Jennifer Schuessler has a really fun and interesting article in this week’s New York Times Book Review about Bob Brown, the Godfather of the E-Reader:
Brown is perhaps best remembered for The Readies, a 1930 manifesto blending the fervor of the Futurists with the playfulness of Jules Verne. “The written word hasn’t kept up with the age,” Brown declared in the first line. “The movies have outmaneuvered it. We have the talkies, but as yet no Readies.” Enough with the tyranny of paper and ink! “Writing has been bottled up in books since the start,” Brown wrote. “It is time to pull out the stopper” and begin “a bloody revolution of the word.”
Brown’s weapon of choice was not ideological but mechanical. “To continue reading at today’s speed, I must have a machine,” he wrote. “A simple reading machine which I can carry or move around, attach to any old electric light plug and read hundred-thousand-word novels in 10 minutes if I want to, and I want to.” The machine he described, in which a ribbon of miniaturized text would scroll behind a magnifying glass at a speed controlled by the reader, sounds a lot like microfilm, then in development. But its truest inspirations, Saper argues, lay in the ticker-tape machine and in modernist experiments like Gertrude Stein’s “Tender Buttons,” which Brown first read as a young man while working as a stock trader and hanging out with poets. In 1931, after word of his machine spread, he published “Readies for Bob Brown’s Machine,” an anthology of experimental texts sent to him by Stein, Marinetti, Pound and others.
There’s actually an online demonstration of the machine, which is, not surprisingly, a bit difficult to use. (Or maybe it just takes some getting used to. Maybe.)
Her whole piece is really interesting, and I love these old-school mechanical reading devices. Reminds me of Julio Cortazar’s contraption for reading Hopscotch which features a dentist’s chair (or maybe a shrink’s couch) and an intricate series of little card catalog boxes containing each of the chapters from the novel. The mechanistic trick being that as you close one drawer, the next chapter to read pops out for you. (For anyone unfamiliar with Hopscotch quit reading this pointless blog and go buy a copy. Take a week off work. Whatever. And you’ll quickly find out how this book skips from chapter to chapter is a semi-achronological way . . .)
On the same day as the 2666 Launch Party (which, thanks to the
d-bags curators of myopenbar.com was crowded with non-literary folk [seriously, we should all prank them by submitting hundreds of fake events featuring free booze], although Zadie Smith, Natasha Wimmer, Michael Miller, Craig Teicher, Mark Binelli, and many more publishers/reviewers/authors were also in attendance) I received a copy of Sunday’s NY Times Book Review, which included Jonathan Lethem’s front-page review of the novel.
By bringing scents of a Latin American culture more fitful, pop-savvy and suspicious of earthy machismo than that which it succeeds, Bolaño has been taken as a kind of reset button on our deplorably sporadic appetite for international writing, standing in relation to the generation of García Márquez, Vargas Llosa and Fuentes as, say, David Foster Wallace does to Mailer, Updike and Roth. As with Wallace’s Infinite Jest, in The Savage Detectives Bolaño delivered a genuine epic inoculated against grandiosity by humane irony, vernacular wit and a hint of punk-rock self-effacement. Any suspicion that literary culture had rushed to sentimentalize an exotic figure of quasi martyrdom was overwhelmed by the intimacy and humor of a voice that earned its breadth line by line, defying traditional fictional form with a torrential insouciance.
Well, hold on to your hats. [. . .]
Bolaño won the race to the finish line in writing what he plainly intended, in his self-interrogating way, as a master statement. Indeed, he produced not only a supreme capstone to his own vaulting ambition, but a landmark in what’s possible for the novel as a form in our increasingly, and terrifyingly, post-national world. The Savage Detectives looks positively hermetic beside it.
After finishing 2666 this past summer, I wondered how anyone would review this. It’s long, complicated, and made up of five standalone (in a way) sections. Lethem does a fantastic job describing the novel, highlighting many of the interesting aspects without sugar-coating the novel’s “difficulty.”
On an interesting sidenote, the Inside the List section features a note on how foreign fiction has fared on the NY Times Best Seller list.
While Bolaño, who died in 2003 at age 50, has been receiving ecstatic critical praise since his work began appearing in English translation, he has yet to make the best-seller list. The world may be going post-national, but the list is still pretty much an English-only place — like the American book market in general, which has seen the publication of only about 320 works of translated literature this year, out of roughly 15,000 literary titles, according to Chad W. Post of Open Letter Press. This week’s fiction best sellers include only two translated books, both on the trade paperback list: Paulo Coelho’s Alchemist (at No. 8 in its 59th week here) and Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses (at No. 18 in its 17th week). Meanwhile, Stieg Larsson’s Swedish thriller The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo drops to No. 17 on the extended hardcover list.
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