Books as Objects, Essays

The Physical Book Will Surely Endure: But Will It Endure for the Right Reason?

1. Stefan Zweig -- the renowned Viennese writer who, in the 1930s, chose exile over Adolf Hitler -- adored his books. As he moved globally among temporary residences, the collection followed, providing an anchor of stability in a world gone adrift. “They are there,” he wrote of his volumes, “waiting and silent.” It was left to him, the avid reader, to grab them, feel them, and make them speak some measure of sense to his unhinged experience. Books offered Zweig, in part, a predictable form of comfort. “They neither urge, nor press their claims,” he observed. “Mutely they are ranged along the wall...If you direct your glances their way or move your hands over them, they do not call out to you in supplication.” In his thoughtful and often riveting book, The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, George Prochnik quotes the author describing how it felt to approach a full bookcase: “A hundred names meet your searching glance silently and patiently...humbly awaiting the call and yet blissful to be chosen, to be enjoyed.” No matter where he lived -- New York, London, Rio -- Zweig maintained access to this form of bibliophilic bliss to the end. 2. Anyone who relates to such an attraction will understand it as an intellectually unique, often aesthetically sublime, experience. And now, according to two Italian economists, it might also be financially beneficial. As reported by one of the weirder studies undertaken last year (focused only on men between 60 and 96), growing up around books -- simply existing in their physical presence -- corresponded to higher income over time. “Those [kids 10 or older] with many books,” the authors write, “enjoyed substantially higher returns to their additional education.” The media, as you might imagine, feasted on the news. Headlines went from “Books You Should Read to Get Rich” to “Boys Who Grow Up Around Books Earn Significantly More Money.” Who cares if Bill Bill Gates reads 50 books a year?  Now all you needed to do -- according to the new research -- was to put on display at least 10 of them. Ka-ching. Zweig grew up around books -- more than 10 -- and, incidentally, he became rich. His novels -- Amok, Confusion, The Royal Game, to name a few -- and biographies -- on Marie Antoinette and Erasmus most notably -- flew from the shelves. He was the most translated German-language writer before World War II. His 1941 autobiography, The World of Yesterday, was recently translated into English and continues to sell at a brisk pace (not everyone is happy is about that). That’s good for Zweig, his legacy, and his fans. But there’s a distinction to draw here. The economists who conducted the “books make you wealthier” study were merely confirming the point that cultural capital corresponds to book ownership. It’s a point so obvious it’s almost meaningless. Any family who owns books, and considers books to be even symbolically significant enough to display them, is a family that nurtures the educational ethos required to make money. But none of that concerned Zweig. Zweig courted (and carted) his books not for the cultural capital they represented; he did so for their imaginative fertility, their ready source of escapism, the touchstone they offered to an inner reality. Speaking about a room full of books, he once said, “How good it is there to create and be alone.” Their decorative presence took a back seat to their seminal emotional power. It’s what they did for him -- his imagination, his sense of self, his rampant curiosity -- that mattered most to Stefan Zweig. The wealth was incidental. 3. Zweig’s love of books, considered against their supposed wealth-generating capability, presents a compelling dichotomy that’s quite relevant today: Books as remunerative symbols of educational attainment versus books as objects that allow us to drop out and delve inwards. This dichotomy is relevant because, for one, it fundamentally alters the big question everyone keeps asking about the book as a physical object. No longer is it “will the book endure?”  Instead, it’s “why will the book endure?” Yes the book will endure. Of course the book will endure.  You’ve likely heard a million people rhapsodize about the alluring physicality of books. They’re correct to do so. You’ve also likely heard the news that independent bookstores are making a comeback. This is also as it should be. As an empirical matter, reading on a tablet cannot remotely approach the sensual literary experience offered by an old-fashioned book. The latter is, I’d venture, intrinsically more pleasurable than the former, not unlike the intrinsic difference between high quality toilet paper and the sandpaper stuff used in bus stations. And while it’s true that Socrates expressed grave concern that the written word would erode memory and storytelling, his distinguished descendant, Cicero, had it exactly right when he said, “A room without books is like a body without a soul.” Of course, a room stuffed to the rafters with books can also be as soulless as a tin can. These days, if our Italian economists are right, books are often nothing more than decoration for social strivers. The fact that cultural capital can evidently be correlated with actual capital is another way of saying that a wall of books has nothing necessarily to do with the literary ambitions of the resident reader. Consider the “books by the foot” trend -- that is, the option of purchasing random books in bulk for the singular purpose of showing them off rather than reading them. This commercial genre is exceedingly popular with interior decorators, so much so that, as if to stay a step ahead of the skepticism, bulk book suppliers have specialized by tailoring books for the client’s purported general interests (to make it really seem like this is a library reflecting the owner’s personal literary tastes), while still color-coordinating book covers to match the pillow slips.  In this respect, the purchase and display of books becomes a conspicuous example of what the late French literary critic René Girard, in Mimesis and Theory, calls “external mediation” -- the process whereby a person’s displayed tastes and desires influence those of others -- resulting in the cheapest and least meaningful form of imitation. 4. If this is how we’re going to save the book -- decorative mimicry -- well then, forget it. True believers know that a room with books should accomplish something altogether more subversive and selfishly edifying -- that it should foster radical internal mediation rather than decorative inspiration. Books should conspicuously confirm the persistence, in the face of so many competing (and lesser) forms of distraction, of a fierce dedication to promiscuous reading, the kind that requires -- a la Zweig -- that walls of literature be constantly approached, scanned, and chosen from. And then -- the part that we rarely talk about when we talk about books -- a roomful of books must be allowed to exact a cost. The thing about a room full of books is that conquering it, living within it as a real reader, treating it as it should be treated, means making sacrifices that deeply effect other human beings -- and not always in a good way. The refraction of personal experience, when pursued through a physical book, is ours alone. As Emma in Madame Bovary knew very well, reading was a venue for the most satisfying selfishness. The “reality of experience,” as it’s noted at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is forged in the smithy of a single soul. When we read we become our own wistful Emma, our own self-absorbed Dedalus. You are with you. That’s it. And people might get annoyed by that. 5. I had to laugh when I read that being around books makes you more money. At the beginning of 2015, I started a well-paying freelance research gig. On paper, it was ideal: I worked from home, I made my own hours, I kept my day job teaching undergraduates, and the topic was interesting enough. The problem was that my home office, where I was to do my research, contains nearly 2,000 books. Many of them I have yet to read. Just as many I want to read again. After a day and half of working in my office, sitting amid these book-lined walls, I was broken by environment. Their visual allure and the promise of what they contained was too much to ignore as I did my official job. My letter of resignation followed. I remember that when my (dumbfounded) employer responded (he said I was “impetuous” and “foolish”) I was reading Middlemarch. A lot of people around me have paid a price for my choice. But Zweig, I am sure, would have approved.
Essays

‘A Walk in the Woods’ vs. A Walk in the Woods: On Reading as a Substitute for Experience

In the summer of 2000, two friends and I embarked on an epic cross-country drive. In preparation for the journey, we rented a Dodge Caravan, stocked up on peanut butter, and debated where to go. Using a Rand McNally map book, I laid out our path in pen, drawing lines from campsite icon to campsite icon across America and back. We planned to leave from Delaware, where I was a senior in college, in late June, and return in mid-August -- in all, six weeks of whiskey-addled, open-skied adventure. For the quiet moments -- of which there turned out to be few -- I brought along a worn copy of The Grapes of Wrath. Like the Joads, we were also striving for California -- but with more Led Zeppelin CDs in tow. That month and a half became one of the fullest periods of my life, with one exhilarating escapade after another: outracing tornadoes in Kansas, nearly freezing to death in Yosemite, close calls with bears in both Sequoia and Glacier National Parks. We hiked and camped and ate our peanut butter. With cheap snapshot cameras, we ran through dozens of rolls of film. From Seattle to Pittsburgh, we forswore bathing, a foul contest of wills. It was all very stupid and perfectly glorious. It was, as they say, a formative experience. Afterwards, we made a pact to do a similar expedition every year, but outside of a few days in West Virginia in 2001, our oath died on the vine. As I progressed through my 20s, though, I still thought of myself as the same daring moron who once pushed a minivan to 110 on a Montana interstate. My girlfriend and I would go on long drives just to see what we could see; we hiked with the same questing spirit I’d carried on my trip. Once, in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, we became covered in deer ticks -- and as we scraped them from our shins, laughing in horror beside our car, I had the feeling that, uncomfortable as I was, I remained on the proper track. You can’t get covered in bugs if you don’t enter the woods. As time went on, I began to read about people who, I flattered myself to think, had a similarly -- if more pronounced -- searching spirit. There was Percy Fawcett of The Lost City of Z, who rambled through the Amazon as if it were Central Park. And Into the Wild's Chris McCandless, whose fatal Alaskan trek was equally noble and misguided. I became a sucker for such narratives, subscribing to Outside magazine for its pieces on doomed hikers and wayward canoeists. Most know Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run for the creepy 10-toe running shoes it helped to popularize, but I was more taken by its description of Mexico’s Tarahumara and their daunting mountain races. To write Savage Harvest, about the 1961 disappearance of Michael Rockefeller, Carl Hoffman traveled to New Guinea -- just as I would have done, I thought as I read. After all, I was pretty intrepid myself. Except that I wasn’t; not anymore. I was now married to that girlfriend, and had become both a father and an eternally fatigued commuter. Any journey I now took was occurring inside my skull: instead of going on spontaneous road trips, I was reading Charles Portis’s Norwood. Instead of hiking until my feet bled, I was reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. Instead of tearing across Montana, I was reading Jonathan Raban’s Bad Land. I had outsourced the work of outdoor experience to various authors, my risk limited to paper cuts and coffee spills. It had happened slowly, imperceptibly, until the transformation was all but complete. The version of myself who “got out there and did things” had been replaced by a softer, safer, far more boring person. In short, I was spending too much time reading about interesting people and almost no time being one -- an insight that recently hit me with depressing force. I’m not sure what spurred the revelation -- perhaps it was the contrast between the solitude of reading and the chaos of what I read. Maybe it struck me that I’d just read two books about people surviving deadly cold (Crazy for the Storm, The Shining) and was, absurdly, preparing to read two more (The Revenant and Alone on the Ice). Whatever it was, I’d become unhealthily comfortable; to quote an old Radiohead song, I was now a pig in a cage on antibiotics -- or, less dramatically, a guy in cozy slippers whose vitality had slipped away. This suspicion was soon confirmed by a family hike -- the first my wife and I had been on in years, despite the fact that the woods are a short drive from our house. Though we only walked for two hours or so, and the air was getting cold, the forest quietly filled a need that, in recent years, I had learned to ignore. We marveled at trees that intertwined like rope, gazed at a creek as if it were a national landmark. We inhaled, exhaled, looked for the paint blazes that marked our path. We were again away from everything, and it felt really fucking good. That was a month and a half ago, and that feeling -- the recognition of some innate inner need -- hasn’t faded; it now seems to burn within me, steady as a pilot light. I’ve resolved to reclaim myself -- my old self, tick-stippled and chased by bears, a person who’d do most anything for the sake of doing it. In a way, it’s already happened; we’ve since gone on another such hike, and we’re planning a what-the-hell-let’s-just-go trip to Tennessee in the spring. Reading is an incredible thing, but it’s a poor substitute for life. I’m amazed, and embarrassed, that I’ve had to learn such an obvious lesson. Yes, adulthood is tiring, children will suck you dry, and it’s easy to stay inside. But I remember now: though I packed The Grapes of Wrath on that long-ago, six-week drive, I read almost none of it. And I didn’t miss it at all. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Essays

The Age of Fiction: How Donald Trump Rewrote My Life

1. The Bolsheviks shot 'em, chopped 'em up, threw 'em in a hole, poured acid on 'em. This was my high-school History teacher's recounting of the Romanov murders. He sat at the back of the classroom grading while we watched a video, the people of the early 20th century jerking along soundlessly in black and white. Then the finish: the forest of today, grown up where the scattered royal bodies had recently been found and DNA-tested, proving the story was all real. In spite of two of the skeletons being missing, this was passed off as a happy ending. Grigori Rasputin came up too, of course, and took over. They couldn't kill him. Poisoned him. Shot him. Clubbed him. Tied him up and threw him in the water. Intrigued by the whiff of the dark, I wrote a long, galloping essay about him. I stared at his stark photographs in books, sucking up descriptions. He smelled like a goat, and always had food in his beard, yet was extremely attractive to women. He looked that way. Like someone who stank and didn't care, whose lack of caring was behind his ability to get any woman naked in a hurry. Under his caveman brow, his eyes were pale and startling. "A flaming glow," as Boney M. put it in the song about him and the Russian queen. My parents had the album. I could see how the eyes got to that queen (another Alix, as I noted with a thrill). I'm sure I included them in the essay. I got a B, and was irritated. I was usually an A student, a prim compiler of what teachers wanted to hear. "Great! A little inconclusive," the teacher wrote in red. There was something I clearly hadn't gotten at. Something I didn't see, or didn't yet know how to write about. And didn't know was coming. 2. This year, I didn't see Donald Trump's election win coming either. At home in British Columbia, watching poll results on my phone half the night, I drifted into bleary memories of high school, of sadistic boys, of History class. Rasputin floated up again when I skimmed an article about Trump seeking to bro down with Vladimir Putin. Trump is no Mad Monk, but there are other similarities. Like Rasputin, he projects himself as a "man of the people" with heroic powers, including the ability to transform a sick country into a healthy one. Like Trump, Rasputin was proud of his genitals, and enjoyed grabbing and kissing and firing others once he got some governmental clout. And both he and Trump show themselves as ringmasters of narrative: they tell their own heroic stories, and reroute everyone else's. That's especially true of women's stories. Aside from persuading the queen that he was cousin to Jesus Christ and knew everything she was thinking, Rasputin told "my little ladies" that sleeping with him wasn't the sin they had been brought up to believe, but conversely, a sin-removing act. Trump is similarly possessive about "my women," but is a less subtle deflector. We've all heard his "Pussygate" responses: the accusers are wrong, the assaults never happened, they're liars. This technique spreads easily. When his campaign manager was accused of aggressively grabbing a female reporter by the arm, Trump said, "Perhaps she made the story up. I think that's what happened." It goes beyond gaslighting; it's a rewrite, or a writing-over. Like many people who've been sexually abused, I've gone over and over my past in my mind, keeping it mainly to myself. And like them, I've felt chewed up and spat out by this presidential victory and what it's peeled away from the world. A lot of women I know have said the election result feels personal, and it has surely reanimated old occurrences for us, things we thought were dead. Inconclusive things. Things with zombie afterlives that are difficult to tell. Here's one of them. 3. All the things you don't remember line themselves up first. After watching so much political posturing, I now feel the need to note that, to defend my honesty upfront. I don't remember leaving the party at the house near the river in Oxford, where all my A's had taken me. I was studying English Literature there at the end of the 1990s. I don't remember getting back to my college closer to town, going up the stairs to my room, putting the key in the lock, turning on the lamp inside. He must have been with me all the way. I feel the need to list details, too. There were three flights of stairs. He was in a tux, I was in a long gown. Oxford parties often required oddly formal dress, and we'd sit around on the floor drinking like that, as though we were minor Russian royals from some other time. I look for connections, trying to give this story a shape. I don't remember what we talked about, walking over the cobbled street in the cool winter night. We must have talked. I do remember sitting on my small couch chatting about families. I liked talking about mine then, with anyone who would listen. And complaining about things wrong with England: the eyedropper pressure of the showers, the clerks' pain upon eye contact at the grocery store. I was very obviously homesick. I've wondered since if that marked me. He wasn't Russian or American. He was English. I can't remember his eye colour. He had glasses. My room looked out onto the shoulder of the chapel next to the quad. It was late, it was dark, as we sat by the windows. I do remember being cheerfully drunk, amused. I don't remember us getting into my narrow bed. I don't remember how we started kissing. I do remember stopping and telling him, "I don't want to have sex with you." His odd compliments: You're so feminine. You're so female. How I ended up out of my rustling pewter ballgown: No. His weight: Yes. The pain when he pushed into me: Yes. I said nothing else, except asking him to finish, so it would stop. He did, and fell heavily asleep with his arm over me, blurting out Bloody fucking in his dreams, twice. I had wavery, still-drunk thoughts about pregnancy and disease. These seemed to be far away but coming, trains that had left their stations. I held very still. I remember him leaving in the earliest morning with a kiss and his number, and me going along with it, already deciding this script would make things better, though I felt like a wasteland. Chopped up and thrown in a hole and covered in acid, yes. Him calling later to say, "I owe you an apology. I'm sorry I raped you." His voice was slightly abashed in that English way, permanently level. And me trying to figure out what to reply. No words came to mind. I still hadn't slept. I was sitting at my desk, trying to work, with the heavy curtains closed against the white sky. I'd taken a shower, avoiding thinking about what I was washing away. I'd stripped the navy sheets from the bed and taken them straight downstairs to the laundry. He stayed on the phone a while, mentioned his girlfriend, how he had one, yeah, and he was sorry about that too. I'm not sure which seemed worse to me at that moment. Then all I did was think, for weeks. All the old donkeys trotted out in the service of rape explanations. Your fault, your drunkenness, your strapless dress, your taking him to your room, your kissing him back, men can't help themselves, men can't stop themselves, nobody knocked you unconscious, it wasn't your first time, you asked him to finish, you must have wanted him. And others, less clear. Your unanchored need. You wanted to talk with him, you wanted to meet someone, the cute story, the happy end. Isn't that why you went to parties? Via email, I blurted out a summarized version to a guy I knew, as if a male witness would cement it. His reaction: Are you sure? Rape-rape? I had nothing to say to that either. I think I wrote the rapist a blistering email at some point. But I'm not sure I sent it. My Oxford email address disappeared years ago, so I can't check. Are you sure? That question never dies. I tried to go on working, too, making a thesis out of piles of 19th-century research. In the Bodleian Library -- everyone called it the Bod, which now made me queasy -- I felt swallowed up. Waiting for my books to be delivered to my desk, I looked up at the faces of ancient greats painted high on the walls. Ovid was one. I remembered first reading his Metamorphoses as an undergrad back home in Canada. The people changed into rocks and trees and animals still felt human, still had human emotion, but nowhere to put it now. The back of my brain wondered: How was I changed? It was the same stew of disbelief and fascination I knew from reading fairy tales all my life, Russian or German or Irish, the ones that kept turning up in my research now. Girl into bird, sister into deer, queen into witch. How did it happen? What happened to her after that? 4. The morning after Trump's victory, I posted a broken heart on my Facebook feed. I usually hate emojis, but I was out of words, tired and blasted, as if it were again the morning after in Oxford. Another memory circled: the day, weeks later, when I was brusquely declared clear of pregnancy and sickness by the clinic, and went back to work in the library with a goodie bag of condoms they'd handed me. It felt like an ending, though it wasn't, there isn't one. Looking at that Facebook heart, I wanted to write my story, all of it, in point form or tweets or emojis, sure. Something shapeless. Trump's campaign brought the prevalence of sexual assault into the open, and then brushed it away. It felt like a nation turning its eyes on victims and asking what my male friend asked me: Are you sure? You're not sure. Anyway, it doesn't matter. There are other issues. Turn the page, tear it out, write it better. He tells it like it is. The subtext of that favorite comment of Trump supporters is this: That isn't the story. He's telling the story. Their impatience for the victory, the desired finish, is palpable. Trump has always wanted to keep hold of the narrative, saying, for instance, that he would be the one to "reveal all" about his accusers after the election. Rasputin did the same, teasing his followers along with opaque predictions about the future. After a financial fall in 1997, Trump declared, "Anyone who thinks my story is anywhere near over is sadly mistaken," like Rasputin undying, staggering up from poison and bullets, controlling the tale until the absolute end. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Essays

What We Talk About When We Talk About Boycotts

With the news of Simon & Schuster's conservative Threshold imprint acquiring -- via $250,000 advance -- a memoir by "that person" (whom I'm declining to name, or even describe, because why give him more free publicity?), the outcry was swift, accusing Simon & Schuster of cynically capitalizing on and rewarding hate speech and normalizing white supremacy. I don't disagree with those sentiments, but I didn't jump into the fray because, quite honestly, I didn't know how I felt. There are a lot of issues at play: hate, misogyny, capitalism (i.e., publishing as a business), coexisting with my reality as a writer fortunate enough to have a supportive publisher. And that publisher is Simon & Schuster. I had an 800-page manuscript that I had taken 10 years to finish; literary fiction is never a clear moneymaker, long novels are problematic from, if anything, a production point of view (all that paper, all that ink, the increased shipping costs), and yet my editor took me on for a nice five, not six-figure, advance. Even better, she had also just taken on a prizewinning Korean American author whom I admired, whose first book had also come out with an independent press. My editing process at Beacon Press was fairly straightforward because the novel was ready to go. With the current novel, there are structural issues, and a team of editors have rolled up their sleeves, put the tome on a metaphorical lift, and gotten just as sweaty and dirty tinkering with its guts as I have. I'm relieved that, even as the years slide by, they talk only about getting the book right, rather than pushing out "product." In short, I'm living a dream I'd had as a child banging out stories on my hand-me-down typewriter and selling them -- to my parents. Like many, I was horrified that a person who Twitter had deemed so odious/dangerous it banned him from the platform was being given another platform, a paid one, in short order. Protest is often the only way to get a company's attention. And it can have results. But it's not always the results that were intended, or wanted. For instance, after the outcry over the "sadistic contents" of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho, three months before the book's publication, it was dropped by the publishing house....Simon & Schuster. CEO Richard Snyder explained, "It was an error of judgment to put our name on a book of such questionable taste." But the book was just as quickly picked up by esteemed editor Sonny Mehta and published by Random House's prestigious Vintage imprint. Irrespective of the nature and quality of these two books, it's instructive to examine these unintended consequences. Books are indeed published by corporations, which need to sell to stay in business. But as much was we like to treat books as "widgets," they aren't interchangeable goods or services. Each one is written by an author or co-author. In an overcrowded publishing market, bad attention can be just as valuable, perhaps more so, as good attention. The brouhaha over American Psycho certainly branded it into America's cultural consciousness; the book is still robustly with us, it recently turned 25 and just appeared on Broadway as a musical (!), i.e., trying to kill it with bad publicity may have done exactly the opposite. The second thing to consider is unintended collateral damage. Many people objected to the content of Fifty Shades of Grey, but it not only helped keep Random House (now Penguin Random House) in the black, it brought in so much revenue that every employee, from “top editors to warehouse workers,” received a $5,000 bonus. So what's the opposite of a rising tide? When I heard the calls to boycott Simon & Schuster, that reviewers were going to refuse to review, authors were vowing not to blurb S&S authors' books, a bookstore tweeted that it wasn't even going to stock any S&S books, I felt a bit of a chill. I had no urge to write my editors, because they had zero to do with the decision to acquire that book. Publishing firms are "houses" with huge family trees, divided into specialized groups called imprints. While imprints are not wholly autonomous, they each have their own eco-systems. I write literary fiction and publish with the Simon & Schuster imprint. Simon & Schuster also has several other general interest imprints, specialized imprints, and several children's book imprints, as well as Howard Books, which publishes for the Christian marketplace. Should its Folger Shakespeare Library imprint be penalized for an acquisition by Threshold Editions, a conservative writers' imprint (that has also published Donald Trump and bona fide war criminal Dick Cheney -- with no outcry)? The calls to boycott are continuing after Simon & Schuster (the company) has stated it intends to go ahead and publish the book in question.  So what, then, is the endgame? Professor Matthew Garcia, who wrote From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement and who has studied boycotts for years told me that "The boycott of S&S will be tricky. It requires a campaign and a set of goals. First, is there an organization willing to put the time in to organize and pursue the campaign the way the United Farm Workers did?" Good question. I personally feel that protecting healthcare, especially Medicaid and Medicare, is one of the most important things we need to do right now. "Second, that organization needs to do what UFW did with grapes -- identify what percentage of the product's delivery to market they need to effect in order to have S&S respond," Garcia said. "In the UFW case, they did not hit all sellers of grapes equally.  They targeted the biggest sellers, and set as their goal to reduce sales by 10 percent in 10 of the top markets.  They did that by knowing what amount would hurt their bottom line, and produce the biggest seller's capitulation.  I imagine the organization that pursues a boycott of S&S would have to identify the same profit margins for the company and what it would take to tip them in order to identify effective goals." Books, though, aren't an undifferentiated product like grapes. There's a lot of untethered anger that's much more than about one guy, one book deal, one company. People are mad as hell (rightly so) about the rise of the so-called "alt-right" (a.k.a. white supremacists). But how do we try to harness this anger productively? Successfully boycotting S&S is not going achieve what many of us really want -- which is to boycott 2016. But if we're going to try to get Simon & Schuster (and CBS, its parent company) to listen, what books should boycotters target to get to the United Farmworkers' 10 percent threshold? Probably the big ones like...the Bruce Springsteen memoir. Anthony Doerr's Pulitzer-winning novel,  All the Light We Cannot See.  Maybe Shonda Rhimes's bestselling memoir, Stephen King's latest? How about Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything -- cited as one of the "Seven Books You Need to Understand (and Fight) the Age of Trump"? Even if such a boycott was successful in harming the bottom line of a publisher, how do we know in a capitalist society that the publisher wouldn't then make up the difference by publishing even worse things or being less inclined to take risks? S&S started Salaam Reads, a imprint for Muslim-themed children's books. Why not starve "that person's book" financially and publicity-wise, and instead buy two books from Salaam Reads? Bookstore owners and buyers, who are the most direct link in all of this, are starting to formulate statements and implementing plans. Kathy Crowley, co-owner of Belmont Books, a Boston-area store set to open this spring, is a writer herself, and she told me that she and her husband have decided "Belmont Books won't sell this book." She adds, "Though I do want S&S to feel the heat for this decision, boycotting all S&S authors seems neither fair nor likely to be effective. More likely, the boycott generates lots of publicity for the book, raises the hackles of the anti-PC, pro-['that person'], pro-Trump crowd, and, in the end, rewards S&S and ['that person']." On the other coast, Christin Evans, owner of The Booksmith, a 40-year-old institution, which is, she said "specifically located in the historic Haight Ashbury" section of San Francisco will skip over "that person's" book (and anything from the Threshold Editions imprint), cut the number of S&S books, and, of the remainder, donate any profits from S&S books to the ACLU "for the foreseeable future." The extremity of what's coming requires we actually lay out on the table what we stand for. If we stand for a free exchange of ideas, we have to support publishing. Can we instead reject this person's ideas and collectively stop giving him a platform? If publishing is a business, can we vote with our dollars and our attention (cultural capital)? Store owners can decide whether to stock this title or not, reviewers can review or not. But a blanket boycott of any publisher's books makes no sense. It's burning down the house because you saw a spider.
Essays, Screening Room

Gilmore Girls: The End of Good Faith

1. American Graffiti Abroad My wife and I started watching Gilmore Girls in Helsinki when our first daughter was a toddler. My wife is Finnish, and the show has been with us through the childhoods of all four of our kids. For better or worse, American high school is now an international experience, shared around the world. My three daughters and one son are all in Finnish grade school or preschool, but many of the rituals of teen America have already entered their imagination, just as they entered mine when I was a boy in Seattle and D.C.  Helsinki mean girls operate differently from Hollywood’s Mean Girls, yet the movie helps frame the concept of teen cruelty here, just as Heathers and The Virgin Suicides help frame international views of why teens kill themselves. My own kids, from their distant Nordic nook, love Ferris Bueller and Willow Rosenberg, and they’re primed for American-flavored teen adventures they might never have. Out of all the teenagers Hollywood has launched overseas, Rory Gilmore -- the main character of Gilmore Girls -- is the one I like best, at least in her high school years. It’s not just that she’s smart and fiercely dedicated to literature and learning. The teenage Rory has her weak points: her mistreatment of Dean, her self-absorption, her cluelessness about some of her impulses. In general, though, she maintains a core of common decency and fair play while facing off against a series of narcissistic little tyrants. The show’s central joke is the comedy of the bookish and reasonable Rory holding her own against people who bully everyone around them. 2. The Dorothy Parker Reader Across the Internet you can find lists of all the books Rory read or talked about over the series’ seven seasons, which originally ran between 2000 and 2006. The lists conjure up not so much the millennial preferences of Rory’s generation as the Baby Boomer preferences of the series’ talented creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino. The novels are almost all safe, traditional choices, from Madame Bovary and Moby Dick to The Metamorphosis and Ulysses. If Rory’s literary leanings tend to be old-fashioned, they reflect a larger retrograde bent in the series. As Rahawa Haile has deftly documented, the show reserves almost all its speaking roles for white actors, and compounds the problem by casting actors of color mainly as silent tokens. The town of Stars Hollow has less cultural variety than the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, and Rory’s classics-oriented reading choices can’t even make room for, say, The Tale of Genji or The Blind Owl. While Finland doesn’t have quite the same culture wars as the U.S., it faces similar problems with the rise of rightwing hate groups, and the overwhelming whiteness of Stars Hollow -- like the whiteness of the casts in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson’s Creek -- now looks more obtuse and offensive with each passing year. When I watch Gilmore Girls these days, Rory’s fixation on famous old novels by famous old authors feels less quaint and more ominous -- more like a reinforcement of Europe’s new line of bigoted and belligerent reactionary nationalists. Still, I’m wary of generalizing about the ways Europeans absorb U.S. films and TV shows, because America’s influence cuts in so many different and contradictory directions here. From a Nordic perspective, for instance, it’s obvious that Rory would join most Finns in opposing the EU’s current assortment of jingoist demagogues, and would fight back against the attempts of those demagogues to use her favorite authors for their narrow political purposes. Also, Gilmore Girls is popular in Finland in part because this is a nation of readers, and I know two young Helsinki journalists who -- despite their anger at America for our military and economic activities -- found Rory’s love for books an inspiration when they were growing up. After all, how many other TV teenagers can convince you they’ve not only read Anna Karenina and Swann’s Way but have made their reading a part of their decisions and their personality? Rory’s books aren’t just fashion accessories, as they are with most TV characters. Her relationship with Jess turns on him filching her copy of Howl and then proving he can catch the Charles Dickens reference she makes (“Dodger”). At the same time, we see some of the limits of her connection with Dean when she tries to teach him how to read Leo Tolstoy. More broadly, her devotion to the writing of Dorothy Parker sharpens Rory’s natural ear for snappy dialogue -- and this isn’t simply an aesthetic preference but the key to her entire approach to life. She values good talk because she values the ability to connect with other people and to have them connect with her. The contrast between Rory’s sleepy-eyed manner and her Parker-like flair for keeping a conversation in play is a major part of the show’s appeal. Her closest friendships -- with Lorelai, Lane and Paris -- are built on quick, casual banter. The jokes aren’t laboriously set up for a punchline in the old sitcom style. They dart along, one after another, easy and light and always moving on. Trying a video game with Lane, Rory says: “So this is what teenage boys are doing instead of watching television? Seems like a lateral move.” When Rory reacts to a comment from Lane by saying, “Sarcasm does not become you,” Lane answers, “No, but it does sustain me,” and keeps talking. In season three, Lorelai tries to suss out the degree of Rory’s interest in Jess: “Okay, now let’s say he’s in the house and there’s a fire, and you can save either him or your shoes -- which is it?” Rory hedges, saying: “That depends. Did he start the fire?” Rory and Lorelai can’t stand together at a checkout line without slipping into their usual patter: Lorelai:  I hate crossword puzzles. They make me feel stupid. Rory: Then don’t do them. Lorelai:  But if you don’t do them, you’re not only stupid—you’re also a coward. Rory:  Or you’ve got better things to do with your time. Lorelai:  You think people buy that? Rory:  The people who line up on a daily basis and ask you if you do crossword puzzles and then when you say no, challenge you as to why? Yes, I think they will buy it. Lorelai and Rory are, famously, best friends as well as mother and daughter. Their friendship has its problems, but at its heart is the pleasure of their conversations. They’re bound to each other by language, their feel for the rhythms of each other’s phrases. Gilmore Girls belongs to the tradition of the great screwball comedies, films like Bringing Up Baby and Talk of the Town: the skill of the writing is largely in the lightness of the touch. 3. Early Rory Lauren Graham plays Rory’s mother to perfection: she makes Lorelai wickedly charismatic. Driven and resourceful and a bit devilish, Lorelai typically sports a big knowing grin that’s up for all kinds of mischief. She takes command of the series 30 seconds into the first episode, when she looks at diner owner Luke Danes with the profound desire of someone who needs her next cup of coffee and will stop at nothing to get it. She’s a treat, and she brings a delirious energy both to her work as an innkeeper and to her love for Rory. Yet she’s also a bit of a monster. She insists that Rory tell her everything, and places practical and emotional demands on her daughter that would break many children. Pregnant at 16, Lorelai ran away from her rich parents and rich boyfriend to raise Rory on her own. Lorelai envisions Rory’s future as a rebuke to the privileged Gilmore background -- though another of the show’s nice comic touches is its recognition of how much this background defines Lorelai and Rory, and how heavily they still rely on it. Lorelai has encouraged Rory’s childhood dream of going to Harvard, and together they’ve built Rory’s life around reaching that dream. It’s a potentially ugly situation for Rory, especially since Lorelai has a habit of bending others to her will. As Rory, Alexis Bledel lacks Lauren Graham’s I-can-do-anything-I-want-with-a-line acting chops, but her unnervingly serene demeanor brings something original to the mix. She’s quietly compelling when she spars with her mother, and usually acts like the adult in the relationship. Lorelai, with her playful eat-the-world smile, is like an insanely cheerful cartoon character turning the barrels of a Gatling gun, shooting out swirls of rapid-fire sentences and mowing down anyone in her path. Rory is less overwhelming, but she knows how to put forward her opinions. In her low-key fashion, she refuses to let her voice get lost in the onslaught of Lorelai’s presence. She’s much tougher than people assume, and this makes listening to her a constant pleasure. Rory prefers to work things out, to understand the other person’s position and find a shared solution. Lorelai’s nature is simply to push and push until she gets what she wants, even if it often turns out she doesn’t want what she gets. During the first three seasons of the show, when Rory is a student at the pricey private school Chilton, Lorelai and she bring out the best in each other. If Lorelai is a great mother -- one of the most complex and intriguing parents on television -- she owes part of her success to Rory’s strength of character. Not every child would’ve prospered under the Lorelai Gilmore regime.  4. Occupying Paris In high school, as Rory goes from bewildered outsider to top student, we see her at her best. Standing up to her mother has taught her how to stand up to the other megalomaniacs she meets: most notably, the immortal Paris Geller. My kids are wild about Paris, and they’ve got a point. Paris is so mercurial—and Liza Weil inhabits the role with such virtuosity—that the character delivers comic bliss. Paris alternates between self-aggrandizement and self-hatred, between feeling superior to everyone and feeling crushed by her own inadequacy. She has a dazzlingly unhinged compulsion to scold people, and to control their every thought and deed. As editor of the Chilton newspaper, Paris tries to sabotage Rory by giving her a lame assignment, a piece on repaving the school parking lot. Rory buckles down and does a good job on the article, and then confronts Paris directly. With calm force she explains that nothing Paris does will make her quit the paper. It’s the turning point in their relationship. Able to strike sensible compromises and work well in hostile circumstances, Rory also shows she can fight back when Paris is malicious or unreasonable. Bit by bit, Paris is impressed, and eventually becomes one of Rory’s best friends. Rory’s success with Paris mirrors her success with the other little dictators in the series, like her charming but domineering grandparents Emily and Richard, and the pompous Stars Hollow autocrat Taylor Doose. (It’s easy for Europeans to imagine that if Taylor were French he’d be a Marine Le Pen supporter, and if he were Danish he’d vote DPP.) In situation after situation, Rory demonstrates the strength behind her decency, the ability to defend herself and assert her viewpoint while winning over those who at first want to control or hurt her. She lives out a fantasy of good faith—of a world where understanding beats aggression, and where intelligence and compassion defeat unfairness and cruelty.  5. The Corleone Connection Gilmore Girls is full of references to The Godfather, and Lorelai and Rory quote from the film repeatedly. The first three seasons of the show set up the possibilities for Rory’s future so we can watch her, in seasons four through six, grow increasingly unbalanced and misguided. She’s the Stars Hollow version of Michael Corleone: she changes from a fresh and appealing college student to someone who has lost her way, becoming a dark and negative image of her former self. In season five she drops out of Yale, cuts off contact with Lorelai, and devotes her time to Emily’s social circles and a relationship with the rich and creepy Logan. The change is nightmarish to watch, because we can see our own bad decisions in her, and our own fears about what we might become. Even after she returns to Yale, she keeps dating Logan, and it’s clear she still hasn’t fully come out of the crisis that started when Logan’s father told her she doesn’t have what it takes to be a journalist. Because of a contract dispute, Sherman-Palladino left the series before its seventh and final season, and she was never able to finish Rory’s story. Now, thanks to the show’s popularity on Netflix, Sherman-Palladino has had the chance to make Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, a revival in four 90-minute parts. She’s gone back to her original conception, and to her old plans for Rory. The revival is ambitious, and compared to the series, it places the emphasis much more on drama than on comedy. The Rory we now find, 10 years after we last saw her, is slowly disintegrating, and we follow her as she falls apart. Her journalism career has stalled, and she seems to have lost the ability to finish an article or even pitch an idea. Some reviewers have blasted Rory for her lack of professionalism, but we know from her years on the Yale Daily News that the mistakes she’s making aren’t due to ignorance or stupidity. She’s sabotaging herself, and part of her knows it while part of her denies it. At the same time, she’s carrying on a degrading affair with Logan, who’s engaged to someone else. The revival takes pains to show that Rory’s view of Logan is a fantasy, a damaging illusion. The long party sequence with Logan and his friends is a dream: at the start, a sign magically changes from the word “Flowers” to the word “Tonight,” and the sequence closes with Rory caught in a burlesque of Dorothy’s farewells in The Wizard of Oz. This is the Logan she wants to believe in, a Gatsby/Kennedy hybrid who would care enough to give her a final night of Jazz Age entertainment. The real Logan is much colder: he lets Rory break things off with him over the phone and simply goes on with his life. Always polite, always superficially concerned, he can’t be bothered to make much of an effort with her. The revival’s last four words, which Sherman-Palladino always planned to use for the final scene of the series, turn out to be chilling. Rory says she’s pregnant, and since the baby is probably Logan’s, the effect is grim. Rory’s transformation is complete. The girl who planned to leave Stars Hollow and become an overseas correspondent is gone, replaced by this eerie ghost-Rory who might never find her way forward again. The ending isn’t hopeless. Rory has started writing a book about her relationship with her mother, Chilton has proposed a job for her as a teacher, and her connection with Lorelai is strong. You can picture a happy future for Rory, if you want. Still, the overall mood of the revival is bleak, and the darkness that always hovered behind the comedy of Gilmore Girls has now swallowed everything else. This makes the revival very much a show for our time. We’ve all sensed it, of course, these past few years: the feeling of disaster in the air, of violence and anger and a rampant, all-devouring bad faith. This isn’t an era when people like Rory flourish. Instead, they tend to fall into self-doubt and self-destruction, and to become as narcissistic and manipulative as the culture around them. Rory has always carried her share of flaws. We all do. If we don’t like what we see in her these days, it’s because Sherman-Palladino has been pitiless about showing what can happen to us when we go bad. The Gilmore Girls revival is an odd, somber way to end a series that built its reputation on quick-witted comic brio. Sherman-Palladino has shifted us from the realm of Dorothy Parker to the scarier and more disorienting realm of Jean Rhys -- and the revival makes Rory’s teen years now look heartbreaking in their wasted promise.
Essays

Podcasts and Literary Criticism

If listening to your favorite podcast is like meeting your best friends at the bar, then reading a 500-word book review is like sharing an elevator with a casual acquaintance. There’s a chance both could be great experience, but it’s more likely the elevator ride will blend in with the hundreds of other forgettable interactions you have every day. There was a time when the print book review was the definitive source on how to think and talk about new books. Even five years ago, the idea of an author going on a podcast to promote his or her book seemed laughable; most people didn’t even know what a podcast was, let alone how to download one. In some ways, print is still the dominant form, and every writer still dreams of getting that great New York Times review. But with new literary podcasts appearing every week, the world of book discussion has been fractured and reshaped. The podcast hasn’t killed the book review, but as traditional book reviews have become less dominant, podcasts have filled that void and changed the form. In a recent episode of "Book Fight," the podcast I co-host with Mike Ingram, our guest Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, a poet and music critic, argued that the era of the traditional music review is dying. You don’t need to read Spin or Pitchfork to find out how many stars they gave an album, because you can stream it yourself and then go to social media to read hundreds of reactions from your friends within an hour. There was a time when the point of most reviews was expressly to guide you in making one decision: do I buy this thing or not? Now, thanks to digital media, the engagement with the material is totally different, though still rooted in the same desire: to hear some music you’re going to love, and connect with other people who love it too. Though the music and book industries aren’t quite analogous, there has been a similar shift in the way people want to talk about books. John King, host of "The Drunken Odyssey with John King," describes podcasting as, “An elaborate extension of social media.” A good book podcast can graft the spontaneity, intimacy, and energy of talking with your friends onto the conventions of a book review. Though there is still an invaluable place for detailed criticism from writers like Zadie Smith and Daniel Mendelsohn, many book lovers are seeking out venues that seem less intimidating. It can be daunting for someone who feels like a literary outsider to pick up a 10,000-word piece on three translated works in The New York Review of Books, but not to download a couple episodes of a show you can listen to while you’re cleaning your apartment. Book reviews have traditionally been written in an ostensibly objective voice, while podcasts provide a more personalized, idiosyncratic response to a given book. Listeners are less interested in where the book should be placed in the canon than they are in how the hosts of their favorite show were affected by it, and why. When asked how podcasting has changed her approach to criticism, Rebecca Schinsky, co-host of "Book Riot" and "All the Books," says, “I care much less about criticism, about pretending that objective evaluation of a piece of literature is even possible, or about pronouncing whether a book ‘should’ be read or not.” Tod Goldberg, co-host of "Literary Disco," echoes her view: “Our listeners come to our show not just to hear us review a book, but to talk about our lives, hear our stories, learn how literature plays a role in our real lives." You might argue that this emphasis on the hosts’ personal reactions is problematic, a sign of the self-obsessed times in which all opinions are treated as equal. There are, you might say, objective standards that make some books definitively better than other books, and that the increasing interest in podcasts is more proof of the decline of rigorous criticism in an era of moral relativism. While I concede both the value of the canon and the need for some baseline standards in evaluating books, I would argue that the shift toward more personal criticism is actually the opening to a more inclusive culture of book criticism. To record a podcast, you need a computer, a decent microphone, and a couple hundred dollars for web hosting; not everyone has these tools at their disposal, but it’s an increasingly accessible medium that allows for a more diverse range of opinions than you might find on the handful of influential book review sites. When you listen to a podcast, you’re not just getting a plot summary and a star rating for a book; you’re being invited to share in the deeply personal response that a real person, whom you’ve come to know and think of as a friend. There’s a greater empathy for the host, but also a greater burden on the host to articulate her thoughts on the book effectively. Every episode, the hosts are forced to consistently define and redefine their personal aesthetic, defending their reaction to a book while trying to articulate why they love or hate a particular thing, particularly when listeners might have expected them to have the opposite reaction. This discussion can be rigorous and difficult, and over time can lead to the host’s views on literature evolving significantly. It can also compel listeners to pick up a book they never would have tried otherwise. Sitting across the table from a friend whose opinion I respect, I’m forced to explain every week why I feel the way I do about the most recent thing we’ve read. In doing so, I acknowledge that I’m bringing a different set of experiences, expectations, biases, and values to the table, and hold no illusions of speaking on behalf of Literature as a whole. Schinsky adds, “We're not thinking about reviewing in the traditional sense. Our goal is to talk about what worked for us about a book and help listeners determine if it's then a book they want to try.” Many of the most passionate arguments I’ve had about books have occurred in bars with my friends, where we were willing to be uncensored, strident, and occasionally irrational. Sometimes you want to defend a book you don’t really like just to get under a friend’s skin. Sometimes your friends will roast you for loving a book they can’t stand. It’s liberating to be with a group of people you trust, knowing you can argue that the canonical novel everyone loves is terrible. Or that the small press chapbook you’ve just finished is one of the most important things you’ve ever read. And beyond all else: it’s fun. It’s a reminder for those of us in academia that you can talk about books without losing your sense of humor. At their best, podcasts replicate this particular experience for readers. There are now dozens of thriving literary podcasts (some profiled here and here), and though there is surely some overlap in audiences, each fills its own comfortable niche, the place where the listener has found some hosts they respect and like spending time with. As with all subcultures, book lovers are interested in the work itself, but they’re also interested in joining a community. Longtime fans form intimate relationships with the hosts of the show and their fellow fans. "Books on the Nightstand," one of the pioneers in the literary podcast genre, built a thriving community of nearly 6,000 fans on Goodreads, and many are still actively posting even though hosts Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness ended the show in July. These are people scattered across the world, reaching out to find others who also love books and enjoyed spending time once a week with Ann and Michael. What they had in common was a desire to connect, not just with the literature but the people behind it. Though each listener has her own favorite episodes of a given podcast, the real depth of experience comes from living with the show over a long period of time, developing relationships with the host(s), and feeling included in the dialogue. It’s like being part of a book club without the social pressure or the bad wine. You can show up whenever you have time, do the reading or not, and leave when you’re ready. You can form a bond with the voices in your head. Traditional reviews are limited in their ability to meet these needs from a reader. Brad Listi, host of "Otherppl," says he wants to avoid a “high-minded academic back and forth [because] that kind of talk feels limiting to me; it excludes too many listeners.” Though you can read your favorite critic’s work over the years, learning from them and seeing their tastes evolve (or calcify), you never really feel like you know them. There is a distancing effect created by the medium itself. You are there as a student, not as a guest in the author’s living room. This is a good and valuable thing, but it’s not the same thing as listening to two people you like discussing books every Monday on your drive to work. A quick story: two nights after the recent election, while many of us were still reeling from the results, I went to a reading in Philadelphia. The atmosphere in the room was weird, unsettled, and anxious. I wasn’t sure if anyone would even show up, but it turned out to be a standing-room-only crowd. I got the sense that everyone was tired of sitting alone in their homes and fearing the worst. People cried while Paul Lisicky read about watching the inauguration of Barack Obama with his dying friend. People cried during every reading. Ingram, my "Book Fight" co-host, opened the night with a short speech about the value of community in a time of great anxiety. He said literature can’t save people’s lives, but it can help a little. It can be a small, good thing to use books to build community and make people feel loved, supported, and welcomed. Though he didn’t mean it in exactly this way, I think it was also a good summation of what makes podcasts great: they draw people in based on the common ground of literature, and then use it to create connections where there were none before. Goldberg says that when he and his co-hosts are recording "Literary Disco," “we know that beyond the quality of the book, we are sharing with our audience something more profound: here is what great literature can do, here’s the empathetic bridge literature lets you cross, here’s us, experiencing it, live.” As our lives become more fragmented and diluted across various online streams, there’s something rare and valuable about knowing you can have this resource to build meaningful bonds with thousands of strangers. Image Credit: Pixels.
Essays

Tom Robbins Was My Spiritual Advisor

1. Everybody wants to know why I moved back. I can’t say I moved from New York City without people thinking I failed or I am moving to the Pacific Northwest without people wondering what I left behind. I am from here, but I am moving back as a much different person than the first time I moved to Seattle as a wide-eyed 18-year-old. The truth is I lost my brother two months after I landed in New York. Overdose. The kind of death that means he’ll never be remembered as a good father or the brother who was proud of me. The truth is that the three years I lived in New York were the worst three of my life so far. The truth is that my experience of New York is different from my friends’ or my roommates’ or my lovers’. Like cosmically bad. Like comedy on top of tragedy, bed bugs on top of losing my only brother to the addictions he struggled with most of his life. Sometime after his death, long before I landed a dream publishing job and was vacillating between staying and leaving, I became obsessed with the idea of “grit.” It was a buzzword in education, and the researcher who popularized the term, Angela Duckworth, began appearing on NPR’s homepage. NPR defined grit as the “ability to persevere when times get tough, or to delay gratification in pursuit of a goal.” The times were tough; the goal was to be a writer. Grit, I convinced myself, was all I needed to survive New York, survive my brother’s death, and survive my life. Six months after I lost my brother, I found out my only living grandparent was dying of cancer. The thing I realized then was that life is mostly shitty, but there are pockets of happiness. When I found myself in one, I savored it; I felt grateful for it. Those pockets in New York were small: listening to a summer concert in Prospect Park with my friend, stepping outside of the bar during a date and finding someone had set up a giant telescope fixed on a nearly full moon, reading one of my pieces in a bar in the West Village and receiving roaring applause. New York is a hard city to live in. It’s a hard city to shop for groceries and commute to work. It’s a hard place when your family is grieving across the country and a hard place to feel alone. But I could do it, I told myself time and again, as long as I had grit. 2. Close to my three-year anniversary in the city, after another relationship had petered out and I was again questioning why my life had become about getting by, I took a long, hard look at how far grit had gotten me: I had a job that excited me, a few close friends but no real community, and a book on the way from an indie publisher out West. Any excess cash of mine was spent on pricey plane tickets to travel back and visit friends and family whenever possible. No romantic relationships lasted because I always intended to return to the West Coast. And I was sad. Not all the time, but enough to make me question how much value there was in having grit if it came at the expense of my well being. What waited for me at the end of sticking it out? What if being happy meant more to me than proving to others I was tough? In my post-breakup floundering, I did what many people do: look for quick and unrealistic solutions. There was an opening for a publicity position at a university press in Missouri. I had zero ties to the state, but for a week I entertained the idea that all my problems would be solved if I left New York and remade my life in the heartland. I quickly dropped that silly fantasy, but the idea of leaving persisted. I wanted guidance, so I sought out an unusual source: author Tom Robbins. This may seem like an out-of-left-field choice in spiritual adviser, but Tom Robbins is just that. His novel Another Roadside Attraction played a key role in me losing my religion -- long before I ever lost my brother. I read the book when I lived in Portland, during a time I felt myself fracturing from the Christian church over the patriarchy I felt was embedded within it. I had also been following a series on NPR that profiled atheists. This was a perfect storm of influences, and Another Roadside Attraction became the eye of it. The book features a madcap plot about exposing the Catholic Church’s cover up of the truth about the resurrection, namely that it never happened. The book climaxes with the main characters attempting to steal the corpse of Jesus Christ from the Vatican -- an over-the-top and ludicrous plot turn that nonetheless caused me to look around at the religion I had been practicing for 10 years and recognize that Christianity itself is ludicrous. Robbins is an icon of mine: a writer who made it outside of NYC and on his own, very weird, terms. He lives in the Pacific Northwest, the idyllic life in a small town by the ocean I frequently dreamed of when ascending the garbage-strewn staircase of my fourth-floor Brooklyn walkup. Through a bit of research, I found a mailing address that matched the small town north of Seattle where I knew he lived. To that address I sent my first fan letter: part confessional, part screaming into the void, and part advice-seeking. Surely Tom Robbins would know what to do. “Mr. Robbins,” I began and told him, “After nearly three years, of which I have disliked every day on this coast, I think often of returning home. I dream, I plan, I hope, and eventually I talk myself out of it. This unfortunate result usually happens because someone shames me for wanting to leave New York, they tell me to be stronger and have more grit, they question how I could possibly give up working in publishing and living in the city of everyone else’s dreams.” Truth is, nobody told me that. It was the voice of doubt inside my own head that clung to that word: grit. I savored the word, sucked on it like a sour candy. Grit was my obsession. I couldn’t control outside factors like New York’s constant, unprovoked aggression between strangers or the horror of being told over the phone that your sibling is dead, but I could control my response to it. I told Tom Robbins that because I didn’t want to tell Tom Robbins my big brother was dead and I was hurting every day. I didn’t want to tell Tom Robbins about the worst months: that first winter after my brother’s death when I was jobless during the polar vortex and sometimes late at night when I waited for the subway after having too much to drink, I stared into the darkened tunnel and thought of jumping at the approach of the oncoming train. I didn’t want Tom Robbins to pity me; I wanted his sage advice. So I told him instead about wanting to be a writer outside of New York and asked for his advice -- and his belief that I could do it. A few weeks later, to my great bewilderment, he replied. When I wrote the letter I did so with zero expectation of receiving a response. I had already made up my mind to leave New York. The house, the job, everything else would fall into place. All that mattered was the inner peace I felt just thinking of my decision. Tom Robbins’s blessing would merely be the cherry on top. The letter was personalized enough for me to know it was not a generic response to a fan letter. It was endearing in its cultural references -- sort of like receiving a letter from your cool grandparent. Why would I choose him to send a fan letter to, he asked, when I could write to Hillary Clinton or Bruno Mars? What the letter was not was an affirmation that I should drop everything and move across country. Instead, he told me a “cautionary note” about someone he knew who left publishing and New York behind, relocated back to the West Coast, and was now unemployed. “Tom Robbins doesn’t know me,” I comforted myself. I decided waiting for his stamp of approval was as useless as waiting for anyone else’s. Nobody could make my decision for me. Moving back was my own choice as much as moving to New York was. What mattered the most was believing in it. 3. I don't think you can be an optimist until you've survived a terrible experience. You can't believe in good in the future unless you’ve seen darkness in your past. Otherwise, you're nervous and fretful as you look over your shoulder for the bad thing coming. Growing up, I was a casual pessimist, more of a complainer than anything. I expected the worst, occasionally experienced a slight variation of it: a cheating boyfriend, my grandparents' deaths. I don't think I was an optimist until I came to New York. Until I learned that I could make it out the other side of tragedy. Maybe the grittiest thing I could do was admit my unhappiness and take steps to change it. I’ve been back in the Pacific Northwest since the end of August. I live in a house in a quiet neighborhood and have easy access to nature. But it’s more than the external improvements to my quality of living -- it’s feeling the safety net of my community around me. I don’t feel as scared anymore knowing they’re close by. I live in the same city now as my brother’s children. It’s my responsibility now to be their safety net. Returning home didn’t put a Band-Aid on my life. There are new problems; there will be new tragedies. But I feel more prepared for them now, a little less naïve, and more at ease asking those around me for help. When people ask me how I could possibly leave New York, even if they don’t imply failure but I still infer it, I tell them I missed nature or I hated the crowdedness. If we’re moving a bit closer toward intimacy, I describe the feeling of isolation or how much I missed my community. I rarely jump right into the bombshell of my brother’s death and the myriad ways it exploded my life. Death is a buzzkill at parties. With time, it will become easier to describe it and I’ll have the distance to reflect on who I was for those three years. Eventually, I’ll tell people I left because I didn’t have enough grit, but for what it’s worth, at least now I have a bit more happiness. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Essays, Quick Hits

How I Got It: ‘Breakfast of Champions’

When I was a student at the University of Delaware in the late 1990s, there were a handful of options for buying books in town. One was a midsized shop called Rainbow Books and Records, located amid the downtown’s Main Street bustle. I have few memories of actually buying anything there (though I did steal, for no good reason, a used Cypress Hill CD from the store; hopefully the crime’s statute of limitations has run out). There was a mediocre campus bookstore from which I bought a copy of Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland that I read eight or nine pages of. The best, by a wide margin, was the airy, endless Bookateria, where I spent afternoons searching for titles by Edward Abbey, Tom Robbins, Robert Pirsig, and whatever else might bolster my developing self-image as a chin-stroking bongside intellectual. Twenty years on, The Bookateria is still there  -- or so says the internet -- and just thinking of it puts me there, my Birkenstocks (I was looking for Tom Robbins, remember) soft on its creaking hardwood floors. There was also a fourth option, and I have no idea what it was called. In a wide alley off of Main Street, a miniscule bookstore existed for an equally miniscule length of time. Its lifespan, as I recall, was just a few months, but it might have been less than that. It was heavily curated, blue of carpet, and run by a prim white-haired woman with a courteous smile. Its metal shelves were home to midcentury cookbooks and color-plate nature guides, their prices written, almost apologetically, in the corners of their inside covers. The shop, so small and quiet -- save for the waft of classical music -- lent it the feeling of the quarters of a bibliophilic monk. Entering the store always reminded me that I was wearing dirty track pants and an old Phillies cap. On one of my few trips there -- I could feel the owner’s eyes, as if my CD-lifting reputation had preceded me -- I came across a row of hardbacked, dark-blue novels. Their jackets were gone, and they stood together, naked, as if huddling against danger. Each spine bore the stamped name of the books’ author -- Kurt Vonnegut-- and, in smaller type, the title. I’d heard of Vonnegut, and vaguely knew that I should read him. I picked up Breakfast of Champions, read a few lines (“I think I am trying to make my head as empty as it was when I was born onto this damaged planet fifty years ago.” “I have no culture, no humane harmony in my brains. I can’t live without a culture anymore.”), and felt a surge in my chest. I paid the owner the lightly-penciled price of five dollars plus tax, waited for her pointlessly elaborate receipt, said thanks, and tore the fuck out of there. I had to read this book. Breakfast of Champions felt, like a handful of other works -- The Catcher in the Rye, of course, and later T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain and the stories of George Saunders -- wholly new to me, modes of communication that kicked through my mind’s thin walls. I’d never -- and still have never -- read anything like it. I suppose that any Vonnegut book would have had this effect, so distinctive is his style -- that of a brilliant depressive, the vitality of his talent battling his downbeat vision -- but Breakfast of Champions is Vonnegut’s loosest book, full of drawings and nonsense lines (“Dwayne Hoover had oodles of charm. I can have oodles of charm when I want to. A lot of people have oodles of charm.”) that gain menace as they mount. It seemed somehow right for this to be my first, the best route into his world. Breakfast of Champions isn’t my favorite Vonnegut novel, but it smacked me in the head with more force than any of his others -- and possibly more than any other book I’ve read. I haven’t read it since that day in 1998, and I have only a dim memory of what it was about -- something about a used-car salesman; something about cows. But that initial excitement has stuck; when I picked it up before writing this piece, something tightened in my throat. It was an artifact that had shoved me towards the person I would become. And it seems somehow insane to me that I could have gotten it -- this rousing, angry work that shook me by my spine -- at that cramped and nameless store, overseen by a woman who, I’m guessing, had gone into business to occupy her time. Maybe her husband had recently died, and the quiet of her home had become unbearable -- so she opened a shop that was just as quiet as the place she had escaped. Maybe she’d wanted to bring a touch of politesse to downtown Newark, Delaware, where music blasted from low riders and fistfights proliferated when the bars let out. Maybe she was engaging in a quiet fight of her own, selling pleasant books to the few students who might appreciate the gesture. Obviously -- judging by its swift closure -- there weren’t enough of us. That I could have found a book that so enflamed me in such a serene, well-meaning place now seems to me a rude and minor marvel, like a tabernacle choir breaking into “Fuck tha Police.” The store has been gone for nearly 20 years, and its owner, I assume, has passed on as well. But they slipped me something important in the time we had together -- and for that, I can only offer thanks.
Essays, Lists

Better Late Than Never: On Blooming as a Reader

I recently had the privilege of participating in a panel at the Center for Fiction.  The topic was "Modern Family," and the moderator posed the question: "What literature influenced you as a young person?"  My fellow panelists -- the amazing Alden Jones, Min Jin Lee, and Tanwi Nandini Islam -- named beloved, important books and authors.  My answer -- which I think came as a surprise to most -- was that I hardly read as a child and youth. My parents are immigrants -- English is not their first language -- and neither are they readers or cultural mavens.  We did not have many books in the house, and I was not read to as a child.  I do recall a Disney picture book involving a scroogey Donald Duck character that I liked to read over and over -- something about soup made from a button.  Once I started school, there were of course books assigned, and I read them obediently if not enthusiastically.  Mine was a somewhat typical suburban childhood: I watched a lot of TV and ate a lot of Doritos. The first book I read out of inner compulsion, as opposed to externally-imposed obligation, was Annie Dillard's A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  This was my junior year of college -- relatively late for someone who now writes and reads "professionally."  Reading Dillard was (and continues to be, in fact) a truly ecstatic experience -- I must have reread every single page as I went along, pausing to stare into space or jot things down in my journal or just shake my head in awe -- and it took me quite a long time to finish even as I couldn't put it down (by the end, incidentally, I had decided I had to be a writer; or die trying).  Where had this kind of reading been all my life?  I realized for the first time that there is reading, and there is reading.  The kind of reading that counts, that really matters, is what I'd call whole-soul reading.  In Varieties of Religious Experience, William James writes about "mystical susceptibility," the experience of books and language as "irrational doorways... through which the mystery of fact, the wildness and the pang of life, [steals] into our hearts and [thrills] them."  I'm so grateful to have had that intense conversion moment -- because I have brought that expectation and susceptibility with me to every book I've picked up since then. It's true that I have often felt at a disadvantage for embarking on my reading life so late.  I wrote about this a few years ago -- the project of frantically "catching up" with my peers once I set myself on the path of literary life.  But mostly that underdog status has been a positive motivation.  I am an omnivorous reader and have not lost that addiction to mystical thrill -- in James's words, "states of insight and depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect... illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain" -- when reading. In 2016, thanks to a semester sabbatical, I read more than usual.  Canonical books I read for the first time -- "catchup" reading I'll call it still -- captivated me utterly and reminded me that, truly, there is never a "too late" (in fact, there may be a "too early") when it comes to the reading life. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett.  Raymond Chandler said it best: "Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley ... He wrote for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life.  They were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there . . . He had style, but his audiences didn't know it, because it was in a language not supposed to be capable of such refinement."  I was struck especially by the female characters Brigid O'Shaughnessy and Effie Perine: just when you thought you were going to have to excuse this old-fashioned author's concessions to gender stereotypes, both the characters and the plot (by which I mean Hammett, of course) would subvert that concern.  Incidentally, I also read The Big Sleep but didn't take to it as much as Hammett.  I've just started reading The Glass Key (on Chandler's recommendation) and may be starting on a Hammett binge. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  Of course this is a book I felt like I'd read because I know so much about it.  At some point I may have half-watched on an airplane the film that stars Winona Ryder.  I was sure I'd identify with Jo -- if you're reading the book at all, you're Jo! -- but was surprised (and not a little dismayed) to see a lot of myself in Amy.  It was also interesting to recognize that the novel is as much about money as it is about being female -- a reminder of the inextricability of economics and gender.   Lady Chatterley's Lover by DH Lawrence.  You know, it's all relative I suppose, but given our enlightened times, wherein heterosexual relationships are more holistic and less physically driven, I found the sex here -- four score and a decade later -- still pretty racy.  Perhaps our advantage as modern readers is that none of it is shocking, and so the novel's themes -- social class, integrity, the relationship between love and lust, human wholeness -- have room to come forward. King Lear, Othello, and The Winter's Tale, by William Shakespeare.  I wasn't actually sure if I'd read King Lear previously; again, I knew the story so well, in an ambient, abstract way.  But once I started actually engaging the language, I knew that even if I'd "read" it, I definitely hadn't read it.  Here I offer another mode of reading, which is via audio: because Shakespeare is intended to be performed, an audio reading experience, sans visuals, is actually a spectacular way to immerse in Shakespeare's dramatic and linguistic brilliance.  Yes, I would sometimes need to rewind and relisten to confirm who was speaking, but all the better.  I continued on with audio readings of Othello and The Winter's Tale (irrational male jealousy is a theme I hadn't ever before associated with Shakespeare, hmmm) and am ready, I think, for the historical-political plays -- Henry IV is currently on deck. Go Tell It On the Mountain and Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin.  At a different time in my life, I might have read the former as a categorical rejection/denouncement of Christianity.  But I was struck by Baldwin's stunning feats of compassion -- for Gabriel, the character based on his strictly religious, and hypocritical, father, especially: "Then, he began to cry, not making a sound, sitting at the table, and with his whole body shaking...finally he put his head on the table, overturning the coffee cup, and wept aloud. Then it seemed that there was weeping everywhere, waters of anguish riding the world --"  (Also, we do well not to divorce Baldwin from religion, lest we throw the baby out with the bathwater with regard to our best spiritual writers.)  Giovanni's Room as a kind of personal and artistic experiment -- Baldwin writing about love, sex, desire, identity, money, integrity, and family without writing explicitly about blackness -- inspires me and, especially in this moment of controversy over cross-racial writing, stirs so many questions.  I'm still asking them. The Awakening by Kate Chopin.  Another oldie that struck me as relevant and very now.  Women still struggle to be "selfish," which is to say centered around one's creative and sensual imperatives.  Chopin's/Edna's attraction to heterogeneous culture -- cultures of color, of mixedness, of social fluidity and possibility -- is arguably a little icky, yet not so removed from what we today call "gentrification": affluent whites from homogeneous backgrounds wanting to increase their quality of life by stirring up their privilege with urban history, cultures that emerge from struggle, intersectional experience (I live in West Harlem, can you tell?). Chopin's descriptions of Edna's nascent self-centering resonated with me over and again: "There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day. She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places. She discovered many a sunny, sleepy corner, fashioned to dream in. And she found it good to dream and to be alone and unmolested...Even as a child she had lived her own small life within herself. At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life - that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions." Chopin provides a definition of mystical experience -- those moments when the inward life questions -- that James himself may have appreciated.  The Awakening is an adult coming-of-age story in its pursuit of integration -- collapsing the outward and inward existences. I love the notion of every book we read -- whole-soul read -- being a part of this process: a quiet, private evolution, toward a more complete self, and in a world we must all work to make more hospitable to such evolution than was Edna Pontellier's. Image credit: Wikipedia
Essays

James Joyce and the Yuletide Epiphany

Readers of James Joyce will be well used to flipping back and forth between the main text and endnotes, or perhaps keeping Google at hand, to find explanation for some obscure reference to Irish politics or a piece of 100-year-old Dublin slang. It is this specificity of setting and precision of detail that Joyce contended was a crucial cornerstone of his work, arguing that “In the particular is contained the universal.” This point may be made most accessible in "The Dead," the final short story in his collection Dubliners. Although, like all of his fiction, it is rooted firmly in specifics of Irish culture, it is structured around the universally familiar time of Christmas, and its very meaning hinges upon this seasonal setting. Even if one is not an active participant in annual yuletide celebrations, popular culture has ensured that we all recognise the greeting card image of the traditional Christmas gathering: friends and family joined in a single warm home, with the snow falling outside, to enjoy food, drink, music, speeches, and general merrymaking. Joyce’s story presents this exact Christmas-time setting. However, his narrative does not move in the same stream of hokey sentimentality that so many Christmas stories do: he keeps the unfortunate exchanges, conversational faux pas, and awkward silences, which are such an inevitability, firmly intact. Although Joyce may not believe in any notion of idealization of the holiday season, he nonetheless suggests that this Christmas romanticism, that we all on some level buy into, can in fact be the catalyst for moments of profound realization. Indeed, the story ends with the protagonist, Gabriel Conroy, experiencing one of the most famous epiphanies in all of literature, which is directly inspired by the preceding Christmas celebrations: “He wondered at his riot of emotions of an hour before. From what had it proceeded? From his aunt’s supper, from his own foolish speech, from the wine and dancing, the merrymaking when saying good-night in the hall, the pleasure of the walk along the river in the snow.” The absence of a question mark in this last sentence suggests that these Christmas celebrations, even if Gabriel does recognize them as “foolish,” are a necessary component in bringing him to his epiphany, by forcing him into a more emotional state of mind. This emotional resonance of the Christmas season may come in part due to its unique ability to force us to simultaneously confront both the past and future. Situated on the cusp of the New Year, Christmas is a natural time for reflection, whilst also providing a hope of some new beginning. Furthermore, the image of snow -- the blank white surface -- is suggestive of a sense of optimistic forward thinking, and the nostalgia that comes from bringing family together is bound to force the mind backwards. This duality implicit in the Christmas tradition is also embodied in the two most enduringly popular Christmas narratives of our time: Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol and Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Both of these stories take their protagonists on journeys into alternate realities based on decisions they have made in the past, and decisions they might make in the future, culminating in an epiphany of redemption. While "The Dead" also forces its protagonist to examine the past and an imagined future, its ending is much more ambiguous and has none of the redemptive qualities of Dickens or Capra. This is reflected through the fact that unlike these narratives "The Dead" does not take place on Christmas Eve, which allows an opportunity for change before the day itself, but rather on the final day of the “Christmas-time” period -- the day known fittingly as Epiphany. By setting his story in the wake of Christmas, Joyce implies that it is too late for change, with that possibility lying dead in the past. Furthermore, the fact that he informs us of the story’s Epiphany setting by referring to a New Year’s resolution already broken (the "reformed" drunk Freddy Malins gets “screwed” at the party), reinforces the notion that a failure to self-improve is a theme at the story’s center. The image Gabriel conjures of his grandfather on horseback, endlessly circling a statue in town on his confused horse, also suggests an inability to move forward, and is part of a larger tapestry within Dubliners that presents all of Ireland in a state of “paralysis.” Likewise, Gabriel’s assured vision of the future, in which he imagines his aunt’s funeral and thinks “that would happen very soon,” suggests a sense of impending death, with no chance of aversion. His prophetic name further implies the certainty of this future, and seems to end the story on a note of undiluted bleakness. However, although "The Dead" does not offer hope in the straightforward way that A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life do, there is surely some hope in the fact that Gabriel experiences an epiphany at all. If everything in the world were truly in “paralysis,” this moment of transcendence and absolute truth-seeing would not be possible, and although it brings no joy, it is a key moment of recognition and self-understanding; a moment of growth. What Joyce presents us with in "The Dead" is a true, unidealized epiphany. In the real world epiphanies are hard -- we do not have literal ghosts and angels to gently guide us towards them. And that is why Joyce’s story is the perfect coda for the holiday season. As we leave Christmas, which is a time of fantasy -- taking us away from the routine of our normal lives, and saturating us in narratives of schmaltz -- "The Dead" represents a return to reality; a reality in which brief moments of self-realization are hard-won, and even when they do come they do not necessarily offer any possibility of tangible change. For Joyce, the true epiphanies do not come during Christmas, amidst wine and tinsel and distant relatives, but after the celebrations have died down, when we find ourselves alone, awake in the witching hour with only our own imagined ghosts of the past and the “shades” of the future to keep us company. Image Credit: Flickr/formatc1