1. For your Bloomsday enjoyment: comic strip artist Robert Berry is visualizing James Joyce's Ulysses. This project appears to be off to a great start.
2. More Bloomsday action: Dovegreyreader on a new book called Ulysses and Us by Declan Kibberd.
3. Farewell to poet Harold Norse.
4. It must be a good sign that somewhere inside the giant paradox that is the nation of Iran, they are loving the inventive and hilarious early writings of Woody Allen.
5. I did not know that novelist Roxana Robinson was a member of the Beecher family. But what's this about Lord Warburton being the man Isabel Archer should have married? I was rooting for Ralph Touchett.
6. The word technology is derived from the same root as textile.
7. We need a poetry reality show right here in the USA.
8. A digital Gutenberg would be nice to look at.
9. What could it possibly have been like to be married to Harold Pinter? Fortunately claims Antonia Fraser, it was not a Pinteresque experience.
10. "What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?" (Or, I'd like to add, one man).
11. Eric Rosenfeld appreciates Thomas Pynchon's use of description.
12. Kafka Tribute in New York
13. Michelle Obama reads Zadie Smith, a better choice (in my opinion) than her husband's Joseph O'Neill. (Barack is also cited as reading What is the What?, a good choice though not exactly fiction).
14. The Who's Quadrophenia GS Scooter has been sold at an auction. (Though it's from the movie, not the record album photo shoot).
15. Via Bookninja, what the book you're reading really says about you.
(Peggy Nelson, a new media artist and blogger, tells us about her Kindle. -- Levi).
I hadn't meant to get one. A Kindle. But when we got one at work, to "evaluate," my curiosity got the better of me. In my day job I'm an user experience designer for educational technology, where we create and evaluate online courses, games, simulations -- as well as new delivery models, like augmented reality assignments, smartphones, mash-ups, e-readers, virtual worlds, and whatever else rolls out. Plus my friends have been (somewhat heatedly) debating the relative merits of the Kindle online, and I wanted to "evaluate" one for myself.
The first thing I noticed about it was its "objectness:" it's light and thin, more like card stock than hardware. The soft grey screen creates a Peaceful Reading Environment, easier on the eyes than the harsh glow of an LCD. And the screen's small size is better in real life than its profile photo; it actually didn't feel small, it felt like a *page. Or I should say, it *read like a page; each screen gives you about 3 good Evelyn Wood-style scans.
Onward from the object to the experience: I read Lauren Weisberger's "The Devil Wears Prada," Lytton Strachey's "Eminent Victorians," and am in the middle of Jonathan Lethem's collection of essays, "The Disappointment Artist." Also tried out LitKicks, as well as some magazines and newspapers, and accessed a monochrome Google.
Pseudo-speed reading in greyscale, I could *almost lose myself in the story, although not completely. Perhaps that was because I am so used to turning pages; pressing the 'next' button does require fewer muscles, but it is a much newer behavior, so there was a heightened self-consciousness about the experience. Although -- it was not so heightened as to be a deal-breaker, and the newness (or the awareness of such) would perhaps fade with use. That's compared to books. Compared to reading onscreen it's *significantly* better. I'm online all day, and a reader, but if I have to read anything onscreen longer than a few paragraphs I like to escape from the screen and print it out. It's not so much that it bothers my eyes as it bothers my attention span. The Kindle didn't trigger the escape button in the same way, despite the fact that it does have the web.
Overall I find the Kindle to be more of an icon linking back to the book, than a full-blown substitute: if I liked something, I wanted the 'real' object to own, afterwards. As if I had to 'bookend' the experience with a real book! Which is probably good news for the publishing industry, if representative. I still imagine there's something "alive" about a book on the shelf, which is paradoxical because the *real life of a book is fully virtual. Language has been flowing in and out of various forms for thousands of years, from speaking to pictures to writing to -- code? And beyond, inevitably.
However, there is something significant about edges. A codex satisfies the analog part of our nature, both the real periphery of our vision (both pages at once) and the virtual periphery of our perception ("flipping through it" to any page, what's next to it on the shelf, etc.). A somewhat similar experience even holds with websites - with the Kindle, the layout is replaced by a list. Most of the 'page elements' are there, eventually, but in *sequence, not in simultaneity. And with sequencing comes a denial of the virtual periphery: you can scroll or click through, but the page you were looking at is cleanly gone, and the pages you might see next do not yet exist. You can't hold on to them, except via trust in (Random Access) Memory. When we lose the edges we lose the analogies, the associations, the as-yet unknown possibility spaces. When we target too closely the known, we lose the jumping-off point for all else.
So I welcome the Kindle, but cautiously: as an *addition* to my library, but not as its replacement.
1. Okay, so I flip-flopped on the Kindle. I still dislike the high price, the DRM policy and the secrecy about sales numbers, but on the other hand Amazon appears to be showing conviction, focus and flexibility in the way they are evolving the product. Also, a few months ago I wrote that I've never seen anyone reading a Kindle on a train, but I have recently seen two people doing so. This says a lot. I remain mixed in my feelings about the product, but it's clear that the Kindle is here to stay, and this is probably a good thing.
Following the lead of several other literary bloggers, I've now made this website available for Kindle subscription. I don't own a Kindle myself, so I can't even check out how it works, but if any Kindle owners out there can check it out, please tell me what you see!
2. More technological developments: here's Slate on the semantically-charged new knowledge engine Wolfram Alpha, supposedly a challenger to Google: "If only it worked ..."
3. There are a lot of intense debates revolving around the triple satellites of e-books, blogs and Twitter, all of it possibly leading to same grand conflagration (or, more likely, not) during next weekend's Book Expo 2009 in New York City. Till we all meet there, Kassia Krozser is tracking various debates involving electronic publishing.
4. Allison Glock flaunts her silly prejudices in a Poetry Foundation article about blogs. Based on her piece, I'm betting she's never actually seen a blog.
Instead of fostering actual connection, blogs inevitably activate our baser human instincts—narcissism, vanity, schadenfreude. They offer the petty, cheap thrill of perceived superiority or released vitriol. How easy it is to tap tap tap your indignation and post, post, post into the universe, where it will velcro to the indignation of others, all fusing into a smug, sticky mess and not much else in the end. You know those dinners at chain restaurants, where they pile the plate with three kinds of pasta and five sauces and endless breadsticks and shrimp and steak and bacon bits all topped in fresh grated cheese? Blogs are like that: loads of crap that fill you up. With crap.
5. Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is one of my favorite plays. It's now running in New Haven with an African-American cast, featuring Charles S. Dutton as Willy Loman.
6. Jamelah tells me: "Paste Magazine is a really really good publication and it would be sad if it went under".
7. The New York Public Library is facing deep budget cuts and asking for a show of support. Let's keep those lions well-fed.
8. A Michigan high school bans Toni Morrison's novel Song of Solomon.
9. Flannery O'Connor in Atlantic Monthly.
10. Arthur Conan Doyle and spiritualism. And here's what Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law are doing with Sherlock Holmes.
11. A glance at a surprisingly healthy publishing industry in India.
12. I didn't realize Britian's legendary publishing firm Faber and Faber was only 80 years old.
13. John O'Hara's wonderful novel Appointment in Samarra gets some appreciation from Lydia Kiesling at The Millions.
14. Another form of Action Poetry: Yoko Ono is arranging Twitter haiku.
I'm not sure how long my attack of literary boredom will last, but I hope I'll be all better by the last week in May, when I plan to attend Book Expo 2009 in New York City. I'll even be participating in a blogger book signing during the weekend (more about this soon) so I sure better wake up soon. I tried to cure my boredom with a Wells Tower book, but that didn't help.
Anyway, while I'm here, just a couple of literary links to share:
1. All about Sholom Aleichem.
2. Open Book, a new literary TV show.
3. Tao Lin ponders the meaning of everything at the Poetry Foundation blog. (Sample question: "Do Blogs Help People Accept Death?")
4. Soft Skull lives on!
Have a great weekend, and don't forget to stop by this weekend to check out the guest review.
I began reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace around October 2008. I had ordered the book from Amazon.com after hearing of David Foster Wallace’s death. I was in France at the time, and when I got back to the U.S. there was this big, fat book waiting for me. A thousand-pager. Not too many people write thousand-pagers, much less read them. Undaunted, I picked up the book and was immediately captivated.
It started with this kid (Hal Incandenza, maybe the protagonist) on an interview at the University of Arizona for a tennis scholarship. I began to sense there is something not quite right with him, or with the world he lives in. And then I was hooked.
I read the book almost every day. My favorite place to read is on public transportation. I have the ability to tune out everything around me and just focus on the book I'm reading, so I can read on the bus or train. Plus, it makes commuting quality time for me. Instead of getting in a car and driving, and filling my time listening to some drivel on the radio, I can travel and enjoy great literature at the same time. So I read this thing on public transport, in doctor’s waiting rooms, at home in my chair, on the john -- all of the great reading spots. And I finally finished it on February 18, 2009. If I started it on October 1, (in retrospect I should have noted down the actual date I started), and I finished it February 18, then it took a little over four and a half months to read the whole thing.
What kept me reading a book for all that time? What is the book about?
1. Isn't it somebody's job to say clever things like "Jenny Holzer is the patron saint of twitter"? I guess it falls to me if nobody else wants to. Anyway, noted 90s-era electric sign artist Jenny Holzer has a new show at the Whitney Museum in New York City.
2. Apparently it's a lot of people's job, though, to crack jokes about the annoying news that ex-President George W. Bush will be inflicting upon us a book. Just what we needed, right? I will not be reading this book, though I do retain a fascination with this enigma, this monument of know-nothing American chauvinism, as he fades into his sunset days. Bush's post-Presidential strategy seems to involve nursing a public feud with Dick Cheney and practically apologizing to the American people for his clear failure in leadership. Hand it to the guy -- it's the best strategy he could have come up with, though it still won't earn him a spot on Mount Rushmore. Anyway, I hope nobody buys "The Decider For Dummies" or whatever this bad book is going to be called.
3. Here's a much better farewell: the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper is shutting down, and newly unemployed book critic John Marshall has posted favorite memories of his Seattle book-critic days. I hope Marshall will continue generating literary memories, on a blog or somewhere. For more on the morbid gasps of the print newspaper industry, here's a contrarian but heartening take from Ed Champion: The Covenant.
4. An interesting online reading trend in China.
5. Survey Says is a book of poetry inspired by Family Feud, from a new indie publisher called Black Maze Books.
6. A new dedicated litblog: How Books Got Their Titles.
7. Devo traces the lyrics of "Whip It" back to Thomas Pynchon and Horatio Alger. I had no idea.
(A literary sensation and National Book Award nominee at age 21, Eleanor Lerman has paid her dues, been there and back, and has now published a new book of short stories. Here's her story. -- Levi).
Person wanted to sweep up in harpsichord factory. That was the ad in the Village Voice that I answered in 1970 when I was eighteen years old and looking for a job so I could support myself in the city, where I was headed to join the revolution. It also happens to be the first line in Civilization,” a story in my new collection of short stories, The Blonde on the Train (Mayapple Press). The story is fiction, but the ad, the job -- and the way they both changed my life -- are still the touchstones I go back to again and again whenever someone asks, "What made you want to be a writer?"
It was actually reading Leonard Cohen that made me think I could write poetry (until I found The Spice Box of Earth on a drugstore rack in Far Rockaway, the lost and windy peninsula at the end of the earth -- excuse me, I mean, the end of Queens, where I lived when I was a teenager -- I was under the impression that poetry was written by people like Robert Browning and Lord Byron, who didn’t exactly resonate with me). But it was the harpsichord kit factory where I worked, the long-lost Greenwich Village of artists and gay bars and roller-skating queens, along with my neighbor, a film producer, who introduced me to a community of writers, and my boss, Michael Zuckermann, who gave me the job because he said I had soulful eyes (I hope I still do!), which in the psychedelic days was the only qualification you needed, I guess, to make harpsichord kit parts (I graduated from the sweeping up part pretty quickly) that made me believe it was possible to actually live the life of a writer. Thirty-five years later, I’m still trying, but I think I’m getting closer.
At the time, Zuckermann Harpsichords (now a thriving company owned by other people and based in Connecticut -- look them up if you want a nifty harpsichord kit to build in your spare time) was housed in the first floor of a small, quirky 19th century building on Charles Street. Michael not only gave me a job, he gave me a tiny apartment upstairs. The whole operation employed about five girls, who drilled pin blocks, used a table saw and a lathe, but also worked on eccentric machines that Michael had made himself out of sewing machine parts: we used those to wind wire, cut felt and velvet, and make the jacks that pluck harpsichord strings. Sometimes we ran out of parts and I was supposed to write what we needed on a blackboard. Instead, inspired by Leonard Cohen, I used the blackboard to write poems.
The film producer, who lived in a carriage house on the lane behind the harpsichord workshop, had to walk through our space every day to get his mail, and he began stopping by the blackboard to read my poetry. One day, he said something to me like, You know, that’s pretty good. You ought to try to get your work published. It had never occurred to me that was possible until he suggested it. (So thank you forever, Harrison Starr.)
At Conversations in the Book Trade, blogger Levi Asher is interviewed; he does less than well, I'd say. He claims that 'There is no decline in reading,' that electronic content 'will soon dominate the publishing field' and argues 'You can see a movie or download a record album for about ten bucks. That's the correct price point. New books come out with price tags between $24 and $30 and then they wonder why the whole industry is suffering. Somebody's out of touch with the consumer here . . .' He's been banging this expensive drum for a while. Put the first assertion and the last together, and try to make some sense of it in the context of every reputable study being done that shows a decline in reading in America; Levi is either fooling himself or trying to will the world into the image of his choosing. Aside from that, the average price of a CD in 2008 was $12.95 so Britney Spears' album was that price; the equivalent of Ms. Spears would be, say, a Grisham novel, and The Innocent Man (2007) has a list price of $7.99 in softcover. Newer and less popular albums cost more, as it is with books. Hardcovers are pricey, and for a smaller market, but books are not generally too expensive. And as long as used books are $3.00 or so, and the library is free, digital readers are still a ways off.
Not so quick there, Daniel. First, a Britney Spears CD costs $12.95 when it's new. A John Grisham novel costs between $24 and $30 when it's new and getting media attention, and then drops in price a full year later, after reviewers and award committees have forgotten the book exists. This self-defeating "buzz-kill" effect doesn't exist in music publishing or any other industry -- in fact, some music publishers wisely release CDs at reduced prices to increase their chances of building audience momentum. Movie tickets cost slightly more when a movie is brand new, but the difference is small relative to the total price. Sorry, Dan, but you're wrong on this one.
Also, there is no contradiction between my first point that reading remains widely popular and my second point that the mainstream/corporate publishing industry is suffering. "Reading" and "publishing industry product" are not the same thing. The literary publishing industry in the USA is clearly unable to find the right format and price point to appeal to consumers, and consumers are increasingly bypassing the mainstream/corporate publishing industry's preferred formats for this reason. Does that mean we're not reading? Hell no, hell no, hell no!
According to Ron Hogan at GalleyCat, quoting a recent press release from the Association of American Publishers:
Adult hardcover sales were down 10.3 percent in December and down 13 percent for the year, but adult paperbacks saw a 12.5 percent increase in sales for the month and a 3.6 percent increase for the year. Adult mass market sales, though, are reported as down 3.0 percent for the year, and we can't help but wonder if that has anything to do with the 68.4 percent increase in electronic book sales in 2008 and certain genre reading tastes.
See what I'm saying, Daniel? Sorry, but I'm claiming myself as the victor in this argument. And there's plenty of good stuff happening on the affordable paperback books front -- see my recent post about Jason Epstein and the Espresso Book Machine.
2. A superb recent Words Without Borders panel discussion featuring Edith Grossman and Eduardo Lago on Don Quixote reminded me how much I'd enjoyed Edith Grossman's translation (it's not like I've read any other translation, but you know what I mean) of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love In the Time of Cholera. The film version of this great novel recently turned up on a cable channel and I sat through it. Awful, horrible, seriously not good.
3. A few favorite literary New York City personalities have been releasing good new stuff lately. The spooky and moody East Village presence known as Edgar Oliver, whose written and theatrical works I've enjoyed in the past, got a great review from Ben Brantley of the New York Times for his East 10th Street: Self-Portrait With Empty House. Poet Simon Pettet has a new book out, Hearth. And, here's the YouTube debut of New Jersey poet Eliot Katz reading his poem "Death and War".
4. Some cool new Poe graphics via Books Are People Too (yes they are).
5. Poet W. S. Merwin on Design Observer: Unchopping a Tree
6. I was admonished via email to pay more attention to independent bookstores and link to Indiebound.org. I'm not as obsessed with indie bookstores vs. chain bookstores as some other book-lovers are for two reasons: I'm allergic to cats, and Barnes and Noble/Borders restrooms can sometimes really come in handy. Still, I'm down with the cause.
7. This just sucks: the Times Square Virgin Records mega-store (which also had good restrooms, and a basement bookstore!) is closing down. Shea Stadium, now this.
8. Katharine Weber at Readerville: Dear J. D. Salinger.
9. Nigeness contemplates The Wine-Dark Sea.
10. John Updike, cartoonist fanboy.
11. Roald Dahl's Writing Hut.
12. Daniel Scott Buck's The Kissing Bug gets some 3:AM praise.
13. Barnes and Noble review gets visual with Ward Sutton.
14. Dan Green's literary blog The Reading Experience has launched the blog equivalent of a Greatest Hits album, TRE Prime.
15. I'm looking forward to Summertime, apparently the next J. M. Coetzee novel. When Coetzee writes about summertime, you can just bet the living will not be easy.
16. The Shirley Jackson Awards committee is holding a lottery. Though they picked the wrong month -- remember: "lottery in June, corn be heavy soon".
17. Via Q-Tip The Abstract, of all people, this Mars Volta performance on David Letterman is something special.
"If you're not with me tomorrow, that would be the worst."
-Bonnie "Prince" Billy.
Roberto Bolano once remarked that everything he wrote was "a letter of love or of goodbye." I read this in The Nation a day before taking on the Chilean scribe's eight hundred and ninety-eight page posthumously published novel, 2666, which he wrote while dying of liver failure. As I closed the book for the final time almost a month later, a strange experience took over me. Instead of reflecting upon the book itself, his quote popped into my head and I knew I was not ready to say goodbye to a writer who died way too early.
I'm not sure I feel safe saying I let the book consume me, but I realized upon finishing it that something was missing from from my everyday routine. For almost two weeks I was unable to read any other work of fiction, and found it nearly necessary to ween myself off my Bolano dependency.
Unlike in the past, when I would simply take a bit of time to soak in what I had finished and go right to the next book, I found myself with no taste in my mouth to pick up another. Not so much due to the fact that 2666 is indeed a work deserving all the praise it has received, but because as far as I can tell, I had become attached to the novel during the long and arduous road I took while reading it.
The days that followed, nothing felt good. A pile of books lay on my desk waiting for review. In most cases, I can polish off a pretty fair amount of pages in a short period of time. In the case of 2666, though, I paid extremely close attention to every single word put into the print, looking for esoteric insights into the author's mind in his final days, or maybe trying to find some meaning in the book's numeric title.
I spent the hours I wasn't reading throwing a baseball at the wall and listening to Scott Walker's exquisite song "The Seventh Seal," based on Ingmar Bergman film of the same name, on repeat. The opening lyric -- "anybody seen a knight pass this way? I saw him playing chess with Death yesterday" -- hit home with me.
For the next few days, my lack of interest continued, but I was at least able to enjoy other music, albeit just as solemn. I felt lost and a friend noted I seemed "vacant."
Two days later, I sat in my analyst's office (Normally I avoid making mention of my analyst as I feel it pegs me even deeper to that neurotic, New York Jewish stereotype. In this case, though, it's appropriate) and made passing mention of the fact that upon completion of this book I felt almost like I had lost a friend, and that even though I am a constant reader, I had never experienced anything like this.
The Doctor clicked his pen and looked at me with a smile. "It almost sounds like you are suffering from separation anxiety," he said with a chuckle that almost reminded me of Doctor Hibbard on The Simpsons. I didn't find any comfort in his humor, or the fact that he was charging me sixty dollars an hour to laugh at my condition.
Everything was frustrating. I sat at a coffee shop, staring vacantly at the University students pouring over their books. "Little bastards," I grumbled to myself. At twenty-eight, I was coveting their vitality. As my literary impotence and "separation anxiety" prospered. As I perused the internet, looking for temporary salvation, I came across an article about one of the most influential writers in my life. In two days it would be New Years Day, as well as J. D. Salinger's birthday. The literary world's most famous recluse would be turning ninety on the same day the calendar turned over.
The article mentioned the supposed publication of Salinger's final published work, a letter from character Seymour Glass in the New Yorker in 1965, titled "Hapworth 16, 1924". Ah, the Glass family and their influence on my generation's popular culture (as well as any Wes Anderson film). I loved them like they were my own and for some reason, maybe because the story was published fifteen years before my conception, I had never read "Hapworth" before.
"No time like the present," I said to myself and dove into the story I found thanks to the magic of the internet, which always helps when I don't feel like "really reading." Over twenty five thousand words later, I sat out of breath and relieved. It felt like a cross between post-coital and the final scene in Return of the Jedi where all the Jedi stared down lovingly at Luke, Leia and Han Solo.
I had rebounded. Thanks to Salinger, I was "back into the game", and it felt good.
Finally, I was able to see clearly. I thought back on the weeks it took to read 2666. I though about what an incredible piece of work it was. And although I had read books of it's size, or bigger, in the past, but something about this being the last book published by a writer I respect so much really set something off inside of me. Looking back on something a professor of mine once said, "my favorite writers are like my best friends", I realized my analyst was right. I had lost somebody I was close to, and a brief fling with someone else helped me attain closure.
Thanks J.D., the money's on the nightstand.
It took me a little over a year of stops and starts and deliberately reading other books that were not written by James Joyce, but I have finished Ulysses. And now, what to say? This is one of those books, you know? You either have read it or will read it or you have no interest in reading it or you’ll read ten (or 90 or 500) pages and think whythefuck and move on with your life. Whatever works for you, really. There are a lot of books in the world, after all, and despite its status as a revered classic, it turns out that Ulysses is just another one of them. For my part, I don't love the book. I also don't hate it, and there were even times while I was reading that I enjoyed the hell out of it, but even so, I can't quite picture myself recommending it to anyone else, either. (Though if I knew someone who was reading it I'd say "Oh, stick with it, the ending makes it worthwhile, I swear. Also, skim.")
I think for my part, reading Ulysses is as much about the journey (or odyssey, har har) through the book as it is about the actual story itself, and for me, the journey ended up being the more important thing. I was motivated by stubbornness and competitiveness (though I'm still not sure with whom I thought I was competing), and determined that I would just read the damn thing, and what the hell, I did it. I made a short video that I guess I would describe as a series of my thoughts about the book as I was reading it. It is not exactly reverent, and contains some language that you may consider NSFW, but anyway, here it is:
So there you go. It's a frustrating book, incredibly easy to get lost in its pages, and not exactly in a fun way, at least not for me, and I like difficult literature. I get that the writing is as important as the story it tells (it's almost its own character), but even though I understood this, it didn't irritate me any less when I got tangled up in it. Is it in any way gratuitous? Could it have been maybe 300 pages shorter? I can see how people can spend their lives studying it, and while I tried my best not to let myself get distracted by references to this, that, or the other in favor of just hanging onto the thread of the story, I also know there's a lot to it that I deliberately let fly over my head just so I could finish the damn thing. Perhaps this is what makes Ulysses a challenge and a point of fascination for many, but I also think it is, in a way, the book's downfall. I guess what I mean can be summarized like so: I don't mind working at things to understand them, but oh, for fuck's sake, give it a rest already. But of course, the most important point is this: