Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for March 2013

Quote of the Day

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George Harrison

It doesn’t matter what you are as long as you work…You don’t have to drop out. In fact, if you drop out you put yourself further away from the goal of life than if you were to keep working.

George Harrison

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March 27, 2013 at 7:30 am

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A father’s case for physical books

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The Book Table in Oak Park

Over the weekend, I brought my daughter Beatrix to her first bookstore, the Book Table in Oak Park, which is arguably the best independent bookshop in the Chicago area. I love it, first of all, because they keep plenty of my own novels in stock, but also because their selection is fascinating and thoughtfully curated. Every table is covered in modestly discounted copies of new releases, many of which I’d never seen before, with an emphasis on art, design, and books from speciality publishers like Taschen and NYRB Classics. I never leave without making a few wonderful discoveries—or at least adding some potential items to my holiday wish list—and I always emerge with a newfound appreciation of the social importance of independent bookstores. Jason, the owner, has been a good friend and supporter, and I was perfectly honest when I told him that I expect to bring Beatrix back for years to come.

Yet the visit also got me thinking about the role that books will play both in my daughter’s life and in the lives of other children the same age. Bookstores, as we all know, are disappearing across the country; so, too, are bookshelves in private homes, as readers increasingly begin to rely on devices like the Kindle. I’m not against electronic books in any way, and they’re clearly a great option for a lot of adult readers. But I think there’s a risk here. As I’ve said elsewhere, I owe much of my education and my love of reading to scrounging for books on my own parents’ bookshelves. These weren’t books that I was asked, or even permitted, to read; they were simply there, lined up alluringly, and it was only a matter of time before I was reading well over my head. Now, however, we’re looking at the prospect of a generation of children raised in the households of parents who may love reading, but lack an environment of physical books that kids can discover on their own. And I’m concerned about this.

The Amazon Kindle

I’ve spoken before about the end of browsing, in which astonishing online resources can give us instant access to the exact book we want, but aren’t nearly as good at giving us books we never knew we needed. For adults, recommendations and social networks go part of the way toward solving the problem, but they aren’t a perfect answer. Time and again, they tend to return to the same handful of established classics or recent books—nearly every reading thread on Reddit seems to center on Vonnegut, Infinite Jest, or House of Leaves—and they rarely find time for the neglected, the unfairly forgotten, or the out of print. It’s an even greater problem for children, who tend to be steered toward approved or required reading, and lack the resources to seek out other books on their own. The tricky thing about buying books for kids is that you never quite know when they’ll make the next big leap. Usually, it happens on its own. And the first step, at least for me, was rummaging unsupervised through an adult bookshelf.

In my case, I’m not too worried about Beatrix, who will inevitably grow up in a house crammed with books, and who has a father who will probably be delighted the first time he catches her reading George Orwell or Stephen King. But I’m still of the mind that the decline of printed books in many homes has consequences that can’t be entirely addressed by reading aloud or stocking the house with books for kids. A Kindle is a beautiful thing, but it doesn’t evoke the same kind of curiosity—or access to randomness—that a fully stocked bookshelf can, and it can’t compete with other kinds of screens. One solution, of course, is to bring children to bookstores or libraries and just let them wander: the moment I first ventured into the grownup section of my hometown library is still one of my most exciting memories. But the best answer is also the simplest one: to keep buying physical books, not for your children, but for yourself.

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March 26, 2013 at 9:45 am

Quote of the Day

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A ship of war

Every boat is copied from another boat…It is clear that a very badly made boat will end up at the bottom after one or two voyages, and thus never be copied…One could then say, with complete rigor, that it is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying the others.

Émile Chartier

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March 26, 2013 at 7:50 am

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Survival of the envious

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Gore Vidal

“I believe that nothing completely satisfies an imaginative writer,” wrote Frederick Locker-Lampson, “but copious and continuous amounts of unmitigated praise, always provided it is accompanied by a large and increasing sale of his works.” I’d like to say that this is a humorous exaggeration, but really, it’s pretty much the truth. Writers, by nature, are insecure creatures: they’ve chosen a trade that offers few visible rewards for years on end, often in the face of justified skepticism from their family and friends, and even those who make it into print generally only do so after much rejection. Once they’ve been published, they’re likely to find themselves confronted with an entirely different set of problems: the fact that their work is freely available to public opinion leaves them perpetually skinless, to use Walter Murch’s memorable phrase, and these days, a writer who wants to obsess over sales figures and reviews can do so in real time, a prospect that might have made even Locker-Lampson’s head explode.

And the amount of information available to contemporary writers only magnifies their natural tendency to emphasize bad news over good. No matter how well things might be going in other respects, there’s always a lukewarm reader review, a dip in sales rank, or a list of award nominees that glaringly omits the writer’s own name. Worst of all is what I like to think of as the Colonel Cathcart complex, in which a writer can’t be altogether happy if there’s another author out there somewhere, his age or younger, who is doing ever so slightly better in the same general field. Few writers, no matter how emotionally healthy they might be in other respects, can bring themselves to view their own success in absolute terms: it’s always the relative measure that stings. Which is really just a particularly ingenious way of guaranteeing that no writer can ever be entirely content. “Writers seldom wish other writers well,” Saul Bellow says, in a slightly softened version of Gore Vidal’s more pointed observation: “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.”

Philip Roth

None of these observations are new, of course; even if they hadn’t been confirmed by other writers, they’re facts that any writer can verify just by consulting his own feelings whenever another record-breaking advance or movie deal is announced. And all the evidence implies that such dissatisfaction is a permanent part of the writing life. If you had a laboratory in which you could assemble a perfect writer, one whose career followed a perfect trajectory—early acclaim yielding to massive mainstream success and a second golden period in old age—you’d end up with Philip Roth, whose unhappiness with his own life’s work is a matter of record. But the most terrifying truth of all is that these feelings aren’t an undesirable side effect of a writer’s existence, but an essential element of it. Any writer who survives to produce more than a few good books is a creature who has been forced to evolve under considerable environmental pressure, and the one common trait that lies beneath all great careers is the refusal to be satisfied.

In an ideal world, this kind of professional envy would concentrate solely on matters of art: it’s natural and presumably healthy to want to write better books than any of one’s peers. (Like most writers, I’d like to believe that if the books I wrote already existed, I’d be content just to read them, and leave the hard work to someone else.) Yet this obsession with the quality of one’s craft shades naturally into the less positive characteristics that are equally central to a writer’s identity. A writer is like a show dog who has been bred for certain desirable characteristics that happen to go hand in hand with chronic, sometimes crippling problems, like a pekingese whose flat face leads to trouble breathing, or a great dane with hip dysplasia. For writers, the desirable qualities are perfectionism and obsession with craft; the side effects, sadly, are insecurity and jealousy. As far as treating the condition goes, a steady drip of praise and good sales is one answer; drugs and alcohol are another; but the best cure, inevitably, is work, as Norman Mailer once said with regard to his own bad reviews:

[They] put iron into my heart again, and rage…and so one had to mend, and put on the armor, and go to war, go out to war again, and try to hew huge strokes with the only broadsword God ever gave you, a glimpse of something like Almighty prose.

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March 25, 2013 at 9:50 am

Quote of the Day

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March 25, 2013 at 7:30 am

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Anthony Burgess on artistic punctuality

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Anthony Burgess

The practice of being on time with commissioned work is an aspect of politeness. I don’t like being late for appointments; I don’t like craving indulgence from editors in the matter of missed deadlines. Good journalistic manners tend to lead to a kind of self-discipline in creative work. It’s important that a novel be approached with some urgency. Spend too long on it, or have great gaps between writing sessions, and the unity of the work tends to be lost. This is one of the troubles with Ulysses.

Anthony Burgess, to The Paris Review

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March 24, 2013 at 7:59 am

That old book smell

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The dollar bin at the Strand Bookstore

Lignin, the stuff that prevents all trees from adopting the weeping habit, is a polymer made up of units that are closely related to vanillin. When made into paper and stored for years, it breaks down and smells good. Which is how divine providence has arranged for secondhand bookstores to smell like good quality vanilla absolute, subliminally stoking a hunger for knowledge in all of us.

—Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, Perfumes: The Guide (courtesy of Reddit)

Written by nevalalee

March 23, 2013 at 9:50 am

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