Tag Harold Bloom

Podcast: On Cats and Calamities

Peter Trachtenberg talks cats, calamities, and love on the Virtual Memories Show

Virtual Memories – season 3 episode 30 – On Cats and Calamities

“Love is usually the end of the sentence, the end of the riddle. But what does love call forth from you? What are the faculties that come into play? It’s one of those questions that we think is settled.”

What does the search for a lost cat have to tell us about the nature of love and marriage? Peter Trachtenberg joins The Virtual Memories Show to try to answer that question and to talk about his work, including The Book of Calamities: Five Questions About Suffering and Its Meaning and Another Insane Devotion: On the Love of Cats and Persons! We discuss the tension between non-fiction and fiction, how to search for a lost cat, where the line is between the private and the public, how he stumbled into the lyric essay form, how the process of getting clean and sober influenced his writing, how marriages fall apart and how they (maybe) come back together, and more!

“Art is high-level lying.”

I’m not going to lie; our conversation jumps all over the darned place, because Peter happens to have an even more discursive mind than your scatterbrained host’s. But it’s a great talk about the nature of non-fiction writing, Buddhism, the relationship of facts to truth, respecting intuition, and how to navigate memory’s internal landscape. Sadly, we didn’t yet have the news that Another Insane Devotion received the 2013 Golden Purr Award for excellence in cat writing from Cat Wisdom 101, but there’s still some cat-talk.

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes! Related conversations:

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About our Guest

Peter Trachtenberg is the author of 7 Tattoos: A Memoir in the Flesh (Penguin Books), The Book of Calamities (Little, Brown & Co.) and Another Insane Devotion (Da Capo). His essays, journalism, and short fiction have been published in The New Yorker, Harper’s, BOMB, TriQuarterly, O, The New York Times Travel Magazine, and A Public Space. His commentaries have been broadcast on NPR’S All Things Considered. Peter has received an NYFA artist’s fellowship, the Nelson Algren Award for Short Fiction, a Whiting Writers Fellowship, a 2010 Fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and a 2012 residency at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center. The Book of Calamities was given the 2009 Phi Beta Kappa Society’s Ralph Waldo Emerson Award “for scholarly studies that contribute significantly to interpretations of the intellectual and cultural condition of humanity.” He has taught creative writing at Bennington College, the New School, the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, the City College of New York, St. Mary’s College of California, the University of Iowa Summer Writers Festival, and Ashland University. He’s also taught in Bard College’s Language & Thinking Program. Since 2011, he has been an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh.

Credits: This episode’s music is Stray Cat Blues by The Rolling Stones. The conversation was recorded at the home of a friend of Peter on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded at home on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Peter Trachtenberg by me.

Podcast: The Magnificent Seven

Virtual Memories – season 3 episode 2 – The Magnificent Seven

Reading, walking, looking, dancing, listening, swimming, and writing: these are the activities organizing the life of this episode’s guest, Willard Spiegelman, author of Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness! We talk about his wonderful book (go read it!), his addiction to ballroom dancing, how to find joy in the day-to-day world, why he hates book clubs, what Dallas, TX is like for a secular Philadelphia Jew, how he turned me on to one of my favorite novels, who his Desert Island Poets are, how he writes about the visual arts, why the world’s great novels are lost on the young, and what it was like to attend his 50th high school reunion. (Also, Harold Bloom crops up yet again; I really gotta try to get him on the show sometime. Boy, talk about the anxiety of influence . . .)

One of the best things about doing this podcast is that I get to meet some wonderful people. In this case, meeting with Willard over two afternoons (story to come) was like making a new old friend.

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more!

Willard Spiegelman on The Virtual Memories Show

About our Guest

Willard Spiegelman is the Hughes Professor of English at Southern Methodist University. He also serves as editor-in-chief of Southwest Review, the third oldest continuously published literary quarterly in America. In 2005, Willard won the PEN/Nora Magid award for literary editing. In addition to Seven Pleasures, he’s also written or edited How Poets See the World: The Art of Description in Contemporary Poetry, Wordsworth’s Heroes, Imaginative Transcripts: Selected Literary Essays, Majestic Indolence: English Romantic Poetry and the Work of Art, The Didactic Muse: Scenes of Instruction in Contemporary American Poetry, and Love, Amy: The Selected Letters of Amy Clampitt. He writes about the arts for the Wall Street Journal. Oh, and he’s quite dapper.

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Credits: This episode’s music is This Charming Man by The Smiths. The conversation was recorded at Willard Spiegelman’s home in New York City, on a pair of AT2020 mics, feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. I recorded the other material on a Blue Yeti USB mic into Audacity. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band.

Podcast: Disarm

Virtual Memories – season 3 episode 1 – Disarm

Our first guest of 2013 is Ron Rosenbaum, one of my favorite living writers! This episode of The Virtual Memories Show is The Bomb!

I’ve been a fan of Ron’s writing (let’s call it “literary journalism”) since reading Long Island, Babylon (originally titled The Devil in Long Island) in The New York Times Magazine nearly 20 years ago, so having him on the show is a big honor for me.

Our conversation focuses on his most recent book, How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III, and what he learned in the course of researching the present danger of nuclear conflict. (It’s a pretty harrowing — and very important — topic, folks.) From there, we discuss Ron’s body of work, his literary influences, Nixon’s final lie, what he thinks of Harold Bloom, his opinions about contemporary literary journalism, and more.

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more!

Ron Rosenbaum on The Virtual Memories Show

About our Guest

Born in Manhattan, Ron Rosenbaum grew up on Long Island, got a degree in English literature from Yale, and dropped out of Yale Graduate School to write. Ron’s other books include Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil, The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups, and The Secret Parts of Fortune: Three Decades of Intense Investigations and Edgy Enthusiasms, a collection of his essays and journalism from The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Esquire, The New Yorker, The New York Observer, and other publications. I highly recommend all of them; in fact, I have extra copies of The Secret Parts of Fortune at home and in my office, just in case I feel like reading one of what Errol Morris calls “metaphysical detective stories.” You can find Ron’s current work at Slate, where he’s a columnist, and Smithsonian Magazine, where he’s a National Correspondent. He’s currently at work on two new books.

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Credits: This episode’s music is One of Our Submarines (extended mix) by Thomas Dolby. The conversation was recorded at the Inn on 23rd in New York City, on a pair of Blue Encore 100 mics, feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. I recorded the other material on a Blue Yeti USB mic into Audacity. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band. Photo courtesy of the receptionist at the Inn on 23rd, whose name I didn’t catch.

Another Year, In the Books: 2012

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“One of the pleasures of middle age — there aren’t many — lies in a growing appreciation for art that is urbane and refined. To be a man of the world is, in my mind, to be a courtly, music-loving intellectual living in Vienna or Prague during the final days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is the last glimmering of a now vanished era . . .”

–Michael Dirda

It was another wonderful reading year for me, even if I sometimes feel like I’m an ape who’s trying to mimic the behavior of a cultured gentlereader. I know this isn’t the mode for everyone (esp. those of you who have social lives), but I’m awfully happy I get to live this way. Last year, I chronicled all the books I finished, but used a separate post to discuss 2011’s big reading project, Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time: First Movement. I didn’t have a major project this year, so you’re going to get some commentary on everydarnbook on The List. (Speaking of . . .)

As with last year, this writeup doesn’t include comics that I finished. I should note that, while I’ve had Chris Ware’s Building Stories on my desk since late September, I’ve been too . . . intimidated? something else? . . . to start it. Maybe that’ll be the next big read.

Meanwhile, there are more than 50 to discuss, so let’s get started!

The Sun Also Rises: I had the thought last January of reading a lot of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner. I may’ve been a little influenced by that meh Woody Allen flick, Midnight in Paris. Clearly, not as effective as the way Another Woman turned me on to Rilke, but hey. This time around, I found Hemingway’s prose flatter and less effective than I recalled. Nowadays, we’d chalk it up to writing for a screenplay rather than the printed word, but I guess that wasn’t a consideration back then.

The Learners: A day after that, I was wiped out with the flu. I stayed home from work and started reading The Learners, the sequel to book designer extraordinaire Chip Kidd’s first novel, The Cheese Monkeys. The book follows our lead character, Happy, out of art school and into his first design job in 1961. Bizarrely enough, considering how out-of-it I must have been, I managed to read this book in a few hours. I enjoyed it, mainly for the depiction of Happy’s worklife as a designer in that era (not exactly Mad Men). I wasn’t as interested in the plot, centering on Stanley Milgram‘s authority experiments, but I’m hoping to see a third book from Kidd as Happy finds his way in the world (and figures out his sexuality, the suppression of which is a key component of this and The Cheese Monkeys).

Money: A Suicide Note: A week later, I read Martin Amis’ Money, which I’d heard referred to as his greatest novel. I think London Fields trumps it, but they’re both awfully good. They’re also very difficult for me to recommend to people; Amis’ language is like lightning (at his peak, I think his prose is up there with Nabokov’s), but his characters are almost uniformly unlikeable and normal people seem to care about that. In my podcast conversation with Michael Dirda, we talked about the pleasure principle in reading and criticism. He praised Harold Brodkey’s The Runaway Soul, but said it so unremitting and humorless that no one could finish it, and contrasted that with the evil wit of William Gass’ The Tunnel. He made a comment about writing a book in which none of the characters were likable, and I said, “We should ask Martin Amis for tips on that.” That said, it’s an amazing novel, capturing the money-hungry ’80s in New York and London. And it was fun to read the brothel scene that Amis researched with Christopher Hitchens (whose Hitch-22: A Memoir was the close-out to last year’s post). Also, it seems like Alan Moore was cribbing from this when he wrote A Small Killing, a comic illustrated by Oscar Zarate.

Brideshead Revisited: Reading at tangents, I went from Martin Amis to Evelyn Waugh, an influence on his dad Kingsley. I read Waugh’s Scoop in late 2011 (following Hitchens’ recommendation) before moving on to his best-known novel, Brideshead Revisited. I had absolutely no idea what this book was about. For some reason, I thought it was going to be a very staid, mannered book. I really wasn’t expecting the ebullience of Sebastian Flyte and, once introduced to him, I wasn’t expecting the Catholic-Anglican conflict between the narrator and Sebastian’s sister, Julia. I was happy to have so much of Anthony Powell under my belt before reading this, even though Powell’s prose and story were far less unified than Waugh’s.

Stories of Anton Chekhov: My first great discovery of 2012 was Chekhov’s short fiction (Pevear & Volokhonsky translation). I’d apparently read Three Sisters back in my freshman year of college, probably for an acting class, but never got to Chekhov otherwise. I have so many lacunae in my reading, it’s embarrassing. I devoured this collection and will likely get around to his short novels and his plays in 2013. I was floored by the intensity and vividness of his short sketches, like The Huntsman and the seriously creepy Sleepy, while the longest piece in the book, A Boring Story, is an utter masterpiece. I’m in awe of Chekhov.

Tropic of Cancer: Looking back over my list, I honestly don’t remember reading this book for the bajillionth time. I’m guessing I thought it would be a good palate-cleanser, some familiarly gorgeous prose for me to fall back into after being swept up in Chekhov for 3 weeks. It’s also possible I just read too darned quickly sometime. I try not to read for volume, but it happens to the best of us sometimes.

Travesties: I read Tom Stoppard’s play in anticipation of seeing it performed in Princeton. We never got down there, because of work travel or some other excuse, but I was glad to read it. It’s a toughie to characterize, because of the Leninist stuff, the Wildean mode, the slapstick, the dead-end of Dadaism, and more, but I was wowed by the ambition of it, and I’m a sucker for “all these famous figures happened to live in the same place at the same time, so who’s to say they never overlapped?”

Metropole: I read this one on a recommendation in Bookslut. It’s a forgotten novel about a linguistics professor from Hungary on his way to a conference who falls asleep, misses a connection, gets on a wrong airplane, and winds up in a strange city where he can’t understand the language. I had high hopes for this novel, but it draws out the drudgery of the professor’s life in a way that ground my interest into a nub. Going into it, my assumption was that the professor’s experience mirrors that of everyone who travels to Hungary from the west, since their language has virtually no connection to the Indo-European language groups. I spent a full week in Hungary a few years ago and managed to pick up only 5 or 6 words in that time. Anyway, I was hoping for more of the Kafkaesque out of this novel, I suppose, but I can understand how the time in which it was written (1970, during the endless days of the Cold War) dictated the sense of hopelessness that pervades it.

Inherent Vice: A Novel: I bailed on Thomas Pynchon’s last giganto-novel, Against the Day, a year or two ago. I was 50-60 pages into it and concluded that I wasn’t enjoying it and would never get around to finishing it. On a whim, I picked up this shorter novel last spring at a nearbyish new/used bookstore, Well Read. I figured this would be more Crying of Lot 49 than Gravity’s Rainbow. Little did I know it would be most similar to The Big Lebowski. I mean that in a good way. It’s a stoner detective novel set in LA in the ’60s, and the plot doesn’t quite add up, but the atmosphere is what it’s all about. While I was reading it, it struck me that Pynchon generally alternates his novels between “big” and “SoCal”: V. (big), Crying of Lot 49 (SoCal), Gravity’s Rainbow (big), Vineland (SoCal), Mason & Dixon (big), Against the Day (big), Inherent Vice (SoCal). The fact that those last two are out of sequence is clearly the sign that They’re up to something . . .

Coriolanus: Two reasons to take up this one: to prepare to catch the Ralph Fiennes movie version (which I haven’t seen yet), and because I was going to take a trip to Phoenix for a trade show that month and planned to see a Diamondbacks game. See, I try to keep a decent gap between the number of Shakespeare plays I’ve read and the number of MLB ballparks I’ve visited. You know how weird I am, so don’t act like this surprises you. Anyway, the play was minor on the Shakespeare scale, but does help illustrate why military men don’t tend to make good statesmen.

Family Happiness“: I read Tolstoy’s novella in anticipation of a St. John’s College alumni seminar in NYC. Sadly, I could only attend the pre-seminar coffee hour and not the conversation itself, due to a sick dog at home, but I did get to talk with the tutor who was running the show, and she followed up afterward to tell me how it went. It’s Tolstoy and it’s not religious, so you know it’s good. It’s about the ways in which one’s notions of love and romance change the longer one’s in a relationship. In this case, it’s a sad, 19th century version with a younger woman discovering the loss of romance as her marriage progresses. It’s a recurring theme, esp. with great European writers of that era, but it’s so artfully told, even in its inevitabilities, that Tolstoy makes it fresh.

The Living End: This was probably on an off-the-cuff recommendation from Harold Bloom, and was probably the book I least enjoyed in 2012. I stuck with it, violating my maxim, “life is too short for shitty novels,” because it was only 130 pages of large type, but I could’ve given this one a pass. It starts off well, depicting the comic life of a Jewish liquor store owner before he’s murdered in a hold-up. From there, it transforms into a story of how grotesquely unfair the afterlife is, how vengeful God (the scriptural God) is, and why the end of the world can’t come soon enough. It was pretty relentless in its sections in hell, which is the point, I get it, but I just found it an unworthy book, especially after starting off so well. I’ll try one of Stanley Elkin’s other books sometime to see which part was the aberration.

Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness: William Styron’s memoir about depression and suicidal ideation was probably not what I should’ve been reading in a generic hotel room in Arizona during a business trip. Turns out he was having a bad reaction to Halcion. I understand how terrible that is, but when I was having an ugly CNS reaction to an antibiotic I’d been prescribed, it only took 3-4 days for me to realize that that’s what was happening and that my wife and coworkers were NOT actually trying to poison me. Either I’m more self-aware than Styron, or I spent a lot more time than he did reading about adverse events from prescription drugs.

Uncle Vanya: I thought the movie Cold Souls was terrible, but it led me to read Uncle Vanya, so I guess that’s not too bad. More Chekhov, again revolving around the country life and the sense of wasting one’s life in that setting. The only good scene in that Giamatti movie was when he rehearses a scene from the play after having his soul extracted, and attacks it with a joie de vivre totally inappropriate to the tragic setting. Seriously, avoid that movie, but read this play.

Solaris: This was the first Stanislaw Lem book I’ve read. I’d seen the Steven Soderbergh film version, and it was interesting to see how some of the book’s “rules” for the mysterious apparitions were removed or softened for the sake of the drama. Ultimately, I found it a bit too frustrating, in terms of the Macguffin, but it’s a beautiful piece of writing about the ineffability of experience. Just as we can’t understand what Solaris is “thinking,” we also fail to understand those closest to us.

Meditations: I bought Marcus Aurelius’ book after seeing The Silence of the Lambs back in 1992 or thereabouts, and only got around to reading it 20 years later. There were moments when I thought, “Well, it’s kinda easy to adopt Stoicism when you’re the emperor of Rome and not one of its subjects or slaves,” but I figured that was sour grapes. It’s written as self-advice (not self-help), and not all of us are going to address the Roman senate or lead an army, but his lessons, and his general vibe about leading a good life, are pretty useful. I need to reconsider him in relation to all that Montaigne I was reading a few years ago.

Austerlitz: The only W.G. Sebald I read before this year were a few essays in On the Natural History of Destruction. I don’t recall much of that reading, beyond the issue of trying to reconcile the desire for revenge against Germany after the war with leaving children to suffer. Austerlitz is the first of two Sebald novels I read in 2012. I was unprepared for his curious method of writing, that combination of compelling first-person travelogue and not-quite-documentary images, his peculiar mingling of the real and unreal. The story within the novel, which Jacques Austerlitz relates to the narrator, is haunting, in the same way that both characters haunt the Continent in the decades following the war. I bought the rest of Sebald’s novels after this, but his premature death (car accident in 2001) may be the greatest literary loss of our time.

Selected Stories of Flannery O’Connor / Wise Blood (re-read): That brings me to the life-changing moment I had at the beginning of summer. I read a number of O’Connor’s short stories for the 4-day Piraeus seminar at St. John’s College. I wrote about the Piraeus in last year’s write-up, in my entry on Wise Blood (which I re-read before the seminar). O’Connor’s fiction was a grotesque revelation, and would’ve been reward enough, now that I can see her threads weaving through modern American fiction and storytelling, but the long weekend in Annapolis re-energized me, brought a new focus to my reading, introduced me to new friends, and reminded me of the value of The Conversation. (The stories we read for the seminar were Good Country People, A Good Man is Hard to Find, The Artificial N*****, Everything That Rises Must Converge, The Lame Shall Enter First, and Parker’s Back. I oughtta read The Violent Bear It Away in 2013.) Check out the podcasts I recorded during that trip with David Townsend and Tom May!

Rabbit, Run: My first Updike. As I wrote on Facebook, “My big hangup was the sheer poetic beauty of the prose and how it didn’t really fit with any of the characters’ perspectives. That is, Rabbit wouldn’t have seen the world as beautifully as the narrative describes it, but the narrative often lapses into the limited perspectives of its characters. It’ll drop into the more immediate tones of Rabbit’s wife, Ruth, or Rabbit himself, and all the gorgeous prose drops away. It felt like Updike was showing off with those more poetic passages, or he didn’t yet know how to integrate that with his characters’ limited visions.” I later expanded on that in a note to a pal of mine, “There are some beautiful sentences in there, but the narrative voice makes little to no sense. Sometimes it’s immediately in the characters’ heads, but it begins making poetic descriptions of phenomena that the characters themselves couldn’t possibly formulate. So it felt like cheating/showing off: ‘I’m going to get inside these characters’ heads, but then I’m going to make intensely beautiful observations because I’ve got a bunch of them in my notebook and want to get them out.’ Presumably, he got better as a writer, but I was shocked by the clumsiness of that first book.” So now you know where I stand. I have the whole Rabbit Angstrom 4-book omnibus, but will I ever get around to those when there are so many other books with more promise?

Housekeeping: I may be the only person who read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead without having read her first novel. Enough people have praised it over the years (including my first podcast guest, Ann Rivera) that I decided to give it a read. They’re right. It’s fantastic. Robinson’s beautiful prose evokes the fragility of home life, the disintegration of family. It also has its roots in Flannery O’Connor, although I’m sure a smarter writer than I could explain how Robinson’s Calvinism leads to a different style than O’Connor’s (southern) Catholicism.

O, How the Wheel Becomes it!: This was another one-day read (“one-evening,” to be precise). It was Anthony Powell’s first novel after he finished A Dance to the Music of Time. It’s slight, but it parodies/slags the literary fiction and academia scenes in the UK. And I was happy to see the guy who created X. Trapnel return to goofing on the publishing world.

Take Time for Paradise: Americans and Their Games: Americans and Their Games: I don’t read a lot of nonfiction books; I prefer long-form articles instead. I guess you could count Darkness Visible and Meditations as nonfiction, but this is the first one on the list to deal with a non-memoir subject. One of my fellow Piraeus members suggested I read this book by the late baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti. It’s about the nature of sport, what it says about America and Americans, and, um, numerology. That part only comes up in the final section, but Giamatti sorta ascribes a kabbalistic significance to some of the numbers in baseball. As a whole, the book was a bit dry, in an Aristotelian way, but I enjoyed his reminiscences about playing baseball with his family, as well as the seriousness with which he could approach play.

The Aeneid (tr. Fagles): And this is where I went into overdrive. After that Piraeus weekend at St. John’s, I asked one of my tutors for a mini-curriculum of the Romans. I’d given them short shrift, deriding them as pastiches of the Greeks. Within a few minutes of my return to Annapolis, I realized what an unfair characterization this was. So I started educating myself in Roman literature and history, beginning with Virgil. Y’know what? The Aeneid IS a pastiche of Homer’s two epic poems, but Virgil’s a great enough artist to create something new out of that. The comparison that came to me after finishing the poem was Homer::Virgil as Jordan::Kobe. I don’t think Kobe could have been so successful without having MJ’s history behind him, but he managed to reach some pretty lofty heights once he incorporated that example.

Yeah, the Aeneid is propaganda for the Roman Empire, but Dido’s suicide left me breathless (the retroactive justification for the war with Carthage), Camilla’s Final Hour had one of the funniest images I’ve ever come across (her father, when she was an infant, sent her to safety by tying her to his spear and throwing her across the Amasenus river so he could pick her up after escaping the Volscians), and everybody needs a creation epic, right?

The Stranger (re): I re-read this after finishing the Sartre chapter in Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia (coming up soon). I gave Camus’ fiction pretty short shrift over the years, too, ever since making a dumb comment about him back in college. Reading him now, and trying to get an understanding of Algeria, I find him much more compelling. I’m always glad to find out how dumb I’ve been.

I Totally Meant to Do That: This is the first book I read specifically for my podcast, as I was interviewing the author, Jane Borden. It’s an enjoyable memoir about a North Carolina debutante, her transformation into a Brooklyn hipster, and how she came to understand home. Check out the podcast!

The Early History of Rome (Books I-V) / Rome and Italy (Books VI-X): After Virgil, I took up the first 10 books of Livy’s history of Rome. Seriously, I knew very little about this, so it was both informative and ridiculously entertaining. Livy covers Rome’s founding through 293 b.c. in these books (2 volumes from Penguin). It’s a cliche to say that knowledge of history informs the present, but the transition from kingdom to republic, driven by the growth in inequality between the high-born and the “peasants,” is awfully pertinent. As with all good histories, it’s replete with examples of our unchanging nature, demonstrated by our politics and (including the original story of the aforementioned Coriolanus). I’d put this in my must-read list (and I plan to read the subsequent surviving books in 2013).

Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts: It took me four years to work my way through this collection of biographical sketches/essays by Clive James. Finishing this book made me happier/prouder than any other book on the list. It’s about 800 pages long, and here’s the structure: biographical sketch, quotation from the subject, essay by James that may or may not be about the subject. The book focuses on the culture that was destroyed by the great wars and dictatorships of the 20th century, with Vienna as its locus point. James strives to remind us of all that we once had, and was lost. But to describe it like that is to miss the point. This book is an encyclopedia of one of the last cultured men, and its biographical subjects range from Viennese Jews like Stefan Zweig to Coco Chanel to Miles Davis. I read the book sequentially — which means, alphabetically — but it’s really intended to be dipped into anywhere that catches your fancy. My problem is that I’m sure I would have glossed over some interesting sketches/essays had I read it that way. And in fact, the piece that I think provides a key to the whole book is the essay about Paul Muratov, a Russian art historian who is (almost) utterly forgotten. If there’s any one book I’d recommend above all others in this post, it’s Cultural Amnesia. Treat yourself.

The Sense of an Ending: This short Julian Barnes novel was a Kindle loan from my public library. It relies on some really obtuse behavior by a couple of characters in order to keep its mystery going and deliver on its main themes, that memory is unreliable and people can be real pricks in college.

Sea, Swallow Me And Other Stories: This is a short story collection by a guy I knew in college, Craig Gidney. I enjoyed some of them far more than I wanted to, because I am of course jealous of any of my contemporaries who have been able to finish writing anything, much less achieved publication. The book’s firmly in the fantasy genre, and many of the stories come from a gay black male perspective. Having published Samuel R. Delany’s books once upon a time, I didn’t have any squeamishness about that, but I thought you’d like to know. Her Spirit Hovering, about a man who can’t get over his mother, is a blast. (But I really didn’t like the final story, Catch Him By the Toe, which felt like a Twilight Zone / comic book origin story.)

An Open Book: Coming of Age in the Heartland: I read Michael Dirda’s 2003 memoir in preparation for our podcast interview. Having (his version of) the details of his early life under my belt helped to keep me from falling into any “I’m not worthy!” moments during our talk. Not that Mr. Dirda’s intimidating in person, by any means, but I’ve enjoyed his book reviews and columns for decades and feared I would ask him something like, “Why are you so awesome?” a la Chris Farley with Paul McCartney in that SNL skit. The book was pretty enchanting, even though I hoped for a bit more of the “how I became so awesome” material about his time at the Washington Post, rather than “this was the girl I liked in college,” but I was happy to learn more about someone whose work I’ve dug for so long. Check out the podcast!

The Metamorphoses of Ovid (tr. Mandelbaum): Then it was back to the Romans! As I wrote earlier, there are awful, gaping holes in my reading. It’s one of the main reasons why I read so little contemporary fiction; there are too many great works of the past for me to catch up on. As I look over the list, it seems that, of the 51 books I finished in 2012, only 14 of them (27%) were published from 2000 on, and only 7 came out since 2009. I’m kicking myself for not getting around to Ovid until now. It’s like a kaleidoscope viewing of the Greek and Roman myths, with transformation as the common thread running through them. Does it, like the Aeneid, become propaganda when Julius Caesar gets woven into the end of the poem? Sure, but it’s forgivable, when so many of the other myths are of tribal self-identification. Anyway, it’s a glorious work, and I wish I had read it in my teens, rather than the pulp science fiction and comics I was raised on.

The Good Soldier: Michael Dirda praised the living heck out of this Ford Madox Ford novel from 1915, so I gave it a read soon after our conversation. The narrator, an who was seemingly unaware of the affair going on between his wife and a British captain, tells the story of passion and suicide in a very disjointed manner. It’s not right to say he’s an unreliable narrator, but his elliptical way of getting to the heart of the story and his willful blindness to what’s going on around him never seem like cheap plot devices; rather, they’re both essential his character and indicative of a certain sense of propriety in that era. The narrator’s casualness and disjointedness are actually intensely worked out by Ford, so that mere asides turn into harbingers of what the narrator calls “the saddest story I have ever heard.” It’s a wonderful novel, which I’ll likely return to in a year or two to catch the significance in all the seemingly insignificant details.

King Lear (re-read): It was a re-read for seminar at St. John’s homecoming weekend. And if you haven’t read King Lear yet, then why are you wasting time reading my bazillion-word blog-post? Most of the seminar group was from the same class, so I was an outsider, but we had a good conversation about the nature(s) of madness, the impossibility of retirement, and where there’s any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts.

Capital: I’m a fan of John Lanchester’s novel, The Debt to Pleasure, and the financial writing he’s been doing since the crash, so I gave his mega-novel from 2011 a shot during a business trip to Madrid. It tells the story of a number of people living on a street in London where property values have been skyrocketing. There are multi-generational long-timers, executives from the City, Pakistani shopkeepers, a rising star soccer player, and the various people with whom their lives intersect, including a Banksy-like artist, an illegal immigrant working as a meter maid, a Polish handyman, and more. It’s ambitious in its attempt at showing how insane money has gotten in our financial centers, and how it warps the lives of the rich and poor. The need to drive the plot over 600 or so pages means that the prose isn’t as gorgeous as in Debt to Pleasure, and it may not reach Bonfire of the Vanities-level zeitgeist-ery, but it’s still a good read.

Chess Story: And that brings me to Stefan Zweig. I first read about Zweig at the end (naturally) of Cultural Amnesia. Clive James largely dismissed Zweig’s fiction and instead focused on his biographical essays and his memoir, The World of Yesterday. As with many artists in James’ book, I made a note to get to him “later on.” Then I read an appreciation of Zweig in the New Yorker by Leo Carey that focused on his fiction (both writers also focus on Zweig’s 1942 suicide in Petropolis, Brazil) and decided to give his last novella a shot before the flight home from Madrid.

I sat in the airport terminal completely riveted by this slim book (80 pages). As with The Leopard in 2011, I began re-reading the book almost immediately, in awe of the storytelling, the ease of language and symbols, the utter tension of the work. I must have given out half a dozen copies of this to friends to read. The story is about a veritable idiot savant of a chess master who travels on a steamer from New York to Argentina. Our narrator wants to see him play, and contrives to get him into a match with a high-stakes amateur on the ship. A mysterious passenger offers some help during a match, and that’s when things really take off.

It’s so mind-blowingly good and compact, that I found myself buying up a number of Zweig’s other works (he only wrote one novel, otherwise sticking to the novella for his fiction) to see how they measured up. (Keep reading; you’ll find out.) But if you’re looking for a great (and quick) read, go buy Chess Story right away. Skip the introduction, because it gives away some things that it’s better to uncover in the novella itself.

I have a million more things to say about Zweig, but this isn’t the place for them, because I’ll never finish otherwise.

Bartleby & Co.: The New Yorker also tipped me off to this book by Enrique Vila-Matas. It’s ostensibly a novel about “Writers of the No,” authors who quit writing or never finished their work. I thought that would be right up my alley, never having started, but the book was disappointing. The concept was fine, but there’s not enough novel-ing going on in it. The scenes from the narrator’s life, the hints at the bigger world around him, just drop away and the book we’re left with isn’t substantial enough to make up for not knowing “what happened.”

Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness: I read this book by Willard Spiegelman in preparation for a pending podcast interview. (There’s a story about that, of course.) On the face of it — a book with the chapters, Reading, Walking, Looking, Dancing, Listening, Swimming, and Writing — I thought I was getting a literary self-help book. It turns out to be a Montaigne-esque series of essays: more meditation than memoir, and certainly not self-help. I enjoyed it a great deal, perhaps because I could relate to so many of Mr. Spiegelman’s experiences, even if I’m too chicken to learn to dance.

The Emigrants : I read this W.G. Sebald book over the course of the first day of the Hurricane Sandy blackout. It’s written in the same mode as Austerlitz; a first-person narrative (with photos) about the lives of four people driven away from Germany. It’s like a precursor to Austerlitz, but I found it a little less haunting, if only because one of the titular emigrants traveled to America and some of the narrator’s travels overlapped with highways I’ve traveled.

Fifth Business / The Manticore / World of Wonders: The blackout was 8 days long, and I managed to read much of Robertson Davies’ The Deptford Trilogy in that time. It was pretty great to have no power, no way of getting in touch with the office, and nothing to do but read and sit by the fire. I read Fifth Business more than 20 years ago, but remembered almost none of it. It’s hard to describe the story without sounding prosaic. In a sense, it’s a melodrama about the magic behind our lives. See? The first book is the best of the series, but the whole trilogy is a joy, even the weird Jungian analysis of The Manticore. It’s about life in a provincial Canadian town, and saints, and magicians, and stage-craft, and childhood guilt, and a million other things. Based on my experience with it, I recommend this as a great wintertime read by a fire.

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym: I can only hope that Poe’s one novel was intended as a parody of sea-faring fantastic tales, because I couldn’t make heads nor tails of this.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War: Awesomely entertaining. Max Brooks’ novel about a zombie apocalypse and the living’s response to it is told as an oral history, 10 years after major hostilities have ceased. The history is told by survivors from around the world, and the International Relations aspect of it is part of why it’s so great. The story telescopes from the personal to the international/global. Some of the chapters are heartbreaking, others are terrifically creepy, and it all adds up to a really good book. Sadly, it’ll be a movie next year, and that’ll ruin everything; it’s a slow zombie menace, not a fast zombie one as the movie trailer seems to show, and that runs counter to what makes the book so darned creepy. If we’re still dividing literature into genres, then this is my zombie/thriller/horror recommendation of the year.

Journey Into the Past (New York Review Books Classics): My second Stefan Zweig novella wasn’t as good as my first, but that’s okay. This one’s more of a romantic melodrama, while Chess Story was a heavy-duty psychological crucible built around a chessboard. This one’s about the impossibility of fixing love in time, or of recapturing love we once had. While the emotional states are convincing, the story itself simply wasn’t compelling to me. Also, no zombies.

How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III: I read this in preparation for a podcast with one of my favorite contemporary writers, Ron Rosenbaum. (That’ll post shortly.) Ron’s written great articles over the years, and his previous books, Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil and The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups, are both worth reading. This one focuses on The Bomb and just how close we are to deliberate or accidental nuclear destruction. It’s a bit policy heavy, but Ron makes it readable and pretty darned engaging. He brings some literary meditation to the topic, but this one’s first and foremost about the threat of nuclear war, not Ron’s usual approach, which is (he said, reductively) to analyze our interpretations of a phenomenon and see what they say about us, rather than go after the heart of the phenomenon itself. It’s an important book, but given the head-in-the-sand nature of our civilization, we’ll likely ignore it until it’s too late.

Selected Stories: A bunch of these cleaned the meh taste of Journey Into the Past. They’re all novellas, almost all told to our narrator by another party, and several of them will break your heart. I nearly plotzed over the story of Buchmendel, the Galician Jewish book dealer who gets into trouble during WWI by not having any idea that WWI is going on. The romantic melodramas of Letter from an Unknown Woman, Fantastic Night and Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman show that Zweig can employ pitched emotional states while still delivering a devastating story. After Chess Story, pick this one up.

The Silence of Trees: I read the debut novel by Valya Dudycz Lupescu in preparation for another podcast interview. We tried recording in mid-December, but she had just done the planes, trains and automobiles circuit to get from Chicago to Philadelphia and wasn’t at her most coherent. We’ve rescheduled for my next Chicago trip. It’s a novel about a Ukrainian-American matriarch who has suppressed her pre-American life from her family, and how she deals with that as she grows old. It opened my eyes to some of the non-Jewish victims of WWII, and how terrible the conditions were after it ended. There’s a certain lack of psychology to the narrator, which I THINK is a symptom of the character’s suppression; I’ll ask Valya about it in April when we record.

Night Train: Martin Amis tries to tell a police procedural about a suspicious suicide. The narrator, a boxy female detective, has to have a literary background in order to accommodate some of Amis’ prose, but he reins it in somewhat. It’s . . . not great. I mean, “great” is London Fields and Money. This one has some interesting observations in it, and the cloud of unknowing around the suicide/murder is a neat literary device, but I assume he was trying to make some sorta gender statement by naming his female narrator Mike Hoolihan. Give this one a pass, unless you’re on a serious Amis binge.

1984: I ended the year with Orwell’s final novel, which I’d last read 20 years earlier. It’s a lot more vivid to me now, but that’s the nature of re-reading as a grown-up, I suppose. I don’t think I really got the perils of Communism/Totalitarianism when I was younger. Reading it now, I think the real horror isn’t the Thought Police or Room 101, but the crumbling cigarettes, the artificial gin, the dull razors and all the other minutiae of colorless life on Airstrip One. (I was also struck this time by the awkwardness with which Orwell introduced some of the concepts of the book, but I think that’s typical of a non-science-fiction writer trying to work in that genre.)

So there we are: 52 weeks, 51 books! I’m in the midst of Bleak House right now, and am putting together a selection of stuff I’d like to get to in 2013. Most of those pulls are longer works, so don’t expect another giganto-post like this one next year!

In case you want a ranking, here are my top 10 of new reads I finished in 2012:

  1. Chess Story – Stefan Zweig
  2. Cultural Amnesia – Clive James
  3. Short Stories – Anton Chekhov (tr. Pevear & Volokhonsky)
  4. The Aeneid – Virgil (tr. Fagles)
  5. A whole ton of Flannery O’Connor
  6. Austerlitz – WG Sebald
  7. History of Rome, books I-X – Livy
  8. Selected Stories – Stefan Zweig (Pushkin Press ed.)
  9. World War Z – Max Brooks
  10. Money – Martin Amis

Bookbuys

Since we’re building a library downstairs and adding a bunch more shelf-space, I’m no longer quite so constrained in my book-buying. I’m still on an austerity plan for 2012, so I’ll generally only pick something up on the cheap. Here’s what I’ve bought lately and why.

AbeBooks

The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay – Michael Chabon – I’m planning to read this for a Secondhand Loves podcast with one of my old college pals. I detested it the first time I tried it, complaining, “If you write a novel about comic-book history, Jews in eastern Europe, escape artistry and the golem-myth and you lose me, you’ve seriously fucked up.” We’ll see if I’m still as uninto it. It cost me $2.62, plus shipping

The Last Leopard – David Gilmour – It’s the biography of Giuseppe Di Lampedusa, who wrote The Leopard, one of my favorite novels. Cost $6.75

The Anatomy of Influence – Harold Bloom – I’m sure I’ll spend a little time with it. $8.31

Labyrinth Books

I stopped in Princeton for lunch on the way home from a client visit in Philadelphia, so I hit Labyrinth, which used to be Micawber Books. I found a used copy of Little, Big for $12.74. Amy lent hers out, and I’m hoping to interview the author soon for the podcast, so I picked that up. Still, $12.74 is kinda high for a used paperback. I balanced things out by finding a backup hardcover of George, Being George for $2.

Raider

There was a street fair in Suffern, NY last weekend, as Amy & I discovered when going out to our favorite hole-in-the-wall taqueria in town. We meandered through that, and discovered a little used bookstore in the same building as the Lafayette theater, this great old movie house where I once saw The Empire Strikes Back. The stock wasn’t really my sorta thing, but then I noticed a copy of Mr. Crowley’s Four Freedoms for $4, so I picked that up.

The Strand

While staying in NYC for a conference last week, I hit up the Strand Bookstore on my last night, since my wife & I are content to do that sorta thing. I decided I wouldn’t buy anything over $10, but managed to get by without crossing the $8 barrier:

Wise Blood – Flannery O’Connor – I read it in the big ol’ Library of America collected works last year, but figured it wouldn’t hurt to have a portable copy. $7.95

How Fiction Works – James Wood – I generally like his literary criticism and book reviews. $7.95

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City – Nick Flynn – My pal Elayne loved this one, and implored me to give it a shot. $7.50

The Lost Books of the Odyssey – Zachary Mason – Praised in a recent Five Books interview, I figured I’ll read it some weekend this summer. $5.95

Role Models – John Waters – I’ve always liked John Waters in theory much more than in practice, so I’m hoping the printed page works better for me than the movie/TV screen. $7.95

And that’s my recent book-buying binge. We’re still a few weeks away from having the library finished, but once it’s wrapped up, I’ll be sure to post a ton of pix.

Unrequired Reading: May not

Just another honkin’ load of links, courtesy of my Twitter feed at twitter.com/groth18!

RT @kylevanblerk (Kyle VanBlerk): Awesome people hanging out together. Early contender for Tumblr of the day.

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RT @neilhimself (Neil Gaiman): Remembering Douglas Adams in the Guardian. So odd to realise I’m now older than Douglas, who was always older than me.

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RT @mattzollerseitz (Matthew Seitz): The 10 greatest sequels of all time. By MZS.

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RT @magiciansbook (Laura Miller): “An entire train station full of used books

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RT @witoldr (Witold Rybczynski): The High Line succeeds in New York, but will it work as well elsewhere?

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RT @nerdist (Chris Hardwick): These Sci-Fi Ikea instructions are perhaps the best things ever formed with molecules: (via @CollegeHumor)

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RT @DwightGarner (Dwight Garner): I’m pulling for Clive James, who is fighting leukemia.

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Unfocused #RonRosenbaum column about #BobDylan (but still worth reading)

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Tappan Zee: bridge to the past.

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Will my forever stamps still be good if there’s no USPS?

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A lengthy review of #HaroldBloom’s career, masked as a review of his new book.

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Oy, with the brain-frying books! (Me, I’ll be Kindle-ing P&V’s translation of The Brothers K)

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Apparently, the house DOESN’T always win: #blackjack #theotherdonjohnson

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@hoopspeak demolishing some #NBA myths.

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Shaq is 15 months younger than me, and he’s done. NBA makes you feel old. #nba #geriatrics

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I like to think @DeShawnStevens takes his personal tattoo artist everywhere, not just preseason parties. #gomavs!

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Chester Brown: A praying mantis with testicles. (C’mon world! Let’s make #prayingmantiswithtesticles trend!)

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Lidsville! (On the road, I have to order a med. from @dunkindonuts because the small coffee lid tends to leak. Grr.)

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#MartinAmis vs. the Dead Bores (I thought #LondonFields was fantastic (and gorgeously lyrical in its apocalypticism))

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“But why did you need to build 2 synagogues?” #JewsinAmerica

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I’ve found another #AnotherWoman fan! #openingshots #youmustchangeyourlife #WoodyAllen

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To Hull and Back: #ChristopherHitchens on #PhilipLarkin (with a side-trip to #Orwell)

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“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.” #techboom #howl

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“They called it show business, but it’s really showing-off business.” Awesome #BillWithers interview. #lovelyday

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Whatchoo got in that #BAG?

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Sorry, #MichaelJordan, but the stripes are not slimming. They are, however, giving me a headache.

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Bryan Ferry: Style Icon #bryanferry

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My pocket square, my self (with @simondoonan)

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@SeriousEats asks the serious question: In-N-Out vs. Shake Shack vs. Five Guys. #burgervsburger

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Rio Rancho and the Arena to Nowhere (sounds like a bad episode of @parksandrecnbc)

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Neat @LouisCK profile. #seasontwoinjune!

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Imelda Marcos, reincarnated as a man. #thatsalotofshoes

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You can get ugly, but make sure you don’t go full retard: #oscarbait #donthatemebecauseimbeautiful

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Art Books, part I: The Book Surgeon at work

Art Books, part II: @ChipKidd with Superman & Batman.

Art (Garfunkel) Books, part III: All the books I’ve read. #ArtGarfunkel

Art (of) Books(elling): 14 bookstores to see before you die. #Ivebeentofourofthem

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Treasure trove: SF writers on their favorite SF novels/writers

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fun recap of 13 roles by @mradamscott #partydown

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Sexy lady-spies of #Mossad

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Gandalf or Rick Rubin? #okayitsGandalf #thehobbit

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Guess what happens when you buy a piece of crap from H&M? #hm #crapiscrap

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Omar=Achilles? Brandon=Patroclus? Zowie! #TheWire #Iliad

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‘Twas architecture that killed the museum. #AFAM #bronzedKleenexbox

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Good night, sweet Tractor Traylor. #tractortraylor #nba #milwaukeecouldhavehadNowitzki

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Kane at 70: Labyrinth, Heart of Darkness, Everything. #OrsonWelles #CitizenKane

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Taking participatory journalism to its absurd conclusion. #LeeJudge #KCRoyals #beanball

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Nobody likes #Sbarro (especially in NJ)

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Great men’s grooming moments in movies (#SteveCarrell was only the runner-up? Boo…)

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The #DeathStar wasn’t a make-work project? #starwars

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#ChristopherHitchens has outlived #OsamaBinLaden: #thatisall

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#Shelfporn! (we have too many books for any of these configurations, but they remain awesome!)

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I really need to read The Leopard somedamntime, don’t I? #lampedusa (I read the Leopard a few weeks later, and it’s rapidly ascended to the top 5 of my favorite novels.)

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Pinball? Wizard!

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RT @nathanrabin (Nathan Rabin): Deep down I suspect that I’m incredibly lazy and toil ceaselessly so nobody ever finds out. Anyone else feel that way?

Unrequired Reading: April Link Showers

Bizarre! I was just settling in to collect my May Twitter-links for a big Unrequired Reading when I discovered that last month’s load o’ links never went live! So here’s all of April’s great stuff! I’ll post May’s tomorrow!

* * *

It’s time for another month’s worth of Twitter links, dear readers! If you want to follow along, I’m at twitter.com/groth18!

First, the retweets:

RT @mookiewilson86 (paul raff): David Koresh had a better homestand than the Mets.

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RT @ESQStyle Esquire Style: And the best-dressed male guest at the #RoyalWedding is… not David Beckham.

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RT @felixsalmon (felix salmon): Wherein Martin Amis blathers on for 4,000 dutiful but unnecessary words about Christopher Hitchens.

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RT @kylevanblerk (Kyle van Blerk): Client request of the year.

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RT @simondoonan (Simon Doonan): Creative factory: Simon Doonan, My Faves!

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RT @GreatDismal (William Gibson): “WE HELPED YOUR GRANDAD GET LAID” #daytonbootsvancouver

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RT @mattzollerseitz (Matthew Zoller Seitz): “‘After Hours’ exists to prove that ‘Taxi Driver’ actually displayed some restraint. @notjustmovies

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RT @JPosnanski (Joe Posnanski): In honor of touching CNN story, I write a little more about Nick Charles and a moment I’ll never forget.

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RT @asymmetricinfo (Megan McArdle): Why Europe won’t develop as an independent military power

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RT @kottke (kottke.org): Hilarious fake TLC promo

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RT @kylevanblerk (Kyle van Blerk): Bored at work. Photoshopping Bieber’s head onto things.

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RT @questlove (?Love of The Roots): Man. Not even “OJ Guilt” is the proper colloquialism for what I feel after eatin Cinnabon.

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And now, the links!

NBA Action: Bet On It! #IhadSpursandMagicinthefinals

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Ah, #vodka, with your “marketing gimmicks that make getting drunk seem like a gateway to fame and fortune

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The bowling alley of the #Frick: it’s no basement of the Alamo, but still.

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There’s now a computer as dumb as my boss. #thatswhatshesaid

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Joe Queenan goofs on the #gehry glut.

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Is anyone at the #royalwedding sporting a monkey-tail beard?

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Via @khoi, abandoned Yugoslavia monuments of awesomeness.

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Xanadu comes back to life! (Will #MichaelBeck and @olivianj be at the opening?)

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Xanadu: More of disaster than @XanaduMovie? #likedecoratinganuclearreactor #bringbacktheAlexander’smural

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In the movie, I see Billy Bob Thornton as the local, and Pesci as the mobster: #greateststoryever #trustme

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Tefillin: it’s like Jewish blood pressure.” Go, @MitzvahTank! #areyouJewish?

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Will nobody think of the #pistachios?!

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#AllStarSuperman never should’ve released the sun-eater from captivity:

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The Walk of Shame goes #StreetStyle, via @sartorialist

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So VCs are like the AIDS activists of our time?

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I’m all for taking advantage of gorgeous chicks, but sheesh! #modelscam (via @felixsalmon)

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#HaroldBloom and his “elite Europhile glasses” #agon

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Eat lead! #staedtler and #fabercastell at war

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Every so often, I remind myself why I find contempo literary fiction useless and stultifyingly dull

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Go read this #BenKatchor interview! Nownownow! #CardboardValise (just plow through the “what is comics?” section)

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@felixsalmon delivers a (much appreciated) Jonathan Franzen smackdown

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@witoldr on the secret language of architects.

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This #Houdini article escapes from the need to write in complete sentences. #escapeartistry

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I guess I oughtta get around to reading #GeoffDyer sometime, huh?

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In honor of tonight’s season 2 premiere of #Treme on #HBO, check out this interview with #WendellPierce (#BunkMoreland)

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#ChrisElliott has a DAUGHTER on SNL? #igrowold

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Dali makes aliyah!

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Ron Rosenbaum implores us to visit (Joyce’s) Ithaca (but not much else). (I admit I’ll likely skip #Ulysses)

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I’m awfully happy with my @allenedmonds, I have to say

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I look down on my wife. #shekicksmeintheshins

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#Starbury = Jim Jones?

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Is it good or bad that my TV/movie/prose diet is so similar to that of #StevenSoderbergh? #MillersCrossing!

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25 years ago: Graceland and the Gatwick Baby

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“People who drink coffee are different in many ways from those who don’t drink coffee” #whataboutgin?

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Geoff Dyer on being allergic to David Foster Wallace’s writing (his compare/contrast w/Federer is great)

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“You look into the fiery furnace and see the rich man without any name” #wallstreet

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Neat video of @billy_reid at home.

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@simondoonan on camp: “I am not the brightest Art Nouveau lamp in the room…” #needIsaymore?

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NOLA: The Big Hypothetical

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Fun interview with Glenn O’Brien, onetime Warhol employee and current #StyleGuy for #GQ: #howtobeaman #glennobrien

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Ah, get back to me around yer 20th reunion, ya young bastid.

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Neat take on Android, Google’s business model, and moats.

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Authors and broken promises. #Icantgetstarted

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I would prefer not to poke you. #groupmeh

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Um, the good news is that “cancer” doesn’t exist (the bad news is that it’s more complex than anyone thought) #uhoh

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Would it have more success if it were called a “scrodpiece”? #probablynot

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“It’s still real to me, dammit!” #soareconcussions #andearlydeath #wwe

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When Antonioni met Tarkovsky: #shakeitlikeaPolaroidpicture

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RPG = Rocket-Powered Genius (of design) #rocketpunchgeneration

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@rupaul answers all questions, except, “What’s up with the mustache?” #dragrace

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@david_j_roth speaks truth to pizza (I still don’t understand how @pizzahut stays in business here in NJ.)

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Is there a Damien Hirst level to unlock? #jeffkoonsmustdie

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By @mattnycs: Vote for the man in the small hat: a rabbi runs for office … in Uganda: Parts I and II #really

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Hot chicks with (old) douchebags: #Iblamesociety #Ialsoblamehotchicks

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No Shakespeare in Topeka? #talentnotgenius #billjames

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#Koppenburg: why I don’t bike. #whoneedstheexercise?

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Accidental Mysteries: masked #seenandunseen

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GREAT piece by @comicsreporter on a trip to the #centerforcartoonstudies

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Because, as we know from #chrisrock, books are like Kryptonite to… certain people: #padandquill

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The Perplexitude of Hilfiger

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Proto-Facebook

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Darkness at Noonan: #tomgoestothebar (happy 60th, Tom Noonan!)

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And I close this month’s edition with a non-link:

“I used to believe that worry was a talisman against something bad happening to you.” thx for the wisdom, @ConanOBrien (& @MarcMaron)!

What a wonderful audience

[This was intended as a podcast, but I've been suffering from a headcold all week, and my voice is even worse than usual, so I decided to try to write instead.]

Virtual Memories is not exactly a model of search engine optimization. This is the blog where I spent around two years writing a recurring feature about Montaigne’s essays: not exactly a bikini-babe traffic-generator. (Although I’d say the majority of my google-linked visits seem to come from .edu addresses seeking out particular Montaigne essays; I think it’s awesome that my “insights” may have made their way into college kids’ papers.) I concluded a long time ago that my tastes just don’t jibe with that of a mainstream audience.

But I’ve been thinking a bit about audiences lately. I spent the previous week in NYC for a pharma conference. Several people I met told me that they receive my magazine at work and that my From the Editor column is the first thing they read. I’ve gotten this a bunch over the years, and it always makes me happy; I put some work into writing my editorials, trying my best not to do a “[topictopictopicblather], and on page 44, you’ll find [contributor]‘s take on [topic]” recapitulation of the table of contents. So it’s nice to get recognized for that. I’m happy to have an audience. (And I’m happy to have you guys.)

Last Saturday, I had brunch with Samuel R. Delany (Chip), whom I used to publish back in my small-press-night-job days. Chip turned 69 on April Fool’s Day, so I tried to put a group together to celebrate. Various cancellations and illness (my wife) left it at me, Chip, his partner, Dennis, and our pal Vince, who introduced me to Chip almost 15 years ago.

I hadn’t seen any of them in a year, and we had a fun, rambling conversation. At one point, Chip mentioned that he has a new novel coming out next year, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders. I asked if it was along the lines of The Mad Man, the book of his I reissued in 2002, which I describe as “a scatological queer porno literary theory murder mystery thriller,” and which an alumni of my grad school once called, “The War & Peace of s***-eating.” (I told him that I consider it “The Anna Karenina of p***-drinking BJ scenes,” and he agreed that was a better comparison.)

The new book, almost 700 pages long, will have plenty of scenes in the same vein, he said.

Sitting across the table from the Creole Santa, I asked, “Chip, who do you consider to be the audience for this book?”

Just so you know, I wasn’t passing a moral judgement on his sexual tastes nor his literary depictions thereof. I was just curious as to why, after writing The Mad Man and scads of other fiction along these lines, he was doing it again, and at such length. (I pre-emptively declared that I was not about to launch into the argument that commercial success is the arbitrator of art.)

He answered that these are the books that he wants to write and, more importantly, to read. He figures that there’s a decent-sized market for these interests of his (as well as people who aren’t as interested in the sex but still love to read work by him), and that it’s simply a matter of reaching them. I admitted that, of the five books I published during my run, The Mad Man was the best seller.

He has the freedom to write what he wants, having built an audience over the decades. And it’s not like he makes a living off his books; the bulk of his income derives from his professorship at Temple.

The other author at the table mentioned that his agent had recently sent out word to the other reps at her agency (and to authors) that editors at the major publishing houses were dismissing repped manuscripts unseen now, unless they were either movie- or TV-sellable, or the author had a sizeable internet following. Navel-gazing “literary fiction” was a non-seller and thus a non-starter.

Inwardly, I cheered.

It’s an audience I once belonged to, but seem to have grown out of. Having fallen out of my literary circles, I don’t know who does read that sorta thing anymore. There are audiences I’m just not a part of, and can’t identify with.

Which just means I live in relative isolation, not that these audiences have or have not withered away. It also doesn’t mean that it’s an either/or. The Venn diagrams can be pretty entertaining. As I wrote in 7 Rooms of Bloom:

I reflected on [Harold] Bloom’s lifelong support of the New York Yankees. I told myself, “When you were drunk on Colt 45 in a Dallas hotel room, jumping up and down and cheering as Charlie Hayes caught the final out of the 1996 World Series, Harold Bloom was also cheering and . . . well, maybe not jumping up and down, drunk on Colt 45, but definitely celebrating.”

After brunch, I took a walk through the city, bought some coffee beans, a bottle of Ethereal Gin, cheap clothes at Uniqlo, and a few remaindered copies of Clive James’ wonderful book, Cultural Amnesia, at St. Mark’s Books. There was a small rack of DVDs by the counter for impulse purchases. There, I noticed my brunch-mate gazing back at me. The Polymath, a 2007 documentary about Chip Delany, was in prominent position at the cashier. I thought, “The guy’s got an audience.”

A few days before brunch with Chip, I took Amy to see the revival of Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia at the Barrymore Theater on Broadway. Arcadia is one of my favorite pieces of writing; I’ve read the play six or seven times since discovering it in 1995, but had never seen it staged. So, yes, this was a bucket-list item for me.

Among the hustle of ticket-holders entering the theater, I was glad that producers (read: people with money) felt that there’d be an audience for a challenging play (comedy? mystery? Stoppard calls it “a tragedy with jokes”) about Romanticism, British landscape gardening, Latin, fractal geometry, literary scholarship, and Byron. And I was even more gratified that the thousand-seat theater was packed. (I splurged on orchestra seats a few rows from the stage; they were almost as good as at the Tom Jones show I attended in Vegas in 2004.)

Arcadia

Watching the play that night (I’d re-read the weekend before, after giving up on Kerouac) I found myself wondering just how many of the references — the poetry and the maths, particularly — were out of the reach of some of the audience members. I’ve grown so accustomed to being around “normal” people that I had no idea how much of the play would zoom by the rest of the audience. Were they devotees like me? Were they there because it was “smart” Broadway? What did it mean to be part of that audience? Who pays Broadway prices to see Arcadia in 2011?

(You want a review? Billy Crudup was great, taking up the role of literary sleuth Bernard 15 years after he played the role of the tutor, Septimus Hodge. (I only wish I could have seen Billy Nighy play Bernard as he did in the first London run.) Lia Williams did a great job as Hannah, but missed the cue where she was supposed to slap Bernard, and tried to make up for it later, confusing Crudup for a moment. Grace Gummer was pretty entertaining and OHMYGODLOOKSEXACTLYLIKEHERMOTHER. Raul Esparza ran through some of his lines too quickly, which maybe he was supposed to do because his character’s a theoretical mathematician, but still. And I wanted to punch out the girl who played Thomasina from the moment she opened her mouth. Seriously, she almost wrecked the whole play for me, with her shrill, impatient delivery and frantic hand-gestures. I know she’s playing a precocious 13-year-old student in 1809, but the role has to be quieter. Or maybe that’s just because I’ve had the script silently playing in my head for 15 years now, and it wasn’t shrill there.)

To get back to my point, I’ve been thinking about audiences. The big news story here has been about Charlie Sheen’s disaster of a theater show, and whether anyone who pays money to see Charlie Sheen’s theater show has a right to expect, um, anything worthwhile.

I have my audience, both here and at my day job, where I’ve got 20,000 subscribers. Chip has his, and some of them stick with him through some unfriendly territory. Arcadia has its audience, and I belong to it. How do we find a voice, in all the cacophony? How do we dare presume that we’re worth listening to? It’s been 8+ years for me & this site, and that question’s arisen again and again.

Which brings me back here. The biggest surge this site ever got was when Instapundit linked to my post about Proust, Love, and That Damned Hegel Quote. (If you’d like a semi-podcast angle to this, here’s an audio recording of it from a few days ago. It’s about 6 minutes long, and 4.8mb.) It was only a few thousand visitors, since he posted the link on a New Year’s day, but I was amazed to see those numbers of people checking out something that’s ultimately a pretty personal post.

So thanks for reading, and thanks for coming back for more.

Get Well Soon

According to the Yale Daily News, Harold Bloom (79) is “gravely ill” and has cancelled his seminars for the semester. I hope he gets better.

Here’s my story about a conversation with the Bardolator.

Publishers at Play

When I was a pretentious young man (I’m older now; but that doesn’t mean I’m less pretentious), the Paris Review Writers at Work anthologies were my Bible. (Or at least my Apocrypha. My Bible was a mash-up of Tropic of Cancer and Inside the Whale.)

I’d seek out the collections at used bookstores. The first volume I picked up, the 5th Series, contained interviews with William Gass (whom I was just then struggling to read), Jerzy Kosinski, Gore Vidal, P.G. Wodehouse, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and more. The interviews were a joy to this self-important, deluded Future Great American Writer, deftly exploring the writers’ histories, influences and literary opinions, while also revealing some of the practical aspects of their writing habits. Each interview was prefaced with a facsimile of a page of the writer’s manuscript or typescript. This was a wonderful touch, a peek into the writer’s editorial process.

(Well, except for the Henry Miller interview, which had a bizarre diagram with the caption, “Manuscript plan of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn, ‘embracing planetary conjunction; topographical map of region and monuments and streets and cemeteries; fatal, or otherwise, influence of fields — according to type; Major Events; Dominant Idea; Psychological Pattern.” This may be why I never finished Tropic of Capricorn.)

If I found WaW volumes in a library, I’d photocopy the interviews with my favorites. I still have a folder somewhere with Philip Roth, Harold Bloom, Milan Kundera (I said I was pretentious back then) and others. I began looking up past issues of the Paris Review to find other interviews that had yet to be anthologized.

One of my great triumphs came when I was in Bethesda, MD in 1998 for the Small Press Expo (SPX), an indie-comics event. In a used bookstore near the expo hotel, I found issue #105 with the famed (and uncollected) William Gaddis interview!

At SPX, I met Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth. I’d been writing mean-spirited reviews for his magazine, The Comics Journal, for a few months at that time. He thanked me for those, joking that it was good to have someone else writing mean-spiritedly in the magazine, because it freed up his time. Then he noticed the Paris Review back issue in my hand and said, “I see you found the one with the William Gaddis interview!”

I felt like I was in good company.

The WaW anthology series, published by Viking / Penguin, ended after the 9th volume in 1992, near as I can tell from abebooks.com. A decade or so later, Modern Library began publishing Women Writers at Work, Beat Writers at Work, Playwrights at Work and, um, Latin American Writers at Work (?), but I never picked those up. (I did grab The Writer’s Chapbook, which excerpted quotes from the interviews around particular themes, such as the audience, character, potboilers, peers, etc. It was a nice volume, but not as satisfying as having the complete interviews.)

In 2006, St. Martin’s Picador imprint began a new series called The Paris Review Interviews (I, II, and III). They’re the same format as the old WaW collections, right down to the facsimile manuscript page. And they collected the Gaddis interview! I still find the interviews pretty delightful, even though I’m no longer harboring dreams of being a Great American Writer. (I 0-fer-ized two of them here and here.)

George, Being George has a lot of good material about the history of the interviews, including the giddy elation some writers experienced when they were asked by George Plimpton to sit down for a Writers at Work session. Rather than excerpt any of those, I instead offer up a passage about the business of publishing the books:

MONA SIMPSON: [George] was very unhappy at one point with the amount of money that the Review had been paid for the various anthologies of interviews. Viking was paying us very little, and they were delaying publications. So Jay and I volunteered to go to this guy we knew at Simon and Schuster to see about moving our books there, and George was all for it. After an extended series of meetings, we got an offer for twenty-five thousand dollars — the current publisher was offering, I think three thousand — and they were really going to push it and promote it. So we come to George saying, “Okay, let’s sign on the dotted line, it’s going to be great.”

Then, at the last minute, George calls our editor at the other house — basically an old friend of George’s whom he’d been working with for years, who occasionally sent him tickets to a ball game. The editor sends George some tickets to the ball game and the whole deal is off. We realized at that point that we couldn’t just go out in the world and do that sort of thing anymore, not even with his permission, because we found that we basically didn’t have power to go against his personal loyalties. It was very embarrassing, because Simon and Schuster was outraged that we were staying with an offer that was about twelve percent of theirs.

I’ve taken several clients to basketball and baseball games, as well as fancy dinners. I like to believe that our magazine offers great value to our advertisers and that the fun times are sorta ancillary, but I’m sure that “relationship-building” activities like this muddle even the most otherwise clear business decisions.

As I said, George, Being George is a pretty entertaining book. Why, it’s right here at the end of my Plimpton/Review shelf!

IMG_1592

Oh, and the fourth volume of the new series — sorry, the IVth one — is coming out next week, so you should get on that.

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