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Nick and Jessica, Brad and Angie, and Writing Books

Patti writes: "You indicated not knowing much about Nick and Jessica - in some circles, keeping current with cultural knowledge is of value." And yellojkt seconds that: "Don't be so obtuse. There are thing that just suffuse the zeitgeist that you are expected to know. How else can you be catty at awards shows?"

Hmmm, it's possible I was attempting to burnish my intellectual cred by claiming ignorance of the lives of a couple of vapid celebrities. It is important that we pause on a regular basis to identify the people and phenomena that are beneath our gaze. But I think in this case I could have made clearer that, although I am quite up to speed on Brad and Angie and Tom and Katie, and can even tell you when Angie's baby is due, I somehow missed the edifying backstory on why we are supposed to care about Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey. My sources say they were on a show called "Newlyweds," and bickered a lot. I missed that. Because I was too busy translating Finnegans Wake into Russian.

Peering into the Boodle, one sees that AJ has lots of unfinished reading material around the house, including "A huge number of Mew [sic] Yorkers and Atlantic Monthlys and two years worth of NY Review of Books." (I kind of like the sound of Mew Yorker magazine. Literature for felines.) Meanwhile, Angry Muffin writes, "Have at least 2 years of unread New Yorkers on my shelves. Again, I swear I will read these one day." I will add my voice to these two to make the required Three Examples necessary for any trend. The New Yorker is too good to toss, but too long to read, and thus one falls behind, and the magazines stack up, and become reproachful. And reproving. The two killer R-words. Guilt-inducing. Unnerving, almost. You can hear them whispering. "He's not a very good reader." Sometimes it is more than I can stand and I grab a 2-iron and beat the magazines senseless.

Though my hide is as thick as a gator's and thus incapable of being dinged by unflattering verbiage, I want to note what Random Joe posted last night, referring to books started but not finished: "Alas, Captured By Aliens is on that list in my house. Tried 4 times, on vacation, off vacation. No luck. Would you write it again?"

Dear RJ: Absolutely, and indeed would love to revise it at some point, with new material about the scientific search for extraterrestrial life. It will sound ridiculous, but researching a book on life in the universe helped me appreciate how lucky we are to be alive, and sentient, and living on such a nifty planet.

I appreciate you trying to read it. You're in very select company. An elite readership. Let's call it a cult classic, meaning, "A book read only by people who are members of cults."

Is "Captured" any good? Darn tootin' it is. To write a book you have to have a few personality quirks, ranging from, most obviously, masochism (because the process will nearly crush you) to arrogance -- the assumption that you have something to say and are capable of saying it well. This is really true for any profession. Self-doubt is normal, a sign of sanity, but ultimately you have to believe that you're good at what you do.

Of course you feel vulnerable when you finally let the finished book fly off into the real world. Never mind whether it will sell: Will anyone like it? Will it make any sense at all? What if people say, "He whiffed"? No one knows better than the writer how many places a narrative is held together with duct tape.

I remember the day I saw the first published review of "Captured," by Michael Shermer in Book World: "[quotation deleted because my editor Tom says this is utterly shameless]." An incredibly perceptive man, that Shermer. A genius.

In any case, reading is a two-way relationship between writer and reader -- isn't that what Doctorow said recently? Here's my position and I'm sticking to it: I held up my end of the bargain when I wrote that book. Random Joe, if "Captured" didn't entirely succeed, I know precisely why:

Reader failure.

By Joel Achenbach  |  March 8, 2006; 7:37 AM ET
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