Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Bibliodeath: The Writing's On The Wall And All Over The Place

by Stephen J. Gertz

Cover detail from Dürer's Apocalypse depicting
St. John devouring the Book (1498)

Andrei Codrescu's new book, Bibliodeath, published this week by Antibookclub, is an extended essay with footnotes longer (it seems) than the text they amplify, dealing with what its rear wrapper blurb describes as the "techno-evolution...often decried as the death knell of the written word."

Bibliodeath, it turns out, has little to do with the digital revolution and the demise of the printed codex as its title suggests. It is, rather, one writer's  memoir of writing, "a suspenseful meditation planted in a bed of alluring stories-cum-footnotes," as the rear cover blurb continues. But there is nothing suspenseful about this entree on salad. With the digital revolution there is more writing - for better or worse - than ever before. We already know that the written word is safe. Codrescu, a prolific  writer, has written an essay to counter a false proposition. It seems as if he wanted to write a memoir of writing and needed a contextual framework. But the framework is a weak and feels contrived.

The written word is in no danger as long as Codrescu is slinging a pen or banging a keyboard. As long as Codrescu writes the written word is in no danger of extinction as Codrescu demonstrates in this all over the place essay in search of a writer, Codrescu, his roots, development, and evolution as a writer as the world passes from the print to the digital age. Bibliodeath is an autobiographical olio of a writer's life from Romania, to Rome, New York, New Orleans; a writer of the world, his own.

Left with simply a memoir, then, what Andrei Codrescu has done is less than the archiving of himself as he suggests ("My Archives With Life in Footnotes") than indulgence in his absolute love of writing and writing about himself as an ongoing search for identity, which, we learn, he began as a youngster with notebook-journals, whether blank or pre-prose printed with his own writing interspersed throughout.

It's a workout for the reader, who must often endure long passages, either in the footnotes or text, to get to many worthwhile anecdotes of value to the reader - as well as to the guy who wrote them.

It is a writer's gift to be facile and loquacious, as Codrescu clearly is. It is a curse, however, when that gift is allowed to be an end unto itself. Writing for digital media (for that is what this printed book actually is) requires, it seems to me, a higher degree of discipline than writing for print. Shortening attention spans may seem like an onerous development but, in practical terms, they require a writer to be more precise and concise, squeezing every bit of meaning into each word as one can. That process can only make a writer better, and economy of prose does not necessarily mean short length of text. It does, however, require s poet's sensibility to measure each word and imbue them with resonance so that the text does not dry up or, worse, liquify into a flood of loose verbiage.

Codrescu identifies himself as a poet, first and foremost, so it is surprising that he has not brought the discipline of poetry into this work. For a poet, the freedom of prose is liberating but that freedom  can be a prison if you're locked in your own head and not listening to the reader (the editorial id), who simply asks to be captured and retained by an author, the latter being the key because what good is grabbing a reader's attention if they soon grow weary of the text? If a writer doesn't  hear a reader in his head every now and then while writing he/she is lost at sea without benefit of lighthouse. Often, those showing videos of their recent vacation to friends at home  (for that is what a reader is, a guest in the writer's house) are deaf, dumb, and blind to closed eyes and snores simply because they're wrapped-up in their memories.

Much of the problem is due to how the book is structured and formatted. Open to just about any page and you will be confronted with a tableau right out of the Talmud, the Jewish book of law, within which the main text block is framed by notes and commentary longer than the text they elucidate. For a law book the format makes sense. For a narrative story it's deadly, the footnotes breaking it up in into bits with long tangents; it's like listening to my mother on the phone.  I know that the  monologue  is fascinating to her but after five minutes it loses its fascination to me and I tune-out, holding the phone at a distance from my ear, interjecting a "hmmm," "oh," or "really" every now and then to let her know I'm still listening even though I stopped fifteen minutes ago. Moby Dick works not despite its many long digressive passages but because they are skillfully integrated into the narrative and hold our attention and interest. Bibliodeath is only 146 pages in length but it feels much longer.

There is some irony here. Bibliodeath appears to be  a digital document translated into analog, the hyperlinks here as footnotes. Laid out in print, it's a disaster for the reader, who is forced to leap into extended extra-text side-trips and by the time each trek has ended you've forgotten the scenery on the main road and have to re-orient yourself. 

As an essay upon the state of books in the 21st century Bibliodeath is a grand failure. But as a writer's memoir of writing it's a keeper, perhaps best kept in the bathroom where you can  flip-through it and cherry-pick. There are a lot of ripe cherries. Codrescu, at one point, for instance, discusses the "paid-reader," an imaginary occupation that might come to be if current trends in writing reach their logical conclusion, and, rather than being paid to write, the writer pays to be read. (Or pays to have good reviews written about their work).

Unfortunately, I can't afford to pay you to read this; Booktryst pays me nothing and I've earned a lot of it. I trust, however, that I've done my best and you won't go on strike simply because wages are non-existent. I like to think that the benefits aren't bad.

Same with Bibliodeath. Beyond the memoir and its frenzy of footnotes, enjoyable however annoyingly (though attractively) placed, it has benefits in the gold nuggets you have to dig for (Soviet-bloc writers' clubs!) and as a cautionary example of a digital document seemingly adapted to print, perfectly suited to a medium that encourages self-indulgence, and of writers without editors to tell them what they don't want to hear but must. A writer who ignores his reader within will lose the reader without, and without readers a writer is nobody. That is bibliodeath.

CODRESCU, Andrei. Bibliodeath. My Archives With Life In Footnotes. [Austin]: Antibookclub, 2012. Trade paperback. Octavo. 168 pp. Illustrated wrappers. $25.00.

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