Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Go Figure

The Montecito Journal is a weekly newspaper, printed with three-and-four color illustrations and advertisements as well as black-and-white text and occasional photo. With a tightly certified distribution/circulation figure, it has a circulation of 20,000 plus. It is in some ways like Kleenex in that it is mostly used (read) only once before being thrown away, although there are cases of an issue here and there being read by between one and three individuals.

Montecito, which is unincorporated territory within Santa Barbara County, bordering on Santa Barbara to the west, Summerland to the southwest, and Carpinteria more or less due south is an extraordinary tax base, filled with mansions, estates, luxury condos, and the occasional landmark cottage, estate, or office building that is a legacy from some significant architect. Accordingly, there is a demographic of considerable old money, which is to say inherited wealth, which tends to reflect fiscal and political conservatism. As well, there are full- and part-time residents who have spun away from Los Angeles, reflecting a more liberal or progressive political configuration. No on in either basic group relies on The Montecito Journal for its entire intake of local or statewide news, many still opting for the bottom feeding daily, The News-Press, known variously to locals as The News-Surpress or The Snooze-Press. You might expect a rather property rights. zoning ordinance, real estate prices approach to the such-as-they-are local stories, an you'd not be far from the defining sentiments as well as politics.

You could say with some accuracy that The Journal is unlike any other community newspaper; in any given issue you will find articles on wealth management, the tyranny of local zoning regulations, the haughtiness of Hillary Clinton, the dangers to property values of allowing low-cost housing within Montecito, the dangers inherent in widening Highway 101, the agendas of book reading clubs, and an acrimonious debate on whether Montecito's own Westmont College, a four-year evangelical Christian establishment with an enrollment capped at 1200 students should be allowed to update its facilities. These are sandwiched between three humor columns and advertisements for estates for sale at prices over ten million dollars.

Since February of 2005, I have been reviewing books for this newspaper, alternating newly published books with Golden Oldies or Classics or Forgotten Works of Merit from the Past, a comfortable and comforting routine in which I am able to vary the new and, accordingly, the more or less completely unpredictable with the well-worn relics from other times, including a genre I refer to as Guilt Literature, books I feel pangs of guilt for never having read, or books I feel some pangs for continuing to like after having reached supposed plateaus of taste and discernment.

There are any number of new books I enjoy because of their energy and vibrant voice, projecting beyond mere story, imparting a sense of realism and plausibility that does not seem possible here in Montecito, books such as Richard Price's estimable Lush Life or Richard Powers' The Gold Bug Variations or, for that matter, is The Echo Maker. There is also Louise Erdrich's splendid The Plague of Doves to enthuse about and enjoy as some might enjoy a well-crafted champagne or pinot noir.

The real pleasure comes in reconsidering works already published, things I may even have looked at as a boy with a sense of smugness and daring at this unauthorized peek into the world of adults. There is a lovely challenge to writing about a book which has been out in the world long enough for bookish people to have some idea of it, some notion of the issues and risks that inhere within its pages. To be able to write of such a book without offering the bane of readers of book reviews, the spoiler, is every bit as much the intellectual and emotional challenge as The New York Times Sunday Crossword Puzzle.

It has come to me that although I have lived here for over thirty years, I am by no means of this place any more than I am of the Santa Monica of my birth; all places change as do the individuals who work or live in them. Unlike many individuals who came here by accident--the late lamented publisher Noel Young, for instance, arrived here because his car broke down here and he needed to find work in order to effect repairs--I came here by design. Liking it here and largely feeling comfortable with life here does not necessarily mean being of here or of what here connotes. Living here, I have come to terms with the nature and range of attitude. The Montecito Journal is in many ways not the local medium I'd have thought to be such a regular contributor to, in part because of its politics, but on the other hand, the freedom I am accorded is thrilling. So long as I get my 12-1500 words in sometime before midnight on Sundays, my contact is the financial one of a check arriving the following Friday and of an occasional call-out in Von's Market or the Summerland Post Office, or the Y parking lot.

If The Journal is not the local medium I'd have thought to be a contributor to, where then? The answer is part of the calculus in the occasional call-outs. Never would have thought you'd work for them. Who'd a thought you'd display your work there. They must censor you a lot, huh? Nothing is what it seems, which is one of my favored refuges of thought. Montecito is not what it seems, nor the Journal, nor the world, nor the universe, least of all am I what I seem, set adrift as Ahab after the whale, looking for a book, the book that will change my life, impart an immediately effective vision or philosophy, transform my writing goals from inchoate premise to a shelf of work that doubles or trebles the shelf of my work.

I am thinking down the line toward September or October of a book of reviews of the Guilt Literature, the older works that have already entered the world and had some effect on it, works that the act of writing about in review form flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Who would wish to read a book that contains reviews of Golden Oldies, even though said reviews considerately contain no spoilers? And how would I introduce such a book to a reader?

Maybe with an essay such as this.


Wild Iris said...

Or perhaps even a blog such as this. :)

Lori Witzel said...

Ah, the pleasures of rereading -- and rereading yet again, and cutting away old scrims so other light and backdrop and scenes come clearer.

When I was 12, I read and reread "The Once and Future King" seven times. Did the same for "Knee Deep In Thunder".

White's work held up better for me upon rereading a year or so ago than did Moon's work, but both were magic carpets at a point in my life when magic carpets were needed.

I love the idea of a compendium of reviews of the "important" books -- but would equally welcome this project if it were focused on the well-loved, the broken-spined, the dog-eared and stained books that carried us through our growing pains.