Because there was a time in my life when I could not read books, a period of several years when my focused eyesight waned and my ears tuned toward a literacy based on listening, I remember distinctly each book read as I gradually acquired new reading technologies. The first Talking Book I ever read was John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, actually three novels in one, which involved nearly 40 hours of listening. The book was recorded on very-slow-speed vinyl discs, thick as cheap dinner plates, that played on a bulky phonograph resembling the childhood toy on which I listened, over and over again, to “The Ballad of Davy Crockett”. The first cassette book I read was Anna Karenina. It, too, was epic in length, but its physical footprint was compressed to eight four-track cassettes played on a Talking Book cassette player that approached the portability of a printed book. When it’s battery was charged, I could sit under a tree and read on a lazy summer afternoon. That was civilized.
Now the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), a division of the Library of Congress, has added digital book players to its range of reading technologies. I got one this week, and yesterday, after taking a pledge not to hack, pirate, or fail to venerate anyone’s copyright, I downloaded my first NLS digital book, Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. Back in the day of NLS cassette books (not the commercial variety of recorded books, which usually sounded histrionic or hokey to me), I would have to wait several years before a current bestseller became accessible. Shteyngart’s novel was published less than a year ago. That could be a new land speed record for accessibility.
And it’s a “first listen” worthy of its predecessors. If I didn’t have to go to work today, I’d sit beneath the white pines in my garden, sip iced green tea, and surrender my attention to nothing else but reading it.
I’m still getting used to the notion that books can have video trailers. The video for “Super Sad” is almost as funny as the book it shills. It’s had more than 150,000 views to date. That may be thanks to James Franco’s cameo, although I was more impressed by Edmund White’s. He is author of a peripatetic Paris book called The Flaneur. The video’s schtick casts Shteyngart as a schnook (like Lenny, the novel’s lovable anti-hero) and a functional illiterate. Lenny is the last of the old-fashioned literates;, he cherishes his collection of ‘bound text artifacts” while the hipsters around him think his books stink — lterally. Hmmm… schnook, functional illiterate, hapless collector of cultural anachronisms – I’ve been typecast in all those roles at one time or another. Does that men I’m destined, like author and anti-hero, for the adulation of post-literate twenty-something debutantes?
Accompanying the video is this publisher’s blurb:
The author of two critically acclaimed novels, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan, Gary Shteyngart has risen to the top of the fiction world. Now, in his hilarious and heartfelt new novel, he envisions a deliciously dark tale of America’s dysfunctional coming years—and the timeless and tender feelings that just might bring us back from the brink.
In a very near future—oh, let’s say next Tuesday—a functionally illiterate America is about to collapse. But don’t that tell that to poor Lenny Abramov, the thirty-nine-year-old son of an angry Russian immigrant janitor, proud author of what may well be the world’s last diary, and less-proud owner of a bald spot shaped like the great state of Ohio. Despite his job at an outfit called Post-Human Services, which attempts to provide immortality for its super-rich clientele, death is clearly stalking this cholesterol-rich morsel of a man. And why shouldn’t it? Lenny’s from a different century—he totally loves books (or “printed, bound media artifacts,” as they’re now known), even though most of his peers find them smelly and annoying. But even more than books, Lenny loves Eunice Park, an impossibly cute and impossibly cruel twenty-four-year-old Korean American woman who just graduated from Elderbird College with a major in Images and a minor in Assertiveness.
After meeting Lenny on an extended Roman holiday, blistering Eunice puts that Assertiveness minor to work, teaching our “ancient dork” effective new ways to brush his teeth and making him buy a cottony nonflammable wardrobe. But America proves less flame-resistant than Lenny’s new threads. The country is crushed by a credit crisis, riots break out in New York’s Central Park, the city’s streets are lined with National Guard tanks on every corner, the dollar is so over, and our patient Chinese creditors may just be ready to foreclose on the whole mess. Undeterred, Lenny vows to love both Eunice and his homeland. He’s going to convince his fickle new love that in a time without standards or stability, in a world where single people can determine a dating prospect’s “hotness” and “sustainability” with the click of a button, in a society where the privileged may live forever but the unfortunate will die all too soon, there is still value in being a real human being.
Wildly funny, rich, and humane, Super Sad True Love Story is a knockout novel by a young master, a book in which falling in love just may redeem a planet falling apart.
More context from NYT’s Michiko Kakutani:
“Super Sad” takes place in the near future, and Mr. Shteyngart has extrapolated every toxic development already at large in America to farcical extremes. The United States is at war in Venezuela, and its national debt has soared to the point where the Chinese are threatening to pull the plug. There are National Guard checkpoints around New York, and riots in the city’s parks. Books are regarded as a distasteful, papery-smelling anachronism by young people who know only how to text-scan for data, and privacy has become a relic of the past. Everyone carries around a device called an äppärät, which can live-stream its owner’s thoughts and conversations, and broadcast their “hotness” quotient to others. People are obsessed with their health — Lenny works as a Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator (Grade G) for a firm that specializes in life extension — and shopping is the favorite pastime of anyone with money.