Thursday, October 31, 2013

Commonplace Book: The Vortex Report

Underneath the tinsel and fabric is real tinsel and fabric.
   -- Davy Jones

They were rolling in wealth, sir. You've no idea. None of us has any idea. For years they had preyed on the Saracens, had taken nobody knows what spoils of gems, precious metals, silks, ivories -- the cream of the cream of the East. That is history, sir. We all know that the Holy Wars to them, as to the Templars, were largely a matter of loot.
   -- Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon

Chandler or Hammett or one of those guys said the point of a plot in a detective movie is to get your hero to the next girl to flirt with. When's the next girl or funny bit going to happen. North by Northwest? Tell me again how he gets to the middle of the field with a plane after him? I can't. How does he get to Mount Rushmore? I don't know, but it's great.
   -- Paul Thomas Anderson, on adapting Inherent Vice for film

These urban myths can be attractors, they pick up little fragments of strangeness from everywhere, after a while nobody can look at the whole thing and believe it all, it's too unstructured. But somehow we'll still cherry-pick for the intriguing pieces, God forbid we should be taken in of course, we're too hip for that, and yet there's no final proof that some of it isn't true ...
   -- Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge

History becomes what never happened. People mess things up, forget and remember all the wrong things. What's left is fiction.
   -- Daniel Wallace, Big Fish

It is a myth, not a mandate -- a fable, not a logic -- by which people are moved.
      -- Irwin Edman

The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie -- deliberate, contrived, dishonest -- but the myth -- persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.
   -- John F. Kennedy

There are two kinds of truth. There are real truths and there are made-up truths.
   -- Marion Barry

You don't tell us how to stage the news, and we don't tell you how to report it.
-- Larry Speakes, Press Secretary for George Bush, 1982

If we maintain our faith in God, our love of freedom, and superior global air power, I think we can look to the future with confidence.
   -- General Curtis LeMay

I keep thinking: now that every single human being on Earth has a camera phone, where are all those UFO pictures? Remember how you used to see those pictures? Some guy just happened to have a Polaroid when the UFOs appeared? Either it was all B.S., or my theory is that the Martians have decided, "Don't go down there, man. All those fuckers have cameras now."
   -- George Clooney

From their earliest years, fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of children's everyday lives, and it is through fantasy that they achieve carthasis.
   -- Jonathan Cott, in a 1976 Rolling Stone profile of Maurice Sendak

Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing that a tomato doesn't belong in a fruit salad.
   -- Miles Beresford Kington

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Ripping Yarns

I used to tear books in half for a living. Managing inventory for an indie bookstore during the 1990s, one of my tasks was "stripping" the mass market paperbacks. This entails, for those not in the trade, ripping the front cover off to return to the publisher in exchange for credit, then tearing the book in half (or into thirds or quarters, depending on the thickness of the tome) and trashing/recycling the remaining paper. I was often asked, Aren't you disturbed on some level, destroying all those books? Answer: Yes, I am disturbed on some level, but it's not from destroying all those books.

You might try and excuse this blasphemy by saying, well, they weren't sacred texts. It was a lot of unsold Danielle Steele and Zane Grey and Margaret Truman and Allan Folsom and Robert James Waller. But I'd rip up classics as well as over-ordered bestsellers -- not all those high school kids pick up what they need for Required Reading, after all, and there was no reason to keep stock of an extra 200 copies of The Awakening until the next fall, not when we needed credit for twelve cases of the new John Grisham novel, due to land come springtime.

That's how the book business works: We got only so much room for only so many books.

As of this writing, my library is comprised of just over 500 titles. (I know that number because, being disturbed on some level, I grabbed a cup of coffee and spent a couple-three minutes doing an inventory count, just like in the old days.) This is as small as my collection has been in many years. I reduced it significantly prior to our move to Birmingham, by somewhere in the neighborhood of forty percent, weeding out books I'd read decades prior, or might not read until decades hence, or might not read ever. It wasn't an entirely painless process, I will admit. Then again, neither was moving. We're talking four flights of stairs, here. Halfway through the day, I found myself wishing: If I knew which boxes my Really Treasured Books were in, I'd set the rest on fire, right down there in the street in full view of God and everybody, and only call the firemen to hose the ashes into the sewer.

My library has routinely expanded and contracted by way of constant acquisitions and occasional purges. I've tried to keep my collection bound by available shelf space, but this hasn't always worked; books tend to end up here and there, in decorative piles. But the purges accomplish more than clearing floor-space: as a dedicated apartment dweller, I never assumed permanence. Meaning, at some point, all that stuff has to be picked up and moved again, so why have more than I'm willing to carry? It's not so much about shelf space as it is about life space.

My sister Dena taught me to read when I was four, using Heckle & Jeckle comic books. (I disliked being read to, wanting instead to read for myself -- a characteristic I still have, pretty funny from a guy who came up with Southern Writers Reading as the eponymous title for an onstage literary event.) I was the unofficial class librarian throughout fourth grade, each week quickly raising my hand to volunteer for the task of dusting and tidying the industrial metal bookshelves that lined one wall of our classroom. I majored in English for five years, then found work in bookstores for the next thirteen -- and frankly got a much better education, taking home books about social and scientific theories, religion, histories, biographies, even a bit of literature now and then. I am, in short, no stranger to the joys that books provide.

I used to assume that a healthy personal library had to be a steadily growing thing -- it was a physical manifestation of the owner's mind, or at least a window into it. Books in that sense were trophies of achievement, each shelf the equivalent of a sheepskin certificate, even if it was only from the School of Nurse Romances. A library was evidence of the worthwhile shape of your life, and the more you had, the better, the faster, the smarter. But as somebody who hasn't lived in one particular place for more than a handful of years, my practical need to purge physical objects outweighs any urge to showcase what I've read in the past in order to perhaps prove to visitors that I can carry on an interesting conversation (because I often can't, anyway).

Buddhist monks spend hours, days, weeks creating those intricate mandalas out of colored sand, only to brush them away (ceremoniously, but still) after they finish. So, I wonder: What is this library but a multicolored mandala, a dreamcatcher, a skein of flexible ideas grouped here only temporarily, in this form, before again taking to the wind? Why hang onto books? Why even try? When Sonny Brewer and I were chasing dollars with used and rare tomes at Over the Transom, we'd occasionally receive a beloved copy of something, like that first state edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, or that full collection of Lafcadio Hearn's Japanese ghost stories -- and as tempting as it was to keep such things for ourselves, we had a great notion: we were only a temporary transit lounge. We were just keeping those books until their rightful owners came to collect them. We loved them, but we also loved seeing them go. (That is, after all, another way in which the book business works.)

At the end of Fahrenheit 451, there are almost no books left in the world, only people who remember those books. But it is more than memory, it is life itself. I am Plato's Republic, says one character, introducing others: I want you to meet Jonathan Swift [...] and this other fellow is Charles Darwin, and this one is Schopenhauer, and this one is Einstein, and this one here at my elbow is Mr Albert Schweitzer. And so do we all become Spartacus, one book at a time.

I suppose it all boils down to a rephrasing of an old cliche: When I croak, I won't take any of these books with me. I'll only take what I've read. And what a gift that will be.

[This was a response to The Wily Blogger who will, I hope, one day reinstate her wily blogging.]

Monday, June 3, 2013

V. (1963)

Now and then, it takes a few honest tries before I can get certain books to fit inside my skull. Square pegs, round holes, we will sell no wine before its time, all that. It took several attempts over a handful of years before Blood Meridian screwed down in there, for example. Same with Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter, and, for reasons I am unwilling to discuss, World War Z.

Thomas Pynchon's debut novel V. was no different, first time I picked it up in 1990, shortly after finishing Vineland. Reading it now for the 6th or 7th time (though it's my first go-round in over a decade), it's somewhat easy to forget why -- I'm now well-acquainted with the basic structure, and am no longer fooled when Pynchon goes off on some labyrinthine philosophical/scientific/pseudo-historical tangent, or introduces, often with fanfare or at least an elaborate pun, some new character who then all but disappears for the rest of the novel. Like many first-time readers, I found myself unduly vexed by these basic Pynchonian stylistic nuances and peccadilloes, which are present in even his most streamlined narratives. It's a little like being a novice sailor or kook surfer -- first, frustrating impression will be that a body may move in only one direction: the way of the wind or the wave. But an old salt knows energy moves in multiple directions; you take your pick and plot your course. The wind, the waves, those are just symptoms of a power ready to be harnessed.

So Profane's aimless drift and Stencil's misdirected quest are now Beaten Paths; instead of worrying over the map, I can just enjoy the scenery: those smaller details that spread out from all angles, often telegraphing ideas that will be expanded upon, or at least queerly mirrored, in novels to come. At the forefront is Pynchon's morbid fascination with self-dehumanization, which is far more creepy than the aspect of being dehumanized by a collective, whether bureaucratic or conspiratorial, under the aims of social control. In V., the characters are ready to take matters into their own hands: No one wants to be who they are, and are haunted by ideas of unrealistic, unholy perfection. There are no attempts at self-discovery or even improvement beyond the shallow, the physical -- only yearnings for others, unattainable Others.

And forget the Machine Age, these characters are entering a Machine Consciousness. Pulses and hearts tick like frantic clockwork. Spongy brains whir. Women seduce automobiles. Eyeballs contain secret sprockets and gears. (Pynchon didn't start dabbling with steampunk in Against the Day, he started it here, before the practice even had a genre title.) But we are not machines, with parts that can be swapped out when they fail; we are humans, and there's only so much improving we can do before time moves us off the playing field. Herbert Stencil, searching for a wispy historical phantom known only by the titular initial, has at best a vague grasp of this essential concept. But only because he is obsessed with history, and possessed of a knack to always begin his investigations just as the principles from whom he most needs answers all disappear behind the layered veils of passing time.

But I, like the novel itself, digress ...

I used to pick up every book with the fevered intention to finish, like it was some kind of assignment, a grade I'd get in Heaven. No more of that crap, here in my old-ish age. I'm not shy about putting a book down, for good -- or even reaching for the trash can, if necessary. Novels better not get bogged down in rambling detail, or neglect atmosphere at the risk of moving too quickly, or be too clever, or have stupid dialogue, or obvious or strained humor, or be written by a clod who uses exclamation points, or ever, ever feel the need to mention a character's last experience in noninvasive lighting.

But every now and then, I put a book down not for any aesthetic such reasons, however petty, but because I know I'm not ready for it. It's not you, I tell the book, it's me. Still, I often wonder about my fascination with the prose of Thomas Pynchon, why I always stick with it when I really prefer pulp-era science fiction or crime or weird horror, no apologies. Let's face it, I ought not like it. I don't like Tom Robbins or David Foster Wallace or most of what gets labeled as "post-modern literature." I've put down a lot of those books; their challenges and rewards aren't for me. But I found a kindred spirit in Pynchon for some reason, despite the stupid names he bestows upon his characters. And I keep coming back to these novels, time and again, which is unusual for me (short stories by Bradbury and Lovecraft are one thing, but I plow through a novel once, I'm typically finished. Friends who are driven to re-read Austin and Fitzgerald and Twain on a cyclical schedule are gifted with an impulse I lack). There's an scene in V. where a painter struggles with a painting because the light keeps shifting in the room, but Pynchon uses that to illustrate how our perception of art (among other things) changes over time, and we should use that to examine ourselves. He's got something there.

Then again, maybe it's as simple as a pattern set early in my reading life by The Hobbit and its obscure, out-of-print sequel, The Lord of the Rings. Those books involve long, intertwining plot lines, not to mention a ComicCon's-worth of weirdly named characters. (Against the nomenclature of what seems like nineteen-thousand generations of kings-in-exile, Russian novels are cakewalks.) But I loved them, I loved them from the first pages, and when I was about halfway through The Fellowship of the Ring, I tried to talk my sister into reading them too. But, nah, she'd already tried, and gave up just a few chapters into The Hobbit. Too many dwarves, too many weird names. This really disappointed me, that part of every reader that wants to share the experience of a deeply-loved book. And I suppose I vowed then that I would never let anything so trifling as a menagerie of characters, however all bizarrely named, get in the way of a great reading experience. That's the only explanation I have for why I forgive Pynchon all these insanely stupid names. Dewey Gland, after all. Jeebus.

I was operating on the motto Make It Literary, a piece of bad advice I made up all by myself and then took.
     -- Thomas Pynchon, on the subject of his early writing, from the introduction to Slow Learner

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Gravity's Rainbow (1991 hardback edition)

Hardback editions, of any description, of Thomas Pynchon's first three novels are hard to come by. My slightly cocked 1966 Modern Library edition of V. is a trophy collected during my early days at Over the Transom, when rare book searches were our forte, before the existence of ABE and Bookfinder become common knowledge. (It both cracks me up and embarrasses me now that we charged a $15 "finder's fee" for tracking down out-of-print titles, a job that currently takes seconds using Google. Ah, the Salad Days of the Internet, when access to a search engine was a license to print money.) Anyway, circa 2000, most ML copies of V. were selling in the $75+ range. I found mine for under $30 from "a guy who apparently didn't know what he had" -- our phrase for someone anomalously listing an uncommon book for far less than the average going rate. My good luck.

Eariler in the decade, while working at Page & Palette, I picked up what is sometimes referred to as a "second printing" of Gravity's Rainbow in hardback. Vineland had just been released as a trade paperback and, for the first time since initial publication, GR was given a refreshed cover with matching typography. Viking's decision to issue a few new hardbacks with updated jackets must have been off-the-cuff; they didn't bother to assign a new ISBN, standard practice with a reissue and/or new design elements -- hence the "second printing" confusion.

I didn't need a hardback, already owning a paperback with the exact same cover. But I'm a sucker for new artwork, particularly when it offers improvements, and this struck me as both appealingly modern (the original early 1970s design was a sick orange color, to my eye uninspired and certainly stale by the early 1990s) and subtly appropriate: it's the initial bloom not of a sunrise or sunset but of a nuclear explosion, like the one suggested in the novel's closing moments ("I don't think that's a police siren..."). I probably also liked the idea of having a "permanent" copy for the bookshelf. Covers would, after all, come and go (and GR was indeed updated again only a handful of years later, for the Penguin Classics USA edition), but this was a damn keeper.

My mind changed by 1999, however -- when I wanted tickets and travel money to see Roger Waters, then embarking on his first tour since 1987. Given that I'd probably always have quick access to some perfectly usable copy of Gravity's Rainbow, why did I need this hardback gathering dust? To eBay with it! ... I should have known something was up when my reserve of $30 was met within hours. I think I ended up selling that copy for somewhere upwards of $80. More than enough for my ticket, certainly -- and I hadn't even listed my college-era comic books yet. More good luck, or just dumb luck?

I sold quite a lot of stuff on eBay that year -- to fund not only that particular road trip but also my life, in the short term -- but that copy of Gravity's Rainbow was the only thing with which I regretted parting. Particularly since the price it went for signaled to me that I'd unwittingly, stupidly released a treasure. I would periodically check the usual dark corners of the internet, with no luck: the only hardback copies of GR floating anywhere near my price range were ex-library copies, stamped and mauled and missing any jacket whatsoever.

Finally, late in 2005, I tripped upon an ABE listing. Same book, same cover, forty-some-odd dollars, shipping included. Here was a guy who apparently didn't know what he had, same as me, six years earlier. [Perhaps exactly as I had been? ... This book has a front hinge that is cracking, despite an attempted, somewhat botched, repair at the front-end papers with binder's glue -- exactly the sort of repair I'd have attempted on just such a flaw, working late hours in the "engine room" at Over the Transom. And I could almost, almost swear that my given-away copy had just such a problem with the front hinge. Then again, maybe Viking printed cheap copies and they're all prone to that.]

Now if only I could find one of those guys with a first edition copy of The Crying of Lot 49, I'd be all set.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Bear Bryant Funeral Train (2007)

This is a book I edited. The first edition had been declared out-of-print due to a plagiarism controversy/literary misunderstanding, however you want to see it. What I saw was a good book that deserved a second chance at life.

Jake Adam York saw the same thing.

Early on I had the idea to reassemble the collection using Brad's original graduate thesis as a manuscript, which would then be bolstered by an academic apparatus similar to that of a Norton Critical Edition. This remained just an idea, however, until I became aware of Jake's fierce defense of Brad's literary technique on the storySouth blog. Was he willing to redesign that elegant argument for print? He absolutely was. Before long I also had two other great writers on board, Michelle Richmond and John Dufresne, as well as Professor Emeritus of the University of Alabama, Don Noble. But it was Jake who set the table.

On 15 December 2012, Jake suffered a fatal stroke, and left holes in the hearts of all who loved him, who worked alongside him, who learned from him, who read his work. He was merely forty years old: It's hard not to imagine how we've been robbed of decades of powerful, insightful poetry and impassioned prose -- quite possibly even of an eventual Poet Laureate. Upon hearing the news, I sought out his prose poem "Leaving Alabama" which, near the end, advises:
Drive one last time along the river, and don't think how the morning sun lights it till it looks like molten steel [...] Look straight ahead. Adjust the rearview mirror. Adjust the rearview mirror. Feel it warm beneath your hand, its box of river and sun and steel and shadow. Ignore your heart rising to your throat, this terrible relapse. Think of everything you hate. Everything. Then pull the mirror down.
Jake, I did not know you well enough. But I do know that when your mirror was pulled down, so unceremoniously and by a hand not your own, there was no hate anywhere in sight. You've taken too much love with you for that. We'll miss you, buddy. Say hello to Jeanne and Wayne and William for us in the meanwhile. Peace.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Great Tales of Terror & the Supernatural (1994 edition)

I have crappy retention for short stories. Almost none. Assign me a short story, quiz me about it a year later, I'll flunk. Sometimes I can remember a critical detail (there's a terrible motorcycle accident in the middle; giant ants are on the rampage; yellow wallpaper is involved) but usually nothing specific about the plot. I will often remember if I enjoyed the story, and maybe some of the mood of it; other times even the titles will be totally unfamiliar. It's maddening in its own way.

Then again, silver lining: This peculiar form of Literary Alzheimer's disease means my enjoyment doesn't necessarily decrease with repeat readings. Sure, I've read Edward Bulwer-Lytton's "The Haunted and the Haunters" enough times to have memorized every ridiculous trope, but it feels like a mint ride each time. I am afforded a pleasant, bookish kind of deja-vu. Events unfold off the page, but I don't remember them until after I've reread them -- like waking up from a dream you know you've had before. It's kind of nice. I get to experience something quasi-new while also satisfying the basic human desire for hearing a story retold over and again.

Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural is a textbook of uneasy numina. Over fifty genre classics from the likes of Hawthorne, Lovecraft, Faulkner, Bierce, Wells, James (M.R., that is). Tiny print covers all 1000 pages. Given my apparent propensity of my brain to jettison short fiction, plus the time it usually takes me to traverse this book from cover to cover, I've joked that this volume would be the only one I'd need for that proverbial Desert Island to which one may only take a handful of favorite things: upon finishing, I could just flip back to the beginning, and start fresh...

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Silmarillion (1977)

This book is a cornerstone of my library. It's a first American printing, a gift from my brother-in-law Pete, what must have been Christmas 1978, based on the inscription. It looked in better shape as an original gift, but it's always been a treasure to me.

I read both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings while in 6th grade, consuming them slowly over a period of nearly a year -- I lived inside each chapter for as long as I could, often reading them two or three times before finally moving forward in the story. While I always had a rich imagination, Tolkien's saga was a turning point for me in realizing that escapism for "grown folks" could be just as immersive and entertaining as the ghost stories and comic books consumed during my first decade or so on the planet. (I'd previously held a dim view of the Harold Robbins and James Michener slogs favored by my father; their titles and covers looked common and dull.)

The Silmarillion was an equal turning point. As a 7th grader, I struggled with the cold, alien structure of this "Middle-earth bible," as well as with the linguistic, and of course mythological, aims of Professor Tolkien, all of which were over my head. I was plenty game, but might have understood more had I simply used the book to smash myself in the face a few times. Still, I finished. I couldn't have explained half of what I'd just read, but I finished all the same.

I did realize two things, even then. First, that even the most fantastical genre tales can have roots in serious intention and theme -- and that is an awesome and wonderful thing. Second, that my duty as a reader isn't always to understand absolutely everything; it's to take away from difficult material what I am capable, at that moment in time, of taking away. Something will be learned, and no work, as Gurdjieff would say, will be wasted.

Thank you, Pete.

See Also:
The Lord of the Rings (1954)