IVP - Addenda & Errata - Updike, Downdike, Updike

January 28, 2009

Updike, Downdike, Updike

John Updike’s death this week is bringing forth some interesting obituaries and assessments of his career. This morning I was reading Michiko Kakutani’s piece in The New York Times (“A Relentless Updike Mapped America’s Mysteries” [January 27, 2009]). Kakutani quotes from Updike on his love of his vocation:

From earliest childhood I was charmed by the materials of my craft, by pencils and paper and, later, by the typewriter and the entire apparatus of printing. To condense from one’s memories and fantasies and small discoveries dark marks on paper which become handsomely reproducible many times over still seems to me, after nearly 30 years concerned with the making of books, a magical act, and a delightful technical process. To distribute oneself thus, as a kind of confetti shower falling upon the heads and shoulders of mankind out of bookstores and the pages of magazines is surely a great privilege and a defiance of the usual earthbound laws whereby human beings make themselves known to one another.

From there my eyes fell on an article on the explosion of self-publishing. Now it seems that everyone wants to defy those earthbound laws Updike spoke of:

“Even if you’re sitting at a dinner party, if you ask how many people want to write a book, everyone will say, ‘I’ve got a book or two in me,’” said Kevin Weiss, chief executive of Author Solutions. “We don’t see a letup in the number of people who are interested in writing.”

Yes, editors are familiar with this.

“It used to be an elite few,” said Eileen Gittins, chief executive of Blurb, a print-on-demand company whose revenue has grown to $30 million, from $1 million, in just two years and which published more than 300,000 titles last year. Many of those were personal books bought only by the author. “Now anyone can make a book, and it looks just like a book that you buy at the bookstore.”

And apparently blogging and the like just doesn’t satisfy the impulse:

But in an era when anyone can create a blog or post musings on Facebook or MySpace, people still seem to want the tangible validation of a printed book. “I wanted the satisfaction of holding the book in my hands,” Mr. Bendat said.

It’s the word validation that captured my attention. I have often thought about this human impulse toward personal validation through publishing. And I don’t end up in the sunshine as I do. It seems to me that there is a spiritual virus at work here. Do you want to know something you can give up for Lent? Writing for personal validation.

Robert Young, chief executive of Lulu Enterprises, a self-publishing outfit, says that most of the stuff they publish is not of interest to anyone but the author and a small circle of family and friends. “’We have easily published the largest collection of bad poetry in the history of mankind,’ Mr. Young said.”

I have nothing against self-publishing. But this quest for laying down a legacy in print, of achieving a sort of wordy immortality—well, it has theological and spiritual implications that call for examination and self-reflection.

But to leave it on an “Up” note, here’s some more on Updike, this time in Updike’s NYT obituary:

Meanwhile, the essays, book reviews, art criticism, reminiscences, introductions, forewords, prefaces, speeches, travel notes, film commentary, prose sketches, ruminations and other occasional jottings poured forth inexhaustibly, as if the experiences of his five senses only became real once recorded on paper.

Almost sounds like blogging to me!

As Mr. Updike told The Paris Review about his decision to shun the New York spotlight: “Hemingway described literary New York as a bottle full of tapeworms trying to feed on each other. When I write, I aim in my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas. I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teenaged boy finding them, have them speak to him. The reviews, the stacks in Brentano’s, are just hurdles to get over, to place the books on that shelf.”

I like that!

Posted by Dan Reid at January 28, 2009 4:01 PM Bookmark and Share


Beautiful! I love that confetti image.

Comment by: Ben Myers at January 28, 2009 4:57 PM

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