POLONIUS: What do you read, my lord?
HAMLET: Words, words, words.
POLONIUS: What is the matter, my lord?
HAMLET: Between who?
There's a whole lot of sarcasm in this 17-word exchange. The castle is in a crisis, the Prince's mental state is uncertain, and the King's elderly aide tries to calm the tension with a bit of small talk, querying the Prince about the book he's reading. When Polonius asks "What is the matter, my lord?" he's inquiring as to the plot of the book. But Hamlet pretends to misunderstand the question, and his cutting reply -- "Between who?" -- brings the conversation out of the ethereal realm of books and into the present moment. Where, of course, plenty is the matter.
It's getting to be around that time in December when I put up a wrap-up post and disappear for a week or two.
I stopped by the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City recently, and was once again energized (a visit always helps) by the spirit in that eclectic room. You know, some people have asked why I claim to be interested in poetry when I don't follow the lit journal/academic/prize scene at all. Well, the spoken word scene is quiet but very much alive. The poems are still good, the talent keeps renewing itself, and the format still works. I guess the reason I keep this Action Poetry thing still rolling on this site (it's been around since early 2001) is to try to capture some of that spoken word spirit here on this blog. Which is why I'm happy to announce the launch, on Thursday morning, of this year's Action Poetry Randomized Wrap-up. One poem per click, all the poems you can want (from the best ones posted this year), just like we always do at this time.
I reach the closing days of 2010 in a reflective mood; not exactly satisfied, not suffering either. Let's just say I feel optimistic about the year ahead. Here on Litkicks, I'm looking forward to continuing my weekend excursions into philosophy (and politics, psychology, sociology, religion, ethics and history). I'm also looking forward to continuing to work with the excellent gang of Litkicks contributors (you can see 8 of our best names in the "By Author" panel in the right sidebar, in case you haven't noticed) who will certainly help me stay on top of the literary news of the day in 2011. I'm always looking for new contributors, too, so get in touch if you'd like to be a part of Litkicks 2011.
I'm in a rush and don't have time to stir up my usual bucket of snarky literary muck today, but here are a few real quick links before I blow this popsicle stand and catch you in the new year.
1. My oldest daughter showed me this New York Times Book Review feature about what people read on the subway and said "don't you think it's cute?". Yeah, I said, and it was also cute two years ago when I thought of it first.
Between June 2009 and December 2010, Michael Norris explored Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, also known as Remembrance of Things Past, in these pages. Here, with original artwork by David Richardson, is the entire sequence.
Marcel Proust: Beyond the Madeleines
June 16, 2009
Pondering Proust II
September 8, 2009
Pondering Proust III: Guermantes Way
November 16, 2009
Because our bookshop was located within eyeshot of the U.S. Capitol’s snow-white dome, we still retained some guilt by association with the political world. You had to walk to the corner and then look eight blocks west to see the dome, but nonetheless its magical aura enfolded us too. As tempting as it may have been, we could not bury our heads in the sands, burrow deeper inside our antiquarian world and hope to stay in business. This was simply not possible in Washington, D.C., at least not in the middle of the Reagan-Gingrich Revolution.
Though politics and civics were two of the shop’s weaker subject areas, we were occasionally visited by politicos and lobbyists brave or absent-minded enough to venture into the less-traveled (and more feared) zones of the District of Columbia. Often, they were on their lunch breaks and, having wandered a street or two too far, stumbled onto the shop by accident. Most of these visitors had not, previously, known we existed. And few of them ever returned.
Among this group of political animals, one critter stood out. He was a resident expert—perhaps the resident expert—at the Liberty Lobby, a far-right-wing organization about which I knew little beyond what this fellow suggested it must be like.
His name was John Tiffany, and he was, despite the name, neither delicate nor colorful, nor was he in any way illuminating. He always seemed to be wearing the same flannel shirt. He sported a sort of whisk-broom moustache that he must have fancied was manly—an antidote, no doubt, to all the feminists and lesbians who held court hereabouts and made men like John Tiffany nervous. He was one of the few people I had ever seen who employed a pocket protector, inside which were housed the tools of his trade as a writer of political and historical spin. And he was tongue-tied, floor-gazing, completely at a loss in any one-on-one human encounter.
Yeah, just like Oprah Winfrey, I totally fell for Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. Sure, the massive media hype is a turnoff, but what does that have to do with the quality of the novel itself? Freedom, it turns out, earns the praise.
I've written a review for another publication, but I also want to write about the novel on my own blog, so I thought I'd mention four other excellent novels that Freedom called to mind for me, each representing a different aspect of Franzen's big novel. If Freedom stimulated your mind (as it did mine) and left you eager for more, here are four related paths you may want to follow.
The Echo Maker by Richard Powers
The cerulean warbler in Freedom, the sandhill crane in The Echo Maker, Richard Powers' epic novel about a young man with a brain injury in Nebraska. Both books contrast the tawdry lives of humans with the idyllic innocence of nature (and both books frankly lecture their readers on ecology, and manage to toss metaphors for the Iraq War into the mix too).
Powers is a more intellectual and philosophical writer than Franzen, and he's also nowhere near as funny (in fact, I'm not sure if Richard Powers is ever funny). But neither writer is afraid to show his vast ambition, or to write with purpose and force; both The Echo Maker and Freedom are heavy bricks designed to break open your skull and get you to think harder. Oh, also The Echo Maker won the National Book Award in 2006, and Freedom is going to win it in 2010.
(Here's another selection from Alan Bisbort's memoir of his years in the small bookstore business. -- Levi)
Dollar Bill was a regular at the shop, though there was nothing about his looks or manner that suggested a love of books. He was a diminutive but powerful-looking man with stiffly chivalrous manners. His snow-white hair was cropped short, with a little flip at the front as an ever-so-slight concession to the modern world. He also sported a thin, almost invisible white-grey moustache, like George Orwell’s. Combined with his piercing grey-blue eyes, this continental facial hair made him appear both fierce and slightly foolish. His skin was beaten to a leathery consistency by years of exposure to the outdoors, and yet he always dressed in a severely-pressed Navy blue suit, with thick military-style black, thick-soled dress shoes, scuffed a bit at the front but shiny as a mirror in the back. The suit shone like mica from its many dry cleanings. Dollar Bill looked as if he were perpetually on his way to a formal gathering where he would, in all likelihood, be turned away at the door.
Because the bookshop was located seven blocks from the U.S. Marine Corps Barracks, I pegged him to be an old soldier who simply never broke free from the orbit of his career, centered as it had been in Washington, D.C. Though pushing 65, Dollar Bill retained the square muscular Mason jar-head of a Marine whose DNA refused to let him to go completely to seed or to style now that he was out of uniform. This, I knew instantly from having been born into a military family and having lived my boyhood on military bases, was a man who was wed to the service, knew or cared little about anything beyond the service and, had he ever been married, chances are that he had asked for permission first from his commanding officer and would have, had the colonel’s answer been ‘no,’ remained single. Gladly.
“Many of the people who came to us were of the kind who would be a nuisance anywhere but have special opportunities in a bookshop.”-George Orwell, “Bookshop Memories”
For ten years I worked in the second-hand book trade. Five of those years were spent at Wayward Books, an antiquarian book shop in Washington, D.C. that was owned by novelist and critic Doris Grumbach and her partner, Sybil Pike. Another five years were spent selling second-hand books out of my truck just down the block from Wayward at historic Eastern Market on Capitol Hill, a move necessitated when Doris and Sybil relocated their shop to coastal Maine.
Though that period of my life ended fifteen years ago, the bookshop trade has left a mark on my soul. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about that time with a mixture of longing and giddy recollection. Entire newsreels scroll through my head as I think about the eclectic and eccentric assortment of customers and habitués—a fancy way of saying “customers” who don’t actually buy anything—who darkened my doorway. As George Orwell put it, “In a town like London [or Washington D.C.] there are always plenty of not quite certifiable lunatics walking the streets, and they tend to gravitate towards bookshops, because a bookshop is one of the few places where you can hang about for a long time without spending any money.”
There was a lot of excitement in the e-book world this week after both Barnes and Noble's Nook and Amazon's Kindle slashed their prices to help them compete against the iPad, and against each other. For some reason, this has also led a few book industry pundits to suddenly declare that the Kindle is the big winner in the e-book technology face-off.
Oh, how I wish I could short the Kindle's stock. (Yes, I know I could short-sell Amazon's stock, but that's not the same thing). In fact, I'd short any e-reader's stock. I've lived through this kind of technology/money hype before, and I know how hollow the hype can be. Like the famous dot-com boom of the 1990s, the current explosion of interest in e-book technology is not based on actual consumer interest, but rather on the hope for a financial bonanza. How can you tell when a great new trend is a bunch of hype? When more people write articles about a new product than actually use or buy the product, that's a pretty big sign.
1. "Our main leisure activity is, by a long shot, participating in experiences that we know are not real." A good Chronicle of Higher Education piece by Paul Bloom about what it means for humans to have the capacity to imagine. We often use terms like "imagine" and "dream" in a sort of gushy hopey way -- "follow your dreams" and all that -- but it's also worth pondering at the phenomenological level the fact that this mechanism, this remnant of existence called "imagination", has immense presence and power in our lives.
2. Very cool: a forensic astronomer has identified the meteor shower that inspired a poem by Walt Whitman. "What," Walt asks, "am I but one of your meteors?"
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.