Monthly Archives: February 2008

The art of digression

The Maltese Falcon isn’t my favorite Dashiell Hammett novel — that would be Red Harvest and its brilliant opening paragraphs — but Sam Spade’s story about Mr. Flitcraft is a great moment, right up there with Bernstein’s monologue about the girl on the ferry in Citizen Kane. It gets its proper appreciation at the Guardian bookblog.

Hope is the thing with bookshelves

What are bookshelves for? Are they for displaying the books you’ve read? The books you want to read? The books you would like to have read but haven’t gotten around to yet? The books you want people to think you’ve read? Matt Selman started the ball rolling on this question:

RULE No.1: THE PRIME DIRECTIVE — It is unacceptable to display any book in a public space of your home if you have not read it. Therefore, to be placed on Matt Selman’s living room bookshelves, a book must have been read cover to cover, every word, by Matt Selman. If you are in the home of Matt Selman and see a book on the living room shelves, you know FOR SURE it has been read by Matt Selman.

RULE No.1: COROLLARY A: The living room books ARE NOT the combined book collections of Matt Selman and his wife. (She may have read some of them, but who knows, really.) This is only the collection of Matt Selman.

Ezra Klein takes up the challenge:

No, this is all wrong. Bookshelves are not for displaying books you’ve read — those books go in your office, or near your bed, or on your Facebook profile. Rather, the books on your shelves are there to convey the type of person you would like to be. I am the type of person who would read long biographies of Lyndon Johnson, despite not being the type of person who has read any long biographies of Lyndon Johnson. I am the type of person who is very interested in a history of the Reformation, but am not, as it happens, the type of person with the time to read 900 pages on the subject. More importantly, I am the type of person who amasses many books, on all sorts of subjects. I’m pretty sure that’s what a bookshelf is there to prove. The reading of those books is entirely incidental. The question becomes how we’ll project all of this when Kindles takes off and all our books are digital.

Of course, one of the advantages of having a big book collection on display is that during an argument like this you can shut down the debate by pulling out a quotation from some irrefutable authority. In Scott McLemee’s case, that means loading a few lines of Montaigne into the cannon. But he also injects a note of practicality — maintaining a book collection vs. sustaining a healthy marriage:

Around here, the “prime directive” is that there should not be any books on the floor. If a marriage is its own little civilization, this is among the basic clauses in our social contract. Insofar as “aspiration” comes into play, I find it operating at the level of daydreams about replacing one of the closets or windows with another set of shelves.

Clothing and the outside world are much overrated, in my opinion, which does not carry very much weight in this particular case. Bookshelves are storage; that is all. The idea of using them for “display” seems cute and improbable.

In my pre-house life, I spent a great deal of time moving between apartments, and each time involved moving many, many crates of books. Those books and the shelves they lived on covered just about every wall of each apartment I rented. The unspoken (well, not so unspoken) agreement in my marriage is that now we have a study, so my books will live in that study. Books that wander out of the study and curl up around the bed are only tolerated for so long before they are herded back into the study. So technically, they’re not on display anymore, so theoretically I couldn’t care less what anybody thinks.

What’s really interesting, and what’s been left out of the equation so far, is not so much using your book collection to project an image of yourself to other people. It’s what you learn about people from the way they react to your book collection. In the apartment era, I surreptitiously kept an eye on what volumes got taken down for a quick scan during parties. The single most popular book was Patrick Moore’s The Atlas of the Universe, and the people who looked at it were invariably the most interesting party guests.

As a freelance writer, I have the dodge of being able to claim unread books for their future utility. I have a lot of books that I haven’t read, but they’re about things I know I’m going to be interested in, somewhere down the line. Just as I know, deep in my heart, that somewhere down the line Shakira will invite me over to her place for some drinks and a few rounds of Twister. I just know it. And if it doesn’t happen, I think the positive value of hope and expectation will have made me a better person.

The meme-ing of life

Lance Mannion has affixed the Meme of Page 123 to my back and now I must shake it loose. He explains the meme thus:

It’s the old Page 123 trick. Goes like this, sez she:

• look up page 123 in the nearest book
• look for the fifth sentence
• then post the three sentences that follow that fifth sentence on page 123.

And he lays the geas upon me thus:

2. Steven Hart, because I’m hoping he has a copy of his book nearby, The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway . If not, he’s permitted to cheat.

Well, Lance, it just so happens that I do have a copy of my book nearby. In fact, I take it with me whenever I leave the house. Should I become lost in a killer blizzard while hiking through the Alps, the searchers with the cross-country skis and the Saint Bernards bearing casks of brandy around their necks will find my deep-frozen body curled around the book, stiff arms cradling it to my icicled chest, a contented smile on my blue-frosted lips. Too bad I won’t get to try the brandy, though I suspect that if you had some really good brandy on hand, you probably wouldn’t want to tie it around the neck of a big slobbering dog.

So, Steven, what did you write on page 123? Well, Steven, I’ll tell you:

By the fall of 1932, the diagonal highway — all 88,461 steely black tons of it, goose-pimpled with over two million hand-placed rivets — was nearly complete. The two bridge spans that straddled the Hackensack and Passaic river were finaly joined by sections of roadway, after months of standing alone. Drivers emerging from the depressed roadway through Bergen Hill still faced time-consuming delays as they were funneled down ramps at Broadway and Tonnele Circle, but they could see the future stretching away into the distance just before they made their descent.

So now I get to toss the meme around, like the Hydra’s teeth in Jason and the Argonauts. Woo-hoo! Let’s fling the memes and see what rises from the earth.

1. Aha! Over there, it’s Christian! You have a new novel, In Hoboken, about to hit the stores, Christian, so we’ll be indulgent if you want to use that for the meme.

2. What ho, Jeff? Wilt thou regale us with a selection from your terrific book Becoming Charlemagne? Or will it be one of those medieval poems you carry around? Inquiring myndes wishe to gnowe!

3. Come out from behind those shelves, Joseph, you’re not fooling anybody. A man who works at a bookstore should have no trouble dealing with this meme. You take too much time between posts, anyway.

4. Ron, you were bold enough to post Stockhausen’s “Helicopter Quartet” on your blog. Do something equally uplifting with this meme.

5. Geoff, those are some impressive random books from your library running along your blog. Share one of them with us — there’s a good fellow.

Blue Monday

The last time I heard David Bromberg was back in my bright college days, when a few of my friends were quite taken with his “Bullfrog Blues,” the kind of endless shaggy-dog joke song that is amusing the first two times you hear it. After that . . . I dunno, but after the fourth go-round I began to wonder if “Bullfrog Blues” hadn’t been the sound Charles Whitman heard in his head while he was picking off pedestrians from the top of the Texas Tower. That wasn’t the only Bromberg song I heard, of course, but for all his impeccable musicianship and wide-ranging tastes, there was just something about Bromberg that made keeping up with his records a little less than a matter of life or death.

Are you still with me? Well, forget everything I just said. I went to Bromberg’s show at the Count Basie Theater on a windy, slushy Friday night, and I emerged from the concert ready to buy every single David Bromberg CD I could lay hands on. One of the highlights of a show filled with highlights was his solo performance of Bob Dylan’s “It Takes A Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” and while the clip above isn’t from the Count Basie show, it’s very much in the spirit of the performance.

(And as long as I’m talking about this past weekend’s great show, let me sing the praises of the Count Basie Theater, a grand old space with superb acoustics. How nice that it’s named after a real musician instead of succumbing to the same corporate crapification that afflicts us with the Izod Arena, the Kaopectate Arts Center and the Centrum Silver Center. All right, I made up those last two names. They aren’t real. Not yet, anyway.)

The single biggest change in Bromberg’s sound is, quite simply, his voice. He’s finally got one. In the past, Bromberg vied with Leo Kottke for the title of Folk Musician Whose Singing Is Most Like To Make You Realize Bob Dylan’s Voice Isn’t All That Bad. Well, Dylan should have followed Bromberg’s example and taken some serious voice lessons. Not only can Bromberg sing, but his voice now has that chest-bursting fullness B.B. King can still deliver on nights when he’s in front of an audience that wants to hear some real music instead of just bask in the aura of An Authentic Blues Legend. On the second number of the evening, the jokey blues “I’ll Take You Back,” Bromberg was truly belting it out, and several times during the show he hit high notes that would have been a couple of stratospheres beyond his reach when he was about a third of his present age.

“Ecelctic” has always been the default setting for any attempt to describe Bromberg, and eclectic the show certainly was: a bit of bluegrass, a bit of Irish folk, a bit of country and a bit of N’awlins, all seasoning hefty servings of blues. All of it was played with elegant virtuosity and welcome flashes of wit, and by the time the show closed with Dr. John’s “Such a Night,” I could say that this had been a truly satisfying and engaging show.

Short and unsweet

One of the short films up for an Oscar this year is based on a pretty good Elmore Leonard story, “The Tonto Woman.” Read about it on Elmore Leonard’s site. Cormac McCarthy, Upton Sinclair and Elmore Leonard, all in one Oscar season. How about that?


Stephen Allan goes to Borders and finds himself irritated by a bunch of teenagers who are being too loud and cussedy in the SF and horror section. Then he realizes:

. . . as I was trying to ignore them, I realized that they were being loud and obnoxious about books, even going so far as to call a writer a “douche bag” because they didn’t like his writing. These guys actually read, and more than just one or two books; they were discussing a ton of books. Well read high school students? In a group of about five? I read a lot in high school, but my other friends weren’t as interested in books. How great is it that these kids were not only reading, but had found each other? I watched a sales clerk eye the group and I was thinking “No! Don’t even think about confronting these guys. Do you really want to alienate what is possible the last five teenagers who read?” The clerk wisely decided to leave them alone and each one bought at least one book.

I see his point. But if one of them had said something against “that noir writer on the Internet,” would he have been so broadminded?

Searching for a gusher

During a career that encompassed over 90 novels, a failed bid to launch a utopian community in northern New Jersey and a quixotic 1934 run for the governership of California, Upton Sinclair repeatedly aimed for but never quite achieved success with Hollywood. There were a few brushes with filmdom: after a silent version of his most famous novel, The Jungle, Sinclair befriended Charlie Chaplin and lost a lot of money backing Sergei Eisenstein’s never-completed documentary about Mexico. It’s a little startling to realize that this arch-socialist’s last nod from Hollywood came a year before his death, when arch-reactionary Walt Disney made a film of his children’s book The Gnome-Mobile.

This short piece by Sinclair biographer Anthony Arthur naturally focuses on There Will Be Blood, which is so loosely based on Sinclair’s novel Oil! that one could make a separate version that would hardly overlap its story. The odd thing is that the film, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, almost complements Sinclair in its vision of oilmen and evangelists cynically clawing wealth from both the land and the soul of America:

Anderson’s self-sufficient and misanthropic Daniel Plainview (as he renames Dad Ross) has no truck with Sinclairean theories of cause and effect. “I don’t like explaining myself,” says Anderson’s Plainview, perhaps reflecting the director’s own wish that his poetic and ultimately rather cryptic film speak for itself. Upton Sinclair, to the frequent detriment of his novels, loved explaining himself, especially his ideas about what was wrong with capitalism. Although “Oil!” is one of Sinclair’s better novels, it still suffers from the author’s insistence that literature should lead to the solution of social problems. Less interested in human psychology than in ideas, he blamed the capitalist system for all social ills and directed his literary and other energies (he ran for governor of California as a Democrat in 1934) toward changing that system to socialism. Sinclair’s critics gibed that he had sold his birthright for a pot of message, and even his admirers wished that he had paid more attention to his art.

By contrast, “There Will Be Blood” is ingeniously artful in many ways, not least in its enthralling re-creation of the oil-boom era that Sinclair evoked in his novel. But where Sinclair could be overly didactic, Anderson’s film suffers from a lack of thematic clarity, compounded by some of his shifts in emphasis. Paul, the avatar of honor in “Oil!,” appears in the film only briefly, selling the secret of his father’s oil to the rapacious Plainview before disappearing entirely. Eli the evangelist, who is presented satirically and largely fades from view after the novel’s opening section, becomes Plainview’s primary antagonist, and a wholly unredeemed villain, in the film. Sinclair would hardly have objected to the punishment Anderson ultimately inflicts on this charlatan — just a few years before “Oil!” he wrote “The Profits of Religion,” a scorching broadside against organized churches, which he saw as “a source of income to parasites, and the natural ally of every form of oppression and exploitation.” But for Sinclair, the problem was not with outright villains, of which there are few in his work, but with the system itself, with the false beliefs that cause people to behave badly.

I’m glad to see that, thanks to the movie, Oil! is still chugging along nicely on the Times’ trade paperback bestseller list.

Snow! The Sequel

What does Mr. Longfellow have to say about our first real snowstorm of the season?

The new puppy just had a freakout session in the backyard, jumping from snowpile to snowpile in sheer happiness.


Time to shovel, then time for hot chocolate, then maybe a snowman or two.

The book chute

Books. They take up a lot of space and we don’t want to part with a single one of them. It’s a problem.

And this solution to the problem is pretty astonishing. In fact, it’s too cool for words.