In praise of front matter

This is prehistoric by Internet time, but a few months ago Paul Cantor’s essay “eBooks Are Great But….” left me thinking about a lot of issues surrounding the rise of digital books. I responded to him directly on Medium (you can read my full response), but as time passed one detail I touched on kept nagging me:

My biggest gripe with the Kindle is how it opens a new book to the first page of the first chapter. Here Amazon screwed up. Show me the cover, then let me page through the front matter to the first page. This is the pleasure and ritual of reading a new book.

Now every time I download a new ebook or sample, I think back to this comment. Amazon really did screw this up. When I pick up a physical book, the first thing I read is the cover, then the title page, then the rest of the front matter (“prelims” in the trade), before reaching the first page of the first chapter. This is not wasting my time. This is part and parcel of to the reading experience.

Hiroshima by John HerseyFor the sake of example, let me take a physical book off my shelf—John Hersey’s Hiroshima.

The cover for my paperback version is superb, a rising sun drenched in suggestive red. It rises over a moon bridge with the water below as blood-red as the sun. (Without a word printed on the cover I would immediately know this book regards Japan.) The quoted Saturday Review of Literature‘s exhortation that “everyone able to read should read it” is almost unnecessary at this point in time for a book of Hiroshima‘s stature, but I suppose it gives lingering on-the-fence customers one more reason to buy a copy.

Since I was a child I’ve studied book covers before diving in to the book itself. I’ve seen plenty of crappy book covers in my lifetime, but a great cover is worth moments of reflection. I’ve always admired the illustrator who can capture the essence of an entire book in a single image. Wendell Minor (the cover illustrator for this edition) did a fine job of that without exploiting the more obvious emotional signals the name Hiroshima evokes. The cover is tasteful, evocative, mournful, and thoughtful—just like the book itself.

Opening the book, the first printed page (titled “When the Bomb Dropped”) lists the main characters of Hiroshima along with brief biographies for each. This isn’t filler. This page suggests to me that Hiroshima is a book of many people, not just one. What’s more, this is not a book of dry facts about the detonation of the first atomic bomb against a population, nor is it scientific analysis. It’s also not a military history, as none of the names have a government or military title.

The next page lists John Hersey’s other books, published between 1943 to 1987. I was under the impression that Hersey was a journalist who fortuitously had a magazine feature article turned into a bestselling (and now historical) book. I didn’t know he had such a prolific career. While this seems minor, skimming down the list shaped how I received Hiroshima.

Hiroshima title pageThen comes the title page, a clean, almost retro layout befitting the book’s original publication in the 1940s. A small note indicates the final chapter was written more recently, forty years after the bombing of Hiroshima. Again, that’s a nice piece of information to have—that while I’m reading a history book originally published contemporaneously with the events it describes, it’s not been frozen in time.

The colophon or copyright page may be the driest page of all front matter, but again, I glean something from it: “Copyright 1946, 1985 John Hersey.” Not everyone who picks up Hiroshima will recognize Hersey wrote it in the immediate aftermath of the bombing; that’s worth knowing before reaching the first page. Another tidbit to be learned: “The entire contents of this book originally appeared in The New Yorker,” additional historical context.

Then a modest table of contents. Five chapters numbered, each with a brief summarizing phrase that, even before reading the rest of the book, acts as a primer on the history Hersey records: “A noiseless flash.” “The fire.” “Details are being investigated.”

Only turning the table of contents page comes the first page of the first chapter. If I’d downloaded Hiroshima to my Amazon Kindle, this would be the first page presented. I would have been robbed—look again at the experience I’ve accumulated perusing the book’s cover and front matter.

I’m not blasting ebooks or declaring them dead or a horrible experience. I’m suggesting Amazon has made a questionable design decision, and one easily corrected. A simple option in the Settings would be enough to satisfy me.

Update: More on Hiroshima, John Hersey, and book covers here.

Twenty Writers: Another interpretation of The Flitcraft Parable (from The Maltese Falcon)

See the Introduction for more information on Twenty Writers, Twenty Books. The current list of writers and books is located at the Continuing Series page.


Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett

Earlier this year I wrote about “The Flitcraft Parable”, a story Sam Spade tells in The Maltese Falcon to Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the novel’s femme fatale. The parable is interesting for a number of reasons, but the central question that’s been attacked by readers and critics for almost a century is the purpose of its telling. Why does Sam Spade tell this odd story to O’Shaughnessy?

The story of Charles Flitcraft abandoning a secure life of money and family, only to return to a similar life in a different city, appears unrelated to the novel’s primary concern, the search for a bejeweled antique statuette. Some speculate Spade tells the story to O’Shaughnessy as a warning, that he knows she’s incapable of change and will continue lying to him, just as she’s lied in every encounter he’s had with her so far.

I don’t think the Flitcraft Parable is so simple. Before, I wrote about an academic connection I thought author Dashiell Hammett was making—that Charles Flitcraft’s assumed name, Charles Pierce, is a reference to philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce and Pragmatism, the school of thought Peirce founded. I’m the first to admit, it’s an egghead approach to a novel of murder and corruption, and one that Hammett probably didn’t expect a reader to delve terribly deeply into. That’s why I’m writing this post, a second look at the Flitcraft Parable, one that’s not so dependent on the headiness of nineteenth-century philosophy.

To be clear, I remain convinced Hammett intended to make a connection between Flitcraft and Charles Peirce’s philosophy. What I’m offering here is an interrelated interpretation of the Flitcraft Parable, an analysis that hews closer to the book’s plot and intentions without tossing out my first attempt.

If you’ve not read my first post, I’d recommend at least reading the section titled “The parable” before continuing. I’m not going to re-summarize the Flitcraft Parable here.

Warning: Spoilers ahead. In my prior post I attempted to avoid discussing the conclusion of The Maltese Falcon. It’s impossible for this post to do the same.

“The only formal problem of the story”

Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler

Dr. Samuel Johnson was not Shakespeare’s first critic, but he was arguably Shakespeare’s first preeminent critic. Hard-boiled writer Raymond Chandler holds a similar relationship to Dashiell Hammett. In Chandler’s essay “The Simple Art of Murder” (first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1944, fourteen years after the release of The Maltese Falcon), Chandler critiques and analyzes Hammett’s body of work, naming him as the one figure who represents the hard-boiled school of writing as its “ace performer.” He praises the forcefulness of Hammett’s prose and, most famously, how “Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.”

Everything Chandler observes about Hammett’s writing can be applied to the Flitcraft Parable. Spade’s sparse language when telling the parable is as direct as darts puncturing a dartboard. The parable is constructed of fleshy people, people who do things for palpable reasons, even if those reasons are mysterious to us and based on an internalized logic we may never adopt.

Then, like Dr. Johnson’s best slicing analysis of Shakespeare, Chandler makes an off-the-cuff observation of The Maltese Falcon, tossing his insight before the reader’s feet as though embarrassed something so effortless must be mentioned:

…in reading The Maltese Falcon no one concerns himself with who killed Spade’s partner, Archer (which is the only formal problem of the story), because the reader is kept thinking about something else. [Emphasis mine.]

What Chandler alludes to here is the first murder in The Maltese Falcon. In Chapter One, Miles Archer, Spade’s partner, rushes to take leggy Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s assignment for his own; the kids today would call it a “cock block.” That night—Chapter Two—Archer is found murdered. This is the “formal problem” Chandler draws attention to in-between those parentheses.

More dead bodies arrive in The Maltese Falcon, bullet-ridden corpses shot up like a stop sign outside an Alabama roadhouse, but none of the murders are truly mysterious. The moment cold-fish henchman Wilmer and his pocket .45 cannons are introduced, it’s patent the murders are his handiwork. None of the other characters are capable of it. Dandy Joel Cairo and aristocratic Gutman are too drenched in Old World genteel for the blithe butchery Wilmer is thirsty to administer. O’Shaughnessy may have claws, but her true power lies in charming men to do her killing for her. Chandler’s on the money; the only formal problem in The Maltese Falcon is the death of Archer, a murder not so easily pinned on Wilmer.

Step back and admire this for a moment. Archer is the first murder in a mystery novel—and the detective’s partner to boot—yet Archer’s corpse is all-but-forgotten five pages after Spade identifies the body. Archer’s death remains, at best, a tertiary concern for another 175 pages. With the fluidity of a street con, Hammett misdirects our attention with Istanbul intrigue, the promise of a jewel-encrusted statuette, and hoary tales of the Knights Templar. Papering over Archer’s murder is an audacious and under-appreciated maneuver on Hammett’s part, one that demonstrates the confident control he maintains throughout the book.

Spade’s credo

The mystery of Archer’s murder may all but disappear after Chapter Two, but it comes roaring back in the final chapter. Spade confronts Brigid O’Shaughnessy, whom he’d told the Flitcraft Parable to earlier in the book, and states he knows she murdered Archer, pressing her and disarming her lies until she finally confesses.

In my prior post, I concluded that the Flitcraft Parable was a kind of manifesto for Spade, a declaration that he will eke out the truth of the matter, no matter the consequences. I also noted that

…Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon in the third-person objective. Although Sam Spade is in every scene and the narrator stays close to him, we as readers are never privy to Spade’s internal thoughts. We can only guess what Spade is thinking at any moment. That’s the true mystery of The Maltese Falcon, not whodunnit, but What does Sam Spade know, and when does he know it?

Flatly, I believe Spade knows O’Shaughnessy had murdered Miles Archer when he tells her the Flitcraft Parable in Chapter Seven. I believe Spade suspects her as early as Chapter Two, when he views Archer’s body and takes a walk afterwards “thinking things over,” for all the reasons he names to O’Shaughnessy in the final pages.

If you view the Flitcraft Parable as a kind of manifesto or speech Spade is making for O’Shaughnessy, there’s one more speech Spade makes to her in the final chapter:

When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. … I’m a detective and expecting me to run criminals down and then let them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go. It can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done, but it’s not the natural thing.

There’s a thin, near-invisible length of thread running between the Flitcraft Parable and the above, Spade’s credo.

The Flitcraft Parable, then, is Spade’s soft-sell to O’Shaughnessy. He’s telling her he’s a reasonable man. When Spade hears Flitcraft’s story of the falling beam, Spade agrees it seems reasonable, in it’s own way, for Flitcraft to abandon his wife and family–but he still returns to Mrs. Flitcraft to inform her what has happened to her husband.

Spade is accused of many things throughout The Maltese Falcon, some cold, some sordid, but with the Flitcraft Parable he’s quietly demonstrating to O’Shaughnessy that he will only bend so far. As he says in his credo, letting criminals go free “can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done.” He admits to her that Miles Archer “was a son of a bitch…you didn’t do me a damned bit of harm by killing him.” And then he hands her over to the police.

Would he have turned her in if she’d confessed earlier in the novel, after telling her the parable? It’s difficult to say, but the quiet way he tells it to her signals to me that he’s offering her a chance for redemption.

Chandler again, this time from his introduction to Trouble is My Business:

[The hard-boiled story] does not believe that murder will out and justice will be done—unless some very determined individual makes it his business to see that justice is done. The stories were about the men who made that happen. They were apt to be hard men, and what they did … was hard, dangerous work. It was work they could always get.

The Maltese Falcon is not a whodunnit, or a book about a statuette, or even a book about a private detective. It’s about a man who bears the weight of administering justice on-the-fly in a corrupt and mechanical world. Sam Spade holds two lives in his hands, Charles Flitcraft’s and Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s. Hard, dangerous work, work he could always get.

Kung Pao Grantland

Bill Simmons

Bill Simmons

GrantlandFor the past few days there’s been an under-the-radar furor over the news that ESPN will shutter (and now has shuttered) Grantland, Bill Simmon’s unorthodox and motley digital magazine he started in 2011. A melange of sports writing and pop culture analysis, Grantland offered daily doses of baseball/football/basketball coverage (“The Triangle”), movie and television reviews, NBA trade predictions, Hollywood power-structure tell-alls, and straight-up unabashed fan writing of all manner of popular entertainment. The moment the Twittersphere kinda-sorta erupted with news of Grantland’s demise I immediately felt sullen. Some grown-up in ESPN’s accounting department had taken my lollipop away.

Excuse me while I make a poor but useful metaphor: Grantland was the digital equivalent of Chinese-American cuisine. Both offer a little of something for everyone, and the elements together on the plate taste like nothing else in the American palate. Starchy staples, tasty fried sports writing, as well as specialty items you can take or leave, the sweet-and-sour film review or the Kung Pao TV retrospective. Founder and editor-in-chief Bill Simmons’ columns? The fortune cookie.

Unsurprisingly, Grantland was heavy on sportswriting. Bill Simmons’ career as a Boston sportswriter and later with ESPN guaranteed any site he started would zero in on the hardcore day-in, day-out sports fan. But Simmons aimed higher than the lad-magazine sports coverage dominating the commercial Web today. He also avoided the purple athlete hagiographies Sports Illustrated‘s writers pen in the hopes of turning a feature article into a book. Instead, Simmons looked for thoughtful, side-angle takes on sports that avoided the breathless “you-are-there” prose and sports-radio head-bashing. Grantland offered college basketball coverage that would make any casual fan a maniac, unapologetic take-downs on the NFL concussion controversy, and a soulful piece on Don King at the end of a remarkable lifetime, a story that should’ve won a Pulitzer.

(Grantland’s sportswriting wasn’t pure platinum. Like the worst of the dailies’ sports columns, Grantland occasionally lapsed into poor satire, such as its fictional oral history of a real-life American League pennant game, or, worse, Roger Federer’s deviled eggs recipe, both of which told me that Grantland’s writers operated under deadlines like their print counterparts.)

If sports don’t float your boat, Grantland’s television and film writing was equally strong. These features weren’t “bolt-ons” designed to drive traffic to a sports-centric site, but an integral part of Grantland’s overall gestalt. (Now you see where I’m going with this Chinese food metaphor.) In fact, that might be the secret of Grantland’s success: it treated TV and film criticism with the same irreverent seriousness as great American sportswriting. Simmons recognized a sports-fan-like obsessiveness in the Mad Men bingeviewers and the art-house film fanatics. They take their pursuits solemnly and dive in deep to their pet loves, but not with the deadly sanctimoniousness of political junkies or finicky tastes of music fans. Grantland targeted today’s connoisseurs of popular narrative entertainment, people who watch the movie then watch it again with the director’s commentary.

Most of all, Grantland recognized it was possible be a fan of all these cultural wellsprings—Major League Baseball, Breaking Bad, Christopher Nolan—and smart enough to want to read deeper and broader into them all. Bill Simmons laid it on the line: great writing will attract eyeballs, and it will keep them coming back for more.

My appreciation for Grantland came last July when I swore Grantland was committing a bizarre form of suicide. The noose they chose to hang themselves with was “Rom Com Week,” five days of retrospective on the best and worst of Hollywood’s romantic comedies. How could a site for sports fans who think the NBA draft is nail-biting drama possibly want to read about movies that made you laugh as you cried?

Well, it worked. It even made me rethink the romantic comedy as a—fine, I’ll say it—art form. I devoured each daily transmission of “Rom Com Week” at my office desk over a brown bag lunch, always eager for the next day’s installment. The cherry to top it off was Bill Simmons’ wrap-up analysis, “Sports Movie or Not a Sports Movie?” He attacked what may be the most pressing question in popular culture that was never asked and never answered: Were movies like Bull Durham, Tin Cup, and The Replacements sports movies or romantic comedies? In an awe-inspiring and sweeping investigation, Grantland uncovered a massive underground river in American culture, the overlap between “guy” sports films and “gal” rom-coms, with Kevin Costner as the center peg holding it all together. If Simmons’ essay doesn’t rearrange your head, you’ve been living under a rock for the past three-plus decades.

That’s the fortune cookie, Bill Simmons sliding in at the last moment with surprising observations and a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the subject at hand. Hell, he almost got me to forgive Saturday Night Live for forty years of repetitive and spineless comedy—almost. That said, Grantland’s SNL retrospective adds up to some of the best writing ever on an American institution that somehow manages to delude itself (and a lot of other people) into thinking it’s still an anti-establishment rabble-rouser, even while wearing a tuxedo and hobnobbing with A-list celebrities.

Romantic comedies, SNL at 40, the real origins of Moneyball, The Terminator reconsidered, the future of James Bond, the Golden State Warriors’ performance shot-by-shot. Maybe someday the hole left by Grantland will be filled, but I doubt it.