I’ve been miserably, neurotically obsessed with becoming well-read for so long now that I sometimes hope I’ll get over my obsession simply out of boredom. Bookstores make me panic; they’re just collections of shiny reminders of everything I have not and will likely never read. Friends’ bookshelves, though they deviously keep secret which volumes have actually been finished, or for that matter opened, can ruin an otherwise fun party, leading me to wonder why I’m wasting my time engaged in the kind of idle chatter lamented by Heidegger, so I’ve heard, in the book I’m staring at, rather than spending that very hour pursuing the goal of finally reading enough so that I can stop flagellating myself and maybe go out and enjoy myself at parties. A conversation with a colleague about the virtues of a handful of lesser-known works by a semi-obscure author, whom my colleague happened to re-read recently can precipitate a despair that lasts for days, during which I will try again vainly to increase my page per hour count, a numerical value that I will abstain from revealing here, because it’s just too depressing. All of which is to say that Alan Jacobs’s book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction is designed for me, for people who are as interested in “having read” books as they are in reading books; it is designed in fact to cure my illness. Unfortunately, it does not seem to have succeeded.
Jacobs positions himself as the heir to cultural authorities like Mortimer Adler, Charles van Doren, and Harold Bloom, who have sought to teach regular Americans how to appreciate literature, but he believes that his predecessors present reading as too much of a duty. Reading literature, Jacobs argues, ought to be a profoundly pleasurable activity, one we engage in primarily for the sake of enjoyment, and not out of obligation. We’d be happier, better readers if we stopped obsessing about what we’ve read, how much we’ve read, and what we haven’t read. We should let whim, rather than guilt or shame, propel our reading choices. Though he is a literature professor at Wheaton College, Jacobs acknowledges that universities are largely to blame for encouraging individuals to treat reading as a chore, valuable only insofar as it serves a higher purpose. But, as Jacobs contends in one of the book’s most honest moments, reading is not a virtuous activity, and it does not strengthen or elevate our character. Only by freeing ourselves from this misconception can we rediscover the private, at times anti-social joys of reading.
There is of course another threat to the pleasures of reading, registered by the second half of the book’s title: the onslaught of distractions, the majority digital, that seem to consume more and more of our leisure hours. Jacobs is not categorically opposed to gadgets; he credits his Kindle with reviving his own passion for books. But he recognizes that they do pose a danger. The problem, in fact, with relinquishing the sense of obligation associated with reading literature is that we may simply end up spending our free time watching Youtube clips of celebrity outbursts or liking our friends’ bland witticisms and culinary experiences on Facebook. Thus Jacobs is forced to argue that reading literature is more satisfying than these other pursuits and habits. He even distinguishes between “whim,” the “thoughtless, directionless preference that almost invariably leads to boredom or frustration or both” and “Whim,” a kind of intuition based on “self-knowledge” that allows us to satisfy our most authentic cravings.
“Whim” with a capital “w” requires self-cultivation and introspection, and thus Jacobs manages to smuggle back into the reading experience almost all of the aspirations and neuroses that his book promises to banish. Ironically enough, The Pleasures of Reading tends to make one all the more anxious about one’s own reading habits. How else are people like me supposed to respond to a book that painstakingly considers the question of whether to read quickly or slowly (slowly, says Jacobs), confronts the temptations of making lists of important as yet unread texts (don’t give in, he warns), and compulsively alludes to various canonical and non-canonical works (including Gibbon’s intimidating three-volume tome The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). By his own admission, Jacobs is a recovering dutiful reader, one still slightly ashamed to have finished a disappointing second in a grade school speed reading competition, and who remembers the exact page he reached in William Gaddis’s The Recognitions before giving up. The latter moment of clarity was liberating, he claims, but even now he can’t help but dwell upon his former compulsions.
While it labors to disentangle pleasure reading from dutiful reading , Jacobs’s book actually serves as a reminder of the inseparability of the two. Part of the enjoyment of reading a serious book or going, say, for a vigorous run is the belief that what you’re doing is difficult but good for you—that it offers proof of your character, even while it helps to build that character. Your superego, after all, is really just your id redirected, as a certain prolific Viennese author of many important works that you ought to have read by now, insisted. Jacobs observes, “the American reading public, or a significant chunk of it anyway, can’t take its readerly pleasure straight but has to cut it with a sizable splash of duty”—and though pleasure is booze and duty water in this metaphor, anyone who has enjoyed a good mixed drink knows that the ingredients need in fact to mix, to become indistinguishably combined in one smooth solution to be truly satisfying.
Of course some people don’t need to mix their drinks; these people, whom Jacobs refers to as his “tribe,” can handle their pleasure straight, and they are clearly, in his view, the elect. Paradoxically, in reserving his praise for this category of readers, those who read merely for pleasure and not in order to prove anything about themselves, Jacobs is, like any highbrow arbiter of taste, appealing to people’s aspirations. The cultural elite, after all, has always consisted of those whose good taste appeared spontaneous, effortless, inborn. Wouldn’t many savvy but ambitious middlebrow readers like to say and like to believe that they read solely for pleasure, that they find Shakespeare enjoyable simply because they are sensitive and intuitive enough to appreciate his wordplay, and not because they know they are supposed to appreciate it? I’ve been struggling for years to become someone who reads solely for pleasure—at least since college when certain old-fashioned literature professors suggested that we ought to be experiencing the highest, most refined satisfactions in doing the assigned reading. This was a kind of instruction far more daunting than anything devised by the most merciless of high school taskmasters. These people were putting my very soul to the test. And what if I failed? What if I didn’t enjoy King Lear? What did that mean about me? Wouldn’t I have no choice but to find a way to make myself enjoy it?
Jacobs would suggest that he is not celebrating an approach to literature specific to the cultural elite. In fact, he praises the British working class for their reputed auto-didacticism. Moreover, he is not saying that you need to enjoy King Lear. He is simply advising people to read what they enjoy—and abundant references to fantasy and science fiction novels suggest that his tastes are fairly democratic. But The Pleasures of Reading also features numerous casual allusions to serious, difficult authors ranging from Virginia Woolf to Leo Tolstoy to David Foster Wallace, and thus demonstrates a kind of cultural mastery that allows Jacobs to get away with his somewhat less canonical attachments. Or to put it more strongly, his references to genre fiction actually serve as proof of his unimpeachable status as a cultural authority—one who is so well-read that he has the luxury to indulge his lowbrow desires, and so assured of his position that he is not afraid to publicize these desires. Whether intentionally or not, Jacobs presents himself as a kind of ideal reader, as a model that he believes others ought to strive to imitate.
As I was reading The Pleasures of Reading, I began to take pleasure in noticing the various rhetorical tricks Jacobs performs in order to avoid giving the impression that he is imposing duties onto his reader. “If you want to understand Tolkien better you might want to start by reading Beowulf, and some of the Eddas and sagas of medieval Iceland, and then perhaps Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; and it would even be worthwhile to get to know the nineteenth-century medievalism that Tolkien despised and against which he reacted, or thought he reacted. Listening to the music of Wagner would help also.” Quite an assignment! But Jacobs is of course hesitant to tell us what we ought to do: we “might want” to peruse the items on this list, and though of course he doesn’t intend to tax us unduly, “perhaps” we could read Sir Gawain (not presumably in the fairly unreadable middle English), and if we’re still enjoying ourselves, it would “even be worthwhile” to study a relatively obscure movement from the nineteenth century.
I’m suggesting here that Jacobs’s advice, like that of many aesthetes, turns the reader’s capacity for pleasure into just another test of his cultural status—and the effect of this kind of sly pressure is to make it more difficult to distinguish what we enjoy from what we think we ought to enjoy. It’s possible of course that all of this is simply my own neuroticism talking. Jacobs doesn’t seem to think that reading needs to be so fraught with complications. Though he addresses his former doubts and obsessions, his attitude now seems to be remarkably calm, relaxed, and confident—which he demonstrates most conspicuously by writing in a graceful, readable style free of excessive qualifications or convoluted syntax designed of course to make reading his own book a pleasurable experience.
In discussing a twelfth-century abbot’s advice on how to read, Jacobs remarks, “Let me risk one more Latin word here: for Hugh this meditation, especially on sacred texts, could best be achieved by ruminatio, a word which may call to mind something rather more highfalutin’ than Hugh intended. For us to ‘ruminate’ is to engage in a pretty dignified, or dignified-sounding, act, but Hugh was thinking of cows and goats and sheep, ruminant animals, those who chew the cud.” Yes, with this esoteric terminology, his text may suddenly sound just a bit mandarin, but he’s not terribly worried, and actually what he’s talking about is quite down-to-earth. And yet this casual, unflappable tone conceals hidden labor, hidden angst: Can I get away with a Latin term? Only if I self-consciously acknowledge the danger I am courting while also humbly requesting the reader’s indulgence: “let me risk” does the trick. But in case this is not enough, I’ll immediately adopt a populist vernacular, the kind of language ordinary people use when they talk about egg-headed intellectuals: thus “highfalutin.” Of course nobody by this point is going to think of me as common folk, and so am I going to end up sounding inauthentic? No: they’ll read this moment as tongue-and-cheek. But is it dangerous to use irony here? Won’t that just reinforce the image of me as an elitist, out-of-touch intellectual? Not at all: it just shows I can laugh at myself, and so that even as I make fun of my inability to sound folksy I’ll actually come across like more of a regular guy who isn’t really trying to place himself above his readers.
In imagining the process by which Jacobs has arrived at these sentences, I am not trying to be mean-spirited; I am simply trying to suggest that a fair amount of work and struggle underlies his seemingly easy-going enthusiasm for literature. Nor am I arguing that reading is not in fact pleasurable, or that pleasure is not one of the most compelling motives for turning to books. I am simply arguing that the very sense of duty that Jacobs claims he wants to exorcise is a key ingredient in that pleasure. And it is a key ingredient especially for the majority of American readers who are not as yet a part of Jacobs’s serenely hedonistic tribe, who are insecure about their cultural status and class position, and who are operating under the late-day shadow of the Protestant Ethic. That feeling of almost existential satisfaction that comes from finishing a long difficult book, the sense that one has thereby inched upward toward that unlikely pinnacle of moral virtue, aesthetic sensitivity, and social status, accompanied by the anxious itch to keep reading more, keep climbing—this whole masochistic, complexly satisfying struggle, however illusory its object, is something many of us simply wouldn’t do without. Reading features other pleasures of course, but a lot of people will continue to need a nudge, a dose of guilt, in order to experience them. Especially given the multitude of other diversions, the kind that we are able to enjoy far more effortlessly than books, but which tend to make us feel lethargic, irritable, and aimless, we need some stern professorial curmudgeons—including Jacobs—to tell us, as we lurch toward our laptops and or our iphones, snacking some more, though we’re already full: you know, you probably ought to be reading a book right now.
I used to be the kind of reader who gives short shrift to long novels. I used to take a wan pleasure in telling friends who had returned from a tour of duty with War and Peace or The Man Without Qualities with that I’ve-seen-some-things look in their eyes—the thousand-page stare—that they had been wasting their time. In the months it had taken them to plough through one book by some logorrheic modernist or world-encircling Russian, I had read a good eight to ten volumes of svelter dimensions. While they were bench-pressing, say, Infinite Jest for four months solid, I had squared away most of the major Nouveau Romanciers, a fistful of Thomas Bernhards, every goddamned novel Albert Camus ever wrote, and still had time to read some stuff I actually enjoyed.
I was a big believer, in other words, in the Slim Prestige Volume. Nothing over 400 pages. Why commit yourself to one gigantic classic when you can read a whole lot of small classics in the same period of time, racking up at least as much intellectual cachet while you were at it? I took Hippocrates’ famous dictum about ars being longa and vita being brevis as a warning against starting a book in your twenties that might wind up lying still unfinished on the nightstand of your deathbed. Aside from the occasional long novel––one every twelve to eighteen months––I was a Slim Prestige Volume man, and that seemed to be that.
Even when I went back to college in my mid-twenties to do a PhD in English literature, I still relied on a kind of intellectual cost-benefit analysis that persuaded me that my time was better spent broadening than deepening—or, as it were, thickening—my reading. Had I read Dostoevsky? Sure I had: I’d spent a couple of rainy evenings with Notes From Underground, and found it highly agreeable. Much better than The Double, in fact, which I’d also read. So yeah, I knew my Dostoevsky. Next question, please. Ah yes, Tolstoy! Who could ever recover from reading The Death of Ivan Illych, that thrilling (and thrillingly brief) exploration of mortality and futility?
There’s a memorable moment in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 where Amalfitano, the unhinged Catalan professor of literature, encounters a pharmacist working the night shift at his local drug store whom he discovers is reading his way diligently through the minor works of the major novelists. The young pharmacist, we are told, “chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pécuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers.” This causes Amalfitano to reflect on the “sad paradox” that “now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”
Apart from being a powerful vindication of Bolaño’s own staggering ambition, and of his novel’s vast and unyielding darkness, I found that this passage reflected something of my own slightly faint-hearted reading practices (practices from which, by the time I had got around to reading the 900-page 2666, I had obviously started to deviate). A bit of a bookish pharmacist myself, I was content with netting minnows like Bartleby, while leaving the great Moby-Dick-sized leviathans largely unharpooned. I was fond of Borges’ famous remark about its being “a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books,” and tended to extrapolate from it a dismissal of reading them too—as though Borges, the great wanderer and mythologizer of labyrinths, would ever have approved of such readerly timidity.
And then, three or four years ago, something changed. For some reason I can’t recall (probably a longish lapse in productivity on my thesis) I set myself the task of reading a Great Big Important Novel. For another reason I can’t recall (probably the fact that it had been sitting on a shelf for years, its pages turning the sullen yellow of neglected great books), I settled on Gravity’s Rainbow. I can’t say that I enjoyed every minute of it, or even that I enjoyed all that much of it at all, but I can say that by the time I got to the end of it I was glad to have read it. Not just glad that I had finally finished it, but that I had started it and seen it through. I felt as though I had been through something major, as though I had not merely experienced something but done something, and that the doing and the experiencing were inseparable in the way that is peculiar to the act of reading. And I’ve had that same feeling, I realize, with almost every very long novel I’ve read before or since.
You finish the last page of a book like Gravity’s Rainbow and—even if you’ve spent much of it in a state of bewilderment or frustration or irritation—you think to yourself, “that was monumental.” But it strikes me that this sense of monumentality, this gratified speechlessness that we tend to feel at such moments of closure and valediction, has at least as much to do with our own sense of achievement in having read the thing as it does with a sense of the author’s achievement in having written it. When you read the kind of novel that promises to increase the strength of your upper-body as much as the height of your brow—a Ulysses or a Brothers Karamazov or a Gravity’s Rainbow—there’s an awe about the scale of the work which, rightly, informs your response to it but which, more problematically, is often difficult to separate from an awe at the fact of your own surmounting of it.
The upshot of this, I think, is that the greatness of a novel in the mind of its readers is often alloyed with those readers’ sense of their own greatness (as readers) for having conquered it. I don’t think William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, for instance, is nearly as fantastic a novel as people often claim it is. But it is one of the most memorable and monumental experiences of my reading life. And these are the reasons why: because the thing was just so long; because I had such a hard time with it; and because I eventually finished it. (I read it as part of an academic reading group devoted to long and difficult American novels, and I’m not sure I would have got to the end of it otherwise). Reading a novel of punishing difficulty and length is a version of climbing Everest for people who prefer not to leave the house. And people who climb Everest don’t howl with exhilaration at the summit because the mountain was a good or a well made or an interesting mountain per se, but because they’re overawed at themselves for having done such a fantastically difficult thing. (I’m willing to concede that they may not howl with exhilaration at all, what with the tiredness, the lack of oxygen and very possibly the frostbite. I’ll admit to being on shaky ground here, as I’ve never met anyone who’s climbed Everest, nor am I likely to if I continue not going out of the house.)
And there is, connected with this phenomenon, what I think of as Long Novel Stockholm syndrome. My own first experience of it—or at least my first conscious experience of it—was, again, with The Recognitions. With any novel of that difficulty and length (976 pages in my prestigiously scuffed and battered Penguin edition), the reader’s aggregate experience is bound to be composed of a mixture of frustrations and pleasures. But what I found with Gaddis’s gigantic exploration of fraudulence and creativity was that, though they were greatly outnumbered by the frustrations, the pleasures seemed to register much more firmly. If I were fully honest with myself, I would have had to admit that I was finding the novel gruelingly, unsparingly tedious. But I wasn’t prepared to be fully honest with myself. Because every couple of hundred pages or so, Gaddis would take pity on me and throw me a bone in the form of an engaging, genuinely compelling set piece. Like the wonderful episode in which one of the characters, under the impression that he is being given a gift of $5,000 by his long-lost father whom he has arranged to meet at a hotel, is in fact mistakenly being given a suitcase full of counterfeit cash by a failed confidence man. And then Gaddis would roll up his sleeves again and get back to the real business of boring me insensible with endless pages of direct-dialogue bluster about art, theology and the shallowness of post-war American culture.
I kept at it, doughtily ploughing my way through this seemingly inexhaustible stuff, holding out for another interlude of clemency from an author I knew was capable of entertaining and provoking me. At some point towards the end of the book it occurred to me that what I was experiencing could be looked at as a kind of literary variant of the Stockholm syndrome phenomenon, whereby hostages experience a perverse devotion to their captors, interpreting any abstention from violence and cruelty, however brief or arbitrary, as acts of kindness and even love. Psychologically, this is understood as a defense mechanism in which the victim fabricates a “good” side of the aggressor in order to avoid confronting the overwhelming terror of his or her situation. Perhaps I’m stretching the bonds of credulity by implicitly comparing William Gaddis to a FARC guerilla commander, but I’m convinced there’s something that happens when we get into a captive situation with a long and difficult book that is roughly analogous to the Stockholm syndrome scenario. For a start, the book’s very length lays out (for a certain kind of reader, at least) its own special form of imperative—part challenge, part command. The thousand-pager is something you measure yourself against, something you psyche yourself up for and tell yourself you’re going to endure and/or conquer. And this does, I think, amount to a kind of captivity: once you’ve got to Everest base camp, you really don’t want to pack up your stuff and turn back. I think it’s this principle that explains, for example, the fact that I’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow but gave up halfway through The Crying of Lot 49, when the latter could be used as a handy little bookmark for the former. When you combine this (admittedly self-imposed) captivity with a novel’s formidable reputation for greatness, you’ve got a perfect set of conditions for the literary Stockholm syndrome to kick in.
In order for a very long novel to get away with long, cruel sessions of boredom-torture, it has to commit, every so often, an act of kindness such as the counterfeit cash set piece in The Recognitions. This is why Ulysses is so deeply loved by so many readers—as well it should be—while Finnegans Wake has been read almost exclusively by Joyce scholars (of whom I’m tempted to think as the Patty Hearsts of literature). After the grueling ordeal of the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode, in which Stephen stands around in the National Library for dozens of pages boring everyone to damn-near-literal tears with his theories about the provenance of Hamlet, we are given the unrestrained pleasure of the “Wandering Rocks” episode. Ulysses might treat us like crap for seemingly interminable stretches of time, but it extends just enough in the way of writerly benevolence to keep us onside. And this kindness is the key to Stockholm syndrome. You don’t know when it’s going to come, or what form it’s going to take, but you get enough of it to keep you from despising your captor, or mounting a brave escape attempt by flinging the wretched thing across the room. According to an article called “Understanding Stockholm Syndrome” published in the FBI Law Enforcement Bullettin:
Kindness serves as the cornerstone of Stockholm syndrome; the condition will not develop unless the captor exhibits it in some form toward the hostage. However, captives often mistake a lack of abuse as kindness and may develop feelings of appreciation for this perceived benevolence. If the captor is purely evil and abusive, the hostage will respond with hatred. But if perpetrators show some kindness, victims will submerge the anger they feel in response to the terror and concentrate on the captors “good side” to protect themselves.
If you’re the kind of reader who doesn’t intend to give up on a Great Big Important Novel no matter how inhumanely it treats you, then there’s a sense in which Joyce or Pynchon or Gaddis (or whoever your captor happens to be) owns you for the duration of that captivity. In order to maintain your sanity, you may end up being disproportionately grateful for the parts where they don’t threaten to bore you to death, where there seems to be some genuine empathic connection between reader and writer. Machiavelli understood this truth long before a Swedish bank robbery turned into a hostage crisis and gave the world the name for a psychological condition. “Men who receive good when they expect evil,” Machiavelli wrote, “commit themselves all the more to their benefactor.” When he wrote that line in the early sixteenth century, the novel, of course, did not yet exist as a genre. I’m inclined to imagine, though, that if he’d been born a century later, he might well have said the same thing about Don Quixote.
Joshua Cohen’s mammoth (“Gog, Magog, Goliath”) Witz is the new 800+ page novel to vie for your entire summer reading schedule; to make half your book club drop out; to inspire annotations, wikis, lexicography cults. It will be the ire of the lazy reviewer. Dybbuks of lazy reviewers past (perhaps the ones responsible for the reception of The Recognitions) will ascend from Gehenna, boring into the bodies of our current critical ilk, to make right the horrible aesthetic sin of their mortal life. But will the spirits succeed? Or will our arbiters of questionable taste quote from the first hundred leaves and take a nap?
The ground is ripe for high praise. Cohen has proved adept at handling his image and early reception. He’s young (29, and he already has three novels and three story collections out, mostly through tiny presses that do well for his street cred), attractive, and knows how to draw attention. The barbs thrown at Chabon and Safran Foer in the New York Observer alone were enough to get the ball rolling. The buzz is the rare combination of both existing and deserved.
Witz (Don’t make a fool out of yourself: the “W” is a “V”. It’s Yiddish for joke.) is the tale of the extinction of all Jews save the newborn grown man (with beard and glasses) Benjamin Israelien (ben Israel Israelien). 18 million Jews die on Christmas Eve 1999. America reacts by rabidly embracing Benjamin’s religion (Its name unmentioned, the book conspicuously leaves the word “Jew” as a void, the same one where Witz’s God is hiding.) even as he continues in his apathy toward it, eventually fleeing from his handlers and crossing the country and back, finding his way into Polandland where lies Whateverwitz, Whywald, Nohausen, where the few remaining gentiles are sent for their refusal to convert. The plot is simple and linear, a steel skeleton supporting Cohen’s otherwise omnidecadent Babel tower.
Cohen recently remarked in The Daily Beast that he found his father’s friend’s assertion that Witz was the Jewish Ulysses to be an insult. “Problem is … Ulysses is already the Jewish Ulysses.” I predict (well, I’ve already seen) a lot of Infinite Jest and Gravity’s Rainbow referencing as well, and while they aren’t too Jewish, so there could be a Jewish them, Witz isn’t at all a Jewish them either. It’s not a Jewish anything other than a Jewish Itself. It’s big, it’s difficult, and it’s stylistically shooting off a salvo of fireworks the whole way through, but other than those similarities to our other favorite modernist or postmodern bricks, readers of Witz will find out right away that Cohen is doing his own thing.
Cohen’s sentences cascade on and on, with clause after clause snaking down the page. Then a lone period allows you a rest and the next sentence attacks, a sensory assault. If I had to compare Witz to anything it would be to the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. I’ll explain. A few sentences in each chapter move the plot forward. A change occurs in Cohen’s world (a few more Jews die, a few more “Goyim” convert, Ben is in favor, Ben is out) or Benjamin moves to a new location. Sometimes this change even occurs off the page. Then the rest of the chapter is dedicated to the landscape that these small advances in plot create. Roll in the canvasses. There are cityscapes (New York; Miami). There is reservation land and the Mormon stronghold of Utah (the Mormons are notoriously hard to convert). The bulk of the final sixth of the novel takes place in (and here the Bosch is obvious) the hellscape of the aforementioned Polandland: “…A ram ensnared in a thicket, look, and missing its horns; sheep sheared naked, then garbed in the Skin of the Unicorn, see; locusts, my God they’re Locusts, Samuel … storks on parade; geese born of barnacles, grown from a remained grove of trees, hemiformed, varibirthed, the progeny of Ziz or from zat; deer sniffling the most streaks of snails; gelatinous worms splitting earth; ostricheggs boiling on the back of the salamander, slithered from flame; an ass without rider talking its own tour to itself…” it goes on.
If you think you would enjoy pages of that, Witz is it. I’ll admit that there are not a few times where the reader may strain to comprehend what is happening. The last 30 pages in particular go from Jewish Ulysses to Jewish Finnegans Wake. Not that it’s just this mass of difficult-to- relate descriptions, but at times the amount of detail can be so overwhelming as to make the reader feel like she is wading in nothing but a swamp of combinationwords and faux Proper Nouns.
Here I also note that this novel is beyond bleak. Forget Pynchon’s ultimately optimistic humanism (yes, I would say it overwhelms even his paranoia), or David Foster Wallace’s you-could-call-it-religious outlook, or Alexander Theroux’s you-should-call-it-religious outlook. I could still enjoy the novel, but it was difficult for me to see through Cohen’s beautiful brown eyes at times. Cohen doesn’t imagine a way out of his nightmare world, only eternal return. Post-catastrophe most people remain born into “professions and marriages already vetted by their Parents, your Parents’ Friends, our Stockbrokers, and God, becoming Fathers and Mothers they’ll never kill because that would mean above all their own destruction.”
I’m talking a lot about style and saying little about content. I think it will be a while before we get some good analysis. Who will be the first to read this thing three, five, eleven times? Probably not this reader of modest pace. To the first person who reads Witz and even looks up every word they don’t know, let alone makes notes toward a Unified Theory, I wish you luck. Let us pray Witz secures Cohen his due in his own time.
This week at The Millions, we’re attempting to gather some of our thoughts about the ongoing transformation of literary journalism. Today, Garth looks at the death of the newspaper book section. Tomorrow, Max considers revenue options for literary websites, including affiliation with online booksellers. And on Friday, Max will hazard some early guesses about the next possible upheaval in the economy of literary journalism: the e-book.
The spring of 2007 now seems like a lifetime ago. A promising U.S. senator named Clinton was a prohibitive favorite in the Democratic presidential primaries. The Dow-Jones Industrial Average stood just over 13,000 points. And, in light of this last number, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s decision to stop publishing its weekly book review supplement seemed like some kind of weird aberration. In the best little-“d” democratic tradition, the National Book Critics Circle decided to protest the AJC’s move via a “Campaign to Save Book Reviewing.” The weapons it selected for this campaign – a petition and a series of panel discussions – may have appeared quixotic, but during a weeklong symposium in the fall, its basic premises became clear:
1) The stand-alone newspaper book review is vital to the health of literacy, and thus democracy.
2) The corporate overlords of the newspaper industry undervalue all three.
3) Newspaper book coverage is in imminent danger.
4) Therefore, so are literacy and democracy.
It should be added that, by the time of the symposium, obsequies over the loss of column-inches for book coverage had shaded into alarm about proliferating book coverage on the Internet. We at The Millions, who attended several of these panels, bit our tongues. Despite our lowly station as bloggers, we looked upon the participants as colleagues. And we didn’t want to prove media pundits right by rushing to judgment; after all, our material interest in the print vs. online debate may have colored our thinking. Now, though, we can say with some confidence (and some disappointment) that, by its own lights, the “Campaign to Save Book Reviewing” was a failure.
In the last two years, stand-alone book review supplements including several of the country’s most prominent (The Washington Post Book World, The Los Angeles Times Book Review) have ceased publication. The parent newspapers insist that the lost review space has been offset by increases in coverage in other sections, but frankly, we don’t believe them. If the health of book reviewing is to be judged by what happens in the print editions of newspapers, the patient is doomed.
One need not detail at this late date the basic economic mechanisms that have led us to this pass. We may merely condense them to an easily graspable equation: growing number of books + dwindling time to read – advertising revenue + market meltdown = flawed business model. And yet, the Death of Book Reviewing narrative – a boom-era tale in which the high priests of print defend literature against both corporate bad guys and the vulgarians of the Internet – elides several contentious, and important, questions. To wit:
How good were the newspaper book review sections, anyway?
How inevitable was their demise?
How did those in power respond to the digital revolution – surely the biggest upheaval in the distribution of the written word since Gutenberg?
Does the Internet really spell doom for literary discourse?
By way of investigating these questions, we might consider the evolution – and fate – of book coverage at the nation’s most widely read print reviewing organ: The New York Times. For book reviewers, as for the larger (and equally endangered) world of newspaper journalism, the Paper of Record already serves as a sort of metonym. To paraphrase E.B. White, If The New York Times were to go, all would go. And so an analysis of the Times’ assets and liabilities, and of its response to upheavals in technology and the economy, will likely have something to tell us about the future of book coverage – and perhaps media – as a whole.
First, there is the begged question of the quality of newspaper book reviews. Almost since its inception (lo, these several years ago), the literary blogosphere has been asking this question of the Times, in particular. However, perhaps because bloggers’ animus toward the Times has been too easy to grasp or to dismiss (depending on one’s point of view) the attacks have had little effect on how the Gray Lady goes about her business. Devotees of the weekly New York Times Book Review and/or the daily “Books of the Times” column can write off Ed Champion’s efforts to save the NYTBR from its editor, Sam Tanenhaus, or Tao Lin’s concise “Michiko Kakutani, Fuck You” (published in an online magazine Juked, but representative of web-wide sentiment) as products of ressentiment.
Meanwhile, from the vantage point of bloggers, whose reputations are only as strong as their most recent posts, the Times’ authority appears, if not unearned, then largely heredity. Somewhere in mists of our pre-digital past, writers and editors worked to make the Paper of Record the first and last word on the U.S. book market (a favorable blurb from the Times, when available, will generally be the most prominent on a paperback jacket), but the enterprise has been coasting on its reputation ever since.
In defense of the blogs: the Times offers fodder for criticism on a schedule you can set your watch by. An edition of the NYTBR may contain a half-dozen or more of the sort of synoptic non-reviews that fail to interest the uninterested, while giving incautious or hurried readers the impression of an endorsement. Ledes of the “If writers were candy, writer X would be Smarties” variety proliferate. And though Michiko and Maslin, the Punch and Judy of the daily “Books of the Times” column, sometimes rise above their good cop/bad cop routine (see, e.g. Kakutani’s recent review of Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned), they seem, in the main, to shoot first and ask questions later. (We will pass over in silence the tendency of the respective editors of “Books of the Times” and the NYTBR to split the difference: the frequency with which a weekday hatchet job will set up a B+ review on Sunday, or vice versa.)
Nor are bloggers the first writers to find the Times’s book coverage lacking in luster, or representative of newspaper book reviewing as a whole. The origin story of The New York Review of Books, America’s preeminent literary-critical publication, dates back to the 1963 printers’ strike, when Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein realized that they didn’t miss one jot or tittle of the Times’ book coverage. They set out to create a literary supplement that would be missed were it ever to fold, and succeeded brilliantly. Around the same time, Jack Green published Fire The Bastards!, an account of the reception of William Gaddis’ The Recognitions. Bloggy avant la lettre, Fire the Bastards! amounts to a catalogue of the ills of reviewing in general (as does, come to think of it, Balzac’s Lost Illusions), but Green singles out the Times for special derision: “the worst bookreview [sic] section in the world,” he calls it.
On the other hand, it must be said, the mission of the Times differs from the mission of a literary blog, or even of The New York Review. The latter venues address smaller audiences, and so can afford parochialism, partisanship… and passion. The Gray Lady’s authority, by contrast, derives in no small part from its commitment to subjecting the broadest possible sample of new books to an objective gaze, or at least to give the illusion of doing so. Reviews of romances, memoirs, and political tracts sit cheek by jowl with reviews of midlist literary fiction. (One can imagine La Kakutani opening an envelope to discover yet another debut novel, and despairing. One can imagine, sometimes, La Kakutani deciding that she hates books.)
It likewise bears saying that, within the parameters of its mission, The NYTBR and “Books of the Times” do certain things quite well. The front-page NYTBR reviews, with their more generous length and more engaged writers, often succeed in being thoughtful as well as comprehensive. (See, e.g. David Leavitt on Henry James). The back-of-the-book essay often succeeds at diagnosing some tendency within our literary culture. The bestseller lists and their appendages offer an index to what’s going on in the culture at large. And, in “Books of the Times,” Dwight Garner and Richard Eder have been known to tackle books far from the beaten path – even books of poetry.
But when some recent research sent me to the late John Leonard’s 1981 review of Rabbit is Rich (one last mark in The Times’ favor: vast archives), it seemed, in comparison with today’s offerings, an 800-word masterpiece: stylish, contentious, erudite, risky:
Huck Finn, after all, didn’t have to grow up. Ishmael, lest we forget, came back too. Rabbit has to compromise. “Outward motion” can mean “inner dwindling.” Freedom hurts. Only in Toyota commercials do we rise and hang suspended; the Flying Eagle sinks. After the death of God – after the chilling discovery that every time we make a move toward “the invisible,” somebody gets killed – we require a myth of community, something, as Felix put it in Coup [sic] that “fits the facts, as it were, backwards.”
Held up against the current offerings at the Times’ “Books” page, it is also an index of how far we have fallen. Implicit in the “Campaign to Save Book Reviewing” is the notion that newspapers set an unimpeachable standard; that some ineffable quality would be lost were “the largest remaining stand-alone Sunday tabloid section” to surrender the field of literary journalism to magazines and the web. But even if we’re willing to accept, pace Green and Balzac, the campaign’s more explicit premise – that book reviewing is vital to the health of literacy and/or democracy – the conceit that newspaper book coverage is indispensable appears to be just that: a conceit.
Meanwhile, the hypotheses about “Grub Street 2.0” tendered at the NBCC panels have proven testable faster than anyone could have imagined. As dramatic as the loss of print book review supplements has been in the last two years, the transformation of online reviewing culture has been more so. Even more surprising: the direction of the change has largely been positive.
To be sure, mind-bogglingly vast plains of chaff are still only a keystroke away; someone is always willing to shit on Dante!, as N+1 put it, in its dismissal of the literary blogosphere. Yet the more venerable lit-blogs – some of them, anyway – have consolidated their reputations as critical organs. Newspapers have even launched their own competing blogs (Dwight Garner’s Papercuts and Carolyn Kellogg’s Jacket Copy deserve special mention.) And beyond the constraints of the blog, venues as multifarious as Open Letters Monthly, The Quarterly Conversation, Bookslut, and, in the last two months, N1BR, The Second Pass, and The Rumpus have mobilized resources of design and prose that frequently surpass what is to be found in newspapers. Web magazines such as Slate and Salon continue to offer inventive and high-quality book coverage.
Even more consequentially, in an era of rising unemployment, the economics of reviewing have shifted radically. For years, a good, professional newspaper book review was worth about $400, or 50 cents a word. Now, even as the number of column-inches available in print diminishes, online venues are starting to meet or exceed that threshold. Rumor has it that The Barnes & Noble Review pays nine times as much as a reputable newspaper for which one of our contributors has reviewed. In early 2007, other critics might have leaped to review for that newspaper; now it recommends itself mostly as a nice line in the bio. Even ad-supported blogs (like this one) are forcing freelancers to rethink their strategy. Although the per-word pay rate of such blogs will likely never match, say, Slate, the number of words available is, theoretically, unlimited. Prolific bloggers, by writing four reviews a month rather than two, quickly compensate for the loss of income from book review sections.
This is not to mention the less fungible forms of remuneration. As has been widely noted, one of the hidden pleasures of publishing work online is the ability to hear responses from readers, and sometimes to engage in debate. Reviewing online feels like a lively thing, where the Sunday newspaper supplements sometimes read, as a colleague put it, as the place “where book reviews go to die.”
The nexus of advertising and contentiousness and minimal editorial supervision raises important questions about standards, as partisans of print are quick to point out. Transparency is, at best, a vexed question on the Internet. What is to stop a blog that profits from Amazon links from promoting books it doesn’t believe in? Yet, at its best, there is a self-policing quality to the maintenance of online authority that has, for better or worse, begun to professionalize the blogs. Comparing the relative performance of newspapers and the web in assessing a couple of the most challenging books of recent vintage, 2666 and The Kindly Ones, we discover a leveled playing field. And as readers increasingly take their news online anyway, such a comparison becomes the work of a few seconds. (Some of the best coverage, of course, was to be found in print magazines such as The Nation and The New York Review, whose role in the reviewing ecology I won’t attempt to assess.)
Under these circumstances, the fate of our last freestanding weekly book review supplement would appear to be in doubt. With readers and reviewers jumping ship, publishers are the only ones left with a compelling interest in its continued existence. (Who else will supply that big blurb? Who else will, if nothing else, announce to the masses that a book exists?) And in a conglomerated publishing industry, the shortsightedness of upper management has tended to trump long-term interests; one can reasonably expect that publishers will continue to shell out less and less money for the advertisements that support the NYTBR. (Such is the logic of capitalism. An enterprise trims away the nonessential until it becomes, itself, inessential.) Given the stakes – and the broad array of tools available in the digital age – what has the Times done to ensure its longevity? More importantly, what should it do?
As with newspapers in general, the books editors at the Times and elsewhere have attempted to meet the challenges of the age from within the proverbial box. That box can be imagined as a collection of rigid lines: between print and online, between daily and weekly, between blog and non-blog, between delivery platforms, between backlist and frontlist, and even between one newspaper and another. Any media theorist worth her salt will tell you that these superficial distinctions matter less and less as time goes by, yet the main Times “Books” page is, at present, an orthogonal warren of content subdivisions: news, Sunday Book Review, “Books of the Times,” Papercuts… (I know we don’t really have a web-design leg to stand on here at The Millions, but still.)
As a first principle, the Times’ books editors should accept that their book coverage, in the future, will be consumed largely online. This may seem like a downer, but in fact it opens up the section to previously unavailable advertising revenue. The print section may be sustained by book ads, but online, NYTBR can theoretically learn much more about its readers, and can pitch space to advertisers beyond the world of publishing. And, almost immediately, the editorial distinction between the weekly and daily book coverage begins to look both redundant and counterintuitive, in that it creates a weekly rather than a daily traffic pattern for the Books page. The Times might profitably subsume all of its coverage, from every section, under the NYTBR umbrella.
Such a re-branding, we can imagine, might shake up the currently moribund tabloid-supplement format. Rather than a predictable weekly slog through fifteen reviews in a peripheral grid of book-chat, a web-driven NYTBR might lead, for example, with Wyatt Mason’s terrific Times magazine profile of Frederick Seidel, or with an article on AIA Guide guru Norval White. It was refreshing, recently, to see Bret Anthony Johnston reviewing the new Cheever biography… on a Friday! A weekday review by someone other than Kakutani or Maslin signals urgency, rather than obligation. Why not do something similar with Jonathan Lethem’s 2666 review, or David Gates’ take on The Kindly Ones, and give poor Michiko a break?
Nor should video and audio content and blogs be tucked away like ugly stepchildren. Instead, they should be treated with the same editorial rigor and attention to quality that any other content is… and should be accorded the same dignity. Mark Sarvas of The Elegant Variation has offered this advice before, persuasively. Nextbook would be an example of a site that puts it into action.
Another, related, refinement might be (counterintuitively), for the NYTBR to review less. As Scott Esposito has noted, The New Yorker’s decision to dispatch with the two aforementioned doorstoppers in short capsule reviews was its own kind of critical gesture; one that redounded to the authority of the publication. To eliminate the daily/weekly divide is to eliminate redundancies. Readers expect The Times to cover Jonathan Littell… but two take-downs is one too many, and axing the second review might give the Times room to surprise us with a long treatment of a less-hyped book.
There is also an opportunity for the NYTBR to fulfill one of the most valued functions of an online book site: to aggregate. Readers are still waiting for the must-read site that will authoritatively collect the best writing about books from across the Internet – a kind of quantum version of The Complete Review. The job is still open, but won’t be much longer, and the NYTBR, with its resources of time and personnel, should jump in.
Finally, no reimagining of the NYTBR will succeed without more rigorous attention to the quality of the writing. With its privileging of print, the NYTBR has tended to assign books to authors rather than to critics; if the NBCC is to be believed, however, there’s now a great untapped pool of the latter out there, just waiting for the next call to arms.
These are by no means the only solutions to the dwindling potency of newspaper-based book reviewing. They may not even be the best. However, they represent a willingness to reimagine the enterprise that papers have thus far resisted. Barring such efforts, newspaper book coverage will doom itself to failure, on one hand, or irrelevance, on the other; the loss of the NYTBR, when it comes, will be largely sentimental. Web-based literary outlets face their own structural and economic challenges, as Max will discuss later this week. But, with apologies to the National Book Critics Circle, the die has been cast. The future of book reviewing is online.
Infrequent Millions contributor Buzz Poole has written for numerous publications and is the author of Madonna of the Toast. He is also the proprietor of a blog by the same name.Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier furthers what Henry James had begun to chip away at with his novels of manners and paves the way for the modernist dilemmas that comprise the work of Joyce, Beckett, Eliot and Pound. How do individuals define themselves and interact with others when everything they have known changes? John Dowell’s cagey narration folds in on itself and doubles back, making for more questions than answers as the story of two couples besieges what is thought to be the “extraordinarily safe castle” of their lives. As one of the four primary characters, Dowell relates how this quartet’s existence was like a minuet, lives of orderly precision that never inspired questioning, until it was too late. The story is Dowell’s post-mortem report, which is rich with point-of-view tactics and metaphors cribbed by Ford’s successors. As Dowell warns early during his tale: “I don’t know. And there is nothing to guide us. And if everything is so nebulous about a matter so elementary as the morals of sex, what is there to guide us in the more subtle morality of all other personal contacts, associations, and activities? Or are we meant to act on impulse alone? It is all a darkness.”Four decades later, William Gaddis’s The Recognitions hit the increasingly surreal, overtly commercialized scene, a potent cocktail of Christian morality, creative license and New York City bohemia. Fitting in somewhere between Joyce and Pynchon, Gaddis’s pages read with ease, though he devotes much ink to the blasé poses of just about everyone trying to be someone else. At the center of this carousel of masquerades, painter Wyatt Gwyon, his talent so prodigious, and crippling, he begins to forge the works of Flemish masters. Crafting his own canvases and paints, Gwyon’s lines, shadings and textures fool everyone, even Gwyon, to such a degree that his greatest anxiety, and the novel’s for that matter, is how to create a copy of something that has never existed. The lexicons of the transfiguration, academia, fine art and advertising mingle and bristle – a wonderful novel of ideas, full of jokes, japes and jabs.The Roberto Bolaño bug also bit me this year, the excitement orbiting around 2666 prompting me to finally read The Savage Detectives and then 2666. Both books have been picked apart enough, and my praise for them echoes much of what has already been written and said. But, for me, what has made the emergence of these translations most exciting is Bolaño’s Shakespearean appreciation for jokes. I haven’t seen much exploration of this particular aspect of his writing, but both of these novels brim with humor, from the tense tomfoolery of two writerly rivals dueling on a beach to the darkly vicious jokes of the detectives investigating unsolvable murders: “Then the inspector, exhausted after a night’s work, wondered to himself how much of God’s truth lay hidden in ordinary jokes.” Laughter requires humility, which forces you to put your ego in check, oftentimes easier said than done. Bolaño baits these moments, however, reminding his characters and readers that life, while not a joke, is not a dance. Life is not a prescribed set of steps, but a consistently inconsistent stream of events and happenstance, full of contradictions and confusions, sorrows and the sublime, it can ramble, deviate and detour, and like many jokes, the punch line is not always delivered correctly, or even understood as humorous.Both Gaddis and Bolaño use laughter – at times crass, inappropriate and awkward – because it possesses the tremendous power to disarm you, an effect the characters in Ford’s book would have avoided at all costs. Had Ford’s narrator acknowledged laughter as an invaluable impulse, perhaps the circumstances of his life would not strike him as so strange. But of course, that was Ford’s point. For my taste, too much contemporary fiction forgoes laughter. There just is not enough laughter (smirking at irony doesn’t count), probably because the authors and their characters take themselves too seriously. There’s nothing wrong with being serious, but as Gaddis and Bolaño demonstrate, laughter can morph into the proverbial light in darkness, revealing the unnoticed or unrealized, much of which is serious, though it surfaces when we least expect it, caught off guard in the throes of belly-holding laughter.More from A Year in Reading 2008
Edward Champion’s work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Philly Inquirer, Newsday, as well as more disreputable publications. He blogs at Return of the Reluctant and podcasts at The Bat Segundo Show.I’m reserving my hosannas for this year’s lit for another place, another time, another Bizarro universe, another silly excuse to rip off my clothes, dive into the almighty ocean, and shout (“Holy shit, it’s freezing!”) the ten names of the ten greatest books to the heavens and presumably Xenu himself. There was one writer I rediscovered this year after a ten year absence, a guy who knocked my socks off, a man who I understand was passed up for a special National Book Award because he was considered too experimental, too out there, too not right for the vox populi. Never mind that his instinctive perversion of carnal and literary conventions is exactly the apposite kick in the ass the American public needs right now and exactly the kind of subversive thrust that can galvanize today’s young writers.That man is John Barth, who, at 77, is indeed still alive and still writing and may face a Gilbert Sorrentino-style shutout in his last years if we’re not careful. You’ll even find one of his tales, “Toga Party,” in this year’s Best American Short Stories. And this story of anxiety and distress and growing older demonstrates that the old guy still has it.But if you need convincing in novel form, start with his first three books, all of which I reread this year. The Floating Opera and The End of the Road were each written in three months, amazingly during the same year. Each volume is a glorious decimation of Puritanical values, whether they be sex, psychiatry, the legal system, or even the manner in which one obtains employment. But the piece de resistance is Barth’s third book, his masterpiece, The Sot-Weed Factor, a picaresque 17th century monster that befuddled and delighted even the great Darby M. Dixon III! Not only is this book an immensely entertaining satire of a real-life Maryland poet named Ebeneezer Cooke, but it features lengthy explanations on arcane historical topics, perfectly fabricated notebooks that rethink the John Smith-Pocahantas relationship, and a sustained examination on how absolutist ideologies are inextricable thorns in the grand American rose. This is a book that a capsule post cannot do justice to. That it is not uttered in the same breath as Gravity’s Rainbow or The Recognitions or Gormenghast is a sure sign that literary standards have fallen.More from A Year in Reading 2007
I wanted to follow up on my attempt to review Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day by sharing a few resources I found helpful. After reading the book, which took 23 days, I barnstormed through a lot of reviews, many of them silly. A couple I found insightful are available in complete versions online. Luc Sante’s “Inside the Time Machine” appeared in The New York Review of Books. Michael Wood’s “Humming Along” appeared in The London Review of Books. Each of these reviews, in its own way, reaffirms the valuable role the long-form book-review plays, and speaks to the ongoing relevance of publications like the NYRB, the LRB, The Believer, and Bookforum.Even more useful, for me, was a recent phenomenon: the wiki. Though I still tend to privilege the O.E.D. over AskJeeves, I can’t think of an instance where the Internet has proven more congenial to literary study than it has in the case of the Pynchon wiki. Where readers of Joyce and Nabokov had to wait years for annotations of Ulysses and Lolita to appear, AtD annotations have appeared online at roughly the speed it takes to read the book. Annotations contributed collectively, and subject to collective revisions, help correct for ideological bias and factual error.Though obsessive decoding of texts can sometimes obscure the richer pleasures of a difficult novel, the wiki, because it’s a more casual reading experience than a thick volume of annotations, seems to make frivolous annotation more transparently frivolous. At the same time, it makes it easy for a novel reader to pause, retrieve crucial information, and then return to the book. I can only hope wikis for books like The Recognitions, The Tunnel, and Infinite Jest are forthcoming.