The Book Bench‘s Lucy Tang has introduced me to the work of Kate Beaton, who writes/draws “Hark! A Vagrant”: comics based on history, literature, art, and sometimes other things. Absolutely flipping brilliant. (Click to enlarge.)

Be sure to check out the series riffing on Gatsby.

Today on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, the Chicago Tribune‘s “culture critic” Julia Keller was on, talking about what makes people give up on a book. Of course, the premise of this question is that usually people wouldn’t just give up on a book easily, and Keller was asked why she thought this was.

We’ve all walked out of movies, heaven knows we all click off T.V. shows with reckless abandon, because of, of course, remote control channel-changers, with Netflix we give, I think barely about a minute. A minute and ten seconds is about my limit of time now, before I say “ehh, that one’s outta here” and throw it back in the mail. Why do we have this special feeling about books? …

Is there something special about literature and narrative? I for one, of course, hope there is. I think all literate people do, and I think this might be a point, a line in our history and in our cultural history, when that reaction tells us there is something different and special about reading, as opposed to watching, or listening, or in-the-presence-of, in the way we are with theatre. We can abandon those things without any problem, but there’s something about a book that we, that we feel a little respectful of.

I know that these are people who talk lovingly about sitting down with a cup of tea and plunging into a book, and the assumed audience feels similarly. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with taking part in a subculture that prizes persistence and dedication in readers. But the notion that people give up on movies and television shows easier than on books because of some indescribable “something different,” is ridiculous. We have been taught to be a little respectful of books; this is not some natural and/or mystical phenomenon that readers experience. And anyone who’s taught for any length of time knows that lots and lots of people don’t feel that way about books at all, while others would never walk out of a movie for fear of looking like a snob. (My guess is that Keller would see walking out of a theatre as a statement about the movie’s shortcomings, snobbery being part of the appeal.) But just as you have to give the author a chance to make his/her case for a given book, a certain amount of time for a film or TV show seems equally warranted. If we’d grown up in a culture that valued media equally, Keller’s Netflix behavior would be evidence of a short attention span or immature intellect.

There is, though, an interesting question to be considered here: What is the appropriate unit of fair comparison between media? Giving up on a TV show after a few seconds isn’t really comparable to buying a book and giving up on it. There’s way more invested in the purchase of a book. Similarly, even at a matinee, I’m thinking two or three times about leaving a movie before actually getting up and walking out. But let’s say you’re half a season into Lost. How easily are you bailing on it, if you’re starting to think maybe it’s not going to have the payoff you want? Do you give it another episode? Two? And how does genre play into this?

(Photo courtesy of the George Eastman House’s Flickr stream.)

Doris Kearns Goodwin and Jon Meacham on [i]Meet the Press[/i]

Doris Kearns Goodwin and Jon Meacham on Meet the Press

During last fall’s election, I became pretty interested in books by Jon Meacham and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Both are regulars on the Sunday-morning-political-talk-show circuit, usually popping up in those panels with columnists, reporters, authors, etc. I’d seen Meacham on a variety of shows over the last several years, usually introduced, I would swear, as “Presidential Historian.” He usually comes off as a Godly sort, having written a book on how faith and politics have been tied together in America since the founding fathers, or some such. I usually enjoyed listening to him, though my clearest memory is of seeing him on the late Tim Russert’s show, opposite Christopher Hitchens for an hour. I remember thinking, at the beginning, “Oh, this will be good,” and then proceeded to watch Hitchens own the argument from end to end, while Meacham seemed to be hoping the meek would finally inherit the Earth before the next commercial break. (There used to be a YouTube of the debate, but it has been removed.)

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Novelist Nicholson Baker gives Amazon’s Kindle 2 a try, and has some trouble adapting:

Yes, you can definitely read things on the Kindle. And I did. Bits of things at first. I read some of De Quincey’s “Confessions,” some of Robert Benchley’s “Love Conquers All,” and some of several versions of Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.” I squeezed no new joy from these great books, though. The Gluyas Williams drawings were gone from the Benchley, and even the wasp passage in “Do Insects Think?” just wasn’t the same in Kindle gray. I did an experiment. I found the Common Reader reprint edition of “Love Conquers All” and read the very same wasp passage. I laughed: ha-ha. Then I went back to the Kindle 2 and read the wasp passage again. No laugh. Of course, by then I’d read the passage three times, and it wasn’t that funny anymore. But the point is that it wasn’t funny the first time I came to it, when it was enscreened on the Kindle. Monotype Caecilia was grim and Calvinist; it had a way of reducing everything to arbitrary heaps of words.

It’s a longish read, but I won’t tell you his conclusions, because you should–say it with me–read the whole thing. Baker does mention that it’s possible to read Kindle’s books, and others, on the iPod Touch and the iPhone.

Meanwhile, Apple’s upcoming Tablet looms

McSweeny’s offers us the Facebook Hamlet.


Last night Mike and I went to hear Tobias Wolff read. A particularly beloved writer in this “writer’s town,” he did not disappoint, and we found ourselves completely lost in the power of his stories, gentle humor, and genuinely brilliant literary mind. He read old work and new, and concluded with a special request from Maggie Conroy, one of Mike’s favorite short stories, “Bullet in the Brain.”

Afterwards we went up to meet him. Mike shook his hand, I stood there dumbfounded; it’s possible that we both had tears in our eyes. I had a brief and desperate moment of wanting to tell him what This Boy’s Life had meant to me, how I had stumbled upon it blindly in a used book bin when far from home. I would have told Wolff how I remember reading it all day while waiting for a train, and how even the first lines touched a nerve.

This Boy’s Life opens with a scene I can easily place in my own life:

“Our car boiled over again just after my mother and I crossed the Continental Divide. While we were waiting for it to cool we heard, from somewhere above us, the bawling of an airhorn. The sound got louder and the a big truck came around the corner and shot past us into the next curve, its trailer shimmying wildly. We stared after it. “Oh, Toby,” my mother said, “he’s lost his brakes.”

My own mother, a Pennsylvania native, would drive us East every summer. We’d pass trucks on the interstate only to be nearly killed by them on the mountain roads. I never got used to it; the suddenness with which they appeared behind our old Buick, the fear that they would just roll right over us. Moreover, I remember what I deemed a reckless disregard for life (theirs, and I remember thinking at the time, mine). When we did occasionally pass by the smoking crashes, I would dwell on them for days, thinking about the value of each life. Wolff’s words perfectly capture these feeling for me, just one example of the way (as he put it last night) great literature can “humanize” us.

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