by Louis Bayard, September 5, 2008 11:22 AM
Someone asked me not long ago to describe my perfect day. I answered without hesitation: a day of uninterrupted reading.
As part of this fantasy, of course, I would probably need to grow a bigger butt because I find I can never sit as long as I'd like to. Also, my children would have to be magically and benignly spirited away: They have been known to tear books out of my hands. And come to think of it, the rest of the world would need to go away, too, except for Yo Yo Ma and someone to take drink orders.
But here's the part I would never have to worry about: finding something to read. That's the heaven-sent quality of books. You finish one, another rises to take its place. This blessed superfluity is, I think, one of the things that keeps me alive.
That is, until I add my own book to the teeming hordes. Then mortality suddenly enters the picture. Because, in the face of all those other titles, my own seems drastically tiny — and capable at any moment of being swallowed whole.
To switch metaphors... Calvin Trillin once calculated that the shelf life for the average book is somewhere between milk and yogurt. Mine's been out a little more than a week, and already I can smell the cultures growing. Before long, the unsold copies, with their faintly rank odor, will be taken down and returned to the publisher; the shelves will be scrubbed clean with new titles; and I will go back to the quarantine of being merely a writer.
But would I trade those few weeks for anything? No, indeed. And do I look forward to being part of another author's few weeks? Yes, I do. In his preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth said there's an "implied contract between author and reader." It's a contract I hope never to break, whichever end I'm holding up
by Louis Bayard, September 4, 2008 9:42 AM
Among the more intriguing details to emerge about Republican veep nominee Sarah Palin is her purported efforts to ban books in her home town of Wasilla, Alaska. According to Time magazine
Stein says that as mayor, Palin continued to inject religious beliefs into her policy at times. "She asked the library how she could go about banning books," he says, because some voters thought they had inappropriate language in them. "The librarian was aghast." That woman, Mary Ellen Baker, couldn't be reached for comment, but news reports from the time show that Palin had threatened to fire Baker for not giving "full support" to the mayor.
As my fellow Powell's blogger Brockman has already noted, there's something almost touchingly disingenuous about asking a librarian to help you ban books — a bit like asking a fireman to throw a lit match into a dry forest. And speaking of bonfires, the specter of Fahrenheit 451 naturally hovers over any attempt to slash and burn library collections. But even a First Amendment freak like me takes some perverse encouragement from efforts like Palin's. The way I look at it, any attempt to ban books is implicitly a recognition that books have power.
As both a novelist and a book reviewer, I've often had reason to doubt that proposition. So, in a strange way, I'm grateful to the Sarah Palins of the world for proving that words are still dangerous, that books can still get under people's skin. Censorship is the most sincere possible compliment that can be paid to
by Louis Bayard, September 3, 2008 9:32 AM
So my eight-year-old son tells me he has a great title for my next book.
"What is it?" I ask him.
Now is probably not the time to tell him about the James Joyce story — you know, the one with Gretta Conroy and the late Michael Furey and the snow falling faintly upon all the living and the dead, etc. But it probably is time to wonder if my son will grow up to be a homicidal maniac.
Don't get me wrong. He's a sweet kid, a gentle kid. He's never been in a serious fight with anyone. He's about as far from an alpha boy as you'll find. But he does have an interest in mayhem.
One might even call it a pronounced inclination. Whenever a Netflix movie arrives in the mail, Seth has one and only one question: "Is there killing in it?" The correct answer is always: "Yes." His biggest dream is someday to watch Bride of Chucky. He demands to know how many corpses I've inserted into each of my books, and when he first saw the cover of The Pale Blue Eye, he asked, wistfully, if the daubs of red were real blood. I explained to him this would hardly be practical, given that tens of thousands of copies were already in circulation. The look of disappointment in his eyes was quickly replaced by calculation, and it seemed to me he was envisioning some macabre sweatshop, where young men and women could be set to work spattering book after book with the contents of their own veins.
Yes, my son creeps me out sometimes, but how can I blame him? I myself have a long and ever-growing track record of creepiness. I reap what I sow.
In The Pale Blue Eye, young men's hearts are carved from their bodies. In Mr. Timothy, immigrant girls are branded and shut away in coffins. In the opening sections of my new book, The Black Tower, a man's fingernails are painstakingly separated from his fingers. All in all, I'm an amiable guy, but I can't deny that I'm in the business of hurting people — for entertainment. Crime writing is itself a crime, and I suppose I should consider myself fortunate that my only punishment is having a morbid kid
by Louis Bayard, September 2, 2008 9:32 AM
I don't think hotel rooms should be smarter than people.
In New York last week, while signing stock at local book stores, I stayed at the Essex House on Central Park South. It's a lovely place — no, really, it's lovely — but by the time I left, I felt a bit like the supermodel in In and Out who doesn't know how to use the rotary phone and, in a panic, starts pressing the dial holes. That's pretty much what I was doing with my hotel room phone. Room Service was no longer a simple button or a number string but a component in an intricate tele-screened Venn diagram. I tried pushing the screen, I tried pushing the nearest buttons... I was reduced finally to calling the hotel operator, who gently reminded me that I could have called Room Service directly. "No, I can't," I told her.
This was nothing compared to the lights, which clicked on the moment I entered the room — an unfurling carpet of electricity — and then clicked off as soon as I left. The effect was quite charming until I tried to intervene in the lights' workings. This they would not permit. Turning them off before bedtime was virtually impossible because the switches on the walls didn't seem to have any connection with the lamps, and the lamps could only be turned off for finite periods. Throughout the night, they kept springing back into life, in direct defiance of my wishes, and then, as I groped toward them, mysteriously turning themselves off again.
There was one light over which I had absolutely no power. It ran the length of the bed's headboard, and it was cool and amber and vaguely malignant. I couldn't find anything resembling a switch for it, so it remained on the entire night, like a great unblinking eye. At some point, I began to dream that I was the subject of an alien autopsy, and when I awoke, the great headboard-eye was still watching me, and the lamp by the window was... ever... so... slowly... turning itself back on.
In short, I was granted a glimpse into humanity's future: an entirely self-sustaining suite of technology evolving beyond its creators. Someday, our communication systems will recognize us for the parasites we are and disgorge us like so many strings of code, and centuries after we've been expelled from this bitter Earth, those lights at the Essex House will be turning themselves on... turning themselves
by Louis Bayard, September 1, 2008 3:50 PM
Given that I'm blogging for a nationally recognized book retailer, this will sound disingenuous, but it's true. I stink at promoting myself.
This fact is brought home to me every time I'm around other authors. A couple of years ago, at the Virginia Festival for the Book, I was signing books with a mystery writer so much my superior in self-publicity that I began to wonder if we were in the same business. Arrayed on the table before her: business cards, a custom-made nameplate, bookmarks bearing the cover of her latest title, a special mini-easel for displaying said title, and Xeroxed copies of her Big Review. "I wish we didn't have to do this," she whispered, even as she reeled in one passer-by after another. "Would you care to read my book?" she called. "Would you care to read my book?" Even if the person in question didn't care to, she managed somehow to extract his e-mail address, which she filed away in her database, from which she would then send monthly e-blasts of her progress.
And then there was me. The table in front of me was bare. Bare even of my latest book because I had forgotten to bring copies. (I did have a copy of Farley Granger's memoirs.) Even eye contact with pedestrians seemed to me too large a declaration. I watched, in silence, as my fellow author cleaned my clock.
Fast forward two years. I am signing books at the very charming Decatur Book Festival in Georgia, and the delightful author next to me pulls out a sheet of blank paper. "What's that for?" I ask. "Oh," she says, "I ask everyone who wants a book signed to give me their personal information so I can send them my monthly newsletter."
Mon ... thly ... news ... letter.
Once again, a whole world of publicity potential rears up before me... and, in the same breath, leaves me utterly spent. I try to imagine writing a monthly newsletter. I try to imagine having enough life to write a monthly newsletter. And it seems to me I would need to be ten times the man. With ten times the carbon footprint. All in all, I decide, it's better for the environment if I remain, relatively speaking, anonymous.
I'm Nobody. Who are you? Are you Nobody, too