25 April 2011

A nice piece by Linda Homes at NPR (thanks to Jane for passing along) about the anxiety many of us have these days re: “so much to read, so little time.”  She makes the argument that the sadness we feel about “what we’re missing,” because there’s just too much good stuff out there, is also a beautiful thing; and that we should resist “culling,” which is her term for coping with the volume of choices by mentally eliminating entire categories of art from our “worthwhile” list.

Culling is easy; it implies a huge amount of control and mastery. Surrender, on the other hand, is a little sad. That’s the moment you realize you’re separated from so much. That’s your moment of understanding that you’ll miss most of the music and the dancing and the art and the books and the films that there have ever been and ever will be, and right now, there’s something being performed somewhere in the world that you’re not seeing that you would love.

It’s sad, but it’s also … great, really. Imagine if you’d seen everything good, or if you knew about everything good. Imagine if you really got to all the recordings and books and movies you’re “supposed to see.” Imagine you got through everybody’s list, until everything you hadn’t read didn’t really need reading. That would imply that all the cultural value the world has managed to produce since a glob of primordial ooze first picked up a violin is so tiny and insignificant that a single human being can gobble all of it in one lifetime. That would make us failures, I think.

If “well-read” means “not missing anything,” then nobody has a chance. If “well-read” means “making a genuine effort to explore thoughtfully,” then yes, we can all be well-read. But what we’ve seen is always going to be a very small cup dipped out of a very big ocean, and turning your back on the ocean to stare into the cup can’t change that.

And here’s an interesting response in the comments from someone who disagrees, who thinks generalism is a waste of time:

Endeavor to contribute in your special way, and humanity grows. It’s a fools errand to personally know all knowledge. It’s a liars ruse if one claims to know all. Furthermore, if you knew and could do all, there would be scant appreciation for those that excel at only a few things. Would the great artists, architects and leaders be useful if all were as capable?

I have to admit that I have culling tendencies; though I’d like to think that I cull in a thoughtful way, as opposed to a dismissive one.  In other words, in my experience, culling is not easy, it means developing priorities based on an aesthetic and/or personal value system that’s idiosyncratic by virtue of having formed over time.  It also recognizes reality; I can’t know or do everything, so I’ll work on what I can.  I trust the people who are gifted otherwise to cover those areas, while I cover mine.  Be master of such as you have, is how Barry Hannah put it.  Perhaps the compromise is that the culling process works best when it’s evolving and organic.  Tomorrow I may evolve into, say, an Italian film enthusiast; but only if I’m open to it.


15 April 2010

Tonight, the fifth and final season of Friday Night Lights premieres on NBC.   At The Millions today, I moon over the series.

9 April 2011

These are pretty great (from LIFE Magazine via Flavorwire) and seem to me the ultimate in “literary eye candy.”  Why is this?  I suppose we love to witness the creative process, like beholding a magician.  At the same time, these are obviously posed.  Maybe we need to uphold the illusion, the fantasy, that it’s not all sweat and tears, that there is glamour somewhere in the writing process.

Love this – Alfred Hitchcock with his hunt-and-peck, and stocked bar


Dorothy Parker – smoke-and-type


Tennessee Williams – oblivious to clutter


The ultimate romanticised Hemingway

Here’s my own (verbal) version of “author-at-work.”  More portraits over at Flavorwire.

8 April 2011

The Paris Review online has published a lovely series of essays on James Salter – by Jhumpa Lahiri, Porochista Khakpour, Ian Crouch, Geoff Dyer, and more.  All this leading up to their annual Spring Revel, where Salter will be honored with their Hadada Prize.

If you’ve been in and around my blog, you know how I feel about Mr. Salter.  It all started with A Sport and a Pastime, a few years back, and I’ve read all his work since (the stories perhaps amaze me most).  I spent a very memorable day with him at his home in Bridgehampton last winter, and I’ve written (am in the process of revising) a profile, which will appear in Tin House in December 2011.

Also, Checkerboard Films is making a documentary on Salter, which will premiere at an event in late May.  If I make the cut, you’ll see me as a talking head.

I’m so delighted to see this “writer’s writer” receive (at 85) all the recognition and accolades he deserves.

4 April 2011

You’ve seen them in your favorite bookstores; usually there’s a special section for them, something like a shrine.  They have beautiful covers and the paper stock is somehow more substantial, more serious, than other paperbacks.  They are paperbacks that feel like hardcovers, whatever that “means.”

Random House describes the NY Review of Books Classics series thus:

The NYRB Classics series is designedly and determinedly exploratory and eclectic, a mix of fiction and non-fiction from different eras and times and of various sorts. The series includes nineteenth century novels and experimental novels, reportage and belles lettres, tell-all memoirs and learned studies, established classics and cult favorites, literature high, low, unsuspected, and unheard of. NYRB Classics are, to a large degree, discoveries, the kind of books that people typically run into outside of the classroom and then remember for life.

Inevitably literature in translation constitutes a major part of the NYRB Classics series, simply because so much great literature has been left untranslated into English, or translated poorly, or deserves to be translated again, much as any outstanding book asks to be read again.

The series started in 1999 with the publication of Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica […] Published in handsome uniform trade paperback editions, almost all the 250 NYRB Classics included in this collection feature an introduction by an outstanding writer, scholar, or critic of our day. Taken as a whole, NYRB Classics may be considered a series of books of unrivaled variety and quality for discerning and adventurous readers.

I discovered the series at The Corner Bookstore in Manhattan, one of the most blessed book places on earth.  I have it in my mind to work my way through the entire series someday; but thankfully, I also came across this – a Top 10 NYRB Classics list – over at Conversational Reading.

There’s a subscription club that is looking very irresistible right now… this is one Book Club I can imagine joining.

Tax Time


1 April 2011

April is going to be an especially busy month.  As such, you’d think it might be an opportune time to finally enlist an accountant to do my taxes.  But no, nothin’ doin’.  I don’t know what it is – it’s not that I enjoy it.  But I do find it interesting to shuffle through receipts, and bank and credit card statements, and walk down memory lane a bit.  You confront that uncomfortable sense that you are what you spend.

Maybe there’s also something comforting there, something concrete, in the midst of a life that can sometimes start to get away from you and feel a bit out-of body.  I spend, therefore I am.  I think another reason I like seeing where it all went is that it gives me a tangible way of considering change and improvement for the coming year.

I’m also I suppose an honesty geek when it comes to paying taxes.  I don’t want someone (an accountant) to tell me “what I can get away with.”  I want to deduct what’s actually deductible, what’s actually “business-related.”  I want to make those decisions on my own.  What really happened during that $60 lunch date?  How much of that Amazon purchase am I using for “work”?  It’s not unlikely that for my entire working life I’ve been grossly over-paying in taxes.  On the other hand, when you don’t make much, how much could you possibly overpay?  As long as Mr. Obama is in office, I’ll pay my share; not exactly gladly, but willingly.