Books

Orhan Pamuk at the JCC San Francisco

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By chance I discovered that Orhan Pamuk was reading at the JCC in San Francisco last night. Unfortunately, tickets were sold out. And yet, I decided to drive up to the city after work, anyway, to see if I might be able to score a ticket by standing outside on California Street. I happened to also be very hungry during the drive, and couldn’t help but make a sushi stop at Whole Foods before I got to the JCC. By the time I did arrive, it was 8:07 pm, and I was seven minutes late for the event and probably 15 minutes late for my chance at buying a ticket from someone going in with an extra. So, I went over to the ticket booth on a whim, and asked if they had any tickets available. And indeed they gave me one. “How much is it?” I asked, and the girl at the booth told me, “Don’t worry about it.” (Free ticket to see Orhan Pamuk! And I got sushi!)

I absolutely loved the event and am going to see him again tomorrow evening at Stanford. Some of the things I remember from his talk at the JCC, which will be broadcast on November 12 at 8 pm on KALW 91.7 FM:

  • The central work of the writer is spending a lot of time alone in a room, looking inside yourself and putting what you find on the outside.
  • Pamuk paraphrasing Adorno in response to a question about the writer’s position at the border of his culture: “Morality is to never feel at home anywhere.” The actual line from Adorno, which I looked up afterwards: “It is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.”
  • Pamuk’s comments on always falling into depression when he reads the English translations of his work because English is the one other language he understands well enough to be critical of.

Overall, I came away from the event reminded of my love for both writing and reading, and I look forward to finishing up Pamuk’s Other Colors and then diving into Snow.

I laugh more often now

I attended two shows last week worth mentioned. The first was Peter Bjorn and John at the Wiltern in LA on Monday night. I missed the opening band, the Clientele, but their backing vocalist Mel Draisey joined PB&J for their performance of “Young Folks.” (I’m impressed by the fact that the Clientele quotes Jean Baudrillard on their website!) One thing I just learned about “Young Folks” is that the vocals in the album version are done entirely by the band, i.e. there’s no female singing the part that you think is sung by a female.

Overall, the band had a lot of energy, and I enjoyed the show quite a bit. Their set seemed rather short to me at only 14 songs, including most of Writer’s Block. Writer’s Block was the soundtrack to my summer, and “Young Folks” its theme song. However, it’s the song “Objects of My Affection,” that I’ve been thinking about recently. Its chorus: “. . . and the question is, was I more alive / then than I am now? / I happily have to disagree; / I laugh more often now, I cry more often now, / I am more me.”

In the song, these musings are prompted by encounters with writing and music that had been encountered before in another time. This reminded me of an article I read this summer in the New York Review of Books by Joyce Carol Oates. Her review of the “amnesiac” novels The Raw Shark Texts and Remainder includes this brilliant passage:

The amnesiac’s quest resembles the artist’s quest for inspiration: the artist must be alert to “messages” beneath the seeming disorder of the world, leaving himself open to disponibilité—availability of chance. For it is likely to be a “chance” image or encounter that will unleash a flood of memories, and allow the amnesiac to reclaim the narrative of his life.

I love the idea of the unexpected evocations, but the thing that really got me about this passage was the idea of reclaiming the narrative of one’s life, or as PB&J put it, being “more me.” It seems to me that most of my adult life has been devoted to returning to some narrative track that was set in adolescence. And nothing feels better than knowing that I’m back on it.

I also saw Arcade Fire and LCD SoundSystem play in the rain at Shoreline on Friday night. The venue seemed altogether too large for Arcade Fire; I wish I had been able to see them at someplace like the Greek in Berkeley or the Fillmore in San Francisco. However, I was delightfully surprised by LCD. One of my friends has been telling me about their song “All My Friends” for months, but I didn’t pay much attention to it or to the band, despite having picked up both of their albums. The live version of this song was absolutely amazing, soaring and wonderful. I haven’t been able to stop listening to it since the concert, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s likely the best song I’ve ever heard about the alienation and disappointment of adult life: “You spend the first five years trying to get with the plan / And the next five years trying to be with your friends again.” There’s also a decent cover out there by Franz Ferdinand.

Letter to the editor in Inc. magazine

A couple months ago, Inc. magazine published the second in a series of stories about the revival of Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, CA. I responded with a blog post and a letter to the editor, which appears in the June issue of Inc. and is reprinted below.

It’s telling that Part Two of Bo Burlingham’s story about Kepler’s, a bookstore, doesn’t once mention a single author or book title [“The Plot Thickens,” March]. Burlingham also fails to include views from anyone outside of the store’s management team and its consultants. I couldn’t imagine him writing a similar story about a software company without mentioning an engineer or views from outside industry observers.

If Anne Banta and Clark Kepler want to revive the business, it’s essential to pay more attention to their primary product and how customers relate to it. Banta may know good business, but without knowing good books, her efforts will be futile.

Sarah Kerr on Joan Didion

Sarah Kerr has a very toughtful consideration of Joan Didion’s nonfiction work in the April 26, 2007, issue of the New York Review of Books. The highlights:

The problem is something like this: A writer writes from a point of view. This point of view is partly a factual matter of physical or social positioning (either she is inside or outside, close to the problem she is writing about or out on the periphery). Further, point of view implies the more abstract positioning of an attitude toward time (does she look to the past for orientation, or the future?). The writer can never totally transcend her point of view. She would be dishonest if she tried to deny it. So how can she stay true to it, while meeting her ethical duty to hazard larger truths about the world?
. . . .
“Style is character”: at several points in her career, Didion has offered this sentence as one of her core beliefs. But what does it mean? Not that you are what you look like, or that what you look like is what counts. Style is the writer’s site of decision-making—literally, the site of actions whose integrity can be measured. It is the place where the self meets the world. And so Didion felt a need to do what for her was, by her own admission, extremely difficult: go out and meet the world.
. . . .
Because Didion’s later reporting on politics, often for this magazine, took a turn generally more critical of a reawakened American conservatism— and critical, also, of paralyzed Democratic accommodation—it’s sometimes been said that at some point in the decades after these first two books she was radicalized, or at least nudged toward something more like traditional liberalism. To argue this is to ignore how much the writing life has always been her central concern, and how much politics has always been a secondary, if all too gift-giving, subject. All along her aimed-for target has been behavior that is in error, above all behavior that resists—and therefore demands from the observing writer—irony.

My favorite line from the piece, and the one with which I identify most, comes from Didion herself in one of Kerr’s epigraphs: “to be paralyzed by a past no longer relevant.” She’s talking, in “Notes from a Native Daughter” about the fate of those in the Sacramento Valley, but also, as usual, about everyone.

The demise of book reviewing

The New York Times uses the occasion of the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s eliminating the position of book review editor held by Teresa Weaver to once again cover the dichotomy between traditional newspaper coverage of books and coverage in the blogosphere. Newspaper reviews, for me, occupy a sort of middle-ground: they can never cater to niche interests the way that blogs can while they also don’t provide the sort of in-depth, well-considered review that one might find in the New York Review of Books or the New Yorker. They do, however, provide some level of volume, i.e the sheer number of books they review, and consistency, while covering a broader range of subject matter than any individual blog could.

The Times is especially fond of quoting novelist Richard Ford in the story:

Obviously, the changes at newspaper book reviews reflect the broader challenges faced by newspapers in general, as advertisement revenues decline, and readers decamp to the Internet. But some writers (and readers) question whether economics should be the only driving factor. Newspapers like The Atlanta Journal-Constitution could run book reviews “as a public service, and the fact of the matter is that they are unwilling to,” said Richard Ford, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist.

“I think the reviewing function as it is thoroughly taken up by newspapers is vital,” he continued, “in the same way that literature itself is vital.”

Cody’s Books in San Francisco closing

Cody’s Books on Stockton Street in San Francisco will be closing on April 20, reports the San Francisco Chronicle.

The 22,000-square-foot store on Stockton Street, between Union Square and Market Street, will close on April 20. It will send 20 percent of its inventory to the last remaining Cody’s location, on Fourth Street in Berkeley.

Cody’s President Andrew Ross, who mortgaged his house to open the San Francisco store, said it has been losing $70,000 a month.

When Cody’s Telegraph location announced its impending closure last spring, Ross asserted than the San Francisco store was doing quite well, and on pace to be profitable. Obviously and sadly, that didn’t happen.

Blacks in baseball and authors on video

Harvey Araton, in response to a question posted by CC Sabathia, meditates on the decline of black players in Major League Baseball over the past couple decades. He writes:

The most recent tabulation, done by Richard Lapchick in 2005 for the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, put Major League Baseball’s black population at 8.5 percent, the lowest in 26 years and about half of what it was a decade earlier.

. . . .
How did this happen? Did baseball unwittingly wake up to a significant cultural shift (in particular to a burgeoning Latino market) or did it abandon the African-American community and its vital contributions to the history of the game?

Elsewhere in the Times today, Julie Bosman has an article about authors who are distributing videos to be shown at bookstores instead of going on tour. Powell’s is producing the videos and other bookstores will be showing them. The first video in the series, featuring Ian McEwan, will debut at BEA this summer.

For Mr. McEwan, the film will virtually replace his standard book tour, since he has declined to do traditional bookstore appearances to promote his new novel in the United States. The book, On Chesil Beach, will be published on June 5 by the Nan A. Talese imprint of Random House’s Doubleday division.

For years publishers and bookstores have tried to lure book buyers by featuring authors in blogs, podcasts and question-and-answer forums with readers. Mr. Weich said Powell’s did not expect to profit from the first film but hoped to attract more visitors to its Web site, powells.com, by posting the videos there.

I saw McEwan read at Printer’s Inc. in Palo Alto back in 1998 and would love to see him again. Although I attend and host a fair number of author events, I’ve always understood that it’s totally unreasonable to expect anything more than a book from an author. As William Gaddis wrote, “What is there left when he’s done with his work, what’s any artist but the dregs of his work, the human shambles that follows it around?”

The Cigarette Century

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I had lunch yesterday with Harvard professor Allan Brandt, whose new history of the cigarette industry, The Cigarette Century, appears on the cover of Sunday’s Washington Post Book World. His book is eye-opening, engaging, well-told, frightening, and, above all, necessary. Recently, Brandt wrote an op-ed piece for the LA Times, in which he argues that a successful attempt to quit smoking by Barack Obama will actually be a victory for the tobacco industry because it will prove that smoking is an individual choice. They’ll say, “Well, if Barack can quit because he wants to, then you can too.” Brandt writes:

For every American like Obama who may successfully quit, there are “replacement smokers” in foreign lands. When Americans and others in Western developed nations began quitting in greater numbers in the 1970s and 1980s, the industry ramped up its efforts abroad, often with the assistance of the U.S. trade representative. Philip Morris International now sells more than four times as many cigarettes as its American sister company.

This dramatic rise in global consumption will prove disastrous in the future, especially in poorer countries. While 100 million people worldwide died of tobacco-induced diseases in the 20th century, the World Health Organization now predicts that nearly 1 billion such deaths will occur in this century.

. . . .

If Obama quits, no doubt Philip Morris will be the first to congratulate him. After all, won’t that prove that anyone can stop anytime he wants to? If only that were true. Then the global epidemic of tobacco deaths would be coming to a precipitous end instead of spiraling upward. As the tobacco executives know all too well, a new smoker is born every minute — and they are ready with a pack of Marlboros.

Indies Under Fire: better than the trailer?

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A few months ago, I posted about what was, at the time, an upcoming screening of the film Indies Under Fire sponsored by Kepler’s. Based on the film’s trailer, which I watched online, I wrote that it looked to be “another sentimental, corporate-bashing look at indie bookstores that refuses to do the hard work of pointing a critical eye at indies themselves and asking why the independent bookselling business has been stagnant and so incredibly slow to innovate or pioneer new business practices over the past few decades.” I recently received a comment from a reader who thought I might not have written that had I actually seen the film.

I did attend the screening, and though the film is slightly more nuanced than I had expected, its implied argument is that Borders and the corporate booksellers led to the demise of Printer’s Inc. in Palo Alto. I grew up down the street from Printer’s Inc., and must note that it wasn’t a particularly good bookstore. When compared to the other big indie bookstores in the Bay Area–Cody’s, Kepler’s, ACWLP, Book Passage, Green Apple, etc.–Printer’s rated very low in my book.

Although the sentimental view of the indie bookstore getting killed by the heartless, bland corporate bookseller certainly appeals to people’s emotions, it seems that indie bookstores are really responsible for their own survival. Berkeley’s Nydia MacGregor wrote a paper in which she argued that the presence of chain stores has little effect on the sales of independent bookstores in the same area as long as the local community is engaged and the independent store provides them with a unique identity. She writes:

Independent booksellers link consumers with an identity that connects to a more differentiated self-concept, that fits within a narrower social group. Given the complementary nature of the relationship between these two organizational forms and the differentiated resources that they demand, branch store openings will not negatively affect the baseline survival rates of independent stores, even when they enter into the same community.

In short, the relationship that Indies Under Fire suggests between Borders and Printer’s Inc. is flat out wrong. Printer’s Inc. killed itself.

Revisiting Kundera and Acocella

Today I read very positive reviews of two books about writing, which I’ve posted about in the past month. In the Sunday New York Times Book Review, Russell Banks reviews Milan Kundera’s The Curtain, while Joyce Carol Oates reviews, in one of the most unequivacally praiseful reviews I’ve read in a while, Joan Acocella’s Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints in the New York Review of Books.

Oates cites one of the better passages I encountered this week. Following Acocella’s visit to Penelope Fitzgerald in which the older writer provides nothing of much use during their interview, Acocella writes,

Why do we bother to interview artists? Why expect them, in two hours, to tell us their story, or— what we’re really looking for—a story that will dovetail with their work, explain it? The better the artist, the harder it is to produce such an accounting, for the life has been more fully transformed. Why violate their privacy, brush aside their years of work—the labor of creating stories that are not their story?

Banks, in his review, obviously loves Kundera’s work. He writes that Kundera “is one of the most erudite novelists on the planet. Not since Henry James, perhaps, has a fiction writer examined the process of writing with such insight, authority and range of reference and allusion.”

However, at the end of the review something curious happens. Banks falls into the trap of the model positive New York Times book review, getting in a last second jab. He writes,

If I have any quarrel with Kundera’s description of the history of the novel it’s that he’s not inclusive enough. He does not discuss a single female novelist, even in passing. It’s as if no Western woman has ever tried writing a serious novel in 400 years. And, in his appreciation of non-European novelists like Fuentes, García Márquez and Chamoiseau, he colonizes them, as if culturally they gazed longingly toward their European mother- and fatherlands instead of their homelands. But then, he’s not writing literary criticism; he’s writing the secret history of the novels of Milan Kundera and teaching us how to read them.

It’s as if he’s saying, “Look, everyone! The great Franco-Czech novelist is not perfect!” Well, of course, no one’s perfect, but pointing this out adds absolutely nothing to Banks’ review and cheapens what I suspect is a genuine appreciation of Kundera’s work.

Inc. magazine’s second story on Kepler’s

The second part of Bo Burlingham’s three-part series on Kepler’s appears in the March issue of Inc. magazine. Burlingham recounts the struggles that Anne Banta, Clark Kepler, et al have had over the past year or so after the store reopened in October 2005. It seems that Banta has finally come to some conclusions that she should have reached a long time ago. She’s quoted, “I feel hopeful about how it’s going. But the idea of people from high tech coming in to save the day—it was so naive to think that we could. We have to find other people who know the industry–an advisory board or something. If we can tap into some industry experts, it would make a big difference.”

The only problem here is that the sort of industry experts she seeks out are people like Michael Hoynes, who recommend diversifying product lines, targeting the store to families, and other marketing nonsense that has nothing to do with books or how to reach people who care about books and are willing to spend money on them.

In September of 2005, I wrote a letter to the San Jose Mercury News criticizing the composition of Kepler’s board of directors and suggested that they include someone from the literary community on the board. They still have not done this. (You can read the letter reprinted below, if you click on the “more” link.)

Burlingham’s article definitely provides some hope that the store is on the right track and that Banta and Kepler have finally realized that the store can’t be everything to everyone—that it needs focus, and having focus inevitably means alienating some people. At one point in the article, Burlingham quotes Banta when she exclaims, “But I don’t know what we want [the store] to be!”

I obviously love the store quite a bit. I still buy most of my books there—about 100 a year. I claim at least some responsibility for the store’s revival, and yet I also understand that in order to reshape itself to survive, Kepler’s may, in fact, alienate me. I sure hope they don’t, that they beef up their literary fiction section, stop cutting back on periodicals, and find some way to finance doing so. If that means selling ridiculous games and diaries and DVDs and Christmas cards, then so be it. But I think they still need to figure out a) How are we going to make money? and b) What are we going to invest that money in? What is going to give us the greatest return? And what is going to be of long-term, literary value to our customers? This is a decision that you can only make with strong leadership and leaders who are interested in books and business. When I used to travel more and visit new bookstores on a regular basis, I had two tests for whether the store was good or not: 1. Did they stock all books by F. Scott Fitzgerald? (He died at 44, after all, and only has about a dozen books.) and 2. Do they have The Recognitions by William Gaddis. Fail both, and you’re out of the running. Those tests have not changed in years, and I don’t expect them to.

On a final note, the article mentions setting trackable benchmarks for the staff, which I completely agree with, but the question is this: Can a metrics-driven business model be compatible with an art form that is not. Seriously, if the literary business was entirely driven by sales, we would have only be able to choose a bunch of crappy best-selling novels by John Grisham, Michael Crichton, et al.

As Banta had come to realize, Kepler would have to learn an entirely different management style if the company were to be turned around and set up to last for another 50 years–the goal set by Méndez and the board. He would have to put managers in place, give them real responsibilities, and hold them accountable. He would have to commit to a plan with realistic projections, quantified goals, and specific benchmarks. Banta and her colleagues had already identified the key areas to concentrate on. They were the six imperatives that made up her “bubbles of focus.” The first bubble was the core: doing the things that defined Kepler’s mission of being the local area’s community and cultural destination. The second: sell more effectively to current customers. The third: expand and diversify the customer base. The fourth: expand and diversify the store’s product line. The fifth: develop an employee culture of empowerment with total customer focus and an understanding of person-to-person marketing. The sixth: reduce costs and improve efficiencies. Banta wanted the participants in the meetings to lay out all the ideas they had for addressing the imperatives. She then wanted them to decide on the three to five most promising ones in each area, estimate the costs and returns, assign responsibility, and settle on the measurements they would use to monitor progress.

While I was living in New York four years ago, I ran into a former Kepler’s employee, who recounted Clark Kepler’s ridiculous rules for his employees, which included not being allowed to sit down or read while on the job. Burlingham seems to suggest that these rules were actually legitimate.

As a manager, he was a one-man band. Every significant problem came to him. He wasn’t even willing to delegate responsibility for checking the suggestion box. On top of that, he had an elaborate set of written rules governing everything an employee might do. Aside from contributing nothing to the business, the rules sent exactly the wrong message to the staff: You are not empowered to think for yourself.

This, generally, seems like a poor way to manage a business, but, hey, what do I know? I’m just a writer. More →

The new n+1

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A few months ago, I wrote a magazine article about the experience of spending a day without any digital devices—no cell phone, no Internet, no computer. Unfortunately, the piece was edited to express almost none of my ambivalence about the state we technology users currently find ourselves in—assaulted all day long by emails, unable to resist using our cell phones, content to set our iPods to shuffle. The article I wish I had written appears in the current issue of n+1’s opening department, “The Intellectual Situation.”

In it, the editors address cell phones, email, and the blogosphere. On email: “. . . it has lately become clear that nothing burdens a life like an email account. It’s the old story: the new efficient technology ends up costing far more time than it ever saves, because it breeds new expectations of what a person can possibly do. . . . The true mood of the form is spontaneity, alacrity—the right time to reply to a message is right away. But do that and your life is gone.”

On the cell phone: “The two effects, for the individual, of the cell phone’s contribution to the decivilizing process are ceasing to be able to be alone, and yet refusing solitude without entering into company. This leads to the loss of one of the great comforts of modern urban life…the fraternity of solitude. Sometimes you eat dinner alone; sometimes you do your grocery shopping alone; often you’ll ride the bus alone. At such times, in a city, there are always other people who are dining alone, shopping alone, sitting in their bus seats alone, in exactly the same situation. The fraternity of solitaries is always there for you to join. . . . Go into a restaurant now, sit near a fellow single diner, and you will see him dial his cell phone during the appetizer and talk through to dessert. The only choices you have are to pull out your own phone or listen in.”

Their point about how cell phones prevent you from being able to be alone, to seek real solitude, combined with the barrier they provide to real connection is dead on. How many times have you been hanging out with someone when their cell phone rings or they decide they have to call someone? It doesn’t even have to happen, but the idea that it can, that it could, prevents us from ever fully being able to focus on individuals for any length of time in our daily lives.

For some reason, I feel like Jonathan Franzen once used the phrase “fraternity of solitude,” but no matter. I’ve been reading n+1 ever since it debuted, and it may now, after its previous issue’s survey of American writing and the 10 pages I’ve read of the new issue, be my favorite magazine. Period.

Yves Bonnefoy out of obscurity

When I was a freshman in college, I asked one of my teachers to recommend a French poet whose verse contained much lyricism and obscurity, and she pointed me towards Yves Bonnefoy. I picked up a couple volumes of his work, which I read at the time. I saw him read sparingly when I spent a year studying at a university in France, and then I never heard of him again until I read Charles Simic’s review of Bonnefoy’s new collection, The Curved Planks, in the New York Review of Books last week. Simic closes his essay:

He insists that we must face our mortality, that from our finitude comes whatever wisdom we have. His poems strive to remind of of our earliest experiences of solitude, those moments of wordless feelings that shaped our identities. We must return again to that moment when we found ourselves for the first time in the presence of that most ineffable of realities. Poetry for Bonnefoy is a story of one subject, one great emotion. Not much else happens in his poems. There are no cities, no history, and almost no other people. He is a poet of small ephiphanies: some long-ago summer evening when the night forgot to fall while a lone child played on the road and a distance voice kept calling him. This is the secret of his lyricism, the memory of a fragment of time touched by eternity that he cannot let go. Is this one obsession enough for a lifetime of poetry? In a few of his finest poems, Bonnefoy makes us believe that it is.

Back from Sea Ranch

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When I was in high school, one of my best friends would occasionally tell me that his parents were spending the weekend at Sea Ranch. I imagined a bunch of cows living by the ocean, and he explained, “No, no cows. There’s, like, golf and stuff.” I would respond, “Cows! Moo!” It turns out that there are indeed cows. Sea ranch is a community of vacation homes along the coast about 120 miles north of San Francisco. I finally went there over the long Presidents Day weekend, and did not want to leave yesterday.

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While there, I read an excellent article in the New Yorker about the HP “pretexting” scandal by James Stewart along with a slightly less interesting article about the ramifications of Ruth Lilly’s $200 million gift to the Poetry Foundation. In it, Dana Goodyear portrays opposition to the commercial view of poetry expressed by the foundation’s head, John Barr, whom she quotes, “If you look at drama in Shakespeare’s day, or the novel in the last century, or the movie today, it suggests that an art enters its golden age when it is addressed to and energized by the general audiences of its time.” He seems to be dead on, if he wants to doom poetry to irrelevance. The problem with his view is that art that considers its audience, art that treats its audience like consumers to be pleased and entertained is exactly the sort of art that becomes stagnant, which is, apparently, Barr’s greatest fear.

On my way back from Sea Ranch, I stopped at Green Apple and picked up Joan Acocella’s latest collection of essays, Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, most of which first appeared in the New Yorker. The Times Sunday Book Review has an excellent review of Acocella’s collection by Kathryn Harrison. Harrison writes,

What emerges from a reading of “Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints” is Acocella’s — and through hers our own — respect and in certain cases even reverence for the dogged faith on which an artistic career is built. We know the seductive alchemy of art. To transform private anguish into a narrative of truth if not beauty; to make sense where there was none; to bring order out of chaos: these are the promises art makes. Fulfilling them requires something else entirely, an attribute closer to blindness than to inspiration — the refusal to give up when the odds predict defeat, again.
. . . .
“The relation between morality and imagination may be a complicated one, but it does exist,” she writes, analyzing the narrowness of Dorothy Parker’s vision, a function, she believes, of her selfishness. “Hope, forgiveness — these are not just moral actions. They are enlargements of the mind. Without them, you remain in the tunnel of the self.” Like Sontag, like every great critic, Acocella is subjective, uncompromising. She has a distinct point of view, a refreshingly not-fashionable one — she salutes Sunday-school virtues! — and writes from her conviction that beneath its hectic, irresponsible, even intoxicated surface, art makes singularly unglamorous demands: integrity, sacrifice, discipline. Hers is a vision that allows art its mystery but not its pretensions, to which she is acutely sensitive. What better instincts could a critic have?

Before Green Apple, I stopped at the Sausalito Taco Shop, which deserves every one of its five-star ratings on Yelp.

Milan Kundera’s The Curtain

I read Milan Kundera’s new book, The Curtain, at Stanford’s Green Library last weekend, and enjoyed almost all of it. The book-length essay, parts of which appeared in the New Yorker, argues for a unified tradition of world literature. Kundera basically suggests that we need to view all work in the context of this tradition, which in turn demands increased ambition from both novelists and readers. He writes,

A nation’s possessiveness toward its artists works as a small-context terrorism, reducing the whole meaning of a work to the role it plays in its homeland.

….

Every novel created with real passion aspires quite naturally to a lasting aesthetic value, meaning to a value capable of surviving its author. To write without having that ambition is cynicism: a mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produces books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional–thus not useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious–is contemptible.

I found Kundera’s work to be rather powerful. I have to admit that for years, I only read books written in languages that I could read–English and French–and avoided most literature in translation with some exceptions: Kafka, Murakami, Nietzsche. I wouldn’t even read Nabokov’s russian novels until a couple years ago. I did this, in part, because I care intensely about prose styles when I read and had doubts about reading a translated style that could be entirely different from what the author intended. But reading Orhan Pamuk’s essay, which I blogged about over a month ago and this book by Kundera, I’m more convinced that these things don’t matter. What does still matter and why I’ll continue to primarily read American authors is that they’re mostly the ones who are concerned with the project that I’m trying to tackle by writing a novel: knowing America. Yes, I have in mind Kerouac’s famous line, “Nobody’ll ever know America completely because nobody ever knew Gatsby, I guess.”

Weekly reading

  • Jeffrey Toobin has an article on Google Book Search in the New Yorker.
  • The Chicago Fire made an attempt to sign Zinédine Zidane only to be told, like other MLS clubs, that the French midfielder is not coming out of retirement.
  • Wired has a short feature on Zidane: Un Portraît du 21ème Siècle, which was recently shown at the Sundance film festival. The magazine says: “. . . Zidane provides some sublime pleasures. At moments, the filmmakers give us near silence, suggesting Zidane’s isolation, or sound effects that sound like a herd of stampeding wildebeest that connect his physicality with survival, wildness and nature.”
  • I read an article in the Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology by Jason Hobbs about designing the web for users in Africa, which didn’t say much except that we need to pay attention to their specific needs: “The real challenge is not low bandwidth, small user bases and budgets for building but our notions of what constitutes a user and how we can design for them and their contexts of use. The opportunity is to design within the limitations that exist to increase trust in the channel (as a meaningful alternative) and thus increase use of the channel.”
  • It’s listening not reading, but still worth checking out is Dave Eggers’s appearance on KCRW’s Bookworm this week. You can listen to the show here. Bookworm, for the uninitiated, is the best show about books in the country.

Monday’s mayhem

  • Joan Acocella reviews the new Martin Amis novel, House of Meetings, in the New Yorker this week. Michiko Kakutani also calls the book, “a powerful, unrelenting and deeply affecting performance: a bullet train of a novel that barrels deep into the heart of darkness that was the Soviet gulag and takes the reader along on an unnerving journey into one of history’s most harrowing chapters.”
  • Fortune magazine has named Google the best place to work in America.
  • Steve Jobs gives his annual keynote address at Macworld tomorrow morning. Keep your eyes peeled for some cool new stuff on Apple’s website around 11 am. You can follow the keynote live here.
  • Randy Johnson, who did not produce a World Series title during his two years with the Yankees is returning to Arizona, where he took a World Series away from New York in November 2001. Good riddance, Randy.
  • I haven’t yet read the Times cover story from Education Life yesterday, but I expect to soon and will post about it.

Big-Box Swindle: a diatribe against chain stores

Stacy Mitchell’s book, Big-Box Swindle, opens with an anecdote about the resurrection of Kepler’s in the fall of 2005, and in which this blog played an instrumental role. bigbox.jpgHer book, which is a well-researched diatribe against chain stores, received coverage in Business Week last week. I haven’t read the book yet, but judging by the review, it doesn’t seem like Mitchell’s research really offers anything new:

While chain stores were already a presence by World War I, changes to the federal tax code in 1954 turned them into tax shelters. Within three years, new shopping center construction had increased more than 500%; Wal-Mart, Target, Bradlees, Kor-vettes, and Caldor are among the retailers that soon appeared. These days, local governments lure the chains with generous subsidies and tax breaks, thinking the stores will bring jobs to town. Mitchell, building on her own and others’ research, counters that the boost “is nothing more than an illusion.” The stores do create hundreds of jobs, but eliminate just as many by forcing other businesses to downsize or close. The tax dollars they generate are offset by lost sales and property tax revenue from local business districts and shopping centers. A 2006 working paper by the Public Policy Institute of California examined several markets and found the opening of a Wal-Mart resulted in a drop in countywide retail earnings of 2.8%.

People who don’t like reading

The Economist has a brief, interesting story about improving reading levels among British school children through a new plan that offers six-year-olds four months of everyday 30-minute one-on-one reading sessions.

At more than £2,000 ($3,900) per pupil, Reading Recovery is not cheap. But it may be a sound investment. The KPMG Foundation, a charity that has been paying for Reading Recovery in some schools, reckons that each child who leaves primary school unable to read will go on to cost the taxpayer at least £50,000 in specialist teaching in secondary schools, dealing with truancy, paying benefits to adults who are more likely to be sick and jobless, and the fall-out from increased crime.

The most interesting passage, however, comes at the end of the article:

International research tends to find that by the time British children leave primary school they are reading well by international standards, but read less often for fun than those elsewhere. Tellingly, the inspectors said that when they asked why it is good to be able to read, children were more likely to say that it would help them to do well in tests or get a good job than that reading was enjoyable.

This matters not only because children who are keen on reading can look forward to lifelong pleasure, but because loving books is an excellent predictor of future educational success. According to the OECD, being a regular and enthusiastic reader is more of an advantage than having well-educated parents in good jobs.

If we had a sure-fire way for teaching people to enjoy reading, it wouldn’t be such a big problem, of course. I came to love reading largely thanks to a couple teachers I had in high school, though I believe the general trend is for people to become readers readers in early childhood because they grow up with parents who read in a household filled with books. The other model for becoming a reader that Stanford’s Shirley Brice Heath identified is that of the social isolate, who finds the world somehow inadequate and seeks refuge and greater experience in books. I definitely fall into this latter category, and find myself a little embarrassed to admit that when I was 12, reading was probably the least cool thing you could do.

Anyhow, the point I would like to make is the sense that reading is only good for utilitarian purposes–a means to an end–is a significant problem with education in America today. I remember how frustrated I was, even at a young age (ten, eleven) when teachers would justify their assignments and materials by saying that it would prepare their classes for next year. In middle school, everything was designed to prepare students for high school. In high school, everything touted as preparation for college. In college, I was disgusted by students who were obsessed with preparing themselves for careers. Preparation is fine and all, but what our educational system fails to instill and develop in students is a love for learning simply for the sake of learning. And what you end up with is population of adults that doesn’t read or learn at all unless the material is going to get them a raise, which seems okay on the surface but, when you think about it, basically crushes all creativity and innovation that inevitably comes from having a wide background of knowledge.

Orhan Pamuk’s father and his suitcase

For weeks, the New Yorkers in my mail stack pile up and I read nothing in them more than a couple Talk of the Town pieces and a book review or two by John Updike or Louis Menand. Then, all of a sudden, an issue comes along that demands to be read in near entirety. Friends, the December 25/January 1 Winter Fiction issue is one such issue, and its highlight is Orhan Pamuk’s Nobel lecture. Anyone who cares about anything should read it.

pamuk.jpg

The narrative begins when Pamuk’s father delivers to him a suitcase filled with his writings, which launches Pamuk into a meditation on his decision to become a writer and his father’s decision to not.

A writer is someone who spends years patiently trying to discover the second being inside him, and the world that makes him who he is. When I speak of writing, the image that comes first to my mind is not a novel, a poem, or a literary tradition; it is the person who shuts himself up in a room, sits down at a table, and, alone, turns inward. Amid his shadows, he builds a new world with words.

….

I would like to see myself as belonging to the tradition of writers who—wherever they are in the world, East or West—cut themselves off from society and shut themselves up in their rooms with their books; this is the starting point of true literature.

But once we have shut ourselves away we soon discover that we are not as alone as we thought. We are in the company of the words of those who came before us, of other people’s stories, other people’s books—the thing we call tradition. I believe literature to be the most valuable tool that humanity has found in its quest to understand itself. Societies, tribes, and peoples grow more intelligent, richer, and more advanced as they pay attention to the troubled words of their authors—and, as we all know, the burning of books and the denigration of writers are both signs that dark and improvident times are upon us. But literature is never just a national concern. The writer who shuts himself up in a room and goes on a journey inside himself will, over the years, discover literature’s eternal rule: he must have the artistry to tell his own stories as if they were other people’s stories, and to tell other people’s stories as if they were his own, for that is what literature is.

One of my favorite passages in the piece comes when Pamuk responds to the question, “Why do you write?” with every possible reason I’ve ever considered and then some.

I write because I have an innate need to write. I write because I can’t do normal work as other people do. I write because I want to read books like the ones I write. I write because I am angry at everyone. I write because I love sitting in a room all day writing. I write because I can partake of real life only by changing it. I write because I want others, the whole world, to know what sort of life we lived, and continue to live, in Istanbul, in Turkey. I write because I love the smell of paper, pen, and ink. I write because I believe in literature, in the art of the novel, more than I believe in anything else. I write because it is a habit, a passion. I write because I am afraid of being forgotten. I write because I like the glory and interest that writing brings. I write to be alone. Perhaps I write because I hope to understand why I am so very, very angry at everyone. I write because I like to be read. I write because once I have begun a novel, an essay, a page I want to finish it. I write because everyone expects me to write. I write because I have a childish belief in the immortality of libraries, and in the way my books sit on the shelf. I write because it is exciting to turn all life’s beauties and riches into words. I write not to tell a story but to compose a story. I write because I wish to escape from the foreboding that there is a place I must go but—as in a dream—can’t quite get to. I write because I have never managed to be happy. I write to be happy.

The week that was

  • Zinédine Zidane spent the week in Algeria and attended a soccer match on Thursday.
  • Setanta Sports has, unfortunately, discontinued its Setanta on Demand service for ITVN.
  • Dan Halpern has an article on Boris Vian in this week’s New Yorker. Vian was a French author, musician, artist, champion of jazz among other things, and Halpern’s essay prompted me to order Vian’s greatest novel, L’Écume des Jours.
  • Also in this week’s New Yorker, James Suroweicki writes about the increasing popularity of gift cards and the money we waste on unwanted gifts. He cites research that finds, in general, the amount we pay for gifts is higher than the value that their recipients place on the gifts. On the other hand, we place a disproportionately high value on unrequested gifts because we assume the givers put greater thought into them.

    An economist might suggest that the solution is to abandon the pretense and simply start exchanging small piles of money. The boom in gift cards is a kind of socially tolerable version of this: the cards are somehow more personal than cash, and they’re also not going to be wasted on an unwanted gift. But Waldfogel’s studies also suggest a very different solution: if most of the presents we buy are going to be less valuable in monetary terms than in sentimental ones, then there’s no reason to believe that the more expensive gift is a better gift. In fact, the more we spend at Christmas, the more we waste. We might actually be happier—and we’d certainly be wealthier—if we exchanged small, well-considered gifts rather than haunting the malls. Calculating the deadweight loss of Christmas gifts is a coldhearted project, but it leads to a paradoxically warmhearted conclusion: the fact of giving may be more important than what you give.

Bibliographies in novels?

The Times has an interesting story about how some recent novels by authors including Martin Amis, Norman Mailer, and William Vollmann contain bibliographies.

“It’s terribly off-putting,” said James Wood, the literary critic for The New Republic. “It would be very odd if Thomas Hardy had put at the end of all his books, ‘I’m thankful to the Dorset County Chronicle for dialect books from the 18th century.’ We expect authors to do that work, and I don’t see why we should praise them for that work. And I don’t see why they should praise themselves for it.”

Traditionally confined to works of nonfiction, the bibliography has lately been creeping into novels, rankling critics who call it a pretentious extension of the acknowledgments page, which began appearing more than a decade ago and was roundly derided as the tacky literary equivalent of the Oscar speech. Purists contend that novelists have always done research, particularly in books like “Madame Bovary” that were inspired by real-life events, yet never felt a bibliography was necessary.

I recently read a wonderful bibliography in Joshua Prager’s The Echoing Green, but I think bibliographies for works of fiction should not be included in the novels themselves, but would certainly be apprpriate for, say, the author’s website.

Weekend tidbits

  • I missed a recent story in the NYT about the Finnegans Wake Society, which used to meet at Gotham Book Mart, until my favorite store store closed its doors a couple months ago.
  • The excellent NPR show Marketplace did a segment last month on Kepler’s membership program, which has raised over $200,000 from shoppers, who, ahem, get nothing in return. Noticeably absent from the Marketplace piece was the very valid criticism that Kepler’s should not be able to get away with soliciting non-profit-style membership contributions until they become more transparent about their financial workings and where the membership money goes. On the plus side, I recently noticed that inventory at the store has improved quite a bit with the critical theory, fiction, and sports sections all showing marked improvement.BN.com
  • BN.com has an item on my Christmas list, the Lego Mindstorms NXT, for $187.46 with the coupon code B3U6E4V. That’s, by far, the best price I’ve seen so far.
  • Yahoo! and Reuters have collaborated to solicit user-submitted news photos through Yahoo!’s new You Witness News site. Reuters may then select photos for distribution to their clients, in which case, photographers will receive small royalty payments.
  • remember watching with delight then 12-year-old Jeffrey Maier pull a Derek Jeter fly ball over the right field fence for a home run in the 1996 ALCS when I was a sophomore in high school. According to a NYT story, Maier is now seeking a job in the front office of a Major League Baseball team, which is still where I hope, on some days, to end up.
  • Has anyone tried the New York Times Reader Beta? I just downloaded it and will post my impressions soon.
  • The Yankees appear closer to signing Andy Pettitte, according to the New York Times.
  • Forbes has a decent, but short profile of McSweeney’s, for whom I used to work. I especially like the following passage from the article: “Like upstart publishers anywhere, McSweeney’s has run into plenty of pitfalls, from bad planning and cost overruns to occasional cash shortages. ‘We’re making mistakes on every level of the spectrum that mistakes can be made on,’ says McSweeney’s editor Horowitz. ‘but our audience is really forgiving of mistakes, too.'”

The Times 10 best books of 2006

The New York Times Book Review has picked its 10 best books of the year. There aren’t really any surprises here, though I was pleased to see both Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan and Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics on the list. Pessl was the only first-time novelist to be included. As usual, I’m planning to read some of the books on the list, and not others. I already have the books by Shteyngart, Pessl, Rory Stewart, and Richard Ford, so I suppose those will come first.

Sachs and Easterly at it again

Jeffrey Sachs and Bill Easterly are sparring once again. This time, in response to an article by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Review of Books that mentioned Easterly’s view of Sachs, Sachs has written a comment to the NYRB:

When we overlook the success that is possible, we become our own worst enemies. We stand by as millions die each year because they are too poor to stay alive. The inattention and neglect of our policy leaders lull us to believe casually that nothing more can be done. Meanwhile we spend hundreds of billions of dollars per year on military interventions doomed to fail, overlooking the fact that a small fraction of that money, if it were directed at development approaches, could save millions of lives and set entire regions on a path of economic growth. It is no wonder that global attitudes toward America have reached the lowest ebb in history. It is time for a new approach.

Full comment here.