“Talk” is another book acquired some time ago but left initially unread, sitting in a stack on a table, even reshuffled, as if for a game of solitaire, or as if it needed to thaw or season before consuming, opened for a few bites but put back down for something else, but when picked up again finally found its taste delightful, finished, and thoroughly enjoyed. And nothing will do but I must talk about it. Did I pick “Talk” out of the free library book box down on the corner? I don’t recall, and it doesn’t really matter except that I’ve started these short short reviews here at The Toads I’m tagging “Lit Crit Shorts,” though they are not proper reviews, as was discussed off-line after my posting of an LCS of “The Ant.” By proper is meant the reviewer talks mainly about the book in hand, gives it a few stars, or fewer, to indicate degree to which it was liked or is being recommended: ***** or *** or *. Of course you can like something without it at all being good or good for you. In any case, I’m not interested in writing that kind of review. But neither are these so-called Lit Crit Shorts an original form. The New Yorker in a weekly feature publishes four “briefly noted” book reviews, single paragraphs, an art form in its own right. Clear and concise sentences too, unlike the ones you’ll likely stumble over here at The Toads, like miscreant directions in an unfamiliar part of town. Not that I can’t write a perfectly navigable sentence or a proper book review, one that will get a reader home safely. And there are templates for that sort of thing. Plates that match. And how do you cast something without a mold? Still, it’s the reflective, personal (as in personal essay) response to a reading I’m interested in, not a discussion of whether or not the thing holds true to a tradition or has lit out for some territory previously uncharted, though of course that’s important too and there’s no reason it can’t be included, in any form desired. Authors of course, their publishers and company, are interested in reviews that will cause their books to fly off shelves. Click here to order now! But if someone is not likely to read your book, why would they read a review of your book? And if they are going to read your book, why would they want to read a review of your book? Likewise, I won’t watch movie trailers, unless I’m not going to see the movie. And I’m not just talking about spoiler alert here. I love reading TNY “Briefly Noted” reviews, yet in some 50 years of reading The New Yorker, I’m not sure I’ve ever ran out and purchased a book as a result of seeing it “Briefly Noted.” I’m probably an exception here, but I’m not sure that readers of book reviews are the same readers as those of the books. I read book reviews for the book review, not for the book. And longer reviews demand, or should require, a degree of research the common writer is not likely qualified to conduct. And, yes, if there is such a thing as a common reader, why should there not also be someone called a common writer? We don’t all need or want to be specialists. The generalist can bring to a study a perspective the specialist is too close to envision. But the ease with which we are all able to opine these days calls for double checking of a speaker’s ethos, logos, and pathos – their means of persuasion, an ability to read into a speaker’s presuppositions, assumptions, and biases. And it does indeed appear, alas, the ability to check independently for reliability, credibility, authority – in short, to check sources – is startlingly uncommon. We don’t need to crave facts, or only facts, there’s no fun in just that; it’s good to able to deconstruct a statement to its constituent parts, to read the book in a bumper sticker. That is what mechanics do, and what readers ought to aspire to do. A prerequisite to talking about books is the ability to listen to a book, and it’s hard to talk and listen at the same time. You can follow that link, btw, to a New Yorker Page Turner book review from July 1, 2015, where the reviewer, Molly Fischer, finds the novel “Talk” “weirdly arduous.” It reminded her of Sartre’s play “No Exit,” where hell is described as “other people,” of which there are three, same as Rosenkrantz’s “Talk,” though Sartre included a valet. I also thought of “No Exit” while I was reading “Talk,” but I didn’t find reading “Talk” any more arduous than watching the TV sitcom “Friends,” which Stephen Koch suggests in his introduction to the 2015 copy might be a successor to “Talk.” I did think of tweets and today’s social media and the like, which Molly also tangents into, but only because of their notable absence from “Talk.” I liked “Talk” because it was written around and takes place in 1965, on the beach, with little to distract the characters but the distractions of their own making. They indeed come of age in an existential time and place, with the privilege of being able to make their own choices, and make them they do, with one another’s help through the knack (dare I say art) of talking and listening. And “Talk” is interesting for not only what is said but what the characters don’t talk about, or talk very little about. They no doubt would have very few followers on a social media platform like today’s Twitter. Their talk isn’t about nothing, in spite of its being existentially grounded. “Talk” reminded me also of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” Waiting on the beach, “Talk” might have been subtitled. “Talk” I recommend especially for readers who today might be around the age of 30, as well as for readers who may have been somewhere in their formative years in the mid 1960’s. “Talk” is a modern classic.
Here is a very short excerpt from the “Wintertide” chapter of “Coconut Oil.”
Oh, and the jouissance of the creamy oil’s single flavor savors of favor, in the bath, kitchen, by the four-poster or berth, for dry skin, diaper rash, or when the dark knells for thee. No need to refrigerate. Oil squeaky hinges, refurbish dull wood finishes, fry Copper River salmon in cast iron skillet, remove warts (rub under duct tape), fly cats to the moon or snorkel under ocean kelp beds, race around the ceiling, the coconut salesman is at your door!
Be the first on your block to order a copy of “Coconut Oil”!
Paperback $8 … e-Copy $2.99
- Paperback: 194 pages
- Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 1 edition (May 24, 2016)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1530995264
- ISBN-13: 978-1530995264
- Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.5 x 8 inches
I was struck by Louis Menand’s comment in his review of Douglas Brinkley’s biography of Walter Cronkite (New Yorker, July 9 & 16, 2012), that “…’Cronkite’ (HarperCollins), is long and hastily written… (88).” I wasn’t surprised, though, for US culture is Menand’s turf, and his own output, if the measurement means anything, is dwarfed by Brinkley’s in a ratio of about 4:1. Voluminous output doesn’t prove haste. Some writers are long distance runners. But after two decades of churning out a book a year, one’s writing might start to limp. Journalism with daily deadlines often produces its own unique values.
Occasionally, I read something I think might have been hastily written. Hasty writing might result in a piece that is inaccurate, sloppy, shallow, or simply difficult to read. Hasty sounds short, but hasty writing might be too long or too short. I recently started Sean Wilentz’s “Bob Dylan in America” (DoubleDay, 2010). On page 32, we are told that Bob’s father, Abe, “had a good job working as a senior manager for the Standard Oil Company, and he ran the company union.” But then, in the very next paragraph, we are told that as Bob’s father “…was in the appliance business, his family became the first in town to own a television, in 1952.” What happened to the “good job” with Standard Oil? And how is it that a corporate manager ran the employee union? But I don’t think Wilentz’s book was hastily written, necessarily. The problem is hinted at in his rambling introduction, where he tries to explain the difficulty and danger inherent in writing a history so vast one risks falling into encyclopedic mode.
Janet Groth’s “The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker” (Algonquin, 2012) is a lovely book, and, I suspect, not hastily written, but, again, some writers have a talent for producing smooth running prose that runs for miles and miles without a bump or the need for a rest stop. Janet’s chapter on Joe Mitchell is a comment on haste, for Mitchell seems to have rolled to a complete stop, and for a couple of decades lingered on the side of the road, unwilling to succumb to haste just to get a word out. But enough of that metaphor. The language of “The Receptionist” I suspect is labored over to produce a period sound, a sound that doesn’t always strike my ear as natural, but that language seems appropriate to the era and the subject, and provides a stunning canvas for the memoirist’s vitalic paints.
The blog, as a mode, is a hothouse for hasty writing. I note this particularly in some of the academic blogs I follow, where the language is not so much written but talked into the post, talked in a rambling, lecture-like way, and the posts are almost always too long. These are writers who never had to write for a living, nor consider a general interest audience.
A non-academic and enjoyable blog I’ve been following, titled “The Literary Man” (and associated, obscurely, apparently, since it’s an anonymous blog – and I don’t usually follow the anonymous or pseudonymous, since it’s difficult enough discerning what’s really going on even when one knows the writer – with The New Yorker; and I wonder what Janet would think of the blog’s title, considering her 40 or so male writers on the 18th floor to the 6 or so female), recently posted a kind of poster-post titled “What’s a book hangover?” A book hangover, the post tells us, is the ache produced when looking up to find one has finished reading the book one was so into, suddenly caste adrift back in the real world.
Being “into” a book is a good feeling. Perhaps that’s why I keep so many going at once, in no haste to finish any of them.
This week, The New Yorker, on Twitter, is sponsoring a tweet-fest, calling on followers to tweet their all-time favorite New Yorker piece. My first response was a tongue-in-cheek, “The Cartoons”!
I’ve been reading the New Yorker, a weekly, for over 40 years, but these days when I intone the magic words, “Speak, Memory,” I often receive in reply a feeble tweet, even falling short of the 140 character limit. Anyway, it takes more than a tweet to recall a full piece, at least for this twitterer. I do recall one of my favorite all time cartoons, from the mid-80’s. I taped it to my at-work monitor, until my boss at the time told me he didn’t get the joke. I brought it home and taped it to the icebox. Just so, most of the articles I remember are those I tried to encourage others to read, too. I remember the William Finnegan piece on surfing off San Francisco (August 24, 1992); I mailed it to an old surfing buddy.
Ian Frazier, in “Hungry Minds: Tales from a Chelsea Soup Kitchen” (May 26, 2008), wrote what has become one of my all time favorites. In “Hungry Minds,” Frazier explores at least three kinds of hunger: physical (the soup kitchen), intellectual (the writers’ workshop), and spiritual (the church). Must every hunger be fed? One might hunger for anything (war or peace; duty or love; work or play; music or silence; risk or safety; celebrity or privacy; memory or amnesia; nirvana or grace), and the human appetite seems insatiable. Then there are the thirsts, which Frazier’s article also touches on (to belong; for community; for recognition; to tell one’s tale; and a thirst to feed the hungry). Human thirst seems unquenchable. What else can explain Twitter?
Newspapers are dying, but as they slide into immateriality, they’re looking for ways to merge into Internet traffic. Regular columnists are forced to blog to establish stronger and closer connections with their audiences. No doubt many regular columnists are already longing for the days when they had the highway to themselves. Blogging, of course, invites comments, which multiply, and comments are easier to post than letters to the editor, which often go unpublished, while comments, rarely edited for clarity or decorum, bring the commenter instant gratification, however short-lived or inconsequential, yet columnists don’t seem to be completely ignoring them. Stanley Fish regularly gets hundreds of comments to each of his posts at the Times Opinionator, as does Nicholas Kristof. Print periodicals are also struggling, but we are beginning to see engaging hybrid forms, offering a kind of communication in the round for readers, with several noteworthy add-on benefits. These benefits go beyond simply allowing on-line access, or putting the print copy on an e-Reader. At the New Yorker, added value on-line features include interactive live chats with authors, videos, audios, podcasts, and slide shows (some of the on-line features do require a subscription).
The newspaper is a mosaic with boundaries, the Internet a mosaic without boundaries. As the newspaper continues to get watered down daily in new irrelevancies suggested by the instantaneous availability of information via the Internet, it continues to lose revenue from defecting advertisers and subscribers. Yet the hybrid forms suggested by the New Yorker have the potential to renew and revitalize public discourse. At the Oregonian, The Stump is essentially a group blog produced by the editorial board. The Stump is an on-line extension of the newspaper’s Op-Ed pages. We begin to see that the salvation of the newspaper may come from removing the mosaic’s traditional boundaries with a hybrid form that will include more interactive reading opportunities.
One of the difficulties of programming the hybrid link from newspaper to Internet is still the newspaper’s limited space. The Stump, for example, prints the beginnings of articles on the editorial page, but readers must go on-line if they want to read the whole article (where they can also comment). I didn’t know my “Sex and the vote” (Nov 4) piece had made it to The Stump until a friend emailed me saying he had enjoyed my little piece in the paper. I wasn’t sure if he had gone on-line to read the entire piece or not. Then again, how often do any of us read to the end of a piece? That’s part of the nature of the newspaper. The mosaic character and layout encourages it; the hybrid link, a link frozen in hard copy, continues the tradition.
“Off with their heads!” shouts Carroll’s Queen in Wonderland. Just so, Platon has beheaded them all in “Portraits of Power,” in the December 7 New Yorker.
The head of state is not a whole person, but a symbol, but of what?
“The king is an erection of the body politic,” Norman O. Brown says in Love’s Body. “The king personifies the pomp and pleasure of the community; but must also bear the burden of royalty, and, as scapegoat, take away the sins.” Yet the head retaliates with tyranny over the body.
The head of state is a figure, a doll, a clown, a puppet. But the heads glower like lead. The flash of the moment turns the head to metal. Platon’s photographs are like statues, busts; the heads in the color photos are surrounded with an eerie blue halo, as from a welder’s torch, echoed in Mugabe’s photo with a blue glow around his face, and a thin blue glow around his otherwise dark eyes.
England’s Gordon Brown, left eye slightly askew, appears to be saying, like Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Newman, “What, me worry?” While across the Irish Sea, Brian Cowen looks like a Roddy Doyle character just informed Ireland has made it to the World Cup finals, eyes disbelieving, mouth ready for the celebratory pint.
But not all the heads are smiling to be beheaded, nor are they all quite beheaded; two of the three women are spared, along with Qaddafi, who sports a paisley shirt that could have been worn by Sly Stone in There’s a Riot Goin On.
Some of the heads shed an animal sense: Ahmadinejad a fox, Mesic an old dog. Some smile like they just ate the opposition (South Africa’s Zuma), or mischievously, like the Imp of the Perverse (Italy’s Berlusconi).
The electronic version of the portfolio contains a few more photos than the print version, and a couple of those are classics: Estonia’s Tooma Ilves, bespectacled with bowtie; and Lithuania’s Dalia Grybauskaite, looking very much like a Baltic Hillary. It’s not clear why these did not make the hard copy cut. The online recorded commentary by Platon on each head is remarkable for its detail and accessibilty to an otherwise “behind the wall” process that readers of the print version alone don’t have. Platon’s comments are devoid of political content, focus on the passion he has for his craft; he has time to barely brush against these men and women who surely have seen so much, and his task is to capture all that they have seen in a flash and convert it to metal, which he does with alchemical art.
And Obama? Give this man his body back; the photo is from a previous sitting – it was decided he would not sit for a photo like the others at this time and place.
As we watch the coming of the end of books and the disappearance of newspapers, we note an increase in electronic self-publishing, blogs the obvious pedestrian example, but then, in an interesting twist, we see blogs subsequently published in more traditional print copy format. Two recent and noteworthy examples illustrate: Caleb Crain’s The Wreck of the Henry Clay (Lulu, 438 pages, $14.95), selections from his blog Steamboats are Ruining Everything, covering blog years 2003-2009, and Uncommon Sense: Economic Insights, from Marriage to Terrorism, a “best of” The Becker-Posner Blog (University of Chicago Press, 384 pages, $29.00).
Caleb Crain is a 19th century scholar and freelance writer with degrees from Columbia and Harvard who has written scholarly papers, a book, American Sympathy, and a novella, Sweet Grafton, as well as general interest articles and book reviews for the New Yorker and other prestigious publications. Richard Posner is a federal judge, Becker a Nobel Prize winning economist at the University of Chicago. The ethos that Crain and Becker-Posner bring to their blogs adds validity to what some consider to be an environment rife with charlatanism and chicanery – the world of the blog. But their blogs improve the potential of the art of blogging by setting a high standard of quality and quantity, by elevating and advancing the long-term potential of self-publishing, and by engaging readers in the possibility for a democratic, egalitarian, and interactive conversation that is not available elsewhere to general readers, students, or others whose interest in the discussion of ideas may go beyond skimming the mosaic of the daily newspaper or the weekly magazine.
Crain and Becker-Posner have long lists of traditional publication credits. They don’t have to blog, nor do they have to self-publish. Crain’s blog performs a service to the reading community, so call it pro bono publico. Of particular interest are those posts that follow the print publication of his longer articles and that discuss his research; these posts have value for both the general reader and students. The links he provides are purposeful and meaningful, interesting and useful. Crain’s blog often generates civil comments and discussion, unlike some blogs that seem to foister the awry warrant. The Becker-Posner blog no longer accepts comments. Readers may miss the discussion, but the more popular a blog becomes, the less likely its founding readers will be able to follow the discussion – the traffic and the drive-by comments may become too distracting, the volley of retorts from the obsessive commenter tiresome.
Blogs like Crain’s and Becker-Posner’s are not without criticism from within their professional writing communities (it took the n+1 blog six months to finally review Crain’s blogbook). Why would a professional writer blog, thereby giving away content, setting a bad precedent? But no writer’s every word is going to see print, and the ones that come closest, the syndicated, the featured, the columnists, frequently suffer from a paucity of ideas, quality, and freshness (consider George Will and Stanley Fish). Bloggers are under no compunction to blog daily or weekly, but blog regularly enough to maintain a loyal readership, blog when they actually have something to say and the energy to say it.
Becker-Posner introduced their blog in December of 2004. In their first post, they said “Blogging is a major new social, political, and economic phenomenon. It is a fresh and striking exemplification of Friedrich Hayek’s thesis that knowledge is widely distributed among people and that the challenge to society is to create mechanisms for pooling that knowledge…The internet enables the instantaneous pooling (and hence correction, refinement, and amplification) of the ideas and opinions, facts and images, reportage and scholarship, generated by bloggers.” Five years later, the Becker-Posner blog posted a notice announcing their blog’s print publication.
Crain, on his blog, explains that his blogbook comes with “six years of essays, which many of you will already have read, about dogs, torture, etymology, American history, gay marriage, political rhetoric, movies, tree climbing, indie rock, Mars, peak oil, anarchism, and literary criticism.” Crain’s blog is more personal and eclectic than the Becker-Posner blog, and the general interest reader may prefer it.
While some writers may wonder why some bloggers give away content, readers may wonder, now that the blogs are available in print form, why they would purchase a blogbook when the content is available free on-line. The answer is simple: because the general interest readers who follow blogs like Crain’s and Becker-Posner’s for any length of time value books. Books are what they want. But it’s that book interest that sparks the interest in the blog – following such a blog allows a reader to watch a professional writer writing a book, and more, to participate in that writing by interactively watching the work develop. The last time this happened was when magazines still serialized books in progress (Dickens, for example; or the New Yorker’s serialization of Capote or John McPhee, or its publication of Hersey’s Hiroshima – these were all followed by books). The difference is the initial self-publishing aspect of the blog. While the Becker-Posner blog is an example of self-publishing, their blogbook is not, while Crain’s blog and book are both self-published. Either way, the loyal reader will look forward to sitting down with a hard copy, like spending time with an old friend, reminiscing.
12-19-09 update: The Becker Posner site has moved to Typepad and updated their site, citing technical problems with the old location. Comments are turned back on at the new site.
The end of books is closer than we thought. A short article in today’s Christian Science Monitor discusses a private high school that has replaced the books in its library with a $12,000 espresso machine, three sports bar like TVs, Kindles with e-books, and laptops.
Apparently, the old, hard copy books were not being checked out and read, anyway. Though the article does not mention Google, we look forward to a riposte from Carr. He thinks Google’s giving us the jitters now; imagine adding a little espresso to the formula.
While we’re on the subject of books disappearing, another related piece in today’s mail threatens to amuse, from the New Yorker’s Book Bench blog, a review of cartoonist Bruce McCall’s new book, Fifty Things to do with a Book (Now that Reading is Dead).
And our brief survey and latest Reading Crisis entry would not be complete if we didn’t remind readers of our own past post, “What we will miss when newspapers disappear.”
But doesn’t the espresso disturb their nap time?
In the September 28, 2009 issue of The New Yorker, we meet synthetic bio-Lego-boys Drew Endy and Rob Carlson: “Some of my best work has come together in my mind’s eye accompanied by what I swear was an audible click, ” Carlson tells New Yorker’s Michael Specter, who says Endy has never forgotten “…the secret of Legos – they work because you can take any single part and attach it to any other – in 2005 Endy and colleagues…started BioBricks Foundation…to register and develop standard parts for assembling DNA” (61).
What if Norman O. Brown had grown up playing with Legos? Would he have named Love’s Body, Lego’s Body? In Chapter XV, “Freedom,” Brown says that “Metaphor is mistake or impropriety…a little madness…a little seizure or inspiration” (244).
“The glory of God is to conceal a thing, but the glory of the king is to find it out…,” Brown quotes Bacon in McLuhan (Gutenberg Galaxy, 190).
“Feet off the ground. Freedom is instability; the destruction of attachments; the ropes, the fixtures, fixations, that tie us down” (Brown, 260).
William Blake, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, drew the modern man: “The head Sublime, the heart Pathos, the genitals Beauty, the hands & feet Proportion.” Let’s hope the synthetic biologists mix their metaphors mercifully, for “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees,” Blake said; nor the same Lego, for that matter.
More on the genome of metaphor.
Would Montaigne have loved Google, which, according to Nicholas Carr, is making us stupid? Certainly, Montaigne was a blogger, his “hits” count initially limited by the fact that only ten percent of the French were literate (p. 34). Perhaps that explains why he said he wrote for himself, painting with his pen his self-portrait.
Kramer, J. (Sep. 7, 2009). Me, myself, and I. New Yorker, pp. 34-41.
“BLVR: What do you think jazz’s place in American culture is today?”
“PM: The only thing I can be definitive with is an example. Take the students of jazz in our conservatories and universities. They’re studying harmony and theory, which is not jazz, that’s music. Number two, they’re studying and transcribing artists of the past – past cultures, or stages of our culture, and that is not the reality of today. So it [jazz] is not alive the way it used to be. And they’re studying something that is encaged, and they’re analyzing it to participate in something that no longer exists” (p. 73).
I was reminded of Louis Menand’s recent piece in the New Yorker (June 8 & 15, 2009), on creative writing programs: “Academic creative-writing programs are, as McGurl puts it, examples of ‘the institutionalization of anti-institutionality.’ That’s why institutions love them. They are the outside contained on the inside” (p. 108).
And John Cage: “A newspaperman wrote asking me to send’im my philosophy in a nutshell. Get out of whatever cage you happen to be in” (M, Writings ’67 – ’72, p. 212).