1. Subtitles, a rant.
Can someone explain why all nonfiction books must have subtitles? Are readers of nonfiction books unable or unwilling, like readers of novels, to turn books over to read the graph on the back cover? A sampling from Amazon’s featured listings of nonfiction books:
•Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford
•Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City by Greg Grandin
•Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town by Nick Reding
•The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr
•Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age by Clay Shirky
•Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India by William Dalrymple
•Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It by Richard A. Clarke
•The Promise: President Obama, Year One by Jonathan Alter
•Seaworthy: A Swordboat Captain Returns to the Sea, by Linda Greenlaw
Or, here’s a nice example, from a book I recently read (though I’m not sure why, since the subtitle kind of says it all ): Lost on Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation, or How He Became Comfortable Eating Live Squid, by J. Maarten Troost
It would seem that not only do nonfiction books have to have subtitles, but the subtitles tend to follow certain (and in my opinion cliched) rhythms. There are a lot of “ands.” As in (see above), “rise and fall,” “death and life” “strange and true,” “connectivity and generosity.”
I find all this rather unnecessary (can you tell?). Look back a few years, and wow, not so many subtitles. Somehow, people figured out what the books were about, and read them. Consider Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, or An American Childhood. Consider Mark Salzman’s Iron and Silk. Consider Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.
2. The Dust Bowl.
Yeah, that’s right, I’m talking about the 1930’s, the plains, the backdrop to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. I’ve been reading The Worst Hard Time, the National Book Award winner by Timothy Egan. TWHT, as is to be expected, has an obligatory subtitle to tell you what it’s about: “The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.” (There, see? Now I don’t have to describe what the book is about, because you already know.) Here’s what I can say about TWHT: It is brilliantly researched and written in a way that pulls you through the story — not quite in the thriller-esque way of, say, Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, but it’s very readable all the same, especially considering the topic. It’s fascinating. I’m learning a lot about American history that I did not know. However. But. Were I to make a list of things I’d like to read about before going to bed, the Dust Bowl would not exactly top it. And, I have learned: Reading about the Dust Bowl must be tempered by reading about … something else. It’s bleak, people, very bleak.
3. Things that are not bleak.
The short story I sent out in January is slated to be published in a small lit magazine out of the Midwest. I am happy. This is progress. It will be my first fiction publication.
4. More things that are not bleak.
In the spring of 2007 I began a short story. I have been working on it off and on ever since. A short story! A mere 10-15 pages. And yet I have been unable to finish said story. There are two characters and the second character has morphed into various different people and there have been at least five major, major plot changes in the story. There are so many drafts that I have had to create a folder within the story’s designated file on my computer entitled “old versions” because there were so many Word documents I could never find the most recent version. The story takes place in Thailand, and I have considered setting it elsewhere (but held on to Thailand, all the while suspecting it was stubbornness on such points that was getting in the way of finishing the story). Still I was unsatisfied. I cannot let this story go, I cannot let the main character go. Well. This week I did the following: I cut the second section and pasted it before the first. Wow. Wow, wow, wow. What a difference that made, and suddenly the rest of the story is coming together. I would not say it is finished, but it is close, it is getting there. I have a hope for it that I have not had since the spring of 2007, and that is good. Or at least, not bleak.