November 20, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
The early eighties were strange times for the National Book Award. At the turn of the decade, the award’s custodians decided to modernize its image. As Craig Fehrman described the scenario in the New York Times a few years ago, “If publishers were going to spend upward of $100,000 a year running the prizes—not to mention the costs of transporting and feting authors—they wanted something that would give them a better return on their investment.”
And so the National Book Awards—which were, at the time, frankly even more literary than they are today—were dissolved. In their stead came The American Book Awards, a wan bid for populist affection, as implied by that patriotic new name. (That capital T in The is essential.) “It will be run almost exactly the way the Academy Awards are run,” a spokesman told reporters, as if the fickle literary set were hankering for an injection of Hollywood glamour. Or Broadway glamour—a theater producer designed the set for the event, which was to be televised. An “academy” of more than two thousand publishing pros took part in the voting.
In 1979, awards were given in seven categories. In 1980, they were given in thirty-four, including typographical design, current-interest nonfiction, religion and inspiration, and—my personal favorite—general reference. In essence, the American Book Awards are to the National Book Awards as New Coke is to Coca-Cola Classic, i.e., a complete fucking disaster, one that all parties involved would prefer to forget. Read More »
November 17, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
I’ve heard that during the middle of writing The Civil War you bought all the dip pens left in the United States.
My favorite pen-point manufacturer had all but gone out of business—Esterbrook. I was running out and fairly desperate. On Forty-fourth Street just east of the Algonquin Hotel, on the other side of the street, there used to be an old stationery shop, all dusty and everything, and I went in there on the chance he might have some. He looked in a drawer. He had what I wanted—Probate 313. I bought several gross of those things, so I’ve got enough pen points to last me out my life and more. Another problem is blotters. When I was a kid and when I was writing back in the forties on into the fifties, you could go into any insurance office and they had stacks of giveaway blotters for advertising.
What precisely is a blotter?
This is a blotter [pointing] and if you haven’t got one you’re up the creek. You use the blotter to keep the ink from being wet on the page. You put the blotter on top and blot the page. I was talking about blotters in an interview, what a hard time I had finding them, and I got a letter from a woman in Mississippi. She said, I have quite a lot of blotters I’ll be glad to send you. So I got blotters galore. Ink is another problem. I got a phone call from a man in Richmond, Virginia who had a good supply of ink in quart bottles. I got three quarts from him, so I’m in good shape on that.
Do you reckon you’re the last writer to be using dip pens in the United States?
There’s probably some other nut somewhere out there doing it.
—Shelby Foote, the Art of Fiction No. 158, 1999
Shelby Foote was born on November 17, 1916, and died in 2005, six years after this interview was published. Though he was a prolific novelist, he remains best known for his three-volume history of the Civil War.
His is one of my favorite Writers at Work interviews, and not coincidentally it’s probably one of the longest—Foote’s three (!) interlocutors find him in a loquacious and expansive mood, such that almost whenever he opens his mouth he seems to speak in wry, eloquent, discursive paragraphs. He declaims on everything from pajamas to the Ku Klux Klan, and he appears to have known more or less every writer of relevance; his anecdotes include the likes of Faulkner, Hemingway, O’Hara, Kubrick, and Walker Percy, among others.
He also relishes the role of gentle, aging eccentric, as evidenced in the passage above. I’ve just spent an embarrassingly long while trying to find the name of the defunct stationery shop he references—no luck. I can report, though, that the Esterbrook Probate 313 is readily available for all your dipping needs, even as blotter paper seems now entirely relegated to the realm of LSD paraphernalia.
The Esterbrook Pen Manufacturing Company, founded by Richard Esterbrook in 1858, was once the oldest and largest manufacturer of steel pens in the United States. A midcentury brochure (“INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT ESTERBROOK STEEL PENS”) notes that the company once turned out more than two hundred million pens a year, “used in every civilized country in the world.” The factory went under in 1972.
“You have to communicate sensation,” Foote said of the writer’s mission,
the belief in what life is, what it’s about, and you do it through learning how to handle a pen. That’s the reason why I have always felt comfortable with the pen in my hand and extremely uncomfortable having some piece of machinery between me and the paper—even a typewriter let alone a word computer, which just gives me the horrors.
September 3, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
For her new series, “Vanishing Drive-ins,” the photographer Stefanie Klavens scoured the nation for extant drive-in theaters—there are fewer than four hundred now, she says, down from more than four thousand in the fifties—and photographed them with plenty of saturation and long exposure times. The result is a jarring (albeit beautiful) exercise in anachronism: late-model cars are swathed in the cheery neon of the fifties and sixties, suggesting a concept of Americana at once indelible and fleeting. Klavens explains the demise of the drive-in:
Over time, changing real-estate values began to have an effect on the drive-in. Land became too valuable for a summer-only business. Widespread adoption of daylight saving time in the mid-1960s subtracted an hour from outdoor evening screening time. The decline was further hastened by the advent of VCRs and home video rentals.
August 19, 2014 | by Ross Kenneth Urken
Chasing down one grand slam.
It was my 3,664th day on Earth, as I later calculated, and I was in a Little League fantasy scenario in Princeton, New Jersey. Play-offs, bases loaded, up at bat against an intimidating pitcher with a gnarly high kick. For an instant, my Louisville Slugger met with the ball, the leather and rubber shape-shifting against the aluminum. A roper up the middle into deep center—I can still feel the smack off the fat of the bat. I’d hit an inside-the-park grand slam. This was my finest moment as an athlete. It’s forever seared into my brain, scored by the cacophony of yelping mothers and fathers loud enough to drive kids away from the ice-cream truck to investigate.
This year marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Little League’s existence, culminating in August’s Little League Baseball World Series in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Williamsport’s Carl Stotz founded the league in 1939 by rounding up his nephews and their neighborhood friends. With the added attention to Little League this year, I began considering my brief moment of glory and how many children over the decades have received such a jolt of confidence—or the opposite—on ball fields nationwide.
The league has since ballooned into an international behemoth, with more than two-hundred thousand teams in all fifty states and more than eighty countries the world over, from Uganda to Kyrgyzstan. Each year now, more than two million boys (and some girls) play ball—their teams often sponsored by local businesses and larger corporations—and get schooled in triumph and failure, sometimes life and death. (The year 1956 marked the first on-field death in Garland, Texas, when Jerry Armstrong hit the twelve-year-old Richard “Rick” Oden in the head with a pitch.)
Our own conquests may not occur in front of the forty-five thousand live fans and more than a million TV viewers the Little League World Series attracts, but they mold our characters nonetheless, before modest collections of parents and siblings. Still, I realized how little detail I actually recalled from my big day. Who was the pitcher? What was the weather like? How old was I exactly? Read More »
August 12, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
From The Library Assistant’s Manual, a guide by Theodore Koch “issued on the occasion of the 61st annual meeting of the Michigan State Teachers’ Association, Ann Arbor, October 30–November 1, 1913.”
Qualities that unfit one for library work in general are physical weakness, deformity, poor memory, a discontented disposition, egotism, a lack of system in one’s method of work, and inability or unwillingness to take responsibilities, a tendency to theorize, criticize, or gossip, inability to mind one’s own business, fussiness, and long-windedness.
One librarian advocates listing the virtues and personal qualities of the staff and apprentices by having a questionnaire like the following filled out for each assistant:
Has she tact?
Has she enthusiasm?
Has she method and system?
Is she punctual?
Is she neat?
Is she kind?
Is she a good disciplinarian?
Is she sympathetic?
Is she quick?
Is she willing to wear rubber heels?
Is she a good worker?
Is she accurate?
Has she a pleasing personality?
Has she a sense of responsibility?
Is she patient?
Is she courteous?
Has she self control?
Is she cheerful?
Has she a knowledge of books?
Are her vibrations pleasant?
Has she executive ability?
Can she speak French, German, Spanish, Italian, Yiddish?
Has she social qualifications?
Can she keep a petty cash account?
What are her faults?
Mr. Herbert Putnam, Librarian of Congress, gives the following advice to aspirants for library positions:
“First, secure the best possible general education, including, if possible, a college course or its equivalent; second, acquire a reading knowledge of at least French and German; third, add to this a training in a library school; fourth, if a choice must be made between the special training in a library school and a general course in a college, choose the general course, but make every effort to supplement this by the special course if only for a brief period; fifth, if an opportunity occurs for foreign travel, utilize it; sixth, if you have not been able to contrive either a thorough general education or special training, your best opportunities in library work will be in a small library where your personal characteristics may be such as to offset these other deficiencies; seventh, without at least a fair reading knowledge of French and German you cannot progress beyond the most subordinate positions in a large library.”
July 4, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
I always thought it was the best day of the year. It was in the middle of the summer, to begin with, and when you got up in the morning someone would almost surely say, as they did in those times, that it was going to be a “true Fourth of July scorcher.” School had been out long enough so that one was conditioned for the great day. One’s feet were already leather-hard, so that striding barefoot across a gravel driveway could be done without wincing, and yet not so insensitive as to be unable to feel against one’s soles the luxurious wet wash of a dew-soaked lawn in the early morning. Of course, the best thing about the day was the anticipation of the fireworks—both from the paper bag of one’s own assortment, carefully picked from the catalogs, and then, after a day’s worth of the excitement of setting them off, there was always the tradition of getting in the car with the family and going off to the municipal show, or perhaps a Beach Club’s display … the barge out in the harbor, a dark hulk as evening fell, and the heart-pounding excitement of seeing the first glow of a flare out there across the water and knowing that the first shell was about to soar up into the sky.
—George Plimpton, Fireworks