August 26, 2009

Once again Iím nomadic, traveling in Alaska this time, a magnificent landscape. I wonít be home until after Labor Day. I havenít started a new project but Iím thinking about it and taking many notes about my journey. I brought a copy of the summer issue of Paris Review which has an interview with Gay Talese, a former New York Times and Esquire reporter, and author of several nonfiction books including ďThe Kingdom and the Power,Ē and ďThy Neighborís Wife.Ē Along with Tom Wolfe, David Halberstam and Joan Didion, he pioneered long-form narrative nonfiction which observers at the time referred to as the ďnew journalism.Ē Using fictional devices to tell a story, these writers were also seasoned reporters. Their challenge to the detached omniscience of news was profound. It was understood that if a reporter revealed his or her POV, spoke about how s/he felt and what s/he was thinking, s/heíd better be certain of the facts.

Initially, Gay Taleseís editors did not believe that he wasnít writing fiction. He had to keep meticulous notes and careful records on shirt boards. These are works of art with doodles in colored pencils, artful handwriting, a map of the authorís process. When filled, Talese would then transfer these notations to larger entries on the typewriter adding more research and his personal interpretations and questions.

Now in his mid-seventies, Talese is still an active, productive writer. Heís working on a book about his fifty-year marriage to Nan Talese who was, by paradoxical coincidence, James Freyís less than meticulous editor at Doubleday.

Writers in Prison

August 6, 2009

A friendís son is in prison. Itís been a heartbreaking saga spanning several years. The most recent sentence of 18 years is considered outrageous by some, lenient by others. Bottom line: this still young barely educated man is in jail for a good long while. Heís adapted to his life there and has started looking after himself in a way he never could in the outside world; heís an addict.

We were walking along the beach when my friend told me about his twice-monthly visits to the prison. He seemed relieved to be telling the story to someone who would not judge his parenting harshly. Something went badly wrong with this child but that is not the point now; itís in the past. My friend loves his son and continues to do his best to care for him. He is still hopeful he will emerge from prison clean of drugs and alcohol, with a nurtured humanity, remorse for his crimes, a promise of restitution to his victims, and an education. In the circumstances, it seems unlikely. There is no school, no library, no access to computers, no AA, no counseling in this particular state prison. Despite this, his son is becoming an autodidact, requesting about four books a month and not just trash. (Heís reading Malcolm Galdwell at the moment.) Books can only be sent via amazon; no wrapped parcels from home are accepted. One can only wonder what inmates do if there are no people in their lives who have money or access to computers.

When we got back to the house, my friend showed me a letter he had received from his son that week. It was handwritten on lined paper, about three pages long, the envelope stamped with the prison seal. It was well written, heartfelt: daily routines, food, work-outs, observations and, to my friendís surprise, news of an application to a local college to get a degree. But what if he was not accepted? Would the young man be able to tolerate the disappointment? Move forward? Continue to make his disciplined efforts at self-improvement? Or would he be crushed and give up.

Probably the latter, I thought. And then I had an idea: American Pen has a prison writers program. A mentor from the program could help his son sustain his efforts as a writer and an autodidact over a period of years.

According to the United States Department of Justice website there are more than two million prisoners now being held in federal or state prisons or in local jails Ė an increase of 0.8% from year end 2007. This is an enormous figure for an industrialized western nation. The culture of some of our prisons is enlightened, others are Dickensian. My friendís son is in a Dickensian prison where the guards are constantly punitive and the warden is unreachable.

Contemporary Fiction vs. Nonfiction on the Kindle

August 4, 2009

Even before Nicholson Baker published ďA New Page
Can the Kindle really improve on the book?Ē, I was having unsettling thoughts about reading contemporary fiction on the Kindle. Iíve downloaded a lot of books since March but read mostly nonfiction (five books), some poetry, a classic or two. On the TBR Kindle stack are at least ten contemporary novels. I canít get into them.

Admittedly this happened to me even before I owned a Kindle. I buy a book, think I want to read it, but the time isnít right, somehow. And weeks, months, even years later, the story resonates, Iím gripped and held.

But I havenít gotten anywhere near gripped or held on the Kindle. Whatís missing? Like Nicholson Baker, I think I have some answers.

I was up at my motherís house looking through her many books and found three I wanted to borrow. They were heavy but their heft oddly did not bother me and the smell of the paper, the feel of the cover, the design of the cover, was intoxicating. It was as though Iíd been in a sensory deprivation chamber for five months. I took the books and added them to a TBR pile Iíve poured into the trunk of my car. Iíll be upstate next week, between projects, and plan to read a book a day or, realistically, every two days. The trunk of my car has become my library. Iíll have the Kindle also, of course, because Iím struggling through Naomi Kleinís ďThe Shock Doctrine,Ē perfect for the Kindle as I donít daydream as Iím reading it or care about the bookís design or the authorís picture. Ms. Klein has a website, sheís a journalist, I can check her out on Google.

Iím trying to not feel guilty about this. I hesitated to tell my husband who gave me the Kindle as a gift. But hereís the reality: For me, reading nonfiction on the Kindle works very well as I am reading for information and ideas. But contemporary fiction is much harder for all the reasons I have already mentioned. Maybe this wonít be true forever; Iíll get used to reading fiction on the Kindle. Narrative nonfiction that reads like fiction is fine, for example. Any book Iíve read before such as ďThe Great Gatsby,Ē is also fine, more than fine. Itís in my Kindle library and I can go back to it whenever I want; itís always with me.

With any new technology there are gains as well as losses. And though the Kindle is here and the digitizing of books is well underway, itís still just a tool to be used with intelligence and discretion for the benefit of our reading life.