With campaign rhetoric thrumming and throbbing around us, along with deepening divisions around race, guns, sexuality, and national security; and since much of what we see/hear in the media is alarming, disappointing, and not infrequently inane; I thought we might offer up some alternatives for readers looking to sink their political minds into something intelligent, compelling, possibly even hopeful (if not exactly optimistic). I asked Millions staff writers: What is/are the best political fiction(s) you’ve read in the past decade? We’re focusing on fiction because we’re interested in a broad definition of “political.” I wanted to hear from my colleagues what even constitutes “political fiction” in their minds. The novel that came to mind for me first was J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace I read it when it was published 16 years ago, but its chilling notion of social justice has stayed with me: in post-apartheid South Africa, Lucy, a white woman, is gang-raped in her home by three black men. She learns that the men are known by (one is even related to) Petrus, the black man and former employee with whom she runs a small farm and kennel on the eastern Cape. Her father, a womanizing university professor who’s been dismissed from his position for harassment, was with her when the attack happened -- beaten and set aflame. Both survive the attack, but to David Lurie’s dismay, his daughter does not report the attack, nor leave the homestead; in fact, she eventually enters into a transactional relationship with Petrus, financial and sexual. If this narrative outcome isn’t disturbing enough, Coetzee makes sure to supply Lucy’s character with a motivational “theory” -- that rape was the price one has to pay for staying on...they see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors. Why should I be allowed to live here without paying? Perhaps that is what they tell themselves. Fans of his work may know that Coetzee was criticized by his countrywoman Nadine Gordimer for writing stories that “leave nothing unsaid...about what human beings do to other human beings” -- such that “the truth and meaning of what white has done to black [in South Africa] stands out on every page” -- yet at the same time eschew the possibility of progressive change via political actors. Of Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K, Gordimer famously wrote: Coetzee’s heroes are those who ignore history, not make it...A revulsion against all political and revolutionary solutions rises with the insistence of the song of cicadas to the climax of this novel...I don’t think the author would deny that it is his own revulsion...The exclusion is a central one that may eat out the heart of the work’s unity of art and life. For Gordimer, a political writer was one who ruthlessly rendered social breakdown, but who also crafted characters that embodied the possibility of political upheaval and societal renewal; indeed the writer of the truly political novel must himself be driven by this possibility. Interestingly, in his New York Times review of Disgrace, Michael Gorra compared the contemporaneous writing of Coetzee and Gordimer and wrote, “it is perhaps Coetzee, despite his resistance to a historically conditioned realism, who has the more deeply political mind.” And in the London Review of Books, while not naming Gordimer per se, Elizabeth Lowry suggested that a definition of political fiction along the lines of Gordimer’s engenders a simplistic, inferior genre: For the South African novelist...how should the volatile, explosive history of South Africa, a history in the making, be represented in fiction without lapsing into the impoverished aesthetic of merely political writing? Over a decade later, in “Where Has Political Fiction Gone?” (The Guardian, May 2010), Stuart Evers postulated on how novelists seem to have responded to Lowry’s challenge: "[C]ontemporary political novels -- the ones that sell, at least -- are more concerned with political disengagement than they are with values or beliefs. The theme that courses through...is not one of right versus left or socialism versus capitalism, but about inaction versus action.” Disgrace is an unpleasant, unforgettable novel. While Lucy is in fact not the protagonist -- David Lurie is -- her actions, and inactions, constitute the novel’s most provocative questions: is a theory of necessary retribution extreme, regressive, even barbaric? Or could it be that such a theory expresses the profound truth of a spiritual reality? Is Lucy a creation of social realism, or of symbolic allegory? Can the answers to all these questions be yes, and if so, how so? In any case, there is nothing impoverished or disengaged about the effects of Disgrace on this reader. Sixteen years later, in the midst of our own racial horrors and retributions, the novel’s haunting questions—political and interpersonal -- are as relevant as they’ve ever been. Lydia Kiesling In my early-20s I worked for an antiquarian bookseller who helped institutions build up collections of subject areas; one university was at work on a large collection of 20th-century American “literature of social change,” and he had me assist with finding these books. The guidelines took a passage from Barbara Kingsolver's copy for the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. The mere description of an injustice, or the personal predicament of an exploited person, without any clear position of social analysis invoked by the writer, does not in itself constitute socially responsible literature. ‘Social responsibility’ describes a moral obligation of individuals to engage with their communities in ways that promote a more respectful coexistence. That's a very, perhaps impossibly high bar, and I often found myself confused when I tried to separate out the various strands of literature that qualified. I’m still confused by the distinction, frankly. So as a very roundabout way of answering, I’ll say first that the books I’ve read and loved that explicitly include politics, as in electoral politics or political movements, are All the King’s Men -- which is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read full-stop -- and Richard Wright’s Native Son, and A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe, and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, and Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem, and Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (you’ll notice a masculine trend). I don’t really think of A Suitable Boy and Berlin Studies as political novels, but they actually have a lot of politics in them, i.e., elections, and I reread both every two or three years because I love them so much. Then are lots of books that fall more under that “social change” category that are intensely political, in that politics shaped and were shaped by the social conditions they described -- the wheelhouses of James Baldwin, Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck -- all authors whose books I’ve read and been moved by in the last decade. A Passage to India and Beloved jump out at me as the books that beautifully damn entire systems in miniature, although their temporal relationships to those systems are different. I finally read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen last week and though it’s not quite fiction, I can’t think of a book that so concisely lays out the most pressing American social issue of this month/year/decade/century. It collapses the border between “social” and “political.” But it also turned out, when I worked on this university list, that the literature of social change could mean books where writers did something as ostensibly mundane as depicting sex, or depicting families. I take Aleksandar Hemon’s point that politics is real and has consequences, and that Americans excel at avoiding it in their novels. I also know people hate it when women take selfies and say it’s a political act, but I do find ideological kinship with books that depict women thinking about sex and families and work in complicated, even unpalatable ways. So even though it wouldn't be eligible for The Bellwether Prize, Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai feels compelling to me, because I read it as a statement about motherhood and its effects on intellectually curious women. Or The Bell Jar. Or A Life's Work, although again it's not fiction. But I don't suppose those are actually political in a real sense. In fact, my interest in them may be exemplary of something less pleasant -- finding kinship with people who look and feel the way that you do is the ugliest thing about politics right now. Edan Lepucki I must admit, when I first saw this question, I told myself I wouldn't participate. Political fiction? No thank you! Like everyone else, I already feel overwhelmed by politics from day to day: Bernie v. Hillary; how do we stop Donald Trump?; will we ever have the chutzpah to take on the NRA?; the intersection of poisoned water and poverty; climate change; yet another black man killed by a white police officer; and, hey, look, some congressman wants to take away my reproductive rights yet again...on and on, and I haven't even gotten into international issues! I don't want politics to be a source of entertainment -- there is too much at stake for that -- and so I read fiction to be entertained. But please don't misunderstand: reading fiction is no mere escape. Doing so requires sustained attention, and that attention lets me understand better human action and reaction. It requires me to produce empathy for people who may do the opposite of what I might do. A necessary skill in the real world. Politics can reduce us to numbers, to noise. Fiction is human. Let's keep them separate. But maybe that isn't possible. Soon after I received the Millions Quiz question, I began my friend Ramona Ausubel's novel Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, about a privileged family that loses its fortune. The novel takes place in a particular era (the 1970s), and yet it's whimsical and dreamy enough to feel out of time. It doesn't feel overtly political; it's concerned with human characters who are complicated and nuanced, and never beholden to a message or platform. But at the same time, the Vietnam War is quite central to the story, and the book doesn't shy away from how the family came to acquire its wealth -- with black slaves, for starters. The novel also pays particular attention to the women in the family's history: for instance, one mother's goal to become a famous sculptor is never realized, not for lack of talent, but because she is female. In describing a woman who wants the career she can't have, Ausubel has acknowledged that experience, validated it. While the book lets you see its players for themselves, out of time and circumstance, a sort of human essence that would persist no matter what, it also reveals how race, gender, and class privilege inform our worldview, and participate in our becoming. That's...political. Michael Schaub Molly Ivins once called Texas politics the "finest form of free entertainment ever invented." It's a rare understatement from the late journalist, who knew more about the Lone Star State than most of us Texans ever will. (She tried to warn us, too, writing in 2001, "Next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president of the United States, please pay attention.") Everything is crazier in Texas, especially politics. The novelist Kinky Friedman (who is crazy, but the good kind of crazy) once got 12 percent of the vote in a gubernatorial election despite having written song lyrics like "They ain't makin' Jews like Jesus anymore / They ain't makin' carpenters who know what nails are for." And this year, crazy has gone national, though it's New York, not Texas, to blame. That's why I've been thinking about Billy Lee Brammer's wonderful 1961 novel The Gay Place. The book follows three characters as they navigate the increasingly insane world of Texas politics: a state legislator, a United States senator, and a speechwriter who works for Governor Arthur "Goddamn" Fenstemaker (who is based very, very heavily on Lyndon B. Johnson). There's a lot of drinking and a lot of sex. In other words, it's the perfect Austin novel. The protagonists in The Gay Place are perpetually filled with dread, and a feeling that something's gone horribly wrong with the way the state is governed. But there's not much pushback on their part, and few attempts to kick against the pricks. Brammer does a great job exploring how those who work in politics go from idealistic to cynical in record time, and how graft and bombast became the new normal in Austin. And it's happening now, again, on a national level, though with higher stakes and an even more bizarre would-be leader (I am beginning to think that no fiction, even the most dystopian, could possibly account for Trump). The Gay Place is brilliant and sui generis, even if the chicken-fried dialogue might perplex non-Southern readers. And it's a great look at what happens when a state basically decides to expect political corruption. Sorry, the rest of America, but we warned y'all. Or at least we meant to. Janet Potter One reason I rarely wade into discussions about modern U.S. politics is that I don’t give it enough sustained attention. I don’t have an adequately comprehensive understanding of the major lawmakers and issue negotiations to do anything other than parrot my commentator of choice when a flashpoint issue comes up. (That’s modern politics, mind you, I could talk about 1850s politics until I’m blue in the face.) In the summer of 2011, however, I knew the political machinations of George R.R. Martin’s Westeros like the back of my hand. I could talk about the Westerosi politics like the characters of The West Wing talk about U.S. politics -- with long-winded complexity and near-perfect recall. Martin is rightly praised for the scope and melodrama of his storytelling, but he’s also a political genius, or at least has the talent to write from the perspective of a handful of different political geniuses. I read the first 5 books in A Song of Ice and Fire in a few weeks. During that time, I probably spent more of my waking hours absorbed in the world of Westeros than I did going about my own life, and so for a short while I was able to hold all the details of its multi-faceted war in my head. I knew I would like the romance, the battles, the centuries-old feuds and unlikely friendships, but I was surprised by how much I liked reading about the politics. Having a comprehensive understanding of the political scene made the council meetings electrifying. I found myself with an opinion of how these fictional politicians should proceed, something that never happens in my actual life. It helped me to understand why people who follow politics, you know, in the real world, get addicted to it. It was fascinating and confounding and impossible not to talk about. At this point the finer points have slipped away, and I only remember the romance and melodrama (like how desperately I want Arya to be reunited with Nymeria), but for a few brief weeks I was a Westeros wonk. Cara DuBois Twice in the past year, I’ve read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale -- once for pleasure, the second time for a course called Disposable Life and the Contemporary Novel. The first reading was visceral; I swallowed the book whole and it left a lump in my throat. In my second reading (the text was paired with works like Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates), I focused on the body in another way and attempted to understand how and why a person becomes expendable. As I stood in Offred’s place, I felt a familiar fear. Atwood’s novel may be satire, but the gendered violence in Gilead doesn’t feel like a part of a distant dystopian world to me. It is everyday violence. Offred says, “I try not to think too much. Like other things now, thought must be rationed. There’s a lot that doesn’t bear thinking about. Thinking can hurt your chances, and I intend to last.” As I write this now, hours after the hate crime in Orlando, I understand what Offred means. Opening myself up to the realities of the world -- to the disposability of my body as an LGBTQ woman -- feels like a slow death. Atwood calls her work “speculative fiction” because it builds on the existing world, presenting something outlandish but not entirely impossible, because it is anchored in the real. I related to the violence and the dehumanization in the text. Though it would be easier to ignore these feelings, I must acknowledge them in order to work toward positive change. (Offred, too, remains politically conscious throughout the text.) I can’t argue that The Handmaid’s Tale is the best political fiction ever written, but it helped me find my voice -- the most important political weapon there is. Image Credit: Flickr/Andrew Comings.
I was recently reading Paper Towns by John Green, and the young characters happened upon John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme on vinyl. One of them was unfamiliar with Coltrane, which prompted his friend to say, “Trane’s playing is literally the most convincing proof of God’s existence I’ve ever come across.” The next day I was listening to A Love Supreme at my desk over and over for hours. It’s not the first time a work of art had steered me towards something new. After I read The Hare with the Amber Eyes, I went to the Art Institute to see a Renoir that one of the book’s (real-life) characters had owned. And I somewhat blame my penchant for living on a dime in small, urban apartments by how taken I was, as a 14-year-old living in Indiana, by that enchanting 90-second opening of An American in Paris. So I put the question out to my Millions colleagues: What works of art have you been introduced to by other works of art? The books, music, and films we love can be like trusted friends, recommending new authors or introducing us to kimchi. We all know that art changes lives in major ways, but how has it changed your life in minor ways? -- Janet Potter Edan Lepucki: Literature doesn't often lure me to other art, though I am comfortable blaming The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats for stoking my childhood dream to live in an apartment building. How exotic and mysterious! (Because I grew up in L.A., snow seemed downright impossible, and I didn't even think to long for it.) I once (er, twice) put ice cream in my coffee after reading Charles Baxter's The Feast of Love; in it, the coffee shop owner Bradley talks about how the sweet concoction brightens your day -- it does. I have made tacos after reading Kate Christensen's Trouble, and I'm looking forward to following recipes from her forthcoming book, which is, fittingly, a food memoir called Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites. If I ever have a real down-and-out nervous breakdown,I plan to spend my nights sleeping on a chaise lounge by my swimming pool (which I shall also procure), a la Maria in Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays. Sonya Chung: My excuse is that I went to boarding school. We lived in a small New England town, and we had no television. This was during the late 80s, and pop culture essentially passed me by, especially music (I have not, to this day, seen MTV). Ever since, it’s been a kind of effort to connect with music, to organically happen upon what I like and want to listen to. More often than not, it’s happened through film. I found Bonnie “Prince” Billy through the film Old Joy, The Cranberries via Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express, Aimee Mann via Magnolia, John Legend and The Fugees via Dave Chappelle's Block Party, Cat Stevens via Harold and Maude, Dianne Reeves via Good Night and Good Luck. I started listening to Eminem after 8 Mile, Pearl Jam after seeing Cameron Crowe’s Pearl Jam Twenty, JT after The Social Network, more Bob Marley after seeing Marley, Bill Withers after Still Bill. It’s weird, I know -- late to the party, possibly diluted, like reading the book after the movie comes out (and I haven’t even mentioned all of the music that I heard first on Glee). I suppose it’s my later-life version of that contextual thing that happens in youth: every song reminds you of a memorable night, or person, or emotion, and the music becomes a part of you, because you didn’t just listen to it, you experienced it; which is just how music, or a musician, sparks something for me through the medium of film -- as an experience, a sense of interest or connection, that bears exploring. With good music, I figure, the party goes on; better late than never. Nick Moran: Maybe I’m too suggestible, but I’ve a habit of absorbing bits of books I read. I used to think it was like literary osmosis -- natural, spontaneous -- but I’ve since noticed a primary trigger: food. In this respect, perhaps it’s more like literary Inception -- involuntary, unconscious. Food references grab my attention even when they’re wildly inappropriate. I bought a doughnut right as I started reading Skippy Dies. I ordered fugu twice in Japan because I read People Who Eat Darkness on the plane over. I've tried to read on a full stomach, but it does me no good. Months later, these references might come back to me. It's been over two years since I read Origins, but I'm still near-manic when I see pregnant women in public. Eat more salmon! I wish I could scream. (I’ve since disbarred myself from reading about childbirth.) The other day I finished reading The Westies, T.J. English’s salacious overview of Manhattan’s Irish mafia, and now I’m trying to eat a meal at all of the bars mentioned. Sometimes I reflect on this development shamefully. I really want to eat a meal where Mickey Featherstone shot a guy? And yet there's nothing I can do. I am too easily swayed. I am biddable. One thing I know: it’ll get worse before it gets better. Next I’m reading The Master and Margarita. I’m told there are pickles. I’m told there are sausages. Hannah Gersen: Several years ago, I fell under the spell of the poet Forrest Gander’s novel, As A Friend, which tells the story of an intense and ultimately tragic friendship between two men. At the center of the story is a charismatic young poet, Les, who everyone in the novel falls in love with, and who I quickly fell in love with, too. Some reviewers suggested that Les was based on the poet Frank Stanford, so I decided to track down some of his poems -- it was my way of getting more of the Les character. His poems are intense and cinematic, full of dialogue and dialect, quick cuts and sneaky images. Death lurks at the edge of everything Stanford writes, but in his poems death is like a movie villain -- you get a little thrill from seeing him. Before reading As A Friend, I’d never heard of Stanford, but I soon learned that he was a favorite among poets, a cult figure who produced seven volumes of poetry before killing himself a few days before his 30th birthday. He grew up in Memphis and the Ozarks of Arkansas, an isolated mountain region, and his poems seem to come from a secret pocket of America. Stanford’s strangest and possibly most famous work is a long, messy epic called The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You. I bought a copy of it, but admit I have never sat down and tried to read the whole thing in earnest, partially because it is so long (over 15,000 lines), but also because I think it might induce delirium. One day I’ll read it -- actually, probably one night -- but until then I am happy to reread Stanford’s shorter poems, as well as Gander’s As A Friend. Elizabeth Minkel: I was eighteen. I suppose that’s as good an excuse as any. But I found myself, just before Christmas my freshman year, making plans to leave a cloistered liberal arts college in New England and head to New York. To study jazz. Jazz. There might have been a guy involved. But by then, my obsession with the music had overshadowed any of that -- I was listening to it constantly, reading about it and puzzling over it and romanticizing it, wasting all of my money at the used CD shop in town, until one day, I popped into the used bookstore across the street and found the book. I’d never heard of Geoff Dyer, funny to think of that now, but the title was enough: But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz. I read it without stopping; I took it all in one breath. It’s as uncategorizable as anything Dyer’s ever written, but the back cover bills it as a series of vignettes, and that’s good enough: the stories are meant as echoes of their subjects’ music: Lester Young, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk. It was the first one, about Lester Young -- “He was disappearing, fading into the tradition before he was even dead. So many other players had taken from him that he had nothing left” -- that got me. By the end, I was gone. But that was the funny thing: this book did the exact opposite of what I’d meant it to do when I’d picked it up. But Beautiful knocked my world back into orbit: it reminded me that I’d spent most of my life deeply enamored of books. This is the book that made me want to write -- write anything at all. By the spring, I was an English major. In the comments: Tell us about works of art that introduced you to other works of art. Image Credit: Wikipedia
The ultimate in writing spaces seems to be the writing shed, a spare, distraction-free room set in some verdant landscape, where, in fertile solitude, the writer may create worlds out of nothing. Roald Dahl had one, so did Mark Twain and Virginia Woolf. Perhaps one day, we'll each be writing in our own. Until then, as our Millions staffers share in their illustrated entries below, we're making do (often happily!) with offices, studio apartments, coffee shops, and guest bedrooms. Share a photo of your own writing space using the hashtag #writespace on Twitter and we'll repost some favorites on our Tumblr. Michael Bourne: That’s right, I write in bed. I used to have a desk, one of those hideous pasteboard rolling-keyboard-drawer deals, but this being Brooklyn, when we adopted our son five years ago, my “home office” became his bedroom and I was relegated to the guest bed. But now I wouldn’t trade it for the world. The big stack of paper in the foreground is my recently finished novel, which I’m now reading one last time before sending out. The yellow legal pads are where I take notes for my reported pieces (yup, I do most of my phone interviews in bed, too). There’s also some old New Yorkers and a Toy Story comic book that I read to Luke before he goes to bed. (Also, I now see peeking out from the Thomas the Tank Engine blanket, a big black motorized toy car, whose provenance I cannot fully account for.) What the photo doesn’t show is the built-in bookshelves that cover the far wall and the prints of Impressionist paintings on the other walls. It also doesn’t show the cats – one ginger tom and a silver-and-black girl cat – who snuggle around me as I write. I thought about cleaning it up, but that would not only present me as a neat freak, which I am not, but more importantly it would convey the wrong impression. This isn’t a work space so much as a work nest. Like a lot of writers, I write a ton of bad stuff. Really bad stuff. Embarrassing bad. But here, behind closed doors, in my messy bed in my son’s bedroom, with the big wall of my favorite books smiling down at me and the cats curled up in purring puddles at my side, I can be my fraudulent self and no one will ever have to know. Sonya Chung: I live in a studio apartment with one other human and two dogs. It's pretty crowded. I work at a long table that is divided from the sleeping/TV area by bookshelves. I straightened up a little for this photo, but generally, I work, and think, in piles. Writing pile; teaching pile; life administration pile. On the far right end of the table is the miscellaneous crap/mail pile (and, of course, dog biscuits). I included my knitting-in-progress in the photo (a scarf) because it's a strategy I'm trying out, i.e. I'm teaching myself to knit and hoping (as many people have told me) that it helps to de-stress and focus scattered thoughts. The kneeling chair recently replaced an exerball-as-deskchair (which gradually deflated) -- back pain, anyone? The lamp is a Kmart special that was originally all-white, but we spray painted the shade hot pink, couldn't tell ya why... Garth Hallberg: This probably isn't the messiest workspace you'll see, though the handprints I've left in the laptop grime are pretty gross. Still, when I behold The Desk objectively like this, any pleasure I might take in the externalization of my own mind loses out to my chagrin at all the work remaining to be done. Atop the compact O.E.D. are six books I'm currently supposed to be writing about - one of them a three-novel omnibus, another a year past deadline. To the left of that, bits of my wife's dissertation have drifted down on top of the desk references (Shakespeare, Hobsbawm, Trucker's Atlas, Complete New Yorker). Multiple drafts from my own work in progress lie atop books unread (Juan Jose Saer) and un-reread (Joseph Mitchell), because there's no open space on the desktop. To the front right looms…well, the less said about that, the better. The picture of my son is for inspiration. The knife is to be used against hostile invaders. The envelope of inspirational quotations has yet to be unpacked, a year-plus after we moved. The coffee right now is what is keeping me going. If you look closely in the glass of Amos' Ab/Ex masterpiece, on the wall, you can see me shadowed against the awful pink bathroom tile, camera to eye, heavily caffeinated, but, for a moment at least, no longer quite so hard at work. Kevin Hartnett: Whenever I start focusing on the less desirable features of where I work I remind myself of this: It’s an upgrade. I started as a freelancer three years ago. At the time, my wife I were living in Philadelphia in a one-bedroom apartment. We got on all right in our small space. Then we had a kid. And another kid. By the end of our time in Philadelphia I had to move two piles diapers and a changing pad just to find a place to put my laptop down. Now we live in Ann Arbor. I work on the second floor of our house, at an antique secretary, in a room with sliding glass doors that lead out to a deck in our backyard. It’s not strictly speaking “my office,” but from 9am-2pm everyday, when my wife is at work and our kids are with their nanny, I have the space all to myself. My idée fixe of office spaces is a clapboard shed that overlooks Buzzard’s Bay on the front lawn of a friend’s house on Cape Cod. My present situation is a far cry from that. The sliding glass doors face west, which means I work in dimness. And the view out my window is just a boring suburbanish backyard. Occasionally a scrum of kids will burst into view, toting sleds or soccer balls. More often it’s just me and the squirrels who are so obviously fat and healthy it’s off-putting. But overall I try not to fetishize where I work. All I really need is quiet and enough light to see by. When I find myself longing for a New England sea breeze I try to remind myself of this: The most consequential feature of any potential office is that I’ll be the one sitting in it. Lydia Kiesling: Before a friend moved and bequeathed us the coffee table, the workspace was just the couch, where I sat with computer perched on lap and fretted about irradiating my womb and/or femurs. Now that we have the coffee table, my womb and femurs are presumably okay, but my back suffers. For now, this is where I do everything that I routinely do--homework, writing, cat-hugging, facebook-creeping, school reading (I prefer to read novels before bed, in bed). Most important: My betrothed, knowing this to be the lint-filled navel of my universe, pried the leftovers from my hands and proposed marriage in this very spot. Edan Lepucki: Last summer I wrote about my workspace for the deliciously voyeuristic Tumblr site, Write Place, Write Time. The photos show my desk at home, which is my preferred place to write. Since having a baby, though, my apartment and the desk within it are far less calm and tidy, and I've had to go elsewhere to work. Most days I write fiction at my neighbors' kitchen table while the baby plays and eats furniture next door. (Don't worry, someone is watching him.) Since it feels weird to post a photo of my neighbors' place, I present you instead with a picture of their dog, Saul. He is my muse. He understands only Spanish. His mohawk is growing out. Que lindo, no? I write most of my essays for The Millions at Paper or Plastik Cafe, the coffee shop down the block from me. The place boasts excellent coffee, friendly baristas, beautiful high ceilings, and internet access, which I need for all these damn links. Here is a shot of my most recent camp-out. Mine is the only Toshiba on the block, but it's proud not to be a fancy-pants Mac. Who cares if the bottom is duct-taped together? Emily St. John Mandel: I'll be the first to admit that my workspace is looking a little strange these days. It used to be much less eccentric, but then I decided that I wanted a standing desk, and, since all the standing desks I saw online were either hideously generic or too expensive, I made some improvisations involving a couple boxes, an unused Ikea shelf, and a two-volume dictionary. It isn't beautiful, but I like it, and I find that I much prefer to work standing up. Other details: that's Ralph in the desk chair, the papers taped to the wall are notes for current and future projects, and the window looks out on rooftops. Nick Moran: My desk is full of nomads, and much of its population changes regularly. To wit: the five different histories of Russia. Though I minored in the stuff as an undergraduate, and I've always been drawn to the place, those are only visiting until I finish something I'm writing. (I don't always use Red Star Over Russia as a mouse pad, either.) The rest: the asthma inhaler, the little wooden box from an Amman bazaar (labeled, adorably "Cofee"), and the Real Housewives-noise-canceling headphones are permanent residents. So, too, is the stack of aborted articles beneath the VQR. And the computer, of course. There's also a Qur’an left over from a recent trip I took to visit my mother in Jordan. An exercise in immersion, that was, and a longtime desk resident it’s become. Finally, there’s the art on the wall above, a relic from my AP art class in high school. My theme was "breakfast." That one you see is a diptych of a pig turning into a slice of bacon. Bill Morris: I like a short commute. So I made an office out of the second bedroom in my apartment on New York's Lower East Side. Normally the place is not such a pigsty – honest! – but at the moment I'm working on a long magazine article about the future of my hometown, Detroit, and my notes, tape transcripts and drafts have taken on a life of their own. In case you're curious, that Royal manual typewriter is not a prop. I still write on the gorgeous beast, then use the Mac for editing and sending my stuff. Looking at this picture reminds me of the beautiful simplicity of the writing life: all you need is a table, a chair, a writing tool, a stack of blank paper (optional), and an idea. How much less could anyone ask for? Mark O'Connell: My desk is normally a lot more cluttered than this, but I didn’t want to let the side down, so I did a little spring cleaning before taking the photo. I work in Trinity College Dublin, where I’m doing a postdoctoral research fellowship; I’m in an open plan office in a snazzy new building dedicated to interdisciplinary research in the humanities. On the right, my desk overlooks an atrium where book launches and wine receptions for academic conferences are often held. As a result, I’ve become a connoisseur of awkward standing. I also get to see a lot of surreptitious lunging (for plates of sandwiches) and timid but determined sidling (toward established clusters of interlocutors). That can be fun to watch, and is often a reason in itself to work late. On to the desk proper: the obvious centerpiece here is the nifty set-up with the elevated laptop, wireless keyboard and trackpad: this discourages slouching and does wonders for the lower lumbar region. Those books lined up at the back are mostly by or about Walter Benjamin, who might have something to do with something I might end up writing (that’s about an average number of mights for me). A lot of them I haven’t so much as opened, but I feel significantly smarter just having them there in front of me. In that sense they’re like a sort of bibliographic mascot or talisman. On the right of the laptop is a hybrid pencil sharpener/rubber I picked up earlier in the week. I probably paid more for it than I should have (€3), but you’ve got to spend money to make money in this business. I don’t mean for this to turn into a bragging session, but I do also own an electric pencil sharpener. It’s a very high-end machine. I keep it at home, though, because in an academic work environment, a thing like that can be viewed as a vulgar display of status. Janet Potter: Four minutes after this photo was taken, I started packing everything pictured into boxes. I'm moving this month, so my work area will soon be reconstructed in another Chicago apartment with a bigger kitchen and walk-in closets. I can say with some confidence, however, that it will look a great deal like this, because the iterations of my work area in each of my post-college apartments have been built around the following, horcrux-esque elements: #1 - The Big Blue Desk. How great is that desk? It's royal blue! It's a solid wood secretary desk (with the flip-up thing for a typewriter) that I bought on craigslist for $30 in 2005. #2 - The Posters. The signed cover prints of On Beauty and Ghostwritten were going away presents when I left my old job at Brookline Booksmith, and the signed print of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was a gift from a friend at Random House. #3 - The Chair. That stool with the ugly green cushion was the bench to my grandmother's vanity. #4 - The Formative Books. The bookshelf that sits to my back holds only the best of my childhood, teenage, and college reading. The Hedgehog and the Fox, Cloud Atlas, The Harry Potter series, Proust, Natasha's Dance, Banvard's Folly. Only the best. #5 - The Presidential Biographies. Each time I finish another biography in my project, I add it to the ranks lined up on top of the bookcase, supported by Abraham Lincoln bookends that used to be in Conan O'Brien's New York office (long story). Show us photos of your writing spaces using the hashtag #writespace on Twitter!
So that you may get to know us better, it’s The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs. As many long-time readers of the site know, the creation of The Millions was partially inspired by Max's time spent working in an independent bookstore. With regular Millions writer Patrick's recent departure from Vromans in Pasadena, we believe this is now the first time in the history of the site that none of its regular contributors are working for an indie bookstore. In commemoration of that fact, the former booksellers among us have offered up encomiums on some of the bookstores that helped pay their rents and feed their minds over the years. Edan: Book Soup, West Hollywood, California Book Soup is on the Sunset Strip, across the street from the Viper Room (where River Phoenix died), and not too far from the manicured estates of Beverly Hills. It's my favorite book store because they've got everything, and because you can lose yourself in its tall, labyrinthine aisles, maybe run into a starlet or two along the way (in the self-help section, most likely). I worked there for a summer when I was 19, and for another two years after I graduated from college. I call it my alma mater. In my essay about the late Glenn Goldman, the owner of the store who passed away last winter, I wrote: "Outside of Book Soup there are trashy girls from the Inland Empire, heading with arms crossed to a nearby club, and raving homeless men, and at the newsstand an actress is reading about herself in the tabloids. A man walks by selling puppies, maybe a waterproof radio. Inside of Book Soup there are highly opinionated, supremely well-read booksellers who want to know what five books you’d take with you to a desert island, go, and what your favorite Morrissey song is, and how many people you’ve slept with, and don’t you think I need another tattoo? Inside there are books, so many books." When I close my eyes and think of a book store, it's The Soup I see. Skylight Books, Los Angeles, California Skylight is all light and space and beautiful displays of beautiful books. There is a tree in the center of the room, and, yes, a huge skylight. When it rains, it's loud, and you feel like you're in the heart of some big storm--but safe, too. The store's got an art annex, right next door, with lovely large books, and kiosks of zines, and an incomparable graphic novel section which attracts the cute boys. (In fact, Skylight has the cutest clientele in the universe--I'm pretty sure of that.) There is now a kitten, Franny, who inherited the store from beloved Lucy, may she rest in peace. I worked at Skylight a couple times a week for about a year, and only stopped recently. (Actually, my exit coincided with Franny's arrival--and I was relieved. She's adorable, but, alas, I'm allergic to cats.) I love Skylight most for the community it inspires. It's the center of Los Feliz Village, and the store does all it can to promote not only literacy, but conversation, and fun. At the store employee Christmas party, we sang songs. At the summer employee party, we hula-hooped. Where else can you find that goodness? Lydia: The Brick Row Book Shop; San Francisco, California. The BRBS is a venerable antiquarian book shop founded in New Haven in 1915 before eventually being relocated to the west coast; I believe it is one of the oldest continuously run book shops in the country. Owner John Crichton ostensibly specializes in English and American literature of the 18th and 19th centuries, but the shop inventory includes a whole range of material (fine press books, Americana, 20th century poetry, travels & voyages). Wow, I sound like a brochure. Anyway, the two years I spent working here were the best two years of my professional life so far. When people (mostly the online commenters on NYT pieces about education) proclaim the futility of a liberal arts education, which, they allege, renders its recipients unfit for any sort of employment, I write a strongly-written letter in my head and tell them about this job. Because it was wonderful, and it would have been unfit for anyone who thinks a liberal arts education is futile. The Book Rack; Menlo Park, California. This is my grandmother's secondhand book shop, which she has owned for many years. I can't be said to have worked here in the fullest sense of the word, because I was a child and child labor is wrong, but I certainly hung around here a lot and helped (although I may not have done that in the fullest sense of the word either). When we visited her throughout my childhood and adolescence, this is where I spent most of the visit, stacking and sorting and pressing buttons on the register. I was given lots of ice cream, and when I got older I commanded a more competitive salary. The experience was undoubtedly formative, especially considering my abiding love of secondhand paperbacks. The Book Rack is particularly well-stocked in mystery and romance novels, but they buy, sell, and trade books of all sorts. Sonya: Housing Works Bookstore Café, New York City, New York Housing Works Bookstore Café is a bright and out-of-orbit star in the indie bookstore solar system. Technically a subsidiary of Housing Works, Inc. -- a multi-service AIDS service and advocacy organization serving homeless New Yorkers — it’s also its very own weird and beautiful thing: a nonprofit bookstore that sells both new and used stock (100% donated by well-read New Yorkers from all over the city), staffed lovingly and almost entirely by volunteers, located in a stunning SoHo loft space (spiral staircases and balconies and all) where not only bookselling but music concerts, lit events, comedy showcases, and staged readings are held regularly. Twice a year staff and volunteers haul out the inventory for a huge Street Fair on the cobblestones of Crosby Street, all books and CDs on sale for $1. The café is excellent -- one of the hats I wore during my time there was as a café volunteer, where I helped launch a quiche-and-baked-goods-making brigade -- and the store has a membership program with great benefits. Literary lights and other cultural icons who love, have read at, and have been sighted hanging out at HWBC: Mary Gaitskill, Nathan Englander, Jonathan Lethem, Lynne Tillman, Anne Carson, the late Heath Ledger, Salman Rushdie, on and on. Having spent much of my adult professional life working in nonprofits, and now seeing up-close a sliver of the commercial publishing world, one wonders if all literary enterprises should consider this hybrid businessy-nonprofit model. And, as if supporting the literary cause were not enough, all store profits go to support Housing Works, Inc. AIDS programs. Max: Second Story Books, Rockville, MD As a high schooler in Washington, DC, my friends and I haunted the dusty purveyors of second-hand records and used books. The pinnacle of the literary side of this pantheon was Second Story Books, in whose Dupont Circle location we would imagine ourselves neo-Beatniks as we thumbed through volumes of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. At sixteen, I wheedled my way into a job, but not at any of their regular locations. Instead I landed at the vast warehouse in suburban Maryland, where the manager -- he of the rumpled, curmudgeonly school of used bookselling -- eyed me with suspicion. I spent most of my time sweeping the labyrinthine aisles and sneezing in the clouds of dust. But I also set aside the broom and grabbed any old volume that caught my eye, pausing to read and read and read. Book Soup, West Hollywood, CA I arrived at Book Soup a "self taught" reader, well read in spotty, idiosyncratic ways, but I left nearly four years later with a broad and deep appreciation of a whole spectrum of books. That education was provided both by my coworkers and by a cast of regulars whose engagement with the literary overturned my naive preconceptions of "Hollywood." But Book Soup doesn't exist in opposition to Hollywood, it is very much of Hollywood, with some of its celebrity clientele "ego searching" the tabloids at the news stands, while others stock up on meatier fare (whether researching a role, or just for fun). Every city needs a great bookstore, and that bookstore will take on the character of its city. Book Soup is the creative, literary core of Hollywood that too many don't know exists. Garth: Freebird Books and Goods; Brooklyn, New York My first year out of graduate school, trying to plot the elusive point of diminishing returns on the money-time matrix, I was lucky enough to fall into part-time work at this bookstore right around the corner from home. Having written about Freebird in our Walking Tour of New York's Independent Bookstores, I'll spare you any lengthy description. I will say that my notion that I would get lots of reading done on the clock was misguided. Freebird's collection, though modest in size, is high in quality - particularly in fiction and New Yorkiana - and before I could finish any one book, I would have picked up three or four others. Still, in summer, with the front door admitting a briny breeze off the harbor and folks strolling by on sleepy Columbia Street, to sit and sip a Moxie soda and fail to read novels was paradise. Patrick: The University of Chicago Bookstore, Chicago, IL This was not, sadly, the famed Seminary Co-op Bookstore, one of the best bookstores in the country, and to this day, my second favorite place in Chicago, after Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap. This was the Barnes & Noble-affiliated campus bookstore. We sold physics textbooks and sweatshirts (which all looked strangely like off-brand Chicago Bears merchandise). I tried to work as many shifts as I could with a particular local high school girl who had landscapes painted on her fingernails. She was one of the coolest, smartest, most fun people I met at the University of Chicago, and she didn’t even attend the college. Book Soup, West Hollywood, CA and Costa Mesa, CA What can I say about Book Soup that Max and Edan haven’t already said? I made so many enduring friendships at this place that I think of it as something other than a retail establishment. If one were to take a tour of my life, Book Soup would figure prominently. It was the pivot around which my entire adult life revolved. I started working there when I was in graduate school, and I continued to work there long after I’d decided that graduate school was terrible. When I began working at Book Soup, I thought I would be a filmmaker, and that working at the store would be a sort of quaint anecdote in my incredible highly lucrative directorial career. I was mistaken. What it turned out to be was the beginning of a career in books. Book Soup was the place where I met people who were Booksellers, not writers who worked in a bookstore or filmmakers who worked in a bookstore. This was important. The people who considered bookselling important, not just something to do on the way to something else, were inspiring to a guy who was, it seemed, perpetually on his way to something else. I started out working the Friday and Saturday 4 p.m. to Midnight newsstand shift, and I ended up running one of their stores. It was where I met Paul McCartney and Michael Stipe and Gavin Rossdale (the first celebrity to acknowledge me in public, when we ran into each other at the now-defunct Aaron’s Records) and Terrence Malick and Martin Amis and Charles Fleischer, voice of Alf and Roger Rabbit and the original Book Soup regular. I also met some people I’m still proud to call friends. One of them, thank God, agreed to marry me. Vroman’s Bookstore, Pasadena, CA What can you say about a business that’s nearly as old as Stanford University? It was a humbling experience, working for a bookstore that was founded during Grover Cleveland’s presidency (the second one, sure, but still). Maybe more incredible than its endurance is its vibrancy. Here is a store that continues to innovate, that continually asks the question “What does it mean to be a bookstore?” There might be hipper bookstores, but I don’t think there are many that have a better idea of what their customers want. Run by a bookseller’s bookseller, Allison Hill, Vroman’s is always looking for something new to offer its customers. At its heart, though, Vroman’s is all about tradition. It is every bit as much Pasadena as the Rose Bowl (which, by the way, was first played 5 years after Vroman’s was founded). I can’t tell you how many people I met who shopped there who told me “I grew up coming here,” or “My grandparents shopped here,” or, once, “My grandparents worked here.” It really is part of what makes Pasadena unique, and it’s a shame there aren’t more places like it in the world.
A recent Millions essay by Michelle Huneven got us thinking: much hay has been made of how various print and digital platforms affect reading practices, but what about setting? Where you do your reading, and how much unbroken time you can give to it, will arguably shape your experience far more than does the difference between screen and page. And as cable and the web colonize our homes, it seems to us that the best reading is increasingly done in transit - for better and for worse. We've read pieces of War and Peace on the DC Metro (tough) and half of Anna Karenina in a single gulp on a night train through Tuscany (sublime). By way of starting a conversation about the ideal marriage of text and transportation, we've asked our contributors and our Facebook group to make recommendations for three modes of transportation: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. "Planes" should be self-explanatory; "Trains" comprises commuter rail (and buses) as well as longer distance trips; and "Automobiles," perforce, centers on audiobooks, podcasts, and works read out loud by those not behind the wheel. Contributor responses appear first, followed by selections from the Facebook response. We invite you to add your own in the comments section or via twitter (using the hashtag #roadbooks). Bon voyage! Planes Sonya: While traveling far from home, I like to give myself over fully to a changed perspective, leaving my customary myopia behind as much as possible; The Economist is my preferred reading. The robust "World" and “Business” sections in particular knock me off my precious literary perch, which can be awfully refreshing. Kevin: My criteria for a plane book are two: I want it to be fast-paced, and I want to be able to finish it, if not by the time I touch down, then at least during the return flight home. I've never had a better plane reading experience than Boston to Los Angeles, 1994, The Hunt for Red October. Edan: When flying, I always want something short enough to read cover-to-cover (in addition to a novel, a fashion magazine or gossip rag, and a book of jumbles, crosswords, or soduku). On my last few flights, I've brought a volume from Melville House's Art of the Novella series. I've written about Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra here. I can also recommend Customer Service by Benoît Duteutre, about a man with cell phone issues who just wants help from a goddamned human being. It's an appropriate read for when you're flying through the air in a magical bullet, and you've just been forced to pay for a bag of peanut m&ms (a.k.a., dinner) with your credit card because cash is no longer accepted. Garth: Last summer, en route to Hawaii, I read most of Gay Talese's Thy Neighbor's Wife. If I say that I wasn't even tempted to look at The Real Housewives of New Jersey (on a continuous loop on my back-of-seat TV), it's not to slight Jacqueline or Dina, but to indicate how engrossing and provocative I found Talese's exploration of sex in America. Anne: For the nervous flyer (like myself), who wants to forget they're in a fuselage for the duration of the flight, Lucy Grealy’s memoir Autobiography of a Face offers a gripping and unsentimental account of her childhood bone cancer and living with the consequent facial disfiguration. The book can captivate for the time it takes to cross an ocean - even, in my case, the Pacific. Emily W: My fear of flying makes reading when skybound a rare pleasure. For me, it's usually the iPod, cocktails, and a Vogue or a Harper's Bazaar. The one book that managed to suppress my fear of death in the sky for five hours was J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace, which I read from cover-to-cover on a red-eye from San Francisco to DC. Max: Plane rides are perfect for magazines, especially the New Yorker. The freedom to work through an entire issue in one sitting feels like a luxury, even if the leg room is lacking. Amir Hother Yishay: I read my first Murakami on a transatlantic flight, Kafka on the Shore; a magical experience. Also, White Teeth by Zadie Smith. Becky Donahue: On one flight to Germany, I could not put down The Devil in the White City... wonderful. Another great plane book was the biography of John Adams by David McCullough. Trains Anne: Amy Hempel’s Collected Stories offer enchantments brief enough for daily a commute, but the collection provides a cornucopia of word play and eclectic tales to occupy a longer haul. Plus, Hempel's story, “To Those of You Who Missed Your Connecting Flights Out of O’Hare,” is a sure endorsement of the soothing lull of a long train ride. Sonya: I like the Russians for train travel. When you’re watching the natural landscape - the largely uninhabited regions - of a country fly by in flashes, it just feels right to be reading stories that take place over the great land mass of Mother Russia. For a long trip, Dr. Zhivago; for, say, the DC-New York Metroliner, Chekhov’s “The Steppe” - in both cases, the land journey is also the journey of the soul. Garth: The subway is feast or famine for me. The right book, and I'll miss my stop; the wrong one, and I'll read for half an hour without registering a single word. When I don't have a New Yorker handy, Joan Didion - say, Play it as it Lays or Salvador - is perfect subway reading: lucid enough to let me in quickly; sophisticated enough to hold my attention; and discretely structured, for ease of exit. Kevin: Typically before boarding at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, I stop at a news kiosk and pick up the NYT and the WSJ. I enjoy having the time to read each front to back, and I like being able to change from news to business to sports and then back again. There's also no doubt that I like the romance of a newspaper on the train: the economy fold, the crinkle of the pages mixed with the sound of the clattering tracks. Emily W: On trains, I'm usually one for gazing out the window or striking up a conversation with a stranger, but this winter on the Northeast Direct from DC to Boston, I found Poets and Writers' January/February 2010 issue quite absorbing, particularly their "Literary Life" essays. I'm a bit of skeptic when it comes to writing about writing but P&W convinced me otherwise. Edan: I never travel by train, but the next time - or, really, the first time - I get the opportunity to ride one across the country, or even state lines, I plan to bring along my copy of Selected Stories by Alice Munro. I will flip immediately to "Wild Swans," a startling, discomfiting, and accurate account of an encounter with a stranger on a train. Munro writes: "Victim and accomplice she was borne past Glasco's jams and Marmalades, past the big pulsating pipes of oil refineries." I'd like to read that sentence as another landscape glides by my own train car window. Max: There's something about taking a longer train ride that puts one in the mood for adventure. When I was younger, I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas on a train ride from Washington D.C. to New York and emerged from Penn Station feeling pleasantly addled and ready for a night on the town. Amir Hother Yishay: I finished the last 200 hundred pages of A Storm of Swords, by George R.R. Martin, on a subway ride Jane Weichert: Nothing Like It in the World by Stephen Ambrose is an very readable story of the building of the first transcontinental railroad. It was built by the immigrant Chinese and Irish and gives an understanding of the brutal conditions under which they worked. Last Train to Paradise by Les Standiford is a spell-binding tale of the last of the privately financed infrastructure projects undertaken by larger-than-life 19th century businessmen. Here Henry Flagler races against his own mortality to complete a railroad from Jacksonville to Key West, with the final run south from Miami requiring herculean engineering, management, and financial resources. Becky Donahue: Short stories are wonderful...just finished reading Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro. Podcasts...Slate does a great job and lots of content to choose from. My new favorites are Spilled Milk and The Moth. Automobiles Sonya: Once weekly, I drive two hours each way - prime audiobook time. “As read by the author” is often a great way to go when choosing nonfiction in particular. I recommend Elizabeth Gilbert reading Eat, Pray, Love; Anne Lamott reading any of her memoirs; Helene Cooper reading The House at Sugar Beach; and, my favorite among these, Dreams From My Father. The author was allowed much more range of expression back in 2005 when he recorded it, and it’s a rare experience hearing a future president do Kenyan accents and urban “Negro dialect” (ahem) and using the f- and n-words. [Ed.'s note: for the latter, we also recommend the Lyndon Johnson tapes.] Anne: It’s rare that I travel by car these days, and even rarer that I find myself behind the wheel, but when I do, I like to listen to In Their Own Voices: A Century of Recorded Poetry. Listening to poems, like songs, lets me internalize their rhythms and cadences. This collection features a wide range of twentieth-century poets reciting their own poems, from Sylvia Plath’s contemptuous “Daddy” to Gertrude Stein’s playfully repetitive “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso." Emily W: With audiobooks, it's all about the reader; audio samples are essential to choosing a good recording. On recent car trips, my husband and I have found Huckleberry Finn and The Da Vinci Code particularly entertaining (in the latter case, guffaw-inducing) because the readers were so excellent at accents, genders, and dialects. And I have extremely fond memories of listening to Larry McMurtry's Anything for Billy with my parents and sisters on a childhood drive from Virginia to Massachusetts. Kevin: Audiobooks are not foolproof. A couple years ago I tried to listen to Cold Mountain on a road trip; between changing lanes, counting out toll money, and generally trying to stay alert, I found Charles Frazier's slow, somnolent reading impossible to follow. These days my voices of choice are David Sedaris (yes, please, Santaland Diaries one more time) and Garrison Keillor, or anyone else working in short-form comedy. Garth: Though my wife and I like to read aloud to each other on long trips, The Lannan Literary Foundation podcasts are a recent discovery I'm pretty enthusiastic about: lengthy readings by writers like Deborah Eisenberg and Samuel R. Delany, followed by intelligent discussion with peers like Ben Marcus and Junot Díaz. We parcel them out like rest stops. Max: A good travel audiobook can make even a drive from Chicago to New York seem something more than just endless fields and turnpikes. Most memorable was Paul Theroux's account of his train trip from Cairo to Johannesburg, Dark Star Safari. The library is great for these. Amir Hother Yishay: I always read on car rides, never having been a fan of audio books myself. One of my greatest car reading experiences would probably be reading One Hundred Years of Solitude over a two week trip from Toronto to St. Johns. Miriam Parker: One of my most enjoyable long car rides included listening to Born Standing Up by Steve Martin. He reads it and is fantastic. I actually had to stop the car once to write down something brilliant he had said or else I would have caused a huge accident on I-40. Becky Donahue: Firstly I love audio books. I re-read (or listened to) Lovely Bones. Bel Canto (Ann Patchett) is a good audio book. And anything from Neil Gaiman...brilliant. Christine Magee: Commuting in and out of the city on a regular basis last year was made palatable by listening to Carson McCullers, The Heart is a lonely Hunter. The fact that the narrative transported me to a different place and time made it the perfect choice. It got to the point where I was looking forward to sitting in traffic so I could hear more! This wonderful book full of tension and struggle made my daily commute seem like a breeze!
So that you may get to know us better, it’s The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs. Today's Question: In honor of the 10th anniversary of NYRB Classics: What out-of-print book would you like to see become an NYRB Classic? Emily: With presses like Dover, Everyman, the Library of America, Broadview, NYRB, and the Persephone Press (not to mention Oxford and Penguin classics series) doing excellent rediscovery and reprinting work of all kinds, I don't often find myself longing for a new edition. The one great—nay, I would go so far as to say glaring—exception is the work of Ogden Nash, perhaps best know for epigrams like "Candy/Is dandy/But liquor/Is quicker" and "The Cow": "The cow is of the bovine ilk;/One end is moo, the other, milk." Yes, there is a "best of" anthology arranged by Nash's daughters and printed by Ivan R. Dee, and, yes, he's in Library of America's American Wits: An Anthology of Light Verse, but what I long for is a chronological, scholarly "complete works" volume: I want America's great comic poet to be taken seriously. Those who've only encountered "Custard the Dragon" or Nash's epigrams (my favorite, which he composed with Dorothy Parker: "Hoggamus higgamus,/ Man is polygamous,/ Higgamus hoggamus,/ Women monogamus"), might question whether Nash is a serious artist deserving of such attention, but if you've read poems like "Don't Look Now, But Your Noblesse Oblige Is Showing," "Curl Up And Diet," "Don't Wait, Hit Me Now!", or "Bankers Are Just Like Anybody Else, Except Richer", you know that Nash is a keen social observer with a satirical edge (an edge sharpened by the Great Depression), and an approachable, conversational stylist reminiscent of Frank O'Hara (think "Ave Maria"). Nash's conversational style sometimes obscures his sparkling wordplay (Cole Porter-ish), his deft, innovative use of meter, and his subtle allusiveness, but look again at poems like "Pastoral" or "Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man" or "Columbus." Garth: This year, a panel at the PEN World Voices festival prompted me to explore the work of an author who was barely on my radar: Andrey Platonov. I devoured The Foundation Pit in one gulp, on a plane, intoxicated by the discovery of a sensibility as potent, distinctive, and hard to describe as Kafka's. I've since moved on to the stories in Soul, in an impressive translation by Robert & Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson. A certain novelist friend of mine, who's also a reputable critic, assured me that Platonov's other major novel Chevengur, is even better than The Foundation Pit, and that a Chandler translation already exists...in the U.K. Apparently, the unreconstructed character of Platonov's socialism makes Chevengur a tough sell for U.S. audiences. His response to Stalinism was not to abandon utopia, but to turn it into an organizing principle for his art. Still, this is one of the major stylists of his age. We deserve to have his work in print domestically, no matter how undomesticated it may be. Max: I was introduced to Vasily Aksyonov via his epic Generations of Winter. Here is the twentieth-century Russian analog of the multi-generational epic, tracking the Gradov family through the tragic and tumultuous decades spanning 1925 to 1945. It is a historical period deserving of the weightiness of the once exiled Aksyonov's novel, and yet the book is not widely known or read. But at least it is still in print. The rest of Aksyonov's books are unavailable in the U.S. While Generations of Winter was published after the fall of the Soviet Union (it became a mini-series on Russian television), his dissident novels, originally banned from the Soviet Union, may be more important. The New York Times this year called The Burn and The Island of Crimea "increasingly phantasmagoric and outspoken in their dissidence." The Burn, the Times said "is a surreal, jazz-inspired riff on the plight of intellectuals under Communism, and Island of Crimea imagines what life would have been like on the Black Sea peninsula if the White Army had staved off the Bolsheviks there during the Russian Civil War and their descendants had flourished." See also: Vasily Aksyonov, Giant of Russian Literature, Dies at 76; Sonya's recent championing of another hard-to-find contemporary Russian author. Let us know what out-of-print books you'd like to see returned to print.
Elizabeth wrote in with this question: This upcoming semester I will be teaching a literature class at an East Coast college. The reading list includes several poems, stories, and essays as well as two plays, and just one novel. The English chair explained that because the school is heavy on business majors, for many students the novel they read in this course may the only novel they read for the rest of their college experience, and in some cases, for the rest of their lives. To be charged with selecting the "one novel of a person's life" seems like both an impossible burden and a precious gift. I don't know if I should choose something relatively accessible that might induce a love of reading (Lolita, The Remains of the Day, White Teeth) or a classic that might give them a greater perspective on the history and traditions of storytelling (Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, To the Lighthouse.) My question, then, is really this: if you could read just one novel, what would it be? Several of us pitched in on this one. Some of us took Elizabeth's question literally, wondering what "one novel" we would choose in the (terrifying) event that we would be allowed just one for the rest of our lives. While others put themselves in Elizabeth's shoes, trying to figure out how to wield the awesome responsibility of determining the entirety of another person's reading experience. Here are our answers: Garth: The hypothetical here - if you could read just one novel - strikes fear into my heart. Certainly, the book should be long, if there's only going to be one. I'm tempted to say A Remembrance of Things Past on those grounds alone. On the other hand, the Marcel-Albertine romance never stoked my fires as much as the other relationships in the book, and I've got the feeling that this one, singular book should be a love story. In the same way that, if you only had one great narrative of your own life, you'd want it to be a love story. So: how about Anna Karenina? Writing about happiness is the hardest thing to do, and, in a book which most people remember for the sad parts, Tolstoy does it better than anyone. Edan: My suggestion - Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut - may be an obvious one, but it makes sense as a syllabus pick for a number of reasons. Firstly, it's highly readable. It's important that the assigned book be entertaining, since someone who doesn't read much won't tolerate a slow or dense novel (just as someone who isn't a movie buff (read: me) won't sit through a John Cassavetes film). Secondly, there's a lot in the book to discuss as a class. I read it two years ago, and found it to be structurally fascinating, as well as funny, playful, and damn moving. For instance, I was interested in how the phrase "So it goes" repeated throughout the novel, changing with each use: first the casualness jarred me, and then I was surprised to see it, and then I expected to see it, and then I was exhausted by it, and the cycle went round and round again, a little different each time. I'd love to talk about this process as a group, and I think others - book worms or not - would, too. And, lastly, Kurt Vonnegut is a great writer to like, as he has so many other books, and his influence in American literature is just enormous. If you love his books, there are others to discover. Get someone hooked on Vonnegut, and he or she will be a reader for life. Andrew: If I could only pick one novel, I'd pick one that will magically smash through curriculum limits and lead the reader head-first to others - a gateway novel, if you will. I have a hierarchy of favorites - modern and classic - but strategically I'll pick the one that, looking back, opened up the world to me. I first read Slaughterhouse-Five when I was about nineteen years old. I was discovering Kurt Vonnegut and was drawn to his darkly comic way of writing - playful, with big chunks of sci-fi thrown in to satisfy the geek in me. Slaughterhouse-Five has all of the Vonnegut tropes, but digs deep. Billy Pilgrim, our mid-century, middle-aged, middle-class hero, has become "unstuck in time" and we follow him forward to the planet Tralfamadore, and backwards to 1945 where Billy and his fellow soldiers - kids, really - are POWs in Dresden. Though Vonnegut's playful, ironic fatalism gives the story its rhythm, and the time-shifting gives it its structure, the horrific firebombing of Dresden gives the novel its depth. This is a war story like no other. Emily: In the words of Gabriel Betteredge, taken from Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone: "You are not to take it, if you please, as the saying of an ignorant man, when I express my opinion that such a book as Robinson Crusoe never was written, and never will be written again. I have tried that book for years--generally in combination with a pipe of tobacco--and I have found it my friend in need on all the necessities of this mortal life. When my spirits are bad--Robinson Crusoe. When I want advice--Robinson Crusoe. In times past when my wife plagued me; in present times when I have had a drop too many--Robinson Crusoe. I have worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in my service. On my lady's last birthday she gave me a seventh. I took a drop too much on the strength of it; and Robinson Crusoe put me right again. Price four shillings and sixpence, bound in blue, with a picture into the bargain." And if you object to Crusoe, then The Moonstone, the finest (and first, some would say) detective novel ever written. Noah: Are we in a primordial state, untouched by letters save for one sacred tome (The Complete Works of Shakespeare, perhaps)? Or simply naming our favorite book (A Fan’s Notes). This exercise is like picking a "desert island book," the book you’d want to have to read by the yellow flickering of a driftwood fire while the palm fronds sway in the moonlight and the ocean crashes below. In this situation I might opt for something long and beloved, an Infinite Jest or Underworld, say. Maybe a classic that I haven’t read would be better (even on a deserted island it’s important to be well-read). The Count of Monte Cristo could work well. I’ve heard good things. But no, we are talking about choosing a book to teach. A book to teach to business majors who may not read another word the rest of their lives. I think The Great Gatsby fits the bill. Lydia: This question has made my week a little less enjoyable, because every time I sat down to lounge, I remembered that I had to pick the only book that a group of people will read, maybe ever. Their lives were in my hands. I thought about it a lot, and I have decided that I would assign David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. It is intensely readable, so they will actually read it. Some things I had to read in college English classes, like the wretched Pamela, were so unfun to read that I did not, in fact, read them. Never underestimate a college student's unwillingness to do his or her homework, especially if it is boring. Also, Cloud Atlas centers around a neat narrative trick, so you can talk about novels and the different ways people make them. Since it adopts a series of voices, you can tell the students that if they liked the Frobisher part, they can try Isherwood, and Martin Amis if they liked the Cavendish part, and so on. Ideally this will trick them into reading more novels. Finally, Cloud Atlas even has A Message, slightly simplistic though it may be, and will provide gentle moral instruction to your flock (I think it's "Make love not war, save the planet"). Max: It was fascinating to me that both Edan and Andrew picked Slaughterhouse-Five (and for the same reasons!) It's true that this novel (or, in a somewhat similar vein Catch-22) will serve to entertainingly blow up any preconceived notion that an intelligent non-reader may have had about the boring old novel. I also found interesting Noah's and Garth's idea (reading the question as looking for a "desert island book") that length is critical. With that as my consideration, I would choose Alvaro Mutis' The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, an adventure novel that could be plumbed again and again, or East of Eden, the best of the multi-generational epics of the last 100 years. Or better yet, if you read just one novel, why not read the "first" and, in the sense that all novels since are just repeating its tricks again and again, the only novel, Don Quixote. But thinking again about this as a novel to be read in this unique and specific circumstance, and thinking again that something contemporary might best fit the bill, why not - bear with me here - The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen? Even though the characters might seem like typical boring novel characters, Franzen does things with them that you wouldn't expect, the book is incredibly readable, and you can get into the whole meta-argument surrounding the book and Oprah and whether good literature must be in opposition to popular culture or should be a part of it. Thanks for your great question, Elizabeth. Millions readers, help us inaugurate the first Book Question on the new site by sharing your answers to Elizabeth's question on your own site or in the comments below.
So that you may get to know us better, it's The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.Today's Question: This one is inspired by a recent item at The Morning News. With print subscriptions becoming increasingly rare for many people, what magazines or newspapers do you still subscribe to in print and why?Garth: I've already given this question a fair amount of thought, insofar as my life is an attempt to ride herd over the thousands of pages of print that make their way into my apartment. Over the years, I've subscribed to The Believer, The Atlantic, A Public Space, and, during the Lewis Lapham era, Harper's. (I've got my eye on Lapham's Quarterly, the strikingly dense and beautiful journal the former Harper's editor now helms.)Through trial and error, I've found I can handle about three subscriptions at any given time before the coffee-table magazine offerings start to take a serious toll on my ability to get anything done. The New York Review of Books feels like a keeper, and I need to renew with n+1. But the one I can't live without is (of course) The New Yorker. John Updike celebrated the magazine as "a heedless river of print" flowing from Manhattan to Shillington, Pennsylvania. For me it's more like a family. There are favorite aunts, cousins I wish I saw more often, uncles I dread having to talk to. Some encounters are transcendent and some forgettable. Still, I'd never choose not to have a family, and, barring financial disaster, I'd never choose not to receive the print edition of The New Yorker.Ben: Comic books remain the only "magazines" that absolutely must be consumed in their original form. They gain nothing from being digitized. Not only do you lose all of the tactile enjoyment of handling them, the pleasure of going to the store and gabbing with the other comic book nerds, and the vain hope that they might one day pay for your retirement, but they're actually much more difficult to read online. I tried following Spiderman on the Marvel site for a while, but the computer's aspect ratio means that either you have to do a lot of scrolling (incredibly irritating) or the artist's vision becomes compromised. Although it's certainly possible to make comics work online, in doing so, you create a different art form, something that's no longer a comic book, but some strange cross between animation and a comic strip. Thanks, but no thanks.Andrew: As a Globe and Mail copy editor, I have easy online access to the paper whenever I want, at my desk, while working, and no one will bat an eye. On Saturdays, however, I like to have my own copy of the weekend Globe. I'll physically buy it from the newsstand and keep it with me as I stroll around town. Over brunch I'll do the cryptic crossword and read the front page. Pausing for a coffee, I'll read the op-ed pages, work my way through the rest of the front section, and start on assorted weekend features. The Saturday Globe is my constant companion. I like spreading it out in front of me in coffee shops. And when I'm done with a section, I'll leave it behind for someone else to enjoy.The only actual subscription I have is to The Paris Review. It's a thrill, once a season, to open my mail box and find The Paris Review crammed in there, slightly bent, but all mine. Like the Globe on a Saturday, The Paris Review keeps me company. If I'm in transit, or if I'm waiting for someone or something, I'll pull it out of my satchel for a quick dose. I usually begin with the Interview, then check out any photographs, then any archival bits, poems, then finally settle into the meat of The Paris Review - the short fiction.Edan: I subscribe to two magazines, The New Yorker and Bon Appétit. These days it's rare that I get through an entire New Yorker, but I can't imagine not having that wonderful pile of issues to sift through when I finish a book and I'm not yet ready to start another. I absolutely love cooking magazines, and someday I'll get subscriptions to all of them - especially Cook's Illustrated! Until then, Bon Appétit keeps me inspired, and it's a nice companion to my library of cookbooks and sites like thekitchn.com. It's also great breakfast reading: you know, hopes for the day, hopes for the stomach.I also subscribe to one or two literary magazines a year, although I don't always renew when I need to. I'm partial to One Story, and Meridian, where my first short story was published.And, I've been known to buy issues of US Weekly from the newsstand down the block (a blessing and curse, that newsstand!) A tabloid is the most delicious bathtub reading after a long day of writing and teaching.Lydia: In seventh grade, I got (or took, as the old folks say) Seventeen Magazine, through a program where you sell wrapping paper to your parents and get magazine subscriptions, or something like that. I thought it was all very racy and exciting until the day I realized that the Trauma-Rama submissions are not real. I have not subscribed to any publication since then, but at Christmas I received a New Yorker subscription, which was one of the best gifts ever. I used to read it online, but it is not the same as lying down on the couch with an adult beverage and one's feet elevated, sometimes eating chips. Also being of a somewhat limp constitution paper-wise, The New Yorker is easily furled and put into a purse for reading about town. If Anthony Lane had a magazine all his own I would probably subscribe to that too.Emily: I know that signs of the print media apocalypse are everywhere, but I still think that the death knell won't come for a while yet. This is largely because don't I think I am alone in finding reading from my computer at my desk unpleasant. I also find reading from my computer not at my desk unpleasant. I like paper - it's light, you can spill coffee on it or drop in the pool, it doesn't hurt your eyes or take time to load, there are no pop-up ads, you can fold it up and shove it into a bag, and you don't have to worry about anyone stealing it. I subscribe to the London Review of Books, n+1, The Economist, and Vogue, and I've just subscribed to the New York Review of Books.The Vogue subscription was free, and Vogue - my friend, my enemy - usually makes me angry and a little sad when I read it (Such silly women! Taking themselves so seriously! Such impossible standards of female beauty!), even as I enjoy Steingarten's food writing and the photography. Inane as fashion is and much as I wish I was immune to its charms (and the charms of the impossible beauty of fashion models), I am, alas, susceptible. This is my guilty and doubtless self-destructive pleasure.The Economist has the best international coverage of any news magazine I've encountered. It's very frank about its politics, and it dissects political and social problems in a tidy (sometimes too tidy) way. It also has a sense of humor. A recent cover bore the title "A Glimmer of Hope?" over this drawing.N+1 is beautifully written, and the quality of thought and feeling that shapes this beautiful writing is not something I've seen elsewhere. The care with which its writers examine themselves and culture sometimes borders on the spiritual. I want n+1 to continue to exist.As for the LRB and NYRB, these are the best publications out there devoted exclusively to reviews.Anne: I love getting mail. Mail that must be delivered physically is better than email, because it takes more effort on the sender's part, for one, and there's room for personal embellishments and hidden surprises, not to mention that virtual pleasures often pale in comparison to the real thing. There's pleasant repetition in receiving the mail, too. It's delivered around same hour most days, and yet you never know what will arrive (especially in New York, where you can never be sure that even what's expected will come). Like Ann Marlowe who in her memoir How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z tells how heroin addicts measure their days by both copping and doing their H, I divvy time by the arrival of my magazine subscriptions. The weeklies' (The New Yorker and New York) arrival on Tuesdays marks the official start to the week; and while Harper's announces the coming of the next month before I'm even thinking about it, The Believer usually punctuates the middle of the four-week run.If magazines are an addiction, it's one I relish with unadulterated pleasure, and one my doctor isn't likely to tell me I need to cut back on anytime soon. I try to keep the roll call in check, but I find subscriptions are like intimate relationships - and difficult to end. The last magazine I straight-up dumped was the Atlantic Monthly. When it stopped publishing fiction regularly, our relationship was over. Even though I've tried to quit others - on behalf of the bank account and attempts to clear clutter, or during moments of clarity when I realize that to read all of my magazines from cover to cover would leave time for nothing else (including sleep) - it's a hopeless cause. As soon I let my subscription lapse, they send beckoning discount offers. Just like a haughty ex, The New York Review of Books once included a sticker to decline that said, "No, I don't like to think." Next thing I know, I find myself picking up copies that I've missed at the newsstand, or gawking at the online table of contents wishing I hadn't let my subscription lapse.While I could (and do) read much of what's available online, for free, I usually print out copies of longer stories. I'm far more inclined to surrender to the curatorial authority of the editors when a magazine is in my hands. And not infrequently, I find myself drawn to read articles I may not have jumped to from the TOC. On the internet, my reading is often guided by my own preferences. Still, Cabinet remains the one immutable magazine in my repertoire, that should always be consumed en vivo. In fact, most of the content isn't available online, so you really don't have a choice. But even if it were, Cabinet is meant to be collected. As if offering reading pleasures as varied as Shelley Jackson's riff on the color mauve or an essay on Artaud's gastronomical obsessions weren't enough, each issue features eclectic artwork and artists' projects, with bonus pull-out goodies like postcards, bookmarks (one of the more recent listing Jonathan Ames's top ten most shameful moments), and, once, a mobile.The magazine arrives in a cardboard envelope, to protect the handsome volume from the hazards of transit. In addition to being the only magazine I've ever purchased with a picture of Larry Hagman on its cover, Cabinet is also the only magazine I've received by hand delivery, directly from the hands of one of the magazine's staff, or so I'd like to think. My roommate was the one who answered the door, so I'll never know who it was except that he wasn't the postman. Talk about personal service: a paper magazine may be more difficult to distribute than its online counterpart, but it's also far more enjoyable to receive.Max: The one magazine I'll always have as long as they put it on paper is The New Yorker. I've spent so much time with the magazine over the last decade or so that I've become the sort of obsessive that I normally shy away from. But I can't help it. I notice every minor formatting change, every new byline, and every editorial shift. As much as I love the internet (and have a career that's powered by it), I could never have this sort of relationship with a publication that I only read online. I'm also a big fan of The Economist - self-assured in its seriousness, never stooping to celebrity journalism to move copies - but, dauntingly thorough as it is each week, I never made much of dent in it. Instead, I've recently shifted my subscription to the audio edition, and I their British-accented readers provided an edifying diversion when I go on long drives or run at the gym.I've also become a big fan of The Week, the perfect magazine for the internet age. It digests the coverage from hundreds of global newspapers and magazines into an incredibly entertaining and readable package. My favorite section is "Best Columns," which selects a handful of the best columns and op-eds from newspapers around the world and boils them down to a paragraph or so. It's a full week of news, expertly curated and smartly presented. Finally, we are weekend subscribers of The New York Times. It's nice to have an issue or two lying around. But increasingly it seems, we are just in it for the Sunday puzzle.Recently, we've also begun polling members of The Millions Facebook Group to get their answers to our Millions Quiz question. Here a few of the responses:Trevor Berrett: I still subscribe to, and can't see myself giving up, The New Yorker and The Economist. Both are too well written to treat as simple news or as a quick break to read something online. Though both are available online, it's not the same as being able to go through the print to underline passages for their excellent writing.Tray Davis: New York Review of Books, New Yorker, London Review of Books, Harvard Business Review, The Nation and The Economist. I subscribe because I learn something of interest every time I have time to read any portion of any of them. Cannot imagine reading them online, but don't have a good reason why not.So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What subscriptions can't you go without?
So that you may get to know us better, it's The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.Today's Question: In the age of Google and Wikipedia, reference books seem anachronistic, but some have not been superseded by the internet in their usefulness and convenience and even in their ability to divert and entertain. What is the one reference book you couldn't live without?Andrew: It doesn't fit on my bookshelves, and it dwarfs everything on my coffee table, so when not in use, I stand it up on the floor, where it leans casually against a pillar near my stereo speaker. Big, blue and glossy, my National Geographic Atlas of the World (Eighth Edition) has been with me for just over two years now, the result of a rare moment of book-buying extravagance.Admittedly, everything in it can probably be found somewhere online, and indeed if I'm at work I'm the first to be glad of Google or Mapquest if searching for something specific. But if I'm at home, there's nothing like opening this massive book on my lap, or seeing it sprawl in front of me on the dining room table, seeing the world open up before me. Even if I'm not searching for something specific - indeed especially if I'm not - the very bigness of the atlas leaves me with an appreciation of the bigness of the world, and there's little I enjoy more than getting lost in its pages.Lydia: My dear editor, there are some circles where you will get cut for talking about reference books like that. It was my great pleasure to spend the last two years working for an antiquarian bookseller, and as a result I encountered a bewildering number of bibliographies and reference books, many of which are not online and which have no useful online equivalent. The fourth edition of Besterman's World Bibliography of Bibliographies, if you please, is five enormous volumes, and that was published in 1965. Some industry standards have made the switch to digital, but I think it will be a long time before the antiquarian (anachronistic?) book trade mulches all of its physical reference libraries. That said, I'm willing to be pragmatic about the eventual digitization of everything because it seems so unlikely that I would be able to amass a legitimate reference collection of my own. The Dictionary of National Biography, for example, is now available online by subscription for around 200 pounds a year, or free if your library subscribes. The set of 60 volumes, on the other hand, is a $5,000 proposition, not to mention the price of the square footage it sits on. But none of this answers your question. My favorite reference book is the book my boss told me to read when he hired me, John Carter's legendary ABC For Book Collectors. It explains books as objects and commodities from A (advance copy) to Y (yellow-back) in a straightforward and engaging manner. It's inexpensive, it's small, it's been around forever, and it's fun to read. It is, dare I say, a must-have.Kevin: The key part of the question for me is "has not been superseded by the internet in its usefulness and convenience." This leads me to pick that most common of all reference books, the dictionary. Mine is a Webster's New Collegiate won as a prize in high school.When thinking about this question, I considered the ways the Internet typically holds an advantage over physical books. They are, I think, four: first, the Internet is dynamic and easily edited, allowing it to respond to changes in knowledge; second, the Internet takes up little room in your house, making it a nice alternative to a cabinet full of encyclopedias; third, the Internet is associative, allowing you to look up one thing in Wikipedia, and then click through to five other related topics you had not thought about before; and fourth, the Internet has multimedia.The dictionary, though, neither needs nor responds well to the type of advantages the Internet has to offer. It's content is largely consistent from year-to-year and never needs revising. It takes up little room. It's not used in a way that benefits that much from associate or multimedia options. In sum, the Internet can no more improve on the dictionary than it can on the wheel.Garth: I have three desk references that I find indispensable. One is the Oxford English Dictionary; I've got the two-volume compact edition with the magnifying glass, which I picked up for $37 at a used bookstore. Not every writer will find himself resorting to hippopotomonstrosesquipedalia such as "quiptificate," or "horripilating," but, perhaps to my discredit, I sometimes do. Luxuriating in the etymological swarf of the O.E.D. is also a great way to procrastinate, in that it gives me the illusion of time usefully spent. Right next to the thick two volumes is the American Map Corporation's remarkable Truckers Atlas for Professional Drivers. If you need to locate a character within an American state or major city, the 400-page Truckers Atlas is your man. Finally, the Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature comes in handy for blog pieces. The entries are fairly bland, but are great for fact-checking, and the book has a nice globalist bent.Anne: I fear I'm far too digitized. Despite the Mennonite origin of my last name, I am by no means a Luddite. My favorite reference is the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary on CD-ROM - it's an amazing tool, with the definition of every word in the the English language only a few taps away at the keyboard, and without the heft of the paper dictionary. It's also great for finding words when you only half recall the word, because when you enter a word that's not in the dictionary, it suggests a list of words you may be looking for. You can do a reverse word look-up as well as a search for words that rhyme. Also useful, though not quite as nifty, is the online version, which has all the benefits of the CD-ROM except you have to pay a yearly fee for the service and if you're without web access, you're without your dictionary. (Plus, an open web browser makes for an easy distraction when writing.)I love the breadth of the Oxford English Dictionary, especially because it shows a word's origins and the ways the use has changed over time, but I haven't had access to the online version since college and there isn't room for the old-fashioned form in my Brooklyn apartment. Despite its unreliability, I am madly in love with Wikipedia for the expansive information it offers about seemingly everything. I still consult Abrams' Glossary of Literary Terms as well as the Merriam Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, one was a staple in my college literature classes and the other I purchased for ten dollars in a discount bookstore. They're both useful but not irreplaceable. When I was working as a copy editor and proofreader, I lived by Fowlers and The Chicago Manual of Style. Now they're both gathering dust on my bookshelf.Emily: I'm a sucker for etymology. English words and phrases aren't only the means by which stories are told, they have stories to tell themselves about our past - about ancestors and mores and customs long dead. Cobweb, for example, tells of a time in England's Anglo-Saxon past when a spider was a coppe. Corduroy, "corde du roi" or "cord fit for a king," tells of a time when what we know as a sturdy, humble fabric was made of silk instead of cotton and was used exclusively by French royalty for their hunting costumes. The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) is a great source of etymological lore, and so long as my generous patrons at Stanford University continue to allow me remote access, the online version of the OED is the reference I can't do without, and the reference that Wiki and Google just can't touch. For example, did you know that the sports term "hat trick" comes to us from cricket?2. a. Cricket. The feat of a bowler who takes three wickets by three successive balls: orig. considered to entitle him to be presented by his club with a new hat or some equivalent.1877 J. LILLYWHITE Cricketers' Compan. 181 Having on one occasion taken six wickets in seven balls, thus performing the hat-trick successfully. 1882 Daily Tel. 19 May, He thus accomplished the feat known as the 'hat trick', and was warmly applauded. 1896 WEST 1st Year at School xxvi, The achievement of the hat~trick afforded Eliot the proudest moment of his life.b. Hence gen., a threefold feat in other sports or activities.When Stanford gives me up and I am cut off from my beloved OED, there is William and Mary Morris' Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins. It's not as comprehensive as the OED, but its entries have an old-fashioned quality that sometimes verges into a delightfully colorful tastelessness (without sacrificing historical accuracy!). Take donnybrook:A true donnybrook consists of a knock-down-drag-out brawl with anywhere from a handful to a mob of participants. It takes it name from the town of Donnybrook, a suburb southeast of Dublin. There, from medieval times up to the middle of the nineteenth century, were held annual fairs, which for riotous debauchery rivaled the Saturnalian revels of Caesar's time. They always wound up in fisticuffs and worse—much worse.Over the centuries the Irish have displayed a notable disinclination to avoid a good fight. Indeed, their hankering for a brawl is as legendary as their ability at handling their traditional weapon, the shillelagh. So it's hardly to be wondered at that the annual spectacle of thousands of Irishmen flailing light-heartedly about with splendid disregard for the Marquis of Queensbury's rules should have made the name donnybrook synonymous with brawling.Ah, yes, Irishmen and their shillelaghs. I think they also eat nothing but potatoes and babies and live in caves. No?Max: Even as a kid I always loved map books and encyclopedias. In the case of the latter I spent many hours with a well-worn set of Golden Book Encyclopedias and then later, many more with the family's World Book set. With all the moving around I did after college, a reference library wasn't a luxury I could afford to lug, but I do have a couple reference books I use regularly. One is my AP Stylebook, the one required reference of my journalism school years. I still keep it within reach for quick answers to questions like when to capitalize "chief justice" and what precisely is meant by the term "prime rate."Also still getting ample use is a fat paperback, The Synonym Finder. When I was working at the bookstore in Los Angeles, a writer from out of town came in. She was suffering a bout of writer's block and the only cure was The Synonym Finder. We had a single, very beat-up copy tucked away on our shelves, but she bought it gladly and with a sense of relief that was visible on her face. The episode convinced me, and I secured my own copy as soon as I could. She was right. It's a superior thesaurus, and it has never disappointed me.With this Millions Quiz, we decided to try something new. We also polled members of The Millions Facebook Group to get their answers to our question. Here a few of the responses:Matthew Tiffany: Omit needless words. Omit. Needless. Words. Strunk & White.Anne Fernald: The Oxford Companion to English Literature (ed Margaret Drabble - it's her voice I love) followed closely by M. H. Abrams' Glossary of Literary Terms.Mike Lindgren: Chicago Manual of Style. It would not be readily reproducible online, and it is essential for anyone serious about the business of words.So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What are your essential reference books?
So that you may get to know us better, it's The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.Today's Question: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?Edan: There are so many gaping holes in my reading! I haven't read Proust (saving him for my white-haired years) and, beyond Chekhov, not many Russians (I'll be reading Anna Karenina next month and I'm looking forward to it). I haven't read Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Gravity's Rainbow, or Infinite Jest - I tend to avoid big books. I'm too embarrassed to name one very famous Shakespeare play I know next to nothing about. I never read mysteries or horror, mostly because I'm a scared wimp, but I'm thinking of reading a Patricia Highsmith novel this year. Recently, I've started to read more books in translation, and since graduating from college I've made a point of reading all the classics I missed, like To the Lighthouse and Tess of the D'Urbervilles, both of which I loved. I'm also making myself read more nonfiction, since I never would otherwise. I haven't even read Truman Capote's In Cold Blood! Writing this reminds me of all the writers I haven't read: Homer, Norman Mailer, John Irving, Gertrude Stein, John McPhee, J.K. Rowling. That's right, I haven't read Harry Potter!Why am I wasting my time writing this? I must go read. Now.Andrew: As I do a quick mental survey of my life of reading, I notice a number of gaping holes. Some beckon; others continue to keep me at bay.Chronologically, then: The Classics. Aside from some excerpts of the ancient Greeks in high school English, I've never delved into classical literature. I have seen a number of theatrical adaptations of classical Greek plays, but that's about it. Aside from excerpts, I've never even read Homer.I'll jump ahead to the 1800s only because I'm not exactly sure what I'm missing from the intervening centuries. Lets assume EVERYTHING. (except Don Quixote - I've actually read that). So, on to the 1800s: I've never read Moby Dick or Middlemarch. I've done quite well re: Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, and the Russians. I've also done quite well in early-mid 20th century fiction - that was always (and remains) my favorite literary era.More recently, I've done quite well with modern British fiction, and I've also been quite good at Latin American fiction from the past 50 years (Mutis, Marquez, Borges, Bolano). But still some gaps remain in 20th century fiction: Thomas Pynchon and Margaret Atwood (I should be stripped of my Canadian citizenship for that).Before the Millions, contemporary American fiction had been a giant hole. But over the past 6 years I've delved deeply into Lethem, Chabon, Franzen, and once I can successfully wrap my puny brain around David Foster Wallace's encyclopedic prose, I'll actually finish Infinite Jest. It's mesmerizing, but exhausting.Emily: When it comes to playing readerly "I Never," there are rather a lot of burly man-authors, chiefly twentieth-century man-authors, whose work I've never read. Hemingway (other than the 4 page story "Hills Like White Elephants"), Kerouac (a bit of his poetry; enough of On the Road), Roth, Updike, Kesey, Heller, Burroughs, Cormac McCarthy, Vonnegut, Pynchon, Moody, and Foster Wallace all fall into the category of authors I haven't read. Many of them fall also into the category of authors I have no interest in reading. Perhaps it is that I intuit (or imagine - not having read them, it is hard to say) a masculinist, vaguely misogynist aura that has put me off; Or, as in the cases of Pynchon and Foster Wallace, a virtuousic formal complexity or grandiose heft, that I also associate with the masculine artistic mind. There is, I am aware, no way to justify my philistine (and perhaps sexist) distrust of these authors - my sense that I would find their depictions of violence and apocalypse, aimless wandering, women conquered, uninteresting; that I think I would find their self-conscious cleverness, their feats of stylistic and structural brilliance somewhat tedious; that in reading B.R. Meyer's "A Reader's Manifesto" at The Atlantic some years ago, I decided that Meyers' extended pull quotes designed to illustrate McCarthy's "muscular" style were as much (more) than I'd ever need of McCarthy's much lauded prose:While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who's will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who's will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who's will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned. (All the Pretty Horses, 1992)No thank you. Well-founded, my prejudices certainly are not, but I do not apologize for them or intend to renounce them. Cormac McCarthy may keep his pretty horses - give me clarity, proportion, precision; give me Austen and Burney, Defoe, Iris Murdoch, P.G. Woodhouse, Willa Cather, Evelyn Waugh, Mary McCarthy, Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis. If one must be a philistine, it is best to be an unrepentant one.Garth: What is the biggest hole in my lifetime of reading? The question should probably be phrased in the plural: holes. I've never read Kundera; never read Saramago; never read Robinson Crusoe, or Wuthering Heights, or Clarissa; William James, Slavoj Zizek, Henderson the Rain King... Then again, these are kind of scattershot: smallish holes, with some space in between them.Where I feel a huge constellation of holes, threatening to make one giant hole large enough to swallow me, is in Classics. Especially the Greeks. I would like to take a year and just read Plato and Aristotle and the Greek dramas. Or go back to school... So much is built on a basic corpus of Hellenistic knowledge that I somehow never acquired in school. We did The Iliad, The Odyssey, Oedipus... and that's pretty much it.Kevin: The holes are too numerous to count and the biggest are likely ones I'm not even aware of. I have tried over the last couple years to close some of the most gaping omissions in my reading - secondary Shakespeare plays and the big books of Russian literature being two areas of particularly concerted effort. What remains? Well, a lot. Two that seem particularly important are the British romantic poets and the modernist. The former feels like washing the dishes, to be done of necessity but without any great joy. I think I'll save Lord Byron and his court for later life, when the years will hopefully have afforded me the wisdom to enjoy their work more. I feel a greater urgency with the modernists, in part because I've had enough false starts that I worry I lack the concentration to extract the good stuff from their difficult prose. For about three years I've been thirty pages into Mrs. Dalloway and likewise with Ulysses. When it's the time of day when I typically turn to fiction, I find I lack the appetite to pick them up to begin the fight anew. So, the hole remains, and seems even to grow deeper by the day.Max: This turns out to be a rather liberating exercise. The largest missing piece in my reading experience has been Faulkner, I think. I've never read any of his books, though I made a poor and ultimately unsuccessful attempt at The Sound and the Fury in college. I've long felt that I should have gotten started on the Russians sooner. So far, I've only got Crime and Punishment under my belt. I think I'd like to try Anna Karenina next. I've also never read Lolita. Updike's passing this week reminded me that I've never read any of his books. The same is true of DeLillo's books and Foster Wallace's. By Philip Roth, I've read only Portnoy's Complaint, which I know leaves out many, many good books. I really need to read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Tree of Smoke and Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and The Echo Maker by Richard Powers. There are likely many more that I can't even recall that I haven't read, but I'll leave it with Virginia Woolf, whose To the Lighthouse I started not long ago but ended up setting aside when it failed to grab me (or rather, I failed to be grabbed by it).So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?