Theft At the Tin House

M65-PGThe new Tin House Magazine arrived yesterday and I have been lost in its pages ever since. Look at that cover art: how can you resist looking inside.

Actually this excellent journal (#65) is given the highly evocative title of Theft. The editor introduces the volume:

“Talent borrows, genius steals” is usually attributed to Oscar Wilde, and occasionally Pablo Picasso. There is, however, no record of either one actually saying or writing this. T. S. Eliot, on the other hand, wrote, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” Theft and appropriation have always been artistic engines. In this issue, Kevin Young—poet, essayist, and anthologist—looks at how thievery is done well (Bob Dylan) and not so well (Jonah Lehrer). Mary Ruefle and Erika Meitner demonstrate the art of erasure, turning extant texts into ready-made poetry. Victor LaValle remembers the time he played at being a teen runaway in Times Square. Pulitzer Prize winner Adam Johnson returns to our pages, and to Korea, with his story “Fortune Smiles,” in which North Korean expat grifters try to navigate the laws and mores of Seoul. We sent out a call for short essays about memorable thefts, and it is an honor to have the call answered by the doyen of crime writers, Mary Higgins Clark, alongside Alissa Nutting, George Singleton, and Laura Lippman. Clark reminds us that, in Shakespeare’s words, “The robbed that smiles steals something from the thief.” Enjoy.

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Literary Pissing Match

BooksBook lists perform many functions. Primarily they provide a shortcut to reading some very good books. But if you are thinking critically about the list and have some experience in reading and literature, you know that any list is just an opinion (and in some cases has a hidden agenda favoring a certain publisher). But lists can be fun too. I find that I can take any list and mentally reorder it, removing some titles and adding others and then, what is endlessly fascinating, I can take the same list I created last year and rethink it, making an entirely new list.

Yes, our opinions change, our literary tastes vary, even the books we once considered great have faded from memory only to be replaced by new novels we’ve read recently. I think this is the most telling thing about lists: they represent our opinions for only a relatively short time. How many times have you been told the best book is some popular story that still sits on the front-rounder at Barnes and Noble? Look at most of the lists and you’ll see a definite bias towards newer works. Take the venerable 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die: You would think that the predominance of great literature was published in the last half of the Twentieth Century.

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Beowulf, Harry Potter, and Fran Tarkenton

VikingsI have mentioned before that when I was studying English literature in college, J. R. R. Tolkien was alive and still publishing. Oh, everyone now knows about The Lord of the Rings but unless you were on the academic side of literature, you might not know that Tolkien was an excellent source for early English literature: we used his translations and scholarly analysis of several of the works attributed to The Pearl Poet, including Sir Gawain and, of course, The Pearl.

Now Tolkien’s son Christopher is about to publish his father’s study titled, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary.

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Understanding Shakespeare

Back in my early adult life (or was it my late childhood) I sat in the rec-room of one of the dorms at the UC and watched a movie version of Macbeth. I remember Maurice Evans using such a heavy Scottish brogue that I initially had a great deal of trouble understanding his words; but eventually my brain got into the right rhythm and what with my familiarity with the play, I was fully engaged in the drama and the acting. Unfortunately, the woman I was sitting with eventually confessed to not understanding a word of Shakespeare and heading out of the room searching for coffee. She was a Fine Arts major so it was understandable.

Macbeth holds a prominent position in my history. When I was in third grade I rummaged through my parents’ bookcase and found several books that looked interesting: one was Treasure Island with the N. C. Wyeth illustrations and another was this story about witches and battles and ghosts … Macbeth. I had never read a play before so I struggled through what turned out to be my first Shakespeare (I don’t remember but I suspect I didn’t know who William Shakespeare was unless he was on a card in my Authors pack … “give me all you Longfellows”). When I brought the book in to school for Show & Tell I was sent home with a note to my parents that I needed to be restricted to reading in my age group. When shall we three meet again … Dick and Jane and Spot.

But my experiences with Shakespeare are probably not typical. After all, I concentrated in English Drama in Graduate School (specifically William Wycherley). In fact, one of my tactics was discussing the difference between the drama on the stage and the play on the page (yes, I actually wrote that in my thesis). I was therefore interested in a weblog entry Tackling Shakespeare which was reprinted in Nation of Change.

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