Thursday, September 23, 2010

September's Compendium of Literary Links

After posting my review of Freedom last week, this blog will officially be a Franzen-free zone for awhile. (And there was much rejoicing, I'm sure...) But I did want to quickly point out this silliness to start this month's compendium of literary links: If you buy the "August 31st" edition of Freedom, which is Oprah-sticker-free, on Amazon, you're shelling out $15.12. However, if you can bear the Oprah stank (I mean, sticker) on your book, you get to save $1.12. Weird. Funny. Oprahtastic. If you haven't bought the book yet, which would you pick?

And speaking of big things (uh, I mean Franzen's book, not Oprah) let's get right to this month's literary links:

1. Is Big Back? — This piece from The Million points out that the excess of the '90s is back, baby! That is, contrary to the notion that our short attention spans (squirrel!), reality TV and Twitter are killing novels, publishers are actually more willing to take chances on long novels these days; The Lonely Polygamist, The Instructions and Matterhorn — all by little-known novelists — are cited as three of many examples. One reason given is that long novels do a good job of spreading the recession-addled entertainment dollar much further. As someone who loves a good doorstop of a book, I loved hearing this, especially: "At the very least, the current boom, or miniboom, in big books should tell us that novelists still believe in this kind of reader. In the end, this may be enough to ensure her survival." How about you? Enjoy the occasional thousand-pager?

2. The Plot Escapes Me — I loved this essay by James Collins in the NY Times about not being able to remember the plots of books he's read. Collins wonders "Why read books if we can’t remember what’s in them?" Is reading, then, ultimately a waste of time? Of course not, but not being able to remember books I've read terrifies me. So, almost 10 years ago, freshly out of college, I decided to combat the problem by keeping a running "diary" of books I've read. I started spending 30 minutes or so writing out some thoughts after finishing a book — a plot summary or just general impressions —  in a document...which has now grown to more than 300 single-spaced typed pages and almost 200,000 words. But don't worry, I'm not plotting to blow anything up. As OCD as it sounds, I love going back and looking over what I wrote about a book I read 6 or 7 years ago. How do you remember the books you've read?

3. The Unconsoled: Profile of David Grossman — This moving, engaging New Yorker profile of Israeli novelist David Grossman is, simply put, one of the best magazine articles I've read in a long, long time. It's lengthy, but very well worth the time, as it describes how Grossman's politics and view of his country have evolved in war-torn Israel. "For Grossman, literature has offered a refuge from the relentless glare of history," the article explains. The article also explains the inspiration for his newest novel (titled To The End of the Land, due out next week) and how a tragic event caused that vision for the book to change. Very highly recommended!

4. 10 Pulitzer Winners Everyone Should Own —  How many of these 10 have you read? Me: Kavalier and Clay, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Confederacy of Dunces, The Killer Angels, and The Color Purple — 5 of 10.  Has anyone read The Executioner's Song? Interesting that Norman Mailer's thousand-plus page tome is at #2 — but as best I can tell, it's out of print. You SHOULD own it, but you can't buy it new. Amusing. I do like that Kavalier and Clay is #1, though.

5. The Pale King Cover and Release Date — David Foster Wallace's last novel will be released April 15, 2011. Tax day — appropriate for a novel about IRS workers. 'nuff said. Can't wait.

There ya have it. What out there in media land has caught your eye this month?


  1. Kavalier and Clay is my next read when I finish The Red Badge of Courage so thats good! Ill look down that list later with interest

  2. I'd spend the extra buck and change to be stank-free.

  3. I also loved the Times article The Plot Escapes Me. The idea that even if we don't remember every plot line/character/device of every book we've read, yet the larger ideas remain a part of us - well, that thought just makes me happy.

  4. I would pay extra to avoid the Oprah sticker. In fact, I nearly picked up Freedom at Costco yesterday, but every single copy had the bloody sticker on it.

  5. Thanks for the link to the Grossman piece. He (and this latest book) has been on my radar for awhile, and I was captivated by this article. Also, since you asked: I prefer sticker-free copies, do like really long books, have kept a written reading journal, now just use my blog, have read 6 of the top 10 although I don't own all 6, and have never read The Executioner's Song. Phew. Your post has kept me busy! Thanks again!

  6. Oh... crap, crap crap. I LOATHE the Oprah stickers but I LOVE saving a buck.
    I own a copy of 8 out of the 10 Pulitzers - no Gone with the Wind or The Killer Angels. (I'm sure we have a paperback of The Executioner's Song but it's packed in a box.)

  7. I've read all of these EXCEPT Kavalier and Clay (including The Executioner's Song which, if you're interested, is available used at beginning at $3.95, including shipping - and WELL worth reading).
    Great post- thanks!!

  8. Haven't officially kept track of books in a couple of years. I used to be religious about it, but then came to the realization that if a book is really that good and worthy of my on-going thoughts and conversation, I remember those. The rest I don't remember? Guess they aren't worthy of the limited space in my pea-sized brain.

  9. That Collins piece was great! Thanks for sharing. Actually, one of the main reasons I started blogging was so that I could better remember what I read. I had made some abortive attempts at a journal, much like what you describe, but blogging is the one that stuck. (That also explains why I blog on everything I read, which seems to surprise some people.)

    And I own none of the Pulitzer winners on that list and have no desire to although I did enjoy reading many of them, including, yes, The Executioner's Song.

  10. I'd always pick the Oprah free book every time unless I was desperate and couldn't find another copy. Even then I'd still try to avoid it. No offence to Oprah, but I'm not an Oprah lover.

    Great links. I think the whole larger novel boom is fantastic. The fact that authors still write that much given society's crappy attention span is fantastic as well.

    Then again they should always be writing for themselves so who is to say they are actually writing such a long novel for the readers? I can't imagine Patrick Rothfuss cutting down just for his readers.

  11. Ha! That's funny . . . I thought I was the only one who despised those stickers. No no no I don't like them one bit. I pick them off and then rub GooGone over the residue.

    And yes, I read that article The Plot Escapes Me also. I have always believed one has a relationship with a book that relies on a whole feeling rather than the endless details. I am a voracious reader but crummy at regurgitating 'facts.'

  12. @Jessica - K&C is long, but well worth the journey. Hope you enjoy it!

    @Sandy - That seems to be the consensus. ;)

    @Brenna - Yeah, that made me happy, too. Books have lasting impacts, even if you're not consciously aware of it!

    @Amy - I think it's funny how unanimously anti-Oprah these comments were!

    @Sarah C - I'm eagerly looking forward to Grossman's new novel too, especially after that article - but I've never read him before. You? And thanks for answering ALL the questions! ;)

    @Lori L - And here we have the most vociferously anti-Oprah (or maybe just anti-sticker) response...Nicely done!

  13. @2manybooks - Did you like The Executioner's Song? I've never met anyone who has read it...

    @Michele - That's a good way to think about how books get categorized in your (I'm SURE not pea-sized) brain. But, for me, even the books I've loved, it's still tough to remember plot/character details - which makes that book diary useful.

    @Teresa - Better memory of books is one of the reasons I started blogging, too. The discussions that blogging about books creates helps memory even more!

    @Dutchie - You're right - in an ideal world, writers are writing for themselves. And maybe in the past a writer would turn in a 700-page book, only to have an editor slash it down to 300. Now, it seems that 700-page book has more of a chance!

    @Trish - The difference between regurgitating facts and a general feeling from a book is a good one to make. I agree. For me, though, when discussing a book, I hate being that guy that's like, "Uh, yeah, the character - I can't remember his name - he had an interesting world view..." or whatever... ;)

  14. So much comfort to be had from the idea of internalizing the book in some inexpressible way: excuses many years of forgetting. I keep a notebook as you've described (and have recently been embarrassed to find myself having just read a book, that I thought I was reading for the first time, but that I clearly already read years ago because I discovered the notes I'd taken back then, when I went to add my "new" notes after this reading). ::sigh::

    I've read 6 of the Pulitzers and, yes, one of those was The Executioner's Song, but I read it as a teenager when part of the novelty was finding the longest book ever and letting it stuff up those hours of boredom that I now crave! The short Alice Walker interview at the end of the article was interesting too: I didn't realize there was an autobiographical link to that novel.

  15. love that Times essay. that's the exact reason i started my blog :)

  16. That was a fantastic essay by Collins, I'm glad to see that somebody linked to it. I've been doing the same thing from a young age... and when my little notebook finally caught up with the digital world, our blog was born! Maybe he should consider doing the same haha. Great post!

  17. I had read that Times article last week and it was a very encouraging read. It does frustrate me to no end when I can't recall the details of a book that I remember as being so good. I never quite doubted the value of reading in light of this - it was obvious that there had to be some intrinsic value in the act itself, as the author does point out. It was still good to read about how we retain the 'gestalt' of books even if we can't recall their specifics.

  18. It's a disappointing fact that I cannot clearly remember all the books I read. Most curious is how the names of characters fade from my memory first, even as the plot remains clear and sharp in my mind. This is possibly due to the fact that I place very little importance on the name of a character, but I have often been asked what's the point in reading so quickly that the need to reread arises. Very interesting article, indeed!

    As for David Grossman, I recommend reading "To the End of the Land" if you're into doorstopper books. It's good - a little heavy, a little slow and a little awkward at times yes, but packs some massive emotional punch. You've got to come to it with the right frame of mind, though. It's not an easy book at all, but good.

  19. @Buried - Frankly, that's another reason I keep my book "diary": Simply to avoid reading a book I've already read. :) I think that happens to readers more frequently than any of us would like to admit.

    @Ben - Yeah, that essay's fantastic - really made my day.

    @Padfoot - Yeah, it seems like that essay has been a huge hit in the literary world. It's an issue near and dear to the hearts of all of us readers!

    @Pete - No, I've never questioned the value of reader either, but you're right, it is frustrating - especially as Collins says, when you read history books and can't remember the history you were supposed to learn by reading it.

    @Biblibio - Thanks for your thoughts on Grossman - I do intend to read To The End of the Land. Sounds like a perfect fall/winter novel...Heavy, slow, but well worth the effort.

  20. that essay has reminded me of something, and i just remembered what.

    PG Wodehouse said that people forget the whole world of a book in a couple of months, if not sooner. but they might remember a well-written letter in a newspaper for ever. people who fail at getting their letters published (he says) drop down a rung and try writing instead.

    while not quite a factual account, it's pretty interesting. i wonder how much the size of a novel actually contributes to it being forgotten. short and sweet makes things stick in your head -- look at pop music.