The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘reading’

Let Him Buy Groceries in Peace, and Other News

August 28, 2015 | by

Is that the author of The Map and the Territory in there?

  • Today in Houellebecq: the author has inveighed against Le Monde, the French newspaper of record, for publishing a series of unauthorized pieces about him. Calling journalists “parasites” and “cockroaches,” Houellebecq dismissed the articles for their “malicious sneakiness,” noting that he’d refused to meet the reporter and had explicitly instructed his friends not to speak with her. “Knowing which Monoprix I shop in is not a subject of national importance,” he wrote—somewhat mystifyingly, as the Le Monde piece made no mention of said Monoprix. (He’s also recently announced an exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo, in Paris, where he’ll show “photographs, installations and films, along with commissions by other artists such as Iggy Pop and Robert Combas.”)
  • Reading: Why bother? What’s all the fuss about? Four new books aim to show that reading makes us thoughtful and empathetic—“training” for the art of being human. “We might describe it as paideutic criticism, the term taken from the ancient Greek idea of paideia—the original foundation of humanistic study. Paideia meant the pursuit of self-knowledge through examination of the beautiful and the good … By reading and rereading the classics in the company of these genial guides, Virgils to our Dante, we can, in a more modestly modern way, achieve some similar serenity.”
  • We can also find serenity in forgetfulness, which allows us to let go of that ultimate nuisance, personal identity: Going along with Locke’s view of memory as identity is the narrative theory of identity—the idea that one forges and maintains an identity by weaving a coherent narrative out of memories, tying one’s present to one’s past. Memory and the process of remembering are essential to this. Forgetting is an enemy, causing narrative gaps and undermining the sense of having a coherent narrative … Some people court forgetfulness. My students like to quote the old adage that ‘ignorance is bliss’ when we talk about memory and forgetting; from this they think it follows, as night follows day, that ignorance is to be preferred to knowledge when such knowledge undermines happiness. If forgetfulness serves the goal of bliss, who wouldn’t pursue it?”
  • In the wake of the controversy surrounding Duke and three students who refuse to read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Sam Stephenson remembers his time teaching at the university’s Center for Documentary Studies: “ ‘There are people teaching at Duke that barely graduated from UNC,’ I’d tell my students on the first day of class. The ones who laughed usually proved to be the more engaged and thoughtful documentarians … The outlying students—the ones frustrated by the emphasis of their fellow students on linear, pre-professional tracks—tended to find their way to our building, on the wrong side of the tracks, literally … These three students who are objecting to Bechdel’s book could use a dose of good documentary engagement. (I doubt they would have thought my introductory class joke was funny.) The words document and doctor come from the same Latin root, docere, which means, variously, to teach, to learn, to pay attention, to care, and, ultimately, to heal.”
  • There’s a highly advanced, deeply treacherous form of storytelling far beyond the realm of mere literature: dating. Specifically, sugar dating, in which courtship between a sugar daddy and a sugar baby is clouded by the exchange of money. “You can tell yourself whatever story you want, and eventually you'll forget you’re telling a story and you’ll find yourself in the parking lot of a Pizzeria Uno getting sucked off by someone who thinks she’s getting the better end of the deal. And the worst part is, you’ll think you’re helping her. And she’ll give you that blow job, all the while wondering how she could get so lucky, how you could be so dumb. Everyone gets what they want. And, sure, what’s so wrong with that?”

My Mother-in-Law Is My Best Reader

August 19, 2015 | by

A mother-in-law joke twenty-eight years in the making.

picassothelesson

Pablo Picasso, The Lesson (detail), 1934.

My first reader, best editor, and subtlest critic is my mother-in-law.

I’ve known H.—as I’ll call her to protect her privacy and preserve her from unsolicited requests for advice—for about twenty-eight years now. My girlfriend, now my wife, arranged for me to meet her parents for the first time at Veniero’s pastry shop, around the corner from my place in the East Village. When I went outside for a smoke, H. burst into tears. We have been best friends ever since. In those years, I’ve written six books, mostly novels, but I have been under her tutelage for only the last four, which is probably why the first two are not much good.

H. is one of a tiny core of first readers that includes my wife, J. (a professional editor), my sister, N., and my friend S. Before I give them a work in progress, I try to wait until I am satisfied I have done everything in my power to perfect it, but often they find such glaring structural or emotional flaws and gaps in it that a piece I’d believed to be cooked to a T reveals itself to be half-baked, at best. So implicitly do I trust my first readers, and so gratefully do I rely on them to be brutally and consistently honest, that I have abandoned entire drafts of a new novel on their recommendation. Almost invariably, I find that what they tell me about my own work is something I have known in my heart all along but have declined to admit to myself out of inertia, obtuseness, or fear. Only when I hear it from them does it become real to me, and actionable. I have permission to lie to myself—they do not. Read More »

Form Versus Function

August 18, 2015 | by

The unreadable book.

 

It is always the unreadable that occurs. —Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying

People toss around the word unreadable a lot—invariably about something they have, by definition, read, at least in part. By “people,” I specifically mean people who read for a living, or part of it. It’s one of those conversation enders, a condemnation so sweeping and damning that one is powerless to argue. Read More »

Staff Picks: Cavewomen, Contentlessness, Crawfish Étouffée

August 14, 2015 | by

From the cover of Scattered at Sea.

This week, in anticipation of sending files to our printer, I’ve mostly been reading the work that will make up our Fall issue. But I’ve snuck moments to read from Amy Gerstler’s new collection, Scattered at Sea. Gerstler’s poems are witty and direct, informal but also decisive. She seems to be thinking about things that other people aren’t thinking about—or they are thinking about them but don’t take notice of the fact. So we have “On Wanting to Be Male,” in which she “Lusted after their sprint speed, briefcases, Tahitian aftershave, crew cuts, blue nuts, thrusty cutlasses” instead of the “undulating, oft-colonized potential baby cave” of the “female model.” Elsewhere, she imagines herself as a cavewoman who “Can’t keep cave clean” and has “Tender feeling for baby mammoth as we eat him.” There are moments of sublimity, too, as when she describes a sunset as “a cocktail of too many boozes / she’d like to switch off / via remote control / but there’s no antidote / for celestial events.” And when she says of the early Greek philosophers, “getting a lot of the science right /  While still pawing through entrails to divine the future,” I feel the distance between then and now shrink to almost nothing. —Nicole Rudick

SpeechwriterBarton Swaim’s memoir The Speechwriter is about his time working for Mark Sanford, the disgraced former governor of South Carolina—but Sanford’s name never appears in print, which helps the book to shrug off the lurid connotations of political tell-alls. There’s actually nothing scandalous in The Speechwriter: it’s a sober, lucid, funny story about language and its fraught relation to statesmanship. Early on, Swaim learns that what the governor wants from him isn’t well-honed rhetoric—it’s logorrhea, a torrent of verbiage designed to conceal the total absence of content at the heart of the gubernatorial body. “Sometimes,” he writes, “I felt no more attachment to the words I was writing than a dog has to its vomit.” In the extent of its dysfunction, Sanford’s office seems like something out of an Armando Iannucci show, and Swaim allows himself to feel cynical about it, but never inhumane or Orwellian. In fact, unlike nearly every book of its kind, The Speechwriter at its core is sensitive and apolitical: Swain just wants to understand why we so often insist on mangling the language.Dan Piepenbring Read More »

Don’t Like the Cover? Sew Your Own, and Other News

July 21, 2015 | by

stitchedbiblecover

Elizabeth Sandwich’s 1759 hand-stitched Bible cover. Image: Provenance Online Project

  • If you like asking big questions about, say, the presence of sentient life-forms elsewhere in the universe, then look to science fiction, which at its best functions philosophically: “What, then, does it really mean to be alone or not alone? If you are alone, are you by definition lonely—with the yearning that implies? What does yearning do to warp the results of an inquiry? … A circle looks at a square and sees a badly made circle. If we’re going to ask a question like ‘Are we alone?’, an awareness of our own inconsistent history, our own limitations, is important—and so too is a wider understanding of what exists all around us.”
  • Samuel Delany’s novel Hogg is chock full of rape, incest, and abjection; to read its reviews is to understand “the difficulty of ascribing value to literature that is purposely unpleasant to read.” What are we to make of it—or, more important, how are we to discuss what we mean by enjoyment and disgust? “What happens when readers feel, for instance, aroused while reading Hogg, or when they experience conflicting affective responses? … The body’s responses are nuanced and manifold, and critics require more nuanced and legible terms for understanding them, especially those that are unsettling or unrecognizable.”
  • If that’s too heavy for you, look at this eighteenth-century embroidered worsted-wool Bible cover, a handmade, one-of-a-kind object that functions to individuate in the same way that an iPhone cover does now: “This is a book that was owned by someone with something to show the world … This embroidery work, taken up by a woman in a quiet moment at home 256 years ago, serves as a reminder to us of all we put our names to, all we add of our own selves to the world, and all the ways what we read, view, and watch is wrapped in the colors of our own individual experience.”
  • Joe Gould’s The Oral History of Our Time might just be the longest book ever written—portions of it were secreted away in closets and attics, and its manuscript, all told, was more than seven feet high. In the forties, speculation about the book was rampant, but no one could find it, and its author, an old drunk, wasn’t much help. But we’re in 2015 now. We can find anything. Cue the new search for Gould’s opus, and with it a new set of frustrations.
  • In Russia, censorship takes a host of forms: in recent months, rap groups, blockbuster movies, YouTube sensations, performance artists, opera productions, metal bands, and theater festivals have all fallen afoul of the government. What do they all have in common, according to Russia? They “deny human morality”; they “contradict moral norms.”

Staff Picks: Coates, Cartels, Caesar, Cigarettes

July 17, 2015 | by

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Covers of Slash.

There are writers you know about and writers you read. Before I heard him speak, Ta-Nehisi Coates was only the former to me—he came to my school and spoke to a packed auditorium about American self-conception, idealism, and his role in dislodging us from it. This week I’ve been sprinting through his amazing new book, Between the World and Me. A mixture of personal and cultural, critical and historical, the book is written entirely to Coates’s son, a teenager today. It seems that nearly every comment on Coates is excerpting him, lauding him, or calling him James Baldwin, and these staff picks are short, so I hope to get away with simply nodding my head. Yes, rewarding and complex; yes, generous and intimate; yes, “race is the child of racism, not the father.” Yes, an easy book to know about, but a better one to read. One of my clearest memories of his speech was the final question and answer. Someone—an older woman, a professor, I figured—stood up to thank him and asked something like “How do we get these young people to listen to you?” “I’m a writer,” he said. “That’s not my job.” —Jake Orbison

gamelifeAnyone who came of age in the eighties or nineties will grok Gamelife, Michael Clune’s memoir about the computer games of his childhood. But I hope others—those who dismiss gaming as merely narcotic or those who regard old games as curios—will read it, too. Clune captures not just the palm-sweating, self-flagellating thrill of early PC games but their talismanic role in the life of the mind. With their primitive, repetitious designs, these games provided a grammar for children, a way of apprehending the world—I remember feeling it myself, that scary, precarious sense of empowerment, the way reality seemed to bend to accommodate the airtight logic of Pirates! or Wolfenstein 3D. Games, Clune writes, teach us the rules for being alive “in a way nothing else can. They teach us about death, about character, about fate, about action and identity. They turn insights into habit. The habits bore through our defenses. Computer games reach us.” His memoir is also a sharp portrait of post-Reagan America, when communism was vanquished, history was over, and the shopping center was enshrined in the national imagination. —Dan Piepenbring 

If the sophistication of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s escape last week from a maximum-security prison isn’t enough to convince you of the influence (and the reach) of Mexico’s drug cartels, then Matthew Heineman’s documentary Cartel Land will. The film focuses on the leaders of two vigilante groups dedicated to fighting off the cartels—one in the United States (Arizona Border Recon, led by Tim Foley) and one in the Mexican state of Michoacán (Autodefensa, led by José Manuel Mireles). Cartel Land makes no attempts to tell a sanitized or digestible version of the truth; it’s rife with ambiguity, complicity, racism, and brutality. But from all the confusion emerges a compelling—and impressively crafted—narrative arc, one in which resistance, in all its forms, takes center stage amid unimaginable, and seemingly unconquerable, corruption. —Stephen Andrew Hiltner

We all love war narratives, those Homeric masterpieces that deliver timeless truths—but Sam Sacks’s piece in the latest issue of Harper’s,First-Person Shooters: What’s missing in contemporary war fiction,” takes no prisoners. Sacks admits that “war is hell, but its themes make critics purr”; he bemoans the genre’s “self-involvement,” its nearly identical perspectives “of individual soldiers who can’t comprehend what they’ve experienced,” and its facile emphasis on “personal redemption.” Nearly all contemporary war fiction, he reminds us, has been “cultivated in the hothouse of creative-writing programs. No wonder so much of it looks alike.” His argument is less about war stories and more about competent fiction, the kind that’s lauded for its subject matter and honesty but amounts to simple confession. Takedowns are usually banal, and it’s easy to hit the biggest targets, but this is an important piece: “one of the jobs of literature,” Sacks writes, “is to wake us from stupor. But in matters of war, our sleep is deep, and the best attempts of today’s veterans have done little to disturb it.” —Jeffery Gleaves
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