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 »
November 27, 2012 | by Anna Wiener
You see things differently when you’re in love. Two outpatients from a methadone clinic slap each other on the corner. A goiter rides the crosstown bus. We attend a dinner party; none of the dogs have tails. Men in the map room of the New York Public Library surveil passing breasts. Nights slip by. I sit on the curb outside a magazine launch and watch a famous author pour cold water down a woman’s arm. “Don’t be jealous,” my companion says impatiently, cupping his own elbows. “He’s only applying a temporary tattoo.”
I was in love and then I wasn’t, and sometime during the drifting gray interim I was told by a bookseller friend to read Renata Adler’s 1976 debut, Speedboat, a novel that had long been out of print but was absolutely, he insisted, worth the trouble of the search. I did not know whether this recommendation was meant to be sympathetic or encouraging, but I found it on eBay in two minutes, for three dollars. My friend was correct, as booksellers usually are; it was as though the novel had outstretched arms and I fell in.
November 16, 2012 | by J. D. Daniels
At last I had begun writing my long-planned book about Captain Ahab’s doomed enterprise in Moby-Dick—about Robur’s doomed enterprise in Verne’s Maître du Monde—about the doomed enterprise of Doctor Hans Reinhardt from the 1979 science-fiction film The Black Hole.
Eleven thousand words in, and may God grant that I learn it sooner next time or else not at all, I understood with blinding clarity that my book itself was another doomed enterprise.
As Don Quixote said: y yo hasta agora no sé lo que conquisto a fuerza de mis trabajos—I do not even know what I am conquering.
“Master of the world”! Robur-le-Conquérant!—what a delusion! what a farce! The quintessence of megalomania: Richard Wagner named his dog Robur.
November 9, 2012 | by Sadie Stein
Handwritten Recipes is a wonderful blog devoted to recipes discovered between the pages of unrelated books. Now, blogger Michael Popek has collected his finds in a book that manages to combine social history, literary history, and, yes, recipes. Each image is a story: Did the quotidian demands of dinner intrude on Catch-22, or was the reader’s mind wandering? Did a neighbor drop by with a recipe? Was it solicited, or forced on the cook and consigned to bookmark status? The world may never know, but it’s fun to speculate. Below, just a few favorites.
November 7, 2012 | by Anka Muhlstein
Whether they follow an established tradition or rebel against it, whether they are authors of classics or are considered innovators, rare are the writers who were not also great readers. Proust was no exception to this rule; reading had always been his earliest and most important source of pleasure and stimulation, and it remained as such. He is distinguished from his colleagues, however, by the immense role that literature plays in his oeuvre.
Proust seemed incapable of creating a character without putting a book in his hands. Read More »