Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Hey, NEA! Bookmark This!

Although I’m a bit delayed in this post, it should still be worthwhile. Friday night I made the hike up to Politics and Prose in northwest D.C. for a reading/discussion on the new book Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times. An anthology of essays on the state of writing today, Bookmark Now brings in heavyweight talent like Neal Pollack, Tracy Chevalier, and Glen David Gold alongside some names that are lesser known but still excellent writers.

The event was hosted by Kevin Smokler, editor for the anthology, and Paul Collins of Collins Library fame (the Collins Library is a unique imprint of McSweeney’s, putting out what they call "unusual out-of-print literary works"….they do a fabulous job there). Collins contributed a piece to the volume.

For those of you who have never made it to Politics and Prose, it’s the kind of bookstore readers of the New Yorker dream about. A clean, inviting atmosphere, with normally helpful staff. Uptempo jazz floats in the background (not too loud, now!), and the shelves contain a relatively nice balance of literary bestsellers and older titles. My ultimate preference would be for some Einsturzende Neubaten pounding away while I search through piles and piles of used books, but that’s me.

Surprisingly, I was on the younger end of the spectrum as far as attendees for the event. Perhaps it’s because it was a Friday night, and most of the other cool iterati had big parties to go to. I pretended to read my copy of Cunningham’s Specimen Days while secretly eavesdropping like all writers should and heard tidbits of conversation covering things like the best hardware store, why red wine is better with bbq than beer, and how to kick-start a writing career. Needless to say, I felt right at home.

Smokler kicked things off by saying he was asked to pull a book of essays together by writers of "his generation". He said ok, and moved on to figure out what his generation was, finally defining it as the first people not to remember the Kennedy assasination, and never remember a time without video games or fruit roll-ups. My generation, I supposed, although I’d probably be on the younger side of it.

The ultimate goal of the book was to bring together writers to explain how and why they continue to read and write in this day and age of extreme media saturation. Although Bookmark Now started prior to its release, it also became an opponent of sorts to the NEA report dubbed Reading at Risk. For those that don’t want to read the link for themselves, the report basically states that because of an increase of watching t.v. playing video games, the internet, and other competing mediums the reading of literature has dropped so dramatically that the NEA has called it a crisis of culture.

Now when I say Bookmark Now became an opponent of the Reading at Risk Report, I don’t mean that Smokler and Collins were sitting behind the podium belching, drinking beer, and playing marathon rounds of Grand Theft Auto as a demonstration of a culture shift. Instead, Smokler offered the idea that the NEA is simply missing the boat, so to speak. The report very specifically defines literature as fiction, poetry or plays, so this automatically dismisses well written, literary-quality essays. It also doesn’t look at people’s online habits, discounting online literary zines, blogs that discuss literature, and online communities that offer the chance for people to review literature and even post their own writings. All interesting points, I thought.

Collins then took the floor, and read his piece from the anthology. A very lighthearted essay, it covers his discovery of a very odd series of books he once discovered and how magical they still seem to him today. I won’t go into finer details, since it might ruin the humor of the piece. He ended by reading a short guide to playing the old video game Space Invaders, written by a young Martin Amis.

The main portion was followed by a set of questions from the audience covering everything from people’s favorite literary sites of interest to libraries of the future to copyright issues in the electronic age. Although lighthearted, I found it all very interesting. If nothing else, I picked up another good book for the ever-growing pile and it made me rethink some things about this here blog. More on that at another time.



Kevin said...

Thanks for coming.

Hebdomeros said...

My pleasure. I look forward to reading the actual book.