Archive for the ‘Reading and Writing’ Category
Regular readers of Dangerous, Dirty, and Unfun know that The Awl, a blog about culture, TV, news, science, sports, and whatnot, is one of my favorite websites. It’s just a lot of fun! They’ve been doing a series of recipes from various contributors called “The Real American Thanksgiving Cookbook,” featuring offbeat or family recipes for Thanksgiving food. So I thought, what the hell, maybe I’ll give this a shot and submit something, never in a million years thinking that the editors of the site, who are actual real professional editors, would ever think of running something I wrote.
But what do you know? Here’s my recipe for easy lemon meringue pie! I’m obviously beyond thrilled to be up there. I write stuff here on the blog because I like it, and I get to write in a style and about subject matter that I pick. For other people to say “this is something that we like and is good enough to go on our site” is really a feather in the cap, and gives me a nice, warm, fuzzy feeling as I depart to hop on a bus for the interminable Thanksgiving commute down to Jersey. I’m bustin’ over here! Bustin’!
In the spirit of the David Foster Wallace Fortnight, I’m obligated to pass along this Newsweek piece by Seth Colter Walls, who schlepped down to Austin to dig through the David Foster Wallace archive, housed at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. It’s a quick read, and interesting, because apparently Wallace, unlike many (most?) great writers, didn’t keep very much correspondence. The bulk of what’s illuminating in the archive is the stacks and stacks of other people’s books, which Wallace proceeded to HEAVILY annotate, compelling Walls to muse “It will be fittingly postmodern if an archive without personal correspondence and heavy on other writers’ original texts can recast an author’s reputation.”
It sort of reminds me of a possibly apocryphal, possibly entirely made-up by me, anecdote that I recall maybe hearing in class one time. A friend lent a rare Shakespeare folio to his buddy, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who proceeded to devour it, eventually returning it, riddled with marginal notes. Your first reaction is “ZOMG, you can’t just mark up one of the early folios!” Your second reaction is “Wait a sec, now this dude has the complete plays of Shakespeare, customized by Sam Coleridge. Lucky!” Take a look through the books in the collection. What was Wallace scribbling in the margins of Huckleberry Finn, or The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor, or Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage, which he famously and magisterially reviewed in “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars Over Usage” in Harper’s magazine? The mouth waters!
The Newsweek piece is accompanied by a slideshow of a few artifacts from the archive, the most charming and heartwarming of which is this little story by a 9-year-old David Wallace. It’s about a tea kettle puzzling through an existential crisis. The kettle’s name is Richard Calhoon Pot. Awwwww!
Regular readers of Dangerous, Dirty, and Unfun know that I’m secretly a professional writing and editing guy. Interested in some of the stuff I’ve written recently? Here’s a profile of UFC fighter Kenny Florian; a story about late-night student programming at BC; and three short bits about student research projects at the Lynch School of Education.
And if you want to read something that wasn’t written by me but is still really good, here’s an exploration of the Jane Jacobs Collection, housed at Boston College’s Burns Library. You’ll recall that Jane Jacobs was the writer of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, one of the seminal texts in the fields of urban planning and public policy. Jacobs was notoriously suspicious of the academy in general, but still saw fit to leave her papers at Boston College. It’s a great story!
I’ve talked about my buddy Reeves before, the writer of the Meanderings blog. Unfortunately, that blog is no more, which is a shame, because it was always a favorite one of mine. I’m sure a lot of you out there are reading this because you’re my pals and you’re being nice, but Meanderings is the kind of blog I would read irregardless of who wrote it. (Reminded me of blogs like Brainiac or Kottke, which are both in my Google Reader.)
Anyway, it’s not all doom and gloom, because his writing is appearing in some more, um, higher profile venues. This here is a Talk of the Town piece he just had in this week’s issue of the New Yorker, pictured to your left. It’s about a Long Island fundraiser for Michel Martelly, a Caribbean pop singer and one of the 19 candidates running for president of Haiti. I won’t excerpt any of it, because it’s short enough to read and enjoy yourself. Do it!
The writing that I do professionally, I try to think of it as modeled on Talk of the Town. These kinds of stories are tough! You’ve got to be short and punchy, but also get enough exposition in there so that your reader isn’t completely lost. I feel like I never do a great job, but I’m also a pessimist. In the meantime, I’m pumped that I know a guy that can do the real thing. So, congratulations, friend. Keep it up.
I might have dramatically misunderestimated how many books I have. It took me forever to write this up!
A quick note on Shelved. I don’t want this to be a futile exercise in pointless navel-gazery. So if you actually make it to the end of this thing, and you see a book you like, or a book you hate, or I said something you want to challenge me on, please leave some comments! I would love to have a nice little conversation!
Also, a quick note about the picture for this post: it doesn’t necessarily reflect the order in which I wrote about these books. As you can see, the books at the front are rather precariously piled on top of one another. If you can believe it, they used to be even more precariously perched. Someone stomped by in the hallway a week and a half ago, and all those books toppled onto the floor, so I took advantage of the opportunity pile them in a slightly less perilous way.
Preacher: Gone to Texas, Until the End of the World, Proud Americans, Ancient History, Dixie Fried, War in the Sun, Salvation, All Hell’s A-Coming, Alamo
What can I say about Preacher? It’s one of the best comic book series you’ll ever read. (Diehards will recall my discussion of Preacher from my post on the Watchmen movie.) One of the problems with comic books, unfortunately, is the sheer volume of pages involved in telling a story. I think Preacher, from front to back, holds up well as great American literature. However, comma, it’s nearly impossible to recommend it as something to read, perhaps for a book club, because reading the whole series requires procuring nine different books. Your best bet is to borrow them from a friend. Ahem.
The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes, The Doll’s House, Dream Country, Season of Mists, A Game of You, Fables and Reflections, Brief Lives, Worlds’ End, The Kindly Ones
Pretty much ditto. What Preacher does for America, The Sandman does for every myth, fable, religion, and bit of folklore you’ve ever heard about. The fortunate thing is, if your local public library has any comic books in stock, they’ll probably have this one.
Civil War: Front Line
Both of these were gifts from my buddy Miles. Thanks, pal!
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay by Michael Chabon
Chabon is a good writer; I’ve enjoyed a lot of his other stuff. Even this book! But for whatever reason, I’ve picked it up three different times, and I’ve never been able to finish it. Who knows.
The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity by Jill Lepore
Excellent book about the war between the Wampanoag Indians and the Massachusetts Bay colonists in 1675. You can probably guess that the colonists won, but Lepore does a pretty good job of establishing how King Philip’s War set the stage for Americans’ future treatment of the continent’s indigenous people. And get this: I read this book for a non-English class, and I liked it! Imagine!
The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow
Ah, now we’re getting into the portion of the bookshelf filled with books that I read and liked in college but felt that I should probably read again because I might not have been paying close attention. Augie March is one that I absolutely loved in school, but maybe it’s just because I was relatively young, and Augie is a charismatic character. Maybe, as more of a grownup, I’ll like it less? Or more? I’ll find out one of these days, probably.
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Viking Portable Library: Anton Chekhov
They told me way back when that Chekhov was one of the master short story writers, so when I was interested in writing fiction way back in the day, I figured it would be a good idea to check him out. (Get that pun?)
Obedience by Will Lavender
This was an interesting little psychological suspense thriller that I read for book club last year. I wouldn’t recommend going out and buying it, but if you ever come across it and have a week of reading to kill, go for it!
The Foucault Reader
I remember junior year, I was responsible for reading some Foucault for class, and I had an assignment over spring break. So there I was, at my little table at a coffe shop in Paris, enjoying my café au lait, reading Foucault, thinking I was part of the great Enlightenment tradition. Of course, I was reading Discipline and Punish, not this book, but that one is in a box in my mother’s garage and not on my bookshelf. So.
Keats and Italy: A History of the Keats-Shelley House in Italy
Mommy got this for me after a trip to Italy a few years ago. I don’t know if she knew that Keats was my favorite Romantic poet, but here we are!
Cut Time: An Education at the Fights by Carlo Rotella
Carlo Rotella is the Official Thesis Adviser of Dangerous, Dirty, and Unfun. However, it’s been a while since I graduated, and he’s no longer grading my papers, so you know this is a clean and unbiased analysis: he’s a great writer! The writer who romanticizes the brutality that happens in the boxing ring is an archetype, a cliche these days. But Rotella does it with grace, but without the schmaltzy reverence that lesser boxing writers often fall back on. Although that’s not quite fair. He’s not a boxing writer. He’s a writer who can write about anything, and this book happens to be about boxing.
MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers
Yada yada yada. They make you cite things according to MLA style sometimes.
Ulysses by James Joyce
What can one say about Ulysses? It’s a pretty good book. This particular copy, I bought in preparation for writing this story.
Juggling for the Complete Klutz by John Cassidy and B.C. Rimbeaux
For a while, I would try to pick up juggling at some point every year. It was always this book that inspired me. I obviously never actually wound up doing it.
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Sharing the Dream by Dominic Pulera
Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century by John A. Farrell
Tip O’Neill, as you obviously know, was a longtime Speaker of the House, a nemesis of Reagan, and a BC guy, so I’ve been meaning to get around to reading this bio. However, comma, now that this has come out, I might have to put Tip on the back burner again.
Bass Guitar for Dummies
Brick City Renaissance: The Decline of Newark in the Novels of Philip Roth by Tim Czerwienski
Back during senior year, they asked me to submit an electronic copy of my thesis to the Honors Program, so they could put it online on the library website for posterity. Regular readers of Dangerous, Dirty, and Unfun know that I never did that. Which is a shame. I wonder if they’ll still accept it?
Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski
I love this place, so I figure I should read one of the man’s books, right?
Spirit of Adventure: Eagle Scouts and the Making of America’s Future by Alvin Townley
Townley goes out and talks to a bunch of really admirable and high-achieving Eagle Scouts. Maybe I’ll make it into the second edition? Eh?
Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself by David Lipsky
During the Infinite Jest book tour, Rolling Stone sent David Lipsky to tag along with David Foster Wallace for a few days, to get an inside look at America’s Newest Literary Genius. The story never got published, so after Wallace’s death, Lipsky more or less turned the raw transcripts into this book. Anyone familiar with Wallace’s oeuvre will recognize and appreciate the worldview that he expresses here, although it’s interesting to see it in such a vestigial, off-the-cuff form.
Hemingway and Bailey’s Bartending Guide to Great American Writers
This was a gift from the former Official Girlfriend of Dangerous, Dirty, and Unfun (I’ll get another one, I promise!) It basically goes through a series of great writers, and gives recipes for their favorite real-life drinks, or drinks that figured heavily in their books. It’s one of the most-used books on this shelf.
Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck
When my brother was a freshman in high school (I think? Maybe he was a sophomore?) the family took a trip to San Francisco. While we were there, we drove down the coast to Monterey. Since my brother was reading Of Mice and Men at the time, we thought it would be a good idea to visit the John Steinbeck Museum. My dad is great for a lot of reasons, and one of them is his willingness to indulge his (and mine) insatiable desire to buy books. We went home with a stack of Steinbeck novels, including this one, which became my favorite. A lot of kids read books and get caught up in fantasies about how they wish they could be Sal Paradise, or Jay Gatsby, or the aforementioned Augie March. I always wanted to be like Danny and his fellow paisanos, just hanging around, scratching and surviving, enjoying a jug of wine when we happened to come across one. Sometimes it still seems like a good life.
500 Beers by Zak Avery
Another gift. This one has very pretty pictures!
Girl With Curious Hair by David Foster Wallace
This is apparently one of DFW’s not-so-critically acclaimed short story collections. Maybe I just love a lot of things, but I thought most of the stories were really good. Sort of how you can listen to “I Want You” and hear the beginnings of “Always,” you read “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” and hear the beginnings of Infinite Jest. At least, I think you can.
Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan
This is a fun read. I suppose I liked it more than other people because a) it’s set in Boston and 2) Chuck Hogan is a BC grad. Ben Affleck turned this book into The Town, which was an excellent flick.
The Power Broker by Robert Caro
Huuuuuuuuge book. Another one that I start a lot and never wind up finishing. But this time, it’s because the book is so damn big. This is one that I really need to get around to reading.
Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity by David Foster Wallace
Hey, a theme! Books that I haven’t finished! I have another legitimate excuse, though. This is a book about the concept of infinity throughout the history of philosophy and mathematics. When we’re talking about Plato or Zeno’s paradox, I can more or less follow. But even though DFW shows incredible facility in walking a know-nothing through the subject matter, once the book gets into the stuff beyond calculus, I just couldn’t through it! I can’t be held responsible! It’s math!
Nine Stories by JD Salinger
I hate The Catcher in the Rye (so much so that I don’t even own it), but I love this book. The Glass family is far more compelling than a whiny, feckless weenie like Holden Caufield.
The Dictionary of Bullshit
various issues of Boston College Magazine
This magazine is very well-edited.
The Revolution: A Manifesto by Ron Paul
Remember when this happened? That’s where I got this book!
Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
Hoo boy. This one was a doozy to get through.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Remember in the Intro, when I said that two of my three favorite books were written by women? This is one of them! If you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably already had this recommended to you. It’s my go-to answer whenever someone asks “Do you know of any good books to read?” So good, my book club read it twice!
It’s Not Easy Being Green: And Other Things to Consider
Boston, Insight Guides
This Is Water by David Foster Wallace
There’s a whole post coming up about this, when the David Foster Wallace Fortnight continues.
Accordion Crimes by Annie Proulx
And then this is my third favorite book. If I ever recommended The Secret History to you, and you said, “But I already read that, because you told me to,” then I undoubtedly said “So read Accordion Crimes!” It’s a book about the immigrant experience in America, told through the eyes of a small green accordion. Probably the most amazing thing you’ll learn here is that no matter culture you come from, there’s probably a tradition of accordion music. Weird.
The Pine Barrens by John McPhee
John McPhee is like the Stan Musial of writing. Other writers get more attention, get interviewed more, sell more books. Then you read a book as whimsical and melodious as The Pine Barrens (about as mundane a topic as the pine wilderness of central and southern New Jersey), and you realize “Wait a sec, this guy is a 20-time All Star, and he led the league in OPS seven times!”
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
Excellent, excellent book. For one thing, it takes place in Jersey. For another, the story is told almost entirely through the lens of comic book and sci fi references. I mean, the narrator referred to himself as The Watcher!
Crisis on Infinite Earths
Crisis on Infinite Earths was DC Universe–altering miniseries, published in 1985, that was meant to clean up 50 years of continuity muddled by all manner of time travelers, alternate universes, and retcons. Kind of like Armageddon 2001. Or Zero Hour. Or Infinite Crisis. Or Final Crisis.
The Dark Knight Returns
It’s one of the best comic book stories out there for a reason. Just read it.
Beer: Tap into the Art and Science of Brewing by Charles Bamforth
Another gift, this time from my brother and his wife. This one is published by Oxford University Press, so it’s a little more than just pretty pictures. It’s in the queue, worry not.
Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
I loved this book when I read it in college. I probably still love it now. It’s popular to criticize Foer as a twee sentimentalist, but he’s capable of evoking strong emotions in a very earnest way. It got kinda dusty in the room a couple times when I read this one!
This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Like Romeo and Juliet, This Side of Paradise is the kind of book you need to read when you’re a kid. Which is a shame, since given the choice of any novel in Scott Fitzgerald’s oeuvre, there are ones that are better written than this one. Obviously. But still, This Side of Paradise was good, even though it really helps to be Amory Blaine’s age when you read about his exploits.
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
There’s a lot of writers like James Baldwin. Folks that are universally accepted as great, but sometimes slip through the cracks of your American literature education. (You could probably name half a dozen such writers without really thinking too hard.) But I took a lesbian/gay/bisexual history class in college, and we talked about this book, a haunting and heartbreaking story of young lovers in France, so I picked it up. It’s wicked short, and well-worth your time.
American Pastoral by Philip Roth
A hefty chunk of my aforementioned thesis was based on this book. At the fore, it’s the story of Swede Levov, a local Newark legend who inherits his father’s glove factory, marries Miss New Jersey, buys a sweet house in the suburbs, and proceeds to see his life fall apart. It’s also about the rise and fall of the city of Newark, which is convenient, since that’s also pretty much what the thesis was about. If you’re from Jersey, you should read this. Also, if you like good, but grim, books.
The Gay Talese Reader
Gay Talese, as you’re all probably aware, is one of the masters of long form narrative non-fiction, and one of the first practitioners of what they call the new journalism. (Of course, it’s not so new any more, but it’s called what it’s called.) This book is a collection of profiles Talese wrote over the course of his career, including Muhammed Ali, George Plimpton, and the much ballyhooed “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” For obvious reasons, I’m partial to “The Silent Season of the Hero,” his treatment of a retired Joe Dimaggio. This book was a gift from a friend, who put a very kind and very complimentary inscription on the front cover. I dunno if she’s a reader, but she’s getting married this week. Good luck, and congratulations!
White Noise by Don DeLillo
Very mixed feelings about this one.
Atonement by Ian McEwan
Atonement is one in a very long series of books that my book club chose to read, with the hope that we would then all go and see the movie. It never seems to work out.
I’ll spare you all the very top shelf of my bookcase, which doesn’t actually have any books on it, but has plenty of hats, toy helicopters, and jugs of loose change (and one of my prized possessions, a box of fun-sized Rice Krispies signed by Something Corporate frontman Andrew McMahon. A gift from the Official Philadelphia Correspondent of Dangerous, Dirty, and Unfun). If you’re not familiar with the project, refresh yourself here.
The New York Public Library Science Desk Reference
Roget’s Thesaurus of Phrases
Dictionary of Word Origins
Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary
The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th Edition
Can you remember the last time you used a reference book? And I don’t mean some obscure text you needed for some esoteric term paper back in college. I mean like an honest to goodness dictionary, for the purpose of looking up the definition of a word. It’s actually kind of sad. I looked through all of these books at various points when I got them (the Science Desk Reference was a good one), but nowadays, there’s no excuse; anything you need to find out, you’re probably going to find online. Hell, they’re going to stop printing the effing Oxford English Dictionary! I think I inherited the Webster’s and Chicago Manual from the garbage heap at my office. (And, of course, Chicago is in its 16th edition, so, you know, it’s a paper book, and it’s superannuated. And heavy. Dunno if I’ll be carrying it with me next time I move.)
What Are We? An Introduction to Boston College and Its Jesuit and Catholic Tradition (two copies)
They give these things away like candy at BC.
The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
The Brewmaster’s Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer and Real Food by Garrett Oliver
I’m ambivalent about the whole concept of food-and-X pairing, which is what a hefty chunk of this book is about. But in the process of pointing out what beers go best with what foods, Oliver, the brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, walks the reader through a history of beer and all the various beer styles, as well as his own journey toward beer connoisseurdom. I loved reading this book, cover to cover. The prose is whimsical, the presentation is interesting, and the subject matter is treated with joy and reverence. If you only even kind of like beer, I would still recommend it!
The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie
This book actually isn’t even mine. Please remind me to give it back eventually. So you don’t have to look it up, it’s a combination biography/literary critique of four American Catholic writers: Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy.
Modernism: The Lure of Heresy by Peter Gay
I picked this book up on a whim after reading this back and forth with the author. It seemed interesting enough, but to be honest, I wanted to be seen as a guy that was reading art history books. I haven’t quite started yet. But I will, eventually. I think.
Criticism: Major Statements edited by Charles Kaplan and William Anderson
I guess there’s one thing you can tell from someone’s bookshelf. If this particular tome is on it, you’re dealing with an English major.
Guide to Beer by David Kenning and Robert Jackson
A recent gift from my little brother. I’ve become one of those people that’s really easy to buy gifts for. When in doubt, grab a beer book. I say, keep ‘em coming!
Reading Myself and Others by Philip Roth
One of the many books I bought for my thesis, Brick City Renaissance? The Decline of the City of Newark in the Novels of Philip Roth. And the only one I didn’t actually read!
The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester
Excellently delightful read about the writing of the aforementioned Oxford English Dictionary. This was a gift from my friend Michelle, if I recall.
On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt
Penguin Dictionary of Symbols
This was a Secret Santa gift from my boss’s boss, at the Christmas party a few months after I started my job. He said there’s two things every writer that’s worth a damn has, and they were in the package he got for me. In it were this dictionary of symbols, and a couple nips of bourbon. He’s a very smart guy.
Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition: Complete Course
I forget if it was right after I graduated high school, or while I was actually in college, but at some point I thought to myself “I want to start diagramming sentences again.” So I went back to my sophomore year English teacher, Mrs. Forgione, and asked if she had a spare grammar textbook that I could possibly have. She was more than happy to hand off this volume. It’s old (copyright like, 1951, I think), but I don’t think there’s been many innovations in the field of sentence diagramming in the past 60 years. Right?
The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald
Junior year, I took a class called “Junior Honors Seminar.” It was designed to help junior English majors discern a thesis topic and simultaneously serve as an advanced survey of literary theory. The idea was, at the start of the semester, you would pick a text (a story, a book, a movie, a song), and you’d carry it with you throughout the term. Every week, we’d learn about a new critical theory, and every week, we had to apply that theory to an analysis of our chosen text.
It’s a good enough idea, and it certainly required me to perform some pretty wild critical gymnastics. Because, you know, I picked “A Diamond as Big as the Ritz” out of this book. It was a story I’d never even read, and I was responsible for analyzing it through a half dozen critical lenses that I didn’t even know. Who knows if the papers were any good, but I did learn something of the most vital importance: the center is a function, not a locus.
Underworld by Don DeLillo
This was on the bargain table at Brookline Booksmith. Look at how thick it is! Five bucks is a real value!
From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Culture by Jacques Barzun
My Goodreads profile pic is me reading this book. You know, because it kinda makes me look like erudite. You’ll hear this a lot in these posts, but I promise I’ll get around to actually reading this book someday. For real! In the meantime, read this profile of Barzun.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
This is not a book I liked. People make fun of me for saying this, but it’s just too written. You know what I mean.
Dangerous, Dirty, and Unfun keeps its finger on the pulse of the left-leaning, literary-minded blogosphere so you don’t have to. The topic blowing up the tubes last month was a dustup that came to be known (”illogically,” as Slate’s Meghan O’Rourke put it) as “Franzenfreude.” This NPR piece explains it well enough, but here’s the Readers’ Digest version: critically acclaimed white male author gets near-universal adoration for latest novel, prolific though less critically acclaimed female authors call bullshit on the entire literary establishment for unspoken gender bias. Discuss.
As you can see from that Google search, the whole thing generated quite a bit of discussion and soul-searching. I mean, what if Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner are right? What if publishers, editors, and critics are just treating female writers, as a whole, less seriously than their male counterparts? Only the most paranoid conspiracy theorist would presume that there was some systematic conspiracy against female writers, but that only makes the problem more insidious. If there’s no boogeyman to vanquish, if there’s actually just something ingrained and unconscious at work, what are we, the reading public, to do about it?
Guest-writing at Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog back in August, Chris Jackson, an editor at the publishing house Spiegel and Grau, wrote what I thought was a very honest and pragmatic piece about his reaction to being confronted with this unconscious prejudice. (And was treated to what I thought was a nit-picky and sort of unfair rebuttal from Alyss Dixson. I wanted to reach into the Internets, grab everyone, and say “Same team, guys! Same team!”)
Basically, the pragmatic endeavor that Jackson decided to try out was to balance his reading: for every piece of fiction he read written by a man, he would read a piece of fiction by a woman. Now, Jackson is an actual book editor, so he can have a proactive role in alleviating any injustices he sees in the publishing world. But for a regular, white, male reader hoping to stay on the straight and narrow path to enlightenment, consciously making the effort to read more female authors seems like a good idea (in addition to, you know, doing my best to treat folks equitably, being mindful of history, and putting myself in other people’s [especially women's] shoes). Once I finished Jackson’s piece, I thought of my own reading. And while I think I do better than a lot of guys when it comes to reading female authors (not looking for a pat on the back here, but two of my three favorite books ever were written by women, ahem), my ratio is certainly not 50-50. I knew that off the top of my head.
All of this thinking about the books I’ve read made me want to actually like, look closer at the books I’ve read. Since I’ve always been a shameless self-promoter, I decided to do it in the most evocative way possible and turn it into a blog-related activity. So in addition to making a concerted effort to alternate my male-written and female-written reading (I just picked up White Teeth by Zadie Smith), I’m going to take a look at my own literary history by examining the contents of my bookshelf.
I don’t necessarily believe that you can tell a lot about a person from their bookshelf. (Although I am guilty of often scanning the shelves wherever I go. It’s a reflex!) For example, here’s a caveat about my bookshelf: I moved back to Jersey briefly after college. When I moved back up to Boston, I decided that I would bring some books with me. Not my favorite books, though. Instead, I brought up all the books that I half-read or didn’t bother reading in college. The reasoning being, if those were the only books I had in my possession, I would actually get around to reading them. You can imagine how that worked out. I just wound up buying new books or taking books out of the library that I actually wanted to read. The result is four shelves of a melange of books that I ignored in college, or read cover-to-cover, or received as gifts, or scanned briefly, or picked up at used bookshops. You can’t learn a ton about someone based on his bookshelf, but I bet you can learn something. Let’s find out what.
In the coming days, I’ll post a photo of one of my bookshelves, along with an annotated listing of all the books on it. I’ll try to say as much as I can, even about the books I haven’t read. And here’s where you come in, precious reader. If you want to join the fun and go through your own bookshelves, trying to paint a self-portrait of a reader, I’ll post your photos and notes here on the blog. It should be a good time!
I do a lot of reading. I’m a reader, what can I say! I read at work, I read when I get home. I read books, I read newspapers, I read blogs, I read magazines. I write about reading magazines. It would only make sense for me to write about what I read in those magazines. And I wanted to! I had a plan and all for a running feature, where I would link to a piece of long form narrative journalism, and highlight the attributes that I consider to be truly masterful. I was going to call it “The Craft.” But then, for all the usual reasons (foremost among them my insecurity about being able to actually comment intelligibly about what makes a piece of journalism actually good), I spiked the project. A secondary reason, though, was the problem of volume. It seemed like every week, I was adding another story or two to the pile of pieces I just had to write about. This led me to doubt my own judgment; ALL of these stories couldn’t be THAT good, could they? Maybe! But the fact remains, I couldn’t have written about one and ignored all the others (and let’s not kid ourselves, precious readers. I just don’t have the discipline to write more than one lengthy post a week about anything, let alone a smart piece of journalism.) So I scrapped the idea.
Then I came across a story that blew me away. The printout came to 22 pages, but by the third one, I knew this story was going to be something special. How did I know? Because it passed what I’m deciding to call, in homage to David Foster Wallace’s opus, the “Infinite Test.” I might be the only person who feels this way, but there are a few reactions that I get when I’m reading a bit of prose. A bad story, I’ll just let go, maybe without even finishing it, because meh. A good story, I’ll blow through as fast as I can, because I want to see how it ends! But a great story? Well, a great story, I’ll read a little slower, draw out a little longer. Partially to savor it, but moreso because I want to spend as much time as I can with more left to read. The piece is called “A Pigeon in Piketon,” by Geoffrey Sea, from the Winter 2004 issue of The American Scholar, and it took me three days to read. On its face, it’s a story about the infamous eradication of the passenger pigeon at the turn of the last century. Sea travels to Piketon, Ohio, where the last passenger pigeon ever seen in the wild was shot on March 22, 1900. A story about the passenger pigeon—a story of hubris and folly—would have been worth reading on its own, and indeed, Sea handles the subject of extinction with the reverence it deserves:
The passing of the passenger pigeon in a cascade of folly, brutality, and denial that stands as the exemplar of extinction made by man is, on the one hand, an episode in discretionary history: a causal chain of casual choices that seemingly could have been broken by any minimally decent decision at any marginally opportune time.
On the other hand, it’s an exercise in predestination . . . When the forest expanse of beech and hemlock and sycamore gave way to defended fields of corn and tobacco, the fix was in—a catastrophe itself bound up with those vast historical complexes that we call the American and Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions. And so we might follow backward, arbitrarily far, the infernal workings of the machinery of fate, until we’d say that the passenger pigeon was damned or (the same thing) doomed before the first bird ever flew.
But when Sea visited Piketon, it wasn’t just as a writer and pigeon historian: it was as a consultant to the union that represented workers at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, one of the largest facilities for the enrichment of weaponized uranium in the world. With deftness, Sea traces the historical and, for want of a better term, poetic synchronicity between Americans and the passenger pigeon, a species that was wiped clean from the face of the earth at the place where we came closest to planting the seeds of our own destruction.
It’s an incredibly rich story. In the process of telling the twin narratives of the last days of the passenger pigeon and the last days of the Piketon uranium enrichment plant, Sea gives a series of lessons in American history, geology, anthropology, ecology, physics, chemistry, technology, war, and language. I could block quote any of a dozen portions from the story here to illustrate the education that Sea endeavors to provide, but I really think you’re better served coming across them on your own. You might consider this to be a poor sell-job, but if you’ve ever believed me about anything, precious readers, believe me about this: you will learn something by the time you’re done with this story.
If I were to actually give this story the “Craft” treatment, I’d say that what sets “A Pigeon in Piketon” apart is Sea’s facility as a ship’s captain. Over the course of 22 pages, he takes the reader down every possible tributary of history, science, and psychology. The confluence, though, always ends up being the Sargents Grain Mill in southern Ohio, where 10 years ago one of the greatest engines of doom that man has ever envisioned finally wound down, and 100 years before that the only passenger pigeon on earth, in a hail of birdshot, breathed its last.
I dunno, guys. I thought it was a great story. I hope you do too.
“They naturally called it a wild pigeon, as they called us wild men. . . . If the Great Spirit could have created a more elegant bird in plumage, form, and movement, He never did.” —Chief Pokagon
I’ve contributed another entry in my pal Reeves’s ongoing blog feature “On Board.” You can read it here. An excerpt:
If you’re a savvy urban mover and an earnest participant in the social contract, you have a Charlie Ticket or a Charlie Card, and you’re in the train in a jiff. If you’re a parent in town for a few days to accompany your kid while she goes through college orientation, you’ve only got two dollar bills, which you will fumble for, put into the machine backwards, and generally hold up the long line of people trying to get into the train behind you. Consequently, it’s imperative that you get in front of these folks and get on the train first.
Of course, longtime readers will recognize my antipathy toward those who pay for the T with money. Rooks can educate themselves by reading this Blogspot post from the proto-DD&U days. Money quote:
Who are these throwbacks, these anachronistic dinosaurs that cling so tenaciously to the old ways of exchanging bank notes for services? Paying with bills is bad enough, but at least once a week, I get stuck behind some brain donor that pays with dimes. For real. The nerve of these people.
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