not have been written but transcribed from a person’s mind but filtered through the ostensibly distancing third-person point-of-view, and though he didn’t know it, he came to depend on such techniques to let him “settle” into a character. Even more striking, when he read a piece of fiction (especially in a workshop environment) that failed to use close writing and didn’t effectively employ another style, something irked him as his eyes moved over the words. He was made uncomfortable by these stories, but he didn’t know why. What the hell was it?

When he finally learned the term––in a college course, he thinks––he started to understand what it was that had been bothering him. Once he read How Fiction Works, he knew with satisfying finality. Free indirect discourse. Close writing. Thankfully the grey cloud hovering over his frustration had a name. Nameless things give aimless dreams.

How important is free indirect discourse? In the history of the novel, it’s extremely important. Clark at first didn’t even realize that the technique had to be developed at all, but in fact it was an astonishing feat. According to Michael Schmidt’s monumental and astounding work of scholarship and criticism, The Novel: A Biography (a book so big and important it merits its own essay, which is forthcoming), early iterations of the novel concerned themselves less with verisimilitude than outright deceit. When Daniel Defoe composed Robinson Crusoe (or, to use its full title––no joke––The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, All Alone in an Uninhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having Been Cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein All the Men Perished but Himself. with an Account of How He Was at Last as Strangely Deliver’d by Pirates), “he believed he had to honor readers’ expectations of a true and edifying story. An untrue story had to seem true.” The nuanced psychology of the characters was irrelevant to the task of moral tutelage. But the method of mimicking eventually morphed into the representation of human thought.

Generally, the development of close writing into its modern form is attributed to Gustave Flaubert in novels like A Sentimental Education, but the early traces of “inner monologue” are as subtle and elusive as the technique itself. Gabriel García Márquez “detects the original use of ‘interior monologue'” as far back as Lazarillo de Tormes, a picaresque work from 1554. James Wood points out an example in Pope’s mock-epic The Rape of the Lock from 1712. Jane Austen, who died four years before Flaubert was born, occasionally abandoned her lofty point-of-view in order to take the reader into the character’s mind, if only briefly, as in this passage from Pride and Prejudice:
Elizabeth felt herself completely taken in. She had fully proposed being engaged by Wickham for those very dances:––and to have Mr. Collins instead!––her liveliness had been never worse timed. There was no help for it however. Mr. Wickham’s happiness and her own was per force delayed a little longer, and Mr. Collins’s proposal accepted with as good a  grace as she could. She was not the better pleased with his gallantry, from the idea it suggested of something more.––It now struck her, that she was selected from among her sisters as worthy of being the mistress of Hunsford Parsonage, and of assisting to form a quadrille table at Rosings, in the absence of more eligible visitors.
Austen’s tactics are very subtle––the exclamation point punctuating the shock over Mr. Collins, the italicized she, and the sound of contemplative flow in “There was no help for it however”––but those little moments of language all belong to Elizabeth, not Austen. It is Elizabeth who can’t believe she has Mr. Collins instead; it is Elizabeth who can’t believe that she was selected from among her sisters, and it is Elizabeth who doesn’t think there was any help for it however. A reader may not be able to articulate with precision the, as Wood describes it, “marvelous alchemical transfer” that just took place, but they’ll feel it. They’ll understand Elizabeth a little bit more.

Flaubert took it a bit further. He organized his entire style around close writing. In A Sentimental Education, the prose moves into the protagonist Frédéric’s mind without any explicit hint at the shift. Here is Frédéric’s first seeing Mme Arnoux, the older woman with whom he falls in love with:
Never before had he seen more lustrous dark skin, a more seductive figure, or more delicately shaped fingers than those through which the sunlight gleamed. He stared with amazement at her work-basket, as if it were something extraordinary. What was her name, her place of residence, her life, her past?
Those last questions are Frédéric’s, as if transcribed verbatim from his thoughts. But where did that shift happen? There was no, “He thought…” Instead, the language slips first into the character’s vernacular––the words “lustrous,” “seductive,” and “delicately” are all Frédéric’s––and then into his mind. It’s quite a nifty trick. “Thanks to free indirect style,” James Wood writes, “we see things through the character’s eyes and language but also through the author’s eyes and language. We inhabit omniscience and partiality at once.”

If this all seems very basic to you, consider that there was a time when close writing simply didn’t exist. Additionally, though readers and writers often implicitly understand these ideas, sometimes the act of naming something and recognizing its traits leads to understanding. Like David Foster Wallace’s fish parable, sometimes you have to say: This is water.

Moreover, once the modernists enter the picture, close writing is taken to new depths: the inner thoughts of characters become just as important––or more important––than the plot. Virginia Woolf and James Joyce went so far as to construct novels that took place in a single day, Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses, meaning the reader spends most of the narrative inside a mind as it thinks. Joyce loved to catalogue very ordinary thoughts, and through Leopold Bloom he mastered close writing like nobody before him. Here is Bloom just after he is first introduced, as he prepares breakfast for Molly:
Another slice of bread and butter: three, four: right. She didn’t like her plate full. Right. He turned from the tray, lifted the kettle off the hob and set it sideways on the fire. It sat there, dull and squat, its spout stuck out. Cup of tea soon. Good. Mouth dry.
Listen to the fragmentary nature of Bloom’s thoughts as they mingle with action. Taking Flaubert’s technique even further, Joyce gives us full access to Bloom’s mind with almost no indication he’s doing so. His thoughts aren’t profound––they’re quotidian, mundane, banal. Clark’s favorite moment comes when Bloom is unable to recall someone’s name:
Stream of life. What was the name of that priestylooking chap was always squinting in when he passed? Weak eyes, woman. Stopped in Citron’s saint Kevin’s parade. Pen something. Pendennis?
Who hasn’t had a similar moment, a name stuck on the tip of the tongue? Then, a full 25 pages later (in the 1922 text, that is), as Bloom assists a blind man across the street, and whose face strikes him “like a fellow going in to be a priest,” it suddenly hits him: “Penrose! That was the chap’s name.” The image of a priest brings to mind the “priestylooking chap” whose name he couldn’t recall earlier and he’s able to conjure the name, except Joyce doesn’t clue the reader into the association. The line is simply plopped down in the middle of another scene.

Virginia Woolf wastes no time delving into her titular character’s inner life. After her famous opening––”Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself”––the prose immediately becomes one with Mrs. Dalloway’s ruminations:
For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning––fresh as if issued to children on a beach.
What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, “Musing among the vegetables?”––was that it?––”I prefer men to cauliflowers”––was that it? He must have said it at breakfast one morning when she had gone out on to the terrace––Peter Walsh.

Who’s Lucy? Why does she have her work cut out for her? Why is Mrs. Dalloway buying flowers? And who is Peter Walsh? Why does he suddenly appear in her mind? Remember: this is the first page of the novel. In 1925, when Mrs. Dalloway was published, people still expected some exposition, some introductory orientation, but Woolf provides none. She doesn’t have to. That’s the power of close writing.

>Since then, free indirect discourse has become an integral part of third-person novels. Grab any one at random and you’ll probably find that it employs close writing. And there are still writers who experiment with this voice in their fiction. Stephen Dixon’s I. plays around with the separation of author and subject. The protagonist’s is named I., which means Dixon gets to write sentences like: “I. met Fels more than twenty years ago.” Yes, it’s third person, but it’s also first.  Dixon, then, further erases the gap by having the character, I., also be the writer of the prose, so that he can stop in the middle of a paragraph (which, in Dixon’s fiction, are always long) and say, “Oh, he’s not explaining himself well,” or “What’s he going on about?” Then, those murmurs of uncertainty become full-blown self-doubt:
Oh, stop with the crypt of memories swinging open and all that. Fine, then what? Simply this: he finished something yesterday––okay, a short story––wanted to start something new today––story, novel, two-page short-short: what did he care? A fiction of any length––even a play if it was possible––because he gets agitated with himself and grumpy with his family if at the end of the day after the one he finished a fiction he still doesn’t have something to work on the next day. In other words––but he thinks he explained that okay.
He continues to edit himself as he goes, noting, at one point, “that last parenthetical sentence could be clearer, and he knows it’s going to take work.” After a lengthy explanation of I.’s morning, he writes, “He could have done that so much more simply: he finished writing something yesterday, wanted to start writing something today, saw the obituary and started to write.”

The transfer of voice from the author to the character, here, is thrown right back to the author. Dixon’s I. is also the writer, so close writing here traces not simply the character’s thoughts, but the very words he’s typing. Thinking and writing meld into one organism. Dixon’s metafictional approach could be thought of as elaborate autobiography, but whatever it is it shows how close writing can still be stretched and expanded for new purposes. Dixon’s work is often neglected, or deemed too difficult for casual enjoyment. Too bad; he’s wonderful.

The last writer Clark wants to focus on is Joshua Ferris, a writer noted for his experiments with voice. His Then We Came to the End is written in first-person plural, an entire office represented with the narrative we. Recently long-listed for the Man Booker Prize for To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (in the first year Americans were considered), Ferris is one of contemporary fiction’s most assured practitioners. His abilities with close writing are prodigious, as unequivocally demonstrated by his New Yorker story “The Pilot.” It basically focuses on the neuroses of Lawrence, a wannabe television writer who gets an email invitation to a producer’s “yearly blowout.” “He’d R.S.V.P’d,” we’re told, “but not immediately. Two days after the message came in. Two days plus maybe an hour.” When he receives no reply from her, he starts to worry:
He would have liked a reply. After a few days went by, he’d have liked a reply a lot. Was his e-mail too effusive? Was it a mistake to use the word “sick” to describe her show? Or maybe she was just busy shooting the season finale. She was just busy shooting the season finale. He should have just written back quick-like, something like “Thanks for the invitation, Kate. See you then.” Then she might have quick-like hit Reply, with a confirmation, and he’d have known that she knew he was coming. Did she even know she’d invited him? Sometimes, with e-mail, some programs, you hit All Contacts or something and invite people you didn’t even mean to invite. Of course she’d meant to invite him. He just didn’t have any confirmation that she’d received his R.S.V.P. That was kind of unnerving. But, think about it, would he then have to confirm her confirmation? That wasn’t really feasible. It was just…Everything was fine. She was just wrapping. He was too effusive. “Sick little fuck-you”: that might have been––no, it was fine––just a little insulting? No, no, it was fine, who knows, not him.
That is a virtuoso stretch of comic writing, and a better representation of human thought as it occurs than almost anything Clark’s read in his life. The thoughts interrupt each other, the narrator oscillates between two poles of neurotic uncertainty, even repeating himself to emphasize a statement’s validity (yet inadvertently showing how questionable Lawrence finds that validity), and yet the reader never loses the train, the writing is crystal clear, the rhythm natural. Even though Lawrence isn’t technically narrating, he owns every single word on the page. The reader is in his mind.

Close writing really is an amazing thing. Consider that this essay right now has been narrated in the third person, and yet there is no question as to what Clark’s opinions are. There was never any confusion over “who” was asserting the statements made above. The “marvelous alchemical transfer” made it so the separation between Jonathan Russell Clark and some ostensible narrator disappeared––after a while, you probably stopped noticing, except for the occasional use of Clark’s name. Here, of course, Clark and the author are the same, but the same technique used in fiction functions the same way. The writer disappears and only the character is left––the voice, the thoughts, the little details that make us human.

Image via John Lester/Flickr

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