Friday, April 22, 2011

Libraries on the Go

Recent news in the e-reader world is that Amazon will enable Kindle Library Lending later this year--which at last puts the Kindle on track with the Barnes and Noble Nook and other e-readers that already have access to digital libraries and rentals. The New York Times reports that Amazon will work with OverDrive, a large lender of e-books to schools and libraries.

Some may see this as another stab into the traditional book's chest. This may be the case for some readers, but true bibliophiles will use e-rentals in the same way that some TV watchers (myself included) use Netflix--to preview a title before deciding if it's worth buying. If it's a piece that really grips the reader, that reader will still buy the book (either for an e-reader or in physical copy) to read at leisure, or again in the future.

Secondly, this gives another e-reader the chance to defibrillate the book, to shock away its decline. In the way that Amazon reshaped commerce with its web presence, rentals over e-readers reconfigure our expectations of librarians.

Hey, we need somebody to manage all of that information.

I would, of course, be interested in hearing what others of you have to think; feel free to weigh in on the Kindle question.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Wednesday Poetry: "The Cambridge Ladies Who Live in Furnished Souls," by e.e. cummings

Been a while since a Wednesday poetry entry. Though it's the cruelest month, I won't give you all T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. I will, though, give you a poem from e.e. cummings, who often gets lumped into American modernism. "The Cambridge Ladies Who Live in Furnished Souls" does not have the formal play that often appears in cummings's poems, but it does tell us something about those who compartmentalize and refuse to move outside of their philosophical/ideological comfort zones. These sorts of people, who live in their own mental boxes, fail to understand the hugeness of the world beyond. So--here's some e.e. cummings.
"The Cambridge Ladies Who Live in Furnished Souls"
the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls
are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds
(also, with the church's protestant blessings
daughters,unscented shapeless spirited)
they believe in Christ and Longfellow, both dead,
are invariably interested in so many things--
at the present writing one still finds
delighted fingers knitting for the is it Poles?
perhaps. While permanent faces coyly bandy
scandal of Mrs. N and Professor D
.... the Cambridge ladies do not care, above
Cambridge if sometimes in its box of
sky lavender and cornerless, the
moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Return of the King, or Some Thoughts on Posthumous Publication

Today marks the official release of David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, the highly anticipated novel that was in the works at the time of DFW's tragic suicide in 2008. The novel, weighing in at a lean 547 pages (lean, of course, in comparison to the 1000+ cramped and endnote-heavy Infinite Jest), comes to us via Michael Pietsch's painstaking work to compile DFW's papers and notes. Reviews and commentaries to debate have appeared measured, calm, and a bit evasive of the text itself--a touch of folk wisdom to this treatment, in that we should never speak ill of the dead. (Although, through books, some version of the dead still manage to speak to us.) The Daily Beast's piece on six novelists' reactions to The Pale King provides a fairly accurate glimpse at how people have treated the novel so far: They're reacting more to DFW as construct of novelist, of person, more so than the novel.

Because, as with any posthumous publication, we have dozens of critical/textual/metatextual conundrums to mull before even diving into the book. The most important aspect of The Pale King's publication is precisely that we remember DFW for his entire body of work; the publication is a monument to DFW, not to this book per se.

(So, go and buy The Pale King, a novel on taxes et al, after remembering to submit your tax forms. And if you've already received your return? Buy a copy of the book and put those returned tax dollars to good work, rejuvenating the publishing industry!)

I won't comment specifically about The Pale King here (I'm actually contracted to write on that specifically, elsewhere), but it forces us to consider what exactly a posthumous publication is, and what service it provides the author. It's clear with the pre-release work surrounding The Pale King that folks want to immortalize DFW.

But most posthumous publications are not so easy to pigeonhole--one only need to look at the reception of Nabokov's The Original of Laura and the treatment it receives at Sam Anderson's hands in New York Magazine. Anderson informs us of some popular wisdom--that Nabokov wanted the ms destroyed after his death, but his family kept it around for sentimentality. (A similar love led Leonard Woolf to publish Between the Acts--arguably Woolf's weakest novel--after her suicide during WWII.) Anderson enjoyed the book, saw it as a glorious study of a controlled master out of control, and David Gates's review in the New York Times concurs that the book was properly published--if it was proper to publish it at all. Aleksandar Hemon's review in Slate pushes us toward the understanding that The Original of Laura isn't a novel at all, and that the underdevelopment of voice does a disservice to Nabokov's famous penchant for control.

And it gets messier when you have antagonisms and relationships that aren't strictly family. Consider Sylvia Plath's Ariel--and the various hands that Ted Hughes and Plath's children and others have had in different editions of this, The Bell Jar, and Plath's collected poems--and suddenly what should simply be a book gets pickled in the variegated brine of love, contempt, depression, and sold to us in a package that contains, for instance, not Plath but the bottled chunks of whom Ted Hughes wanted Plath to be. So it's more Ted Hughes than Sylvia Plath.

So posthumous publishing isn't easy, but despite these difficulties, much good can come from it. These books can immortalize or slander authors, but what's most important is that we keep reading. So get The Pale King or any DFW title, get The Original of Laura or a Nabokov classic like Lolita or Pale Fire, or track down an edition of Woolf's novels or Plath's poems. Read, remember, and be remembered.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Toni Morrison v. Snooki

This weekend's front-page literary news (at least for anybody in New Jersey) is the brouhaha over Snooki out-earning Toni Morrison at Rutgers events. Snooki earned $32,000 for two student-produced comedy Q&As, whereas Morrison will receive $30,000 for delivering the commencement address to Rutgers students in May.

From what I've ascertained, Snooki's biggest asset is her lush mane, which Toni Morrison's tongue could effectively trim/shred/hack apart in no-point-two seconds. But the priorities seem to be a bit skewed. The commencement address will hit over ten thousand students and offer them a chance to hear an iconic figure speak. Snooki, a "reality TV" (and don't get me started on that genre), hasn't made the intellectual and cultural contributions that a figure of Morrison's stature has.

A Star-Ledger editorial critiques Rutgers's decision to offer Morrison the $30,000 speaker's fee, yet...strangely, it doesn't even call Snooki into question. The editorial attacks the decision simply on a financial matter, and sure--maybe it's gratuitous. But it's a rare step from a New Jersey establishment that's been slicing funding left and right. Instead of axing connections between the arts and society, bringing Toni Morrison to Rutgers as a commencement speaker presents a dedication to literature and the arts that we need in economically trying times.

Now, $32,000 to Snooki...that might be a little too fat.

(By the by, Toni Morrison will be reading at Rutgers-Newark on April 26th.)