Writer’s Desk: (Don’t Just) Write What You Know

Nathan Englander (What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank) casts a little cold water on limiting your writing to what you’ve experienced personally:

I think the most famous piece of writing advice that there is is “write what you know,” and I think it’s—honestly, I think it’s the best piece of advice there is, but I think it’s the most misunderstood, most mis-taught, most misinterpreted piece of advice that there is. It’s so simple and so obvious. It used to terrify me, this idea of “write what you know.” I was dreaming, I was in suburbia, in my house, dreaming of being of a writer, and I thought, what am I going to do with “write what you know”? What I know from childhood is I was on the couch, watching TV. So I should simply rewrite a whole series of sitcoms for you. I should write a book called What’s Happening? and then I should write a book called Little House on the Prairie is on at 5 o’clock. . .

Reader’s Corner: Surround Yourself With Books

Umberto Eco (1932–2016) was famous for having one of the world’s great libraries. It contained about 30,000 volumes and knocked the socks off pretty much everybody who saw it. (There’s a video here of the Foucault’s Pendulum author wandering through it.)

Did he read all those books? Of course not. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb pointed out in The Black Swan, that’s a good thing. Here’s Taleb quoted by Maria Popova:

The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others — a very small minority — who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there.

Keep collecting those books, as long as space and money allow. You’ll get to them. Eventually.

Writer’s Desk: Read It and Wing It

A notable anti-academic observation on the writing life from Kurt Vonnegut, collected in George Plimpton’s The Writer’s Chapbook:

I grew up in a house crammed with books. But I never had to read a book for academic credit, never had to write a paper about it, never had to prove I’d understood it in a seminar. I am a hopelessly clumsy discusser of books. My experience is nil…

Reader’s Corner: Afghanistan Book Business Booms

Only two out of five Afghans can read. But those who can are snapping up as many books as they can. In a country where foreign aid budgets and cheap imports have destroyed many local businesses, publishing is flourishing. Kabul alone has at least 60 bookstores and close to two dozen publishers (up from a mere two during the Taliban years).

Per the Times recent dispatch from the frontlines of Afghan bookselling:

In a turbulent, troubled society, curling up with a book has become the best tonic around.

“I think in any environment, but perhaps especially places at war, book reading creates a pause from day-to-day life and isolates a reader from their surroundings while they’re buried in a book,” said Jamshid Hashimi, who runs an online library and is a co-founder of the Book Club of Afghanistan. “This is powerful anywhere, but in a place like Afghanistan, it can be a means of emotional survival.”

Interestingly, many recent bestsellers have been Afghan translations of books by Westerners about Afghanistan, such as Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars and The Envoy, Zalmay Khalizad’s memoir about serving as American ambassador in Kabul.

Reader’s Corner: ‘Heather, the Totality’

In this novel from Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, the lives of a spiritually deadened uptown Manhattan family intersect with the downward trajectory of a New Jersey convict who never had a chance.

My review of Heather, the Totality is at PopMatters:

Nobody will finish this novel remembering a sublime fillip of dialogue or splash of lovely description. They are more likely to snap the book shut about three or so hours after picking it up—and they almost certainly will fly through it at that speed, because this thin blade of a book has a wicked magnetic pull—and pour themselves a couple fingers of something strong. To steady the nerves…

You can read an excerpt here.

Reader’s Corner: Decolonize the Shelves

Junot Diaz (The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao) spoke to a packed crowd of booksellers and other literary business folk at this year’s Winter Institute in Memphis. The Dominican-born Diaz, whose latest book Islandborn will be out this March, talked about the importance of books to an immigrant like him:

… [arriving] in the United States completely illiterate, if it hadn’t been for the kindness of librarians,” he probably wouldn’t have found books. But he did. “Books became my shelter against the white world that sometimes felt like it was trying to destroy me.”

He stressed the need for book curators to help “decolonize the shelves”:

Bookstore owners and librarians are on the front line. It’s the smallest intervention that can sometimes create the most important, lasting change … I wrote my children’s book, Islandborn, because I believe there are things immigrants can teach that we all need to hear without which we will never understand this stolen land we inhabit.

Reader’s Corner: ‘Extreme Cities’

My review of Ashley Dawson’s Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change, was published in the Winter 2017–2018 edition of RainTaxi Review of Books:

[E]ven though logic would dictate transforming low-lying shorelines into storm surge-absorbing wetlands, planners in cities like New York and Miami continue building right up to the water line. Meanwhile, even conservative modeling has seas rising over six feet by 2100. Set against that inexorable future, Dawson’s description of a “feckless capitalist culture of ruinous growth” has the ring of truth…