Yearly Archives: 2004

The Lit City Study, Pt II

In the comments field to yesterday’s Lit City post, Bud Parr raises some significant objections. There’s four main sortcomings he sees in the study:

1. The study regarded quantity of bookstores over quality, i.e., a boutique gift-bookstore counted for as much as a Tattered Cover or a Elliot Bay or a City Lights.
2. Readings and other literary events were not considered at all in the study.
3. It appears that universities (and possibly their libraries) were not counted, and/or not weighted for in the study.
4. Socio-economics. Bigger cities are going to take a huge hit for having significant populations of impoverished people who simply do not have the means or time to pursue literature.

These are all good points, and I do agree with Bud that it’s somewhat strange to see New York  City at the 49th most literate city in the nation. The study would have done better to consider quality of institution in addtion to quantity. For instance, isn’t one Elliot Bay worth at least ten boutique travel bookstores?

Also, to a certain degree, comparing a city like Louisville, KY to NYC is apples to oranges and the study would have been better if it had taken this into account in some way. NYC and Louisville may share certain characteristics, but they are also immensely different places. It does seem somewhat facile to simply calculate library-citizen ratios and think that is the final word on which population is best-served by its city’s libraries. Wouldn’t some of NYC’s libraries be  bigger and able to serve patrons is different ways than Louisville’s? Wouldn’t New Yorkers and Lousivillians be acclimated to utilizing their library differently based on the different ways their cities work?

In Bud’s comment he says the study asked "how well does your city cultivate bookish behavior?" I’m not sure that’s what the study is measuring. It seems more centered around calculating certain variables on a per capita basis. From my reading of the study, it seems that it is far more interested in figuring out how much of each institution there is per unit of population than how those insitutions promote bookish behavior.

This is all to say that the study should be taken with a grain of salt. Its title (America’s Most Literate Cities) certainly does not help, as it sounds grandiose and final and implies that it is the word on literate cities. I think the study tells us a good deal and provides much useful information. However, what that information tells us about which city is "most literate" (or even what "most literate" means) is up to debate.

How Lit is YOUR City?

In what is destined to become the New Year’s Weekend topic of conversation, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater presents the 2004 edition of their study, America’s Most Literate Cities. (thanks to GalleyCat for the link)

Some of the ranks come off as a little funny (for instance, is Los Angeles really the 68th most literate city in the country?), but there’s lots of interesting information here. It ranks the top periodical publishers by the number of magazines with circulation over 2,500 and the number of journals over 500 published in a city. I don’t see the actual data (i.e. how many puslishers), but its still interesting to know that apparently there’s a lot of publishing going on in Washington, D.C., Boston, Atlanta, and San Francisco.

Also, it’s interesting to see which cities have the most-used libraries and the lowest library-citizen ratios.

The item that people may find the most interesting of all, though, is the all-powerful bookstores section. It ranks cities based on retail and used/rare bookstores (SF is on top, followed by Cincinnati and Seattle), although it would be interesting to know what’s the breakdown between new and used/rare.

Overall, it’s a pretty worthwhile study, but I wish UWW would put up their raw data. There’s a methodology .pdf which shows how they acquired the data so I suppose if you really wanted to know you could take some time and crunch out your own results, but it would be nice if the info was browsable. Also, it would have been nice to see some comparisons between the 2003 and 2004 studies on the website.

Apparently, however, the 2003 study is long gone. The links in web pages referencing the ’03 study are now either dead or go to the ’04 study. However, I was able to locate the top ten from ’03, so we can make some comparisons based on that. (’04 rank in parentheses)

1. Minneapolis (1)
2. Seattle (2)
3. Denver (7)
4. Atlanta (15)
5. San Francisco (10)
6. Pittsburgh (3)
7. Washington, D.C. (6)
8. Louisville, KY (17)
9. Portland, OR (9)
10. Cincinnati (5)

And as a bonus, here’s the results of a new internet user survey.

The average Internet user in the United States spends three hours a day online, with much of that time devoted to work and more than half of it to communications, according to a survey conducted by a group of political scientists.

The survey found that use of the Internet has displaced television watching and a range of other activities. . . . According to the study, an hour of time spent using the Internet reduces face-to-face contact with friends, co-workers and family by 23.5 minutes, lowers the amount of time spent watching television by 10 minutes and shortens sleep by 8.5 minutes.

The Medium of Fiction

A while back I literally pulled William Gass’s Fiction and the Figures of Life out of a dump. There were these bookshelves where anyone could leave or take books, and I guess periodically the shelves get cleared out with the rest of the trash in the junkyard. Anyway, like most books I get for $1 or less, I stuck it somewhere in my apartment and promptly forgot it existed. I finally got around to looking through it and Gass’s writing is quite interesting.

In this collection is a short work entitled "The Medium of Fiction." It’s brief–only 7 pages–but Gass fills these pages with several pondersome statements that, if thoroughly examined, would fatten this essay up.

The main thing Gass is concerned with in "The Medium of Fiction" is what these words that fiction is "made" of are. He draws a comparison to a painter, who can see the paints she works with smeared against her clothes and skin, and a composer, whose sounds are created from precise instruments and are far more detatched from connotations than words.

"Five" is no wider, older, or fatter than "four"; "apple" isn’t sweeter than "quince," rounder than "pear," smoother than "peach." To say, then, that literature is language is to say that literature is made of meanings, concepts, ideas, forms (please yourself with the term), and that these are so static and eternal as to shame the stars.

Literature consists of words (sounds) but exists in intangible concepts arbitrarily related to those sounds. In effect, Gass is telling us that literature is both mundane–a collection of sounds that are lifeless (as though "your wife were made of rubber")–yet also magical–concepts invested with feeling unique to each of us which invade and possess in ways a painting or sculpture cannot.

It is a stubborn, country-headed thing to say: that there are no events but words in fiction. Words mean things. . . .

Sculptures take up space and gather dust. Concepts do not. They take us up. . . . A piece of music can drive you out and take your place. The purpose of a literary work is the capture of consciousness, and the consequent creation, in you, of an imagined sensibility.

Words that just communicate are are the mundane pieces of rubber, the black ink on the white page that is made to be seen through. There is a devaluation that comes with too much clarity. For example:

Corporate mission statements . . . are the operational, ethical, and financial guiding lights of companies. They are not simply mottoes or slogans; they articulate the goals, dreams, behavior, culture, and strategies of companies.

Concepts are light and impossible to pin down. They lack clarity because good authors who employ them know that the very words they are made of are ambiguous and prone to varied interpretation. The above quotation seeks to possess, to force the mind to understand; the kind of writing Gass celebrates works with the consciousness to create a shared experience. It beguiles an imagination into collaboration.

Knowing this, Gass is pleased to offer us such poetics as:

I am a man, myself, intemperately mild, and though it seems to me as much deserved as it’s desired, I have no wish to steeple quires of paper passion up so many sad unelevating rears.

a sentence whose seductive hints teases the reader into discovering its meaning. It’s a sentence that takes some patience, but is rich with interpretation, and, more importantly, conveys Gass’s own experience of literature more than a precise paragraph would.

Gass wants to find meaning in literature, but only as long as finding meaning does not stifle. As he says, literature should collaborate with and provoke the consciousness so as to honor words and not reduce itself to mere sounds or colors. Interpretation should aspire to the same level of respect.

Lit Journals

The NYTBR has an article on literary journals. It’s pretty  much "gee whiz, look at all this QUIRKY stuff going on UNDER THE RADAR." Really, I’d satirize it more but I’m tired. I apologize. (I’ve had a long day.)

"There are more literary magazines out there than ever, and it’s an
important part of the literary world’s unsung heroes," said Jeffrey
Lependorf, executive director of the Council of Literary Magazines and
Presses, founded to help literary magazines compete in the marketplace.
"If you’re interested in experimental poetry there’s a journal for you.
If you’re interested in Southern culture, there’s a magazine for you."

Suffice to say, lit journals certainly do open things up significantly more than the established, big publishers. Duh. Also, yes, they do play a gatekeeping role and are key in discovering new talent. In other news, the Pope is Catholic.

Actually, the role lit journals play in America’s literature is a very interesting topic for discussion. The NYTBR simply chooses not to discuss it in an interesting way.

If you’d like to see a good analysis of lit journals then you should click right here. This is an article in Context by the one and only Dan Green of TRE. In this piece, Dan examines the role lit journals play in the publication of serious literature. He pays particular attention to how open these lit  journals are to truly innovative and experienental writing, something the NYTBR article completely glosses over. (You know, there’s something ironic about  a thorough, interesting article about lit journals appearing in a lit journal and a short, dumb article about lit journals appearing in one of the establishment organs.)

One would be rewarded for reading the fiction included in Agni as
well, if only to sample new work by the likes of Wallace and Moody, but
unfortunately the stories featured in Chicago Review are relatively
unmemorable, most of them brief and characterized by a surprisingly
tepid lyricism (a judgment reached after reviewing two successive
issues). Again, these four journals certainly do not cover the
waterfront of the innovative or unconventional or offbeat fiction being
published in American literary magazines; still, at best the
publication of the kind of venturesome, aesthetically provocative
writing that twenty years ago seemed to point the way forward for
American fiction has become sporadic and scattered, the expropriation
of the vocabulary if not the substance of literary experiment
widespread enough to warrant describing the place of authentically
unconventional fiction in the publishing world of the little magazine
as altogether marginal.

How, then, did this happen? . . .

Go ahead, click the link, find out how.

Recent Readings

"There’s more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce."
–Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things
___________________________________________

"A friend asked me to explain how we were adapting ["Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail"] for the stage, and I thought about it and said, ‘O.K., you know how, in the movie, there’s a cow that flies out of a castle and lands on a page? Well, in the musical, the cow has a singing part.’"
–Mike Nichols on the upcoming Monty Python Broadway musical, "Spamalot," from The New Yorker, 12/20, 12/27
___________________________________________

"Time itself had been of a different texture, a different pace, in the world Muybridge was born into. It had not yet become a scarce commodity . . . Only prayer had been precisely scheduled in the old soceity, and church bells had been the primary source of time measurement."
–Rebecca Solnit, River of Shadows
___________________________________________

"In failing light he passed a bank that looked like a mausoleum, a hospital that looked like a bank, an armory that looked like a castle, and a high school that looked like a prison."

"It occurred to him . . . [that] if there were always at least one good guy waiting in full consciousness for the ground to shake, then there might never be another earthquake, so shy of human consciousness are the random events of nature. (This is the fundamental axiom of superstition.)"
–Jonathan Franzen, Strong Motion
___________________________________________

"Does the teleporter transmit the atoms and the quantum bit information signal that comprises the animate/inanimate object or just the quantum bit information signal? . . . Are humans simply the sum of all the atoms . . . that compose them?"
–Teleportation Physics Study," Eric W. Davis

Why review?

There’s an interesting discussion going around the blogs on the proper role of book reviews. Dan Green sums the discussion up in this post (I’ve added a comment to Dan’s post, so see that if you’re interested in my take).

BTW, I recently read the infamous McSweeney’s essay on snark. I only mention this because it seems (at least for the time being) inextricably tied to any discussion of what reviews should do. I found the essay a little haphazard. It is very erudite and brings in some good facts, but I didin’t really see it going in any discernable direction. Basically, it starts out with the question of what a book review should do, circles around that for a bit, abruptly stops, and denounces snark.

A couple interesting things. First off, a wide misperception is that the essay rules out negative reviews. It does not:

To be perfectly clear‚ÄîI am not espousing a feel-good, criticism-free climate, where all ambitious literary books receive special treatment, just because they’re "literary" (I acknowledge the dubiousness of the term)‚ÄîI’m simply asking that we read between the lines, and see what value systems these reviews are really espousing.

It is interesting to see what this has mutated into, however, as McSweeney’s currently does exhibit a bias against negative but snark-free reviews.

Second, the McSweeney’s essay argues that snark is bad because it: a) is just a reviewer trying to be entertaining, b) is just a reviewer trying for a quotable sound byte, or c) is a reviewer masking a lack of knowledge about literature with sarcasm.

I don’t doubt that a, b, and c are sometimes the case, but so what? If its a case of a or b, why not let the reviewer have her witticism? As much as I love literature, book reviews can sometimes be dry if approached with too formal of writing. Why not spice it up with a witty turn of phrase every now and then?

And as for c, I don’t see where the problem is. If a know-nothing reviewer is supplanting intelligence with invective then screw her. Disregard it. Don’t read it. Trash it back. Further,  I don’t see why McSweeneys would need worry about c  unless they are supporting reviewers who are ignorant w/r/t literature.

John Henry Days — Colson Whitehead

John Henry Days, Colson Whitehead (Anchor Books: 2001)

"Race and Modernity in Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist", Michael Berube, published in The Holodeck in the Garden: Contemporary American Fiction (Dalkey Archive: 2004)

"E Unibus Pluram", David Foster Wallace, published in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (Back Bay Books: 1997)

The Soul of Wit

1.

Right about now, irony and sarcasm are pretty hot stocks.
They were the magic at the center of the 1990’s most popular, and most clever,
sit-com (Seinfeld), they’re used in
commercials every day to sell products, and, really, they’re a big part of
everyday humor. If you’re like most people, you find irony and cynicism funny.
You can enjoy it pretty much everywhere you find it, from the witty guy on ESPN
to that uncle of yours who’s pretty quick. And you may even think it’s a good tool
with which to critique modern America (e.g. the many anti-W bumper-stickers, or a good Michael Moore documentary).

But, let’s go a little bit further. Let’s not only say that you
enjoy the humorous application of sarcasm and irony, but you decided that
sarcasm and irony were going to be your guiding principles. You were going to
take them as your Gospel. You would fill every day with knowing remarks,
second-guess the agenda behind even the most generous of gestures, laugh at all
the sentimental scenes in movies, rant at how unrealistic TV is. Are you
imagining this? If so, you are beginning to get the tiniest idea of what the
press junketeers in Colson Whitehead‚Äôs John Henry Days are like. 

What’s John Henry Days? John Henry was a railroad man, a
steel-driving ex-slave who bore a hole in a mountain so the train could get
through. He’s an American myth, a legend who could work harder than any ten men
combined and died moments after beating a steam-driven drill in a race. In
short, John Henry was a man’s man, a strong sonofagun who never lost a
steel-driving race. he even beat the steam drill. And then he died.

In Whitehead’s book, this manly American legend becomes a
stamp. The Post Office has created a series of four stamps commemorating
American heroes and John Henry is one of them. In honor of the event, Talcott, West Virginia, the tiny backwater town
where Henry is supposed to have made his mark, is hosting John Henry Days, a
festival to coincide with the stamp’s release.

Whitehead’s press junketeers (the incredibly cynical folk) have
been sent to Talcott to cover the stamp event, except that only one of them
(J., our main character) is actually writing it up; the rest are just
freeloading on the food, beer, and trinkets. A bunch of cynical middle-aged
writers out in the country pretending to cover a two-bit hick festival,
sponging off the locals and having a grand time with themselves. Yep, John
Henry Days
is that kind of book.

2. 

Something must be said for John Henry. The man may have been
a veritable He-Man of the steel-driving circuit, but nothing could have
prepared him for the metaphorical burden that Whitehead loads him up with.
We’re talking quintuple-duty plus here.

First off, you have to know that Whitehead is no stranger to
well-themed literature. His first novel, The Intuitionist, brought
together the Great Northern Migration, African-American integration, race and
disability, and African-American “passing” into a taut narrative of elevator
inspectors. The main conflict was between inspectors who did things the old
fashioned way, opening up the elevator and looking at its guts, versus the new
intuitionists who could mystically diagnose an elevator just by feeling it.
This central metaphor became the bedrock that supported, and linked with,
everything else Whitehead added in. 

In short, the new-old inspector conflict was a clever focal
point that all of The Intuitionist’s major themes passed through. John
Henry takes over the thematic duties this time, and in John Henry Days Whitehead has greatly expanded his reach, taking on
not only the ongoing debate of African-American integration, but the
commercialization of culture, an exploration of what pop culture is, how it is
transmitted, and what it is for, the search for meaning in our heavily-mediated
world, and a survey of what it is that is distinctly American.

Making John Henry our common point of reference for all this
is wise, as it renders an intricate, sprawling book all the more
comprehensible. Make no mistake, John Henry Days is a huge 400 pages. The book
darts around several narratives across over 100 years, which is a lot to keep
track of, even for John Henry. In fact, if this were Henry’s burden alone,
Whitehead’s themes would quickly mix up like a swarm of bees. What keeps
everything orderly and allows Whitehead to plays his themes off one another is
Henry‚Äôs supporting cast, of which the press junket reporters are just one part. 

Actually, the junket can be divided into three parts: J.,
One-Eye, and Misc. J. is our anti-hero, a man so tired with his life that he
has decided to go on junket after junket without any break for an entire
year–a Lou Gering-esque feat of junketeer endurance. One-Eye (who lost an eye
in a slapstick accident) has also grown tired of a meaningless junket life, but
his response is the exact opposite: he wants to remove himself from the
mystical List of junket reporters. The rest of the junketeers are the sardonically
black human backdrops against which J. and One-Eye are illuminated.

Whereas the junketeers come off as jerks shielding
themselves with sarcasm, the other characters in John Henry Days feel
more like tortured souls who imbibe sarcasm to help get by but haven’t quite
become masterful like the junketeers. There’s Pamela Street, whose father was just a little
obsessive-compulsive when it came to John Henry. He amassed the largest
collection of John Henry-related memorabilia in the world (in his one-bedroom
apartment), became a horrible parent and real weirdo in the process, and turned
his apartment into a John Henry “museum” that no on ever visited. After he
died, Pamela put his stuff into storage and now the city of Talcott,
keen to make John Henry their ticket to rural tourist-flytrap prosperity, wants
to buy the collection and put it in a new John Henry Museum.
Pamela has some issues about this since she hasn’t yet figured out how to
grieve for her bad father. Giving the stuff up is the logical fix, but for some
reason she can’t.

There’s also the stamp collector, Alphonse Miggs. His life
was so miserable and directionless that he turned to stamp collecting as a way
to fill up all the hours he spent not enjoying time with his wife. He ended up
specializing in railroad stamps and it’s not giving away too much of the plot
to say that he plans on doing something decidedly bad at the big John Henry
stamp commemoration event at the pinnacle of John Henry Days. He’s desperately trying
to give his life over to something meaningful, and his wife, his job, and his
stamps aren’t it.

The character traveling through the mythical John Henry
isn’t a person at all; it’s the Ballad of John Henry. In a series of
glimpses and remembrances, Whitehead shows this song’s century-long gestation.
Throughout the 20th century, a succession of songwriters and poets add verse
after verse to the ballad until it arrives at modern day Talcott, in the form
of an African-American native son who sings it during the event’s invitation-only
send-off. It is a force that transcends the tacky money-making festival, a
viral bit of culture that managed to preserve itself against the assaults of
commercialization. When the ballad is sung early on, all the junketeers and
weirdoes and eager city planners in attendance for the stamp festival are
momentarily taken by its poignancy. 

In a sense, John Henry carries each of these characters
because he is the reason they have all come to Talcott. Similarly, what John
Henry represents–genuine American culture spun into content for purposes of
making money–has brought each to Talcott as well. The junketeers are there
because content-making is how they earn their living. Pamela is there both
because the city wants her father’s collection of culture/content and because
she needs to come to grips with her fear of letting go of her identity as the
“daughter who hated the man who collected John Henry” in favor of figuring an
identity of her own. Alphonse is there because he’s addicted to the culture/content,
just like Pamela’s father was. And lastly, the song is there as some leftover
part of culture that refuses to be assimilated into the capital-cash-nexus, a
fragment of history that’s become so real that it defies attempts to forge
simulacra of it.

There’s one last thing that has been brought to Talcott:
John Henry. Actually, Henry was technically not brought to Talcott because he
never left. According to the legend, he died in Talcott right after he finished
off the steam drill. Subsequently, a statue was erected in his honor (now shot
at for fun on Saturday night by wayward local youth), and his body is supposedly
interred at a cemetery on the mountain he was drilling a hole through; however,
the cemetery has long since become overgrown (literally) by weeds and it’s
virtually impossible to locate anyone‚Äôs grave, including John Henry‚Äôs. 

3.

Just as the Talcott locals have made Henry the bearer of
their fortune, so has Whitehead make Henry the bearer of his indictment of
Talcott’s choice to make Henry the bearer of their fortune. In John Henry
Days
, Whitehead is exploiting American culture to attack the exploitation
of American culture. 

As far as this concept goes, Whitehead is a little late to
the party. John Henry Days was published
in 2000, roughly 20 years after a school of writing alternatively known as
post-post-modern, hyperreal, or image-fiction began inhabiting the realm of and
using pieces from popular culture in its fiction. Of course, just because
Whitehead wasn’t around when image-fiction was getting started doesn’t mean he
can’t use the style to spectacular effect. But first, some more about
image-fiction.

In his essay “E Unibus Pluram,” David Foster Wallace
describes image-fiction as employing the same vernacular as the postmoderns,
self-conscious irony, and applying it to the realm of pop culture, especially
the culture seen on television. 

The new Fiction of Image uses the transient received myths
of popular culture as a world in
which to imagine fiction about “real,” albeit pop-mediated, characters. (emphasis in original)

By this definition, Whitehead’s fiction, especially John
Henry Days
fits in pretty well with the school of image-fiction. In
particular, Whitehead exemplifies image-fiction in his language. He has an
exceptional ability to write in the style of self-conscious irony, consistently
describing everything from decrepit office anonymity to a folksy county fair in
this vernacular. 

The results are breathtaking: Whitehead’s book feels about
as stark and dry as a book can be without inducing suicide.  To get a true feel for the irony and cynicism
that infuse this vernacular, you’d have to read John Henry Days for about 50 pages, or to the point that things
like this sound normal: “Set above the cutting plate like a divine
illumination, the red heating lamps warm the sweet meat. The red light is a
beacon to the lost wayfarer, it is a tavern lamp after hours of wilderness
black.” That’s dry, and Whitehead keeps it that way throughout. At one point, he
even describes a city fair entirely in declarative statements. 

Abstract horror for the fast walkers when they fall behind
the dawdlers.  Invective, calumny.
Finally maneuvering around to find the agent of delay is infirm, disabled,
acquitted. They split up. They are left waiting at the meeting place and
despise their companions. Excuses are tendered up and down the rows.

This goes on for pages and it works because it’s all in a
wry, eye-winking tone. The book is telling saying, “Look at the hicks enjoying
their festival. How very rural of them,” and is sarcastically pleasant to the
reader, who probably isn’t a hick. But it also hits home in the reader because
Whitehead captures common experiences. We’ve all been behind annoying people
who walk slow, so even as we laugh at Whitehead’s send-up of the fair, we also
know that we partially laughing at ourselves. The book enmeshes the reader in
the very irony that it’s made its lingua
franca
. 

This is all very nice, but Wallace goes on to say that much
of image-fiction fails because it doesn’t transcend its material. Sure, savvy
writers can ridicule the contemporary world to death (and in very creative
ways), but according to Wallace that’s all part of the joke: the contemporary
system has co-opted self-conscious irony for its own use and, from a standpoint
of critiquing the system, much image-fiction fails because it simply reinforces
a vernacular that the system itself exploits to great effect. In other words,
this kind of image-fiction isn’t any more creative or subversive than a
low-rated sit-com, which uses the same methods and subjects to garner its cheap
laughs.

John Henry Days
walks right up to that boundary of co-option but doesn’t pass over. To be sure,
it’s a very dark book filled with sad, pathetic people and Whitehead plays them
for all they’re worth. We do laugh at these people’s expense. We’re made to
mock their ways, to find pleasure in the pathetic things they do to make their
lives a little less miserable. But we also identify with them and their
sarcastic ways so our laughter is uneasy. Is he making fun of them or us?

  It’s an unsettling kind of sarcasm, something that a sit-com, which wants to make the watcher feel special and superior, never would dare.

Further, Whitehead hasn’t written a book wholly devoid of
hope. Although the majority of the people in John Henry Days are happily co-opted cynics, One-Eye, J., and
Pamela each rebel in their own ways and succeed to various degrees. It’s here
that Whitehead finds his hope. Earlier on I said that John Henry was made to do
some heavy lifting. Well here’s a little
more:

Before [the song of John Henry] came into ballad form, the
men used to sing it as a work song, to keep the rhythm of their strokes. . . .
They sang it like a song of resistance. They wouldn’t go out like John Henry.
But maybe were condemning him instead of lamenting him. His fight was foolish
because the cost was too high. . . . You could look at it and think the fight
continued, that you could resist and fight the forces and you could win and it
would not cost you your life because he had given his life for you. His
sacrifice enables you to endure without having to give your life to your
struggle.

The image of the railroad workers singing the song of John
Henry to keep time and as a cautionary tale strikes me as rather much like the function of irony. Both irony and the ballad are
tools to make the everyday struggle easier. However, just as the ballad keeps
the railroad workers from stepping out of line, irony is also cautionary in
that it keeps you from going and doing anything crazy, anything that might seem
too sincere. After all, that would be uncool and you’d be exposed to the jokes
of your ironic friends.

But the ballad, the entire John Henry myth, can also be seen
as giving hope. It can be seen as an inspirational tale, that one railroad
worker chose to do things his way, and even if he died in the struggle you,
knowing what he discovered, might live. That you, who can look back on the
ironic exuberance of the 60s, the decline of the 70s, and the decadence of the
80s, can know where that rebellion went wrong, that even though it eventually
was turned into commercials and dated rock stars hawking corporate wares, you could
see how their culture died (or ‚Äúwas co-opted‚Äù) and not do that yourself. 

4.

While reading John Henry Days, a book that often came
to my mind was Don DeLillo’s Underworld. There’s good reason for this.
DeLillo’s earlier White Noise and Underworld are both somber,
urban tales that fit into the image-fiction camp by virtue of their obsession
with pop culture and the way it is exploited in interwoven webs of people
watching people. Underworld had a
couple central metaphors that did the heavy lifting I’ve ascribed to John Henry and both DeLillo’s and Whitehead’s
books wove these metaphors into very personal struggles, making them meaningful
on several levels.

I bring DeLillo up because Underworld is a gigantic meandering book and in a lot of ways John Henry Days is like its little
brother. This book sprawls far beyond its 400 pages, as Whitehead fits in bits
and pieces dating from the 19th century right up to the year 2000. One section
of the book, perhaps a quarter of it, is composed entirely of scenes with no
logical chronological relationship from one to another. Each is wonderfully
done, describing J.’s narrative, a 30s musician adding to the John Henry’s ballad, a little girl discovering
said ballad, random children from Talcott that we never hear from again, and a
turn of the century professor researching the John Henry legend. It’s a strange
mélange that reminded me of nothing more than the seemingly-jumbled feel of Underworld.

 In John Henry Days,
not only is Whitehead carrying the torch for the likes of DeLillo, but he’s
doing it in admirable fashion. Given the substantial success of Whitehead’s
debut novel and the caliber of this follow-up, which is a great leap forward, I
have extremely high expectations for whatever novel Whitehead writes next. If
it’s as much of a leap as John Henry Days
was, then it might just be an Underworld
improved and updated in form and content for a post-9/11 world and written from
an African-American perspective.

Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

After hearing Gilbert Sorrentino’s name tossed around on a couple notable blogs, I knew I would have to check him out sooner or later. I had a few books I wanted to get to before Sorrentino, but last week I finally picked up Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things and so far I have not been disappointed.

I’ll say that Sorrentino’s style takes a minute to get used to. Even though I had heard that he eschews plot and is highly experimental, I still was taken aback by the abrupt shifts and long narrator-reader monologues that often come out of nowhere and end with the same suddenness. This is a book that has no problem letting you know that it doesn’t really care about plot and is going to do damn well whatever it pleases.

In fact, in Imaginative Qualities, Sorrentino dishes out plenty of scorn and even some derision for novels and novelistic techniques. This scorn is often quite humorous. For instance, after writing "They lapsed into a bitter silence," Sorrentino annotates his own writing with the dry remark "I have the feeling I’ve read this sentence somewhere." Of course he has! There may not be as much as one novelist who has not had her characters lapse into a bitter silence at some point.

Elsewhere, Sorrentino writes

After, they did many more things, they graduated and Lou moved to Berkeley so that he could do graduate work, Sheila joined him and they married. O.K. (There’s a novel there, if any of you novelists want to write it you’re welcome to it.)

This "novel" that Sorrentino tosses out like a bone to the dogs has some similarities with the "bitter silences" that he can’t help but ridicule. Sorrentino is not interested in filling up his book with pages and pages of description of each character’s state of mind, or the places they live, or the sights they see. When he does, as with the bitter silence, Sorrentino can barely keep from laughing at himself for such an obviously contrived statement. In fact, Sorrentino doesn’t even believe he is qualified to tell us about this stuff, even if he did want to. He repeatedly stresses that although his characters are his creations, he can’t see into their inner psyche any more than we can.

At one point Sorrentino discusses a hypothetical meeting between him and his characters. Not the actual characters from Imaginative Qualities, mind you, but people who are similar to them.

Maybe I’ll meet him someday–he’s not that rare. If someone like, let’s say, Larry Poons, is endlessly reproducible, then certainly Lou Henry is. I’ll say to him that I think I’ve met him before, no? I think I’ve met your wife–Sheila? That will not be his wife’s name, of course. . . . He’ll have read this book, and will not have recognized himself. People who "recognize" themselves in books are never in the books. It is the meticulously woven fabric of the ruthless imagination that makes them think they did what the artist says they did.

Sorrentino is admitting that his characters are just types, 2-dimentional cutouts that anyone, with enough imagination, can see themselves in. That’s they way he likes it. He’s not writing his book to create characters that can "walk off the page" or to place them through trials and see how they respond. In fact, he seems to look on all that with a tired eye.*

Yet the fact remains that with no "realistic" characters and not much plot (although Sorrentino does insist that there is some plot, however subtle) I’ve still enjoyed roughly 1/3 of Imaginative Qualities. This is because Sorrentino has found ways other than plot and empathy to keep my mind busy, to keep me actively engaged with his words. I’m a firm believer that all the plot in the world can’t save a book that doesn’t tell the reader anything interesting, doesn’t keep her mind working on something. If we go back to Cloud Atlas, that’s why I think that book petered out toward the end. The plot and writing was certainly magnificent, but by the last 1/5, the book’s dialog with me had long since ended, and seeing it through to the end was, although pleasant from a mechanical point of view, empty.

Imaginative Qualities, at least so far as I’ve read it, feels like the opposite. There’s no technically well-built plot, but the book abounds in interesting thoughts that keep me reading and thinking. Sorrentino expertly gives me just enough information that, with some thought, I can figure out what he’s doing, but not so much information that it’s as though Prof. Sorrentino is teaching me Imaginative Qualities 101.

Thus far, the book has been compulsively readable, and I’m confident I’ll have more thoughts soon.

———
* I’m unsure yet if Sorrentino is pro this kind of novel or con it, or if he has no strong feelings. But clearly this is not the kind of book he wants to write.

When You Have Too Many Books

Consider this a service from one reader to another. Although in the abstract the concept of too many books may seem nonsensical (like "too much oxygen"), be forewarned that there is a definite threshold beyond which further accumulation of books can be detrimental. In some cases, it may ruin your life.

It is often difficult to judge for yourself if you have too many books. In fact, one of the most insiduous things about the overaccumulation of books is that you are often not aware that you have a problem until it is too late.

In this spirit, I have pieced together a list of warning signs to help you judge if you have a problem. I ask that you read this list with a sober, sincere eye. And for God’s sake, don’t spend too long reading this list, because that stack of books behind your computer isn’t going to read itself.

  • You have more than one book on helping you cope with having lots of books
  • None of them are read
  • You earnestly believe you will one day finish your TBR pile (note: denial is a hallmark of addiction)
  • You have purchased more than one copy of War and Peace (Proust, Don Quixote, etc) under the logic that you "want to compare the translations"
  • You awake from one of those dreams where you try to run but don’t get anywhere to find yourself on your couch with a cup of steaming coffee in one hand and a book from the TBR pile in the other
  • You’re bothered that your local bookstore doesn’t put books on remainder quickly enough to keep up with you
  • You gleefully post pictures of your unread books on the internet
  • There are stacks of books in your bathroom
  • You stacked them there "temporarily" six months ago
  • Books have replaced everyday objects in your house. For example: After setting the tea kettle down on an old paperback to keep it from burning the piece of partacle-board you have placed on top of several stacks of books, you walk over and sit down on some cushions you have arranged atop several boxes of books and recline with a new purchase from your local indie.
  • You rationalize "With eBay, how can I afford not to buy so many books?"

Recent Readings

“The room was filled with smoke, dry worn-out smoke retaining in it like a web the insective cadavers of dry husks of words which had been spoken and should be gone, the breaths exhaled not to be breathed again.” (194)

–William Gaddis, The Recognitions

__________________________________________________________

‚ÄúHands on, garmet off. She had no idea what she wanted him to do, but it was off so fast, so–decisively. A dollop of honey on her vulva? Strawberry jam on her nipples? Trading food back and forth between their (eager, searching, straining) mouths. That was in Joyce somewhere.‚Äù (12)

–Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

__________________________________________________________

“If Realism called like it saw it, Metafiction simply called it as it saw itself seeing itself see it. This high-cultural postmodern genre, in other words, was deeply informed by the emergence of television and the metastasis of self-conscious watching.” (34)

–David Foster Wallace, ‚ÄúE Unibus Pluram,‚Äù A Supposedly Fun Thing I‚Äôll Never Do Again

__________________________________________________________

‚ÄúWithin the [entertainment] industry, a typical mid-range gift has been the spa gift certificate or the cashmere blanket, but ‚Äúthis is going to be the year of the iPod,‚Äù says one television producer who was planning on giving–and expecting to receive–several this year.‚Äù

“The standard college-counselor gift is a $75 or $100 gift certificate, and the average counselor at a top school in L.A. takes home roughly $2000.”

–Catlin Flanagan, ‚ÄúWhat Teachers Want,‚Äù The New Yorker 12/6/04

__________________________________________________________

"I wonder if people have simply given up any notion of privacy," said Budapest-based security consultant Yanos Kovas. "In Hungary, many people who grew up under communist rule came to accept government interference in every aspect of their lives as inescapable. They were too tired to fight anymore, so they convinced themselves that communism was OK and even a benefit.

"I think some internet users are exhausted by security threats and privacy leaks and are beginning to decide to believe that spyware is necessary for the greater good. If your personal information isn’t private anyway, if businesses and governments are trading it at will, then why not give a little more away and get some free software too?" 

Wired Magazine

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