29 June 2009

A quick google of Cristina Nehring, author of A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century, from last week’s post, brought up an interesting 2004 article from the NY Times by Nehring entitled, “Books Make You a Boring Person.”

In the article, Nehring cautions against book-lover self-righteousness, urging readers to remember that there are many different ways to read a book:

We all know people who have read everything and have nothing to say. We all know people who use a text the way others use Muzak: to stave off the silence of their minds. These people may have a comic book in the bathroom, a newspaper on the breakfast table, a novel over lunch, a magazine in the dentist’s office, a biography on the kitchen counter, a political expose in bed, a paperback on every surface of their home and a weekly in their back pocket lest they ever have an empty moment. Some will be geniuses; others will be simple text grazers: always nibbling, never digesting — ever consuming, never creating.

The example of the “grazer” helps me think through the half-baked thoughts of a previous post, “A Lot of People Don’t Read Books.”  In the back of my mind, I knew that I wasn’t really making a distinction between book-readers and non-book-readers, but something else.  Nehring gets closer to the meaningful distinction:

There are two very different ways to use books. One is to provoke our own judgments, and the other, by far the more common, is to make such conclusions unnecessary. If we wish to embrace the first, we cannot afford to be adulatory of books…we must be aggressive… 

…you can learn anything from a book — or nothing. You can learn to be a suicide bomber, a religious fanatic…as easily as you can learn to be tolerant, peace-loving and wise. You can acquire unrealistic expectations of love as readily as, probably more readily than, realistic ones. You can learn to be a sexist or a feminist, a romantic or a cynic, a utopian or a skeptic. Most disturbing, you can train yourself to be nothing at all; you can float forever like driftwood on the current of text; you can be as passive as a person in an all-day movie theater, as antisocial as a kid holed up with a video game, and at the same time more conceited than both.

My shorthand for this (and another reason why I struggle with the Kindle) is: “Read with a pencil.”  Read aggressively.  I know I am reading in a way that will change me in some way if I am making notes, rushing to jot things down in my journal, underlining and sending quotes to friends.  Can you make notes/marginalia on a Kindle?  If yes, I might just be sold.

24 June 2009

The other day, post-showdownatTheMillions, I was a little despondent (if you’ve read my essay, “How to Become a Writer,” you know that I have thin skin) and found myself wandering into a bookstore in Chelsea called 192 Books.  

It used to be that bookstores unfailingly cheered me up; there was always something to discover, whether or not I actually bought something.  And also a feeling of home, of sharing something fundamental with the other (possibly-despondent) browsers — all of us in search of hope in the form of beautiful writing.

These days I brace myself a little when entering a bookstore.  The publishing process robs one of some of that book-buying/book-browsing innocence.  It’s easy to get caught up in the sense that it’s all just sausage-making and to see nothing but pork fat and innards — loud displays, sensational jacket covers, the same-old-top-10-best-selling authors front and center.  I don’t begrudge any bookstore, independent ones especially, for whatever they need to do to stay afloat; it’s more that my awareness of all the machinations now blares, infringing on the homecoming.

But at 192, something wonderful is being preserved.  The place is curated, not window-dressed.  It feels like a person, or group of persons, is behind the particular arrangement of books — not a McPerson, not a sales formula.  Even in hard economic times, they seem to continue to understand their job as a mission — proactive, not merely reactive.  As a consumer, I feel respected — encouraged toward a highest common denominator, not a lowest one.  

Two of the new fiction releases on display were Joe Meno’s The Great Perhaps, and Kate Walbert’s A Short History of Women, both of which are going on my to-read list.  A terrific profile of Joe Meno by Edan Lepucki at The Millions first got my attention, and then the jacket copy at 192 really got my attention.  Here’s an excerpt:

…Each [of the Caspers] fears uncertainty and the possibilities that accompany it. When Jonathan and Madeline suddenly decide to separate, this nuclear family is split, each member forced to confront his or her own cowardice, finally coming to appreciate the cloudiness of the modern age. With wit and humor, The Great Perhaps pre-sents a revealing look at anxiety, ambiguity, and the need for complicated answers to complex questions.

Having gone through the process of creating catalogue copy, this struck me; for blurbs and summaries there is often a push toward punchy advertising speak.  This one seemed to me somewhat uncompromising; you can hear the author’s voice. (I mean, when you are releasing a book in the U.S. for the summer and thinking about how to hook the general reader, would the words cowardice, cloudiness, anxiety, ambiguity, complicated, and complexity rush to mind?)

A short video of Kate Walbert discussing “advice for young writers” over at Scribner/Simon & Schuster gives us a spare, truthful, and encouraging voice — bling-less and down-to earth.  “Don’t give up,” she says, then goes on to share the fact that the first novel she published was the third novel she’d written.  There is so much wisdom, and liberating realism, in that kind of established-writer’s revelation.

Both Meno and Walbert have been at this a long time.  Congrats to both of them on their auspicious releases.

23 June 2009

Boy, they really beat me up over at The Millions following my post about the dangers of genre-and-commercial-lit consumption.  As I mentioned in my June 18 post, the day “Slinging Stones…” went up on The Millions site, I was expecting some degree of push-back.  But as the days went on, and the comments piled up, it got pretty ugly.

So what did I learn from this experience?

1) beware of over-simplification via broad categories and labels

2) the essay-blog form is very, very difficult, especially when a nuanced argument is required

3) if you express a strong opinion, you will get strong reactions

4) literary populism is a serious force

5) I am an out-of-touch elitist (neither proud nor ashamed)*

I also learned that the blog-and-comment format is limited, and that it’s not terribly useful to repeatedly defend one’s position.  

I wondered throughout the commenting period if someone would change my mind.  I felt reasonably open to having my mind changed.  But that didn’t happen.  I probably feel even more strongly that gorging on pulp fiction and/or defending the literary merits of bad, empty writing is not harmless; and that much of the staunch defense of mass commercial writing is rooted in, as one commenter put it, “contempt-based faux-populism.”  

In fact, the emotional pitch of the strongest comments seemed less driven by passion about this book or that book, this author or that author (in fact, there was more agreement about what constitutes good writing and bad writing than disagreement); and more by a sub-textual conflict between constructed notions of elitism and populism.

I take to heart that my essayist’s skills require much improvement; and for that, I’ll take my punches.  But cries of elitism are starting to sound like “wolf” to me.  If I claim that Doctorow is a better writer than Koontz, Marilynne Robinson better than Stephenie Meyer, I’m supposedly an elitist.  At that point, it’s probably time to agree to disagree.

And, ultimately, disagreement is good.  I really believe this.  Mindlessness is the real enemy, and so I am encouraged when opinions — even ones I deeply oppose — are passionately, thoroughly, and intelligently defended.


*(“elite” is a neutral-to-positive word that’s been co-opted by the hysterical right wing; as for out-of-touch, well, that’s a relative term, depending on what one determines is worth being “in touch” with)

21 June 2009

I’m intrigued by Cristina Nehring’s book, A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century, which, according to reviewer Katie Roiphe is a “celebration of the wilder, messier connections” throughout the history of great romances.  Nehring “sees our modern goals of marriage, security, and comfort as limited and sad.”

But could there be an ickier, less appealing image for Roiphe’s Sunday Book Review piece?  (shudder, goosebumps, ick) 


Nehring NYT


If the essence of the book is truly captured in this image, then it’s enough to turn me off completely from purchasing the book, and possibly from the content itself.  I surprise myself with this reaction.  I wonder if any other NYT readers have had a similar gut response.

18 June 2009

My guest post at The Millions today is already drawing some fire, which I expected. Dissent, discussion, it’s all good. Let’s talk about it.

16 June 2009

From the department of books-that-help-us-understand-current-events, some recommendations from Ann Kingman at Books on the Nightstand for recent books, fiction and nonfiction, about Iran.  Readers are posting additional recs.  Click here for the post.

16 June 2009

As a follow-up to my recent essay-memoir post, “How to Become a Writer,” I am reminded of Lorrie Moore’s much better much funnier, “How to Become a Writer Or, Have You Earned This Cliche?” from her first story collection, Self Help.   (At least I’ve got the coffee-drinking part down like a pro.)