poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

August 18, 2010

Notes from the Underground

Filed under: Culture: U.S.,Too Much Information — poemless @ 5:35 PM

In Soviet Russia, Dostoyevsky reads You on the subway!

I recently joined Twitter and have been terribly unimpressed. Half of the “tweets” I read are recycled on/from facebook, half of them are cliquish in a way that makes me feel like I am shyly eating lunch/eavesdropping at the popular kids’ table, and the vast majority of them are of positively no interest to me at all. Except for one shining example. The Paris Review.

I don’t read the Paris Review. In fact, I am only aware of its function as something one totes about like an extra limb, usually belonging to moody hipsters with advanced English degrees, forced to spend hours working at the local bookstore information desks, the weight of their fates so unbearable that an extra limb is required to keep them propped up at said desks – and here enters the Paris Review. But when I signed up for Twitter, I searched “books/literature” as a subject of interest, thinking I might stalk my favorite authors, and stumbled upon the Paris Review Twitter feed. Why is it so brilliant, so worth having to slog through a thousand posts about the price of Russian grain for? Their advice column. I mean, I’m not saying it’s any good, that you should take it, but there is something profoundly entertaining about cynical, pretentious literary types giving each other advice. I dare say it is art. Well, anyway, it’s better than whatever you (and I) are posting on Twitter…

Excerpts from “THE PARIS REVIEW DAILY: Ask The Paris Review.”

I read a Richard Yates novel. And I’m fucking depressed. Like wow, what a downer. Give me something to cheer me up. —Jeff Swift

PR: I’m not sure how to recommend this, but are you familiar with “I Am a Bunny?”

Girls. I’m girl crazy. It’s ’cause it’s summer. I’d like to calm myself down. What should I do? —Ronnie

PR: “The Complete Guide to Furniture Styles,” by Louise Ade Boger. This one is new to my collection. I got it off the two-dollar cart at the Strand last week and already I have found it an indispensible settler of the mind. I know what you’re thinking: for a diseased one-track Bonobo like yourself, it’s only the tiniest baby-step from furniture to sex. Trust me. Ms. Boger is an artist. She was bored writing the thing, bored shitless from sentence one, and she manages to communicate that feeling to the reader in real time. To say “The Complete Guide to Furniture Styles” is 427 pages long is to say nothing. The pages are giant; the text bicolumniar; the black-and-white plates, for all intents and purposes, useless. Reading “The Complete Guide” is like popping six Ambien and hitting yourself on the head with a brick.

Can you recommend any books that will make interesting people approach me if I read them on the subway? During “A Moveable Feast,” people came up and quoted entire passages verbatim, and it really enhanced the reading experience. —Alexandra Petri

It was the last question which first caught my attention. You want interesting people to approach you on the subway? I spend an hour of my life everyday trying to prevent this. The subway is the one place I want everyone to be as innocuously normal and silent as humanly possible. And I certainly don’t want them approaching me. But then, as I read the answer, I thought there was something wise and funny about different subway lines having different literary preferences. And then again, I was reminded of how reading on the subway is not a universal experience. This is a realization I had only recently, when maryb at Alone With Each Other posted something about Kindles, etc. replacing hardcover books, and paperbacks will be for the poor. As someone who works with rare books, I went into hysterics about the hardcover’s imminent extinction, but at some point managed to have this exchange:

maryb: And paperbacks will be purchased by people who want to read at home or who rely on the library or book sales, the way hardbacks are now…

ME: …do people really have books they only read at home and books they only read on the go? Generally speaking, the book I’m reading on the train is the one I’m picking back up at lunch and getting into bed with at night.

maryb: You big city people. Here in St. Louis there are no trains to read on except for one scrawny metro line that hardly anybody rides. The fact that I carry a book around with me makes me an aberration. So yes, there are many
people who intend ONLY to read at home.

Somehow I’d gotten the idea into my head that trains exist to 1) get a person from point A to point B and 2) give a person time to read. Of course one can also read at a cafe, the beach, park, doctors’ offices, even in one’s own bed. But the idea that people just sit around, in their own homes, reading… it kind of terrified me. I don’t know why. Obviously sitting around watching tv seems plausible. I think I have a phobia or something. If reading a book is on my list of things to do, and I am at home, I leave. That’s why god created cafes, right? Unless of course it is that certain kind of foul weather morning where curling up under the duvet by the window with a cup of coffee and a book is acceptable, nay, obligatory on aesthetic grounds alone. Anyway, now I am obsessed with reading-on-trains culture.

Are we doing it to avoid people?, to pass the time?, because it is the only chance we have to read?, to seduce men?

According to the website CTA Tattler, Women El riders read more books than men:

Since December, I’ve been recording what books people have been reading, and 17 out of 21 El readers were female. Of those 17 women, 13 were in their 20s or 30s, based on my “best guess.” (You should see me guess
weights at the State Fair.)

To be fair, I see men read. I think I must live on a well-read line. Apropos of nothing, I have been doing my own unscientific study of El riders’ habits, and most Blackberry users are women, whereas most iPhone use is by men. Also, it is mostly men watching tv on their mobile devices. Certainly mostly men laughing while watching tv their mobile devices. The mobile device has almost entirely wiped out the Sudoku fad of a few years back, while book readership appears to have remained steady. I don’t see many Kindle-type things, and I think people look ridiculous reading them. Primarily because such people are usually simultaneously fumbling with their iPods, not hearing their iPhones ringing and checking their e-mail on their Blackberries during the very 20 minute trip while they are flashing about their e-books. It all seems more satirical or dystopian than inspiring.

Here is another take on the literature of the commute:

The Guardian: Give us more literature on public transport: Moscow metro’s murals of Dostoevsky apparently risk making commuters dangerously depressed. But surely travelling with only adverts to read is a far grimmer experience.

According to psychologists, no good will come of the new murals in Moscow’s Dostoevskaya underground station. The vast, black, white and grey depictions of Dostoevsky himself, and the characters from his novels, will make people “afraid to ride the subway”; they will encourage suicidal impulses; they’re depressing. But as a regular London tube traveller, I actually found myself feeling a little jealous. I think they look pretty great, and while they might not actually brighten up a journey they’d certainly make it more interesting.

I become panicky if I don’t have something to read or look at while travelling. If I’ve timed it so badly that I finish a book on a journey, don’t have anything new to read, and have finished/can’t bear to start Metro or whatever free paper has been pushed at me, then I will eventually stoop to reading the adverts while waiting for a train. (It’s less stressful once I’m on board; I may be lucky enough to stumble on one of the Poems on the Underground posters – as part of my pledge to learn more poetry by heart I have been trying to use my tube journeys to commit them to memory). But how much better would it be to be able to gaze on scenes from “Crime and Punishment,” or a mural of the great man, instead?

I don’t think we Londoners can swipe Dostoevsky, of course: we’d need an author with a more British flavour. I think I might campaign for Dickens at London Bridge to start with – an agonised Pip or a worried Nancy would definitely while away a few delays. In New York at Publishers Weekly, meanwhile, they’re wondering about “Paul Auster in Park Slope? Scenes from Bellow’s Mr Sammler’s Planet in an uptown Manhattan Station? Some kind of snarled John Ashbery mural in the confusing transfer hallways of Delancey Street?” Which literary landmarks would you like to see on the way into work?

Which literary landmarks would you like to see on the way into work?

I don’t see how art could make anyone more suicidal than the scenes we are already forced to observe on the train each day. We used to have poetry inside the trains. And at one stop, some artschool student (I presume, since only artschool students use this stop) has done a kind of cheap poetry installation, taping one line on each pillar, so it reads differently from different angles, except it is bad poetry… Probably Chicago could not do much better on the positive vibes front than scenes from “Crime and Punishment,” as our literary claims to fame are Nelson Algren and Sara Paretsky. What people don’t mention in the “OMG those axe killer paintings in the Moscow Metro are depressing!” editorials is that much of Moscow’s subway system creates a kind of subterranean public palace, with great art and crystal chandeliers and marble floors and scale, oh, the scale… They are works of art in themselves, these stations, and momentary escapes from the realities above (well, hypothetically, if no one else were using them.) So let Muscovites be critical and demanding about their subway art and literature. The axe killers and dictators have free rein outdoors, let the innocent people have the damn train stations. It’s a bit the opposite in Chicago. Our El stops look like sewers or Siberian wooden sidewalks and are already home to the psychos and dictators. A bit of art would be nice. Some literature would comfort us during our brief exile from civilization.

We do have a bit of the Berlin Wall, but frankly, that only serves to reinforce the feelings of being trapped and abused that the CTA is so so very brilliant at imposing on its riders. A perfect marriage of symbolism if ever there were one…

What am I reading on the train these days? I have recently checked out the following:

~ Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugrešić. She is one of my favorite writers ever in the history of the universe.

~ Best European Fiction 2010 ed. Alexandar Hemon. He is one of my favorite writers ever in the history of the universe. I don’t know what kind of editor he’ll be though.

~ Myth of the Russisan Intelligentsia by Inna Kochetkova. This looks incredibly boring and dry, despite having an intriguing, dishy title.

And am anxiously awaiting:

~ Martin Cruz Smith’s latest mystery book. I know, you thought I was a snob. I also remain of the opinion that Tim of White Sun of the Desert should do a similar kind of murder novel set on the Sakhalin oil rig.

~ The September issue of Vogue. Though this tome falls into that category of works which are best enjoyed while curled up under a duvet on a rainy morning. For aesthetic reasons? Well, it’s also just too damned heavy to tote to the train. So heavy it that, now that I think about it, it could probably serve to prop up a malnourished, depressed MFA or two.

What are you reading, hiding behind on trains and propping yourselves up with?


  1. S “he who increases knowledge increases sorrow” – I’ve just realized that reading this your post cost me ~$50 ($15 for ordering M.C. Smith from Amazon and the rest for express delivery. If I did not (read the blog) – I would have discovered it in a bookshop months later – or, considering, that I prefer electronic versions, downloaded it for free…

    Comment by Alex — August 19, 2010 @ 1:08 AM | Reply

    • Shipping is like a license to print money. I was on the point of ordering 4 books from Amazon that I couldn’t find anywhere else (long out of print) that topped out at a penny each, for a grand total of four cents for the books. When I got far enough along in the ordering to learn the transaction would be over $50.00 once the cheapest form of shipping was factored in, I cut it back to one (Frederik Pohl’s “Chernobyl”, mentioned below). I would buy books from Amazon like I’d learned I had only a month to live if the shipping wasn’t such extortion.

      Comment by marknesop — August 19, 2010 @ 1:33 PM | Reply

    • You paid $50 for the book? Hey, don’t blame your poor life choices on me! 🙂 I’m checking it out from the library. For free.

      Comment by poemless — August 19, 2010 @ 2:55 PM | Reply

      • Oops! That wasn’t me, that was Alex. My mafia transaction with Amazon was much less than that, and I didn’t even know you when it took place. Well, I don’t “know you” now, but you get what I mean.

        Comment by marknesop — August 19, 2010 @ 4:42 PM | Reply

        • I was responding to Alex….

          Comment by poemless — August 19, 2010 @ 4:44 PM | Reply

          • Yes, I realized I was a dumbass just that little bit too late to avert the broadcast of the fact.

            Comment by marknesop — August 19, 2010 @ 6:59 PM | Reply

      • ..well, I used to say that we rarely forgive others for our mistakes 🙂
        I did not mention your post – it was good.

        Comment by Alex — August 20, 2010 @ 8:46 PM | Reply

  2. Frederik Pohl’s “Chernobyl” – fictionalized account which follows the actual timeline and sequence of events. A great read, hard not to feel immense pity for the central characters caught in a horrible, stupid accident not of their own making. “By Reason of Insanity”, by Shane Stevens – psychotic-to-the-marrow-of-his-bones killer of women who learns to blend into society from watching television in the hospital where he was incarcerated. Keeps getting away with it because people basically want to trust others. Amazing story.

    I can’t concentrate on reading when I travel, there are too many distractions. I zone out when I read, and don’t notice the passage of time, so the newspaper is about all I can manage when traveling. I like to read at home.

    Comment by marknesop — August 19, 2010 @ 12:01 PM | Reply

    • Have you read Irene Zabytko’s The Sky Unwashed? It is a novel about the Chernobyl accident. I read it a long time ago – I don’t remember if it was terribly good, but it did scare the hell out of me.

      Comment by poemless — August 19, 2010 @ 2:53 PM | Reply

      • No; I’ve never heard of it, but that’s a good reason to look for it. I find the Chernobyl disaster fascinating, not least of all because it was such a stupid accident that it seems inconceivable it could have happened. As I’ve mentioned in other comments elsewhere, nobody in the nuclear business in what was then the Soviet Union was so stupid that they thought they could out-think the speed of a chain reaction – yet all the electronic safeties were bypassed, and the team was running the reactor (already dangerously unstable as it was nearly shut down, but still very hot) in hand control.

        The characters are composites – Deputy Director Simyon Smin symbolizes every supervisor who had to deal with shoddy supplies of substandard materials that he had to accept due to “arrangements”, then was blamed when they caused a failure. The engineer (his name escapes me just now) represents all the heroes who went into a hideously dangerous contaminated environment without regard for their own lives, because they knew the fire must be brought under control. It was a great book, very compassionate, and with just enough sublety to make you feel smart for “getting it”.

        The Soviet Union was the enemy when I read it the first time,


        but I pitied the people involved then, and I don’t think altered world circumstances and alliances have blunted its impact. If anything, I enjoyed it more in subsequent readings.

        If you’re interested in reading it, I could send it to you, save you the money of buying it. You’d have to send it back, but it’ll be at least 6 months before I feel like reading it again. I have it in paperback, it’s pretty small and light.

        Comment by marknesop — August 19, 2010 @ 4:37 PM | Reply

  3. “our literary claims to fame are Nelson Algren and Sara Paretsky”

    You’re letting the side down. Saul Bellow, Theodore Dreiser, Richard Wright, Carl Sandburg, David Mamet and Scott Turow don’t count for anything?

    Comment by Scowspi — August 20, 2010 @ 6:28 AM | Reply

    • Ok, that’s fair (and totally inexcusable of me since I live by Sandburg’s house and see the damn historical marker everyday! – but isn’t Richard Wright more associated with NY?) but does not change my point, which is that our authors are about as depressing as Dostoyevsky. Where the Moscow Metro has paintings of axe murders, the Chicago El would images of people shooting up drugs, hogs being butchered, death row…

      Here is an admission: I don’t think I have ever read Bellow. I think it is because someone once compared him to Philip Roth, for whom I have a pronounced irrational loathing.

      Comment by poemless — August 20, 2010 @ 1:43 PM | Reply

  4. […] latest roundup – Notes from the Underground – is also […]

    Pingback by Russia Blog Roundup – 19 August 2010 — August 20, 2010 @ 1:29 PM | Reply

  5. […] latest roundup – Notes from the Underground – is also […]

    Pingback by Official Russia | Russia Blog Roundup – 19 August 2010 — August 20, 2010 @ 2:04 PM | Reply

  6. Martin Cruz Smith’s latest mystery book. I know, you thought I was a snob.

    I love Martin Cruz Smith’s books, or at least the Arkady Renko ones. Gorky Park and Polar Star are two of my favourite books, and although the others don’t meet the standard of those two, they are highly enjoyable all the same. I finished Stalin’s Ghost a few weeks ago, and will be eager to read his latest.

    I also remain of the opinion that Tim of White Sun of the Desert should do a similar kind of murder novel set on the Sakhalin oil rig.

    Heh! Funny you should mention that, I did start to write a story about a murder which takes place on the construction site of the LNG plant on Sakhalin. It was inspired mainly from several attemped murders which took place on the nearby workers camp and the (unacceptably, for a Shell project) high numbers of fatalities from industrial accidents which occurred on that site and the other sites of the Sakhalin II project. Unfortunately I never got very far with it, but I might resurrect it during my Nigerian posting when I’ll be looking for something to do.

    Comment by Tim Newman — August 20, 2010 @ 10:02 PM | Reply

    • Gorky Park and Polar Star were my favourites from that series, too. Arkady Renko has an indestructible quality about him that I associated with Russians long before I met any.

      Comment by marknesop — August 21, 2010 @ 12:26 AM | Reply

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