"My understanding of Russian literature and its history was shaken up by Muireann Maguire’s Stalin’s Ghosts: Gothic Themes in Early Soviet Literature; I had never given a thought to that side of Soviet literature, and I doubt many people have, but she convinced me that (as she puts it) ‘The centrality of the Gothic-fantastic to Russian fiction is almost impossible to exaggerate.’” Stephen Dodson kicks off A Year in Reading.
The cartoonist Joe Sacco has a new graphic novel out that uses a twenty-four-foot panorama to depict the first day of the Battle of the Somme. At Salon, Sacco tells Daniel D’Addario that his upbringing in Australia, where the landings at Gallipoli have great patriotic significance, helped to spur his interest in the War to End All Wars. (Related: we interviewed Sacco last year.)
The history of the civil rights movement is littered with moral compromises, class conflicts, and power rivalries. That history has been told elsewhere, most famously in Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters, but it never made it into my elementary/middle/high school. If I knew about that history, I think I would have liked these men more. King’s capacity for mediocrity makes his capacity for greatness that much more interesting and that much more extraordinary.
In 1945 and 1946, the FBI began keeping tabs on Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. The Cold War was just around the corner, and the Bureau suspected their new targets were secretly agents of Communism. However, FBI agents who followed the French writers evolved in the course of their spying: they became, in G.K. Chesterton’s phrase, “philosophical policemen.” (h/t Slate)
Moss Hart had talent, an inhuman tolerance for work, and a pair of brass balls, but what set him apart from the thousands of other guys hanging around theater lobbies in the mid-1920s trying to catch a break was that the man was fucking relentless.
E.L. Doctorow has been doing that hard work for more than half a century, producing novels and stories that have illuminated the American soul by bringing American history to life. It’s why he deserves his Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. It’s what makes him a national treasure.
I have built my life in such a way that my many side jobs still allow me time to write fiction. No great hand reached down from the sky and made me a writer. I made myself one, by writing. So if this book doesn’t sell, or if it sells and nobody reads it, I’ll write another. And another. And another. Until I write a book that feels truly necessary, that people read not because I want them to, but because it gives them some news about the human heart they can’t get any other way. And then what will I do? That’s easy. I’ll start writing another one.
"While I wouldn’t presume to single out one of [E.L.] Doctorow’s dozen novels or story collections as his ‘best’ book, I do think it is fair to say that, so far, his best known and best loved work is the novel Ragtime. And I would argue that this has also been his most influential book, the one that has done more than all the others to change the way American authors approach the writing of novels.”
Columbia once moved its twenty-two miles of books by sending them down a really, really long slide. As The Paris Review documents, in 1934, the university stocked its then-new Butler Library with a slide that ran from Low Library to the new building. (No word on whether the slide is secretly used to this day.)
A couple months ago, I linked to a new Granta series in which authors select one of their own first sentences and recall how they came to it. This week, Patrick French explains the first sentence of a nonfiction piece titled “After the War” (available in Granta 125) by digging up an old photograph that shows how the Edwardian English were “stitched and machined into a grid of expectations.”