Opinion


I’m not one for celebrity autobiographies. They have a tendency to be to self-gratifying and in most cases boring. Most that are published (e.g., any Osmond sibling’s tell-all, or any book with the subtitle “In Their Own Words”) are usually written by some poor ghostwriter who would rather write anything but some stupid book about some stupid person’s stupid past. I pass by the hardcovers in the bookstore, hating that some moronic, drug-addled, washed-out child star can get a book in stores and my book sits on a shelf collecting dust. (Actually, it’s sitting on my computer’s hard drive, but thinking of it on the shelf sounds more romantic.)

Why We Suck, by Dennis Leary

I always receive books for Christmas, and this year one of them happened to be a celebrity autobiography: Why We Suck by Denis Leary. It’s not in the vein of a just-out-of-rehab story, or the ever favorite, sorry-I-cheated-on-my-wife/embezzled money-still-vote-for-me-in-the-next-election book. Why We Suck is a detailed account of…well, why we as a people suck so bad. These affirmations, mixed with the childhood stories of Denis Leary growing up in a working-class, Irish-American family in Massachusetts, will make many people reexamine their technology-riddled existence, raise their kids differently, treat their wife/husband better, stop worshipping shallow celebutards who do nothing to further humanity, and realize that “of course everyone else in the world hates us.”

Just as a quick example: I feel like an idiot sitting here blogging. I could be doing anything right now—learning to cook better, finally learning Spanish, helping old ladies across the street, petting a dog, kissing a baby. I could be reading a book for Christ’s sake! I mean, that’s what we do, right? You, the one reading this right now. Stop it! Shut off your damn computer and read a book!

So, if you’re still with me—and I wouldn’t blame you if you’re not—just know that we’re all pretty stupid and this doesn’t exclude you, and it sure as hell doesn’t exclude me.

Denis Leary has proven himself as a premiere actor/writer, and Why We Suck is his opus. I think the book should be required reading for every new American about to take the oath of citizenship. Most important, if you are tired of sucking so bad, read this book. It might not rid you of your suckitude, but it will definitely help you live with it.

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I recently received a gift from a friend in the form of an e-book. 

E-books are electronic versions of print books displayed either on a computer or an e-book device, which is about the size of a normal paperback book but more closely resembles a giant palm pilot complete with giant stylus used for scrolling through the pages.

In the beginning, e-books were generally used for technical and mechanical training manuals, but in the last few years they have intruded into the literary arena.

Of course there are advantages to an e-book. For example, you can store thousands of books on the same device, you don’t need a reading light because the screen is back lit, and you don’t have to hold open a book and turn its pages, which, depending on where you’re reading (e.g., bed, airplane, bus, solitary confinement), can be a big plus. And, of course, the biggest advantage to the e-book is it doesn’t waste paper, which saves trees. 

But isn’t it somewhat comforting owning your favorite books and packing your shelves full of them? And imagine (God forbid) that e-books become the norm and you never have the opportunity to buy a book ever again, or peruse a bookstore for hours on end?

Now here’s the kicker. Last summer, e-books started coming in text-message format for certain youth-lit publications. Some genius figured it would be easier for kids to read only 10 or so words at a time, and these e-books are even equipped with text language! Imagine Holden Caulfield LOLing all over Manhattan, or Sal Paradise telling Dean Moriarty that he’ll BRB. AHHHHHHH!!! It makes me want to smack a kid.

I, for one, love being able to open a book and turn its pages. And when I’m not busy with life, I’m usually in a bookstore—and I’m not talking about some dumb Internet store.

E-books are incredibly new, and the technology will need more time on the market to prove its worth, if it even has any. Will e-books replace traditional books, or will they go the way of the pet rock and the eight-track player?

ebook

I read in The New York Times yesterday that Joe the Plumber has penned a book.  The news was in an op-ed piece written by Timothy Egan, in which he takes publishers to task on allocating what little money they have to giving voice to people who perhaps don’t deserve it.

Egan also writes of a possible book deal for Sarah Palin, projected to be worth $7 million—a lot of money for a would-be author who we have all seen possesses a tenuous relationship with the English language. And as these books come to our shelves, what great works of literature remain dormant in the desks of real writers?

Between Egan’s op-ed and Adrián’s post here last week, I’ve been sitting at my laptop today feeling pretty depressed. But the pieces also got me thinking about the validity of publishing one book over another, and the ways that we document the world around us. Would a book about the phenomenon of Joe the Plumber written, perhaps, by George Packer be more valid? Or were Joe’s 15 minutes of fame a mere anecdote in American history and worthy of only a few paragraphs in some political science book about elections? And in giving Mr. Plumber a public voice, are publishers defining history and validating that Joe is more than a simple anecdote?

Can we qualify the ways in which our world gets written about? I personally do not keep a journal. I have dozens of notebooks lying around my apartment, all filled with ideas, observations, and sentence fragments, but I don’t record my daily existence. However, I think about journaling all the time, and question the fact that I don’t.  And the fact that I don’t has something to do with my belief that I don’t find the day-to-day worthy of recording.

Now, I understand I am revealing my own ambiguous relationship with my ego, but what makes something worthy of being written about publicly versus privately? Should different measures of value exist when publishing and money are involved? I’d love to hear how others wrestle with these issues, and if you have a second read Egan’s piece; it’s not often I find something so equally disheartening and engaging. 

pile-of-books1“Books have particular qualities that are lost in translation into code. A book isn’t just its text, it’s also a material object with a particular history, written in stains and stamps and underlining.…The body of the book is part of what it says.”

—Shelley Jackson, from her interview in the first issue of 12th Street

 

I’ve been getting hand cramps from reading. Sometimes I read sitting at a table, sometimes in a comfortable chair, other times I read lying down in bed, waiting for sleep to overtake me. No matter the position, the cramps in my hands continue. A part of my struggle can be blamed on the book that I am reading. 2666, by Roberto Bolaño, is an immense book, at 898 pages. It weighs three pounds, which is not a weight I would normally struggle with, but when holding the pages open in my lap or above my head, those three pounds begin to feel more like 30, and after a few hours of reading, 300. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

The pain in holding a book open is a part of the delight of reading—the weight, the feeling of the gentle pages, the smell of fresh ink, watching as, with time, the pages move from one side to the other as you drift your way through the story. The physical act of reading, of holding a book, is just as much a part of the act as the words on the page.

Can electronic media replace the pages of a book? As a reader, in the romantic sense of the word, I do not believe that there will ever be a time without books. There will always be shelves in my house for books to sit on display, waiting to be lifted and held. As Jorge Luis Borges said, “I cannot sleep unless I am surrounded by books.” In fact, I have an odd habit of collecting books in bed with me, falling asleep with five or six books hidden under the sheets, held close, hoping their characters will invade my dreams.

I must admit that in recent months I have taken to reading magazines and newspapers online more often than the actual paper copy. The ease with which the Internet allows one to find information is hard to argue against. In my own writing, I find search engines are an invaluable tool for research. How did I ever write without Google?

I don’t know what the answer is, and, frighteningly, neither does the publishing industry. On November 25, The New York Times reported that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has suspended acquisitions of new manuscripts.  This is scary news for any writer, but the reality is that publishing has become too expensive and every part of the industry is reeling. Is electronic media the answer? The cost of posting a piece on line is far less than printing one on the page. But lower costs also mean lower profits, and posting all books online could mean the end of the middle-class author.

I have more worries than I have answers. The best advice I have for any writer is to buy more books. Support the industry you want to be a part of. Call it writer’s karma. If you want your book to someday be sold, buy a book today. Buy as many new books as you can afford. Carry them around with you, feel the weight of the book as it pulls on your shoulders from the inside of your bag. Enjoy that feeling while you can, because soon the only weight that you may be carrying is your computer. 

 

Interesting post a couple of days ago at the Ploughshares blog about benefactors. I have mixed feelings about the idea of patronage, especially the support of a single artist by a single wealthy benefactor. Sure, I ask my own blog readers if anyone would like to buy me a mansion, but I’m kidding, and an important facet of my long-term goals for myself as a writer is financial sustainability. There’s no money to be made in poetry. You’ll never have your “big break” as a poet. And I don’t think anyone would argue with me on this point. So why do some poets complain about the days of yore, the days when writers had patrons, when they could compose sonnets all day without having to worry about the cost of bread? Sure, the world needs art. But if the non-artists of the world are forced to find employment in order to support themselves and their habits and families, shouldn’t artists be held to the same standard? Are we so special that someone should just give us money to do what we love? Or are we responsible for finding our own ways to support our passions?

Obama 2008I cannot tell a lie: I was not always a supporter of Barack Obama, our new president elect. Early on in what has proven to be one of the longest presidential campaigns in American history, I didn’t think a candidate could run on a platform of hope. I argued that “hope” contained little content; it was simply a word attempting to capture a feeling.

Well, as I watched our nation elect Barack Obama last night, I was awed by the efficacy of his words. I would be remiss to not mention that as his campaign wore on, Obama added content to round out his platforms of “change” and “hope.” He put forward ideas that are substantive and responsive to the crises of the American people.

Obama has a remarkable ability to use words to encapsulate a swell of emotion. Just think of his inspirational rallying call, “Yes We Can.” Is the populace hungry for words, or are they hungry for passion? And can those two desires run concurrently and successfully?

Other words were tossed around during this campaign: elite, terrorist, socialist, Marxist, communist. Watching Barack Obama become our president elect gives me hope that the populace actually listened to what was being said. Our nation takes its citizenship and civic duty seriously, and that, to me, seems like change. 

Within the Riggio: Writing and Democracy Program, we are confronted with varying interpretations of the word democracy, and it is often said that writing in itself is a political act. It has been said that today, half of the country will wake up disappointed. But I would argue that as Americans, we can find common ground in the execution of choice that took place yesterday. The American people listened, processed, and exercised their freedom, and that is an edifying end to this election. It’s a success for everyone, and even those who today find themselves disappointed, can attempt to find hope in that.

women_vote_ny_19172
We are children of our era;
our era is political.

Wislawa Szymborska

Four years ago, I was old enough to vote in my first presidential election. I was living with my parents. I had to brave the terrors of going back to my old high school to cast my ballot. I wore my “I VOTED” sticker all day and into the night, waiting for the results that would validate my efforts and prove that I had made a difference. And then I was crushed. (more…)

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