Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Perfect Book

Photograph by Sophie Berdzenishvili

"... For Mallarme the perfect book is one whose pages have never been cut, their mystery forever preserved, like a bird's folded wing, or a fan never opened." - Maggie Nelson, Bluets

I have a confession: there's a book (a novel) - to preserve the secret I won't reveal the title - I speak of as if I've read, though I never actually have.

I've owned this book for ten years, at least, so time isn't an excuse. I've picked it up dozens of times with the intention of reading it; I've brought it on trips; I've read about it in other books, but I've always held back from reading it. From what I gather it's not particularly difficult or intimidating. Based on my literary predilections, it's a book I am absolutely certain is "my kind" of literature.

Even given my not-having-read-the-book, I've often recommended it to people based on... not false pretenses, exactly, but a feeling that this book, the one I haven't read but feel a deep affinity for nevertheless, deserves to be read - by others. I've always equivocated, saying, for instance: "I love X." or "X. means a lot to me." Despite the fact that I've not read it, these statements are not false. I do love the novel, it does mean a lot to me. (In fact, given its special place in my reading - or rather non-reading - history, I cherish it more than many of the books I've read and loved.)

When I occasionally suffer pangs of guilt or worry that I'm making fraudulent claims or deceiving people who put their trust in my taste (not to speak of my sense of honor), I remind myself that there are innumerable things I love without fully understanding and that I am perfectly happy not to understand: the mechanics of flight, nebulae, the French language, evolution, baking. (To name a few.)

It would seem that a book belongs to a different species of object: a book is for reading, after all, that's its agreed-upon function. Yet does the fact that we can read a book limit it to that exclusive use? I hope not. (Do birds fly so we can understand flight?) I think it's possible to love the idea of a book or the way it feels in your hands or looks on your shelf or the memories it evokes. (Or, perhaps, for other, more ineffable reasons.) I think it's possible that the feeling we have for a book - based on whatever affinity or memory - is sufficient to serve as the only justification necessary for our enthusiasm.

I wonder if you agree.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


I had a strange interaction with a customer the other day. After ringing her purchase through I asked, as is customary in the retail industry, if she would like a bag to carry her books. She replied without hesitation that she would indeed and that it would be great if I could double up the bags because she had two infants at home. Of course I proceeded to do so and wished her a pleasant evening, but internally I was questioning the correlation between the plastic bags and the two babies. Why waste money on an expensive stroller when a perfectly serviceable plastic bag can be acquired for free with a small purchase at your local bookseller, perhaps? I'm not really sure. I didn't ask and I never quite figured it out.

As funny (or as horrifying) as the image of a person towing their child down Clement St. in a plastic bag may be, the interaction brought to mind the myriad of responses I've heard to the question of 'bag or no bag?' after being hired at Green Apple nearly three years ago. Aside from the most common answer, the simplest 'yes' or 'no' preceding a thank you, I've come accustomed to hearing either one of two things following that step of the interaction. If the need or desire for a bag is not present, the response is often followed by some vaguely proselytizing phrase regarding the importance of conservation for the sake of our fragile environment. If the desire is indeed there, the environmental championship is often replaced by some excuse regarding necessity. Fact.

Now let's be clear. I'm not trying to pass any particular judgement on these interactions or place myself on any sort of soapbox. I'm just observing a trend that I witness on a near daily basis. I wonder if perhaps as a long time resident of San Francisco an inflated sense of moral high water has rubbed off on me. I've certainly noticed myself tune in more and more on unnecessary packaging. On my last visit to New York City I was annoyed that a plastic bag was proffered with literally EVERY purchase (c'mon man, they're called pocket books for a reason!), but the issue is much more complex than that. With crises like the gulf spill, The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and corporate overproduction of just about everything useless, it's hard to commend or condemn little decisions like accepting the offer of a bag or replacing old light bulbs. It's a situation that requires a massive amount of patience, research, and in the end for us ultimately either a lot of hard work or destruction. Big concepts, sometimes frustrating to be so often reminded of, but I'm sure you know what I mean.

Recommended reading:
Endgame by Derrick Jensen
The Prize by Daniel Yergin
The World Without Us by Alan Weisman
The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith
MAD Magazine

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Summer reading: The Twin

I don't know how I ended up taking this Dutch first novel to the East Coast for my summer vacation. And it was sort of an anomalous experience to immerse myself in life on a cold Dutch farm while lolling on a Delaware beach in 90-degree heat. Circumstances aside, this book consumed me in the best possible way.

The Twin won this year's Impac Dublin Literary Award, and, I say humbly, their citation best explains why this book is so good. Here are two excerpts, or read the whole citation here.

Though rich in detail, it’s a sparely written story, with the narrator’s odd small cruelties, laconic humour and surprising tendernesses emerging through a steady, well-paced, unaffected style. . . .

The book convinces from first page to last. With quiet mastery the story draws in the reader. The writing is wonderful: restrained and clear, and studded with detail of farm rhythms in the cold, damp Dutch countryside. The author excels at dialogue, and [the narrator] Helmer’s inner story-telling voice also comes over perfectly as he begins to change everything around him. There are intriguing ambiguities, but no false notes. Nothing and no one is predictable, and yet we believe in them all: the regular tanker driver, the next door neighbour with her two bouncing children, and Jaap, the old farm labourer from the twins’ childhood who comes back to the farm in time for the last great upheaval, as Helmer finally takes charge of what is left of his own life.

So sunny weather in San Francisco be damned. Buy and read this precise novel now or when the fog returns. . . and thank me later.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Object Press...In the Train

Object Press is a new small press with large ambition. Their mission statement says it best:
Object Press was formed in 2008. We are a small, independent press that publishes fiction in slim, quality paperback editions.

While our publications might not easily fit into categories, there are certain motivations that unite the work we do. One of them is the desire to present fiction—focusing on, but not limited to, the novel—that is somehow different, expanding its potential, its horizon of possibility. One aspect of this is reflected in presenting titles of relatively short length, favoring writing that is precise, inspired and thoughtfully structured. Another important motivation for us is something we don’t hear very much of in publishing, and that is the pursuit of joy. The joy of writing, reading; of discovering a new narrative, a new voice; of holding and handling books; of seeing them on shelves, inviting them into our lives, our thoughts. These books are objects for use, objects for reflection. And these are our projects, focusing on literary innovation, good design and the pleasures of literature.
With their new publication, In the Train by the French author Christian Oster, Object Press has done what they set out to do.

In the Train is a strange, unsettling, and very comfortable novel. It was recommended to me because of my affinity for Jean-Philippe Toussaint's novels- The Bathroom (Dalkey Archive 2008) and Running Away (Dalkey Archive 2009)- and that Oster's novel had a similar feel. It does have a similar feel to it but In the Train is very much Oster's own novel and own style.

It is the awkward struggle for love in the short and bumbling ways that love can occur. It starts on a train platform and moves forward from there...a bumpy, twisting turning train ride of human interaction. It is frustrating, funny, unhappy, and joyous. It is fragile and heavy and light.

It is why you have to read In the Train to fully experience what Oster wants you to feel. It is a short, enjoyable novel that is worth the trip.