A curmudgeon’s literary paraphernalia

It has not always been so, but few aspects of online aspiring-writer culture are more irritating to me than “literary lifestyle” tips and paraphernalia. (Library-scented perfume. Dictionary wallpaper. Moleskines. Bookshelves fashioned of reference books pulled from library dumpsters. The onslaught is maddening.)

But every curmudgeon is at least something of a hypocrite, and I am no exception. I visit writers’ houses, read their recipes, and sometimes stop in at the White Horse Tavern, a bar that has nothing to recommend it apart from the fact that Dylan Thomas was served his last drink there. Last night A.N. Devers gave me a replica of Mark Twain’s pen knife. It’s sitting here on my desk next to — ahem — the Poe figurine.

And now I am going to recommend a book for your coffee table.

My friend Dwight Garner’s Read Me: A Century of Classic American Book Advertisements, a revealing cultural history marketed as a novelty book, collects one hundred years of book ads, from the creatively manipulative to the hilariously misguided. Read Me shows, more effectively than any treatise could, how pitches to book-buyers evolved in the last century, and also that the marketing arm of the publishing industry has always had the capacity to be more than a little tone-deaf (as in the perky ad for Cormac McCarthy’s Outer Dark, below).

It’s the perfect thing to pass around and read aloud from after holiday meals, while everyone is still drunk and merry and not wanting to contemplate the moment they’ll have to head back out into the cold.

And the Rand played on: A view from I-95 South

Ayn Rand’s selfishness-meets-the-free-market doctrines may be odious, but she must be taken seriously, argues Scott McLemee, if only for her influence.

[T]he Rand market has never been anything but robust in the years since her death in 1982. Every year, her melodramatic novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1958) have sold at least 100,000 copies each. Rand’s other fiction remains in print; so do her ventures into philosophical speculation and political commentary. From time to time, an opinion poll in the United States will show that she is among the most influential writers and thinkers of the 20th century. Intellectual historians do not recognise this, but then her influence is on the lower levels of the culture, where they seldom venture.

All of this might be construed as an American peculiarity, like miniature golf or the bacon cheeseburger. But that is too narrow a view: Rand’s perspective is not nationalistic, and her philosophy has a properly cosmic dimension. To put her in perspective it is helpful to consult, of all things, The Communist Manifesto. When Marx and Engels describe the world-churning dynamism of unfettered capitalism – its capacity to unmake and remake the world in its own image – they write with a verve and vividness that make recent paeans to globalisation seem timid. It is fitting that they might have some prophetic insight into the author of The Virtue of Selfishness

But … Marx and Engels overestimate just how much reality the human psyche can bear – and they certainly underestimate Ayn Rand. Her fiction is a sustained effort to create for capitalism a grand mythology that is too solid ever to melt into air. Her approach to doing so was sui generis and even, in its way, avant garde – most conspicuously in Atlas Shrugged, her final novel, in which didacticism and tempestuousness combine in a truly epic work of propaganda.

Indeed. My friend Allison saw this billboard (above) while heading south on I-95 through Georgia yesterday. Then she found a photo (in pHlow’s Flickr stream) and some background.

See also: a Brooklynite’s insane Randian diatribe; what Howard Roark might have brought to Williamsburg; Atlas Shrugged, updated for the current financial crisis; and Americans’ efforts to weather the recession by seeking financial advice from the Bible.

A pitch for Girls Write Now at the holidays


Last year I joined the board of Girls Write Now, a nonprofit organization that pairs at-risk teen girls with professional writers who support them. The pairs meet regularly, alone and in groups, and the girls who finish the program all go on to college.

Amalie, for instance, broke down a little in her first reading (until the other mentees rushed in — video below), sailed through the second (also below), and has just finished her first semester at Smith College.

Girls Write Now has continued to flourish this year despite an economic climate that is as challenging for nonprofits as it is for everyone else. In November, our director, Maya Nussbaum, traveled to Washington, D.C., with third-year mentee Tina Gao to receive the Coming Up Taller Award from First Lady Michelle Obama. (Video above.)

But most of our support comes in small increments from individuals like you. Right now we’re just a little bit short of our $50,000 holiday fundraising goal. I know things are tight all over, but if you have a little to give, please do. And a million thanks to all who’ve donated in the past.



A star, a star! Was Jesus a Gemini?: Xmas miscellany

    1. Some astronomers believe that Jesus was actually born around June 17, 2 B.C., when a conjunction of Venus and Jupiter would have made the planets appear as a single “beacon of light” — the star the Wise Men followed to the stable.
    1. Good will toward men, and biometric fingerprinting: Today’s border agencies would not have let the Magi in. (See UK Border Agency’s holiday card, above, and this 2005 London Underground service announcement.)
    1. When Dickens’ A Christmas Carol appeared in 1843, the holiday was “a relatively minor affair that ranked far below Easter.” See NPR’s excerpt from Les Standiford’s The Man Who Invented Christmas.
    1. More seasonal Dickens: Morgan Meis on the real charms of A Christmas Carol; online views of the author’s corrected manuscript, which is on display at the Morgan through January 10; morbid Charles Dickens; and notes following my visit to his only surviving London home.
    1. In “a cross between the nativity and one of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So stories,” Jeanette Winterson reimagines the nativity story from the donkey’s perspective.
    1. Finally, here are a couple gifts that are no longer available to holiday shoppers: a mouse toy that allegedly sings “pedophile, pedophile” rather than “Jingle Bells,” and whiskey toothpaste.

  • What line could represent your favorite novel?

    Electric Literature produces videos for some of the fiction that appears in the magazine. A handful are trailers of one kind or another, but most are “single-sentence animations” consisting of brief clips inspired by a contributor’s favorite sentence from his or her own story.

    The one above — my favorite so far — centers on a line from Michael Cunningham’s novel-in-progress: “Peter tried to murder his brother only once…”

    Watching them got me thinking about my own favorite lines from novels; in general they tend to be more representative of theme than of plot. I can recite whole paragraphs from The End of the Affair, but none of the sentences I could remember seemed to evoke the book as a whole in a concrete way. Still, there’s that great bit in Beloved about the ghost as the embodiment of “sin moving in on the house, unleashed and sassy.” And, from a Padgett Powell story: “There was no such thing as falling-down insurance, an actuarial nicety that flabbergasted and enraged Mrs. Schuping.”

    Never one to pass up an opportunity to fritter away time I’d planned to spend writing, I started pulling books off the shelf, trying to decide what I’d choose for Moby-Dick, The Sea, The Sea, Crime and Punishment, Giovanni’s Room, Frankenstein, The Power and the Glory, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, or Chromos

    What sentences would you choose for your own favorites, and how would you illustrate them? If you have any ideas — or are skeptical of the whole enterprise — I’ve decided to open up comments on this post for a couple days.