Bookstores surviving

In New York City rents are killing bookstores, but in Minneapolis, where racist cops have recently murdered yet another black man, and where riots are (rightfully) claiming the streets, bookstores are pulling through by being bookstores. One put up a sign of support that included the phrase “abolish the police” and was spared as protestors smashed everything around it (link from Ninja tipster Bianca). Listen closely, because this is really showing the true face of America: a group of marginalized, targeted, oppressed people are saying, “STOP KILLING US” and those doing the marginalizing, targeting, and oppressing are saying, “Wellllll…..” It’s fucking simple, America: stop killing black people. Stop hiring racists as cops. Stop selling guns to the populace. History is going to look back on the start of America as a dark age. Hopefully this presidency will be noted as the start of the end of it. The graph spike before the sharp valley. But we’ve been saying that for years, haven’t we. I wish these fuckers would just hurry up and end that Civil War that never ended.

Moon Palace Books in south Minneapolis was one of few businesses spared Wednesday night as some protesting over George Floyd’s death turned into rioting.

The bookstore, at 3032 Minnehaha Ave., is locally owned and has been selling books since 2012, according to its website. In a tweet Thursday, Moon Palace Books said, “We’re ok. Heartbroken for our neighbors and our community. Abolish the police.”

People on Twitter noted the independent bookstore was among the few businesses in the area of the Minneapolis Pollice Department’s 3rd Precinct that were left untouched Wednesday night.

Novel parenting?

Which novels would best prepare someone for parenting? HAHAHAHAHAH. But seriously, there’s no preparing. There’s just doing. If I have one word of advice about books for prospective parents it’s this: just pick one and stick to that. Don’t read widely. If you do, you’ll go crazy. This books says do X, that book says never do X, do Y instead, and the next one says, Alphabet? No, it’s about numbers, man. It’s all a racket. Your job is to keep the kid alive until adulthood, show it love and support, and try to instill some values that will help them think the world needs to be made into a better version of itself. EoS. On the other hand, everyone should read Anne Enright because, well, it’s Anne Enright.

First of all, congratulations – I so clearly remember the urge to understand the lay of that strange new territory ahead, longing for books that might offer a way in, if only for a moment. Making Babies by Anne Enright is a wonderful place to begin, because it is funny and poignant and vivid and written by a woman who is happy in her maternity, clear-eyed, but not frightening.


You did it! And it’s nice out. And if you don’t look at anything except the page in front of you, the world isn’t so bad! Welcome to Friday. It’s one of the five days of spring in NL when we get weather above 20 degrees, so I am going to be sitting on the deck in five minute intervals (ginger), sipping a radler and pretending June isn’t about to happen. Go ahead, look up June weather in NL. It’ll make you feel better about where ever it is you live. At least I don’t have it as bad as George. If you’re allowed out of the house where you live, get out. Do some thinking about how we will solve the next big crisis facing Western Culture… TRTL: The ‘Rona Tan-Line (wherein the lower half of your face becomes a few shades lighter than the top half from mask-wearing). Enjoy!

What makes a person good vs. what makes a character good

More on the idea of autofiction. Stop imposing real world morals on us writers. I am struggling with this in my own writing. How do you make a hero likable and still flawed? What is a believable level of flaw? I’ve quit reading books because I was so surprised by a character’s bizarre choices that I said, I’M OUT! How do we negotiate that line? As a fledgling novelist, it’s a question I dwell on.

WHAT MAKES A PERSON GOOD? We can create a profile using social media and essays published in popular magazines. First and foremost, a good person possesses a deep understanding of power structures and her relative place in them. She has a sense of humor that never “punches down.” She doesn’t subtweet, buy stuff on Amazon, or fly on too many planes. She has children in order to fend off narcissism—a bad quality—and develop a stake in the future of planet Earth, but she would never presume to judge another woman’s choice. And though she occasionally makes mistakes—cheats on her boyfriend, offends her friends after drinking too much, doesn’t call her mom very often—she admits them. A good person is not perfect (she has read enough not to fall for that trap), but she is self-aware. If she ever has to ask, as the title of the popular subreddit goes, “Am I the Asshole?” and she receives an answer in the affirmative, she accepts it willingly and humbly, employing a template response, provided by her therapist, to convey how she’ll do better next time. Though she could rest on her morals, a good person is always trying to do better—not in a capitalist, life-hacking way, but in terms of acknowledging and improving the lives of others. She makes sure to let others know they should do the same.

I’m skeptical of the idea of good people, but I would be. Writers are notoriously bad people, a truism pronounced most often by people who go out with writers and second most often by writers themselves. Points added for self-awareness are deducted elsewhere. “All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery,” George Orwell says in “Why I Write.”

These kids today

Apparently the new subject for fiction is… me. Everyone wants to protect and preserve their super boring internal monologues. I call it “Gaarding the Knauses.” Pro-tip: most Knauses aren’t worth gaarding.

Novels, the argument goes, used to be about power, about settled communities and the forces that drove them, about “society” and its transformations, and explaining, or perhaps only hinting, how the world worked. But you can’t write a novel like Middlemarch in 2020. The information isn’t there any more. Or rather there is so much information, so many accretions of tantalising and contradictory data, that no novelist could possibly make sense of it.

Hence the retreat into self-absorption. No one, the argument continues to run, can write a novel about Trump or Brexit or any of the other calamities that afflict us in these uncertain times head-on. Much better to stick to your honeymoon and the delectable Italian cuisine and let the really serious stuff filter in every so often over the web.

What’s next (to read)

We all know what’s next outside of reading. Frogs raining from the sky. Famine, War, Pestilence, and Death. But in terms of what you’ve “got on your nightstand”, how do you decide where to go? I shuttered Bookninja for an 8 year hiatus in 2011, so I missed this article and many others like it during that time off.

To go from one book to another all by themselves. It sounds simple enough. As a young person just entering the world of post-academy literature, the challenge may be discerning “what’s good.” In youth, there is a blessed naiveté about this, a hunger for objective, definitive recommendations from an authoritative source. In graduate school, when a professor first challenged me to “create your own map of literary influences,” it was indeed a revelation: the image I remember conjuring was of lily pads — each of us in our own deep black pond, bug-eyed and hopping from one pad to another. Sometimes just one pad over, sometimes a greater leap to the far shore.  Apparently random, and yet mysteriously considered.

As we get older — as the nature of our work and passions specifies, as our aesthetic palates grow more particular — we understand that, given the sheer number of artful and compelling books in the world relative to the time we have on the planet, “good” is more contextual than absolute.  Deciding what to read next is thus as much about Knowing Thyself as Knowing Literature.  School attempts to teach the latter; it’s the self-knowledge that we must develop on our own, over time.

And so, in my humble opinion, the process by which you decide what to read must not be outsourced — to your professors, to reviewers or awards, to online algorithms.  An external source can’t tell you what you need to read next any more than a spouse can tell a pregnant partner what she’s craving to eat; what will satisfy. Read what you want and when you want. Choosing what to read is about attuning yourself to what it means to be nourished.  By this I mean confronted, changed, filled, emptied, engrossed, surprised, instructed, consoled — all these.  You.  At this moment in time.

Thursday news

Your brain on ebooks

Turns out reading on screens does affect your brain, but not in the way you might think. I find I can now read magazines articles and blog posts on my phone, but can’t do sustained narratives. Fits the research below. That said, my son who is 17 is reading my novel in progress as the chapters are written and has so far read 360+ pages on his phone. Boggles my mind. Generational thing? I would guess. Ironically, this is the kid who is also writing his own novel at the same time, but is doing it long hand in a notebook. These Gen Z types are weird, man.

As it turns out, the research so far suggests that although the prevalence of screens has yet to “rot our brains” or turn us into zombies, this development has changed the way we read. Neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf has written extensively about how the reading brain is changing in the digital age. In a 2018 interview for The Verge, she explained that the literacy circuits in our brains have a high degree of plasticity, meaning our reading processes—the way our brains interact with written material—are constantly shaped by the kind of reading we do on a daily basis. In our modern world, this plasticity is both good and bad. On the one hand, our brains need to be adaptable enough to keep up with the times and sift through the vast amounts of information available to us through the internet. But at the same time, this rapid adaptation to screens seems to be weakening other reading skills and processes: namely, what Wolf refers to as “deep learning” and “cognitive patience.” She claims that digital reading teaches our brains to skim and that if we don’t balance this skimming with enough deep, focused reading—the kind we’re more inclined to do with printed texts—we begin to lose our ability to read critically and empathetically.

What will happen to travel writing?

Bookninja pal and reader Bert Archer (and his allied tradespeople) might be clutching at pearls right now, but this guy says to not worry. Travel writing might also go local. Not sure that’s really a don’t-worry scenario for people who are addicted to globe-hopping, but it’s good enough for me.

By the time I finished my editorial work on this year’s edition of The Best American Travel Writing—about five weeks into my state’s mandatory stay-at-home order—I’d had plenty of time to think about the future of the form. During the first few weeks of lockdown, I was invited on to a podcast with several other travel writers to discuss “Coronavirus and Predictions on the Future of Travel Writing.” With gloom and doom, I speculated about magazines suspending publication, compared this to how travel had “irrevocably” changed after 9/11, and declared that this was “the extinction event” for a certain type of travel publishing. To be honest, I had no more idea of what might happen than anyone else, and I still don’t. But I held forth anyway, and I am aware that whatever I write now, in the spring of 2020, may seem naïve, hysterical, or wildly inaccurate by the fall, when the anthology is published, never mind a year or five from now.

New Rowling story is free

Children’s author and noted TERF supporter JK Rowling is releasing a free serialized story for kids called The Ickabog (<<read at this link). Free is exactly the right price point for Rowling, so far as I’m concerned. She’s a billionaire and for as much good as she does, she also does stupid shit like back TERFs, so I’m not willing to shoot her any more money than I already have (all four kids read the same copies of the Potter books — at least until Book 5 when things got so bloated and unedited that even the kids were like, “When will this fucking thing end?”) Anyway, here’s hoping the chapter a day buys you some time to yourself under the guise of educating your children on reading.

The Ickabog, which is set in an imaginary land unrelated to any of Rowling’s other works, will be serialised online from Tuesday afternoon, in 34 daily, free instalments. It will then be published as a book, ebook and audiobook in November, with Rowling’s royalties to go to projects assisting groups impacted by the pandemic.

Rowling described The Ickabog as “a story about truth and the abuse of power”. It came to her “well over a decade ago”, so she stressed that it “isn’t intended to be read as a response to anything that’s happening in the world right now”.