Delivering Packages to the Afterworld, and Other News


On the Shelf

Jizo statues at Zōjō-ji Temple in Tokyo. Photo: Jakub Hałun


  • Mainly writers are paid for cleaning your gutters, vacuuming under the seats in your car, and standing in line for you at the DMV. But sometimes, for reasons that few understand and even fewer are willing to discuss on the record, writers are paid to write. A new book, Scratch, collects essays about this legendary experience. Laura Miller thinks it’s in more urgent need of demystification than anything else in the profession: “Few connections are more mysterious than the one between writing books and making money … For authors, money, however obscurely, is always entangled with legitimacy because writers have for centuries equated publication with professional and artistic anointment. Anyone can call themselves ‘a writer,’ but to be published (by somebody other than yourself) is to be a real writer. It’s indeed a significant testimonial when someone else wants to invest their own money in a writer’s work, so it’s easy to forget that a publisher is actually the writer’s business partner, not a conferrer of literary worth … Publishing isn’t literature: Literature is literature. Publishing is a separate, if related enterprise.”

  • As a kid, John Waters set up a “Horror House” in his parents’ garage. If you paid a quarter, you, too, could suffer some abuse at his hands, and you’d even call it fun. Remembering the Horror House now, Waters recognizes the early signs of his gift for provocation (and a lot of youthful entrepreneurship): “The first unlucky kid would enter in the pitch-blackness and I’d immediately squirt him or her with a violent blast of chemical powder shot loudly from a fire extinguisher my dad let me borrow from our kitchen. Then I’d kick the person in the shins. Hard. They’d scream, and the kids in line outside would hear the cries of distress, which only added to their anticipation and excitement. Naturally, the patron inside would try to escape me, and that’s when they’d trip over my wires and fall. But you know what? They loved it! They’d laugh, get right back up, grope their way through the rest, fall several more times, and then race back outside and get in line all over again to give me their money. I’m still doing the same thing in my career today, aren’t I? All because my mom and dad allowed me to turn our first house into the demented childhood amusement park that lived in my brain.”
  • After a miscarriage, Angela Elson and her husband found themselves in need of a tradition, some ritual way to process their grief. They turned to Japan, where they found Jizo: “According to Buddhist belief, a baby who is never born can’t go to heaven, having never had the opportunity to accumulate good karma. But Jizo, a sort of patron saint of fetal demise, can smuggle these half-baked souls to paradise in his pockets. He also delivers the toys and snacks we saw being left at his feet on Mount Koya. Jizo is the U.P.S. guy of the afterlife. Brady and I grieved the baby in ways that were different but equally sad. One thing we both understood perfectly, though, was Jizo—why we had to search for the right kind of red yarn, how I had to crochet the smallest hat and coat three times to get it right. It was nice for us to have something to do, a project to finish in lieu of the baby I failed to complete.”
  • At last, from Gallup, some good, hard data to refute anyone who would argue that reading is in decline in America. (Assuming their polling accuracy here is better than it was during the election.) “Despite the abundance of digital diversions vying for their time and attention, most Americans are still reading books. In fact, they are consuming books at nearly the same rate that they were when Gallup last asked this question in 2002—before smartphones, Facebook or Twitter became ubiquitous. More than one in three (35%) appear to be heavy readers, reading 11 or more books in the past year, while close to half (48%) read between one and 10 and just 16% read none.”