Pocket Review: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

Margaret-Thatcher_MantelThe Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories
Hilary Mantel
Henry Holt & Company, 2014

The worth of a book is in the reading, obviously, but there’s also a value to the conversation it creates. To the Lighthouse, Ulysses, On the Road—the aggregate comments they generated took on a life of its own. And a book doesn’t even have to be challenging or classic to be worth talking about; you may not have cared for The Goldfinch or Freedom, but they were good for a significant amount of small talk over their respective summers.

More than due to any one story, Hilary Mantel’s new short fiction collection The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher will probably stick in my mind because of a rollicking good discussion I had with a couple of friends about unfinished work. In particular: why looking at an artist’s sketches is so often fascinating and informative, but reading a writer’s drafts is generally… well, neither. Don’t get me wrong—I love Mantel’s writing, find it muscular and often wildly greater than the sum of its parts. There were sentences and paragraphs in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies that were written with some kind of authorial sleight-of-hand that I could never totally figure out no matter how many times I read them over; her fiction, when it’s on, is more alchemy than craft.

But The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher is not quite that. The writing is wonderful in places, but the stories have a slightly raw feel to them, and as a collection it doesn’t quite jell. Another friend said it felt like a placeholder, to give Mantel’s loving and infinitely patient fans something to read while they wait for her to finish the third book in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy. There’s an underbaked feeling to the book, and as much as I enjoyed it—and I did—I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was reading Mantel’s equivalent of a sketchbook.

Look, I love being able to see an artist’s work in its raw form. I’ve spent good money on reproductions of sketchbooks by painters and illustrators and designers I love, and once called in sick to a former job two days in a row so I could linger in front of Leonardo da Vinci’s when they came to the Met. But when it comes to writing I don’t really want to read drafts, or notes, or juvenilia. The difference being, I suppose, that writing is iterative: one version replaces the next, rather than builds on top of it, and the precision of a writer’s final choice of words is a different kind of decision from an artist’s giving primacy to one gesture over another. I could be wrong about this; the conversation isn’t over. But that’s my take on it right now.

Still, even inchoate Mantel is good stuff. The stories here are dark—sometimes overtly so, as in gothic tales like “Winter Break” or “Harley Street,”—but more often they’re quietly menacing, and these are the most successful of the collection. The opening line of “Sorry to Disturb,” about a persistent stranger-turned acquaintance whose odd sense of boundaries plays off the narrator’s chronic discomfort, sets the stage pitch-perfectly: “In those days, the doorbell didn’t ring often, and if it did I would draw back into the body of the house.”

And maybe as befits a somewhat sketchy collection, it was the phrases I loved more than the stories themselves—the way Mantel describes a neighborhood consisting of “semidetached houses of blackening pebbledash, where the dustbins had wheels but the cars were stacked on bricks”; or the smell of a bed and breakfast: “tar of ten thousand cigarettes, fat of ten thousand breakfasts, the leaking metal seep of a thousand shaving its, and the horse-chestnut whiff of nocturnal emissions.” Every landscape, every interior in this dimly lit world of Mantel’s is—if not quite threatening, then impending. Fly strips hanging in a heat wave are “a glazed yellow studded plump with prey,” and you’re almost forced to reread in alarm in case she’s actually describing something to eat.

The best stories in the collection trade on her gift for indeterminacy as well. “Comma,” which features the abovementioned flytraps, is a great, dark little tale of inner and outer defects. And “Sorry to Disturb” makes an art out of the protagonist’s and reader’s mutual discomfort. One—I’m not saying which, because the reveal is what makes it fun—will suffer from American readers’ unfamiliarity with the legend of Elizabeth Báthory, and that’s a shame. Taken together, these stories are definitely worth reading, especially if you’re a fan of Mantel’s wonderfully precise prose. But as a unit of work, the collection wants a little more polish, a bit more finish.

Still, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, even without the provocative title, generated a good conversation about books and art. Sometimes you can’t ask for more than that.

Share

Sunday Links, November 9, 2014

Awards

Richard Flanagan has won the Man Booker Prize for The Narrow Road to the Deep North, a “timeless depiction of war,” according to the jury.  The novel is about Japan’s use of prisoners of war to build a railway in Burma under brutal conditions.

The Guardian awarded its Not the Booker Prize to The Visitors by Simon Sylvester.

The finalists for the National Book Award have been announced.

George R.R. Martin, author of A Game of Thrones, and publisher Tom Doherty were awarded Brown University Library’s first Harris Awards.  The awards celebrate the influence of literature in pop culture.

StorySouth lists the nominees for the Million Writers Award for the best short fiction published in online journals and magazines during 2013.  Readers will be delighted to know that the list of nominees links to each story.  If you enjoy short fiction, this list will thrill you.  I find myself inclined to download all of them and engage in an orgy of reading; anyone want to join me?  It appears that storySouth appreciates excellent stories regardless of genre, so there’s bound to be something for everyone here.

The first-ever winners of the newly-established Kirkus Prize have been announced.

Kirkus goes further and lists the award-winning novels of 2014, regardless of prize.

Here’s some sad news:  the awards for translations of science fiction and fantasy have been shut down.  I’ve always thought we needed to read more translated SF/F/H, not less, and I was happy these awards were around to encourage that.  Alas.

What to Read Next

Publishers Weekly is getting the jump on everyone else by being the first to publish its lists of the best books of the year.  Start with the top ten, and work your way on through the various genres.  I find the list of science fiction, fantasy and horror. . . surprising.  I don’t disagree with anything on the list — how can I?  I haven’t read any of them — but I’m very surprised at the failure to include a number of books I thought were excellent, like Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Assassin or Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor.

Amazon wasn’t far behind in the race to list the year’s best books.  Its selections in science fiction and fantasy seem a bit more in the mainstream of those genres, and include a number I’ve read and enjoyed myself, like Half a King by Joe Abercrombie and Lock In by John ScalziThe list of the top 100 books of the year is a fascinating mishmash, with something for every taste.

Kirkus suggests eleven great debut novels.  I’m a sucker for first novels myself, so I’m a bit startled that I only own two of the novels on this list.  Looks like I’ll have to pick up a few new books!

Bustle lists seventeen Young Adult novels that will tempt adults as well as teens and kids.

Brain Pickings offers seven must-read books about time.

My Bookish Ways suggests the must-read science fiction, fantasy and horror being published this month.  A new Stephen King novel is always a good thing, but I’m also interested in The Heart Does Not Grow Back by Fred Venturini — probably, in large part, because of that amazing cover art.  In fact, I’ve just talked myself into buying it — and click, it’s done.  (Computers make that much too easy, don’t they?)

Tor.com has done its usual magic in rounding up the month’s releases in the subgenres to science fiction and fantasy.  The list of November releases in fantasy is here; science fiction is here; genre-benders, probably my favorite category, are listed here; paranormal romance is here; and paranormal/urban fantasy is here.  Tor.com also has a list of the new releases in British fiction for the first part of November.

Flavorwire lists 50 of the greatest debut novels since 1950.  There is much to love here, and it’d make a dandy list for anyone looking to catch up on modern mainstream fiction.

My Bookish Ways has its own ideas about the best new releases in science fiction, fantasy and horror in November, as well as the best new releases in mysteries, suspense and mainstream fiction.  I’ll take one of each, please.  (I’ve said that before, haven’t I?  And yet the books never simply appear on my doorstep.  Something has gone awry in the universe.)

Esquire lists the 80 books every man should read.  I do not know why Esquire makes this list only for men; and I do not know why only one of the 80 books was written by a woman:  A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor.  Seems like a fairly strange project all the way around.

Salon tells us why science fiction comics are better than science fiction movies. I didn’t know that Grant Morrison had a new title, Annihilator; he’s one of my favorite writers, and I’m definitely going to have to check it out.  CNN, of all places, jumps in to name the masters of comic book horror.

I’ve loved metafiction from before I even knew there was a word for the type of fiction that features a book-within-a-book or otherwise calls attention to the fact that you’re reading a book.  So this list of seven metafictional books had me running to my favorite purveyor of the written word for copies of the books listed.

Another theme that always makes me look at a book twice is the “Groundhog Day” scenario — so named for the wonderful movie starring Bill Murray, who lives the title day over and over again, until he gets it right.  Hmm, might be time to rewatch that one.  In any event, I especially recommend Ken Grimwood’s Replay, which is excellent in every way.

SF Signal hosts a mind-meld of writers and bloggers about the single author collections that should be in every library.  Part One is here; Part Two is here.  So many terrific suggestions here!

Laird Barron lists new horror writers and recommends a few specific books.  He says that wasn’t too tough to do, given that we’re in a renaissance of sorts for the genre, especially through small presses.  I don’t suppose anyone will be surprised to know that I own all six of the books Barron mentions, as well as his new anthology, Year’s Best Weird Fiction.  Barron’s own work is astonishingly good; try Occultation some night when you don’t care if you get any sleep.

Read the best book ever written in your state!  Though I have to say I question some of the choices made here; those for California, for instance, ignore John Steinbeck and Ray Bradbury, to name just two.  I’ve never even heard of the two books chosen for the State.  Anyone else have trouble with the book chosen for their place of residence?

If you’re really out of ideas, you could always read a book recommended by your chosen cultural icon.

For some of us, the idea of being locked in a bookstore overnight is glorious.  But if you were locked into a bookstore with two hours to kill until someone came to let you out, what should you read?  This article will prepare you for such an eventuality, should you ever be lucky enough to experience it.

Young Adult Fiction

Can Young Adult fiction go too far?  Has it become too violent and too depressing?  Claire Hennessy’s long essay on the issue recaps a discussion panel at a literary festival, and provides some insight from writers, editors and readers.

Author Laura Ruby is sick and tired of hearing and reading that Young Adult novels are not serious, challenging fiction.  Her rant was brought on by a piece posted on The Mary Sue, calling those who read Young Adult fiction “cretins” and explaining that she only reads Young Adult work for its entertainment value.  Sarah Arboledah, the writer of the latter piece, seems to have been trying to defend Young Adult fiction, but it offers the ultimate back-handed compliment to the genre.

Ebooks vs. Paper Books

Reading is good for you in any form, but it’s especially good for you if you read paper books instead of reading from a screen.  Reading print helps with comprehension and retention of what you read.  It improves your sleep and makes you more empathetic.  I guess this is why I keep buying paper books, even though I have thousands of books in my Kindle Cloud.  Or maybe it’s just a matter of love!  At any rate, these results might perhaps help explain why print books outsold ebooks in the first half of 2014This graphic shows the difference in sales even more clearly.

Adobe has been quietly gathering “extensive” data on those who use its ereader.  I’d consider this a bit scary if it weren’t for the fact that I’m quite sure Amazon monitors everything I read on my Kindle, whether I bought it from Amazon or received it as a review copy.  I genuinely don’t know if I should worry about this or not.

Does your ereader weigh more when it’s loaded with books?  “In principle, yes,” says John D. Kubiatowicz, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Berkeley.  The increase in weight isn’t likely to weigh you down much, but it’s still a cool concept.

Amazon

Salon says the Hugh Howey’s defense of Amazon in its dispute with Hachette and other traditional publishers is indefensible.  Worse, it’s selfish.  The article is more than an indictment of Howey, though; it’s a bitter tirade against Amazon.

Simon & Schuster has reached an agreement with Amazon — apparently over the same issues as to which Hachette is still holding out.  The details of the deal have not been made public.

Ben Branstetter thinks that publishers should cease selling books to and through Amazon at all.  The question is:  is the publishing industry more dependent on Amazon than Amazon is dependent on it?  It would be interesting to see what would happen if publishers decided to pursue other internet outlets and boycott Amazon.  Independent and chain bookstores are already refusing to stock books published through Amazon’s CreateSpace, a print-on-demand program.

Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman makes a strong case that Amazon’s monopsony is not okay.

The website Dear Author says that books are not special snowflakes, but merely another type of commercial good that can be sold in the same manner as a toaster or a widget.  The essay seems to be siding with Amazon and against Authors United, though its focus is mostly on the latter organization without pushing the former.

Criticism

Sophia McDougall writes an excellent piece about the trope of the “strong female character” in New Statesman.  I hadn’t realized how one-note our “strong female characters” are until reading her piece.  I’d argue with her that we do have a few female characters these days we can look up to for reasons in addition to their toughness, like Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter novels or Lucy, played by Scarlet Johansson in the movie of the same name.  But McDougall is right that most of our female heroines get noticed only for being able to hold their own physically.  I hope that McDougall is working on a book on this subject, because I’d buy it in a heartbeat.

Zoe Marriott writes about Mary Sues and Sarah Janes, and the challenges of writing a female character — and how impossible it is to write a realistic character who won’t be criticized as one or the other by readers.

Michael R. Underwood thinks academically about genre fiction.

I didn’t know quite where to post this item, but it’s more or less about criticism, so here you go:  Chris Roberts writes very weird and vicious reviews on Amazon in great quantity.  Many of them are in verse.  He often signs his reviews as “Chris Roberts, God.”  Is this an extended practical joke, as the comments suggest, or a genuinely troubled man?  Perhaps time will tell.

Paul St. John Mackintosh suggests that the New Weird is the New Wave of the early 21st century.

There’s a canard that women do not write horror, or that if they do, they contaminate it with icky romance stuff.  Nightmare Magazine recently did a crowd-sourced issue called “Women Destroy Horror!”  It was guest-edited by Ellen Datlow, who is one of the foremost editors of horror working today, if not THE best.

Young Adult writer Marie Lu wonders why, in this day and age, people are still so reluctant to read science fiction and fantasy written by women.

One academic thinks that he and his colleagues should stop writing in impenetrable prose and start writing listicles.  Now there’s a unique approach!  The professor’s own listicle, explaining why his colleagues should follow his advice, is here.

If you’re interested in the history of science fiction, this archive of the feminist fanzines Janus and Aurora will lead you down many interesting paths.

Fan fiction may have some virtues that snobbier readers (in which I include myself, I fear) tend to ignore.  According to this article in the New Statesman, it gives women and marginalized groups a chance to subvert the mainstream perspective.  Definitely food for thought.

Damien Walter suggests that transrealism is the first major literary movement of the 21st century.

One of the judges responsible for awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature, Horace Engdahl, suggests that western literature is endangered by creative writing programs and grants for writers.  It is his opinion that this system turns writers into a bunch of hothouse flowers (my words, not his) who are separated from society.  Instead of driving a cab in order to earn the money to eat, while writing in every spare moment, writers are locked up in the ivory towers of various institutions that choose to support them.  His remarks are bracing.

NaNoWriMo

Yes, it’s that month ago:  the month in which people attempt to write a novel of at least 50,000 words in a single month.  The idea isn’t to write a great novel, but to get the whole damn thing out and onto the page, just to prove that you can do it (which is more a matter of persuading oneself than of persuading anyone else, so far as I can see).  A lot of published novels have ultimately come out of NaNoWriMo novels.  Here are some resources to get you through your own attempt.  I’m thinking that next year might be the year I do this myself.

Scott Westerfeld and Justine Larbalestier offered their thoughts on how to approach NaNoWriMo a few years ago, and last year published a guide to all of their blog posts on the project, one for each day of November.

If NaNoWriMo doesn’t interest you, maybe NaNoGenMo does:  the month in which you teach your computer to write a novel.  It’s an interesting exercise, but I’m not so sure I’d want to read what a computer wrote, would you?

If you’re writing a novel this month, good luck!  Keep going!

Publishing

Amazon continues to find ways to help eager writers publish their works without editing — and, possibly, without even publication.  The new Kindle Scout program doesn’t sound like much of a good deal for authors, according to Jim C. Hines, who has taken a close look at a sample contract.

Self-Publishing

How long until the majority of books are self-published?  The answer may shock you.  But what does it mean to say that most books are self-published?  Is it an increase in the absolute number of books published or a turning-away from the traditional system of publication — or both?

Some refuse to read and/or review self-published books, and I am among them.  I need the gatekeeping that the tradition publishing industry offers me — and even then, I run into quite a few clunkers.  Chuck Wendig defends the article here, as only he can.  (Another of his pieces, about whether writing is magic, deals with some ideas that are an offshoot of his piece on self-publishing, and it’s hilarious.)

zero sum gameS.L. Huang self-published so that people could pirate her book.  Um, what?  The idea is that it will earn her more in the long run, as some writers claim.  We’ll see.

Cool Stuff

Laughing Squid offers maps of real United States cities drawn by Stentor Danielson in the style of J.R.R. Tolkein in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  If you click through to the artist’s website, you’ll find you can buy prints on Etsy, here.  I’m holding out for Chicago; he’s bound to draw it sooner or later!  In the meantime, though, you might find a Christmas gift for someone special among the drawings Danielson already has available.

Brain Pickings features authors describing their daily writing routines.  I always hope something will rub off on me when I read an article like this; but alas, the routines are as diverse as the books written by the featured authors.

Ever had a book take over your life?  The Huffington Post helps you figure it out, with a list of 22 warning signs.

Why do old books smell so good to us bookworms?  Open Culture explains the chemistry with a terrific infographic.

Sometimes books are recommended to readers for entirely the wrong reasons.  Bookishly Witty lists eight book recommendations that totally miss the point.

Flavorwire shares with us 30 of the most beautiful science fiction covers ever devised.  Given how terrible so much cover art for this genre is, it’s a joy to see the good stuff.

Watch this video to learn how to make a lovely holiday wreath out of old books.  Except for the part where you have to destroy a book, it seems to me like a lovely way to show your bona fides to your neighbors.  I’m definitely tempted, even though I’m all thumbs.

Your brain has a biological response to getting wrapped up in a good book.  The neural changes suggest that you pretty much get transported into the body of the protagonist.  It’s a small study, but wow, isn’t that cool?

I know some folks who have made it a practice to get to visit as many ballparks as they can during their lifetime, sometimes even planning a vacation to add a ballpark to their life list, or adding a day to a business trip to get a game in.  But I’ve yet to hear of anyone visiting bookstores the same way.  I may become the first one to try such a thing, using this list of 44 great American independent bookstores as my guide.  I’ve been to 11 of them so far.  Let’s see how many I can add by the end of the decade; I’ll let you know.

Georges Perec has some suggestions on how to organize your bookshelves.  I never thought this was a particularly difficult problem until I met my husband, who organizes our library to a fare-thee-well (with frequent reorganizations to attempt to solve the problem of too many books in too little space).  Actually, I think he just enjoys playing with the books.

Some television series seem to have a literary sensibility, and I’ve always thought that “The Twilight Zone” fell into that category.  That means I don’t think any excuses are needed for offering you this article about Rod Serling and “The Twilight Zone,” entitled “101 Masterpieces.”  It’s an appropriate description for this venerated series.  I wish we had something equal to it showing today.

This has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with books, but it’s pretty cool anyway:  900 classic arcade games are now available to play on your own computer.  I can play Q-bert again!  You can find the Internet Arcade here.  Armchair Arcade has some advice on how to use the archive.

Share

Halloween Links, October 31, 2014

It’s a special, spooky edition of links to read after all the trick-or-treaters have come and gone, after you turn all the lights out and snuggle up with the leftover candy.  Enjoy — and don’t be frightened!

Here are some engravings of the Great Pumpkin Patch done in the style of Gustave Doré.  It gives the whole idea a brand new gravitas, doesn’t it?

Kirkus has 12 excellent horror reads for your scary pleasure.  I have a surprising number of these in my TBR pile — though right now I’m reading Stephen King’s It, which is frightening me out of my wits.  If those books don’t suit you, you could try this additional list of nine more books Kirkus says will trick and treat you.  And here are still more, this time offered up by John DeNardo, a real connoisseur of all things science fictional, fantastical and horrific.

Even the Great Cthulhu knew:  H.P. Lovecraft was a racist.

A.C. Wise offers a list of women who write weird fiction.  I strongly recommend Caitlin Kiernan’s The Red Tree, which is one of the most terror-filled books I’ve ever read.  It put Kiernan’s name on my list of authors whose next offering I will read, no matter what it is they’ve come up — it’s that good.  And The Year’s Best Weird Fiction, edited by Laird Barron, awaits my eyetracks across its pages, especially including stories by Wise herself, along with Sofia Samatar, Livia Llewellyn, Maria Dahvana Headley, Anna Taborska, Anne-Sylvie Salzman, Kristi DeMeester and Karin Tidbeck — not to mention plenty of fine authors of the masculine persuasion as well.

Remember those books that scared you silly when you were a kid?  They still will.

Need something scary to read by the fireplace tonight?  Try one of these eighteen free stories, from authors ranging from Edgar Allan Poe to Stephen King to Kelly Link.

If you’d like a hair-raising novel to keep you up all night instead, try one of these ten novels.  I especially recommend Lauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls.

Take a look at these gorgeous, bookish, carved pumpkins.  I’m especially fond of the representation of Cthulhu himself, though I hope the Dark God doesn’t take his portrait amiss.  You can find even more great pumpkins here.  And this may be the most amazing pumpkin of all:  the Rosetta Stone appears on the side of a pumpkin.  Wow!

What are the ten best ghost storiesLauren Oliver answers that question, leading us to such classics of the genre as Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House — which she caused me to purchase for my own Halloween scares.

A terrific mind-meld from SF Signal lists the best female horror writers out there.   Your list of things to read is going to grow substantially as you work your way through these recommendations.  Shirley Jackson gets a couple more mentions, suggesting that yes, you really do need to read her novels.

Flavorwire lists the 50 scariest stories of all time.

Want to get really creeped out?  Spend some time with these photographs from abandoned insane asylums.  There are dozens of horror novels in those pictures; maybe the inspiration at midnight tonight will be yours!

Stephen King’s new novel, Revival, is due out soon, but in preparation you might want to look at this website, collecting people’s comments on faith, tragedy, disillusion, addiction, curiosity, obsession and death.  Not much that scarier than real life, is there?

More recommendations of horror reads can be found at this website with the whimsical name Ginger Nuts of Horror (there’s got to be an amazing story behind that name).  The links provided are to the United Kingdom’s version of Amazon, but you can switch over to the U.S. website and find these books there.  I did, and I bought them.  Yes, for me the scariest part of Halloween is the bill for books that follows.

Jeff VanderMeer writes about “The Uncanny Power of Weird Fiction” in The Atlantic.

Looking for some good scary comics?  This list will help you out with four that might appeal, but how could they leave out Hellblazer, featuring one of my favorite fictional characters, John Constantine?  And where’s Swamp Thing?  Who forgot Zatanna?

Inc. calls Cemetery Dance the spookiest little publisher in the world.  Take a look at their catalog sometime and see if you don’t agree.

If you are of a blood-quaffing persuasion, The Huffington Post has a guide to cities that are the best for vampires to live in, based on number of cloudy days, bar hours, number of blood banks and blood drives, and houses for sale near cemeteries — so that you don’t have to walk to far from your grave to your house when you rise for the night.

Boo!

Share

Happy Birthday, Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt readingToday is Dylan Thomas’s birthday, and Sylvia Plath’s, and Zadie Smith’s… the book blogosphere is practically melting from all those virtual candles. Happy birthday to those literary lights, and thanks for all the good writing.

But Theodore Roosevelt was also born on this day, 156 years ago: police commissioner, governor, president, soldier, naturalist/hunter, explorer, one of those larger-than-life personalities whom everyone carries around as a caricature in their head. I worked for a couple of years at the American Museum of Natural History, where Roosevelt loomed large in the corporate culture—his father was one of the museum’s founders, and TR did a whole lot of shooting and killing so that we can gaze fondly on the taxidermized fruits of his labor today. He’s got an entire smallish wing of the museum to himself, and a statue out front.

He was also a serious man of letters—maybe not, canon-wise, up there with his fellow birthday celebrants, but he wrote and he read. He read a lot. Two or three books a day, legend has it.

I’ve never been able to wrap my head around how people can do that. Like hearing that John Wayne smoked four packs of cigarettes a day—what, exactly, are the mechanics of it? But then I’m not a particularly fast reader, so I just think of someone like Roosevelt as a different breed of animal and leave it at that.

One thing he did have, however, was a reading philosophy, and that makes the sheer numbers a little more comprehensible. If you’re going to indulge in feats of literary consumption, you might as well have some theory behind it. This past summer Book Riot re-ran Roosevelt’s top ten rules for reading, and they pleased me so much I remembered them today. It’s nice to see that all this anxiety that seems to be prevalent lately—about which books to read, and how many, and what you’re reading that you shouldn’t be and what you shouldn’t be that you are, isn’t unique to this age of Goodreads and blogs and literary forums. Number one, for instance:

The reader, the booklover, must meet his own needs without paying too much attention to what his neighbors say those needs should be.

And my favorite, at the top of the list:

The room for choice is so limitless that to my mind it seems absurd to try to make catalogues which shall be supposed to appeal to all the best thinkers. This is why I have no sympathy whatever with writing lists of the One Hundred Best Books, or the Five-Foot Library. It is all right for a man to amuse himself by composing a list of a hundred very good books… But there is no such thing as a hundred books that are best for all men, or for the majority of men, or for one man at all times.

I don’t much like neuroticism any which way, but especially when it comes to books—reading outside of work or school is supposed to be fun, freeing, and relaxing even if it’s challenging. Whenever I see people treating it as a kind of rarefied sport, or stressing over the size of their to-be-read piles, it makes me uncomfortable. They’re just… books. They shouldn’t make a body unhappy. I’m not 100% a fan of Teddy Roosevelt’s bully-bully bravado, but I like his take on the reading life.

And since we’re in the season to invoke Edgar Allan Poe (you didn’t think I was going to miss a chance, did you?), I leave you with one more:

Books are almost as individual as friends. There is no earthly use in laying down general laws about them. Some meet the needs of one person, and some of another; and each person should beware of the booklover’s besetting sin, of what Mr. Edgar Allan Poe calls “the mad pride of intellectuality,” taking the shape of arrogant pity for the man who does not like the same kind of books.

Happy birthday, TR.

(Photo of Theodore Roosevelt reading a book with his dog Skij on his lap in Colorado, April 1905, courtesy of AP.)

Share

Fifty Scary Short Stories from Flavorwire

halloween2014_poeI am not, as a rule, a big fan of holidays—especially the ones with stuff. The thought of having to get things down from the attic and out of boxes and put them all around my house and then put them back in the boxes and take them back up to the attic in short order does not excite me, to say the least. It’s enough of a daily challenge to get out and put away the things I actually need. The thought of making more work for myself, for reasons that don’t even come close to aesthetic, doesn’t really appeal.

On the other hand, I have no objection if other people want to get out their holiday stuff. Which is why I kind of like Halloween—it’s good-natured and usually a bit goofy, and doesn’t take itself seriously as, say, Christmas (which has every right to take itself seriously, don’t get me wrong). And Halloween has a great tradition of literature—it’s a holiday that lends itself to storytelling in a way that the others just don’t. Christmas and Easter have the one big story apiece, with everything else paling in their wakes; Thanksgiving, New Year’s, the Fourth of July have limited narratives as well. And who—even the most genre-deficient among us—doesn’t love a good ghost story?

I realize I’ve been leaning a bit heavily on Flavorwire in my very sparse posting mode lately. But they’re pretty good pickers, and I’ve been short on time to do much picking of my own. So without much in the way of regrets I offer you Flavorwire’s collection of 50 of the Scariest Short Stories of All Time. They range from good old classic tales like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” which creeped me out when I read it in grade school, to Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” which creeped me out in high school (Flavorwire’s link is no good—try this one), to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which creeped me out in my 20s, to Karen Russell’s “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” which creeped me out when I read it last year, to Robert Coover’s “The Babysitter,” which I read last night and almost wish I hadn’t.

That’s a whole lot of creepiness to last you through Halloween night itself when you’re sitting home, waiting for little kids dressed as zombies and Batmen and Minions, and trying to distract yourself from eating all those individually wrapped chocolate bars because you’re never going to give them all away anyway. Might as well immerse yourself in some good scary fare, so that when the doorbell finally does ring you jump about a foot and answer the door a little sweaty and out of breath, and none of the parents in the neighborhood let their kids come to your house next year, which means more individually wrapped chocolate bars for you. Win-win.

In the meantime, read these babies with the lights on.

Share

Sunday Links, October 5, 2014

7 SecondsAwards

The 2014 Utopiales European Award nominees have been announced.  This award is given to a novel or collection by a European speculative fiction author that was published in French during the literary season preceding the Utopiales festival.  The award ceremony will be held on November 1, 2014.

The 2014 Kirkus Prize finalists have been announced.  The Kirkus Prize is one of the biggest in the world, with $50,000 awarded to authors of fiction, nonfiction and young readers’ literature.  Six books have been nominated in each of the three categories.  The winners of each category will be announced on October 23.

The winners of the Sunburst Awards for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic have been announced.

Halloween Reading

Horror Novel Reviews lists the 100 scariest novels of all time.  It’s simultaneously disappointing and exhilarating to find I’ve only read 25 of them; I wish I had a better base, but look at all the great reading I have ahead of me!  I own more than 30 of those I haven’t read yet, so I have somewhere to start.  That’s assuming, of course, that horror readers generally agree with this list.  What are your thoughts?

The List Challenges website lists 45 top horror novels, and it’s interesting to note where there is overlap and where there isn’t.  For instance, I agree with this list’s contention that Dan Simmons’s Carrion Comfort is terrifying (though why neither list contains Song of Kali by that author is a mystery to me — it may be the most frightening novel I’ve ever read) — but I’ve yet to read Simmons’s Winter Haunting, so maybe I just don’t know what I’m missing.  I’ve read 18 of the books on this list, a much better percentage!  And I own another 15, so again, I’ve got a place to start.

What to Read Next

If horror isn’t your preferred genre, never fear:  October still has plenty of goodness in store for you.  Kirkus lists its top science fiction and fantasy releases for October, as does BuzzFeed (though the latter also includes horror; Kirkus promises horror titles next week).  There’s a surprising lack of overlap, so check out both lists.

FlavorWire lists 10 must-read books for October.

David Bowie lists his 75 must-read books for Brain Pickings.  It’s a fascinating list with a great deal of variety.

Tor.com has done its usual great job in rounding up all the different genres of science fiction and fantasy that are being published in October.  Here are the various lists:  genre-benders; science fiction; fantasy; paranormal romance; and paranormal and urban fantasy.  I’ll take one of each, please.  (I say that a lot, don’t I?)

Hachette v. Amazon

This story never ceases making news.  FlavorWire reports on famous authors speaking out against Amazon, provides some data I hadn’t seen before:  Amazon wants 30% of the sales price of any ebook sold, with the publisher and author to share the remainder.  That seems like an enormous profit for a retailer, and I can see why Hachette might not be too thrilled about that offer.  The really interesting part, though, is that the Hachette’s authors (and those of the other big publishers) seems to be hanging in there with Hachette, even though they’re getting hit in the pocketbook pretty hard.  Janet Fitch’s letter to Jeff Bezos — to which he never responded — is especially eloquent on the subject.  Lee Child dives in on J.A. Konrath’s blog, responding to those self-published authors who are on Amazon’s side.  The New York Times reports that Amazon is selectively selling Hachette titles, and not solely based on popularity — it seems to be taking political sides.  Damien Walter uses alternate history to suggest that Amazon may not be the bad guy after all.

Of Interest to Readers

Can you really read a 110,000 word novel in only three hours?  Rob Boffard tried, and was left in agony.

Helen Lowe is bemused at the fact that we’re still arguing about genre vs. literary fiction.  She makes a point with which I agree:  so-called “literary fiction” is just another genre, with its own distinctive tropes.

Charlie Jane Anders has a great essay in io9 about irony in science fiction.

We lost Lucius Shepard earlier this year — it’s been a bad year for science fiction and fantasy; we’ve lost too many shining lights.  Locus hosted a roundtable on Shepard and his work that I found fascinating.  So much so, in fact, that I wound up buying a copy of Trujillo, a collection of Shepard’s novellas that I’ve wanted for some time.

Cool Stuff

October 2 was National Poetry Day in the United Kingdom.  To celebrate, Anglophenia put together a collection of 10 British actors reading poetry.  I swooned for Alan Rickman’s reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, my favorite of all Shakespeare’s sonnets.  You’re bound to find something that suits you here, too.

Share

The Birth of the Trailer

The history of book trailers dates back to the arrival of broadband Internet access and personal computers, for good reason—how else would you watch them? But there were a few outliers: TV spots for mass market blockbusters back in the early days of cable, and, apparently, some on film as well. Remember those odd shorts produced to fill time before the movie started? Most of them were cartoons, or newsreels, or weird little comedies, but at least one, as it turns out, was a proto-book trailer.

In 1973 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt put together a promotional film to market its newest edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, and it’s… weird. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About: Sects, Sets, Sex, prefix, frankforts, Waldorf, idle, American, peanuts, gin, Heritage, cabbage, Dictionary, Rasputin, bassoon, cohort, rum, putty, rotor, usage, coquette, alfalfa, zipper, Mississippi, … etc.: But Were Afraid to Axe!! is definitely a child of the ’70s, halfway between hokey vaudeville and unhip psychedelia, something both your grandparents and your teenagers would have rolled their eyes at.

It begins with a strange French horn soundtrack and couple of people in white rabbit suits—a nod to Grace Slick?—and spends the next 16 minutes discussing pronunciation, meaning, usage, and spelling via a series of skits filled with bad puns (“the abominable cavity contains the bowels, of which there are five: a, e, i, o, and u”), painfully dated jokes about secretaries, butlers, and Brooklyn accents, and a DIY sensibility that’s almost shocking in these days of Photoshop and iMovie—by the end of the decade Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update would have shown us how to fake a newsroom decently with minimal resources, but the newsroom here has cutout paper letters saying “NEWS CENTRAL” glued to the wall, the ubiquitous teletype sound effect, and not much else.

Still, everyone’s clearly having a fine time—it was obviously a welcome break in the workday for the Houghton Mifflin employees who made up the film’s cast—and it’s good dumb fun. I was ultimately won over by the man-on-the-street feature analyzing the correctness of “bit” versus “bitten”:

“Our usage panel, consisting of Margaret Mead, Truman Capote, Katherine Anne Porter, and the like, voted 88-42 that the boy was bitten by the dog.”

“I don’t think its right, I don’t care what the usage panel thinks. Dogs shouldn’t bite people.”

I’m not sure how many people got up after their showing of The Sting or The Exorcist or Mean Streets or god only knows what it preceded and ran out to the nearest bookstore to pick up a copy of the American Heritage Dictionary. Then again, how many people are going to buy the books advertised in this year’s batch of trailers, which probably don’t even have a person in a slightly tatty bear costume walking off with a chair when asked to take a seat? Or a secretary calling the doctor to report that her boss swallowed a dictionary and she can’t get a word out of him? It’s a dying art, I tell you.

Share

Sunday Links, September 28, 2014

Obituaries

Author Eugie K. Foster died yesterday after only 42 years on this earth.  I will miss terribly all the wonderful stories and novels she would have written had she lived, and treasure those she did write all the more.  Hey, cancer?  You can go do something physically impossible to yourself.  Right away.

Awards

The Sunburst Award Society has announced its 2014 members’ choice awards for Canadian science fiction.

What to Read Next

Real Simple points to 17 books you won’t be able to put down.  They’re not just new books coming out this fall, either, so if you’re a library user, you’ll be able to track them down pretty easily.

Don’t have much time to read?  The try one of Kirkus’s 11 fast reads.

Omnivoracious talks about the best books of September.  Part 1; Part 2.

The Guardian looks at the top ten walks in books.

The Guardian also lists the top 25 books set in or about Chicago — the first place I called home as an adult, and the city I still love the most.  (I don’t miss the winters, though.  Windchills of -80 don’t happen in the Central Valley of California, and I’m just fine with that.)

Things to Think About

Cass R. Sunstein reviews Altered Pasts:  Counterfactuals in History by Richard J. Evans as a springboard for a discussion of alternate histories.  It’s a great article that opens with a hypothetical that will knock your socks off.  Read the article and then read a few alternate histories, like the great SS-GB by Len Deighton — but you might want to skip Evans’s book, if it’s as joyless as Sunstein makes it sound.

Reading

Want to know how many hours you’ll have to invest to read that book, or that series?  Io9 will tell you.  Warning:  if you haven’t already read George R.R. Martin’s series, A Song of Ice and Fire (on which the television show “A Game of Thrones” is based) prepare to spend many, many, many hours holding very thick books in your hands.

Any good reader knows that books can take her worlds away.  But what about taking you deeper into the world you already inhabit?  Bibliotropic writes about why diversity in reading is necessary to broaden one’s world.  Having grown up in a white-bread exurb of Chicago, where I never saw anything but white faces and all girls were expected to grow up to be wives and mothers and nothing else, I can see this writer’s point.

I’ve mentioned before that the idea of speed reading is anathema to me, despite the fact that I own a library too large for me to read in the years remaining in my life, even if I read a book a day and live a very long life.  Rob Boffard gives a very good example of why speed reading just plain doesn’t work for some books — the ones that make you think, or the ones you wish to relish, especially.

LightspeedDamien Walter writes about the renaissance of the science fiction and fantasy short story since the dawn of the digital age.

Writing

Joss Whedon gives a talk on screenwriting to Impossible News.  My favorite quote:  “Whatever makes you weird is probably your greatest asset.”

Lit Reactor lists five things literary writers can learn from science fiction writers.  “Strangeness” is my favorite.  Are you sensing a theme here?

Aliette de Bodard has some thoughts on writing diverse characters and cultures in science fiction.  She emphasizes the need for research, and for using research well, but there’s much more to the article than that.

Publishing

J.A. Konrath gives us his two cents on the Amazon/Hachette controversy, with particular emphasis on the role being played by Authors United.  His point is essentially that people will happily stop reading the authors in Authors United if their books are not available on Amazon, and read the second-rate stuff that is self-published there instead because they can get it for 99 cents.  I don’t agree, but you might, and you can always tell me off in the comments.

Fun Stuff

There are a good many television series that are science fictional or fantastical these days; really, there nearly always have been, despite an interregnum here or there where we were caught up in police stations and hospitals.  Here’s a guide to all the new SF TV shows premiering this fall.  I’m looking forward to “Constantine,” which is based on one of my all-time favorite cartoon characters.  (We shall not speak of the movie starring Keanu Reeves; it’s just too painful.)

Those cute little free libraries seem to be springing up all over the place.  Here are 14 that have especially clever designs.

After some devastatingly clever and handsome man threatens women that he and others just like him won’t date them if they believe in equal rights, John Scalzi mocks him on Twitter.  Comments on the thread likewise dump on the poor, adorable fellow.  Hilarity ensues.

Chris HadfieldA five-year-old who is worried that Voyager is going to get lonely out there in the spaces between the stars gets a reassuring answer from Astronaut Chris Hadfield.

Art made from books always makes me just a touch queasy, because — well, books.  You know, intrinsically artistic and wonderful in themselves.  But then I see something like this awesome grown book art, and I start to think that the best use for outdated books might well be art.

Share

Sunday Links, September 21, 2014

Obituary

Graham Joyce has died.  He was one of the great fantasy writers of our age.  The first book of his that I read was The Tooth Fairy, which is wonderfully weird and off-balance, different from any other fantasy work you’ll read.  Most recently, I read The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit, a coming-of-age tale set in one of England’s resort towns, which I enjoyed enormously (I reviewed it here).  I was stunned by the news that he was gone.  It’s been a bad year for those of us who love great SF; we’ve lost too many really excellent writers.

Awards

The winners of the British Fantasy Awards have been announced.  It’s great to see Clarkesworld, one of the best of the internet speculative fiction magazines, getting some love.

The longlists for the National Book Awards have been announced.  I’m primarily interested in the fiction list — and horror of horrors, I have not only not read any of these, I own only three! Time to get reading.

Ursula K. LeGuin has been chosen as this year’s recipient of the National Book Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award.  It is well deserved.  To celebrate, I recommend one of her lesser-known works:  The Lathe of Heaven.  This book blew me away when I was in college, and it still has the ability to induce awe and wonder in me all these decades later.

What to Read Next

Kirkus lists the ten most anticipated books of the fall reading season.  I’ve got David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks in my To Be Read pile, and I’m eager to get to it; Sarah Waters’s The Paying Guest will arrive this week.  An embarrassment of riches, to be sure!

Kirkus is looking forward to some good young adult fiction, too.

Kirkus also lists the top speculative fiction picks for September.  One of the picks is Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes, which I’ve just finished, and it’s excellent; The Winter Long by Seanan McGuire is also terrific — maybe her best in the October Daye urban fantasy series.  I’ll have reviews of both up at Fantasy Literature very soon, so keep your eyes peeled.

And again Kirkus:  nonfiction this time.

Tor.com has done its usual fine job in gathering up the titles to be released in September in various subgenres.  Here are the fantasy titles; here are the science fiction titles; here are the paranormal and urban fantasy titles; here are the paranormal romance titles; here are the genre-benders.  As usual, I’m particularly taken by the genre-benders, including Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood and Gifts for the One Who Comes After by Helen Marshall.  I wish Tor.com would include a horror write-up as well, but perhaps I’m just being greedy.

Geek Smash is much choosier:  it suggests a mere five fantasy and science fiction books to read this September.  One of them is John Scalzi’s Lock In, which I’ve read and highly recommend.  (You can read the review a group of us at Fantasy Literature put together here.)

Looking ahead, My Bookish Ways tells us what’s coming in speculative fiction in October.  I’m looking forward to Bathing the Lion by Jonathan Carroll, as well as Keith Donoghue’s The Boy Who Drew Monsters.

Tired of reading only those books written by Americans for Americans?  Want to expand your horizons?  This list will provide you with plenty of science fiction and fantasy to read from outside the States.  BoingBoing adds a list of Cuban science fiction that sounds wonderfully different.

Black Gate suggests some prime historical fantasy for your reading pleasure.  Make sure you read the comments for some suggestions of books in the same genre written earlier than the last two to three years.

If your taste runs more to short fiction, you might enjoy The Alternative Typewriter’s suggestions.  The best part is that the blog links the short fiction that is available online, so there’s no waiting to get the right collection, anthology or magazine.  Part One; Part Two; and keep your eyes on the blog for further suggestions.

And if you enjoy essays, here’s a real treat:  Flavorwire cites 50 essays that will make you a better person, with links where available, and links to sources you can seek out to find them if they’re not available online.

Need a way to get into a particular writer you’ve always wanted to read?  BookRiot offers Reading Pathways, suggesting a three-book reading sequence for getting acquainted with an author.

Writing

There’s nothing new in Garrett Powell’s advice on how to become a writer, but it helps to be reminded from time to time.  The real key, from everything I’ve read, is:  write.  Write some more.  Keep writing.

Henry Herz has some more tips about how to make your prose lively.

Stephen King has his own approach to teaching writing, but ultimately it still comes down to:  write.  This interview with the premiere horror writer — maybe even the premiere writer — of our time in The Atlantic is inspiring.

Haruki Murakami boils it all down to three characteristics:  talent, focus and endurance.

Brian Staveley discusses how to write a book without destroying your marriage.

Publishing

Staffer’s Book Review suggests that the series is dying.  The murderer?  The internet.  It’s almost impossible to build an internet buzz for the third or fourth book in a series, Justin Landon says, no matter what its quality.  I see what he’s saying, but I also know that an awful lot of readers like to read what is comfortable and set in a world they’re already familiar with.  This is why so many Amazon authors are writing fan fiction and why movie and television tie-in books sell.  Larry Nolen at Of Blog has some thoughts about how long-tail reviewing also makes a difference, and may make momentary statistics a bit misleading.  Any thoughts on this one?

Publishing Technology asks what effect Kindle Unlimited — the new Kindle lending library offered by Amazon — is having on authors earnings.  The answer does not seem inspiring for authors.

Reading

The Atlantic asks who should be deciding what high school kids read.  The piece revolves around a dispute at Cape Henlopen High School in Delaware about Emily M. Danforth’s YA novel, The Miseducation of Cameron Post.  It’s the story of a Wyoming teenager who is gay, but whose grandmother forces her into a group called “God’s Promise,” which tries to turn her straight.  Parents objected to the book, which was on a list of ten summer reading books from which students were to choose one.  The history of the dispute is laid out in the article, and it suggests that we’re still arguing about things we were arguing about when I was a kid.  I still remember when I exhausted the YA offerings in my local public library; my father instructed the librarian to let me read “the classics” from the adult stacks.  The librarian and I frequently argued over exactly which books fell into my father’s “classics” category — but at least I had plenty to read (I don’t recall her ever doing more than question my choices; she never denied me a book).

BBC Culture asks whether Jorge Luis Borges is the most important writer of the 20th century.  The article makes a good case that the answer to its question is “yes.”

io9 explores the Islamic roots of science fiction.

Everyone seems to have suddenly discovered that H.P. Lovecraft was a racist, though those who love his work (or at least hold it to be enormously influential) are dismayed by the focus on his racism, suggesting that it was nothing abnormal for the time.  Salon says it’s okay to admit that Lovecraft was a racist, and it would even be okay to change the World Fantasy Award from its current design as a bust of Lovecraft.

Flavorwire lists 50 of the greatest characters in literature.  While plenty of the expected characters are there (Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter books, for instance, or Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird), a few surprises are also included, like Mickey Sabbath from Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater and Mary Katherine Blackwood from Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.  It’s a great list.

Gail Forman, writing for The Huffington Post, says that YA fiction is for everyone because it’s some of the most inspiring, risk-taking work out there these days.

Facebook analyzed answers to a meme that was floating around awhile back about ten books that influenced its users, and found that the Harry Potter books got first prize.  The entire list suggests that the most influential books are those we read as children, though there are a few outliers (I doubt that too many children read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for instance).

The Guardian is skeptical of YA dystopias, which it believes encourage children to submit to the free market, not fight authority.

Do people read as deeply, and become as involved in a text, as they used to?  Has the internet destroyed us from deep engagement with books?  Slate looks at our reading insecurity in detail.  It notes a string of studies that indicates we read the internet differently than we read physical media.  Yet there’s also the fact that we’re all reading more, regardless of medium; certainly that has to be worth something?  Do read the article all the way through, even though it notes itself that you probably won’t; there’s good information here.

Millenials are outreading their elders.  That’s good news, I think!

Are libraries dying?  This article says yes, but I’ve noticed that my local library is amazingly crowded every time I go.  Sure, many of the people there are using the computers, but there are also plenty of little kids running around pulling books from shelves and adults sitting and reading.  And I think the article also overlooks that many, if not most, libraries are also offering digital checkouts these days.

Amazon vs. Hachette

Yes, the battle rages on.  Nothing has changed.  Writer Ben Mezrich explains why this dispute is “terrifying” for authors, while writer Neal Pollack dissents, saying that Amazon is actually building authorial careers for many.  Some writers are now targeting Amazon’s board of directors with letters claiming that Amazon’s reputation — and the reputations of the directors themselves — are at risk, essentially comparing them to book burners.  In the meantime, independent booksellers are making hay while the sun shines, using this dispute to increase their appeal and market share.

Fun Stuff

This has nothing to do with books, but it’s a great video of an amazing athletic feat at the Nanjing Opening Ceremony for the Youth Olympic Games in 2014.  If you’ve never seen it before, you’ll be amazed; if you have, but haven’t looked at it in a while, you’ll be amazed all over again.

Share

On Getting Self-Reliant

PhilosopherSelfReliance02Sometime around the middle of this month, I tossed a piece I’d been writing on and off for a while. That’s not something I generally do. Part of what I love about essays is the process of writing myself into—and then out of—a corner. Or to work with a slightly more claustrophobic image, since that’s mostly how it feels, writing my way out of a paper bag. The idea is to set up a problem and then solve it, whether it’s ideological, stylistic, or a matter of working through my own convoluted logic to figure out what I really wanted to say in the first place. But at some point I realized that this one—which had revolved loosely around issues of class and privilege among writers, among other things—had nowhere to go. Or rather, I had the sudden feeling that there was nothing I could say on those topics that hadn’t been said already, and better, by other people. It’s become a bit of a buzzword, the whole “check your privilege” reflex, but it’s also the source of some good and thoughtful writing. The more I wrote myself into that particular corner, the more derivative I felt I was getting. So I just chucked the whole thing—as my more polite Macbook would say, moved it to the trash.

Earlier this week, Flavorwire posted a great list titled 50 Essays Guaranteed to Make You a Better Person; great not just because I want to be a better person—who doesn’t?—but because it was a good bunch of essays to have in one place. I was of a mind to just post the link with minimal commentary, so that all Like Fire readers could have the opportunity to become better people too. But then the completist thing got a hold of me and I decided I should go the Full Better Person Monty and read them all myself first. I’d read a number of them already over the years, and figured they’d all round out to a good creative nonfiction experience.

OK, faithful Like Fire readers, who can remember the title of our very first post? I’ll tell you: it was called “Perfect is the Enemy of Good,” which is a concept I do constant, unwavering battle with. It was true five years ago, when I was dithering unreasonably with the CSS of this blog and finally just had to hit the “publish” button, and it’s true today. I got 11 essays in (although I’d already read Zadie Smith’s and Aleksandr Hemon’s, and one was a link to the entire collection, rather than an individual essay—Janet Malcolm’s Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers—which made me sad because I had been very much hoping for a freebie sample). And then I hit the 12th, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” and bogged down completely; the idea of writing about the series languished as I tried to pound my way through it several late nights in a row.

I’d never read Emerson, but I’ve long felt that I should. My literary education is snaggle-toothed, with all sorts of unexpected gaps, and I’m definitely not up on my Transcendentalists (except for Walt Whitman, if he is one—I can never remember). The Flavorwire commentary just rubbed it in:

[T]here’s a reason we all had to read this in high school. Emerson’s basic message is so elemental, so American, perhaps, but still worthwhile: “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” Self-reliance, self-trust, self-belief—these things can go a long way towards just about anyone’s personal betterment.

Clearly, I didn’t have to read it in high school. All the better reason to tackle it now. But it was slow, slow going. Not because of the quality of Emerson’s writing; it’s very good. But it’s dense, and—for me, anyway—doesn’t scan easily. Maybe if I read an entire collection of his, I’d get into some kind of groove. This one took some real labor on my part, obliterating hours when I could have been doing any number of other, more productive things. Although, in fact, it did turn out to be productive in an oblique way. I see why it’s assigned in high school; it’s pretty much what you’re already thinking when you’re 16, and therefore a good gateway to more difficult writing and a more pan-historical perspective. And if you weren’t thinking that way when you were 16… well, that’s a shame, but it’s never too late. There’s good stuff for any age, particularly if you’re pondering online writing in 2014:

My life is for itself and not for a spectacle. I much prefer that it should be of a lower strain, so it be genuine and equal, than that it should be glittering and unsteady. I wish it to be sound and sweet, and not to need diet and bleeding.

and

It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

It turned out that there was a good takeaway for me here after all. What I ended up appreciating about Emerson wasn’t, ultimately, that he wrote so amazingly that it became the be-all and end-all on the subject. It was that he wrote about it well in 1841, and then Joan Didion did it well in 1968, and George Sanders did it well in his lovely commencement speech at Syracuse University in 2003 (all of which are linked to in Flavorwire’s collection). One of the pitfalls of having blogged for a long time, and finding yourself knee-deep now in hundreds of blogs interested in the same things you are, is that you start to doubt the value of your own take. Someone else with more time on their hands has already scooped the very topic you were so hot to discuss, or has found a far better cross-reference for the link you were about to post, and so on. You start to feel like an indistinct component of the greater babble—and really, what’s the point of that?

So it’s good to read Emerson’s thoughts from 175 years back and realize that they’re just as interesting, in their own right, as Didion’s or Saunders’s or anyone else’s in that 50-essay selection; that the voice matters just as much as the subject, just as much as the quality of the writing itself. And there’s always room for another voice. The trick for me is believing in the value of mine long enough to finish the damn essay, and only then sit back to worry about its jewel-like qualities (or lack of them). What’s been moved to the trash can be moved back. Because as Emerson counsels,

When good is near you, when you have life in yourself, it is not by any known or accustomed way; you shall not discern the foot-prints of any other; you shall not see the face of man; you shall not hear any name;—the way, the thought, the good, shall be wholly strange and new.

Share
Subscribe