A Week in Culture: John Williams, Writer and Editor
July 7, 2010 | by John Williams
DAY ONE7:00 P.M. Head to Idlewild Books in Manhattan for an event marking the publication of Diary of a Very Bad Year: Confessions of an Anonymous Hedge Fund Manager. The evening, like the book, takes the form of a conversation between n+1 editor Keith Gessen and the hedge fund manager. The latter was not in disguise at the event, but people who knew him kept creepily referring to him in code as “HFM.” From all I can tell, he has retired and moved to Austin, so I’m not sure why the anonymity is so important. He looks like a “Steve” to me. Maybe an “Andy.”
10:30 P.M. I've enjoyed the culture diaries contributed by other people, and it's been interesting to see their different approaches. Like Rita Konig, I've mostly chosen to focus1 on a few things a day that captured my prolonged attention. I flip through Reality Hunger by David Shields again. I have extensive notes for a review, but I need to put them together. Several of these notes are just quotes from Shields’ many promotional interviews, almost all of which have annoyed me as much as the book did. I also take a look at the first few pages of Shields’ Black Planet, his chronicle of the 1994-95 season of the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics, lent to me by a friend. Planet is a better read than Reality Hunger, but I won’t know how much that says until I get through more of it.
11:58 P.M. Before going to bed, I check the night’s baseball box scores on ESPN.com. For six months a year, this is a nightly ritual2.
11:30 A.M. I’ve been reading Jackson Lears’ Something for Nothing: Luck in America, partly because I’ve been meaning to for years3 and partly because I’m treating it as research for a potential writing project of my own. The tone is somewhere between generalist and academic, and halfway through I’m enjoying it and finding it useful, particularly the early sections on early-American religious attitudes toward gambling.
1:15 P.M. I go to Andrew Sullivan4’s blog to catch up on the last few days. I’ve been visiting the site less often lately for various reasons—I’ve been busy; reading about Sarah Palin at length is depressing even when you agree with the writer; etc.—but probably three million times since he launched it.
7:30 P.M. I go to the IFC Center with my girlfriend to see the new documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work5. Following an obsessed person around for a while is a reliable documentary formula, and Rivers, at seventy-five, remains obsessed with her career. She’s still funny, maniacally driven, and poignantly unsatisfied.
11:30 P.M. Read a little more of Something for Nothing and write some notes about my own project. Listen to Astral Weeks by Van Morrison while doing it.
12:00 P.M. I skim through a few of my books by and about William James6. I’m planning to devote a week to James on The Second Pass in late August to mark the centenary of his death. I’m trying to decide how to structure it, who to approach for contributions, etc.
2:00 P.M. Uptown to visit my four-year-old nephew. He screens his new DVD of short films starring Curious George for me, and I’m genuinely entertained. Then I read him Mr. Putter & Tabby Catch the Cold, one in a series of charming books about a lonely old man and his cat.
10:30 P.M. I watch the final two episodes of the recently concluded season of 30 Rock on Hulu. Alec Baldwin: “Nancy is a fiery Irish nutjob descended from bog people.” Tracy Morgan: “Our basketball hoop was a rib cage!”
9:30 A.M. I read Dan Green’s opinion of Richard Russo at The Reading Experience. He argues that Russo is too beloved and taken too seriously by critics. I disagree. Green uses mostly the two most recent novels as fodder, and one could agree those two don’t match Russo’s best without running him down more generally speaking. Everything before those novels is uniformly excellent, and it’s understandable if that built up some good will among critics. The Risk Pool is my personal favorite.
11:00 A.M. I gather a few reviews of Bret Easton Ellis’ new novel to post on the site. Most critics are harsh, and convincingly so. On the other side, Molly Young makes a smart case for why the novel works because of the very things other critics dislike, but I can’t say she sways me7 to read it.
10:15 P.M. On The Paris Review's very own Twitter page, I find a great writer's creed from Lawrence Durrell: "I think the best regimen is to get up early, insult yourself a bit in the shaving mirror, and then pretend you're cutting wood." I've got the insult part down pat.
Check back tomorrow for the second installment of John Williams' Culture Diary. John Williams is the founder and editor of The Second Pass.
- I do a lot of aimless web surfing, play far more rapid-fire online Scrabble than could possibly be good for me, and listen to music (mostly from the 10,000 songs on my iTunes) almost constantly, but I've tried to spare you my jittery habits whenever possible.
- I've been a big baseball (and Yankees) fan since I was a little kid. Remembering the days when some West Coast games finished too late for the box scores to appear in the next morning's newspaper (thus leaving fans in the dark) makes me feel like I'm a hundred years old. It's oddly comforting to know all the results before night's end. I'm also involved in fantasy baseball, a pastime that my friend Lauren Sandler refers to as "hobbit sex."
- It's true that I occasionally read books about gambling and I'm interested in the subject, but this week's strong emphasis is coincidental, not representative. Up to this point in life, I've liked sports and gambling more than I've liked reading about them. Perhaps that's changing. Gambling does tend to attract the kind of conversational, witty writers I most enjoy.
- I consider myself a political moderate, and I like Sullivan's general lack of orthodoxy. But there are times when he gets hooked on a subject in a way that makes the blog more repetitive than I like it to be.
- This is a case where strong reviews did their job, getting me to see something I wasn’t planning on.
- I've been obsessed with James, Henry's philosopher-psychologist older brother, since reading The Varieties of Religious Experience three years ago. It was both the best thing I've ever read and a tonic during a troubling time in my life. My affection for him even spilled over to the work of Henry, which I had previously found too cold. The books I look through at this moment include Varieties, A Pluralistic Universe, two of the twelve volumes of James' letters published by the University of Virginia (the only two I own), and Robert D. Richardson's excellent 2006 biography.
- Young's central point is that the flat, amoral affect of Ellis' narrator, Clay, which other critics attack, is the very essence of the book's environment. That sounds right, but flat, amoral affect is still not my taste.