Reader’s Corner: Umberto Eco’s ‘Numero Zero’

9780544635081_hresUmberto Eco’s latest novel Numero Zero goes on sale today. It’s a slim fantasy about crackpot conspiracy theories and journalists who play the game of massaging the truth a little too well.

Eco told NPR that he hopes readers of his novel “will become more suspicious and attentive when reading a newspaper.”

My review is at PopMatters:

Beware of stories by hack journalists who are given a chance at doing something greater and in the process discover that the seemingly too-good-to-be-true offer masks something darker that will test the limits of their conflicted ambition and fraying morality. Fortunately, Umberto Eco’s newest crackpot thriller, Numero Zero, is not one of those stories. His hack journalist doesn’t aspire to much more than he is, and he’s in on the big secret from the get-go. Unfortunately, the novel, for all its intellectual zip and brash erudition, never builds into anything more than a trifle…

Here is an excerpt from Numero Zero.

Quote of the Day: Men Don’t Read

Men. Reading.
Men. Reading.

Depressing, provocative, or just plain true, here’s something to consider from Bryan Goldberg; he made millions off co-founding the incredibly popular crowd-sourced sports site Bleacher Report and is now trying to do the same for women-centered writing (whatever that is) at a site called Bustle. According to Goldberg:

Men, to the best of my knowledge, don’t even read … When’s the last time you heard a man say, ‘I’ve been reading this great book, you’d really like it’? My girlfriend always tells me about these books she’s reading, and I don’t even see her reading the book! Where does this book live?

Apparently it doesn’t occur to Goldberg to just pick up a book and find out what this fascinating and mysterious hobby is all about.

But in any case, he is not wrong in the aggregate, as any bookstore employee can tell you: Women buy books, men don’t. There is the occasional squawk of disagreement on this issue and plenty of anecdotal evidence to the contrary, but mostly, the numbers bear it out.

A 2007 story from NPR reported that even among avid readers, the typical woman read nine books a year, compared to five for men. Men make up just 20 percent of fiction reader. It’s hard to believe that those numbers have changed much in the past six years.

Back in 2005, novelist Ian McEwan (Atonement, the amazing new Sweet Tooth) tried an experiment. He and his son went around a London park distributing books for free. The result?

Every young woman we approached – in central London practically everyone seems young – was eager and grateful to take a book. Some riffled through the pile murmuring, “Read that, read that, read that …” before making a choice. Others asked for two, or even three.

The guys were a different proposition. They frowned in suspicion, or distaste. When they were assured they would not have to part with their money, they still could not be persuaded. “Nah, nah. Not for me. Thanks mate, but no.” Only one sensitive male soul was tempted.

“Frowned in suspicion, or distaste.” And remember, this was before every man had a smart phone to obsessively check up on sports scores.

Reader’s Corner: Books for Life

books1A recent NPR story about staving off dementia in old age included many of the usual suggestions:

  • moderate aerobic exercise
  • mental exercises (Sudoku and the like)
  • learning a new language
  • staying social

One neuroscientist had an even better suggestion, though:

…the best advice might be to join a book group that walks and drinks red wine while talking about the book.

It covers everything. It’s also less likely to involve breaking a sweat, which is always good.


Sight & Sound: Remembering the Lost

For years now, the nearly perfect organization StoryCorps has been traveling the country and giving people the opportunity to just sit down and tell a story about themselves, a friend, family member, or just life. The recordings (which run the gamut from the quotidian to the heartbreaking) are then stored at the Library of Congress, some 40,000 interviews since 2003. It’s an incomparable trove of oral history that will leave future researchers bowing in gratitude.

Their newest project involves putting some of their stories to animation. The result has a This American Life bounciness to them (mostly due to the music), but with a gutsy level of emotion that’s difficult to explain. John and Joe, about one father’s horrendous loss on 9/11 (StoryCorps aims to record at least one interview for each person killed that day), is one of the more memorable short films not just from this program, but from anywhere in recent memory.

You can watch John and Joe here:

One of the other incredibly heartwrenching shorts from StoryCorps’ 9/11 project is Always a Family, watch it here:

New in Theaters: ‘Sleepwalk with Me’

With its can-you-believe-this? story, slacker protagonists, and rueful gravitas, Sleepwalk With Me could easily have been This American Life: The Movie. That it’s not, even though writer, star, and co-director Mike Birbiglia is a longtime favored TAL performer, is a testament to his multifaceted appeal. The movie doesn’t quite translate that appeal, just as it doesn’t translate the original bit’s conversational stage format to a narrative…

Sleepwalk with Me is playing now in (very) limited release; it should be expanding much wider through the fall. My review is at PopMatters.

You can see the trailer here:

The ‘Jefferson Lies’ That Weren’t

After selling some 20,000 books, Christian publisher Thomas Nelson is pulling all remaining copies of David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson (foreword by Glenn Beck). In his zeal to burnish Jefferson’s image, it seems Barton’s facts weren’t quite up to the argument he was making.

According to NPR, the publisher had a “loss of confidence” in the book’s accuracy:

Since its initial publication, historians have debunked and raised concerns about numerous claims in Barton’s book. In it, Barton calls Jefferson a “conventional Christian,” claims the founding father started church services at the Capitol, and even though he owned more than 200 slaves, says Jefferson was a civil rights visionary.

Additionally, Barton tried to shoo away evidence of Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemmings. When the book was first published earlier this year, Alan Pell Crawford had this to say about it:

A commitment to the notion that Jefferson promoted Christian orthodoxy leads Mr. Barton to misinterpret the early history of the University of Virginia. It was precisely because American colleges were created to produce clergymen that Jefferson established an institution where, he declared, “a professorship of theology should have no place.” … Clergymen who opposed Jefferson’s attempt to hire freethinkers as faculty members he dismissed as “satellites of religious inquisition.”

…No doubt Jefferson has suffered at the hands of glib revisionists. But attempting to make this complex man a simple, reassuring and unambiguously admirable figure does no service to his reputation—or to the American past.

Reader’s Corner: David Rakoff (1964-2012)

It’s been a bad few weeks — the literary world has been robbed of yet another glorious voice. David Rakoff, whose print and radio essays were some of the darkest yet most violently life-affirming things you will ever encounter, died on Thursday from the cancer that first appeared when he was just 22 years old.

His books (Half Empty, and particularly Don’t Get Too Comfortable) are rich with life and haunted with death, like most of the best writing is. He served on the airwaves of National Public Radio and on the shelves of smarter bookstores everywhere as a kind of grumpy conscience, the mordant cousin to David Sedaris (who championed his early writing).

In this fantastic segment from a live-recorded episode of This American Life from just this past May, Rakoff talks about his youth, dance, what he termed “all this nonsense”, and getting on with life after an operation severed the nerves that controlled his left arm.

“I’m done with so many things,” he says with the glint of sadness which always gave his humor that unique sting.