Wednesday, July 13, 2005
book review
Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times
edited by Kevin Smokler

My first thought when I had this book in my hands was: I never got the memo. Are we experiencing unreaderly times? I hadn't really noticed. I'm bookish, you see. Raised by the bookish, employed by the bookish, in school with the bookish.

Yes I'm aware of the next generation's addiction to teevee and the internet. But I see the side lots of people don't; library use has not flagged. People are reading for pleasure, children are reading, parents are reading to children. People are foaming at the mouth to get their hands on popular fiction. Aside from libraries, think of how much crazy money Amazon and B&N and Borders are making every day.

There's so much good and great fiction out there--and there's more of it than ever before. I don't have the statistics in hand right this minute, but it's staggering how many books are published each year. And there's exponential growth there. (creating even more information overload, which is another topic for another day.)

Another factor that leads me to think that these times are completely "readerly" is the fact that I live in the Bay Area. You can't shake a stick here without hitting a writer. Writers are rock stars here. Hush, hush! Don't disturb the delicate genius of the chosen ones, the writers. And if we are, or soon will be, in unreaderly times, won't writers be even more like rock stars? Considered rebellious and hip in a retro kind of way? If books and bookishness become more counter-culture, they get more cool points, more punk rock points. And what of the current tidal wave of poetry slams and quality graphic novels and cartoon art?

In library school we discuss ad nauseum the idea of books becoming obsolete, the thought that computers may take over. But let's not forget what excellent technology books are. They still are readable even after you drop them, spill on them, send them in the mail, and de-magnetize them. The same copy of a book can be good for decades, even sometimes centuries. No new technology is needed for future generations to read our current books, so long as they can still read our language. Not so with computers, of course. After the revolution/nuclear war/anti-book dictatorship comes about, we will be damn glad we didn't do away with the physical book.

A book can be passed from hand to hand, a personal revolution making its rounds until it has touched many lives. Picture this: you buy a book, or you pick it up at the gym, or whatever. You love it. You lend it to your dad. He loves it. You have to move, so you give it away or sell it at a garage sale. I pick it up and donate it to the Prisoner's Literature Project. It's mailed to someone, usually a man, in an American prison. Maybe he is innocent. Maybe he is guilty. Maybe he is a murderer/abuser/cheater/liar. Maybe he is not allowed to use the prison library, if there is one.

So this is the only book he can get his hands on. He likes it, he struggles with it, it is his friend, it is his teacher, it is his enemy. He passes the book on. He changes. Malcolm X and many other leaders and non-leaders were changed by books. Sometimes people are changed in prison, sometimes in college, sometimes on vacation, sometimes in a harmless-seeming book club. And I'm not just referring to Malcolm-level change here either. Sometimes we're changed by one phrase in an otherwise ridiculous book; sometimes we just feel like we're understood, we're not alone, and that feeling changes us.


Whoa, I got a little off track. Books are good, books are powerful. Back on track.
Bookmark Now!
I enjoyed this book. It's composed of many essays by contemporary writers about how and why they write. This book will be excellent reading specifically for writers and wannabe writers and those who are in, have been in, or will be in a literature grad program. Anyone who's interested in books and how and why they get written will be intrigued. As the writers and writing styles are all quite different, there's certainly something here for everyone. In the introduction Smokler wonders why these writers chose a literary life when (he says) so many more lucrative options abound. My feeling, after reading most of the essays, was: they didn't. Mostly, writing chose them.

I've always loved books about writing. Who knows why? My parents had "If You Want To Write" around while I was growing up, and I dug Natalie Goldberg's "Writing Down The Bones," etc. But I've never been interested for longer than a week at a time in being a published author. Reading is more rewarding than writing, for me. So there's not really any need for me to read authors' books on their craft. But here are people who have a wonderful way with words, talking about how they work with the words. I like that. I like the stories they tell, I like the words they use, and I like the demystification of the writing process. Also, some authors' how-to-write books are more authentic and passionate than their other books. They happen to be good at talking about what they do, I guess.

This book is like sitting at a writers' salon or even a writers' support group, listening to them talk about how and why they do what they do. It's about how they write, how they interact with readers (and how much this has changed in the era of email, google, web sites and blogs), why they write, and why books are still important. There's very funny pieces, touching pieces, thoughtful pieces, and illuminating pieces. In my notes about the first piece, by Christian Bauman, I called his writing "bittersweet" and "sinewy."
So there you have it. Neal Pollack's piece is very funny. Same for Glen David Gold.

There's a lovely co-written piece by Nicola Griffith and Kelley Eskridge, a couple, and both professional writers. Here's a quote from Griffith:
"I think of the text of a novel as a blueprint and the novelist as architect and builder. I might specify where the walls and windows go, the height of the ceilings; I'll decide on the elevation and orientation, but the readers provide their own experience and tastes and furniture. They paint the walls and move the doors and put in light fixtures, add the hideous horsehair sofa and hang wishy-washy watercolors over the fireplace. One person moves into my text and turns it into a chintzy cottage; for another it becomes a minimalist temple. Every reader inhabits a different novel." (pg. 89)

This is a good book, people. And lots of big-time newspaper reviewers agree with me. Check it out.

Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times
edited by Kevin Smokler

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The views expressed here are my own and do not represent in any way my employer. Or my school. Or even my friends. And heaven knows the views here aren't representative of my family. Ha! This is a personal blog and it only represents me. And on some days, even that is questionable. So there.

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