Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Where I'm Reading From

Unless you are the late John Leonard, the symphony-of-words book reviewer whose essays and reviews on culture and the life of the mind appeared in literally every major publication in the universe, your collection of reviews assembled in a book will probably gather dust in the remainder bin.  (To find such a bin, you would first need to find a bricks and mortar book store).  Thankfully, critic, novelist, translator and essayist Tim Parks opted to address a particular theme in his latest book, Where I’m Reading From:  The Changing World of Books (The New York Review of Books, 2015) rather than collect his voluminous, challenging, thoughtful reviews from the pages of the NYRB.  And the tome could not have arrived at a better time, seeing that a number of articles have appeared in a variety of publications recently bemoaning the loss of interest in long form journalism and essays.  Everything now must be boiled down to a Twitter post—as few characters as possible with points added for a clever picture or meme.

In his own four movement symphony, Parks breaks down the book world as it has come to be in the second decade of the century.  He begins, aptly enough, with an examination of the world around the book, particularly, how narrative speaks to the human condition.  For one, in this brave new world with all its blogs and Tweets and fifty shades of grey, will anyone even pay to read what has been written with urgency and importance?  More to the point, will writers still write if they are not paid, because that is exactly what’s happening at the sites of news aggregators.  A writer these days should be honored that an essay appears on the Huffington Post.  Payment?  You must be joking.  But you cannot eat or clothe yourself when you are forced to give away your work.  Worse, it would seem that the narcissistic promotion involved in posting some self-proclaimed, brilliant thought makes everyone a writer.  Singlehandedly, the digital age has devalued the well written essay, the long form piece, the wise novel, the thoughtful critical review written by someone who has studied the art and recognizes its place in the culture.

Parks observes that there is a growing gap between academia and the common reader.  Academics write for a selective audience of a few people, couching their ideas in obtuse and needlessly jargonistic lingo.  Publishing for them is a means to an end:  secure a job and hopefully, tenure.  It does not matter how many of their books are sold or if anyone outside of the rarified circles in which they roam actually reads their work.  The writer on the street creates because he or she wants readers.  And now, more than ever, the writer must love the work because most often, there is very little money to be made from it.  In our culture, information is shared freely, and with the exception of an occasional pay wall or subscriber-only access, most readers find what they need on the web and want it in as brief a dose as possible.  He concludes that “What seems doomed to disappear, or at least to risk neglect, is the kind of work that revels in the subtle nuances of its own language and literary culture, the kind of writing that can savage or celebrate the way this or that linguistic group really lives.”  Of course, Parks is a translator of literature as well as a reviewer and practitioner of the literary arts so he is deeply sensitive to how the word travels through languages and linguistic rhythms around the globe.  And he is correct:  we have no patience for the intricate story, the deeper essay.  We have too many other things to do like update our Facebook status.

One issue within this discussion of readers that Parks addresses is the homogenization of languages—namely, English is becoming the world’s voice.  He quotes David Crystal’s book, Language Death (Cambridge University Press, 2002) that “by 2100 between 50 and 90 percent of the world’s languages will have disappeared.”  So we are not just losing readers and writers; the entire paradigm of language and ideas is changing.  Most people become readers because they have been encouraged to do so as children.  The emphasis on books and writing is modeled by parents and those who have books in the home and actively see their parents engaged with a text are more likely to become readers themselves.  Yet, how many parents are actually encouraging this deeper engagement with a novel or book of essays?  Like their children, given a free moment most people focus on their phones, reading texts and Tweets and studying pictures, including the inane selfies.  If it is true, as David Shields says in quoting Montaigne that “Every man contains within himself the entire human condition,” the kid who nearly ran into me in the mall while frantically tapping on his phone demonstrates a bleak and distracted snapshot of the human condition.

Most days it seems that our culture has descended into a morass of gossip and irrelevancy.  Why is Donald Trump getting so much publicity?  Well, he is a blowhard who will say anything and insult anyone to keep his ridiculous hair and blustery face front and center in the media storm, and guess what?  It works.  CNN cannot get enough of his antics giving him a nightly forum to spout his ignorance.  And America loves it.  We want the reality show.  We want to elect him president.  The press conferences, state of the union addresses, the inaugurations, all will be vastly more interesting because the whole country cannot wait to see what Trump says next.  But there is no depth there.  He is as insubstantial as his wispy comb-over.  He trivializes American politics and American culture.  He insults hardworking immigrants and women.  However, he is a symptom of a greater problem, a product of our own drunken narcissism, the cult of us.  With his wealth he can buy a seat at the grown-ups’ table and run his mouth.  Gone are the days when we looked for something deeper.  America never was a country that put philosophers on television every night.  The closest we came to that was William F. Buckley, Gore Vidal, and Norman Mailer.  They had more meat on their intellectual bones than Trump, but if we look closely, we can see the resemblance and the lineage.  Discourse in America is screaming heads.  It is not a discussion; it is a verbal assault.

Parks relates these ideas to the “chloroformed sanctuary,” the world of the academics who are more interested in performing research tricks for a few of their peers than teaching students to be deep readers and thinkers.  They kill everything they touch, including the love of literature and inquiry, he tells us.  So it is no wonder that people have lost interest in sustained narratives, long form essays, or a simple book review.  If no one fosters that need to read or emphasizes the importance of thought and critical analysis—not parents, not teachers, not anyone—why would there be a culture of reading?

The last third of the book involves Parks’ thoughts on translation where he presents many astute observations about how different novels and texts translate, or do not translate, across cultures.  Two examples show us the irony of our world today.  He talks about Giacomo Leopardi’s great work, Zibaldone (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), and how, if he were writing today, the entire work would probably be broken up into a blog.  On its own, who would pick up a 2,600-page book of philosophy, history, theology, and literature.  We would need it parceled out in 500-word blog posts to garner a smidgen of interest from internet-surfing readers.  Even then, its lasting impact on our culture might be minimal at best.  He writes that he “translated Machiavelli’s The Prince during the Iraq War.  States invading distant foreign countries with authoritarian governments, Machiavelli warned, should think twice about disbanding the army and bureaucracy that opposed them, since these institutions may offer the best opportunity of maintaining law and order after the war is over.”  Obviously, those in power did not read their Machiavelli.

There is great wisdom and insight embedded in all literature, but if we are not readers, it’s all just blowing sand in the dust storm.  While we frantically tap out our Tweets and texts, and pose ourselves with selfie stick extended for that killer shot at the mall, our sagging intellects become ever more flaccid and impotent.  Tim Parks makes the case that the world of books has been warped into something very different in the social media age, the digital me-revolution.  He sounds the alarm and bears witness to the fall while the pages, like those chased by the figures on his book’s cover, blow away into the gusting wind of our own ignorance.  The world is indeed changing, and not for the better.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Saint Mazie

I have written about, and always been a fan of, Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker.  Now a new book takes a real character from Mitchell’s writing and develops a fictionalized life for her.  That character is Mazie Phillips, chief proprietress of the Venice movie theater in the Bowery in lower Manhattan and the novel is called Saint Mazie (Grand Central Publishing, 2015) by Jami Attenberg.  Mitchell is known for often bending the rules of nonfiction:  compositing characters, condensing time lines, and even injecting a fictionalized version of himself into his work.  However, Mazie Phillips was real, and she is an intriguing and complex character both in Mitchell’s work and in the novel.

First, some true-to-life Mazie is in order.  Mitchell calls her “A bossy, yellow-haired blonde” in his piece published on the pages of the magazine in 1940.  She fled her hometown of Boston and the difficult life she had there accompanied by one sister to go and live in New York with yet another sister and her husband.  It is the husband, Louis, who owns the theater.  To earn her keep, she goes to work in the ticket booth, the cage, as a teenager and for years she is an institution in the neighborhood, helping down-on-their-luck drunks through prohibition, the Great Depression, and two world wars.  Mitchell captures the taste and heft of those days, as he was most famous for doing in all of his pieces for the magazine.  The theater is open every day from eight in the morning until midnight.  Mazie works the cage while the very small staff work the house, cleaning and polishing the old theater to accommodate the bums and dreamers who frequent the showings.  For a dime, patrons can see two movies, a newsreel, a cartoon selection, a short, and a serial episode.  The place was warm and dry, and often, if a bum didn’t have the price of admission, Mazie would let him in anyhow.  She also was free with her change, handing out nickels, dimes and quarters to those in need of a cup of coffee or a sandwich.  Step out of line meant incurring the wrath of Mazie, and she had no qualms about marching into the theater in the middle of a show to escort some miscreant out to the street, berating him all the while.

Over the years, she develops relationships with a local order of Catholic nuns who patrol the streets of the Bowery looking to aid and assist the downtrodden.  She also knows all the local merchants, and she frequents them to share gossip and stories.  She also knows the places that serve alcohol during those dry days of prohibition.  Mitchell is so good at drawing characters in his writing.  He is at heart a storyteller, so his essays burst with color and character, and his story of Mazie is a classic in his oeuvre.

Jami Attenberg builds on Mitchell’s work to present a unique and full novel, fleshing out the characters that The New Yorker piece only mentions in passing.  She also utilizes a particular narrative technique similar to an oral history.  I was reminded most often when reading her writing of Studs Terkel and his oral histories.  She eschews the standard narrative for passages in Mazie’s unpublished autobiography and diaries, as well as transcribed interviews with key characters in her life and times.  By piecing together clues from each person’s account of the story, a full picture emerges that in the end is both sad and complete, an entire history of a time and place long crumbled into the dust of years.  As she is in Mitchell’s piece, Mazie is a strong and memorable character.  Attenberg’s work only deepens Mitchell’s because it focuses on her life behind the public face, bringing into the character the details the experiences that made Mazie the truly memorable person she was.

What is truly successful about the novel is that we get to see those other characters that walk the fringes of Mitchell’s story.  The Catholic nuns, for example, are given names and character, and we see the unlikely friendship between the Jewish Mazie and the nun called Sister Tee develop into grudging respect and intimacy.  It is a poor, drug-addicted mother who brings them together in the first place so that they can save the lives of her two children.  Unfortunately, only one can be saved while the other is lost in the system.  There is a good ending to the story, however, later in the novel.

Jami Attenberg captures the tone and environment of the Bowery in her novel.  The characters are sepia-toned and full of life, like a lyrical history that takes the reader beyond facts and statistics.  Like Mitchell, she has a gift of establishing true and memorable characters.  Mazie, of course, is a force to be reckoned with as she is in the source material from the magazine.  For those interested in Mitchell’s profiles, or who love character-driven stories, Saint Mazie is an excellent read and a beautiful story.  The author pays homage to Joseph Mitchell, storyteller of 20th century New York and deepens the tale of Mazie Phillips, queen of the Bowery, rescuer of the fallen.

Note:  For those interested in reading a complete collection of Joseph Mitchell’s writing for The New Yorker, including Mazie’s story, check out Up In The Old Hotel (Vintage, 1993).