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Reference Point: Fathers and Sons

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Not quite a month before my 13th birthday, my father gave me a gift, a mass-market paperback edition of The Universal Encyclopedia of Mathematics. The 715-page book, which cost him one dollar and 50 cents, is, the cover proclaims, “The only reference book of its kind ever published.” (For my actual birthday, he gave me Cassell’s New Latin Dictionary, with an inscription in Latin.)

He bought me the encyclopedia, I see now, to encourage me: while he was a cardiologist who worked calculus problems to relax, I had a perplexing, to him at least, inability to do any better than a C in any arithmetic course I took. His idea was that giving me a book with entries on “perspective transformation” and the formula for figuring the surface of an elliptical paraboloid would help me learn to divide fractions.

Clearly filled with hope for his floundering son, he wrote an inscription on the flyleaf: “For Joe. Toward an ∞ of knowledge. Dad.”

My father, who died in 1984 at 60, did not live long enough to see the Internet as it is today, our connection, if not to his wish for infinite knowledge, then at least to something in the same area code as infinite information, and so, to bring the world in, he filled our house with reference books — The Encyclopedia Britannica, Compton’s Encyclopedia (for his younger children), Will and Ariel Durant’s 11-volume The Story of Civilization, the Concise Dictionary of American History and so many others whose titles I can no longer recall, bookcases of them in the family room and in his den.

While it’s not strictly a reference set, he enshrined the Great Books of the Western World on shelves in our family room and offered rewards of a dollar if I could recite, from memory, passages he assigned me, and if I succeeded, he sometimes had me do it to for the guests when he and my mother entertained, a nine- or 10-year-old me in pajamas standing in a room of adults who were drinking highballs as I stumbled through “Once more unto the breach, dear friends . . .”

A devout Roman Catholic, when he decided to buy the books in the early 1960s, he wrote a letter to the Archdiocese of Cincinnati for permission because certain of the works were on the Church’s Index Liborum Prohibitum — a list of writings the Church felt threatened the faith and morals of those who read them. A monsignor from the Archdiocesan office responded that my father could buy them but that he should read them with care. For a long while, he kept the letter folded in thirds and tucked into one of the volumes but, when I went to look for it after he left the books to me when he died, opening every volume, holding them upside down and shaking each one, the letter was no longer there.

Almost three decades after his death, I remember my father as shy and uncomfortable socially. Perhaps a decade before he died, my mother showed me a group photograph of him and perhaps 18 or 20 other doctors, my father in the back row, half his face obscured by the head of one of the men in front of him. She was using the photograph to tell me something about how my father was as a person, that he was always standing in a back row, hiding from a camera, metaphorically if not actually, not wanting anyone to notice him.

Given that, I’m not surprised that I can never remember having a heart-to-heart talk with him about anything. I don’t think he ever asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, don’t think he ever asked about any of the girls I went out with nor talked to me about what colleges I wanted to attend. I chose the colleges, filled out the applications, left them on his desk and then found them on the kitchen table, a check for the application fee paper clipped to each of them.

I also don’t recall him being openly affectionate with my mother or any of my seven siblings. More than once, when my mother was going somewhere with my father, she came downstairs in a dress, perfumed and wearing pearls, and said to me, “Tell me I look nice,” because my father seemed never to tell her so. This trait was, in fact, the point of a story she told me often about my father’s father, a severe German immigrant who came to America early in the 20th century when he was 13. In the story, my grandparents are having dinner and my grandmother says to him, “You never tell me you like my cooking.”

“I’m eatin’ it, ain’t I?” my grandfather responds.

Whenever my mother told the story, she paused when she came to the end of it then repeated: “I’m eatin’ it, ain’t I?”

When I got older, I realized the story was actually about my own father, that my mother could never say directly that he was not warm, could not complain openly to me that he did not compliment her, and so she told the story about my grandfather over and over, letting it hang in the air until I might understand its meaning.

It’s possible, I suspect, to read these accounts of my father and think him cold and even unkind: he couldn’t tell his wife she looked attractive, he was aloof for his children, disconnected (I wanted Rubber Soul for my birthday and he gave me a Latin dictionary); he embarrassed his oldest son by using him to perform parlor tricks dressed in stretch pajamas: Look at the little boy trying to recite Shakespeare! How cute!

But part of maturing is coming to the point at which you can see your parents as not just your mother and your father but as human beings, imperfect, who just happened to be the people who raised you.

I could, therefore, explain my father’s reticence to express affection by his own father’s resistance to it.

I could talk about how one of the choices my father made for the direction of his life — to pursue college — disappointed his father who had no patience for the life of the mind, despite the fact that my father eventually became a doctor. My grandfather, who worked in a sewing machine factory until he retired, thought a man should work with his hands and clearly favored his other son, my uncle, who worked in an automobile plant and who could fix things — do carpentry, repair a television set. That my uncle, who had no children, was more affluent than my father, the doctor with eight children whom he sent to prep schools and college, seemed to my grandfather evidence that he was correct: books and college were a waste of time.

Given that, is it any wonder that my father was so shy about overt expressions of affection?

And so if he could not directly invite me to connect with him, he could find more oblique ways to bring the two of us together: he could give me reference books as gifts, bribe me to open the books he collected.

In his own way, he was opening a door for me to a world he loved and saying, “I can’t show you my self but I can show you this.”

And so I became a collector of reference books, filling shelves with them in my own home the way my father did in ours when I was growing up. I became a forager in them often for no purpose except to see what was there.

Paging, as I did just now, through Patrick Robertson’s Robertson’s Book of Firsts, published last year, I learn that the first life insurance policy was written in 1583, and would pay out £383 and change, as long as the insured died within a year. When he died 11 months later, the “underwriters sought to evade payment by the dubious argument that he had not died within ‘the full twelve months,’ arguing that a month was only 28 days and therefore the insured had died beyond twelve months’ time. The court found for the beneficiary, saying, “[The] month is to be accounted according to the Kalendar.”

Browsing in The Baseball Necrology by Bill Lee, I learn that there was once a player named Bad News Galloway who appeared for one season in the major leagues and then worked as a bedding inspector during World War II, that Mox McQuery, who lasted for five seasons in the majors during the 19th century, died when he was shot in the line of duty while he was a policeman, and that Kite Thomas, who was a major league outfielder for two seasons, operated a tavern in Kansas in the 1950s that “was said to dispense more beer than any other tavern in Kansas.”

From The Best Books of Our Time 1901-1925, published in 1928 by Asa Don Dickinson, “Librarian of the University of Pennsylvania,” I learn that, according to a meticulous study he devised to analyze critical responses to what was then contemporary literature, the most highly regarded book of the first quarter of the 20th century was Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale, which had “25 endorsements” by critics and was therefore, according to Dickinson’s system, superior to Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth (23 endorsements), Willa Cather’s My Antonia (18) or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (13).

On the surface, this may all seem trivial, but I contend it’s not — is any time that brings us knowledge ever really wasted?

Without meaning to look for it, for example, I know something about the trend of insurance companies contesting the claims of their customers, something specific about the economics of major league baseball players before the current era of six- to eight-figure annual salaries, something about the way taste in literature changes over a period of decades.

See, I hear my father saying. Exactly.

Sometimes, browsing in junk shops and antique malls, I buy reference books that make little sense for me to own — a 75-year-old one-volume encyclopedia, a half-century old book on baton twirling, a dog-eared guide for collecting baseball players’ autographs. Yet, as ridiculous a purchase as they might seem, they open up the world for me as much as did the books on my father’s shelves or the newer books on my own shelves, but in different ways.

Everybody’s Complete Encyclopedia, which the Whitman Publishing Company of Racine, Wis., issued in 1937, for example, freezes the world for me in a manner a more contemporary reference work doesn’t; it gives me a world in which Pearl Harbor can be dismissed with a sentence, describing it as “an inlet not far from Honolulu, Hawaii, with pearl fisheries and a U.S. naval base,” and gives me the Ardennes in even fewer words, as only a sentence fragment, “Range of hills in France and Belgium extending into Luxembourg.” It gives me a world that had no notion of the meaning those places would carry less than a decade later.

The 1962 Who’s Who in Baton Twirling, which contains 500-plus pages of photographs and brief resumes of baton twirlers from around the United States, and a supplement on the Baton Twirling Hall of Fame, illuminates a subculture I hadn’t known was as large as it was, showing me something of the center of the lives of roughly 1,500 people from half a century ago. In one entry, I learn that Marla Miller of Columbia City, Ind., was once featured twirling fire batons at a district competition and that Hall of Fame member Paul Olin had traveled over 7,000 miles to teach twirling at summer camps across the Midwest and South.

As much as that allows me a glimpse at a subculture, the reason I bought the book was that it once belonged to one of the people who has an entry in it, Paula Rondeau of Florida. A half a century ago, the then 10-year-old Rondeau (who started twirling when she was five, had won tournaments in Florida and Virginia and performed on television during the 1961 Junior Miss America Pageant) scrawled her name and address in the front of the book in a careful cursive.

In somewhat the same way, the 1939 Allegheny (Pennsylvania) High School Yearbook opens another flap on the world for me: it was owned at one time by Ellen (Elsie) Tuomela, whom the yearbook describes as “sweet and shy” with “hopes to be a secretary” and who had “a unique hobby . . . working crossword puzzles.” If Elsie is alive still, she would around 90 but her yearbook — with the entries about her and her classmates and the editor’s sad recollection that the construction of a new school building that year meant the loss of “the balcony, long a lovers’ meeting place” –connects me to the teenager Elsie was nearly three-quarters of a century ago, makes the lives of all teenagers then more vivid to me than any general discussion of the youth of America in the 1930s ever could.

As for the slightly water-logged, dog-eared copy of the 1986 edition of Sports Americana Baseball Address List, a guide published for autograph seekers for which I paid 50 cents two weeks ago at a junk shop I passed on a Sunday afternoon: the information in it is, I assume, worthless. How many of the men whose names and addresses are listed are still living where they were more than a quarter century ago? What drew me to it were the almost obsessive annotations by the anonymous person who owned it before it ended up in a pile of books in a battered orange crate on a shelf with old VHS movies and mismatched glassware: whose autographs he had, who was dead or “too old or ill to sign,” and whom he classed as an “SOB,” presumably because they refused his request for a signature. The introduction to the book boasts that 10,000 current and former players were included and the previous owner had a note for well more than half of them. For me, the book reveals a fellow human being who gave himself passionately to something.

I’m certain that when my father extended perhaps the only sort of invitation he could to me, into the world as it lay out before him, and me, in reference books, he was not thinking of baton twirlers, high school seniors from 73 years ago, or autograph collectors, but my interest in them is connected to that same impulse he woke in me when I was roughly the same age as Paula Rondeau when she was ordering the copy of the Who’s Who with her name and photograph in it — the impulse to be curious about the world outside the room where I’m paging through the slightly mildewed book that bears a photograph of her in a costume, standing beside three of her trophies.

Not long after my father died, I found a package he’d received but never opened: the 1984 Britannica Book of the Year, part of the series of annuals the publishers offered to him as someone who had once bought a full set of the Encyclopedia Britannica and which he ordered each year, lining them chronologically on the shelves beneath the encyclopedia. (He also just as faithfully ordered the annual supplement to the Great Books, The Great Ideas Today.) In the last months of his life, weakened by congestive heart failure and diabetes, on most days he only had strength enough to move the few feet from his bed to a chair in his room and then, later, with the help of a day nurse, back to his bed. But at some point in those months — did he know how many he had left? — he’d marked a box on a reply card, written a check, mailed it off, then waited for the world to come back to him in 766 pages.

If he’d lived long enough to open the package, he could have flipped through those pages and read that health care costs in the U.S. for the previous year were more than 340 percent what they were in 1967, the year after he gave me the mathematics encyclopedia and Latin dictionary. He could have read that Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings was “one of the major literary events of the year,” but that critical response ranged from “uncertain, almost embarrassed enthusiasm to exasperated boredom.” He could have learned that a 29-year-old mathematician had made a discovery that “was the first major step in more than a century in the struggle to verify Pierre de Fermat’s” famous claim, scribbled in the margin of a book, that he had discovered a “truly marvelous [algebraic] proof.” (And my father could have winced realizing that the mathematician was younger than his son who still had difficulty dividing fractions.)

When my mother gave me the set of Britannica and the Great Books after he died, she said, “I don’t care what you do with the encyclopedias, but please don’t get rid of the Great Books. Your father went through so much to get them.”

By then, the encyclopedia, published during Richard Nixon’s first term of office, was dated and while I kept it for a long while, when I moved six years ago, I donated it to Goodwill. However, I held onto the 1984 Book of the Year, the volume my father had never read, had never opened, and it sits on a shelf with the Latin dictionary and the Encyclopedia of Mathematics that he gave me with such hope when I was a boy.

Image courtesy of the author.

A Year in Reading: Edie Meidav

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Stumble across any list and you know that always there lives a list beyond all lists: the list of books which you, reader, are unable to explore until you find some Kryptonlike strength over your own autobiographical impediment. This strange year, 2011, offered me force enough to pull the rock away from the cave entryway to two unparalleled literary voices, and now I wonder how I managed to live so long without these books, arising from such different universes: Amos Oz’s memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, translated by Nicholas de Lange, and Lorrie Moore’s fictive paean to lost friendship Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?

To consider Oz first: when the intellectual history of our time is written, not on electronic tablets but on pop-up holograms, someone will wonder why our era dedicated itself to the declaration of moribund genres, most especially the memoir, pundits forever attending the flickering of the patient’s stats and vitals. Could the greater diagnosis be that we suffered a spate of memoirs written in haste, lacking the wisdom of sufficient retrospect, devoid of the doubleness, whether of persona or timeline, that invariably creates meaning? In the case of memoir, we have shown love for the premature epitaph. Repeatedly we declare the patient dead until once again it rises, our own favorite dirt-spattered zombie.

Oz, in his Rabelaisian memoir, could not be considered guilty of writing too close to some original timeline: with his form of genial chuckle, he is happy to say that he encompasses the entirety of modern Israel, that it’s as if he shook hands with George Washington, fought in the Revolutionary War, and has survived to see two tea parties come, and, perhaps (please?) go.

So that if all memoirs rise and fall in their treatment of time, time in Oz is untraceable, more wormhole than line or even double helix, much in the same way that the history of Israel presents such conundra, both ancient and present, lost and continuously redefined. You finish the memoir and realize the mother’s desperate end, a suicide in Oz’s teen years, casts a shadow forward and back, a lacuna in the overarching story. And yet Oz doesn’t play needlessly coy, nor is he melodramatic: the narrative of his one family cannot creak under history if history is the family’s blood. Elegant and excessive at the same time, Oz’s wit soars, his curious attentiveness that of a lover, his moral compass unwavering. While surely some might say the work would benefit from editing, it is in the excesses of history, happy or desperate, its atavistic claws forever seeking the living, that his saga lives with such reckless accuracy.

As for his politics, Oz says elsewhere that he does not wish to exist merely as a symbol in the minds of others, to represent either the shrewd, gifted, repulsive vampire or the sympathetic victim deserving both compensation and atonement. The Zionist enterprise, as he sees it, is that of a drowning man who has no other objective justification than to grasp at a plank, and yet for Oz, a crucial moral distinction hews to the man who does not grab the whole plank for himself and push others to the sea. Recently, despite all the flak he received from all sides, Oz sent his memoir to Marwan Barghouti, considered, depending on your perspective, either an activist or a terrorist. In sending the book, Oz — who benefits from a cultural landscape akin to Latin America’s, in which a writer can truly be an engaged citizen, helping to shape public discourse — hoped his memoir might be a peace token of sorts, a book acting as a bridge toward understanding. Is this act not the opposite of the recent razing of the Occupy Wall Street library?

But back to the subject: Oz’s memoir succeeds in transcending symbolism. In writing so specifically about both nations and the nations of literature, his memoir articulates the possibility of understanding beyond nation. In the meanest flower blows the most universal wind and so on. Yet maybe, for a final verdict on this, we should wait to hear not from another dead man, Wordsworth, but rather from the living Barghouti.

To end with something a bit more personal: last year, in these pages I wrote about the death of my father. As a footnote to that piece, when this same father was already a living cadaver, some two years ago, his brain easing the fear of death by transporting him to diverse sociocultural milieus, he nonetheless managed to keep a firm grasp on a voice of clarity. In his case,  such clarity was equivalent to the name Amos Oz. Edie, you must read the most recent piece by Oz. That Oz had been such a literary celebrity in our house for so long, his biography partly overlapping with my father’s, with their family friends in common, meant that the name Oz had come to mean all of the following things: lost turf, mind, glory. This concatenation meant that, so long as my father lived, I found it impossible to read more than snatches of Oz. Until randomly, or as randomly as such things work, someone asked me to introduce a speech by the great Oz himself, passing through our small upstate New York hamlet in honor of the apparition of Scenes from Village Life, the recent book of unsettling short stories, structured like Winesburg, Ohio, which could be read as a parable of uneasy coexistence. And the power of his earlier memoir transformed what had been mere epitaph — the name Oz — into living conscience, something mutable and present standing guard over the equally uneasy dead.

If Harold Bloom is right in saying that writers must come to grips with their literary, oedipal parentage and slay the masters in some crucial misreading of such masters, if our original thinking really could be structured in such clear-cut fashion, then where is the anxiety? For the space of this reductive review, let us think Bloom wrong and consider instead the pleasure of the choir, of many voices raised in praise of one unseeable supreme force. I came across Lorrie Moore’s amazing novel, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, written relatively early in her career, in one of those pleasurable serendipitous moments that only actual books can occasion. In a rare occurrence, I was clearing off bookshelves and out it tumbled, a British paperback with one of those faux-innocent covers the English favor, washed through with a murky yet childlike gloom, as if a painting created by a child the day she realized that there would be little more to look forward to than a spate of iron-gray skies and perhaps a teatime sweet.

I knew of Moore’s later work; she had been extolled to me by many I respected, but I had not yet had the crucial stumble. Coming across an overlauded author is like entering a romance with, take your pick, a movie star or a beachside house: one wants to make sure one’s appreciation arises from some deep inner lexicon of romance and not merely from the prefab, debased currency of everyone else’s adulation. Love is discovered but never curated. So it was for Moore and me and may it be, somehow, for you, unimaginable reader, despite this praise-song. For whatever this may be worth, before my crucial stumble, I had just sent away, finally, a novel I’d written which laid to bed whatever I wanted to explore about the primacy of friendship (of the female, wanton variety) and now felt the topic exhausted in myself: I was a perfect readerly receptacle. Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood, as well as some of the disconsolate stories of the late Gina Berriault, had explored some of the terrain I had wanted to explore, and yet, even if there is no scarcity to such turf, they had left vast blissful spaces. And so to find Moore was to find some new voice exploding in the choir, someone with vulnerable humor and psychological brilliance to spare, with a tender heart, a poet’s ear, and a comic’s timing, a lost wife in Raymond Carver’s realist attic, both mad and wise, spinning deceptively simple ironies.

A line, chosen in aleatory fashion:
. . . , and I again remembered that night last year, the one with the man and the gun springing up like a jack-in-the-box, the light summer midnight just beyond and past the branches. We had run, always heading for the next group of trees, and then for the next and then the next, like an enactment of all of life.
Note the dynamism, the use of what linguists call iconic language (and then for the next and then the next not being an apprentice’s tic but rather a visual representation of a stand of trees) and the widening out, subtle, cadenced, into the abstracted end of the line, where, pace Aristotle, we are forced to identify with the characters, experience catharsis, and reflect on our own categories, all in one lucid heartbeat.

We might not notice what happened. We might, as new neurological studies show, have increased social cognition after reading such fiction. We might find ourselves in James’ world, our sense of nuance refined. Or we might simply fall in love.

Reader, can fiction do anything more?

More from A Year in Reading 2011

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A Small Gallery of Literary Giants

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When I was growing up in Detroit in the 1950s and ’60s, I had a buddy named Tim Johnstone who introduced me to the joys of drawing and, more broadly, to the pleasures of letting my imagination off the leash. The Johnstones were an odd family. For one thing, they owned a foreign sports car, a curvaceous XK-120 Jaguar from Great Britain, which was regarded as an act of unpatriotic heresy in the Big Three church of Detroit. Not content to have a prosaic pet, Tim mailed away for a baby ferret, which he proceeded to toilet-train.

Tim’s father was an engineer who traveled the world supervising the construction of factories he had designed. Whenever his enormous blueprints had served their purpose, Mr. Johnstone gave them to Tim, who spread them on the rec room floor, blank side up, and invited me to help him fill them with elaborate panoramas that sometimes took us weeks to complete. We always settled on a theme — the Wild West, the Civil War, the deep sea, the Middle Ages, dinosaurs, outer space (this was those jittery years after Sputnik) — and then we spent hundreds of hours sprawled on our stomachs, pencils moving non-stop, our imaginations carrying us backward or forward in time, deep beneath the sea or out into the cosmos. t was bliss.

The itch to draw, born on the Johnstones’ rec room floor half a century ago, has never left me. One reason I was barely an above-average student was that I spent most of my time in school drawing pictures of my teachers and classmates instead of taking notes. Over time my focus narrowed to drawing one thing: the human head, in all its infinite variety. As I pursued my life-long dream of becoming a writer, the focus narrowed further. I started drawing the heads of writers. Then the focus narrowed yet again. Since I’m convinced that people tend to be more interesting once they’re dead, obituaries have always been my favorite part of the newspaper. So whenever a noteworthy writer died, I started drawing the picture that accompanied the obit, eventually adding drawings of noteworthy long-dead writers. Here, then, is a gallery of a few of those literary giants, along with brief explanations of what was going through my head as my pen (or, in a few cases, my pencil) was fashioning their heads.

Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941) — Operating under the assumption that any writer who influenced Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck has got to be worth reading, I dove into Sherwood Anderson’s most famous book, Winesburg, Ohio, some thirty years ago. It bored me silly, and I came away scratching my head over what the fuss was all about. I tried again a few years ago and found the book even more boring on a second reading. So when I set out to draw Anderson, I wanted to capture a sharpie who has just pulled a fast one and is laughing at us dupes out the side of his mouth.

Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) — Here are three simple sentences from Flannery O’Connor’s essay, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” that changed my life: “The fact is that anybody who has survived childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make it out of a lot. The writer’s business is to contemplate experience, not to be merged in it.” These words taught me the invaluable lesson that my youthful hunger for experience was beside the point if I wanted to become a writer. I was already a fan of Flannery’s fiction, but her non-fiction made me realize she saw things the existence of which I had not even begun to imagine. So I wanted her eyes to look like they could see straight through anyone who pauses to look at this drawing.

Robert Lowell (1917-1977) — A brilliant poet, Robert Lowell was also a tortured man who tortured others, especially the ones he loved. When 852 pages worth of his letters were published in 2005, I drew his head from a photograph that accompanied the review in The New York Times. I tried to convey that this was a man whose spirit was being pushed earthward by a pulverizing weight, a man who was no stranger to the dark precincts of madness.

Philip K. Dick (1928-1982)– The only way Philip K. Dick could have written so many books — and so many fine weird ones — was with the help of chemistry. I imagine him slamming a typewriter all through the California night, jacked to the gills on speed, weed, booze, caffeine, maybe a hit of acid to take the edge off. Out poured a river of words that often had a manic, paranoid, bi-polar flavor. Or maybe the word I’m looking for is gnostic. Dick was a visionary chronicler of life’s moral chiaroscuro, its black evils and moments of shining virtue, which made him an ideal subject for a black-and-white ink drawing that features a blinding source of light and its inevitable counterpart, dark, dark shadows.

Irving “Swifty” Lazar (1907-1993) — Though not a writer, Swifty Lazar was the agent of Hemingway, Faulkner, Truman Capote, Vladimir Nabokov and Tennessee Williams, along with half of the Hollywood galaxy. I’ve always thought of him as the colossus of the 15 percent crowd, gazing down at us mere mortals through ashtray glasses that magnified his big barracuda eyes. (He also had sharp little barracuda teeth.) Cross this man at your peril.

William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) — As radical — and funny– as his writing could be, I’m never able to think of William S. Burroughs without remembering that he shot his common-law wife in the head during a drunken game of William Tell in 1951. Burroughs admitted that the (accidental?) killing haunted him for the remaining 46 years of his long and prolific life, and as a result I’ve always imagined him as a man split in two by the trauma, then put back together all wrong.

Naomi Schor (1943-2001) — Those lips! That hair! What’s not to love about the literary critic Naomi Schor? But it was the contents of her obituary that clinched it for me: “Dr. Schor once said she had love affairs with intellectual ‘ism’s,’ including fetishism, realism, idealism, universalism and feminism, her favorite.” It gets better. She also “explored the notion of male lesbianism, suggesting ways that Flaubert and other male authors seemed to speak from a lesbian perspective.” Wow — Flaubert was a male lesbian! This revelation convinced me I needed to read more literary criticism, but fortunately I came to my senses and drew this picture instead.

Shelby Foote (1916-2005) — Shelby Foote’s magisterial three-volume narrative history of the Civil War has been called America’s Iliad, and I’ve got to believe that devoting your life to such a project exacts a price. I think of Foote more as a monument than a mere man, so when I drew him I tried to make him look like he was carved out of stone. And I wanted him to be doing what he did for so many years while composing his masterpiece — staring into the blackest, bloodiest abyss this nation has, so far, managed to conjure.

Image Credit: Bill Morris/[email protected]

Ask a Book Question (#59): Books for Recent Graduates

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Bryan wrote in with this question:I’m a 2007 graduate of Columbia. I majored in American Studies with a concentration in 20th century American literature. I’m a huge fan of the Millions. I’m attaching a recent reading list, if there’s any chance you’d be interested in giving a book recommendation [based on it], that would be totally awesome. Here goes:Currently reading:Heart of Darkness by Joseph ConradRecently read (sep 07 – april 08):Elementary Particles by Michel HoullebecqA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave EggersMan In The Dark by Paul AusterPortnoy’s Complaint by Philip RothWhat We Should Have Known – n+1The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullersLook Back In Anger by John OsborneThe Road by Cormac MccarthyPages From A Cold Island by Frederick ExleyUltramarine by Raymond CarverThe Unbearable Lightness Of Being by Milan KunderaThe Country Between Us by Carolyn ForcheLiterary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice by Charles BresslerA Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O’ConnorGoodbye, Columbus by Philip RothWinesburg, Ohio by Sherwood AndersonThe Big Sleep by Raymond ChandlerMeditations In An Emergency by Frank O’HaraSwann’s Way by Marcel ProustThe Sound And The Fury by William FaulknerLife Studies and For The Union Dead by Robert LowellFor Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest HemingwayIncidences by Daniil KharnsJourney To The End Of The Night by Louis-Ferdinand CelineBryan’s recent reading list is an interesting one, and in discussions among Millions contributors, several interesting observations were made. Emily noted, for example, that it is a “very testosterone-y” reading list and added, “I think all testosterone diets are bad for the soul. (as are all estrogen diets).” Her prescription? Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Ben, meanwhile, noted several “upgrades” that Bryan might consider to the books above. Instead of Goodbye, Columbus, read Saul Bellow’s Herzog. If you’re going to read Exley, read A Fan’s Notes, and “Infinite Jest should be on there, probably the greatest work of 20th century literature,” Ben adds. Garth said that Bryan “needs urgently to read is Mating by Norman Rush, which is like an amalgam of Conrad, Roth, Proust, F. O’Hara, and Hemingway,” all authors featured on Bryan’s list.In thinking and discussing Bryan’s list, we also hit the idea of a “staff picks” for recent grads – a year out of school, Bryan qualifies, and with another round of graduates set to be expelled from academia, we figured that it might be both timely and useful. Below follows a handful of suggestions. This list is woefully incomplete though, so we ask you to help us out with your own reading suggestions for recent graduates in the comments.Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson recommended by EdanThis novel-in-verse is a contemporary retelling of the myth of Geryon and Herakles. In the original myth, Herakles kills Geryon, a red-winged creature who lives on a red island; Carson’s version is a kind of coming of age story, in which Geryon falls in love with Herakles. If the form intimidates you, don’t let it: this is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read.The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams recommended by EdanThree teenage girls, a bitch of a ghost, and the apathetic desert. The Quick and the Dead is an odd and very funny novel that has pretty much no narrative drive but is nonetheless a joy (no pun intended!) to read because of its wondrous prose.Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy by Dave Hickey recommended by EdanThis is a fun collection of essays that will feel far more entertaining than any criticism you read in college (though maybe not as mind blowing). The best piece in the book, I think, is Hickey’s argument for why Vegas (where he lives) is so terrific.George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London recommended by AndrewSo you’re holding your degree in one hand and, with the other, you’re untangling a four-year growth of ivy from your jacket. All the while maintaining that cool, detached air that you’ve been carefully cultivating. Well, before you join the real world and settle into the routine that will destroy your soul bit by bit, each and every day FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, take a breath, find a copy of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, and shake your foundations one last time.Orwell was probably about your age – mid-twenties or so – when he found himself out of the army and living in the underbelly of Paris and then in London, living in poverty, working as a plongeur and doing other assorted subsistence-level jobs, and scraping by. A largely autobiographical account of those years, Down and Out in Paris and London exposes Orwell’s social soul. “I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny.”Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway recommended by MaxTo me, the post-college years are characterized by two often warring desires, to become a contributing member of society despite the horrifying drudgery of those first post-college jobs and to extend the second childhood of undergraduate life for as long as possible. Lucky Jim riotously encapsulates the former, as junior lecturer Jim Dixon finds himself surrounded by eccentric buffoonish professors and overeager students at a British college. He wants what many of us want: to escape the dull life before it traps us forever. The Sun Also Rises famously depicts the pitfalls of the other path. Brett and Jake and their burned out gang live life in a perpetual day-after-the-party fog. The Pamplona bullfights, aperitifs, and camaraderie may be tempting, but the attendant spiritual weariness gives pause.

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