Back when I attended Claremont Graduate University, I remember wanting to take a class that spent an entire semester on James Joyce’s “Ulysses” but I couldn’t because the time conflicted with my job. Let’s all assume the sting of this disappointment is why I have yet to read the book – seen as one of the great feats of modernism – and not that it just seemed, you know, hard to read. (Though I’ll leave it to you to decide which is the real reason.)
But how often in this life do we get a second chance? Well, on Feb. 3-4, The Huntington Library will put on a two-day conference, “Joycean Cartographies: Navigating the New Century of Ulysses,” to celebrate the centennial of the publication of “Ulysses.” You can attend in person, or via a free livestream. Among the Joyce scholars taking part are Karen R. Lawrence, the president of the Huntington, Prof. Kevin Dettmar of Pomona College, and Colleen Jaurretche, continuing lecturer, Department of English, UCLA.
If you’re interested in Joyce – or honestly, even if you’re not – you should check out the Huntington’s “Mapping Fiction” exhibition, which opened this month and runs until May 2. “Mapping Fiction” looks at the way that maps and texts interact and features a range of items, including books, reproductions and hand-drawn materials. I stopped by the show last week to check out the 70-item collection, which includes works by Cervantes, Jonathan Swift and Lewis Carroll, tucked into the Library’s West Hall.
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“For some writers, like [J.R.R.] Tolkien and Robert Louis Stevenson, sometimes they created maps before or while drafting the text, so it’s absolutely crucial to their composition process and even crucial to how they wanted readers to encounter their narratives,” Karla Nielsen, the curator of “Mapping Fiction,” told me during a phone conversation this week. “Some writers, like we have some pages out from Octavia E. Butler’s archive, draw maps while drafting a narrative because it helps them to plot the action realistically.”
I enjoyed some of the more popular elements included in the show, too. There are maps of Disneyland’s Tom Sawyer Island and one of greater Los Angeles sites related to Raymond Chandler’s detective novels, a Round the World with Nellie Bly game board about the pioneering journalist as well as books that range from a tome from 1664 to more current works such as Karen Tei Yamashita’s “Tropic of Orange” and Lisa See’s “On Gold Mountain.”
Another bit of fun related to the exhibition: Lynell George, the author of “A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler,” put together a delightful walking guide to Butler’s Pasadena that includes stops at the some Pasadena Public Library branches, Vroman’s and more. Expect to see me out strolling it.
Once you’ve seen the exhibit and walked the gardens, you can always get some refreshments and then wander into the store, which is well-stocked with books related to the exhibition.
And to bring it all back to Joyce in this book-related newsletter, this week Other Press is publishing the massive “Ulysses: An Illustrated Edition” featuring more than 300 color and black and white illustrations by the late Spanish artist Eduardo Arroyo. I have yet to put my hands on it, but as you can see from the cover image above it looks like it might be the thing that gets me – who grew up reading comic books as well as novels and nonfiction – to finally read “Ulysses .”
Thanks, as always, for reading.
OK, so onward to this week’s Q&A, which is with Matthew Specktor, the author of the “Always Crashing in the Same Car: On Art, Crisis, and Los Angeles” (Tin House), his book of essays about Hollywood, books, life, success, heartbreak and more. It’s a wonderful book, one I took with me on vacation and absolutely loved, and so I am glad that his is one of SCNG’s 10 Noteworthy books by Southern California authors made an impact in 2021. Click on the link to my colleague Samantha Dunn’s story to read who else made our list – you’ll recognize them as Southern California authors we’ve featured here in previous editions of the newsletter as well as in the pages of the regular book section.
Matthew Specktor on reading outside the ‘hype cycle’
Matthew Specktor is the author of ‘Always Crashing in the Same Car: On Art, Crisis, and Los Angeles’ (Tin House), and it’s one of SCNG’s 10 Noteworthy books by Southern California authors that made an impact in 2021.
Q. Name a book you’d like to recommend.
Emily Segal’s “Mercury Retrograde,” which is my favorite new novel of the past few years. Sharp, hilarious, and almost impossibly intelligent, Segal writes like a young Don DeLillo – if DeLillo happened to also be extremely feminist and had total command of internet culture. My friends are tired of hearing me talk about it, but I recommend this book to almost everyone I meet.
Q. How do you choose what to read next?
Intuition. I take pains, really, to read outside the hype cycle: most of what I read is older, or – if I’m reading something contemporary – has at least passed its moment of cultural ubiquity. I’ll read a prizewinner 18 months after the fact or whatever. But there’s something impulsive, and maybe a little contrary in my approach as a reader: I’ll see someone mumbling negative things about Norman Mailer and I’ll want to read Norman Mailer (an impulse that in that case cures itself pretty quickly when I actually do), but . . . Reading is one of the few areas of our cultural life that isn’t quite so aggressively directed by the algorithm these days (although, of course, the books that appear in our feeds are precisely that). It’s a private experience, and I like to honor that by reading as quixotically, and as unfashionably, as I can.
Q. What do you find the most appealing in a book: the plot, the language, the cover, a recommendation? Do you have any examples?
Something that comes before plot, and maybe even before language, although it always registers in the language, which is a feeling of urgency. It’s a hard thing to quantify, but either it’s there or it isn’t, and for me it tends to register almost immediately. Pick up a book like Denis Johnson’s “Angels” or, more recently, Benjamín Labatut’s “When We Cease to Understand the World” – two very different novels, with different historical settings, different styles (and Labatut’s book is in translation, even) and yet it’s there in both cases: an immediacy, a need, a sense of imperative that’s there in the sentences, and which you can feel right away. That’s what I’m always looking for.
Q. What books do you plan, or hope, to read next?
I’m going to re-read James Baldwin’s “Another Country,” which I return to every few years, and which never fails to astonish me. After that, Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove” – Geoff Dyer’s recent appreciations of it have completely sold me. I’m writing a book now that has a long and sweeping narrative design, so that’s what I’m after. Epic, epic, epic.
THE NOTEWORTHY 10 BOOK EVENT
You’ve seen the list and subscribers will receive that and more in Bookish, SCNG’s Premium Magazine, in the Jan. 30 edition of the newspaper. Even better, we invite you to join us for a special Noteworthy edition of SCNG’s virtual program Bookish on Feb. 4 with Sandra Tsing Loh, Samantha Dunn and me, Erik Pedersen. We’ll be discussing the authors and books and sharing some messages from those on the list.
How to join the event: Click here for link.
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