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August 24, 2005

Me on Books, Redux

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The attitudes I sometimes express about the experience of interacting-with-books might strike some visitors as odd, offensive, or far-out. (Here's hoping a few people are tickled by 'em too.) They're certainly unusual, at least in the sense of "You don't see that expressed in print too often!"

I've been blogging for three years now, and I long ago unloaded many of my most urgently-felt Big Ideas. These days, I'm a happy, fulfilled blogger who generally free-associates, takes note, muses out loud, and moves on. Having already put my small handful of Big Ideas into words, I now take them for granted. I glance off of 'em more than I spell 'em out.

Fun -- for me, at least. But this new mellow-me may also be leaving some recent visitors puzzled. What the hell am I talking about? Where do these zany ideas come from? Is there anything to 'em? Why are they so unlike the ideas and attitudes the profs and the critics are selling? And who the hell am I anyway to be expressing such bizarre notions?

A quick, if necessarily vague, self-introduction: I've got a perfectly-OK academic background, but I've also spent more than 25 years as a fly on the wall of the NYC culture and media worlds. I've known artists, poets, novelists, musicians, producers, and actors personally and as friends. I've also met and interacted-with-professionally hundreds of culturefigures, many very superficially and some in considerable depth. I've been a moviebuff for more than 30 years, and for 15 years I followed the book publishing world closely.

Nothing special about me, or about any of this, by the way: These are simply the kinds of experiences you have if you spend a big part of your adulthood in the culture-and-media worlds. And I've never been anything but a worker ant in this world.

Still, I've tried to be an observant worker ant. I've watched the personalities, the business, and the processes. I've been far more interested in taking note of what the world I've found myself in is like than in what I think it should be like. I seem to be, temperamentally, more of an anthropologist than a debater, let alone an opinionator: I have always got on better with journalists for trade magazines than I have with critics, for instance. I enjoy the sensation of my feet on the ground.

As a consequence, I've found that I've had to throw overboard much of what I was told about art and culture as a student. It was simply wrong, or misleading. I've also found myself unable to endorse much of what the media and the profs tell us about culture and the arts. The media, I've found, are generally selling us an image (often more than half believed-in, by the way, and often quite hard to resist), while the profs are generally pompous, naive, and deluded.

The main thing I like using this blog for is passing along my own observations about culture, and passing along links to the bits of sense about culture that I occasionally run across online: to people being honest, clear-headed, helpful, or insightful about what they've found culture and the arts to be like. It's one of the great opportunities blogging offers, IMHO. Does the world really need more book reviews or movie reviews than the conventional press generates? I don't think so, though I'm of course not about to get in anybody's way. But I do think that the world can use more honesty about art and culture than academia and the conventional press usually come up with.

I'm happy to leave the whole debating-ideals thang to others. I prefer to spend my time taking note of what I encounter. The subject being culture, much of what I run across is my own set of reactions -- my own mental and emotional life. My reactions may not be central to my experience of culture, but they're certainly unavoidable. I don't want to dwell on them -- that would be unseemly. But I don't want to pretend they don't play a role in my experience of culture either. That would be a lie. "This is a comic novel" is an objective statement, and helpful in its way. But "This is a comic novel that didn't make me laugh once" is just as objective, and -- conceivably, anyway -- even more informative and more helpful. It doesn't come to a dead stop, as the first statement does. Instead, it can open up the "why"s and the "how"s and the "wherefore"s -- it can swing open doors into the actual substance of culture.

Anyway, it occurred to me that some visitors might get a kick out of exploring some of my earlier postings about books -- postings where I wasn't just free-associating heedlessly, but was instead doing my best to put into words some of what I've found to be true about books and publishing. (Early on, I was hyper-eager to do this. After all, I had decades of experience in the arts that I'd seldom been able to publish my thoughts about.) Disagree if you will. But -- scattershot those this collection of postings is -- it also does an OK job of conveying what one person has found the world of interacting-with-books to be like.

A few visitors have sent in obervations and thoughts too:

Masochists ready for more are encouraged to explore this blog's archives by category. (They can be gotten at via the left-hand column.) The archives are brimming with short postings that link to many wonderful resources about books and publishing.



posted by Michael at August 24, 2005


Michael, I'm afraid that's not Redux, that's Reflux!

Posted by: winifer skattebol on August 24, 2005 04:46 PM

I think we need a long discussion of Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine.

Your extolling of Ira Levin's Stepford Wives book has placed it on my "to read" list -- so you're having an influence! Thanks, Michael.

Posted by: jult52 on August 25, 2005 10:13 AM

Winifer -- You're right, I've got to become a more severe self-editor. Hard to do!

JT -- I confess I've never read a Barbara Vine, or even any of Rendell's series mysteries. I've kept entirely to her one-offs about sociopaths, which have all been great. Are you a fan generally?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 25, 2005 11:28 AM

Michael -- Yes I am a fan. The very best book of her's, IMHO, is The Chimney Sweeper's Boy (a Barbara Vine work), which is halfway between a mystery and a novel. I highly recommend it. My wife also really liked that book.

My personal favorite, if that's the word, is The Killing Doll (apparently out of print but available used on Amazon). I remember picking it up one night at 11 intending to read a couple of pages and fall asleep. It was so horrifying -- with the main character, a very sympathetic one, losing her will to live and walking half-knowingly to her death -- that I couldn't put it down until the end. One of the most gripping reads I can ever remember. It may not be to everyone's taste, both because it is steeped in the flavor of post-War Britain and because it is so upsetting.

"The Veiled One" and "Simisola" are two superior Wexford novels. The Wexford books are uneven. Don't read anything before 1985 (Rendell is a late-bloomer -- as far as I can tell, she wrote only very mediocre books until well into her career). Avoid "Kissing the Gunner's Daughter". Her most recent paperback, "The Rottweiler", is mediocre.

Posted by: jult52 on August 25, 2005 11:44 AM

Fantastic timing. Right when I need to gather books for vacation reading.
Thanx, as always!

Posted by: Tatyana on August 25, 2005 04:49 PM

JT -- Thanks for the tips. Rendell's a giant. I'm looking forward to exploring your suggestions.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 25, 2005 06:20 PM

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