The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books

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The Millions Top Ten: April 2015

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for April. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 3. My Brilliant Friend 5 months 2. 8. All the Light We Cannot See 6 months 3. 5. The Strange Library 5 months 4. 7. Dept. of Speculation 5 months 5. 6. The David Foster Wallace Reader 4 months 6. 10. The Buried Giant 2 months 7. 9. Loitering: New and Collected Essays 4 months 8. - The First Bad Man: A Novel 1 month 9. - The Girl on the Train 1 month 10. - The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing 1 month   Major shake-ups this month as we bid adieu to three Top Ten fixtures of the past six months. After half a year of consistent success, Michael Schmidt's door-stopping biography of the novel goes to our Hall of Fame, along with Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven and Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North. This is the third time a Millions staffer has had their own work graduate to the site's Hall of Fame, and in so doing, Emily St. John Mandel joins site founder C. Max Magee (The Late American Novel) and site writer Mark O'Connell (Epic Fail) on the list. How fitting it is, too, that in our first Springtime Top Ten, we welcome three new, fresh additions to our list! Checking in at #8 is Miranda July's The First Bad Man, which was previewed in our Great 2015 Book Preview. July was also interviewed for our site in January, and at the time she described the inspiration for her novel in terms sure to salt the wound of anyone who's ever struggled with writer's block: Well, the inspiration came very suddenly. I literally just had the idea on a long drive: of Cheryl and Clee, and their relationship and how it changed. I even knew that there would be a baby at the end and that Cheryl would end up alone with it. So that all came in a few minutes, which was very lucky and I still thank the gods for that. Next on our list is Paula Hawkins's The Girl on the Train, which was recently shouted out by Jon Ronson in his By the Book column for the New York Times Book Review. Hawkins's novel has been described elsewhere as "an ingenious slant on the currently fashionable amnesia thriller," and "a gripping, down-the-rabbit-hole thriller." Keeping with our "Spring" motif, we also welcome Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up to our April list, most likely as we all begin in earnest to at least think about finally doing some Spring cleaning. In her review, our own Janet Potter noted that Kondo's work lays out "a method for cleaning and reorganizing your home that might be crazy and might be brilliant, but works either way." Next month, we should clear up at least one spot for another newcomer. Will it be one of these "Near Misses" at the bottom of this post, or will it be something else entirely? Near Misses: To Rise Again at a Decent HourMy Struggle: Book 1An Untamed State, The Paying Guests and Everything I Never Told You. See Also: Last month's list.

Taut, Not Trite: On the Novella

1. William Giraldi spent more than half of his 2008 review (pdf) of Cary Holladay’s A Fight in the Doctor’s Office considering the etymology of “novella,” identifying the history and characteristics of the form, and suggesting essential writers. He claims that the demands of character development are one way to separate novellas from novels, noting that Gustave Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice does not require the 800 pages necessary for the titular character of Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. Giraldi’s introductory thoughts seem like a rather long preface to evaluate a work of new fiction under 150 pages. Such an observation is not meant as criticism. To write about novellas is to engage in a form of literary apologia. Giraldi’s approach is the norm. Most reviews of novellas begin with similar elements: the writer’s arbitrary word count parameter, why “novella” sounds more diminutive than “short novel,” and a lament that publishers are unwilling to support the form. This essay is not such an apology. I am tired of threnodies. Writers of novellas have nothing to be sorry about. Novellas deserve critical attention as individual, not adjacent, works. We might begin by mining appreciative notes rather than simply cataloging criticisms. Tucked between Giraldi’s prefatory critical observations in “The Novella’s Long Life” are notes of admiration: “an expert novella combines the best of a short story with the best of a novel, the dynamic thighs of a sprinter with the long-distance lungs of a mountaineer.” He continues a critical tradition whose modern genesis might have been the novella-loving 1970s, when even novels were short; think The Sporting Club and Ninety-Two in the Shade by Thomas McGuane, or A Good Day to Die by Jim Harrison. In a 1972 essay he would later develop into a book, Robert J. Clements considers the oral tradition behind the novella form as helping him “define its length as long enough for a dry split birch log to be consumed by a blazing bivouac fire.” That image was still popping in 1977, when Graham Good, in the journal NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, almost elevates the novella beyond the novel, noting that the shorter work often focuses on “simple natural or preternatural exigencies: apparitions, cataclysms like great storms or earthquakes, and individual declines or deaths.” Of course novels also contain deaths, but it’s the speed and tension that matters: the “novella is a closed form whose end is latent in its beginning: there is usually some initial indication that the end is known, and this enhances the narrative art of holding in suspense what it is.” Fast-forward to very recent memory. At The Daily Beast in 2010, Taylor Antrim considers the focus on novellas by presses such as Melville House and New Directions, and the publication of the “wispy thin” Point Omega by Don DeLillo and Walks With Men by Ann Beattie, as proving that the form is in “pretty healthy shape.” Citing works as diverse as “The Dead” by James Joyce and Shoplifting from American Apparel by Tao Lin, Antrim claims that “novellas are often structurally syncopated...their effect tends to be not instantaneous but cumulative.” In “The Three-Day Weekend Plan,” from the 2011 anthology The Late American Novel, John Brandon offers a tongue-in-cheek suggestion: hoard your novella. Best to “downplay the novella in casual conversation,” and instead keep the form to “ourselves, the adults.” The novella is a personal document, something that will “let us find out, in the writing, how we truly write.” Work to keep in a closet or desk drawer, “away from any and all publishing apparatus.” In “Notes on the Novella,” published that same year in Southwest Review, Tony Whedon waxes lyric about the form: “novellas are not so much told as dreamed aloud; they inhabit a realm of half-shapes and shadowy implication.” Historically, they “[thrive] on travel and adventure and [are] often set in exotic climes.” Whedon stresses the need for control, and uses language that mimics John Gardner’s oft-quoted definition of the form: all “subplots need subordinating to their main storyline.” That control, in the formal sense, enables time and tense shifts. That temporal compression increases tension and pacing, resulting in a “swirly and gunky” effect. Novellas are “implosive, impacted, rather than explosive and expansive.” I read this as novellas refract rather than reflect. They are something shaken, but not spilled. “The Return of the Novella, the Original #Longread” by Jon Fassler appeared last year at The Atlantic. Fassler laments that novellas are tucked into short story collections as an afterward, or packaged with other novellas to be “sold as a curiosity.” Although Fassler’s piece is primarily a profile of Melville House’s success with re-issuing older works in their “Art of the Novella” series, he concludes that “a renaissance in the mid-length non-fiction” form, the “journalistic equivalent of the novella,” is enabled because of electronic editions. Upon the release of his 2012 novel Sweet Tooth, in which a character publishes a novella, Ian McEwan quipped a series of imagined critical reactions to the short form in The New Yorker: “Perhaps you don’t have the necessary creative juice. Isn’t the print rather large, aren’t the lines too widely spaced? Perhaps you’re trying to pass off inadequate goods and fool a trusting public.” McEwan confidently calls the novella the “perfect form of prose fiction,” citing a “long and glorious” lineage: Mann, James, Kafka, Conrad, Camus, Voltaire, Tolstoy, Joyce, Solzhenitsyn, Orwell, Steinbeck, Pynchon, Melville, Lawrence, and Munro. A few weeks earlier, at that year’s Cheltenham Festival, McEwan claimed that he “would die happy” if he “could write the perfect novella.” Although he worries the form is unseemly for publishers and critics, readers love that they could “hold the whole thing structurally in your mind at once.” Inverting the typical criticism, McEwan claims that the “novel is too capacious, inclusive, unruly, and personal for perfection. Too long, sometimes too much like life.” In sarcastic response, Toby Clements at The Telegraph thinks that McEwan is “lucky to be allowed to publish novellas.” Clements quotes Philip Rahv, who says that the novella form “demands compositional economy, homogeneity of conception, concentration in the analysis of character, and strict aesthetic control.” Returning to McEwan, Clements considers the foolishness of word and page count definitions. At 166 pages, On Chesil Beach was considered a novella by McEwan, but a short novel by the Booker prize judges. Giraldi notes that “Adultery” by Andre Dubus is identified as a short story in one collection, and a novella in another. I would add Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor to that list. I have defaulted to italics appropriate for a short novel, but many consider the work a novella. Confusion, idiosyncrasy, beauty: welcome to the world of the novella. 2. While charting the lineage of novella discussions is worthwhile, as a writer of the form I am most interested in application. Perhaps the most writer-friendly treatment in recent memory is “Revaluing the Novella” by Kyle Semmel from the December 2011 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle. Rather than formal comparison, Semmel focuses on what successful novellas contain. Like Giraldi and Whedon, Semmel applies John Gardner’s definition of a novella, as explicated in The Art of Fiction. He supports Gardner’s claim that novellas move through a series of small climaxes. Semmel rightly stresses the “series” element of the definition. The mode of the novella is athletic, forward-leaning. Gardner splits his definition to contain three modes of novellas: single stream, non-continuous stream, and pointillist. The nomenclature might be idiosyncratic, but Gardner’s criticism was always homegrown. Semmel adds to Gardner’s discussion: often novellas contain “resolution; there is closure.” He admits that the point might sound obvious, but it stresses that novellas are not meant to be top-heavy or flimsy. A necessary point to make, as even Antrim, an admirer of novellas, claims that the form “has ambivalence built into its DNA...[it] serves up irresolute endings.” Semmel considers a range of examples, from “Voices from the Moon” by Andre Dubus to Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates. He also considers “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” by William H. Gass, but quickly dismisses the work as a “gangly prose poem” of more interest to “literary scholars” than readers. My literary heart sunk. I have loved Gass’s longer novella, “The Pedersen Kid,” ever since it was recommended to me by novelist Tom Bailey, while I was an undergraduate at Susquehanna University. Bailey thought novellas were defined by time—a season or a weekend—and Gass’s piece was offered as an example. Gardner devotes several sentences to that longer-titled, shorter work, but spends pages explaining why “The Pedersen Kid” is “a more or less perfect example of the [novella] form.” It is important to note that Gardner stressed not only the stream of climaxes, but that they were “increasingly intense.” Yet what interests me most is Gardner’s further qualification that these climaxes are “symbolic and ritualistic.” It should not be surprising that Gardner loves this novella: Gardner published it in 1961 in his magazine, MSS. Gass’s novella nabbed the magazine thirty charges of obscenity, one of which, co-editor LM Rosenberg shares, was “‘nape,’ as in neck.” Federal fines caused the magazine to fold after three issues, but Gardner never stopped appreciating the novella. His summary of the plot: “In some desolate, rural landscape . . . in the dead of winter, a neighbor’s child, the Pedersen kid, arrives and is discovered almost frozen to death near Jorge’s father’s barn; when he’s brought in and revived, he tells of the murderer at his house, a man with yellow gloves; Big Hans and Pa decide to go there, taking young Jorge; when they get there, Jorge, making a dash from the barn to the house, hears shots; Big Hans and Pa are killed, apparently -- Jorge is not sure -- and Jorge slips inside the house and down cellar, where at the end of the novella he is still waiting.” I reread the novella each winter. I also revisit Gass’s preface to the collection, which explains the composition of “The Pedersen Kid.” He “began by telling a story to entertain a toothache.” Such a story must contain “lots of incident, some excitement, much menace.” After weeks of writing he “began to erase the plot to make a fiction of it.” He “tried to formulate a set of requirements for the story as clear and rigorous as those of the sonnet.” He cast away a focus on theme for devotion to the “necessity for continuous revision, so that each word would seem simply the first paragraph rewritten, swollen with sometimes years of scrutiny around that initial verbal wound.” “The Pedersen Kid” was planned end-first, with all action “subordinated” toward “evil as a visitation -- sudden, mysterious, violent, inexplicable.” It was “an end I could aim at. Like death.” And yet, also like death, “I did not know how I would face it.” He imagined the book as a work of visual art: “the physical representation must be spare and staccato; the mental representation must be flowing and a bit repetitious; the dialogue realistic but musical. A ritual effect is needed. It falls, I think, into three parts, each part dividing itself into three.” Three also correlates to the story’s main characters -- Jorge, Big Hans, and Pa -- who enter the blizzard to find the Pedersen’s abandoned home. Although Whedon does not consider Gass’s work in his essay, it fits one of his theses that symbols in novellas “present themselves orchestrally in the form of leitmotifs that dovetail with disparate time sequences to create a strong over-arching moral theme: hence the novella’s connection with allegory.” Gass’s novella contains extended spaces between words, which John Madera calls “caesuras,” and Samuel Delany thinks are “actual suspensions of sound.” Gass says that he “wanted pages that were mostly white. Snow.” He practiced typographical and pictorial experimentation in another novella, Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. The novella form is short enough to be both art and artifice. Experimentation does not become exhausting. The novella is ritual: for Gardner, for Gass, for Whedon, for me, but for others? 3. Despite claims about the paucity of options, writers continue to draft and publish novellas in literary magazines and as standalone books. Big Fiction, At Length, A Public Space, PANK, New England Review, Seattle Review, Glimmer Train, and The Long Story have published novella-length work; The Missouri Review included one of my favorites, “Bearskin” by James A. McLaughlin. Ploughshares Solos releases novellas as single e-books. Miami University Press and Quarterly West have revived their novella contests. Iron Horse Literary Review holds an annual chapbook contest that publishes a novella-length work during select years. Texas Review Press has its own annual contest, the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize. Readers and writers of speculative fiction continue to embrace the novella form. Consider Ted Chieng, Jason Sanford, and Kij Johnson; not to mention the nominees for the annual Hugo Award for Best Novella. The most recent winner was Brandon Sanderson, for The Emperor’s Soul. Deena Drewis founded Nouvella, a press devoted solely to novellas, in 2011. Drewis initially considered works as low as 10,000 words, but became worried that some readers would consider such standalone books as “long short [stories].” She admits that defining a novella is difficult, and instead uses the work of Andre Dubus, Jim Harrison, and Alice Munro as formal affirmations. At 4 x 6 inches, Nouvella books can feel too bulky beyond 40,000 words, so form requires practical function. Her longest release, The Sensualist by Daniel Torday, “occupies more temporal space” than her other books. Torday told Drewis the work had originally been a novel, but she received the manuscript “pared down to its working limbs. It doesn’t feel compacted the way a short story is often a work of compression, but it also doesn’t take the liberty of meandering, like a novel sometimes does.” Nouvella’s stated mission is to “find writers that we believe have a bright and dedicated future in front of them, and who have not yet signed with a major publisher.” She finds that the form is “a good point of entry for readers to discover emerging authors.” If readers enjoy a short story from a new writer, they need to do the legwork to find other stories, “or wait until a collection comes out, but that requires a good deal of dedication and perseverance.” Instead, a novella “allows you to spend a little more time inside the author’s head, and because it’s a stand-alone book, it demands more attention from the reader. It’s also not a novel, which for readers, can seem like a big commitment.” Drewis is prescient: Daniel Torday's debut novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, will be published in 2015 by St. Martin's Press. Such evolution is not exclusive to Nouvella. Andrew Ervin’s Extraordinary Renditions, a collection of three novellas from Coffee House Press, preceded his forthcoming debut novel, Burning Down George Orwell's House. Mark Doten, who acquired Ervin’s title for Soho Press, notes that “having a strong favorable opinion” of Ervin’s shorter work “was certainly a factor [but not the only one]...in that book going to the top of my reading pile.” Of course writers are not simply drawn to the novella form for its exposure opportunities. Tim Horvath has always written fiction “on the long side...[before he] knew a thing about word counts and literary journals and what they were looking for.” “Bridge Poses,” his 9,000 word story, was published in New South, yet he was unable to publish another, longer work, Circulation, in literary magazines. An editor at AGNI, while encouraging, "warned that it would be difficult to publish in a journal because of its length." Bradford Morrow, the editor of Conjunctions, wrote some paragraphs in support of the work, and that convinced Horvath to remain with the piece. Sunnyoutside Press ultimately released the novella as a book, and Horvath appreciated how the story’s manageable length meant that the work's “cartographic and library obsessions” could be “echo[ed] throughout the design elements of the book.”  Horvath is drawn to “stories that feel as though they encompass multitudes, that take their sweet time getting going, that have a leisurely confidence in themselves, that manage nonetheless to feel urgent, their scale necessary.” That macro approach can be compared with Peter Markus, whose novella collection, The Fish and the Not Fish, is forthcoming from Dzanc Books: “every word in this new collection is monosyllabic, [and] you would maybe think that such limitation would limit such things as the length of the piece, how much can and can't be done, how long such a project might be sustained. The interesting thing here is that the restriction worked the other way. The river flowed up the mountain, so to speak.” Markus has always been interested in “short novels or long stories” like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, “The Pedersen Kid,” Faulkner’s “The Bear,” Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Kerouac’s Visions of Gerard, and the novellas of Jim Harrison. The novella form’s length afforded Horvath and Markus a particular sense of control over structure and presentation. The same approach might be applied to The Mimic’s Own Voice by Tom Williams, which he viewed as a “parody of an academic essay.” After he published a story in Main Street Rag, the journal’s publisher, M. Scott Douglass, approached Williams about being a part of the press’s new novella series. The form matched the writer: Williams wonders who would not appreciate “fiction that equally borrows the short story’s precision and the novel’s potency.” Williams uses the same word as Gardner — “perfection” — to describe the unique tightness of novellas, citing his list of favorites: Cataclysm Baby by Matt Bell, Nothing in the World by Roy Kesey, Honda by Jessica Treat, Seize the Day by Saul Bellow, Sula by Toni Morrison, and Goodbye Columbus by Philip Roth. My own forthcoming novella, This Darksome Burn, began as an experimental, long story; early readers thought it a one-act play. I expanded the manuscript to a novel, reaching 300 pages, but was unsatisfied. Subplots upon subplots had blurred the central narrative. I started-over a year later. I turned the manuscript into a pitch, treatment, and finally a film script. Thought was subverted to action. Everything existed on the page. The script became a novella, and Erin Knowles McKnight, my editor and publisher at Queen’s Ferry Press, suggested I switch to present tense, which allowed me to increase the story’s immediacy. My dark story about an overprotective father in the shadow of the Siskiyou Mountains had found its form: a novella. I had found my form: I placed a novella about opium traffickers and atomic bomb scientists in storySouth, and another novella about a defrocked priest is coming from CCM Press in 2015. I have practical and ritual reasons for being drawn to novellas. I am the father of five-month-old twin girls, and my writing is done in bursts, late at night. I spend my days living—preparing bottles, changing diapers, writing reviews, teaching, having lunch duty in my high school’s cafeteria, mowing the lawn, and watching my girls grow—but the cadences of story remain like a faint metronome. My old office will become a playroom for the twins, so I have migrated to a smaller room downstairs, the walls lined with books, and, proper to my Italian Catholic sensibility, a cross above the doorframe. I close the door, and in a small space, within a small page amount, I try to write stories that stretch their invisible seams. I love novellas. That doesn’t mean I won’t attempt a novel, or short stories, or essays, or poems. But my heart is set on that form that feels both mysterious and manageable. No apologies needed for that.

Confessions of an Analogian Writing for the Webs

1. I have to wonder how it happened. In early 2009, I wrote on my newly-minted blog: It’s a pretty weird time on the planet — the economics of everything, the tools of mass communication, the rise (rise? emergence? triumph? hard to say...) of self-publishing and DIY arts production and distribution. Everything’s spinning and turning — exhilaratingly for some, nauseatingly for others. I was leaning toward nausea at the time. In all things, I was analog. I worked slowly, and I liked material, concrete things. Like books, pens, paper. My first novel was a year from release, and I’d been told, by everyone I knew in the literary world, that I should start a blog. Reluctantly, awkwardly, I did. In 2010, in an essay for the anthology The Late American Novel, I wrote: Realistically: the printed book, in hard cover at the least, may well go by the wayside. By all accounts, digital technologies and the market are pushing print, as we know it, to the margins [...] All this may well be the reality of the moment [...] My hope, on the other hand is that the above trajectory is not a foregone conclusion; or if it is, not a permanent one. I also wrote that I hoped the pendulum swing toward digital would swing back, to a future time where “Those of us who write will write better books. We’ll pare back on blog-blabbing, will be freer from self-consciousness, quieter in our heads, slower and less distracted, more imaginatively limber and inventive.” It is now the dusk of 2012, and I am going on my fourth year writing regularly for a major online literary site — the one you are reading right now. And in a few weeks, I will be involved in launching yet another digital literary venture... but more on that in a moment. How did it happen? Mine is an unlikely Web byline, and yet, more often than I ever would have imagined, I have been “recognized,” at a party, or in an email exchange, even at an artists’ colony, for my essays and reviews at The Millions. You’re the one who wrote that piece about... Seriously? I think. You read that? Part of me is still in 2009, dizzy and disoriented from all the spinning and turning. 2. Back then, along with being told to start a blog, I was told to read blogs. At the time, I still had a paper subscription to the NY Times, and an iBook that had maxed out on hard-drive space (and thus loaded Web pages very slowly). I can’t remember exactly how I started: there was maybe one literary blog I knew about, so I poked around there. That blog led to another blog, and that to another. About a week into my explorations, I landed at The Millions. This was back when the format was still a single post daily, in vertical scroll. I found myself revisiting the site: something about it clicked (so to speak), it seemed to me both erudite and unpretentious, a place where I could hang out for a while. The content was interesting but not overwhelming, the pace of it rigorous but unhurried. It was the first blog on which I ever commented. I kept coming back. I didn’t bother reading other blogs; I thought, okay, I’ll just stick with this one, it’s what I can do. About a month into my new and exciting blog life, I posted something on my own blog about former New Yorker staff writer Dan Baum’s Twitter-essay, wherein he had described (in Tweets) being fired by David Remnick. I didn’t really know what Twitter was (I still don’t have an account), but I’d read the essay (via The Millions?) and was intrigued. It took me about a month, however, to get some thoughts together; which was, and still is, typical of me, i.e., I may have joined the digital commentariat, but no form of technology was going to make me a faster thinker. I was no breaking-news journalist. Nonetheless, within an hour of posting, a comment appeared — from Dan Baum. I stared at it. Really? This was my first experience with actual social networking. He wrote: Sonya, a lot of words have been spilled about my New Yorker twitterpost, but this one was the best. Thank you. I remember the rush, that thrill of being winked at from across a crowded (cyber) room. In that moment, I got it — what all this fuss about social networking was about. Give the tools a try, just be yourself; write what you care about. Weird things will start to happen, some of them might be good. Even weirder: Baum tweeted my post, and instantly, my little blog of 50 daily visitors was flooded with close to 1,000 visitors. I felt like a crowd had just burst into my home, where I hadn’t vacuumed or done the dishes, and I was wearing an ugly bathrobe. But the light bulbs started to go on. I wrote first to Dan Baum, to thank him for his comment (and confirm it was in fact him); he was gracious and friendly. Then, I wrote to the editor of The Millions: Dear Max, I’m a novelist/blogger/fiction teacher and frequent reader of The Millions. I recently posted on my blog a response to Dan Baum’s much-read Twitterpost about the New Yorker, and then received this comment from Dan Baum himself. I copied and pasted the comment, then suggested that the readers of The Millions might be interested in the post as “a curiosity.” To which Max replied: Very cool! I'll throw a link into our next roundup Best, Max Emboldened, I wrote back, asked Max if by chance I might write for The Millions sometime. He replied that I should submit a draft of something, which I did. He worked with me on editing it, then published it, then a few others. After a couple of months of guest posting, I became a staff writer. 3. Two years ago, at a panel on publishing that I coordinated for the creative writing students at Columbia University, someone asked how important did the panelists think blogging and social networking were for one’s literary career. A couple of the panelists said that they thought it was very important, that these days authors were more responsible than ever for their own publicity, not to mention connecting with editors and agents, and that social networking was the way to do that. One of the panelists, a well-published fiction writer, offered an opposing view: “That stuff can be very distracting,” she said. “If you’d rather focus your energy and time on your novel or stories, you should do that.” Afterwards, I thanked the panelist for her words. “The students need to hear that,” I said to her. “That no matter what, their creative work is most important.” At the same panel the following year, which I also moderated, a published writer in attendance asked if the panelists had any thoughts for someone who didn’t write short-form. “It seems like a lot of publishing connections get made through blog-writing, but what if you’re really a long-form writer, and you’re working on a book, and that’s really all you’re doing?” I found myself interjecting thus: “I’m that kind of writer, as well. In an ideal world, I would be living in the woods, writing novels and long stories and nothing else. But at some point, I realized that I didn’t have that luxury; that it was a good idea to take advantage of all these outlets for short-form publishing.” My reactions to these two authors are not in direct opposition, but the nuances have shifted. I still believe that long-form creative writers must determine and do what works best for them; to learn what is distracting versus what is nourishing; to make choices that get them to finish and publish their books. Over the past few years, there have been moments when I’ve considered ceasing to write for The Millions, so that, in addition to teaching (where I earn my living) I can focus exclusively on fiction. But I’ve come to realize that, for me, engaging in both long-form and short-form, analog and digital, work well together. Strictly speaking, yes, the time I spend writing for online publication is time not spent writing my second novel; and yet it is still, for me, time spent nourishing my writing life. There is, it would seem — needs to be for most of us in this publishing environment — more to the writing life than manuscript word counts and book deals. One must be mindful of the stamina, and the supportive community, required for the long haul of long-form literary writing; which is, even in the case of relative “success,” increasingly divorced from a viable livelihood and voluminous readership. Being able to write and publish short-form work, on a somewhat regular basis, has energized me to keep showing up at my fiction desk (mornings, no internet), which is, more accurately — and perhaps appropriately in light of this notion of complementary activities — not really a desk at all, but a spiral-bound notebook in which I write long-hand. I should say, too, that I spend relatively little time on either Facebook or Twitter. If a Tweet is 140 characters, and this essay is 11,000 characters, then you could say that this is what I do every month, alongside novel writing, in lieu of 80 Tweets. Writing short essays and reviews are also a way for me to think. This past summer, I worked for two solid months on a long piece about psychic homelessness, i.e., geographic mobility, an unstable sense of place. The piece ranged and roamed, encompassing the essays of Emerson, the novels of Wendell Berry, the memoirs of Kathleen Norris, Jimmy Carter, and Donald Hall, the “anxiety of influence,” reflections on my marriage and divorce, meditations on the legacy of immigration, questions of social class... it was a mess, and I trashed it, heavy with a sense of failure. This fall, I’ve had a chance to resurrect the piece — fragments of it, that is — in short form, in an online column at The Common, called “Annals of Mobility.” I can think out the issues one at a time and, perhaps a year from now, look at them in the aggregate and understand what it is I feel and have wanted to say. In this way, ironically, Web writing has slowed me down and allowed me to take my time with a complex idea. 4. Which brings me to Bloom. In September 2011, The Millions graciously allowed me a platform for highlighting a group of authors, and, perhaps more significantly, a varied way of looking at and engaging in the writing life — that of zig-zag paths, a slower pace, living multiple lives; and ultimately “succeeding,” one way or another, in one’s own good time. I am referring to the “Post-40 Bloomers” series, which I’ve been honored to write and edit over the past year. In a few weeks, you’ll be hearing about Bloom — a new site, originating from “Post-40 Bloomers,” carrying on and expanding the series, with support from The Millions. Instead of monthly, you’ll read about a “Bloomer” weekly, along with other great features related to later-life blooming. So far, Bloom is scheduled to feature Donald Ray Pollock, Peter Ferry, Deborah Eisenberg, Bram Stoker, W.M. Spackman, Kate Chopin, Shannon Cain, Karl Marlantes, George Eliot, Samuel Richardson, Penelope Fitzgerald, Joseph Kanon, Pauline Chen... this exciting list goes on and on. The irony of it all delights and humbles me. Bloom is about taking one’s time, sometimes off the beaten path. We’re claiming the technology of fast-and-instant and using it to talk about the many different ways of living, working, creating — fast, slow, direct, indirect, prolific, sparse. I won’t be moderating that publishing panel again this year, but if I were, I would say to the anxious student who asks about blogging and digital publishing — who is worried about money and family, his messy creative process, and his prospects for literary “success” — I would say to him: Just be yourself. You will bloom in good time. Image via aussiegall/Flickr

He Hit Send: On the Awkward but Necessary Role of Technology in Fiction

1. “Can the hoary trope of mistaken identity still play in the age of Google images?” asks Alex Witchel in the New York Times Book Review. Witchel is talking about the premise of Michael Frayn’s new novel Skios and soon answers herself: “Well, no,” she says, “but since the author is Michael Frayn...it’s tempting to cut him some slack.” Is it? Maybe — it’s fiction, after all, and that being the case Frayn can do whatever he wants — but as a reader, and a writer, I wonder about that slack. More generally, I wonder about works of fiction that take place in a world identical to that which you and I inhabit, except for one thing: technology is all but ignored. I’m not referring to Luddite authors here — to Jonathan Franzen's rejection of e-books and Twitter. I’m talking about whether a character in a literary novel set in the year 2012 need even be aware of Twitter, or at the very least, email. It isn’t hard to make a case against including technology in fiction. First, technology can be awkward to write about. Also, to read about. The jargon is clumsy: download, reboot, global positioning device. It’s embarrassing, really. So I understand an author’s impulse to avoid littering pages of otherwise lyrical prose with the bleep-boop-beep of tech speak. For this reason, authors often forgo current technologies when they want their characters to communicate with one another, or to reveal important, plot-forwarding information. I get it. What could be less romantic than a text message? Fiction allows for a certain level of restraint, after all, where the author need not include a protagonist’s every bathroom break or end each scene with the characters saying goodbye. Why then, if it’s common practice to avoid including other unglamorous functions of characters’ daily lives — like said bathroom break — is it necessary to show them texting and refreshing their inboxes? Think of it this way: in most cases, a bowel movement will not move the plot forward; an email will. Despite all the trouble technology might cause, when it’s absent from contemporary novels, a big white elephant appears on the page and starts ambling around. (Perhaps searching for an unprotected Wi-Fi network?) Usually these are good books, full of beautiful language and arresting characters that teach me what it means to be human. But, as was the case with Vendela Vida’s Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, the obvious absence of things like search engines and smart phones makes me pause and think, "Couldn't she have at least Googled her father's name before she set off to the Arctic in search of him?" In “A Kind of Vast Fiction” — an essay in the form of an email thread published in The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books (edited by Jeff Martin and The Millions’ C. Max Magee) — David Gates and Jonathan Lethem discuss strategies for including, and avoiding, technology in fiction. Midway through the conversation, after Gates admits to being wary of certain social networking sites, Lethem asks, “So you’re Googling and YouTubing, if not Twizzling or Fnorgling, fair enough. But are your characters doing the same? Do you find it as difficult as I do to get this un-Brave, no-longer-that-New World onto the page in any credible way?”  Gates’s response is packed with insight: I have no idea how to handle this new mode of living (I guess “living” is the word) in fiction. I probably spend more time emailing and reading online than I do having non-virtual human contact — and I bet I’m not that unusual. If my characters were like that, would their lives be eventful enough to write about? On the other hand, if I write about people for whom the internet is — as far as the reader can see — peripheral or nonexistent, am I not essentially writing historical fiction? In the last story I finished, I used the expedient of sending my main character on a vacation where she’s sworn to limit her internet and cell phone use. And how do you deal with the problem of writing something that may be dated by the time the book comes out? My novel Preston Falls, which appeared in 1998, has a now-hilarious account of an email exchange — “He hit Send,” and so forth. And I just received a piece of student fiction which mentions Facebook and Skype in adjacent paragraphs; my instinct is that this is showing off, but maybe it’s no different from Jane Austen mentioning a fortepiano and a huswife on the same page. I’m interested in novels that render what Gates calls “this new mode of living” — those that successfully incorporate technology into their characters’ experiences. The following came to mind when I began to think about what recent works of fiction had either pulled this off or at least tried. 2. Consider Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding: The fact that they didn’t communicate by cell phone, didn’t chat or text, could reasonably be chalked up to the fact that they didn’t need to, they lived fifty yards apart and saw each other five days a week, but then again the students did little but chat and text, text messages were their surest form of intimacy, and to never have texted or been texted by Owen, not to know Owen’s number even for emergency purposes, not that this was an emergency, seemed suddenly to expose a great gulf between them. The above appears almost 300-pages into this 512-page novel. Though The Art of Fielding takes place on a college campus, this is one of the first mentions of texting in the book. And I can recall no mention of social networking in the first few hundred pages. This struck me as odd, perhaps because I recently spent two years on a university campus as a graduate student; I’m all too aware of how fiercely attached students are to technology. (I saw more bicycle accidents than I can count at USC because cyclists tend to keep both their hands and their eyes glued to iPhone screens while they ride.) So when these basic technologies are finally acknowledged in the book, the moment feels inevitable, as if the white elephant has at last grown impatient and begun to scuff his great foot, threatening to charge. But the above excerpt is more than a cursory reference to text messages. This paragraph-long neurotic meditation, written from the point of view of sixty-year-old Westish College president Guert Affenlight (who has fallen in love with a student), provides the book’s most profound thoughts on modern relationships. College student or otherwise, who hasn’t known the specific despair of being unable to get a hold of a lover? These days, to get a hold of means to text or to Skype or to email with an all caps subject line. Chad Harbach knows this. He might have fought it at first, but with this passage he illustrates that there is no way around mentioning technology — that if your characters aren’t going to use it they still need to acknowledge it. Because either way, it’s going to affect them: they are alive and in love in the Twenty-First Century. Now here are a few sections from early on in Jennifer Egan’s 2006 novel The Keep. In it, Danny has traveled from New York to stay at his cousin’s remote castle-cum-New-Age-resort, somewhere in Austria, Germany or the Czech Republic (he isn’t sure), where there is no internet or cell connection: Danny tried to get away after breakfast to set up his satellite dish. The need to be back in touch was getting uncomfortable, distracting, like a headache or a sore toe or some other low-grade physical thing that after a while starts to blot out everything else. And when he finally does get his satellite dish hooked up (is there any less elegant sounding piece of equipment than a satellite dish?), it soon falls into a mucky, black swimming pool and he in turn chucks his phone into the forest: Eventually Danny calmed down enough to start looking for his phone. The longer he groped in the cypress, pulling threads in his jacket and sending fat little birds squawking out into the air, the more precious that clunky plastic thing started to get in his head. Like a relic. Just to have it. And there it was, finally, caught between two branches. Danny felt like sobbing. He couldn’t resist holding the phone up to his ear one more time. Maybe that’s all a tad melodramatic, but isn’t it accurate that even in 2006 a person who’d been separated from his cell phone would be brought to some level of hysteria? It isn’t for nothing that there are two ways of being haunted by a missing cell phone: the phantom weight of it in your jeans pocket, and the phantom vibration of a call you couldn’t possibly have received. You miss the object — the gadget — and you miss what it represents. Egan’s use of technology in this book is successful because it speaks to both gadget lust and a longing to be in touch in a way that only technology can deliver. A quarter of the way into his 2009 novel Await Your Reply Dan Chaon plugs in a concise, seemingly arbitrary chapter written in the second-person. After briefly painting a portrait of “you” as an unknowing target of identity theft and victim of suburban malaise, the narrator says: You don’t feel particularly vulnerable, with your firewall and constantly updating virus protection, and most of the predators are almost laughably clumsy. At work you receive an email that is so patently ridiculous that you forward it to a few of your friends. Miss Emmanuela Kunta, Await Your Reply, it says in the subject line, and there is something almost adorable about its awkwardness. “Dear One,” the email begins. What follows is perhaps my all-time favorite fictionalized email, if not my favorite page of published writing of the last decade: a spam email claiming to have been sent by a nineteen-year-old girl from the Ivory Coast. The fact that the passage nearly brings me to tears each time I read it has to be proof that what we tag as technology (email and the like) is surely more human than machine. Or maybe it’s proof that Dan Chaon is a master of the art of fiction. I’d argue both. Technology propels the plot throughout Await Your Reply, a book about shedding and remaking identities. Chaon is smart enough to capitalize on the many ways that the internet and gadgets make this work more possible now than ever before. Where he excels is in knowing just how and where to aim his lens at these tools. Rather than blur the human element of the narrative, technology helps bring into focus an honest story about our modern life: computer viruses and stolen identities and missed connections: “Who falls for this?” you would like to know...But for some reason, driving home, you find yourself thinking of...Miss Emmanuela Kunta in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, the orphan daughter of a wealthy gold agent...and she walks along a market street...and she turns and her brown eyes are heavy with sorrow. Await your reply. If an email can demonstrate this kind of vulnerability and hope, then email it will be. Technology it will be. 3. It turns out that each of these instances of technology in fiction has to do with the way that technology connects characters. And what are characters if not people like us — people for whom the stuff of connecting with others is messy and hard and all we ever really want? Maybe, then, if this is the truth about technology, there shouldn’t be any slack given to those authors who forgo including it in their books. You might even say it’s foolish to miss the opportunity to show that technology is not a series of tubes, or a high-pitched beeping sound, or an awkward element to work around, but rather a vital part of the modern human experience.   Image via Nate_Steiner/Flickr

A Year in Reading 2011

If you're like me, you keep a list of books you read, and at this time of year, you may run your finger back over it, remembering not just the plots, the soul-lifting favorites, and the drudges cast aside in frustration. You also remember the when and where of each book. This one on a plane to somewhere cold, that one in bed on a warm summer night. That list, even if it is just titles and authors and nothing more, is a diary in layers. Your days, other plots, imaginary people. And so when, in preparing our annual Year in Reading series, we ask our esteemed guests to tell us about the "best" book(s) they read all year, we do it not just because we want a great book recommendation from someone we admire (we do) and certainly not because we want to cobble together some unwieldy Top 100 of 2011 list (we don't). We do it because we want a peek into that diary. And in the responses we learn how anything from a 300-year-old work to last summer's bestseller reached out and insinuated itself into a life outside those pages. With this in mind, for an eighth year, we asked some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers to look back, reflect, and share. Their charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2012 a fruitful one. As we have in prior years, the names of our 2011 "Year in Reading" contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader. Stephen Dodson, coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat. Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad. Ben Marcus, author of The Flame Aphabet. Eleanor Henderson, author of Ten Thousand Saints. Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin. Nick Moran, The Millions intern. Dan Kois, senior editor at Slate. John Williams, founding editor of The Second Pass. Michael Bourne, staff writer at The Millions. Michael Schaub, book critic for NPR.org. Scott Esposito, coauthor of Lady Chatterley's Brother, proprietor of Conversational Reading. Hannah Pittard, author of The Fates Will Find Their Way. Benjamin Hale, author of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore. Geoff Dyer, author of Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. Chad Harbach, author of The Art of Fielding. Deborah Eisenberg, author of Collected Stories. Duff McKagan, author of It's So Easy: And Other Lies, former bassist for Guns N' Roses. Nathan Englander, author of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. Amy Waldman, author of The Submission. Charles Baxter, author of Gryphon: New and Selected Stories. David Bezmozgis, author of The Free World. Emma Straub, author of Other People We Married. Adam Ross, author of Ladies and Gentlemen. Philip Levine, Poet Laureate of the United States. Mayim Bialik, actress, author of Beyond the Sling. Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer of The Walkmen. Chris Baio, bassist for Vampire Weekend. Bill Morris, staff writer at The Millions. Rosecrans Baldwin, author of You Lost Me There. Carolyn Kellogg, staff writer at the LA Times. Mark O'Connell, staff writer at The Millions. Emily M. Keeler, Tumblrer at The Millions, books editor at The New Inquiry. Edan Lepucki, staff writer at The Millions, author of If You're Not Yet Like Me. Jami Attenberg, author of The Melting Season. Dennis Cooper, author of The Marbled Swarm. Alex Ross, author of Listen to This, New Yorker music critic. Mona Simpson, author of My Hollywood. Yaşar Kemal, author of They Burn the Thistles. Siddhartha Deb, author of The Beautiful and The Damned: A Portrait of the New India. David Vann, author of Legend of a Suicide. Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Edie Meidav, author of Lola, California. Ward Farnsworth, author of Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric. Daniel Orozco, author of Orientation and Other Stories. Hannah Nordhaus, author of The Beekeeper's Lament. Brad Listi, founder of The Nervous Breakdown. Alex Shakar, author of Luminarium. Denise Mina, author of The End of the Wasp Season. Christopher Boucher, author of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive. Parul Sehgal, books editor at NPR.org. Patrick Brown, staff writer at The Millions. Jacob Lambert, freelance writer, columnist, contributor to The Millions. Emily St. John Mandel, author of Last Night in Montreal, staff writer at The Millions. Kevin Hartnett, staff writer for The Millions. Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family, staff writer at The Millions. Jeff Martin, author of The Late American Novel. Jane Alison, author of The Sisters Antipodes. Matthew Gallaway, author of The Metropolis Case. Nuruddin Farah, author of Crossbones. Natasha Wimmer, translator of The Third Reich. Jean-Christophe Vatlat, author of Aurorarama. Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Illumination. Brooke Hauser, author of The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens. Belinda McKeon, author of Solace. Ellis Avery, author of The Teahouse Fire. Buzz Poole, author of Madonna of the Toast. A.N. Devers, editor of Writers' Houses. Mark Bibbins, author of The Dance of No Hard Feelings. Elissa Schappell, author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls. Rachel Syme, NPR contributor. A Year in Reading Wrap Up Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr. Year in Reading Graphics by LK Magee

The Millions Top Ten: August 2011

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for August. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Pale King 6 months 2. 2. The Enemy 4 months 3. 4. Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric 5 months 4. 5. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry 4 months 5. 8. Leaves of Grass 2 months 6. 6. The Hunger Games 6 months 7. 7. A Moment in the Sun 3 months 8. 9. Otherwise Known as the Human Condition 3 months 9. - How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive 1 month 10. - The Bathtub Spy 1 month David Foster Wallace's The Pale King remains in our top spot, but it will be headed (most likely along with The Hunger Games), to our Hall of Fame next month where it will join this month's inductee, the book I co-edited, The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books. Thanks again to all the Millions readers who picked the book up. It was a great project, and I'm glad I had a chance to share it with you. We have a pair of newcomers this week. Readers were clearly intrigued by Emily St. John Mandel's review of Christopher Boucher’s unique new novel How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive. We also have another Kindle Single on our list. Tom Rachman, whose The Imperfectionists is already in our Hall of Fame, makes the list with The Bathtub Spy, a new short story published as an e-book original. Christopher Hitchens' timely The Enemy has already had a nice showing on our list, suggesting that readers are warming to the pricing and perhaps the more bite-sized nature of this new format. Do Kindle Singles (and similar pieces offered on other platforms) undermine books or are readers now being introduced to the work of writers like Hitchens and Rachman via these low-cost "samples?" Something to ponder. Meanwhile, the stay of George R.R. Martin's latest, A Dance with Dragons, on our list turns out to be brief. Other Near Misses: The Magician King, Swamplandia!, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, and The Art of Fielding. See Also: Last month's list

The Millions Top Ten: July 2011

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for July. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Pale King 5 months 2. 2. The Enemy 3 months 3. 3. The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books 6 months 4. 5. Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric 4 months 5. 6. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry 3 months 6. 8. The Hunger Games 5 months 7. 9. A Moment in the Sun 2 months 8. - Leaves of Grass 1 month 9. 10. Otherwise Known as the Human Condition 2 months 10. - A Dance with Dragons 1 month David Foster Wallace's The Pale King is still in the top spot, and the rest of our top three are unchanged as well. New to our list is Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, which was the subject of a moving appreciation by Michael on the 4th of July. Meanwhile, Game of Thrones mania has hit our top ten, as George R.R. Martin's latest, A Dance with Dragons, lands in the tenth spot. Janet recently reviewed the epic series of books for us. And graduating to our Hall of Fame are a pair of breakout hits from summer 2010, The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman and Skippy Dies by Paul Murray. Near Misses: Cardinal Numbers, The Magicians, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, Swamplandia!, and How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. See Also: Last month's list

The Millions Top Ten: June 2011

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for June. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Pale King 4 months 2. 4. The Enemy 2 months 3. 2. The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books 5 months 4. 3. The Imperfectionists 6 months 5. 6. Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric 3 months 6. 8. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry 2 months 7. 7. Skippy Dies 6 months 8. 10. The Hunger Games 4 months 9. - A Moment in the Sun 1 month 10. - Otherwise Known as the Human Condition 1 month David Foster Wallace's The Pale King is again in the top spot, but, interestingly, Christopher Hitchens' "Kindle Single" The Enemy climbs further after its debut last month. The sudden proliferation of long-form journalism as ebook originals - Byliner has made a splash after releasing several of its own - will be an interesting trend to watch. Debuting this month were filmmaker John Sayles's massive and very well-recieved novel A Moment in the Sun and Geoff Dyer's collection of essays Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. This is Dyer's second book to crack our Top Ten, joining Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence. Graduating to our Hall of Fame, meanwhile, are Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand and Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky. Near Misses:The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, The Tiger's Wife, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and Unfamiliar Fishes. See Also: Last month's list

The Millions Top Ten: May 2011

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for May. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Pale King 3 months 2. 2. The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books 4 months 3. 3. The Imperfectionists 5 months 4. - The Enemy 1 month 5. 4. Atlas of Remote Islands 6 months 6. 9. Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric 2 months 7. 5. Skippy Dies 5 months 8. - The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry 1 month 9. 7. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption 6 months 10. - The Hunger Games 3 months David Foster Wallace's The Pale King retains our top spot, but that's not where the real action was this month. In May, a pair of new titles debuted and a third returned to our list after previously slipping off. The biggest news story of May was the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces, and that event was the catalyst for the first appearance of a "Kindle Single" (or any e-book original, for that matter) on our list. Clearly, many readers wanted Christopher Hitchens' take on this event, and Amazon managed to lock down the 17-page essay he produced. The Enemy would have appeared as a magazine piece not too long ago and would likely have therefore been pretty ephemeral. It will be interesting to see if this essay's status as a Kindle Single affords it any staying power. Also debuting was The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, which our staffer Janet Potter reviewed this month. Returning to our list after a one-month hiatus is YA bestseller The Hunger Games, whose return was perhaps spurred by headlines surrounding the casting of the upcoming film version of the book. The other big mover was Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric, climbing three spots. As I wrote last month, Only Millions readers would make a book of rhetoric a bestseller. Departing from our list were The Finkler Question, Cardinal Numbers, and Unfamiliar Fishes. Finkler's Booker glory has faded; Cardinal Numbers was touted in these pages by Sam Lipsyte, but that was back in December; and Unfamiliar Fishes, with its somewhat obscure topic, lost some steam after the book's initial publicity push waned. Other Near Misses: A Moment in the Sun, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. See Also: Last month's list

The Millions Top Ten: March 2011

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for March. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. - The Pale King 1 month 2. 8. The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books 2 months 3. 1. The Imperfectionists 3 months 4. 2. Atlas of Remote Islands 4 months 5. 3. Skippy Dies 3 months 6. 5. Cardinal Numbers 4 months 7. 6. The Finkler Question 5 months 8. 7. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption 4 months 9. 10. The Hunger Games 2 months 10. - Unfamiliar Fishes 1 month I knew it would end up atop our list, just not this month. David Foster Wallace's The Pale King debuts in the top spot, based only on those early pre-orders shipping from Amazon. Our other debut is Sarah Vowell's Unfamiliar Fishes, reviewed here on The Millions last week. Thanks to the generous interest of many Millions readers, the book I co-edited The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books vaults to the second spot on our March list (I hope everyone's enjoying it!). Graduating to our Hall of Fame is one of last summer's big books, Emma Donoghue's Room, and getting bumped from the list after a brief stay is the Mark Twain Autobiography. Other Near Misses: Lord of Misrule, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, Just Kids, and Woman in White. See Also: Last month's list

The Chameleon Machine

The following is excerpted from the collection of essays The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, co-edited by Jeff Martin and Millions founder C. Max Magee. The book includes inventive, thoughtful, and funny pieces in which Jonathan Lethem, Rivka Galchen, Benjamin Kunkel. Joe Meno, Deb Olin Unferth, and many others consider the landscape as the literary world faces a revolution, a sudden change in the way we buy, produce, and read books. The book is available now on Amazon and in all good bookstores. 1. There are certain divisions in the world that seem unnecessary to me. Consider, for a moment, the ebook/paperbook divide. On the one side, the traditionalists, with their—okay, our—love of the objects that we call books. The texture of the paper, the beautiful dust jackets. Being able to see how much of a book remains to be read, as pages stack up on the left and diminish on the right. The ability to see two pages at once and have a sense of what’s coming. Writing in the margins. On the other side stand the gadgeteers with their cold slim readers, packing entire libraries into a volume the size of a novella, flipping pages on a touchscreen. I don’t own a digital reader, but I understand why other people do. Aside from the natural joy of owning a shiny new gadget, there’s an undeniable appeal from a purely minimalist standpoint—why agonize over which two books to cram into your suitcase, when you can bring your entire library with you?—and I have to imagine that ebook aficionados have a much easier time of moving than I do. When I move to a new apartment, it’s a Herculean task involving towering mountains of impossibly heavy small boxes with labels like Fiction: Ames - Bellow and Theatre Books: Box 1 of 10. It isn’t pretty. Digital readers and paper books have little in common. But both objects have considerable merit, and this is why I think we should combine the two. The future of the book that I imagine involves an object that looks, in every detail, like a high-quality hardcover. The difference is that there’s no title visible on either the cover or the spine. When you first open the book, all the pages are blank. Hundreds of pages of high-quality paper—a slight sheen might hint at the underlying circuitry—with nothing on them. The cover is blank too. You might mistake the object for a blank notebook, except for the discreet touchscreen on the inside of the front cover. Here you scroll through your library, and select the book you want to read. For old time’s sake, let’s say The Catcher in the Rye. Once you’ve made your selection the pages remain blank for just a heartbeat—the process taking place in the heart of the book’s machinery is, after all, quite complex—but then the famous orange carousel horse of the first edition dust jacket rises slowly out of the blankness of the front cover, like an image rising out of Polaroid film. JD Salinger's name appears on the spine above the publisher’s logo, and then all at once the pages begin to fill. The book is typesetting itself. The first page is no longer blank. Beneath the Chapter One heading, the famous and incorrigible opener has appeared: "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born…" The object in your hands looks and feels like a book. The pages feel like paper. You flip through them, and all the words are there waiting for you; there’s no waiting for a screen to refresh. The object might even be made, with a judicious dash of library-scented accord from my favorite perfume shop, to smell like the books you grew up with. You can make notes on the pages if you wish, provided you use the special digital pen attached by means of a thin ribbon to the spine. But suppose you get tired of reading Salinger after awhile, or you finish the book. You go back to your touchscreen just inside the front cover, and flip through your library until you find something that appeals to you. Select the new volume, and the process begins again. Just a moment of blankness, while Salinger’s carousel horse fades out. The notes you took in the margins have vanished, but they’ll be there again the next time you want to read The Catcher in the Rye. And then, Leo Tolstoy's name on the spine. Turn the first page and the text of Salinger’s book has dissolved. The first line of the novel now reads as follows: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." The book in your hands is now Anna Karenina. 2. It only sounds like magic. Electronic paper—flexible sheets of paper-like material, comprised in various versions of polymer, microcapsules of oil, arrays of electrodes—has been around since the ‘70s, when Nick Shelton at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center created the first sheet of the stuff. Research continued in the decades that followed, and in early 2010 LG debuted a new prototype: a sheet of electronic paper with the dimensions of a newspaper page, weighing only 130 grams. In the photographs that accompanied the press release, the material holds a glassy patina; a man and a woman hold sheets of LG’s new paper in what looks like the Tokyo subway system, and the sheets hold the front page of a daily newspaper. It doesn’t quite look like paper, but it’s close. It’s so close. Is there any reason why, a few years from now, when the technology’s become lighter and better and less expensive, we couldn’t make entire books out of this stuff? There are of course logistical problems to consider—how to manage the display of a 600-page novel on a device that only has 350 pages, for instance—but this sort of thing doesn’t strike me as being particularly insurmountable. It seems to me that the failing of our digital readers to date is that the focus has been almost entirely on the content. Our earliest books were sublimely executed works of art, years and decades and entire lifetimes poured into the lettering and ornamentation of medieval manuscripts. The printing press changed all of this, of course, but the ghost of that early obsession with beauty has lingered. Beautiful books have remained with us, in ever-changing form, through all the seasons of publishing: gorgeous book jackets, impeccably designed interiors, gilt lettering on cloth. But digital readers have been focused solely on finding the best possible means of presenting the book’s words, of inventing the ideal flatscreen to display them on. I fear we’re nearing a point of forgetting the idea of books as objects, as works of art whose form, not just whose content, we might consider preserving. 3. The book in your hands has transformed itself into Anna Karenina, but why stop there? One of the major problems of reading is the difficulty of ignoring the chaotic world around you. We’ve all been stuck in airplanes with screaming small children. Because blocking out this sort of thing by sheer willpower alone can be impossible, I wonder if perhaps our books might be enlisted to help us out. I read a fascinating article a few years back about directed-sound technology, and its potential for in use in museums. One of the aural problems of museums is that some patrons want to hear information about what they’re standing on front of, whereas others would vastly prefer to contemplate in silence. The idea with the directed-sound technology is that if you’d like to learn more about a particular display, you step into a specific location in the room—perhaps indicated by a circle of light projected onto the floor—and there, only there, at that particular point, in a projected column of ultrasonic sound, you hear a recorded voice explaining the nuances of 16th-century Chinese calligraphy or the finer details of the Battle of Brooklyn. Directed-sound technology has advanced to the point where beams of sound can be directed at an individual in such a way that the people sitting on either side of them will hear nothing. All of this makes me think that the book, once the technology advances a little further and can be easily embedded without adding too much weight, should have a noise-canceling button. Click it and step into the circle of light; you’d be cast, all at once, into your own private aural landscape. Perhaps it might enable silence, or some sort of soothing ambient noise. Care would have to be taken not to zone out completely at, say, airport departure gates, but I think the concept has promise. I was thinking the other day of sound-enabled picture books. It would be a strange and dazzling new form. Page upon page of gorgeous illustrations, with music, with text and spoken word that no one but the reader could hear. An interactive art project. Or imagine the more practical applications for travel books: on the page listing useful phrases for the country you’re traveling in, you could hear the pronunciation before you spoke, so as to avoid making a fool of yourself when you’re trying to order coffee in Slovakia. 4. For all my love of the electronic innovations of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, there are certain tactile experiences that I’m not willing to surrender. The experience of turning pages is one of them. I love machines, but I want the book I hold in my hands fifty years from now to look like the books I remember from childhood. I want to be able to see two pages at a time, I want to take notes in the margins, I want to flip backward to see what I missed. Most importantly, I want the bookstores I love to still exist in the future. The conveniences of the digital age are inarguable. I’ve never really liked grocery shopping; it’s nice that now I can do it online at midnight. I feel the same way about buying shoes. But books? That’s something else entirely. I imagine the bookstores of the future. They’d look very much like the bookstores of now, except it’s possible that they might be a little smaller; if most people are downloading books to machines, they’d need much less stock. A few people might still want to buy the old kind of book, the kind made out of paper, especially at author events. Those of us with the new books, the ones made out of electronic paper that can transform into other books in our hands, will browse for a while and then perhaps, if we happen to be carrying our new books with us, pay for and download the volumes we want to buy. Or perhaps we’ll buy books on a volume the size of a flash drive, to be downloaded to our new books when we get home later. And then we’ll sit in parks and subways and on sofas, the same as we have since the invention of the printing press, and we’ll flip through the pages of our beautiful machines.

More on Sam Anderson’s Marginalia

In his inaugural column for The New York Times Magazine, former New York Magazine critic Sam Anderson expands upon the idea he shared with us in his "Year in Marginalia," his riff on our big Year in Reading series. And, as a sidebar to Anderson's column, the Magazine has published a brief excerpt of John Brandon's compelling essay from The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books (perhaps you've heard that title mentioned around here lately?)

Tuesday New Release Day: Future, Foer, Food, Info, Boxing, Pym, Patterson, and More

My book, The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books is out today (more on that here), and also out this week is Joshua Foer's (the latest of the Foer's to throw his hat in the authorial ring) Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, buzzed about food memoir Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, a new look at the modern world's most ubiquitous commodity James Gleick's The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, Library of America boxing anthology At The Fights: American Writers on Boxing, Mat Johnson's Poe-inspired Pym, and Victoria Patterson's This Vacant Paradise. New in Paperback: Sam Lipsyte's The Ask and Chang-rae Lee's The Surrendered.

Insidious Devices: An Introduction to ‘The Late American Novel’

The following essay was co-written by me and Jeff Martin and is, in a slightly different form, the introduction to the collection of essays The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books that we co-edited and that includes inventive, thoughtful, and funny pieces in which Jonathan Lethem, Rivka Galchen, Benjamin Kunkel, Joe Meno, Deb Olin Unferth, and many others consider the landscape as the literary world faces a revolution, a sudden change in the way we buy, produce, and read books. The book's official release date is today, and if you are planning on ordering it from Amazon, today would be a great day to pull the trigger, as we'd like to see the sales rank number soar. Or, if you're so inclined, today would also be a great day to head over to your local indie bookstore and pick up a copy (or lots of copies - this book makes a great gift!) F. Scott Fitzgerald famously remarked, “There are no second acts in American lives.” While true in his specific case and dramatic in that Lost Generation sort of way, this statement has been proven wrong time and again. From Richard Nixon to John Travolta, American life is filled to the brim with second acts. Some lucky souls even manage a third, fourth, or even fifth (Cher, anyone?). But this phenomenon isn’t limited to we the living; it’s all around us. The LP was declared dead years ago, yet more and more bands are putting new material out on vinyl. The Baby Boomers are dusting off their old turntables and their grandkids are buying new ones. What’s out of fashion becomes retro, then goes vintage, and then comes back again. It all comes down to one word: reinvention. The word itself conjures up images as evocative of the stereotypical American dream as apple pie, Aaron Copland, or Chevrolet. In America, you can arrive a pauper and leave a prince, or at the very least own a home with a low interest rate and a TV that gets 300 channels. It’s been called the “Land of Opportunity” for quite some time, but a more apt and timely description would be the “Land of Reinvention.” Our media consumption over the past century looks like a Darwinian chart, a rapid evolution from gears and cranks to miniaturized Space Age sleekness. In that short time we’ve gone from phonographs to iPods, from scratchy 16mm reels of film to the crystal clarity of Blu-ray discs. But in that time, one format has remained virtually unchanged until recently: the book. The written word’s last big format change turned out to be a pretty big deal, fomenting revolutions and laying the groundwork for civil society, the scientific revolution, and nothing less than modernity itself. Gutenberg’s big coup sent shockwaves through palace halls across Europe (though, it should be noted, moveable type printing had been invented earlier in Asia) and soon reverberated around the globe. With the invention of the bound, printed, mass-produced book, medieval scribes found themselves left with an obsolete skill set. Latin and Greek faded as the linguae francae of the learned classes when printers sprang up and produced books in the local vernacular. Never before had shared knowledge been so accessible to so many. So alien and threatening to the established monopolies of knowledge, power, and morality were these insidious new devices that they set off a struggle that has raged on and on and on, from early sixteenth-century France, when King Francis I briefly made book printing a capitol offence—His Royal Highness reacting to the new technology’s facility for inciting religious schism—to the book banning brigades picketing your local library today. The proliferation of printed books also led to developments like the standardized spelling of the words you're reading right now— because who cared about spelling previously, when reading was a rarity?—and a greater awareness of the rules of grammar, which are nearly impossible to codify without a visual and intellectual understanding of language. The impact of the mechanical reproduction of books, though it did not register as lightning fast as the technological change of today, was nothing short of the remaking of civilization. And even as other media have followed the book and usurped its position at the center of cultural exchange, it still seems vital for us as a species to consider what a change in the essential form of the book might mean for our future. Because into this heady mix has come something as new and potentially paradigm-shifting as those first German Bibles. With the advent of e-readers, near infinite data storage capability, and a shift to a more sustainable and digitized culture, a sea change is upon us. Will books survive? And in what form? Can you really say you’re reading a book without holding one in your hands? These and other similar questions are guiding the current and sometimes heated conversations going on in bookstores, universities, libraries and living room book clubs. It would be foolish to claim to know for certain what will happen to the traditional bound and printed book, but there’s no doubt that the road that lies ahead looks quite different than the one behind. Over the past year and a half, we’ve had the great opportunity to work with and hear from some of today’s most promising literary voices. And as might be expected, there is no general consensus. Some have devised ingenious schemes and strategies, seeking to mark out future spaces in which books will survive and even thrive. Others expect future generations to encounter dystopian literary landscapes, where the merging of media and digital technology leaves books unrecognizable and somehow diminished in the eyes of readers. Some offer confident prognostications about literature’s future in this increasingly digital age. But one thing is certain, the conversation continues. And that is always a good thing.

The Millions Top Ten: February 2011

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for February. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 3. The Imperfectionists 2 months 2. 4. Atlas of Remote Islands 3 months 3. 8. Skippy Dies 2 months 4. 5. Room 6 months 5. 7. Cardinal Numbers 3 months 6. 10. The Finkler Question 4 months 7. 9. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption 3 months 8. - The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books 1 month 9. - Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1 1 month 10. - The Hunger Games 1 month Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists surges to the top of our list, followed by Judith Schalansky's Atlas of Remote Islands, and Paul Murray's Skippy Dies. Meanwhile, the bottom of our list includes three very diverse debuts. The Late American Novel, co-edited by yours truly, is only just now "officially" out but it has been shipping from Amazon for a few weeks now. (To everyone out there who's picked up the book, thanks for all your support.) Also, new on the list is the Mark Twain Autobiography that has gotten so much attention over the last few months. A few commentators, notably Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker, deflated the hype somewhat, but there is undoubtedly an enormous amount of interest in this literary legend. Finally, all the excitement around YA sensation The Hunger Games has landed the first book in the popular series on our list. Those three debuts took the spots left open by a trio of new Hall of Fame inductees, three books you could argue were the biggest literary reads of last summer, Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story, Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, and, of course, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. Near Misses: How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, Postcards from Penguin: One Hundred Book Covers in One Box, To the End of the Land, Just Kids , and Woman in White. See Also: Last month's list

Modes of Imagining the Writer of the Future

The following is excerpted from the collection of essays The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, co-edited by Jeff Martin and Millions founder C. Max Magee. The book includes inventive, thoughtful, and funny pieces in which Jonathan Lethem, Rivka Galchen, Benjamin Kunkel. Joe Meno, Deb Olin Unferth, and many others consider the landscape as the literary world faces a revolution, a sudden change in the way we buy, produce, and read books. The book is available on Amazon and in some stores already, and the official release date is March 1st. 1. The writer of the future will crouch in wind-swept aeries miles above the electronic din of the modern world, crafting feathers out of the leaves of old books. Watch him strap the wings to his back and toddle to the nest’s edge. Watch the wind ruffle his fine, sparse hair as he tilts farther and farther into the abyss. 2. At night, the writers of the future sleep but never dream. In the morning, their watchman arrives and flips on the lights, whistling under his breath. He carefully unrolls the writers’ dust-cloths. The writers are bunched on a stainless steel table, their screens so thin that it is impossible to believe that they each contain the power of a million typing monkeys. The watchman flips their switches; the cursors blink on the screens; the writers hum to life; and by the time he emerges from the back room with his caffè mocha and ham sandwich, already one of the writers is printing out the first chapter in a multi-generational comedic masterpiece, destined to be hailed by a similar bank of critics of the future as “Powerful,” “Luminous,” “Finely Wrought,” and “An Important Debut from a Writer to Watch.” 3. The writer of the future will sell her wares on the dog-crotted sidewalks of city streets, desperately flinging open her trench coat to reveal advance reading copies, braving the disgusted or averted faces of the more respectable kinds of pedestrians to whom French flaps or deckle edges mean nothing even remotely titillating. 4. A writer of the future sits in her office in the present, trying very, very hard to not panic. 5. Every year, the writers of the future will gather on a desert island, nervously clutching their notebooks to their chests and shuffling their spectacles on their noses. Over the course of two weeks, a series of competitions will take place in a great number of disciplines: Awkward Social Encounters, Furious Scribbling, Midnight Angst, Imperviousness to Blistering Reviews, Book Club Chatter, Esprit de L’Escalier, and Networking, among others. At the end of the Writer Olympics, points will be counted and the Bestsellers will be announced, and the losers will be shuffled one by one off the cliffs onto the jagged rocks below, notwithstanding some bitter muttering about how none of the judges even cracked the spines of the manuscripts under consideration. 6. It will be mandated: At every table in every diner in the world, there will sit a writer about the size of a napkin dispenser. At the end of the meal, one shall put in one’s credit card and out will pop a novel in a hundred and forty characters, or fewer. Examples: Bleak House: Fog in London, judicial shenanigans. How does it end? Nobody knows. The Road: A boy and his father in black and white and red. And roasted babies! Portnoy’s Complaint: Oh, my penis. Oh, my mother. Oh, my penis again. 7. A writer of the future holds her head in her hands. 8. For a moment, the writer of the future stands backstage, listening to the roar of the crowd chanting her name, steeling herself for the inevitable barrage of panties and roses as soon as she emerges, hearing the nervous voices of her groupies whispering their good lucks, and knowing that while this part of the job isn’t the easiest, all writers must deal with such crazed adulation at some point in their lives, and she can rest for the hour or so after her poetry reading in the carriage behind the six white stallions that will draw her slowly over the petal-strewn streets that will be, inevitably, thronged with her admirers shouting her own words back to her in soft and mellifluous tones. 9. In America’s brutal quest to compete with China to produce the best writers of the future, Baby Farms will sort infants into two distinct groups: Future Writers and Future Watchers of Television. The elite few will be ruthlessly prodded, tested, measured, and coached for the first thirty years of their lives, after which time they will have roughly five years to attempt to attain the status of Great American Novelist. If they fail, as of the eve of their thirty-sixth birthday, they will be forever afterward shuffled into these increasingly belittling categories: Promising Emerging Writer; Regional Writer; Midlist Writer; Catalog Copy Writer; Composition and Rhetoric Adjunct; Award-Winning Short Story Writer; Writer’s Writer; Genre Writer; Self-Published Writer; and, last, and most ignominious, Hollywood Screenwriter. 10. A writer of the future knows that no matter where she sets her work (in the historical-fiction past; in the science-fiction future), all she really is doing is talking about the present, anyway. 11. The writer of the future comes into his study and shuts the door behind him. There are actual books on the shelves, to the frequent wonderment of his friends, who secretly decry the dust; the windows have darkened themselves at his entry; the coffee of the future has been instantly percolated and awaits his lips. He paces for a moment or two to listen to where he left off the day before. When the last words die down, he takes a deep breath and closes his eyes. He unfolds his hands from the sleeves of the robes of the future. He lifts his elegant fingers. And he begins to conduct his words with vigorous armstrokes, the way a theremin player summons music from the air. 12. If the writers of the future all look just like James Patterson, with their leathery jowls and sandy comb-overs, it is because they all are, as a matter of fact, genetically cloned replicas of James Patterson. 13. All writers in the future, in order to be granted permission to publish their first books, will first have to collect a satisfactory number of previous careers. The Ministry of Arts and Letters, or Mini-Al, will issue little badges at the completion of stints in the occupations of: Food Server, Lifeguard, Transcriber for the Deaf, Rheumatologist, Data-Entry Clerk, Cashier, Sherpa, Furiously Disgusted Amazon Reviewer, Picketer, Pamphleteer, Census-Taker, Auditor, Policeperson, Interior Decorator, Groveling Toady to an Outsized Ego, and Over-consumer of Media Culture. The writers who are at last allowed to become Writers sometimes sit in their mahogany-lined studies, behind locked doors, and dabble their fingers in the miniature waterfalls on their desks. They sigh, pace, and check that the door is locked. At last, they open their desk drawers, take out their little sashes with the badges stitched on them, and run loving fingers over each badge, in fond remembrance of those distant, awful times. From a distance—say, through binoculars from an unmarked Mini-Al van in the street, or from the satellite that has turned its pulsing attention to that exact spot in the world—the writers who fondle their badges and wear fond, misty smiles on their faces often look like oversized Girl Scouts, beanies and all. 14. The writer of the future will have her body surgically modified to fit the contours of her work, canting her spine forward so it hovers over her desk, bowing her hands to better fit the shape of a keyboard, and inserting a titanium shell under her epidermis so that she can take her agent’s wise advice and grow a goddamn thicker skin already, jeez. 15. A writer of the future shakes it off and continues on. 16. Of all the many predictions that one can make about the writer of the future, there is only one that holds a whiff of the indisputable: that the writer of the future is the writer who writes. He is the one drawing word after word, pushing his sentences outward, into the darkness, into the thrilling unknown. He’s not going to put it off for tomorrow, and he’s not content with yesterday’s work. He is the one alone somewhere, writing, right now. And right now. And right now.

TLAN News

Three Guys One Book takes an early look at The Late American Novel (co-edited by yours truly and featuring three Millions writers as well as a number of other literary luminaries) and sees it as a great introduction to a whole group of exciting writers. The book has been spotted on shelves in the wild, and we'll be updating news about the book here. (Readers can also follow the book's official Facebook page to keep up on events, reviews and other goodies.)

Most Anticipated: The Great 2011 Book Preview

If 2010 was a literary year of big names -- featuring Franzen, Mitchell, Delillo and McEwan to name just a few -- 2011 is lining up to be more subtle. Amid a very full lineup of intriguing forthcoming books, just one stands above the rest in terms of hype and anticipation, a literary peak that's likely to be bittersweet in the form of the posthumous release of David Foster Wallace's final novel. Readers will be hoping it does justice to his legacy. In the shadow this big book are many others likely to be deserving of readers' time. While 2010 was given over to the headliners, 2011 may be a year of new discoveries. Here are some of the books we're looking forward to -- 8,000 words strong and encompassing 76 titles, this is the only 2011 book preview you will ever need. January or Already Out: Gryphon by Charles Baxter: A collection of short fiction from an acknowledged master of the form. Seven of the twenty-three stories in the collection are new; others, including the title story, are considered classics. In each of these pieces, Publisher's Weekly writes in a starred review, "the acutely observed real world is rocked by the exotic or surreal." Baxter's previous works include four novels (including a National Book Award nominee, The Feast of Love) and four prior short story collections. (Emily M.) The Empty Family by Colm Tóibín: Tóibín follows up his wildly successful 2009 novel Brooklyn with a new collection of nine short stories concerned with love and loss, memory and homecoming. The Telegraph has called this collection "exquisite and almost excruciating." (Emily M.) While Mortals Sleep by Kurt Vonnegut: In the four years since his death, the Vonnegut vaults have been raided, yielding 2008’s Armageddon in Retrospect and 2009’s Look at the Birdie.  Now comes While Mortals Sleep, 16 more unpublished pieces described by Delacorte Press as “a present left behind by a departed loved one.”  Perhaps.  But Vonnegut’s short fiction was generally uneven, and one might be forgiven for wondering how many more presents there are.  Because the further we move from his passing, the further we move from his best.  Dave Eggers, in the book’s foreword, calls Vonnegut “a hippie Mark Twain”; he is also in some danger of becoming a dorm-lit Tupac Shakur. (Jacob) Night Soul and Other Stories by Joseph McElroy: Underappreciated master McElroy is known (and loved) for the challenging body of work, and these stories aren't likely to disappoint his fans, though they may have come across some of them before. The oldest story in this collection of 12 dates back to 1981 and the title story was first published in 1982. But seven of them are reportedly from the last decade, including one "The Campaign Trail" which one early review describes as imagining "the 2008 Democratic presidential primary much like a Matthew Barney film of the subject might: unnamed figures representing Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama ceremonially confront each other in a wild area of what once was Canada." (Max) February: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell: Swamplandia! is the first novel from New Yorker "20 Under 40" writer Karen Russell. It builds out of a short story from her 2006 collection St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and tells the tale of the Bigtree family, operators of an alligator wrestling tourist attraction deep in the Everglades. The family business is imperiled when the star 'gator grappler dies, setting off a chain of catastrophes that lead 12-year-old Ava Bigtree to set off through the swamp in search of her lost sister Osceola. (Kevin) Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III: Andre Dubus III, of The House of Sand and Fog fame, grew up poor and hard in a Massachusetts mill town. His famous father, the late great short story writer Andre Dubus was AWOL, chasing younger tail, leaving Dubus and his three siblings to the care of their loving but overworked mother. The Townie is Dubus's memoir of growing up and learning to fight before he learned to write. Advance word coming out of Kirkus and Booklist suggests this is going to be a good one. (Kevin) When the Killing's Done by T.C. Boyle: In his thirteenth novel, T.C. Boyle turns his attention to the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara and the practice of killing non-native fauna in an effort to protect the original ecosystem. A starred review in Booklist says, “Incisive and caustically witty, Boyle is fluent in evolutionary biology and island biogeography, cognizant of the shared emotions of all sentient beings, in awe over nature’s crushing power, and, by turns, bemused and appalled by human perversity.” (Edan) The Strange Case of Edward Gorey by Alexander Theroux: Originally published in paperback in 2000, this biography of writer and illustrator Edward Gorey is being reissued by Fantagraphics Books in a new hardcover edition. Gorey was a reclusive, enigmatic figure who never married, professed asexuality in interviews, and became famous for a twisted and faintly ominous body of work -- marked by a distinctive Victorian Gothic sensibility -- that includes an alphabet book of dead children ("A is for Amy who fell down the stairs.") Alexander Theroux was Gorey's friend and neighbor for more than a quarter century. Part biography, part artistic analysis, and part memoir of a long friendship, with exclusive interviews conducted shortly before Gorey's death, this book is generally accepted as the most comprehensive portrait of Gorey ever written. (Emily M.) Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt: Perhaps you are aware that Winston Churchill called his spells of depression "black dog"? Well, Mr. Chartwell is that black dog--literally, he's a man-sized, ill-intentioned black laborador. In Rebecca Hunt's fabular first novel, Mr. Chartwell rents a room in a terrace in Battersea from a recently widowed young librarian named Esther Hammerhans: the black dog has business with the widow and with the war-weary Prime Minister.  British reviewers have been quite taken with the book's whimsy and its muscular grappling with the nature of depression—through the stinking, canine bulk of Chartwell himself and the dark philosophy he whispers such that only his intended victim can hear. (Emily W.) The Illumination: A Novel by Kevin Brockmeier: A new novel from the author of A Brief History of the Dead asks the question: What if our pain is the most beautiful thing about us? On a particular Friday night at 8:17pm, the Illumination commences: wounds and bruises begin to radiate light, to glimmer and shine. The Illumination follows the journey of a private book, a journal of love notes written by a man for his wife. The journal passes into the hands of a hospital patient following a lethal accident, and as it passes from hand to hand—to a data analyst, a photojournalist, a child, a missionary, a writer, a street vendor—the recipients find their lives subtly altered by their possession of the book. (Emily M.) Portraits of a Marriage by Sándor Márai: Sándor Márai is one of those novelists, like Irène Némirovsky, about whom those of us in the English-speaking community tend to employ words like "discovered," as if they were an obscure wine of quality unearthed in a Parisian basement. When Márai killed himself in 1989 in San Diego, shortly before his books began being translated to English, it's true that his status as a great mind of an imperial age was probably unknown to the gang at his local Circle K. However, the (Austro-)Hungarian novelist was one of the premier authors of his milieu--Budapest before World War II--and English readers are the redeemed rather than the redeemers now that we can finally read his beautiful novels. Portraits of a Marriage is a chronicle of a relationship and an era on the way out. (Lydia) West of Here by Jonathan Evison: Evison's new novel is the #1 Indie Next pick for February, meaning that independent booksellers across the United States have voted it their favorite of all the books scheduled for publication that month. Set in a fictional town on the Pacific coast of Washington State, West of Here moves back and forth in time between the stories of the town's founders in the late 1890s, and the lives of their descendants in 2005. It's a structure that allows for a remarkably deep sense of history and place, and Evison handles the sweeping scope of his narrative masterfully. (Emily M.) The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale: In this buzzed-about debut novel from Twelve Books, the eponymous hero is a chimpanzee who has learned to speak, read, and enjoy the visual arts, among other human endeavors. There is apparently interspecies love (and sex!) in the book, and the jacket copy declares that it goes beyond satire “…by showing us not what it means, but what it feels like be human -- to love and lose, learn, aspire, grasp, and, in the end, to fail.” A bookseller at legendary West Hollywood indie bookstore Book Soup has raved to me about the novel’s inventiveness and its beautiful, beautiful prose. (Edan) Other People We Married by Emma Straub: This debut collection of stories is one of the first books being printed by FiveChapters Books, the new publishing imprint of the popular website FiveChapters, which publishes a story a week in five installments. Straub inaugurated the New Novella series for Flatmancrooked Press with her much-praised novella, Fly-Over State, and she proved that with the internet and some good old fashioned charm, an unknown author can sell books and win hearts. Straub’s new book includes that novella as well as eleven other stories. Straub has been compared to Lorrie Moore for her humor and playful wit, and Moore herself has called this debut collection, “A revelation.” (Edan) March: The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books edited by C. Max Magee and Jeff Martin: Yes, there's certainly a conflict of interest in naming my book one of the year's most anticipated, but what's the point of having a website if I can't use it to self-promote? And anyway, if my co-editor Jeff and I had an ideal reader in mind when we put together this collection, it was the Millions reader, passionate about books and reading and thoughtful about the future of this pastime as it intersects with the onslaught of technology. The essays we managed to gather here are illuminating, entertaining, funny, and poignant, and taken together they form a collection that is (dare I say) essential for the reader and writer invested in books at this critical and curious moment in their long history. Along with appearances by Millions staffers Garth Risk Hallberg, Emily St. John Mandel, and Sonya Chung and an introduction by me and my co-editor, this collection includes pieces by Jonathan Lethem, Reif Larsen, Elizabeth Crane Victor LaValle, Ander Monson, Tom Piazza, Lauren Groff, Benjamin Kunkel, Clancy Martin, Joe Meno, Rivka Galchen, and several others. All you technophiles: Consider making this the last physical book you ever buy. All you technophobes: This might be a good candidate for the first ebook you ever own. (Max) You Think That’s Bad by Jim Shepard: Jim Shepard will once again dazzle us with his talent for universalizing the highly particular. According to the publisher, the stories in this new collection, like those of his National Book Award nominated Like You’d Understand Anyway, “traverse centuries, continents, and social strata,” featuring, among others, an Alpine researcher, a French nobleman’s manservant, a woman traveling the Arabian deserts to track an ancient Shia sect, and the inventor of the Godzilla epics.   Further, Shepard culls “the vastness of experience—from its bizarre fringes and breathtaking pinnacles to the mediocre and desperately below average.”  Easier said than done, and Shepard is a master.  One of the stories, “Boys Town,” appeared in the November 10 issue of the New Yorker. (Sonya) The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht: Of all The New Yorker’s choices for the "20 Under 40" list, none was more surprising than Obreht, the youngest on the list and the only author chosen who had not yet published a book. That changes in March with the publication of her debut novel The Tiger’s Wife. The novel follows a young doctor, Natalia, as she travels to a war-torn Balkan country to work at an orphanage. But Natalia is also in search of answers – specifically, what happened to her grandfather, who has died recently. With blurbs from T.C. Boyle, Ann Patchett, and recent National Book Award winner Colum McCann already secured, expectations are high for this literary debut. (Patrick) At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing from Library of America edited by George Kimball and John Schulian: Boxing writing inhabits a curious niche, resting at the juncture of sports journalism and noir.  Perhaps “resting” is the wrong word, as the genre’s best examples rush toward victory or loss; even away from the arena, motion remains the thing.  In a recent Irish Times article, Kimball described a 1954 John Lardner piece as At the Fights’ “cornerstone,” and delivered its opening line: “Stanley Ketchel was 24 years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.”  Also on the card: Talese, Mailer, Mencken, and many, many others. (Jacob) Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell: “I’m better with dead people… than the living,” claims Sarah Vowell, only half joking. Her books often deal with historical figures, in most cases, long-dead and overlooked. In Assassination Vacation she chronicled her travels while researching the murders of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. Details such as Garfield’s assassin bursting into song during trial coated the history lessons with a good dose of social intrigue. Vowell’s latest, Unfamiliar Fishes, was borne out of a fascination with American Imperialism in 1898, a year when the U.S, annexed Hawaii, invaded Cuba and the Philippines, and acquired Guam and Puerto Rico. Vowell follows the Americanization of Hawaii from its first missionary settlers to the overthrow of its monarchy and later annexation. A quote exemplary of Vowell’s humor, to prep you for reading: “They still love their last queen, celebrate her birthday, drape her statue with leis. It can be a traditional, reverent place. And I am a smart-alecky libertine.” (Anne) Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews by Geoff Dyer: Dyer has a gained a reputation as one of our most inventive essayists (not to mention novelists). Dyer delights in bending genres and subverting expectations, and covering a 25-year span, this collection will likely showcase Dyer's impressive range. The book, published by indie Graywolf, appears to have at least some overlap with a British collection that came out last year under the title Working the Room. The Guardian called Dyer "the most productive of slackers" and described the British collection as seeming to be "constructed as a vague quest. You move through the unusually lit rooms of the author's fascinations." (Max) All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories by E.L. Doctorow: When a new story collection arrives from an elder master, one is eager to know the balance of “new” versus “selected,” who has done the selecting, and by what criteria. But Random House has revealed little as of yet.   We do know that six of the stories have never before appeared in book form; the title story appeared in the winter ’09 issue of the Kenyon Review. Doctorow is the author of 11 novels, and I for one hate to think the release of this collection signals a denouement in his novel production.  On January 6, Doctorow turns 80 – happy birthday, ELD; may this be a productive year for you, for all our sakes. (Sonya) Pym by Mat Johnson: Eager readers of Edgar Allan Poe, having dispatched his short stories may have then turned to his hauntingly weird novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. As I noted a few years back, the book has been an inspiration for generations of adventure and science-fiction writers and has maintained a cultish allure to this day. It is into this milieu that Johnson's Pym arrives. Johnson wrote a pair of well regarded literary novels in the early part of last decade, turned to comics, and is now returning novels with this tale of a literature professor obsessed with the Pym tale, believing it to be true, and tracing the the journey of the doomed sailor to see what secrets might be unlocked. (Max) Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin: The scenes of sodomy between Stalin and Krushchev in Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Blue Lard incurred charges of pornography and sparked protests, which included protestors wearing latex gloves while tossing flowers and copies of Sorokin’s books into a papier mâché toilet. Another novel of Sorokin’s (The Norm) depicts a Russian society where coprophagy is a la mode and only outcasts and outsiders refuse to partake. Needless to say, Sorokin’s fiction isn’t restrained in its critique of contemporary Russian society. His commentary continues in his latest novel, Day of the Oprichnik, where the ruling classes incorporate futuristic technology alongside the governing strategies of Ivan the Terrible. As Sorokin describes: “I just imagined what would happen to Russia if it isolated itself completely from the Western world--that is, if it erected a new Iron Curtain…. This would mean that Russia would be overtaken by its past, and our past would be our future.” (Anne) This Vacant Paradise by Victoria Patterson: Victoria Patterson follows her acclaimed debut story collection Drift with a novel – her first – set in the posh environs of 1990s Newport Beach, California. As the title suggests, Patterson’s novel promises a social critique of the often vapid, money-laden 90s. It follows the beautiful but aging Esther Wilson as she attempts to navigate life without the aid of a wealthy man on her arm. Drift was a finalist for both the California Book Award and the Story Prize. (Patrick) The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise by Georges Perec: Georges Perec wrote: “for us, who continue to have to do with a human race that insists on thinking, writing and above all publishing, the increasing size of our libraries tends to become one real problem.” We readers will have to deal with the fortunate burden of clearing shelf-space for another novel by Perec this spring, with the first English translation of The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise. The novel depicts an office underling’s attempts to ingratiate himself to his corporate superiors, while his neuroses expand a la Woody Allen. If Perec’s astutely observed yet darkly comical catalogue of managing directors, magnates, and heads of state in his essay “The Holy of Holies” is any indication, this “account of the office worker’s mindset” will offset the disorder it imposes. (Anne) April: The Pale King by David Foster Wallace: When David Foster Wallace died in 2008, he left behind a huge, fragmentary manuscript set in and around a Midwestern IRS office and featuring a character named David Wallace. The manuscript, quixotically, takes monotony as its master-trope, much as Infinite Jest used "entertainment." Since then, Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s real-life editor, has been working to arrange the fragments in book form. Published excerpts of varying degrees of sublimity - reportedly including two stories from Oblivion - offer glimpses of a Jest-like complex of supporting characters. But these beleaguered office workers have more in common with the denizens of the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (redundancy sic) than with the Enfield Tennis Academy’s student-athletes. A note, quoted in D.T. Max’s New Yorker piece, hints at the gift Wallace wanted to give his characters: “Bliss - a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious - lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.” For readers still mourning the books he didn't get to write, may it be so. (Garth) The Free World: A Novel by David Bezmozgis: Another debut novel from a Twenty-Under-Forty'er, Bezmogis' The Free World tells the story of three generations of the Krasnansky family as they try to escape Communist Russia for the United States. They are waylaid in Rome where the characters pursue different paths through the underbelly of their adopted city, ultimately bringing them into tension with each other as they grapple with a merciless immigration system and try to decide the family's fate. (Kevin) The Great Night by Chris Adrian: Chris Adrian's last novel, The Children's Hospital, showed him to be a writer of immense daring, curiosity, and heart. Along with two other books, it earned him a spot (by a whisker – he’s now 40) on The New Yorker's "20 Under 40 List." His new book The Great Night, looks back to one of magical realism's forebears: Shakespeare. It's a retelling of A Midsummer Night's Dream, set in modern-day San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park. (Garth) Someday This Will Be Funny by Lynne Tillman: As if the publication of Lynne Tillman’s first book of short stories in nearly ten years--and her first book following her stand-out novel, American Genius: A Comedy--weren’t enough to celebrate, Tillman’s Someday This Will Be Funny also marks the debut of Richard Nash’s new publishing venture, Cursor. If Nash’s reading list, interviews, and speeches are any indication, Cursor will take publishing one giant leap into the future, with Tillman’s book at the forefront. Tillman’s new collection features appearances by Madame Realism, Marvin Gaye, and Clarence Thomas and incorporates epistle, quotation, and haiku as the stories “bounce between lyrical passages of lucid beauty, echoing the scattered, cycling arpeggio of Tillman’s preferred subject: the unsettled mind.” Tillman once said in an interview: “Writers are promiscuous with experience, absolutely.” She’s a woman of her word, and of the word. Hear, hear! (Anne) Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches 1998-2003 by Roberto Bolaño: Anyone who read “Literature + Illness = Illness” or “Myths of Chulu” in last year’s collection The Insufferable Gaucho can attest that a Bolaño essay no more resembles Montaigne than a Bolaño novel resembles Samuel Richardson. Indeed, the closest cousin of Bolaño’s nonfiction may be his fiction, and in some cases it’s hard to tell which is which. Confusion over the genre of the short piece “The Beach” (essay? story?) seems to have been the source of the misconception that Bolaño was a recovering junkie. Either way, though, it’s phenomenal writing – a single, extended, coruscating sentence – and it appears in this Natasha Wimmer translation of a 2004 Anagrama volume, along with 340 other pages of uncollected, unclassifiable Bolaño. (Garth) The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips: Phillips hasn't quite recaptured the buzz that accompanied Prague his debut novel about expats in Budapest, but this new book just may. "The Tragedy of Arthur" is a fictional (or is it?), lost Shakespeare play about King Arthur and it is accompanied by a long introduction penned by a character (or is it the author?) named Arthur Phillips. Intertextual games ensue. (Max) The Long Goodbye by Meghan O'Rourke: In another memoir about grief, O'Rourke draws on her dual patrimonies as a poet and cultural critic. The result is a searching account of losing her mother to cancer. O'Rourke finds herself blindsided by her own grief and bewildered by her inability to "share" it. Even as she documents her own feelings, she examines the changing cultural role of grief, and comes to long for the mourning rituals that are even now vanishing. The interplay of the objective and the subjective here speaks to audiences of both Oprah and The New Yorker, where the book was excerpted. (Garth) The Basement of the Ivory Tower by Professor X: To begin, a short exemplary excerpt from Professor X's manifesto against higher education for all: "America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track. We are not comfortable limiting anyone’s options. Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines. I sympathize with this stance; I subscribe to the American ideal. Unfortunately, it is with me and my red pen that that ideal crashes and burns." And let me tell you (because I have wielded that red pen and know Professor X's bloody business: adjuncting and community college teaching) it is a sad, sad world out there in America's lesser colleges, many as crassly business-minded as Walmart and utterly delighted to have students who aren't cut out to make the grade. Of course, liberal-minded idealists will object and cry Barbara Covett! at the likes of Professor X, but having been in his trench, I know how deeply painful and demoralizing—and pointless and dishonest—it is to teach college-level curriculum to those who are not equipped for high school: It's like trying to teach the legless to dance. This is another commentary on the shoddy state of American higher education (see also, most recently, Ed Dante's "Shadow Scholar" piece at The Chronicle of Higher Ed)—sure to be an incendiary little book. (Emily W.) The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer: Wolitzer’s ninth novel is inspired by Lysistrata, the ancient Greek play wherein the women withhold sex from their menfolk until they agree to end their war. In Wolitzer’s novel, a New Jersey high school puts on a production of the play, and soon, the females in the town lose interest in coupling with their men. The Uncoupling follows Wolitzer’s bestselling novel The Ten Year Nap, about the lives of stay-at-home mothers in New York City, and I hope her latest is as funny, readable and wise as that book was. (Edan) Fire Season by Philip Connors: This debut nonfiction effort by Connors is an account of his time spent over part of each of the last ten years as a fire lookout in New Mexico in a 7' x 7' tower. Connors also happens to be a literary critic and journalist whose writing has been fairly extensively published, including book reviews in the LRB and VQR. Some of his most powerful work has taken the form of diaries, including one in n+1 that recounts his brother's suicide and another in The Paris Review about life as a fire lookout. The book takes the diary form and expands on it, with five long chapters, each one dedicated to a month he spends in the lookout tower each year. (Max) My New American Life by Francine Prose: Francine Prose, former National Book Award finalist and prolific producer of novels, short stories, children's books and nonfiction, will take us on a fictional tour of the bad old days of Bush-Cheney. My New American Life spins around Lula, a 26-year-old Albanian living in New York City on an expiring tourist visa. When she lands a job as a caretaker for a rebellious teenager in suburban New Jersey, she begins to live the American dream -- until her brothers show up in a black Lexus SUV, a jarring reminder that family and history are always with us. The novel, according to the publisher's jacket copy, captures the moment when American "dreams and ideals gave way to a culture of cynicism, lies and fear." (Bill) Swim Back to Me by Ann Packer: Ann Packer, who first burst onto the scene in 2002 with her blockbuster debut The Dive from Clausen's Pier, returns with a fourth book. Kirkus describes it as a novella and five stories in its starred review, while the publisher calls it a collection of narratives framed by two linked novellas. Whichever the case, the collection seems likely to investigate the same avenues of grief that have been a hallmark of her prior, powerful work. (Max) Bullfighting by Roddy Doyle: The title story of Doyle's collection appeared in the New Yorker in early 2008 and concerns a collection of middle-aged Irish guys blowing off steam on a guys' trip to Spain, wives and kids left behind in Dublin. When I traveled to the Mediterranean later that year and saw many a seaside watering hole advertising the "Full English Breakfast," I thought of this story. (Max) Nat Tate: An American Artist: 1928-1960 by William Boyd: Boyd, a wonderful author (Any Human Heart, Brazzaville Beach) who for whatever reason doesn't seem to get much attention outside of prize committees, made culture vultures everywhere feel like complete assholes in 1998, when he carefully constructed and published a life of a fictional American artist who died by suicide at age 32. Enlisting the help of David Bowie, Gore Vidal, and others, Boyd had a number of people who should have known better reminiscing about Tate and lamenting his early death. Evidently a lot more people would have looked a lot more stupid had David Lister (an editor at The Independent who knew about the ruse), not revealed the hoax prematurely. Boyd's great literary hoax is to be reissued this April. (Lydia) Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman: A year after the publication of his last novel, The Divine Husband, Francisco Goldman watched his wife of two years, the promising young writer Aura Estrada, die as a result of a freak body-surfing accident. The aftermath sent him back to journalism for a time. Now Goldman has trained his considerable novelistic powers directly on the tragedy of his wife’s death, and on the ineffable continuities among love, grief, and art. (Garth) There Is No Year by Blake Butler: Butler, one of the minds behind HTML Giant and author of the indie press favorite Scorch Atlas hits the big time with this new novel. The Harper Perennial catalog glosses it as evocative of House of Leaves and the films of David Lynch. A more iconoclastic "20 Under 40" list might have made room for Butler, and as for Harper's labeling 32-year-ole Butler "one of the voices of his generation," that may say more about how apocalypse-minded we are these days than it does about Butler. (Max) May: Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work edited by Richard Ford: We've reminisced in the past about the steady disappearance of the short story anthology. Once common, these pocket-sized wonders now fill shelves at the kind of used bookstore I like to haunt but are rarely seen on the new release table at your local Borders. Still, a timely theme in these economically stagnant times (employment or lack thereof) and the imprimatur of a master of the form, Richard Ford, make this collection worth looking out for. Sure, most if not all of these stories have been previously published in other books, but how nice to have Stuart Dybek, Edward P. Jones, Charles D’Ambrosio, Ann Beattie, Alice Munro, John Cheever, Richard Yates, Deborah Eisenberg, Jhumpa Lahiri, and several others, all thematically linked and between two covers. (Max) Embassytown by China Mieville Give China Mieville credit for refusing to rest on his laurels. After scoring a major hit with last year's Kraken, his seventh lushly imagined fantasy novel, Mieville will abandon the world of Bas-Lag and his phantasmagorical London and take his fans someplace altogether different and unexpected. Embassytown, he recently told a Liverpool audience, will contain "science fiction, aliens and spaceships." The title refers to "a city of contradictions on the outskirts of the universe" where humans and the native Hosts live in uneasy peace. When an unimaginable new arrival hits town, catastrophe looms. Given Mieville's track record, expect a wild ride. (Bill) Mondo and Other Stories by J.M.G. Le Clezio: The 2008 Nobel laureate's large body of work continues to make its way into English. This collection of stories was first published in French in 1978. One of the stories collected here, the atmospheric "The Boy Who Had Never Seen the Sea," appeared in the New Yorker shortly after Le Clezio's Nobel win. Like that story, the rest in this collection focus on a child protagonist who seems to see the world through a different set of eyes. (Max) To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays by Gertrude Stein: Described as “a fanciful journey through the alphabet” and originally conceived as a children’s book, Stein’s To Do “spiral[ed] out of simple childlike progression, so that by the time she reached the letter H, Henriette de Dactyl, a French typewriter (who exchanges typed messages with Yetta von Blickensdorfer, a German typewriter, and Mr. House, an American typewriter) wants to live on Melon Street and eat radishes, salads, and fried fish, and soup.” Written in 1940, the book was rejected several times by publishers for being too complex for children. A text-only version appeared in 1957 (after Stein’s death) from Yale, and in 2011, the publisher is putting out To Do with Giselle Potter's illustrations, realizing Stein’s original concept. (Sonya) Paying for It by Chester Brown: Throughout his twenty-year-long career, Chester Brown has developed a reputation as a wan and fearless confessor, presenting his lapses and failures from a dispassionate remove.  Paying For It—subtitled “A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being a John”—may prove to be his most quietly self-lacerating.  In exploring his penchant for prostitutes, Paying For It will likely feature little glamour, little boasting, and an understated honesty.  Drawn and Quarterly predicts that the book “will be the most talked about graphic novel of 2011,” yet Brown doesn’t seem to relish controversy.  When asked in 2004 why he might write so openly about his sex life, he responded, “Because it’s interesting.” (Jacob) The London Train by Tessa Hadley: Stalwart of the fiction section of The New Yorker, Hadley's latest is described as a "novel in two parts." An early review in the Financial Times calls the book "darkly elegant" with "two distinct halves reflecting, enhancing and informing each other. The social and geographical territory is familiar for Hadley, that of the bourgeoisie and their travels (and travails) as they go looping between London and Cardiff." (Max) Pulse by Julian Barnes: Barnes's latest is his third book of short stories. A preview from The Spectator explains the collection's over-arching theme: "Each character is attuned to a ‘pulse’ – an amalgamation of a life-force and an Aristotelian flaw. They struggle against or thrive upon the submerged currents of life – touched by ambition, sex, love, health, work and death." (Max) The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux: Theroux, the aging, still entertaining rake of the travel writing genre will indulge in a potentially interesting exercise here, collecting "the best writing on travel from the books that shaped him," from Samuel Johnson, Eudora Welty and Mark Twain to Peter Matthiessen, Pico Iyer, and John McPhee. Cheesy title aside, it certainly sounds like an essential tome for travel writing fans. (Max) June: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: Ann Patchett has fearlessly ignored the admonition to write what you know. Her breakout novel, the intoxicating Bel Canto, centered around opera, Japanese business practices and a hostage situation in a South American embassy. Her new novel, State of Wonder, will have elements that sound similarly abstruse – doctors, medical students, drug development and the Amazon jungle. But at the heart of the novel is an inspiring student-teacher relationship, which, Patchett told an interviewer, is similar to the bond she had with her own writing teachers, Allan Gurganus and the late Grace Paley. "This one was a picnic," Patchett says of State of Wonder, "because I didn't have to make everything up wholesale." (Bill) The Astral by Kate Christensen The question to ask about Christensen's next novel is will it deliver up another character on par with Hugo Whittier of The Epicure's Lament? ("May we all simmer in the dark with such humor and gusto," Sam Lipsyte wrote of Christensen's immortal misanthrope.) The Penn-Faulkner Award-winning Christensen's forthcoming sixth novel promises the story of a successful Brooklyn poet, Harry Quirk, whose marriage is in crisis and whose children have been swept up in cultishness of various kinds (perhaps a sort of Freedom, redux?). As a writer who reliably turns out novels that elicit warm praise from most of her reviewers, expect (at least) a genial, smart, gently satirical tale of the joys and woes of bougie New York life. (Emily W.) The Curfew by Jesse Ball: What to expect from an author who teaches classes on dreaming, false identities, and lying? If the author is Jesse Ball, then one should expect expectations to be defied, plot summaries to fall short, and critics to use structures to describe the framework of his imaginative plottings (nesting-boxes, Klein bottle, labyrinth). Perhaps the magical realms Ball creates have something to do with his process: “to conjure up a state of affairs--a glimpse of one situated thought, where the situation is all that surrounds it in the mind.” Or with his imaginative approaches to writing, evident in his classes. Ball’s novel The Curfew depicts a father and daughter during wartime, the father risks it all to find his wife and the young daughter imagines her father’s treacherous journey. Expect for this description to only loosely conjure the realms of wonder within. (Anne) Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1963-1973: For those seeking Vonnegut’s aforementioned best, the Library of America will bestow upon him its black-cover treatment, collecting his great early novels (Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions) and stories into one thick volume.  In this setting, it will be especially jarring to read Breakfast of Champions, whose “World Classics Library” “published hard-core pornography in Los Angeles, California.” (Jacob) The Storm at the Door by Stefan Merrill Block: The precocious Block published his first novel at 26. The Story of Forgetting, ambitious but flawed, nonetheless suggested Block might be a name to watch. Sure enough, here he is with a second novel arriving before his 30th birthday. This time around, Block will again take mental illness as a primary theme. (Max) Lola, California by Edie Meidav: Meidav is a rare thing, a less than well known writer who continues to publish big, dense, challenging novels with a major press. Meidav's third such effort weighs in at 448 pages and asks "Can an old friend carry in amber the person you were going to become?" Should Meidav be better known? Almost definitely. (Max) July: Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell: A 2009 National Book Award nod (for her collectionAmerican Salvage) landed Campbell on the radar of many a reader. Her backcountry fiction focuses on rural characters, meth-cookers, and bad jobs or none at all, all shot through with redemption and compassion. This new novel, which Campbell says has been in the works for more than four years, sounds like something of a modern-day Huck Finn, following a sixteen-year-old girl who takes to the Stark River in search of her vanished mother. (Max) Estonia: A Ramble Through the Periphery by Alexander Theroux: In his one-of-a-kind Year in Reading piece, Theroux mentioned being this year "in the outback of frozen Estonia where I was not only writing a book but, as a kind of project, undertaking a private study of St. Paul and his life." The book in question was this title, forthcoming from Fantagraphics. The book emerges from Theroux's time spent in the former Soviet republic while his wife was on a Fulbright Scholarship. Ever observant, Theroux uses Estonia and its people as a lens through which to look back at America. (Max) The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock: Former meatpacker and paper mill employee Pollock’s debut story collection Knockemstiff was a favorite amongst indie booksellers, landed on both Amazon and Publishers Weekly’s lists of best books of the year, and garnered the following enigmatic praise from the LA Times “a powerful, remarkable, exceptional book that is very hard to read.” According to his blog, Pollock's debut novel is set in the 50s and 60s and “centers on the convergent lives of a tough but morally-upright young man from Ohio, a pair of serial killers who prey on hitchhikers, and an itinerant, spider-handling preacher and his crippled guitar virtuoso accompanist.” Naturally. (Patrick) August: House of Holes: A Book of Raunch by Nicholson Baker: There’s very little info out there on Baker’s forthcoming novel, aside from some Twitter-excitement, including, “I don’t think it’s about poems” (McNally Jackson Bookstore) and “Back to Fermata territory?” (Ed Champion). So fans of Baker’s earlier (erotic) novels may be in for a treat. At Amazon, the description reads: “a gleefully provocative, off-the-charts sex novel that is unlike anything you’ve read.” (Sonya) Night Film by Marisha Pessl: My first impression of Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics was clouded by the many, many stunned reviewers who could not help but mention Pessl's beauty, often in the first paragraph of their reviews. (Indeed, it has been said that her picture was removed from advance copies of the novel to avoid just this.) Fortunately for those who do not choose books based on the bangability of their authors, while Ms. Pessl is hot, her prose is, by most assessments, hotter. Whether or not you liked Special Topics, you have to admit that the babe-authoress created one of the most startlingly distinctive fictional voices of recent years in Blue van Meer, the heroine-narrator of Pessl's academic novel qua murder mystery (Oh, the breathtaking allusiveness! Ah, the witty figurative language—almost exhausting in its inventiveness!). My fear for Night Film—according to Pessl's agent, “a psychological thriller about obsession, family loyalty and ambition set in raw contemporary Manhattan"—is that without Blue, Pessl's nothing. Can she--could anyone (think Jonathan Safran Foer after Everything Is Illuminated)--generate another voice as distinct and scintillating as Blue's? (Emily W.) Lights Out in Wonderland by DBC Pierre: After the curious panic surrounding 2003’s Vernon God Little (“It’s sort of about Columbine!” “He’s not even from here!” “It won all kindsa prizes!”), Australia’s DBC Pierre faded from American minds.  Three years later, his Ludmilia’s Broken English failed to gain traction, and it seems a sensible bet that Lights Out In Wonderland—another scattershot soap-box rant—will continue the downward trend.  But as Lights Out is a foggy howl against the global market (“My hair crests over my head like the dying wave of capitalism,” reads one unfortunate simile), Pierre shouldn’t get too upset if units fail to move. (Jacob) Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar: Hisham Matar, author of In the Country of Men, is the child of Libyan parents. In 1990, the novelist's father Jaballa Matar was kidnapped in Cairo and extradited to Tripoli as a political dissident. Since then, his family has endured a special hell of loss and uncertainty--scant news punctuating long periods of silence--which Hisham Matar described in a haunting piece for the Gaurdian last January. His novel, due in August, is about a missing father, and will presumably draw upon Matar's experience as the child of someone disappeared. (Lydia) Beijing Welcomes You by Tom Scocca: Slate blogger and former New York Observer Editor Scocca chronicles his years spent in Beijing, observing a city and a culture moving into the global spotlight. The book examines the Chinese capital on the cusp of its global moment, tracking its history and exploring its singular character. Since Scocca lived in Beijing in the middle of the last decade, one can assume the buildup to the 2008 Beijing Olympics figures prominently in the text. Assuming Scocca brings his typical insightful and sometimes scathing perspective (witness his epic takedown of The New Yorker for publishing Dave Eggers's The Wild Things excerpt which ran two years ago at The Awl), Beijing Welcomes You promises to offer astute cultural observation on a culture Americans would do well to observe. (Patrick) September: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami: Murakami's three volume stemwinder came out in Japan in 2009 and sold out its first printing in a day. The first two volumes will appear in the US this fall and fervor among English-speaking Murakamians is already building. The alpha-numeric title is a play on Orwell's 1984 - in Japanese the letter Q is a homophonic with the number 9 - and the book's plot (which was a tightly guarded secret prior to its Japanese release) concerns two characters, a PE teacher and a writer, who become involved in a religious cult through which they create "a mysterious past, different than the one we know." (Kevin) The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach: In the Winter issue of n+1, Harbach published a provocative piece suggesting two paths for the novelist: MFA vs. NYC. Who needs the former, when you can ride the latter to a half-million dollar advance? Insiders have, predictably, likened Harbach’s treatment of a baseball team at a Wisconsin liberal arts college - presumably as a lens through which to view the American scene and the human condition - to the aforementioned Enfield Tennis Academy. (Garth) October: The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright: Enright, winner of The Booker Prize for the international bestseller The Gathering, explores a woman’s affair and her relationship with her lover’s young daughter. (Max) November: Parallel Stories by Péter Nadas: Péter Nádas' A Book of Memories might just be the best novel published in the '80s, and Imre Goldstein's translation into English of its massive successor would, in a just world, be the publishing event of the fall. Nádas is, simply put, a master. The freedom with which he combines the diverse idioms of realism, modernism, and postmodernism can only come from decades of discipline. More importantly - as a recent excerpt in The Paris Review illustrates - he generates a continuous, Proustian intensity of feeling and perception - psychological, philosophical, and physical. This three-volume work, structured as a set of braided short stories, tracks two families, one Hungarian and one German, across many decades. Readers looking for a fuller preview might consult Hungarian Literature Online, or Deborah Eisenberg's appreciation in The New York Review of Books. (Garth) Unknown (fall and beyond): The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee: Described by Chee – a Whiting Award and NEA Fellowship recipient, currently a Visiting Professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop -- as a kind of “historical fairy tale,” Queen is set in the time of the Second Empire (1852-70), in Paris. Chee’s first novel, Edinburgh, focused on a young boy’s surviving pedophilia. “The Queen of the Night sort of picks up in some ways from where Edinburgh leaves off,” Chee said in an interview, “in the sense that it is about a young woman who believes her voice is cursed, and if she uses it, terrible things will happen. And then she does, and they do. And she tries to put it right as best she can.” (Sonya) The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq: Michel Houellebecq, the reigning bad boy of French letters, has been accused of every imaginable sin against political correctness. His new novel, The Map and the Territory, is a send-up of the art world that tones down the sex and booze and violence, but it does feature a "sickly old tortoise" named Michel Houellebecq who gets gruesomely murdered. The book has drawn charges of plagiarism because passages were lifted virtually verbatim from Wikipedia. "If people really think that (this is plagiarism)," Houellebecq sniffed, "then they haven't the first notion what literature is." Apparently, he does. The Map and the Territory has just been awarded the Prix Goncourt, France's most prestigious literary prize. (Bill) The New Republic by Lionel Shriver: Shriver apparently finished a draft of The New Republic in 1998. After six well-regarded but commercially ignored novels, she couldn't find a buyer for this story of "cults of personality and terrorism" and was about to give up fiction-writing altogether. Flash forward a dozen years: Shriver is an Orange Prize winner, a National Book Award finalist, and has sold over a million copies worldwide. She has been fêted by...er...The New Republic, and hailed in these pages as "America's Best Writer." Also: terrorism and cults of personality are very much on people's minds. Maybe this will be the book that lands her on the cover of Time. (Garth) Hot Pink by Adam Levin: Viewed from afar, Levin's first novel, The Instructions, looked, for good and ill - mostly for good - like a kind of apotheosis of the McSweeney's house style: playful, inventive, funny-melancholic, youth-focused. However, it also possessed a couple of attributes that set it apart from other titles on the McSweeney's list. One was its dialectical genius; another was the ferocity of its anger at the way the world is (which elsewhere in McSweeneydom often gets sublimated into melancholy). Though Levin wears his influences on his sleeve, his sensibility is utterly distinctive, and almost fully formed. Look for the stories in the follow-up, Hot Pink, to be formally audacious, occasionally adolescent, but always bracing in their passion. (Garth) The Unfolding Haggadah by Jonathan Safran Foer with Nathan Englander: The only evidence of what this might be comes from Tablet where an essay by Judith Shulevitz includes a note about this title in the author's bio. An anthology it is then. And with Foer and Englander at the helm, this is one to keep on the radar. (Max) Four Selected Titles with UK publication dates but no US date yet: Dante in Love by A. N. Wilson: Later this year, English biographer and critic A.N. Wilson comes out with Dante in Love, a study of the Florentine poet that, confusingly, shares a title with a 2005 book about Dante written by Harriet Rubin. Wilson's book will, one imagines, address Dante's exile, Beatrice, Guelphs, Ghibellines, and so on; his perspective as a very public defector from and subsequent re-convert to Christianity might bring new insight to this well-trod territory (then again, it might not). (Lydia) River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst So, which of these books are you most looking forward to and which great new books did we neglect to include?

The Too-Short History of Soft Skull

NY Press has a long look at the history of iconoclastic indie press Soft Skull, which recently shuttered its New York office, effectively ending the publisher's run as a standalone press and making it just an imprint of California-based parent (and, it should be noted, rescuer from financial straights) Counterpoint. Incidentally, I've had a front row seat for all this, as, for the book I'm co-editing, I was initially working with the good folks in New York and then everything was suddenly (and thankfully without a hitch) transferred to the folks in Berkeley. (Thanks, Craig)

Fall Book Picks (Part 2): Shop Class As Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford

Last week, I offered up the first of two recommendations for books about work. In Life Work, Donald Hall meditates on a life of word-work; contrasting his vocation as a writer – of poems, children’s books, essays, reviews, and letters – with the manual labor of his agrarian ancestors, in whose New Hampshire farmhouse he and his wife Jane Kenyon lived together for 20 years until Kenyon’s death in 1995. Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work considers work from a different vantage point, i.e., that of a philosopher-academic turned motorcycle mechanic. While both Hall and Crawford describe meaningful work as that which is fully absorbing, Crawford focuses on the manual trades -- conscientious problem-solving in a concrete, physical context -- as a potential panacea for modern malaise, professional and otherwise. With Shop Class, Crawford is on a mission, and a highly-specific, thoroughly considered one at that. He writes: I offer my own story here not because I think it is extraordinary, but rather because I suspect it is fairly common. I want to do justice to intuitions that many people have, but which enjoy little public credit [...] Perhaps most surprisingly, I often find manual work more engaging intellectually… I want to avoid the precious images of manual work that intellectuals sometimes traffic in. I also have little interest in wistful notions of a “simpler” life that is somehow more authentic, or more democratically valorous for being “working class.” I do, in fact, want to rehabilitate the honor of the trades, as being choice-worthy work, but to do so from within my own experience, which I find is not illuminated by any of these fraught cultural ideas. What follows is a compelling argument – stronger, I’d say, than the “inquiry” of the book’s subtitle – that is equal parts memoir, philosophical treatise, history lesson, repair manual, and social commentary. It is an argument for concretion over abstraction, intuition and judgment over rules-based processing, the integration of thinking (intellectual) and doing (manual/physical), agency rather than unfettered “autonomy” (what Crawford calls “freedomism”), the intrinsic value of small-scale, locally-based business models where human-to-human interaction is vital; and a notion of The Good Life that does not rely on the compartmentalization of work and pleasure. I confess that, with me, Crawford is preaching to the choir on pretty much every point above. The chapter entitled “The Contradictions of the Cubicle” -- in which he laments the learned behaviors of talking in circles, evading responsibility, appearance management, and lowering intellectual inquiry to an institutionally established “good enough” -- had me nodding and shuddering, as it likely will anyone who’s ever worked in an office. In “To Be Master of One’s Own Stuff,” Crawford questions modern definitions of freedom and asks whether the consumer fantasy of disburdening ourselves  – of physical things – is in fact a new kind of enslavement, a loss of agency and embodied-ness relative to our material environment and possessions (manifest in the tyranny of “devices,” which represent disposable reality); all of which I explore, more or less, in a forthcoming essay (to be anthologized in The Late American Novel, edited by our own C. Max Magee). An easy audience for the arguments, I turned my scrutiny toward Crawford’s finely-articulated and often entertaining prose. You might wonder, how does a philosopher-mechanic express himself? Crawford does indeed move effortlessly among multiple registers of diction and expression. Here’s a passage I particularly enjoyed, from a section where Crawford describes his early education as a gearhead, trying to diagnose his VW Bug: Volkswagens in particular, as the People’s Car, tend to get passed around like cheap whores, and it is rare to find one that hasn’t been pawed at by a train of users applying more urgency than finesse […] a VW engine may have been subjected to clumsy, boyish innocence, such as my predecessor surely felt in his heart as he ripped open his package from JC Whitney and held the brand-new “high performance” valve springs in his hand […] Or it may be a tale of appalling moral squalor, as when it becomes evident that the previous owner failed to change the oil, like, ever. In another chapter, Crawford considers the mechanic’s “metaphysical responsibility to the machine and his fiduciary responsibility to its owner” as he works on an ’83 Honda Magna V45: I smelled something burning, and discovered my pants were on fire. I was standing too close to the propane heater, in between bouts of valve cover jujitsu. The cover was still stuck where it had been a few hours ago. At this point I’d exhausted my entire lexicon of “mother-fucker”-based idioms, and was running perilously low on slurs against the Japanese. I was nearing a familiar point where I’ve descended through every level of madness and despair, and a certain calm takes over. I was reduced now to a more or less autistic repetition of valve cover manipulations I’d long ago determined to be futile, when suddenly the cover just fell out of its trap and lay free in my hand […] This is a common experience, actually […] I used to try to hypnotize myself into a Zen-like state of resignation at the outset. It doesn’t work, not for this Grasshopper. I have my own process, as they say. I call it the motherfucker process. But ultimately it’s heady, ambitious stuff that Crawford is tackling here. Iris Murdoch is Crawford’s philosophical touchstone throughout: “[A]nything which alters consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity and realism is to be connected with virtue,” he quotes from Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good. Mechanics, Crawford posits, as do other manual tradespeople, work firmly in this realm of objectivity and realism, recognizing and embracing their non-invincible place in the world. “In any hard discipline, whether it be gardening or structural engineering… one submits to things that have their own intractable ways… When your shin gets kicked, whether by a mule or a kick-starter, you get schooled.” The kind of moral capacity and cognitive capacity that we need to be full human beings -- to be "just," as Crawford puts it -- thus grows from problem-solving that exists in situational reality (as opposed to, say, financial-derivatives reality). Moral virtue and intellectual virtue are of a piece, and are born from a kind of humility and attentiveness that develops as a result of confronting “the world as it really is.” “By the mere fact that they [mechanics] stand ready to fix things,” Crawford writes, “as a class they are an affront to the throwaway society. Just as important, the kind of thinking they do, if they are good, offers a counterweight to the culture of narcissism.” Narcissism. Hmm… simmering in the background of Crawford’s story is another drama, a more personal one, that he refrains from telling, though he drops hints here and there. In a footnote, we learn that he spent his teen years living in a commune (possibly with his mother, though it’s unclear), and in the acknowledgments that his childhood was "weird." At 16, he “was getting reacquainted” with his father, living with him for the first time in seven years. He relates, and returns to, a story about his father, a mathematical physicist, who said to him one day, apropos of nothing, “Did you know you can always untie a shoelace just by pulling on one end, even if it’s in a double knot?” This story serves as an emblem of abstract, situation-less – as well as impotent, and possibly immoral – thinking for the rest of the book. One can’t help but sense that Crawford’s search for the real, the virtuous, and the selfless is rooted in something quite personal. In describing just what kind of book Shop Class is, perhaps add “quest for healing” to those equal parts.
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