Category Archives: About Books

The Moment Where the Magic Happens

We’re reading Charlotte’s Web out loud. (Toby’s three and five sixths; we started reading chapter books at about three and three fourths.) The book is as good as I remember it, unsurprisingly.

But one thing took me by surprise, which was this, on p. 16, a little ways into the third chapter:

One afternoon in June, when Wilbur was almost two months old, he wandered out into his small yard outside the barn. Fern had not arrived for her usual visit. Wilbur stood in the sun feeling lonely and bored.

“There’s never anything to do around here,” he thought.

All of a sudden—without preface, caveat, warning, or fanfare; and after the story is already off and running, with the world fully established—the animals are sentient.

Not so remarkable, I’m guessing, for the three-year-old reader. Maybe not even for most adult readers. But I think it’s a sign of E. B. White’s artistry that he can shift from a realistic world into a fantastic world so effortlessly.

It reminded me of this—an anecdote that opens John Updike’s New Yorker review of The Body, a novel by Hanif Kureishi:

John Hawkes, a conspicuous avant-garde libertarian, once announced, to the astonishment of a writing class in which I was enrolled, “When I want a character to fly, I just write, ‘He flew.'”

A great opening in so many ways: John Hawkes taught at Harvard? Updike—who was the same year as my dad there, Class of 1954—studied with him? Updike was perfectly aware that his characters—mostly earthbound, I’m guessing, although I’ve read embarassingly little Updike—could just take off at any time?

All of which also makes me think a little bit about my short-short story “The Ones Who Came After the Ones Who Could Fly.”

And it reminds me of something similar White does at the start of The Trumpet of the Swan (which I read out loud to Toby before he turned one; I think that was around the time that I also read him some New Yorker fiction out loud, on the theory that what was mostly needed at the time was out-loud reading, not necessarily age-appropriate out-loud reading.) As with Charlotte’s Web, you’re already fully in the world when all of a sudden, on p. 11, a few pages into the second chapter, the swans start to talk:

“Take a look at this!” exclaimed the female, as she swam round and round.

All of a sudden, it’s not just a world of humans and animals, it’s a world of humans and animals who can talk to each other, and who can understand human speech, but who cannot be understood by humans.

Another fantastic example of pulling off the neat trick of suddenly introducing a particular kind of magic into a world that didn’t have it before: my favorite moment in “CommComm,” by the great George Saunders:

Turns out when the recently dead breathe in your face they show you the future.

“Turns out”! So easy; so brilliant. I think Murakami does this too in at least a couple stories. The casualness of the voice, the friendliness of it—it says “hey, you didn’t know this, but I, the narrator, didn’t know it either, so we’re in it together, experiencing the strangeness of this thing.”

I borrowed the line “turns out” as part of a recent rewrite of a story I wrote in grad school—using those words, similarly, as a pivot, as an unassuming opening of a magic door. And I’ve been sending the story out.

So far, no luck. I think it’s a good story, though; no magic needed. Just persistence.

Which, in some ways, is synonymous with magic and luck.

Notes on My Notes on the Teaching of Point of View in a Craft Class

Lower down on this page is a diagram I made in PowerPoint when I taught Fiction Writing: Level I at Gotham Writers Workshop five years ago, before Emily and I moved up to Kingston. (The JPEG is small, but if you click on it, it’ll open a larger version of the image as a new page.)

I can’t remember at this point if I ever actually handed this out in class. I don’t think I did. I did include the diagram in my lecture notes, so maybe I drew this on the chalkboard for my students? Possibly.

This was for my lecture on point of view in fiction. My notes start with this Mel Brooks quote: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.” Which I included, I think, as a way to start a conversation about how we tell stories. The meaning of a story is not just derived from the causal sequence of events that make it up—this happened, and then that happened—but also by who’s doing the telling, and the distance or proximity that the narrator claims to have had to those events. History may be written by the victors, but stories get told in the voices of everybody.

Maybe this is a variant of the question in the title of John Ciardi’s book on teaching poetry, How Does a Poem Mean?—which always baffled me as a kid; my dad used the book to teach middle-school English—in this case, how does a story mean? Not what is the meaning of a story, but how does it do meaning?

Sort of like the question by which a writer should always approach his or her peers’ work, in a workshop or elsewhere: What is this story trying to do? How can it do what it’s trying to do better?

Here’s another section of my point-of-view lecture notes:

Who is doing the telling?  
Whose story (action, plot, events) is it? these two questions, distance/difference between narrator and protagonist; narrative distance?
How long ago did the events occur? temporal distance
How do the events matter to the teller? emotional distance
Can we, the reader, and/or the intended listener, trust the teller’s facts? if not, unreliable narrator
Can we, the reader, and/or the intended listener, trust the teller’s emotions? first person jackass—my own invention, but still useful, I think
Who is the intended listener?  
Where/when is the telling occurring? Nat’s question; his idea re. Kinbote

About “first person jackass”: I’m sure someone’s named or described this idea more articulately and elegantly somewhere, but I came up with this to describe an as-yet-unpublished story I wrote where the narrator can be trusted for factual accuracy, but not for emotional truth—so the experience of reading the sequence of events is through the scrim of his misunderstanding of the meaning of those events.

And about that last question: Here’s what I wrote down on a 3″ x 5″ card on 7 July 2005, on a night when the writing group my friend Nat Bennett and I were in at the time met at Dempsey’s Tavern:


For writing a story in first person past tense, using the retrospective voice, but aren’t sure where or when the narrator is writing from. Nat says he always borrows the situation from Nabokov’s Pale Fire, where Kinbote is shacked up in a motel across the street from an amusement park, hiding from everyone, hiding from the world.

In other words, it’s a valuable trick, if you’re working on something new, to be able to picture the precise circumstances of your narrator (whether you ever let the reader know what they are or not)—and if you can’t quite picture them yet, use Charles Kinbote’s circumstances as your backup.

That same night, Nat also—while critiquing one of his own stories, I think?—said, “Where’s this guy’s Daisy?”

A Daisy, a Kinbote’s motel—in the same bag of tricks as Hitchcock’s MacGuffin? (Or is the device of a Daisy a version of a MacGuffin? A private action-driving longing—a Rosebud?)

Nat’s a really smart writer; he ought to be more famous, I think.

So, the diagram: in my lecture notes, I wrote that this was “borrowed from Chuck Wachtel and slightly modified.” I took craft from Chuck at NYU (the class that Emily will also be teaching next year—to NYU’s MFA students, I mean).

This is based on a drawing of Chuck’s on page 87 of his craft class course packet—at least, the course packet we had in the spring semester of 2005. (I know from the notes I took in class, which include a drawing of mine that is a kind of intermediary step between Chuck’s drawing and my PowerPoint diagram, that we talked about this on 22 February 2005. I love my notes; my notes make me think two things: 1) Hooray analog! and 2) Who but a mean-spirited ignoramus, possibly hell-bent on destroying the fabric of democracy, would ever deny the value of the teaching of creative writing?)

Underneath Chuck’s drawing on page 87 of the packet, I wrote:

Wicki-Wachi Gardens, Florida, underwater mermaid dance show, garden hose breathing tube analogy.

I don’t entirely remember what that means. I think Chuck was telling us about a show he saw once in which women performed underwater in mermaid costumes, for an audience that watched them through an enourmous pane of glass, like a glass fourth wall, like a human aquarium; the mermaids stayed underwater by breathing through a garden hose dropped from the surface down to where they were, at the bottom of the aquarium. Did Chuck mean that the writer is similarly tethered to the action of the story through the metaphorical garden hose of his or her narrative voice?

(Google corrects my spelling: it’s actually Weeki Wachee Springs, the City of Live Mermaids. And it still exists. Whoa.)

Back to the diagram: it’s a simple (and goofy, in my rendering) way of visualizing how you get from the action of a story to the reading of a story. There are a lot of steps, really, from Gatsby’s actions to Nick’s observation of them to Nick’s voice describing those actions in Fitzgerald’s words to the formation of images picturing those actions in the head of you, the reader.

Would this be useful to a student? I don’t know.

But I like looking at it.

It reminds me that I really, really hope my career lands me back in the classroom someday.

The Rise and Fall of Fictional University

Coming home from the city on Amtrak last week, nodding off on the 4:40 out of Penn Station, I had an idea for a Web project: a site for a non-existent school called Fictional University (or FU for short, as Emily pointed out later when I was telling her about this idea).

I was imagining, but I’m not that surprised to discover that already exists.

Fictional University, as described on the Web site (featuring many photographs of the beautiful, verdant, illusory campus), would be a school where the only thing taught was the art and craft of fiction writing. There would be many departments—Science Fiction, Crime, Romance, Literary Fiction, Alternate History Steampunk Young Adult (an interdisciplinary major), and so on.

At first, I just imagined a few pages of this thing—a Potemkin Web site?—with a link to a CafePress page featuring T-shirts and sweatshirts from Fictional University, plus an image of the school’s mascot, the novel. Go Novels!

But then I thought, what if this was more like a Tlön Web site—a Wiki Tlön? although the idea of a Wiki is contained within “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” I suppose—a Web site that had multiple contributors who all worked to construct the full depth and breadth of Fictional University.

But who would contribute to such a project? Fiction writers who also know HTML, who know how to build Web sites. And who might think this was an interesting idea. The dream team that springs to mind would be Paul La Farge, Benjamin Rosenbaum, Colson Whitehead, my wife, and Michael Chabon. (Remember when Chabon kept a WordPress blog? It was a beautiful thing.)

But then, the usual conclusion to such a dream; the refrain, as Cindy put it, that stays the same: Time! Time! I already have one infrequently updated Web site; I already have an invitation to join a group blog which I’ve regretfully had to decline; I already have fiction I’m not writing.

I read a book last year called The Luck Factor, which argued, among other things, that lucky people are more likely to be outgoing, to pay attention to their surroundings, to listen.

So instead of dreaming up an impossible virtual joke, maybe the luckier way to spend my train ride would have been to talk about playing golf in New Haven? The gentleman sitting next to me looked at the logo on my baseball cap and asked if I’d gone to Yale. No, I said, my wife is on the faculty. Did I play golf? he asked. No, I said. Yale has a beautiful golf course, he said.

“The only beautifully designed thing on the whole campus—except for a couple of Kahn buildings—and they just piss it away,” he said.

“The next time we’re all there, we’ll have to take a look,” I said. He grunted; that was it for our conversation.

Perhaps I should have followed up with this: But let me tell you about an idea I have for a Web site!

VOOM, AH-WHOOM; or, The Cat in the Hat Strikes Back

Every time I read this (which is often—sometimes nightly; from Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat Comes Back; p. 59 in the Beginner Books Book Club Edition, copyright 1958—our copy still in great shape and going strong!):

Then the Voom…
It went voom!
And, oh boy! What a voom!

Now, don’t ask me what Voom is.
I never will know.
But, boy! Let me tell you
It does clean up snow!

I think of this, the scariest moment in Cat’s Cradle, when the dead body of “Papa” falls into the ocean, freezing the entire planet (from the fifty-sixth printing of the New Dell Edition; copyright is 1963, print date is July 1983—half the age of the Seuss, and completely falling apart, but still functional!):

There was a sound like that of the gentle closing of a portal as big as the sky, the great door of heaven being closed softly. It was a grand ah-whoom.

I opened my eyes—and all the sea was ice-nine.

The moist green earth was a blue-white pearl.

The sky darkened. Borasisi, the sun, became a sickly yellow ball, tiny and cruel.

The sky was filled with worms. The worms were tornadoes.

In other words, for me, reading The Cat in the Hat Comes Back brings back childhood Reagan-era fears of a nuclear war—isn’t it about the Bomb, the arms race, the Cold War, capitalism, American exceptionalism?

Much of Seuss, in a way, is about capitalism—about the anxiety of a culture of conspicuous consumption (“Have you a Zans for cans? You should.” “We have the only Gack in town.” “[Y]ou should get a Yink.” “All girls […] [s]hould have a pet like this at home.”).

But that enthusiastic voom!—it freaks me out.

Notes on Mug’s Games

1) From last week’s New Yorker, from David Remnick’s lead Talk of the Town essay (“A Man, a Plan,” on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu):

Psychobiography in politics is ordinarily a mug’s game.

2) Which sent me to Dana Gioia’s Can Poetry Matter?, which is where I remember first encountering the phrase; he mentions it in “Bourgeois in Bohemia,” an essay that I think started out as a review of the first volume of The Letters of T.S. Eliot:

The public Eliot who emerges at the end of these letters is a survivor—wise but disillusioned, socially astute but cold, stiffly middle-aged at thirty-four. He saw literary life as petty and sordid. ‘Poetry is a mug’s game,’ he once remarked in the British English he gradually adopted (a mug being a dupe). By 1922 Eliot had resolved to be a mug no longer. He negotiated lucrative deals for his books and plays. He grew modestly wealthy by giving readings and lectures. And he advised every youth who would listen to avoid poetry as a career. He knew too well its emotional cost. The Greek Nobel Prize laureate George Seferis recounted that when Eliot heard about a young man who wanted to dedicate himself to poetry, he remarked with unenviable authority, ‘He’s getting ready for a sad life.’

3) But where and when did Eliot write “Poetry is a mug’s game”? The answer is out there on the Web, but I tried to get to it the wrong way: I looked up The Letters of T.S. Eliot on Google Books—which is there, but its content, unless I’m missing something, is not searchable.

4) So I looked in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (15th edition, pre-Justin Kaplan), and got this (from p. 809, quote 19; the citation is from the conclusion of The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism):

As things are, and as fundamentally they must always be, poetry is not a career, but a mug’s game. No honest poet can ever feel quite sure of the permanent value of what he has written: he may have wasted his time and messed up his life for nothing.

5) So it’s British English idiom—but what meaning of “mug”? Emily wanted to know. So I looked in her compact OED. From page 1129, from the fifth meaning of the word mug:

1.a. A stupid or incompetent person, a ‘muff’, ‘duffer’; a fool, simpleton; a card-sharper’s dupe. slang.


b. mug’s game, a thankless task; a useless, foolish, or unprofitable activity. colloq.

6) From the next paragraph in the Gioia essay:

Much of the difficulty Eliot faced in early adulthood came from his inability to distance himself from his parents’ bourgeois Republican values. Although Eliot wanted to become a poet, he never expected to give up his comfortable standard of living. While Pound contently accepted an existence at subsistence level, hardly worrying about next month’s rent or this week’s groceries, Eliot could not bear even the possibility of economic uncertainty. What Pound saw as la vie bohème, Eliot viewed as squalid poverty. In his twenties he already worried over life insurance and retirement savings.

7) You should see Barney’s Version. Toby’s wonderful babysitter came over this past Saturday night; Emily and I went to see it at Upstate Films over in Rhinebeck. It’s really good.

8) I searched for the phrase “blogging is a mug’s game” on Google; yes, unsurprisingly, more than one person has written this on the searchable Web already.

9) From my phone interview with Edward Albee five years ago; this, understandably, didn’t make it into the article I wrote for Poets & Writers about the Albee Foundation. This wasn’t off the record, so I think it’s okay to reproduce it here:

Albee: February […] is the cruelest month in Montauk. Where all the suicides take place. All the fishermen kill themselves in February.
Me: That’s terrible.
Albee: It’s the cruelest month. What did Eliot know.
Me: He was over in London, he had no idea.
Albee: But he was from America. You’d think he’d remember about February.
Me: Maybe it was somewhat different out in the Midwest, where he was from.
Albee: I suppose, yes. Where was he from?
Me: He was originally from someplace like southern Illinois.
Albee: Oh was he? That’s pretty bad. Oh well, that’s practically in the South.
Me: So you can see why he ran away, I guess.
Albee: Yeah. Boy did Ozick try to damage his reputation.
Me: Who did?
Albee: Cynthia Ozick tried to really damage Eliot’s reputation by hitting hard on that specifically British anti-Semitism of his.
Me: He’s got a lot of detractors.
Albee: I know—but just read the poetry.
Me: You’d hope that it would stand separate from the person.
Albee: If we only liked the work of nice writers, we’d be nowhere.

10) Thinking about the conflict between bourgeois values and bohemian values makes me think of something Walter Mosley says at the end of the first chapter of This Year You Write Your Novel:

Straightforward procrastination is an author’s worst enemy, but there are others: the writer who suddenly has chores that have gone undone for months but that now seem urgent; the diarist who develops a keen wish to write about her experiences today instead of writing her book; the Good Samaritan who realizes that there’s a world out there that needs saving; the jack-of-all-trades who, when he begins one project, imagines ten others that are equally or even more important.

Forget all that. Don’t write in the journal unless you’re writing a chapter of your book. Save the world at 8:30 instead of 7:00. Let the lawn get shaggy and the paint peel from the walls.

But we own, Mr. Mosley! What will peeling paint do to the resale value?

11) As I’ve written elsewhere, today is the birthday of Matthew Broderick, Bridget Jones, and me.

12) I don’t quite know where I’m going with all this, but I do think I need to take a break from sending out short stories to literary journals and contests. Maybe a year off. Which is, I’m guessing, not an idea for an “I did X for a year!” book.

But it might buy me back quite a bit of time.

See also: “Something versus Nothing,” “Only Half an Hour.”

Cortázar for the Sleepless

I hesitate to call this found fiction, since the phrase implies inadvertency on the part of the author. What follows is a fiction that was definitely written by Dr. Ferber on purpose, one that I think succeeds as an analogy for what it’s like for a baby to fall asleep under certain circumstances and wake up under totally different ones—but it also reads to me like the sketch of a story by Cortázar. (I guess I’m thinking in particular of “House Taken Over.”)

First there’s this:

Perhaps you’ve had the experience of waking during the night just enough to notice your pillow missing. Most likely, instead of going straight back to sleep, you wakened a little more, enough to find the pillow on the floor and pull it back into bed before returning to sleep. But if you couldn’t find it right away, you probably wouldn’t be able to ignore it and go back to sleep. Instead, you’d become more fully awake so you could look around for it. If you still couldn’t find it, eventually you might turn on the light, get out of bed, and begin to search the room. […]

Ferber then goes from this realistic scenario into a more improbable, hypothetical one; “Suppose,” he writes, “that you are unable to get the pillow yourself”—and you need someone else to come and help you get it. Then he keeps elaborating on—and darkening—his analogy:

[S]uppose you discover that someone has been sneaking into your room each night and stealing your pillow. Once you know that, you might have trouble falling asleep at bedtime for fear that the pillow will be taken away as soon as you’re asleep. Whenever you catch yourself starting to drop off to sleep, you might wake yourself up again to make sure the pillow is still there.

Now imagine that this person, instead of just taking your pillow, actually moves you from your bed to another room, without waking you. Every night you go to sleep in your bed with everything just as you like it, only to wake after your first sleep cycle on, say, the floor of the living room. Unless you’re an exceptionally tolerant sleeper, you won’t even try to go back to sleep right there; you’ll get up and head back to your bedroom. But now suppose you find your bedroom door locked from the other side. Now there’s nothing you can do but wake someone who can unlock the door for you. Once that’s been done, you can at last get back into bed and get your pillow and blanket arranged properly, thereby reestablishing the conditions that were present at bedtime. Once you calm down, you will fall back asleep—but some ninety minutes later you’ll wake up again, back on the living room floor and again locked out of your bedroom.

If that happens throughout the night every night, you will not be sleeping at all well, and neither will the person who has to keep getting up to unlock your door. Soon you might be resisting sleep in hopes of identifying the person who keeps moving you; in other words, you might have trouble falling asleep even in your own bed because you know that you’ll be moved once you fall asleep. If that happened to you every night, you would not be very happy.

—pp. 65 – 66, Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, Richard Ferber, M.D.; from chapter 4, “Sleep Associations: A Key Problem.”

Previous Cortázar-related posts: 1) a quote from his story “Letter to a Young Lady in Paris,” about vomiting rabbits; 2) a quote from his story “End of the World of the End,” about the death of the world by book; and 3) a quote from his Paris Review interview, which gives me hope.

I’m pretty sure that I transcribed that last quote six years ago from one of the Art of Fiction anthologies?—but the whole interview, as is wonderfully the case with all the Paris Review interviews, is now available online.

The Traces We Leave Behind

(She Blows! catch-up post, three of three.)

One last note—for now, anyway—about She Blows! And Sparm at That! I never knew my novelist great-grandfather, although my dad did; but in many parts of the novel, while reading it, I had this strange, quasi-mystical sense that I was reading something written by someone I was connected to. Maybe this is unavoidable; maybe reading fiction by an ancestor—as with reading fiction by a friend or relative, as with reading the diary of a dead person whom you knew—you’re partly, secretly, selfishly looking for mentions of you, or clues and hints of you. This kicked in very early in the book, since one of the narrator’s older brothers, for example, happens to be named Tom.

Like a lot of people do—and like a whole lot more people really ought to—I worry about the ephemerality of digital storage media. That is to say, I think a lot about things like the fact that barring a range of possible but statistically unlikely disasters, the copy of She Blows! that Emily got me on, now 84 years old (the novel was originally published in 1922, but the Riverside Bookshelf edition came out in 1926), will in all likelihood outlive all sorts of things—this Web site;; the Google Books version of the book—or at least the servers on which titles in the Google Books library currently exist; the ability of the laptop on which I’m typing these words to function; the Web as we know it; and, of course, me.

So I think it’s these two things—a search for familial clues, combined with a sense that the physical book is under threat (and that, as a consequence, democracy and civilization are under threat), combined also with the amateur genealogist’s love of the discovery of concrete documentation, or even the promise of the possibility of documentation, that make me love the last paragraph of chapter six of She Blows! For context, right before this, some of Timmy’s shipmates manage to harpoon a whale, which then takes off for the horizon, dragging their small boat behind it, faster than the main whaling ship, the Clearchus, can chase it. This is Timmy’s first whaling trip, and he’s worried about the fate of his friends, so he asks another crewmember, Aziel Wright, how the Clearchus will ever catch up; Wright replies that the whale will have to tire within twenty or so miles of running, and even though night is falling, the men on the boat have flares, so not to worry. This is what follows:

I nodded, and thanked him. There was nothing else that I knew enough to ask him, although I was still unsatisfied, and I ran below to get it all down in my journal. At the time I made mere notes, in a fragmentary way, while my impressions were fresh. I wrote up the notes later. I have that journal by me now. As I look over the scrawled and stained pages, and read the disjointed sentences, the whole thing comes back before me as if it had happened yesterday. I sent the journal home from time to time, as I had planned to do, as long as I had opportunities, and managed to carry home the part covering the last part of my cruise. My father and my mother preserved my old journal as if it were a precious thing. I found it nearly thirty years later with my father’s most valuable papers.

From pp. 60 – 61 in the Riverside Bookshelf edition, and pp. 62 – 63 in the original Houghton Mifflin, according to Google Books.

Queer Doings

(She Blows! catch-up post, two of three.)

Another thing I wrote about last November, in my first note about one of my great-grandfather’s books, the one with one of the best titles ever, was that it had inadvertent gay overtones—which, again, is not to say that men did not have sexual relationships with each other on long sea voyages, which obviously they must have (I’m sure there are other examples of this in both fiction and scholarly writing, but one great recent one that I know of is Austin Bunn’s amazing story “The Ledge,” which ran in One Story in January 2006).

But most of the sexual overtones of She Blows! have to do with the juvenile and, I think, homophobic sense of humor that sometimes seems like it’s nearly completely overtaken our culture; the way everything can be read as code for something dirty—cf. Beavis and Butthead; the persistence of Amanda Huggenkiss and her colleagues (Mike Hunt, et al.); “Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?“; etc.

In spite of my nostalgic sense that whatever we might have gained by American culture becoming one gigantic frat movie, we’ve also lost something, I still can’t help but think it’s funny that the hero of She Blows! is named Timmy Taycox, and that the older, grizzled whaling veteran on the ship who befriends Timmy is named Peter Bottom, and that the book has the occasional great paragraph like this one (to give you some context, the Annie Battles is the name of the whaler that Timmy and Peter’s ship, the Clearchus, is in constant competition with, as they circumnavigate the glove in search of pods of whales):

“Now, what do you make of that?” [Peter] cried. “They’re holding her there, and the Battles’ crew ain’t making any sort of objection that I c’n see. It’s a queer vessel and a queer crew and queer doings, and Cap’n Coffin’s the queerest of the lot, if you believe what they say of him—which I don’t. There goes Mr. Wallet over the side, and that’s queerer yet. Mebbe he thinks he can clear up the queerness, but I miss my guess if that’s what he thinks.”

From p. 152 in the Riverside Bookshelf edition, and p. 169 in the original Houghton Mifflin, according to Google Books.

My Great-Grandfather’s Place in the Canon

(She Blows! catch-up post, one of three.)

A year and a day ago, I wrote a post about my great-grandfather’s novel She Blows! And Sparm at That! One of the things I wrote was that I thought he’d had some success as a writer, but that I didn’t really know for sure; I still don’t know as much as I wish I did, but I did finally notice the Publishers’ Note in the front of the edition we have (which I finally finished reading this past summer):


It has seemed to the publishers that both the critical reception and the steady popularity of William J. Hopkins’s “She Blows! and Sparm at That!” not only justify but demand its inclusion in the Riverside Bookshelf. For this purpose it has been revised and materially shortened by the author, entirely reset in a new and larger font of type, and the illustrations by Clifford W. Ashley reproduced in full color. In this format, it is hoped, it will be more attractive to younger readers and its position as one of the great whaling classics more definitely assured.

Which makes me feel even worse about how long it took me to finally finish reading it—in a civilization-is-going-to-hell, we’re-all-doomed-by-our-own-short-attention-spans sort of way.

My current reading list—which includes titles like John Freeman’s The Tyranny of E-mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox and Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, among others—isn’t helping in this regard.

The Imperative

Read books that no one else is reading; that are out of print; that you check out of the library; that you find in a sad box of abandoned books by the side of the road, at the edge of a pile of the rest of a life’s abandoned detritus; that no one else has heard of; by authors you’ve never heard of; whose signatures are becoming unstuck from their spine; that are un-Google-able. Read books that are not blogged about, nor Facebooked about, nor discussed in any other non-analog format that may exist and be popular whenever and by whatever means it may be that you are reading these words; that are unanthologized and, ideally, have never been anthologized; that are not now nor have ever been in anyone’s idea of what the canon is. Read a book just because it has a strange title. Read books no one knows, books that run the risk of making people uncomfortable if you talk about them, in that, as a very smart Oregonian put it about two and a half years ago at the monthly magazine where I used to work about a decade ago, “[b]ooks are social vectors,” and the enthusiastic championing of a book that has no common social referent—no popular endorsements, no rave reviews, no book-group adoption nor book-club recommendation, no syllabi to its name—might draw blank stares. Read books that don’t age well, from forgotten eras, from genres long dead and not remembered. Read novels that address the quirks and humor and mores of life in a canal town. Read anecdotes the plots of which hinge on the flaws of electrochemical telegraph machines. Read novellas that explore the travails of Pentecostal preachers in small towns on the western Nebraska frontier. Track down short fictions in the back pages of the down-and-out siblings of Redbook, McCall’s, Ladies’ Home Journal—the downmarket Saturday Evening Post, the would-be-but-never-will-be Collier’s—the ones that will never be digitized; that maybe made the jump from paper to microfiche, but will never technologically leap any further—that defy the digital evangelistic dream of one single unified book; that not even the most willfully obscurantist new historicist academics bother with. Read hyperfictions published on floppies. Follow young Robert Zimmerman down the long pneumatic tubes of the New York Public Library. Find your own Desperate Characters, dusty and long out of print, misfiled somewhere between Kilgore Trout and August Van Zorn, in the shelves of a grand old mansion up in Saratoga Springs. Don’t assign any books to your students that have papers already written about them out in the back woods of the Internet, waiting to slowly dissolve the edges of copyright, gradually erode the idea of the individual. If you find your time lacks “the increasingly elusive sensation of being enraptured by a book,” if you find you miss “the exclusive experience of reading, without the distractions of family, television, laptop, or iPhone,” then reclaim those hours; if you find your soul hemmed in, your being eaten away at, your self diminished by “an age when careers rise and fall on the strength of one’s Twitter prowess,” trash your career. Read books that are unsocial, antisocial, even, and that therefore help preserve a civilized democracy, because you are receiving a message in the now sent from the past, you grab a thread of urgency thrown out into the pull of the now by a complete stranger, and by doing so you put yourself in a room all by yourself for a long period of time, and by doing so, you build a bridge, you build you, you build us; because if you spend all your time in a room full of bullhorns, everyone goes deaf. Don’t listen to, don’t trust, don’t buy a single word I’m saying.