Since 2008, the year that David Foster Wallace committed suicide, there has been a steady stream of posthumous publications, none of which, as a matter of strict biblio-taxonomy, would have any business occupying the same section of your local ink-and-paper bookseller. We’ve had This Is Water (inspirational commencement speech), The Pale King (unfinished novel),Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will (undergraduate philosophy thesis), and Both Flesh and Not (essays and criticism). Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you still bought physical books from that local bookseller: You’d have to do some considerable legwork around the place just to get your hands on all these posthumous Wallace books. There aren’t many figures in the landscape of contemporary literature who as fully embody Susan Sontag’s memorable definition of a writer as “someone interested in everything.” Wallace really was interested in everything: madly, distractedly, encyclopedically interested. (He wrote a book on that topic, too: Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity, for which, I suppose, you might want to look in “popular science.”)
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Few artists have built grand structures on such uncertain foundations as Jorge Luis Borges. Doubt was the sacred principle of his work, its animating force and, frequently, its message. To read his stories is to experience the dissolution of all certainty, all assumption about the reliability of your experience of the world. Of the major literary figures of the twentieth century, Borges seems to have been the least convinced by himself—by the imposing public illusion of his own fame. The thing Borges was most skeptical about was the idea of a writer, a man, named Borges.
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If you’re already familiar with the work of the Canadian music journalist Nardwuar the Human Serviette, please forgive me for stating the obvious: Nardwuar the Human Serviette is one of the greatest living practitioners of the art of the interview. If you’re not already familiar with his work, and you decide to check up on that claim by watching a few YouTube videos of his interviews for Vancouver public radio station CiTR-FM, he might not at first seem like all that noteworthy a figure. Or rather, he might seem noteworthy only for the most shallow and inconsequential of reasons. His style of dress, for one thing, is peculiar, occupying a sartorial no-man’s-land between first-wave punk and PGA Tour. His style of interviewing is even odder: a frenzied staccato catechism in which he bombards his interviewees with a succession of questions and prompts in the excitable, high-pitched speaking voice of the stock geek in a teen comedy. And since 1986, he’s insisted on concluding every interview by saying “Keep on rockin’ in the free world! Doot-doola-doot-doo,” to which the interviewee must reply “Doot-doo!” The whole setup, in other words, looks like a gimmick. But Nardwuar might in fact be the most revelatory interviewer of musicians in the world.
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If you didn’t know much about Tim Parks, and you just briefly picked up Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo as you happened to be passing by the Travel Writing display table at your local bookseller, you might be inclined to think of it as exactly the kind of book it isn’t. The cozy-sounding title and the jacket design — with its fetching pasturescapes, its hazily panoramic Florence skylines — might lead you to think of it as one of those harmlessly middlebrow lifestyle memoirs that tend to get written about places like Tuscany and Provence. But that, as I say, is exactly the kind of book Italian Ways isn’t. It is a book about traveling by train in Italy, but it’s not that kind of book about traveling by train in Italy.
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One Saturday afternoon the summer I was 16, a couple of friends and I were sitting on a bench in our hometown of Kilkenny, smoking cigarettes and enduring the agreeable boredom of one another’s company, when the actor Bill Murray materialised on the other side of the street, wearing shorts and a T-shirt and a baseball cap, and clutching an off-white drawstring laundry bag such as you would ordinarily see in the hands of people who were not major Hollywood stars.
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When Richard Dawkins was named the world’s “Top Thinker” in a poll recently published by Prospect magazine, it was hard to avoid the suspicion that the world—or at least that part of it that votes in such polls—must have an impoverished sense of what constitutes a vital or transformative intellectual figure. Any list of “thinkers” that doesn’t feature one woman in its top 10 (Arundhati Roy opened the scoring for the gals at No. 15) probably shouldn’t be taken completely seriously anyway, but the fact that it was the result of public voting does offer an insight into the kinds of ideas contemporary Anglo-American culture values most highly.
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It’s probably about time we agreed to give Colum McCann his own eponymous adjective. It would make sense, at any rate, to refer to a particular kind of audacious fictional gesture as “McCannian”. In his last book, the hugely successful Let the Great World Spin, a cluster of fictions were tied together by the sublime spectacle of Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the towers of the World Trade Centre.TransAtlantic opens in similarly McCannian fashion, with another airborne overture of grand historical significance. The recklessly affirmative act with which this book begins is the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic, from Newfoundland to Galway, by the British pilots Alcock and Brown in 1919. It’s the sort of expertly constructed set-piece McCann is particularly good at, and his imagistically lucid prose nicely captures the craziness and excitement of the moment.
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