Michael Wolff, Rabbi Warshaw, and the Washington Press establishment

Approximate Reading Time: 11 minutes

So, given the vagaries of surfing on the web (yes, I’ve been doing it that long that I still call it that… I started doing it in 1994; when did you start?) I ended up reading filtered accounts of the new Michael Wolff sensation of a book. I am speaking, of course, of Fire and Fury, just published, filled with “insider” revelations of the true tenor of life not only in the Trump White House, but the inner workings of his campaign leading up to the election. I’m not here to flog those confidences, though. There’s enough of that still going on.

I’m not even here to flog the reputation and working methods of Michael Wolff, whose reputation as a professional journalist among those who know his work long precedes him apparently. I am not ashamed to admit that I didn’t know his work. However, his reputation is not so great, especially among his presumptive colleagues, one would gather in the cataractous light of hindsight. His fellow scribblers had pretty much been keeping mum about his flagrant breaches of decorum, to hear them tell it, until he, in effect, opened his mouth with what is turning out to be a red-hot bestseller—no thanks to them and their overwrought efforts to subdue their anguish, especially once the president’s Tweets hit the fan. American journalists are particularly adept at not sounding like they’re choking, as they contort themselves into strangulated postures to retain their air of restrained dispassion. What they love to call the hard won perspective of “objectivity.”

Even as Wolff has been branded now variously a “liar,” “unprofessional,” “devious,” “mendacious,” etc. etc., there is a still barely audible counterpoint, call it a trickle of true neutral observation, that one must accept that book, having come through the apparatus of established publishing protocols by a reputed, if not an esteemed, publisher, has been vetted as far as a rushed account can be (it is still, after all, less than a year, if only barely, since the inauguration of our 45th chief executive). Presumably, and no doubt as will turn out reliably, it has been largely fact checked, gone over for the legal niceties that publishers – especially – worry about, and edited as well as a substantial book of nonfiction, 335 pages of it, can be in what is relatively short order, especially given its topicality and even more given the slipperiness, shall we say, of the sources.

Rather, my subject, as little attention as it deserves in this specific instance, is the attitude evinced by that aforementioned establishment press, especially in Washington, and in particular the so-called White House press corps – let’s face it, the heart of the monster that Trump has anointed with the epithet, used as much as an abstract noun as anything more precise, of “fake news.” Let me just observe for a moment here that, in the latest figures I can find from what I am satisfied is a more than reasonably reliable source, the U.S. adult public, with regard to the information they get, wrings this level of trust out of themselves for “national news organizations” as determined in a survey by the Pew Research Center in March, 2017 by political affiliation:

  1. Democrat: 34%
  2. Republican: 11%
  3. Independent: 15%

It should only be noted, and I add this significant detail somewhat bemusedly, that the question posited the level of trust being queried as “a lot.” There was no indication of what amount a “lot” is in either relative or absolute terms. The only sources that fared worse on this question of trusting the information to be derived “a lot” were “friends, family, and acquaintances” and “social networking sites.”

It is clear enough from the remarks I have seen in the casual conversation pits that form on Facebook of working journalists, past and still working, including many who worked national and international beats, including the Washington DC bureaus of their organizations, with a sprinkling assigned to the White House itself (I have not personally seen any remarks from present members of the Washington press corps) that Wolff has evoked a lot of feeling among his putative colleagues. Not a few people, and most of them are men, have had not merely exposure to the dispatches of Michael Wolff in the past, and not merely immersion in the gossip and scuttlebutt about his work, his methods, and the arc of his career, but had some acquaintance, most of it nodding or purely transitory, with the man himself. And very little of the first person accounts of any of the substance of these points of contact with either the person himself, or merely his work, and certainly of the unsubstantiated remarks shared about his character or his modus operandi, indeed possibly none, were what I would characterize as commendatory.

Few of these critics, as there’s nothing else to call them, have anything really revelatory to say that would represent a concrete argument for refuting the assertions of the book, as they’ve been reported in summary in the first news reports from leaked copies or as the actual text quoted in the usual places online or in print, sometimes at length. Rather, the remarks hint vaguely, I would call them rumblings of disquiet clearly meant to discredit without actually venturing into the territory of bald accusation and condemnation. His would-be censors apparently feel free to call him a “known liar,” but stop way short of calling any of what is in the book outright fabrication. Whereas, of course, the president himself and his usual corps of defenders have no problem concentrating their wrath on the veracity of the published accounts, rather than worrying the character of the author of them. Curiously, of course, and this is duly noted by the “fake news” sources, very few, possibly none, of the sources quoted in Wolff’s book have denied what was said.

The New York Times published one account that opined there was nothing particularly original about either the book or its purport – suggesting that it conforms readily to a genre of political confession that is not new, except to the extent that one would expect such embarrassing revelations to see print years after the first inauguration of a sitting president. In the case of George Bush one such book by an insider in his White House was published not too far into his second term. Thereby such books, meant to provoke readers at least to the level of fueling significant sales figures, but not to stir its most invested publics up to the pitch of kicking a hornets’ nest. Hence, Wolff has not so much created a new game, as he’s moved the goal posts – however one might state the objectives, beyond the realm of moving the book into the status of bestseller strictly for the financial rewards entailed – a lot lot closer.

However obscure the objectives of Mr. Wolff, his agent, his publisher, et alia, it is more fun, though admittedly no less unexplained, to speculate on the state of mind, at least, of his apparent detractors.

They all don the tone and demeanor, as I hope I’ve suggested, of the sang-froid for which the most trusted newscasters and reporters of our cultural past as a nation were always praised. Through blitzes (literally), through battle, through disasters, through political debacles, American reporters and the later phenomenon of the news anchor (who came to prove his –usually “his” – or her mettle by unchaining from the news center desk and going into the field, even unto the mouth of hell) were always expected in a stalwart way to appear imperturbable. Further, in a way that is uniquely American in terms of the canons of neutrality and objectivity that are the core of curricula in professional schools of journalism, at least through the 20th century, that imperturbability extended to an ethos of never revealing either a bias, never mind an opinion. I, never bound by such constraints, am willing to venture the observation that it was not until the advent of a Trump presidency, first in prospect as his candidacy became legitimate and then in fact, as it became, well, a fact, one that cannot be denied by a sane person, that any visible cracks appeared in the cloak of neutrality donned most steadfastly by the foremost adherents of the papers of record—it has always been papers, specifically newspapers, the only surviving artifacts of our national cultural history that constitute their own fully anachronistic existence. Something cracked, for sure, when the grimly determined policies enrobing the grey lady were loosened sufficiently that the most exalted of poobahs of the press, the editors, permitted in print (and, for sure, in pixels) and not merely buried below interior “folds,” but emblazoned in headlines on the front page, that the lies of our president be labelled as such.

It is in the same spirit of impartiality that, in time, rendered the practitioners of this noble craft (to paraphrase Fielding, one may say that the professional pursuit of truth fills a person with nobility, and it does, as long as it’s filling a noble person… it’s an ocean away, but we should remember that Grub Street is readily the counterpart to Times Square) susceptible to a tendency to tendentiousness, and hence, given any bona fides as a reliable practitioner, being halfway there, an inclination to suffer the pangs of sanctimony. It’s a danger in those of weak character, in that it becomes sometimes impossible to keep mum about one’s own purity, if not piety—which leads to the intriguing possibility, which I will just hang out here and move on, that perhaps, like conjoined twins, perfecting the pose of utter neutrality can so easily be mistaken for having attained to a purely pious nature.

I say all this, because I am reminded of nothing so much as what follows below when I read the twisted impostures of writing with utter coolness and a disinterested air – a hard thing to do in the cramped confines of a Facebook comment, which, after all, has an optimum length, short enough, for effective impact – even clearly while seething with contempt, and stewing in the juices of sanctimoniousness.

I am left with no other impression than this: on two counts, Wolff has made myriad enemies among his brethren (again, I have to say, though without trying to be definitive or absolute, that it seems mainly to be men; men of a certain age, some retired, some about to be, some still in harness, so to speak, with equally notable but unremarkable careers until now). First he has, to use the lingo, scooped a great many people trying to report, and somewhat fitfully and fragmentarily so, dating from the beginning of the Trump tenure, about the internal mayhem of the administration. Second, he has done so, clearly, by winning the trust of those whose mouths should have never opened in his presence, especially given the presumed tenor of his prior reputation—assuming you accept that he is nothing but a mountebank himself, a sensationalist, and a liar, and no journalist. Even as he presents no outward signs, in any event, of the same piety, if not sanctimony, in which they have wrapped themselves, like judicial or academic or liturgical robes (is there any other gowned profession I am forgetting whose stature is so entwined with its relation to defining the nature of truth?).

What I am finally reminded of – to tell the truth, and now that I’ve introduced the clergy to the discussion, however slyly – is the satirical rage of a hero of the Age of Narcissus, specifically of the 60s in the United States, Alexander Portnoy, created by a master vocalist of satire and rage in virtuoso recitals, Philip Roth. At a certain point, stuck on the hypocrisy of his boyhood rabbi, Warshaw, who shepherded our hero through his triumph (to hear him tell it) of a bar mitzvah, as a first step on a path to the glory of exalting justice and truth in a career in law, Portnoy lets loose. I hope my pulling together so many seeming disparate strands here is not irrelevant to what I have chosen to comment on, from here in the bleachers, looking down on the spectacle occurring at this moment with such topicality – and whose freshness is no doubt as fragile and evanescent as a perfectly ripe berry. I am sure what I’m trying to convey here concerns a fruit of somewhat greater longevity, paradoxically durable, given that it’s borne by the trees of one of the orchards we call knowledge.

I am no less passionate about not abandoning the quest for truth in our very misshapen times, even as the pathways to it become more twisted and convoluted, than Portnoy is about he has discovered in his tortured dismay—that surrendering to anxiety or wallowing in a narcissistic pool are no means of shelter. Finally, I’ll leave you with this anguished, if comic, condemnation in absentia of the rabbi, from Portnoy’s prolonged monolog to the ever silent Dr. Spielvogel. Read it slowly, as it’s filled with resonant allusion to matters that are proving, minute by minute literally, in these first few days of the new year to be the stuff that will prove, ultimately, to be either some kind of dreadful apocalypse or of some kind of redemptive salvation:

Ah-hah, I knew it. It’s no Devil in the proper sense, it’s Fat Warshaw, the Reb. My stout and pompous spiritual leader! He of the sumptuous enunciation and the Pall Mall breath! Rabbi Re-ver-ed! It is the occasion of my bar mitzvah, and I stand shyly at his side, sopping it up like gravy, getting quite a little kick out of being sanctified, I’ll tell you. Alexander Portnoy-this and Alexander Portnoy-that, and to tell you the absolute truth, that he talks in syllables, and turns little words into big ones, and big ones into whole sentences by themselves, to be frank, it doesn’t seem to bother me as much as it would ordinarily. Oh, the sunny Saturday morning meanders slowly along as he lists my virtues and accomplishments to the assembled relatives and friends, syllable by syllable. Lay it on them, Warshaw, blow my horn, don’t hurry yourself on my account, please. I’m young, I can stand here all day, if that’s what has to be. “…  devoted son, loving brother, fantastic honor student, avid newspaper reader (up on every current event, knows the full names of each and every Supreme Court justice and Cabinet member, also the minority and majority leaders of both Houses of Congress, also the chairmen of the important Congressional committees), entered Weequahic High School this boy at the age of twelve, an I.Q. on him of 158, one hunder-ed and-a fif-a-ty eight-a, and now,” he tells the awed and beaming multitude, whose adoration I feel palpitating upward and enveloping me there on the altar—why, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if when he’s finished they don’t pick me up and carry me around the synagogue like the Torah itself, bear me gravely up and down the aisles while the congregants struggle to touch their lips to some part of my new blue Ohrbach’s suit, while the old men press forward to touch their tallises to my sparkling London Character shoes. “Let me through! Let me touch!” and when I am world-renowned, they will say to their grandchildren, “Yes, I was there, I was in attendance at the bar mitzvah of Chief Justice Portnoy—“an ambassador,” says Rabbi Warshaw, “now our ambassador extraordinary—” Only the tune has changed! And how! “Now,” he says to me, “with the mentality of a pimp! With the human values of a race-horse jockey! What is to him the heights of human experience? Walking into a restaurant with a long-legged kurveh on his arm! An easy lay in a body stocking!” “Oh, please, Re-ver-ed, I’m a big boy now—so you can knock off the rabbinical righteousness. It turns out to be a little laughable at this stage of the game. I happened to prefer beautiful and sexy to ugly and icy, so what’s the tragedy? Why dress me up like a Las Vegas hood? Why chain me to a toilet bowl for eternity? For loving a saucy girl?”

Roth, Philip. Portnoy’s Complaint (Vintage International) (pp. 201-203). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Digiprove sealCopyright  © 2018 Howard DininFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather
rssrssby feather
Share

Corey Robin Reviews a Book About Trump

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

The following transcribes my email to a correspondent who provided the original link to this blog entry by Corey Robin. I used to see these (and comment) on Facebook. But I’ve managed lately (like for the better part of a week) so far to stay away from Facebook, except at arm’s length.

Here’s the link to the book review http://coreyrobin.com/2017/03/14/the-real-parallel-between-hitler-and-trump/

And here’s what I had to say:

Email to a friend, today’s date, about the current Corey Robin blog entry

I am predicting you won’t mind my lapse into old ways and responding directly to what I saw was a recent post while making one of my lightning checks of Facebook.

I feel so much better, incidentally, these days, avoiding Facebook consciously, indeed mindfully, as it’s still necessary to resist the unconscious reflex after perusing this or that news site on the web to drop down my bookmark menu for “Social” and click on the blue F (good title for a murder mystery, “The Blue F”). I realized without undue mental exertion that what depressed me was not the news—though it’s surely no cause for joy or a sense of well-being—but the peculiar embellishment of the effects of relentless dispatches from the front lines of anarchy, otherwise known as the White House (have you noticed that increasingly the news media have taken to iconizing the actual physical seat of executive administration of the government, just as the Brits did decades and decades ago with 10 Downing Street? My theory is, it’s a way for the news “good guys”—what we usually call, as if there were something vaguely blasphemic about the epithet, the establishment news or the mainstream media—to continue to separate the Trump administration from the rest of the government, which they hope not only metaphorically to quarantine, but to do so literally, lest the contagion spread uncontrollably like the super bacterium it is [trying to think of another metaphor yet, to throw into the mix, but that’s enough], and also, of course, as a way, literally as well, to avoid having to set the name Trump in type yet again, bolstering the data mining results of the future). It’s not what the news media say, though enough of it constitute crimes against English, if not against truth altogether, beyond mere execrable writing.

Cover of Making of Donald Trump

The Making of Donald Trump bookcover

In any event, thanks for the Corey Robin link [to his review of the David Cay Johnston book, The Making of Donald Trump], as it, if for no other reason, reminds me that I have to subscribe to his feed or I will no longer, in the medium to long run, be reminded by you to see if there are a few unbruised fruit and un-blighted seeds to harvest from his particular tree of knowledge.

Nice to see that he seems to have put back under control his tendency to foam at the mouth.

This was a nice review, and true enough, I’m sure, but it’s evidence of the continuing crime of recycling old news. Why is it that so many liberals, if not those further left on the spectrum, think that the regular glance “rere regardant,” as Joyce put it in Ulysses, is necessary to keep from repeating old sins? Or, more likely, as if keeping the misfortunes of our time in the forefront of our consciousness will somehow ameliorate the abstract condition of our lives by halting, through a sheer act of collective will, the progress of the ill effects of the latest form of exploitation (like enough, surely, ever more virulent—there’s that super bacterium metaphor again…), in this case aka “the White House.” I won’t even talk about what Johnston is doing with such a book, aside from a public service of course for those not paying attention to the last 30 years. It was likely a lot of work, and I don’t criticize that, or begrudge him the rewards of an appreciative marketplace.

So, finally, and then I’ll let this, and you, go. He (Corey that is) says, “the systemic corruption of our rentier economy,” which is a nice twist I guess on a slightly shopworn locution. Except, as usual, I must take, indeed, exception to the use of “corruption,” suggesting that, at some previous time, the system of which we all are part, was sound and pure and unsullied by decay. Which I don’t believe. I think it (the system) has some genes deep within that, though not manifest at conception, inevitably prove an almost unavoidable tendency to develop a cancer. Back in the day, I mean 1781, they simply hadn’t yet conceived of the banking laws we are so clever to have ginned up starting back in the 1920s, if not earlier. For example.

And, I would prefer had he (Corey) stuck to the more prevalent condition in the use of the phrase—which was used most poignantly for me when my shrink told me at some point during the analysis to which I subjected myself for about four years back in the 1980s, when I had money to donate to my shrink’s mortgage holder, “we’re all renters.” True enough, I’ve come to discover, especially in that the phrase applies in all situations, just like “this too shall pass.” It’s only a very small number of self-privileged ones, somehow impervious to the corruption in which they thrive (what is evil, after all, to the devil?) who can legitimately call themselves, as well, “rentiers.” So. Not so clever after all. It’s just rubbing it in.

see you elsewhere on the ‘net, I hope…

xoxo

hhd

Digiprove sealCopyright  © 2017 Howard DininFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather
rssrssby feather
Share

Du Semaine (Picks of the Week)

Approximate Reading Time: 1 minute

My choices for January 6, 2017

I hope to make this a regular post each week. Please let me know what you think, and what else you’d like to see.

Photography Site du Semaine

Willcocq_photo_detail

Patrick Willocq, Congo Photos

Patrick Willocq, Congo-raised, French Photographer of Africa

Painter’s Site du Semaine

Baker_painting_detail

David Graeme Baker painting (detail), “February”

Website of David Graeme Baker, a native-born South African, raised in Pennsylvania, and now living in rural Maine.

Novel du Semaine

extinction_book_cover

Detail of Book Cover

Extinction, by Thomas Bernhard. The last novel of Ausrtrian author, Thomas Bernhard, considered among the greats of fiction writing in the late 20th century.

Digiprove sealCopyright  © 2017 Howard DininFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather
rssrssby feather
Share

Smart Bitches

Approximate Reading Time: 2 minutes

Today, I had the slightly unusual and, admittedly, slightly queasy-making experience of seeing my name set aside in print (if we can call a blog, “print”) for praise, I guess, in a review of the book I have touted here over the past nine months, the collection of food related writing called Books that Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal. It features, among many other contributions, a poem of mine called “How to Make the Perfect Fried Egg Sandwich.” This poem follows a brief reminiscence by the fabled food writer, M.F.K. Fisher, which ends with her aunt’s fried egg sandwich recipe (the exact opposite of mine as it is, as she admits, unchewable and indigestible). The reviewer happened to like Ms. Fisher’s effort, as who wouldn’t? Unfortunately, she attributed it to me. Several commentators chose to add their thoughts, including one who admitted never having heard of me, and several much sharper readers than the blogger noticed striking similarities to what was described as my effort, to the work, justifiably and correctly, of Ms. Fisher.

Whatever the consequences of that, it’s hardly important. But I did find one thing mildly striking. The name of the blog is “Smart Bitches, Trashy Books” and is meant, I think, to be resonant with a certain spirit of the age to convey, ironically, an exactly opposite set of sentiments. The women, of course, aren’t bitches, and the books, singled out for praise, are hardly trash. It does leave me wondering yet again what exactly is it that induces women to refer to themselves, to one another, and generically and universally, and I think with an air of bravado, defiance, and rueful humor as “bitches,” whereas any such usage by men—and it is usually so in far more mean-spirited, if not downright misogynistic contexts—is excoriated and faulted to an inch of its life and rightfully. Yet, there’s that usage by women themselves, without the slightest hint that the user of the epithet is aware that this can only encourage it further.

I suggest that the sensibility intent on being hip and au courant sufficient to refer to her sisters in spirit as bitches, as a truculent badge of honor, inviting challenge, has lost its attention sufficiently to make the kind of error, inconsequential as it is, that confused the work of a male poet for an iconic female writer of deathless prose, now considered part of the canon.

I am both bemused and, yet, hmmm, I just don’t get it. Nice review though, full of solecisms as it is.

http://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/reviews/books-that-cook-the-making-of-a-literary-meal-by-jennifer-cognard-black-and-melissa-a-goldwaite/

Digiprove sealCopyright  © 2015 Howard DininFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather
rssrssby feather
Share

A Reading

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

9781479830213_p0_v2_s260x420.JPG

It is now over four years ago that I was asked to contribute a poem to a forthcoming book. I’ve talked about the book here and in other places. The book is Books that Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal and is, essentially, a carefully edited anthology of writings in an array of genres, fiction and non-fiction, poetry and prose, and all on the subject of food. The book is arranged by its co-editors, Melissa Goldthwaite and Jennifer Cognard-Black, in a form that is roughly analogous to come amalgam of food related textual categories: a menu, a recipe, a history. Each section, related to a part of the meal, starter, main dish, etc. and in the sequence in which a meal proceeds is preceded by a selection from a cookbook of renown, dating back to the Colonial period in American history to the present. As the literary “meal” progresses we also are introduced to the evolution of the particular form of food writing dedicated to books focused on cookery.

I was approached to contribute by Melissa as we spoke by phone. I was, at the time, ensconced in the hotel in Hadley, Massachusetts which was my temporary weekly home for at least one night, predominately a Tuesday, prior to conducting the seminar I taught once a week, in the afternoon, to students of Amherst College. By staying overnight, I was spared the round trip, could enjoy a dinner out in town, and I was available for office hours Wednesday mornings, before returning to Cambridge.

To the best of my recollection, during this particular week, my sojourn had been extended involuntarily because of inclement weather. I left early, as snow was predicted, and so I stayed Monday night, in anticipation of the storm. Sure enough, for Ground Hog Day, that Wednesday, over two and a half feet of snow had fallen, and I was socked in. Perfect conditions for composing a poem.

What Melissa told me was that she and her colleague had come to the conclusion that they needed a poem in the section of the book otherwise devoted to eggs, with a lovely selection of prose, both fiction and essays on the subject. Most of the rest of the book showed an even balance of genres. They had as yet to find a suitable poem about eggs that also satisfied the other criterion for pieces selected for this specialized anthology. It seems every piece in the book incorporated, by hook or by crook, as an integral part of the narrative, or appropriately appended by way of illustration or amplification, a recipe for an actual dish or beverage that could be safely ingested.

I was immediately inspired, and I asked if the subject I had in mind was suitable. It took a day to produce a presentable draft. Melissa, being the inestimable editor (and excellent poet in her own right) that she is, made some suggested emendations, which I immediately adopted, or adapted, without demur. The version that appears in the book is the one we agreed could not likely be improved upon.

It has proven to be a popular piece in readings from the book I’ve been privileged to join since the book was published last summer. I have appeared with a group, variously composed, of my fellow contributors, in readings in Washington, DC (see an account of the reading in Washington, the first one that launched the book, here on the blog: The Reading in DC), New York City, here in Merion Station, just outside Philadelphia, in Philadelphia proper at one of my favorite of the small number of independent booksellers left here in the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence, and my final appearance at the homebase of Jennifer, the co-editor, who is a Professor of English at St. Mary’s College in Maryland.

It was at this last reading that I was astonished (and delighted) to be told by one of the students in the audience afterwards, as our admirers stood patiently in line as we signed copies of the full text, that she found my voice to be quite “melodious.” Not a word I would ever have used to describe my own instrument, though I will admit to reading well, when in the right mood, I nevertheless, as graciously as I could, accepted the compliment, and thanked my admirer.

It has occurred to me since, as there will be no further opportunities for me to read (though one or two further readings are scheduled, well into this coming summer) this might be a good time for a first appearance by me, in audio form, to complement my appearance for the first time in this beautiful volume as a poetry contributor in a published anthology.

You can decide on the qualities of the reading for yourself. I am satisfied with the result, though I’m sure I would not designate it either as melodious or particularly harmonious, being a solo effort. Any defects in the recording are mine, as I served as my own engineer.

I hope you enjoy it.

Making the Perfect Fried Egg Sandwich

Digiprove sealCopyright  © 2015 Howard DininFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather
rssrssby feather
Share

The Reading

Approximate Reading Time: 9 minutes

The Reading_06Sep2014__DSC0009-Edit


Saturday of this past weekend was a banner day for the household. The book tour for MG’s latest opus (co-edited with her collaborator on this and other projects) began, auspiciously enough, at one of the destinations on everyone’s short list of great independent bookstores: Politics and Prose, in Washington DC. Setting aside the universal plight of all independent bookstores—how to stay viable and profitable in a world of online discount selling—we can take comfort that the strongest and most appealing of these stores, and Politics and Prose is one of them, seem to thrive. Sometime, in another post, I may end up musing on the qualities of these stores that allow them to survive where they are beaten every time on price, the factor that seems to trump all others in the book buyer’s decision process.

The book that was the focus of the event is an anthology of food writing, a collection born of a mutual interest on the part of the co-editors long since to teach this genre, drawing from a growing library and history of such works. Several years ago, in tandem, but on separate campuses, they offered what turned out to be very popular courses. One editor, whose expertise skews toward fiction, and scholarly inquiry into the nineteenth century novel in English, taught a curriculum that demonstrated a similar predisposition. Jennifer Cognard-Black is Professor of English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, an institution whose constituents, all and sundry, seem reflexively to add to the name, “the public honors college,” is a respected, if small, liberal arts college that is actually part of the State of Maryland system of higher education institutions. Hence it operates at the fiscal discretion of the Governor and the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates. All of which is by way of seeing that there’s an analogy here, between the plight of the independent bookstore, and the plight of the small college of liberal arts—also a struggling breed, except for quality institutions like St. Mary’s, which holds its own, with far smaller budgets, though at far less cost to its students, with its peer institutions, far better funded, more prestigious, and highly competitive in their selectivity.

One co-editor, Melissa Goldthwaite [full disclosure: she’s my wife], is a Professor of English, at St. Joseph’s University, a specialist in Rhetoric and Composition, and Creative Writing. St. Joseph’s is one of a whole network of Jesuit-affiliated institutions of higher learning throughout the country. The aims of the education have, still, at their core a dedication to providing a solid liberal arts education. I say still, because the challenge for any U.S. institution of higher education today is how to continue to instill not only a love for learning and an understanding that a broadly based education steeped in the cultural history of the world, with some requisite skills in analyzing the relevance and meaning of the substance of that history.

The impediment confronted on many campuses, regardless of how you categorize the institution, and not strictly an antithetical stumbling block, but in seeming counterpoise, is the acquisition of credentials through the study of more marketable subject matter. Strictly speaking, and increasingly, this means courses in business, or marketing, or economics—or any of the broadening array of sub-disciplines—that constitute a more practical species of specialized skill sets. It’s well and good to be able to suss out meaning that appeals to the heart and the mind in a poem; it’s another thing altogether to understand the arcane relations between columns of numbers in a balance sheet and what they might augur for the continued prosperity of an enterprise.

Smarter dispassionate heads struggle to prevail in the argument that these are not antithetical capabilities. Indeed, the subject areas in the classic curriculum collectively still referred to as the humanities provide a foundation in discovering a successful way of coping with life in the real world. Not every argument is won by the humanists. There has been a progressive retrenchment in traditional curricula and it’s likely at least three decades, if not longer, that colleges and universities have introduced, in a first wave, new departments and areas of specialization: women’s studies, gender studies, and targeted ethnicities, including African-American and Latino studies, being prime examples.

More recently, and in tandem with rising tuition costs on almost all campuses around the country (rising at rates that far exceed the rate of increase in almost any other critical economic marker), the entire industry, for that is, alas, what it has come to resemble, of higher education, has added courses of study that are directly and unambiguously platforms into seeking and achieving paying jobs within highly defined areas of specialization, in technology, finance, and entertainment. In ways that test the elasticity of meaning of a word that originally sustained little ambiguity given its roots, I mean the humanities, the new designers of academic missions and the supportive educational infrastructure argue—usually by way of mere lip service—that being human endeavors, the new subjects and courses are merely latter-day manifestations of this classic epistemology. Others, in a sense less cynical, say that the study of the humanities per se, with no qualification or abridgment of the standard meaning of the term, have become at best a luxury, and at worst a useless anachronism.

There is one constant, however, and not paradoxically. If anything, the importance of the ability to communicate, especially verbally, has never been more of a manifest value. Which brings me back to the substance of the spanking new Goldthwaite/Cognard-Black opus. In food writing, I suggest, there is a rare amalgam, a blend of the two still viable contemporaneous disciplines: effective communication (dare I say, at the apex of its expressive qualities, attaining to literary worth?) and the subject of food in every conceivable aspect. The latter has long since been monetized in the still major media channels of radio, television, the Internet, and that strange space coextensive of the World Wide Web, proprietary social media. Food has become competitive sport, obsession, confessional, practical, salvational, healing, spiritual, and technological.

Books that Cook: The Making of A Literary Meal is, frankly, not an exponent of all these salient if divergent methods of inquiry into the subject. The editors being who they are, and with a more singular mission in their noble day jobs as pedagogues and mentors to would-be writers, have chosen not a more conservative course of activity, so much as a classic one. And on the Saturday, just passed, in question, seven of us read from our work, including the co-editors who were also contributors: Cognard-Black wrote a short story specifically for this volume, and Goldthwaite included one of her excellent poems. The other five of us, including myself (with a poem, commissioned for the volume, “How to Make the Perfect Fried Egg Sandwich”), and two other poets, an essayist, and memoir author.

We didn’t exactly wear our academic credentials on our sleeves—for one thing it was a very hot, beyond sultry, Washington DC day, and the majority of us were in short sleeves, if there were sleeves at all to our garments. In fact, to some greater or lesser extent each of us, as well as all the other writers in the book, were or are published authors. Our bona fides preceded us. The only criterion the works selected had to meet, aside from manifestly having food as a major theme, motif, or subject, was that each include a bona fide executable recipe within the text.

The publisher bankrolled a generous adjunct to the gathering, especially generous to the attendees who met no other criterion of admission than to show up, in the form of a smorgasbord of sample tastings of five of the recipes featured. In short, they paid a caterer to prepare and provide small, but ample, tastes of two kinds of cake, a vegetable soup, and a beverage, a punch. Anecdotally, I’d say, from the amount consumed and the overheard comments of approbation, the crowd was pleased.

The audience settled in, many of them with tiny cups of soup, sipped with even tinier spoons, and the reading began with a greeting from our merchant host, which, courtesy again of the publisher had provided stacks of volumes for purchase, and a traditional signing after we had all performed. We read in turn, taking from five to ten minutes each. Some of the readers bolstered the rendering of their contributions as published with yet more works of theirs along the same lines. In an hour, we were done. There were few questions, all asked with that earnestness that characterizes self-consciously literary crowds. And then the queue formed.

I was surprised to see that several folks bought multiple copies, each receiving a requested and different personalized greeting. The book is not costly, and I did not inquire as to any discounts, but three copies, let us say, which at least one generous soul had purchased, plus the local sales tax ate up most of a hundred dollar bill. I was further surprised to be asked myself to sign several copies, and I easily fought the temptation to disabuse the pilgrim of the likely value of my scrawl in any conceivable future.

I will admit personally to a certain sense of a kind of temporary dissociation. I for sure knew where I was, but I also wished I weren’t. I loathe crowds of strangers of any size. They intimidate me, and put me on guard. When it came time to read, I stood up, and didn’t quite entirely put aside my usual sense of confidence (bolstered by a rehearsal the day before at home, before my editor and our pooch, who both listened raptly as I easily gave a flowing reading of my free verse) as I hugged the podium and barely glanced at the equally rapt crowd. As I read, with the same well-paced cadences I’m sure in retrospect, all I could hear was a tremulousness in my voice, which I certainly felt. By all accounts that reading was as free of defect as the run-through, though it had seemed interminable to me. Barely noticing the applause, which had justifiably greeted each of the other readers, I regained my seat, as the sense of otherness enveloped me again.

Other than the pride in my wife’s accomplishment (and I was one of very few, present or not, with any acquaintance with the trials the editors together had undergone in seeing the book through its long gestation) my memory of the afternoon is hazy. It was, undoubtedly, a success, which I knew, having seen the number of copies the store had rung up. For all that, this was, I admit, my first opportunity to participate in a reading of this sort, from the other side of the lectern. Seeking no prior indoctrination, and even knowing my antipathy for crowds of strangers, I was interested to take in as much as I might perceive. For all the sales of the book that day (and to date, as it enjoys its inaugural weeks on sale nationally), the publisher had shipped what proved to be a significant surplus, no doubt in an established protocol of cautious optimism and preparedness. I happened to be at the check out at the front of the store, as the staff prepared for the next event, hard on the heels of our own. I admit as well, I cannot step into a well-stocked bookstore without spending some money (and I bested the outlay of the hundred dollar lady, with quite a much larger sum in a fit of spreading the wealth—I should disclose that my own copy of Books that Cook had arrived weeks ago at home, gratis). As I paid for my second purchase of the day, for another book, another audio CD, and a Lamy rollerball pen I couldn’t resist, I watched as two of the staff members, expertly stuffed what was left of an unsold pile of volumes of the literary feast into two sizable cartons, festooned with labels that looked familiar from a shipment long ago of my one published volume—probably the same production house. They had those cartons packed and sealed and ready for shipment back, all in the time it took to swipe my card and for me to sign the check.

All in all, and nevertheless, I am sure it was a good day for NYU Press, and Politics and Prose, and the co-editors. Later that same weekend, a check on Amazon of how the book was selling showed it had, for what it appears was a shining moment, achieved “best-seller” status, making it to the “Top 100” in three different sub-categories. I have no doubt with our next reading, scheduled for New York City, the home turf of the publisher, at a rare book library on campus, it will attain a few more moments of fame, and once again, even a few grains, like scattered salt crystals, will reach me.

9781479830213 p0 v2 s260x420

The book is available on-line, here http://www.amazon.com/Books-That-Cook-Making-Literary/dp/1479830216/ref=pd_rhf_ee_p_img_1, and here http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/books-that-cook-jennifer-cognard-black/1119220500?ean=9781479830213. And, of course, at your local independent bookstore. I know where I’d go.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather
rssrssby feather
Share