At Powell’s bookstore last night I made the strategic decision to not look for any of my books. You should never search for your own books in a bookstore with 1.5 million volumes on the shelves. The psychic boost from finding one would be trifiling compared to the ego-hammering from not finding one. Indeed I averted my gaze from any section that might potentially contain, or more likely, not contain, my book. I crabwalked through Powell’s, and flitted nervously, sometimes hiding behind pillars or staring at my shoes and acting casual as though nothing was going on. I took no chances.
I did, however, pick up a copy of a rare Conrad Richter story collection, The Rawhide Knot. Richter was married to my grandfather’s sister, so he’s kin, and I look out for kin, always, with Mastiff loyalty. He’s also one of the handful of writers who managed to win both a Pulitzer Prize (for “The Town”) and a National Book Award (for “The Waters of Kronos”).
At Powell’s I picked up 6 handy bookmarks that list all the winners of the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, the Nobel Prize, the Man Booker, the Oregon Book Award, the books selected for Oprah’s Book Club and the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels of the 20th Century. I’m going to spend the rest of the vacation cross-referencing these lists to prove that Conrad Richter was a giant akin to Joyce.
The lists are somewhat maddening and more than a little bit addictive. Right off, we can toss the Nobel list, as no one has ever heard of half of those writers. For the love of Pete, who picks that award? The judges must belong to some strange cult of literary eccentrics at Yaddo or the Iowa Writers Workshop or perhaps some outfit in Europe. Mo Yan? Tomas Transtromer? I think I can speak for all Americans when I ask: “Where are all the Americans?”
The 100 best novels of the 20th Century has some good stuff, though it’s heavily weighted toward novels that English professors like to teach, starting with “Ulysses.” That book is just a stunt, a circus act, a tangle of forms and symbols and metaphors that delights the English professors in the same way that Where’s Waldo delights a 6-year-old. (Or is that too harsh? I’m on vacation and I’ve lost my sense of proportion.) I am unfamiliar with “The Way of All Flesh” by Samuel Butler, which weighs in at Number 12 on the Top 100. Was that a diet book? I should read that. The list is overwhelmingly male and kind of … macho. Scanning the list I see only a few women, including Virginia Woolf and Evelyn Waugh.
I’m trying to finish “Cassada” by James Salter (found a first edition, hardcover, for $10 in a little used bookshop in Seattle), which I don’t find as winning a book as “Light Years.” I enjoyed “Sweet Tooth” (McEwan) and “Masters of Atlantis” (Portis). I am now thinking of trying another Jennifer Egan book, having loved “Goon Squad.” Or do I do that Hilary Mantel sequel to “Wolf Hall”? Or something by David Foster Wallace?
The problem with Wallace is simply the heft, the mass, the sheer bulk of a book like “Infinite Jest.” I have to get on a plane soon. If I try to bring “Infinite Jest” back to DC, the pilot may have to shift the cargo in the hold just to keep the plane flying straight. Or ask someone on the other side of the aisle to bring along a copy of “The Pale King.”
More down the road…