Prior to the invention of the reader, one had to walk up to War and Peace and read it.

/Beth Wareham

I rarely quote my husband, but heck, I rarely admit I have one.

As a chief music critic of The New York Times, he wrote this: “Acoustics are to music what bookbinding and typeface are to Faulkner. A beautiful cover is a delight to hold in the hand. The right page design is easy on the eyes. But if our minds are doing their work, Faulkner’s voice will sound the same in the roughest, smallest and most unwelcoming old paperback as it does in the most luxurious special edition.

It depends on how well we read.”

Yup, my husband Bernard Holland expressed my sentiments about books in 2003, unbeknownst to me, and here I am, some ten years plus later, using machines to prove him true: It’s not your delivery device, it’s your mind. It just never occurred to me to roll over twelve years ago and say “Where do you think this book thing is going?”

The war of off-set versus digital seems to be abating, (publishing was heartbroken when their cover model, Woody Allen, signed with amazon Studios) There is an “Indie” versus “big house” mentality rocking along. I have my eyes (and money) on the Indies as publishing will follow along the same trajectory as music, television and film. Why wouldn’t they?

But at the bottom of all of this is the endless debate over who says what is “worth” reading, who is the gatekeeper, Tom Wolfe’s beloved cultural elite. Now diffuse, it’s getting a little less smoky in the room. Interesting voices are blowing in from all kinds of cracks and crannies. That can only mean greater creativity, more ideas, courage, change.

And no cracked screen or muddy wrinkled page can every change what this sentence does to me: “That was how Arcadio and Amaranta came to speak the Guajiro language before Spanish, and they learned to drink lizard broth and eat spider eggs without Urula’s knowing it, for she was too busy with a promising business in candy animals.”

-Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hunderd Years of Solitude – click to buy

and do not forget Memories of His Meloncholy Whores or Love in the Time of Cholera

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imagesWriting short. Hemingway could do it.   Proust could not.   Brendan Gill could fit the world in a 300 word New Yorker architecture piece

 Sometimes it is just a matter of space:  If you have a lot, you put more words in. People feel this way about the decoration of rooms as well. It’s a shame.  Like silence, people are frightened of space.

One has big hopes the internet will rein in certain prose;  hypergraphia  be gone! Practice your new art of writing short on @twitter: those 140 characters are a mighty wall.

Writing short is the misty lair of poets. They know something about silence and space and power. They understand less is more. When poets write novels, the result is usually spectacular; they know the right word.  There’s no room in a poem for the wrong one.

 After a difficult day, people say, “Go home. Get in bed. Eat bonbons. Read some trash.” Why read trash?  Trash – literally and metaphorically – is what you’ve been grappling with all day. Don’t wallow in more mediocrity. Treat yourself way better than that. The food should be healthy, the reading very good.  Sheet thread counts matter, but that’s another discussion.

 Get out of your head and your life. Some of the books below are novellas and there is a short story or two. Doesn’t matter. They are the same thing: great art.  These pre-bed reads may be just the thing to erase the trashy memories of the day and reattach your wings:

  1. The Death of Ivan Iylich by Leo Tolstoy – Nearing the end of Romanticism (1800 – 1850, more or less, and easily identifiable by swoons, stolen kisses and heaving bosoms), Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Iylich’s 128 pages electrify. In this blasé-toned bomb of a little book, Tolstoy takes us through   the death of a mediocre government worker (he’s middle-aged and has a freakish accident with the drapes) who never once considered his own ending.  Heartbreaking and as real as it gets, this is one great instruction manual on how not to live. Everyone knows an Ivan; he may be working in the next cubicle right now.

 2. The Stranger by Albert Camus – Nobody had really encountered the likes of Camus before (and often called him an “existentialist,” much to the confusion of him and Jean Paul Sartre, that movement’s Buddha), and his work generated many a coffeehouse debate in the middle of the 20th century. Every intellectual sought to understand this cool Algerian thinker, labeled “absurdist” by those who make labels.   He won a Nobel Prize in 1957 and this little 123-page book shows you why: in one violent moment, Camus shows the impossibility of truly knowing what drives humans to do what they do.


   3. Memories of His Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Known for opening lines that blow your skirt up, this 130-page trip to the top of the mountain begins with “the year I turned 90, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin.”  The New York Times wrote the line off to Marquez and his love of playing with time, but there is something else here the Times would never spot: the unending well of strange magnificent love that flows through every Marquez book. Love makes time it’s bitch over and over as Marquez proves he was one great magician.

4. The Subterraneans by Jack Kerouac – Once you get over Kristen Stewart being cast in On the Road, give Jack another go. Wild and sexual, The Subterraneans follows the breakup of Leo and Mardou through the smoke rooms  and back alleys of San Francisco on the edge of the 1960s. In this wild 111-page ride, you’ll read some of the greatest sentences ever written about modern America. You’ll also feel San Francisco when it was the heart of counterculture, not computer corporations.

 5. The Awakening by Kate Chopin – In today’s world of undulating booty, it’s hard to imagine an American culture where women’s sexuality constituted the bars of her prison. But that is Edna’s – and every woman’s lot in 1899. Set in and around New Orleans, Chopin’s character is isolated physically and emotionally until she has an affair, a very dangerous pursuit for a 19th Century woman. The book’s original title was A Solitary Soul. Pretty much says it all.

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