At the home of some good friends this past weekend, reclined nicely in a warm armchair, the warmth of various ales coursing through me, I picked off the shelf by my right hand a crumbling first edition of Modern Library’s A Comprehensive Anthology of Modern Poetry, edited by Conrad Aiken. I opened at random and found a small and perhaps undue joy that my stochastic flipping led to sections 10 and 11 of Song of Myself—maybe my favorite parts of Walt Whitman’s longassed poem.
Do you recall these bits? The trapper’s wedding? The runaway slave? The twenty-eight bathers and the woman who spies on them? I read them aloud to the room, ostensibly to the people in the room, but maybe just to myself. Walt Whitman’s storytelling is at its best when he moves most away from himself, when he puts on different hats, wears different ears, strolls around America a bit. I love his free verse in spite of—or even maybe because of—its swollen scope, its tendency toward bombast or even hamminess. O Walt! Get over yourself!—but not really, never change! Song of Myself is one of my favorite novels, or one of my favorite epics, or one of my favorite monologues—whatever it is, it’s one of my favorites (especially taken with doses of Emily Dickinson’s strange potions).
I don’t really know a lot about poetry, despite teaching the study of it in certain literature survey classes.
But hang on, it seems I was telling a story, or at least teasing out an anecdote, or at least going somewhere with all this: So, after riffling through the anthology a bit more, my friend says, Hey, if you want to read some really terrible poetry, check out that book to your right. Here is the book:
I had never heard of Walter Benton or his (unintentionally) hilarious volume This Is My Beloved until that moment. So what is it? Combining the worst elements of Whitmanesque free verse with a downright silly conceit that these are diary entries, This Is My Beloved attempts to be the erotic record of a passionate love affair. Benton tries to keep his language sultry, sexy, and sensuous without veering into pornography, but the results are bizarre and grotesque. Here’s an entire page as evidence:
“Your breasts are snub like children’s faces”?!
“…your lips match your teats beautifully”?!
And my favorite: “The hair of your arm’s hollow and where your thighs meet / agree completely, being brown and soft to look at like a nest of field mice.” A nest of field mice! Women love to be complimented on their matching pits and pubes, followed by a simile comparing said regions to a rodent’s hovel.
Indeed, Benton loves animal similes for his lady—later he writes: “Yes, your body makes eyes at me from every salient, / promises warm, lavish promises— / curved, colored . . . finished in a warm velvet like baby rabbits.”
But it’s not just the rabbits and mice that are gross. Lines like “We had loved hard—it’s all over your throat and hair” are simply queasy, bad writing. Or this nugget: “The white full moon like a great beautiful whore / solicits over the city, eggs the lovers on / the haves . . . walking in twos to their beds and to their mating. / I walk alone. Slowly. No hurry. Nobody’s waiting.”
Or this snippet:
It’s just really, really bad—I mean, at least when Henry Miller is gross, he’s deeply, earnestly gross, abject even, depraved perhaps (recall the famous lines: “I have set the shores a little wider. I have ironed out the wrinkles. After me you can take on stallions, bulls, rams, drakes, St. Bernards. You can stuff toads, bats, lizards up your rectum. You can shit arpeggios if you like, or string a zither across your navel”).
So, to return to my little story, we read most of Benton’s book aloud, doubling over laughing at times at just how wonderfully awful it is. And, wiping the tears from my eyes, I went to my trusty dusty iPhone to do a little background research—surely the world knew of this awful, awful poetry? Surely folks were getting the same giggly fun as happy we from poor Benton’s lurid verse?
And here, really, comes the occasion for this post, the real reason I write: It turns out that folks love this book—in a sincere, earnest, serious way. No fewer than four audio recordings were made of the book, all set to music (the most famous seems to be by Arthur Psyrock); the book has near-perfect five star review averages on both Amazon and Goodreads; and, perhaps most shocking of all, the book has been continuously in print since it was first published in 1949—it’s in its 34th edition (prestigious hardback with prestigious deckle edges, by the way). And of course you can buy an ebook version! (Unlike, say, Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual). Even worse, hack crooner Rod McKuen cites Benton as a major influence, so we have that to thank him for as well.
I don’t know. Am I wrong? Is Benton’s stuff actually good? I mean, I’ll concede that I enjoyed reading the book, but only inasmuch as it made me laugh so much. I don’t know. I already admitted I don’t know much about poetry. (As I write this, I pause to watch and listen to Richard Blanco read his inauguration poem “One Day”; I have no idea if it’s good or not). Benton’s verse seems so hammy, clumsy, indelicate; too earnest, too priapic, tripping over its own boners. It reads like a bad cribbing of Whitman and Miller, with an occasional lift from Hemingway. Even worse, it strikes me as amateurish, as the sort of thing that a teen might scrawl in his Moleskine only to cringe at later before hiding it somewhere. I just can’t believe that this book has been in continual publication from a major house (Knopf) for more than a half-century.
But maybe I’m misreading. Maybe I’m cynical. Maybe the poem is beautiful and profound and not icky solipsistic dreck. But I doubt it.
Book shelves series #40, fortieth Sunday of 2012
So we dip into the penultimate book shelf in this series, the one I shot last week in hazy hangover.
(This shelf is lower right; I’ll be working down to up and right to left).
Kids puzzles and a toy accordion block some books on folklore, history, and music.
As always, sorry for the glare, blur, and poor lighting. Blame my ancient iPhone 3gs .
A book my grandmother gave me a few years ago:
This is a wonderful old collection:
Pissing in the Snow: I’ve gone to that well more than once.
Kind of a motley crew here; the Barthes is misshelved but the lit crit shelves above are too full, so . . .
Musical bios. More of these are scattered around the house. I gave away a few recently.
Some of these books made it on to a list I wrote of seven great books about rock and roll.
Anthony Scaduto’s Dylan bio, which I, ahem, *borrowed* from my uncle years ago.
It made the rounds in high school but I managed to get it back somehow (but not its cover):
Had a wonderful if sweaty trip to New Orleans last week.
Great food, great music, and great bookstores.
First up, Faulkner House:
Faulkner House is a tiny little shop just off Jackson Square. Its two rooms (really, a main room and a hallway) are lined from bottom to top with literature, poetry, and philosophy. I can’t overstate the excellence of the collection in here—all kinds of rare and beautiful tomes, signed stuff, local and localish stuff, etc (local gal Anne Rice was the closest thing I saw to genre fiction). It’s great to walk into a bookshop and see a near-complete collection of new NYRB volumes stacked prominently upfront along with new novels by Richard Ford and Teju Cole.
I picked up this handsome illustrated edition of Thomas Bernhard’s Victor Halfwit, the handsomeness and bigness and luxuriousness of which simply doesn’t come across in this lousy iPhone pic:
Random framed shot:
And a random two-page shot with glare:
My wife picked out three lovely editions from Everyman’s Library Pocket series, poems from Christina Rosetti, Emily Dickinson, and Emily Brontë:
The owner and the manager were very kind, knowledgeable, and tolerant of my questions about what kind of stock they moved (biggest seller, unsurprisingly, is Soldier’s Pay).
Info for Faulkner House, via bookmark (the manager put one in each book I bought):
A few days later after a three-Bloody-Mary-breakfast I stumbled into Crescent City Books:
This is a great shop that, like Faulkner House, doesn’t waste precious shelf space on glitter vampires or self-help books or novelty cookbooks. Lots of art volumes (many rare and in German, French, Italian, etc.), a large poetry section, philosophy, history, etc. Lots of great old prints too. And an old cat, who was basically boss of the place.
They also carry physical copies of Rain Taxi, which I haven’t seen in years.
I picked up Masquerade and Other Stories after a Biblioklept commenter recommended Walser (by way of Kafka). I read about half of this over the next few days (full review to come):
Book shelves series #31, thirty-first Sunday of 2012
When I started this project I thought it would be a fun way to keep stock of the books that I have, and also a way to perhaps question why I hold on to the books that I hold on to.
I mean, why keep a book after you’ve read it?
Anyway, at times throughout this series I’ve gotten bored, or rushed; other times I’ve thought the idea was stupid, or narcissistic, or something even worse (although I don’t know what).
I like the shelves above the pedestrian, utilitarian jobber that I’ll feature this Sunday and the next: lots of aesthetically pleasing stuff there.
Not so this one, which holds photos and cookbooks and art books and old notebooks and sketchbooks and every kind of etcetera:
At least that’s what I thought until I started digging into the cramped top shelf, dutifully bound to this project.
I wound up really enjoying myself, pausing over volumes that I haven’t looked at in ages, like this beauty:
I’m not sure if the aesthetic joy of this postcard collection comes across in these lousy iPhone photo shots.
I got this on a trip to London when I was 11. It was just my mom and my brother and I. First we went to Singapore. We were coming back to the States for Christmas, and also to live, eventually. My brother broke his leg in Singapore jumping down some stairs and we didn’t realize it was broken until we got back to Florida.
I used to draw and paint all the time, especially as a kid. Mostly animals.
There are at least a dozen skinny books like this on the shelf:
I must have done hundreds of these as a kid:
The shelf is also full of old comic strip collections that you probably recognize, like these guys:
And this guy (and yes, I have the 7″ record from this collection)
I also spent half an hour revising Rublowsky’s 1965 volume Pop Art, which is kind of fascinating in its contemporary proximity to its subject.
The cover’s not interesting, but Ken Heyman’s photos are; they show the artists in process. This one is kinda famous:
And here’s Roy Lichtenstein:
Book shelves series #19, nineteenth Sunday of 2012.
When I started this project, this shelf was all Tolkien and Joyce; now it’s mostly Gaddis and Joyce.
I have dupes of most of the Joyce books here; there’s also Joyce criticism/guides on the shelf.
Another angle. Glare is horrible. iPhone is not a good camera; lots of glare; shelf is much taller than me, etc.:
Here’s a tight shot of the Brownie Six-16 that serves as bookend:
Something from Finnegans Wake :
Book shelves series #16, sixteenth Sunday of 2012.
It’s hard to photograph books, and using an iPhone 3gs probably doesn’t help. Lots of glare. Anyway: This shelf houses mostly Melville, with some Hawthorne, Poe, and Whitman, as well as some critical works on the American Renaissance movement. (Henry James and F.O. Matthiessen). I have other versions of a lot of these books, including a fraternal twin in my office, a bit bulkier (Emerson, Dickinson, Thoreau, etc.), although these days I’m apt to go to the Kindle for American Renaissance stuff. Here’s a better angle, perhaps:
The version of Typee is bizarre: no colophon, no publisher info, just text. I love these midcentury Rinehart Editions of Hathorne and Melville stuff:
Book shelves series #11, eleventh Sunday of 2012. DeLillo, Denis Johnson, Pynchon (no, I have not read Against the Day nor finished Mason & Dixon). There’s also a hardback copy of Bolaño’s Between Parentheses; I have an ARC of the same shelved with the other Bolaños, which are on the shelf under—but the finished copy won’t fit on the shelf and it fits here. For now.
Daniel Nayeri was born in Iran and spent a couple of years as a refugee before immigrating to Oklahoma at age eight with his family. He is the author of Straw House, Wood House, Brick House, Blow, a collection of four novellas; Kirkus called it, “Provocative and deeply satisfying,” Bookpage named it “a delightful amalgam of the high and the low, the silly and the sublime,”and the BCCB mentioned the “breathtakingly vivid word smithery” in its starred review.
In addition to his writing, Daniel is an editor of picture books, novels, and graphic novels at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, an accomplished filmmaker, and a professional pastry chef.
Daniel was kind enough to talk to us about his work via email.
Biblioklept: Your book was composed entirely on an iPhone. Can you tell us a bit about that process? How did you start? How intentional was the process in the beginning? Did you use a specific program? Did you edit on the iPhone at all?
Daniel Nayeri: Several years ago, I was reading an article about the “cell phone novel” phenomenon in Japan. The tone of the article was basically, “check out this super popular thing in Japan that all the literary folks hate.” It described the authors as these quiet teen girls, and early-twenty-something women, who would dash off a few chapters on the subway and email them to a website service. The authors didn’t do themselves any favors by saying they disliked reading “real” books, and the critics didn’t do themselves any favors by flipping out and wondering out loud if this trend meant the “death of the author.”
For me, the fascinating tidbit came from a few comments that noted the possible effects of writing on a cell phone. Every undergrad discusses the interplay of form and content (Dickens’s serialized form, the oral iterations of the Iliad, etc). I got really excited about forcing my imagination to live in an incredibly small space. The Japanese authors discussed that when they moved to computers, their vocabulary became “richer” and their “sentences have also grown longer.” I wanted to see if I could push those boundaries out a little (maybe I’m the crazy person who tries to paint the Mona Lisa on an Etch-a-Sketch).
As for the program I used. I bought the first-gen iPhone, so I was using the notepad app that comes with the phone (without cut and paste). To edit, I got very tired of deleting sentences and retyping them three pages down, so I created a code system. For example, if I wanted to move a paragraph up by two pages, I would bracket off the section I wanted and place a symbol next to it. Then I would go up two pages and just place the same symbol. By the end of my editing, there would be pages of work that were nothing but symbols, connected with various prepositions.
Biblioklept: Did you always have the idea to write a quartet of novellas over different genres? How did the idea come about?
DN: I think in general, novels have gotten fatter. As an editor, my first pass on nearly every manuscript is to ask for major cuts. I’m actually kind of petulant about it. My position is that if a book isn’t going to be as good as Anna Karenina, then it probably shouldn’t be as long.
It’s a reactionary position to take, so I thought I would challenge myself with telling stories and building worlds as large and as complex as I could possibly make them, with the limitation of 35-45 thousand words. Obviously, I sort of cheated by connecting some of my thoughts and themes in a collection of four. Hypocrisy and petulance—that’s the sort of delightful company you’ll get if you find yourself working with me.
(Another reason was that I’m still young, and I’d like to learn a lot more before I start demanding the attention of readers for five hundred pages at a time).
Biblioklept: What challenges did you face when working in the variety of genres you worked in?
DN: Presenting four very different voices (to whatever extent one might think it succeeded) is the aspect of this project I am most proud of, actually. The nicest thing anyone has said about the book so far has been to say it is, “the literary equivalent of a singer with a four-octave range.”
To me, it represents the ability to assimilate—a quality any first-generation immigrant valorizes at one point or another. When I first came to the states, I quickly took up the Texas/Oklahoma speech patterns. I was a voracious cataloguer of idioms. When I moved to New York, I did the same. I picked up “kitchen Spanish” in my years as a pastry chef. I love local parlance. As a kid struggling with English, having a proficient knowledge of colloquial expressions represented mastery over the language.
So to me, genres and forms with heavy use of lingo (sports writing, noir, poetry) were the height literary achievement. It sounds backwards, but if you learned the queen’s English first, then you value Huckleberry Finn’s jargon highest of all.
Biblioklept: Straw House, Wood House, Brick House, Blow is being marketed as a YA book. There’s been some debate in the past few years about a perceived sense of darkness or violence in YA. What place do dark or violent themes have in YA fiction?
DN: I almost never think about this as a writer. I almost never stop thinking about it in my capacity as an editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. My personal interests keep me PG-13, generally. But geez, people send me some crazy-inappropriate material—even for general consumption. Lots of incest. Lots of racial hang-ups. Lots of creepy.
I believe strongly in an editor’s responsibility to put out well-written work (whether or not it’s politically or ethically aligned with one’s self). The old Voltaire quote -– “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it” –- has difficult implications for “gatekeepers” in any media.
But just because there is an ethical challenge to acquire broadly, doesn’t mean the public can’t resist-—meaning that the marketplace often creates pressure to move material toward the unobjectionable. When minors are involved, however, I would hope there are adults who will curate the material. I think the majority of adults agree that there is such a thing as “age appropriateness.” I think both sides of the argument are often concern-trolling-—one side saying kids shouldn’t hear the f-word, and the other side screaming censorship to the culling of anything short of snuff-porn.
The conversation seems to dance around a rating system (as with the MPAA for films, or the ESA for video games), but that has a ton of complications. I’m not sure what I think of a rating system, personally. I just think the discussion would be more interesting than making fun of people over Twitter.
Biblioklept: What are you working on next?
DN: Straw House has four very western genres, so I’m working on another set of four stories, but this time in eastern genres. I’m from Iran and immigrated to Oklahoma, so collections about the East West interaction have always fascinated me (Rushdie wrote a great essay collection call East West).
There’s an Ibn Battuta travelogue, a 1001 Nights tale, a parable, etc. I’m about halfway finished.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
DN: I’ve never stolen from a retailer, but when I was in middle school, I volunteered at the local library. When I forgot to return books after a long time, the head librarian would let me go into the database and erase my fine, as well as the book itself. That’s how I got my first copy of The Fellowship of the Ring, a CD of Boston’s greatest hits, and a book on juggling. So basically what I’m saying is that I was pretty hardcore.
. . . it’s not too difficult, very obviously, to keep ten or twenty or let’s say even a hundred books; but once you start to have 361, or a thousand, or three thousand, and especially when the total starts to increase every day or thereabouts, the problem arises, first of all of arranging all these books somewhere and then of being able to lay your hand on them one day when, for whatever reason, you either want or need to read them at last or even to reread them.
Thus the problem of a library is twofold: a problem of space, first of all, then a problem of order.
—Georges Perec, from “Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books” (1978)
Book shelves series #2, second Sunday of 2012. Master bedroom: Corner piece bookshelf in the southwest corner; two tiers + top shelf.
I didn’t take a picture of the entire bookshelf, a humble little two-tier piece that abuts the corner of any room with corners. Actually, I did take a picture—a few—but they just looked awful. Like I said in the first installment of this series, it’s not my goal to present aesthetically pleasing portraits of bookshelves.
This corner bookshelf was my grandmother’s and I’ve had it for at least 10 years. The top shelf holds five books that rest there for entirely aesthetic purposes; looking at them now I realize that, with the exception of the Audubon volume in the middle and the Lewis Carroll on the end, I’ve never even bothered to flick through them. They look strange photographed here without the framed photographs, plants, and tchotchkes that attend most shelves in the house:
At one point, this entire piece of furniture was double shelved (is this a term? Do you know what I mean here?) with cheap mass market paperbacks, the kind of books that I bought and received for years. I rarely buy mass markets anymore; nor do I like hardbacks. I’m a trade paperback man. Still, some of the sci-fi/dystopian lit here was fundamental to my early reading habits, to the point where I even pick up newer volumes (like Philip Pullman’s books) in mass market paperback.
We also see here the first of many cameras scattered throughout the books in this house. This particular Polaroid is likely the least antiquated; I think it’s from 1999 or 2000. I took all these photos with an iPhone:
The shot is blurry, so you might not make out the cracked spines, but there are many Huxley books there (although it occurs to me now how odd it is that only one Vonnegut volume is there, when I know that I have so many more somewhere). Two noteworthy Huxleys:
We have children. There are children’s books everywhere in the house, organized in no particular fashion. The drawing and painting books belonged to my grandmother, who was an amateur painter. I am fairly familiar with these books.
More kids books. They were probably stuffed here after piling up on the floor one night. The box is full of homemade dice and preserved insects:
And more mass markets—sci-fi and fantasy. Many of these were, uh, “borrowed” and never returned, either from a school that I used to work for (The Left Hand of Darkness; Alas Babylon, the aforementioned Pullman volumes), or from dear friends (I’m looking at you, William Gibson books). There are probably 50 more books like this in a secret stash in the back of the house, out of sight:
The Lord of the Rings trilogy is an early paperback edition, sporting Tolkien’s original illustrations. My aunt gave me these. I’ve probably read The Lord of the Rings more than any other book, and I’m almost certain that I’ve owned it in more editions than any other book:
A dear friend lent me Gibson’s Neuromancer years ago; I know Gibson’s other early books (the first two trilogies) must be somewhere around the house, unless I passed them on, but I’ve always been fond of this book, which taught me how to read in some ways:
So we’ve made it out of my bedroom—I chose not to take a picture of my wife’s night stand, for her privacy, I suppose, although she might not have cared. (She doesn’t read this blog and is likely unaware of this weird project). There was a Hayao Miyazaki adaptation she was reading to our daughter there, and Hemingway’s novel The Garden of Eden, which I think she finished just the other night.
Every library answers a twofold need, which is often also a twofold obsession: that of conserving certain objects (books) and that of organizing them in certain ways.
—Georges Perec, from “Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books” (1978)
For all of 2011 and half of 2010, I ran a death mask on this blog every Sunday. I liked the idea of having a regular, uniform post on the blog, and I enjoyed searching for death masks (and life masks) and learning about them. However, my interest is waning; it’s time to move on.
Still wanting to run a regular post each Sunday, I’ve elected to photograph the bookshelves, or the surfaces that hold books in my house. These will not be beautiful, arranged pictures, but rather simple pics from my iPhone documenting the spaces that books occupy. I will photograph each space “as is” and then remove a book or two, photograph it, and then comment on it.
I didn’t know where to start, so I started with what may be the most plain book shelves in my home, the nightstand next to my bed. (Right now it is unusually tidy, having been cleaned out and partially restocked for the new year; in a week or two it will be crammed to its wooden gills). Here is what it looks like:
Not very exciting, I know! This is perhaps the only photo in this book shelf series that will not feature shots of spines. Like I said, I don’t plan to arrange any of the shots in this series. I talked about a lot of what’s in here in yesterday’s riff on recent reading and a post last week on stuff I plan to read in 2012.
Stuff on the top tier tends to be stuff I’m currently reading; the second shelf is filled with books I’m always rereading, or picking at slowly. The third shelf is where stuff goes to marinate or get dusty or cry to be shelved.
There’s also a bunch of kids book on the floor. More kids books are in this giant magazine stand, along with some notebooks, art pads, and probably an actual magazine or two (Anthony Browne’s book Changes is a surrealist masterpiece for kids, by the way):
The Perec quote above comes from an essay collected in Species of Spaces and Other Pieces. “Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books” will be in some ways the guiding inspiration for the Biblioklept book shelf series; my aim is not so much to present beautiful pictures that show off my books (I’m not equipped to do that, and other people do it very well already), but to comment on how my books are arranged and how they move and flow throughout the house; it will also give me a good opportunity to pick up books that might have been lingering (do books linger?) on a shelf for sometime.
I pulled these three books, not quite at random, from the shelves. The Perec book is one of those volumes I like to read scattershot-style. The latest issue of Paris Review still has a few pieces I haven’t read. Nausicaa: I meant to start it the other night. It will migrate to another room, a day-reading room, not a night-reading room:
I don’t anticipate future book shelf posts being quite this long; my intention here is to kind of set the ground rules (for myself) or delineate both spirit and letter to this project. As such, a final note on movement: I will move “outward” from this nightstand, photographing any place where books are set. I will photograph every kind of book in this house in its natural habitat; this includes children’s books and cookbooks, but does not include personal photograph albums, instruction manuals, or anything else of that nature. I plan to do 53 total book shelf posts, including this one (there are 53 Sundays in 2012).
My hope is that readers will respond to these posts by sharing their own bookshelving habits.
This one looks pretty cool: Daniel Nayeri’s quartet of novels Straw House, Wood House, Brick House, Blow. Publisher’s description—
Written entirely on an iPhone, this quartet of YA novellas by Another Pan and Another Faust author Daniel Nayeri showcases four different genres.
This bold collection of novellas by Another series author Daniel Nayeri features four riveting tales. These modern riffs on classic genres will introduce young adult readers to a broad range of writing styles that explore universally compelling themes such as identity and belonging, betrayal and friendship, love and mortality.
Straw House: A Western sizzling with suspense, set in a land where a rancher grows soulless humans and a farmer grows living toys.
Wood House: This science-fiction tale plunges the reader into a future where reality and technology blend imperceptibly, and a teenage girl must race to save the world from a nano-revolution that a corporation calls “ReCreation Day.”
Brick House: This detective story set in modern NYC features a squad of “wish police” and a team of unlikely detectives.
Blow: A comedic love story told by none other than Death himself, portrayed here as a handsome and charismatic hero who may steal your heart in more ways than one. With humor, suspense, and relatable prose, this hip and cutting-edge collection dazzles.
The book also came with this cool, I dunno whatchacallit, bookmark? It’s flat:
—and then it pops up, 3-D style. Zing!