Monday, November 27, 2006

penny press! The TLS!

With most literary reviews, the reader must take a firm hand. They tend to dawdle and meander, these literary reviews, and they sometimes run the most appalling stuff.

You must be wary, and cagey. You must pick and choose according to a sliding criteria of integers: do you recognize - and like - the reviewer? Are you interested in the subject? Are you in any way likely to actually read the book under review? It's a delicate, see-sawing procedure whose inherent tensions prevent it from yielding much in the way of enjoyment or enlightenment. Try, for instance, remembering the last time you were excited by something you read in the New York Times Book Review.

The TLS is an entirely different matter. It's so uniformly magisterial, so overwhelmingly authoritative so much of the time, that it prompts a very different response. The reader reposes in complete confidence, happy to absorb whatever each issue throws up for consideration. It's an altogether joyful little experience.

Take the November 10 issue, for instance. Heather Glen makes a very strong case for re-examining the novels of Elizabeth Gaskell - strong, but of course unconvincing, since Gaskell will remain obstinately second-tier no matter what anybody writes about her. Still, it was a strong effort, fun to read.

Allen Shawn reviews 'The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland' and sums up in words so clear they ought to be read to every young artist-type in the land:

Yet while these charming and circumspect letters do not dwell on intellectual matters and seldom betray any personal or artistic secrets, this is still a book that artists, in particular, should read. It shows very movingly that it is possible to be committed to what one is doing while being generous to others and a citizen of the world; that it is not necessary to be especially neurotic to be a great artist; that strong convictions need not preclude diplomatic civility; that it is important to produce important work and remain unpretentious.

To which we here at Stevereads say only Amen.

Then there's Alexander Urquhart's review of Jennifer Potter's "Strange Blooms," about that Jacobin gardener to the stars, John Tradescants. The book gets a very positive trot around the block; only one item caught our attention: Urquhart's referring to George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, as "James I's favorite and reputed lover."

That 'reputed' is charming enough to be a one-liner. Perhaps Urquhart hasn't felt compelled to ask around, but as it happens, whole boatloads of letters survive between the Villiers in question and the king in question. They file down that Victorian 'reputed' to a very fine 'the only thing lacking is Polaroids.' George Villiers was, like every other member of his family, fiercely ambitious (as one friend of the family remarked, a generation later, the Villiers didn't live who, taking a piss, didn't wish for a shit) - easily enough so to catch the eye of a king who was as queer as a two-headed cat.

Elsewhere, Dan Jacobson reminisces on the sixtieth anniversary of the Hotel Victoria fire, which he survived as a boy. It's a poignant piece, no moreso than at its conclusion, when Jacobson muses on a snapshot taken at the time of the fire - in which our writer appears, as quite a young boy. He writes:

This photograph had waited close on sixty years, virtually at the very site of the conflagration, or my niece to come across it To see myself in it - solitary, preoccupied, wholly unaware that I was being photographed, along with many others - struck me as almost uncanny. Of me as I am now, the young man in the photograph knows nothing. Of him as he was then, immersed in that moment and its random excitements, I have only fragmentary memories. If I could, I would like to tell him that since that morning I have not spent a night in a hotel, however grand or humble it might be, without immediately checking the route from my room to the nearest fire-escape. In return, he might perhaps tell me where I have gone wrong in recollecting the morning's events. Yet when I think of the differences between us in appearance and expectation, I feel it to be a mercy that neither of us will ever be able to exchange a single word with the other.

That has the beauty and the mordant insight vouchsafed to the very old ... I'm not sure the rest of us could resist the urge to say something across that divide.

Just as tempting to speak out about the issue's 'Freelance' piece by Michael Greenberg, all about the bibliophile's patron saint, Alberto Manguel, whose books about reading have the curious tendency to become books about reading first editions.

At one point Greenberg recalls attending a 'Live at the NYPL' with Manguel at which the old book-fan compared the Library of Alexandria to the World Wide Web ... 'one aspired to include everything, the other will include anything, without context, a constant present, which for Medieval scholars was a definition of hell' For readers, he pointed out, the computer is a technological step backwards, since it replaces the codex with the scroll. 'The time has come to refuse to buy from book chains or giant online outlets.'

So sayeth the prophet. Yeesh, what a load of goat crap.

The so-called book-purists who rail against chain bookstores and online outlets have historical precedent, but it's not the one they think it is: it's the monks who chained books to pulpits and condemned any commoner who wanted to read them.

Yes, by all means: let's all buy our books with exquisite care, from tiny local shops. Quirky, idiosyncratic shops, with unlimited inventory and a caring staff who remembers every book you've ever bought.

What's that you say? You live two hundred miles outside Wichita Falls? You love to read more than life itself, but the nearest bookstore is a Methodist Bible shop twenty miles away? Well! I guess that's tough luck for you! Better by far to pay full price for the latest Joel Osteen workbook (the insinuating lecture from the sales lady is on the house) than to take advantage of that enormous chain bookstore with well-lit shelves crammed with Sophocles, Hume, and Tanizaki. Better by far to settle for the latest comic books in the spinner rack of your 'downtown' Costco than to take advantage of ... well, the whole feckin world on offer at the nearest online outlet.

Stupid, stupid, stupid, this kind of book-snobbery. Alberto Manguel, for all that he writes books ostensibly aimed at all book-enthusiasts, has obviously forgotten what true adolescent book-yearning felt like. Instead, he's become (or always was) the nervous beadle from 'A Room of One's Own,' busily shooing the unworthy off the grass.

At least we can turn from such provincial idiocy to that grandest of all literary entertainments, when the TLS reviews a major new novel. The reviews of philosophy and history an all the various arcana of scholarship are always marvellously authoritative, but there's something extra thrilling about watching where that authority comes down on a work nobody needs to be a specialist to read.

When Norman Mailer or Thomas Pynchon (or, sniff, Gil Sorrentino...) comes out with a new book, the event somehow INVOLVES all us general readers. That makes a New York Times Book Review notice extra interesting - and it makes a TLS review something you skip ahead to and read first.

In this case, Stephen Abell reviews The Road, the new Cormac McCarthy novel. We here at Stevereads read the book at the (shrill? No! Say not shrill!) urging of our esteemed colleague The Mama Chan, and we consider it a spare, gorgeous, elegiac masterpiece - a flawed one, certainly, but a masterpiece nevertheless. So we held our collective breath when we saw the review, wondering if the TLS would somehow call us WRONG (talk about a clash of titans!).

Big sigh of relief. Abell turns out to be a fair and rigorous judge of prose - he writes that when McCarthy's "desire for poeticism is profitably channelled and controlled - as it is for the majority of 'The Road' - Cormac McCarthy shows that he is one of the greatest American writers alive."

The book is given the kind of close reading authors dream about receiving (and virtually never get from lesser organs, which tend to spend four-fifths of their allotted space regurgitating plot), and the verdict is almost entirely positive.

We can quibble with some of Abell's close readings. For instance, there's this:

There are moments in 'The Road' where the linear narrative breaks off for this sort of incomprehensible musing: 'he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running ... Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.' We feel that 'intestate' has been used more for its weighty sound than any expansion in meaning, a feeling confirmed by the ponderous borrow/sorrow rhyme that brigns about the end of, but no real conclusion to, the passage.

We here at Stevereads disagree. 'Intestate' DOES expand the meaning, the legal term heightening the sense that the book's few characters are orphans, deprived of the patrimony they previously expected. And the borrow/sorrow rhyme is an artistic gamble, one we judge as successful.

Still, the titans largely agree, and so it was for the whole stretch of this issue. An issue much DELAYED in receiving due notice (another one is already on sale), because of our long, warm, wonderful Thanksgiving weekend spent at the cozy little Montauk hideaway overlooking the sea. With any luck, the frequency of our postings will quickly resume its customary frenetic pace! After all, a week without fresh Stevereads is ... well, it's like a little taste of nuclear winter! You've all endured it very bravely, but it's time your lives regained their sense of direction.

So: another great, thought-provoking issue of the TLS, and: Stevereads is back in business!


Jeff E. said...

Reading too quickly, I thought it said "The cold relentless circling of the interstate earth." Leaping to mind was an interesting, if somewhat pretentious image of a four-lane, Eisenhower special marking the path of the Earth's orbit around the sun.

steve said...

What, pray tell, are you doing reading Stevereads 'too quickly'? As opposed to savoring slowly? I'm sorry ... are we BORING you? The nerve!

john cotter said...

See, now Steve, you advised me, years ago, to take a pass on McCarthy. I read 'all the pretty horses,' and I thought it was a pretty good story with a rough case of narrative hypertension. I wondered what his best book was, asked you for a rec., & you basically boomed 'back off'. Has the new one changed your tune?

Beepy said...

John, it won't be too much longer before Stevereads starts extolling the virtues of Margaret Atwood. Just you wait.

Jeff, I read "interstate" too. A drunken Steve slurs when he types.

Sam Sacks said...

I like "narrative hypertension." I felt the same way about "All the Pretty Horses." It was going along very well and then out of no where we get endless scenes of some old ranchero gravely and oracularly intoning about Fate and Inevitability and everything short of Ineluctable Modality. I'm reading a beautiful and exciting western and suddenly get conversations straight from Ingmar Bergman. It struck me as sorely overblown and postured, which is what that fellow in the Atlantic took him to task for in the great essay "A Reader's Manifesto." Not that this is any judgment on "The Road" of course.

As for the recent comments on chain bookstores, while I agree entirely that the snobbish quasi-neo-Bolshevik complaints about their prevalence are stupid (I've had to paint over too much graffiti in Starbucks bathrooms to have any truck with that argument), I have to point out one serious problem with them. You wrote earlier that they're able to provide lower prices than independent shops, and this may be true when it comes to buying curtains, but the truth is that books are prohibitively expensive at Borders and Barnes and Noble. Let's say you drive into the outdoor mall on the access road to Wichita Falls and you purchase Sophocles, Hume, and Tanizaki. That will cost you, at the least, $45. Three trade paperbacks, $45. If you, like most people in the country, are pulling an hourly wage, this is a huge chunk of a day's salary. Which makes it, for nearly everyone, impossible to blithely walk in to the massive clean, well-lighted bookstore and buy Sophocles, Hume, and Tanizaki. You can read them in the cafe, I guess.

Granted, this is perhaps more the fault of publishers. But I have to believe that publishers are empowered to implacably ratchet up their prices by complicit megastore monopolies. They couldn't jack up their prices, right, if they were answerable to independent dealers? but they certainly can while working with a pro-price-gouging corporate board.

steve said...

A) I didn't WRITE 'interstate,' IRREGARDLESS of my state of inebriation at the time. It's not my fault you-all can't read straight because of all the SYPHILLIS.


B) John, the reason I 'boomed' back off when you were idly suggesting LOSING yourself in McCarthy (including pre-literate doodles) was because, at the time you suggested it, here were some of the authors you HADN'T read: Horace, Catullus, Homer, Virgil, Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Petrarch, Spenser, Sidney, Johnson, Dryden, Donne, Milton, More, Machiavelli, Swift, Richardson, Cervantes, Marlowe, Sheridan, Hemingway, Melville, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Fitzgerald, Hawthorne, Koch, Whitman, O'Hara, Mishima, and Pynchon.

I thought maybe some of them should skip ahead of Cormac McCarthy to join Shakespeare, Gore Vidal, Leonard Cohen, and Anthony Burgess on your 'done' shelf. So sue me.

Sam Sacks said...

Oh, and an additional plug for Aaron Copland. I liked "What to Listen For in Music" a lot and honestly find it helpful. I, like everyone born after 1960 that doesn't sing or play an instrument, know nothing about classical music and Copland, writing in the 30s, clearly saw this coming and genuinely tries to provide an antidote. Note that it's not "How to Listen to Music" - it's not pretentious, not portentous, just simple and instructive.

locke said...

ah yes, the SteveReads reading plan: start at Gilgamesh and work forward in chronological order. Do not deviate from the path.

Kevin Caron said...

If you deviate, you're sure to contract syphillis.

steve said...

But it's a GOOD reading plan! All literature is linear! If you don't start at the beginning and work your way forward, who KNOWS what lacunae you might invoke?

It's only two years of your reading life! That's not much to ask, for total, informed FREEDOM afterwards!

I ask you: what GOOD does it do, to read Cormac McCarthy if you haven't read Hemingway, or more importantly Jack London?

steve said...

Well, I didn't actually make a blanket claim that chain bookstores 'offer lower prices' than independents - only that they offer a wider variety of discounts on books.

But if you believe what you read in Publishers Weekly, chain bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble make piles of money per annum, and they do it by charging ridiculously inflated prices - on everything BUT books. These companies are basically kept afloat by their $20 Josh Groban CDs and their $35 'Superman Returns' DVDs - and of course your aforementioned Starbucks items. All these things can be priced by the stores themselves.

But the publishers print the price of a book right on it. The bookstore chains are consulted, if they're consulted at all, dead last, after paper suppliers, printers, and royalty lawyers.

Granted, books are prohibitively expensive for somebody who doesn't live near a good used bookstore (three cheers for the Strand! and the Brattle!), but these same bookstore chains will let you sit around all the live-long day, reading to your heart's content. How many independent bookstores have you been in where you saw some variation on the 'this is not a library' sign so common in tyrannical comic shops?

Sam Sacks said...

Again, I like the chain bookstores as much as anyone, but I think it's crazy to try to wiggle around their role in prohibitive pricing. They have so much sway, it's impossible that they could be negligible to that process. I shouldn't have implied that the B&N board and publishers were bedfellows - it's more like they're revenue rivals. The chains have so much leverage that they can demand enormous profit margins, buying the books at as much as a 50 percent discount from list price (with lowly independent publishers they can use an even heavier hand). Big stores can strong arm - they can more or less kill a book's sales by not front-listing it - so publishers have to knuckle under to some extent. They then respond to narrower profit margins by hiking up prices. Yes, the chains don't want them to raise prices (that turns off customers), but that's the nature of the give and take.

All I'm saying is, it's not a coincidence that prices have skyrocketed since chain bookstores have become prevalent.

And of course I join you in cheering the Strand and the Brattle.

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