Wednesday, January 10, 2007


Thinking about Americana and why it didn't work for me, I realized it belongs to a class of book that almost never works for me. The non-fiction compilation nearly always disappoints. Sometimes the book seems to be a nearly random collection of essays, as in the case of John McPhee's Irons in the Fire. In other cases, such as the popular and ever-expanding (up to nine titles now) Best American series, the books have thematic coherence, but uneven quality.

I am reading another one of McPhee's compilations called Uncommon Carriers. It is a series of essays about people who work in the transportation system whether by truck, train, ship or plane. The stories are well written, with McPhee's excellent combination of simple clear style with a expert reporter's way of getting the most interesting and descriptive information from his subjects. I like the stories, but I don't like how the stories switch without any transition. Is there something larger McPhee wants to tell us? Are there interesting connections or an interesting lack of connection? These are the sorts of things that frustrate me about collections. They purport to tell a larger story when they really tell lots of individual stories.

Another one of my issues is that I don't read this books correctly. They are not designed to be read from cover to cover. Instead, like the magazines from whence their pieces arise, they are meant to be picked up, flipped through and to offer the chance of the serendipitous find. When I pick up a book, I a slowly building urge to finish sets in. If I read the book quickly, it is no bother, but the longer ti takes the more it grows in strength and I can become absurdly anxious. When I see a partially read book beside me, I wonder just when I am going to get that thing finished. I really should just subscribe to the New Yorker and the Atlantic. Half the pieces in any compilation come from those two magazines anyway.


Steve said...

I have the same problem of being unable to read pieces of a book and set the rest aside for later. I have to read the entire thing or not at all - I could name right now the 5 or 6 books that I started but did not finish last year - they still bug me. The worst - for me - is when I put down a longer work for too long to pick it up and start where I left off. Do I start over and waste all of that reading time on stuff that I've read before (and clearly did not love)? or do I discard as a Book Never To Be Read (and fret about it later)?

And can I really wear stripes on stripes, as Braxton says, or is that just too continental? These are the important thoughts that occupy my days.

Tripp said...

If I put a book down, I may as well use it for firewood. The chances of me starting it again are slim to none.

And no, you cannot wear stripes on stripes, unless you combine said ensemble with pocket squares and wearing loafers with no socks.

Brack said...

"You know what you look like to me, with your [button-down collar] and cheap [tie]? A rube. A well-scrubbed, hustling rube with a little taste."

Tripp said...

Oh very nice, speaking in the voice of a cannibalistic serial killer.


Brack said...

"Oh, [T Spot]. So eager to play [a subtle chalk stripe off a nice herringbone], so reluctant to admit it. . . . your [wardrobe] will be legendary even in Hell!"

Like school on Mondays, baby.

Tripp said...

hmm perhaps the first ever Fat Albert Hellraiser mashup.

I suppose once I emerge from Brooks Brothers, ensconced in the latest threads I will whisper "And to think I hesitated."