I ‘d been browsing Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writer with some pleasure, and noticed, after conducting one of my regular panoramic literary event scans covering a circular territory – centre in Montreal, circumference a 3 1/2 hour drive away – that she was scheduled to speak in a few days time right out on the edge of the circle, at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY.
The Skidmore readings are connected to the New York State Writers Institute, at SUNY in nearby Albany. Together they draw some impressive talent, so I’m very attentive to what goes down there. In fact, today, Salman Rushdie happens to be on deck.
Time was limited. I put in a couple of calls, but predictably wasn’t able to tee up a Biblio File interview with Francine. Still, I was interested enough to jump in the car and drive down. I’d overnight near the college and drive to a bookstore in Cooperstown the next morning, July 4th. I’d dropped in on it years ago, but the visit was rushed, and I’ve harboured a desire to return ever since.
On the way down to Skidmore I listened to a podcast called Think Again. The guest was Martin Amis. There was some interesting talk about Joyce – 25% of Ulysses is brilliant, says Amis, the rest, not so much. He’s read about a third of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest ( I flamed out at a quarter). He is respectful, and says DFW’s essays are good (agreed), especially the ones on tennis, but suggests that his fiction burns up the reader’s good will very quickly. Too quickly, unless of course you’re young and love the challenge of reading brain-crampingly boring text. When the podcast host, Jason Gots, offers up that he’s “enraptured” by Wallace’s digressions, I have trouble suspending my disbelief. When Part ll of the podcast comes on and the discussion turns to AI, it was all I could do not to change the channel. I never turn Amis off, but this was too much.
Another thing that bothered me was Jason’s frequent outbursts of nervous, paradoxical laughter. Amis does his best to talk through it, but I couldn’t help but wonder about the seriousness of the whole enterprise.
I should perhaps come clean here. Prior to driving down to Albany I’d been organizing a trip to New York, lining up various book people to interview. I was keen to talk to Amis. Have been for some time. Probably since I read London Fields. Who wouldn’t want to meet the author responsible for bringing Nicola Six into the world. So I fired off an email to his agent Andrew Wylie. “No,” was his firm response. Not a hard, final no, just no this time round. The prospect might brighten closer to when his next big ‘baggy’ novel hits the shelves.
So this “no” was ringing in my ears, at the same time I sat jealously listening to the jarring hyena laughter and the inanity AI novel writing.
After arriving at Skidmore I walked the campus a bit
found the classroom, and took a seat close to the stage. I wasn’t in the most sanguine mood. The talks weren’t terribly enlightening. Both participants made a point of repeatedly referring to “my students.” Once the floor opened up for questions I asked Francine what differentiated her book from How to Read a Book, written by a ‘dead white guy’ more than fifty years ago. Few seemed to have heard of Mortimer Adler. Basically he advocated close reading, which is pretty well what Francine does in her book, along with providing some engaging exegesis.
More women, was the obvious answer. That’s pretty well it. I should add that although my question was presented provocatively, the intent was to facilitate her making this point.
As the tents were folding a robust, busty young tatooed student glided past me and said “I’m looking forward to the day you’re a dead white male,” missing entirely the philanthropic nature of my question.
A couple of items to note about nearby Albany: McGeary’s Irish pub in Clinton Square has an excellent happy hour where good, large stiff drinks are poured. Plus Herman Melville’s childhood home – a pink building – stands right next to it! Speaking of buildings, check these out
They’re right down town, part of a complex of state government buildings called The Empire State Plaza. It was built between 1965 and 1976 at an estimated cost of $2 billion. There’s a major public collection of 1960s and 1970s monumental abstract artworks on permanent display throughout the site. Plus there’s a performing arts center. The supervising architect was Wallace Harrison.
And final note: a year or so ago we were in town and I decided to check out the book section at a local thrift store. Damned if I didn’t find a 7th printing of the British Faber paperback edition of Anna Burns’s Booker-winning novel Milkman on the shelf!
Next morning I headed off to Cooperstown, NY, home to The Baseball Hall of Fame. It was a beautiful sunny day that brightened the already colourful surroundings.
But I wasn’t here for the Hall, or for my name engraved for free on a bat
or for the baseball gear. Not even the dogs, although I did dunk a couple for lunch.
No, I was here for the books, and Willis Monie Books had loads of them to offer at sparkling good prices. How good? Well check out the pile I bought ( mostly publishers’ histories). I think Willis was pleased.
This hog print also spoke loudly to me
as did a number of dust jackets from the forties and fifties, on books all priced at under $10, including a striking one by Milton Glaser, and this beauty published by Faber. Had to buy it.
After wobbling out of the store with my pile, I was greeted by this
actually, my first encounter with it was after the breakfast I’d enjoyed at this diner across the street. I’d decided to squeeze out all the good in a bad situation by leaving the car parked where it was for the day. Still, I couldn’t believe that the town would ticket me on July 4th. How damned unpatriotic.