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40% Reading Comprehension, and Dropping Fast! [Some October Translations]

A couple weeks ago I had a dream that I was dropping my daughter off at a “Reading Tutor” to study for some sort of standardized “Reading Comprehension” test for fifth graders. When I got to the shopping mall for tutors (dream!), I found out that, not only had her tutor quit, but that “Reading Comprehension” had been eliminated from schools as a whole because it was “worthless” and that students needed more time for engineering and making things.

I totally wigged out in my dream and went on a very Chad-like rant, spouting totally bullshit statistics about how the average American could only comprehend 40% of what they read, and without students reading and studying reading and thinking about reading, that number would drop to 5% within the next decade and we would be living in a world of people producing copy for people who—even if they could physically read the words—would understand shit.

Does this really seem all that farfetched? College students these days have basically no interest in the humanities (the 15% at Stanford seems like an exaggeration or outlier), and outside of college, the desire to “understand” literature has always been backburnered by a fascination with plot and whistles.

I’ve experienced this sort of “comprehension problem” myself. I read way too many books and articles and shit that I only vaguely remember a week later. So frequently I realize that I’m reading just to finish things and not to savor the style and way the book is constructed. I’ve found that I have to slow myself down, let things settle, mull them over—all processes that run counter to our app-heavy, distracted world.

This isn’t necessarily an anti-technology, atavistic bit, but I do think there’s a lot to be said for “slow reading” and being bi-literate. Like with the recent finding that people spend as much on ebooks as print books we are likely to always have two ways of processing text: on screen, where there are innumerable advantages to bouncing around, looking things up, skimming for key points, binging and purging on information, etc.; and in print, which lends itself to circling back, deeper periods of concentration, a different sort of “comprehension,” one which may not lead to a witty tweet, but can change the entire way you think about people, places, yourself.

College would be the perfect place to learn these skills, but with the cost, the internal pressures, the disincentives for going into academia, it wouldn’t be that surprising to hear of a university closing out most of its humanities in favor of more popular majors with brighter (re: lucrative) futures. This would be the worst thing that could happen to our culture. We need to up the average reading comprehension! 40% just won’t do!

Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia by Emmanuel Carrère, translated from the French by John Lambert (FSG)

You know that game that English majors/professors play where they admit, secretly, in embarrassed tones, over too many glasses of Chablis, which authors they haven’t read, but obviously should’ve? Where someone admits that they found Moby-Dick boring and everyone titters and condemns? Well, Carrère is my answer to that. Which, knowing my audience, really is pretty embarrassing. I own almost all of his books, am interested in all of it, but . . . something always gets in the way. That has to change. Starting soon, I’m going to probably read, most all of the words that he wrote. Slowly.

Zama by Antonio Di Benedetto, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen (New York Review Books)

Since no one I know in Rochester was willing to go watch game four of the Dodgers-Cardinals series with me, I’m watching at home, drinking beers, and writing this. Just a warning for whatever comes below. Right now it’s 0-0 heading to the bottom of the fourth inning.

Also, Esther Allen is the best. Anything she decides to devote her time to translating is definitely worth reading. This is true of a handful of translators—Susan Bernofsky, Bill Johnston, Marian Schwartz. The translators who are at the point where they can pick and choose their projects—and who have that rare gift of good taste—are the ones that I’m willing to follow anywhere. Zama just proves this point.

The Man Between: Michael Henry Heim and a Life in Translation edited by Esther Allen, Sean Cotter, and Russell Scott Valentino (Open Letter)

Technically, this is the first non-translation we’ve ever published. Also, this is the book that left both Kaija and I in tears. And will for anyone who knew Mike Heim. I’m going to save my maudlin stuff for our letter to subscribers, and maybe a separate post, but MHH made the world a better place and I’m really proud that Esther, Sean, Russell, and the other contributors allowed us to publish this. It’s a book that truly adds something to the discussion about translation and translators. If you’re at all interested in this subject, please read this book. You might cry, but it’s a worthwhile cry.

The Four Corners of Palermo by Giuseppe Di Piazza, translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar (Other Press)

We got a poetry submission earlier today that included this “selling point”: “Even if [my poems] are bad I want everyone to read them and enjoy them.” Thanks. Thanks a lot.

Tel Aviv Noir edited by Etgar Keret, translated from the Hebrew by Assaf Gavron; Tehran Noir edited by Salar Abdoh, translated from the Persian by several translators; Helsinki Noir edited by James Thompson, translated from the Finnish by several translators (Akashic Books)

The Nobel Prize in Literature is going to be awarded tomorrow, and although I want to try and convince myself to believe that there’s a possibility that Mikhail Shishkin will win, changing the fortunes of Open Letter forever, I’m sure either Murakami will win or someone whose work I should’ve read years ago.

Nevertheless, by tomorrow evening, approximately 500 American book commentators will have written this article:

Today, the Swedish Academy once again awarded the Nobel Prize to an obscure East European author that I’ve never even heard of. What bullshit! Why would they award this honor to someone that we, here in America, don’t even read? Why pass over Philip Roth, the Greatest Living American Author, who, remember, is AMERICAN, isn’t getting any younger, and is American. Instead, just like with Herta Mueller and that Elfriede lady, that group of Swedes intentionally found some difficult, strange writer whose books probably only sell 300 copies—and all to foreigners! This is an outrage. They don’t deserve this award! Their books suck! I’m never reading a Nobel Prize winner again until PHILIP ROTH PHILIP ROTH PHILIP ROTH

Monastery by Eduardo Halfon, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (Bellevue Literary Press)

Every year that the Cardinals make the playoffs, bunches of articles are written about how shitty Cardinals fans are. A lot of these come from Deadspin and revolve around the idea that Cardinals fans suck because they feel like their team does things “the right way,” and can’t understand why people don’t like them.

I usually shrug these articles off — including the recent Wall Street Journal “report” detailing why the Cardinals are the most hateable team in the playoffs — but for some reason, this year I’m extra-sensitive and have spent way too much time analyzing why these bug me so much.

It’s understandable that people will hate any team that’s successful on a regular basis, like Manchester United or the 90s Yankees, but hating a team’s fan base is slightly different. Sure, there are some awful Cardinals fans out there (like these assholes), but that’s true of basically any group of fans—some of them are great people, some are total dicks, and most are just normal. It’s possible that the “Boston Cardinals” wouldn’t get so much shit, and that this is part of the media world’s distrust of the Midwest, or if Cardinals fans weren’t referred to as “The Best Fans in Baseball” (which is stupid), but at the core, a lot of these articles are just mean-spirited and attempt to make people like me feel like a jerk for liking a particular team.

In the immortal words of Taylor Swift, “the haters gonna hate, hate, hate,” which is especially true when it comes to sports. I just wish people hated the owners and the teams and the crap parts of sports, like screwing up a town’s finances for a new stadium, or suppressing data on concussions, instead of hating fans.

Mostly because of Ozzie Smith, I’ve been a St. Louis Cardinals fan for over three decades. I grew up in Michigan, and was into baseball when Detroit won the World Series in 1984, but for whatever reason, I loved the speed and efficiency of those mid-80s Cardinals teams. Vince Coleman. Willie McGee. Etc. And ever since, for 162+ days of the year, I’ve known whether they won or lost, living with them in a way, and I think that’s something that, for sports fans, is a good thing. No matter who you like, having a team can add something to your life. The joyful pain of following sports is great for a lot of people. These have been special years for a Cardinals fan, but that will change, again. But I’ll still pay attention.

Who Is Martha? by Marjana Gaponenko, translated from the German by Arabella Spencer (New Vessel Press)

I’m pretty sure that over the past three weeks, I’ve started more than 80% of my emails with “Excellent!” Where did this tic come from? And why “excellent”? Is anything really that “excellent” in the daily Open Letter operations? At best these emails contain “good” or “passably interesting” information—but nothing that’s really, truly excellent.

Ironically, I just received an email with this subject line: “‘Excellent,’ ‘exceptional,’ ‘important’—Melania G. Mazzucco’s Limbo (FSG; 11/4).” A list of semi-meaningless crutch phrases all in a row!

Baboon by Naja Marie Aidt, translated from the Danish by Denise Newman (Two Lines Press)

I love this book. These stories are so pointed, sharp, aggressive, and filled with bad things happening. I also love Naja, and if you have a chance to see her while she’s on tour, you should go. She’s charming and an incredibly interesting writer. Next year, Open Letter is bringing out her first novel, Rock, Paper, Scissors. Both of these books should be finalists for the Best Translated Book Award.

Author and Me by Eric Chevillard, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (Dalkey Archive)

I don’t think we’ve received a review copy of this yet, but based on this excellent Kirkus review, I’m definitely going to check it out when it arrives. Just check out this line from the review:

Audaciously, Chevillard doubles down on this provocative setup by embedding a brief novella within one of the author’s footnotes—a 40-page footnote that’s hard on the eyes but oddball fun, casting the hero in to a slow-moving chase of an ant that also makes room for a love affair and a circus.

Pavane for a Dead Princess by Min-gyu Park, translated from the Korean by Amber Hyun Jung Kim; The Square by In-hun Choi, translated from the Korean by Seong-Kon Kim; Scenes from the Enlightenment by Namcheon Kim, translated from the Korean by Charles La Sure; Another Man’s City by In-ho Ch’oe, translated from the Korean by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton; The Republic of Uzupis by Haïlji, translated from the Korean by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton (Dalkey Archive)

This morning, I gave myself a belated birthday gift and went in for an hour-long deep-tissue, full-body massage. I usually don’t do this, but on top of having a bit of extra money thanks to my birthday last week, my mom had a “minor” stroke last Saturday (minor is in quotes because, although she’s OK now, in my world the words “stoke” and “minor” in no way belong together), which totally fucked me up. The amount of tension in my back had gotten so bad that I thought my spine might just crack in half.

During my massage—performed by the “Best Massage Therapist” in Rochester according to the City Paper—I kept waiting for her to be shocked by how messed up my back was. All I wanted was the confirmation that I was the tensest individual she’d encountered this week. “Holy shit, those knots! You’re a stress warrior!” Everything can be turned into a competition.

Tristana by Benito Perez Galdos, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (New York Review Books)

The Cardinals won! I didn’t think there was any way they would be able to beat Clayton Kershaw—probably the best pitcher in baseball, and possibly the NL MVP—three times in a row, but there you are! This means that I get to watch them for at least another week! (That is how I judge this. I still don’t think they’ll win it all, but I want that final disappointment to be as far off in the future as possible.)

More pertinent—how is this the first translation of this book? Galdos is often compared to Balzac, Dickens, and Tolstoy, wrote dozens of novels, and Luis Bunuel made a film version of this book. Most interesting though, according to Wikipedia, “A national subscription scheme was set up to raise money to help him, to which the King and his Prime Minister Romanones were the first to subscribe.” That’s kind of awesome, and hard to imagine any politicians doing that today.



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