New York City
Jay-Z puts out one major release every year, most often in November. Usually it's a record, another installment in the lyrical autobiography that has made up his life's work. This year it's a book, Decoded, and Jay showed up at the New York Public Library last night to talk about it.
Decoded rocks a golden Andy Warhol Rorschach image on its front cover, hinting at the psychological self-exploration that has always been Jay-Z's specialty. The book's heft, dramatic packaging and thematic chapter structure indicate a serious work, and a highly deliberate encounter with the literary form. I was hoping to hear Jay talk about his writing process and his literary inspirations at the NYPL, but the onstage interview with Paul Holdengraber and Cornel West was such a high-energy affair that, after an hour and three quarters of intense conversation, we never even got around to that topic.
The image in this week's Litkicks Mystery Spot #7 is from a 1951 aerial map of New York City. It shows the southeast corner of Central Park, a location immortalized in J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. This is where Holden Caulfield stared at ducks in a pond and wondered where they would go in the winter when the pond froze. And it's where he watched his younger sister Phoebe ride on a carousel at the touching end of the book.
1. This image of P. G. Wodehouse's bookshelf is just one of the incidental delights to be found in the BBC's literary video archive, In Their Own Words. Other authors showing their remarkable presence in these historical broadcasts include Virginia Woolf, Kingsley Amis, Muriel Spark, William Golding, Robert Graves and E. M. Forster and J. R. R. Tolkien (via drmabuse).
(Just one minor note about the text accompanying the P. G. Wodehouse interview, in which the shy humorist plays incessantly with his pipe and tries to give honest answers to tough questions: Wodehouse did live in Eastport, on Long Island's East End, but Eastport ain't the Hamptons, not really even close. But what would the BBC know about Long Island?)
2. Jonathan Franzen's upcoming novel Freedom is getting major, major news coverage, including the cover of Time magazine (he's the first novelist on the cover of Time since Stephen King ten years ago). I haven't read the novel yet, but I liked his previous family saga The Corrections and am looking forward to reviewing Freedom for another web publication as soon as my review copy shows up. In the meantime, here's a piece from The Millions about all the other writers who have been on the cover of Time since the magazine was founded in 1923.
I wrote an article this week for Jewcy, a new online magazine devoted to Jewish culture in all its shapes and forms. It's about being a Jewish-born Buddhist, and it's called Speaking Up For The Bu-Jus.
I've been fascinated by religions -- all of them -- since I was a little kid. I guess that's why I now claim two, not one, for myself. I've also been very influenced in my life by the great teachings of Jesus, who was every bit as powerful a philosopher as Buddha. But the historical trappings of Christianity don't please me much (I don't think they'd please Jesus either), whereas nearly every aspect of the Buddhist religion appeals to me. I guess a guy ought to have the right to choose his religion, and that's why I wrote this short article.
In Paul Auster's City of Glass, a mad linguist named Peter Stillman pounds through the streets of Manhattan's Upper West Side, observed by a writer named Daniel Quinn who is impersonating a private detective named Paul Auster. Quinn tracks Stillman's movements in a red notebook and eventually realizes that his daily walks are spelling out the words "TOWER OF BABEL".
I'm impressed that many of you correctly identified the location of the Litkicks Mystery Spot #6. The book was published 25 years ago (!) to little immediate acclaim, and has gradually emerged as one of our era's modern classics. I'm sure I'm not the only person who can't walk through New York City's Upper West Side to this day without thinking of City of Glass.
Greenwich Village poet and scenester Tuli Kupferberg has died at age 86. Most legendary as a founding member of the 60s rock/poetry band The Fugs (who are more talked about than listened to today, though you can actually listen to them here), he was also widely beloved for being a funny, unpretentious and approachable New York City street hipster through several generations.
I'm a little skeptical of the story (which I only began hearing in recent years) that Tuli was immortalized as a character in Allen Ginsberg's Howl. He did, however, write a book called 1001 Ways To Live Without Working, and lived that ethic to the end.
Worst of all was Jens Von Bretzel, a slim, unkempt guy with an army jacket, a luxuriant chabon of black hair, and a "to hell with this crap" demeanor that he barely concealed as he read from 'The Counter Life', his debut novel about a barista with a girlfriend who was too good for him, a future that was drifting towards oblivion, and a lousy attitude that kept getting him into trouble. The novel was based on the decade Von Bretzel had spent working at a Starbucks in Williamsburg. Von Bretzel's work was so much like the stories I was writing that I half suspected he had hacked into my computer and plagiarized my life. Except that Von Bretzel's work was more confident than mine, as if he considered his life worthy of committing to print, while to me, just about every aspect of my own existence seemed wholly unliterary -- how often had agents told me that my protagonists never did anything, that they always waited for things to happen to them?
Almost every character in Adam Langer's very funny, very expert satire The Thieves of Manhattan is either a frustrated writer or a successful one. The book's likable hero writes sensitive short stories that nobody cares to publish. He's bursting with jealousy over the success of a ridiculously popular memoirist who resembles James Frey, and he's so accustomed to defeat that he's barely surprised when his own girlfriend hits it big with a debut novel and leaves him for the memoirist. But literary striving is a complete, inescapable way of life to this character; even his vocabulary is riddled with references to the pantheon of popular and classic authors he yearns to join. A "chabon" (as in the quote above) is a wavy haircut, a "gogol" is an overcoat, and "franzens" and "eckleburgs" describe two different varieties of eyeglasses.
1. Sixty pianos have been placed around various New York City parks and plazas, providing a nice summer surprise. During the last five days I heard a soul ballad at Grand Army Plaza, Doo-wop in Washington Square, a klezmer melody at St. Mark's Place, and, at Fort Greene Park, an unusual performance of a classical piece by a young kid who was either using Schoenberg's twelve-note system or had his left hand in the wrong position. I also banged out some blues riffs of my own at Fort Greene Park before visiting the nearby Greenlight Bookstore. These pianos are part of a multi-city "work of art" called Play Me I'm Yours. I'm not sure exactly what it means to classify these pianos as an "artwork", but they sure are pleasing the people of New York City (I especially notice a lot of parent/child interaction at these pianos) and I hope they'll repeat it every summer.
2. "I do like a very quiet life," says W. S. Merwin, who has just been appointed the new U. S. Poet Laureate. What a boring choice. Well, I haven't felt a U. S. Poet Laureate since Donald Hall. The most interesting thing I know about W. S. Merwin is that he once got into a terrible battle with Allen Ginsberg and Ginsberg's Tibetan guru over an episode of forced nakedness at a poetry party (this weird history is chronicled in a previous Litkicks article, When Hippies Battle: The Great W. S. Merwin/Allen Ginsberg Beef of 1975). Beyond this, I just see Merwin as a poet who wins a lot of poetry awards without (as far as I've ever known) personally touching many people. And I can't help think of a recent article by Anis Shivani that eviscerates David Lehman's annual poetry anthologies, and says something about our contemporary academic poetry scene as a whole, a scene more obsessed with status updates than Facebook.
New York City's Book Expo America conference, where thousands of publishing industry professionals gather each year, takes place on Manhattan's West Side riverfront. The smoked glass walls of the Jacob Javits Center seem to contain an entire bustling city, but those who step outside and walk behind the building to make a phone call or enjoy some fresh air see a different vista: the mighty Hudson River, the modest cliffs of Hoboken and Weehawken across the way in Jersey, and a series of picteresque rotted piers, the only reminder of a shipping industry that once dominated Manhattan's riverside. The Titanic would have anchored near here in 1912, if if it had completed its first voyage.
Pessimistic pundits like Garrison Keillor might see a metaphor for the future of book publishing in these fallen piers, but, thankfully, many other industry observers are rejecting this type of gloomy nonsense for the craven self-flattery it really is (all people like Garrison Keillor and Philip Roth are really saying, when they claim that literature has no future, is that their generation was more sensitive and refined than any future generation can possibly be). Myself, I relish Book Expo every year as a chance to see book publishing's living past and exciting future as a single vast swarm. The conference brings out the veterans and the journeymen along with the eager upstarts and interns. Staring at the river, I see a slender elderly man who, I fantasize, might have once bolted drinks with John O'Hara, negotiated contracts with Jacqueline Susann, sipped cocktails with Kurt Vonnegut. He looks maybe 70 or 75 years old, his craggy face ravaged by plastic surgery, his thin hair an improbable red against a pale sun-scorched scalp. He's wearing a robins-egg blue seersucker summer suit with a folded handkerchief in his pocket and a yellow tie.
Behold: a thing. Whatever else it is in this world, it is a thing. It may or may not have a name, it may or may not be identifiably unique, but it is an object, an instance of a class. When we talk about the future of the book (and, well, a lot of people are talking about the future of the book) I like to mention a word that I encountered a few years ago when I worked for a company in the litigation sector that made advanced search software: "immutability".
My job was to be, boringly enough, this company's expert in the PDF format, and I know a whole lot about PDF files. One thing I know is that PDFs are immutable, which is to say that they can't be changed. You can share or save a PDF file, but you can't edit or modify one. You could hack one, if you really wanted to, but doing so violates the basic principle of the PDF format: it is an unchangeable thing. This is why PDFs (and not, say, Microsoft Word documents) are the standard format for legal contracts.
Books, I believe, are immutable. Many entrepreneurs are doing (or planning to do) exciting things with the basic structure of the book -- Richard Nash of Cursor and Hugh McGuire of BookOven come to mind. A recent display of a possible future issue of Sports Illustrated rendered in the emerging HTML5 standard shows similar ingenuity with the familiar structure of magazines. But an issue of a magazine, just like a book, must be immutable -- it is a distinct thing, an object, an instance of a class. As we zoom through time and space with the next generation of browsers, will the boundaries of a text's identity itself become fluid?