by Campbell Geeslin
James Laughlin died in 1997. He was a unique figure in literature. He took his inherited millions and founded New Directions. He published Paul Bowles, Henry Miller, Tennessee Williams, Dylan Thomas, Boris Pasternak and many others. My shelves are punctuated with New Directions titles. The jackets, by top designers like Alvin Lustig, are works of art.
Dwight Garner reviewed two books about Laughlin in The New York Times:
Liturchour Is My Beat: A Life of James Laughlin by Ian S. MacNiven, and The Collected Poems of James Laughlin edited by Peter Glassgold.
Garner wrote that “Laughlin was a hard man to know, his charming public face eating into his private one.” Gertrude Stein told Laughlin his poetry was inferior, and he suffered from a bipolar disorder that he inherited along with his fortune. Garner ended the review with: “If there’s a literary heaven I hope Laughlin the publisher is in it. ‘I fear death,’ he wrote a friend, ‘because I can’t recall that Dante mentions any book in hell.’”
OBSESSION: Cheryl Strayed is the author of Wild. She was asked about writers' obsession with the Great American Novel by The New York Times Book Review.
Strayed wrote that the idea is "a competitive mode that is, I suppose, as American as it gets. It's also most likely the reason that the idea has persisted for so long. To think that one might be writing the Great American Novel, as opposed to laboring through a meandering 400-page manuscript that includes lengthy descriptions of the minutiae of one's mildly fictionalized childhood (pushing a bicycle up a hill on a hot Minnesota day, sexual fantasies about Luke Skywalker) is awfully reassuring. I have a purpose! I am writing the Great American Novel!"
She sums up with "art isn't a footrace. No one comes in first place. . . . Our obsession with the Great American Novel is perhaps evidence of the even greater truth that it's impossible for one to exist. As Americans, we keep looking anyway."
HEAR THE BOOK: James Atlas is an essayist and author of My Life in the Middle Ages: A Survivor’s Tale.
In an essay entitled “Hearing Is Believing” in The New York Times, he wrote about the evolution of books. He said, “Listening to a podcast is like watching a movie, listening to music and reading a book all at once. You become attached to the characters, caught up in the story, enthralled by the writing. . . . maybe we’re sick of short attention spans. Maybe we want to pay attention.”
Later, Atlas sums up: “The aural-oral revolution won’t mean the end of the book any more than the e-book did.
"'In the history of mankind, words were heard before they were seen,' wrote Albert B. Lord, the author of The Singer of Tales, a classic work of scholarship that traced oral literature from Homer through Beowulf.
"Progress doesn’t always mean going forward.”
NEW: A couple of new machines with keyboards like typewriters are on their way. The Hemingwrite “is a bare-bones device with a single purpose: to enable writing without being distracted by the draw of the Internet,” The Wall Street Journal reported. “With a four-week battery life, the aluminum-bodied four-pounder continuously saves your work to Evernote, Google Drive, iCloud and other services via Wi-Fi.” A Hemingwrite can be pre-ordered for $399 for delivery next September.
Another device, the Quirkywriter, resembles a typewriter too. But it connects to computers, smartphones or tablets. Models can be pre-ordered now for $309 with delivery next August.
NONFICTION: Anthony Trollope’s An Autobiography and Other Writings has been reissued by Oxford University Press. A review in The Wall Street Journal was written by Gertrude Himmelfarb, author of The People of the Book: Philo-semitism in England, From Cromwell to Churchill.
She quotes Henry James who said Trollope’s Autobiography was “one of the most curious and amazing books in all literature, for its density, blockishness and general thickness and soddenness.”
Himmelfarb followed that with: “James was echoing a charge that other critics were beginning to make, that Trollope wrote too much, too quickly, about too many subjects—and for money—to be taken seriously as a novelist.”
Later she wrote, “Reading and writing had brought [Trollope] his happiness, and so, he hoped, it would remain until the end.”
ESSAY UP FRONT: The New York Times Book Review usually starts a review on the cover. This past Sunday, it had an essay by Leon Wieseltier, author of Kaddish and a contributing editor of The Atlantic.
He produced a “gloomy inventory of certain tendencies in contemporary American culture.” A main concern was that every technology is used before it is completely understood.
“Aside from issues of life and death," Wieseltier wrote, "there is no more urgent task for American intellectuals and writers than to think critically about . . . the tyranny of technology in individual and collective life. . . .We are still in the middle of the great transformation, but it is not too early to begin to expose the exaggerations, and to sort out the continuities from the discontinuities.”
ONLINE COURSES: Simon & Schuster is offering online courses by their health, finance and self-help authors. Carolyn Reidy, president of S&S, told The New York Times, “Today’s consumers have made it plain that they want and expect more from authors than just books. This initiative is also another way for us to expand what Simon & Schuster can provide to our authors, building audiences for their books and creating new revenue streams.” Courses will range in price from $25 to $85.
Participating are Zhena Muryka, the author of a self-help book, Life by the City; Dr. David B. Agus, author of The End of Illness, and Tosha Silver, author of a spiritual advice book, Outrageous Openness.” There are plans to release a dozen more courses this year.
Eventually, The Times said, “the online courses . . . could include videos by entertainers and experts who have not yet published books.” The videos might lead to a book.
A VILLA: “Books on reading have become as common as new diets,“ Micah Mattix wrote in The Wall Street Journal. He is an assistant professor of literature at Houston Baptist University. He explained that these books “lecture us on literature’s value, its uses and abuses, its importance or timelessness like ‘a middle-age mother,’ as Frank O’Hara once put it, referring to poets worried about their audience, ‘trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat.’”
Mattix was reviewing Roger Grenier’s Palace of Books. He sums up, “While Mr. Grenier can allow his love of books to get the best of him, the occasions when his allusions and references overwhelm are thankfully rare. Overall his volume may not be a ‘palace’ of books, but it certainly is a lovely villa.”
WINNING STORIES: The finalists for the $20,000 Story Prize are Lorrie Moore’s Bark, Francesca Marciano’s The Other Language, and Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck and Other Stories. The two runners-up will each get $5,000.
There will be a presentation ceremony on March 4 at the New School, at which the three finalists will read from their books and discuss their work.
EXHIBIT: “Bibliothecaphilia” is the name of an exhibition that opens January 24 at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, Mass.
Jonathan Gitelson installed marked-up books that show how owners felt about a book. Meg Hitchcock cut words from printed works and reassembled them into other works. Jena Prisbe said she wanted to “capture that moment when you’re reading a book and you’re completely enchanted.” Her installation is titled “The Secret Lives of Books.” She said, “You put [a book] down and walk out of the room, and the book comes alive.” A photo of that installation in The Wall Street Journal shows a bookcase bursting open with books spilling every which way.
HAUNTED: Slade House, a new novel by Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell, will be published in October. The book “covers 36 years in the life of a haunted house,” said The New York Times. Slade House grew out of a short story, “The Right Sort,” published on Twitter last summer. The book recounts “the disappearances of five individuals.”
DEFINITION: Poet Randall Jarrell wrote an introduction to William Carlos Williams Selected Poems (1949) and quoted the poet.
Williams said, “A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words. . . . When a man makes a poem, makes it mind you, he takes words as he finds them interrelated about him and composes them—without distortion which would mar their exact significances . . . . It isn’t what he says that counts as a work it art, it’s what he makes with such intensity of perception that it lies with an intrinsic movement of its own to verify its authenticity.”