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Rumors, greatly exaggerated, of reading's demise

Bookmark Now Writing in Unreaderly Times Edited by Kevin Smokler Basic Books: 282 pp., $14.95 paper

June 26, 2005|Marc Weingarten | Marc Weingarten is the author of the forthcoming "The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight: Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, and the New Journalism Revolution."

Huzzah, Kevin Smokler! You have articulated in your introduction to this illuminating essay collection what many of us have long suspected: that we are not a nation of slack-jawed TV fiends and joystick illiterates, nor are we in danger of becoming one anytime soon.

A June 2004 report from the National Endowment for the Arts titled "Reading at Risk" warned that "literary reading" in this country is slipping precipitously down a greasy slope, and unless the trend is reversed, "vast cultural impoverishment" will result. On the contrary, argues Smokler, "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." Poetry slams, millions of online words changing hands, Dave Eggers attracting bookish groupies and filling auditoriums -- what literary crisis?

Smokler, a journalist and renowned book blogger, is excited about the current state of American letters -- passionately, evangelically so -- and this book is his riposte to NEA Chairman Dana Gioia's Chicken Little jeremiad. Smokler has collected pieces from a number of youngish writers who, ignoring a plethora of sexier and far more remunerative career options, have chosen the dicey path of fiction writing. Some of these essays explain why they did so, such as novelist and Army vet Christian Bauman's no-nonsense account of how he discovered literature while on a tour of duty in Somalia. Coming to Hemingway cold, Bauman picked up a used copy of "The Garden of Eden" that his mother had packed for him, and the book just swallowed him whole: "The first sentence became the second then the third then it was just me ... and the story." Bauman echoes what many in "Bookmark Now" take as an article of faith -- that reading, not MFA programs or writers' retreats, is the best writing workshop.

Another fact of writing life that should be self-evident but isn't: The Web has not diverted would-be novelists but has been their enabler. After all, Smokler argues, "the Internet is fundamentally a reading and writing medium." Pamela Ribon created a blog (back before they were called that) in the '90s as a way to air her grievances about life as a struggling actress in Los Angeles. It was purely a lark, but it turned her into a novelist when a fan at Putnam suggested she write one. "The performer in me helped me start a writing career; the Web geek in me took care of the rest," she reports.

Those two essays are found in the first quarter of "Bookmark Now," which is called "Beginnings." The rest of the book rambles a bit, but the detours are worth the time. A number of pieces confront two unavoidable phenomena of the book world: MFA writing programs, which have sprouted like dandelions across the lawn of academe, and McSweeney's pasha Dave Eggers, our current literary-eminence-as-pop-culture star.

Sure, MFA programs tend to encourage groupthink and mannered writing -- but how about MFA program as bacchanal? That's the alluring picture Michelle Richmond paints in her essay, which describes her pursuit of a master's in a college nestled in the Ozark foothills. "There we were," she writes, "a bunch of would-be Zeldas

Adam Johnson, the author of "A Call for Collaboration," thinks the push and pull of writing with someone else can be a salutary thing and urges more writers to step out of their garrets into the light. When he co-wrote a novel with his wife, "[t]he work was both wholly thrilling and often maddening," but "[t]he simple truth is we were able to say and convey twice as much." Work with a writer you respect and suddenly "you realize the range of ways to evoke character is far greater than you knew."

There's a lot of useful advice to be found for the aspiring Adam Johnsons of the world in "Bookmark Now." There's also a fair share of funny essays that will make you spit your Starbucks caramel macchiato all over your Sony Vaio, such as Meghan Daum's hilarious evocation of the casual-yet-pretentious diction of NPR hosts and overeducated hipsters -- an annoying linguistic habit she calls "down talk." Robert Lanham's "The McEggers Tang Clan" strafes the Eggers cult with a spot-on parody of McSweeney's house style -- self-reflexive footnotes and lists present and accounted for. Glen David Gold, author of the bestselling "Carter Beats the Devil," reveals his nasty self-Googling habit, that shameful hallmark of insecure authors. "When you look into Google," Gold writes, "Google looks into you, and

If you're a writer, Bookmark is pure inspirational power juice. If you're a reader (we know you're out there), it provides lots of heartening evidence that literature isn't dead, and that novelists can be just as entertaining as Dave Chappelle. *

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