Newsweek: Dave Hickey Cracks “50 Books For Our Time”

July 12, 2009

Most of the literary list genre aren’t worth their pixels, let alone a bunch of cellulose.  But this is an intriguing grouping.  And congrats to our irascible friend and matchless teacher Dave Hickey, whose seminal group of essays about contemporary art comes in at #15.    Newsweek ranks the wonderful  Air Guitar just ahead of Leaves of Grass, which puts in a very strong showing for a gardening title.


The Spoiling of “Losing Mum and Pup”

May 3, 2009

Since William Buckley died, I have been sporadically reading all  of his output I can get my hands on.  And there’s plenty of it:  over 50 books, and almost 50 years of columns that would fill another 45 volumes.  Particulalry, I found Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription to be one of the most entertaining reads I’ve had in a very long time.

It was with great anticipation, then, that I opened Christopher Buckley’s memoir, Losing Mum and PupMy eagerness had been stoked by a wonderful if slightly rose-tinted  Vanity Fair profile of the Buckleys’ relationship, and by an excerpt of the book that ran in the Times Magazine last weekend. 

But here’s the problem:  the Times Mag piece wasn’t an exceprt (e.g. a chapter) as we usually think of it.  Instead, it was a very tight condensation of the entire book.  Think Reader’s Digest on a diet.  My wife caught this in the moment, I didn’t.  But as a result, reading the book is an act of terrific anti-climax.   It also leaves me to ponder how many books actually want to be magazine articles.

Say of the Day: Thomas Carlyle

April 27, 2009

After reading today’s excerpt in the NYT Magazine, I’m very much looking forward to reading Christopher Buckley’s memoir, Losing Mum and Pup.  It’s quite a family of letters when the son despairs of having written only 14 books, becasue the father wrote more than  50 to complement  45 volumes of columns in his day job.

But I epsecially loved this quote from Thomas Carlyle, which son says described father perfectly, forming “the solopsist’s definitive credo:”

Let me have my own way in everything and a sunnier and pleasanter creature does not exist.

Well, even we solopsists need words to live by.

David Foster Wallace on Political Writing by Non-Political Writers

February 9, 2009

This came to me courtesy of my friends Greg Warmink and Paul Franz.  The whole, 6-year-0ld interview with the tragically late writer of, among other things, Infinite Jest, is more than worth a read.  But I found this bit particularly sharp and if anything, more relevant than it was at the time:

The reason why doing political writing is so hard right now is probably also the reason why more young (am I included in the range of this predicate anymore?) fiction writers ought to be doing it. As of 2003, the rhetoric of the enterprise is fucked. 95 percent of political commentary, whether spoken or written, is now polluted by the very politics it’s supposed to be about. Meaning it’s become totally ideological and reductive: The writer/speaker has certain political convictions or affiliations, and proceeds to filter all reality and spin all assertion according to those convictions and loyalties. Everybody’s pissed off and exasperated and impervious to argument from any other side. Opposing viewpoints are not just incorrect but contemptible, corrupt, evil. Conservative thinkers are balder about this kind of attitude: Limbaugh, Hannity, that horrific O’Reilly person. Coulter, Kristol, etc. But the Left’s been infected, too. Have you read this new Al Franken book? Parts of it are funny, but it’s totally venomous (like, what possible response can rightist pundits have to Franken’s broadsides but further rage and return-venom?). Or see also e.g. Lapham’s latest Harper’s columns, or most of the stuff in the Nation, or even Rolling Stone. It’s all become like Zinn and Chomsky but without the immense bodies of hard data these older guys use to back up their screeds. There’s no more complex, messy, community-wide argument (or “dialogue”); political discourse is now a formulaic matter of preaching to one’s own choir and demonizing the opposition. Everything’s relentlessly black-and-whitened. Since the truth is way, way more gray and complicated than any one ideology can capture, the whole thing seems to me not just stupid but stupefying. Watching O’Reilly v. Franken is watching bloodsport. How can any of this possibly help me, the average citizen, deliberate about whom to choose to decide my country’s macroeconomic policy, or how even to conceive for myself what that policy’s outlines should be, or how to minimize the chances of North Korea nuking the DMZ and pulling us into a ghastly foreign war, or how to balance domestic security concerns with civil liberties? Questions like these are all massively complicated, and much of the complication is not sexy, and well over 90 percent of political commentary now simply abets the uncomplicatedly sexy delusion that one side is Right and Just and the other Wrong and Dangerous. Which is of course a pleasant delusion, in a way—as is the belief that every last person you’re in conflict with is an asshole—but it’s childish, and totally unconducive to hard thought, give and take, compromise, or the ability of grown-ups to function as any kind of community.

My own belief, perhaps starry-eyed, is that since fictionists or literary-type writers are supposed to have some special interest in empathy, in trying to imagine what it’s like to be the other guy, they might have some useful part to play in a political conversation that’s having the problems ours is. Failing that, maybe at least we can help elevate some professional political journalists who are (1) polite, and (2) willing to entertain the possibility that intelligent, well-meaning people can disagree, and (3) able to countenance the fact that some problems are simply beyond the ability of a single ideology to represent accurately.

Implicit in this brief, shrill answer, though, is obviously the idea that at least some political writing should be Platonically disinterested, should rise above the fray, etc.; and in my own present case this is impossible (and so I am a hypocrite, an ideological opponent could say). In doing the McCain piece you mentioned, I saw some stuff (more accurately: I believe that I saw some stuff) about our current president, his inner circle, and the primary campaign they ran that prompted certain reactions inside me that make it impossible to rise above the fray. I am, at present, partisan. Worse than that: I feel such deep, visceral antipathy that I can’t seem to think or speak or write in any kind of fair or nuanced way about the current administration. Writing-wise, I think this kind of interior state is dangerous. It is when one feels most strongly, most personally, that it’s most tempting to speak up (“speak out” is the current verb phrase of choice, rhetorically freighted as it is). But it’s also when it’s the least productive, or at any rate it seems that way to me—there are plenty of writers and journalists “speaking out” and writing pieces about oligarchy and neofascism and mendacity and appalling short-sightedness in definitions of “national security” and “national interest,” etc., and very few of these writers seem to me to be generating helpful or powerful pieces, or really even being persuasive to anyone who doesn’t already share the writer’s views.

Looking in the Mirror

January 25, 2009

I have to agree with Frank Rich that it’s time to move on:

We can’t keep blaming 43 for everything, especially now that we don’t have him to kick around anymore. On Tuesday the new president pointedly widened his indictment beyond the sins of his predecessor. He spoke of those at the economic pinnacle who embraced greed and irresponsibility as well as the rest of us who collaborated in our “collective failure to make hard choices.” He branded as sub-American those who “prefer leisure over work or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame.” And he wasn’t just asking Paris Hilton “to set aside childish things.” As Linda Hirshman astutely pointed out on The New Republic’s Web site, even Obama’s opening salutation — “My fellow citizens,” not “fellow Americans” — invoked the civic responsibilities we’ve misplaced en masse.

I also fervently hope that President Obama will continue to remind us all–each and every one of  us–not only of our civic responsibilities going forward, but also our complicity in all that our elected officials have recently screwed up.  I can’t help but think of Bobby Kennedy, who would answer questions of the “whose fault is it?” genre by pointing at the questioner and saying emphatically, “Yours.  and yours, and yours , and yours,” pointing around the crowd. 

I’d join with Peggy Noonan, who so poignantly asks our leaders “not to forget what time it is.”  And at such a time, blame for the past and responsibility for the future have at least this much in common:  there’s plenty of each to go around.


Confusion Across Eras: Trilling on Orwell; Spain, Gitmo, and Gaza

January 9, 2009

I had a strange day.  Most of it was exhilarating, in the company of accomplished journalists and passionate students of journalism.

Much of the rest of it was profoundly confusing, reading about and trying to synthesize the goings on in Gaza.  As said my friend whose uniqueness derives only partly from her combination of subject matter expertise and a lack of doctrinaire-iness on the Mideast, before hanging up this morning:   “good luck with that.”

And then, in a fruitless effort to go to sleep I was reading for the nth time Lionel Trilling’s 1952 introduction to George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, which I am told my journo-friends is the lodestone of the disappearing breed which is the foreign correspondent.  It’s also, according to the New Yorker (as well as to the jacket of the paperback edition I own), “perhaps the best book that exists on the Spanish Civil War.” 

That’s a tough statement to debate when this is the only book I have ever read on the Spanish Civil War.   And actually, I haven’t gotten to the book itself.  Trilling’s piece is just that good.   Honestly, buy the paperback just to read the intro.  I think it’s one of the best pieces of literary criticism I’ve ever read (and yes, in critiquing a critique of something I’ve not yet read, I realize I am well on my way to becoming one of those people I have no time for).  A slice that jumped me– particularly, I guess,  given the sheer jangling ambiguity of today’s headlines from Gaza (not to mention Gitmo) :  after Orwell was nearly killed reporting on the war (oh, and fighting Franco with the hand that wasn’t  writing), even he gave up on detailing on the atrocities of Franco’s fascists and sneaked away to France.  Speaking of the atrocities Orwell left uncovered in his wake, Trilling writes:

…but if one searches the liberal periodicals which have made the cause of civil liberties their own, one can find no mention of this terror.  They were committed not to the fact but to the abstraction.

And to the abstraction they remained committed for a long time to come.  Many are still committed to it, or nostalgically wish they could be.  If only life were not so tangible, so concrete, so made up of facts that are of variance with each other; if only the things that people said were good were really good; if only the things that are pretty good were entirely good; if only politics were not a matter of power–then we should be happy to put our minds to politics, then we should consent to think!

George, Being George: George Plimpton’s Life, Edited by Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr.

January 4, 2009

If you read this book—and by all means, please do–start at the back.  The editor’s note gives a sense for the enormity of the undertaking which resulted in this mesmerizing oral history:  374 people interviewed from a target list of 400; winnowed down to 200 who saw their contributions in print; 23 transcribers.  And the “notes on contributors” is a sort of dramatis personae for the book which I managed to discover only as I was coming to its end.  No matter:  someday this oversight will give me an excuse to read it again.  Whatever I pick up on the second reading that I missed on the first, surely this statement of Aldrich’s will remain true:  “this is a social book, in short, about a supremely social man.”


I was only passingly familiar with George Plimpton and, as I would wager is true of many of my contemporaries, I’d absorbed more of Plimpton the character than Plimpton the editor or writer.  My exposure to his work hadn’t ranged much beyond a few of his Sports Illustrated pieces.  And what baseball fan of my generation didn’t fail to notice the April 1 issue date when we read “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch?”  Such was the genius of that one article alone, why didn’t I go searching for more?  Ah, the distractions of youth.


Had I delved into the Plimpton canon, I would have found that he invented the genre of participatory fiction, and held it all to himself for a generation.  He also founded the Paris Review, perhaps the most important and long-lived chronicler of “non-mainstream” fiction and poetry in the post-WWII era.


In a way, my first instincts were correct.  To the degree that anybody takes issue with Plimpton, it always has something to do with his perceived lack of gravity–more of an “after-dinner speaker” than a true literary light.  And it’s true, he never wrote anything truly great, even though one of his contemporaries judged his capabilities “a half inch from Thurber, if we would have cared.”   Plimpton himself mused from time to time that he “coulda been a contender,” but for his devotion to his magazine (which was more realistically a “peg to hang his hat on”)  and his legion of pursuits even more quixotic and desultory.   But more than anything, Plimpton was a large-hearted enabler par excellence, with a sense of wonder, optimism, and good cheer which seemingly knew no bounds.  As one of his admirers put it, “George saw everything out there as one huge old swimming hole to plunge seriously into and come up with a fish in his mouth.”


Beyond the obvious “man of letters” tag, there are many ways to frame the portrait of the man which refracts through a 374-faceted prism:  impresario and inspiration; less than perfect husband and father; the life of a constant, moveable party which, if it ever ended, might well have found a cocktail shaker where his soul was supposed to be.  But the characterization which struck me most uniquely is that of a leader and entrepreneur, of the classic, hypo-manic variety.  An idea a minute, without the executional proclivities to match; the need always, always to be starting something (bringing those somethings to a close, well….); and a pied-piper, natural magnetism that inspired the same feeling among his fellows of both sexes:  that if George were involved it would be not only fun, but worthwhile.  If there’s a more fitting tribute and distillation of character than the one Norman Mailer, at 82, offered of Plimpton, I’d like to see it:

 “Socialite” is a word that’s pinned on upper class WASPs; but he was s social light, if you will, because he was  a point of focus.  I think what was extraordinary about him is that he was like a socialite of the greatest possible inclusiveness….He had the life he wanted to have, which was no small gift for the rest of us….There are many people we love in New York in a pure way; and many people in New York who we remember with love.  We might only see them twice a year or once every five years; it didn’t go anywhere; we didn’t have deep relationships with them, but it didn’t matter.  We loved them.  That is the way I loved George, and still love George.  So many people loved George.  It’s possible that he was loved in that manner more than anyone else in New York.  It’s even more possible that he loved more people in that manner than anyone else in New York.