Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Ecstasy of Influence: Essays, Experiments, Etc.

Jonathan Lethem is a fantastically engrossing writer! I'm not just saying that because he took David Foster Wallace's coveted teaching spot at Pomona College, and you know how I feel about DFW. Nor am I saying it because I loved Motherless Brooklyn. I'm saying it because, as I learned by traversing his NBCC nominated (for criticism) The Ecstasy of Influence, Lethem succeeds in getting you to read and care about topics about which you had no previous interest. And that's the mark of a truly great writer!

I'm actually plagiarizing myself with that last sentence, but one of the many things I learned from reading this amazing collection of essays, criticism, experiments in non-fiction writing, previously published magazine articles, etc., is that that is okay with Lethem. Indeed, the title essay, which is perhaps the most engrossing, argues that all art is in some way influenced by other art and other people, that pure creativity is a myth, and therefore, that copyrights and trademarks — especially by corporations — are mostly ridiculous. There's some nuance there, which you'll have to read the essay itself — oh, guess what, here it is — to parse, but those are the general ideas. This really made me think in new ways!

The book is organized into 10 sections arranged by similar topic, like science fiction, music, and 9/11. The music section, especially, is very, very good — it includes a massive article Lethem originally wrote for Rolling Stone about James Brown, as well as a piece about Bob Dylan. (The James Brown piece includes the following quote, which is hilariously awesome, about Brown's notoriously inflated ego: "James Brown knows no hesitation, no whisper of ambivalence, in his delight in his own person.")

The overall effect of this collection is almost a much more complete biographical picture of Lethem himself than even an autobiography could provide. That's because he includes essays about his Hippie parents (meaningfully, in a section about superheroes) — including one about how his artist father let Teenage Jonathan, sit in with him to paint live nude models. Lethem recalls he didn't think much of it at the time, because somehow he understood that it wasn't supposed to be sexual.

There are pieces about his work at used bookstores and about his writing process; a refutation of a poor review of his novel The Fortress of Solitude, and a short piece about why he became a writer. This includes my favorite quote from the book, about, well, why he became a writer. It's really telling. "I began writing in order to arrive into the company of those whose company meant more to me than any other: the world of the books I'd found on the shelves and begun to assemble on my own, and the people who'd written them, and the readers who cared as much as I did, if those existed."

Also, this, on being a reader first: "Well, before I wrote, and in between each of the times that I wrote, I was a reader, and surely after I have quit or been rendered incapable of writing I'll be a reader still." YES!

You probably won't find everything here interesting, but the large majority of it is. Lethem even suggests in the Prologue that readers may not be interested in reading cover-to-cover, but I did anyway. And I loved learning more about this fantastic writer. Highly recommended, if you're a fan of non-fiction in all kinds of varieties.


  1. I'm a big fan of J. Lethem, but I haven't had a chance to read this yet - good to hear that it's pretty great!

  2. This book looks like a lot of fun. I've wanted to read Lethem's fiction for quite some time now, and I haven't done it yet. I like collections of criticism like this.

  3. Am in the middle of reading this fascinating essay on plagiarism and had to return to say thanks for alerting me to it. Too, too good.

  4. Ooh! You have me intrigued Greg. I heard Lethem read from this book on NPR recently, and his reading voice sounded pretentious in a way I didn't like, so I kinda waved him off. But it seems like it's worth giving this book a chance....the topics certainly interest me.