Column: A Classic from Classical Anna

June 23, 2009

(Lesismore’s note: As part of an introduction to our new contributors, here’s an early column from Anna Williams written on November 29, 2007 in the Daily Cardinal. Check back on Thursday for the first installment of her “Classical Anna” feature.)

(Author’s note: This is one of my favorite columns because it captures both my mental and physical connection with books. It highlights the sensual experience of reading a book, which is often overlooked. There are a few things I would change about the writing (particularly the sentence structure), but it shows off my voice. I hear the Kindle is doing well lately and that makes me sad.

“No, no, no, no!” That was me as I read an article from the latest issue of Newsweek entitled “Books Aren’t Dead (They’re Just Going Digital).” In this horror-inducing article, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos promotes his new electronic doo-hickey “The Kindle” as the savior of reading. Apparently, the Kindle is a gadget that holds over two hundred books and displays the pages on a screen.

Now, one might suppose that being the literature lover that I am, I would be in support of any new device that promotes and spreads reading. After all, Bezos says the underlying idea of the Kindle “is that you should be able to get any book – not just any book in print, but any book that’s ever been in print – on the Kindle, in less than a minute.”

But no. Despite all its advantages and possible benefits for reading, I do not support the Kindle. In fact, it makes me want to vomit. I love books, and by that I mean not just the words that when strung together form ideas, convey emotions and create a story, but also the physical book itself – feeling the soft pages of a book beneath one’s fingertips, dog-earing the pages, bending the binding. For me and many other readers, reading is not only a mental and emotional experience, but a physical, sensual one as well, and if books become mainly electronic, an essential part of the reading experience will truly be lost.

For instance, one of the best parts of reading is the smell of the book. In fact, I even consider myself a connoisseur of book smells: my sense of smell is so refined that I can detect a difference, no matter how small, between every book I’ve ever read. Even more than that, these scents are tied to my memory – all I have to do is flip through the pages of a novel, breath in the scent, and I am instantly taken back to the time when I first read it. Imagine me and other book-scent experts pressing our noses against a Kindle! All that would accomplish is smudging the screen.

Furthermore, if this Kindle creates the revolution in reading that Bezos predicts, we will lose the human mark and history that the physical book records. And readers love this history – why else would so many people collect used and first editions? I have many books my grandparents once owned, yellowed with age, their margins scribbled with notes. Sometimes I even find old newspaper clippings tucked between the pages. I just don’t think a future kid will appreciate it in the same way if his grandfather passes a Kindle along to him. (Grandpa, this is just a regular Kindle. I already have the Kindle 2.0!)

The idea of a world where people sit curled by the fire reading from an electronic screen or read to their children at bedtime from a Kindle sends a chill down my spine, as it should for any true book lover. So, here’s my plea to all readers out there: don’t buy the Kindle! Never ever! Instead, I suggest we all celebrate the launch of this little gadget by going to a local bookstore, buying a real book or two, flipping them open, and deeply inhaling the pages.


Column: Attempted Book Burning in WI

June 17, 2009

Apparently, the CCLU forgot the Inquisition is over

By Les Chappell

The Lesser of Two Equals

June 17, 2009

(I had been planning to write my column for this week on as a musing on just how much blame we as a consumer base are to blame for the closing of independent bookstores, but a link on Neil Gaiman’s website has pushed me into diatribe central today.)

While I no longer live in Wisconsin, having relocated to the greener valley of Portland almost a year ago, I retain a fondness for the state in which I spent the last 12 years of my life and where so many family and friends of mine still reside. As such, I like to keep an eye on how things are going in the state, both to remain up to date on issues I followed before leaving and because I am eagerly awaiting the weeping and gnashing of teeth should Brett Favre make his way to the Vikings.

Usually I enjoy the news that comes out of the state – and occasionally find a moment that pleases my bookish instincts – but this recent article from the Guardian (in the United Kingdom of all places) has been able to rouse a rare anger in me. In the proud tradition of Wisconsin’s housing political extremes on both poles (this is the state that brought us Robert LaFollette and Joseph McCarthy, lest we forget), we now see there are still parts of the state willing to go against the written word and channel the spirit of Tomás de Torquemada.

As the Guardian reported, the lawsuit has been brought by the Christian Civil Liberties Union on behalf of elderly West Bend citizens against Francesca Lia Block’s “Baby Be-Bop”, a young adult novel that focuses on its protagonist Dirk’s struggle to come to terms with his homosexuality. The book was depicted as part of a display in the West Bend Community Memorial Library, and apparently its appearance caused great trauma to the “mental and emotional well-being” of the plaintiffs by containing racial slurs toward gays and African-Americans.

Now this sort of argument is nothing new to the world of literature – books from “Huckleberry Finn” to “Naked Lunch” have been attacked on the grounds of obscene or insulting language. Even in West Bend it’s a familiar story, as some residents recently lost a campaign to restrict young adult titles of this nature. The key point here is what the plaintiffs are seeking: $120,000 in compensatory damages for being exposed to the title and the right to publicly burn the book for being a hate crime, “explicitly vulgar, racial [sic], and anti-Christian.”

I will repeat that: they want to publicly burn the book.

668px-Santo_Domingo_y_los_albigenses-detalleNow, I haven’t read it myself so I can’t comment on how offensive the content is, and in the interest of tolerance I will recuse myself from any religious judgment. What I will not excuse myself from is my anger at this ignorant assault on the concept of a library.

To me, a library by definition exists as a place that holds all books and offers their use in a neutral context, letting its visitors and members sift and winnow through the information at their own pace. The word “public” is put before the word library for a reason, in that anyone who goes there should expect full and unfettered access to its contents. Censoring what content is held in a library beyond exercising reasonable control (i.e. making sure erotica isn’t shelved alongside Louis Sachar) is only a few steps away from the Index Librorum Prohibitorum in my perspective.

Anyone who tries to remove titles from a library based on their own moral objections is implicitly stating that they consider their opinion above any other person’s ability to interpret the book, and that their negative reactions outweigh any potential positive someone else might find in the title – an attitude that implies an arrogant disregard for others thoughts. The argument is made that removing these titles creates an safer atmosphere for children, but I counter that removing these titles is a much more detrimental move. Censoring what children read is a job for the parents, not some authority figure who judges a book based on a few words.

This doesn’t even consider the logical paradox being demonstrated here, which has made blood pour slowly from my ears as I try to comprehend it. A large part of the group’s argument is based on the fact that the book (and I am quoting a legal document here) “constitutes a hate crime,” the words in the book “permeate violence” and that it “degrades the community.” And so to preserve the community, they want to hold a public ceremony condemning this work and destroy it in a gesture that evokes memories of Nazi Germany. There are irony flares going up in all directions.

Now, given the dismissal of the earlier attempts to “clean up” the library and the track record in this country for assaulting titles, I doubt “Baby Be-Bop” will be seeing an inferno anytime soon. But this still holds up as a cautionary tale: people who value their libraries need to keep an eye on them in case of the people who don’t.

Les Chappell encourages all of you to mail copies of “Tropic of Cancer” to Ginny and Jim Maziarka, who pushed for the earlier ban at the West Bend Community Memorial Library. If you don’t share his pettiness, then send your support to the West Bend library board for doing the right thing.


Column: Reading List for Summer 2009

May 27, 2009

reading_in_the_sunWell, Memorial Day weekend has come and gone, and with the beginning of summer the weather is now nice enough that hopeless shut-ins like myself can finally pry themselves away from their reading chairs and migrate outside to read amongst the sun and the squirrels. And with the seasonal change comes the summer reading lists, where students of all ages are united in a grand act of procrastination that usually leads to spending Labor Day furiously skimming over a title bought three months ago.

In that spirit of setting unrealistic expectations, here is TLTOE’s reading list for summer of 2009. Sadly, I am not well known enough as a book critic to have my recommendations posted on these titles’ covers the way Oprah does, but feel free to put stickers on your copies and know your reading choices are supported.

1. The Personal/Professional Interest Title: “2666” by Roberto Bolaño

2666_CoverI read Bolaño’s “The Savage Detectives” as one last summer, and I thought that it was one of the best books I’d read that year, a sort of Latin-American/Beat Generation hybrid recounting four decades in the “visceral realism” genre of poetry. Bolaño seems to have become the greatest nonliving writer of our generation, with his works being published to almost universal critical acclaim. I normally steer clear of other reviews prior to reading a book, but since all my professional contemporaries seem to be praising “2666” as The One True God of fiction destined to inspire us out of the Dark Ages I am contractually obligated to explore it and see what all the fuss is about.

2.The Obligatory Classic: “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Ernest Hemingway

For_Whom_The_Bell_Tolls_CoverThe only one of Hemingway’s novels I have yet to read (discounting “The Old Man and the Sea” which is more of a novella). I’ve always liked Hemingway’s war-weary style and spartan prose, and this tale of an American solider fighting in the Spanish Civil War looks to capture my interest as much as “A Farewell to Arms” did a few months ago. Granted, “The Sun Also Rises” might be more appropriate thematically for a summer read, but I’ve been going in chronological order and would hate to backtrack.

3. The Random Recommendation: “The Year of Living Biblically” by A.J. Jacobs

year-of-living-biblically_coverRecommended to me by my apartment manager and scooped up off the sale tables at Powell’s, this is exactly the sort of book I would have reviewed in TLOTE had it been operational in 2007. The saga of a magazine editor who lived one year of his life according to the most literal interpretation of the Bible, it promises to be both hilarious and interesting, if the opening page’s photographic journal of his beard is any indication.

4. The Sitting-On-A-Shelf-For-Months Title: “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace

infinite_jestThis is really less a part of the reading list as it is a long-term goal I have been working at for the past four years now. I have regularly tried to pick up this behemoth on the dysfunctional Incandenza family and work my way through it, a process that is hampered by my distractable nature, its 1000+ page length and the flow-breaking footnotes that earn you a bicep workout just for flipping to the end of the book a record number of times. However, a mix of factors – a constant stream of recommendation by friends as a life-changing experience, the author’s tragic death last year and the fact that I finally got my copy back from storage – have led me to once again try scaling the mountain.

5. The Anticipated Release: “Losing Mum and Pup” by Christopher Buckley

losing_mum_and_pupI’ve been a devout reader of Buckley’s column for The Daily Beast ever since he caused a minor ruckus by announcing he would vote for Barack Obama, and I think the books of his I’ve read rank among the funniest. For those reasons his latest title, a memoir on losing his famous and difficult parents in the span of a year, intrigues me: how will a writer who is chiefly a humorist and political columnist approach such a (frankly) depressing topic, and what does he have to say on a relationship that was known to be contentious? Watch this space for my reactions, as it’s in the review queue as soon as I get my copy.

6. The Book I Missed At First: “The Graveyard Book” by Neil Gaiman

the-graveyard-book-WEBDespite my affection for Gaiman’s writing I didn’t manage to read this one when it first came out, chiefly due to the fact that it overlapped with the “Coraline” film release and the reading/viewing occupied my attention. By the time I finished with that, it was a Newbury award winner and all copies vanished from the shelves for a few weeks until they could be reprinted with a shiny gold sunburst decal on the cover. Now that the reprints are out and Gaimania has lulled somewhat, this will be another title where I see what all the fuss is about.

7. The Book The Radio Told Me To Read: “An Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England” by Brock Clarke

an_arsonists_guide_coverAnother one I missed at first, I’ve been intrigued by it ever since I heard a feature about it on NPR when it was first released. It’s the sort of random concept that always appeals to me for the basis of a novel – a man accidentally burns down Emily Dickenson’s home and after his release from prison is framed for torching several other literary abodes – and critical response to the book has been rather positive. Reviews have pegged it as absurdist and quirky, two words that always bring me to pull a title off the shelf.

8. The Upcoming Text-to-Screen Preparation: “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy

road-cormac-mccarthy-hardcover-coverThe obligatory “read the book then see the movie” choice for this summer, in preparation for the fall release of the film starring Viggo Mortenson, Charlize Theron and Robert Duvall. The film’s release has actually been delayed for a year, and while I have yet to look into any details the film is apparently so good it stunned an Esquire columnist into silence for four whole pages. As I was very appreciative of “No Country for Old Men” and called years in advance how good the film would be, I have an obligation to experience this next volume.

9. The Book I Really Should Have Read By Now: “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” by Michael Chabon

the-amazing-adventures-of-kavalier-and-clayThis is the point where the literary elite get to beat me up and try to strip me of my rank and title, because I have to admit I know absolutely nothing about Michael Chabon beyond the fact that he has won a Pulitzer Prize and is “one of the most celebrated writers of his generation.” I tend to be a bit behind on contemporary fiction writers – Chabon, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Franzen to name a few – and I feel catching up is important. This one was picked because its comic-oriented story looked interesting, and I got my copy quite cheap.

10. The Book I’ll Be Rereading: “The Boys on the Bus” by Timothy Crouse

the_boys_on_the_bus_coverAfter Powell’s finally managed to get this book back in stock, I scooped up my copy right away. I read it a few years ago in college, but it’s a title worth owning and worth rereading – probably the best chronicle of what it’s like to be in the journalistic trenches of a presidential campaign and full of interesting portraits of other political writers of the time.

Will I get through all or even some of these works over the next three months, in between job hunting and barbecues and my own general distractability? Hard to say except for the fact that it’s a crop of titles I think I can’t help but get into.

So, what are you reading this summer?


Book Service Review: BookMooch.com

February 25, 2009

bookmooch_logo

As a freelance book critic, former employee of publishing houses and domovoi of Powell’s Books, I tend to frequently find myself in possession of more books than I can handle. A packrat nature means I like to keep as many of them as I can, but considering I live in a one-room apartment that stores only two major shelves, some titles and I are always going to have to part ways – especially if some of said titles are rejected for review or were so bad they have no place on my shelf.

Now when clearing out your library there are a few options. Certainly, stores like Powell’s and Half-Price Books are willing to pay for titles, but you have to haul rather heavy boxes to do so and run the risk of the books being undervalued or turned away. You can also give the books to a thrift store or to friends, but if you’re getting rid of titles you paid more than a little for (i.e. any books you didn’t buy used) you may feel a need to recoup your investment.

Selling and gifting books may seem the only alternative to letting them take up shelf space, but thanks to BookMooch.com a third option exists: barter. Founded in 2006, BookMooch.com is built on the principle of “give books away, give books you want” and successfully implements this concept through an accessible interface and a surprisingly broad range of titles on display.

illustration

To use BookMooch, simply register for a free account and use the homepage to add titles to your inventory, which the site identifies through a connection to the Amazon site of your country. Your books are then placed into the database where other users can find them in a search, and you receive an e-mail notice the same way you would for any eBay bid if it is requested. When requested you are provided the address and note from the moocher, and you may accept or reject. Accepting a mooch awards you a point, which can then be used to request books from other user inventories

How soon your books will be scooped up varies depending on titles posted, and what people have on their wish lists. I posted about half a dozen economic or political books I’d collected when my office was throwing out surplus, and most of those were mooched within 24 hours – though with one or two exceptions all were mooched by the same person, a site administrator who runs a book trading group between several university campuses. To experiment I posted a few duplicates of favorites I own, and while “Hooking Up” (Tom Wolfe, not Tila Tequila) is still up two weeks later, “Naked Lunch” is on 75 wish lists and was claimed in five minutes.

Once you accept a mooch, you can contact the seller directly for any clarification and keep them apprised through the site, which lets you mark when books are shipped out or if there are any delays. Shipping is simple, particularly as you’re only sending books – thanks to media mail you pay a flat weight rate much cheaper than normal shipping costs. International shipping will of course be more expensive, but BookMooch actually compensates you with two additional points for sending to another country. Once shipped, users give you feedback in the same way as eBay bids.

Giving away books proved easier than expected, but cashing in points proved a bit trickier. I searched for the authors whose canon I’m striving to complete, as well as some possible review titles, and found nothing in the way of what I was looking for. Some of those titles did pop up in a broader search, but a language barrier came up quickly: do I really have any use for “Anansi Boys” in Spanish, a Swedish version of “Fight Club” or a dozen German Terry Pratchett novels?

Yes, if you go into BookMooch looking for specific titles the odds are good you may not find what you’re looking for right away, unless it’s a title usually found at airport kiosks. At its core BookMooch is a bazaar of used titles, and like any used bookstore there are books being given away for a reason. The “Most Available Books” section is topped by “The Da Vinci Code,” followed by the works of Michael Crichton and John Grisham – barely a Vonnegut or HST to be found.

If you want to cash in your points, I recommend following proper used bookstore protocol and simply browse until you find something interesting. I randomly searched through author names and topics and found a book on literary quarrels, a collection of Montaigne’s essays and a Neil Gaiman short story collection. They’re not the sort of titles I’d go to the store looking for, but ones which I saw and knew I’d enjoy.

If there’s a particular title you’re looking for you can create a wish list and be notified by e-mail, but you’ll have to respond quickly if many users have it listed. Also, be sure to note that mooching from another country costs two points.

Overall, I endorse BookMooch – after only a few weeks of using the service, I’ve added four new titles to my shelf and cut my surplus down by a dozen with no problems in receipt or communication. It’s certainly not the site if you’re looking for something in particular or instant turnaround on your extra books, but if you want an informal exchange and used bookstore feeling without leaving the house it’s certainly worth registering an account.

For more background on BookMooch.com, I recommend:
Clear the Bookshelf and Fill It Up Again, All Online, by Joanne Kaufman, The New York Times, October 15, 2007


Finite Jest: A Eulogy for David Foster Wallace

September 15, 2008

Finite Jest

A Eulogy for David Foster Wallace

“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!”

- “Hamlet,” Shakespeare, Act V, Scene 1

“You’ll worry less about what people think about you when you realize how seldom they do.” – “Infinite Jest”

David Foster Wallace was the smartest fiction writer I have ever read – and I don’t make that claim lightly. A philosophy major with a focus on logic and mathematics, he moved on to become a journalist, essayist and fiction writer, most well-known for his magnum opus “Infinite Jest” and a style of writing that was both scientific and ironic. In a review of his short story collection “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” I wrote last year, I made the claim that Norman Mailer’s old quote about William S. Burroughs – “The only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius” – was now to be applied to Wallace.

And now, thanks to the slap-in-the-face of this weekend, I can no longer make that claim. Wallace has now given our generation a literary equivalent to Elliot Smith – someone still in the prime of life and talent, cutting their lives short for reasons concocted in minds that operate at least three levels above the normal person.

I’m not going to talk about death or motives or any of that here, as it’s not my job and I don’t want to rub any wounds raw. What I do want to do is take a moment to acknowledge a talent and voice whose absence leaves us much poorer.

As a qualifier, I have to admit that I am not as much of an expert on Wallace as some of my close friends – many of whom have repeatedly hammered to me that “Infinite Jest” is a life-changing experience. I have started reading it on more than one interval and gotten to about 400 pages in, but the fact that I have so many other books to read keeps me from tackling deep into it (that and reasons I’ll get to later on). I’ve read “Brief Interviews” and have one or two of his essay collections in my cue, but compared to other authors he’s not in my roster of being able to talk about at will.

It doesn’t mean I don’t have any experience to talk about him though. For one thing, I loved “Brief Interviews.” I have a fairly low opinion of short stories – partly because I don’t seem to have the ability to write any of my own, but also because it seems like they all have the same voice and deal with the same angst-ridden topics of family, age, love and illness. And then all of a sudden, “Brief Interviews” proceeds to shred up the genre with some of the most surreal writing and clear intellect I’ve ever seen, dealing with some of the same topics but using word combinations I’d never seen before. Even though the review is a year old almost, all conclusions still hold true today.

“Infinite Jest” – at least what I got through – was easily one of the most innovative things I’d ever seen, and one that made me place Wallace as an heir to Kurt Vonnegut’s black satire. The Incandenza clan, a family that makes the Finches or the Sedarises look conventional, ruling over a tennis academy where drug use is rampant and (conveniently) a rehab center is located across the street. Years are now subsidized by corporations, a wheelchair separatist movement is forming in Canada, and a robber traumatizes his victims by sticking their toothbrushes up his ass and sending them photos of it three months later. (One of my favorite lines comes up when one such victim vows revenges, for his wife “who needed Valium just to floss.”) There’s so much going on and it’s all so inventive that I frankly have a hard time keeping it all straight.

That does lead to one or two complaints with his style – Wallace’s sheer intelligence also tends to work against him at some points, sometimes making me feel as if I’m not smart enough to read his work. Added to that, I thought the footnotes of “Infinite Jest” were one of the more frustrating devices used in a book – hilarious though they were – because you can’t expect someone to read a part of a 1,100-page book, skip forward to the last 150 pages to find the relevant footnote and then cut back hundreds of pages to pick up exactly where you left off. He told Charlie Rose in 1997 that this was designed to reflect an altered view of reality, but I just couldn’t get past it for that many pages. (And this is coming from someone who reads “Naked Lunch” start to finish.)

But as I’ve pointed out in my Chuck Palahniuk review, an author’s style is something that has to be viewed and evaluated regardless of personal taste, and Wallace’s style deserved respect and praise. It’s a blend of philosophy and humor, written by someone who has a very particular view of how our culture and media function.

I have yet to read any of his journalism or nonfiction (the last time I randomly open ed one of his essay collections it read like a philosophy textbook) but with this sad advent I expect that his content will be reprinted and made more readily accessible to the masses. I mean, look at what Wikipedia alone can cite as his output: coverage of tennis, David Lynch, special-effects, lobster festivals and John McCain. (I can also imagine a David Lynch-directed film using special effects to have a lobster and John McCain in a tennis match, mostly to inject a slide of humor but also because I’d really like to see that.)

So, for the minimum fourth time in my literate life (Hunter S. Thompson, Mailer and Vonnegut being the first three) I’m left with the bitter loss of an author I deeply respected but comforted slightly with the mammoth output they left behind for me to appreciate. Well, appreciate is too strong a word in Mailer’s case, but that rant will have to wait before this tribute reaches the length of a Wallace novel itself. For now, a removal of my fedora and a nod of respect to an author who is one of the most original voices in contemporary literature.

And after that, you’ll need to excuse me, as there’s something I need to do that involves a month of my time, a really sturdy desk and at least two bookmarks.

“Assume for a moment that some of these measures really have helped make our persons and property safer—are they worth it? Where and when was the public debate on whether they’re worth it? Was there no such debate because we’re not capable of having or demanding one? Why not? Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?” – DFW, The Atlantic, Nov. 2007, “The Future of the American Idea”


Cardinal Column #15: The Final Countdown

August 14, 2008

(Editor’s note: This was my final column for the Cardinal, written hoping to get a better sense of closure to my project and talk about two of my favorite books. By picking the two, I was – as I said in my writing – genuinely surprised and pleased to find common links and be able to elaborate onto them. Not much else to say here as this was a column written as my own reactions, so I have no other reactions to add to those.

With the posting of past columns completed, don’t think this will mean I have nothing else to say – I hope to move onto printing new content fairly soon, once my relocation to Portland, OR gets sorted out. Stay tuned for more than partial excitement!)

Les is no more: a tearful farewell to our book worm

Originally published in The Daily Cardinal, April 26, 2006

As Mr. Fitzgerald put it, “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past …” Yes dear readers, the time has come for my final chapter, and the last installment of “The Lesser of Two Equals.” Next year, I move on to greener pastures (or at least sleeping Monday nights with no deadline) and my deviant typist photo will be retired.

I thought long and hard about this final column, and doing justice to the best writing experience of my college career. First, I thought I’d list off my favorite books and authors and be culturally relevant, but my fellow columnist Pudas beat me to that idea—and even took the closing line I wanted. First he makes me overdose on gin, and now this.

Then I decided to turn to the old reliable of addressing readers’ concerns, except for the sad fact none of you seem to have any. In 14 columns I’ve received five e-mails, most of which were, instead of personal questions and literary debate, bitching at me for not being harder on the lying author Nasdijj and praising my knowledge of “Choose Your Own Adventure.”

There are two questions, however, that I’ve been asked before this column started and increased during publication: what was the first book you ever read, and what’s your favorite book? I tend to give evasive answers to these questions (i.e. bullshit my way out) because my book collection is ludicrously difficult to decipher, but for my denouement I thought I should try to answer them both.

My first book (cue tender music) was a children’s book by Marilyn Sadler, called “It’s Not Easy Being A Bunny.” In it, P.J. Funnybunny grows tired of being a bunny and takes off to live with other animals, ranging from birds to beavers to skunks. However, when he learns he can’t fly or work hard or stand the smell, he realizes he’s happiest being a bunny and goes home to the family burrow.

Hearing this at a tender young age, free from college cynicism, was one of my best youthful experiences and I both read and had it read to me many times. In addition to a simple format—P.J. moving from one animal to another, rejecting each one and building up a list of past efforts—it had a gentle theme of finding yourself and appreciating what you had. Additionally, the image of a tiny rabbit making moose calls is still one of the cutest things ever.

Keeping to my sympathetic side, this book still holds a close place to my heart—on my desk back home in Brookfield, where it remains safe from my college excess. Even now on vacations, I still pick it up late at night and peruse its well-taped pages, harkening back to the days when my vocabulary had 20 words and being you mattered most.

After remembering this from 15 years ago, I was struck by the radical shift to my favorite book (cue orchestral crescendo) and the only book I own multiple copies of: Hunter S. Thompson’s drugged-up epic “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” I first read this on a drive to Indianapolis, and the trip we were taking to a gaming convention was quickly displaced by a head-trip of literature.

Beyond the fact that this was the first book to make journalism look like a cool profession—Raoul Duke and his attorney driving around in convertibles, loaded on amyls and acid and not paying for any of it—it was also one of the few books to jar me into alternate perspective. Not only was it original, but its fluid, stream of consciousness format passed my ultimate test: I not only wanted to read more of this, I wanted to write like this.

Making these two choices was difficult, but it also birthed a startling question—how did I go from a white rabbit with bird aspirations to an acid-fried attorney demanding “White Rabbit?” Were these themes of brazen individuality, trips saluting the fantastic possibilities of life somehow connected? Did reading P.J. Funnybunny make me more receptive to Raoul Duke, and did this mean Sadler was inadvertently guilty of corrupting the youth?

Personally, I see it as a salute to the tangled web of literature that is out there. We’re all drawn to common elements in the books we read, and finding what those are elements is one of the best parts of developing our reading style. When we look back and find these threads, it’s not only an amusing coincidence but a sign of how our reading tastes are birthed very early in life.

Thanks for following along with me this year, and if you see me perusing in a Madison bookstore or library, don’t hesitate to say hello.


Cardinal Column #14: Performance of Literature

August 14, 2008

(Editor’s note: I’m running out of comments to say about my early columns, but as I’ve said about the latest ones this one has a great style to it and I like the tone of voice I fell into. I was also able to reference past columns in a sign I was building up a body of work, and draw on a lot of personal examples which really helps to put a strong face on the column.)

Chappell sees a voice – of the best authors

Originally printed in The Daily Cardinal, April 19, 2006

Recently, in the spirit of shared weirdness and as an alternative to productivity, my friend Pat loaned me a recording of William S. Burroughs’ live readings. The albums, leaping through Burroughs’ heroin-induced library of works like “Naked Lunch” and “Exterminator!” are a stirring cross-section of one of this country’s most original writers.

While I personally find Burroughs so powerful and disjointed I have to take his books slowly—I can’t stomach more than a few stories at a time—I could listen to an entire disc of those recordings without fail. Burroughs has an inimitable voice which is strong and raspy at the same time, a New York accent reeling off drug and sex acts like cynical advice to the youth.

Regular readers of this column may recall I once voiced distaste for digital books—to the tune of “I’m personally happier keeping my library on a shelf than on three CD’s”—but there’s a big difference between audio recordings and performance literature. When an author reads his own work it’s a different animal, a move that elevates the relationship between reader and author.

Turning reading into a performance is one of the oldest concepts in literature. The legendary blind poet Homer got his start traveling around Greece to read stanzas from the “Iliad,” and the Aztec codices—long, illustrated encyclopedias—were stretched out several meters long and read as a group. To these audiences, storytelling was the key factor, and the tone of the reader’s voice made as much difference as the right word choice.

Today, adding a performance angle to a book lets the audience hear what the writer’s thoughts sound like for themselves as opposed to interpreting them silently. Last year I saw Chuck Palahniuk read from his collection of stories “Haunted,” and his tone—starting out measured, rising and falling like a heartbeat in a haunted house—was so captivating I riveted my eyes open in awed surrender.

Granted, the stories had vivid details like fat men boiling alive in sulfur springs and cramming sex dolls with razor blades, but I hold the inflection of his voice made it all the worse to hear.

At least half a dozen audience members walked out on Palahniuk during that reading—a reaction he seemed very proud of and which exemplifies the power of audience reaction. Readings are the best opportunity an author has for critique, as a gushing book jacket quote can be solicited by any publisher—wide-eyed audience members clapping or fighting off vomit are harder to replicate.

In fact, the best writers can take this reaction a step further and use it to cultivate their own image. On the rare occasions when he did public speaking and recorded an audio version of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” Hunter S. Thompson spoke in Southern tones that were as staccato as his writing, while nonfiction’s Judas James Frey was apparently good enough at his talks he could make anyone believe his story.

Of course, being able to present their work in a public format is by no means a qualifier for success. Bob Dylan used Sean Penn to record his autobiography “Chronicles: Volume 1,” and it doesn’t dent the book’s quality (stepping back was actually a smart move, as Dylan’s ‘voice of a generation’ is lately in bad shape). Good writing will always stand on its own merits, and the written word can still have more impact than the spoken.

Anyone who can cultivate performance, however, will find themselves in one of the most comfortable positions a writer can find: able to interact directly with their work and see how it affects an audience. And, for fun, they can write about bloated warts and leeches and watch the book fans squirm.


Cardinal Column #13: Mixing Reading Genres

August 14, 2008

(Editor’s note: The result of a burnout during finals season and an idea from a Cigarro and Cerveja comic, I had a lot of fun writing this one. I got to be particularly schizophrenic in my style, splicing together what I was reading at the time and channeling my desire to be William S. Burroughs. I’m a huge proponent of the cut-up technique and how something new can come from mixed sources, and how when you hear something it can be rewritten a different way – often to a much better result. I have a mix of those experiments, some of which will soon be finding a new home on a new blog.

The first paragraph is particularly twisted, taken from my cookbook, cuts from my Journalism 560 and Art History 354 texts, Steven Levitt’s “Freakonomics” and Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” I was giggling like crazy while putting that together.)

Forget everything you know: Enter Les’ genre tornado

Originally published in The Daily Cardinal, April 5, 2006

“With the oven preheated to 350 degrees the New Yorker is run by decayed whores pouring over J. Walter Thompson advertising. Bernal redefines ancient models for advertising Aunt Jemima pancakes as electric snakes in the sky study how drug dealers still live with their moms. You can cook better pasta, and cook with glowing red rocks and metallic shrubs! Zip! Crack! Ow!”

What is this jumble, you may ask? Perhaps the latest mumblings from Scanner Dan between corncob pipes, or a waterlogged textbook with smeared type? In fact, it happens to be the first paragraph of an essay I was working on for art history, only four words of which can even be used in the final draft.

To answer your second question, I was not on drugs when I wrote this statement and I did not use a random word generator online in the hopes of digitally replicating a thousand monkeys on a thousand typewriters. Rather, I fell back on my more dangerous habit—mixing literary genres when reading and hoping I could absorb it all at once.

Being a university student naturally means you’re going to mix genres, as I can’t think of a single course at this school that doesn’t have at least one reading assignment due a week. These reading lists set traps for students that actually want to do well—either they’re crazy like me and consider reading assignments a challenge that needs to be met on time, or they put it off until the end of the year and overload.

Trips to the library for extra reading usually accentuate this problem, as I consider it a challenge to reach the university’s limit of 250 books checked out at one time. I stock up on almost every book I can get my hands on—I actually have so many right now my bedroom door doesn’t close fully—and promise myself that I’ll read them all before I go over six renewals and the librarians shoot me into the lake via trebuchet.

This blend of books results in a reading order that borders schizophrenia—a section of a textbook, a few chapters from one of the books on my reading list, a philosophy essay and then finishing a library book when I wake up from the philosophy essay. Add this to undergraduate insomnia, and the odds are your thought processes will resemble a Jackson Pollock painting by morning.

So why do I keep doing it? I have two reasons: first, an almost masochistic drive to finish as many books as I can and add them to my list of favorites on Facebook. When finishing a book there’s always a sense of personal accomplishment, and if you get all the way through you can pick up on enough little details to make yourself a formidable force in literary discussion.

The second reason is a bit more personal, and requires a passion for the absurd: mixing genres can often lead to more fun than reading books alone. Reading political commentary with cookbooks can make you very passionate about your next meal, while blending graphic novels and economic texts leads you to question exactly how superheroes can afford their headquarters and shiny gadgets on the unpaid intern’s salary of saving the world.

It’s not for everyone, but with a balance of books and sleep deprivation mixing genres can lead to some of the most interesting reading experiences ever. Just try to pace yourself when exams come—professors are not yet ready for a single term paper on MAD Magazine, Watergate and the conquest of the Incas.


Cardinal Column #12: Long-Running Series

August 13, 2008

(Editor’s note: A bit more fanciful at the beginning to begin with with my invocation of H.P. Lovecraft, but one I like particularly because it allowed me to rant about a topic rather than opening it up for discussion. This expanded Star Wars universe past the Timothy Zahn second novels makes my blood boil and spit into the eyes of authors like a blood magus. I support many of the old Star Wars novels – despite having sent all of my collection with Zahn and Aaron Allston the exceptions to Half Price Books – and those New Jedi Order ones were worse than expanded universe comic books [a topic for another rant].

A couple style issues here were too similar to some of my other columns, but I think this one makes some geniunely good points and an argument that I will continue to defend even now. However, reading some of Parker’s work since this was published makes me more willing to cut him some slack since his later work is better than before.)

Les wishes authors knew how to quit you, bad series

Originally published in The Daily Cardinal, March 22, 2006

For most vacations, I tend not to leave Wisconsin—my poverty from buying books and a natural laziness tend to keep me from hitting up exotic locales. I prefer to recharge my batteries by hanging around my old haunts, the bookstores and reading areas I occupied during my slightly more awkward high school years.

Unfortunately for my peace of mind this break, I made a discovery on par with learning that cephalopods of an H.P. Lovecraft-scale had crawled into my basement and established colonies with underfunded schools. (Now that was a weekend.)

What was this horror? The paperback release of “The Unseen Queen” by Troy Denning, one of the latest books in the expanded Star Wars universe. Apparently, no sooner had the Yuuzhan Vong been defeated (an act that took 21 increasingly long-winded books) then a new alien race appears to burn the galaxy for the umpteenth time.

The reason that this bothered me was not so much its defiling Star Wars—George “Let’s Photoshop Hayden Christensen into old movies!” Lucas has already done that—but that it taints some of my earliest memories. While other students were playing soccer in grade school I was finding a quiet corner under the slide to read Timothy Zahn’s “Heir to the Empire” Star Wars novel series, a saga which was a huge influence in my youth.

Much like long-running television shows, literary series have a tendency to jump the shark, going on for so long and changing style so much they’re no longer worth reading. Robert Parker’s once tense and witty mystery novels are just going through the motions (frame-ups and psychological conflict has been replaced by white-collar crime) and Robert Jordan has been writing the Wheel of Time saga so long even he admits the books are getting worse.

For me, the best book series are those with a set time frame to wrap things up in, or series authors develop so long that they have an end in sight at the very beginning. “The Lord of the Rings” worked well because its main story was contained to a trilogy, and with J.K. Rowling limiting herself to seven “Harry Potter” books there’s a lot less room for weird experiments (when main characters are dead, the odds are favorable we won’t see them again).

An author with a long-running series of books tends to lose their focus—I sometimes lose track during columns so I sympathize—but epic authors like Jordan or Terry Goodkind eventually wind up struggling for plots. When there’s no end in sight, even after dozens of books and endless impossible situations, it looks more like the authors will retire before their characters can win.

Killing off characters isn’t a good solution either, since many are so popular that removing them provokes a huge backlash (witness the death threats thrown against R.A. Salvatore for blowing up Chewbacca). More often then not, authors will have the character cheat a death that would kill most action film stars, then have them reintroduced so many times that most other characters stop caring.

It disheartens me to no end that Star Wars novels have fallen so far from their original nature, going from inventive novels to published fan fiction. In my personal opinion, those authors—and other authors who have trapped their own work in a death spiral—need to be forced into new universes, turning their talents to books that aren’t doomed for the shelves of Goodwill stores.

Yes, it’s always sad to bid a saga that gave us such distraction farewell, but in the end authors need to learn the lesson Lucas ignored: at some point, you’re doing readers a favor by stopping.


Cardinal Column #11: Interactive Fiction

August 13, 2008

(Editor’s note: Madly scrawled in a library computer a few hours before it was due, this column ranks as one of my favorites if not my favorite column I ever did for the Cardinal. Between real-world research and speculation on what I’d previously read, it was a joy to put together and see published – and also see reprinted on one or two websites. Definitely the head of the style I was putting together, and what I’d like to replicate in my future works.)

Literature and Internet collide, with interactive results

Originally published in The Daily Cardinal, March 3, 2006

While I’d be the last person to say there is a problem with reading books, I will admit the activity can grow a little monotonous. Not in terms of excitement or detail, no—more in terms of the fact that reading is a generally passive activity, where you follow along on a given path and draw the same conclusions.

However, it doesn’t always have to be that way, thanks to a recent rediscovery of an old classic: interactive fiction. A synthesis of books and technology better known as text-based games, interactive fiction was hidden for years under the shadow of computer graphics but has enjoyed a revival in the depths of cyberspace.

For an example of interactive fiction, I’m sure we all remember “Choose Your Own Adventure,” those wonderful little paperbacks which are probably the only books left to use second-person voice. The plots were laughable with titles like “Space Vampire,” “War with the Mutant Spider Ants” and “You are Microscopic,” but the sheer volume of books written meant that there was always some new absurdity. You could experiment with multiple escape routes, move to different planets or send yourself on courses you knew were cheesy and suicidal.

Most of us have moved past those simple books, but that doesn’t mean that we should have outgrown interactive fiction—in fact, at this highpoint of personal creativity we call college we should be getting back into it. With all the time we waste on procrastination or on actual studying, we could be writing our own alternative story.

While interactive fiction hasn’t been commercially noteworthy since the days of “Myst” and other adventure games, it’s still alive and well on the Internet. Companies like Malinche offer a wide variety of in-depth adventures ranging from going undercover in a mental hospital, captain of a U.S. naval cruiser or stranded at a gas station being shot at by a maniac.

Every one of these stories is not only accurate but exquisitely detailed—Malinche’s grandmaster Howard Sherman researches every story firsthand, including travels to Central and South America for first-hand information on Aztec ruins. The titles are also accessible in all media, usable on personal computers, PDA’s, cell phones and even iPods.

Thanks to the Internet, there’s even the chance to create your own games. Programs such as Inform, Hugo and Olitext offer software that can put together text-based adventures with varying degrees of difficulty, and there are also online wikis that allow you to either progress through the story or add your own chapters. (One unusual twist: some wikis, when you lead your character into death, require you to come up with two new plot trails. Gives you a little incentive to watch your step.)

The Internet could even reawaken the concept of interactive fiction done by established authors, such as Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” text game which contradicts the original and confuses readers in true Adams spirit. Who’s to say that Terry Goodkind couldn’t pen a massive interactive “Sword of Truth” story, or Dan Brown couldn’t write a piece with enough plot twists to offend every religion out there?

And why should established authors have all the fun? If you get a dozen or talented people together online, each of them writing down different settings and amusing ways to die, the odds are in favor of one of those paths turning into something truly unique. If one chain of events receives enough feedback, editing and dedication from its users, there could be a fully published novel hiding behind text commands.

A lot of speculation, I know—but that speculation is the beauty of interactive fiction. Like a Choose Your Own Adventure about ninjas and/or Mardi Gras, you can take it anywhere you want to go.


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