It’s the first week of February and I’ve already failed in my resolution to read more books. Between the ever-accelerating news cycle, snow days, weekend road trips, and the three-month-old baby who is smile-drooling by my side as I write this, I’ve started six books and finished exactly…one. I’m probably the last person who should be giving advice on the subject of How to Read More. But, I’m trying to do better, so I’ve compiled this list of tips to help myself—and maybe you, too.
1. Schedule Your Reading Time
For me, this has always been the most effective way to find time to read. Last year, I read for an hour in the morning right after I dropped my son at school. But now I live with a baby, so I’m trying to work with her naps. The point is to make a plan in advance: don’t wait for reading time to magically appear, because it never will. Look at your day and see where you can fit it in, and then stick to the plan, as if your book is a person who you’ve agreed to meet—don’t be late, and don’t flake!
2.Turn off Social Media
You know you’re on social media too much. Cutting back on it is a pretty obvious way to find more reading time, but that’s easier said than done, especially since most of these sites are designed to be addictive. So here’s one simple thing you can do: put your phone in another room when you’re reading. I got this tip from the podcast Hidden Brain, during an interview with Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work. Newport emphasized that it is important to put your phone in another room because even if it’s turned off, as long as it’s nearby your mind will be distracted by its presence.
3. Don’t Overschedule Your Weekends
Weekends often get filled up with activities that aren’t reading-friendly or even very leisurely, e.g. household chores, social events, family obligations, and least fun of all, all the work you didn’t finish during the week. I didn’t even realize this was happening to me until I read Katrina Onstad’s The Weekend Effect, which argues that our culture is slowly turning its weekends over to scheduled activities and paid work. Take a look at your weekend and see if this isn’t happening to you. Then start declining invitations and put off doing the laundry. You deserve a lazy Sunday afternoon.
4. Get Up Earlier
Okay, this has never worked for me, at any stage of my life, but I hear it works well for other people. Set your alarm for a half hour earlier and keep a book on your bedside table. No need to get dressed, just roll over and read.
5. Listen to Books
Audiobooks generally put me to sleep, especially in the car. But my husband loves them and has found they help him to bridge reading sessions; he’ll read at home and then listen on his commute. Sometimes he even speeds up the narrator to 1.25 reading speed, or even 1.5. (I listened to a little bit of The Power Broker at 1.5 speed and it actually felt kind of aesthetically appropriate, given the overwhelming amount of detail in that book.) My son also enjoys audiobooks and this has been great for me, because he’ll play quietly in his room for a good hour if there is a story going—which gives me an hour to read quietly in my room.
6. Set a Goal, but Not a Numerical One
It’s tempting to set a numerical goal when it comes to reading more. You want to be able to look back on the year and say: “I read 50 books!” But when it comes to reading, I’m not convinced that numerical goals are actually very motivating. For me, it’s more satisfying to tackle a difficult book or series of books. It’s something I can remember and look back on fondly; sometimes focusing on a particular author or subject can even give special meaning to a period of your life.
7. Read on Your Smartphone
You know how I told you to put your phone in another room while you read? If you found that advice annoying, you might try reading on your phone. A friend of mine reads all her books on her smart phone, a habit she developed because she’s the mother of two small children and a lot of her reading takes place in darkened rooms near sleeping kids. Her phone is like a book with a nightlight. I’ve tried reading my phone and it doesn’t work for me—though I was almost convinced by this beautiful essay by Sarah Boxer about reading In Search of Lost Time on her android phone, which she describes as “a tiny glass-bottomed boat moving slowly over a vast and glowing ocean of words in the night.”
8. Read Several Books at Once
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve enjoyed reading several books at once. If I got bored with one, I’d switch to another, and then back again. I thought this was how everyone consumed books until a teacher mentioned offhand that most people read one book at a time. I have no idea if this is true, but among dedicated readers, I suspect that habits are more varied. If you read a lot of books but you’ve never read more than one at once, try reading multiple books.
9. Don’t Force Yourself to Finish Good Books
Sometimes a book is brilliant, but it’s just not the right time for you read it. You can be sitting there, reading a book, thinking to yourself, this book is so good, and yet, you have no appetite for it. What can this mean? Are you stupid? A philistine? Naïve? Unwise? Who knows! Let yourself off the hook and read what you’re hungry for.
10. Force Yourself to Read Good Books
After 15 minutes, you might feel like you’re not “into” a book. Give it a half hour, especially if it’s a classic or comes highly recommended by a trusted source. Sometimes it just takes a while to work up the necessary concentration and your initial impression of boredom was just your brain sloughing off the anxieties of the day.
11. Don’t Substitute Writing for Reading
If you’re a writer at any stage of your career, it’s important to read at least as much as you write. You’ve probably heard this advice before, because every time you attend an author panel and someone asks for advice to aspiring writers, the answer is always: “read more.” This is not just a self-serving directive. Reading may feel like a passive activity, but it will make you a better writer. It’s almost magical. If you don’t believe me, just try it for a week: Let’s say you have put aside an hour every morning to work on your novel before starting your day. Take three of those mornings and spend those hours reading a book instead. I promise you that the writing sessions on the remaining mornings will be more productive and satisfying.
12. Be Realistic
I have to ask: do you actually want to read more? Or are you simply nostalgic for a time in your life when you had more time to do everything, including reading? Like exercise, the benefits of reading are exaggerated and understated in equal measure. If you don’t feel like reading more this year, just pick out a few books to enjoy. In a few years, you might have time for more. The books will be waiting for you.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
When I heard the news that a novel called Barren Island by Carol Zoref had been long-listed for this year’s National Book Award for fiction, my first reaction was Oof! Had another writer beaten me to the punch?
There can only be one Barren Island, I told myself. It’s a wafer of sand and scrub in New York City’s vast Jamaica Bay, so named by the early Dutch settlers for the bears that may or may not have roamed there, and later destined to live up to its Anglicized name when it became the final destination for the city’s garbage and for its dead horses and other animals that were brought there by barge to be skinned, dismantled, boiled, and turned into fertilizer and glue in the ghastly factories of Barren Island. Those factories were manned mostly by immigrants from Eastern Europe, Greece, Italy, and Ireland, and by African-Americans up from the South. Diphtheria and typhoid epidemics were frequent visitors. The stench and filth and vermin were appalling. “Horrors,” recalls one man who grew up there.
I happened to know this obscure history because for the past dozen years or so I’ve been gathering string, off and on, for a novel I am (was?) hoping to set on Barren Island. Its central character is based on a schoolteacher named Jane Shaw, who rode the trolley from her home in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, to the boat that carried her to Barren Island every Sunday night. She then spent the weekdays teaching the children of the immigrants who worked the factories. She brightened their lives by helping them plant vegetable and flower gardens, sew curtains, dress up homes that were little more than shacks. She bought a piano with her own money, gave lessons, held dances. On Friday nights she returned to her Brooklyn home, where she invited her eighth-grade graduating class to a proper tea every year, the first time many of them set foot off their isolated island. She did this from the end of the First World War until 1936, when the city’s ruthless master builder, Robert Moses, evicted the residents and bulldozed the settlement to make way for his Marine Park project. Jane Shaw got Moses to agree to let her students finish the school year before the bulldozers moved in. The people of Barren Island revered Jane Shaw, which gave me a working title for my novel: The Angel of Barren Island.
So I opened Carol Zoref’s novel with a feeling of—no other word for it—dread. On the very first page I learned that, yes indeed, there is only one Barren Island, and Carol Zoref had beaten me to it. The novel is narrated in the first person by 80-year-old Marta Eisenstein Lane, who is looking back on her coming of age on Barren Island’s smaller, fictional neighbor, Barren Shoal, where her father, an immigrant from Belarus, works in the factory dismantling horses and other dead animals so they can be transformed into such valuable commodities as glue and nitroglycerin. Marta’s tale unfolds amid horrors, tenderness, and beauty that have the iron ring of truth. One day Marta’s mother fails to save Marta’s infant sister from drowning in a washtub full of scalding water. Another day there’s a devastating explosion in the factory. Marta also experiences grace notes, fishing and picking berries, witnessing a rally at Union Square, seeing Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera, tasting first love and watching, from a distance, as the Depression grinds toward another World War. Jane Shaw even makes a cameo. This is Zoref’s first novel, and there is some implausible dialog (and a few unfortunate typos), but it’s an assured and deeply felt work. By the end of the book, my initial dread had given way to delight—that another writer shares my belief that stories from a forgotten place, a blend of the made-up and the real, can be worthy of telling.
After I finished the book, I phoned Carol Zoref in her office at Sarah Lawrence College, where she teaches creative writing. (She also teaches at New York University.) First, I asked Zoref how she became aware of Barren Island. “A long time ago I saw an article in The New York Times about a book about the trash of New York, and it mentioned Barren Island,” she replied. “The article had a picture of a guy who had grown up on Barren Island, and I thought that was an extraordinary thing. So I bought the book and read it. And I had a question: what would it have been like to live there on Barren Island? It’s one thing to work in that sort of setting, but to actually live there as a child, to grow up there, so close to the city and but so far from the city—I just couldn’t imagine what that would have been like.”
Amazing. That newspaper article was my introduction to Barren Island, too. It was written by Kirk Johnson and published on Nov. 7, 2000, under the headline “All the Dead Horses, Next Door; Bittersweet Memories of the City’s Island of Garbage.” I, too, read the book mentioned in the article, Benjamin Miller’s Fat of the Land: Garbage of New York, the Last Two Hundred Years. That book spawned a fascination with the city’s waste that’s still alive today. I asked Zoref, “What kind of research did you do? Did you do a lot of archival stuff? Was it mostly imagining?”
“There was no archival research,” she said. “In fact, I never saw a photograph of Barren Island until the spring of 2016, when the book’s jacket designer and I started talking about what the cover should look like. The public library of New York had just digitized its collection, so I was able to see what the place looked like. Much to my relief, my imagination had served me well. As far as the rest of it was concerned, it was a combination of flotsam and jetsam stuff that I knew but wasn’t exactly sure when it happened. A simple timeline helped. Then looking at photographs, programs on television about the Depression, descriptions of the flora and fauna of Long Island. When I started, I knew the bookends would be 1929, when the stock market crashed, and 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland. What happened between the World Wars? I ended the book a little after Barren Island was actually closed because the coming of World War II is present in the novel the entire time. People are escaping Europe because things are lousy for Jews and they need to get out. People are working these jobs on Barren Island because they’re working any jobs they can get. People are picking through the garbage because they’re starving. Those smokestacks and those rendering plants certainly are waving a flag saying the death camps are coming, and a different kind of oven is coming.”
“What was the appeal of this spot and these people to you as a writer?” I asked.
“The appeal to me had to do with power and powerlessness, and the ways in which the awfulness of quotidian life can’t be escaped. Each of these characters has their own lives and ambitions that aren’t that different from our own in the 21st century.”
One of my favorite characters in the novel is Miss Finn, who teaches in the one-room schoolhouse. “Did you model her on Jane Shaw?” I asked. “Where did she come from?”
“I knew Jane Shaw existed and I knew she stood up to Robert Moses, who I’ve always found an interesting character. I read The Power Broker and I thought, wow, what a brilliant crazy wonderful horrible human being—all those things rolled into one. We wouldn’t have parks if we hadn’t had Robert Moses, but we also wouldn’t have the Cross-Bronx Expressway running through the middle of people’s lives. I couldn’t believe Jane Shaw stood up to him and won. Nobody did that again until Jane Jacobs. Somebody teaching in this one-room schoolhouse could have a tremendous amount of influence. A lot of stuff got tucked into Miss Finn. What happened to these teenage girls in her classes? Well, girls got pregnant and had abortions—long before abortion was legal. It was dangerous and complicated. Miss Finn seems quiet and humble, but she’s worldly in her own way. Her sister was the doctor who performed abortions.”
It was time for me to make an admission. “I read that article in The Times and I read Benjamin Miller’s book,” I said, “and I became totally fascinated by Barren Island. Now I’ve got my own Barren Island box. But I got busy with other things, and my idea of writing a novel about the place went on the back burner. When I heard that a novel called Barren Island was nominated for the National Book Award, my heart dropped into my shoes.”
“Sorry!” she said, with a laugh.
“So I got your book, and as I read I felt uplifted. Somebody else out there sees the potential of a story about a place, about a moment like this! It’s been an uplifting experience. I guess what I’m trying to say is thank you.”
“Well, thank you. I think there’s no place or no story that exists that wouldn’t be written about differently by different writers. And that’s fine. That’s good. As obscure as things can be, so what? Everyone’s interest comes from a different feeling.”
And I have a feeling, a surprising feeling, that The Angel of Barren Island still has a pulse.
Liars wrote Florida’s history, but screenwriters wrote Miami’s. The liars swindled tourists by inventing outlandish tales of treasure coast pirates who never existed. They tricked snowbirds into buying swampland sight unseen. Local tourism boards spun yarns about the Fountain of Youth, and upon this foundation of lies and limestone they built statewide industries of day tours, time shares, theme parks, and souvenirs.
The screenwriters did something different. Instead of ginning things up, they toned things down. They took factual vignettes from Miami’s boom days and smoothed them out for mass-market consumption, creating sexy highlight reels of hot nights, glitz, and fast thrills. Whereas the most popular stories in Florida’s history were fabricated by marketers and speculators, the most popular Miami myths were borne from the truth. By simplifying them, the screenwriters took the tales nationwide.
No city in America owes more of its reputation to popular culture and less to reported history than Miami. One reason is because the city, incorporated in 1896, lacks as much scholarly or critical examination as its older peers. There’s no Power Broker for Miami; there’s no City on the Make; and don’t get me started on Tom Wolfe. Yet it’s also because by now, with no disrespect to Arva Moore Parks, there are precious few historical or journalistic touchstones that could ever be more widely read than Miami Vice was viewed. In most imaginations, the closest thing Miami has to an essential story is Scarface. While flawed, maligned, and largely filmed in Los Angeles, the film successfully hit on the four foundational (and true!) pillars of Miami’s modern development: Cuban immigration, glamorous nightlife, its edgy underbelly, and the narcotics trade fueling it all. Because they came first and made the most noise, Scarface and Miami Vice solidified Miami’s reputation. Once America met Crockett, Tubbs, and Tony, they got the gist.
Or so they thought. In Hotel Scarface, Roben Farzad uncovers the real stories that inspired those screenwriters. Along the way, he proves that the Magic City’s reality has always been wilder, deeper, and more complicated than it seems. Best of all, Farzad’s nonfiction account—freed from MPAA ratings and the FCC—includes some of the most salacious details the screenwriters couldn’t: pasta fetishes, CIA-backed narco-trafficking, Dom Pérignon baths and all.
Set in the age of Donna Summer and deviated septums, Hotel Scarface is about Coconut Grove’s infamous Mutiny Hotel and its members-only nightclub. Located steps from Biscayne at 2951 South Bayshore Drive, the Mutiny was at the time Miami’s version of the Tropicana Club, and would go on to serve as the inspiration for the Babylon in Scarface. Here, celebrities did the hustle alongside narco kingpins and the law enforcement officers building cases against them. During the club’s three decades in operation, you could be stayin’ alive with the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Randy Newman, Frankie Valli, and The Eagles. If you stayed overnight, your ostentatiously decorated room might have been last occupied by Rick James, Led Zeppelin, Joe DiMaggio, or Tony Dorsett. If he wasn’t busy freebasing, you could blow rails in the bathroom with David Crosby. (He wrote a lousy song about the place.) So enmeshed were these groups that, at one point, an FBI wiretap was rendered useless because agents couldn’t hear their targets over Liza Minelli loudly asking her friend for another bump. It was the kind of place where you could blow $100,000 on a tab without even meeting the manager.
In more than 50 short chapters, Farzad positions the Mutiny as an operational hub for the kingpins who opened the spigots of cash financing Miami’s rise. “By the turn of the decade,” Farzad writes, “the 130-room hotel and club was a criminal free-trade zone of sorts where gangsters could both revel in Miami’s danger and escape from it.” These were the outlaws who connected Peru and Colombia to the Bahamas, and eyed South Florida as their entrée to North America. Along the way, a thousand coca leaves (street value: $625) would turn into a kilogram of paste and high-quality base ($6,500), and then get cut and diluted into two kilograms of cocaine ($80,000). From there, it would be cut again and distributed across the U.S., and in this way, that $625 investment could turn into $600,000. These insane margins meant that by the 1980s, one third of Miami’s economy was narcotics-based. The whole city was in on it—knowingly or not. For want of money laundering, skyscrapers, dirty banks, and business fronts shot up. For want of quick bucks, support staff convened: hitmen, drivers, pilots, watermen, weapons importers, and prostitutes. At one point, the Moonflower Escort Company set up “a twenty-four-hour dispatch office on a yacht in the marina in front of the hotel” so it could service Mutiny clientele. Alongside these objectively criminal enterprises sprang businesses operating in gray areas. Who do you think serviced those cigarette boats? Luxury boutiques and exotic car dealerships opened because Miamians had so much money to spend. Exclusive clubs did the same. “You could mint millions a day and blow it all at the Mutiny, winking at the very cops who were until recently on your ass,” Farzad writes.
Hence the complication. The story above is one simply told by a thousand screenwriters: drug dealers rise up, live large, meet babes, spar with rivals, and get killed or arrested. It identifies clear sides: good guys and bad guys. But the real story, as Hotel Scarface shows, goes deeper, and the lines are less clearly drawn. Those law enforcement officers and city officials who frequented the Mutiny? They were either directly involved in the drug trade or they were using the place for intelligence so they could build bigger cases—sometimes international ones. Those smugglers running drugs over the Florida Straits? They brought U.S. government-issued weapons back to Nicaraguan Contras, and sometimes they shuttled Contras and Cuban counter-revolutionaries into to the U.S. for CIA training. (Between the DEA, CIA, FBI, IRS, and a litany of in-state law enforcement agencies, there was no shortage of confusion.) Ricardo “Monkey” Morales made a living out of facilitating this kind of criminal-government overlap—and he frequently used the Mutiny as his headquarters. Howard Gary, Miami’s city manager, partied alongside Ray Corona, the founder of First Sunshine Bank. The two of them shared a cocktail table with a group of lawyers (“the cocaine bar”) who defended Miami’s most infamous dealers in court, and they all listened to music spun by a Mutiny DJ who was attending classes at the University of Miami. These guys financed cars and paid for breast implants for the Mutiny waitresses they liked the most. The government, the financial sector, big law, higher education, and medical institutions all benefited from drug money—when there’s enough to go around, who cares where capital comes from? How can you repossess fake breasts? Farzad quotes Attorney General William French Smith, who described some of these crooked officials’ eventual busts as demonstrative of “one of the most important aspects of the scope of drug trafficking activities: the penetration of the financial and business communities.” Years later, a former cocaine dealer who hung out with the biggest dealers of his day remarked that, had he and his buddies ever snitched on the precise level of that penetration, “there’d be a lot of institutions dead, rotting and stinking in Miami right now.”
At its best, Hotel Scarface reads like South Florida’s version of The Westies, and native son Roben Farzad shares T.J. English’s eye for power dynamics. Farzad argues persuasively that revolutionary politics served as the dividing line between Miami’s first and second generations of Cuban-born cocaine cowboys. Dealers like Carlos “Carlene” Quesada and Rodolfo “Rudy Redbeard” Rodriguez Gallo, who dominated Miami’s drug trade in the 1960s, arrived in Florida at a time when Fulgencio Batista’s mafia- and U.S. government-backed Cuban regime was being overthrown by Fidel Castro. They didn’t expect to stay long, but while they waited out the counter-revolution, why not make some money in America? They brought over the mafia’s prevailing attitudes about municipal governments: that everything could be bought and sold. If not exactly Cosa Nostra, they even had a mob-driven sense of decorum. (At the Mutiny, Fridays were for mistresses, Saturdays for wives, and never the twain should meet.)
The next era was ushered in by Cuban immigrants who’d come to America as very young children—some because of Operation Pedro Pan. For these narcos who grew up in Miami, and attended American high schools, there were fewer delusions about one day returning to Cuba and resettling their homeland. While they shared their predecessors’ aversion to violent crime, preferring to pay off rivals rather than kill them, men like Jorge Valdés, Willie Falcon, and Sal Magluta were self-aware criminals largely in it for themselves first, and the counter-revolution second:
Though their blue-collar parents wanted them to study hard and chase the American dream—college degrees, doctor, lawyer, etc.—most instead dropped out of high school and chased a life of speedboat racing, good weed, and hot and loose women. “Death to Castro!”—sure. The Boys hated the bearded despot—detested him. They toasted every new year with hopes for a Cuba libre. It’s just that the hedonism of 1970s Miami wasn’t so bad in the meantime.
By the 1980s, the wheels fell off. A third era began, one in which more nihilistic, violent criminals—some of them Marielitos—upped the ante. Their presence at the Mutiny wasn’t welcome. The old guard moved on to more exclusive clubs. After all, nothing is more American than climbing a ladder, and then pulling it up from under you. While the earlier cocaine cowboys held out incandescent hope about one day reclaiming their homeland with the help of backing from the U.S., the later generations saw no hope of working with the government. There’s was a more cynical attitude, ubiquitous by the time Joan Didion wrote Miami:
Here between the mangrove swamp and the barrier reef was an American city largely populated by people who believed that the United States had walked away before, had betrayed them at the Bay of Pigs and later, with consequences we have since seen. Here between the swamp and the reef was an American city populated by people who also believed that the United States would betray them again, in Honduras and in El Salvador and in Nicaragua, betray them at all the barricades of a phantom war they had once again taken not as the projection of another Washington abstraction but as their own struggle, la lucha, la causa, with consequences we have not yet seen.
They were also far less obedient to Mafioso codes, which meant they were also far more violent. Their arrival coincided with a shocking rise in the homicide rate. In 1978, Farzad notes, there were 243 murders in the Miami-Dade County. From 1979-1981, those numbers rose each year to 320, 515, and 621. By 1981, Time declared Miami “Paradise Lost.” This attracted national attention, and before long the “War on Drugs” was declared, the most flamboyant dealers were tracked down, and the Mutiny’s heyday came to an end. Farzad’s feat is taking readers along for that ride—it’s riveting stuff, and he does yeoman’s work linking the era’s politics to its popular culture.
Have times changed? In a sense. The Mutiny today is a luxury apartment building in which the median age of tenants approaches 85 years. Coconut Grove transitioned from a nexus of luxe nightlife into a dingier but nevertheless raucous hub of college bars, and then more recently it quieted down due to neighborhood complaints. Now you’re more likely to find a nice brunch than a nose bag. Gone are the days of the Dadeland Massacre and shootouts on U.S. 1; downtown Miami’s streets today are mostly bloodless.
Yet in other ways, the city’s essence has remained the same. John Rothchild was entirely correct in 1982 when he wrote that “to describe crime as Miami’s problem would be like describing oil as Houston’s problem,” and he’s a different kind of correct today. Crime is still the lifeblood of South Florida, although these days that crime is committed with computers and conference calls in board rooms around the world. It involves a bevy of foreign actors, from Russians to Venezuelans and everyone in between. (Did you hear the one about the oligarch who bought Donald Trump’s $45 million home for $95 million, and then demolished it before ever setting foot on the property?) Instead of white powder, white collars are what’s fueling South Florida’s real estate development: the jet set treats cities like Miami as safety deposit boxes, setting up multi-layered shell companies and plunking anonymized cash into multimillion dollar condos, which sit empty while others buy the surrounding units. Last year, 90 percent of the new construction in Miami was purchased with cash. This year, the Treasury Department flagged 30 percent of surveyed luxury real estate transactions for “suspicious activity” and potential money-laundering. It doesn’t matter, though, because if enough super-wealthy absentee tenants buy in the same building (anonymously), they’ll eventually raise the value of one another’s purchases, which they can go on to sell to the next generation of jet setters for quick windfalls of cash. By the time law enforcement notices, the early investors have laundered all the money they used on their initial deposits, and turned hefty profits. Does it surprise anyone that after New York, Miami was the American city named most frequently in the Panama Papers?
That change is reflected in relatively recent works of art, too. Charlie Smith’s Men in Miami Hotels, which I lovingly call a sugar-free version of Thomas McGuane’s Ninety-two in the Shade, demonstrates Miami’s current operational mode. In the book, which takes place almost exclusively in Key West, a criminal named Cot alternately works for, double crosses, and then evades his Mafioso benefactor holed up in a luxurious South Beach hotel. Readers never meet him. In other words, crime emanates from Miami but takes place far away from it, and the head honcho lives an unbothered life of comfort off the spoils.
Likewise, the pilot episode of Justified begins when Raylan Givens shoots a hitman in broad daylight at South Beach’s Delano Hotel. (In Elmore Leonard’s “Fire in the Hole” story upon which the show is based, the shooting takes place at the Cardozo.) Givens, a U.S. Marshal, is punished with forced reassignment to rural Kentucky. After all, this is the Miami of the 21st century! The city may have approached 700 murders a year during its 1980s boom in narco-violence, but last year, there were 84. In the past, shootouts took place all over the city. Now, they’ve been pushed into certain under-served neighborhoods. (Last year, Miami was named the worst city in America in terms of income inequality, and that’s a big reason why.)
As in Men in Miami Hotels, local criminal elements in Justified receive orders from their boss in Miami. Occasionally, the Magic City sends hitmen up to rural Kentucky to set matters straight. Miami is the center spoke on a wheel of crime, and it turns in all directions. In Bloodline, the Rayburn family was doing just fine until Danny took a southbound bus from Miami to his family’s palatial home in Islamorada.
One consequence of this shift in popular reputation is that now Miami has become an aspirational brand for criminals who are no longer the ones getting their hands dirty. Miami is home to the boss’s boss; setting up shop in Miami signifies that you might be crooked but you don’t need to slum it anymore. Downtown, criminality has been gentrified. Brickell and Miami Beach have become havens for wealthy retirees—criminal and non. This is true in art: Lil Wayne rapped that gangsters don’t die, they “get chubby and they move to Miami,” and Fat Trel brags about drinking peach Ciroc while “in Miami, eating chicken, steak, and shrimp linguine.” It’s also true in life: the anonymous people paying cash for Bal Harbour apartments are definitely not on the up and up, but they are living large. Lydia Kiesling wrote that Florida is “America’s Orient,” which is true, but I’d argue that more and more Miami is becoming America’s Dubai. It’s a playground for the ostentatiously wealthy to flaunt their ill-gotten gains in resorts and hotels staffed by an increasingly powerless and impoverished local populace. These days, setting a narco crime thriller in Miami is as anachronistic as opening a speakeasy in Hell’s Kitchen. (Need proof? The upcoming reboot of Scarface is set in Los Angeles.) If anything, what Miami needs now is a bitcoin-based Wolf of Wall Street reboot set in Sunny Isles.
The Mutiny got shut down, but a new generation of wealthy criminals has turned all of Miami into the same thing.
At the time of this writing, with most of Florida recently savaged by Hurricane Irma, it feels gauche to invoke Atlantis. And yet, the parallels are undeniable. In Plato’s account, Atlantis was the city that antagonized Athens; its kings had the hubris to establish for themselves a society different from the idyllic Republic, which repelled Atlantean encroachments. The point Atlantis served in Plato’s story was to prove that there are consequences for societies that don’t follow the rules: sooner or later, if they don’t destroy themselves, the gods will abandon them and the seas will bury all they ever had.
P. Scott Cunningham wrote that living in Miami “feels like living in the first third of a novel, in which the plucky protagonist is suffering setback after setback, but something must change, right, or why would there be so many pages left?” But what if Miami’s story really is a short one? What if it’s more of a novella? In “On Returning to Miami,” Nick Vagnoni writes to the city, “Maybe your sky seems aloof because / everyone comes here to forget, or maybe / there just isn’t much to remember here / yet.” Existence on the edge of Florida has always felt ephemeral, transient. Relatively speaking, the state’s barely been above water. Donald Justice wrote that he “will die in Miami in the sun,” and in the Mutiny’s days it was gunslingers you had to worry about, but aren’t the winds and the seas more likely to claim us all?
And when that happens, who will money save?
Robert Moses and Robert Caro dominated the first four months of my year with The Power Broker. It’s a bear, but a must read for any New Yorker, or anyone with any interest in manipulation, corruption, sneakiness, and lying. I loved it. Caro is such a good writer…my brother in law is taking on the Lyndon Johnson series right now, but I might need to rest up for that one. New York City is an entirely different place for me now. Robert Moses had more influence over the entire tri-state region — and arguably the entire United States — than any other person in the 20th century. It’s incredible how he operated “legally” outside of the reach of any legal authorities. He could just basically write his own laws. Actually, sometimes he literally wrote his own laws. Check it out.
The Circle by Dave Eggers. I recently got social on the Internet as a means of promoting my musical act. Coincidentally, within a week of signing up for all this stuff I read The Circle, and now I can’t sign into Facebook or Twitter without feeling like I’ve joined the Circle. I laughed many times through this, but honestly, for a guy who really didn’t know what was going on online before, I was dumbfounded more than anything else. I immediately tweeted about The Circle when I finished it.
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As a kid, video games taught me just as much about writing as novels did. The thousands of hours I spent with my head in books were matched by the thousands of hours I spent at my computer. In my child brain, they didn’t seem as if they were disparate forms belonging to different centuries. I’m not sure I even recognized the difference.
I played games for the storytelling, to the degree that no one in middle school actually considered me to be completely a “gamer.” I didn’t really care about winning or being good. What interested me were the stories.
When I played strategy games like Civilization, the kingdoms I built did not consist of representative pieces on a chessboard. In my head, even as early as age 7, the cities were real. Families lived in them. They had cultures and identities and backstories invented with each subsequent turn. I had feelings about them. My districts, armies, and generals were built not just for effectiveness but aesthetic design and sociological meaning.
My outings as a fighter pilot in space simulators had dramatic and cinematic arcs to them, missions experienced not as sets of objectives but as short stories, as chapters. The gleam of the fake pixelated gray of the bulkheads and the pulsing neon lights of the cockpit instruments were just as important as the scoreboard.
In the first two first-person shooters I played, I rarely completed levels successfully, instead treating the labyrinths of Doom or Dark Forces as Kafkaesque wanderings interrupted by existential shootouts. I was fascinated by how the story was introduced, how the narrative progressed over shifting environments, with layered escalations of both difficulty and design.
There were times when it was almost as if the games I was playing and the books I was reading were in conversation. Half-Life meant Huxley and Diablo II meant Dante. In the 7th grade, I took Latin and read Roman History just to give my obsession with Caesar III more context. William Gibson forced me to go back and re-experience Syndicate. Sim City 2000 directly caused me to steal my father’s copy of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker. Max Payne, my first experience with any sort of noir, meant Patricia Highsmith and Raymond Chandler.
By the time I was in high school, I was confused as to why such a small collection of books were explicitly influencing games. When I first read The Handmaid’s Tale, I could not understand why there was not a video game version lurking somewhere in a dark corner of the digital universe, or even vague homages in the totally unrelated omnipresent sci-fi dystopias that were the setting for so many games. In what can only be described now as adolescent naivety, it was unthinkable to me that male-dominated, technologically-centered works like Ender’s Game or Snow Crash were so in sync with the video games being developed, but As I Lay Dying and Pride and Prejudice were somehow unworthy.
In the 15 years since my 12-year-old boy gamer heyday, video games have become the most dominant form of media on the planet, though you would not be able to tell by reading contemporary literature. Aside from the efforts of Austin Grossman and Ernest Cline, the few works of fiction that do confront gaming’s prominence tend to be on the borderlines of genres not always considered “literary,” or works of experimental literature more interested in turning the form of the novel into a game than using the novel to explore what the rise of gaming means to the human experience.
What is particularly sad about this state of affairs is that the literary world and the video games world could greatly benefit each other. Even a conversation, let alone the beginning of real collaborations and dialogues, would help each contend with their respective shortcomings.
The book publishing industry needs to carve out a more interesting, necessary space for itself in the digital world. All too frequently “technology” is considered one big amorphous blob, or worse, treated with indifference. Barely enhanced e-books, predictably executed apps, and promotional Twitter accounts for dead or Luddite authors seem to represent the extent of most publishers’ innovative efforts. Even in terms of pure content, contemporary fiction too often fails to fully evoke 21st-century life and contend with its burgeoning issues. We writers disproportionately focus on the past, or worse, replicate the form and structures of centuries gone without appetite for the risk, resistance, and failure innovation entails.
The video games community, despite its tremendous financial success and cultural relevance, has its own significant problems. Despite the best efforts of a growing cadre of games critics, journalists, writers, and theorists, not to mention a legion of talented independent developers, the industry is plagued by issues of cultural legitimacy and a real struggle to grow out of repetitive content. American cultural institutions largely ignore the entire medium, the exceptions often taking the form of desperate half-hearted attempts to appeal to a younger demographic (such as MoMA’s addition of 14 mostly-retro games to its collection), or outright hostility (such as the late Roger Ebert’s 2010 statement that “video games can never be art,” a stance he subsequently softened after getting dissents from readers). Meanwhile, big budget games like Call of Duty and Halo follow the same tired patterns of gameplay and storytelling with little real innovation aside from graphical improvements and the ever-evolving appropriations of Hollywood clichés.
Games writing luminaries such as Leigh Alexander, Luke Plunkett, Tom Bissell, Cara Ellison, and John Walker have explored and debated every facet of what a video game is and should be, including the Sisyphean tasks of attacking the mainstream industry for its utterly regressive gender politics, lack of diversity, and unwillingness to explore subject matter other than the same tried and true action movie content patronizingly marketed to the worst imagined 12-year-old boy archetype. But this growing field of theory and criticism has only been so successful in forcing the form to confront its demons.
Over the past year, I made a concerted effort to begin meeting, talking, and collaborating with members of the games industry. I went to conferences, events, and explored the social networks of the few friends I had working in the field. During this time, every game developer I came across, whether her company was big or small, her projects commercial or experimental, expressed a desire to be taken more seriously as an artist and creator. And there was a tangible feeling that they are not there yet.
When I attended the Game Developers Conference for the first time in March 2013, I was stunned at how receptive everyone was to the presence of a random aspiring novelist. Mainstream behemoths and indie game developers alike asked me how they might more “literary” or “novelistic.”
Producers of big budget titles told me how much they wished they had better written content within their games, but seemed to have no idea how to access the pool of what one Creative Assembly designer called “all those surely unemployed creative writing MFAs living in Brooklyn.” There may be a kernel of truth in his statement. There is certainly unutilized talent in the literary world capable of writing the pants off of a lot of what passes for dialogue or in-game text in many mainstream video games. Aside from the few individuals with both gaming and literary backgrounds (like Austin Grossman), the games industry has little framework for how to judge the abilities of those who are not already writing for games or designing them outright. So far, no developer has been explicitly willing to take the risk to start evaluating or hiring Iowa grads. “It would be nice if we could figure out how to do it,” Chris Avellone of Obsidian Entertainment told me, “but without a record of actually writing for games in some capacity, it’s very difficult to hire someone.”
At the same time, employees of mainstream developers continually express great interest in how to cultivate more serious topics and subject matter.
“How did books get to be so respected?” an Electronic Arts VP asked me at that same GDC last year, as though this suspect level of gravitas must be the result of a viral marketing campaign and not a cultural evolution that took place over hundreds of years.
Tin-eared dialogue aside, there is actually an impressive literary consciousness to be found within certain tracts of the video games community. In a conversation with Anthony Burch (Borderlands 2), Susan O’Connor (BioShock and Bioshock 2), and Aaron Linde (Gears of War 3), three supremely talented games writers, we shared our disappointment that there had never been a violent action game written by Bret Easton Ellis, and that no game designer had ever gone to David Foster Wallace and said “what do you want to make?”
“Blood Meridian would make for a hell of a videogame,” Burch told me recently. “McCarthy explores the depths of human evil and bloodlust; an interactive version could allow the player to explore their own personal capacity for those same things. I’d love to see a P.G. Wodehouse videogame. Wodehouse’s books, unlike most videogames, were centered around people but never included any violence or sex. I’d love to see his sensibilities transplanted into games. Just imagining a Telltale-style [a developer famous for making episodic adventure games] Jeeves and Wooster game makes me slightly giddy”
I then asked him how the games industry could attract better writing talent.
“Start making games that allow for greater narrative depth,” he replied. “If most of your game’s script consists of battle dialog (imagine writing 50 different variations of the phrase, “incoming grenade!”), that’s not going to attract top talent. If, however, your game allows the world to react to the player’s actions in interesting ways, or if your story reveals itself to the player in ways only games can achieve, then you might well find writing talent jumping at the chance to do something challenging, different, and risky.”
Underneath conversations like this lurks the reality that being a “games writer” is too often considered a secondary position in the making of a game. Designers, producers, and programmers tend to control a greater share of narrative structure and destiny than you might expect, with writers simply crafting made-to-order textual content.
Nevertheless, if my wanderings in the game world have convinced me of anything, it is that within even the worst cliché of the demographic “gamer,” there is a prospective reader of literary fiction. Not unlike the most ambitious and challenging novels, video games feature unreliable narrators, shifting perspectives, digressions that become their own plot lines, fragmented timelines, the use of magic, myth, hallucination, and multiple outcomes. These are commonalities rather than eccentricities, and gamers are undaunted, even treating narrative difficulties as worthy challenges.
Game designer Jane McGonigal calculated that as a planet we play three billion hours of video games a week. Millions of people have come of age experiencing storytelling predominantly through this medium. Millions of people have fake killed millions of other fake people. Millions of people have conquered the world or prevented it from being conquered, have built and run impossibly vast megacities, have followed the stories of countless heroes and villains.
We should try to write some novels for them.
Twelve- to 18-year-old males are not the only people playing video games. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the average gamer is 30 years old, and 45 percent are female. Yet there can be no doubt that most games are still marketed toward a young, overwhelmingly male demographic, with companies convinced this is necessary to their bottom line despite the growing mountain of evidence to the contrary.
This disproportionate focus leaves substantial room for the games industry to acquire new customers. There are whole swaths of potential players whom the video games industry has tacitly abandoned with sexism, repetition, and an inability to embrace new narrative and content.
We should try to make games for them.
We should be making novels into video games, video games into novels. Publishers should collaborate with indie game developers, trading them a platform and content in exchange for labor and a new form of adaptation. Literary magazines and libraries should sponsor gamejams. The games industry should fully embrace the thousands of works of classic literature open to them in the public domain.
Even without structured efforts to that end, there is some hope that within the flourishing realm of “indie games” the medium is maturing and embracing more literary themes and modalities.
At the booths of the Independent Games Festival, Calvino and Borges were household names. When I mentioned Edwin’s Abbott’s Flatland to the developers of Super Hexagon and Super Space, they rolled their eyes as if they were literature PhDs who had just been asked at a dinner party if they had heard of James Joyce. The makers of 2014 IGF Finalist Paralect have acknowledged the direct influence of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. But the scope of this interest and knowledge is limited to a small set of authors.
Whereas in the past indie games were simply a subcultural sideshow and barely an influence on the larger industry, the rise of digital distribution has allowed small or individual independent developers to have the opportunity to reap real financial success while still remaining divorced from large development budgets and battles over the same predefined market share.
In the past year, award-winning games such as Papers Please (a game of passport control in a fictional communist satellite state) and Starseed Pilgrim (a game of gardening riddled with floating poetry), both developed by singular individuals, proved that indie games with atypical premises can succeed in the market and, more importantly, provide players with involving experiences that feel worthy of printed literary companions.
Gone Home, a game in which you explore your empty childhood home, is often described by players and reviewers as being novelistic, inherently like a book. As of February, it had sold 250,000 copies (in a scant seven months on the market). Not bad for the gaming equivalent of an indie novel released on a small press. Imagine if a self-published literary fiction novel about growing up in the mid-90s in the Pacific Northwest grossed 250,000 copies.
In the video games world, the performance of a game like Gone Home represents a nice, feel-good story, but still pales in comparison to the mainstream titles. For reference, Grand Theft Auto V sold almost 27 million copies in the last four months of 2013, grossing over a billion dollars in its first three days of sales.
While it’s easy to dismiss mainstream games like Grand Theft Auto V or Call of Duty as shallow, or not on par with any notion of being literary classics, it is difficult to imagine Miguel de Cervantes not enjoying a virtual romp through the virtual medieval world in Assassin’s Creed, let alone the glee Italo Calvino would feel upon witnessing Sim City. It’s easy to forget that video games, even the most boring or decadent ones, are realizing what were once only the high-minded fantasies of The OULIPO and other pre-digital experimental writers.
When the Dante’s Inferno video game was released in 2010, it caused several editions of The Divine Comedy to shoot up Amazon’s sales charts. It did not really matter that the game was nowhere close to being a perfect adaptation or embodiment of the epic poem. A friend of mine who teaches middle-school English in Cleveland, Ohio, almost wept recounting how a group of her students brought a copy to class.
“Kids ask me all the time about which author influenced Bioshock (Ayn Rand) or why Spec Ops: The Line failed in its attempt to remake Heart of Darkness,” she said. “My adult friends do too. But they rarely pester me to find out who won the Man Booker.”
With works both new and old, the literary community is in the unique position to take a role in an adolescent art form’s coming of age. And if game developers were to start directly pursuing writers with backgrounds outside of their comfort zone, the result could be an era of unprecedented collaboration and innovation for not just one industry, but two.
Image Credit: LPW
Imagine that Mark Twain had taken four volumes and 3,307 pages to get to the turning point in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when Huck and Jim get lost in the fog at Cairo, Ill., where the Mississippi and the Ohio rivers meet. Imagine that at the end of that fourth volume, you still didn’t know whether their raft had drifted east along the Ohio River toward the free states or been carried southward down the Mississippi River and into the heart of American darkness. Now, imagine that those 3,307 pages, despite some slow bits, contained some of the most riveting reading of your life, and that you knew — knew in your bones — that Huck and Jim were headed south, and you lived in quiet dread that Mark Twain, now quite elderly, would die before he could finish the tale.
That would put you roughly in the position of a devoted reader of Robert Caro’s monumental biography of Lyndon Johnson, the fourth volume of which, The Passage of Power, arrives this week, just in time for Father’s Day. The Passage of Power ends in the summer of 1964, seven months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but before Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election, before most of the legislation that created The Great Society, before the Gulf of Tonkin incident that deepened America’s involvement in Vietnam and eventually destroyed the Johnson Presidency. In other words, the four volumes now in print, which have already earned Caro a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, two National Book Critics Circle Awards, along with virtually every other prize offered for books of history, merely form the prologue to the great American political tragedy that is the Johnson Presidency.
But what a prologue. These books are epically, at times even comically, overlong, and yet they are also, quite literally, epic in ambition and achievement. Caro is clearly trying to write the epic poem of The American Century, with tall, jug-eared, foul-mouthed LBJ as his flawed tragic hero. It is hard to believe that Caro will finish the last four and a half years of Johnson’s presidency in a single volume, as he has said he will, and I dread the hours it will take me to read the 1,500 pages or so I imagine it will take him to cover the subject, but I also fear that the American world I came of age in will never fully make sense to me unless Caro, now 76, lives long enough to finish his Life of Johnson.
The unifying theme of the Johnson biography, and of The Power Broker, Caro’s equally overlong, and equally brilliant biography of New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, is political power and its uses. In the prologue to The Passage of Power, Caro writes:
[A]lthough the cliché says that power always corrupts, what is seldom said, but what is equally true, is that power always reveals. When a man is climbing, trying to persuade others to give him power, concealment is necessary… But as a man obtains more power, camouflage is less necessary. The curtain begins to rise. The revealing begins.
As the curtain rises on this volume, Johnson is poised to trick himself out of the prize around which he has built his entire career. As the 1950s came to a close, Johnson was, as a ruthlessly effective majority leader of the U.S. Senate, arguably the second most powerful man in America, but after waiting too long to declare his candidacy for president in 1960, Johnson was outflanked by JFK and ended up as vice president. Johnson’s tenure in the Kennedy White House was made all the more humiliating by the fact that Kennedy’s aides, including his younger brother, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, despised him, mercilessly ridiculing the Texas-born LBJ as “Rufus Cornpone” and keeping him out of meetings where the real political decisions were being made.
This section of The Passage of Power, funny as it sometimes can be in depicting Johnson trying to toady his way into Kennedy’s esteem, is slack and wayward. Whenever things get slow in Johnson’s life, Caro has the unfortunate habit of changing the subject, offering potted histories of the other people and institutions around his central character. While the long digressions into the Kennedy family and the roots of the blood feud between Johnson and Bobby Kennedy in this volume are vastly more engrossing than the ponderous hundred-page history of the U.S. Senate that clogs the absurdly overstuffed third volume, Master of the Senate, these sideshows still feel like throat-clearing, especially compared to the second half of the book that begins with crack of the rifle that fells President Kennedy in Dallas.
Each of the four volumes has its set piece, a dramatic moment that Caro uses to turn the usually dry topic of history into a riveting page-turner, and here that set piece is Thanksgiving Week of 1963, which began with the Kennedy assassination. November 22, 1963, is surely the most exhaustively examined day in all of American history, and yet Caro manages to make it seem new by telling the story of the assassination from the point of view of the man it most directly affected, Vice President Johnson.
In the months leading up to the assassination, Caro reminds us, Johnson was increasingly worried that Kennedy might drop him from the ticket in 1964, and, on the very morning Kennedy landed in Dallas, editors at Life magazine met to discuss their investigation of Johnson aide Bobby Baker’s peddling of political favors, which was quickly morphing into an investigation of Johnson’s questionable financial dealings. Had Lee Harvey Oswald missed, it is altogether possible that the Baker scandal, along with Johnson’s dwindling political influence, could have pushed Kennedy to pick a new vice president, rendering Johnson little more than a colorful footnote to history.
But Oswald, and whoever else may or may not have been crouching in the Grassy Knoll, had deadly aim, and, in that instant, provided the hinge that separated the first half of the American Century from its darker, less glorious second half. For nearly an hour after the first shots rang out, as rumors swirled of a possible Soviet-led coup d’etat, Johnson was held out of sight in a small cubicle in Parkland Hospital where doctors were trying to revive the fallen president, until Kennedy aide Kenneth O’Donnell walked in, his face stricken, and said, “He’s gone,” two words that transformed Johnson from a political has-been into the leader of the free world.
Caro considers the next seven months, from the hectic Thanksgiving Week transition, in which a cool, calm President Johnson managed a flawless transition of power while the nation mourned, to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, which put an end to a century of legalized segregation, as Johnson’s “finest moment…a moment not only masterful, but, in its way, heroic.” The LBJ the reader has come to know in the previous 3,000 pages is a schemer and a bully, who lives for crushing those less powerful than himself, abusing his staff, publicly humiliating fellow politicians and government officials, and always carving up the spoils, political and financial, for his own benefit. “Yet for a period of time,” Caro writes, “a brief but crucial moment in history, he had held these elements [of his personality] in check, had overcome them, had, in a way, conquered himself.”
Sadly, it was to be a short-lived victory. “Power reveals,” Caro argues, and in The Passage of Power, he demonstrates precisely what this means. One comes away thinking that for a man like Johnson, with his exquisite antenna for the finest gradations of power, the chaotic post-assassination White House was a perfect atmosphere for his particular talents. On November 21, 1963, LBJ was still “Rufus Cornpone,” a big, funny-looking caricature of a Beltway pol, largely unknown to the average American, corrupt to the core, and fast slipping from power. Seven months later, he had passed a landmark civil rights bill, which Caro convincingly argues went far beyond anything Kennedy could have achieved, and was cruising toward one of the most lopsided presidential victories in history.
Johnson accomplished this by shielding himself behind the country’s almost mystical sense of the promise of the fallen president, leveraging his very powerlessness as a usurper to the throne into absolute power. Once he won the presidency in his own right in 1964, his ego returned, and all his great achievements for the poor and powerless of this country — Medicare, voting rights, Head Start — were undone by his unquenchable thirst for power and his ham-fisted approach to the war in Vietnam.
Robert Caro, one senses, has a bit of an ego on him, too, and it is a shame for those of us who love his books that he has not found an editor able to stand up to him after the near perfection of the first two volumes of this series. Master of the Senate is too long by at least a third, and this new volume, though less egregiously long-winded, nevertheless could do with a judicious edit. But while I might be able to imagine cutting hundreds of pages from these books, I cannot think of another living historian who could have written any of the pages that remain. As we learn from studying Lyndon Johnson, we have to take our geniuses as they are, warts and all.
Image Credit: Bill Morris/[email protected]
Finding the entrance points to New York’s musical undergrounds has never been quite as simple as decoding MTA maps, though that’s usually the first step. Two excellent new books chart a decade-and-a-half worth of street-level detail, illuminating not only entrance points, but how they were willed into existence. Ed Sanders’ Fug You: An Informal History of the PEACE EYE BOOKSTORE, the FUCK YOU PRESS, the FUGS, and Counterculture in the Lower East Side handles 1962-1970, while Will Hermes’ astonishing Love Goes To Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever takes care of 1973-1977. The City’s secret connecting forces, the subway and otherwise, rumble evocatively beneath each, both New York classics in their ways.
Besides Allen Ginsberg, there was perhaps no bigger mover, shaker, or self-promoter in the mid-’60s East Village than Ed Sanders. Born in Kansas City in 1939, he founded The Fugs with the poet Tuli Kupferberg, immortalized in Howl!, who “jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alley ways & firetrucks.” As a singer, bookstore owner, and poetry zine publisher Sanders found national notoriety, including a February 1967 cover of Life, and helped network the New York counterculture to a larger national platform. Like Neal Cassady in the west, Sanders provided a link, as well, between the Beats and the hippies, and — in Sanders’ case — soon the Yippies. “We’re on the EAST SIDE,” The Fugs sang proudly on “We’re The Fugs,” a sloppy and joyous theme song that came two years pre-Monkees, and giggled in the face of congenial West Village guitar strummers. “Dope, peace, magic Gods in the tree trunks, and GROUP GROPE,” Sanders declared on “Group Grope.” They never quite made it big — they didn’t quite crack the top 50 on the Cashbox chart — but it was enough.
There is glee in Sanders’ vivid telling, playing straight man to an absurd world, despite being the one making the pornographic avant-garde films and selling Allen Ginsberg’s pubic hair and “well-scooped cold cream jar” through a rare books catalog he operated from his bookstore, where he spat out publications on a mimeograph. He is fond of asides that call lightly on deeper traditions he locates himself in, often the Egyptian hieroglyphics he taught himself to read at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Allen and Peter Orlovsky located a three-room pad at 704 East Fifth Street, near Avenue C, on the sixth floor. It was just $35 a month — Hail to Thee, O Rent Control!” For Sanders, the glory of the City is as a staging ground for what he has called “the forces of peace,” a thread he traced in his nine-volume America: A History in Verse, published between 2000 and 2008, which reads like an upbeat Howard Zinn and (besides The Fugs’ first recordings) is arguably Sanders’ most essential work.
In Fug You, those Forces wander local bars and underground newspaper headquarters, weather obscenity busts and CIA tails, and engage in pornographic avant-garde cinema and the still-thriving poetry scene. Sanders spews a dense and heady stew of facts, dates, and addresses with a mostly compelling lightness, cutting it every now and again with some groovy beauty. Here he is on The Fugs’ entrance to a 1968 gig in Los Angeles:
The club had rented a searchlight the night of our rite, which beamed white tunnels of psychedelic allure up towards Aquarius. There was an anarcho-bacchic Goof Strut parade into the parking lot of the club behind a mint-condition ’38 Dodge (similar to a Kienholz work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art).
But Sanders’ details can grow mechanical (or, worse, self-aggrandizing) as they accumulate. He enthusiastically catalogs group gropes and the varieties of drug use, but rarely gives much of his own experiences. There is almost none of his midwestern upbringing, and precious little on the brilliant and vivacious Tuli Kupferberg. Sanders himself has been a slightly-too-enthusiastic ’60s memoirist since at least 1975, when he published the first volume of his Tales of Beatnik Glory novels, and it’s possible he’s just out-biographied himself, which might account for Fug You’s occasional cold formality, despite its title. Though there is an element of archetypal ’60s solipsism to Fug You, and much of Sanders work, Sanders was there and kept his bearings.
For all that, though, Will Hermes’ Love Goes To Buildings on Fire comes across as more personal than Fug You. A Queens teen in the mid-’70s, Hermes himself shows up throughout, offering surprisingly tender evocations of his music-loving youth. “I’d been mugged on trains a few times, twice at knifepoint, coming home from Manhattan shows alone at night,” he writes, segueing from a Village Voice cover story about the atrocious state of the subway.
But the worst was in May , when I was stuck on a broken-down E train for an hour en route to the Port Authority Bus Terminal to meet a girl I was cross-eyed crushed-out on. She had tickets to see the Grateful Dead five hours north that night, at Cornell University’s Barton Hall. When I finally arrived, the girl and the bus — the last Ithaca run of the day — were gone. …Fucking subway.
Though drugs and the Dead turn up enough times to communicate that Hermes is writing from his continued position as a serious music head, Love Goes To Buildings on Fire is hardly a memoir in a literal sense. Instead, he picks up not long after where Sanders left off, the East Side counterculture almost in ruins at the outset. Though plenty of books have covered similar subjects — notably Legs McNeil’s and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me, Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, and Tony Fletcher’s All Hopped Up and Ready to Go — Hermes finds fresh details everywhere, a dizzying succession that piles luminously atop another in a bright layering of punk, hip-hop, disco, Latin, avant-garde, and jazz history.
In a typical passage, he writes, “As it turned out, Einstein [on the Beach]’s most indelible music involved the incantations of ‘One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight,’ which were being rehearsed on Spring Street just as the Ramones, down at CBGB, counted off every song “One-two-three-four!” He specializes in sudden juxtapositions, jumping from Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorcese’s favorite post-work Chinese-run Latin joint (La Tacita de Oro on 99th and Broadway) while shooting Taxi Driver, to Rubèn Blades’ favorite post-work Chinese-Cuban place (La Caridad on 78th and Broadway) not far away, near the Beacon Theater.
Two of the genres whose births Hermes recounts — hip-hop and disco — arguably evolved into the two most global pop genres of the 21st century, both in forms directly traceable to New York in the mid-’70s. Other developments in punk and minimalism forever changed the conversation, sound, and infrastructures of rock and roll and classical music. Though the ceaseless crashing of names might prove overwhelming to non-music obsessives, quick trips to YouTube are an easy fix. At its most basic, the book is a rich and invaluable crash course in the roots of contemporary music.
As much as it belongs on that of any serious music fan, Love Goes To Buildings on Fire especially, belongs on a long NYC-centric bookshelf that begins with Russell Shorto’s Island at the Center of the World. Read as an oddly upbeat and unintentional sequel to Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, the heroes of Love Goes To Buildings on Fire are themselves pivot points in New York’s history between “Ford To City: Drop Dead” and the MARCH squads dispatched by the Rudolph Giuliani/Michael Bloomberg-era NYPD to crack down on illegal artist lofts. Mark Alan Stamaty’s Buildings on Fire cover illustration depicts the teeming City perfectly, musicians’ caricatures sprouting like towering fauna from the cement. It was a City growing denser. In 1960, just before Ed Sanders arrived in New York, there were roughly 336 artists, writers, and musicians per 100,000 American citizens, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census. By 1980, just after the end of Hermes’s period, that number was up to around 565 per 100,000, and likely even greater in Manhattan, where the general population had shrunk to its lowest level in a half-century, a City about to transform into something beyond its own oddest dreams.
The sounds and ideas of disco and hip-hop and punk and salsa and minimalism and free jazz made their way across rivers and around the world on the backs of ever-cheaper technologies. Everywhere, they mushed into advertising and bland pop mutations, but also freethinking new turns, where the blueprints for counterculture remain deep inside the music, ready for deployment against lame government, bureaucracy, or blandness. And though those people making wondrous new things in their bedrooms or garages might not identify themselves as the Forces of Peace as much as Sanders and his Pentagon-levitating brethren may like, there is little else they could possibly be.
Historian Robert A. Caro, author of The Power Broker, has spent 35 years researching and writing about the life and presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. Last Tuesday, devoted fans were thrilled to learn that the fourth book in his LBJ saga is due out in May. It will be entitled The Passage of Power, and it will focus on the years between 1958 and 1964.
A few weeks ago I took a break from reading Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities to visit the block of Hudson Street in Manhattan’s West Village where Jacobs lived when she wrote her classic book on urban planning. One block over, on Bleecker Street, the storefronts bear the names of some of the most iconic brands in fashion – Steve Madden, Juicy Couture, Coach, Michael Kors – but Jacobs’ old block of Hudson between Perry and West 11th retains its scruffy charm, mixing small residential buildings with restaurants, a bar, a nail salon, a bodega, and a dry cleaner.
Then I stopped in at 555 Hudson Street, the building where Jacobs lived with her husband and three children, now occupied by a store called Glassybaby. It is, to be frank, a curious place. The store, spacious by the standards of the neighborhood, is dedicated to a single product, a short, stout, handcrafted glass votive holder that comes in two sizes and a rainbow of colors ranging from “smooch” (hot pink) to “wet dog” (dark brown). If this were a novel, I thought as I browsed this queer crop of retail monoculture, the Glassybaby store would be symbolic of something. But what? Is the store an example of the quirky, one-of-a-kind businesses Jacobs said cities must attract to remain vital? Or is there something vaguely ominous in the building that once housed Jane Jacobs, the queen of urban diversity, becoming home to a store that stocks shelf after shelf of whimsically useless objects lovingly hand-made to look identical except in color?
Jacobs surely would have had something to say on the subject, but she died in 2006 and all we have to go on are her books, the first and most famous of which turns fifty this fall. Vintage Books is coming out with a 50th Anniversary edition of The Death and Life, and there will be numerous commemorations and re-evaluations this fall. All of this is richly deserved. The Death and Life is a terrific read, tart and personable, larded with great gobs of commonsensical observations about how large cities work, presented in clear, straightforward prose. But wise as The Death and Life is, it doesn’t take a degree in economics to see that Jacobs’ observations on the virtues of walkable streets and diverse neighborhoods offered little insight into what was really killing America’s great cities in the middle of the last century: the loss of their manufacturing base.
This is why anyone who wants to understand Jacobs should read her later books, particularly The Economy of Cities. Together, The Death and Life of Great American Cities and The Economy of Cities – the first a classic, the second far less known – form a single, groundbreaking treatise on how cities succeed and fail. Jacobs’ message is simple: a city, and thus a society, lives and dies by how well it can build a creative environment for its citizens to innovate their way out of trouble. This argument is too simple, in that it underplays the role external forces – the depletion of natural resources, the unexpected rise of rivals, and plain dumb luck – can play in the fate of a society. But this country faces a strange conundrum: New York City, which forty years ago was headed for bankruptcy while the rest of the nation was booming, is now clicking right along while the rest of the nation falters. There are many reasons why this should be so, among them dumb luck, but anyone wishing to bring about a version of New York’s miraculous rebirth in his or her own city would do well to reread Jane Jacobs.
Born in 1916 and raised in the coal-mining town of Scranton, Pennsylvania, Jacobs moved to New York in the mid-1930s and soon found her way to Greenwich Village. Untrained as a city planner, she rose to prominence in New York politics through her work as a neighborhood organizer, most famously opposing über-planner Robert Moses, who wanted to run a ten-lane expressway through lower Manhattan, a travesty of a project which, had it been built, would have leveled great swaths of Little Italy and Soho.
Moses, the Machiavellian central figure of Robert Caro’s biography The Power Broker, earns only passing mentions in The Death and Life and The Economy of Cities, but the books are in many ways an extended polemic against Moses and his vision for a 20th century New York. Moses and like-minded architects such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier sought to clear cities of squalor by replacing tenement slums with vast housing complexes surrounded by parkland and ribbons of highway. In practice, this meant razing entire neighborhoods and stuffing thousands of poor people into high-rise “projects” that soon devolved into crime-ridden towers of drug addiction and despair.
Jacobs’ first great insight was to see cities not as machines for living, but instead as living, breathing organisms. Future planners, she says in The Death and Life, must “think of cities as problems in organized complexity – organisms that are replete with unexamined, but obviously intricately interconnected, and surely understandable, relationships.” But if a city is a living thing, then it can die, and Jacobs’ second great insight was that cities are a self-propagating species. To dump money indiscriminately on a city from outside, in her view, is like sticking a feeding tube down a patient’s throat: it might keep the patient from dying, but it’s not likely to help him get out of bed. The best way to grow a city’s economy is clear away the impediments, architectural, governmental, and economic, that stand in the way of individuals working together to make things for themselves.
Jacobs begins her study of how cities function at the atomic level of a single block, using her own stretch of Hudson Street as her test tube. With a sharp eye and great good sense, she describes how a successful block attracts a diverse set of users, not just residents, but local shopkeepers and visitors from other areas of the city who, without really being aware they are doing so, look out for one another. When it works, she writes, a successful block is the setting for:
an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of a good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations.
Jacobs builds upon this image of a “sidewalk ballet” to tackle the knotty problem of how to create a city full of successful blocks. Streets should be short, with wide sidewalks, a good mix of old and new buildings, and a broad range of businesses likely to attract a true diversity of residents and business owners.
If you want to see how these ideas have influenced modern city planning, visit Battery Park City, a planned community at the southern tip of Manhattan built atop displaced fill from the Twin Towers, where short residential blocks are interwoven with pocket parks, playgrounds, shopping areas, and public buildings like schools and libraries. If you live in a big city, chances are that you live near a residential complex like this one, and chances are that, like Battery Park City, it is among the most popular neighborhoods in your city for young urbanites with kids.
The ideas in The Death and Life are so sensible, so profoundly American in their promotion of diversity and tolerance, that it is easy to forget that, while Moses’ public housing towers were just as socially destructive as Jacobs says they were, so were the squalid tenement houses they replaced. For more than a century, from the Irish Potato Famines in the 1840s until the peak of the African-American Great Migration in the late 1950s, waves of immigrants landed in New York’s poorest neighborhoods. These newcomers endured crime-ridden, rat-infested tenements, first, because lousy as conditions were, it beat how they had been living, and, second, because they knew their children and grandchildren could rise out of the ghettos into the American middle class. And rise they did, decade after decade, borne aloft an ever-expanding American manufacturing base – until, that is, the late 1950s when manufacturing jobs began to seep away, first from big cities like New York and, later, from the country as a whole.
In The Death and Life, Jacobs is curiously silent about the twin economic dynamos, shipping and manufacturing, that made New York great, and then, by disappearing, nearly sank the city into bankruptcy. “[T]he economic foundation of cities is trade,” she writes. “Even manufacturing occurs in cities mainly because of attached advantages involving trade, not because it is easier to manufacture things in cities.” Without the context from her later works this sounds absurd, and if one stops with The Death and Life of American Cities, one might conclude that, while Jacobs was a visionary urban planner, she didn’t grasp the economic realities that cause big cities to live and die.
Jacobs must have entertained similar thoughts, because she appears to have spent the next twenty-odd years of her life studying this very issue. In the two books that emerged from this prolonged study, The Economy of Cities, in 1969, and Cities and the Wealth of Nations, in 1984, Jacobs lays out just what great cities like New York needed to do to bring themselves back from the dead.
In popular lore, the tale of New York’s rise from the abyss turns on Mayor Giuliani and the Squeegee Men. In the early years of the Giuliani Administration, drivers at busy intersections of Manhattan would be approached by homeless guys bearing squeegees who would clean the windshield without being asked and then hassle the driver for a tip. Giuliani took on the Squeegee Men and busted kids spraying graffiti on subway cars, and so the story goes, crack magically vanished from the streets, ordinary people could ride the subways again, and Rev. Al Sharpton had so little to complain about in New York he had to run for president.
This is, of course, fanciful. In fact, the story of New York’s turnaround is primarily an economic one. After decades of stagnation caused by the decline of local industry, New York finally caught the return wave of globalization, which needed a world capital for finance, media, and high-end product design. The rise in these industries, in turn, drove a booming service economy that sopped up waves of immigrants, and faster than you can say Mike Bloomberg, New York was again a world colossus.
But why did a city like New York recover when a city like Detroit, which had a more durable industrial base, fell into blight and decay? The answer, Jacobs argues in The Economy of Cities, turns on the ability of a city’s inhabitants to innovate. Cities grow, she says, through a process she calls “import replacement.” This occurs when local tradesmen produce for themselves the goods and services they had previously been importing and then use the skills learned from this local production to create new products, which they can then export in great bulk. Detroit, she notes, began as a port for shipping flour across the Great Lakes. Soon, local manufacturers were building their own steamships to make the lake crossings and got so good at it they began making ocean-going ships for use in other cities. This not only put money into local coffers, but supported the dozens of local engine-parts makers Henry Ford drew upon when he founded the Ford Motor Company.
But here’s the rub: the auto industry was so successful that once Ford arrived at his greatest innovation, the assembly line, the industry so dominated Detroit’s economy that there was no local market for further innovation, and, as Jacobs points out, it was only a matter of time before another city – in this case, cities in Japan – improved upon Ford’s ideas and made better, cheaper cars. The Economy of Cities came out four years before the gas crisis that set Detroit’s long tailspin in motion, but it eerily predicts the dilemma the city faces today, in which a moribund auto industry, out-innovated by foreign competitors, had to be bailed out by the U.S. taxpayer to avoid collapse.
Like Detroit, New York began as a port city, but in New York’s case a principal byproduct of its shipping trade was a robust banking industry, which survived the city’s manufacturing collapse. Even as New York was begging for a bailout from the federal government in the mid-1970s, young hotshots like Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken, many of them children and grandchildren of immigrants who had filled the ghettos earlier in the century, were inventing new ways to own and finance large companies. Think of all the financial innovations of the last thirty years: junk bonds, hedge funds, leveraged buyouts, asset-backed securities, credit derivatives, subprime mortgage markets, and on and on. Yes, bankers are evil, and, yes, the banking industry required a federal bailout even larger than that of the auto industry’s, but like it or not, New York is the safest large city in America, with a vital private sector and a buoyant real estate market, largely because the living, breathing organism we call Wall Street has spent the last thirty years innovating its way out of obsolescence.
Which brings us back to the Glassybaby store. When I walked out of Glassybaby, I felt certain Jane Jacobs would have agreed with me that the store was a sad commentary on what had become of her beloved West Village. An entire store devoted to votive holders? What’s next, a store that sells only Tibetan prayer flags? A pet store specializing in fair-trade chew toys? Now I can see I was wrong, mostly because I, possessor of a less subtle mind than Jacobs’, let my personal prejudices get in the way.
Whatever Jacobs may have thought of Glassybaby as a product, she would have seen the store for what it is: a small, niche business that neatly encapsulates her economic theories. According to its website, Glassybaby started when its founder Lee Rhodes was battling cancer and found solace in glass votives that she spread around her house. She soon taught herself to make the votives herself and began distributing them, first as gifts to friends and later as products sold to strangers. The market for these items was so strong that she taught other glass blowers to make Glassybabies and then opened retail stores, first in her native Seattle and now in New York. In 2009, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos acquired a 22 percent stake in the young company.
Thus, just as Jacobs describes, a smart, creative person has adapted an imported product to her needs, hired others to help her produce and sell it, and has now found financial backing to export it to other cities. What’s more, now that Rhodes has identified a market niche, she has found ever more creative uses for her product, including programs that allow percentages of sales of certain colors of her votives to go charity. Rhodes, with nothing more than some colored glass and a good idea, has created money and jobs where they didn’t exist before, and in the process, found an original way to serve a market niche that others can now exploit.
I could be wrong, but I suspect Jane Jacobs wouldn’t have been a big Glassybaby customer, and I am certain she would have deplored all those Wall Street hotshots selling each other worthless tranches of securitized home loans until the system blew up. But I think she would have acknowledged the uncomfortable truth that those guys brought New York back from the dead to the point it could support a quirky, marginal business like Glassybaby. Today, as we as a nation stare down the double barrels of high debt and low employment, the question is whether we can follow Wall Street’s example of serial reinvention or turn our backs on the lessons of Jacobs’ work and end up a nation of proud, decaying Detroits, blaming other, more creative folk for our failures?
For about a year, the books in our apartment threatened to swallow my husband and me. Adding another bookcase, like adding another lane to an already clogged freeway, didn’t help–it only encouraged us to read more, and the piles kept growing. During the holidays, it got so bad that those stored on top of a shelf in the living room covered most of the framed French Connection poster on the wall above it; they even threatened to push the lamp off the edge. The books on top of the small shelf in the bedroom nearly blocked the light switch; soon we would either have to paw through the dark, or sleep with the lights on. Something had to be done.
Although I agreed with Patrick that we needed more space, I was resistant to a book purge. For one, I like books-as-interior-decoration. Their uniformity of shape contrasts well with their variation in color (unless, you’re one of these rubes who stores their books spine-in), and bookends are so elegant (I cherish my brass dogs from Restoration Hardware.) Plus, every few weeks I can avoid writing by rearranging and dusting the piles of novels scattered in each room. Why write my own when I have all of these published ones to keep me company?
I also felt strongly that our books revealed to visitors our values and our identities; the fact that we were swimming in them emphasized their importance in our lives. The first thing I look at when I walk into someone’s home is their bookshelf. That is, if they’ve got any–lord help me. On his goodreads profile, my friend Brian writes, “If you go home with someone, and they don’t have any books, don’t fuck ’em!” This has always struck me as wise advice for the literary bachelor or bachelorette, and I’d like to extend it further, away from the romantic and sexual: if you don’t read, I don’t want to be your friend…I don’t even want you to serve me a drink at a bar. If a stranger came over to our apartment, and there weren’t books, or–oh no!–not enough books, what would that say about me and Patrick? If my copy of Handmaid’s Tale or his copy of The Power Broker weren’t on display, how would anyone understand us? Some people have a cross in their home, or a mezuzah on their doorjamb. I’ve got nine books by Vladimir Nabokov.
Right before Christmas, my father came over for dinner and with a sneer told us we should get rid of our library. “You’re not actually going to re-read these, are you?” he asked. It should come as no surprise that he isn’t a reader (I wish I could say, “If you don’t read, I don’t want to be your daughter”…but, alas, I have no choice in the matter.) Patrick thought my dad had a point; a lot of these books were just sitting on the shelves, untouched. We should try to get rid of half of our books, he said after my father left. “But I need them for teaching!” I cried. I teach classes from home, and I love to allude to a book during workshop, and then, in the next moment, hand it to the student. “You’re not a librarian,” Patrick replied, that witty asshole.
So, one Sunday, we began. My first idea was that we would do each other’s dirty work. I would purge the books that belonged to Patrick, and he would purge mine. Nothing would leave the apartment without the other’s consent, but it was a good way to be objective about the matter. Patrick had no idea how much I’d enjoyed A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That, so it clearly couldn’t mean all that much to me. That stung–but he was right, and into the exit line it went.
It wasn’t long before we began purging our own books, voluntarily. We were even a little frenzied. It was liberating, for instance, to finally give away Fortress of Solitude, which I must now publicly admit, I didn’t like as much as everyone else did. It felt okay to pull my copy of Tom Jones from the shelf; if someone wanted to assume I hadn’t read it, let them. Only I held the history of my reading past, of the semesters of college courses I diligently attended, reading everything (everything!) on the syllabus, taking sometimes useful, but more often ineffectual, notes in the margins. I didn’t need the books themselves to remember my reader-selves of yesteryear.
The pile of books to be purged grew larger and larger, covering the kitchen table, and the four chairs as well. The shelves were thinning out. I began to get a little spiritual about things. I liked the idea of passing on all these stories to new readers. Let them live on! I was in the service of humanity now!
Of course, we didn’t get rid of everything (sorry, humanity). Our favorites remained. Not only were Margaret Atwood and Robert Caro safe, so were Alice Munro, Joan Didion, Sam Lipsyte, James Joyce, and Anne Carson… and these were just a few of the authors who survived. Patrick and I had fun rearranging our two “favorites” shelves, one for long-beloved books, and one for newer books that had recently captured our imagination and hearts. We created a shelf specifically for authors we knew personally, from Kiki Petrosino to John Haskell; next time someone takes a gander at the collection, I am totally going to brag. We also migrated most of our poetry from the front of the apartment to the bedroom. (Upon moving in, we thought we might want to pull out a collection during a dinner party, to enliven it with a verse or two, but that never happened. Now, it seems more romantic and delicious to sleep and dream next to poems, rather than eat and surf the web next to them.)
Our best change is “The Unread” (either a book section or the latest horror flick, coming to a theatre near you). I am happy to say, it’s only a short pile, and it’s in no danger of blocking that movie poster. This pile is easy to access, and usefully recriminating; it’s difficult to defend a new book purchase when we have all of these waiting for us. Since the purge, I have already read one of these books (Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk) , and I’m halfway through another (The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris).
It’s been a little over a week since we’ve cleaned out and rearranged our bookshelves. To my surprise, I don’t grieve the change. Three people have commented on how clean the place looks, and not one has noticed the lack of books. It’s like a flattering new haircut that no one sees–they just think you look great.
So where, you ask, did we send all of our unwanted books? Someone else might have tried to sell them online, or at a used bookstore, or scheduled appointments with literary-minded friends (the only kind worth having, as I’ve previously established). But we weren’t so prepared: we loaded them into garbage bags and dropped them off at our local Goodwill on Hollywood Blvd. If you head over there soon, you will certainly find some gems.
So that you may get to know us better, we introduce The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life the like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments.Today’s Question: What’s on your nightstand right now?Emily: Deciding where the nightstand stops in my dorm room is something of a quandary. And sadly, in this final dissertation push, pleasure reading is a thing of the past (Swift Studies 2006, Romanticism, Nationalism, and the Revolt Against Theory, The Chicago Manual of Style…). But among the piles that daily encroach on my bed are two recent purchases: Dover’s paperback editions of Goya’s print series Los Caprichos and The Disasters of War. If you haven’t seen them, take a look. I hesitate to call either a pleasure, but they are, in their ways.Edan: I’m about to read The Great Man by Kate Christensen, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award this year. I enjoyed her previous novel, The Epicure’s Lament, and this one, about a recently deceased painter and the women in his life, sounds like something to dive into.After that, I’m going to give Edith Wharton my attention, beginning with The Age of Innocence. I also have a galley of Joan Silber’s novel, The Size of the World, the follow-up to her terrific and pleasing story collection Ideas of Heaven (which was nominated for a National Book Award).I just snagged the latest issue of Field, the poetry journal published by the Oberlin College Press, and a copy of Darcie Dennigan’s debut poetry collection, Corinna A-Maying the Apocalypse. Aside from this poetry reading, I’ll be steamrolling through months of unread New Yorker and Gourmet magazine issues.Garth: I seem to be having a big books problem this summer; my nightstand is about to collapse under the weight of three of them. The first is Roberto Bolano’s 2666, which I’m about 600 pages into (out of 900). The second is Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, which I’m about 300 pages into (also out of 900)… and let’s just say that, for all that she does well. Gertrude lacks the, shall we say, narrative velocity of Mr. Bolano. Finally, clocking in at over 1000 pages, I’ve got Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men, which seems insane and brilliant and possibly unfinishable. I keep thinking there are only a finite number of gigantic books, and that once I get them out of the way I can move on, and then I learn about writers like McElroy. I’m also hoping to get to Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker this summer. Seriously. In order not to get hopelessly depressed about my rate of reading, I try to read really, really short things in between the long things. My current favorite amuse-bouche or palate-cleansers are Lydia Davis’ Varieties of Disturbance and Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets. It occurs to me that I may be suffering from some variety of disturbance myself. Call it gigantobibliomania.Ben: I have 18 books on my nightstand at the moment, three of which I think I’m supposed to be reviewing. Most interestingly, I have two autobiographical accounts by historians who retraced the steps of Mao’s Long March. When I learned would be going to China this summer, I briefly toyed with the idea of spending a few months traveling along the route taken by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as they fled from the Kuomingtan. The three year journey was a harrowing race across thousands of miles of China’s most unforgiving wilderness, and it would eventually go on to become the founding myth of the CCP. Its story is replete with violence and political intrigue and following in its steps while observing how China has changed in the intervening years “would make one great book,” I thought. I was wrong. It has made two mediocre books. The Long March by Ed Jocelyn and The Long March by Sun ShuyunAndrew: It would appear that thirty or so books have taken up occupancy on or near my nightstand. This is where the triage happens. Every few weeks, books seem to show up, sometimes all at once, sometimes individually. Compulsive second-hand book-buyer that I am, I’m afraid I can’t control the in-flow.Like an ER, this may seem to be a chaotic place, but it’s functional and I give prompt attention to the book that demands to be read next. When completed, the book is transferred to the recovery area (aka the bookcases in my den), a much more orderly place. Calm. Perhaps too calm.I began M.G. Vassanji’s The In-Between World of Vikram Lall a few weeks ago, then had to abruptly stop when my life took a chaotic turn, and now that calm reigns once again, I’ve restarted it. Up next will likely be A History of the Frankfurt Book Fair, by Peter Wiedhaas, unless some literary emergency comes in off the street.Emre: My oft-cluttered, permanently dusty nightstand is home to months-old copies of Harper’s and New Yorker magazines, the occasional New York Times Magazine and four books. The books are all byproducts of articles I read in the aforementioned publications. Yet, despite the enticing reviews/mentions I find myself unable to read any of them. Top of the list is Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. After reading an article about the Bronx’s revival and realizing that as an adopted New Yorker with literary vices it is a sin not to have read a single Wolfe novel, I immediately picked up a used copy. Despite my best intentions to get going with it right after finishing Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, I am still only some 20 pages into the book. But it remains my top priority. Kind of.I might have a commitment problem. The second book is Parag Khanna’s The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order. A book review in the NYT, as well as an excerpt from the book which appeared in the Times Magazine, sounded oh so interesting and timely that the politics wonk in me returned from the depths, turning me into the four-eyed nerd that I actually am to begin reading about how global powers – U.S., EU, China – are attempting to wrest control of the Second World – a term formerly ascribed to the communist bloc, which now may be morphing to describe emerging-market and resource-rich countries. Despite its accessible, Thomas Friedman-ish language, however, I am stuck at the end of Chapter 1. I blame my job for it. Part of my work description is to read news all day. After reading the Wall Street Journal, NYT, the FT and assorted other publications all day long, I have little appetite left for politics and business. On the other hand, I do feel an urgency – as in, lest I read this in the next six months, it may be obsolete.Sharing the third spot and making for a potential good duo-read are my girlfriend’s birthday presents to me: Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion and John Dewey’s The Public and Its Problems. The gifts were, of course, not coincidental. They were conceived in the aftermath of a New Yorker article about the dying news industry (damn you, Huffington Post, et al.!) and born of our conversations regarding, well, the dying news industry. As conceptually interesting as Lippmann and Dewey’s books are, they also fall into the realm of thought-provoking, attention-requiring books, a la The Second World, which these days is a far stretch from the TV-watching couch potato I am after work. I might have to add a new book to my nightstand. Something in the 200-300 page range that involves fiction and is a light read – as in Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go!-light. Any suggestions?Max: I’ve got just one book on my nightstand: Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, which Mrs. Millions recently finished and which is waiting to be put back on the Reading Queue shelf. I’ve also got a teetering stack of magazines – issues of The New Yorker, The Week, and The Economist – that keep from reading my books. The book that I’m currently reading, meanwhile, is more often in the same room as me (or in my laptop bag if I’m on the go). This does make for occasional overnight stops on the nightstand.So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What’s on your nightstand right now?
Best Novel: The Epicure’s Lament by Kate Christensen – Hugo Whittier is a 40-year-old misanthrope living in self-imposed exile at Waverly, his ancestral home on the Hudson River. Hugo is rapidly smoking himself to death, but doing it with real style. When his estranged brother separates from his wife and moves in, he drags Hugo kicking and screaming back into the company of other human beings. Will he ruin Hugo’s plan to smoke himself out of existence? This book is full of dark humor and wry observations on the loneliness, isolation, and mortality. Also, Hugo is a mean cook and gives one heck of a recipe for Holiday Sauce. I stumbled upon this book through a magazine article about Ms. Christensen, and I’m very happy I did.Runners Up (Fiction): East of Eden, by John Steinbeck (If I’m truly honest with myself, this was probably number one, but Edan already picked it, so that would be no fun. Plus, it’s not like Steinbeck needs more heat.)The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret AtwoodThe History of Love by Nicole KraussI Sailed with Magellan by Stuart Dybek (So sentimental, but so, so good. The best story collection I read this year.)Best Non-Fiction: The Power Broker by Robert Caro – Next year will mark the first time in 3 years that I will have a non-Caro title as best non-fiction of the year. Unless, of course, he cranks out that fourth Lyndon Johnson book in record time. The Power Broker is impressive in its scale, its depth, and its incredible sense of drama. It’s Caro’s second best book (behind The Means of Ascent, Vol 2 of the Lyndon Johnson years), and worth every freakin hour it takes to read it. (As a bonus, if you don’t like reading it, you can use it to tone your biceps and triceps…).Runners Up (Non-fiction):A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha PowerGuns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
I’m glad to see my last post got people talking. I guess I have to get into specifics now. Keep in mind that I’ve only read about ten books this year because it took me all of January and February to read Robert Caro’s massive biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. (Incidentally, if you’re looking to tone up for the summer months, I recommend all of Caro’s books. Even the paperbacks come in weighty volumes perfect for curls or bench presses). After that it was a real relief to read a couple of books people have been hounding me to read: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.I’d read Atwood’s Cat’s Eye before and like it a lot, but The Handmaid’s Tale is a masterpiece. My girlfriend has been teaching it to her ungrateful undergraduates, and I read it and got a few free lessons on the fascinating language play that goes on in the text. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that was so filling for both my heart and my head.Housekeeping had been lying around my apartment, and, to be honest, I didn’t want to read it. Nobody could really tell me what it was about or anything about it, for that matter, other than that they read it in college, it was beautiful, and they loved it. I read it in twelve hours. It’s the kind of book that really ought to be read in a burst like that because its physical world is so distinct and so engrossing, it invites the reader to wander in and stay for awhile. I don’t think I’d have liked it as much if I’d nibbled at it for a couple of weeks, but it was the perfect book for me at the perfect time. (Note: I was also, no doubt, caught up in the Marilynne Robinson zeitgeist. I heard her read from her new book Gilead, and for a while here in Iowa, it seemed like Marilynne was all people could talk about).After these two terrific novels, I read Man Walks Into a Room by Nicole Krauss. It’s a shame that congress passed that law that mandates everyone who writes about Krauss to refer to her as Jonathan Safran Foer’s husband in the first three sentences (There, I’ve done it… I fear the man), because she’s an incredible writer. Read the prologue to the book and see what I mean.Of course no year of reading would be complete for me without a couple of books about genocide. Max had a great post on historians and journalists who write about the ugly moments in history, and I seem to be working my way through most of the books on his list. Two years ago I read Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish To Inform You… about the Rwandan genocide. Last year it was Anne Applebaum’s Gulag (a woman!), and this year it was Samantha Power’s book A Problem from Hell. I confess that I forced myself to start this book (even while I was buying it I was apprehensive), but I didn’t have to force myself to finish it. Power writes with clarity and precision about American foreign policy in a way that is easily understood without being too simplistic or dumbed-down. I saw Power on Charlie Rose last year and thought she was so smart and interesting. Her book didn’t disappoint.And now I’m tearing through Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (I’m ashamed to say I’d never read it). So I’ve only read a handful of books this year, but I must say that the women are walking all over the men (and that’s with Robert Caro and JF Powers on Team Penis). I do find that my “To Be Read” list is still male-oriented, so if anybody has any suggestions of books by the fairer sex, let me know. I’m open to anything.