“There are thresholds or shelves where we go from having incremental change to systemic moments of transformation.”
In the ’90s, Sven Birkerts cautioned us about the impact of technology on reading with The Gutenberg Elegies. In 2017, we mute our iPhones to talk about his new book, Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (Graywolf Press). We dive into the impact of digital technology on perception and identity, but also get into the way life becomes a thematic puzzle in middle age, why he stepped down from his role directing the low-residency MFA program at Bennington, the joy of bringing his favorite writers in as instructors (and the ones he regrets not getting), the challenge of interviewing fiction writers, his big literary 0-fer and what I’m missing about Virginia Woolf, how he’s adapting to a year-long sabbatical and how he understands his writing life, what he’s learned editing the literary magazine AGNI, and why the prerequisite for anything he’s reading is that it has to be more interesting to him than whatever it is he’s vaguely brooding about. Give it a listen! And go buy his new essay collection, Changing the Subject!
“When I was your age, I discovered the doubling over of one’s own experience. . . . Themes, recurrences and motifs in my life began to manifest. Then as if on command, the whole sunken continent of memory began to detach from the sea-floor.”
About our Guest
Sven Birkerts is the author of Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age and nine previous books, including The Other Walk: Essays, The Gutenberg Elegies, The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again, and My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time. He recently stepped down as director of the Bennington Writing Seminars, and he also edits the journal AGNI based at Boston University. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts, and he’s on Twitter as svenbirkerts and Instagram as cyberbirk.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded at Mr. Birkerts’ home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 Microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of Mr. Birkerts by me. It’s on my instagram.
With the recent release of The Peace Process: A Novella and Stories by Bruce Jay Friedman (and this fantastic review of it by Adam Kirsch), I thought it would be a good idea to get together a list of new books from past guests of the podcast. Enjoy, and remember: there are plenty of ways you can follow The Virtual Memories Show!
- Eva Brann – Then & Now: The World’s Center and the Soul’s Demesne – Listen to our conversation • MP3
- Jessa Crispin – The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries – Listen to our conversation • MP3
- Paul Di Filippo – A Palazzo in the Stars: Science Fiction Stories – Listen to our conversation • MP3
- Michael Dirda – Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books – Listen to our conversation • MP3
- Bruce Jay Friedman – The Peace Process: A Novella and Stories – Listen to our conversation • MP3
- David Gates – A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me: Stories and a novella – Listen to our conversation • MP3
- Craig Gidney – Skin Deep Magic: Short Fiction – Listen to our conversation • MP3
- Rachel Hadas – Talking To The Dead – Listen to our conversation • MP3
- Nancy Hightower – The Acolyte – Listen to our conversation • MP3
- Clive James – Latest Readings – Listen to our conversation • MP3
- Diana Renn – Blue Voyage – Listen to our conversation • MP3
- Witold Rybczynski – Mysteries of the Mall: And Other Essays – Listen to our conversation • MP3
- Elizabeth Samet – Leadership: Essential Writings by Our Greatest Thinkers (Norton Anthology) – Listen to our conversation • MP3
“What would young, pre-Trainspotting Irvine Welsh think of you now?”
“He’d think I was a total wanker.”
Irvine Welsh has created unforgettable characters in his novels, beginning with the cast of Trainspotting in 1993. We caught up in his Chicago home and talked about writing, boxing, the art world, the White Sox, the creative flourish that’s seen him publish three novels in four years, the perils of success and exhausting your autobiography, the periods of life he’s interested in writing about, his first meeting with Iggy Pop, his childhood and the school-days’ balance of being a reader and being a jock, the narcissism of online living, Trainspotting over the years, Edinburgh’s failed gentrification, the ways that America’s friendlier than Scotland, and more! Give it a listen!
“I think it’s good for me as a writer not to be hanging out with writers all the time.”
We also talk about his critique of global capitalism, the problems with permanent austerity, American and UK tabloid culture, standing up David Bowie (twice), returning to Ulysses every few years, the ways William S. Burroughs helps rewire his brain, and the great anonymous allure of the first-time novelist.
“Instagram is like Methodone to Twitter’s heroin”
Then Dmitry Samarov rejoins the show to talk about his memoir-in-progress, his paintings, his latest readings, and his decision to jump off the social network treadmill. This episode also includes my justification for being a New York Yankees fan, as well as my problematic relationship with superhero comics. Give it a listen!
We mention quite a few books in this episode. Here’s they are:
- Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh
- Glue – Irvine Welsh
- Marabou Stork Nightmares – Irvine Welsh
- Filth – Irvine Welsh
- The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins – Irvine Welsh
- The Complete Richard Allen, Vol. 1: Skinhead, Suedehead, Skinhead Escapes – Richard Allen
- A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
- How Late It Was, How Late – James Kelman
- The Busconductor Hines – James Kelman
- Jernigan – David Gates
- Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America – Jill Leovy
- The Letters of Ivor Punch – Colin Mcintyre
- Ulysses – James Joyce
- Cities of the Red Night – William S. Burroughs
- Where To?: A Hack Memoir – Dmitry Samarov
- Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab – Dmitry Samarov
- Experience: A Memoir – Martin Amis
- A Childhood: The Biography of a Place – Harry Crews
- Ask the Dust – John Fante
- Fante: A Family’s Legacy of Writing, Drinking and Surviving – Don Fante
- The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay – Michael Chabon
- Forest of Fortune – Jim Ruland
- Streets in Their Own Ink: Poems – Stuart Dybek
- The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis – Lydia Davis
- Can’t and Won’t: Stories – Lydia Davis
About our Guests
Irvine Welsh is the author of Trainspotting, Ecstasy, Filth (adapted for film in 2013), Glue, and Crime, among other works. His latest novel is A Decent Ride. Welsh is also producing movies and writing screenplays. A native of Edinburgh, he lives in Chicago and Miami. You can find a more extensive bio at his website.
Dmitry Samarov was born in Moscow, USSR, in 1970. He emigrated to the United States with his family in 1978. He got in trouble in first grade for doodling on his Lenin Red Star pin and hasn’t stopped doodling since. He graduated with a BFA in painting at printmaking from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1993. Upon graduation he promptly began driving a cab — first in Boston, then after a time, in Chicago. He is the author of two books, Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab, and Where To?: A Hack Memoir. Go check out his paintings, and maybe buy some.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald. The conversations were recorded in the homes of Irvine Welsh and Dmitry Samarov on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on the same equipment in a hotel room in Washington, DC. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro.
It’s the ONE-HUNDREDTH EPISODE of The Virtual Memories Show! And they said it would never last! To celebrate hitting the century mark, I asked past guests, upcoming guests and friends of the show to interview me this time around!
This special episode includes questions and recorded segments with Maria Alexander, Ashton Applewhite, John Bertagnolli, Lori Carson, Sarah Deming, Paul Di Filippo, Michael Dirda, Robert Drake, Aaron K. Finkelstein, Mary Fleener, Drew Friedman, Josh Alan Friedman, Kipp Friedman, Richard Gehr, Ben Katchor, Sara Lippmann, Brett Martin, Zach Martin, Seth, Jesse Sheidlower, Ron Slate, Tom Spurgeon, Levi Stahl, Maya Stein, Rupert Thomson, Peter Trachtenberg, Wallis Wilde-Menozzi, Frank Wilson, and Claudia Young.
Find out about my reading childhood, my dream list of pod-guests, my best practices for productivity (don’t have kids!), my favorite interview question, my top guest in the afterlife, the book I’d save if my house was on fire, what I’d do if I won a Macarthur Grant. and more! Give it a listen!
About our Guest
Gil Roth is the host of The Virtual Memories Show and the president of the Pharma & Biopharma Outsourcing Association.
Credits: This episode’s music is Stupid Now by Bob Mould. Several of the conversations were recorded on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro and the self-interview segments on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of me by Aaron K. Finkelstein.
“My father, to this day, will still call and say, ‘It’s not too late for medical school!'” –Sara Lippmann
Come for the Friedman, stay for the Lippmann! Or vice versa! This week’s podcast features two great conversations: first I talk with Drew Friedman at Small Press Expo ’14 about his great new book of portraits, Heroes Of The Comics: Portraits Of The Pioneering Legends Of Comic Books (Fantagraphics), then Sara Lippmann and I solve the gender imbalance issue in literature, and the MFA vs. NYC issue, to boot! We talk about her debut short story collection, Doll Palace (Dock Street Press), getting over the fear of writing, how she lost the Rolex account for GQ, and more!
“I drew them older so you could see the weight of their careers on their faces.” –Drew Friedman
About our Guest
Sara Lippmann is the author of the story collection, Doll Palace (Dock Street Press). Her stories have been published in The Good Men Project, Wigleaf, Slice magazine, Tupelo Quarterly, Connotation Press, Joyland and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a 2012 fellowship in Fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts and co-hosts the Sunday Salon, a longstanding reading series in the East Village.
Drew Friedman is an award-winning illustrator, cartoonist and painter. His work has appeared in Raw, Weirdo, SPY, National Lampoon, Snarf, The New York Times, MAD, The New Yorker, BLAB!, The New York Observer, The Wall Street Journal, HONK!, Rolling Stone, Field & Stream, TIME, The Village Voice, Entertainment Weekly, and more. His comics and illustrations have been collected in several volumes, the latest, Too Soon?, published by Fantagraphics in 2010. His collection of portraits, Drew Friedman’s Sideshow Freaks, was published by Blast books in 2011. He has published three collections of paintings of Old Jewish Comedians (1, 2 and 3), but none of Old Episcopal Comedians. He also raises champion beagles with his wife, K. Bidus. You can find his full bio and buy his art at his fine art prints site and you really should read his blog.
Credits: This episode’s music is Sure Shot by the Beastie Boys. The conversation with Drew Friedman was recorded at the Bethesda North Marriott and the conversation with Sara Lippmann was recorded at an undisclosed location on the Upper West Side on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photos of Ms. Lippmann and Mr. Friedman by me.
“You would be surprised at the level of craziness and hostility that exists in the literary world if you share a different opinion than somebody.”
Last week’s guest was quintessential bookman Michael Dirda, and this time around we have Jessa Crispin, founder of Bookslut! Ms. Crispin recently stepped down from blogging at Bookslut after a 12-year run, which is like 500 years in internet-time. We talked about that decision, the advice she’d give her 23-year-old self, the downsides of learning to write online, why lack of ambition was key to Bookslut’s success, her take on the state of book reviewing, her upcoming book, The Dead Ladies Project (2015, from University of Chicago Press), how she learned to love Henry James while nursing a breakup, and more!
“It’s been my experience that in your hour of need, the book that you need to read will find you.”
We also discuss how she escaped the Outrage Machine by moving to Berlin, how she pared her library down to 17 books, why joining the National Book Critics Circle was her biggest mistake during the Bookslut era, why Belgrade was her least favorite city to visit, and why she’s more afraid of reading her blog archives than her old margin notes. Bonus: I accidentally mix up William Safire and William Buckley!
“It isn’t the case of ‘I’m only going to review the nice things’; it’s more the case that I can cultivate the world that I want to live in. I can invite people in rather than constantly defend the gates.”
About our Guest
Jessa Crispin is the editor and founder of the literary magazines Bookslut.com and Spoliamag.com. Her first book, The Dead Ladies Project, is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, fall 2015. Born in Kansas, she has lived in Texas, Ireland, Chicago, and Germany. She has written for many publications, some of which are still in business. Her personal library currently resides in Berlin.
Credits: This episode’s music is No More Words by Berlin (see, because Jessa isn’t writing any more blog posts for Bookslut and she moved to Berlin a while back, and — oh, never mind). The conversation was recorded at a housesit in Brooklyn on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Ms. Crispin by me.
What with me being me, it’s tough to go without buying books for too long, although I’m in semi-austerity mode just now. I ordered a stack of books from Bookcloseouts.com last week, but still made a stop at the Barnes & Noble on Rt. 17 in Paramus, NJ today, to see if they have a copy of JL Carr’s A Month in the Country in their used section.
They don’t. Still, I picked up some other things, then came home to find the Bookcloseouts order had arrived.
So here’s today’s book score:
Barnes & Noble
- Open City – Teju Cole – $7 – Just ‘cuz. If I don’t dig it, I can give it to a book-reading pal.
- Locas – Jaime Hernandez – $25 – Because one of my book-reading pals still has my copy of this enormous collection of Love & Rockets comics, and I’m afraid I’ll never get it back.
- The Time of Our Singing – Richard Powers – $5.99 – Suggested by upcoming podcast-guest David Rothenberg, partly in hopes of making Richard Powers another upcoming podcast-guest.
- The Echo Maker – Richard Powers – $5.99 – Ditto.
- Something Happened – Joseph Heller – $4.99 – Recommended by past podcast-guest David Gates.
- Checkpoint – Nicholson Baker – $2.99 – Ditto, from the part when we talked about shitty novels coming out of the Bush era. He defended this one, so I figure I’ll give it a shot.
- On Architecture: Collected Reflections on a Century of Change – Ada Louise Huxtable – $3.99 – Suggested by upcoming podcast-guest Phillip Lopate (in a list in the back of his collection To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction). I loved Ms. Huxtable’s segments in the great New York documentary by Ric Burns.
- A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig & Other Essays – Charles Lamb – $2.99 – Another suggestion from Mr. Lopate.
“One day, I was on the train to work and I had a terrible anxiety attack and a crisis of whatever, and began just scribbling on a yellow legal pad that I had. It was basically my complaints about my own misery. I was terrified that if I even lifted the pen from the page, I would just be carried off that railroad car screaming, past all the commuters.
“I did that for about three days, just a therapeutic venting on the page. In a little while, I began to become cold and calculating and worldly, and I thought, ‘Shit, this is pretty interesting. What if I just gave this a little quarter-turn to the left? Maybe this would be fiction.’ So that was it.
“Having nothing else to do, it was, hey, let’s dedicate the life to this.”
This episode of the Virtual Memories Show features a conversation with one of my favorite contemporary authors! In June, I drove up to Bennington College to talk to David Gates, author of the novels Jernigan and Preston Falls, the short story collection, The Wonders of the Invisible World, about owning his niche (once described as “smart-but-self-destructive-white-American-middle-class-male-in-crisis”), teaching fiction and non-fiction writing, why he left the east coast for Montana, how he feels about the end of Newsweek, what it was like to make his start as a writer in his 30s.
You’ll also find out why he doesn’t want to write another novel, whose books he rereads every year, the status of his next collection of stories, the lineup for his country-rock band of writers and critics, and why he’s not exactly as enamored with Jernigan as its fans are.
As a bonus, our very first guest, Professor Ann Rivera, rejoins us for a quick conversation about what she’s been reading lately and why! (Hint: she’s down on postmodern lit.) Why, here we are at Gina’s Bakery in Montclair, NJ, recording away!
Others conversations with contemporary literary writers and critics:
About our Guests
David Gates is the author of the novels Jernigan and Preston Falls and a collection of stories, The Wonders of the Invisible World. His fiction has appeared in such magazines as The New Yorker, Esquire, GQ, Granta, The Paris Review, Tin House and Ploughshares. His nonfiction has appeared in Newsweek, where he was a longtime writer and editor, The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, GQ, Rolling Stone, H.O.W., The Oxford American and the Journal of Country Music. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow, and his books have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is an Assistant Professor Fiction and Nonfiction in the Creative Writing Program at University of Montana.
Ann Rivera is a professor of English at Villa Maria College in Buffalo, NY, where she teaches courses in writing, narrative and literary genres. Her current project investigates the influence of digital media on narrative, reading networks and social structures. She attended Hampshire College along with your humble podcast-host in the early ’90s, which may help explain our mutual dislike of postmodernism.
Credits: This episode’s music is Guitar Man by Bread. The conversation with David Gates was recorded in the back yard of the Dog House residence on the Bennington College campus on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 mics feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The conversation with Ann Rivera was recorded Gina’s Bakery in Montclair, NJ with the same equipment. (Sorry about all the door opening/closing noises in that segment!) I recorded the intro and outro with that gear, sitting in a comfy chair in my library. File-splitting is done on a Mac Mini using Audacity. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band. Photo of David Gates by me, photo of Ann Rivera and me by Amy Roth.
I first encountered A Dance To The Music Of Time in the mid-’90’s. A Borders bookstore had opened at the West Belt Mall in Wayne, NJ, and as was my wont, I inspected the fiction section — or was it “literature”?
At the time, my points of reference were the beginning of the G’s, where I’d look for Williams Gaddis and Gass, as well as David Gates, and the late P’s, where I’d check the selection of books by Richard Powers and Thomas Pynchon. It was in the latter section that I discovered Anthony Powell. University of Chicago Press had recently released a four-volume, slipcased edition of A Dance To The Music Of Time.
In college, I focused on “the encyclopedic novel” for my literature degree. I had a vague idea of what that term meant, and wound up conflating it with “really long novels with which I could impress/cow my contemporaries.” As such, this 12-novel cycle looked like it was right up my alley. Still, I’d never heard of Powell and the internet in that period wasn’t as awash in fan pages for obscure artists as it is today.
Further, I don’t recall there being any “flap copy” or anything else involving a plot description on the slipcase, which was shrink-wrapped to prohibit singleton sales. So I had nothing to go by, in terms of knowing what this series was about. The case was adorned with Poussin’s eponymous painting of the Dance, and the spine of each volume was a detail of one or another face of the dancers. I knew nothing of Poussin back then, still a year away from reading Arcadia for the first time.
Sixty or so dollars was a large sum to me in those days, so I held off on buying the Dance. It slipped off my radar shortly after. When Powell died in 2000, I read up on the Dance a little. I considered tackling the series, which is a sort of roman a clef of British literary & society life through the eyes of a crypto-Powell narrator over the span of half a century, but never got around to it. I noted at the time that it seemed like a book to tackle in my 40’s. I used to say that about Proust when I was young, but I got around to him before turning 35, and should’ve done so sooner.
It wasn’t until last December, when U of Chicago Press announced that it had released all 12 novels as e-books, that I returned to the notion of reading the Dance. Like a good drug dealer, the publisher was offering the first e-book free. I had just finished My Year Of Gin, in which I would try a bottle of a new (to me) boutique gin each month of the year. I had planned to write about the project, but both overachieved (in terms of bottles) and underachieved (in terms of coherence), and so scrapped my chronicle of the project. You can, however, find photographic evidence here:
A Dance To The Music Of Time, it seemed to me, would make for a fine followup. The two projects were of a piece with what I now realize is a life of dilettantism. Why not give my amateur passions some degree of structure by organizing them around the calendar?
And so I decided to read one book of the Dance each month throughout 2011. Besides allowing the pace to mirror the seasons themselves, around which each novel was (subtly) organized, I was also protecting myself from burnout. I know myself well enough to know how easy it would be for me to roll through 3 or 4 of the books in the first 6 weeks of the year, before allowing the distractions and derailments that characterize much of my life to lead me away.
This morning, I finished reading the last of the 12 books, Hearing Secret Harmonies. My wife still asks me, “So, is it good?” and I don’t know exactly how to answer her.
I certainly enjoyed reading the novels, and I’ll be the first to admit that Powell’s prose can be quite tortured at times. I was also amazed at the reticence to reveal anything about the narrator’s own life or feelings, to the extent that one never learns Jenkins’ children’s names nor much about the books he writes over his 70 years (his volume on Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy notwithstanding).
At times, the sheer volume of coincidental meetings can be maddening (coincidence being the author’s point, I know). Another type of coincidence, during a bombing raid of London, strains all credulity. But then, perhaps that’s because my own life doesn’t have much room for chance meetings nowadays. In the early books, bumping into old friends takes the place of the narrator having to commit any real activity. While the stories and the interrelations of his friends and acquaintances are engaging, I found the “autumn” novels — those covering WWII — much more entertaining, because the narrator was largely removed from his society surroundings and had to become much more of a participant in the world. Paradoxically, the level observation is much sharper in these books than the preceding ones. There’s a wonderful comedy of manners of Jenkins’ superiors at dinner, highlighting the absurdities and hierarchies of military life. (There’s also a great moment when Jenkins, who remembers everyone over the years, encounters his brigade from earlier in the war, and discovers that his old cohort has no recollection of him whatsoever.)
I think Jenkins also undergoes a maturation process during the war novels. By book 9, The Military Philosophers, his literary persona really blooms as his military duty begins to draw to a close. There’s a wonderful passage where he realizes his assignment has taken him to Cabourg, the town that Proust fictionalized into Balbec. Maybe it’s a sort of clue into the roman a clef of the whole Dance itself, but it’s also some of the most gorgeous writing in the books.
As I look back over the scope of it all, a story beginning in 1920 or thereabouts, carrying on to 1971 (the year I was born, coincidentally enough), and flashing back to Jenkins’ childhood in the naughts, I’m struck by the vividness of so many minor characters. Just like life, I didn’t think much of some of them at the time and miss them now they’re gone. (Speaking of which, Powell is merciless in his characters’ ends. So many figures are simply reported dead as the years carry on. I was under the impression that the whole cycle of novels would revolve around the four schoolboys introduced in the first book, and then found myself thinking, “Well, they didn’t actually show us [x]’s body, so maybe he’s still alive and will be back in a later novel…”, as though Anthony Powell was writing The Fantastic Four or something.)
But I won’t write too much about the goings on of the Dance. I do think it comprises a wonderful tapestry of the transformation of a certain class in British society throughout the century, but it’s also the sort of thing that no one (I know) reads anymore. In harmony with my college self, that’s probably a big part of why I stuck with this project all year.
Just as Jenkins sees patterns and echoes throughout the generations (and there are plenty of echoes in the last novel), I know there are echoes of myself from that pretentious college kid to this pretentious trade magazine editor. But there are also substantial changes, both internal and external. That Borders was demolished a few years ago, before the chain itself went under. Pynchon and Powers? I don’t read them much anymore.
I’m not sure if I’ve changed all that much since beginning A Question of Upbringing last January. It’s been a complex year, and I think reading The Leopard had more of an effect on me than these 12 novels. Perhaps I’m underestimating. After all, the clarity of the first 800 words or so of this piece — written in the morning after finishing Hearing Secret Harmonies, driving my wife to the bus stop, and walking the dogs in a frosted-over field — and the sense of bliss I had all morning long could be telling me that I’ve been feeling a subtle anxiety about completing the Dance. Maybe my hesitance and depression of these past few months has stemmed from an anxiety about coming to the end of something so long and continuous. (Everything after Anatomy of Melancholy was written following a long day at the office.)