Within the Context of No Context

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Brevity Is the Soul of It: In Praise of Short Books

Lately I’ve found myself collecting short non-fiction books. Collecting makes it sound grandiose, but my stash of 30 or so volumes is smaller in aggregate than a breadbox. It’s also been less intentional than the word “collecting” implies: The books seem to turn up of their own accord like stray kittens or spare socks, orphaned except for the company of their own kind. Each one on its own might not amount to much, but together they comprise a highly portable compendium of human knowledge.

Monographs are in style, from Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry to Kristin Dombek’s The Selfishness of Others and Edwidge Danticat’s The Art of Death, all presenting critical, topical investigations driven by the wry voices of their authors. The format can be a venue for public discourse on pressing issues, too, as in Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends, a harrowing first-person look into the immigration system, or Eula Biss’s On Immunity, with its eloquent delineation of vaccines. Brian Dillon’s Essayism, however, is the ultimate literary ouroboros: a book-length essay on essayists.

The short book can also be a container for the self without the self-aggrandizement of a full memoir. Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors and Gregor Hens’s Nicotine both fit here, as does the Italian translator Franco Nasi’s lovely pamphlet about living in the United States, Translator’s Blues. Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness and 300 Arguments likewise offer only slantwise glimpses of the author through aphoristic fragments sharp as darts. It’s easy to recognize yourself in them: A friend memorably described the latter as “subtweets about your life.”

The Twitter connection is apropos, since social media has contributed to our sense of a depleted attention span. Is the short book popular because we just can’t handle more than 150 pages anymore? The form does thrive in tweets and Instagrams as intellectual plumage. It’s easy to finish them, and thus easier to brag about having read them. “They come already compressed,” Christine Smallwood observed of the trend in T Magazine. “You will learn something, for sure, but not more than you can handle.”

But this gloss gives short books short shrift. Short books are not narratives, but devices: instead of the telescope of a long novel or history tome, they are a pair of sunglasses, allowing you to see the world, briefly and temporarily, in a different shade. Most mornings, I look at the stack on my shelf, a rainbow of thin spines, and pick a few to carry with me—to a cafe, on the subway, to my office. Like choosing an outfit, the books both express and influence how I feel that day.

Say the mood is colorful. Here you have options, because a single color is the perfect subject for a short book. In Bluets, Maggie Nelson can tell you about blue, and patches of blue outside seem to glow with new meaning. Alain Badiou’s Black offers the semiotics of that “non-color,” shot through with his own memories of (literally) dark moments: as a child playing in an unlit room or camping out in the French military. Kenya Hara, a Japanese designer, meditates on the emptiness of white in White; Han Kang has her own version coming up with The White Book.

Each of these volumes frees its mates of the burden of being comprehensive: The short book doesn’t need to pretend that it’s the only object a reader has at hand. Instead, they are entries in a collective lexicon, a library you can take with you.

For a bracing blast of postmodern ennui, pick up the architect Rem Koolhaas’s Junkspace with Running Room, an aria to the endlessness of 21st-century detritus: “The aesthetic is Byzantine, gorgeous and dark, splintered into thousands of shards, all visible at the same time.” Or you could carry Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 38 pages that upend the world: “The instant the criterion of genuineness in art production failed, the entire social function of art underwent an upheaval.” Or George W.S. Trow’s Within the Context of No Context, a fractured 1981 diagnosis of the impact of mass media on American identity: “Comfort failed. Who would have thought that it could fail?”

These contain potent medicine (or poison, I sometimes think), and it’s a relief that each ends before too long, though still long enough to change your life. Like a pill, their form is always inextricable from their content, just right for proper delivery of the drug within.

The short book demonstrates ways in which to live, but rather than self-help’s prescriptive explanations, it is content to evoke possibilities. The Swiss writer Fleur Jaeggy’s aptly titled These Possible Lives gives prismatic recitations of the biographies of Thomas De Quincey, John Keats, and Marcel Schwob, reducing what could be thousands of pages into a scant 60 of hallucinatory description. Shawn Wen’s A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause sketches an impressionistic biography of Marcel Marceau, a famed French mime. I like the book’s voyeurism into the peculiar life, but also observing the challenge—and Wen’s success—of describing in words Marceau’s absence thereof. (The short book is also great for writer’s block.)

The paragon of the short-book form, for my taste, is In Praise of Shadows by the Japanese novelist Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. In the 42-page essay first published in 1933, Tanizaki contrasts the Japanese appreciation of darkness—the dim of rice-paper windows, candle lanterns, and black lacquered dishes—with the Westerner’s “quest for a brighter light:” electric lamps, glass windows, and white porcelain. The book’s brevity is synecdochic: It contains the world, from Noh drama to Albert Einstein, “murmuring soup,” the difficulties of building a house, an obscure local recipe for sushi, and what the author perceived as the roots of Japanese identity.

Tanizaki persistently reminds readers that the essay is merely his vision, a personal worldview as an elderly novelist perhaps more at home in the previous century than his present. He claims no authority. Yet his ambition is grand, to preserve in writing that particular lens so that it might be experienced by others: “I would call back at least for literature this world of shadows we are losing,” he writes in the book’s final paragraph. Every time I open it, the patches of shade around me are briefly illuminated by Tanizaki’s prose.

I Instagrammed In Praise of Shadows so many times that friends asked how long I was taking to finish it. Rather than some kind of brag, I just liked how it looked—it was fun to put a monochrome book about darkness in patches of bright sunlight, a visual pun. But getting to the end of a short book isn’t the point. It’s about rereading, mulling, flipping it open to see what you find, turning it over like a coin in your pocket.

Tanizaki’s essay accomplishes the highest criteria I have for any book, short or long, which is that it offers an alternative aesthetic imaginary, a toolset to reconstruct the world in real time. Its voice sneaks into your head. And its format makes it convenient to keep hidden away in my bag, with me at all times.

Image credit: Unsplash/Duc Ly.

Ten Books to Read When Mad Men is Over

Mad Men is about to disappear from our lives once again, leaving us to grapple alone with our complicated nostalgia for an era when men were men, women were secretaries, and alcoholism was glamorous. These books give a closer look at the era, offering a vision of Midcentury Manhattan that goes beyond Cheever and Yates. (Although Cheever and Yates are a great place to start, if you haven’t already.) Read them to tide you over until the next season or to fine-tune your predictions for this week’s series finale:

1. Reborn: Journals & Notebooks 1947-1963, by David Rieff and Susan Sontag

If Sontag were alive today, it’s unlikely she would find much to admire about Mad Men, and yet she and Don Draper have a lot in common. Ambitious and seductive, both came to Manhattan to make themselves anew, rejecting their provincial roots. Among the many revelatory moments in Sontag’s diaries, the nakedness of her self-creation is the most startling; there are Gatsby-like resolutions for self-improvement, reading lists, and meticulous records of films, plays, and parties attended. Like Don Draper, she loved to use high-flown language to talk about popular culture, and was happiest when pulling nicotine-fueled all-nighters. She and Don also share a dread of monogamy, while at the same time rushing into ill-advised romances. Here’s Sontag on her early marriage to Philip Rieff: “I marry Philip with full consciousness + fear of my will toward self-destructiveness.”

2.  Manhattan, When I Was Young, by Mary Cantwell

This sweet, searching memoir about a young woman’s coming of age in Manhattan in the 1950s and early 60s is full of Mad Men-esque images, and narrated with the same rueful, if-we-only-knew-then-what-we-know-now tone. A former magazine writer for Mademoiselle and Vogue, Cantwell’s memory is pleasingly specific as she recalls fashions of the day and the best place to get a sundae in Midtown. The book is also a record of her first marriage to a young, aspiring novelist whose bohemian tastes infected her own. Disdainful of suburban living, Cantwell and her husband chose the West Village instead, where they moved from charming apartment to charming apartment with an ease that seems like utter fantasy today.

3.  The New York Times Cookbook, by Craig Claiborne

Page through this and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the meals that Pete Campbell’s wife, Trudy, has waiting for him when he comes home from work. First published in 1961, it was the book that a generation of young housewives learned to cook from before they graduated to Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

4.  The Early Stories, 1953-1975, by John Updike

Although only a handful of the stories in this collection take place in Manhattan, Updike was born within just a few years of Don Draper, and his stories reflect the peculiar pathologies of their generation, “the Silent Generation.” Raised during the Great Depression, both men grew up in a time of scarcity only to come of age in an era of prosperity. Such extremes of experience were bewildering, creating feelings of both wonder and discontent. As Updike writes in his 2003 foreword to the collection, “We were simple and hopeful enough to launch into idealistic careers and early marriages, and pragmatic enough to adjust, with an American shrug, to the ebb of old certainties. Yet, though spared many of the material deprivations and religious terrors that had dogged our parents, and awash in a disproportionate share of the world’s resources, we continued prey to what Freud called ‘normal human unhappiness.’”

5.  The Grand Surprise, The Journals of Leo Lerman, by Leo Lerman

Leo Lerman, a social butterfly whose name is likely included in any number of books of the period, is briefly mentioned in Manhattan, When I Was Young, in a passage describing the offices at Mademoiselle:
Leo Lerman, the entertainment editor, sat in a sort of railed-off den behind an enormous mahogany desk, taking phone calls from Marlene Dietrich and Truman Capote. A plump, bearded man, he lived in a house so excessively Victorian it defied the century, which was the point, and had a collection of friends so dazzling I am still dazzled by it.
Published posthumously in 2007, Lerman’s diary reveals the full extent of his “dazzling” collection of friends, which included Carson McCullers, Maria Callas, Jackie Onassis, and George Balanchine, among others. In the 1960s, he was installed as features editor of Vogue, and became one of the decade’s tastemakers, introducing readers to writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., August Wilson, and Iris Murdoch. Although Lerman’s version of Manhattan, with its focus on the literary, fashion, and theater worlds, is quite different from the one portrayed on Mad Men, his diaries share the same interest in gesture and language, especially the indirect ways people communicate with another. Attempting to find meaning in his diaries, Lerman wrote: “Personality, that is what I want to pin down, no matter how fleetingly, for the personality of a man is component to personality of his era.”

6.  Within The Context of No Context, by George W. S. Trow

Series creator Matthew Weiner has said that at its heart, Mad Men is about the massive cultural shifts that began in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the way someone like Don Draper, an archetype of an earlier era, learns to adapt. George Trow’s classic essay, Within the Context of No Context, first published in The New Yorker in 1980, is a retrospective analysis of those cultural shifts, as well as his own anguished response to them. The son of a newspaperman, Trow writes that he grew up expecting to “have a fedora hat of my own by the time I was twelve years old.” Instead, he came of age only to find that his father’s version adulthood could no longer be inherited: “Irony has seeped into the felt of any fedora hat I have ever owned…” Like our nostalgia for the world of Mad Men, Trow’s is undercut by his understanding that it was never very sustainable to begin with.

7.  Talk Stories, by Jamaica Kincaid

After being told that Mademoiselle “would not hire black girls”, Jamaica Kincaid started her writing career at Ingenue magazine, whose offices were in the same building as National Lampoon’s. Recognizing Kincaid’s wit, a writer at National Lampoon introduced her to The New Yorker’s George Trow, who became her mentor. Kincaid’s first assignment for The New Yorker was to accompany Trow to Brooklyn’s West Indian Day parade. Trow transcribed Kincaid’s comments for a “Talk of the Town” column, introducing the world to her joyful, youthful, and subtly ironic point of view. After that, Kincaid wrote her own “Talk” pieces. Talk Stories collects Kincaid’s essays into one volume, covering nearly a decade of New York City life, from 1974-1983. Although the columns don’t — at least not yet — overlap with the time period portrayed in Mad Men, it’s fascinating to see how a young black woman from Antigua managed to subvert the staid “Talk” format, which was at the time an unsigned column written in the first person plural, and free of curse words, sex, gossip, and any subject that might be considered trendy. Despite these strictures — or maybe because of them — the spirit of the era shines through. Kincaid’s spirit also shines, and taken together, these essays form a portrait of a young woman striving to find her place in the world. A must read for anyone with a soft spot for Peggy Olsen.

8.  Just Kids, by Patti Smith

Where Mad Men depicts life on Madison Avenue, with occasional glimpses into the life of New York’s bohemian culture, Smith’s memoir is a portrait of downtown New York with occasional glimpses of Fifth Avenue, where she worked for years as a bookseller at Scribner’s. Smith’s point of view is decidedly romantic as she recalls the years when she and Robert Mapplethorpe were broke nobodies, trying to decide whether to spend her paycheck on art supplies or diner meals. “We hadn’t any money but we were happy…I tacked pictures of Rimbaud, Bob Dylan, Lotte Lenya, Piaf, Genet, and John Lennon over a makeshift desk where I arranged my quills, my inkwell, and my notebooks — my monastic mess.” Reading Smith’s girlish memories, you’ll understand why Don sometimes gets a wistful look when talking to Megan.

9.  Jack Holmes & His Friend, by Edmund White

Edmund White’s most recent novel, about the decades-long friendship between a gay man and a straight one, illustrates the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s from a new angle. Like Mad Men, Jack Holmes & His Friend begins in a world that is still dominated by the manners and mores of the 1950s. Jack, who is gay, must hide his sexuality from his straight friend, Will. But as the counter-culture takes hold, the tables turn and it’s Will who struggles with this sexuality, feeling trapped in his marriage while Jack blossoms, embracing a new identity as a “sexual libertine.” Covering a period of over thirty years, this novel includes many evocative descriptions of a Manhattan gone by, as well as a number of blow-out party scenes, resulting in debaucheries worthy of Don Draper.

10.  The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson

This work of narrative non-fiction is an investigation of the migration of African-Americans from the south to northern and western cities, a profound demographic shift that began after World War I and continued through the 1970s. Wilkerson ties her narrative to the lives of three individuals, who each leave the south to settle in three different cities: Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. The pathos of Wilkerson’s narrative comes as her subjects realize that escape from Jim Crow laws does not mean an escape from racism. This book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the roots of the civil rights movement — something that seems, to the characters of Mad Men, to come out of nowhere, but was actually a decades-long process, rooted in the day-to-day struggles of hundreds of thousands of migrant families. As Wilkerson writes of one of her subjects, Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, “Few experts trained their sights on the unseen masses of migrants like her, who worked from the moment they arrived, didn’t end up on welfare, stayed married because that’s what God-fearing people of their generation did whether they were happy or not, and managed not to get strung out on drugs or whiskey or a cast of nameless, no-count men.”

A Year in Reading: Garth Risk Hallberg

Let’s say you’re slightly to the left of the Bell Curve: you read, on average, a book a week. And let’s say you’re also slightly leftward-listing in your survival prospects: that, due to the marvels of future medicine (and no thanks to the blunders of contemporary foreign policy) you’ll live to the fine old age of 90. Let’s furthermore presuppose that you’re one of those people, the precocious ones who were reading Kesey and King and Kingsolver and Kipling at 15. How many great books will you get to read in a lifetime? Assuming you’ve already answered the adjunct question (why?) for yourself, the prospect of having to choose only three thousand books from among the many Millions may sound daunting. My Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of World Literature contains some entries on authors alone, and is hardly comprehensive. Balzac alone could eat up almost one percent of your lifetime reading. On the other hand, as usual, limitation shades into wonder… because in an infinite reading universe, we would be deprived of one of the supreme literary pleasures: discovery. Half of my favorite works of fiction of the year were by authors (women, natch) I’d never read, had barely heard of: Kathryn Davis’ The Thin Place, Lynne Tillman’s American Genius: A Comedy, and Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica.And if I had gone my whole life without discovering Deborah Eisenberg, I would have missed something like a literary soulmate. The beguiling, bewildered quality of Eisenberg’s Twilight of the Superheroes – the sentences whose endings seem to surprise even their writer – is so close to the texture of life as I experience it as to be almost hallucinatory. On the other hand, Eisenberg’s world is much, much funnier and more profound than mine. She’s single-handedly rejuvenated my relationship with the short story… and just in time for the remarkable new Edward P. Jones collection, All Aunt Hagar’s Children. I’ve already expressed my suspicion that Jones has been a positive influence on Dave Eggers, as evidenced by What is the What. So I’ll just round out my survey of new fiction by mentioning Marshall N. Klimasewiski’s overlooked first novel, The Cottagers – a dazzlingly written thriller.In between forays into the contemporary landscape, I’ve been trying to bone up on the classics. I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t read Pride and Prejudice until this year; it’s about the most romantic damn thing I’ve ever encountered, and I’m a sucker for romance. Pricklier and more ironic, which is to say more Teutonic, was Mann’s The Magic Mountain – a great book for when you’ve got nothing to do for two months. Saul Bellow’s Herzog completely blew my doors off, suggesting that stream-of-consciousness (and the perfect evocation of a summer day) did not end with Mrs. Dalloway. Herzog is such a wonderful book, so sad, so funny, so New York. So real. I can’t say the same thing about Kafka’s The Castle, but it is to my mind the most appealing of his novels. As in The Magic Mountain, futility comes to seem almost charming. E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate was another wonderful discovery – a rip-roaring read that’s written under some kind of divine inspiration: Let there be Comma Splices! Similarly, I was surprised by how well page-turning pacing and peel-slowly sentences worked in Franzen’s first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City. Ultimately, it’s sort of a ridiculous story, but it’s hard to begrudge something this rich and addictive. Think of it as a dessert. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the rip-roar of that most sweeping of summer beach books, Lonesome Dove. And if the last three titles make you feel self-indulgent, because you’re having too much fun, cleanse the palate the way I did, with the grim and depressing and still somehow beautiful. Namely, Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing or W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. (What is it with those Germans?)Nonfiction-wise, I managed to slip away from journalism a bit, but did read James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men while I was in Honduras… sort of like reading Melville at sea. I made it most of the way through Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (God knows why, half of me adds. The other half insists, You know why.) Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of the Enlightenment lightened things up… Not! But I will never read Cosmo Girl the same way again. Come to think of it, pretty much all the nonfiction I loved this year was a downer, about the impure things we can’t get away from: Susan Sontag’s On Photography, Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces, David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity, and especially the late George W.S. Trow’s astonishing, devastating Within the Context of No Context. Lit-crit offered a little bit of a silver lining, as William H. Gass’ A Temple of Text and James Wood’s The Irresponsible Self. Wood’s essays on Tolstoy and Bellow remind me that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God”… which is, I guess, why I’ll keep reading in 2007.

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