Friday, October 26, 2007

Book Review: "Bookmark Now"

I picked up a copy of Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times recently because I saw that it contained a piece by Paul Collins; I was pleased to find that its other contents were also worth reading. Editor Kevin Smokler has collected a series of essays by young writers on the topics of writing, reading and books, partly in response to the 2004 NEA report "Reading at Risk." Smokler and most of the authors here argue that the state of American literature is much stronger - if in different ways - than the "Reading at Risk" report indicated. Smokler writes in the introduction "This is an amazing time for books. If reading and literature are in crisis, it certainly isn't one of apathy but one of seismic rumblings of change that will have a profound effect on the future."

The vast majority of the essays here were both fun to read and thought-provoking. I enjoyed and chuckled repeatedly at Pamela Ribbon's musings on author photos, and found Michelle Richmond's critique of the MFA culture utterly disturbing. Glen David Gold's essay on Googling oneself and Robert Lanham's tutorial on how to break into the McSweeney's mindset are recommended, and I empathized entirely with Tracy Chevalier's inability to come up with a literary Top Ten list (ask me my favorite book, watch my head explode). Douglas Rushkoff's thoughts on the safe future of the book are important and spot-on.

But Paul Collins' essay was, as expected, my favorite. In "121 Years of Solitude," Collins discusses his discovery of Notes and Queries, the great Victorian periodical of questions and answers. Bookmark Now is worth buying just for this, in which Collins reads 120 years worth of the journal, making discoveries and finding reassurance in the marginalia of a previous reader. Incidentally, many early editions of N&Q are available online (here, or here). I can attest to the fact that they make fascinating reading, but after reading Collins' thoughts I think I'll read them differently.

If the writers who contributed to this book continue to write, American letters are in good hands. Literature will change with the times, but it always has done, and reading's still going strong.