by Weston Cutter
I’ve got two different nonfiction reading friends (more, I’m sure, but two with whom I compare notes). One of them always wants books that brings him into the world of something—like Fatsis’ tremendous Word Freak or Blythe’s dynamite To Hate Like This is to Be Happy Forever. The other reader loves books about odd, Henry Petroski-style subjects. Books about rulers, pencils, toothpicks—The Billionaire’s Vinegar is right up his alley.
I haven’t told him yet, but I’ve got the best possible book for him: Levinson’s The Box. Here’s what you need to imagine: that reading about the history of the shipping container is one of the more riveting reading experiences you’re likely to read in awhile. Here’s why it’s so riveting: the history and development of the shipping container offers maybe one of the clearest possible lenses into the process that’s come to be called globalization.
I was born in 1978, so I have a pretty romanticized idea of the past. The idea of being in a place like New York City when it was one of the biggest port cities in the world seems fascinating and cool and interesting. Of course, the internet and globalization’s made New York sort of redundant: the same tea that a friend and I five years ago could only buy there is now available at the Whole Foods in Louisville, KY (I checked). Which is great, really, for all us tea drinkers.
But the reason I can get that tea, and the reason the shorts I just bought from Target were only $12 despite being made in Malaysia, have everything to do with the shipping container. We know this stuff, all of is, at an intellectual level, but Levinson does an admirable, thorough job of leading the reader carefully through all the changes that’ve led to where we currently are. Also, maybe most critically: Levinson’s writing’s free of all cant and ideology. It’s a presentation of a (literally) world-changing thing, and thankfully nothing of a tract about that thing and the debate surrounding its use.
Originally published in 1969, Johnson’s book-in-a-box was rereleased in 1999 in the UK and when I was there in 2005 I must’ve picked the thing up a dozen times in Waterstone or whatever the name of the big bookstore chain there is, wanting really badly to buy it but sure I should spend the money on, you know, food or something. Thankfully, New Directions has now given the US our own edition of the book—this version’s identical to the one put out in 1999 by Picador.
If you recognize Johnson’s name, it’s likely because of either reading or reading about Jonathan Coe’s bio on him Like a Fiery Elephant (another great book that was out in the UK first and here only later), which came out a few years back. And if you recognize this book, it’s likely because the book is, in fact, 27 discrete pamphlets held together in a box (sort of like McSweeney’s #4, but the box is better on this one).
Yes: a writer in England in 1969 pushed for just the sort of experimental postmodernism that would render a text nearly orderless (there’s a First and Last section in The Unfortunates, but past that the reader’s hand makes the moves). Yes: Johnson’s a sort of weird writer whose stuff is still largely unknown (and I don’t even know if it should or shouldn’t be: I’ve read nothing but this book, plus bits of Like a Fiery Elephant, and Coe sure likes the guy, and Coe’s pretty great, so maybe?) and this book seems unlikely to change that fact.
The book itself? The book itself is a sad story: Johnson, traveling to a cover a soccer game, arrives in a city and remembers that it’s where a friend of his, Tony, had lived—and Tony died some years ago, and the day’s soccer match and Johnson’s reminisces of his friend blend together in this weird, evocative thing that’s compelling as hell because, no joke, while reading you feel in the head of Johnson. And make no mistake: It’s Johnson, the “I” in the novel (Coe goes into some length about this whole thing in the introductory pamphlet).
The writing’s monumental as trains: the sentences move and move and then there are sudden pauses and then sentences that just bomb on the reader with the feel of a snatched, passing thought. There aren’t hugely radical shifts in text presentation—not, like, House of Leaves weird—though most blocks of text contain (or seem to contain) more than single paragraphs), meaning that a sentence ends and then the next sentence starts with some space between it and the last sentences, like the tabbed indentation of a paragraph…
All of which is frustrating to try to write clearly about, which was why this was just going to be a quick note. It’s an interesting, strange book—all the stranger for the fact that it’s nearly 40 years old and feels fresh as last Tuesday. If nothing else, buy the book just so you’ve given some money to New Directions: for all the moral and intellectual poverty currently at work in some rarified places in this country, we’re pretty fucking rich in brilliant, risk-taking publishers.
(for the record, too: New Directions is coming out with new editions of Kenneth Patchen’s old books as well. Patchen’s the guy, as far as I know, who first joined poetry with jazz (in his case, he stepped in with Mingus, which would’ve been just fucking great, but I digress). If you don’t know Patchen, you probably should.)
This book’s subtitle is and Other Kinships, and the book itself is a memoir of a midwesterner and so, of course, I have nothing to say about it other than: it’s great, and everyone should read it. There will never ever be a single great all-encapsulating book about the feeling of the midwest—not Gatsby, not listening to every recording of Prairie Home Companion, not playing every Replacements or Dylan or Prince or Husker Du or Mason Jennings or Haley Bonar album back to back: no one thing can add up to the midwest feeling, I don’t think. That said: John T. Price’s incredibly well-written and fluid and interesting and funny book is certainly a valuable link in the chain.