Books

John le Carré, 1965

33-year-old John le Carré appears on the “Merv Griffin Show,” October 14, 1965.

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Story machines

story-machine

I love this: “small vending machines dotted about French train stations that dispense short stories for free at the press of a button.” (Via SwissMiss)

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The Efficient Plots Hypothesis

The [Efficient Plots Hypothesis], as I imagine it, says that the ideal reader can’t know if the mood of a book is about to get sunnier or darker at any given point in the plot. This … [is] because the purpose of a narrative is to engross the reader. Engrossment proceeds through uncertainty. If you knew what was about to happen, you’d skim ahead or stop reading.

That is: at any moment in a story, the emotional trajectory is a random walk for the reader because anything else would be boring. And stories aren’t boring.

This could be tested empirically by asking readers if a book will get more positive or more negative over the next five pages, and by how much. In a pure EPH world, they’ll only be right about half the time.

If the EPH holds, then, it doesn’t suggest that fiction is truly arbitrary; rather, that it’s an elaborately constructed game between reader and writer, socially conditioned and in no way permanent. It would suggest that there are enough fundamental plots that at any point in a book you are unsure what plot you are in; and that plots tend to wear themselves out over time.

Read about it here.

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Quote of the day

I’m most in awe of novelists, who move sets, lights, scenery, and act out all the parts in your mind for you. My kind of writing requires collaboration with others to truly ignite. But I think of Dickens, or Cervantes, or Márquez, or Morrison, and I can describe to you the worlds they paint and inhabit. To engender empathy and create a world using only words is the closest thing we have to magic.

Lin-Manuel Miranda

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A natural style

When we encounter a natural style, Pascal says, we are surprised and delighted, because we expected to find an author and instead found a man.

James Wood

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Arthur Conan Doyle on the origin of Sherlock Holmes

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The tyranny of suspense

In far too much bad fiction, suspense has replaced drama as the motive force of storytelling. There is, in fact, an entire subgenre of fiction dedicated to the ignorant error—“thrillers.” Suspense, however, is the sworn enemy of good fiction.

To create suspense is to induce anxiety—that is, to cause distress. And naturally, then, the craving is for relief. You read as quickly as possible to discover what happens, to allay your uneasiness, to release the tightness in your chest. The outcome is not a literary experience—literature is the freedom to dream up other possibilities—but the unpleasant feeling of being manipulated. Anxiety has a “coercive character,” Karen Horney says. So does suspense.

D. G. Myers

The literary critic and scholar D. G. Myers died of cancer last September. I miss reading his Commonplace Blog, which was written in such a distinctive voice — opinionated, smart, ornery, engaging, honest, unfathomably well read — that I almost felt I knew him. The blog is still online, and it is worth a visit.

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Reckless

roth-inscription

A note by Philip Roth, written in a first edition of Portnoy’s Complaint, which he recently reread after 45 years.

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Whose voice does the reader hear?

I don’t believe that poems are written to be heard, or as Mill said, to be overheard; nor are poems addressed to their reader. I believe that poems are a score for performance by the reader, and that you become the speaking voice. You don’t read or overhear the voice in the poem, you are the voice in the poem. You stand behind the words and speak them as your own — so that it is a very different form of reading from what you might do in a novel where a character is telling the story, where the speaking voice is usurped by a fictional person to whom you listen as the novel unfolds.

Helen Vendler

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Billy Budd manuscript

Billy Budd manuscript, 1888-89

Melville’s original handwritten manuscript of Billy Budd (via). (Click image to view full size.)

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“The extension of our sympathies”

The greatest benefit we owe the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies… Art is the nearest thing to life, it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.

George Eliot

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Book lust (a continuing series)

fahrenheit451bookcover-980x730

Concept design by Elizabeth Perez for Fahrenheit 451. “The book’s spine is screen-printed with a matchbook striking paper surface, so the book itself can be burned.” Very cool.

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Hemingway: “Make it alive”

“You see I’m trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across — not just depict life — or criticize it — but to actually make it alive. So that when you read something by me you actually experience the thing.”

Hemingway, age 25, letter to his father, March 1925

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Library Way

Hemingway plaque

This is from a series of lovely plaques set into the sidewalk pavement on 41st Street leading up to the New York Public Library. Each includes a brief quote, some inspirational, some about books and reading. It took me twenty minutes to go two blocks. I love, also, that this plaque includes Hemingway’s standing desk (though it is rendered with an Escher-esque perspective error on the right rear leg, which is shown in front of the side brace rather than behind it). The plaque reads:

All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.

— Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), “Old Newsman Writes,” Esquire, December 1934

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1984 recovered

New cover treatment for Orwell’s 1984 by David Pearson. See all five of Pearson’s designs for Penguin’s George Orwell series here. (A bit more information is here.) The last image, with the title entirely cut out, was Pearson’s initial concept, rejected by Penguin for cost reasons.

1984 by David Pearson (drop shadow)

1984 cover by David Pearson

David-Pearson-George-Orwell-Original

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Best Book Trailer Ever

The trailer for my friend John Kenney’s wonderful new debut novel, Truth in Advertising (available January 22). Best book trailer ever.

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Ian McEwan on the ideal length of a story

I believe the novella is the perfect form of prose fiction.

Ian McEwan

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Orwell: Good Bad Books

The existence of good bad literature—the fact that one can be amused or excited or even moved by a book that one’s intellect simply refuses to take seriously—is a reminder that art is not the same thing as cerebration.

Read the whole essay here. See also: Orwell on Why I Write.

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John Fox on ball games

Book trailer for The Ball: Discovering the Object of the Game by my friend John Fox (on sale May 14). The footage shows the Kirkwell Ba’, an ancient “folk football” game played twice a year, on Christmas and New Years Day, in the streets of Kirkwall, a tiny coastal town in Orkney, northern Scotland.

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The original death of publishing

 

The New Yorker

The New Yorker

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