LINT PEDESTALS AND BLACK MONOLITHS: BLOCKBUSTER BOOKS AS SOURCES OF CONFUSION
2001
Occasionally a book is published that is deemed so weighty, so worthy of attention, that no individual can consider him or her-self culturally literate without a copy on a shelf at home. And that's exactly where it remains: on a shelf at home, gathering dust.

I'm speaking here of the releases that aren't mere books, but "publishing events." Thomas Pynchon's
Gravity's Rainbow; Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum; Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae; Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time; and more recently, Walter Benjamin's The Arcades Project.

You no doubt have your own choice, some cinderblockbuster you were cowed into buying, only to use it as a pedestal for lint. Admit it. You've got at least one, probably several never-to-be-read masterpieces sequestered on a shelf nearby. We all do.

Remember the scene in Stanley Kubrick's 2001, where a giant black monolith appears before a gathering of gobsmacked ape-men? In a similar fashion, every once and while some thick, mysterious slab arrives with a thud from the publishing world. Critics fall over themselves with praise for the thing, working themselves up into a frenzy of reviews and op-ed pieces. The slab promptly rockets off on to the best-seller lists. Yet by the time the frenzy has crested, the reviewer's gimlet eye is elsewhere - on archetypal elements in Jewel's poetry, or something else. Meanwhile, the poor reader is left holding the (Chapter's) bag.

Take
A Brief History of Time. (please.) I you didn't buy a copy years ago, you know someone who did. After all the hoopla, most reader found it too daunting, even though there's only one equation to be found in it (E= MC2). The truth is, Stephen Hawking may be a great scientist, but he's no great shakes as a writer. Although its a slim volume, A Brief History of Time is now considered one of the biggest-selling, least-read books of all time.

Last year saw the publication by Harvard/Belknap of
The Arcades Project, by that patron saint of postmodernists, Walter Benjamin. The trouble is, The Arcades Project isn't a book at all, but the notes assembled for one. In the late thirties, Benjamin carried his notes in a leather satchel across the Pyrenees, committing suicide when he discovered escape from the Nazis was futile. The notes undoubtedly slowed him down; in published format The Arcades Project is over a thousand pages of dense prose in teeny-tiny type. When Belknap/Harvard Press released the book to much acclaim, I mistakenly thought it would make for great summer reading. More like Sumer reading: The Arcades Project turned out to be a ziggurat of cryptic quotations, disconnected observations, and gnomic citations of relevance only to the long-gone Benjamin. But it got fabulous reviews.

I'm not new to this sort of thing. My first adventure in this department was a four-pound sleeping pill called
Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. Published back in 1979, this work - and I mean work in its fullest sense - outlined the shared intellectual contours of Kurt Gödel's number theory, M. C. Escher's graphic art, and Johann Sebastian Bach's compositions. If that sounds obtuse and annoying, believe me, it was.

Three times over seven years I tried cracking this monstrous meta-analysis of science, art and music. Twenty pages in, I always ended with my head cocked to the side like a puzzled dog, circling around an impenetrable thicket of prose, trying to flush out meaning. I suspect someone somewhere must have read the dam thing all the way through, because it won the Pulitzer Prize. But that someone wasn't me. (The reviews on the back of the book should have tipped me off. When critical praise is coming from retired cryptographers from the NSA, and advanced blobs of goo from Zeta Reticuli, you know you're in trouble.)

Speaking of outer space, I believe I have the explanation of that black slab in Kubrick's movie. That's right, a book. No doubt it was some "publishing event," shorn of its dust-jacket by interstellar winds, hurtling through space in search of a civilization patient enough - or masochistic enough - to read it.

An early draft of
Gödel, Escher, Bach perhaps?

Geoff Olson