Archive for July 2011
Helmholtz, for instance, the great German physicist, speaking in 1891 at a banquet on his seventieth birthday, described the way in which his most important new thoughts had come to him. He said that after previous investigation of the problem “in all directions…happy ideas come unexpectedly without effort, like an inspiration. So far as I am concerned, they have never come to me when my mind was fatigued, or when I was at my working table….They came particularly readily during the slow ascent of wooded hills on a sunny day.”
—Graham Wallas, The Art of Thought
Speak out your opinions before you think—and before the other fellow speaks. Thus you will give your mind some chance of forming them in a natural way—unconsciously. Accustom yourself to not knowing what your opinions are until you have blurted them out, and thus find what they are. That’s what talk is for—and it doesn’t prevent the careful summarizing of ideas upon occasion when this is in order. Your valued father went the limit in the expression of things in writing in this improvised way, for he never knew quite what was in his mind—as he told me himself—till he wrote; and it was by this course that he made his most telling cracks; for it is only in the poetic element that truth is told. For truth to be truth must be new.
One of the nice things about being an adult is the fact that you occasionally get to indulge in a few of your childhood pleasures, except with more resources and money. A nerdy case in point: when I was growing up, one of the highlights of my year was the annual book sale at the Alameda County Library. For ten dollars, you could fill a paper grocery bag full of battered library discards, and although not many of those books have stayed with me over the years—the only exception being Dean Koontz’s Writing Popular Fiction, otherwise out of print, which remains one of my favorite and formative writing guides—I still get irrationally excited by the words “library book sale.”
Which brings me to Chicago’s Newberry Library Book Fair, which is the ultimate realization of my childhood fantasies of what a library book sale should be. With room after room of books piled high on tables, crammed, often to the point of immobility, with buyers and browsers, the Newberry’s annual sale is a book lover’s paradise. Walking around the fair yesterday, having abruptly ditched all other obligations when my wife informed me that it was starting at noon, I was forcibly reminded of one of the central facts of my life: aside from my wife and maybe a few family and friends, I love books more than almost anything else in the world.
And this was the best kind of book fair, filled equally with titles I’d been trying to find for a long time and plenty of happy accidents. The former category included a first edition copy of Simon Schama’s Rembrandt’s Eyes, which I picked up for all of eight dollars (by far the most expensive single book I got that day); Roger Penrose’s The Road to Reality; Pauline Kael’s 5001 Nights at The Movies; Carl Sagan’s Cosmos (for three dollars, much less than the anniversary edition I had been planning to buy in the bargain section at Borders); and all four volumes, dating from 1891, of Bourrienne’s Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte. These books alone would make for a pretty decent liberal education.
There were also plenty of nice surprises. Because we’re moving soon, and will have to physically haul all these books away in about six weeks, I managed to restrict myself to a handful of paperbacks. But some of these were a lot of fun, too: The Making of Star Trek, published in 1968, with its detailed account of the original show’s origins; Irving Wallace’s The Plot, allowing me to wallow in my previously disclosed love of trashy ’70s fiction; a vintage paperback of Catch-22, which was already next on my reading list; and the excellent anthology The Practical Cogitator, famous in its time, unknown by me, but which already looks to inform this blog tremendously (starting with today’s quote). All in all, it was the best library book sale ever—at least until Sunday, when everything goes on half price. You’ll know where to find me.
I am quite ready to be charmed, but I shall not make believe I am charmed.
If alcoholism is the greatest occupational hazard of a novelist’s life, back trouble can’t be too far behind. As my doctor—not named Watson, unfortunately—reminded me last year, anyone who spends most of his time at a desk is going to have back problems, and the issue is especially pronounced for writers, who may need to work intensely for hours at a stretch. (This is less of a problem, of course, for those of us with writer’s block.) I’ve had back pain on and off ever since starting to write for a living, five years ago, and while I’ve managed to address most of the issues that were causing the trouble, it’s something that still bothers me from time to time.
Really, though, I have no one to blame for myself. I wrote most of the rough draft of my first novel—not The Icon Thief, but its unpublished predecessor, a long novel about India—while seated cross-legged on a couch in the living room of my old apartment, hunched over the laptop beside me. This position was comfortable at first, but after writing a quarter of a million words, it blew out my back in ways that I’m still paying for. I learned two things from the experience: 1. Don’t write a first novel that is 250,000 words long. 2. If you’re going to write anything at all, do so at a proper desk.
Since then, I’ve done my best to develop better habits. The first step was the purchase of a good chair. My luxurious old Aeron was, alas, a casualty of my move from New York to Chicago—although my brother is hopefully putting it to good use—and I’ve since replaced it with a less expensive but still pretty functional alternative. I’ve spoken before about the Symphony pillow from Tempur-Pedic, a must for anyone with back trouble, which I’ve since supplemented with a contoured pillow for my knees. As a result, I sleep much better, even though the combination sometimes makes me feel like an old man.
Finally, one needs a properly elevated workstation. After checking my own posture, I determined that my laptop had to be raised by about four inches to allow me to work comfortably. I could have invested in an expensive laptop stand, but casting an eye around own my bookshelves, I determined that the one-volume edition of William S. Baring-Gould’s Annotated Sherlock Holmes, elsewhere acclaimed on this blog as the best book in the world, fit the bill admirably. Ever since, I’ve been writing on Holmes, in more ways than one, and I’d like to think that my work is better for it. My back certainly is.
Yesterday, my editor’s assistant emailed me with a draft of the back cover copy for The Icon Thief, asking if I had any comments. While I don’t think I can post it here yet—it’s only a preliminary version, and I’ve requested a number of small changes—I can say that it does a nice job of selling the novel, condensing a very complicated plot into a handful of punchy paragraphs. And after years of work, it’s immensely satisfying to see all the pieces start to come together. Between the cover art, the marketing copy, and not least the change of title, my publisher has turned an unformed stack of manuscript pages into an attractive object indeed, one that I hope will stand out on store shelves.
These days, of course, the idea of books being displayed on shelves at all is starting to seem obsolete. The bankruptcy and closure of Borders, especially, is a depressing story for readers and authors alike. (Even their liquidation sales are less attractive than they seem.) I’ve written before about how the decline of physical bookstores also heralds the end of browsing, that peculiar process in which you go to a bookstore looking for one thing, or even nothing in particular, and leave with a few titles that you never even knew you wanted. Online bookstores, though they’ve changed my life by giving me access to books I could never find elsewhere, aren’t built for those kinds of happy accidents. And for a novelist, the loss is even more troubling.
For most authors, a debut novel is less like the launch of a major Hollywood blockbuster than a direct to video release. You’re on a crowded shelf, competing with a lot of similar titles, with only your cover art, your title, and maybe a short description to help you stand out from the rest. It’s frightening, but exhilarating: this is survival of the fittest in literary form, and the major publishers are very good at creating packages for novels that push all the right buttons. Now, with the end of browsing, this expertise is being tested as never before, and while it’s already evolving into new, surprising shapes, a few things have remained constant. Even if it’s at Amazon instead of Borders, a great title and cover certainly can’t hurt a novel’s chances.
All the same, the downfall of Borders, which in many communities was the only physical bookstore in town, is a major loss. When I was growing up, it was a big deal to take a trip to Waldenbooks. It wasn’t a great bookstore, but I didn’t know that at the time, and I was happy to spend hours browsing among the glossy rows of paperbacks. Now Waldenbooks, a Borders subsidiary, is closing as well, which makes it all the less likely that a bright young teenager in a town I’ve never seen will pick up The Icon Thief by chance. In some ways, the fate of these stores was only a matter of time, and things could easily have been different. But I still can’t help wishing that they’d managed to hold out until March.