Wednesday, December 9, 2009

from Cat n' Mouse, Steven Millhauser

The cat understands that the mouse will always outwit him, but this tormenting knowledge serves only to inflame his desire to catch the mouse. He will never give up. His life, in relation to the mouse, is one long failure, a monotonous succession of unspeakable humiliations; his unhappiness is relieved only by moments of delusional hope, during which he believes, despite doubts supported by a lifetime of bitter experience, that at last he will succeed. Although he knows that he will never catch the mouse, who will forever escape into his mousehole a half inch ahead of the reaching claw, he also knows that only if he catches the mouse will his wretched life be justified. He will be transformed. Is it therefore his own life that he seeks, when he lies awake plotting against the mouse? Is it, when all is said and done, himself that he is chasing? The cat frowns and scratches his nose.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

One dozen 2009 favorites

The three presses for whom I work- Harvard University Press, The MIT Press, and Yale University Press- published just over one thousand titles between them in 2009. Prompted by Tom Bielenberg at Micawber’s Books in St Paul, who wanted to know where my “annual holiday synopsis” is, I thought it would be fun (and easy) to create my personal best list from this year’s offerings.

Fun yes, easy no. As I thought about the books we’ve published this year, I was struck by what was missing: no makebooks trying to replicate last year’s fads; no vampires; no cheesy ghostwritten memoirs by crackpot politicians. In short, nothing to be embarrassed about representing.

Though I came up with a dozen standouts that I really loved, our publishing program as a whole is a thing of wonder: intellectually stimulating scholarship, rigorous standards, incredibly patient editors (one recent title was signed in the mid-seventies!), all aimed at the twin, sometimes mutually exclusive goals of pushing the research boundaries in the sciences and humanities, while making the results accessible to a general, well-informed readership.

We live in a time when the concept of holding a complex idea in one’s head is considered elitist, so representing these wonderful books often feels more like mission than job. The satisfaction in selling the works of big thinkers, with the hope that every potential new reader casts a small blow against those who would bring back the Dark Ages, is something booksellers and publishers have been doggedly doing since the Enlightenment. I can’t imagine a more important way to spend a working life.

But I digress. The books. Herewith my dozen favorites of the year from our lists, in no particular order. These are not necessarily the lead books or the tradeiest books or the most widely reviewed. They are just my favorites. And the other 990 authors I represented this year shouldn’t feel dissed, I was proud to push all of them.

Unpacking My Library: Architects and their Books
asks what a person’s book collection says about the collector. The interviews with a dozen fascinating architects are great, but the real appeal of the book (helped along by the suave design) is that it’s so wonderfully snoopy. If you’re at a party in the home of a smart person, and you’re a wallflower like me, you may find yourself near the bookshelves, where there won’t be people. You scan the spines, studying them, head twisted painfully, while trying not to spill wine on the carpet. That’s the intimate, private experience afforded by this colorful little volume.

Continuing the eavesdropping theme, Talking with Sartre, edited and translated by John Gerassi, lets us in on some shockingly frank, never before published chit chat with the great man. Sartre’s godson and a family friend, Gerassi conducted hours of free-wheeling interviews between 1970 and 1974. There’s a lot of politics and history, but plenty of gossip and back-biting as well. One moment Sartre is on about DeGaulle (hated him) and the Algerian independence movement (for it), the next moment it’s on to mistresses and amphetamines (loved both).

With My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century, Adina Hoffman changed the way I look at the world. What more can you ask from a book? Taha Muhammad Ali is a renowned Palestinian poet, too little known in the US but with rock star status in his homeland. Hoffman, an accomplished, fascinating writer and translator herself, has used Taha’s life as window into the Palestinian predicament, and the idea of living in exile in your own home. Powerful, beautifully written, more than one bookseller has compared it to Reading Lolita in Tehran.

In another great biography from the spring list, Steven Zipperstein’s Rosenfeld’s Lives: Fame, Oblivion and the Furies of Writing uncovers the story of an all but forgotten Chicago writer, Isaac Rosenfeld. Saul Bellow’s best friend and gentle competitor, Rosenfeld died in the mid-fifties at 38. Beyond doing delayed justice to this great writer, Zipperstein really captures the wonderfully obsessive qualities of the writing life. Mesmerizing and contemplative, it reminded me of Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City.

A fantastic book about an artist I knew little about, Out of Now: The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh is a revelation. Hsieh is a practitioner of “durational work,” or “endurance art”- a genre that’s so new it doesn’t really have an agreed-upon name. His materials are time and his own body, and his practice consists of year-long physically demanding performance pieces, such as confining himself to a sealed cell and punching a time clock every hour on the hour (these obsessive documents go on for pages in the book). Or being tied by an eight-foot rope to Linda Montano, an artist who answered a classified ad, for one solid year. And so on. Scoffers have questioned whether this is art. That’s the point.

Hollis Frampton’s Circles of Confusion is one of the most highly sought after out of print titles (1983). Replacing and superseding that long unavailable collection, On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters: The Writings of Hollis Frampton is a seductive hodge-podge of essays, interviews, film-scores, and experimental pieces reminiscent of Borges and Beckett. An avant-garde filmmaker, photographer, and digital artist who died in 1984, Frampton was also a funny and inventive writer. Yvonne Rainer aptly called the book “Offbeat Ways to Think about Everything” I was initially drawn to him because he was an autodidact and a provocateur, but now I’m hooked on the work. Check out his (nostalgia) and other video clips on youtube.

Among the many other intellectual accomplishments of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was his notion that to know plants is to know the world. First published in 1790, his The Metamorphosis of Plants has influenced generations, and has never appeared in a more stunning edition. Photographer Gordon Miller re-shot plant specimens (mainly in the northwest) to match and illustrate Goethe’s numbered paragraphs. The book is a very desirable little physical object- paper over board, luscious color throughout. Even I, who know nothing from plants, was entranced.

Fascinating taxonomies like the Goethe are a signature MIT Press gift to the world, and here’s one of an entirely different sort: Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals. Photographer Christopher Payne noticed how many massive, abandoned mental institutions are still standing in nearly every state. These behemoths, little cities really, are often in a kind of limbo- too architecturally idiosyncratic for reuse, and yet too historic for demolition. He worked tirelessly to get permissions to enter and photograph these buildings, and he ended up spending six years in thirty states doing so. The result is a beautiful, moving, sometimes jaw-dropping, collection of images. And, as Oliver Sacks says in the introduction, “a tribute to a sort of public architecture that no longer exists.”

Though I have many bones to pick with Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, they offer the kind of big thinking we so desperately need in Commonwealth, which completes the trilogy begun with Empire and followed by Multitude. (This one’s way more readable than those two.) The title refers to one of their pet themes, that wealth is something we hold not individually but in common. Indeed, the endless debate over “private” vs. “public” should be replaced with a focus on the common, they argue. With the collapse of both the private market economic model and the soviet statist one, H&N are looking for a third way, and every few pages I feel as if they’ve maybe found it. Our political discourse has gotten so cramped and narrow that it’s refreshing to come across writing that blasts out of that suffocating box.

I really enjoyed David Leavitt’s last novel, The Indian Clerk, the mysterious true life story of an Indian mathematician. Though nonfiction, Loren Graham and Jean-Michel Kantor have also unraveled a historic math mystery in Naming Infinity: A True Story of Religious Mysticism and Mathematical Creativity. The news here is that the major math finding of the 20th century- the nature of infinity- owes its discovery to a mystical religious sect called the Name Worshippers. Along the way we have a big dose of Russian history and paranoid stalinist repression, interpersonal and nationalist competition among scientists, and yet another example of the strange historical dance between science and religion. It’s incredibly well-written, with a sort of Beautiful Mind vibe.

The need to hold an audience’s attention, according to Brian Boyd in On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction, is the fundamental problem facing all story-tellers. He takes this insight and uses it to show the evolutionary origins of art and story-telling. (Story-telling was important because through it we learned to think beyond the here and now.) Stories were not just an amusement, but honed our minds, fostered cooperation, and were a survival advantage. This is one of those books that crosses so many fields and disciplines that booksellers were constantly challenged about where to shelve it. But in the spirit of consilience, this is the best kind of thinking and the best kind of problem. Did I mention that fantastic jacket illustration?

Finally, I almost hesitate to mention A New Literary History of America since I’ve been singing its praises since April. (Yes, the daily emails got annoying, sorry about that) To recap: NLHA is a monumental, decades in the making stab at uniting American history and American literature. America was made by writing! Two hundred short original essays by contemporary hipsters (Sarah Vowell, Camille Paglia, Walter Moseley) explore specific literary moments that changed America. This is not not not some thick boring doorstop of a canon-smashing reference book. It is fun, it is alive, and it can be read in small digestible pieces. If you are up on your Walter Benjamin, it may remind you of Arcades Project, the quintessential “memory theater.”