A collection that reveals a lifelong emotional engagement with the possibilities of art
Michael Chabon, Bookends: Collected Intros and Outros (HarperCollins, 2019)
Michael Chabon, Bookends: Collected Intros and Outros (HarperCollins, 2019)

How does one introduce a book of introductions by an author who needs no introduction? This month heralds the paperback release of Michael Chabon’s Bookends, an enjoyable collection of his introductions (as well as outros and liner notes) to an eclectic range of texts. Combining literary and cultural critique with revealing autobiographical reflection, Chabon shares his enthusiasm for everything from literature and popular fiction to comic books, Norse myth, movies, food, music, and baseball. He glories in the rhythms of Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special, debunking a few myths along the way, and takes time to recommend West Oakland’s soul food restaurant, Brown Sugar Kitchen. There are also personal observations about his own fiction, including a short extract from his unpublished work, Fountain City. The collection even has its own (meta) introduction. Fans of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author will seize on this book to better understand the texts and experiences that shaped Chabon as an artist. More broadly, Bookends is a wander along the lost avenues and borderlands of the twentieth-century popular imagination.

Whether discussing the cultural significance of Superman’s cape, or the pastel, symmetrical frames of Wes Anderson, the pieces that form Bookends return time and again to the role that art plays in shaping who we are. Chabon remembers picking up paperbacks of The Great Gatsby and Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus before embarking on his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. He talks about his immersion into the magical-realist settings of Greek and Norse myth as a third grader. He discusses the way Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Rocket Man’ changed his life forever when he was just ten-years-old: “I had never noticed, somehow, that stories were made not of ideas or exciting twists of plot but of language. And not merely of pretty words and neat turns of phrase, but of systems of imagery, strategies of metaphor.” Bookends celebrates the skill of artists and writers to conjure imaginary worlds, navigating the fantasy landscapes of Michael Moorcock and getting lost in the graphic dystopian cities of Howard Chaykin. Chabon has a critic’s awareness of poststructuralist and postmodern approaches to art and representation, with nods here and there to writers like Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, and Walter Benjamin. But, ultimately, the success of Bookends lies in the way it demonstrates a lifelong emotional engagement with the possibilities of art, and the texts that speak to us at important moments in our lives. It traces the strange spark that arises at “the intersection of a wish and the tip of a pencil.”

This extract is from my review of Michael Chabon’s Bookends: Collected Intros and Outros, published in the San Francisco Chronicle, 23 January 2019.

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“After two years of careful reading, moving backwards through time, Robert McCrum has concluded his selection of the 100 greatest nonfiction books. Take a quick look at five centuries of great writing.” — The Guardian

Includes: Former President of the United States, Barack ObamaBetty FriedanEdward SaidGeorge OrwellJames BaldwinJoan DidionMichael HerrNaomi KleinOliver SacksSusan SontagVirginia Woolf, and many more.

susan-sontag

Includes Susan Sontag, Hanya Yanagihara, Georges Perec, Samuel Pepys, Brian Evenson, Erica Jong, and more — Literary Hub

Robert McCrum (The Guardian) counts down his list of the 100 best non-fiction books, and cites Sontag’s landmark essay collection at number 16

susan-sontag-against-interpretation-and-other-essays-penguinSusan Sontag saw herself as a novelist. The years between 1962, when she completed her first novel, The Benefactor, and 1965, when she began her second, Death Kit, were for Sontag “a sharply defined period” in which she wrote many of the literary critical and cultural pieces that came to define her even more strongly than her fiction.

In her Paris Review interview of 1994, Sontag confessed: “Writing essays has always been laborious. They go through many drafts, and the end result may bear little relation to the first draft; often I completely change my mind in the course of writing an essay. Fiction comes much easier, in the sense that the first draft contains the essentials – tone, lexicon, velocity, passions – of what I eventually end up with.” (more…)

Andrew Gallix takes another look at Barthes’ famous essay, ‘The Death of the Author’, and explores the writer’s complex engagement with author’s lives…

If Barthes presents biography with a problem, it is not because he is absent from his work, but on the contrary because he is inseparable from it. Etymologically, a text is a piece of cloth, one that, in Barthes’s view, is constantly in the process of being woven. In this making, “the subject unmakes himself, like a spider dissolving in the constructive secretions of its web” (The Pleasure of the Text, 1973). However, it is also through these very secretions that the subject resurfaces, in disseminated form, “like the ashes we strew into the wind after death” (Sade Fourier Loyola, 1971). These ashes are what he called “biographemes”. Barthes also came to identify “life writing” — whereby life becomes the text of the work, à la Proust — as a viable way of voicing the intimate. Beyond that, and even beyond meaning itself, he dreamed of a purely gestural writing that would inscribe “the hand as it writes” — his very desire for writing — into the body of his texts. (more…)