Reader’s Corner: When Faulkner Reviewed Hemingway

faulkner1

William Faulkner, 1954 (Library of Congress)

Ernest Hemingway had no problem with expounding on his talent, courage, or general manliness. To nobody’s surprise, this didn’t arise from a well of confidence but rather one of rabid insecurity. Just see his rivalry with F. Scott Fitzgerald, and all those petty little put-downs in A Moveable Feast.

Papa Hemingway also scrapped (albeit in a mildly literary way) with the other big prize-winning author of his time, William Faulkner. They respected each other, but found time to lob critiques back and forth.

oldmanandthesea1When the literary magazine Shenandoah prevailed upon Faulkner to review The Old Man and the Sea, he found room to list Hemingway’s faults but, interestingly, in the context of praising the novel. Here’s an excerpt of that review from Open Culture (emphasis added):

Time may show it to be the best single piece of any of us, I mean his and my contemporaries. This time, he discovered God, a Creator. Until now, his men and women had made themselves, shaped themselves out of their own clay; their victories and defeats were at the hands of each other, just to prove to themselves or one another how tough they could be. But this time, he wrote about pity: about something somewhere that made them all: the old man who had to catch the fish and then lose it, the fish that had to be caught and then lost, the sharks which had to rob the old man of his fish; made them all and loved them all and pitied them all. It’s all right. Praise God that whatever made and loves and pities Hemingway and me kept him from touching it any further.

Makes you want to go back and hunt down all the glories of the novel which too many English teachers have managed to hide.

Readers’ Corner: The Death (and Life) of the Novel

U.S. Government Printing Office, 1942 (Library of Congress)

U.S. Government Printing Office, 1942 (Library of Congress)

Point / counterpoint in the latest round of hand-wringing over the long rumored death of the novel.

First, Will Self in The Guardian, “The novel is dead (this time it’s for real)“:

I believe the serious novel will continue to be written and read, but it will be an art form on a par with easel painting or classical music: confined to a defined social and demographic group, requiring a degree of subsidy, a subject for historical scholarship rather than public discourse.

Granted, Self is taken the opinions of his teenaged son (his “canary” in the cultural coal mine, as it were) perhaps too seriously. Also, he seems to be arguing for the death of something that was already long dead. The novel as the primary cultural artifact was supplanted decades hence by movies, television, what have you. And today, yes, all the cultural elites reading The Goldfinch at the same time as all their friends are often just waiting to start nattering on about Game of Thrones.

goldfinch1David Ulin had a brief riposte to Self’s critique in The Los Angeles Times, that was notable for its lack of patience:

I’m tired of reading about the death of the book. It’s not true, in the first place, and in the second, it’s a lazy signifier, a way of addressing cultural import (or risk) that’s not really justified.

In other words, when people stop reading completely, then we have something to worry about. Nearly 200,000 copies of The Goldfinch have been sold so far this year. Say what you will about it, that’s a book that clocks in at nearly 800 pages and goes for $30 a pop in hardcover. Somebody is still reading out there.

Readers’ Corner: America’s Top Ten Books

"Reading the Bible," Currier & Ives (Library of Congress)

“Reading the Bible,” Currier & Ives (Library of Congress)

The Bible is still the number one book in Americans’ hearts. At least, that’s according to a new poll by Harris Interactive that surveyed American adults to find out what their favorite book was. The rest of the top ten books are all fiction (insert atheist gag here), starting with the somewhat curious inclusion of Gone with the Wind at number two. Here’s the list:

  1. The Bible
  2. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  3. Harry Potter (series) by J.K. Rowling
  4. The Lord of the Rings (series) by J.R.R. Tolkien
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  6. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  7. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  8. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  9. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  10. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The poll further breaks down the list by ethnicity, politics, age, geography, and gender. Conservatives and moderates preferring Gone with the Wind while liberals’ fave was the Harry Potter series; either way, everybody likes fantasy.

The last time Harris conducted the same poll was in 2008. Interesting, among the books that dropped off in the intervening six years were Atlas Shrugged, The Stand, and two Dan Brown novels. New on the list since then were a couple classics deserving of the name (The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath), possibly showing that Americans’ tastes are improving. That, or people who really like Ayn Rand and Dan Brown either just aren’t reading anymore, have started to die off, or are sticking with pretending to have read the Bible.

(h/t: New Republic)

Reader’s Corner: Bookpub

 

This idea seems like it was a longtime coming. Take the micro- (or nano-) brewery concept that’s been gathering speed across the country, particularly throughout the Midwest, and combine it with reading. Books and beer.

Per the Indianapolis Star, University of Michigan English major Jason Wuerfel is starting up a certain kind of awesome with his new “Books & Brews” storefront:

A personal touch isn’t the only thing setting Books & Brews a part from the competition. All of the beer served in the bar section of the store is brewed on site by Wuerfel. The bookpub owner (yes, I just coined the term bookpub) also is channeling Willy Wonka by allowing folks who pledged $500 or more to the project’s Kickstarter fund to help design a brew, name it, make it, and put it on tap…

Yes, he made all the furniture himself.

(h/t: The Roundup)

Readers’ Corner: Philip Seymour Hoffman

One more note on the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman. Back in 2004, he was interviewed by The Believer and the talk sprawled over beyond life and acting into things literary.

yates__paradeHoffman has played a few great figures from both sides of the literary page (Willy Loman, Truman Capote), but that’s not what gave him the credentials for this interview, it’s that he was clearly a passionate reader. Not a lot people out there these days who will stand up and shout for the dark glories of somebody like Richard Yates:

If you do any great art you’re somehow exposing a part of you. Like Richard Yates, Jesus Christ, that book, you almost don’t want to meet him. I kept feeling for the characters as if they existed.

But perhaps most beautifully, he identifies one of the great solaces of reading, that it’s an act in and of itself with no need to be justified. Some won’t care for his comparing it to smoking, but the linkage is clear:

When you read, you think, and when you smoke, you think. It’s a pleasurable thing, and not a duty.

Reader’s Corner: 100 Most Requested Out-of-Print Books

Every year, BookFinder.com compiles a list of the 100 most sought-after out-of-print books. Their 11th annual list was just released and it’s quite the read.

For our sins, the #1 title is Madonna’s oh-so-scandalous “book” Sex. Stephen King makes a few high-up appearances, most surprisingly for the little-known My Little Pony, which was released as a limited edition in 1989 with illustrations by Barbara Kruger. Some other highlights:

  • Nora Roberts (?!) – Promise Me Tomorrow
  • Cameron Crowe – Fast Times at Ridgemont High
  • Salvador Dali, J.R.R. Tolkien, others – The Jerusalem Bible
  • Ricky Jay – Cards as Weapons

 

 

 

Reader’s Corner: Best Books of 2013

 

Best-of lists are particularly absurd when it comes to books, with thousands of titles being released in 2013 alone and easily hundreds of them most likely being worth forking over $25 for. But nevertheless it’s helpful to pull notable ones out of the stacks of new releases; otherwise where would you even get started?

To that end, I published a piece over at PopMatters with short writeups on my 15 favorite books of 2013. It’s a good collection with something for everybody, fantasy to military history, graphic novels to current affairs, Thomas Pynchon to Scientology. You can read it here.

Reader’s Corner: Van Gogh and ‘The Jewish Bride’

Legend has it that after Vincent Van Gogh saw Rembrandt’s painting The Jewish Bride in Amsterdam—where it still hangs today in the renovated Rijksmuseum—he said this:

I should be happy to give 10 years of my life if I could go on sitting here in front of this picture for a fortnight, with only a crust of dry bread for food.

The math there might be a little on the extreme side (Van Gogh wasn’t one for half-measures, after all), but still, who wouldn’t say something like that about some work of art? The novel that you read at twelve years old which opened your eyes to the world, the painting that made you think “So that’s why people come to museums,” the song that you cry upon hearing whether it’s the first or the hundredth time? How much would you sacrifice to be allowed more time with your favorite book?

Readers’ Corner: Every Book, Ever

You always hear people complaining about there being just not enough time to read all the books out there. Just too much on the shelves to get to in this lifetime. Not the worst thing to have to complain about, of course, but still, frustrating—even if you’re not Burgess Meredith after the apocalypse.

So here’s the question: Has that always been the case? Was there a time at which one could have actually read every single book that had been written? (For the sake of this exercise, we’re limiting it to English-language titles.) Fortunately, there’s always a numbers guy out there working just about any conceivable problem, so now we may have an answer:

According to the site what if?:

If we estimate that during their active periods, writers are producing somewhere between 0.1 and 1 word per minute, then one dedicated reader might be able to keep up with a population of about 500 or 1,000 active writers … the date at which there were too many English books to read in a lifetime—happened sometime before the population of active English writers reached a few hundred. At that point, catching up became impossible.

The magazine Seed estimates that the total number of authors reached this point around the year 1500 and has continued rising rapidly ever since. The number of active English writers crossed this threshold shortly thereafter, around the time of Shakespeare, and the total number of books in English probably passed the lifetime reading limit sometime in the late 1500s.

So there you have it. It’s been a few centuries since reading everything out there was even possible. So if you can’t finish the complete works of Joyce Carol Oates in this lifetime (and, honestly, who could—as she publishes at the rate most people read), well, just hope for reincarnation.

Readers’ Corner: The English Major

reading1Many will disagree with Mark Edmundson’s popular essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education: “The Ideal English Major.” Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, argues that college students should choose the English major over the pecuniary rewards of degrees in econ or business.

In a weak job market, where the crushing burden of student debt makes attending college an increasingly fraught choice, it’s welcome to see somebody beating the drum for the English degree as path towards becoming an educated person.

There may, however, only be so much one can take of Edmundson’s soaring, hard-to-choke-down conclusion:

To me an English major is someone who has decided, against all kinds of pious, prudent advice and all kinds of fears and resistances, to major, quite simply, in becoming a person. Once you’ve passed that particular course of study—or at least made some significant progress on your way—then maybe you’re ready to take up something else.

One imagines there are a few M.B.A.’s out there who vaguely resemble people (frequent evidence to the contrary).

But Edmundson’s essay remains a worthy defense of reading, study, and all-around curiosity (“Love for language, hunger for life, openness and a quest for truth: Those are the qualities of my English major in the ideal form”) in an ever-more mercantile and results-oriented age. He understands the transformative nature of reading in its most ecstatic form:

There are people who read to anesthetize themselves—they read to induce a vivid, continuous, and risk-free daydream. They read for the same reason that people grab a glass of chardonnay—to put a light buzz on. The English major reads because, as rich as the one life he has may be, one life is not enough. He reads not to see the world through the eyes of other people but effectively to become other people.