Mismatch of the Day Issue 10 Spring 2003 *Trainschedulespotting Issue 12 Fall 2003/ Winter 2004 *100,000 Bottles of Beer in the Wall Issue 13 Spring 2004 New Scientist

НазваниеMismatch of the Day Issue 10 Spring 2003 *Trainschedulespotting Issue 12 Fall 2003/ Winter 2004 *100,000 Bottles of Beer in the Wall Issue 13 Spring 2004 New Scientist
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RB: Talking to Tom Bissell, his take on it was that it is not like editors and agents don’t want to make good choices and not do good work. Somehow there are mistakes, or whatever you want to call them.

PC: Now I have written on enough different topics that if I go to a publisher and want to write a book about X or Y there is a pretty good chance they will go, “I guess you could do that.” But at the time the only thing I had done was the one book. And that’s how they saw me—as a historical writer. They didn’t know what to make of it when I wrote in another genre. You asked whether a book came about from a series of failures, other things that had hit dead ends. I actually had the skeleton of the travelogue, and I wanted to make it a book about books and make it deliberately digressive. I wanted to frustrate the tendency of the genre, not fall into certain types of stories.

RB: The neatly packaged narrative.

PC: Yeah, the foul-mouthed plumber comes over and wrecks our plumbing and you can’t speak the language to him. Just all that kind of crap. I just didn’t want to write one of those books. We were living in Eugene, Oregon, at the time, and I would go to library every day and just grab old magazines and books off the shelves.

RB: Is this where you discovered Notes & Theories?

PC: No that was in Portland.

RB: Still Oregon.

PC: The library at the University of Oregon is near a graveyard—it’s like the pioneer cemetery. You have to walk through it to get to the library, and when you are sitting in the library it is overlooking the cemetery. And so I’d get these old books and magazines at random and start reading them. And I’d find interesting things and photocopy them. The challenge was—each evening when I was writing the next couple of pages of the book—to somehow work in something I’d found in one of those old sources that day, into the narrative. It was great because it meant that my reader could not possibly know the next thing I was going to talk about because I did not know from day to day what I was going to be writing about. It was a weird kind of formal experiment, but it was a way to deliberately frustrate my own tendency to fall into a pat narrative.

RB: If there is a subtext to what you write is it—and perhaps my expression of this is banal . . . but that there are millions of stories?

PC: Yeah.

RB: When I was reading the Tom Paine book, this guy who walked—

PC: John Stewart, Walking Stewart. I couldn’t believe it when I found his story. [laughs]

RB: My thought was he could readily have been his own book.

PC: I enjoy being able to take even a small cross-section of that kind of stuff—there is vast amounts more of it out there. To at least give a sense of how much is out there that’s overlooked. Part of it too: I noticed that four books about bees and honey-making came out at the same time. Four single-subject nonfiction books, and I felt so bad for the authors because it seemed that they had all put in quite a bit of work and—

RB: Are you including a book of poetry by Nick Flynn that is about bees?

PC: No, I didn’t even know that. [laughs] And that happens with biographers: two biographies on the same person come out within a month of each other, so of course they get compared and reviewed and someone who has just spent years researching a topic—their work is instantly diminished. [It’s] one thing I try to do in creating my books, almost a kind of insurance; there is no way they are reproducible because they are so chaotic. Even if someone else wrote a book about Tom Paine’s bones, it would not even remotely resemble what I wrote.

RB: You have a kind of grasshopper mind—digressive and fascinated by many things. And it’s contrary to the prevailing impulse to tie up everything neatly and create an well-ordered world, which doesn’t, in fact, exist.

PC: Yeah.

RB: I was surprised by your piece in the Bookmark Now anthology in light of the essay you wrote in the Village Voice on the infamous NEA report. Which one was first?

PC: Kevin [Smokler] wrote the introduction for the book and the jacket copy was after the NEA. He initially approached me about the book, in 2003, and I wrote that piece three months before the NEA report was even a gleam in anyone’s eyes, other than the NEA. I think that’s why a number of pieces in the book don’t seem connected. But it’s better for it. My wife made the comment that she always noticed when she was in art school, when there was a themed show for art, the more the artists stuck to the theme, the worse the show. [both laugh] I really had that in mind, and Kevin had mentioned the general idea behind the anthology; I thought I would approach it in the loosest fitting manner possible.

RB: Showing as opposed to saying, things like that?

PC: Exactly. Maybe [the] more that other writers did that, the less the thing would cohere necessarily, but maybe the better it would be for the reader. To the extent that the essays go in a bunch of different directions, people will be able to read that anthology in five years and get something out of it, whereas if it was really about the NEA report, it would have the shelf life of milk.

RB: Not to mention that NEA report strikes me as demonstrably silly, almost not worth dignifying—I characterize a certain mentality as sophomoric—as when as an undergraduate we would regularly gather in the Student Union or such and decry the downfall of civilization because of this or that. [Dana] Gioia’s study seemed to be a normal, almost cyclical fear-mongering.

PC: I get that all the time just from reading old magazines.

RB: I thought that was the powerful part of your essay, reaching back almost a hundred years or so, quoting diatribes against television driving—

PC: Against penny postage.

RB: Electric lamps.

PC: That’s a common thing for people to indulge in. It’s probably always been the case. It doesn’t surprise me at all—that’s what people do.

RB: I was amused that unlike the shock of the Russian launching of Sputnik, there was no reaction, or call to action, other than ire that came from a segment of literati.

PC: It has the effect of telling people what they wanted or didn’t want to hear. People who were inclined to not believe that report just went, “Oh this report is flawed.” And for the croakers, who think that things are going to hell in hand basket, they went, “Oh look things are going to hell in a hand basket!” Part of the problem was that if a report like that were going to be useful, it would also have to be prescriptive. First of all it would have to find an actual problem. Let’s say it did.

RB: [laughs]

PC: Then it would actually have to offer up something to do. And it really had neither.

RB: You read it. I didn’t. I prefer to sit in my limited, hermetic world in which I note many people reading, and I am willing to say that’s the world [as I know it]. And if it’s not, what bad consequences follow?

PC: [laughs]

RB: I thought the NEA report was silly in the face of it. So you have published a book on a Welsh village that seems to be one big bookstore. And then a book on your son’s autism?

PC: Basically it’s a memoir about Morgan’s autism—really about the first year after he was diagnosed. And that is used as framework for going into the history of it. For the two things to act as foil to each other—his behavior helps illuminate some of the historical figures. But, by the same token, the history gives you a context for understanding his autism.

RB: You acknowledged Dr. Maria Asperger. Is she related to the man who created that diagnosis?

PC: She’s his daughter, and when I was trying to find his clinic in Vienna, I emailed her and she gave me directions to where it had been.

RB: I was unaware of that syndrome until I read Margot Livesey’s short story in the New Yorker that was the first chapter of Banishing Verona.

PC: I don’t know it. Because Asperger’s paper wasn’t translated until 1980, it didn’t have any—

RB: That seems odd.

PC: It’s one of those weird things. People weren’t being diagnosed with any kind of autism spectrum disorder—people who had it.

RB: It was a monolithic diagnosis?

PC: They diagnosed people with severe autism. People who had Asperger’s—who maybe were functional but nonetheless had real problems—they were just classified as odd. Or discipline problems or social misfits. People didn’t relate it to autism—it seems silly—simply because a single paper wasn’t translated. Because Asperger’s work never made it into English for forty years. And once that happened, then it started to get some momentum and the awareness of there being a broader spectrum of autism came about. I was reading an interviewer with Gary Neumann, the musician. He has Asperger’s. There are a lot of people as adults are finding out that they have Asperger’s—they knew they were different but didn’t know how because there wasn’t a word of it.

RB: As certain kind of crimes barely existed because they were not or underreported. You wouldn’t want to claim there is a progression of causal chain linking the books that you have written.

PC: Not in the subject matter per se. There certainly is in the way they were written. Sixpence House is not a surprising book to someone who read Banvard’s Folly. It was probably quite obvious that I was interested in things that get lost and obscured, and here’s this whole town of nothing but books that are lost. But in terms of actual narrative, it was a complete jump for me. I felt like I was diving into a pool that might or might not have any water. In Not Even Wrong I combined my work for Banvards’s Folly and my technique from Sixpence House. But that will probably remain as my most personal book.

RB: Very sweet that you referred to Morgan in the acknowledgments as the best greatest kid in the world.

PC: He is.

RB: Well, you bothered to say it. In a book.

PC: Other than just the fact that’s what I think as a parent. He’ll be reading it some day. I would if I knew someone had written a book about me as a kid. And I want him to know that.

RB: Why are you living in Iowa?

PC: Morgan’s school. He was about to go into kindergarten and there had been these terrible budget cutbacks in Oregon—in fact they were going to end the school year early last year. And they shut down the special education classrooms; and said we are going to “full inclusion”: we’re going to put the kids in regular classrooms. And they tried to use the rhetoric that it was a good thing.

RB: [laughs]

PC: It wasn’t. He was going to go into a program at preschool where there were six kids and three instructors and assistants to a classroom with thirty-two kids and one teacher not trained in special ed. And we went to the meeting and we asked, “What if he runs? Sometimes he just bolts from a room.” You have to always be on top of things with him. “Who’s going to be watching him?” When we brought up the safety issue, that he might run and get hurt, they said, “He might do that?” “Have you ever seen an autistic kid? That’s what they do.”

RB: These were professional educators?

PC: They didn’t have any special training.

RB: I don’t either, and I know that’s dumb.

PC: At that point I came away from it and said, “This is unacceptable.” I couldn’t put him in that school. I knew I wanted to live in a kind of college town—I need access to a research library.

RB: It’s cold in Iowa City.

PC: Oh yeah.

RB: So you’ve gotten over your aversion to cold

PC: To some extent. It was a bit rough. We got used to it and the special ed. program is fantastic

RB: Not teaching?

PC: It looks like they are going to bring me in to teach one course this fall. In the English department. But the schools in Iowa are fantastic, and the state ought to be proud of what it’s done in special ed.

RB: In the fly over zone.

PC: And yet its schools are fantastic.

RB: Why do you think that is? Do you sense that the Midwest is looked down upon, and why?

PC: Of course. It is looked down upon because it is in the middle of nowhere. [laughs]

RB: There is nowhere and there’s nowhere.

PC: I say that like I’m being mean, but I grew up in small town, and it’s just one of those kinds of places. You get outside of town and there are just fields and fields and fields. If you are coming from San Francisco or New York and you see that, you just go: what do people do there?

RB: And the coasts dominate the culture because?

PC: They have an outsized influence on the media because that’s where the media emanates from.

Tape ends

The Road to Nowhere

Don't blame the Jews! 182 houses and twenty-eight businesses were demolished for a London road that couldn't be built

Here’s an idea for a book: Take a Monopoly board. Roll the dice. Now, visit each street you land on in person, and write about it.

Yes, it’s a gimmick. But it happens to be a very good gimmick, so it’s surprising to find that Do Not Pass Go, a Tim Moore travelogue published in the UK last year by Picador, has not appeared in America. I suppose editors thought we wouldn’t understand it, because he is using a British board. Yet the Monopoly set that British children grow up with has the same numerical values as the American original (£6 rent, instead of $6), the same property group colors, and many identically ludicrous cards—“Bank error in your favour,” an absurdist statement if ever I heard one. Only the streets are all different: The board is Londonized. Cheapskate crash pads Baltic and Mediterranean are replaced with Old Kent Road and Whitechapel; snooty money-bags living on Park Place and Boardwalk now find themselves in Park Lane and Mayfair. Free Parking still functions as an informal lottery, and damn the rules book: Some things stay the same the world over.

Moore starts by duly noting the game’s history. Monopoly was invented on a Philadelphia kitchen table in 1930 by Charles Darrow, who then blah blah blah blah… there’s no point. We all read the rule book when we were eight, we know the fable. Now, here’s what Parker Brothers conveniently omitted: Darrow stole it.

That’s right, Darrow cheated at Monopoly. Just a few miles from Darrow’s home, in 1904, Elizabeth Magie had also created a board game titled Monopoly. It was born complete with the famous layout of nine properties per side, Go and Go To Jail corners, as well as the railways, the waterworks, and power company. Her game was a satire on capitalist speculators. And so, like all great critiques of capitalism, it was… well, co-opted by capitalists. Darrow swiped it: he nicked it, he took the Monopoly money and ran. By the time Magie sued Darrow, he was rich. He eventually paid her $500—perhaps with a goldenrod bill?—to shut her up.

Theft, property deeds, hush money: It’s a fitting place to start any modern history of a city.


Read the Book That You Are Reading
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