Happy birthday to Thomas Pynchon! The reclusive author of “Gravity’s Rainbow,” “The Crying of Lot 49,” “Mason & Dixon” and more turns 76 today.
Unlike the attention-seekers that clog our cultural aqueduct, Pynchon isn’t likely to show up on CNN or NPR. He’s so averse to the spotlight that when “Gravity’s Rainbow” won the National Book Award in 1973, he had a stand-in show up to give his acceptance speech.
So to bring Pynchon out of the shadows, a British fan who calls himself John Dee launched Pynchon in Public Day in 2011. Held on May 8, Pynchon’s birthday, it at first was little more than a few requests on Twitter, encouraging fans to take a Pynchon book and conspicuously read it in a public place.
Those places have now expanded from Britain to Germany, Spain, the U.S., Russia and Greece, where a band inspired by the author is to perform Wednesday to celebrate Pynchon in Public Day. Many readers who participate share pictures of their public Pynchon reading on social media sites such as Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter.
“Pynchon is not that well known in the U.K.,” Dee told me by e-mail. “He is known in academic circles but not so much by the general reading public. The people I meet might know the name, that he is reclusive and difficult to read, but no more.”
The author has maintained a larger presence in the literary life of American readers. “Pynchon certainly has a place in the canon -- he has become the emblematic postmodern author for critics and the giant who strode the earth for certain later writers, such as David Foster Wallace, whose work was greatly influenced by his,” Samuel Cohen, an associate professor of English at the University of Missouri, said in an email. “Like Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest,’ ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ was an often bought but not nearly as often finished book -- it became a book to own, a sign of seriousness and a literary bent.”
Cohen continued, “Pynchon is part of the teacher-critics’ canon, the writers’ canon, and the literary readers’ canon. The fact that he could show up (drawn with a paper bag over his head) on ‘The Simpsons’ attests to his presence in this last more popular canon.”
Pynchon in Public Day has few rules. Read a book by Pynchon and take a picture, pass out a Pynchonian card, stick a Pynchon sticker or two. If you upload a picture via Twitter, include the hashtag #Pynchon2013 to be included in Dee’s roundup of the worldwide celebration.
In Los Angeles last year, there were subtle Pynchon signs to be found in Atwater Village and Silver Lake.
Full disclosure: I have participated in Pynchon in Public Day. Although I haven’t stuck any stickers, I did give a copy of his novel “Vineland” to someone who’d never read it.