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The Weekly Blague

Novelist Praises Manual Typewriters; Ethicist Commits Federal Crime

Jonathan Lethem (left), interviewed by The Ethicist, Chuck Klosterman, at Bookexpo America.

The primary jolt of inspiration for Bobby in Naziland, the novel I'm currently fine-tuning (and that I'll be reading from at Bloomsday on Beaver Street) came from Jonathan Lethem's 2003 novel, The Fortress of Solitude. A good portion of that book is set in what's now called the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn, in the 1970s, about two miles from Flatbush, where I grew up ten years earlier.

As I read The Fortress of Solitude, I kept thinking that I should write a book about Flatbush, and bring that time and place back to life, just as Lethem had done in his book. This kind of inspiration is rare, and that's why I thanked Lethem when I saw him yesterday at the BEA.

New York Times Ethicist columnist (and pop-culture aficionado) Chuck Klosterman was interviewing Lethem, on the Downtown Author Stage, about his odyssey as a writer and his forthcoming “political” novel, set in Queens, Dissident Gardens, due out in September.

Lethem, who will be turning 50 in February—“I’m not big on birthdays,” he noted—talked about how, 30 years ago, he’d dropped out of Bennington College, in Vermont, and hitchhiked to San Francisco, where he’d written his first three novels on a manual typewriter. He preferred a manual, he said, because “metal letters striking paper” was like “sculpting;” you could “feel the imprint on the back of the page,” and you produced something real. He fondly recalled his days of using White-Out, and waiting for it to dry.

In the transition from typewriters to computers, the main thing that’s lost, Lethem believes, is the notion of a draft. He scoffed at the idea of his writing students telling him, “This is my third draft,” when all they’d done was edit their story on the computer screen.

“You have to read it on paper and retype the story; it’s the only way you can tell if it works,” Lethem said, explaining how he advises his students to print out their stories, erase it from the hard drive, empty the trash, and retype the entire thing.

Lethem, who does not consider himself prolific despite having written nine novels and a slew of nonfiction, also described the beginnings of his consciousness, and becoming aware of time, at age six, in Brooklyn, in 1970. “I knew about the moon landing,” he said, “but don’t remember it happening. I knew the Mets won World Series in 1969, but finished third in 1970.”

I told Lethem, as he was signing my copy of Dissident Gardens, that Beaver Street opens on Church Avenue, in Brooklyn, in 1961. I think I detected a sparkle of recognition in his eye.


Chuck Klosterman was also signing his latest book, I Wear the Black Hat, which is about villains, and as I was waiting to get my copy signed, the two girls on line in front of me handed Klosterman a five-dollar bill and asked him to autograph it, which he did.

“I don’t believe it,” I told him as I handed him my book. “The Ethicist is defacing currency.”

Klosterman’s nervous laughter indicated that he probably didn’t realize that he was breaking the law. But it now leaves me with an ethical dilemma: What do you do when you witness a New York Times ethics columnist commit a federal crime, specifically a violation of 18 USC § 333, mutilation of national bank obligations, punishable by fine and up to six months imprisonment? Should I have made a citizen’s arrest? Report him to the Secret Service? Or just forget about the whole thing, even though I’m aware that ignorance of the law is not a defense.

Or perhaps I should just write to The Ethicist and let him sort it out. I know he’ll do the right thing.

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