“So you can make a painting of a soup can — that’s not such a big deal,” Menand said, characterizing his students’ response. Sixties culture, he recognized, was a close ancestor of the culture of the day. “I realized,” he added, “that what they were really interested in was the ’50s, which they didn’t understand as well.”
Menand took his students’ note. The result, “The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War,” will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux on Tuesday. The book seeks to explain not the ’60s scene (though Andy Warhol, soup cans and all, does appear), but how the ground was prepared for it by the West’s most influential thinkers, authors and artists between 1945 and 1965.
If you’re ever heading south down the Interstate 5 in high summer, when the temperature is over 100 and the Southern California hillsides look and smell like tinder, consider turning off the freeway at some point and winding your way through the canyons to the sea. Somewhere past Laguna Niguel, the road turns into the Pacific Coast Highway, and then a little to the left of that is the town of Dana Point. It’s a beautiful place, with a downtown full of colored lanterns, a charming little yacht harbor, and a statue of its namesake, the writer Richard Henry Dana Jr., overlooking a spectacular golden beach. But as romantic as it was there when I visited last summer, all I could think about was murder.
This is because I was under the sway of Raymond Chandler. His prose had been coloring my world for some time, thanks to a list I’d seen online of titles for short stories that Chandler had thought of, but never used. They were clever and evocative — “Law Is Where You Buy It,” “Twenty Minutes’ Sleep,” “Fiction Is for Fools” — and I soon started a blog for my friends to create and contribute stories and songs using Chandler’s unused titles. I called it the Raymond Chandler Project. I was excited to receive original works from noted writers and songwriters like Greil Marcus, Robyn Hitchcock, Peter Holsapple, and Amy Rigby, but I also had some unexpected contributors: a software engineer, a business analyst, a kindergarten teacher, a stay-at-home dad, a chemist, two children who were car camping in France, my (ex-)mother-in-law.
With trips to bookshops a rarity over the past year, keen readers have been forced to do what they’re told not to: judge books by their covers. “The lockdowns have really shone a light on book cover design, perhaps more than ever,” says Holly Ovenden, who is responsible for the cover of the forthcoming novel Holding Her Breath by Eimear Ryan.
And so I decide I need to embark on a journey to fix the sins of seventh grade. I will teach myself to type. I will learn at the feet of the masters, champions of speed and accuracy. I will figure out why I made so many typos in the first place. Is it my fingers or my brain? My long nails? Am I just a big dummy? Genetically bad at typing? Is it my computer’s fault or my keyboard’s?
In order to catch a typo, I had to go undercover. I had to become…a typo.
If the desolate story it tells – about two people, not one – is extreme, it’s also universal. How little we understand our desires. How we struggle to make ourselves happy. How easily we get stuck. Here is a warning, if only people would take it, that sententiousness, in matters of the heart, is always a mistake. What will survive of us isn’t love, but the struggle for survival itself.