An Open Letter To W.W. Norton

At the top of the pile there?
That’s the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism.

I’m pretty anal about caring for my books, especially because I annotate the fuck out of them and losing one is a serious issue.  The fact that my NATC doesn’t have a dust jacket is the best proof I can offer for how often I’ve used it, and how many years it’s spent being schlepped around in my bags first as a student and then as a teacher.  Let me be honest - my relationship to “theory” is clear from my blog title, but for better and worse it’s the tradition I was taught in, it’s a tradition I still have to teach, and the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism is quite simply the best single-volume anthology in the field.  Period.  Trust me, I’m a professional and god knows I’ve looked, because I’ve wanted to be free of that fucking book for years.  There’s no substitute (no substitute) there’s no substitute (no substitute) there’s no substitute for your anthology, baby.

OK.  But here’s why I kind of hate the fucking thing a the same time.
I bought that anthology for my first-ever all-theory course in undergrad.  At the time, it was a fucking revelation.  I’m the kind of person who reads a lot, for no reason, all the time.  So when I got my Norton of TC, I basically read it cover-to-cover, right down to the intro essays and footnotes.  I had a huge intellectual hard-on the entire time.  I discovered so many thinkers I’d never heard of, and so many texts that still frame my inquiries and syllabi today were first encountered in that book. 

Soon, to the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism were added Nortons of American Lit, English Lit, Jewish Lit., and various texts of the Norton Critical series, the crown jewel of which is the Norton Shakespeare, the best single-volume Shakespeare available in the world today.  Period.  The intensity of my relationship to Norton’s anthologies - and my resentment of them - peaked with the GRE in Literature.

If you’ve ever taken the GRE in Literature, you know it’s fucking painful, stupid, senseless, and indicative of absolutely nothing.  Now, I absolutely will not deny that the two volumes of the Norton Anthology of English Literature are the single greatest study aid to anybody taking the GRE in Literature.  If you’re studying for that exam, don’t save money by buying the concise one-volume edition, spend the extra $40 to buy both volumes in the beautiful and sturdy hardcover format.  It’s worth it.  Having said that, by the time I finished the GRE in Literature, I had come to hate Norton with a passion.

Who the fuck are these people?  Who the fuck do they think they are telling me what literature is and what criticism is and what Jewish means?  Fuck you, Norton! became my new rallying cry.  Here’s why.  As I moved past the GRE in Literature and started my dissertation research, I realized just how much WASN’T in those Norton Anthologies.  Those Norton Anthologies, to me, came to stand for ‘the canon,’ in general, and like many queer or otherwise minoritarian readers, the idea of the canon is a deeply painful and offensive one, and I have a very complicated and unhealthy relationship with it.

This resentment was coupled by a feeling that Norton was colluding in a vicious corporate circle by which the dictatorial canons of higher education join forces with publishing houses to literally make many valuable texts not only unknown but effectively unavailable.  Having 20 different one-volume Platos on the market means that X number of publishers AREN’T printing anything else that they could be printing.  I also assumed that because of their huge market share in the Anglophone anthology industry they must be an evil corporate giant.

Well, here’s the thing.
This past weekend Twitter, and the book exhibit at the MLA convention, brought Norton and I together in a surprising and joyous way.  They didn’t know it was me when I visited them at the convention hall, and they weren’t following me on Twitter yet, but that didn’t stop them from being friendly, funny, and awesome as they explained to me some details of their corporate structure.  So when my publisher reviews post-exhibit caught their eye on Twitter, I was already very inclined to like them. 

I’m going to do something I really never, ever do - I’m going to quote a for-profit corporation’s own ideological positions without mocking them.  This is from Norton’s own website:

“W. W. Norton & Company, the oldest and largest publishing house owned wholly by its employees, strives to carry out the imperative of its founder to 'publish books not for a single season, but for the years’ in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, college textbooks, cookbooks, art books and professional books.

The roots of the company date back to 1923, when William Warder Norton and his wife, Mary D. Herter Norton, began publishing lectures delivered at the People’s Institute, the adult education division of New York City’s Cooper Union. The Nortons soon expanded their program beyond the Institute, acquiring manuscripts by celebrated academics from America and abroad.”

The key thing here is “owned wholly by its employees.” To a Marxian, “owned wholly by its employees” is like “you won the lotto” to the bourgeoisie:  it’s the dream they hold on to to help them get through the day, the ideal condition of existence they dream about on the subway.  It’s really very simple.  The only way to avoid alienated labor is to give the worker a stake in the product of his labor.  And the only way to avoid top-down corporate decisions that are not in the interests of the employees is to make sure that there’s nobody in the corporate structure who isn’t, so to speak, an employee.  Marx 101.  This is not accomplished by outsourcing logistics to consulting companies, by bringing in executive brass from other corporations, or by farting out shitty products to improve the bottom line.  Employee ownership.  To quote a Tweet Norton sent me, which made me deliriously happy:  “Utopian gangsta collectivism is the future of publishing!”

'cause here’s the thing:  while every other publisher is putting out increasingly shitty, increasingly expensive, increasingly useless products while whining about the cost and profit margin of publishing, Norton, according to what their employees/owners told me at the MLA, had one of their best years ever in 2012.  And their products are still good.  One thing I can attest to personally:  if publishing books 'for the years’ means putting out an amazing hardcover anthology which will withstand 10 years of heavy reading, quoting, annotating, photocopying, and schlepping, then Norton does exactly what they say they will.  And that’s why I’m a little bit in love right now. 

Because here’s my new pragmatic take on Norton:  yes, they ARE part of a vicious canonical cycle of academic disavowal and repression, and they should be conscious of that.  But the market niche they will exists independently of them, and as the work of other contemporary publishers show, that niche could be filled with much, much worse products.  So if we have to have a single-volume anthology, might as well make it a fucking Norton. 

Because I’m me, and because Norton is a grown-up, they’ll understand if I leave them with some constructive criticism in conclusion.  I’m talking to you like I talk to my sisters - you might be annoyed with me for a day or two but trust me, I know what I’m talking about, babe.

- Where’s the Norton Anthology of Queer Anglophone Writing?

- When you do the next edition of the Theory & Criticism, give me a call.  The Nietzsche, Deleuze & Guattari, Freud, and Hume selections need work, and there’s no Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Bergson, or Irigaray.  Not cool, Norton.  Also, can we all just agree to pretend Harold Bloom doesn’t exist and never did?  Thanks.

- To my homeboys at Norton Critical:  it’s time for a Norton Critical Spinoza’s Ethics.  It’s time for a solid, accessible, well-annotated Spinoza, with secondary literature from the tragically ignored epistemological school of '50s and '60s Paris, including Deleuze and Gueroult.  I’ll do it for free.  Seriously.  You don’t even have to put my name on the cover.  I want it to exist even if I don’t get credit.  No-one will have to know, and I can finish it in 3 months.  DL/discrete cool, DDF ub2.  No pnp.

- Finally, Norton, real talk for you:  Stop buying other companies.  No, really.  You’re awesome, you do good work.  Let’s keep it that way.  Putting a turd in every toilet is a profitable way to exist, but not a particularly honorable way.  Focus on making hot shit for coprophiliacs who appreciate it.  You don’t want to wake up one morning from a restless slumber and find you’ve transformed into a monstrous Random House.

The last thing I want to say is that Peter Gay'sFreud: A Life For Our Timesis the best biography of one of my greatest heroes and I’m grateful to W.W. Norton for republishing it.

You do you, Norton.  I got my eye on you. 
xoxo FT

cheddar cauliflower soup with spicy pepitas and the latest book I can’t put down–“A Reader’s Book of Days” by Tom Nissley 

Read the full post and get the recipe here


Friends, readers, followers, good morning to you all.

The book I wrote, HAMMER HEAD, comes out on March 16, just under three weeks! (You can pre-order it now.) It’s exciting and nervewracking both, this lead-up to it existing in the world. Besides the usual musings on carpentry and building, the old blog here will be getting a dose of book-related action. Soon I’ll be posting a schedule of readings and events taking place up and down the east coast – I’m hoping to meet a lot of you in person. You guys have been a great group of supporters for this project, and I’m grateful for it.

When I started blogging here on Tumblr some years ago, using it as sort of a public notebook to write about my experiences leaving my journalism job and learning the carpentry trade, I never, never expected that Tumblr would be such a human experience; I never would’ve guessed that I’d find a motley group of passionate, funny, engaged and engaging people – readers, writers, artists, cooks, travelers, enthusiasts of all sort – people who have become pals, people whose work I admire, whose words, images, and ideas have challenged and stimulated and made me die laughing. I feel lucky to be part of something here, lucky to have crossed paths with you in this way. My thanks to you. And now off to lay a floor and grout a tub.

A Review: Heft by Liz Moore

What if you were entirely alone and just let go, released the restraints by which you limit yourself?

Liz Moore’s novel asks this question repeatedly and variedly. The title, Heft, most apparently refers to Arthur Opp, who has not left his Park Slope brownstone since September 11, 2001 and has grown “colossally fat.“ That day’s tragedy provoked the realization that he had no one to care about, and he yielded to his natural tendency for isolation. The only interaction he allows is written correspondence with a former student, Charlene Turner, whom he has not seen in twenty years.

Charlene, too, has yielded, to depression, to alcohol, and to illness. The stories of her decline are recounted by her son, Kel, and so the novel fluctuates between two men—one middle-aged, obese, and reclusive, the other young, athletic, and struggling—who cannot decide if it is time to give up. Despite his many advantages, Kel’s home-life has wrecked his confidence and his intimacies. He recounts the start of freshman year at Pells, the high school in a wealthy, nearby town:

Who I was meant something different here than it did at home. At home I as in charge of all the boys at my school. I am not exaggerating, it was true…. I was certain that I would be in charge of nobody at Pells and that no one would fight for me. I felt very alone.

As the binding element between the two narratives, this loneliness is almost too conspicuous. Though Kel must continue to face the world, he shrouds his inner self; Arthur’s circumstances allow him to hide both. Perhaps the only weakness in Moore’s novel, at times the two story lines sound too similar. Until roughly halfway through the novel, Kel’s voice rings with pomp that echoes Arthur’s professorial speech; both voices rely on the same blunt prose and interior dialogues. Moore writes beautifully but cannot convince me that a high school boy speaks like a former English professor.

Nonetheless, the strong plot and unique characters disguise other flaws. Moore’s novel could easily have become a grotesque condemnation of the contemporary state of obesity, but Arthur is too gentle and gracious and hopeful of a character for that. Just as he once released the restraints of social convention and hid, he now fights against his self-imposed prison. He invites a housekeeper. He eats healthier. He walks to Prospect Park. Meanwhile, Kel tries to harmonize his mother’s faults, his father’s anonymity, his athletic aspirations, and readers will wonder if he, too, will yield to the world’s pressures and disappear. This tortured sentiment could easily have appeared in either narrators’ sections:

I used to lie on the floor, spread out like a starfish, & gaze at the ceiling of my huge empty home & wonder why I had been chosen for the life I was living. Why I was chosen to be so alone.

But the novel reminds readers that one is not “chosen” to be alone, only chooses to be so. In this imperfect novel of very imperfect characters, that hefty choice, between grappling with the often harrowing outer world and hiding from it, blooms.

*       *       *

BONUS: Moore has several upcoming events/readings in New York, Philadelphia, and Cambridge. Check her website for more details.

Heft by Liz Moore
W.W. Norton, January 2012
ISBN: 9780393081503. 352 pgs.

I’ve seen Rachel’s beaming face holding a lot of different books, and on Friday afternoon it was strange indeed – and amazing – to scroll through Tumblr and see my book in her hands. Her copy made it to her faster in New York than it did to me in Cambridge, and I came home yesterday to find a package from Norton with two copies, two galleys of the book. What a thing to hold. It’s gonna be a book. Coming March, 2015.

Alone on the Wall by Alex Honnold with David Roberts.

The life and death-defying feats of Alex Honnold, a visionary climber of the sort that comes along only once in a generation.

A thirty-year-old climbing phenomenon, Alex Honnold pushes the limits of free soloing beyond anything previously attempted, as he climbs without a rope, without a partner, and without any gear to attach himself to the wall. If he falls, he dies. In Alone on the Wall, Honnold recounts the seven most astonishing achievements thus far in his meteoric career, including free-soloing Sendero Luminoso in Mexico and climbing the Fitz Traverse in Patagonia. Each chapter narrates the drama of one climb, along with reflective and introspective passages that get at what makes Honnold tick. Veteran climber and award-winning author David Roberts quotes the judgments of other climbers to help put Honnold’s tremendous accomplishments in perspective.

Honnold’s renown transcends the climbing realm: at the moment, he is one of the most famous adventurers in the world. His extraordinary life has much to teach us about risk, reward, and the ability to maintain focus even in the face of extreme danger.

‘American Color 2’ by Constantine Manos

Above Daytona Beach, Florida, 1994. (©Constantine Manos/Courtesy of W.W. Norton).

In the early 1980s, Magnum photographer Constantine Manos began working in colour, following what he has called a ‘lifelong devotion to black-and-white,’ the switch to colour was precipitated by a crisis. No longer challenged by photography, Manos writes, I ‘had lost my enthusiasm for my personal work, which had always been the spark in my photographic life,’ and colour would form the catalyst for change.

Like his earlier publication, American Color (W.W. Norton, 1995), American Color 2, is a ‘straightforward book, with its intentions and parameters defined by its title,’ says Alison Nordstrom, Curator of Photographs at George Eastman House.

These photographs are as much about colour and composition, as the people and places Manos chooses to depict. ‘Despite the particularity and reality that one might expect the colour to underscore, none of this work is essentially descriptive,’ says Nordstrom, ‘it is, rather, poetic, intuitive, and evocative,’ and as such ‘we respond to it as to a different kind of truth.’

‘In my search for photographs I have come to realize that the best pictures are surprises,’ remarks Manos, ‘images I subconsciously seek but do not recognize until they suddenly appear before me.’ These are not images in colour, but photographs in which colour enhances what is happening, whilst each is a single entity — with the visual nuances that clearly define the them as America — together Manos’ photographs form an intense, and bold visual poetry.

American Color 2 is published by W.W. Norton.

Follow me on Twitter for frequent updates on the photographic books and exhibitions I am looking at.

It’s Fresh Friday on YummyBooks–find out what’s fresh in markets and on bookshelves this week! Today we’re talking about Italian plums, cranberry beans, Andre Dubus III’s “Dirty Love” and Fiona McFarlane’s “The Night Guest.” Do this for your weekend. Seriously. Read the full post and get the recipes here

Beyond: Our Future in Space by Chris Impey.

Beyond dares to imagine a fantastic future for humans in space—and then reminds us that we’re already there.

Human exploration has been an unceasing engine of technological progress, from the first homo sapiens to leave our African cradle to a future in which mankind promises to settle another world. Beyond tells the epic story of humanity leaving home—and how humans will soon thrive in the vast universe beyond the earth.

A dazzling and propulsive voyage through space and time, Beyond reveals how centuries of space explorers—from the earliest stargazers to today’s cutting-edge researchers—all draw inspiration from an innate human emotion: wanderlust. This urge to explore led us to multiply around the globe, and it can be traced in our DNA.

Today, the urge to discover manifests itself in jaw-dropping ways: plans for space elevators poised to replace rockets at a fraction of the cost; experiments in suspending and reanimating life for ultra-long-distance travel; prototypes for solar sails that coast through space on the momentum of microwaves released from the Earth. With these ventures, private companies and entrepreneurs have the potential to outpace NASA as the leaders in a new space race.

Combining expert knowledge of astronomy and avant-garde technology, Chris Impey guides us through the heady possibilities for the next century of exploration. In twenty years, a vibrant commercial space industry will be operating. In thirty years, there will be small but viable colonies on the Moon and Mars. In fifty years, mining technology will have advanced enough to harvest resources from asteroids. In a hundred years, a cohort of humans born off-Earth will come of age without ever visiting humanity’s home planet. This is not the stuff of science fiction but rather the logical extension of already available technologies.

Beyond shows that space exploration is not just the domain of technocrats, but the birthright of everyone and the destiny of generations to come. To continue exploration is to ensure our survival. Outer space, a limitless unknown, awaits us.