Wednesday, December 19, 2007

It ain't quite news, but...

I would recommend popping over to Caleb Crain's article in the New Yorker, entitled "Twilight of hte Books: What Will Life Be Like if People Stop Reading?" Yes, it's more of this kind of talk about reading, and you may not learn any shockingly new information, just that people read less and it sucks. And it does suck, folks.

But this was intriguing to me:
There’s no reason to think that reading and writing are about to become extinct, but some sociologists speculate that reading books for pleasure will one day be the province of a special “reading class,” much as it was before the arrival of mass literacy, in the second half of the nineteenth century. They warn that it probably won’t regain the prestige of exclusivity; it may just become “an increasingly arcane hobby.” Such a shift would change the texture of society. If one person decides to watch “The Sopranos” rather than to read Leonardo Sciascia’s novella “To Each His Own,” the culture goes on largely as before—both viewer and reader are entertaining themselves while learning something about the Mafia in the bargain. But if, over time, many people choose television over books, then a nation’s conversation with itself is likely to change. A reader learns about the world and imagines it differently from the way a viewer does; according to some experimental psychologists, a reader and a viewer even think differently. If the eclipse of reading continues, the alteration is likely to matter in ways that aren’t foreseeable.

I know, it's a bit ominous and speculative, but I did say "intriguing." I just wonder if there isn't already a reading class. Isn't this what these studies are showing when they give us these high percentage numbers of people who haven't read more than a street sign in the last decade? How much more proof do we require? And we all just know that there is certain topics you do not bring up in certain groups, that you hold your tongue about a new literary novel if you're with, say, my family. If Oprah hasn't mentioned it, they are not likely to know it, even if it's ubiquitous in other circles of people. Those circles? Reading class.

The reading class maybe be a disparate group, though. While working in a very upscale Barnes & Noble, I was always amazed at these business folks coming in, whether after work or while in town and heading home, and buying the latest politico or business hardcovers, full price. (The business ones were the worst - oof, those titles looked painful, and all very very similar.) These were readers, but what they were devouring, what they were consuming at a high price, was not what I think of when I hear "reading class." I suppose it's a matter of literature, as I think of new fiction (which I don't read much, mind you) and literary, New Yorker-esque non-fiction, and maybe leftist screeds, which I sometimes enjoy. But the group I'm thinking of reads this stuff and talks about it and then forms this little elite circle - "you must have read ____ - and I hate it. And I think of my mother reading Nora Roberts and I think, so she's a reader, too! But then I cannot discuss Nora Roberts. And I think of those business folks reading Jack Welch or some other evil business fascist and I think, they're readers! But I don't want to know.

So when they say a "reading class" will develop, it seems to play into this concept of reading as just what I think of as "reading class," of somewhat elitist, highly educated, middle class folks, not reading about hunting or investing or Maeve Binchy. But while I don't want to read about any of these, I do think we have to balance some of this crying about the death of reading with a celebration of the diversity of books out there, and the unique pockets of markets - sorry to use business speak. What's going on in women's near-romance fiction, or real estate titles, or test preparation books? What other ways do we have of engaging a variety of people with the written word?

I'm not ready to give up on Americans, even if they sit in front of the television every night. Crain's article is definitely interesting, but I'd like someone real real smart to write something more promising instead of predicting this reading class - because I worry, might it be self-fulfilling?

Thank you, galleycat, for a brief but smart rebuttal, concluding: "the solution isn't so much about convincing people that reading is fabulous as it is about figuring out how they ever forgot it in the first place." Kudos.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Brattle Book Shop

I thought this article would be more substantial when I saw it linked from Shelf Awareness, but it's from the very lame "Sidekick" section.

Anyhow, it's a Boston Globe mention of the wonderful Brattle Book Shop, the best used bookstore in Boston. I link it here as we approach a very big gift-giving holiday, as a reminder to people that they should use this place, for everything from stocking stuffers to major gifts (first printing/first editions!).
And this, my friends, is apparently my 100th post. Hot damn.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

You know I had to

I could not let this article by Motoko Rich at the NY Times go without linking. It's kind of the whole point of this blog, right?

Note the quotes:
“I think books are still things, thank goodness, that people want to own,” said Michael Jacobs, chief executive of Abrams. “The package of the book and the way it feels is something apart and separate from being able to read it online.”

and later:
Some readers are already catching on. Mel Odom, a writer and father of five in Moore, Okla., ordered a copy of “Shooting War,” because he “wanted something I could put on my shelf.” Mr. Odom, who also bought his youngest son a copy of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” after he read the entire thing online, added: “There’s nothing like holding the weight and smelling the paper.”

The article has a few stories about people putting things online and then selling it in book form later. It makes a quick, somewhat buried point about there being many bad examples of this as well, when bloggers' books dissapoint.

But all in all, the point is that things can work online and later in print. On the academic end of things, check out MIT Press and their advancements in making titles Open Access. Pretty exciting stuff.

It's snowing hard here in Boston, so more later perhaps...

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Author scams - big time in the small time

I know political books are a strange game, and that people mess around with these books because they fear the ideas. When I was working at a Borders, once, I heard a customer bring a Dr. Laura Schlessinger book up to a fellow cashier and ask us to remove it from the shelf because she's homophobic. (my apologies for the link - click at your own discretion, as it's really her site.) Now, see here: this woman is NUTS. I've heard her show, sadly, and I've glanced at her books, with are written with her trademark shrill, overly moralistic tone. And I would hardly argue against accusations of homophobia. But I'm not sure it's at the level that it needs to be expunged from box store shelves. I've written about this before so I won't go into it, but I just wanted to mention the story as an example of how customers react to political books and authors.

When I was in the BookHampton in South Hampton last winter, which was a lovely little store with helpful staff, the cashier told me that they had had a political book table set up for the 2004 elections, and they had nothing but trouble. People were moving piles of books out of sight and turning books around, trying to silence the ones they didn't like. In an age of people calling books obsolete, these are visceral reactions.

But Shelf Awareness, in their daily email today, has this story from Kerry Slattery, general manager of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, that is completely nuts:
"The author Eric Alterman [a columnist at the Nation and author of What Liberal Media?, When Presidents Lie and more] was scheduled to appear at our store, and C-Span was planning to cover it. I got a call that morning from 'Eric Alterman's assistant,' who told me that he was terribly sorry, but that Eric woke up with a serious case of bronchitis and would not be able to catch his plane to do the event and wasn't able to talk at all--and that he felt just terrible about it. It was a very busy moment at the store and I didn't think to get the number, etc. The first thing I thought of was to call C-Span and let them know. I don't know why I didn't think to call the publicity person at the publisher, but I didn't have it handy and I was really busy, and the call seemed convincing to me. When I called C-Span, they contacted the publisher and found out that Alterman was indeed planning to appear and that the call was a scam (apparently from someone who didn't agree with the author's political views)! Fortunately, I hadn't sent out a cancellation e-mail, and everything was fine, but I felt so foolish for being taken in."

What is wrong with people? And Eric Alterman is not exactly calling for the overthrow of the media entirely - something I again would not necessarily oppose. And yet he elicits this kind of scam from some whackjob.

Well good - let books and authors anger people. It annoys me when you have talking heads screaming at one another on primetime "news" shows, but it's somehow satisfying to know that people who *don't* like Alterman and thinkers like him are nervous. Booksellers, however, watch out for these ridiculous scams!

Friday, December 07, 2007

Osnos on Kindle

So this email has been sitting in my inbox, waiting patiently to be read, for a few days. I didn't delete it as I knew I wanted to read it and would probably post about it, but who had time? Not me, not this week. Until today.

The email in question was the the latest Platform "column" from Peter Osnos, as published by the Century Foundation. He's writing about - what else? - Amazon's Kindle. This li'l device is like the electronic version of Britney Spears - I am sick to death of hearing about both. But he makes good points about the Amazon business model and the need to embrace various ways of publishing books, as the music has done (or in some cases, has resisted, futilely).

But I did like this strangely circular story - circularly insofar as he's a book editor trying to edit on the latest gadget to electronicize books:
As an editor, I was especially interested in the promise of downloading documents and manuscripts from my computer so I could read them and take notes without hauling wheelbarrows full of paper. My first effort ended in a two-hour session with Kindle customer service that reflected how much supplier and user still needed to learn. But after a bit of practice, I succeeded in a sending myself a PDF of a manuscript.

I had heard that you could take notes on this thing, which is an improvement - my partner, an academic, was particularly pleased to hear this, though I am not running out to buy one and throw it under the tree. But as an editor? I just never conceived of using it in this way. But I'm old-fashioned, obviously: I still do my first full edit on a manuscript with paper and pencil. I know, I know.

So I'm over Kindle. Maybe others are just getting excited, and more will open a Kindle on Christmas morning and squeal and play with it and download John Grisham, etc etc. I might like to play with a display model, but that's about as much interest as I can muster. Blame media saturation or stodginess.

I was more excited to hear about JetBlue getting WiFi on their planes. Airlines have no excuse for moving along on this. Mind you, I don't travel much and my laptop is not sleek and light, so I never take it on flights, but still, this seems like progress.

Monday, December 03, 2007

On design

So galleycat mentioned in his post this morning that it-boy design Chip Kidd had commented about the Kindle and what it and such things will mean for book design. I tried to go to the site where he commented, A Brief Message, but I couldn't see his post, which had generated over 100 comments. The image, at least on my display, is right over his post, but I could copy and paste it to read it. I'm just going to reproduce it in full here, though again, it originally appeared on A Brief Message:

On Monday November 19th, Amazon released something called Kindle, the latest “e-book” reading device. I’ve been asked to comment on what effect I think this will have, if any, on book design as we know it. Here goes.


Sincerely, Chip Kidd

PS: What no one seems to get through their thick skulls, even after untold millions of dollars have been wasted on the concept: PEOPLE DON’T WANT TO READ BOOKS ON A SCREEN. Why is that so hard for someone as obviously smart as Jeff Bezos to accept? The reason the iPod took off is that music was never meant to be a “thing” in the first place. It was born as pure sound, and pure sound is what it has returned to. But books were always physical objects, and the printed book as a piece of technology has yet to be improved upon. And won’t. Certainly not by something that looks like a prop from Charlie’s Angels and has, are you ready, a whopping ONE typeface. For everything! Yay! For further explanation as to why this is doomed, go to Amazon’s own website and read Kindle’s Customer Reviews. Ouch. Caveat emptor!

Well said, sir! So "Chip Kidd" of him to put the content in the post-script.

My own PS: Chip Kidd's usual site seems to be down, hence the link to the NY Times piece on him.