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Professor Jonathan Lethem Publishes Two New Books, Including Career-Spanning Essay Collection

The Ecstasy of Influence book cover
Jonathan Lethem

The latest books to join Professor Jonathan Lethem's literary arsenal are not new novels, but a collection of 80 essays, most of which were previously published, and a handful of new items and an edited collection of Phillip K. Dick's personal writings.

The Ecstasy of Influence

The collection of essays, titled The Ecstasy of Influence (Random House), is a career-spanning look at what invigorates Lethem as a writer.

"The book of essays ranges as widely as my own interests do, and have, for the 20 years I've been a published, working writer—and so, in fact, the subject of the book is in many ways the opportunities, and also the dilemma, of being assigned (or assigning oneself) the role of public intellectual in an often anti-intellectual culture," says Lethem, who joined Pomona's faculty last year as the Roy E. Disney Professor in Creative Writing. "I tried to contend honestly, and even self-critically, with the results of the various roles I've tried to inhabit or, as often, wriggle my way out of."

The Ecstasy of Influence is named for a seminal 2007 Harper's essay Lethem wrote on the importance of influence—or plagiarism or "borrowing"-—in the creative process; the essay itself was, in a sense, "borrowed" as Lethem built the lengthy essays from previously published passages from other writers. Other essays from the book appeared in Rolling Stone, The London Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, Playboy and other publications. Essay topics range from Bob Dylan, Norman Mailer, Marlon Brando and Marvel comics to sex in cinema, book tours, cyberculture and 9/11.

The L.A. Times says The Ecstasy of Influence "is less of a collection than a collage, a cut-and-paste self-portrait in which we see Lethem as he sees himself... it offers Lethem a way to bring a novelist's sensibility to these essays, to find a through line, to approximate a narrative. It offers a way, in other words, to rethink the collection as a book in its own right—and not just that, but a book about a big idea."

A starred review in Kirkus Reviews states: "Conceptual ambition, sense of purpose and a fan’s evangelical devotion distinguish this collection from the typical novelist’s gathering of nonfiction miscellany. "

The Exegesis of Phillip K. Dick

Lethem's second November book release is a volume of Philip K. Dick's last writings, edited by Lethem and Pamela Jackson. This near 976-page tome is, Lethem says, "a culmination of a lifetime's involvement in Dick's posthumous career for me." Lethem previously served as editor of a selection of Dick's novels that were published in a three-volume set by the Library of America.

Dick, an acclaimed science-fiction novelist, wrote 36 novels and 121 short stories, several of which have been adapted to film, including Blade Runner (based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), Total Recall, Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly.

In 1974, Dick had a series of visions that transformed the universe into information, and he spent the remainder of his life trying to comprehend this visionary experience through writing. He based the VALIS trilogy (the final book is unfinished/unpublished), as well as his subsequent intellectual dive into questions about the universe, philosophy and religion, on the experience.

The Exegesis (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is based on thousands of pages of notes, letters, journal entries and story sketches he produced during this period, and was wrestled into a sort of "trove or archive" by Lethem and Jackson, who also wrote introductions and serve as guides for readers by establishing connections between the writings and moments in Dick's life and work.

"But making sense of chaos is, in a way, what a novelist does—it was certainly what Dick was trying to do, over and over, with the chaos of his own religious and philosophical visions, and it was what Pamela and I were doing by editing them into some kind of presentable form," says Lethem. "And, with a mind and a voice as penetrating, singular and poignant as Philip K. Dick's, that journey becomes compelling in its own right, whatever you choose to believe about the likelihood of it revealing any objective 'truths.' So, it's a book for seekers, and a book for readers."

Lethem is currently on a short book tour. You can find dates and locations on his Facebook page and read an excerpt from The Ecstasy of Influence on the Random House website. For more information on Lethem's interest in the works of Phillip K. Dick, please enjoy this 2007 interview from the Library of America newsletter [pdf] .