Friday, December 31, 2010

Why aren't we all reading poetry again?

It is not a resolution, as it's been building over the last year, and I'm now confident it will continue. I'm really loving poetry right now. Not in a read-a-bit/write-some-garbage kind of way, but in a why-did-I-ever-stop-reading-this-and-who-do-I-read-next kind of way. There's much to discover.

To help me with this, I received a fantastic Christmas gift: my partner gave me his own version of a poetry starter kit, with a number of books of trustworthy contemporary poets to kick off the new year. I thought I'd list them all here with links, as we've listed great poetry books on SotB before. It's always worth spreading the word!

In no particular order:

Martin Espada's A Mayan Astronomer in Hell's Kitchen (Norton)
Maureen N. McLane's Same Life (FSG)
Denise Levertov's Making Peace (New Directions)
Audre Lorde's Coal (Norton)
Robert Hass's Time and Materials: Poems 1997-2005 (Ecco/HarperCollins)
Philip Levine's Breath (Knopf)
Pablo Neruda's Odes to Common Things (Bulfinch)
Federico Garcia Lorca's Ode to Walt Whitman & Other Poems (City Lights)
Grace Paley's Fidelity (FSG)

As I start to read through this incredible collection of poetry books, I can look to Jeff Gordinier's advice. You'll recall that he's been in touch with us here at SotB before. In fact, he's the one that provided a list of contemporary poetry books referenced earlier in this post. Well he has a relatively new post over at the Poetry Foundation blog giving us all permission to flip through poetry books. It's liberating. Thanks, Jeff!

And happy new year!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Sweet, Sweet Relief to Us All

With today's LA Times interview with Russ Grandinetti, VP for content or some crap from Amazon, by Alex Pham, I feel like I had a mini epiphany. I think it was when Grandinetti said one of many lines that Amazon trots out regularly, like well-trained politicians, this one about Amazon's vision to make "every book ever written, in any language, in print or out of print, all available within 60 seconds. And we want to make the customer experience great." For the first time (I think), I found myself thinking, "oh.... oh, okay. Fine. Make "books" available in seconds. Do that, if you must, and just let the rest of us get on with our lives without having to hear about your friggin' vision." And then I thought, perhaps naively, that maybe we are seeing the splintering of markets, and those readers that want to read electronically, within seconds of thinking of a title or author, and [heart] Amazon more than ever can buy their li'l protected devices and use them to buy their li'l e-books and just exist, like a cult. And when I need a new book, I can go to the Boston Public Library or the Harvard Bookstore or the Brattle Book Shop or Aaron's bookshelf and get a new book to read, and not have to hear about / think about / even know about the latest Amazon stats. Because I'm kind of done.

But what pleases me about this idea is thinking about how often I've thought this, and others have said it, about Amazon but also about B&N and Borders. It does feel like these oversized, impractical dinosaurs are shuffling away. They are turning their big fat backs on printed books, which has pissed many of us off, but now... well maybe we can leave them behind, and stick to the tried and trusted independent stores and libraries. This isn't necessarily to say all e-books are bad (though Christopher might say they are), but it is to say that I'm ready to log off my computer and spend more quality time with Joe Lesueur's Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O'Hara and not look at a screen. I'm kind of like this guy (William Petrocelli, owner of Book Passage in northern Cali). So me and that guy and some of you can all quietly relax at home and let Amazon fatcats like Grandinetti spout quotes from whatever recent Amazon press release has been pooped out of corporate headquarters, and guess what? We don't have to listen!

But we can and should watch Patti Smith on Newshour here, because she will charm you. That's a promise. Just watch it real quick, go on, and then you can read. For serious, it's worth a bit more screen time.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

How did I miss Ms Amber Sparks

Her name sounds a bit like a drag queen, in which case I am that guy in the front row of her show applauding a bit too much.

Amber Sparks has a great post over at Big Other from earlier this month, about the lack of working class representation in literature (which I found via Daniel Pritchard's The Wooden Spoon, in which Pritchard follows the consideration through to poetry). I really appreciate seeing her raising the question of class, or the lack of consideration of class, in contemporary fiction, and the connection she makes between that gap and the economics of publishing and writing (to quote at length):

So what do these absences in our writing signify? What does our lack of class-consciousness say about us now? Did McCarthyism initially stamp out the desire to write about class issues? Or maybe it’s because we’re a nation and a culture deeply rooted in individualism. Concern about class tends to suggest collectivism, something that has proved to be anathema to Americans raised in the cowboy mythology. We prefer our heroes singular, not plural.

Or perhaps literature has become the province, largely, of the comfortably-off. I suspect this is closer to the truth. Writers might choose to starve to devote time to their art, but they themselves seem largely to come from the middle and upper classes of American society. The same may be especially true of those working in publishing and academia, people who had to have money to pay for school or to take unpaid internships in expensive cities like New York. These folks may not be interested in—or more likely may be made uncomfortable by—class issues, since they would necessarily resist any notion of their own privilege.

And now I am DYING to know where she got that great Kenneth Fearing quote. Ms. Amber, if you're out there...???

For the record, it is this concern with contemporary literature that made me greatly appreciate when I finally discovered Daniel Woodrell, whose own writing on class is being increasingly recognized after the amazing film version of his novel, Winter's Bone. The opening of his novel Tomato Red is a great take on class in modern America.

I suspect there are many interesting intersecting issues going on, some of which are touched on by Sparks, as noted. The reality is, it's hard to talk about difficult topics in a way that people who are not directly impacted by those topics want to read about. Editors assume working class people ain't buying books, but middle class and wealthy folks (hello, Oprah fans!) are. That's the demographic. And it's assumed that people want to see themselves reflected in their fiction. The book is a product to sell, and many houses want to reach the most consumers. There's a certain pessimism involved in that thinking.

I'll have to follow Sparks' link to Roxanne Gay's piece on this topic, as well. Glad this conversation is happening!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Cor-yyyy!

I have written about Cory Doctorow before - I mean, anyone who writes about publishing / media / anything even vaguely related to the internet has written about the man. He's whipsmart and very visible and has done a lot of great work. In the latest article from him that's getting attention, in last Friday's Guardian, he is discussing the problem of abundance online, using his own new experience as a publisher to make his point. I find it troubling.

I actually agree with his larger "problem" of the internet offering too much, as practical considerations that limited one's consumption of media - namely, availability - disappear. But then he gets into the kind of case study: he had enough short stories to put together into a book, but he decided to forgo the traditional publisher route and publish the collection himself, using readily available tools. I can pinpoint just where the red flags go up in my reading:
I'd reached the point where I had enough short fiction for another reprint collection. I'd done two before with small, reputable New York houses, and they had sold well. But, having looked around at the tools for publishing – print-on-demand presses like Lulu.com, automated ebook workflow tools like SiSu, and tools for publicising work like Twitter and blogs – I decided I could readily produce a collection myself with comparable reach and even more income.
What bothers me is his blase way of referring to his past experience, and his flattening of these publishing options. I know I'm overly defensive here, but all of those publishers put work into publishing his collections. From a quick glance, it looks like he's published with Tor Books (part of Macmillan), Running Press (part of Perseus), and someplace called Tachyon Publications, which looks to be an independent sci-fi publisher out of San Francisco.

A lot of great writers - including Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and Kurt Vonnegut - have gone with small independent publishers for collections, knowing it would boost the bottom line for said publishers and help those publishers stick around to nurture new voices. (Forgive the all-white-male list - they jumped to mind.) They had a collective mentality, which is what I maintain is needed in publishing, and is something this mentality being put forth by Doctorow lacks.

In fact, Doctorow brags about making more money by self-publishing:

I'm not sorry I decided to become a publisher. For one thing, it's been incredibly lucrative thus far: I've made more in two days' worth of the experiment than I made off both of my previous short story collections' entire commercial lives.
I know we can't fault writers much for making money, because there is so little to be made in this profession. This still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It's just too simple. Why is it, one must ask, that "formerly expensive action can now be had merely for the time it takes to seize on the opportunity"? It's the reaction I'm increasingly having to excited reports of cheap consumer goods. There are sacrifices being made elsewhere for you to get that t-shirt for $4.99.

Likewise, crafts are being diminished so that publishing can be made available so readily. It's unclear to me how other people involved in this project - most notably, the "artist friends" Doctorow is using to design various covers - are being compensated, or the "voice-actor pals." It's all a big fun game with buddies "in three countries." But traditionally, those have been employees, with health insurance and stable jobs, who work for publishing companies that pay them to do that labor. I don't mean to get all Norma Rae here, but when we skip over financial compensation and employment stability and have a "let's just let people be artists" attitude, I always worry that we're screwing the working class and poor creative types who cannot take such risks, while the wealthy creative types can wait around for these jobs to fall into their laps, from friends, and not worry about the compensation.

I feel I have been the skunk at the proverbial garden party a few times around here, and that's too bad. I love fun as much as the next editor! But I sometimes worry that just as we were starting to build in ways of getting more voices heard from both sides of publishing - writers and employees - we are now blowing up the whole operation, and leaving the parts right back in the hands of the privileged few who can enjoy publishing, the career, as publishing, the hobby.

Bad News from Boston

I consider myself part of the problem I'm considering today. The need to widen the scope in our conversations, to include multiple perspectives, can certainly be work, but it's work worth doing. It's easy to gravitate toward people like you and that's something we'll always do, so we all need to remember to lift our head a bit higher and look beyond the familiar to expand our thinking.

In publishing, this is especially important. There is a long history of good ol' boys publishing good 'ol boys, keeping the opportunity to publish away from so many other voices. Many see the digital revolution as a way to balance things out, but I'm not entirely convinced. I don't want these digital options to be like the pox-filled blankets offered to Native Americans by Europeans - "what modern convenience!" followed by "I feel funny..." Will digital tools offer a range of voices access to readers, or give the illusion of an access that is still being denied?

It's unclear, but what is clear is that the hits the publishing industry is taking are hitting minority voices disproportionately, as is always the way. Many of us listened with concern as bookstores committed to progressive politics such as Women and Children First in Chicago, called out for help in the midst of the recession. Now we are seeing this struggle played out at Food for Thought in Amherst, MA, which lists the challenges it's facing:
We've been hit hard by many of the same factors contributing to the nationwide decline of independent bookstores, including: big box stores, Amazon, the rise of e-books, and, more recently, a severe drop in textbooks sales.
In this context, I should not have been surprised to hear that Jamaicaway Books & Gifts here in Boston is closing its doors. Even sadder, I heard this news while at a holiday party in nearby Roslindale, where a woman of color, born and raised in Boston, went to the store for the first time upon hearing it was closing and was blown away by its many books on diversity. "My husband's Latino, and so my two kids are bi-racial, and I'm looking at all these books about US! Why didn't I come here all the time before?!" And I thought, why didn't we all? It's a typical response to the story of a independent bookstore closing.

As the recession continues and we feel its impact in publishing, let's remember that the voices that have fought hard to be part of the conversation despite years of neglect - our voices of color, our GLBT voices, our voices from working class and poor communities, etc... - are facing a very real risk of getting shut down. Regardless of your race, class, or sexual orientation, you benefit from all voices being heard.

Best of luck to Rosalyn Elder and everyone at Jamaicaway Books & Gifts, who will go forward online. Here's to a fantastic final holiday season at your store!

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Need for Loyalty in a Saturated Consumer World

I read this story from Eugenia Williamson in the Boston Phoenix with an eyebrow cocked. It opens with news that indie bookstores are hot property in Boston right now, and goes on to explain how the big chains - B&N and Borders - are suffering from not jumping into the digital market fast enough and are now "closing outlets." I'm all for wishing these big bullies away and celebrating the sustainability of the indie bookstore, but I'm not sure I agree we are out of the woods just yet. Here's hoping! (I appreciate the commenter that mentions how unfortunate it is she didn't go a bit further out of town - something I'm guilty of myself! - to check out Back Pages Books in Waltham.)

What I do love about the article though, beyond this lede, is the way Williamson talks to both booksellers and literary agents, getting both sides of the story and presenting a wider picture of publishing, from what's selling to publishers through to what's selling to readers. It's all the same process, after all, but we have a tendency to talk about them separately, which runs the risk of making the whole industry more complicated than it really is. It was interesting to hear agents talk about what genres may get lost in the move to e-readers - reference are gone, genre fiction is next supposedly - and which are doing better than ever - business books, cookbooks, etc.... This doesn't address the fears about how we are going to allow for new experimental voices, especially in literary fiction, if readers get used to paying no more than $9.99 for a new book.

I spent today in lovely Plymouth, New Hampshire, where I visited two bookstores, one new books and one used: the Plymouth Book Exchange and the Readery. In typical New England fashion, it's completely counter-intuitive which is which. In fact, the Book Exchange is new books while Readery is used. Because Plymouth is a somewhat small college town, these bookstores were the main ones, as far as I know. The person I know who lives there said she goes to a Borders when she visits friends in New York. As we looked around these stores, it was like going back in time. (I'm sorry to say that as I know it sounds so condescending.) The new bookstore, which clearly did most of its business in textbooks for Plymouth State, has an odd mix of books - self-help, random fiction titles, some genre fiction mass markets. They were not marked down at all - they cost the price on the book. I was reminded of the B. Dalton in the mall where I grew up, which I have written about here before. Meanwhile, at the used bookstore, there was ample genre fiction. In fact, there was a big sign about what authors' books they'd take - mostly romance writers - with a note (I believe) that said nothing pre-1990. Someone came in and asked the woman about their policy and she also mentioned that they won't buy hardcover fiction, interestingly. They did have a general fiction that had some decent literary titles - Michelle Cliff, for example - but it was quite limited.

We come back to the problem of a limited market. Omnesha Roychoudhuri's new article in the Boston Review is getting a lot of attention, as she takes on Amazon and its business practices, and the potential impact its having on literature and reading. (Hooray for the BR getting all the attention!) This is where I recently was reminded of this concern many have that new novelists will have no market if readers expect only cheap books. Roychoudhuri quotes literary agent David Gernert as saying, “If readers come to believe that the value of a new book is $10, publishing as we know it is over. If you can buy Stephen King’s new novel or John Grisham’s Ford County, for $10, why would you buy a brilliant first novel for $25?” A fair point. The article nicely sums up, though sometimes in a slightly sloppy fashion, a lot of the problems with Amazon's style of cornering the market and then abusing the producers. (Ted Striphas nicely lays this out in a larger context in his book, The Late Age of Print, which I'd highly recommend.) But one of Roychoudhuri's detractors in a comment below states,
A lot of indie bookstores went down (or are going down) because they are too elitist, too focused on handselling what they consider to be "great literature" instead of great reads. If I get on Amazon and want to buy a beach read, I don't get sneered at by some indie bookstore clerk with an eyebrow ring and a condescending attitude. Amazon makes suggestions, but no judgments. I have been in way too many indie bookstores where the staff was unwelcoming, unfriendly, ill-informed and frankly unpleasant. No wonder people prefer to buy online.
I am guessing I wouldn't agree with this person's politics, but the point remains. What if your local indie bookseller is not handselling the books you want to read? What if, as in the case in Plymouth, they have too limited a selection for you? And what about the so-called brown bag factor - the benefits to buying online / digitally, so no one knows what you've bought? Roychoudhuri discusses Amazon's creepy auto-recommend feature, which is based on complicated system that favors certain titles and publishers. But this reader is saying s/he wants an impersonal recommendation.

The counter to that argument, I suppose, is that it's not as "private" as you think. Just because ordering a book on Amazon will not make your neighbor's 16 year old daughter working behind the counter at Molly's Books raise her eyebrows doesn't mean no one is keeping tabs on your purchases. Amazon's computers are watching, and even moreso with Kindle purchases. It may be more abstract, but buying online means your purchases are in fact being monitored more than ever.

Honestly, I think back to the cashier I referenced in my last post, at the Brazos Bookstore in Houston. The reality is that we all shop in different places, and customer loyalty doesn't have to mean absolute monogamy. There are places I will always avoid - I'm staring at big fat you, Walmart - and places I'll always favor - indie bookstores. I hope my favoring those stores will help them thrive, and I'll keep hoping that until I'm with Eugenia Williamson, glowing in the warmth of a healthy indie bookstore world, even right here in Boston (and the larger Boston metro area).

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The best writer you've never read.

A quick post before the whole stinking thing comes to a complete halt. Congratulations to Percival Everett for winning the 2010 Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Award for I am Not Sidney Poitier. Ok, no, it isn't the most well known award in the universe but it does shine a light on the best novelist you've never read. Percival Everett is a master stylist with a deep and profound ability to write fiction in any style. He has done a western, a postmodern gobbledy-goo novel, a satire, short stories, poetry, as well as a great baseball novel among many, many other things. Hell, instead of just getting the same old shit at the bookstore, spend some of your hard earned money on a writer who, I promise, will become one of your all time favorites. Plus, for those of you looking for writer with super indie cred, he has pretty much shied away from major publishing house choosing to publish with houses like Graywolf and Beacon. That's something, right? Do it. Or at least go get one of his novels from the library you cheap bastards...then buy something once you fall in love.

"If Percival Everett isn't already a household name, it's because people are more interested in politics than truth."-Madison Smartt Bell

Congratulations, Percival...you deserve this award and more!

Works:
  • Suder (1983)
  • Walk Me to the Distance (1985)
  • Cutting Lisa (1986)
  • The Weather and Women Treat Me Fair: Stories (1987)
  • For Her Dark Skin (1990)
  • Zulus (1990)
  • The One That Got Away (1992)
  • God's Country: A Novel (1994)
  • Big Picture: Stories (1996)
  • Watershed (1996)
  • Frenzy (1997)
  • Glyph: A Novel (1999)
  • Erasure: A Novel (2001)
  • Grand Canyon, Inc. (2001)
  • American Desert: A Novel (2004)
  • Damned If I Do: Stories (2004)
  • A History of the African-American people (proposed) by Strom Thurmond, as told to Percival Everett and James Kincaid (with James Kincaid) (2004)
  • Wounded: A Novel (2005)
  • The Water Cure (2007)
  • I am Not Sidney Poitier: A Novel (2009)

Friday, November 26, 2010

Holiday spirit

First, our deepest apologies here at SotB. We have been horrible and have not updated this blog in far too long. I hope you all will remember that we do have day jobs, and those jobs got very demanding in the last month.

But now the holiday season is upon us and that means, of course, a time to reflect. Today is Black Friday, and it feels like a particularly tense one as retailers hope to make some good money despite a seemingly endless recession. I'm pleased to see that American Express is supporting local business through their "Small Business Saturday" campaign, though I don't quite understand what they're doing. Still, any reminder to buy local is a good one, even as I drove by Best Buy and other big ugly box stores last night to ogle the damn fools camped out outside.

For us book lovin' and publishin' types, there are a few things to note. Publishers and booksellers have jumped into the stack of pleas to shoppers for this Friday. Borders actually had a circular in Thursday's Boston Globe, and I got a Groupon today for discounts on Simon & Schuster books when one buys directly from the website. Both of these ads surprised me, and then I wondered why. I suppose I have some weird sense that booksellers and publishers - especially the latter - should be above such advertising. Leave it to department and discount stores! I was also surprised to see an e-book reader advertised in the CVS circular. I can't imagine that's a good product, on sale in a drugstore for $99 (AFTER rebate, admittedly).

In these ads, it seems to me, we have made tangible the place of books in our modern culture. The printed book may be disappearing from stores, off shelves, and out of bags heading to the airport - I had many friends ask me, as I prepared for a trip down to Texas, whether I had a Kindle or Ipad so I didn't have to carry books with me, God forbid - but when one includes e-books unproblematically into the equation, there are more books than ever, and perhaps more readers. We clearly are once again in an age, similar to the appearance of the mass market paperback, when books are filtering into places where they have not been or have been less visible, such as Sunday newspaper circulars, drugstores, and emailed coupons. This means sellers are reaching out to a wider readership, just as sales reps started selling spinners for paperbacks to the convenience stores in train stations in the '20s.

I want to have hope, or at least have less concern by putting this trend into historical context, but I still don't know what it might mean for independent booksellers. I was in Houston on Monday where I went by Brazos Bookstore, a fantastic independent that I have visited before. (Sadly, I had to get to the airport and miss going to Murder by the Book down the street, which looks so cool.) As I was purchasing Jay Parini's Why Poetry Matters, my sister and I chatted with the cashier. (I was looking for poetry books - Gerald Stern, Elizabeth Gerstler, W. H. Auden - but they didn't happen to have the ones I wanted, so I picked up this book which I didn't know I wanted but have enjoyed - you know how this works.) (I should note that The Strand in NYC didn't have any books by these poets last week either - !!!) My sister pointed out that she'd love to support the store and others like it more but couldn't afford to, and "it's hard with Half-Price Books around." The cashier graciously admitted that she buys books there, too, and online sometimes, such as first editions through ABEbooks.com. She rightly identified that as consumers we can spread our bucks around, but we should include indies when we do that. (No one mentioned that online bookseller who should not be spoken.)

At the counter, I picked up a pamphlet for the Friends of Brazos Bookstore program, which is a great way to support your local independent even as you, in a weak moment, shop elsewhere. You join the program at whatever level suits you best - I don't have the pamphlet in front of me but there are tiers, down to a very reasonable $50 perhaps - and you get discounts based on your level. You also hear about all the great events there.

As we head into the overheated holiday gift-buying season, of course you should support your local independent stores. I know I for one feel very gratified by gifts of memberships or donations, and you might be surprised to find others do, too. Ask! But if you know your loved one wants something special, something more tangible, look at your Sunday circulars - themselves some consider a relic, though they seem more numerous this year than in the past - and find the book-related ad you never thought you'd find, and see if any books are advertised that might just work. Then drop the circular and head to your local and pick it up.

More holiday-themed posts to come, I'm sure!

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

E-books vs P-books Battle on city street

Ironically, we ourselves have moved from words to video, just as we hope books won't. I know, right?! But these "movies" are all the rage, so I wanted to use this tool to make a snarky, ridiculous, absurd entry into the e-book debates. I could have made one that is more like a conversation between me and Christopher on this topic... hmm... perhaps for the future.

For now, enjoy.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Harvard's "Why Books?" Conference, Pt I

We have some new followers at our Twitter account thanks to Christopher's expert - by which I mean "snarky" - live-tweeting from Harvard's "Why Books?" conference itself on Friday. I sat next to him for most of it and we shared nods and notes (not all of which are blog-appropriate) and eye-rolls. It was an interesting day, as was the one afternoon panel I attended the day before. Let me start with the Thursday afternoon panel.

I attended a panel on Thursday titled, "Challenges and Opportunities in the Emerging E-book Age." Alexander Parker did a fantastic job setting up this panel as the kind of host and first speaker, introducing a lot of basic terms that were then referenced later by the other speakers. He explained how we are seeing the "doubters versus the touters" in this world of e-books, struggling with "the shock of the new." He explained that perhaps we are in an "e-Incublar period," starting in 2006 with more sophisticated e-readers, which are now hitting the market too fast and furious for even him to follow. He offered some hope for people like me, perhaps like Christopher, by saying this technology adapts to what we want and need, once that shock of the new wears off. Here he referred to radio, which were once a central entertainment object in a home but which have now settled as kind of background noise, still used commonly but not as prominently. At the same time, Parker did bring up issues still being explored that have not settled down - rights management, for example (agents being careful in giving options to film studios, only allowing dramatic but not digital, which suggests new things may fall under "digital" as technology develops), the "out of sight, out of mind" danger as book collections become virtual rather than physical, the endangered parts of books, including indices, works cited, and appendices, and what that might mean for the Table of Contents, which may in fact become more descriptive as they become more important for navigating a book.

Liza Daly of Threepress Consulting brought up a somewhat troubling issue: text changes when put into a venue in which text flows, and is "reflowable," rather than being page-based. The reader now has control of the text, and can re-format to allow for bigger text, different orientation, etc... This has been a major concern, for obvious reasons, for poets. I was rather surprised to hear Daly dismiss these concerns from authors and publishers in general by suggesting that readers aren't bothered by these challenges, by poetry lines being broken up when 4 lines are used as an epigraph. As publishers, I don't want our goal to be producing books - e or p - that the readers can tolerate, can still read despite inconsistency or sloppiness. Daly later mentioned the potential for projects on handheld devices to create narratives that take into account where the reader is and what the reader is doing - a mystery is now set in West Somerville, in her example, and the narrative unfolds as the device moves. This to me sounds like the ultimate in narcissistic reading. It's one thing to want to see something you recognize in a narrative, but to demand your own experience turned into fiction as you have that experience? Someone pointed out to me later that this is similar to the recent Arcade Fire video that went viral, for "The Wilderness Downtown," in which you put in the address of your childhood home and it uses Google images of that home in the video itself. (I admit it, it kind of blew me away, but put into this context, I found it in retrospect icky.)

Similarly, she brought up a chart that showed how ebooks were most commonly purchased at around 9pm at night. She explained this data by having us imagine that we're in bed and we finish our book, but we're not quite ready to go to sleep. We then order up a new book for our Kindle or what have you, and it instantly is on the device and ready to go. She touted this convenience, which is so superior to having to wait and get to a bookstore later. Maybe I'm sounding like some kind of New England puritan here, but this convenience is kind of... well, as Christopher might say, dumb. I mean, most of us have plenty of books lying around waiting to be read, so I can't imagine finishing a book at 9pm and having to order a new one for immediate deliver. But hey, she made a point of saying how most books read on these devices are very trade fiction - romance, thrillers, etc... This is exciting reading, page-turners. We've all been caught up in those kinds of books now and again, and sometimes you need that sequel. But this is one of those times when I feel like those in favor of these emerging technologies are telling me I want something that I'm not convinced I want - the ability to buy a book instantly at 9pm. She was saying "this is about you," and that sends some red flags up. Anytime people push such convenience, I feel like a targeted market.

Emily Arkin of Harvard University Press talked about, amongst many other things, the potential for additional curatorial roles out there, as more books become available digitally and even created with the digital more purposely in mind. There is only going to be more of a "glut of information" coming at us, so who is going to help readers decide what to read? Arkin feels the imprimatur on a book will become more important - something those of us in publishing hope is true.

This hope was somewhat dashed when an audience member asked about self-publishing, but as the panelists started to answer, she said, "Look at the time - you can just tell me what website to go to to self-publish." This goes back to my larger concern that the industry is being shaped by folks desperately trying to capitalize on what readers want, with the most base taking the lead at times. Should we make decisions based on who can make the most money by catering to reader narcissism, or should we find smart folks curating a smart list and taking risks going forward with a collective mentality, in terms of employees and in terms of writers? My preference is the latter, obviously.

I don't have time to go over the full day on Friday just now, but I'll return to it soon. Until then, you have Christopher's tweets to give you a sense of the day.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

An anecdote about a book.

Howdy. Usually when I take to these airwaves (whatevs) I do so to scold, make fun, or generally make an ass of myself by being outraged about this or that stupid happening in book publishing (I'm looking at you Justin Beaver). Not this time. Everyone knows I am anti-Kindle. I think the device is just plain, old, dumb but my previous posts on the matter have often been more of the "I love the smell of books and a Kindle doesn't smell like a book" variety instead of addressing the actual reasons why I think the Kindle (or any of its brothers or sisters) is dopey. Seriously, not this time.

Yesterday evening while walking around Harvard Square I happened to pass the front windows of the Harvard Book Store. I wasn't going to go in because every time I do I end up spending money I really shouldn't on yet another book (for instance, I own 4 different editions of 1984, ugh). While scanning the "New in Hardcover" display I spotted this book:


An Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot on and Never Will by Judith Schalansky, winner of the "Most Beautiful Book in Germany" Prize (who knew?). The title alone had me interested but it was more than that. 1) I love atlases. (Don't ask.) 2) I love islands (duh, who doesn't?) 3) I truly treasure reference books (I got nothin' on that one, I'm just a nerd). I stood outside in the rain thinking about whether or not I was going to go in a take a closer look knowing full well that my inherent weakness for book purchases could and would come into play. However, I felt I was safe because I happen to hate hardcovers (as we have documented here). I walked over to the New Hardcovers table and opened up what has to be coolest book released this year. The book is what it says it is on the cover. It is an atlas of remote islands accompanied by a small one-page piece of writing on the history/culture/mythology of the island in question. I was totally consumed right in the middle of the store. Judith Schalansky writes:

“The absurdity of reality is lost on the large land masses, but here on the islands, it is writ large. An island offers a stage: everything that happens on it is practically forced to turn into a story, into a chamber piece in the middle of nowhere, into the stuff of literature. What is unique about these tales is that fact and fiction can no longer be separated: fact is fictionalized and fiction is turned into fact....For me Atlases are the most poetic books of all, the body of the earth shown on a map.”
Ok, that is a little squishy but the point is that this book-which I explicitly told myself I wasn't going to buy-was in a bag and out the door with me a mere 10 minutes after first finding out about its existence. This post really isn't supposed to be about how great the book is but it is important that you see at least one of the maps in the book to get a sense of how beguiling the Atlas is. So, here is the page for the island of Diego Garcia, located in the Indian Ocean approximately 500 miles east of the Maldives.

See?!? Plus the text on the verso side of the page is...is...is...well, there really aren't words for it. Sometimes Ms. Schalansky writes of history, other times it is mythology, a few times she transcribes entries from a long lost journal belonging to a lighthouse keeper, soldier, or occupant of the island. You never know what you are going to get island to island. Totally amazing. But that isn't what I came here to tell you about. I have been typing this piece for 15 minutes; I can write about the book for 15 more. I'm not proud, or tired. But, I really did come here to write about the Kindle and why it should just go away.

I can't really counter all the claims made about the Kindle by the true believers. It really is handy. It can hold ten million books and fifty million magazines (I think). It is portable and very easy to use. So convenient. Yes, yes, yes, yes, everything they say about the Kindle is true and great. I think there is even a religious movement dedicated to the Kindle. However, what the Kindle cannot do, and why I will never own one even if it allows me to hold all the books of the Library of Congress in my pocket for the cost of a penny is that it doesn't allow for discovery...for an epiphany. For the first time in a very long time I was absolutely seduced by a book I hadn't heard anything about until I happened to be walking by the store on a rainy evening. Being able to go into the Harvard Book Store and touch the book, browse its pages,as well as become engrossed in its words will never happen with a Kindle. A Kindle is a storage device. Usually when I go into bookstore I am just looking around. I don't really care if I find something or not but I am always of a mind to get something if I can. Last night, a book caught me off guard and believe me when I tell you that I wasn't in the "spending $28 on a 100 page hardcover" mood. Once I got the book in my hand, however, I just had to. Everyone I have shown the book to in the last 12-15 hours has also been completely in its thrall. So there, after all my public denunciations of the Kindle, my final rejection of it comes from an anecdote not a point by point dismantling. The Kindle will never give me an spot in time, that fleeting moment when everything else is shut out around you...it just isn't capable of that in the way that an unknown book by an unknown author about a subject I , myself, didn't know I was so interested in, on the shelf of the local bookstore I love did. Perhaps that isn't the Kindle's mission but if not, that's sad since that is ultimately the whole point of a discovering a book you didn't know you'd love - lighting the fire of an idea in your mind while wandering the streets in search of a beer.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Boston Book Festival report

It's a beautiful fall weekend here in New England, and yesterday saw the exciting, much-publicized Boston Book Festival, now in its second year. I went to one event and then wandered around with some friends to the booths, and it was all in all an impressive showcase of talent and publisher marketing and even bookselling.

I was pleased to see some cool independent publishers present - Small Beer Press, for example, and David Godine Inc, and the relatively new and quite commercial Union Park Press, which does Boston books for Boston folks. I also really enjoyed the book stalls from Symposium Books and the Brattle Bookshop. Lastly, I was interested in this Better World Books, which seems to be a for-profit but socially responsible alternative to Amazon. (Any alternative to Amazon seems pretty damn good by my watch.) They seem to do a lot of work for literacy and they sell these t-shirts, which they had on display and which were charming in their simplicity:


The festival was bustling, unfortunately with many people who were pushy and demanding and ill-equipped to be around other humans, but such is part of the deal in a popular urban festival, especially in Boston. (Sorry, but folks are just a bit more polite in other parts of the country and world - those of us who live here know that!) The exhibitors, however, were friendly, at both these independents and at booths for corporate publishers, such as Harper Perennial. Everyone had a good spirit about them, and the crowd was eating it up. I should call out the young woman at the New York Review Books' stall in particular, who knew her list so well and was just plain charming.

But I have to get around to my frustration. Sorry.

I am working on a book of local interest right now, which just came out. Local independent the Brookline Booksmith had a booth last year at the Festival - which I remember because the weather was horrible, and as I approached the tent, the woman working there warned me not to come in, because the rain and wind were threatening to bring the whole tent down. So this year, I knew that the store had ordered 12 copies of this book in question. I called them up to ask if they'd be bringing the book to the Festival. I was put through to the woman organizing the books for the Festival, who told me that no, they were not bringing any general titles. In fact, they were only allowed to sell books to support one of the multiple venues for the Festival. They said maybe someone else will be selling general titles.

This was Thursday. That night, my partner and I wandered into the mammoth Barnes & Noble in the Prudential - a store where I once worked, which is one of the top-selling stores in the country. In the last couple of weeks, this very large superstore has been transformed per the new B&N model, which I discussed here. It's now happening, for reals. At the front, just to the left, of this huge store, the books have been removed. Completely removed, in a space that once had about 5 or 6 short rows with travel books and cookbooks, I believe. The shelves gone, the store has now put stands to push the Nook, making the store resemble, as I said before, a Best Buy. Charming. We walked to the back of the store, to the decent sized fiction section so my partner could look for Karen Tei Yamashita's I Hotel, a novel that was just named a finalist for the National Book Award (as we told you). As he we stood in the last row, with the Y's, I looked across the aisle, and the psychology/self-help section, as well as the Education and exam guide section, has been wholly removed, and in its place? Vaguely educational toys, probably taking up a space where at least 4 maybe 5 rows of books had been. This is the Toys 'r' Us section.

We had seen the novel there just a couple of days before, multiple copies even, so we went to the information desk. The woman struggled a bit, and took us to two different locations. (We noticed there was not even an endcap of National Book Award finalists - !!! Isn't this a bookstore!??!) Unsuccessful, the worker pointed out that "they" had taken a bunch of books out of the store to sell at the Festival, and maybe they took all five copies the computer was saying the store had in stock.

Sure enough, B&N had a huge booth at the Festival, in a central location. They were clearly the official general, new book booksellers instead of local independent the Brookline Booksmith. Very bad news. We found I Hotel there and I asked the worker, whom I recognized as someone I once worked alongside at that B&N, if there were discounts for the books on sale. She said no, then she revised her statement to say that there was no discount for the customer, but a portion of the proceeds would go toward some literacy campaign. Convenient - I hope someone holds B&N accountable for that.

I know that was a long tangent, but I'm frustrated that the Festival organizers went corporate on the bookselling. It was particularly bad timing given that B&N is in the process of backing off from selling books, more than ever. They have turned to gadgets. They were more interested in getting the Nook displays set up than getting news about a major award put out front, with books that were named finalists on display so smart readers could say, "oh, we should read this now, some great novelists said these were the best of the year." B&N didn't care. They probably didn't even let their workers know about this, in case anyone asked.

I'm angry as a reader. I'm sick of not having a bookstore that cares. (Brookline Booksmith is great, but not in my neighborhood, and the same goes for the incredible Harvard Bookstore.) And I'm annoyed that the Book Festival, which was fantastic in many, many ways and will surely enjoy years of continued success, didn't "think local" and celebrate a couple of that top-notch independents still left in the general metro area. I understand the need for corporate sponsors and I applaud the Festival organizers' ability to keep all of these events free. That is huge. Perhaps my frustration stems to how closely they almost made it perfect, and also my current particular frustration, as noted, with the cruel corporate carelessness of B&N.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Story of a Success

I went to a reading this afternoon by Paul Harding, famed novelist of the (surprise) Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Tinkers, published by the tiny, independent, non-profit Bellevue Literary Press. I will say first that Harding was great as a reader. He read a terrific passage that was entertaining, with impressive writing, wit, and enough hints at the larger story that it made all of us interested in reading more. He was also excellent in the Q&A, which both he and the moderator made clear was an important component of his talk, something he enjoyed very much. One could see why - he was candid and funny.

The first question asked of the author was how he came to get this thing published, and where he is going next. He explained that he finished an MFA at the famed Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa, working with British novelist Barry Unsworth. A few years later, Barry called him out, saying he should have something ready to share at this point. Harding took out his "pile of prose" that he had been assembling for years. He printed out everything, then got a pair of scissors and a stapler, and started cutting and spreading things out and stapling things together. It was amazing to hear him describe even briefly this very physical process. He then re-assembled the salvageable parts and realized that he had a little literary novel.

He talked about how he sent this novel out, presumably in a more cleaned-up fashion, to "about a dozen plus" agents and editors, and got rejections, "with varying levels of class," from all of them. He then put things away and kept plugging away at his day job, teaching freshman comp and some continuing education courses, and raising 2 boys. A couple of years later, he was talking about it to a poet, who put him in touch with someone who worked at "a small literary press in NYC," but that person rejected the manuscript, too.

That person, however, put him in touch with Erika Goldman, publisher and editorial director of Bellevue. Goldman obviously fell for the novel, and they had a 2 - 3 hour phone call about it. But Harding said the first half hour involved Goldman telling him what the novel was. She then explained that she wanted to make sure that she read what he wrote. He jokingly acted out his reaction to this, saying "I love you, where do I sign?!" It seemed to me a useful, smart part of the editorial procedure - I scribbled a note to remember to do that.

Harding said the book came out as a paperback original with a 3,500 copy print run, and "virtually no marketing or publicity." (Earlier, he had joked about first hearing about Bellevue, describing it as the literary arm of the NYU medical school, with an office in Bellevue itself that was akin to a custodian's closet pretty much.) Some outstanding booksellers got behind this li'l book, though, first on the west coast and then back here on the east coast, and it started to move. He said it showed him that there are still readers out there looking for books, and there are still great booksellers who can help those readers find the right books. This echoes what Motoko Rich reported in the NYTimes last April:

But he is quick to praise those who helped “Tinkers” become a darling of the independent bookstore circuit, including Erika Goldman, the editorial director of Bellevue, whom Mr. Harding described as a “deeply empathetic reader”; Lise Solomon, a sales representative in Northern California for Consortium, the book’s distributor, who passionately advocated for the novel with booksellers; and the booksellers and critics who embraced the book early on.
(In fact, much of this info can be found there, truth be told, but I swear I heard it live just today!)

Harding then said that he now has a 2 book deal with Random House, and laughed about how he's gone from one extreme to the other. You may recall that our own Christopher complained about this move in a comment on this post from last spring. I'm not sure what to think. I mean, I give the guy credit for calling out the folks that helped him get to the Pulitzer, and I'm not sure that he should stay with Bellevue. I'm not sure Bellevue is ready for him to stay there, and they have done very well with this book, which remains on bestseller lists. They are and will always benefit, especially given the paperback original (no paperback rights to sell elsewhere!).

I guess I appreciate it when big writers contribute books to small presses, something Howard Zinn often did for a number of smaller, often non-profit, ever-independent publishers. But a guy like Harding? He's not living that large. Maybe we're asking too much when we want him to sacrifice a living wage and the freedom to work just on writing for the benefit of independent publishing. Bellevue is not going to come up with a $100,000 advance, most likely, for his next book, but his next book may be 2 - 3 years in the making, and the advance would have to cover that whole time in order for him not to work. $100k over that time - and mind you, that's not a salary so it does not come with any benefits, including healthcare - is not a huge amount. I know there's other income possibilities - subrights, royalties from the first book - but anyone in the business knows it takes a lot to add up to anything substantial.

I differ from Christopher, clearly. I feel there should be an out clause for writers at this point in their careers. They have to be opportunistic, and I guess I see a lot of enemies of good books and good publishing out there - Amazon Shorts, capitalizing on shrinking attention spans thanks in part to their ridiculous gadget, for example. Writers at this stage in their careers are not the worst offenders. Let them make enough to get ahead, and then make sure they remember.

When Harding's next book comes out from Random House, I hope he still talks about those booksellers and independent bookstores like he did today, and I hope he still mentions the fact that Bellevue Literary Press believed in him and made his dream come true. Until then, I'm not ready to throw tomatoes at him.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Um, how does one get something so wrong?

From one of the great voices of the internet (and a personal hero of mine), Richard Metzger comes this stinging rebuke to Lee Seigel's piece in the New York TImes Book Review comparing the Beat Generation with the current Tea Party.

From Richard:

“I think I’m going to puke.”
Blowhard asshole Lee Siegel continues to thrash around in the low end of the journalistic cesspool with this utterly idiotic essay in the New York Times comparing the Beat Generation to the Tea Party movement.
The counterculture of the late 1950s and early 1960s appears to be everywhere these days. A major exhibition of Allen Ginsberg’s photography just closed at the National Gallery in Washington. A superb book, by the historian Sean Wilentz, about Ginsberg’s dear friend and sometime influence Bob Dylan recently made the best-seller list. “Howl,”  a film about Ginsberg and the Beats, opened last month. And everywhere around us, the streets and airwaves hum with attacks on government authority, celebrations of radical individualism, inflammatory rhetoric, political theatrics.
In other words, the spirit of Beat dissent is alive (though some might say not well) in the character of Tea Party protest. Like the Beats, the Tea Partiers are driven by that maddeningly contradictory principle, subject to countless interpretations, at the heart of all American protest movements: individual freedom. The shared DNA of American dissent might be one answer to the question of why the Tea Partiers, so extreme and even anachronistic in their opposition to any type of government, exert such an astounding appeal.
Comparing the sexy, druggy, life embracing, progressive culture of the beats to the fascistic, xenophobic, racist, fearful and life-negating Tea Party is absolutely absurd. It’s like comparing fucking to a case of serious blue balls.
The following comment by Siegel not only posits an idiotic argument, it’s morally disgusting:
the Tea Partiers’ unnerving habit of bringing guns to town-hall meetings would have repelled the Beats. But William S. Burroughs fetishized guns, accidentally killing his wife while trying to shoot a glass off her head. Violence, implicit or explicit, comes with the “beaten” state of mind. So does theatricality, since playing roles — and manipulating symbols — is often the first resort of people who do not feel acknowledged for being who they really are.
What the fuck does Burroughs’ wife’s death have to with “manipulating symbols” or some kind of identity crisis?
Read the entire steaming pile of bullshit here.

The 2010 National Book Award Finalists Announced

(plus the names of the judges to blame if they don't pick your favorite book from each list)  - CV

FINALISTS ANNOUNCED FOR 2010 NATIONAL BOOK AWARDS
Fiction 


Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in America (Alfred A. Knopf)

Jaimy Gordon, Lord of Misrule (McPherson & Co.)

Nicole Krauss, Great House (W.W. Norton & Co.)

Lionel Shriver, So Much for That (Harper)

Karen Tei Yamashita, I Hotel (Coffee House Press)

Nonfiction

Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
(Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group)

John W. Dower, Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq
(W.W. Norton & Co.)

Patti Smith, Just Kids (Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers)

Justin Spring, Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Megan K. Stack, Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War (Doubleday)

Poetry 


Kathleen Graber, The Eternal City (Princeton University Press)

Terrance Hayes, Lighthead  (Viking Penguin)

James Richardson, By the Numbers (Copper Canyon Press)

C.D. Wright, One with Others (Copper Canyon Press)

Monica YounIgnatz (Four Way Books)


Young People's Literature

Paolo Bacigalupi, Ship Breaker (Little, Brown & Co.)

Kathryn Erskine, Mockingbird (Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group)

Laura McNeal, Dark Water (Alfred A. Knopf)

Walter Dean Myers, Lockdown (Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers)

Rita Williams-Garcia, One Crazy Summer (Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers)


The Judges for the 2010 National Book Awards:

Fiction
Joanna Scott (Chair), Andrei Codrescu, Samuel R. Delany, Sabina Murray, Carolyn See

Nonfiction
Marjorie Garber (Chair), Blake Bailey, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Seth Lerer, Sallie Tisdale

Poetry
Cornelius Eady (Chair), Rae Armantrout, Linda Gregerson, Jeffrey McDaniel, Brenda Shaughnessy

Young People's Literature
Tor Seidler (Chair), Laban Carrick Hill, Kelly Link, Hope Anita Smith, Sara Zarr

November is National Novel Writing Month

I am not really sure why anyone would want to create artificial barriers to writing a novel-Ok, I do. I am looking at you Oulipo Group-but if you are interested in making your writing life even harder then November 1st marks the first day of National Novel Writing Month. The simple goal of the event is to write a 50,000 word novel by the end of the month. You can find all the details at their website NaNoWriMo.org (I know, I know). However, if you are too lazy to click on over to their site, below are the 10 salient things you need to know about writing your novel. (I should add at this point that if you are too lazy to click through to their website I am not 100% how you will have the discipline to write everyday for a month and finish with a 50K monster but that's just me being an a-hole.)
1) Sign up for the event by clicking the "Sign Up Now" link at the top of the site. It's right there above "National."
2) Check your email and read the ginormous email our noveling robots send you. It will have "Love" in the subject line, and may be hiding in your Junk folder.
3) Log into your account and use the links on the My NaNoWriMo page to set your timezone, affiliate with a region, and tell us a little bit about yourself.
4) Begin procrastinating by reading through all the great advice and funny stories in the forums. Post some stories and questions of your own. Get excited. Get nervous. Try to rope someone else into doing this with you. Eat lots of chocolate and stockpile noveling rewards.
5) On November 1, begin writing your novel. Your goal is to write a 50,000-word novel by midnight, local time, on November 30th. You write on your own computer, using whatever software you prefer.
6) This is not as scary as it sounds.
7) Starting November 1, you can update your word count in that box at the top of the site, and post excerpts of your work for others to read. Watch your word-count accumulate and story take shape. Feel a little giddy.
8) Write with other NaNoWriMo participants in your area. Write by yourself. Write. Write. Write.
9) If you write 50,000 words of fiction by midnight, local time, November 30th, you can upload your novel for official verification, and be added to our hallowed Winner’s Page and receive a handsome winner’s certificate and web badge. We'll post step-by-step instructions on how to scramble and upload your novel starting in mid-November.
10) Win or lose, you rock for even trying.
That's all there is to it! Occasionally, participants write in to ask about the rules of the event. We don't have many! But because we've found that creativity is often heightened by constraints (and communities bolstered by shared goals) we have evolved a handful of rules over the years. The rules state that, to be an official NaNoWriMo winner, you must…
  • Write a 50,000-word (or longer!) novel, between November 1 and November 30.
  • Start from scratch. None of your own previously written prose can be included in your NaNoWriMo draft (though outlines, character sketches, and research are all fine, as are citations from other people's works).
  • Write a novel. We define a novel as a lengthy work of fiction. If you consider the book you're writing a novel, we consider it a novel too!
  • Be the sole author of your novel. Apart from those citations mentioned two bullet-points up.
  • Write more than one word repeated 50,000 times.
  • Upload your novel for word-count validation to our site between November 25 and November 30.
So that's all there is to it.

Well, what are you waiting for? Get on over to the National Novel Writing Month website and get going.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

I have seen it, and I'm unimpressed

This weekend, I spent some time at my sister's house, having her six year old son show me how he uses their iPad, as my parents looked on, only slightly more confused than me. We all figured out the basics and within no time, were scanning up and down and flipping through applications, but at the end of it, I had no problem leaving this new toy behind. Two points come to the surface after this experience.

First, I should quote my father here: "You can see why books are in trouble," he pointed out as my nephew "made cupcakes" with an app. "Reading doesn't have the immediate gratification that these apps do, and they're not as involved with it." He makes a good point. How do you go from picking up an iPad and engaging with it - you pick the ingredients, you "pet" the cat and make him purr - to picking up a printed book and sitting quietly, reading it? But my mother countered that everyone said the same thing about televisions, or with calculators that were going to make us unable to do math (um... oops!). And the fact is that my nephew is reading, and is interested in reading, even with the iPad. I should also note, however, that he knew how to ask to download an app and knew when we weren't allowed because it wasn't free - dexterous in the marketplace already.

Second, my sister had downloaded some Dr. Seuss books that her son has read, though she has also caught him getting the iPad to read to him, which she doesn't allow. Of course, he figured out how to do it before she even knew it was a possibility. My sister is a big reader, though, reading the kinds of books one doesn't feel the need to keep - your Nora Roberts et al. But clearly she is not at the stage that she wants to sit around with a screen and read. This isn't anything to do with her love of physical books, as she was ready to go "e" by the the start of the summer. She would go into Borders and buy 3 for 2, and then suddenly have tons of books that she had read sitting around in her house, not cool enough to put on display but not cheap enough to recycle or sell. But now here we are, three months after she was given this thing, and she has not yet purchased a single e-book for herself. I was surprised to hear that. I kind of thought of her as the main demographic right now.

I have become accustomed to reading the occasional article on my blackberry, and obviously I consume quite a bit of media online, on my laptop. But I still want to commit to things longer, and in fact, I have spent a few evenings now at the kitchen table longer than intended, reading more of the Boston Globe, or the local papers like the Boston Courant, Bay Windows, or the South End News, my micro-local, and I have read some really important news in these papers (albeit with typos, incorrect jumps, etc). It's similar to getting sucked into a book, fiction or non-fiction. It's more than just that flash that passes by and ends up being forgettable - like much of the news we all pass to each other, or worse, the Youtube clips. It's important to me because I have something in common with the other readers. We have a common interest, and the editors know that, and edit with us all in mind. That's a community feeling that I appreciate, and I don't need to see those other readers - online, in comments sections - to feel it.

I want to end by saying, like so many, that I was saddened to see the news of Carla Cohen's passing. Cohen seemed to be quite a tough broad who co-founded Politics & Prose, a vitally important independent bookstore in Washington, DC, in 1984. We here at SotB join many others in the publishing world in recognizing this loss.


(how great is this photo of the co-founders, Cohen (left) and Barbara Meade?! Taken by Darrel Ellis, The Washington Post, in 1989.)

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The Way to Spend an Evening

I don't want to get all Wendall Berry on you. I like plenty of modern things. I also am not necessarily always cranky. But I do like to spend an evening now and again with some old school cranks. I like the physicality, the challenge, the reactions. I'm getting ahead of myself - let me explain.

My partner bought an album through Amazon and earned some credit toward their streaming movie feature. Clearly Amazon is trying to push everyone to all things digital, so you download a whole album and hey, why don't you watch a streaming film?! You'll be hooked. Since this would not cost any money, we said fine. We go to watch a film, however, and the sync is slightly off, with mouths moving just a bit of whack to the sound. Clearly there is quality sacrificed for convenience. Why should people watch movies this way?

We couldn't take it and stopped the movie halfway through, moving over to the Netflix "watch instant" feature... which was down, as a whole network. At this point, we just pulled out books to read.

But my point is the frustration. I couldn't call anyone - who does one call at Amazon or Netflix? I have no idea. I'm sitting in the privacy of my own home, with useless technology failing me, mocking my request for such luxurious convenience. I was isolated and all I could do was throw up my hands and turn off the damn tv entirely - doesn't that sound familiar? Such technical errors leave me with a profound frustration, a feeling of lonely desperation and powerlessness.

Compare that story with a radically different experience of error, which occurred at Bingo night at a Catholic high school in a town just outside of Boston on a Thursday evening.

There are many amazing things about Bingo, something I had not experienced as an adult until this magical evening. If you, too, have not experienced this, it's a bit of a culture shock. I was warned, and I was still taken aback, but some deep part of me fell in love. I can sum up the experience with a few quick anecdotes:

1) A middle-aged man on the steps of the school saw us approaching and said, "You gents here for bingo?" When we answered in the affirmative, he said, "You bettah hope you don't win - those old ladies will kill you! You take ya life into your own hands, gentlemen."

2) When the announcer said he wouldn't call the door prize until the next smoke break - when, of course, many of the gals would be out smoking - a 60 year old (or so) gal next to my friend actually screamed out to him, despite him being across an auditorium, "you retahded asshole!"

3) The older lady across from me, who with her friend helped me with all the many surprisingly complicated games - you have no idea - won $150, at which point she rubbed the cash on my friend's arm for luck. She was otherwise unmoved. She said she once won $1100 here, over the course of the month, and I asked her outright, "Did you ever get excited, at any of those wins?" "No," she answered, and I nodded, entirely believing her. She later rooted for me as I was 2 numbers away from winning $750. Sadly, it didn't help.

Now that you have the tone, let me explain the error. At the start of the night, the announcer stood up on a chair to announce that bingo would begin momentarily. Then he fell of the chair. This was the error. There were gasps; those who could, jumped up; others, including the gals across from me, shook their head and muttered how he was going to kill himself one of these days. Some folks looked confused and others explained what happened. People smiled at each other and shook their heads as he got to his feet, unharmed. The game was up and running in no time.

I know this is simplistic, but it was nice to have this error happening in a shared space, and that that space was replicating a cultural practice that hasn't changed too much in a long time. They still use daubers and printed out boards of all kinds (leading me to wonder, who manufactures these things!) and put the numbers called on a big screen with basic light bulbs. I should admit, though, that things have progressed since I was a kid: when someone called BINGO!, the person checking had only to read the card ID number from the middle of the winning board, which was then checked in a computer (maybe) and verified immediately. They did not have to go through each square to make sure the right number was called.

In this context, we all shared in the error, and we all got over the error. Maybe we grumbled, maybe we saw it as evidence of a larger problem, maybe we hardly noticed, maybe we had so little sympathy for the guy that later we'd call him a "retahded asshole" when he threatened not to read the door prize number at the appointed time. But we were in a room together, and we didn't need much to have a pretty damn fun evening. I don't think I could replicate that in a chatroom. We didn't need to each have a computer terminal or laptop or handheld device. We just needed a stack of boards and daubers, and for some of us, the occasional pudgy hand coming over to tag a square I missed (for this, I repeatedly thanked - but also chastised - my neighbor).

Books are isolating in a sense, but then not. When I'm editing, I tell the author that she or he is the guide for the reader. You two are in this together, with you leading the way, so be nice, be clear, know where you're going. (I'm reading Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn now and feel like I know this narrator incredibly well. I hardly feel alone as I read the book.) But then if that reader is using a Kindle and the batteries die - not a shocking thing to have happen with any electronic device - she can't read that book, take that journey. I guess I feel like right now, with reading, that's too much reliance on technology, and not because I dislike technology so much, but just because, as we have said so many times here at SotB, it just feels unnecessary.

It's like that quote featured on Shelf Awareness recently, where a woman noted that as her plane landed, she didn't have to "turn off" her book. At bingo, I didn't have to find a plug because my board was starting to fade. My only technical challenge was keeping the lid off the dauber - my neighbor explained that I was wasting time replacing that lid between each number call. Another good tip.

Similarly, I was chatting with a colleague who is unabashedly pro-book, in all it's expensive, wasteful paperness. He goes out and buys fat, esoteric hardcovers with no discount. He's crazy! And someone told him how e-books can have things embedded in them - videos, music, etc... He said he calmly explained back that if he's reading a book on the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the author references Martin Luther King's famous "I have a dream" speech, his brain will recall images he has seen of this event. His brain will make those connections. He doesn't need a video implanted in the e-book to show him the speech. In fact, he said he can read very quickly, but he doesn't, because he likes having his brain make those connections, scanning through his wide breadth of book knowledge to connect this image in a book on Churchill to that other book he read on Krakow, etc etc... It made me think of how everyone pulls out an iphone now as soon as anything even slightly obscure comes up. Our brains are atrophying.

In my role as editor, I want to be creative in thinking what makes a good book in 2010, but I also want to preserve what a book can and should do, and not try too hard to make it do everything for everyone. Things fail when you try to be all things to all people, but I fear that's where the purveyors of new book technology are going. So we sacrifice quality - the screen isn't great in the sun, not every book you want is there, oh I rarely read the whole book on this thing but I'll read a few chapters - for the supposed convenience, because we're told its convenient.

But what is that convenience? You can order a book that you read about online right then and have it right then. You didn't have to talk to a human at a bookstore, walk down the street to that bookstore. You didn't have to leave your home or office. You just pushed some buttons and there it is. The narrator, your guide, holds her hand out and you two are ready to go.

So what happens when something goes wrong, when that narrator falls off the chair, metaphorically, but doesn't get back up? Batteries are dead, system is down, Amazon has taken back the files and you have no one to complain to.

If you want to complain to me, too bad: I'll be a bingo with my new friends.

Sociable