Book Lovers: Jane Birkin, Serge Gainsbourg, reading, 1969.
Book Lovers: Jane Birkin, Serge Gainsbourg, reading, 1969.
Jack London (January 12, 1876 – November 22, 1916)
Take everything London wrote – he produced more than 40 books in his time on earth, slightly more than one for every year he was alive – tear out several pages from each book, paper a wall with them, close your eyes and toss a dart. Open your eyes and read the page where the dart lands, you’ll find support for at least one of the following statements:
Support for all the above statements is possible because Jack London has been all those things – and more – and sometimes several at once. A recent (excellent) biography by Jack Haley is called Wolf: The Lives of Jack London (2010) and the title could not be more apt. London lived enough lives, consecutively or concurrently, for a dozen men and he lived each of them with fierce commitment and at white-hot intensity. The word “driven” – in its contemporary locution – could have been coined for him. And he, of course, found time to write those 40-plus books, which is about the same number of books that present-day writing machine, Joyce Carol Oates, has written and she’s twice as old now as London was when he died. Unless Oates is keeping her sea excursions and prospecting adventures secret from the public, she has also lived only one, fairly quiet, academic life.
What all London’s living and writing left little time for, in my opinion, was much thought. And practically none of the deep, patient, reflective kind of thinking that can lead a writer to provide us with broad-based insights and well-formed conclusions. Ideas flowed through Jack London in the same way experiences did – directly from life to the page.
A lot of London’s literary output is commercial tripe and a lot of his ideas for shit. And, depending on the work and the day of the week when he wrote it, London was guilty as charged of being a socialist, a fascist, an anarchist, a totalitarian, a racist, an imperialist, an enthusiastic celebrator of mood-altering substances, a depictor of animal cruelty, and a bad poet (except in the best of his prose).
So what do we do with Jack London? Kick him and all of his books to the curb?
The local librarian in my suburban Indianapolis neighborhood growing up was a pinch-faced, purse-mouthed, McCarthyite old bat who saw her mission in life not as the dissemination of culture but its winnowing into a single approved channel. Sexless, painless, joyless, and “politically correct” … which for Pinch Face meant “not Communist.” I was in fifth grade, I think, when I wanted to check out Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. “That book’s too old for you,” Pinch Face said, taking it from me and putting it out of reach behind the counter. Maybe she was thinking of the Lenny scenes, but she also refused to let me read The Pearl or The Red Pony or anything else by “Mr. Steinbeck,” as she referred to him, on the grounds that “his ideas were wrong.”
I had slightly better luck with Mr. London. “You can read the dog books,” Pinch Face told me. I gobbled them up and asked for more, including London’s many other books that weren’t about dogs, but Pinch Face refused. When pressed on her reasons, she pursed up her mouth and said, “Mr. London is a Communist. The most popular writer in Russia.”
I believe the theory back then – among the Pinch Faces of the world – was that encountering “wrong” ideas and attitudes at a tender age might permanently damage one’s thinking cap and make it impossible to have the “right” ideas later on. So how should we handle Jack London’s books now, full as they are not only with old wrong ideas but new wrong ideas and attitudes that many of us (including me) find offensive?
I say we read them. I’ve read dozens of them, including several in childhood, and they don’t seem to have damaged my thinking cap. Or inculcated me with bad ideas and attitudes. Books aren’t crimes. They aren’t viruses. And, even if they were, the antibodies can be found in other books … and, in London’s case, in other London books.
I would recommend starting on London – at a young age – with a selection of his superb short stories and the wonderful “dog books,” The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906) that even Pinch Face liked. For bigger boys and girls – like you and me – I’d try his most personal novel, Martin Eden (1909), although it has its longeurs: London ran into trouble when he tried to stretch out. John Barleycorn (1913) is the first – and still one of the best – meditations on alcoholism. The Iron Heel (1907) is a fascinating science-fiction dystopia that precedes, by a lot of years, Orwell’s 1984. But my current favorites among London’s books are The Road (1907) and The People of the Abyss (1905), his two plunges into immersive journalism. In the former, Jack takes to the rails, riding trains with the hobos and fighting the “bulls.” In the latter foray, he impoverishes himself among the city of London’s desperately poor in order to write as truthfully as he can about their plight.
His best book is the one he didn’t live long enough to write … the group autobiography of all the Jack Londons. The recent Haley biography will have to suffice.
His body short-circuited. His body of work lives on. David Bowie is. I love his music, his changing personae, most of all his lyrics. You become a lyricist by reading, immersing yourself in words. Below is a recent list Bowie compiled of his favorite books and some photos of him reading.
David Bowie’s Favorite 100 Books
I saw Robert Stone walking past the Beverly Wilshire Hotel one sunny afternoon, on the same day – and a few minutes after – I had spotted Michael Caine reading a book in the hotel’s bookstore. I love Michael Caine, but seeing Robert Stone was both more surprising and the bigger thrill.This was in the 1980s, not sure when, but Stone was already sporting the longish receding hair and full beard that characterized his dust jacket photos of the last decades. He wore a faded blue denim shirt with one shirttail out and gave the impression of being large and lumbering, although this last may have been my imagination. Or time’s rewrite. I know Stone was smiling, recalling something pleasurable, perhaps, or just enjoying the day. Or maybe he was smiling because he’d received an option check on one of his novels for a movie that never got made (more often than not, the best possible scenario for a writer whose complexities don’t translate well to the screen).
I don’t believe it entered Robert Stone’s mind that he’d be recognized – his face bore none of the caution of movie stars in public places; the tall Mr. Caine, for instance, was hunched over his reading at the end of a row – and, because I didn’t want to interrupt Stone’s enjoyment in that moment or risk his displeasure, I didn’t try to stop him and thank him. To tell him how much his books had meant to me.
There were only three (possibly four) books by that time. A Hall of Mirrors (1966), which depicted an early Sixties New Orleans of racial and religious extremes that never quite cohered as a novel but introduced that voice – precise yet poetic with slightly druggy inflections, depressed but fighting against it, continually aspiring to hope. The next book Dog Soldiers (1974) is still his finest novel and, despite having only maybe 40 pages set in Vietnam, the best book by an American on the impact of that war. Stone’s novel about a thinly disguised Nicaragua in revolution, A Flag for Sunrise (1981), is a second straight masterpiece. And it’s possible by then that Stone had published Children of Light (1986), which also doesn’t entirely come together but which contains some of the best writing anyone has done about both schizophrenia (which Stone’s mother suffered from) and the schizophrenic nature of Hollywood at the end of the 1970s.
Stone went on to write seven more books, including the much-acclaimed Israel-based novel Damascus Gate (1998) and his terrific 2007 memoir, Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties … Stone was a friend of Ken Kesey and the other Merry Pranksters and put in his time “on the bus.” Among the serious writers of his generation, Stone may have written the most and had the widest range. His novels depict not only what it felt like to be an American during his lifetime but also the effect that we Americans have had on the world at large. A handful of his contemporaries have written as well, but none with his ambition. We lost a great one a year ago today, but the books survive. Here’s the first paragraph of Dog Soldiers:
THERE WAS ONLY ONE BENCH IN THE SHADE AND CONVERSE went for it, although it was already occupied. He inspected the stone surface for unpleasant substances, found none, and sat down. Beside him he placed the oversized briefcase he had been carrying; its handle shone with the sweat of his palm. He sat facing Tu Do Street resting one hand across the case and raising the other to his forehead to check the progress of his fever. It was Converse’s nature to worry about his health.
Read. Twiggy (aka Lesley Hornby) with book, circa 1966.
Natalie Wood reading Thomas Wolfe’s The Hills Beyond to Dennis Hopper and Nick Adams, 1956.
Barry Goldwater (January 2, 1909 – May 29, 1998)
Politically, I’m left of Bernie Sanders and have been for many years. But, as a child growing up in Indianapolis, I was a Youth for Goldwater. I wore his campaign buttons on my buttoned-down shirts and put stickers for his 1964 campaign for President on my school notebooks. I even had a picture of Barry (with his clunky black horned-rimmed glasses) in my room.
I was a Young Republican because my parents were Republicans and I hadn’t lived enough or read enough to make up my own mind. I was anti-federal-government, anti-union, anti-tax, anti-welfare, pro-military, pro-business, pro-local-government because Barry Goldwater was those things. His 1960 bestselling book, The Conscience of a Conservative (where this and other rightwing stuffery was spelled out) set the basic conservative agenda for years to come and laid the groundwork for, among other things, libertarianism in its current form and the rise of Ronald Reagan.
One way to view the 1964 campaign is Goldwater (unwittingly, of course) as stalking horse for the later presidential bids of Reagan, whose GE-generated stump speech for him put Bonzo to bed for good and made Reagan himself a national figure. Goldwater stood no chance in the election – even my parents knew that – but his conservative ideas were provided with public familiarity if not always credence. And the frequent juxtaposition of the two men invited comparisons that left even Goldwater’s most ardent admirers wondering, “What if?” Barry was awkward, bumptious, unpredictable, a little sweaty … although generally forthright. Ron was graceful, polished, full of faux outrage and pretend integrity, a better actor than when he was an actor … an optical illusion that “real folks” (including working-class traditional Democrat real folks) thought was real. Goldwater spoke off the cuff and often misspoke. Reagan read the script he was handed and well.
In my heart – even as a child – I knew Goldwater was wrong. And, yet, all these years – and changed opinions – later, I have affection for him. As Senator from Arizona, Goldwater did have integrity, currently in short supply among the populace and pretty much extinct among GOP elected officials. He said what he thought – out loud and in the presence of cameras and tape recorders – with little or no regard for the political cost.
Among his many sins in the eyes of the GOP party faithful, Goldwater harshly criticized his old friend Reagan (as President) over Iran-Contra and other foreign-policy matters. He advised President Nixon – in person and in public – to resign during Watergate and declined to attend the disgraced President’s funeral. When Moral Majority leader, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, was quoted as saying that “every good Christian should oppose Sandra O’Connor” for the Supreme Court, Goldwater replied that “every good Christian should kick Jerry Falwell’s ass.” It was Falwell’s balls that he suggested people kick, but the press cleaned it up for him.
Barry Goldwater also took to task his beloved military for restricting women and for racism. He was vehemently pro gay rights. “You don’t need to be ‘straight’ to fight and die for your country,” Barry famously said. “You just need to shoot straight.” And Mr. Anti-Government Conservative was in favor of stringent regulation of business regarding the environment and pollution.
Historian Rick Perlstein is writing a lively series of books on American politics during the second half of the 20th century. The first volume is entitled Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (2009). It’s a great, enlightening book about a fascinating time in our history. If you’re in the mood for something more admiring, you might try Pure Goldwater (2008), cowritten by John Dean – yes, that John Dean – and Barry’s son, Barry Goldwater, Jr.
Vanessa Redgrave reading on the set of the film Julia (1977).
Well, if that’s true, information got its wish.
Boy, did it ever.
And, as a result, news and entertainment empires have crumbled, other industries still scramble to adjust, cultural authority has dissolved, and most of the fun jobs – musician, writer, photographer, actor, editor, filmmaker, etc. – have mostly been turned into hobbies.
Where we – buskers, all – play for hat money.
A brief history lesson. It was Stewart Brand (editor of the Whole Earth Catalog in the 1960s and the founder of The WELL and other “virtual communities” in the 1980s) who first uttered the words: “Information wants to be free.” Aptly enough, they were uttered at the first Hackers Conference in 1984 – I find both event and year ironic – and they were said to Steve Wozniak of Apple. Which I also find ironic. Here’s the full quote:
“On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”
Brand’s words – in and out of context – have been debated and distorted ever since; their meaning tends to change depending on who is doing the quoting. When computer scientists say them, for instance, they generally mean the cost of producing information has gotten progressively lower. And that, once information leaves the control of its source, it becomes virtually impossible to prevent its replication and wide distribution.
In other words, once the digital horse has left the barn, good luck ever getting it back.
When technology activists quote (or misquote) Brand, they are usually arguing against the tyranny of intellectual property rights and the oppression of the big bad corporations that preceded the bigger, badder corporations who profit from all that free intellectual property now.
When college students say it, they just mean they don’t want to pay for music, movies, TV, or anything else they can share or steal off the Net. And, when a whole generation has grown up acquiring the stuff they want for free, how does that particular horse get back in the barn?
All of which is a roundabout way of saying, “Welcome to My Blog.”
It already has some information, uploaded and retooled in a holiday frenzy. And it will acquire fresh information on a more or less daily basis. Which will mostly consist of my views and re-views of culture, politics, and history in more than 140 characters (i.e., the length of a tweet).
And, although my blog doesn’t actually “want” to be free, it is. So read what you find here at your pleasure. And your periodic displeasure … if I’m doing my unpaid job well. Feel free to pass it along.
And Happy 2016!
Charles Dickens was up against it when he wrote and self-published A Christmas Carol (1843). He was 31 and already a celebrated author, but he had big debts, his wife was pregnant with their fifth child, and his publisher had just sued him for the printing costs of his latest serialized novel – Martin Chuzzlewit – sales on the initial installments of which had been less than half that of The Old Curiosity Shop two years earlier.
Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in six weeks, then put up his own money to have it printed. He managed to get his book into stores before Christmas … but just barely … on December 19th. Not that there was much of an Xmas buying season back then – there was hardly an Xmas – and the latter-day commercialization of the holidays would have appalled young Charles. He was all about getting together with family and friends, feasting, singing, dancing, wishing each other well … things that can’t be ordered from Amazon … like generosity of spirit and charity to the poor.
A Christmas Carol was an immediate hit, both critically and commercially, but it didn’t solve Dickens’s money problems. In the short term, it added to them. There had been cost overruns on the production and there were soon pirated editions all over England. Dickens himself had to sue the pirates, who promptly filed bankruptcy, leaving Dickens to pay legal fees of $60,000 in today’s money. What his book did achieve, however, was to formalize an English revival of celebrating Christmas – then underway – and to give it, at least initially, a social purpose.
A Christmas Carol is structured as a Christian allegory – using staves instead of chapters, for instance – and the word “carol” originally meant a song of praise to God. It is a humanistic, distinctly Dickensian form of Christianity that the book espouses, however. One that preaches good works … and more good works … and never quite gets around to praying or going to church. The ghost of Jacob Marley wanders the earth dragging heavy chains because he was miserly and selfish and rude – one helluva greedy son-of-a-bitch – not because he was profane or gay or smoked cigarettes or drank alcohol or put other Gods before Him.
It’s no stretch to imagine Jacob Marley, in his ghostly wanderings, bumping into Ayn Rand or Sam Walton or, one day soon, the Koch brothers. Not to mention a few Republican candidates for President. But A Christmas Carol teaches us that as long as there is life, it’s not too late to change. And even the worst sort of Marleys can become Scrooges – the Scrooge of the book’s final stave – who begin using their money for good.
They have nothing to lose but a few tax deductions. And their chains.
John Kennedy Toole (December 17, 1937 – March 26, 1969)
In 1976, when the great Southern novelist, Walker Percy, was teaching at Loyola in New Orleans, he began receiving calls from an eccentric old woman who insisted that he read her dead son’s book, written in the Sixties and never published.
“Why would I want to do that?” Percy asked her. “Because it’s a great novel,” the woman – Thelma Toole – said.
Against his better judgment, Percy accepted the manuscript – a badly smeared, barely legible carbon copy several hundred pages long – hoping he could read a few pages (or even a few paragraphs) and, in good conscience, gently break it to Mrs. Toole that the publishing world had saved her son embarrassment by rejecting his book.
Let Walker Percy tell what happened next: “In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good. I shall resist the temptation to say what first made me gape, grin, laugh out loud, shake my head in wonderment. Better let the reader make the discovery on his own.”
The novel – A Confederacy of Dunces – was, at Percy’s urging, published in 1980, it won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize and is now a permanent denizen of the Classics section in bookstores around the world. It is also one of a handful of American comic masterpieces (Catch 22 and Portnoy’s Complaint come to mind as well) that manage to be endlessly funny and profound.
It’s tempting to look for heroes and villains in the tragic story of John Kennedy Toole, who was born on this date – December 17 – in 1937 and died at his own hand after a descent into paranoid schizophrenia. The editor who rejected Toole’s book, saying he found it “formless” and “pointless,” was a perfectly good editor for other writers and other books. Thelma Toole is both hero and villain: tireless advocate of her son’s book and prototype of the narcissistic, overbearing mother in the book itself. And Walker Percy? He did a nice thing and was rewarded with hours of pleasure … not to mention a nod from the ages as one of those good men (in another Southern writer’s phrase) that it’s hard to find.
Let’s make our hero the books itself, A Confederacy of Dunces, which refused to die with its author and which I won’t attempt to summarize here. I’ll just give you the first paragraph. If you don’t enjoy it, you won’t enjoy anything that follows. If you do – like Walker Percy – you might decide to buy the book and read it all the way to the end.
“A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black mustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D. H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress. Several of the outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offenses against taste and decency. Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person’s lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one’s soul.”
Ford Madox Ford (17 December 1873 – 26 June 1939) – Writer and Friend
In his literary publications English Review and Transatlantic Review, Ford Madox Ford debuted or published the work of James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, William Butler Yeats, Ernest Hemingway, Jean Rhys, Ezra Pound, Thomas Hardy, Gertrude Stein, H.G. Wells, and Henry James among many others. He was Joseph Conrad’s mentor and collaborator on his first works.
It is difficult to imagine modernism (or, for that matter, 20th century literature) without Ford Madox Ford’s tireless promotion and generous support. Most of the writers he assisted paid him back by becoming more famous than Ford, a couple of them slept with his wife, and Hemingway (whom he helped the most and who apprently never met a patron he didn’t betray) made fun of Ford in print and trashed him in person.
Ford Madox Ford might be literature’s illustration of “Nice Guys Finish Last,” but here’s the thing. He was a very great writer, who deserved to stand with those he helped. At age 40, he sat down to see what he could do himself and the result was a masterpiece, The Good Soldier (1915). Then, at 41, he enlisted in the British Army as an officer and saw a lot of action in World War I. He put those experiences into a series of five novels with the umbrella title Parade’s End (1924 – 1928) that is also a masterpiece and possibly the finest work of prose literature produced by the Great War.
Happy Birthday, Ford Madox Ford … a great writer and the better man.
P.S. That’s Ford in the photo on the end next to James Joyce, who is looking very Joycean and who is flanked by Ezra Pound, who is looking insane and vaguely fascist. The other man in the picture is John Quinn, the Irish-American art collector and lawyer who (among his many other accomplishments) defended Joyce’s Ulysses against charges of obscenity.
Shirley Jackson (December 14, 1916 – August 8, 1965) – Writer
I’m still shaking my head over the memory of public school officials in my home state of Indiana showing us a well-done educational film adapted from Shirley Jackson’s short story, The Lottery (1948). I’m fairly certain those estimable stewards of the American Way thought it was about “Comm’nists” and how bad things would get if “Roosha” took over.
They had no idea it was about them.
I’m also fairly certain another Hoosier native, Robert Wise, knew what Jackson’s story was about. And he made a great movie out of Jackson’s best novel, The Haunting of Hill House (1959). Wise’s film is called The Haunting (1963), it’s in black and white, and it stars Julie Harris as the fragile main protagonist. The Haunting relies on anticipation and suggestion (i.e, terror rather than horror) to achieve its effects and Martin Scorsese – among others, including me – thinks it’s the scariest movie ever made.
If you go in expecting that, of course, you’ll be disappointed. So forget we said anything and rent or stream it some windy night. Read the book first. And, whatever you do, skip the 1999 remake directed by Jan de Bont. Ugh.
Ross Macdonald (December 13, 1915 – 1983) – American Writer
I fiddled around so long trying to think of what I wanted to say about Ross Macdonald that his birthday nearly passed. He is my third favorite “crime writer” … take a wild guess who numbers 1 and 2 are … and, as with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, he deserves admiration purely as a writer not just as a writer of genre fiction.
If you want to know what Southern California was like in the three decades after World War II, begin with Macdonald’s 18 Lew Archer private eye novels and his half dozen standalones. Macdonald covers more ground – geographically and socioeconomically – than any of his non-genre contemporaries. And he could flat-out write. Here’s a small sample from the first page of the first Lew Archer novel, The Moving Target (1949):
“The light-blue haze in the lower canyon was like a thin smoke from slowly burning money. Even the sea looked precious through it, a solid wedge held in the canyon’s mouth, bright blue and polished like a stone. Private property: color guaranteed fast; will not shrink egos. I had never seen the Pacific look so small.”
Although most of the main Hammett and Chandler novels have been transferred to the screen, Ross Macdonald has resisted adaptation. Only two major movies (both starring Paul Newman as the inexplicably renamed “Lew Harper”) have been made from Macdonald’s many books. The Moving Target became Harper (1966) directed by Jack Smight; and the second Archer novel, The Drowning Pool, was made into a film of the same name in 1975 directed by Stuart Rosenberg.
Born Kenneth Millar in Los Gatos, California, the great Ross Macdonald died of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease (at the age of 67) in 1983.