Monday, February 11, 2019

Audio Dispatch: In Ludwig's Room (with music)

To be in these rooms with this music in your ears is to sit for at least a few moments in Beethoven's mind and body. His music seems to grow more and more miraculous.

Listen to "In Ludwig's Room" on Spreaker.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Interview with a Recluse (with music)

We are writing it down. Always we are writing it all down.

Listen to "Interview with a Recluse by M. Allen Cunningham" on Spreaker.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Portland area friends,  please come on out to Powell's Hawthorne (3723 SE Hawthorne) on Monday 11/26! I will discuss the 11-year germination of Perpetua's Kin, share anecdotes from my research, and read from this novel that Powell's bookseller Dianah H. calls "Gorgeous. Devastating. Lyrical. Addictive." (There will also be cookies.) 

Perpetua's Kin Book Trailer #3: San Francisco, 1944

Thursday, October 18, 2018

26 Books I Kept Close While Writing My New Novel Perpetua's Kin

Possession by A.S. Byatt
Nearly 20 years after I first read Byatt's Booker Prize winner Possession, her use of the epistolary form still dazzles me. She's unafraid to take up 50 to 60 pages with the "primary texts" of a correspondence. Surely she had editors nagging her to share only "the highlights" of her characters' letters. But that would have yielded a fundamentally different novel -- and probably a flimsy one. Perpetua's Kin has its own lengthy epistolary sections.

Machine Dreams by Jayne Anne Phillips
Phillips conjures mid-century America with such tactile vividness, familial tensions with such ease, and the scope of tragedy across 3 generations. Her structure here inspired mine in Perpetua's Kin.

A Sudden Country by Karen Fisher
Sentence for sentence, Fisher's narration hypnotizes. She charged my batteries at a time early in my writing of Perpetua's Kin, when I (and the novel) really needed it.

Voss by Patrick White
Cited by Karen Fisher as an antecedent to A Sudden Country, the prophetic power of White's prose is always inspiring. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature for good reason. His depiction of landscape and the small figure a man cuts against the earth remained luminously in my mind during my work on Perpetua's Kin. (As noted in the acknowledgments, Perpetua's Kin makes use of a few phrases from Voss.)

The Eighth Day by Thornton Wilder
An epic metaphysical mystery spanning decades and continents, winner of the National Book Award, this inimitable novel gives us the prophetic and epigrammatic Wilder we know from The Skin of Our Teeth and Our Town, but here he has the greater breadth of novelistic description and frequent rhetorical passages. I studied his commanding way of depicting small incidents within a massive canvas.

The Favorite Game by Leonard Cohen
Line for line, Cohen's overlooked jewel of a novel (his debut) goads me on to breathe freer, see clearer, and do and try more. 

Hamlet by William Shakespeare
I was first exposed to the immortal Dane via Franco Zeffireli's film adaptation, which I viewed in the cinema when I was 12. I've seen innumerable versions of Hamlet on film and stage since then, (including the Barbican's unforgettable 1997 RSC production starring Alex Jennings) and I've never stopped returning to the original text. I've described Perpetua's Kin as a reworking of Hamlet, and I'd wager that keen readers will spot the many allusions and outright quotations in the text of the novel (e.g.; Denmark has Elsinore, while my Northern California of the late 1880s has El Señor).
If you live in the West, you should know and read Stegner. If you don't live in the West, you should know and read Stegner. If you love literature, you should know and read Stegner. National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winner and dedicated teacher.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
Ondaatje's distillation of "big-canvas" events through intimate scenes and relationships, his use of alternating points of view, his characteristically evocative turns of phrase, and his central placement and reliance upon imagery -- these are just a few of the things that The English Patient (and, for that matter, most of Ondaatje's novels) -- exemplify for me.

Time's Arrow by Martin Amis
It is no exaggeration to say that my first reading of Time’s Arrow changed my life. The sheer authorial bravura on display was like nothing I’d known in contemporary literature. Is there another contemporary work as technically daring and as gracefully executed?

The Night Inspector by Frederick Busch
Busch's masterwork. His use of nineteenth-century parlance, his facility with the violent narratives of Civil War combat, and the sustained intensity of his language, treatment, and themes are all absorbing and instructive. One of the great unsung American novels of the last 20 years.

Raising Holy Hell by Bruce Olds
A precursor (by 22 years or so) to George Saunders' astonishing experimental-dramaturgical-collagist-novelizing in Lincoln in the Bardo. My first reading of Raising Holy Hell was for me the beginning of a new way of looking at narrative. And Olds' ventriloquism inspires much of Perpetua's Kin. (I thank my friend Jon L. for introducing me to Olds' work.)

From A to X by John Berger
A tremendously affecting epistolary novel by one of our greatest writers.

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
The cool and remote evocations of the savagery of the Civil War.
In both of these novels, Brian Hall demonstrates a breathtaking command of -- and flexibility in -- narrative voice. He is also constantly taking risks as a writer, whether inhabiting the first-person perspective of Sacagawea (and inventing a new narration technique to do so) or scrambling chronology while writing about Robert Frost.

The Journals of Lewis & Clark, edited by Bernard DeVoto
A document of Manifest Destiny at ground level, and in the form of two unlikely and fascinating protagonists. The scale of history is, in the end, always human.

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman
Postman's seminal work of cultural criticism has been on my mind for more than a decade now, and its lessons have in some way infused everything I've written in that time, fiction and nonfiction alike. "We have learned irreverence toward sun and season," Postman writes. And I put those words directly into the mouth of one of the minor characters in Perpetua's Kin.

Selves at Risk by Ihab Hassan
"The abiding question concerns the American quester, the motive, history, and space of his journey, how that space affects him, and the nature of his own self-apprehension as an other, an American, as he moves in the contemporary world. For Otherness is not merely given, an attribute of others; it can be an attribute of ourselves, either in self-alienation or in response to the relentless gaze of another." I kept this and many other passages from Hassan's book at hand while thinking about Benjamin Lorn's journey(s) in Perpetua's Kin.

Fame & Folly, Art & Ardor, and The Din in the Head by Cynthia Ozick
Ozick is our finest living literary critic and essayist. Just go read her essays, please.

The Liberal Imagination by Lionel Trilling
I've been reading Trilling since first being introduced to his work via Cynthia Ozick. If you love literature, then Trilling's perspectives, and his ways of thinking about literature on the page -- free from every critical hand-me-down -- are always enriching.

The Boys' Crusade by Paul Fussell
Fussell writes as a World War II veteran committed to tearing down vainglorious delusions about the "nobility" of war. He's a staunch realist, and also an elegant writer. I gleaned so much from this book as well as Fussell's memoir Doing Battle, and I'm thankful for his voice.

Perpetua's Kin Book Trailer #2: The Smoke

Friday, September 14, 2018

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Meine Wörter auf Deutsch

I'm very pleased to see an excerpt from Lost Son, my 2007 experimental biographical novel about Rainer Maria Rilke, included in the new issue of the International Rilke Society Journal.

Mit Dank an Erich Unglaub.

Monday, August 06, 2018

Perpetua's Kin: Early & Late, Pt. 2

Early & Late" is a series of posts featuring texts and images that document the process of writing Perpetua's Kin, from manuscript to finished novel. 

Perpetua's Kin appears in September, 2018, but you can secure an early copy now by ordering HERE. (Orders ship within 24 hours.)

Manuscript page, 2007/2008

Final version, 2018

Friday, August 03, 2018

Perpetua's Kin Elicits Early Applause from Booksellers Across the U.S.

"Cunningham has once again raised the bar on the art of the novel...exceptionally rich...a distinctly American portrait, but the overarching themes are universal. I walk away from a reading like this ruminating on the largeness of life and the lasting influence that novelists can have on every one of us." 
- Nancy Scheemaker 

"Beautiful...takes the reader right in. Cunningham gives us a book to savor -- a fulfilling, substantial book, and a joy to read." 
- Janet Boreta 
founder, ORINDA BOOKS, Orinda, CA

"I very much hope Perpetua's Kin reaches as many readers' hands as possible...expansive in scope and ideas...enchanting." 
- Hans Weyandt

"A poetic, kaleidoscopic look at intergenerational pain, love, longing, and restlessness, through the lenses of war and telegraphy." 
- Carolyn Kulog
 BETTY'S BOOKS, Baker City, OR

"Expertly imagined...from the battlefields of the Civil War to Ocean Beach in 1940s San Francisco ... Much to contemplate in this thought-provoking novel." 
- Marion Abbott

Perpetua's Kin appears in September, 2018, but you can place your order now through your nearest independent bookseller, or secure an early copy through the publisher (orders ship within 24 hours)

Monday, July 30, 2018

Perpetua's Kin: Early & Late, Pt.1

"Early & Late" is a series of posts featuring texts and images that document the process of writing Perpetua's Kin, from manuscript to finished novel. 

You can pre-order Perpetua's Kin HERE.

Manuscript page, 2007/2008

 Final version, 2018

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Green Age on "A.Word.A.Day"

This week I was delighted to see that The Green Age of Asher Witherow, thanks to its use of the word "saprogenic," earned a citation in's popular "A.Word.A.Day" feature. 

The New York Times has called A.Word.A.Day "the most welcomed, most enduring piece of daily mass e-mail in cyberspace."

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

How to Publish a New Novel in 2018

My fourth novel, Perpetua’s Kin, will appear this September. Those who know me know that this book has been a long while coming. For most writers of new literature, these are strange, hungry, inhospitable times. In this post I want to share why it’s taken so many years to publish Perpetua’s Kin and why I hope that if you appreciate literature, you will read this novel.

I believe Perpetua’s Kin offers a uniquely affecting and surprising reading experience. And let me be clear. when I say I believe, I’m not talking about stubborn, run-of-the-mill confidence or defensiveness (e.g., “I think it’s good!”). No, I’m talking about belief that comes of having paid the existential costs of the book’s composition and editing process.

You will know what I mean if you’re a novelist and you’ve undergone a sacrificial, years-long dedication to a book, i.e., to the act of writing, rewriting, effacing, writing again, shaping, and drastically reshaping a raw mass of words until it becomes a novel. Becomes is the keyword here, for you do not make or even write a novel so much as suffer its convulsions, confusions, and convolutions until it emerges into clarity all its own and becomes. In other words, the novel becomes an artistic creation thoroughly and surprisingly itself — a creation apart from you, which has answered to its own demands, and therefore, in some mysterious but unquestionable way actually surpasses you: speaks in ways you don’t know how to speak, knows more than you know, feels more than you feel.

All this may seem esoteric to non-novelists, but some years ago, watching as my agent sent this novel out among the “decision-makers” of the publishing world, watching as it came back again and again, I began to understand that rather than some innate problem in the book, it was the book’s essential literary merit — its autonomous completeness as an artistic creation — that prohibited it from finding an advocate in mainstream publishing. This kind of paradox is all too common in today’s publishing industry.

So I’m releasing Perpetua’s Kin through Atelier26 Books, the nationally recognized literary press I founded some years ago in order to lift up good literary work. As the editor of Atelier26 I’ve had the privilege of helping a number of marvelous authors bring their books to readers. I believe deeply in the beauty and power of each Atelier26 book I’ve edited and published, and I can hardly describe how gratifying it’s been to watch a few of these titles receive prestigious award recognition. I’m proud to see Perpetua’s Kin join the company of all the excellent works at Atelier26.

While some of my own prior books have borne the Atelier26 logo, I’ve never actively promoted any of them. Mainly they’ve served to bolster the Atelier26 catalog and generate some extra proceeds for the press as a whole, while I’ve poured most of my energy and focus as a publisher into supporting and promoting my other authors. Perpetua’s Kin will be different, which brings me to confront anew that stamp of contempt used by so many literary folks who wish to stigmatize and dismiss a book without even looking at it: self-published.

What does self-published mean anyway? 

I almost made that the parenthetical subtitle of this post, because part of what I’d like to do here, in providing my own professional history and personal perspective as an artist, editor, and publisher, is to complicate in some small way the stubbornly prevailing, mostly snarky understanding of “self-published author.” 

Again, maybe you’re a literary author yourself. Maybe, at this moment in your life you’d never dream of self-publication. Maybe at this moment you’re riding high, perhaps with your own work of new literature hot off the press from an established commercial publisher big or small. Maybe your work has been well-reviewed but not particularly hot in sales. I have first-hand experience of those circumstances. You may find my story interesting.

So, with Perpetua’s Kin as a case in point, here’s one way to publish a “new” novel in 2018: 

  • Between 2004 and 2007, publish 2 well-received novels with an established small press; 

  • watch as booksellers champion your novels (#1 Indie Next selection; Best of Indie Next; Indie Next Book of the Year Finalist; staff picks); 

  • in what will become the busiest 6 months of your life, fly from Oakland to Minneapolis, from Oakland to Memphis, from Oakland to Seattle, from Oakland to Los Angeles on a bona fide author tour through more than 15 U.S. cities, meeting lots of folks who have read your book(s) or are buying a copy in order to do so;

  • speak publicly before thousands of people collectively; lecture; teach;

  • start that “new” novel (novel 3) in February 2007, a year before your son’s birth;

  • immerse yourself, as you’ve always done, in novelistic research (in this case the history of the telegraph; Civil War campaigns and prison camps; the geography of the U.S. south) & travel from your home in Oregon to Missouri and Iowa for this research;

  • complete novel 3 & receive a publisher’s offer in 2010; 

  • decline the offer; 

  • wait, while your NY literary agent submits the novel to other parties; 

  • undertake your first Yaddo residency & start writing another novel (your fourth);

  • continue writing like hell, still awaiting responses to your agent's submissions of novel 3;

  • receive the news that the publisher of your first two books is cutting its operations way back;

  • watch the whole publishing ecosystem falter; 

  • watch newspapers & magazines vanish & with them scores of book review outlets; 

  • watch, dismayed, as independent bookstores (many of those that hosted you on tour) go out of business;

  • notice that online star ratings & customer reviews now stand in for literary criticism; 

  • continue writing like hell;

  • meanwhile you are your son’s primary at-home parent: he is an infant, he is a toddler, he is in preschool, he is in kindergarten... ; 

  • establish a publishing house called Atelier26 Books & try to help other writers by editing, publishing, & promoting their work (you will devote your more-than-full-time labor to this for years); 

  • return to Yaddo, still writing like hell, and start your fifth novel;

  • receive grants & fellowships; 

  • learn that your NY literary agent is retiring — you are now sans publisher and agent;

  • teach & lecture widely;  

  • rejoice to see the rise of innumerable new & viable small presses & the opening of many new independent bookstores;

  • marvel that your son is in 2nd grade ... 3rd grade ... ;

  • earn an MFA in Creative Writing after 7 books & 20 years as a writer; 

  • entrust that “new” novel — yes, novel 3, the one you started in 2007, a year before your son’s birth — to Atelier26 Books in 2018, your son’s 10th year.

What does self-published mean, anyway? Different things in different contexts.

I think of Virginia Woolf. Was she self-published? 

Woolf founded The Hogarth Press in order to publish works of prose or poetry “which could not, because of their merits, appeal to a very large public.” Through Hogarth, Woolf published other authors in addition to her own books. 

I think of Dave Eggers. Is he self-published? Eggers founded McSweeney’s Books, which publishes other authors in addition to Eggers’ own books. "McSweeney's exists to champion ambitious and inspired new writing, and to challenge conventional expectations about where it's found, how it looks, and who participates."

I think of James Laughlin, poet and founder of New Directions. Was he self-published? From the start, New Directions was "dedicated to publishing quality works with little regard to their chances for commercial success." Laughlin published his own work and others, including F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Crack Up and the reissue of The Great Gatsby when it went out of print. He also published work by Henry James, E.M. Forster, and Evelyn Waugh at a time when other publishers wouldn't touch them.

And I think of other purportedly self-published authors. Among them are…Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman, Marcel Proust, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Henry Adams, James Joyce, Laurence Stern, Jane Austen, Benjamin Franklin, Carl Sandburg, Ernest Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence, Beatrix Potter, T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, William Blake, Edgar Allan Poe …

This list is far from exhaustive.

Am I self-published? There was a time when this question might have worried me, but no more. I recently turned 40 and I have too much work to do.

But I identify strongly with the author/publishers I mentioned above.

And as a publisher custodian of Perpetua’s Kin I’m also vigilantly aware of how problematic the perception and reception of literary work can be, especially when that work is subjected to a loaded catch-all like “self-published.”

So while I realize that the reactions of readers and critics belong to the department of things one can’t control, still I’m compelled to ask questions. My questions are much like those asked by C.S. Lewis in his wonderful and wise 1961 book An Experiment in Criticism. How should we judge the quality of a book? How might we assess literary merit and literary taste? Despite its turgid title, Experiment is written in a compelling, almost conversational way, and Lewis proposes sensible and humane answers. He writes:
“The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)”
What does self-published mean? Specifically, what does it mean to you as a reader, reviewer, bookseller, award judge, fellow writer — or whoever you may be in the literary community? Is a self-published book simply a book you can more easily and justifiably ignore? Are you allowing labels — or stigmas — to obtrude upon your reading process and preempt the recognition (and celebration!) of quality in works of new literature?

These questions fall to each of us. Especially in these times of instability, confusion, and loss of morale in mainstream publishing — which are also times of countervailing independence, innovation, and vivacity among individual authors and very small publishers — it falls to each of us to bear in mind what Lewis puts this way:
“We can judge any sentence or even word only by the work it does or fails to do. The effect must precede the judgment on the effect. The same is true of a whole work. Ideally, we must receive it first and then evaluate it. Otherwise, we have nothing to evaluate.”

Dear reader, it’s up to you.

And I’m looking forward to sharing Perpetua’s Kin with you. I believe it’s something special.

I’ll be writing more about Perpetua’s Kin in this space between now and the novel’s September 4th release. Meanwhile, Perpetua’s Kin pre-orders are open at the Atelier26 webstore.

{See my full author history HERE}

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

American Book Review

I'm pleased to contribute a review of Julian Barnes' novel The Noise of Time to the new issue of American Book Review. My review appears in the special section on biographical fiction guest edited by Michael Lackey.

A snippet:
There survive a few minutes of film footage from 1974 Leningrad. Dmitri Shostakovich, 68 years old—his pale, nerve-wracked face sunken behind bulky black glasses—watches a rehearsal of his opera “The Nose,” a work suppressed in Soviet Russia for nearly half a century. He is a man aged beyond his own years (and he will be dead within twelve months). The camera holds him in close-up. Off-screen, the orchestra plays, the singers sing out, while the music—the inflection of every note—trembles visibly across the composer’s face. He shifts in his seat but the camera clings to him. His mouth and chin quiver uncontrollably. The tendons seem to spasm in his neck. He’s agitated, at points almost gasping. He’s in agony. He’s awash in pleasure. His eyes, hooded for decades and no longer capable of shedding tears, never leave the stage. Finally, finally, this music has its freedom—but Shostakovich the man and artist has never been free.
Reverse the footage. Watch it again. Is this the image of one soul’s tragedy, or its consolation? Has the poor man triumphed at last, or is there some level of suffering beyond which no triumph is possible? In The Noise of Time, his new biographical novel of Shostakovich, Julian Barnes takes up questions like these. 

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

From the Archives: William H. Gass on Rilke

Here's the audio of a fascinating conversation about Rainer Maria Rilke, with KCRW's "Bookworm" host Michael Silverblatt and American novelist William H. Gass, author of Omensetter's Luck. Gass discusses his nonfiction work Reading Rilke. The discussion was recorded in 2004. I wouldn't put Rilke's art in the crass, somewhat oversimplified biographical terms that Gass sometimes does, but it's great fun to listen in as he and Silverblatt talk about Rilke's life and work.
A snippet:

Gass: [Rilke] is trying to do something in one sense impossible, and that is to make a verbal object into a thing. And Rodin is teaching him--not only to make works of art from the ontological view, from the point of view of creating being and placing it in the world as solidly as a statue -- but also to give it a kind of almost impressionistic, multilayered, multisurfaced effect
that Rodin was getting in his sculpture. But it is also, of course, for Rilke an enormously important time psychologically, because The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is to write about a failed poet. And Rilke is seeing himself for the first time as a failure, as someone who is risking a failure, and while he's courting, in order to stay alive (he's getting paid for this monograph on Rodin) -- he's courting genius, success, overwhelming success that Rodin is enjoying at this time. Moreover, Rodin is in a sense, from [Rilke's] point of view, coarse, sexually on the rampage... And there's this little Lord Fauntleroy type watching all this, who then goes back to a little squalid room in Paris and can hardly make ends meet, and who is also feeling an enormous amount of guilt, because he has in effect left his wife and small child. It's a mess. And that very mess is something that Rilke was able to make a capital of.

And here's a little bit from Lost Son dealing with these same critical Paris days in Rilke's life. The poet is standing before Notre Dame Cathedral at twilight:

"The cathedral is perhaps the greatest of all this city's things, and it unifies all that surrounds it...What beautiful power it is that this Notre Dame in its grand thingness can take such discordant elements and draw them all into a pure harmonic. Rodin's body of work has a similar power: his sculpture seems to have gathered everything, everything into itself. And Rainer wonders now: How may a poet acquire such ingathering power? How not merely understand the power but acquire it? How construct as the Master does?

Rainer knows he's nothing like Rodin--no sculptor, no craftsman. Enormous hunks of stone arrive frequently at Meudon. The Master orders the stones set down on the lawn that he may circle them with his thoughtful topheavy stride, his hand wandering in his beard. The poet has watched his eyes and seen the visions kindling there. In blocks of intransigent stone, fragments of mountains that move only with the strength of several men, Rodin gratefully receives the heaviness of his work.

Rainer, though, is no sculptor. By what handcraft, then, could he possibly make work of this city's things? -- of this city's fear, even, which stands three-dimensional amongst the things? The fear, he sees now, could be a unifying power should one muster the strength to make it such. But what immeasurable quantities of strength would be required? How might he get outside himself and make of himself a hand to grasp Paris and everything Paris stirs up inside? -- to give it all a form, a shape?"

This post originally appeared on this blog on June 25, 2007.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

New Novel Arrives September, 2018. Pre-Orders Open Now.

Learn more / pre-order HERE

The Jacket Says:

The author of the much acclaimed #1 Indie Next Pick The Green Age of Asher Witherow returns with a riveting historical mystery about a family shaped as much by tumultuous world events as by each of its members' unspoken decisions.

Epic in scope and yet intimate in its emotional power, Perpetua's Kin moves across several generations and much of North America, from Pennsylvania and Iowa in the 1820s, through an American south embroiled in the Civil War, and finally to World War II San Francisco. What emerges is a profoundly contemporary exploration of the American experience as one family embodies it: our heritage of violence, our chronic restlessness and desire for regeneration through technology, and the impossibility of escaping the history that forms us and, always, demands a reckoning.

Early Readers Say:

“With Perpetua's Kin, M. Allen Cunningham once again demonstrates he is one of the bravest and most talented novelists writing today.His prose sings with a rare kind of poetry, even as the story sweeps you along with its dark mystery and heartbreaking tension. With each page we gain the greatest gift of fiction: an insight into our own trembling humanity. into our own trembling humanity.”
-Eowyn Ivey, author of To the Bright Edge of the World
and The Snow Child, Pulitzer Prize Finalist

“A novel in conversation with Faulkner and Melville and possibly even Robert Louis Stevenson. … A writer both original and well aware of the writers who have come before him. Cunningham’s writing, like the scope of his novel, is bold and ambitious.”
-Peter Turchi, ​author of A Muse and a Maze, ​and judge for the Oregon Literary Fellowship

"Perpetua's Kin is beautiful, reminiscent of The Green Age of Asher Witherow in that it has the cadence I remember that takes the reader right in ... M. Allen Cunningham gives us a book to savor -- a fulfilling, substantial book, and a joy to read."
-Janet Boreta, founder of Orinda Books (CA)

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Unconventional & Essential: David Thomson's Television: A Biography

More than a year ago I first read film critic David Thomson’s large new book Television: A Biography. Since then I've returned to its pages often, reveling in Thomson's essential insights and savoring his unconventional approach to his subject. Far from being a dry historical account, a cerebral work of cultural theory or sociological documentation, or a fluffy entertainment chronicle, Thomson’s tome is a remarkably free-spirited (and freewheeling) series of reflective essays on the cultural, existential, and psychic impact of that problematic household fixture: the small screen.

Chronology, thankfully, is out the window here. Instead of a banal blow-by-blow of television’s development from the 1930s onward, Thomson lets the theme of his thoughts be the guide. He riffs, and his riffs cover just about everything interesting, disturbing, and outright surreal relating to this taken-for-granted medium: the TV as precursor of the ubiquitous and entrancing handheld screen; the fallacious nature of TV ratings systems; the subliminal polarities of 1) The Fugitive, which extolled chameleon-like freedom and the excitement of being on the run, and 2) The Donna Reed Show, which extolled domesticity while hinting at the eroticism underlying suburban decency; the behind-the-scenes marital dysfunction of Lucy and Desi; our Pavlovian consent to the eternal “on-ness” of the tube; the mesmerism of the laugh-track; the lethal constancy of commercials and the failure of Mad Men, as an ad-supported show on an ad-dependent network, to live up to its own potential; the sweet depressive allure of “channel-surfing”; the “Gong Show” as a postmodern theater; and on and on. He’s a fantastically intelligent and appealingly “fizzy” writer, and many of his observations here hearken to Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death or Marshall McLuhan in The Medium Is the Massage.

 “The medium had another role,” Thomson writes, “all the more powerful because it was never intended or organized: It promoted the principle that it was sufficient for the world to be witnessed, or to have it pass by. It did not require the effort of understanding or criticism. Its ‘on-ness’ was paramount, just as our participation began to be offset. This was a new solitude, not just that of living alone: You could be in a crowd, but you might not matter.” 

A little further on, he writes: “You know this is true: Television is not for attention; the ads trained us in not watching. … The mainstream of the medium clung to the idea that everyone can understand everything — but that can slip into the delusion that no one needs to understand anything.” 
And Thomson ties together the generational overrating of screen media -- first in our passive fixation upon the original living room screen, and now in today’s obsessive fixation on handheld screens: “Television wasn’t just an elephant in the room. It became the room, the house, and the world. … The deepest nature of television is to be reassuring. That may be the most frightening thing about it… our making our way by watching screens, or by having them on, hardly aware of how the television screen has trained us for the computer screen, the iPad, the iPhone, or the iI (coming so soon I wish I had invested), and the assumption that because information is carried in those ways so knowledge must exist there.”