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Archive for July, 2008

unalone in the universe


GREAT UNREAD BOOKS: WHICH CLASSIC ARE YOU ASHAMED TO ADMIT YOU HAVE NEVER READ?

That was the headline last week in Britain’s Telegraph, followed by:

“Humiliation, the game is called. And that’s what it inflicts. You have to confess to a famous book you haven’t read – and there’s no opportunity for sly self-congratulation.”

Read the rest of the story and see the Telegraph‘s totally edifying semi-famous-writer-type-on-the-street admissions HERE.

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Nope, never read it. Definitely saw the movie. Have rented it and seen it again. Can play a rudimentary version of the banjo figure on my little Deering beginner model, but don’t. This is Texas, after all, which plays Southern when it feels like it, and there’s a lot of Pavlovian people around who just can’t see a canoe without pretending to be a mouth harp and twanging those notes. Hardy har. Everybody loves a good a$$-f#ck%ng gag. Have fun on the river y’all!

I had cause to think about Deliverance again last week as I was planning a two-day overnight in canoes on Texas’ San Marcos River, which is a bit on the backwatery side. It’s also a river on which I’ve personally seen a lot gone wrong. The first canoe I ever bought, a 17-foot Grumman, got destroyed when my friends Brandon and Missy and I got it stuck sideways on an outcrop called Boy Scout Rock in a rock garden called Cottonseed Rapid and watched it fill with rushing water and crumple around the stone like tin foil around a potato.

Me and Brandon later got completely rained off a planned overnight on the San Marcos. Another time, in dryer and hotter weather, we forgot to bring lifejackets and got so drunk the night before launch the entire next day was a wash of resentment and ineptitude.

Another time still I took old friends single and married both on a poorly planned (by me) 9-hour tubing trip on the San Marcos with my wife at the time, by the dark, cold end of which none of us wanted to ever see another again (the rest of us later got over it, but the marriage didn’t survive, and I think I first saw the fact that it wouldn’t sneaking around one of that river’s riffly little bends). 

None of that’s as bad as an uninvited a$$-f#ck%ng, sure, but unpleasant nonetheless. So this trip, my first on (barely) moving water since moving back to Texas from Montana, offered redemptive possibilities. And in fact it was fine and often beautiful (see below), hard work, but thoroughly nontraumatic. The water was low, Cottonseed an easily picked-through trickle.

Fun Deliverance Facts: James Dickey’s son, Newsweek foreign correspondent Christopher Dickey (who’s credited with the jacket photo above), was as a child employed on set as a stand-in for Ned Beatty, the movie’s unfortunate a$$-f#ckee—and yes, for that scene—while technicians set their light levels. I think I read that in a review of a memoir by C. Dickey. James Dickey, the poet/novelist, apparently wasn’t much a canoeist himself, using the boat as a prop more than an actual tool. In The Survival of the Bark Canoe, John McPhee—author of many books I haven’t read, and a few seriously stunning ones that I have—tells a story about Dickey, hosting a movie-related press junket at his Georgia home, taking way too many reporters out in way too small a canoe on his stagnant little pond, where they wallowed gracelessly in their overloaded metaphor.

(On a related note, be aware that canoeing is never represented in an even vaguely plausible manner in the movies. Ever. Nobody but insane experts should even try to canoe the crap the movies send the likes of Kevin Bacon (Whitewater Summer; ugh) and Burt Reynolds careening down in open boats.)

Back to the book: This is a facsimile first edition designed for book dorks who like the hardback hand-feel of the real thing, but could never afford a true first, which can get into the several hundreds of dollars for this particular title (though the facsimiles, when you find them, are too often overpriced as well). It comes with a slipcase (whence the cover photos) and the insert shown (front and back) at left. I’ve got three of these reproduction firsts—Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and Joyce’s Ulysses are the other two—and I’m trying hard not to consider them a collectible type in their own right. But for certain titles, long relegated to dog-eared mass-market paperback printings in the used aisles, these are the most satisfying editions I’m ever likely to own, and this one’s one of my very favorites. I may even read it someday.

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Circling back to this site’s raison d’etre, or at least its modus operandi (and that’s it for me on the romance language front), we recall that Pierre Bayard, in How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, has developed a coded shorthand for the various non-reading relationships people have to books:

UB = book unknown to me

SB = book I have skimmed

HB = book I have heard about

FB = book I have forgotten

Blackwater, by  Jeremy Scahill, is a book I have skimmed, and a book I will continue to skim, though I have serious doubts I’ll ever “read” it in the cover-to-cover, word-for-word sense. Hell, it takes 468 pages just to get to the voluminous notes and index—who’s got the time? But it’s been sitting chairside ever since the revised edition came across the transom at work a few months back, demanding attention with its timeliness and accolades alike.

Blackwater, briefly, is the most prominent of the private pseudo-military security firms doing business in Iraq and Afghanistan right now, a mercenary army apparently above the law, up to its neck in billions of dollars of no-bid contracts paid by American taxpayers, and run by an increasingly deep-pocketed Bush donor. Remember September 16, 2007, when 17 Iraqi civilians got gunned down in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, and nobody was ever charged with anything? That was Blackwater’s handiwork. Who’s protecting presidential candidate Barack Obama on his current fact-finding, publicity-pumping missions to the Middle East? Blackwater again.

This last disturbing bit—indicating how nonpartisanly integral to the American military effort Blackwater has become in a few short years—apparently isn’t in the book. I heard that news straight from the mouth of author Scahill, who included the tidbit as a participant in an impressive (and scary) panel on strategies for reclaiming the Constitution, post-Bush, presented at last weekend’s Netroots Nation convention in Austin.

I was there as media, covering the event, not as a blogger, and that’s too bad. The bloggers in attendance had their senses of self-importance stroked relentlessly by the favor-currying politicians in attendance, whereas I, faced with deep-digging and still-young talents like Scahill, was unable to avoid the fact that I’ve completely wasted what talent I may have once had compiling art-faggery like this site, when I should have been out there saving democracy. Or at least having the decency to read—and not just skim—the work of those cape-wearers who actually do.

Self-flagellate, and discuss.

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purty pitchers


It took me a while, but I’ve recently discovered an especially soothing salve to the raw bone of contention between my desire to buy books and my inability to justify each and every purchase by reading them: photography books. This should have come as no great shakes in the surprise department, given that I minored in photography in college, studying under badasses Geoff Winningham and Peter Brown. But I guess I just hadn’t been looking in the right used bookstores. Goodwill rarely has anything in the photography vein that you’d want to admit to looking at, unless you like cats more than you really should, aside from the occasional hardback National Geographic photo essay on The World’s Secret Corners or somesuch (more—much more—on that series in some later post).

But Austin’s North Lamar 1/2 Price Books has been a revelation, with a whole fat section of used photography books, and a decent amount of them reasonably priced. There’s nothing much more fun than scoring an $80 book for $12.95, and if you look closely, you can do that at 1/2 Price. You can also spend $100 pretty fast watching those $12.95 books pile up.

This bargain’s not quite that dramatic: a $9.95 paperback volume (marked down to $2.95, and clean as a whistle), #7 in the Aperture Masters of Photography series, on Edward Weston. It’s just a tight little pleasure to handle, not so big that it take a table to hold it, but not so small as to get lost in your lap. And unlike a lot of these slim bargain collections, which tend to lose whatever majesty their photos hope to convey in cramped margins and intrusive gutters, the Aperture series runs these black and whites as big as they’ll fit on these 8″-square pages, and that’s plenty big enough for $2.95. There’s a nice mix of Weston’s desert shots, his nudes, and his vegetables—including that incredible bell pepper portrait—and an essay by R.H. Cravens if I ever get around to reading it. Plus, it’s part of a series, so there’s the promise of other numbers to hunt down, which is about 80% of the point in the first place.

In the meantime, you can flip through this in under ten minutes and see more beauty than you’re likely to find in the rest of your day. Purchase justified.

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The book on the left, Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, is one of my all-time favorites—and yes, this one I’ve read and re-read, even though it has a whole chapter about mayonnaise, sort of, which is gross, sort of. This is a 7th printing of the Delta paperback (that’s Brautigan, at left, on the cover, of course; there’s a whole opening chapter about the photo), but it’s just one of half a dozen copies I’ve had over the years (I don’t know, and doubt, if it was ever released in hardback). I keep giving them away though, or getting them stolen, and I’m about to give this one away as well.

When I first stumbled into Brautigan’s hippie surrealism I didn’t know he’d been drawn, as I would be, to Montana, where he lived outside Livingston for a while, though I did eventually find (and read, and lose) a copy of the winsome The Tokyo-Montana Express, which I hope to possess again someday. I don’t recall knowing then that he’d killed himself with a gunshot and rotted for weeks at home in San Francisco before his body was found. Trout Fishing cultified him, and apparently that sat poorly.

While Trout Fishing in America isn’t strictly about trout fishing, there’s trout fishing in it, and I count it among my favorite trout fishing novels (a genre that I, a cork-and-worm fisherman at best, generally dislike for its ponderous pseudo-spiritual claims) alongside David James Duncan’s The River Why, which is probably at least partly to blame for all its loathesome imitators, but which is beautifully blameless its ownself.

On the other hand, i.e. the right-hand side, we have the Boy Scouts of America merit badge manual for trout fishing, which I recently found at Goodwill, and which mentions neither Brautigan nor Duncan. It does, however, contain an introduction that notes: “Fly-fishing is a specialized form of fishing that emerged centuries ago, as far back as 1653, when Sir Izaak Walton wrote The Compleat Angler.”

(Antiquarians beware: According to Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage, and me, modern use of the spelling “compleat,” as versus “complete,” marks you as a compleatly pretentious ass, and is in itself “a one-word cliche.” I’m just saying.)

Apparently there are at least 100 of these Boy Scout merit badge manuals in publication, and this is the first I recall seeing one, even though I made it past Webelos and into the first year of Cub Scouts before my parents got inexplicably nervous about the single guy troop leader who never took us camping. Now that I know they’re out there (the manuals), I want them all.

And no, perversely, after five years in Montana, exposed daily to the kind of streams Orvis-worshipping dorks from New York pay thousands of dollars to visit, I never learned to fly-fish. I’m thinking about taking it up on Lady Bird (formerly Town) Lake in Austin, just to torture the perch and the purists.

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Here’s a title that I’ve actually read, and reviewed (for the Texas Observer, where I work), and not just because the editor/author is a distant acquaintance, having stayed a barnstorming/couch-surfing night at my erstwhile desert bunker in Terlingua, Texas, once almost 15 years ago. His name is Bill Daniel, and in fairness I’m a fan more than friend, having hardly seen him since then.

This is hobo-graffiti-related odds and ends, and I dig it in part because I hopped a train once myself, from Alpine, Texas, to San Antonio, where I got apprehended by a yard dick and almost beat down with an 18-inch MagLite but instead driven to a truck stop where I couldn’t hitch a ride and so spent my next-to-last cash on a cab to the Greyhound station where I spent my actual last cash on a ticket to Houston where I was going to see friends put on “Guys and Dolls” at Commerce Street Arts Warehouse. This is 1995 or so.

Also, I have a tattoo that’s an approximation of the chalk hobo symbol for “an ill-tempered man lives here,” which is true as far as it goes. And I once reviewed another hobo book for the Village Voice Literary Supplement, but I don’t even know if that stuff’s online. I never have found it if it is. I’m no expert on the subject matter, but I’m an enthusiastic amateur.

You can learn more about Bill’s ever-interesting projects here, and you can read my review of his book here, and if you’re in Austin or Houston you can probably buy ALMOST TRUE and other cool stuff here.

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A first post has to start somewhere, and in this case it might as well be with How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, by French academic (which is reassuring somehow) Pierre Bayard. I’ve been meaning — which is to say since a week or so back, when the idea first struck me after an especially gratifying haul at a local thrift store — to start a(nother) blog about books. My thought was that this blog would concentrate on my ridiculous, rewarding and expensive joy in finding, buying, and owning books, as against any particular attempt at comprehensive critique thereof, and with full, unashamed acknowledgment that I haven’t read all these books, or even most of them, and I probably never will.

I do sometimes review books professionally, but by the very definition of newsworthy, those are all recently published, and journalistic reviews rarely have the room or assume the interest that would accommodate the broadest ramblings of the full-bore book geek.

And also (a phrase I’d never get away with for pay — so ha!) the world is full of books published anytime but recently, and unless they’ve found a place in the literary canon, or the increasingly crowded “collectibles” shelf, there’s hardly any place (that I’m aware of) to talk about them on their own marginal merits. I love books as found objects, as art, as showcases for fine writing, as unplumbable absurdities, as astonishments, as curiosities, as artifacts, as gifts given and received, as heirlooms, as larks, as signifiers (though I’m not entirely certain I know what I mean by that), as remembrances of people and places, and as furniture.

I found How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read today at the Goodwill store on Lamar Street in Austin, Texas, whence I’ve poached (in the I-paid-less-for-them-than-they’re-worth sense of the word) probably 50 sweet titles over the last few months. You can be damn sure I’m not actually reading them at that pace. I’m more a book-or-three-a-month kinda guy. This one’s in seemingly unread condition (appropriately enough), with a clean grabber of a cover that crosses chick-lit colors with imported pretension to lovely affect, if you ask me, and it cost $1.99. Inside, Bayard seems to take my catholic attitude toward books’ multitudinous attributes seriously, which intellectual generosity I’d never quite experienced before, except in various college dorm rooms and off-campus apartments where certain formative friends and I used to find unlikely enjoyment in $20 bags of coke and concurrently manic perusal of each others’ fledgling libraries.

It’s appalling the books I haven’t read, and it probably always will be, but that’s never stopped me from digging the ones I never got around to. I can’t tell to quite what extent Bayard shares my bibliographic neuroses, of course. I haven’t read his book yet.

Regardless, it seems an apropos find under the circumstances (ahem), proposing as it does that there’s value in the discussion of books, whether you or me or anyone else has read them or not. That’s a theory I’d like to test, so I’m going to start posting my finds here, as they interest me and as I can get to them. And if anyone’s got anything to share — about the cover, the blurbs, the weight of the paper, the incomprehending cousin who gifted you the title for your 23rd birthday, the copy you lost on that bus trip to Portland, whatever — this would be a good place to do that.

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