Friday, February 26, 2010

For the love of bookshelves

Kevin Hartnett has posted a nice, short piece over at the Millions about bookshelves. The piece, like shelves themselves, is simple but very effective, considering how the rush to digitized books will mean the eventual end to printed books, and the end to the packed bookshelves many of us keep in our homes.

Hartnett mentions how looking at someone's bookshelves is a way of seeing into their inner lives, not revealing too much necessarily but revealing a bit about their character.

A chief virtue of digital books is said to be their economical size—they take up no space at all!—but even a megabyte seems bulky compared to what can be conveyed in the few cubic feet of a bookshelf. What other vessel is able to hold with such precision, intricacy, and economy, all the facets of your life: that you bake bread, vacationed in China, fetishize Melville, aspire to read Shakespeare, have coped with loss, and still tote around a copy of The Missing Piece as a totem of your childhood. And what by contrast can a Kindle tell you about yourself or say to those who visit your house? All it offers is blithe reassurance that there is progress in the world, and that you are a part of it.

This is a tragic truth. In fact, I went to a friend's house for the first time recently, a novelist, and of course I went right to the overflowing bookshelves. I'm always drawn to bookshelves in a new house, and always disturbed - for the record - when I walk into a home void of bookshelves. Anyway, as I started inspecting, he jokingly said something along the lines of, "Soon we won't have books taking up space, we'll just have Kindles," and I immediately started acting out walking up to a small screen, perhaps posted on the wall, and hitting a button to scan through titles, just as one might approach an ipod and run through the song titles. It worries me that I could react physically in this way, so quickly, as if it would be the same. It's like my body was all ready for the transition, just as we quickly got used to remotes and keyboard shortcuts in the past.

Hartnett gets at the heart of the matter. These books on someone's shelf - a family member, a new friend, a date - immediately indicate an interior, just as in a previous post I mentioned Junot Diaz's use of books indicated an interior world for his characters. But more than anything, I really love when the books on those shelves look used, look marked up or worn out. It's nice to see pristine books that are cared for as well, but it's the beat up paperbacks that I always want to grab. That's why this comment from Hartnett really smarts: " To the extent that bookshelves persist, it will be in self-conscious form, as display cases filled with only the books we valued enough to acquire and preserve in hard copy. " Oy vey, he may be right.

I'm keeping my shelves, and god knows my boyfriend's books aren't going anywhere anytime soon. (Thank god because I still have many I plan to read someday. Moving in with him was like buying a whole library - definitely an asset.) And I'm grateful. I'm all for technology, but I will not be impressed by anyone with a sparse, shiny home without a book to be found, with a Kindle or i-pad sitting shiny in the middle of the room. Maybe I'll just grab the device and start scanning titles, but again, to go back to Hartnett, who also links to another post:

Edan has commented on how they portend a drawing down of the public space in which we read—with the Kindle you don’t know what the person next to you is reading, or how far along in it they are, or whether their copy of the book is dog-eared or brand new (because it’s neither).

It's a fair point. An e-book will not say as much about the owner, so you won't necessarily know how much the books uploaded say about this person. (Of course, the files won't stick around long anyway, so one could assume many of the books found haven't even been read.) I don't want to lose this connection with others in the interest of technology.

Mark another point for the printed book, right?

(Hartnett's post found via Shelf Awareness.)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Labor and Publishing

I was thinking of my last post, about how many jobs have been lost in our rush to all things digital, as I watched this video on how books were made, circa 1947:

It's amazing to see these workers putting together each piece of the book, signature by signature, page by page, word by word, even letter by letter. This was just such an enterprise for so many people, in a way it simply is not now. I was also struck by the gender division, which was obviously backwards by today's standards but also interesting to note, how women provided certain services - they don't make an appearance until 7:35 in the 10 minute video, where they appear in "the gathering room," putting pages into bins.

A couple things then came to mind regarding this video.

First, the reactions from people to this video on Youtube. Lilia1992 noted, "So much work. I'm so glad my graphics design teacher in high school didn't make me watch this video. I nearly fell asleep!" n52nimbus had a similar response:

Two things come to mind: The precision and complexity of the machinery and the mind-numbing repetitiveness of the labor.

Robotics may have eliminated lots of jobs, but are they really jobs anyone would want???

Someone a bit more sane then stepped in - Bokai responded, "If it puts food on the table and clothes on your back, I would say yes!" But n52nimbus was not to be won over: "Sorry, Bokai. . . but for me, a bullet through my cranium would be preferable to this kind of work."

Incredible. What is particularly intriguing is that this attitude toward supposedly tedious work has a consumerist slant to it. These viewers are watching and feel empowered to decide they would not pursue this work because it looks boring. They would choose something else, just as they would decide what kind of deodorant to use or what vacation to go on. They can only offer an opinion based on their personal reactions, without a sense of what these people are accomplishing, and how these workers might fare in today's more limited economy.

There has been a few big books published recently about work - I'm thinking of Matthew Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, as well as a book from 2005, The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker, by Mike Rose. I suspect there is a tension between the technologically enhanced future we'll all supposedly experience and the decline in manual labor outside of the service industries. Perhaps I should leave this discussion to economists and sociologists.

For my two cents, I would connect these discussions of labor with ongoing discussions of how we value the goods we consume - I'm thinking of Ellen Ruppel Shell's recent book, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture as well as Raj Patel's brand new The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy. I'm also thinking of a friend who recently announced that anything over $5 was too much for a tea kettle. Places like Walmart have convinced us that 1) we're all consumers, all the time; 2) that this position is somehow empowering rather than a subservient position, and 3) that we should value quantity over quality in every instance.

So take this position over to the bookstore and see where it gets you. (Of course, the Amazon-Macmillan debacle springs to mind.) Consumers want the most bang for their buck, and many commentators are saying publishers are fools who deserve failure if they don't give these consumers what they want. Give it to them cheap, give it to them in every form they want (and they all want digital, dammit), and give it to them now not later. Workers, including writers, are not the ones who decide, because the consumer rules. And some commentators even frame this as some form of democracy.

Again, I just think we need to go back to the drawing board, at least some of us (I'm staring at my fellow workers at indie/university presses), and think about what's best for readers, writers, and workers, knowing full well that these are not exclusive categories but rather ones that often overlap. Each segment, however, needs to be heard and respected. Many forms of publishing can co-exist, I like to think - from expensive, limited edition hardcovers, painstakingly produced, to cheap mass markets, all blotchy with thin pages, to digital. And fair prices need to be assigned to each, prices that do not reflect merely consumer demands, but also the work that went into each book.

You can think about these issues, or you could just watch the video for 20 seconds, pause it, and write "SNOREFEST 2010" in a comment beneath it. Your call.

(Thanks to BookNinja for link.)

PS: It's interesting to follow this post up with this article from the Guardian (UK) in which Irish novelist Aifric Campbell writes about fiction-writing and portraying work.

Monday, February 22, 2010

One possible look to the future

We'd be remiss here at SotB if we did not point our readers to this article from the New York Review of Books by Jason Epstein, a publishing veteran who, among other things, started Anchor Books. In the article in question from the March 11th NYRB, Epstein lays out what "the revolutionary future" in publishing may look like, and it's quite a fascinating, certainly informed vision he offers. His understanding of the way in which we publish and offer books is beyond reproach; his vision here, however, is open for comment, as far as I can tell, and not pitch perfect.

Epstein offers some great quotes (which is how, incidentally, I found the article, thanks to Shelf Awareness). As many great writers, he has a way of summarizing big ideas with a relatively small number of well chosen words. For example, he explains how "the genteel book business that I joined more than a half-century ago is already on edge, suffering from a gambler's unbreakable addiction to risky, seasonal best sellers, many of which don't recoup their costs, and the simultaneous deterioration of backlist, the vital annuity on which book publishers had in better days relied for year-to-year stability through bad times and good." Here Epstein puts his finger on just the precipice on which our book publishing world teeters. I don't quite get, though, why he then has to throw Marx under the bus.

He uses Marx's solid-melting-into-air concept for a more literal point - books melting into air insofar as they go digital and are available in "clouds." But in fact, I found myself scribbling "LABOR" in the margins of this article. (Oops... I've just revealed that yes, I found it online and printed it out, perhaps losing any credibility here!) Ah, the joys publishers will experience when they rid themselves "of their otiose infrastructure," Epstein notes. LABOR?! In the future, publishers can enter the fray with "only the upkeep of the editorial group and its immediate support services but without the expense of traditional distribution facilities and multilayered management." LABOR?! I'm just skeptical of any vision based entirely on intellectual and technological concepts that denies the need for any non-skilled labor. It seems somehow unrealistic to me, and perhaps cruel. Can't we build a system where a variety of skills come to the table to make this reading thing work? When people talk about the grand digital future, there seems to be a palpable excitement at dumping warehouses and printing machines, without any sense of the humans who work there. I don't think we should hold onto a broken system, but let's include these issues as we discuss the future. I understand the need to reduce certain costs, but how severely must we reduce employment?

I just don't want publishing to become even MORE of a rich person's game than it already is.

I'm also skeptical of how much Epstein's vision relies on the Espresso Book Machine. Follow that first footnote in the article, folks: he "helped found" this project, so there is a degree of self interest.

One idea jumped out at me and got me quite excited, and I'd like to think through the idea more in the coming weeks. As Epstein notes,

If I were a publisher today I would consider a renewable rental model for all e-book downloads—the "lending library" technique of the Depression era—that more accurately reflects the conditional relationship, enforced by digital rights management software, between content provider and end user.

Book rentals modeled too closely on Netflix seem a bit silly to me, but thinking digitally does make me kind of intrigued...

So read and comment, here or there. Epstein's article is certainly informed, bringing decades of experience into the discussion. I'll be curious to continue hearing how it's being received.

The Secret Pleasures of Browsing in a Bookstore.

Humans are wanderers. For centuries we, as a people, have enjoyed setting out into the world without a specific destination in mind. (How else to explain teen road trip movies?) Hundreds or maybe thousands of books have been written extolling the virtues of the wandering with a lineage stretching from Cabeza de Vaca's account of the unknown American wilderness in the early sixteenth century to Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian published in 1985 (and beyond I am sure). With the staggering statistic coming from the UN that half of the world's population now lives in a city, wandering (or being a flaneur or whatever) alone "with no direction home" (sorry, I couldn't help myself) is becoming harder and harder to do. There are too many people; we are all crowded together in urban areas in greater and greater concentrations. The last refuge for wandering? It could just be your local, independent bookstore. Browsing a bookstore's shelves without any idea of what you are looking for or, more importantly, what you hope to find is one of the last remaining acts of unfettered "wandering" we as urbanites can do in a city.

So it was with real joy that I found this piece in the Guardian (UK) newspaper today. Sam Jordison has found himself a real treasure while browsing in his local bookstore and couldn't help sharing it with everyone.

The shelves and tables, meanwhile, are mines of serendipitous treasures.

Recently I've picked up a book of excellent writing about Berlin and Len Deighton's hilarious Action Cookbook, but the book that really proves my point about the benefits of browsing is Robert Graves's Lars Porsena – On the Future of Swearing.

Although I've read a few other Graves books, I'd never heard of this odd sidenote in his prolific career. I would never have read it had its elegant cream cover not caught my eye in The Book Hive, but I'm very glad I did.

I know that exact emotion. I suspect that the regular readers of this blog do too. Everyone I know who loves books has a handful of titles they keep locked in their head in case they happen to find themselves in a store they've never been before and-by miracle or luck-the store has one of the titles you've been looking for for what seems like a lifetime. For me, strangely, it was the book The Double Bass by Patrick Suskind. Mr. Suskind is most famous for his novel Perfume which came out in the early eighties and has justly made him a steamer trunk full of money. The Double Bass is a play he wrote before Perfume and I wanted a copy. Badly. However, I wasn't even sure if it was a book. I just had a vague notion to spin by the drama section one more time just in case. Why? I am not really sure. I am not a huge drama guy nor do I read plays for enjoyment but I have always wanted to score a copy. Finally, one day that the Harvard Book Store, there it was. I almost missed it because it turns out to me a short little thing. I was overjoyed...but I still haven't read it. I guess it was just a fascination with have an author's complete literary output. Interestingly, I have never, ever seen another copy of the book and he has stopped listing it in his ad cards.

I have other books I have always wanted to find and the search goes on.

It is, in short, a fine piece of writing – and a useful historical document – smartly contained in less than 100 pages. If I hadn't popped into The Book Hive one morning I'd have missed it entirely.

Finally, I'm aware that I'm trying to have my cake and eat it by writing a blog that both recommends browsing as the best way to find a book – while also pressing a book on you. But I'm hoping I can redress the balance slightly by asking about the best books you've found by browsing alone. And if you can go and find a good one in your local independent in real time, so much the better.

Go. Visit your local store in the next few days and do so without one single idea of what you are looking for. Look at sections you've always ignored. Pick up the heavy art books and look at an artist you've only vaguely heard of. These are all acts of wandering in our time and you will feel better for it. Trust us.

Sam received 18 comments about books his readers have found. I think we can do better here at Survival of the Book. Please add your voice in the comments section of this post to let us know just what treasures you've found while wandering the shelves of distant and not-so-distant stores. Maybe there is something you found that you want-no, need-to share...and we need to read?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

This is cute.

I don't know what it means or why anyone would want to spend their time doing this but it is pretty cute.

"A team of publishing nerds hit the subways, streets, parks, & bars to find out what New Yorkers are reading now." Um, ok.


In case you are wondering:

Under The Volcano, Malcolm Lowry
(M, 40s, smart black glasses & short hair, Red Line train)

Writing, Reading, and Social Responsibility

Some reading this week has made me very happy, while other reading has made me very upset - no, not upset, angry.

Let's start with the happier of the two: Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Look, I know I'm late to this party. In fact I'm so late that I found a copy just sitting on the shelf at the Boston Public Library (which comes back in part II of this post - just to throw in that teaser). But I don't stay on top of contemporary fiction. I'm the first to admit that. I heard an English professor talking about this book and it reminded me that I've been meaning to read it, so I finally got off my ass and started the thing. I've been loving it. I expect to finish it in the next day or two.

I could go on and on about how masterfully I think Diaz handles this narrative - his mix of high and low language and culture in such a way that a part-time elitist/part-time slummer like me can enjoy it; his use of Spanglish that I find strangely non-obtrusive despite not speaking Spanish (didn't we all learn about "context clues" when learning to read?); his narrator's ability to be both sensitive and yet not wimpy, honest but not overly confessional. But what I want to mention here is something that Diaz may have done on purpose or may have just happened while he was crafting the rest of this narrative, bit by bit, phrase by phrase. Diaz has his characters in love with books.

[I should insert here that at the talk where a PhD discussed this book, a fellow academic wondered about teaching such a book, basically suggested that young Latino/as would not have "the resources" to understand it, but Diaz embeds in the book an argument against this potentially racist and certainly ignorant reaction.]

The main character, Oscar, loves comic books and sci-fi and fantasy, reading them and writing up manuscript after manuscript. His sister, too, loves books - she remembers not wanting to give back a borrowed copy of Watership Down as a kid, and asks Oscar to bring her her clothes and her books, when she has run away as a teenager. Later, a jock character, a weightlifter who kind of befriends Oscar, mentions writing fiction, though he admits, it was "all robberies and drug deals and Fuck you, Nando, and BLAU! BLAU! BLAU!" The point is that reading and writing is a part of these lives, an integral part. It is not pointed out so pointedly, just set into the narrative naturally, giving us a useful glimpse into something more interior than all the dialogue, all the action.

And now the stuff that annoyed me: bad news for Boston libraries. The BPL is facing a severe budget crunch, folks: "Library officials say they face a $3.6 million shortfall next year because of anticipated state budget cuts and a small reduction in funding from the city." Way too severe.

The Boston Public Library is considering closing up to 10 of its neighborhood branches and laying off one-quarter of its staff, cuts that would irrevocably alter America’s oldest municipally funded library system.

This is a nightmare. And good ol' ingrained Mayor Menino's comments did not help me feel better, as quoted in this article:

“Closing branches should be our last resort,’’ said Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who met for three hours earlier this week with the library president. “But I think the library also has to have a transformation in how they serve the public. . . . In the last 25 years, technology has become a more important factor.’’

See my previous post. I mean, he doesn't even seem to know what he's saying. The digital movement cannot lead us to believe that we are wasting money by preserving and storing actual printed books! That is crazy. Take this out of the context that digital diehards have forced it into, and you'll see that a library, with actual books, with quiet space, with trained librarians, can offer a uniquely situated, incredibly important sanctuary to nurture the inner life Diaz alludes to in his novel, an inner life threatened by the technological invasions to our lives - cellphones, iphones, blackberries, televisions in elevators and over escalators in the mall, computers glowing at every desk, ads running on screens in the check-out line. We are doing ourselves a massive disservice by cutting funds to libraries in this tough economic moment.

And this isn't even to mention the loss of jobs at the library!

I don't know how to organize against this, but I'm certainly open to suggestions. I know the ALA hosts the I Love Libraries group, but I don't know if they do actions on a local level. Anyone?

We need to allow kids and adults the time, space, and resources to discover their own interests, outside of ads and other corporate-driven crap. This is too important to ignore.

Monday, February 15, 2010

You Go To the Library to Read

Some might argue that this simple statement regarding libraries is all that needs to define them. They need to be places to read, regardless of what you're reading and how you're reading it. The NY Times recently posted students' comments about the debate going on in the library world about how to handle the cost of storing printed books and the need to keep up with the world of electronic books. I found the student comments, truth be told, only mildly interesting, but the article that prompted this forum had more more to offer me and perhaps the readers of this blog.

The Editors at the Times brought the following folks together in a forum, with each contributing their thoughts regarding Cushing Academy's decision to move books out of their library, focusing the space instead on meetings and more things digital. Here are the participants:

Each participant wrote a short piece about the need to move libraries toward a more digital future or concerns about how this kind of "progress" is happening. It's worth noting Tracy's point, that printed books were not just thrown out, but instead,
We, therefore, invited the chairmen of our academic departments to comb the stacks; books deemed worthy of retention were distributed to respective departments, while those not selected were donated to local nonprofits and public schools.
This is a fair distinction, but the red flags do not disappear with such an explanation. What of cross-pollination, when a student researching the Civil Rights era for a history class comes across a novelization of a rally in the library, as part of a display created by a librarian? That option is gone if the history books are with the history department and the novels are all with the English department.

Tracy says that the library space, freed of all those dusty ol' tomes, "has become a hub where students and faculty gather, learn and explore together." I'm all for coming together and all that jazz, but I'm also for having authoritative texts available. Look, I have no doubt that the Cushing faculty are smart folks, but they don't know everything. Students - just like the rest of us - need quiet space to explore, without heavy-handed direction, without strict boundaries, without endless chatter - either in person, on their phone, on the corner of their screen as someone tries to IM them. They don't necessarily need more time with teacher; they may need more time alone.

Some other responders in this list really make fine arguments in support of printed books, without demonizing e-readers or e-books. For example, librarian Gray makes a simple point that immediately calls to mind why I've always loved reading:

The digital natives in our schools need to have the experience of getting lost in a physical book, not only for the pure pleasure but also as a way to develop their attention spans, ability to concentrate, and the skill of engaging with a complex issue or idea for an uninterrupted period of time.

I know, predictable, but I still believe she's right. I won't claim to be objective. Gray also mentions her skills as a librarian, which are too often overlooked or forced in a less valuable direction by those racing toward the supposed all-digital future.

Nicholas Carr won me over early, by stating provocatively that, "if we care about the depth of our intellectual and cultural lives, we’ll see that emptying our libraries of books is not an example of progress. It’s an example of regress." Of course, he's right, and he makes a pretty airtight argument.

When we read from the screen of a multifunctional computing device, whether it’s a PC, a Smartphone, a Kindle, or an iPad, we sacrifice that singlemindedness. Our attention is scattered by all the distractions and interruptions that pour through our computers and digital networks. The result, a raft of psychological and neurological studies show, is cursory reading, weak comprehension and shallow learning.

If you made it through that paragraph without skimming, jumping to another page, reading an email or IM, or answering a text or call, then you probably get his point.
William Powers offers something a bit more nuanced, an argument I try to get behind at moments when I want to be part of what will work, rather than go against the inevitable. (But I fear I'm being weak in those moments, truth be told.) He finds a middle ground in which we do great damage by throwing out books in our rush to go digital, making the analogy to cars and rail. Cars didn't kill the railroad, and in fact, we are kicking ourselves for the damage it did do, when cars were given so much consideration that, in places, we tore up railway lines.

But I don't think I'm being weak in agreeing with Powers here. I'll quote him at length, as I think he makes a point about books needing to survive even as we seek out new frontiers with reading and writing:

What are often considered the weaknesses of the old-fashioned book are in some ways its strengths. For instance, a physical book works with the body and mind in ways that more readily produce the deep-dive experience that is reading at its best. When you read on a two-dimensional screen, your mind spends a lot of energy just navigating, keeping track of where you are on the page and in the text. The tangibility of a traditional book allows the hands and fingers to take over much of the navigational burden: you feel where you are, and this frees up the mind to think.

Moreover, I believe that in a hyper-connected age, the fact that books are not connected to the electronic grid is becoming their greatest asset. They’re a space apart, a private place away from the inbox where we can go to quiet our minds and reflect. Isn’t that the state in which the best kind of learning occurs?

This seems reasonable, even if it's not what some of us want to hear. Let the folks desperate to bring 50 "books" with them on a plane get the reading device and upload away and glory in "page" after "page," but don't bother me as a I quietly turn paper page after paper page in the seat next to you.

One thing that I was annoyed not to see in all of these responses is the commercial question of these devices. Kindle is clearly a monopoly, and other readers are claiming to allow for more variations in the kinds of documents one can read. But we're talking about kids in libraries here. Isn't this a bit like selling all soda in the cafeteria, b/c hey, that's what kids want, but maybe making it diet so it's not quite as bad? Or letting kids play videogames in PE because they just don't like balls and fields anymore? On some level, I kind of feel like looking at children and telling them to pipe down - a term my brother used often growing up - and read for more than two seconds. They'll be better for it. They will be develop their own interests and be able to concentrate for more than ten seconds and will value alone time. They'll grumble when told to read a book, and then, at least a few of them, they won't be able to stop.

I'd like to believe that kids, like adults, value time without a buzzing screen. If they have to work so hard to find a physical book while electronic devices are readily available - devices so similar to what is being advertised to them and pushed on them constantly - when will they ever get into books, and what will that mean for books, for thinking, for personalities going forward? What will this mean for, as Carr says, "the depth of our intellectual and cultural lives?"

PS Today's Boston Globe has a short Q&A with Tufts professor Maryanne Wolf, Director of the Tufts University Center for Reading and Language Research, by Karen Weintraub. Wolf mentions some concerns with young people's reading, influenced so heavily by digital media. It's not just their reading, but their brains and their way of relating to books and other media. She offers her own solution to the constant inundation of ads and digital distractions, and it's a charming and very smart concept:

I begin the day and I end the day with an hour that is completely free of anything that is professionally demanding - using e-mail or Internet or anything. I end with literature, books that console and uplift, but require me to slow down. I want to begin my day and end it with a pause button of my own choice.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Polibrity Update: Scott Brown

Last month, I promised to occasionally provide a "polibrity update" on those figures who pretend to be politicians but who really only want the spotlight. Their heart is in celebrity culture. Sarah Palin of course represents this trend perhaps more than anyone.

But wait, a dark horse in the race! Yes, folks, Massachusetts' own Senator... oh god... newly elected Scott Brown has his eyes looking ahead. He has had a taste of celebrity. Like blood to a vampire, folks: he had one taste, and now it's all he thinks about.

The latest proof of this conversion to polibrity comes from our own hometown paper, the Boston Globe, where Matt Viser reports that Brown is going to start shopping around a book proposal. Why wouldn't he? This is a man who has seen things you can only imagine... including green rooms, limousines, he's even stood behind a podium with a number of, um, cameras and microphones pointed at him. He has spoken to big rooms full of mostly pasty and mildly sweaty white Republicans. He has seen things you wouldn't even know. He has to write a book.

As the kids used to say, I just threw up in my mouth a little bit.

Viser does a nice job unpacking this phenomenon, quoting literary agent Howard Yoon of the Gail Ross Literary Agency in DC (who is *not* representing Brown, for the record): “For a lot of these politicians a book is a need-to-have . . . This is just one more thing in his portfolio that he and his advisers feel that he needs to have to be a respected politician.’’ That's obviously true, and Brown clearly has ambition. But is the order right here? It is if you consider the book will not be a political memoir alone, but rather an autobiography. No, seriously. Says Wiser of what the book may include: "a tumultuous childhood, with both parents married three times; sternly lectured by a judge at age 12 for shoplifting LPs including a Black Sabbath record; posing nude for Cosmopolitan magazine; and riding a wave of populist anger to snatch Edward M. Kennedy’s seat from the Democrats." This is not to show his knowledge of politics, but to provide a backstory for his celebrity profile.

Fear not, though, he will hire a writer to help. Wait, he can't write?! Oh no, he can, sure, he's just too busy. Says spokeswoman Gail Gitcho of Brown, quoted by Viser, "Senator Brown will work with a collaborator so he can continue to focus fully on his service to the people of Massachusetts, which is, and always will be, his first priority." News for Brown: voting against Craig Becker, a union attorney, for a position on the National Labor Relations Board is NOT voting in my interest, and a phonecall to your office today will confirm this point. And PS, you're getting a writer because you would probably struggle with a "tweet," much less a whole manuscript. Why would anyone believe you could write a book, but are just too busy?

As noted, Yoon is not the agent. Brown has retained Robert Barnett. Sound familiar? According to his bio on his firm's website,

Mr. Barnett is one of the premier authors' representatives in the world. His clients have included Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bob Woodward, Lynne Cheney, Alan Greenspan, James Patterson, Katharine Graham, Tim Russert, Stephen White, George Will, Art Buchwald, James Carville, Mary Matalin, William Bennett, Cokie Roberts, several former U.S. Secretaries of State, numerous U.S. Senators, Tony Blair of the United Kingdom, Queen Noor of Jordan, Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, and many others, including journalists, novelists, business leaders, public figures, politicians, and others.

Fascinating. This man does not discriminate. In fact, he is really driving the polibrity train! And I have to point out James Patterson on this list. A fascinating profile of him by Jonathan Mahler in the NY Times Magazine shows that this is not a human, but a walkin', talkin' brand. Mahler reports,

Patterson and his publisher, Little, Brown & Co., a division of the Hachette Book Group, have an unconventional relationship. In addition to his two editors, Patterson has three full-time Hachette employees (plus assistants) devoted exclusively to him: a so-called brand manager who shepherds Patterson’s adult books through the production process, a marketing director for his young-adult titles and a sales manager for all his books.

In addition, he has many folks helping him write these things. Again, Mahler,

TO MAINTAIN HIS frenetic pace of production, Patterson now uses co-authors for nearly all of his books. He is part executive producer, part head writer, setting out the vision for each book or series and then ensuring that his writers stay the course.

This is kind of what makes folks like me and Christopher sad. I mean yes, his are not the kinds of books we read, and yes it helps independent bookstores, but the books are such products that, I don't know, it feels like watering down the quality of books across the board. It's so corporate, so manufactured. There's no spark of life to it, but rather staged, mass produced tripe. Will it inspire other writers to try, or will it inspire businesspeople to work up strategies to sell a new franchise to the masses? Or am I overthinking this and being elitist?

But this all ties together. Polibrity books fall into the same category as Patterson - maybe not on the bookstore shelf, but in the minds of publishers. They are potential moneymakers. Mahler's article gets into this in quite a smart way. These books become the "blockbusters," allowing for new authors to get out there without as much risk, but this model is faltering. Like bonuses to Wall Street execs, the massive advances paid out to polibrities like Brown should not be taken lightly, as they cannot be so easily written off when Brown turns into a Gerald Ford rather than a Barack Obama.

But try telling that to Robert Barnett, who is cashing in. He actually sees publishing as a lucrative business. I mean, wtf is up with that? For those of us in the trenches, we read manuscripts and design books and think of creative marketing strategies late into the night, without counting on a big paycheck.

Is there room in the industry for fatcats and fatter advances, or do we need to level this playing field to make a more sustainable future for publishing?

Don't ask Scott Brown - he's too busy representing me in Congress. Egads....

Monday, February 08, 2010

Pursuant to Brian's post... are two links about gender and reading. 1) from author Claire Messud about "women's literature" from the journal Guernica and 2) a '07 piece from Eric Weiner on NPR about "Why Women Read More Than Men."

I hope both of these two things help further the discussion about the superbowl ad, the piece by Edward Campion, and Brian's incredibly thoughtful response. Are these two links directly related to the sexist nature of the Bud Light ad? No, but they should help to fill in the background.

Can Superbowl ads be sexist and anti-books?!

The answer to the headline question is... quite possibly.

Edward Campion of the "Reluctant Habits" blog takes care of some business in this post on the rampant misogyny found in the ads that ran during this year's Superbowl. In particular, a Bud Light ad had a man join a meeting of a women's book club just because they had beer. The gals then describe the book they are reading - about women living through a war they don't understand - while the man sexualizes every word, showing his interest is only in the beer and the women as objects. It ends with a painfully stupid joke about Little Women. But overall, the men are in sports uniforms and the women are in a book club.

I just have to run this excerpt about the underlying message of this asinine ad - an ad so worthless that I won't even link it here, though it's posted on Campion's site. His words:

Here then is the ad’s anti-women and anti-reading worldview: Women, no matter what their goals, aspirations, or interests, have no other role in society other than getting fucked by men. Let women have their “little” book clubs, which can be easily interrupted on a masculine whim and which women will never dare object to. They will set everything aside to give you head or to serve you beer.

And, by the way, if you’re a man, you don’t even need to read to get ahead in the world. (Indeed, one of the commercial’s curious philosophical positions is that one cannot both enjoy beer — at least the stuff better than the undrinkable swill that is being sold in this commercial — and books. Speaking as a man who enjoys beer, books, and football, and who finds intelligent women far sexier than empty-headed centerfolds, I happily refute these stereotypes through my very existence.)

But is that really the worldview at play?

It's interesting to note the conflation of reading - vs playing sports here - and women - versus beer-swilling men here. What gets lost is that the women were seemingly ready to swig some of these beers on their own while discussing this book, which, if one is to trust the description read to this loser guy, is a weak, sentimental yarn. One could wonder if the women were just using this uninteresting description to get rid of the guy so he wouldn't steal their beer. All the same, the women lose as the men invade the club - just for the beer, and possibly for the sex. (Beer goggles anyone?!)

But why, one might ask, must reading only be seen as a feminized past-time, only done by middle class women in sensible sweaters who sit inside tastefully appointed living rooms on sunny days? I might argue that it's not the reading that's the feminized activity, but the talking about reading. In that case, it's still misogynistic for many reasons, but reading is less the target. Let's face it, even guys who like to drink beer and like to read - like myself, like Christopher, like Campion - don't necessarily want to sit around and talk about how we feel about each book we read. And who cares?

I don't want to soften Campion's rant at all, which I enjoyed and which was important to get out there. (Nice to see it picked up by Galleycat.) I just want to try and preserve the idea of some gals sitting in a circle with beers on ice by their side talking about books, without the man. In the moment right before the commercial starts, those women were pretty badass, even if they get clipped out of the framed moment by moronic advertisers who always try appealing to the lowest common denominator.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Goings On in a World in Transition

The changes happening in publishing - in economic models, in technology, in rights - are overwhelming. One could spend one's life trying to follow this mess, and I suppose some do. Here at SotB, we seek out understandable chunks and, if possible, pass them to you in some form.

With this in mind, I had to link to author John Scalzi's amusing play about the modern state of publishing, from an author's perspective, as posted on his long-running blog, Whatever. The play, entitled Why In Fact Publishing Will Not Go Away Anytime Soon: A Deeply Slanted Play in Three Acts, is about a writer being given horrendous advice on how best to publish his novel - by self-publishing - in the modern age. It shows how the exploitation of labor happens and the quality control lost due to this exploitation. It's a quick read but nicely brings up many of the issues of great concern to us and many of you.

Over at MobyLives, Meg Halpern has posted on these ridiculous MacBook covers that are made to look like old books. As the company, TwelveSouth, readily admits, it's a way of hiding something of great value in something, sadly, of little value to most people:
Tucked inside BookBook, no one will ever see your MacBook, even when it’s right under their nose. Sitting on a coffee table, dorm room or desk, BookBook looks like a vintage piece of literature, not an expensive laptop. It’s a great disguise and a simple way to reduce the risk of your MacBook getting stolen.
Can't argue with that.
A novel way to cover MacBook.

So as the work of modern book designers gets devalued by authors in the current age, as demonstrated in Scalzi's satire, book design of a past age gets replicated for new technology. \

It's a mad, mad, mad, mad, mad world, folks.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Alumni magazines?

Ok, who the hell reads their alumni magazine? I know that there are good hearted, well intentioned people who put them together but usually my UMass Amherst Magazine goes right into the recycling. Doesn't yours? I suppose if I had attended Harvard or some such I'd be interested in just which rapacious, capitalist machine my former roommate in Wigglesworth Hall was being named as CFO of, but otherwise? No thanks. Alright, I do check the Obits to see if any of my classmates have died but that is all. Seriously. Until now. This must be a case of why one should never claim that there is no such thing as a five-legged cow. The instant one does, boom!, you are driving along and see a five-legged oreo cow.

The cover story on this week's?, month's, quarter's? (what the hell is the publishing schedule of these things anyway?) issue of UMass Amherst Magazine is "The Secret Life of Books." In it, writer Eric Goldscheider ('93), takes a look at the job being done by Head of Special Collections and University Archives, Mr. Robert Cox. Right now, Cox is responsible for "the largest print-to-digital conversion project in the history of the campus, managing the transfer of the 100,000 piece W.E.B. Du Bois Library collection to electronic media." (Snooze.) However, that is not what interested me and what will be, I think, of interest to the 6 of you reading Survival of the Book is that Cox also decided to launch a project called The History of the Book Teaching Collection. It will be:

"...a teaching collection to illuminate book design, production, and distribution in support of curricula in history, literature, and art. Students could smell and touch 500-year-old paper, smack in the midst of the library's ever growing cache of electronic texts."

Pretty cool. The message of the collection is that notions of what a book is may be changing but that "students need to understand that those mythical objects called books were far more diverse than the museum pieces and limited editions found in most book-history collections," said Robert Cox. Indeed,

"Nowadays, when most people hear the word "book," they still tend to think of a printed, bound set of (usually) paper pages. But the notion of a "book" is now a jumping-off point for an evolving repertoire of modern reading tools, from e-textbooks to "vooks"--electronic books with embedded video. Though paper is a 2,000-year-old technology, (a highly portable revelation that followed cumbersome clay tablets), books can now be read on touch screens and e-readers, such as Kindles (God help us - Ed.)"

In a quick conversation I had with Mr. Cox, he said that part of the impetus for assembling this collection is that young people, in particular, are becoming "more and more distanced" from the book as a object and vehicle for information with all the concomitant ramifications that will have for our society and our culture. Additionally, the electronic/printed divide (as well as how young people utilize information) has become a site for study by the academy in and of itself:

"Academics," writes Goldscheider, "actively question the impact of electronic texts--on brains, on learning, on pedagogy. This year, an Amazon-supported trial of Kindles in classrooms at seven universities showed that many students and teachers still prefer old-fashioned bound-paper books because they can write in the margins, bend pages, add stickies, and locate passages more easily. E-readers are an emerging technology, so these shortfalls will likely be addressed in subsequent versions. Especially in education, electronic texts, which offer endless opportunities for layered reading and self-directed learning through instant cross-referencing, can trump old-fashioned books. Printed books stand as more or less finished statements and sentiments; they ask for reflection and response more so than interaction. In contrast, readers of electronic texts actively navigate a complex web, often writing or changing texts themselves along the way."

The collection, which is still being cataloged, is growing. Cox received a early donation of approximately 75 books from UMass librarian Barbara Parker which "illustrates the history of printing, binding, and book design dating from 1493 through 1900." The library has a small budget to buy more materials as they come along but this isn't going to be a dry history that follows a simple time line. "First, we wrote on stones; then we created movable type; then someone invented ink, blah, blah, blah." The focus of the collection is more on what people thought of when they thought of books. What did people of different times, economic situations, and cultural experiences across time think about when presented with a "book?"

"Humble, everyday texts play an important role in book history, which is why, explains cox the the libraries have a particular interest in collection books printed in rural and small-town New England. "They're what average people of the time thought of when they heard the word book.""

So what is stopping you from going by? I mean, how cool is this?:

"On the 25th floor of the library you can hold in your hands a rare 1676 edition of Thomas Hobbes's translation of the work of the Greek historian Thucydides. Handsomely bound in leather...the paper, made from pulped rags, still feels like cloth, dimpled and almost ready for ironing; these pages cannot be riffled, but must be lovingly turned. The ink, with lampblack as a key component, is remarkably dense. Run your finger over a page and you can feel the impression left by metal type."

Awesome, right?!?

"The current exhibition is not quite up and running just yet," says Cox, "but the materials are open to the public and, even though things aren't completely cataloged yet, we won't turn anyone away." Now, Cox said that it would be difficult to accommodate groups of more than 20 but anyone who comes up to the 25th floor will get to see, smell, touch, and yes, read the materials that make up the beginnings of this incredibly cool project.

The special collections hours are as follows:

Monday through Friday, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., except major holidays. SCUA will be closed when the W.E.B. Du Bois Library is closed. If you are planning a visit from a distance, please contact us in advance to verify that the department will be open. A small number of collections are stored off site and advance notice will expedite service.

Directions to the UMass campus can be found here. If you go, tell Mr. Cox that you heard about this on Survival of the Book...just for larfs. I think I write for Brian as well when I write that we editors of SotB can't wait to get out there and see this for ourselves.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Amazon does Crazy Again, Macmillan Fights Back

We are not real journalists here at SotB, which most of you know. We don't go out investigating stories, doing interviews, issuing reports... we have full-time jobs that justify our reading industry pubs, but don't necessarily justify our writing at length about hot topics du jour. But then something huge happens and I feel the need to at least put it out there for you, reader, in case you are stuck in some kind of cave and only have access to this item in your Google Reader. When you can get your browser to go to BookNinja, we're here to give you what we can.

With that in mind, I feel obligated to mention the rapid weekend firestorm that occurred in the last few days, when Amazon and Macmillan went at each other's throats, claws and fangs out. Shelf Awareness, as ever, does a fine job summing up the whole thing, so follow the link to read up on how it all went down.

I was particularly disturbed by this news, which I had not heard elsewhere:
The Macmillan ban went beyond Amazon's website: reportedly without notice to Kindle owners, Amazon went into the devices and removed Macmillan titles from wish lists and removed sample chapters of Macmillan titles. This move was reminiscent of the retailer's quiet pulling last year of some e-titles whose copyrights were in question (Shelf Awareness, July 19, 2009).
Yikes. That's f'ed up, y'all.

Another one of my favorite blogs, MobyLives, posted Macmillan CEO John Sargent's letter to authors and agents, re: Amazon, in full. More recently, this blog, too, offered an update to the madness.

So rather than report on this news at length, I'll provide those links and promise that someday soon, Christopher and I will have more thoughtful comments about Amazon's monopolistic evil. For now, I'll only say that this comment from Amazon's most recent press release truly disturbed me:
We don’t believe that all of the major publishers will take the same route as Macmillan. And we know for sure that many independent presses and self-published authors will see this as an opportunity to provide attractively priced e-books as an alternative.
The fatcats at Amazon, as usual, are missing the point. Self-published authors and indie presses that go into the book market just looking to push more product? Really? They ain't selling mops, they're selling books, written by people in a way, some of us hope, that is imaginative, innovative, new, edgy, honest, powerful... But Amazon winks at those authorpreneurs out there, if you will, and says, "Here's your chance to beat publishers like Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Metropolitan, St. Martin's, and more! Just sell your stuff cheaper and everyone will forget the names Jamaica Kincaid, Czeslaw Milosz, Flannery O'Connor, and Philip Gourevitch. HA! Just markdown your products and you'll leave those pathetic editors and their 'big name,' 'talented' authors in the dust!"

Apparently, #amazonfail is not just a 2009 thing...

PS / Addendum
I just have to post a link to this wonderful piece by Kit Eaton over at Fast Company, which opens beautifully:
There's one clear conclusion falling out of the ridiculous Amazon versus Macmillan books debacle that played out this weekend: Amazon really doesn't care about you, in fact it kinda hates you--pretty much whoever you are.
Here here! Be sure to click over to get a smart take on a dismal moment in bookselling.