Warren Hinckle’s memoir of his life and times in the 1960s If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade is a great read, bittersweet for its conjuring of a San Francisco that no longer exists. Hinckle’s early days in Catholic school make for some entertaining hi-jinks and tall tales. Early in the book his pious tormentors are easily found out:
The reformers were freshly aglow with the illuminating theological proposition that the Church was as much human as divine; I knew that was the truth back in the third grade the first time I heard a nun fart.
Four essays and one obituary from the first quarter of 2015 that I have read and reread, all interesting and insightful:
Been reading nonfiction nonstop, Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy, and Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History, her biography of Joseph Smith, a great American hustler. Also picking through The Annotated Alice, Martin Gardner’s great note-filled record of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. An annotated anything–Lolita, Alice, and just released, Lovecraft–is both fiction and nonfiction, or fiction with a dash of fact.
Aktinson’s trilogy is filled with endnotes, a clutter-free way to the source material, if you choose too–I don’t, mostly. Brodie’s Smith book is classically footnoted, with a couple robust appendixes (is that the right plural for appendix?) Gardner’s Alice books are noted alongside the text, in tiny font–the main Carroll text is huge font, the book itself is large and a pleasure to read. Alfred Appel’s Lolita is margin-noted and requires two book marks to properly go back and forth–bit of a hassle, but rewarding.
The new Lovecraft is of course annotated in blood and slime.
There are no important books.
Paul Krugman concludes his review of Thomas Piketty’s new book Capital in the Twenty-First Century by stating:
So Capital in the Twenty-First Century is an extremely important book on all fronts. Piketty has transformed our economic discourse; we’ll never talk about wealth and inequality the same way we used to.
I wouldn’t let Paul Krugman advise me on a deli sandwich or a barbershop, yet the editors at the New York Review of Books suggest I listen to him regarding a $40 hardcover book on economics, something I wouldn’t read unless you paid me, or unless you transported me back to the dorms and gave me a bushel of the best marijuana known to man. Reviews like Krugman’s remind one of how boring and square the Review is today.
Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a best-seller, made so by hype and silly comments from people like Krugman. This is not a book that has come to life by the word-of-mouth of keen readers, but rather it has flourished because of advertising dollars.
How does one deal with important books? I don’t buy them, but I often get them as gifts, so I put them on the shelf, unread, and they usually wind up in the Goodwill pile when it comes time to cull the library. Other times I might try to read these books years later, to see if they are interesting beyond the hype that influenced a friend to buy me a copy.
I have been surprised by popular “important” books. The Looming Tower and 1491 are terrific and I am glad I read these books and discovered these authors. Do I feel bad about not reading them when they were popular? Of course not. Good books outlast their hype. Will Piketty’s book last? I don’t know, but given the history of books, it is doubtful.
Only a fundamentalist would call a book important. Ignore fundamentalists and you will live a good life.
There are no important books.
Two of my favorite essayists had a scuffle in 1995. Richard Rodriguez published “Brit Twit,” an attack on Christopher Hitchens, his British-ness, and his disdain for Mother Teresa. Here is that essay.
Hitchens, a day later, responded on C-SPAN.
Both the essay and response are first-rate. File this exchange under “When writers were not bores.”
Here is the Reason Magazine Rodriguez interview Hitchens mentions.
Of course, print will continue to be used, and it is interesting to speculate what kinds of reading matter would survive in a rigidly totalitarian society. Newspapers will presumably continue until television technique reaches a higher level, but apart from newspapers it is doubtful even now whether the great mass of people in the industrialized countries feel the need for any kind of literature. They are unwilling, at any rate, to spend anywhere near as much on reading matter as they spend on several other recreations. Probably novels and stories will be completely superseded by film and radio productions. Or perhaps some kind of low grade sensational fiction will survive, produced by a sort of conveyor-belt process that reduces human initiative to the minimum.
from George Orwell’s essay The Prevention of Literature. Here’s a video of an hour-long conversation between Christopher Hitchens and George Packer on Orwell, wherein this essay is discussed.
Wallace Stegner’s Mormon Country (1942) strikes one as relevant to life today, if only to highlight what many lack in contemporary life, namely a vibrant social and problem-solving network. Mormon foresight–which may have been formed out of luck, necessity, or both–from the pioneer days up until WWII, ran counter to the secular settlement of the West, and Stegner gives numerous examples of how one spots an ordered Mormon community or outpost, in contrast to the shabby strewn appearance of the typical yahoo.
Highlighted are the M.I.A. faction (Mutual Improvement Association), a social group for all, including the reticent and the wallflower, who are pulled from their timidity; the natural Mormon markers (poplar trees, valley towns); and the acute central planing crucial to faith and family. The most interesting story so far is one of Mormon farmers who wanted to leave the village and live on their farms, but were persuaded not to by elders, who saw the value of the community whole, of all members present and accounted for in that community, partaking in meetings and dances and civil life. Perhaps this is Communism by another name; I can’t think of many other successful American movements that have put such emphasis on the common good.
Mormon Country is a hoppy fresh read, reminding this reader of Mark Twain’s Roughing It, which had a bunch of smart funny insights and jibes at the Western Mormon.