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The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, etc. Paperback – 7 Mar 2013

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Product details

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (7 Mar. 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099563436
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099563433
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 2.9 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 632,598 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jonathan Lethem was born in New York and attended Bennington College.

He is the author of seven novels including Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn, which was named Novel of the Year by Esquire and won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Salon Book Award, as well as the Macallan Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger.

He has also written two short story collections, a novella and a collection of essays, edited The Vintage Book of Amnesia, guest-edited The Year's Best Music Writing 2002, and was the founding fiction editor of Fence magazine.

His writings have appeared in the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, McSweeney's and many other periodicals.

He lives in Brooklyn, New York

Product Description


"A high-wire juggling act where all the balls are kept spinning perfectly" (Irish Independent)

"The pleasure for readers is twofold: on one hand, there is the intrinsic interest in the subjects...On the other, there’s the fact that this is Lethem telling us these things, and how it gives an insight into his own creative practice" (Guardian)

"A collage of what makes Lethem tick" (Monocle)

"Thoughtful and rambunctious ... a jazzy, patchwork memoir ... [a] fresh, erudite, zestful, funny frolic in the great fields of creativity" (Booklist)

"Hefty and remarkable... These byways, all of which make room for eccentric flights as well as proper essays, augment the charm and impact of what Lethem prefers to call an autobiographical collage" (The New York Times Book Review)

Book Description

A career-spanning collection of writings - essays, memoir, liner notes, fiction and commentary - from one of the greats of contemporary American literature.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By William Jordan on 24 Mar. 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I found the opening pages a bit offputting - as Lethem explains that he always puts on a 'Lethem persona' before writing anything - but once I'd overcome my reluctance to continue, i found I enjoyed this collection of essays and criticism a great deal. Not that I read every word of every piece. But I was moved to read the great bulk of it, whether or not the subjects previously interested me. And I left with some highly memorable images of Lethem as a clerk in a bookstore for many year, of the Brooklyn in which he grew up and his parents (he wants originally to be an artist like his father and joins his father's life drawing class in his teens), of Brooklyn novelists (he leaves me feeling I should check some of them out having read his prefaces to their books), his enthusiasms for SF writers (I have the pieces about comics and superheroes a miss) and his interests in film, in music (long pieces on James Brown and Bob Dylan) and of course the ideas in the title essay, which are about how we just take things of others and make them new and that's the way it is...I expect I will try his fiction before too long...
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Engaging and upbeat, yet not afraid of words like interstitial, the emergence of Lethem and his ilk can only give us hope - not much, but some
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 12 reviews
27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
His essays are as fine as his fiction 11 Nov. 2011
By A reader - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I was beguiled and a bit haunted by some of the pieces in "The Disappointment Artist," Lethem's first essay collection, so I looked forward to this new one. It's a catch-all compendium like authors used to be allowed once they'd written a bunch of novels and established their right to be heard in all their personal idiosyncrasy: fat, rich and bulging, a prose scrapbook with edges hanging out, addenda and random thoughts filling the cracks between solidly set, brilliantly prosed pieces. Mailer's "Advertisements" is modestly invoked (like Nawmin, Lethem scatters brief and costly comments on "the talent in the room," that is, other novelists of his generation), but I think as well of Vonnegut's "Wampeters," King's "Danse Macabre," and Woollcott's "While Rome Burns." I don't always share Lethem's enthusiasms (Dick, Cassavetes), but I'm willing to roll with his gentle voice and unbullying advocacy; and when we do match on people (Shirley Jackson, Manny Farber) he makes me feel them anew. Of course the title piece is a great literary monkeyshines, no less entertaining or thoughtful for being the sort of stunt any writer wishes he or she'd thought of pulling first.
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
A master at work 11 Nov. 2011
By Mark - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Full disclosure: long-time fan of both Lethem's fiction and non-fiction. (Loved Motherless Brooklyn; loved Gun, With Occasional Music even more; his little book on They Live is a miniature masterpiece.) This is a superb collection of essays that reveal Lethem's influences and obsessions, including science fiction and gift economies. The title essay alone is an inventive tour de force worth reading again and again. He puts Franzen in the shade, is easily on par with the latest critical darling (mostly deserved) John Jeremiah Sullivan, and invites comparison with the best of DFW. Buy, and enjoy.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
A well-constructed collection of writings 11 Nov. 2011
By MFK - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I often find "collected works" irritating, because they feel warmed over: they're full of things I've already read. In this case, no. While I'd read a good amount of what was collected here, the notes on each piece in combination with the pieces I hadn't read made it well worthwhile. The assemblage also made sense, with each piece shedding new light on the others. Worth the price of admission!
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
A skeleton key to novelist who invariably surprises. 11 Nov. 2011
By John Hilgart - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Early on in this gigantic compilation of Lethem's under-the-radar writings, he tells us that he spent 10 years saying yes to almost every invitation to write something for somebody. Thank god that he did say yes, and thank god that he's not too narcissistic to censor the results, but that he is instead proud enough of them to prevent their permanent disappearance. I'll confess at the outset that I love Lethem's sentences so much that I don't really care what he's writing about. If you like his novels, these divergent, highly creative essays will not disappoint.

Lethem generally chooses to write about subjects (authors, novels, genres, cultural margins) that resonate with a 40-something product of the United States, like me. "Tradition and the individual talent" has moved on and dissolved since T.S. Eliot posited it, and Lethem's compendium may be the ultimate update to and rebuttal of that premise, a cultural archaeology and mashup for the present day that doesn't pretend to be eternal. James Brown and Phillip K. Dick finally get to rub elbows and get their due at the cocktail party at the end of the universe, but it's up to the reader to imagine how the party will develop by 2 a.m., when discussion turns to which 24-hour breakfast joint is the best option for a collective relocation, requiring a designated driver. (That driver would be you.)

When I read "The Fortress of Solitude," I was ill-equipped to distinguish between its fiction and Lethem's autobiographical reality. I've spent enough time since digging more deeply to understand that difference now, but to some extent, "The Ecstasy of Influence" can be read as as an episodic treatise written by that novel's partially self-aware narrator. It's an autobiography by accident and a fiction by virtue of the fact that Lethem embraces a localized approach to truth. Clearly, he's not concerned with mediating the difference between a coherent master narrative of himself and the seductions of his many influences. Instead, he presents his meditations, mediations, and exhortations with just enough freshly mixed mortar connecting and contextualizing them to give you a sense of who he is and what he cares about, without meddling with the ecstasies his former selves dictated when he originally wrote the pieces he's chosen to include.

This is an important distinction, in my opinion. The book is a portrait of the artist as a work in progress, which I find to be a refreshing rejoinder to the hegemonic epitaph writing you'd expect from a book such as this.The artist in his prime is far more interesting than the artist preparing for his demise, managing his legacy. The book is a collection of non-album hit singles and cherished b-sides that leaves it to you, the reader, to distinguish between. And frankly, my favorites blur that distinction completely, which I'm guessing is exactly the result Lethem intended. He's nothing if not democratic in his partisanship, and he gives everything he's got to each and every subject. T.S. Eliot might be turning in his grave, but Lethem says, "F&#& tradition, let's dance."

This book is certainly an ecstasy of prose, a challenge to the conventions of non-fiction writing, and a provocation to anyone who thinks there are boundaries that need policing in the realms of literary and cultural significance. My only reservation after reading it is that it might signify some kind of hard stop in Lethem's career of embracing the heretofore marginal, eliding traditional distinctions, and disclosing the ways in which the official canon of literary significance conceals what is actually vital in the last 50 years of cultural production.
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
The Hypoglycemia of Influence 30 Sept. 2012
By Il'ja Rákoš - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition
From Johnathan Lethem, a collection of essays, short fiction, musings, and, apparently, blog posts with a functioning kerygma of the importance of influence. No, not like your uncle with connections in the police, but how stuff - life, art, quasi-art, science, history, politics, and personalities - influences other stuff. Or how those things have influenced Lethem and how, if we follow his lead, that stuff should be influencing us.

I got the book chiefly for the eponymous, and ingenious, essay where Lethem takes a unique (if not entirely original, hoping I don't spoil the surprise) hack at the topic of artistic influence, examining a number of celebrated (and again, not entirely original) works by Nabokov, T.S. Eliot, Bill Shakespeare, and Disney. They're not all as clever as you'd long supposed them to be. Or maybe they are, but clever in way you might not have expected.

There's so much packed into a few pages that it's difficult to choose, but his musings on gift economy vs market economy, inalienability, the bloated American copyright law, and the viability of contemporary culture plate just a slice of what is so wonderful, so resonant, so refreshing, in the essay. He, Lethem, the artist, writes with passion here.

A sample: "...artists, or their heirs, who fall into the trap of attacking the collagists and satirists and digital samplers of their work are attacking the next generation of creators for the crime of being influenced, for the crime of responding with the same mixture of intoxication, resentment, lust, and glee that characterizes all artistic successors. By doing so they make the world smaller, betraying what seems to me the primary motivation for participating in the world of culture in the first place: to make the world larger."

And because of this, I bought the book. Because of an article I'd already read some months prior, for free, in the New York Times. And then something happened and the ecstasy of his influence began to wear off. My blood sugar began to plummet.

I hit terra firma around the midpoint of the collection when Lethem informed me (me, the book was for me, my book) that

" aesthetic methodology often involves splitting differences..."

As relieving as it was to learn that Lethem possesses an aesthetic, or at least a methodology of the same, it was distressing in an inversely proportional sort of way to now have to wonder, "In what? An aesthetic in what, exactly?"

Lethem has an amazing and generous spirit: he's never met a potential stimulus that he wasn't overjoyed to sample, nor for which he was - apparently - able to resist the urge to respond to in written form. A huge understatement, but Lethem also has an amazing brain. A sink trap for the slimy floating things of the varying worlds of comic books, obscure authors, pop music, modern art, science fiction, and Brooklyn. And he's equal opportunity. It's not just the shlock he's mastered, he's also a walking Wiki of highbrow references on the fine arts: Kabuki, Mehruji, and Borges, oh my!

And that's maybe the problem. There's just too much dreck in this colleck. The brilliance of the James Brown, Dylan, and Influence essays, and the wonderful recommendations of obscure works by not-so-obscure authors are just not enough to overcome the tedium of his included juvenilia, his troubled fixation with Norman Mailer, and page after page of Brooklyn homage, so earnest, so provincial, unless, I guess, you're from there.

Hence, these 3 - and only 3 - stars signifying 'I liked it!', when in fact, I so much more than like the way Jonathan Lethem writes. I truly enjoy it. He can coin/steal a phrase with/from the best of them. I just was hoping for more ecstasy and fewer tic-tacs.
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