October 8, 2013

The Best American Argument for Judging a Book by Its Cover

Filed under: Books,Real Life — DB @ 12:45 pm
Tags: , , , ,

At the risk of throwing my readers into a state of confusion, I’d like to take a brief detour from my usual subjects of movies and TV to talk about books. Yeah, I read books too. Sometimes. So what if they’re mostly by Dr. Seuss or have titles that end with “for Dummies”?

We’re always told not to judge a book by its cover, and though the phrase is usually used as a metaphor, I assume it did originate as advice about bound reading material. Yet some of my best reading discoveries have come from ignoring that nugget of age-old wisdom. Once, while browsing the Used section of San Francisco’s Green Apple bookstore, my eye was drawn to a red spine with a picture of a white owl. Upon picking up the paperback book, my first impression was that I liked the cover. The book was The Manikin, by Joanna Scott. It was a finalist for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I read the following summary:

The Manikin is not a mannequin, but the curious estate of Henry Craxton, Sr. in a rural western New York State. Dubbed the “Henry Ford of Natural History,” by 1917 Craxton has become America’s preeminent taxidermist. Into this magic box of a world—filled with eerily inanimate gibbons and bats, owls and peacocks, quetzals and crocodiles—wanders young Peg Griswood, daughter of Craxton’s newest housekeeper. Part coming-of-age story, part gothic mystery, and part exploration of the intimate embrace between art and life, The Manikin is compulsively readable and beautifully written.

The book was in good shape, so I bought it, read it, and dug it. I think what I liked most about it — and this may drive book lovers crazy, but here it is — was that I saw such great cinematic potential for it. I still have a dream of seeing this book made into a movie, albeit with some alterations. (Much as I liked it, there were a couple of plot developments I didn’t buy.) I tried to adapt it myself once, just as a personal project, but I didn’t get very far.

It happened again not long afterwards. While drifting about the books department at the city’s now-defunct Virgin Megastore, I noticed a book cover depicting a gothic-looking structure against a blue and pink sky. I went in for a closer look. The building on the cover reminded me of something Terry Gilliam might have drawn in his Monty Python days. I grabbed Everything and More by Geoff Nicholson off the shelf. The description went like this:

The first novel to combine shopping and terrorism, Everything and More is the story of what happens day and night in Haden Brothers, a vast London department store designed as a replica of the Tower of Babel. It caters to all known human wants, as well as several more mysterious needs. Into this shopper’s Eden comes young Vita Carlisle, captivated by Haden’s wares since her youth. Her childhood dream is realized when she is hired to work in the legendary emporium. Then one evening Miss Carlisle shows up in the mysterious penthouse office of Arnold Haden, the reclusive scion of the founders.

Three pieces of dynamite are taped to her perfect waist.

She’s angry.

She’s about to explode.

It sounded good, but I wasn’t in a buying mood that day. I replaced the book on the shelf and left, but I kept thinking about it. I liked the plot summary, yes, but really it was the cover that I couldn’t shake. I kinda wanted that cover. So soon after, I bought the book. Read it, loved it, started reading more Geoff Nicholson.

This judging a book by its cover thing was working out pretty well for me. And so it happened again that, while walking through the fiction section in a bookstore that I can’t remember now, I saw out of the corner of my eye an illustrated cover that reminded me of a poster that was hanging in my bedroom. The poster was for the Todd Solondz film Happiness…and if you’ve ever seen that movie, you might consider it disturbing that anyone would want a 27″ x 41″ reminder of it on their wall. I liked the movie — as much as one can “like” a movie as uncomfortable to watch as Happiness — but having the poster up wasn’t about the film (which deals pretty explicitly with such happy-fun-time subjects as pedophilia, masturbation, deep loneliness, emotional isolation, rejection, adultery and decapitated heads in freezers) so much as the poster itself. I just really liked the poster, which was illustrated by Daniel Clowes, the graphic novelist behind Ghost World.

So anyway, I saw this book cover and thought, “Is that cover art by Daniel Clowes?” I picked up the book, The Best American Nonrequired Reading of 2003, and confirmed that Clowes was indeed the featured artist. Then I took a look at the book itself. I was aware of Houghton Mifflin’s “Best American” series, but while I had come across editions for such groupings as Short Stories, Mysteries and Essays, I’d never heard of the Nonrequired Reading line. A look at the back explained that this collection, edited by Dave Eggers, contained a potpourri of works including short stories, nonfiction, comics, essays and more, culled from a spectrum that included national magazines like Time and The New Yorker as well as online zines. This edition included work by Sherman Alexie, David Sedaris and Mark Bowden. Intrigued, I decided to buy it.

Shortly after the purchase, I was flying from San Francisco to Boston, and thought this would be the perfect book to take on the plane. I like reading short pieces when I’m flying. With all the distractions that accompany air travel, I frequently look up from my reading to see what’s happening around me. (Is that cute girl going to sit in the seat next to me? Is that overweight man going to sit in the seat next to me? Is that couple with the already-crying baby going to sit in the seats next to me?) I started to pick through the book looking for the pieces that seemed most interesting, but then I considered that the point of a volume like this was to read things that I might ignore or not come across otherwise. Cherry-picking my selections would defeat the purpose, so I started at the beginning and read it straight through. From Eggers’ foreword, I learned that the pieces for the collection were chosen by a group of San Francisco Bay Area high school students, who met weekly with Eggers at his SF-based writing center, 826 Valencia. I read it all, cover to cover. I enjoyed some of the pieces, while others didn’t do much for me, but I loved the concept. From that point on, The Best American Nonrequired Reading has been my flying companion. I don’t fly all that often, so I’m usually a couple of years behind with the series, but I buy each new edition (released every October, the newest hits shelves today) and work my way through, no matter how long it takes. I only read it when I travel.

My experience is always the same: some pieces I like, some stay with me, others do little for me and are quickly forgotten, but each new selection is a mini-mystery. Among the standouts over the years are a New York Times Magazine article by Chuck Klosterman, called “The Pretenders”, about a Guns N’ Roses cover band (included in the 2003 edition); a Pulitzer Prize winning story from The Washington Post, titled “Pearls Before Breakfast”, about a social experiment in which world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell performed, to little notice, in a Washington D.C. subway station for 45 minutes during a weekday morning rush hour (it appeared in the 2008 volume); and “What Killed Aiyana Stanley-Jones?”, an article by Charlie Leduff that paints a powerful, painful depiction of Detroit’s ills. Broad enough to give a sense of the entire city’s hopelessness and intimate enough to capture individual citizens’ devastating realities, the article could serve as the blueprint for a new version of The Wire. Originally published in Mother Jones, it was featured in the 2011 Nonrequired Reading. In 2004, the collection included a short story titled “The Minor Wars”, which was later expanded into a novel called The Descendants, gaining wider exposure when it was adapted into the Oscar-winning 2011 film starring George Clooney.

The impressive roster of authors that have been represented over the years includes David Mamet, Miranda July, Michael Lewis, Joyce Carol Oates, Rick Moody, Kurt Vonnegut, Conan O’Brien, Alison Bechdel, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman and Jhumpa Lahiri, while artists like Viggo Mortensen, Beck, Matt Groening, Judy Blume and Ray Bradbury have contributed the foreword. And unlike most entries in the Best American series, which enlist a new guest editor every year, this one is the permanent domain of Dave Eggers and his student committee. In recent years, they introduced a front section full of random amusing lists such as Best American Fake Headlines (collected from The Onion), Best American New Band Names, Best American Things to Know About Chuck Norris (from ChuckNorrisFacts.com), Best American Fictional Character Names, and so on. The combination of eclectic literature, entertaining lists, thoughtful forewords and an always amusing introduction by Eggers himself, as well as short bios of the students, makes The Best American Nonrequired Reading series a perennial favorite. Whenever I read it, my enthusiasm for writing is sparked and I find myself inspired toward journalistic intentions that inevitably go unfulfilled. My pointless little blog remains my meager venue for exorcising that demon. Still, those brief moments of inspiration feel nice. I always look forward to a new volume of The Best American Nonrequired Reading, which I never would have discovered if I hadn’t judged a book by its cover. And the best way to have that experience is to undertake the declining pleasure of browsing aimlessly through a bookstore and allowing your eye to wander until something catches it.

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