May 8, 2013 | by Sadie Stein
April 9, 2013 | by Jonathan Franzen
Our Spring Revel will take place tonight! In anticipation of the event, the Daily is featuring a series of essays celebrating Paula Fox, who is being honored this year with The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize. The following is excerpted from an essay that originally ran as the introduction to Desperate Characters.
A book that has fallen, however briefly, out of print can put a strain on even the most devoted reader’s love. In the way that a man might regret certain shy mannerisms in his wife that cloud her beauty, or a woman might wish that her husband laughed less loudly at his own jokes, though the jokes are very funny, I’ve suffered for the tiny imperfections that might prejudice potential readers against Desperate Characters. I’m thinking of the stiffness and impersonality of the opening paragraph, the austerity of the opening sentence, the creaky word “repast”: as a lover of the book, I now appreciate how the formality and stasis of the paragraph set up the short, sharp line of dialogue that follows (“The cat is back”); but what if a reader never makes it past “repast”? I wonder, too, if the name of the protagonist, “Otto Bentwood,” might be diffi cult to take on first reading. Fox generally works her characters’ names very hard— the name “Russel,” for instance, nicely echoes Charlie’s restless, furtive energies (Otto suspects him of literally “rustling” clients), and just as something is surely missing in Charlie’s character, a second “l” is missing in his surname. I do admire how the old- fashioned and vaguely Teutonic name “Otto” saddles Otto the way his compulsive orderliness saddles him; but “Bentwood,” even after many readings, remains for me a little artificial in its bonsai imagery. And then there’s the title of the book. It’s apt, certainly, and yet it’s no The Day of the Locust, no The Great Gatsby, no Absalom, Absalom! It’s a title that people may forget or confuse with other titles. Sometimes, wishing it were stronger, I feel lonely in the peculiar way of someone deeply married.
February 11, 2013 | by Rachel Yoder
I didn’t know Amish romance novels existed until a trip I took a number of years ago to Shipshewana, Indiana. There my uncle directed an Amish and Mennonite cultural center, and I was ostensibly working on a book about Amish and Mennonite culture, so it seemed a place I should go. I had just turned thirty and was beset with ambivalent, indistinct longings for the Mennonite heritage in which I’d been raised, even though the entirety of my twenties had served as an extended exercise in exodus and estrangement. Still, I went, most excited to locate and eat some peanut butter pie made with flaky, lard-infused crust.
The cultural center my uncle ran was called Menno-Hof, hof a Pennsylvania Dutch word that means something close to “farmyard,” though at Menno-Hof the farmyard is neatly pruned, the pond perfectly ovular, the flower garden precisely planted to approximate a quilt. It seemed to me a beautiful lie in need of some freshly dropped horse patties.
After touring the fastidiously curated exhibits in the barn and adjacent whitewashed Amish farmhouse—replete with a recreated reformation dungeon, a small hurricane room with a vibrating floor and powerful fans, a Conservative Mennonite church where a booming God voice commanded that I consider my spiritual fate—I finally wound up in the gift shop on the brink of both ecstatic revelation and nervous breakdown. Many of the wares there approximated the contents of my mother’s root cellar (raspberry jam and apple butter in glass jars) and the theological section of my father’s library (Nonviolence—A Brief History: The Warsaw Lectures, by John Howard Yoder).
The only items there truly unfamiliar to me were two wire racks full of paperbacks, their covers each backlit with the golden glow of God’s everlasting presence and bucolic perfection: wheat fields, corn fields, rivers and barns beneath cerulean or honey skies. A plain-clothed woman in some state of muted emotional duress gazed into the middle distance beneath her white bonnet. I spun through the racks, elated, repulsed. Could there be anything better, or worse, than Amish romance novels? Read More »
February 8, 2013 | by Sadie Stein
Here in the Northeast, we are all hunkering down for what could be a lot of snow, or at least a little slush. Either way, it will be a weekend for staying indoors with a good book, and we asked some of our bookish friends what they recommend for such occasions.
I Capture The Castle, by Dodie Smith, and Laurie Colwin! —Emily Gould, writer, founder of Emily Books
I am reading a dated but rad detective novel called The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey, wherein a detective laid up in the hospital clears King Richard III of the crime of murdering his nephews using deductive logic and dubious speculation. This is part of my ongoing celebration of Richard III’s skeleton’s coming-out-the-closet or whatever you call it. Otherwise keeping busy with hoarding seltzer/Snackwell’s vanilla cremes. So this is a pretty normal weekend for me. —Pete Beatty, editor
Right now I find myself on page 1400 of Proust, by circumstance. Hoping to make some real headway in the next forty-eight. (Yesterday I was reading it on the A train, and this woman got down on her knees to look up to see what was the giant book I had in my hand. Like, she could have asked. Maybe she was saving me the pretension of responding, “Proust.”) —Brian Ulicky, publicist Read More »
December 27, 2012 | by Francesca Mari
We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2012 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!
I knew a kid in college who wanted so desperately to produce a book that he couldn’t stand the sight of their spines. He stacked them—ten or so brown and black books, library hardcovers—in his dorm room, titles to the wall, lips facing forward. He didn’t really buy books, either—at least I don’t recall that he did—but he never passed a bookstore without entering to read. These same stores have since displayed his books in their windows.
“‘You can tell how serious people are by looking at their books,’” Susan Sontag told Sigrid Nunez, long ago when Nunez was dating Sontag’s son. “She meant not only what books they had on their shelves, but how the books were arranged,” Nunez explains. “Because of her, I arranged my own books by subject and in chronological rather than alphabetical order. I wanted to be serious.”
There are many varieties of nerd, but only two real species—the serious and the nonserious—and shelves are a pretty good indication of who is which. “To expose a bookshelf,” Harvard professor Leah Price writes in Unpacking My Library, a recent collection of interviews with writers about the books they own, “is to compose a self.” In Sontag’s case, a very rigorous self. And, of course, that’s just the sort of self someone anxious about his aspirations might shy away from. “A self without a shelf remains cryptic,” Price notes. It’s like the straight-A student who says he hasn’t studied for finals: if you haven’t confessed to caring, no one can consider you to have failed.
There’s not a lot of anxiety about keeping libraries in this collection, however, because the adults featured—Junot Diaz, Steven Pinker, Gary Shteyngart, James Wood, Claire Messud, to name a few—are all solidly successful. Price’s interviews are less about each writer’s affairs and encounters with individual books than his or her shepherding of the whole herd—what’s treasured, tossed, bought twice, allowed to be lent. The interesting questions focus on each writer’s feelings about intellectual signaling and methods of overall arrangement. In other words, the stars of the pictures aren’t the books but the shelves. Read More »
December 26, 2012 | by Avi Steinberg
Porn books and librarians have always had a passionate, mutually defining relationship—it was, in fact, a prudish French librarian in the early nineteenth century who coined the word pornography. So it comes as no surprise that the sexy librarian, a fixture of the pornographic imagination, is most at home in books. Each year, new titles are added to the librarian-porn bookshelf. This past season’s crop included additions like Hot for Librarian by Anastasia Carrera; Lucy the Librarian—Dewey and His Decimal by John and Shauna Michaels; The Nympho Librarian and Other Stories by Chrissie Bentley and Jenny Swallows; A Librarian’s Desire by Ava Delaney, author of the Kinky Club series; and soft-core selections like Sweet Magik by Penny Watson. The conventions of the form—the dimly lit stacks, the librarian’s mask of thick glasses and hair tied into a bun, et cetera—are, of course, well known. Unlike video porn, where these conventions are typically used as a wholesale substitute for narrative, porn books still feel the compulsion to tell a story, to make the glasses and bun mean something. I was curious just what story these new books were telling. What does our most current version of the librarian fantasy say about us? To answer this question, I visited the library.
Almost immediately, I hit a snag. It is close to impossible to browse a serious library’s collection of porn and porn criticism without getting sucked into big, sexy historical theories. Within an hour of my visit to Harvard’s Widener Library, I was beginning to suspect that smut had been behind the rise of … everything. I discovered that pornos caused the French Revolution, and that the Renaissance really got going when images of hard-core, swan-on-guy action began to circulate among the people. Every pornographer of note, it seemed, was a pop philosopher; every philosopher, a closet pornographer. As for the rise of the novel, of literary realism, this, I learned, was linked to a certain eighteenth-century depiction of a ponytailed dude taking it from behind from another ponytailed dude while the first dude gets sucked off by a chick, who is also taking it from behind from yet a third ponytailed dude, all while another chick—who happens to be wearing a lovely Dormeuse-style cap—rides piggyback on the first dude, which positions her perfectly to flog the third dude, while being orally pleasured from behind by the second dude. The caption to this illustration reads, “A Typical Scene.” According to the pile of books I’d stacked onto my library desk, our story is nothing but the evolutionary history of the Porno sapiens.
Just as I was letting this thought settle in, I began to hear moaning sounds. At first, I dismissed these as some kind of auditory hallucination, an occupational hazard of reading too much porn. But then I looked around and determined that this particular moaning belonged to a real woman standing a few rows away. To be precise, she was in the process of being properly pinned to the bookshelf by a male companion. After a hasty glance, I retreated to my carrel but can report that the proceedings were, if not quite spirited, certainly forceful—a book fell from the shelf—and that they terminated in muffled resound and a swift escape.
I was alone again in the silence of the stacks. Never before had the questions of the library sex fantasy been so close at hand yet so elusive. What was the relationship between these library fuckers and what I had been reading? And what was the relationship between the library fuckers and what they had been reading? Wasn’t library sex all about harmonizing books with experience, about connecting our unruly and our rule-abiding selves? And, if so, why did I find that the stories told in last year’s library-porn books consistently painted a grim picture of twenty-first-century library sex? Why did many of the best sex scenes in today’s librarian porn take place outside of a library? Read More »