Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Will You Sign My Kindle?

A few days ago a humor writer named David Sedaris was giving a reading at the Strand bookstore in New York (a monster-sized store to which every bibliophile should one day make a pilgrimage. Their motto: "18 miles of books").

As is customary after a reading, Sedaris offered to sign books, and his devotees lined up. Then, according to an article in The New York Times one reader presented not a book for Sedaris to sign, but a Kindle. On it, Sedaris wrote this:

Now, as my regular readers know, I'm not one of those elite literati who believe e-books will eventually destroy our love of books and bring about the complete ignorance of humankind. (After all, we're doing just fine developing complete ignorance without the e-book, thank you very much).

But I do believe e-books will transform our reading habits. I do believe they will transform book publishing in ways we can't yet predict. And let's face it. Once Apple gets in the e-book game (which I'm assuming/hoping will happen any day even though I have absolutely no reliable information on this whatsoever), all the rules will change. An Apple e-book (or . . . uh . . . i-book?) will likely do to the book industry what the i-pod did to the music industry.

Remember what happened? At first, when it became obvious they'd no longer be able to sell mountains of CDs, music industry executives griped and whined and used words like "extinction." Then, they calmed down, took a look at the world around them, realized people still wanted to listen to music, and adapted.

I think we'll see the same thing happen in book publishing in the coming years. Right now, we're hearing a lot of book publishers predicting doom (along with David Sedaris, half-jokingly on the back of a Kindle).

I believe, however, that the book publishing world will adapt. People love good stories, and book publishers will not serve themselves by hemming and hawing over the emergence of the e-book. Rather, they need to calm down, realize that people are excited about e-books because people love to read, and adapt.

The e-book is not the end of literacy. It could, if the book publishing industry makes the right choices in the coming years, be the next great step in advancing it.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Writer of the Day: Anthony Doerr

As it's Friday, I should be blogging about this month's featured book, The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon, but things have happened that have convinced me to change my plans for today's post.

Mainly, I had dinner on Wednesday with Anthony Doerr, Idaho's Writer-in-Residence. Doerr is not only a brilliant writer; he's also one of the most humble literary minds I've ever encountered.

Doerr: The Writer

Anthony Doerr is the author of three books, a memoir (Four Seasons in Rome), a collection of short stories (The Shell Collector), and a novel (About Grace).

All three have received wide critical acclaim. The Shell Collector was named a "Notable Book of 2002" in The New York Times. The Book-of-the-Month Club called About Grace one of the "Five Best Novels of 2004." Doerr has also earned a first prize in Barnes & Noble's "Discover Prize for Fiction." He's won an NEA fellowship, and he's a recipient of the Rome Prize (which comes with a year-long stay in a writing studio in Rome -- not bad).

Doerr: The Class Act

Doerr is also in incredibly kind and humble man.

When I first met him, I told him that I'd read a recent article he published in Smithsonian magazine, and he seemed genuinely moved. He thanked me, sincerely, for taking the time to read his work and answered, with apparent pleasure, all of my pestering questions about his writing.

He spent two days at the college where I teach, and even though we'd organized half-a-dozen events around his coming (in fact, we worked him pretty hard while he was here), he never grew frustrated in having to answer the same student questions again and again (all variations of "How can I become a famous writer?"), and what's more, he never lost a sliver of his sincerity.

What You Should Read

So, if you're interested in seeing some of Doerr's writing, where should you start?

Here are two possibilities:

My Idaho readers might be especially interested in checking out Doerr's recent piece in the Smithsonian. In it, Doerr writes a beautiful explanation of why he chooses to live in Idaho.

And since Father's Day is roughly a week away, another great place to start reading Doerr might be in a book that came out last month called The Book of Dads: Essays on the Joys, Perils, and Humiliations of Fatherhood. Doerr, who has twin boys, contributes one essay and other contributing authors include great writers like Charles Baxter, Rick Bass, and Richard Bausch.

(Hey, honey, am I dropping a big enough hint here?)

That's all for today. I'll pick up the discussion of The Yiddish Policemen's Union next Friday.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Attention Salinger Fans

If I don't turn in mid-term grades in the next 48 hours, I've been assured that terrible, unimaginable things will happen to me. Things like this:

Consequently, I've no time to write a proper post today, but if you're a J.D. Salinger fan, you should most definitely read this article about the secret books Salinger’s allegedly been writing for the last 45 years.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Yiddish Policemen's Union: First Impressions

My comments this week on The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon will be fairly brief as I've read only 53 pages. But please don't take my scant reading as a reflection on the book's quality. It's not. The book is, so far, a fast, enjoyable read.

Rather, my scant reading is a testament to how much busier English professors are when they have mid-term papers to grade. Sadly, my personal reading has been supplanted this week by a mountain of student essays.

Having said all that, here's what strikes me in the first 53 pages of The Yiddish Policemen's Union:
  • Meyer Landsman. This is the book's main character, and I like him. He's a homicide detective, and on the surface he's got a real Mickey Spillane thing going on. He fits all the hard-boiled detective stereotypes. He's tough talking, doesn't sleep, drinks too much, and has a failed marriage. In spite of all of this, though, he's still interesting. Chabon gives him just enough insecurities to make me like him. For example, he's literally afraid of the dark, and he even avoids investigating a dark, cramped crime scene because of this phobia. I've long believed that its characters weaknesses that make them interesting and not their strengths. Meyer Landsman is yet more proof of this.
  • The Alternate History. This book is set in Alaska in a fictional Jewish city that was established in the aftermath of WWII. The state of Israel doesn't exist, and Alaska is no longer a safe haven for Jews as they're being systematically deported. Usually, when I read books with alternate histories, I roll my eyes, but for some reason, I'm tolerating and even enjoying the alternate history in this book. I'm not sure why I like it, but I'll try to answer that question as I read.

That's all I've got time for now, as I still have a mountain of essays on my desk. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Read This Book: The Road

A few days ago, one of my students asked me what book he should definitely read before he dies, and can you guess which book came to mind first?

Hamlet by William Shakespeare?


The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway?


The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger?

Not even close.

Admittedly, I found myself a little suprised when without pausing to reflect, I blurted out, "Before you die, read The Road by Cormac McCarthy. When you finish it, read it again. Read it every few years. Read it. Read it. Read it. Better yet, memorize it." (I knew I loved this book, but I had no idea I was so fanatical about it.)

Now, some of you may be thinking, "What's The Road?" or "Cormac McWho?"

But trust me. The Road is, without a doubt, Cormac McCarthy's finest novel (and that's saying something). It's wonderfully minimalistic and painful, at times, in all the right ways. It offers a promise of beauty in a world full of horror and darkness, and it's absolutely gut-wrenching if you have children of your own.

Most of all, it's beautiful, and it's one of the few contemporary books that I'm 100% sure we'll still be reading centuries from now. This book's too important to let slide away into the draw of time. Humanity needs this story.

So read it.

And, incidentally, you should definitely read it before October 16th, 2009 because that's when the movie version starring Viggo Mortensen comes out. Who knows what Hollywood will do to this book? So you should read it before this story gets colored by the American cinematic machine.

Honestly, I'm not sure how I feel about the upcoming movie, but I do know that great stories exist to be told and told and told again. If the story is told well, then, I guess I should be pleased.

If you're interested, here's the movie trailer. Check it out.

Monday, June 1, 2009

June's Featured Book: The Yiddish Policeman's Union

I've long believed that one of the most delightful questions in the English language is this:

"What should I read next?"

What I love about this question is its vast openness. A graduate school professor once explained it to me this way:

Giving all of your attention to one good book is like sitting on a bench at a crowded street corner and gazing at a beautiful woman who walks by. For a few seconds, you study her every move. Maybe you're struck by the unusual shape of her eyes or the delicate line of her cheekbones, and so for a brief moment, even though the world is big and crowded, only those eyes or cheekbones exist and you sit there with no desire in the world but to study what it is that makes this woman beautiful. And then, before you're quite ready, she's obscured by the crowd and disappears.

But real beauty is in what happens next. Because at this point, you have a choice. At this point, with the beautiful eyes and cheekbones gone, you can choose to dwell on her, to re-live in your mind the moments of her appearance and disappearance again and again, or you can blink your eyes a few times, take a deep breath, clear your mind, and look once more into the crowd.

Choosing a new book is like this beautiful moment. It's choosing to look into the crowd.

Now, I'm fully aware that this analogy is more than a little voyeuristic and creepy, but I do understand my former professor's point. He was saying (I hope) that while beauty is often fleeting and temporary, our quest for it shouldn't be. Our quest for beauty should be ongoing and permanent. When one beautiful thing passes from us, we should blink, sigh, and look forward, because beauty exists neither in the past nor in the future, but in the eternal present.

So the question, "What should I read next?" is a good question. It's a mark of those who have chosen to permanently seek beauty. It's a question that's full of hope and anticipation. It's an optimistic question. It believes that beauty really exists and implies that we can find it if we will only seek.

And I like that.

So here's what I'll read next:

The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon. I'll forego telling you much about it since I've written about Chabon on this site before, but before you choose to read along with me, you should know this is a work of science fiction. Don't, however, let that put you off. I've read some of Chabon's other work, and I trust him entirely. Beyond that, The Yiddish Policemen's Union has won a slew of prestigious awards.

You can read a review of The Yiddish Policemen's Union here, and if you'd like to get a copy and read along with me, I'll start posting about this book on Friday.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Just a Good Poem

Here's today's dilema:

I talked with my students this morning about how today's readers -- especially internet readers -- don't really read all that slowly or carefully. Instead, they skim and skip around. They click here and there, and they get easily distracted. They tend to have short attention spans. So, here's the dilema:

QUESTION: On this blog would it be better for me to write literary analysis which you'd likely skim or skip altogether or would it be better for me to link you to one good short poem you'd be more likely to read?

ANSWER: I think I'd rather have you read one good poem than anything I have to say.

And it just so happens that I have a new favorite poem. I love it so much I even copied it and hung it on my office door (which is a university professors ultimate tribute).

So today, feel free to skip and skim over anything I have to say (which you probably already have) -- but please read this carefully.