by Campbell Geeslin
Louis Menard is a professor of English at Harvard and a staff writer for The New Yorker. He wrote about “The one-dot theory of history” in the March 30th issue. “Historians explain why things turn out the way they did,” he said. “Since we already know the outcome, this might seem a simple matter of looking back and connecting the dots. But there is a problem: Too many dots. Even the dots have dots….
“Historians are categorized according to what the historian has chosen as the basic unit of explanation. There are top-down histories, bottom-up histories, and sideways histories, histories in which causes have an oblique relation to effects. (Rome fell because the wine jars were made of lead—a fun explanation, though somehow unsatisfying.)...
“Every work of history is a ridiculously selective selection from the universe of possible dots. What the historian is claiming is that these are the particular dots that lead us from there to here, or from time step 1 to step 1.1. Lots of other stuff happened, the historians will agree. But if these things hadn’t happened, the life as we know it wouldn’t be, well, as we know it.”
P.S.: Henry Adams wrote in The Education of Henry Adams (1905): “The historian must not try to know what is truth, if he values his honesty; for, if he cares for his truths, he is certain to falsify his facts.”
ON DIARIES: Eula Biss is the author of On Immunity: An Inoculation. Reviewing The Folded Clock: A Diary by Heidi Julavits in Sunday's New York Times Book Review, she plays with the notion of invented and real selves: "Losing oneself is… one of the rewards of reading. The opportunity to inhabit another consciousness, is perhaps the most profound trespass a work of literature can allow."
In The Folded Clock, Julavits describes the experience of reading her own childhood diaries: "They reveal me to possess the mind, not of a future writer, but of a future paranoid tax auditor. I exhibited no imagination, no trace of a style, no wit, no personality." The adult Julavits, says Biss, has produced "an exquisite diary."
BIRTHDAY: Last week, Garrison Keillor’s writersalmanac.org on the Internet celebrated poet Billy Collins’s birthday.
Collins is the author of The Trouble With Poetry. He said that he wrote his first poem when he was seven but that he was “a Catholic high school boy in the suburbs who fantasized about stealing a car and driving nonstop to Denver. I probably would have done it but I didn’t have access to those special driving pills Neal Cassady had. Plus, there was always a test to study for, or band practice.”
LEARNING: Also with a birthday last week was Louis L’Amour, author of more than 100 novels that have sold 320 million books worldwide. Asked which of his books he liked best, he said, “I like them all. I never rework a book. I’d rather use what I’ve learned in the next one.”
LEE’S JACKET: The first printing of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, due out July 16, will be two million copies. According to The New York Times, the book is “selling briskly through preorders from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.” On the cover, a picture of an autumn tree echoes the book’s prequel, To Kill a Mockingbird.
MORE THAN GENRE: T.C. Boyle’s most recent novel is The Harder They Come. He was interviewed in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review and said, “I have never been a fan of genre writing of any kind because generally speaking it provides only one element I look for when I open a book of fiction: story. All right. Fine. Story is primary. But what I want—the richness of language, beauty that sweeps you away—is often missing in genre writing. For me a thrilling read is Faulkner’s Light in August or Coetzee’s Disgrace.”
PLEASURE: Anthony Burgess said that he believed, “Reading about imaginary characters and their adventures is the greatest pleasure in the world. Or the second greatest.”
ABOUT BLURBS: Anthony Horowitz is the author of The House of Silk and several novel series. He also writes lots of reviews. He wrote in The Guardian about “the cover blurb game.” He said he worries because his name is “on more books than I have written” and he asks if that sells the books.
He wrote, “Author endorsements are probably of minimal value. Does anyone really believe them?. . .I get a true sense of conspiracy. Harlan Coben praises Michael Connelly. Michael Connelly loves Jeff Abbot (‘a hell of a page-turner’) Jeff Abbott is praised by Lee Child who is admired by Stephen King. . . “ etc., etc.
Horowitz concludes that “big writers like big writers and my reaction is—so what? Tell us something we don’t know.”
AVAILABLE COUSINS: Marie Force is the author of the bestselling And I Love Her. She has published more than 35 contemporary romances and sold more than 3 million books. Most are self-published. She lives in Rhode Island with her retired Navy husband and their two teenagers.
In an autobiographical essay on her website, she wrote, “When people ask me what led to the decision to self-publish, my reply is always the same: ‘No one was interested in these books except my readers.’ Later, she wrote, “With ten Abbott siblings and lots of cousins nearby in Vermont, I expect to write the Green Mountain series for a long time to come.”
A POEM’S MEANING: Edward Mendelson is the executor of W.H. Auden’s literary estate. Mendelson sent the following Auden quote in a letter to The New York Times Book Review: “The meaning of a poem is the outcome of a dialogue between the words on the page and the particular person who happens to be reading it. The interpretation can only be false if the reader does not know the contemporary meaning of the words.”
E-BOOKS TOO: Isabel Allende has a new novel, The Japanese Lover, scheduled for the fall. Publishers Weekly said the novel is about “issues of race and identity, abandonment and reconciliation.”
At the same time, there will be new paperbacks and e-books of The House of Spirits and other Allende bestsellers.
FUNNY IS HARD: Jonathan Evison is the author of The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving. In an essay in The New York Times Book Review, he wrote: “there’s a reason many readers will forgive the comic novel a clunky narrative structure or uneven pacing, a reason they’ll forgive a predisposition to tangents, tics or lack of emotional depth. The reason is simple—because funny is hard, both to execute and to resist.”
Evison was reviewing Wake Up Happy Every Day by Stephen May. Evison found the book to be “a smart and snappy satire.”
PRISONER OF MAGIC: Patricia Briggs’s new bestselling fantasy novel is Dead Heat. It was No. 2 on last week’s combined print and e-book bestseller list. Despite the title, it has nothing to do with horse races.
Briggs lives in Tri-Cities, Wash., and published her first novel, Masques, in 1993. She is also the author of the Mercy Thompson urban fantasy series.
The prologue to Dead Heat is on the Internet. It’s about a fae lord who is in prison. He is visited by a “spiritual archetype of the evil queen in the fairy tales.” Briggs wrote: “And his magic came back to him, flooding his body like the heat of the dead. He screamed, dropped to the floor, and writhed as the beautiful agony enveloped him.
“She bent down and whispered in his ear. ‘But there are rules.’”
LETTER: Robert A. Juran of Beaverton, Oregon, wrote a letter to The New Yorker about an article on the comma the magazine ran in the March 2nd issue.
He wrote, “I’ve found that, rather than commas, the punctuation that authors get wrong most often is hyphen, en dashes (short), and em dashes (long). And punctuation is actually the least of all worries when it comes to copy editing. The things I see most often in books are misspelled words and names.”
WINDOWS: Retired newspaperman James Head, 88, is the author of a self-published memoir, Head Lines.
He ended his book with a quote from “a bronze plaque just outside the entrance to the big library/study hall at my high school in Topeka. It has 19th century abolitionist Preacher Henry Ward Beecher saying: ‘Books are windows through which the soul looks out.’” Head said, “I do believe that.”
OUT OF NOTHING: Cheryl Strayed is the author of the bestselling Wild, which was made into a popular film. She wrote in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review: “My dictionary defines magic as ‘a power that allows people (such as witches and wizards) to do impossible things,’ and the act of writing feels a bit like magic to me. Out of nothing something is born—a story, a poem, an essay, an entire book—and the creation and revision it took to get that work done cannot be disentangled, one from the other. They are the mystical and mundane siblings that demand the same immeasurable devotion.”