Thursday, January 28, 2010

J. D. Salinger, 1919-2010

As most of the readers of this blog probably know, it has been confirmed that author J. D. Salinger has passed away at 91. He is most famous for his novel, Catcher in the Rye, though also greatly respected for his short story collection, Franny and Zooey.

The New York Times probably offers the best obit as of now, with many tributes surely to follow. Clearly this obit was pre-written and filed, waiting for the day it could be pulled out, updated, and issued. I wonder, though, why the same wasn't ready for Howard Zinn? They are still running a crappy AP obit for him. At least his local paper here, The Boston Globe, is running a better obit for him.


**UPDATED 16:56 on 28/1/2010** As ever, the Guardian UK outdoes our own newspapers for a tribute to Salinger (plus various and sundry other links). You can find everything you ever wanted to know about J.D. here. You're welcome!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Howard Zinn, dead at the age of 87.

As an editor, I was only able to work with Howard two times before I left editorial. Once, as a newly minted Assistant Editor, he helped me organize, edit, and select the pieces for my first book, the anthology titled The Power of Nonviolence. It became, I think, a solid seller for Beacon Press and I remember him telling me that he thought the selections were pretty savvy for a "new born." I took that as a compliment, wouldn't you? In fact, I distinctly remember him telling me that he had never read the Camus piece I found for the book and was grateful to me for bringing it to his attention. When you are just starting out that kind of praise...well, let's just say I was really thrilled.

The second time I was lucky enough to work with him was on a reissue of Francis Russell's A City in Terror: Calvin Coolidge and the 1919 Boston Police Strike. While he only supplied a blurb for this lost classic (which has since found its audience with Dennis Lehane discovering it and making it one of the bases for his novel The Given Day), his strong quote about the book and the stand he took for me in helping me calm the jittery nerves of a boss concerned about bringing back a history book from a long dead, unknown historian about a forgotten time in Boston history went a long way in shaping my editorial career. That's it. Not too much but I can honestly say that the time spent working with him will remain with me for the rest of my publishing career. Rest easy, my friend. The fight is now ours from here on out.


From the Boston Globe:

Howard Zinn, the Boston University historian and political activist who was an early opponent of US involvement in Vietnam and a leading faculty critic of BU president John Silber, died of a heart attack today in Santa Monica, Calif, where he was traveling, his family said. He was 87.

"His writings have changed the consciousness of a generation, and helped open new paths to understanding and its crucial meaning for our lives," Noam Chomsky, the left-wing activist and MIT professor, once wrote of Dr. Zinn. "When action has been called for, one could always be confident that he would be on the front lines, an example and trustworthy guide."

For Dr. Zinn, activism was a natural extension of the revisionist brand of history he taught. Dr. Zinn's best-known book, "A People's History of the United States" (1980), had for its heroes not the Founding Fathers -- many of them slaveholders and deeply attached to the status quo, as Dr. Zinn was quick to point out -- but rather the farmers of Shays' Rebellion and the union organizers of the 1930s.

As he wrote in his autobiography, "You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train" (1994), "From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than 'objectivity'; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble."

Certainly, it was a recipe for rancor between Dr. Zinn and Silber. Dr. Zinn twice helped lead faculty votes to oust the BU president, who in turn once accused Dr. Zinn of arson (a charge he quickly retracted) and cited him as a prime example of teachers "who poison the well of academe."

Dr. Zinn was a cochairman of the strike committee when BU professors walked out in 1979. After the strike was settled, he and four colleagues were charged with violating their contract when they refused to cross a picket line of striking secretaries. The charges against "the BU Five" were soon dropped, however.

Dr. Zinn was born in New York City on Aug. 24, 1922, the son of Jewish immigrants, Edward Zinn, a waiter, and Jennie (Rabinowitz) Zinn, a housewife. He attended New York public schools and worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard before joining the Army Air Force during World War II. Serving as a bombardier in the Eighth Air Force, he won the Air Medal and attained the rank of second lieutenant.

After the war, Dr. Zinn worked at a series of menial jobs until entering New York University as a 27-year-old freshman on the GI Bill. Professor Zinn, who had married Roslyn Shechter in 1944, worked nights in a warehouse loading trucks to support his studies. He received his bachelor's degree from NYU, followed by master's and doctoral degrees in history from Columbia University.

Dr. Zinn was an instructor at Upsala College and lecturer at Brooklyn College before joining the faculty of Spelman College in Atlanta, in 1956. He served at the historically black women's institution as chairman of the history department. Among his students were the novelist Alice Walker, who called him "the best teacher I ever had," and Marian Wright Edelman, future head of the Children's Defense Fund.

During this time, Dr. Zinn became active in the civil rights movement. He served on the executive committee of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the most aggressive civil rights organization of the time, and participated in numerous demonstrations.

Dr. Zinn became an associate professor of political science at BU in 1964 and was named full professor in 1966.

The focus of his activism now became the Vietnam War. Dr. Zinn spoke at countless rallies and teach-ins and drew national attention when he and another leading antiwar activist, Rev. Daniel Berrigan, went to Hanoi in 1968 to receive three prisoners released by the North Vietnamese.

Dr. Zinn's involvement in the antiwar movement led to his publishing two books: "Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal" (1967) and "Disobedience and Democracy" (1968). He had previously published "LaGuardia in Congress" (1959), which had won the American Historical Association's Albert J. Beveridge Prize; "SNCC: The New Abolitionists" (1964); "The Southern Mystique" (1964); and "New Deal Thought" (1966).
Dr. Zinn was also the author of "The Politics of History" (1970); "Postwar America" (1973); "Justice in Everyday Life" (1974); and "Declarations of Independence" (1990).

In 1988, Dr. Zinn took early retirement so as to concentrate on speaking and writing. The latter activity included writing for the stage. Dr. Zinn had two plays produced: "Emma," about the anarchist leader Emma Goldman, and "Daughter of Venus."

Dr. Zinn, or his writing, made a cameo appearance in the 1997 film "Good Will Hunting." The title characters, played by Matt Damon, lauds "A People's History" and urges Robin Williams's character to read it. Damon, who co-wrote the script, was a neighbor of the Zinns growing up.

Damon was later involved in a television version of the book, "The People Speak," which ran on the History Channel in 2009. Damon was the narrator of a 2004 biographical documentary, "Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train."

On his last day at BU, Dr. Zinn ended class 30 minutes early so he could join a picket line and urged the 500 students attending his lecture to come along. A hundred did so.

Dr. Zinn's wife died in 2008. He leaves a daughter, Myla Kabat-Zinn of Lexington; a son, Jeff of Wellfleet; three granddaugthers; and two grandsons.

Funeral plans were not available.

I-Pad zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Having watched some painfully mired livestreaming (technology fail - curious...) and followed the live-blogging at the NY Times during Steve Jobs' big announcement, I feel confident in saying, as others have, Apple is putting out a big ol' i-touch.
Apple chief executive, Steve Jobs, unveils the iPad.

This may be a game-changer for news media, especially newspapers, but I don't think it will radically change book culture just yet.

I just wanted to throw something up here to show that we *do* pay attention to technological advances that impact book publishing here at SotB... but we don't have to like them or get giddy about them.

That whole presentation, with all the applause and "awesome" this and "just amazing" that was a bit too tent revival for my liking anyhow. Right?

Famous Literary Drunks & Addicts

Hi there, Christopher here. I have a longer post coming sometime today but I thought that you all might find this Life Magazine photo essay on the prevalence of mind enhancing drugs in the creative process.

Enjoy! More soon...

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Gatz, or The Great Gatsby on stage

I took a bit of a theatre challenge this weekend: my partner and I attended a full performance of Gatz, a production by the Elevator Repair Service theatre troupe being staged at the American Reportory Theater in Cambridge, MA. As the A.R.T. describes it,
A theatrical tour de force, Gatz is conceived as a single six-hour production in which an ensemble of 13 actors bring to live every word of the novel with no text added and none removed. Gatz is a one-of-a-kind theatrical event defined by its radical commitment to one of the 20th century's greatest novels.
The "novel" in question? F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, of course! The only words spoken aloud on stage come from the book, and the main character on stage reads every word of the novel, except for some dialogue read by characters in character. Sadly, I cannot describe this in a way that does it justice. The conceit is not just a lark, just some gag. This performance is beautifully executed, managing to be laugh out loud funny one minute, moving the next, and entertaining and engrossing for a full 6 hours - yes, 6 hours. We arrived at 3 pm and left after 11pm, with 2 10+minute intermissions and one hour-long meal break. It was worth every minute.

First of all, I kept thinking of our sweet li'l blog here due to one particular aspect of the performance. Ya see, it's built around a grungy office. The narrator walks into the office, hits a light, and sits at his desk. He has a tragic old worn-out desktop computer, and it won't start. Again, remember that no words are spoken aloud that are not in the novel, so the actor does a Chaplin-like routine that will be familiar to any of us in the modern age - hit the on switch, hit a few F keys at the top of the keyboard, try some combinations. When nothing works, he picks up the novel and starts reading. Soon, his co-workers, who walk past him doing mundane office tasks, start embodying the characters. The broken computer returns throughout the play, never functioning, and we are grateful because a functioning computer would interrupt the story we're being told.

I love that, in conceiving of how to bring this novel to the stage, the creators of this performance opened with technology failing. I know this will sound reactionary, but I also know that those of us who love books deeply enjoy that moment when we shut the computer off, when we put the cellphone away, when the hum of the electrified appliances around us hushes and it's just us and the book, possibly a good lamp. (Hey, you can't throw it all out, right?) Don't get me wrong, I am no back-to-the-woods kind of guy. I spent the day after this day-long theatre production at an outlet mall. But I read to be solitary, and I take pleasure in how minimal an energy requirement is necessary for this activity. Call it "green" or call it "simple" or call it "retro," I just know the words work on the page, the page works as a way to bring me the story bit by bit (not byte by byte), and the book offers a generous but not demanding venue for me. We understand each other.

I also want to comment on this transition from book to stage in this production. It's flawless. I can't say enough about how enjoyable it was to see something brought to a whole new form of art without harming the original, but instead leaving the original with so much dignity. The book is there on stage, in the actor's hand, for the full 6+ hours. And the production plays with the words on the page: an actors spills coffee and it seems like a mistake, until the narrator reads, "Michaelis fumbled as a way to distract Joe." There is silence as the narrator and another actor stare at each other, then the actor speaks, and the narrator follows with, "He said, after a long pause." It's so goddam endearing to any book lover. They didn't ignore the words or mock the words or feel the need to capture each one with some precious touch. They played with the words, and the story, and the characters, with respect and intelligence.

This production gave me great hope, in some odd way, about the future of the book. It reminded me that people love these things, with their gradual storylines and delicately chosen words and chapters - to start intermission, the actor would look up and say, "That's the end of Chapter 3. We're going to take a 10 minute break." You never forgot it was a book first, and it left the audience with the stage company all on the same side - on the book's side, as we all show our support with this 6+ hour commitment.

In my day job, I'm dealing a lot with electronic scholarly communication - where it's going, what's needed, what's fair in terms of access and cost. And I'm often left reminding people that articles and books do not just happen magically due to the wonders of technology. The narrative had to be written and edited by the author and then pitched; the editor had to acquire the book and edit more; the copyeditor had to carefully read through each word and all the grammar; the designer had to catch breaks and set each page. Just because you can download a pdf of a monograph now with ease doesn't mean it didn't take great thought and labor to get to that point. The end is just not mindful of the means of getting there, and I worry what this will mean for books going forward. Just because we can grab a book off Amazon from our Kindles (no I don't have one! royal "our") in 30 seconds doesn't mean it came into being that easily.

Seeing this production was relief, at the core of things (and on top of that core was the simple enjoyment, as time breezed by in a way that was truly unexpected). It was a relief to see something come out of a book that salvaged the painstaking labor that goes into writing the thing. I can only hope that future uses of books and narratives manage to increasingly respect rather than denigrate that intellectual/creative labor.

Gatz! is coming to NYC next season, so folks in or near NYC, check it out! Boston folks, get tickets now!

Friday, January 22, 2010

"I'm a Fool for Links" Friday

"This is but a lame excuse for a blog post, wherein you just link to other bloggers' stuff!" you cry. Well... um... it's true. But hey, we here at SotB have day jobs, okay? I'm busily working amidst manuscripts and proposals, writing up memos seeking approval of my projects. It's always "me, me, me" with you. Jeesh.

So at least I'm doing something. Fun links!

We have brought you fun book art before, which typically only works if you destroy actual books. Now we bring you very cool book art that may be able to exist with a book. Right?! Courtesy of Entertainment Weekly's Shelf Life blog via BookNinja, here are the world's cutest bookmarks, designed by swissmiss, who was inspired by Icoeye.

If you don't love that Moby Dick, you don't truly have the ability to love anything, or at least anything bookish.

Courtesy of Publishers Weekly, we have Priya Ganapati's article from Wired about all things e-reader. Read it or don't, I don't mind. Part of me wants to, part of me feels like I've read it all before, but truly, I know there's useful info in here. Ironically, I'll probably print it out and read it on the bus on the way home. Take that, not-yet-for-sale Apple Tablet (tm)!

And finally, via my genius British journalist friend Damian Barr who sent this to me by email, we have a charming collection of writing - a Five Dials Special - about David Foster Wallace, who passed away in 2009. It includes short pieces by Zadie Smith, Don Delillo, and more, and images by Michael Schmelling. More info on the publication Five Dials, published by British publisher Hamish Hamilton, can be found here, including the manner in which one joins its mailing list.

Happy reading this weekend!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

I have a soft spot for mystery novels...

so it is with great sadness that we here at SotB have to report the following breaking news:

The Boston Globe News update 11:44 AM

'Spenser' creator Robert B. Parker dies

The detective novelist died yesterday in his Cambridge home, his agent said. He was 77.

Too bad.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Video Fun Friday!

With Houghton Mifflin Harcourt supposedly safe - for now - I thought we could post some fun videos for this Friday afternoon.

The first two come via MobyLives, who posted these clips of Vladimir Nabokov discussing Lolita to show how bad TV sucks these days. One might also appreciate this window into a time when a new medium was trying to explore how to bank off strong elements (authors) of a previously dominant medium (books). As we can see, eventually tv producers said "Screw it!" and just turned to bestselling self-help writers, on the whole.

Fun stuff! I love me some Nabokov.

Next we have the rarely seen (anymore) Fran Lebowitz talking about the mass misreading of Jane Austen, which leads her to complain (quite rightfully) about how we teach reading and what we expect from books. (To paraphrase her, they should be "tours," not "mirrors.") For those who don't know, Lebowitz was Sedaris before Sedaris, but smarter, with an edge. I was pleased to see her here, mouthing off.

Fran Lebowitz: Reflections on Austen from The Morgan Library & Museum on Vimeo.

[Thanks to Editorial Ass for the link - see her blog for commentary, as well.]


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Breaking News: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Debt Restructure, which means...??

Being Boston-based, we here at SotB like to keeps tabs on our big local publishers.... or publisher. So I felt compelled to quickly post the news whipping around the interweb about the big momma Boston publisher (with offices in NY but c'mon...), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

If you have a subscription to the Wall Street Journal - in which case, you probably wouldn't be reading this blog - you can look here for the article on HMH's debt restructuring. The rest of us have to read second-hand in a variety of places, including:

- Mediabistro's GalleyCat, where Jason Boog links to the WSJ article and reports that, "According to an unnamed source in the article, the company currently has $6 billion in debt." Whoa.

- The Bookseller, from the UK, also linked by Boog. This is useful since HMH's parent company, Education Media & Publishing, is based in Ireland, within this site's reach. This article in turn links to an Irish source, RTE Business, for the financial info.

- And back on our fair shores, Melville House's MobyLives - a favorite blog of SotB's - reports on the issue as well, with the provocative headline, "Is Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Going Under?" Dennis Johnson posts a link to Publisher's Lunch, which again requires a subscription,. Johnson provides a nice summary that basically says the debt restructuring will lessen Barry O'Callaghan's stake in the business and increase the Irish government's stake - and thereby, the stake of the Irish people. Johnson pulls this quote out of the Pub Lunch post, from Irish official George Lee:

It has been reported to me that the education materials company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has failed, and that a number of Irish equity investors have lost significant sums of money as a result. Many of these investors were funded through large loans from Anglo Irish Bank, which is now wholly owned by Irish taxpayers. As a company, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt was a highly leveraged operation and had very significant banking commitments. I understand that the remaining US business is to be transferred to its bond holders. However, it appears that its Irish equity investors will lose all of their investment as a result of this failure. This will have repercussions for Anglo Irish Bank, and possibly other Irish banks, and therefore the Irish taxpayer.

Again, whoa.

In our new global economy, this means that my colleagues who are a mere half hour bike ride from me right now are sitting in cubicles worrying about their jobs as the Irish people read their newspapers and grumble about this "failure" happening in the US of A which, if they understand correctly, is essentially a bail-out situation just like the one being experienced by the US government with fat cat Wall Street execs. It's all a big fat mess.

I hope for the best, folks, for the employees of HMH here in Boston and beyond, and for the good of publishing. HMH has an incredible backlist and is too important to lose wholesale.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Polibrity Update

Back in November, I tried to coin the phrase "polibrity" in a post, referring to folks like Sarah Palin who pretend to be politicians but are really just seeking out the spotlight - politicians who in fact are mere celebrities. Polibrities. I was prompted by this post on Newser from Michael Wolffe, in which he suggested bluntly, "Literate people should boycott books." He based this provocative statement on the fact that folks like Palin claim that they are authors, but actually do not write books. Publishing such drivel ruins books for the rest of us. I don't entirely agree with him, but I certainly stand next to him in frustration.

The term I created to air my frustration, polibrity, has generated some traffic to this site, and I noticed its correct usage in Peter Grier's recent article about Palin joining Fox News, in the Christian Science Monitor - a respectable publication if there ever was one! Perhaps Grier came up with this term on his own, or perhaps he read it here. Either way, I'm pleased to see it circulating. It has since been picked up in a few tweets, by social media folks like Seattle's Linda "TheNewsChick" Thomas, whose tweet was reposted by Steve Furman, a Chicagoan who runs the Expedient Means website. It's totally national.

Are there other examples of polibrities, beyond Ms. Palin? Sadly, for those of us on the left, we have Al Franken. I like the man just fine, but I'm not sure he should be a politician. What was wrong with comedy, and writing funny books skewering rightwing nutjobs? I for one enjoyed Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right just fine. Rather than go into elected office, I'd rather folks like Franken - who have done horrendous movies and cheap television shows - just keep taking shots from the sidelines. Molly Ivins did a damn good job with it. (See my obit for her here.) Michael Moore has his place. In a more serious way, smart and much-needed folks like Amy Goodman, Naomi Klein, and Jim Hightower keep plugging away outside the beltway.

Polibrity elsewhere? Of course, there's Arnold Schwarzenegger, a large presence who cannot be ignored, whom we can only hope will not follow in the footsteps of Reagan. I know Schwarzenegger has calmed down from his "girly man" shout-outs, which were quite common early in his campaign, but I still think he has no place in office.

Given how much folks seem to enjoy this term, I will try going forward to occasionally provide "Polibrity updates," especially as they relate to publishing. (There may be fewer, sans Judith Regan, a woman who should have coined this term. She amped it up a notch!) Sure, that will put me in the awkward position of hoping for polibrity sightings despite being frustrated by the phenomenon, but for you readers, I'll do it.

Onward and upward.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

More Book Art

To support our belief that books should survive despite the mad rush for all things electronic/digital (books are already "handheld" and "mobile," for those keeping score), we have in the past here at SotB mentioned artistic uses for books, uses that go beyond mere reading. In that spirit, I wanted to alert all of our good readers to artist Mike Stilkey's work on the spines of books. Stilkey was profiled over at the This Blog Rules blog. (A+ on subtlety with that blog name, btw). Enjoy!

Monday, January 11, 2010

B. Dalton, RIP

Okay, folks, we're back and better than ever for 2010! Sorry for taking the first week off. We promise to try and not leave you high and dry in the future.

Having said that, please consider this a kind of soft launch, as it were. I'm not coming out swinging, but rather offering a pleasant, casual post about a relatively quiet story... perhaps I'm still in vacation mode.

As many of you know, the bookseller B. Dalton is closing down completely. Jackie Crosby of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune offers this obit for the chain, which started in Southdale Center in Edina, MN. What I find so intriguing about this story is how it offers a brief history of a bookstore that was, for so many of us, ubiquitous in our suburban childhoods.

At Deerbook Mall in scenic (note sarcasm) Humble, Texas, the B. Dalton was the store I had to visit just before closing one night, much to my working parents' chagrin, to grab one of their last copies of T. H. White's The Once and Future King, just before we started reading it in 9th grade. (This was also the first time I recall being overwhelmed by assigned reading - we had to read 30-40 pages a night, I believe.) It had a great location in that mall - right across from the food court. The store became a bit desolate, however, when B&N opened a Book Stop across FM 1960, which while small by today's superstore standards, seemed huge at the time. I remember the wonder at finding a fully stocked poetry section, a huge number of journals and magazines, and a fiction section that had all kinds of cult fiction that I had heard of but didn't know how to get - B. Dalton was never hip, but instead always painfully middle-brow, even by suburban standards. One aspect of its history that didn't surprise me in Crosby's article was how it found great success by predicting the popularity of Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. Ouch. Again, Bookstop wasn't revolutionary ultimately - just FM radio to B. Dalton's AM.

(As a sidenote, I don't know what the Humble Bookstop is now, but it's endlessly cooler older sibling, the Houston Bookstop located in the Alabama Theatre downtown, recently closed, but not without a fight.)

I'm not surprised to learn that B. Dalton was a mere effort to take advantage of the growing number of Baby Boomers with disposable income who liked to read in the 1970s. The place always struck me as a bastion of self-help and financial books. Say what you want about B&N, as Ted Striphas explains in his book (The Late Age of Print), it started out as a way to take advantage of the college book market, and in some ways it retains that feel.

So RIP, B. Dalton, and may your passing lead to the opening of new and exciting venues for selling books (though preferably not in a corporate manner, but rather in a independent, sustainable manner that is better for workers, communities, and the planet). Cheers!