This week's Media Monday starts off with some good news. And admittedly this is a pretty long Media Monday. I apologize. I'll try to engage my internal editor more next week.
We interrupt our normal practice of diving straight into reviews to bring you some good news, courtesy of the NEA. For the first time in more than 25 years more people are reading literature. Here are some details:
Literature reading by adults (novels and short stories, plays, or poems) rose by seven percent.
The absolute number of literary readers has increased significantly (growing by 16.6 million readers).
The increases followed significant declines in reading rates for the two most recent ten-year survey periods (1982-1992 and 1992-2002).
That is some encouraging news, but it doesn't end there. Last week, a story broke that IKEA was redesigning its popular Billy bookshelf, ostensibly because fewer and fewer people were reading books. Many of us were very upset by this news. No more books on bookshelves? Say it ain't so, we cried. Well, it turns out it ain't so. According to the London Review of Books: "A correction came three days later from the Reluctant Habits blog, the writer of which had taken the trouble to call IKEA (my emphasis) and ask a question, unlike the Los Angeles Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the Wall Street Journal, the Week, Time, the Daily Mail and the Consumerist. In fact, it's an additional Billy: the open-fronted, book-sized original will still be available, the IKEA public relations manager explained." IKEA is still making bookshelves, people are reading more and more books, and you still can't trust everything you read.
Now to the reviews. The book Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What It Means to Be Black Now graces the cover of the New York Times this week. In the words of reviewer Orlando Patterson, "we have heard surprisingly little from those in the post-civil-rights age about what these benefits have meant to them, and especially how they view themselves as black people in an America now led by a black president. In his new book, TourÃ©'s aim is to provide an account of this "post-black" condition, one that emerged only in the 1980s but by the '90s had become the 'new black.'" At the risk of over-quoting, I'm going to include some more of the review, which brightens and greatly expands thoughts that many of us have likely had at one point or another, but rarely with such clarity and honesty: "Helping him to understand, in the words of Henry Louis Gates Jr. (an interviewee), the core beneath the 'multiplicity of multiplicities' of ways to express blackness were the many successful people he spoke to. Post-black identity, we learn, resides in the need to live with and transcend new and subtle but pervasive forms of racism: 'Post-black does not mean post-racial.' This new racism is invisible and unknowable, always lurking in the shadows, the secret decisions of whites resulting in lost opportunities blacks never knew about or even thought possible: 'There's a sense of malevolent ghosts darting around you, screwing with you, often out of sight but never out of mind.' Even so extraordinarily successful a person as Elizabeth Alexander, the tenured Yale professor and inaugural poet, claims to be haunted by 'a continual underestimation of my intellectual ability and capacity, and the real insidious aspect of that kind of racism is that we don't know half the time when people are underestimating us.' TourÃ©, though he doesn't call it that, seems to have unearthed here a new post-black sociological evil: counterfactual racism."
The talented and engaging writer Tom Bissell reviews Neal Stephenson's novel Reamde. For those not familiar with Stephenson's work, Bissell gives this compelling summation: "Let us say that novelists are like unannounced visitors. While Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow pound manfully on the door, Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith knock politely, little preparing you for the emotional ferociousness with which they plan on making themselves at home. Neal Stephenson, on the other hand, shows up smelling vaguely of weed, with a bunch of suitcases. Maybe he can crash for a couple of days? Two weeks later he is still there. And you cannot get rid of him. Not because he is unpleasant but because he is so interesting."
Fareed Zakaria takes on the review of Daniel Yergin's The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World, opening with a reference to perhaps one of our greatest (and certainly richest) thinkers today: "At the influential TED conference last year, Bill Gates declared that if he were allowed one wish to improve humanity's lot over the next 50 years, he would choose an 'energy miracle': a new technology that produced energy at half the price of coal with no carbon dioxide emissions. He explained that he'd rather have this wish than a new vaccine or medicine or even choose the next several American presidents. To help understand the reasoning behind Gates's thinking, one should read Daniel Yergin's intelligent new opus, The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World."
And for extra credit, that TED conference reference reminded me of this, which should energize any aspiring writer.
Susan Carpenter has a review of a Young Adult novel that critics and Twilight fans should agree on. Right off the bat (horrible pun intended), we are introduced to a vampire, and there are other similarities that will appeal to Twilight fans. As Carpenter writes, "It isn't only an indisputable truth that opposites attract. In young-adult fiction, it's almost de rigueur. So it is with the kickoff to a new series from National Book Award finalist Laini Taylor, in which the most contrarian characters imaginable "” an angel and a devil "” fall in love." But Carpenter draws a clear distinction between Taylor's book and most other YA fiction: "It's to Taylor's great credit that evil incarnate and its love match in Daughter of Smoke and Bone are such imaginative interpretations and that the worlds in which this romance unfolds are likewise so unique: Telling a tale this apocryphal requires serious outside-the-box plot work to pull off. Taylor manages her self-imposed challenge with aplomb." This book was an Amazon Best of the Month selection, and it has one of the coolest protagonists I've read about recently. As Carpenter describes Karou, Taylor's main character, she's "a 17-year-old girl who 'moved like a poem and smiled like a sphinx.' Blue-haired and heavily tattooed, she splits her time between studying at the Art Lyceum of Bohemia in Prague and running mysterious errands for an inhuman magician she regards like a father. On any given day, Karou could be penning drawings in a sketchbook, hauling elephant tusks through the Paris subway or collecting kitten teeth in Saigon. It isn't exactly normal, but it's the only life she knows." Otherworldy and super-cool.
Alex Shakar's Luminarium is the sort of book that so many aspiring authors dream of writing: a novel that takes the swirl of life, religion, war, the internet, and anything else that confuses or astounds us and through shear force of writing puts meaning to it all. Or, in the words of reviewer Margaret Wappler, "The fantasy of ferreting out truth in the whorls of information available to us is explored in Alex Shakar's grandly ambitious second novel, Luminarium. Weighing in at more than 400 pages, the story is centered on twin brothers Fred and George Brounian (the latter cancer-ridden and in a coma) and on restless searches for meaning in several realms: some physical and mapped, others more abstract. It's a brilliant book."
A book that has landed high on the best seller lists recently is Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus. Reviewer Nick Owchar writes that the novel "is receiving a good deal of attention, and it's rightly deserved "” even though some comparisons of Erin Morgenstern's fable to other popular books seem sky-high and unfair (to her). Does anyone's book, for instance, really deserve the pressure of being called the next Harry Potter? Can anyone live up to that?" We spent a pleasant afternoon with Ms. Morgenstern last week, and we couldn't think more highly of her.
The LA Times has an interview with chef, celebrity, and now publisher Anthony Bourdain. I once ran into him in a restaurant (go figure) back when I lived in New York, and when I informed him that I was editing an author he knew, he revealed himself to be warm, genuinely interested, and an all-around great guy. Anyway, maybe that's TMI about myself. You can clear your palate with this taste of Bourdain's interview...
"I'm very inspired by the success of Lucky Peach [McSweeney's new food magazine]. It was daylight madness: It went absolutely against the current thinking, which is print is dead, particularly glossy magazines. They do a 200-page periodical with no advertising, and it sold like crazy. There is a reading public, just as there is a television public out there, that's smarter than they're given credit for. There are a lot of people out there with an appetite for good, cool stuff. That's encouraging."
If you're interested in reading the rest of the interview, go here. And Lucky Peach, the magazine that Bourdain references is a totally enjoyable culinary and cultural experience.
There's also a short profile on Tom Bissell of Portland, Oregon that opens, "Tom Bissell is not a household name in Portland. But in the two years he has lived here, teaching creative writing at Portland State University, he has quietly ranked among the most dexterous, savvy and chameleonic wordsmiths in the country." For those further interested in this multitalented writer, explore more here.
It's banned books week, and the LA Times blog has a piece that reconstitutes David Ulin's cranky, smart, thought provoking 2008 piece that looks to turn the thinking behind Banned Books Week on its head. "Banned Books Week offers up the sort of toothless, feel-good spectacle that makes us less likely to consider the actual ramifications of free expression," Ulin writes. "The basic message here is one of astonishment: Why would anyone ban books when literature is such a positive and ennobling force?" He goes on to state that "it's foolish, self-defeating even, to pretend that books are innocuous, that we don't need to concern ourselves with what they say. As Exhibit A, he brings up Mein Kampf as "a title you don't hear a lot during Banned Books Week; the focus is more on classics such as Song of Solomon or The Catcher in the Rye that have been challenged in libraries and schools. That's understandable, but again, it reduces the territory of censorship and free expression to something neatly clarified, rather than the ambiguous morass it is. What happens when our ideals require us to defend a piece of writing that is reprehensible, that stands against everything we stand for?"
The graphic novel Habibi gets a review that starts out cautiously but pretty quickly builds steam. In short, "It's layered, daring, and brilliantly told "” an intricate story of love, religion, desire, survival, poverty, hope. It's drenched in metaphor and rich with double meanings. Yet for all it takes on, Habibi feels light on its feet; throughout, we feel Thompson reveling in his skills as a writer and artist. Its exuberance, even in its darkest moments, feels somehow celebratory. Despite my initial skepticism, I'm not sure that I've read a better graphic novel."
Another great graphic novel this month is Kate Beaton's Hark, A Vagrant, and Laura Miller has an interview with her in which Beaton reveals her goals in writing, "I want to make something that will make people feel good. If you write a comic about somebody that makes fun of them, you can't just tear them to pieces. You have to celebrate the things that make them memorable. I do a fair service to the people I'm making fun of, even if I'm making fun of them. If I choose a historical figure or a book, it's going to be somebody's favorite. And they'll be the ones who like it the most. If you make in-jokes about Chopin, then people who love Chopin will think it's just the best thing." If you're not familiar with Kate Beaton's work, you should go here. Very quickly you'll know if you like her or not. And those who like her love her.
Star Critic Micheal Dirda has a piece in The Paris Review celebrating his early love for Arthur Conan Doyle. In breathless prose, he writes, "To this day I can more or less recall the newsletter's capsule summary that compelled me to buy The Hound of the Baskervilles"”as if that ominous title alone weren't enough! Beneath a small reproduction of the paperback's cover"”depicting a shadowy Something with fiery eyes crouching on a moonlit crag"”blazed the thrilling words "What was it that emerged from the moor at night to spread terror and violent death?"
The Daily Beast has a list of the best books to read during Oktoberfest.
The Chronicle of Higher Education has a moving piece by Chilean Ariel Dorfman about his personal library called "My Lost Library." In part, "I can only hope and dream that before I die, a day will come when I will look up from the desk where I write these words, and my whole library, from here and there, from outside and inside Chile, will greet me."
Bill Clinton is bringing out a new book
Salmon Rushdie is on Twitter
This was our most popular tweet last week.
- And finally, in honor of my ten month old son, people pointing at things...