The Klosterman Question

Great.  Just what I need.  Another indispensable writer.

I've been vaguely aware of Chuck Klosterman for some time -- have read, I suppose, the occasional essay or article.  A couple of weeks ago I read a review of Eating the Dinosaur -- it's just come out in paperback.  I was intrigued, but I'm trying to avoid buying new books until the stack next to my chair is whittled down to something slightly shorter than JoBug.

But I underestimated what I needed to bring to read for the flight to Pittsburgh.    By the time I got to Atlanta I was almost through the David Sedaris book that was supposed to last me the entire flight.  So I ducked into a Buckhead Books and scanned the new arrivals rack and there was Eating the Dinosaur.  I guess it was meant to be.

He's funny, but he's not a humorist.  He just has a funny way of looking at the world.  But he looks very deeply and uses his writing to try to figure out what he's seeing.  Why do interviews work?  Why does the notion of time travel make him feel so uncomfortable?   What does the Kurt Cobain's response to his rock stardom tell us about rock stardom in general?  What does Cobain's sanity, or lack thereof, tell us about our own?

In the essay about time travel he says,

Here's a question I like to ask people when I'm 5/8 drunk:  Let's say you had the ability to make a very brief phone call into your own past.  You are (somehow) given the opportunity to phone yourself as a teenager; in short, you will be able to communicate with the fifteen year old version of you.  However, you will only get to talk to your former self for fifteen seconds.

Coincidentally, I've been thinking a lot about my mid-teen years lately. 

Implicit in the question is the notion that you'd use those 15 seconds to somehow correct something based on the knowledge you now have.  Klosterman says the results tend to split between gender lines -- women "advise themselves not to do something they now regret..., while men almost always instruct themselves to do something they failed to attempt..."

I can't think of a thing.

It's certainly not that I don't have regrets.  The piles grow daily, I'm afraid.  There's the big ones -- I deeply regret the pain that I caused my first wife when I decided to leave that marriage.  Despite knowing that it was the right thing to do, I'll never get over it.  

And there are thousands of little regrets.  In Toronto a couple of years ago, I ended up at The Rex one afternoon.  It was a benefit show for an Asperger's foundation, and a young man with Asperger's spoke briefly about how important the organization was to him.   He spoke movingly and as he walked past me I placed my hand on his shoulder in what I intended to be a gesture of support.  He didn't flinch, but it was an incredibly dumb thing of me to do and my face gets warm whenever that memory floats by -- which it does uncomfortably often.

And why didn't I help those two young women struggling to pull their cart full of office supplies up the curb as I was headed out to lunch this afternoon?

But what could I tell that fifteen year old self that would, ultimately, have improved my life or enabled me to cause less pain to those around me?  I can't think of a thing.

Klosterman pushes you like that.  And I know he's going to talk me into buying more records.


Deep Reading Dylan

The alarm woke me from a dream where I was playing at an outdoor festival.  I was sitting in with a couple of people that I didn't know well.  It was just past dusk, and the stage lights were coming on.  Naturally, I was strumming a Dylan song.  ("Tangled Up In Blue," in fact, which I haven't played in quite awhile.)

No doubt this comes from having finished Christopher Ricks' Dylan's Visions of Sin last night.  I'd started it on the plane back from Honolulu and have been reading a bit every evening since.  I had a great time, but I have to think that the audience for it is pretty limited.  And that it is likely one of those books that far more people acquired than actually read.

No matter.  Ricks was clearly writing for the love of it, and it's a tour-de-force of close reading.  He uses the trope of the Seven Deadly Sins, the Four Cardinal Virtues, and the Three Heavenly Graces as an organizing principle.   But his interest is not so much what Dylan has to say about each of these, but to examine, in detail, how he achieves the poetic effects he does, particularly with his use of rhyme.  Ricks loves the mysteries of rhyme.

He sees things that I never would have noticed -- how, for example, the mix of masculine and feminine rhymes in a song can intensify the impact, and how different that impact would be if the mix were different.  Or, in noting the difference between a poem (meant to be read from the page), and a song (meant to be heard), how the singer's drawing a syllable across several beats can create an entirely different effect from what the words on the page alone would achieve.

Ricks takes pains throughout the book to make it clear that he is not suggesting that Dylan was consciously creating these effects -- at least not always.   Right at the beginning he addresses the question of intention:

...I believe that an artist is someone more than usually blessed with a cooperative unconscious or subconscious, more than usually able to effect things with the help of instincts and intuitions of which he or she is not necessarily conscious.  Like the great athlete, the great artist is at once highly trained and deeply instinctual.  So if I am asked whether I believe that Dylan is conscious of all the subtle effects of wording and timing that I suggest, I am perfectly happy to say that he probably isn't.

Ricks reveals himself to be a fine artist as well, dancing across the service of Dylan's lyrics with a light touch, throwing out a bouquet of allusions, puns, and startling correspondences with T.S. Eliot, Keats, and, of course, the Bible.  He liberally quotes the critic William Empson, the novelist Samuel Butler, and the dyspeptic poet Philip Larkin.

In the 40 years that separate his first book, Milton's Grand Style, from Dylan's Visions of Sin, Ricks has established himself as one of the premier British literary critics of the second half of the 20th century (and into the 21st, as he is still going strong, having just recently finished a term as Oxford's Professor of Poetry).   But here, he writes as a fan -- a fan who just happens to know more about the ways that poetry actually works than just about anybody else who might be inclined to try to write about Dylan. 

So what's the point of reading a book like that?  Did I come away from it with an enhanced appreciation for Dylan's prosody?  Will it increase my appreciation for his songs?  Probably not, actually.  It'll make me listen a little differently, I suppose.  Mostly, it was just great fun.


Writing and Thinking

It's easy to imagine Terkel's warm, soothing voice asking the questions as the kid from Hibbing sits nervously in the studio.  Terkel's about my age in this clip from an interview he did with Dylan in 1963, and he's been carrying on these kinds of conversations for a couple of decades.  Dylan is in his early myth-making phase, and you can pick up the untruths -- that he saw Woody Guthrie play in California when he was ten, that he lived in Mexico for awhile before he went to New York.  He doesn't repeat the bit about playing piano in a whorehouse in Denver, which was always one of my favorites.

But you also see how quickly he responds to Studs, and how quickly he trusts him.  This ain't no journalist trying to get a quick spin on the latest folk-craze thing.  This is somebody who understands, and who he can talk to, and open up with some.  With the current interest in all things Dylan occasioned by Chronicles and the Scorcese documentary, it's a perfect little bit to find tucked in at the end of Granta 90.  Once again, I shake my head in awe and admiration -- if I was ever going to be a real editor, my role model would be Ian Jack.

Jack has made Granta the very best English-language literary magazine in the world.  During the Fadiman years, American Scholar came very close, but I'm sorry to say that with her forced departure, the Scholar has declined somewhat.  It's still very good, but there's been a slight and subtle shift in tone -- it used to be all about the writing.  It has come to be about the content.  But content is everywhere -- we're drowning in the stuff.  Excellent writing gets tougher to find all the time.

What Jack seems to be doing with Granta, and what Fadiman did with the American Scholar, is to place content in the service of the writing.  To be sure, the content is often thrillingly wonderful, and Granta has the added challenge of organizing issues thematically, which pushes the content forward a little bit more; but the essence of the magazines is that every sentence sparkles.  I read Foreign Affairs regularly too -- that's for content, and means slogging through some of the most godawful dull and uninspired prose that any college professor teaching upper-level poli sci ever had to wade through.

Working in the web world makes good writing difficult, because good writing takes time. And sloppy writing enables sloppy thinking. "Web 2.0" actually speaks to something specific and so it  makes sense to me -- "Library 2.0" is sloganeering that signifies very little. "Open access" has become a label that can be slung around wildly with each walrus, queen or fuzzy-headed caterpillar given it just the meaning that they want it to have, and ignoring all other nuances. And don't get me started on the violence being done to the language by my president.

Writing ought to be a way of challenging oneself.  The words ought to poke back at you, cause you to sit up straight and ask yourself -- is this really what I mean?  Does this sentence really makes sense following that one?  Does that word really signify what I'm trying to get across?  But it appears that many people think they just have to transcribe the noise that rattles between their ears.  And noise is most of what comes across.


Return of Oxford American

I read through about half of the new Oxford American yesterday.   It's great to have it back.  Visually, it's pretty much the same (although I haven't picked up one of the older issues to compare exactly), and the quality remains very high.  Brenner's article about the Serpentarium and Budnitz's short story about the civil war doctor are as good as anything I've read in recent months.  My only regret is that they've now moved to a quarterly.  It was hard enough waiting for each next issue when it was bi-monthly!