- In 1650, William Pynchon—Thomas’s earliest colonial ancestor—published The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption, a small quarto volume about, you know, God and stuff, which caused a hell-storm of controversy in Puritan New England: “To leading officials in the government of Massachusetts Bay, however, this was an insidious text, an exercise in heresy—one the Puritan clergy believed capable of throwing their young and vulnerable colony into irreversible chaos. Pynchon, a prominent layman with a devoted constituency, was charismatic enough to inspire a movement similar to the Antinomian debacle that had nearly brought the colony to its knees in the previous decade … In addition to the burning of Pynchon’s book, the General Court also commissioned a theologian named John Norton to write an official rebuttal … The General Court accepted [Pynchon’s] contrition, though the magistrates did demand he appear before them again the following October. They set bail at £100. This time, Pynchon absconded.”
- Imagine what it must’ve felt like to be the scribe who invented page numbers. Or title labels. Or spine titles. A physical book is an efficient device, but to look at the history of bookbinding is to see how momentous and hard-won these modest advances were, as Erik Kwakkel writes: “The early history of displaying a book’s title and author on the outside is long and winding: first the information was found on the front or back, then on the fore-edge, and finally on the spine. This order is no coincidence, because it roughly reflects another development, namely how books were stored: first flat (Early and Central Middle Ages), then upright with the fore-edge facing the reader (Later Middle Ages), and finally with the spine facing outward (Early Modern period). Judging from surviving book bindings, the history of the dust jacket actually starts surprisingly late. After all, the earliest traceable specimens date from the fourteenth century.”
- Punk, which began as street fashion, has completed the final step in its transformation from ethos to consumerist movement: now it’s just street fashion again, and we’re left to wonder if there was ever really anything to it. “Forty years after Television’s legendary residency at CBGB, the world is awash in punk. In the last twenty months, former Village Voice rock critic and punk champion Robert Christgau wrote a memoir about his downtown New York youth, Kim Gordon published her memoirs, Viv Albertine published hers, Richard Hell released the paperback edition of his, Patti Smith released the follow-up to her National Book Award–winning memoir, and HarperCollins signed Lenny Kaye, Smith’s guitarist, to write a memoir of his own. Ramones fans can look forward to a forthcoming Martin Scorsese–helmed biopic and a documentary promising new footage of the seminal band, whose last founding member perished in 2014 … As punk pushes into its fourth decade, its rules, aesthetic, and parameters are still murky at best. Does punk retain any meaning at all?”
- On the connection between writing and running: “Writers, like runners, often like the idea of their pursuit more so than the difficult work. The appeal of a running regimen is how the miles not only condition the body, but free up a space for the creative mind … Since I’ve returned to distance running, I’ve changed the way I think about writing. Writing exists in that odd mental space between imagination and intellect, between the organic and the planned. Runners must learn to accept the same paradoxes, to realize that each individual run has its own narrative, with twists and turns and strains.”
- The Paris Review’s intern Joshua Maserow on J. M. Coetzee: “Coetzee doesn’t hate truth. In fact, he yearns for it (transcendental, objective truth). The truth just doesn’t seem all that comforting or that accessible. We must search for our truths but won’t find them. He wears two hats: that of the hopeful Platonist (‘our engagements are with a constantly changing interplay between shadows (fictions) and the real’) but also that of the weary pragmatist (‘the more a person has been offered sympathetic fictions of herself, the more easily she will be able to live within the fiction(s) she holds herself’).”
The perils of growing up surrounded by books.
This month marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of The Threepenny Review. They’re celebrating with Table Talk from the Threepenny Review, a new book collecting a hundred essays from their Table Talk column—a casual, intellectually curious series first launched by Leonard Michaels in 1990, with subjects ranging from Emily Dickinson and rats to prominent holes in Kansas. This piece, by Javier Marías, appeared in their Winter 2011 issue.
Like all the other apartments I’ve ever lived in, the apartment in which I spent my childhood was full of books. However, the word full doesn’t really come near the truth; neither do the words crammed or crowded, because not only was every wall covered with shelves (each of which was packed with volumes from every imaginable century), but the books also sometimes served as rugs, tables, sofas, chairs, and even, almost, beds. I don’t mean that there was no furniture in the apartment and that we sat on piles of books or ate from other still taller piles—with a consequent disquieting sensation of constant instability—but that the rugs, tables, sofas, seats, and even beds were often buried beneath vast tomes: for example, the complete and very abundant works of the late-Renaissance philosopher Francisco Suárez. I remember those in particular because, on one occasion, I had to wrestle for hours with the philosophers Suárez and Condillac in order to make a large enough space on the floor to play with my toy soldiers. Bear in mind that my size at the time (I was seven or eight) didn’t really equip me for the easy removal of those large seventeenth- or eighteenth-century volumes obstructing my innocent games.
In fact, for myself and my three brothers, the house was one long obstacle course, almost two hundred yards long, the obstacles always taking the form of books. That is why, from an early age, I became used to negotiating the words of the great philosophers and writers, with the inevitable result that I have a deep-rooted lack of respect for anyone who writes, myself included. It still surprises me when I see how other people (especially politicians and commentators) kowtow to writers or else fight to appear in photos accompanied by some scribe or other, or when the state rushes to give succor to ailing, ruined poets, privileging them with a treatment that only heaps humiliation on equally ruined or ailing street cleaners, businessmen, waiters, lawyers, and cobblers. My scant respect for the trade to which I belong (from the most ancient of academicians to the most youthful of libelists) derives from a childhood home in which, as I have said, I grew used to mistreating and misusing almost all the seminal texts from the history of culture. Having too much respect for the kind of individuals who partially soured my childhood and invaded the territory occupied by my thrilling games of bottle-top soccer would seem to me masochistic in the extreme. Read More
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