Monday, February 25, 2013

"More Normal Than Other People"

The video below is an elegant mini-documentary expedition into writer Duncan Fallowell’s book-cluttered flat in upper-class London.

"I can’t stop acquiring books,” says Fallowell. “But I’m not guilty about it. It’s a kind of necessity. Books, to me, are like oxygen. I’m a fish swimming in an aquarium of the intellect. … The books demanded to be incorporated into my domestic world.”

It’s a beautiful little film, and greatly enjoyable viewing. The YouTube précis, though, is curiously inaccurate, describing Fallowell’s collection as a "library which has spilled over into every available space and become an art installation in its own right." Fallowell has a lot of books, sure, but by all appearances it amounts to nothing like, say, the apartment that houses Brazenhead Books in New York – and Fallowell’s is hardly the helter-skelter hoard of a kook. To imply that the abundance of titles signifies, in its own right, a form of eccentricity is peculiarly dispiriting. Fallowell himself seems to resist the implication at one point:

"One does need grounding in the physical world. This is why the electronic book means nothing to me. Because a book is a physical object too. And writing, to me, is a physical act. It’s a sculptural act as well as an intellectual act. The two come together. … Do you think writers are odd? I don’t know. I don’t subscribe to this idea that you’ve got to be odd to be a writer…. Perhaps you’ve got to be more normal than other people.”

Having steadily built my own home library over the last several years, I wish to happily count myself among such ‘normals.’ And I’m delighted to spot, among Fallowell’s volumes, a number of my own fondest: On Grief and Reason and Watermark by Joseph Brodsky; David Marr’s life of Patrick White; and Leon Edel’s towering biography Henry James.

Fallowell: “There’s something about the lushness, the richness, the open-door quality of a book. Open a book and you’re opening a door. All these books just remind me of worlds beyond worlds and they are an expression of freedom. As we know, the first thing dictators do is control books, control what people are allowed to read. … I’ve always wanted to wander, and I can wander very conveniently in my library…"

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Essayist Orange Deserves Your Attention

This Is Running for Your Life: Essays Cover

In this weekend's Oregonian is my review of Michelle Orange's brilliant essay collection This Is Running for Your Life, a new book that deserves the attention of anybody remotely interested in the life of the mind.

From the review:
... Michelle Orange models an ideal balance of firsthand engagement with -- and grounded criticism of -- the lightheaded culture all around us. "The new American dream," she writes, "is to build a really bitching personal brand, and the result of all that tap dancing on all those individual platforms is a pervasive kind of narrative decadence. We race to consume and regurgitate the hour's large and small events for each other like patricians in a postmodern vomitorium -- to know them first, translate them into bitter capsule form fastest, and be shocked or stirred or perceived as in any way less than totally savvy about these things the least. Even within our self-contained realities we become dulled to what's real and what's not, and further desensitized to what lies behind our fellow performers' virtual scrims." Here and elsewhere in the book, Orange's insights share their probing, persuasive rhythms with those of Susan Sontag, whose name rightfully comes up a number of times.
In the stunning chapter "Pixelation Nation," which takes its cue from Sontag's hallmark 1977 book On Photography, Orange explores the scarcely considered implications of digital imagery and dissemination in a time when every smartphone, iPad and iPod is a camera which, "with its promise of perfect recall, both reminds and relieves the shooter of the burden of being present." As we each become daily -- not to mention hourly -- publishers of images we've captured and edited for immediate upload, the images themselves take on "more of a social than a subjective or individual purpose." Our pictures have become part of a larger, ongoing self-publicizing project: "It's more about representing a certain reality than remembering it."
It's this kind of unfailingly X-ray-like inquiry into the peculiarities of our ultra-mediated world that unites Orange's 10 absorbing essays. Where Sontag's work generally took literature as the hub of its radial concerns, Orange proves herself an eloquent revealer of things more broadly socio-cultural and, as it happens, patently bizarre -- though they're the very things we refer to as "daily life." ...
 [continue reading here]

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

"No Accountant Can Calculate Its Value"

"To ask why people need culture is in fact identical to asking why a human being is a human being.” -- Václav Havel

A characteristically visionary speech by Havel from 2009. At a mere thirteen minutes long, there's hardly any excuse for not listening to this man's indispensable insights.

New Prose Poem in Print

The current issue of Pear Noir!, just out, includes my prose poem "Interview with a Recluse." Here's a scrap:
... He said he’d long wanted to understand the innocence that can carry a lie, the dark lines laid down to claim ownership, identity, to create a principality and the readiness to die for it. He believed he could understand hate. The soldier came to hate at some level the comrade entrenched beside him. You hated because you wanted to love. Because the prospect of loss was a ruthless constant. Nations were no different, societies. What you hated were the unnatural constructs — the country you were dying and killing for. And you hated the natural constraints — isolating desert, seas, constriction of the mother tongue and the home religion. These made love impossible. The strangulated need to love grew into hate, until you believed you could love a nation, a theory, and kill for it. ...