Canonical literature isn’t the only way to learn about America. The bestseller list can be equally as telling. Matthew Kahn is reading 100 years of No. 1 bestsellers from 1913 to 2013. He blogs about the books and discusses the project in an interview with Salon’s Laura Miller. When Miller asks what makes a bestseller, he claims, “A lot of it is just a matter of accessibility. A focus on plot and character rather than structure and the prose itself.”
Mark Twain once said that success in writing requires one to ‘write without pay until somebody offers pay. If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this circumstance with the most implicit confidence as the sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for.’ To do such writing (while paying off debts from Columbia Journalism School) without some side source of income, means, most likely, coming from an upper middle-class or affluent background with parents who can bankroll you. I’ll state the obvious: There aren’t many poor writers. How could there be? How does one practice writing in abject poverty?
Though Mark Twain first gained notoriety after publishing an essay about a famous jumping frog, the onetime Samuel Clemens didn’t really hit his stride until he became a public speaker, as the money he accrued from reading in front of audiences gave him a steady source of income. At Salon, Ben Tarnoff recounts Twain’s journey to the podium, one laid out more broadly in Tarnoff’s book about a group of San Francisco writers.
Most people would assume that the biologist volunteered for the expedition because she wanted to find out what happened to her husband in Area X. And perhaps she does, but what becomes increasingly clear as ANNIHILATION progresses is that Vandermeer has immersed us in a mind that is almost as unusual as the environment it’s studying. This is a woman who has enjoyed life most keenly while crouching alone near some tiny ecosystem — a tide pool, a backyard pond, a vacant lot — watching its residents go about their business for hours on end. She ‘could tell one sea anemone from another in an instant, could have picked out any denizen of those tidal pools from a lineup if it had committed a crime.’
But then there are the novels, and if I can’t quite agree with Rebecca Mead, who in her new book MY LIFE in MIDDLEMARCH, characterizes Eliot’s landscape descriptions as ‘sensually precise,’ there are nevertheless few writers so masterly at describing how landscapes and experiences and other people make us think and feel. Eliot is the Rembrandt of our interior lives, and there have been few novelists since who equal her in that.
As a fiction writer, I’m perpetually in some state of preoccupation. At any given moment, I’m suffering over people who don’t exist—who will never exist. What are these imaginary people doing? How are they going to get out of the imaginary jam I’ve put them in? What are they saying to each other? What is their motivation? At the end of some pretend period of time, will they be changed? Will they become better imaginary people? Clearly, if I weren’t a writer, this kind of thinking would land me in an institution, heavily medicated, doing arts and crafts.
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.)
Not-so-breaking news: Books are the best way to store information. CDs, flash memory, hard drives, and other digital storage devices aren’t nearly as durable as good old fashioned paper. So the next time someone says you have too many books, just say it’s your attempt at immortality.