My newest review has been published by Library Journal.
This one is on the writings of Erich Auerbach, romance philologist, literary critic and historian. The text was edited by James I. Porter with translations from the German by Jane O. Newman.
(click on the image to see the 06 Dec 2013 review list please)
From the review: “Auerbach (1892–1957), German critic, literary historian, and romance philologist, promoted the idea of the national spirit in literature and ruffled some feathers by stating that all scholars in the arts and humanities are only writing history in their respective fields…”
Thank you for reading.
I welcome comments on the book or the review here or at Twitter.
Review of Paul Auster’s REPORT FROM THE INTERIOR (ARC)
NY, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 2013. ISBN: 9780805098570
Thank you to Henry Holt and Company for the advance copy.
I am adding to my #library of book reviews.
May contain a few spoilers…oops…sorry. 🙂
If one grants Paul Auster the grace of living under the shadow of Umberto Eco – an older writer who has tackled the notion of producing an album of objects from the past – and the late W.G. Sebald – the died-too-young author of gold standards for performing archaeology on memory in fiction – then we can allow ourselves to truly enjoy Auster’s newest non-fiction, REPORT FROM THE INTERIOR. This book comes on the heels of another biographical text, WINTER JOURNAL, also published by Henry Holt and Company in 2012. I make this point, not because Auster’s book is a negative experience, but because the style he employs plays in the same PoMo (post-modern) sandbox Eco and Sebald played so well.i
Auster structures his book into four sections, REPORT FROM THE INTERIOR, TWO BLOWS TO THE HEAD, TIME CAPSULE and ALBUM – each designed to represent the past as it produced Auster’s writing habits and his overall ideology of the world. And even though this book, like the last one masquerades as a memoir, it is much more creative than that. Not that I am against biographical works of any kind, but Auster’s style has never allowed him to follow simple conventions. He is an artist and is really trying to get to something more obscure about the writing of one’s past. DISCLAIMER, when Auster writes of his past, one must understand he does not mean simply to “tell the truth” about his life over the years, though there is certainly much of that. He means to show that his past comes into being at the moment of its writing.
We know this because in the first section of the book, the one entitled, REPORT FROM THE INTERIOR, he speaks to himself then, in the past, in the second person, you, – he addresses himself. Yet, under normal conventions in writing, when authors use that address in their sentences, they are often addressing the reader. In this we come to understand that even though he is probably referring to himself as a 6-year old boy, the style works in the present tense. Rather, even as he is talking to “himself” with that address, the convention of you brings out the readerliness of his book. Yes, Auster is writing the words in his office on Brooklyn, but is also showing the reader that there is no story without the reader – even if it’s only him. Auster gets to have a slew of readers who have picked up the book from their local bookstore (hopefully) and he gets to objectify himself as a character in the book for them and himself because he is the one writing it. The REPORT…must have a reader to whom to deliver.
I mean, with that being so, the actual facts of the REPORT are beside the point even though they are arranged in a pleasurable and creative way for the reader. So when Auster constructs this section of the book, the most conventional “memoir/auto-biographical” section of the entire book, he writes of getting into trouble once because he hacked a tree in his yard with inspiration found in the mythology of George Washington’s “I do not mean to tell a lie” tale about chopping a cherry tree down. The actual reference to this tiny tale from America’s national mythology is meaningless as a tool to get to the truth because that story has become almost a cliché of youth and supposed honesty. But what is does accomplish, something that falls right in line with Auster’s genre play over the years, his play with writing and influence, is that childish point of contact between one form of art – that of national mythology and George Washington – and his writing of his own life – that of the REPORT…
The second section, TWO BLOWS TO THE HEAD, besides revealing Auster’s claims for having developed a social conscience because of cinema (two films to be examined below as they relate to Auster’s reading of them), also acts as an illusion (another post-modern trick) to that most Truffautian of all French New Wave films, François Truffaut’s, The 400 Blows (1959), in a way that can only refer to influence, though productive on his way of thinking and art, is also a trauma. If you see the film, you will understand the reason I use the word trauma. I have come to believe the word, trauma, has been used too simply. It is often used with negative connotations – as if trauma is something which stops development or growth in a person’s mind and body. Even The Oxford English Dictionary defines, “trauma, n” as, “a wound or external bodily injury“ (as it relates to physical pathology) and “a psychic injury…caused by emotional shock” (as it relates to psychoanalysis and psychiatry). But what we fail to understand with this simplistic definition is one’s life is made of one event or another – each of which influences how that person decides to interact with every next moment in their lives. The result is of course said person’s whole life. Yet somehow, we believe we can pick apart one set of experiences as wholly negative while others are categorized as positive. One is called trauma while the other is called influence. It is too simple to subdivide one part of one’s life from another.
For example, Auster talks about his having developed a social conscience because of two films: The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) and I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). The first film is about a man who starts shrinking due to exposure to radiation. Oh, and may I emphasize the fact that this non-fiction “memoir” has an entire section dedicated to analyzing two films? But this is creative because he finds yet another mode to subvert the genre of the “autobiography.” What makes this film account interesting is Auster has essentially translated the film back into prose and narrates the film from his point of view – the watcher. He discusses the high-drama of the film, its slight horror-effect, and its science-fictional content – all things that come back to his writing later. But this is a film. The use of science-sounding technical terms in the film adds to his suspension of disbelief while watching the film. Plus, he realizes, sort of after the fact, but also while watching it as a young kid, that the film is a form of dramatic manipulation. The story is made of the elements in it – something Auster has followed closely through his books. He knows the act of writing a book, of collecting information for it, of making decisions for its production is as important as a the “final” product. It is almost as if there is no final product.
The film is a culmination of words and images layered in celluloid, but the telling of the film is what makes the film real. Auster must either tell himself about the viewing experience or someone else. In this case, again, with the use of the second-person direct, he is directing his telling of the film to both parties. Auster also wants to perform for his readers the act of thinking through art – an act which of course invites his readers to think through his own writing. He might also be enacting a form of transparent writing style where is goes into the second film, “Fugitive…” so we might understand the more emotional human elements in his style. He hopes to tie a sense of justice to his own history of writing. He accomplishes this by exploring the routine of oppression and violence inflicted upon the main character, James Allen. He hopes to draw attention to imbalances of fairness in the world brought to light in art. There should be no doubt why Auster is called a “meta-writer.” His books are as much about writing and reading as they are “new” stories – an observation I make precisely because in the first sentence of this review, I mentioned Eco and Sebald – two authors who might also be considered “meta-writers.”
The third section of REPORT FROM THE INTERIOR is called TIME CAPSULE and features an examination of personal papers, letters sent to his first wife, the author and translator Lydia Davis. I know who is current wife is, Siri Hustvedt, who by the way has a new book coming out in March 2014 called, The Blazing World. But I did not know his ex-wife was/is the talented experimental author Lydia Davis. This section accomplishes its goals – that of opening a “case” of objects from the past to see how one you relate to them way later. In this case, there are letters that Lydia Davis has about which she inquires if Auster is interested. The context for being asked about these letters is the creation of another archive – Lydia Davis has decided to donate her letters and papers to a research university library. Auster himself will probably do the same thing himself later. This is a TIME CAPSULE within a TIME CAPSULE within a TIME CAPSULE – three layers of objects of human expression. And, again, sneaky Auster, by writing that many authors give their papers to research libraries, he is again telling us that authors and their works are to be discussed, taken apart, filed, re-read and written about. Very meta indeed.
The fourth and final section of REPORT FROM THE INTERIOR is called ALBUM and contains stills, images, promotional pictures and other works of art Auster mentions through his book. I can’t show any of them here, but he includes images from each of the two films, pictures of Edgar Allen Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson and photographs of news events and places he mentions travelling through in France. This section doubles as a personal archive put together for his readers to see. Eco already used a collection of images from the past in his book, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2004). In that book, however, Eco uses the images from the main character’s past (probably in part Eco’s own past) to force a recovery from amnesia upon the protagonist. Isn’t it interesting that Auster is also playing with images as representations in a post-modern “memory” book? Auster’s book is not a copy, but there is a precedent in international literature for Auster’s approach.
This book strikes this author as very much a Paul Auster book. It is not boring at all. I did not feel, however, I was reading “just another Paul Auster” book. But one does come to see he can uses some tricks over time – even if they are used in new ways relative to the “memoir/auto-biography” genre.
Other books mentioned or alluded to in this review:
A version of this review is also viewable at LibraryThing.
Thank you for reading.
My newest review for Library Journal has been published. This starred review looks at Luc Herman’s and Steve Weisenburger’s analysis of Thomas Pynchon‘s Gravity’s Rainbow from the point of view of theorists and ideas prevalent in the Long Sixties. Their book is called, Gravity’s Rainbow, Domination, and Freedom, and is forthcoming from University of Georgia Press.
I am always challenged reading Thomas Pynchon, critical approaches to his work and appreciated the opportunity to review this book. Thank you Library Journal.
The Library of Congress’ Center for the Book is not a sponsor, but has endorsed the week-long promotion.
I find it interesting this celebration, attention producing event, is the week after National Book Festival.
– which is squarely hosted by the Library of Congress. It marks a blur between the abstract notion of being free to read, a general celebration of reading and print culture and the world of authorship. It works as a federally funded library event for the whole family on that Saturday and Sunday. At the same time, both events have investments by retail-based organizations. American Bookseller Association in the case of Banned Books Week and big companies like Barnes & Noble Booksellers at National Book Fest. As far as I know, the book selling tent is coordinated by Barnes & Noble most years.
In no way am I criticizing B & N’s involvement in these events. It’s a great thing to be a large bookseller and to be able to promote literacy events on a national scale. But the book selling tent at National Book Fest is not a store per se – it’s a table full of books featuring the authors at the festival (and a few other sundries published or distributed solely by Barnes & Noble). It is my belief the National Book Festival, given its prominence on the mall, should be an antagonistic force drawing attention to authors who may not often get such a large platform to get noticed. If not authors, then smaller presses carrying high quality authors. I think about presses such as Talon Books, Dalkey Archive, New York Review Books and the fabulous Melville House. As it stands, the list of featured authors at this year’s book festival contains high quality writing from people attached to much larger publishing conglomerates.
These authors, such Don DeLillo, Joyce Carol Oates, James McBride and Linda Ronstadt are published by Scribner, Ecco/Harper Collins, Riverhead/Penguin and Simon & Schuster respectively. These are not independent publishers by any stretch of the imagination. And if we take this festival into context with Banned Books Week starting just the day afterward – a celebration of alternative visions judged by communities as too alternative to be accepted – we find a strange contradiction of terms. On one hand, we find a quieter education model of thinking designed to link the history of culture and oppression of ideas to other ideas discussed in American schools and libraries. The ALA, as a whole, is very supportive of the freedom to read. Banned Books Week is often used as an alternative teaching tool in public schools.
In tandem, Barnes & Noble Booksellers often displays a Banned Books promotion table in honour the same week. In other words, corporate Barnes & Noble is playing both sides of this issue in the name of the dollar. And bless them for doing so. In addition, each of the authors featured is talented in his or her own right. There is no dearth of great writing in every genre at the book festival. I want to be clear, I am a big fan of many authors doing readings and signing this year. And each publisher featured has a roster of real artists in its ranks.
There has to be a better way of unifying NATIONAL BOOK FEST with Banned Books Week. The reason for said position is the scale of ambition implied by the name of the festival itself. It’s called National Book Fest, not Recently Featured on New Release Shelves Fest. Unless that is the point. There is something to be said about using such a large event to promote newly published books each year from the same spot on the National Mall annually. It does not have to be an activist festival. But with a title like National Book Fest, I must admit I keep hoping for a more philosophically well-rounded festival agenda – similar to that of Library of Congress’ Center for the Book mentioned above.
Banned Books Week on the other hand, a promotion of alternative reading and ideas, a celebration with a narrower focus offers a much more philosophical relationship to books, reading, education, literacy and libraries. Center for the Book HAS endorsed Banned Books Week because maybe their relationship to reading is more philosophically rounded than the Book Fest – which seems to be a festival steeped in the NOW. In my humble opinion, National Book Fest could embrace a slightly different rhetoric in order to realize the scope implied by its title.
Just a thought.
Thank you for reading.
PS: I am starting a new #hashtag this year on Twitter to promote bicycling to the National Mall for the Festival: I am calling it #biketobookfest. I see this hashtag as one reusable from year to year. Promote it. Use it. Thank you.
Depths of the Phantom Library:
Jacques Bonnet Reaches for the Unreachable.
Jacques Bonnet writes in, Phantoms on the Bookshelves, of a vast library. No, not the Borgesian library of “The Library of Babel” or “The Book of Sand,” but a personal library he has collected for his own use – some 40,000 + volumes. Massive. I am a fan generally of books describing avid readers and collectors (though I am mostly of the first type) – books such as that fabulous pair of titles by Nicholas A. Basbanes, A Gentle Madness and Patience & Fortitude.
I have been recently rereading Jacques Bonnet’s book. In my progress through that book, I also found this essay/review piece of writing by Alonzo McBride called, “Phantoms and Personal Libraries,” which made stylistic sense to me and by acknowledging the metaphor of books and libraries as phantoms, I thought it perfectly appropriate to bring to light the essay and the book again. In a previous post of mine, I mentioned a quote setting up Bonnet’s premise of the blurred line between what makes a personal library and an institutional library.
The quote is, ““…to return to the library. Once it has been established, it [the library] tends to become an unavoidable transit zone for reality, a sort of vortex that sucks in everything that happens to us” (100).
The library is a cultural heritage space as much as it is a personal heritage space. Sometimes these spaces are the same in space and sometimes they are not. The focus for Jacques Bonnet’s book is the personal library as memory collector for his own life. Even with that “narrow” focus, the book tackles nearly every issue institutional libraries must tackle except maybe ones related to archival technology such as finding aids or physical handling best practices, code such as XML and its publication on the web with CSS or anything having to do with web archiving. Bonnet certainly brings up the internet as it relates to text encoding, information searching, book buying experiences and the like. And in this humble blogger’s opinion, all the above technical services could be extrapolated to take account of Bonnet’s collection. Or…he could reissue the book with all the ways be built a homegrown OPAC for his personal use. 😉
Specifically, Bonnet discusses issues of categorization (the eternal question). He mentions the French OULIPO writer, Georges Perec, when he makes his “brave attempt at listing the possible methods of classifying one’s books: “alphabetically; by continent or country; by colour; by date of acquisition; by date of publication; by size; by genre; by literary period; by language; by frequency of consultation; by binding; by series” (37). One sees from this list how several of the categorization headings would be preferred by a person over an institution – “by date of acquisition” as the best example. Yet, even this category system applies to libraries that have a “recently arrived” or “new” section to encourage library users to catch up on what’s current. Except, even this classification does take into account the difference between newly acquired due to recent publication or newly acquired due to replacement for damage etc. Some of the other categories (which obviously fails to take into account anything like LC Classification or Universal Dewey) are well suited for research libraries – such as “by literary period” or even “binding” in a rare books special collection. The largest flaw, however, in Perec’s classification is the total lack of subject access (which has to be the single most challenging classification of them all) – though some of the other categories work with subject access.
Bonnet does bring to light one aspect of his own classification I will write as ABSTRACT vs. CONCRETE (102-103). In the first he puts subjects such as theology, religion, philosophy, literary topics and science. It is interesting he defines “science” as abstract instead of concrete. In the second category he drops in history, anthropology, biography and documents (though it is not clear to what this term applies). One can appreciate the presuppositions necessary to refer to one subject as abstract and another as concrete even though both may be examples of humans thinking and writing their words. I recommend everyone reading this also go out and take a look at the subdivisions within Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), Dewey, and thesauri such as the one for art and architecture published by Getty by first examining the depth and granularity of each system within its own rules and then by looking through World Cat and Library of Congress catalog records.
I fully understand Bonnet’s book is personal – not designed to be an institutional best standard for understanding large collections. But even from this personal point of view, it is not without meaning (I recommend this book be on the curriculum for all ischools). Other examples of meaning come through his acknowledgment of the internet’s impact on not just information as a whole as it relates to libraries, but also the procedures by which a person or institution acquires new materials – scaled digital content in the form of periodicals searchable through aggregation technologies or the purchasing of new print items such as monographs from academic presses (though he talks about how collectors use the internet to search for titles unavailable locally).
The truth is the book is simply pleasurable to read. And it asks the same questions all libraries ask themselves: how long should a title be kept in a research collection (or a public library) if it circulates infrequently?; how does one best use space limitations (of which every library has a few struggles as such)?; and what happens in the event of the death of the collector or a fire in the library?
Bonnet includes a quote by Petite Larousse (a lexicon) of the term, “fantôme [phantom]” – a sheet or card inserted to mark the place of a book removed from a library shelf, or a document which has been removed” (110).
The remainder of what was there before… What was there before? Was it a resource that got weeded from the collection? Was it a library that became underfunded over time? Was it a trace of an object that was reformatted as a digital object available on the open web or behind a subscription pay-wall? Something is missing. For Bonnet, even if he chooses, as do so many other librarians (personal and institutional), not to lend any out any items from his collection, the fundamental missing feature among such ideas as not having time to read every book in the library, not having enough shelf space to best hold each item and not having a perfect classification system of either knowledge or objects is lack of total control of the library. The library, as the first quite implies, is made of a river of occurrences that enter and exit the way time and life itself enters and exits at varied and uncertain rates. I would say Jacques Bonnet’s fun little book for book geeks revels in, and still tries to make sense from, the powerful uncertainty in this world.
One must be willing to change as the collection itself changes.
The question arises then if anyone will be able to insert a fantôme in every changing moment life as it changes into something else so we’ll be reminded of what used to be.
Thank you for reading.
Reference: Bonnet, Jacques. Phantoms on the Bookshelves. Trans. from French by Siân Reynolds. NY, NY: The Overlook Press, 2010.
I have been reading this blog post by Alonzo McBride and rereading PHANTOMS ON THE BOOKSHELVES by Jacques Bonnet. Great book.
There are plenty of relevant points in the small text to library collections and knowledge/resource organization.
I do, however, want to highlight a few lines right now.
“…to return to the library. Once it has been established, it [the library] tends to become an unavoidable transit zone for reality, a sort of vortex that sucks in everything that happens to us” (100).
Bonnet, Jacques. Phantoms on the Bookshelves. Trans. from the French by Siân Reynolds. NY, NY: The Overlook Press, 2010.
Thank you for reading.
I admit I posted this update to my writing a bit late.
C’est la vie.
LIBRARY JOURNAL has published a starred review written by me of Franco Moretti’s THE BOURGEOIS: BETWEEN HISTORY AND LITERATURE in the 15 June 2013 issue.
Take a look here.