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Read Hard: Five Years of Great Writing from the Believer Paperback – July 28, 2009
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About the Author
Ed Park, Heidi Julavits, and Vendela Vida are the founding editors of the Believer magazine.
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Reading this book reminded me of like channel surfing bunch of cool cable stations (that don't really exist) that were designed specifically for me - the writing, truly, is sort of like channel surfing. There is a wide variety of intriguing topics and the writing style is sleek and hip. This is "the best of the best" from *The Believer,* a magazine I have heard of but have never actually seen.
Here we find essays about Charles Portis (who I had never heard of but have ordered several of his books since "reading hard"), Nathaniel West, books about writing, Lester Bangs, the complete history of *My Way,* and Michel Houellebecq. And a fascinating search for Bill Fox.
I have to admit that, like *A Very Bad Wizard,* it took me a while to even start this volume - but once I started I couldn't wait to go to bed each night to read more. Highly recommended.
Rick Moody spends half of "How to be a Christian Artist" telling us what kind of music he likes in fairly forgettable sentences. I lost interest completely when he asserted: "(white) rock and roll" "is mainly obsessed ... with all that is harrowing about Christian experience, not a moment given over to forgiveness, except perhaps in that awful song by Don Henley, `The Heart of the Matter' ..." Somehow Moody missed the Doobie Brothers' "Jesus is Just Alright," Norman Greenbaum's classic "Spirit in the Sky," Lynyrd Skynyrd's soulful "Simple Kind of Man," George Harrison's (admittedly as Hindu as it is Christian) "My Sweet Lord," and U2's blend of gospel and blues "When Love Comes to Town"--to name a few.
Richard Powers's "A Brief Take on Genetic Screening" is a pretentious attempt to connect writing with medicine. Powers writes as if the ring of a sentence in his own ear is enough to prove its veracity, failing to present a single example of support--not one. He doesn't even give an example (let alone define) genetic screening. "As patients," he writes, "we grow ill and recover, rally and fade, all experienced as narrative excursions inside wider story frames." I can't say I know anyone who experiences a bout with cancer as a "narrative excursion." Powers also asserts, "Life is the act of rewriting our lives. So all good writing is rewriting." Hardly bothering to persuade us that the first statement is true, he never so much as attempts to define good writing and never talks about rewriting except in these two sentences. Apparently Powers operates under the assumption that if he writes it, no further proof is required.
Equally untenable is Tayari Jones's piece about Black History Month, in which her great fear is that she gets invited to read during February because she's black. "If February is Black History Month," she wonders, "is the rest of the calendar reserved for white people?" Although Jones apparently has a Y chromosome, she seems unaware that March is Women's History Month (once also claimed as Native American History Month, which has been moved to November) and that October is Lesbian & Gay History Month.
Her anecdote about a man who asks her what percentage of her work is black, and what percentage is universal epitomizes the adage that there are no foolish questions, only foolish answers. Jones doesn't tell us her reply, only--as though she were God's avenging angel--that the man "will never pose such a question to anyone again, ever." I ran the same question past a black author who has written extensively and brilliantly on race, gender, and identity. After smiling and admitting he's heard this very question many times, he pointed out that it's not answerable--"it's not a case of percentages"--and went on to explain, quite rationally, why. No thunderbolts, no threats of retribution. Ironically, after flaunting her indignation--like a fan of angrily colored feathers--Jones describes her best moment as a writer (during, yes, Black History Month): connecting with another black woman of the same age who lived in the same city at the same time as Jones. Doesn't sound like Jones much values a more universal response.
Eula Biss's "No Man's Land" is so shoddy in so many ways I don't know how it was published, let alone placed in a best-of anthology. From her thesis that fear is the root of all evil to her repulsive tone--here, let my husband and me show you how to be liberal, white people--to the lack of support for her arguments, this essay is simply misguided. Biss's approach to race is unsophisticated to say the least. She doesn't bother with the distinction between bias and prejudice usually made in sociology 101: bias is an opinion formed by direct experience; prejudice is based on someone else's opinion. She never discusses the original functions of fear or how those have changed. And most everything she has to say begins "I this ..." or "My husband that ..." She drops in a stat or two, but then fails to mention socioeconomic factors, which are easily as important as the racial ones. And her ending is so sappy you could pour it on your pancakes.
There were a few essays that were worth reading, such as Jonathan Lethem's "The American Vicarious," Ginger Strand's "Why Look at Fish?," William Vollman's "And Suppress the Unpleasant Things," and Joe Hagan's "Transit Byzantium"--some more like articles than essays--but none worthy of the "great" epithet. The language is rarely more than is necessary to get across a point, and the points tend to be neither very original nor very thought- provoking. Maybe I've been spoiled by reading William Gass and Guy Davenport, but if you want to read hard, I strongly suggest one of their collections; you'll get memorable writing, dazzling concepts, and a verbal juggling act The Believer might take note of for future reference.