Not if We Can Help It: Tom Wolfe, Orwell’s Forgotten Wives, Jorge Luis Borges, Digital Preservation, More
What a great post. I have loved Tom Wolfe since I read Electric Kool Aid Acid Test in high school. Even at that young age, I could tell Wolfe wasn't impressed with the childishness of the Merry Pranksters. And whenever I see Al Sharpton today, I think of Reverend Bacon from Bonfire of the Vanities.
As much as possible, I use my Kindle as an eReader only. I buy inexpensive digital collections of classics from delphiclassics.com, or download free copies from standardebooks.org. I don't trust Amazon to preserve original versions. Last night I reread Flannery O'Connor's short story, "Revelation", and I wondered how long that will remain available with its repeated use of racial slurs -which are used to make the main point of the story - but that is something that a lot of people today won't get.
I have to admit that I have never read anything by Tom Wolfe, although I am certainly familiar with his name (there is simply only so much time to read and there are still so many classics to get through...) and the background you provide sounds fascinating.
I have profound skepticism of digitizing books to "preserve" them, for the exact reason you note here. I indeed collect physical books so that my children can have them for their own home libraries once they move out. In a news piece I read about the Peel District School Board here in Ontario, I was horrified to learn that they emptied the school library of all books that were written before 2008 (including Anne Frank!) because of "lack of diversity". They did not even pass them on, but instead sent them to the landfill. Digitizing books under authorities who decide what should be read is a dangerous endeavor that will most certainly doom countless books down the memory hole.
Glad to hear Wolfe is continuing to get the recognition he deserves! I honestly believe he is one of the most important writers of the twentieth century, not just for his journalism but for his journalistic stance toward fiction. Perhaps this documentary will be the spark that ignites a collected edition of his works; some of his most important essays have never been reproduced in book form ("Stalking the Billion-Footed-Beast" and "The Worship of Art" still languish behind a paywall on the Harper's website). Thanks for the excellent synopsis of his work and perspective, and I will certainly make a point of seeing Richard Dewey's documentary when it is released.
Wolfe's small book on modern architecture is hilarious.
That idea of Tom Wolfe choosing not to fit in reminds me of a story I heard on Fresh Air (I think). He was famous, of course, for his dapper clothes. But when he went to the wilds of North Carolina to research the Junior Johnson story ("The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!" available in the Esquire archives, and one of my all-time favorite articles), he decided to dress down, the better to fit in with the locals. Only his idea of dressing down was to wear a green tweed suit and a black knit tie to various garages and diners and moonshine operations around North Wilkesboro. Eventually Junior Johnson pulled him aside and asked him to reconsider his wardrobe. Junior had grown tired of answering questions about the “little green man” who was following him around.
According to Tom Wolfe, that was the last time he ever tried to fit in with his subjects while doing research for a story. At some point, in fact, he started wearing a white linen suit everywhere he went. Since he seemed to be terrible at fitting in anyway, this was probably a good decision. But more importantly, he found it helpful to come into a situation as “a man from Mars” who didn’t even pretend to know what was going on. It gave him permission to ask dumb questions.
So good. I recently added Talese to my "to read" pile. Didion is so good too. Of course, this article is about Wolfe, overall but you mention all those others. Writer are lucky if they get mentioned in the same breath of memory as other writers I suppose.
"he would pummel it to a pulp between sheets of paper and a barrage of typewriter keys." - Damn what a great line!
Wolfe has been on my TBR list for a while. It may very well ne time to move him up.
Here is a piece I recently did on my podcast about Wolfe: https://pubtv.flfnetwork.com/tabs/podcast/podcasts/8286/episodes/32