Monday, March 28, 2011

Um, paging Dr. Freud!!!

It goes like this: a blogger gives a book a poor review and the author sees said bad review and posts a comment about the review in defense of her book. That's that, right? All over. Wrong. So wonderfully wrong. Next, instead of taking her lumps, all HELL BREAKS LOOSE with the author, Jacqueline Howett, throwing a temper tantrum, posting comment after comment after comment after comment and, in effect, challenging the blogger to a pissing contest. Absolutely fabulous. No, that's not right, it's perfect. It. Is. Perfect. Go watch the catfight happen right now...


This is the cover.

That is all.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Fallacy of "the System"

With great trepidation, I went to see Tod Machover's Death and the Powers: The Robot's Opera, a production of the American Repertory Theater playing at the Cutler Majestic here in Boston. I may be a nerd, but I'm not really a geek. For example, the video art on display by Stan VanderBeek at MIT's List Visual Arts Center left me cold. I could see that it was inventive, but the chirping and blinking overwhelmed me and it all felt void of emotion. Call me middle brow, but I want at least a touch of sentimentalism in my art, it seems, or some kind of feeling. (That same day, I went up to see Tufts University's gallery show, Seductive Subversions: Women Pop Artists, 1958-1968, which was amazing. I was happily introduced to a number of great artists, including the hilarious May Wilson, but I digress...)

I went into this opera expecting a similar chilly production, with cleverness outweighing emotional resonance. Perhaps it helped that poet Robert Pinsky did the libretto. The music was beautiful and the performances - especially the two female leads, Emily Albrink and Sara Heaton, who truly stole the show - were simple, and powerful, and felt very honest. The technology at work - which you can hear more about here - was incredible, but again, if that were laid on heavy without care and consideration to these other parts, it would have failed, at least by my standards. But what made me think of this blog were the themes. A bit on the story.

The opera is about a wealthy man who is dying. He decides to put himself into his own belongings, downloading himself into "the System," represented by lit walls that become characters. His family - his wife and his daughter (from another mother) - must determine whether he is still alive, when he is part of the system and not in human, or "organic" as they say, form.

Of course, like any good opera or artwork in general, the play brought up many questions and led to many connections in my mind, but one issue that rose to the surface was how much we represent ourselves in digital form, whether on blogs, or Twitter, or Facebook, or IMs and emails, or text messages. In some ways, we are putting ourselves into "the System" to push past the limitations of our bodies to be in multiple places at once. I emailed a friend and her boyfriend recently, knowing she was in Taiwan, traveling. I got a text message from her, and I asked if she was back. She wasn't, but the news I gave her upset her so she texted. (It shouldn't have upset, but that's another story entirely.) The point is, she had to be in Taiwan seeing family without missing the daily dramas that unfold back home.

But as many have noted, communication and reltionships suffer with this need for constant connection. In an article in today's Boston Globe, reporter Beth Teitel writes about teens getting worn out from all night texting. (Admittedly, it's a bit of a media-hysteria piece. And btw, why the F did the Globe file it this way, "
  • HOME /
  • "? Lame, Globe, really lame.) Now let me herd this story back to the point of this blog: if you need to be in many places at once and cannot be alone - one teen says “When you don’t have your phone, you feel incomplete’ - then how can you possibly READ A BOOK?!

    And yes, I know that reading articles online, or blog posts like this one (for you 8 people reading), or ebooks on dedicated devices, is all still reading, but it is reading differently. When I read an article online at work, using Google Chrome as my browser, I find myself taking breaks in the text to look at the other tabs, to see if I have a new email. I may get interrupted by an IM on gmail or facebook. For anything I want to retain, I have to print the article out and read it on paper, without these distractions - and even then, my phone is close by to deliver text messages, 99.8% of which do not require any immediate response. My attention is pulled in various directions. This makes concentration difficult.

    At the end of Death and the Powers, which sadly is no longer running in Boston as it was a truly exquisite production, the daughter Miranda must decide whether to go and spend eternity with her father as part of "the System" or whether to remain organic, and face death eventually. The libretto raises these fascinating questions of what we sacrifice if we have complete efficiency - with no death, do you appreciate life? With unlimited memory, how do you choose what to think of if no memory is lost? Without struggle, what to appreciate? Without suffering, how do you appreciate relief?

    I'm not trying to be simplistic (sometimes I can't help it). But if my books are just files on my computer, do I appreciate themas much? Do I look at the ones I've read and feel satisfied, maybe even smug, and proud? Do I look at the ones I have yet to read, as I'm doing right now (The Talented Miss Highsmith by Joan Schenkar, Triomf by Marlene Van Kiekerk, Fidelity by Grace Paley, etc) and feel thrilled with anticipation of what I'll find?

    Because blinking files on a desktop or on a handheld device don't hold that allure. And to me, as of now, the convenience of that system, versus the supposed inefficiency of printed book, is not worth it. Because when I'm reading that book, without any access to the internet, without any blinking names or alerts to messages, I get into an alternate, interior world. The physicality of that book, disconnected from a buzzing network of needy voices trying to give an opinion, or sing a song, or be clever, is protection. It's very limitations are also its strengths, and in the interest of convenience - like the wealthy man in the opera - we are throwing out those limitations without thinking through what's to come, and what may be lost.

    Monday, March 21, 2011

    Shocking Blogger Revelation

    I hate to say it, but it seems... Christopher and I are Pluggers (tm).


    Sunday, March 20, 2011

    Disturbing look at dead library

    I was rather shocked to watch the video and see the photos posted over at deTROITfuUNK, of the now deceased Mark Twain Library. The images are a powerful look at what could happen in other communities if we allow the government to cut funding and close branches of public libraries. I'm not saying they must stay as is, but they need our support - as communities, and from the government.

    I tried to get a bit of a back story and discovered that a "Mark Twain annex" opened at a church in 1998. I wondered if they just never fixed the original building. I know nothing about Detroit so I was not familiar with the situation there.

    In the comments section, someone named Eastside Al gives the real story, apparently, which makes the tragedy of these images all the more frustrating:

    I’m horrified by these pictures of what was the library of my childhood. I spent many happy hours sitting and reading in the children’s room here while my mother tended to other business in the grown-up books section or at the nearby Sears store.

    I’m also furiously angry. The reason why there are so many books left here and so much furniture is that this library was only supposed to be temporarily closed. The people in the neighborhood just wanted the roof and the heat repaired swiftly, but the DPL insisted that they should do a major renovation and that we’d all have a beautiful like-new library when they were done in about a year. If anyone here remembers the late ’90s “empowerment zone” years, the money seemed to be there to do it then.

    Well, a year dragged out to 2 then 3, and little progress was made. There were apparently “contractor problems” Some of the books were moved to the “annex” library in a nearby church hall, after people in the area complained and complained. And then asbestos was “discovered” (what, they didn’t know it was going to be there in a 70 year old building?) which was used as an excuse to discontinue all work. We were all promised that this stoppage would be temporary too, while they worked out a plan to deal with the asbestos. Yeah, right.

    Then the building sat… and sat… and sat… and the library people and the city stopped answering our calls, and acted like they’d never heard of the building when we did get ahold of them. The interior got progressively more damaged by the original problem that had never been fixed – a leaking roof – and then, of course, the scrappers and ‘explorers’ came, and it ended up in the state you see today.

    This city can make me so sick sometimes.
    The blogger later notes, in the comments:
    And for the historical record, the building bears his name in direct commemoration of the man – by that I mean he was given the honor in person. His daughter Clara Clemons (she was married to the director of the DSO) lived in Boston Edison, and Mark Twain was therefore a person who was associated with Detroit during that time period. I believe the building itself deserves historic protection due to its history, as well as being a Wirt Rowland design.
    Here in Boston, Mayor Menino once again threatened library closures in January, after failing to get any closed last year. The same is happening in Los Angeles and surely other cities.

    I've said it before - we should take a lesson from the Brits, whose libraries are under general threat, and organize a strong resistance.

    Monday, March 14, 2011

    An opportunity for bloggers

    I recently heard from a friend of mine, Felicia Pride, who has become a one-woman force in publishing as founder of Backlist, about this opportunity, which I'm passing along. (I feel comfortable doing so as it's supported by public television station WETA out of DC.)

    (PS: Remember to support public broadcasting!)


    Are you a bibliophile who loves the smell of print, but can’t deny a growing affair with your Kindle? Do you love to converse about your favorite books and their connection to the broader world? Perhaps you think reading is more than fundamental—it is a cornerstone of society.

    If you want to grace the masses with your witty and smart writings about books, technology, and culture, we’d like to connect with you.

    inReads will be a new online home and social community for those of us who love books and can’t get enough talking about them, but also recognize the myriad of ways that reading is changing—young, cool, and plugged in nerds who listen to NPR, read the New York Times daily, have diverse, yet refined literary tastes, but also engage with the highs and lows of pop culture.

    inReads is a production of WETA, the Washington DC public television, media and radio entity, and the producer of such notable works as the films of Ken Burns, In Performance at the White House and Washington Week with Gwen Ifill and National Journal.

    We’re looking for writers, bloggers, book/product reviewers, and content producers who want a platform to riff on all things books, technology and culture in a thought-provoking and entertaining way. Our content won’t take itself too seriously. Serious is for the other guys.

    We want content of all types—from text to video to audio—and we like when they’re paired together. We’re slated to launch in March.

    Interested? Send us a few links to your work online and include some pitches for stories via email: We look forward to the possibilities.

    Saturday, March 12, 2011

    Authors, liberate yourselves

    As I've written here before, I'm increasingly frustrated by this black/white divide between big publishing and self-publishing. Authors have more options than this. Self-publishing companies, out to make big bucks off the backs of authors who feel they'd be better off just doing it themselves rather than waiting around for some uppity editor to tap them on the shoulder for a dance, are ratcheting up the rhetoric with every new ad, article, and post they manage to get out there. As with most things put out there as black & white, there are valuable issues lost in the gray in between. (This is not the case with all issues, of course, such as the Wisconsin nightmare wherein a lunatic governor, Scott Walker, is showing blatant disregard for workers by doing all he can to kill collective bargaining, but as a proud union member, I digress...)

    I was reminded of this frustrating dichotomy with the slideshow/ad producted by Smashwords, the self-publisher, as featured at the Scholarly Kitchen. In this slideshow, which I'm not going to reproduce on this page, the good folks at Smashwords compare the author revolution, as they see it, to the revolution in Egypt. Yes, folks, *this* is heightened rhetoric. They see authors as needing to break down the gates that keep them out of being published by self-publishing. They have a list of ways in which self-publishing - with Smashwords perhaps? - is liberating.

    The points they make about the problems with "big publishing" are valid, but their conclusion, I would argue, is not always so. In fact, their manner of phrasing the problems and their use of these problems is... well, problematic. One reason you should self-publish your work as an e-book? Bricks and mortar stores are disappearing. Uncool, Smashwords. They're not disappearing, and in fact some of us hope to see a resurgence as Borders pulls back, leaving some communities in need of a bookstore. They also see "oppression of creative freedom," which they then paraphrase as "you suck and don't deserve to publish until publishers tell you otherwise." This is where a red flag went up for me, as Smashwords is obviously playing on the insecurity of writers and their frustration at rejection letters. I get that frustration, but this is cheap and easy exploitation.

    They then talk about the joys of self-publishing, which can be reduced to you're in control and you'll get more money.

    What I have long complained about in regards to this rhetoric is the lack of collective benefit. (Note the tangent above, re: unions and collective bargaining...) They are saying to authors, hey, you're sitting at home like an a-hole collecting rejection letters. Eff that, right? There is a world of money and creativity and a market waiting to be tapped! Do it for YOU! Let the publishers keep publishing Snooki - ha ha, right?!

    But what about independent, non-profit presses? What about presses that publish to a mission and support creative voices, alongside one another? What about finding a group - or even making your own group by starting your own press - that thinks along similar lines, such as The Nervous Breakdown did/is doing. Or find a leader who is committed to publishing and whose aesthetic fits yours - you'd be damn lucky if that person were Richard Nash, for example (an SotB favorite).

    Self-publishing works for many people and that's fine, but I hope many of the desperate, vulnerable, over-worked and non-paid writers out there looking to publish their work think through all this advertising being thrown at them by self-publishers. I know models are changing, but we need to beware of changes that become potentially exploitative, especially when there are opportunities to make a positive difference.

    Thursday, March 10, 2011

    Always better to cooperate?

    I was intrigued last week when I read in Shelf Awareness that Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca, NY, is going co-op. Explains the "present owner," Gary Weissbrot,

    Four days after sending out my farewell closing letter, Bob Proehl put out a well considered and passionate proposal asking our community if they would consider creating a community-owned cooperative bookstore, and if so, to make a non-binding monetary pledge.

    It’s now two weeks later and the proposed financial target has been reached!

    In fact, they raised $50,000 more than they requested. Exciting stuff. I suppose this is in some ways similar to the model at the Brazos Bookstore in Houston, TX, which I've talked about before.

    This also made me think of efforts in the Boston area to start up a bookstore, first in Davis Square up in Somerville (I talked about it here but there must be an update??). I'm hoping something similar develops in my own neighborhood of the South End, after the South End News published this op-ed by Billy Palumbo about the need for a bookstore here - a point with which I heartily agree.

    Do these campaigns work? As Borders stores close nationwide, some communities are crying out for bookstores. Can we come up with a new model, something between a library (non-profit) and a bookstore (things for sale, revenue-generating) that is sustainable and answers these calls?

    Monday, March 07, 2011


    Oh, Borders, you crazy!!!

    Opportunity calls!

    I have long held that Melville House is one of the coolest independent publishers out there, led by the a great director, Dennis Johnson. They have proven to be innovative, open-minded, progressive, intelligent, and mouthy - all qualities I admire in publishing.

    Now comes word that they're hiring! According to this job description, they need an editor as awesome as they are. We have many cool readers here - are you the person they're looking for?

    I've been pawing their Art of the Novella series for some time now - they look so uniform and modern and great. I'm a sucker for a consistent design like these, and the kind of counter-intuitive step of printing novellas at a time when everyone says go digital, go digital, go digital. Harvard Book Store has a great display of a bunch of them in their window (or did - don't know if it's still up) and inside. And now it seems you can buy a gift bag of them right from the Melville House site.

    So fine, you bought the gift bag. Good. Now, is your resume ready to go?

    Friday, March 04, 2011

    World Book Night?!?

    Tomorrow, March 5th, is World Book Night. Why the hell didn't we think of this?

    From the Guardian UK:

    World Book Night 2011

    The first ever World Book Night is being held on Saturday, with events across the UK being held and at least 1million free books being given away.
     Here are the books being given away. Here is a ton more about the Trafalgar Square event.

    Still, there are always assholes people who have a problem with EVERYTHING. Seriously.

    Vanessa Robertson, who owns the Edinburgh Bookshop in Bruntsfield, Edinburgh, has claimed that, far from spreading the joy of reading, World Book Night will simply flood the market with free books and devalue the work of authors in the eyes of the public.

    In a highly critical blog posted on the website State of Independents Robertson says many booksellers are "horrified" by the "misguided and misjudged" venture.

    "One million books flooding a struggling book trade; one million copies of books which make up a good part of many bookshops' sales (David Nicholl's One Day; Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; Case Histories by Kate Atkinson; Fingersmith by Sarah Waters to name a few); one million books being given away, further reinforcing the notion that we're all there to provide a public service and that authors, publishers and booksellers don't deserve or need to make a living," she wrote.

    Others echoed her view. One independent bookseller, who would only speak anonymously for fear of being labelled "curmudgeonly", said: "We're champions of the book and independent reading and people enriching their lives and bringing people to appreciate the value of books. I don't see how giving stuff away will help." He queried whether World Book Night would bring in new readers, saying: "I suspect it will be nice bookish people giving the books to other nice bookish people."

    World Book Night has been accused by a number of authors and independent booksellers of damaging the struggling book trade, but Atwood – whose novel The Blind Assassin is among those being given away – responded by saying: "Other booksellers are enthusiastically participating, as it spreads the word on books and makes them available to people who would otherwise not have them or be able to afford them. Also: I gave a book by Kate Atkinson away recently and the person I gave it to liked it so much that she bought all the others."
     Curmudgeonly? Nah. One book per person isn't going to crash the book trade in the entire UK and if it does then they were fucked already. Sorry, but that's the truth.
    Andrew Bentley-Steed, who manages Robertson's Edinburgh bookshop... suggested that a better event would be a "Fair Trade Book Fortnight" at which all retailers agreed to charge the full cover price for their books to support authors.
    Um, I know what we could call that: Tuesday. No, wait, Thursday. No, no, no, I've got it: Saturday. For the most part, I buy my books at a great independent bookstore in Cambridge and I always pay full price. Always. So how is "Fair Trade Book Fortnight" an event? The answer is it isn't. Wah, wah. However the charmingly named Nic Bottomley has the right attitude:

    Nic Bottomley, owner of Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, called World Book Night "a great idea" likely to inspire people who received a free book to buy others to give away in turn. "I don't buy the argument that the market will be flooded," he said. "Giving away a million free books sounds like a lot, but in the context of the 250m we sell across the trade each year, it's absolutely nothing. I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation and it works out at just three or four books for each independent bookshop. I don't think there's any independent that wouldn't give away that number if it encourages book-lovers."
     Phew! Haters just think of all the readers you might actually gain if you give an individual a book that changes their world and instills a lifetime love of reading . Anyway, I love this idea and for a nation like ours, which doesn't really read as much as we should, I think it would be totally cool to have something like this in the US but, of course, it would have to be more than 1,000,000 books since our population is a little larger than the United Kingdom. A little.

    So, what books would you like to give and/or get? I would love to give copies of Farmer Duck by Martin Waddell. It is the best, clearest, most simple Marxist fable kids book of all time. We might as well start 'em early, eh, regressive right? "Moo, bah, cluck, and that was that."

    Wonder what some of your favorite authors would like to give or receive? Glad you asked...the Guardian asked several dozen current writers what their choice would be. Check their suggestions out here.

    Have a good weekend.

    Tuesday, March 01, 2011

    R.I.P. Rev. Peter Gomes

    Another terrible blow to the intellectual life of our nation. Farewell, Rev. Gomes. He was a kind man of deep sympathy and a passionate intellectual rising from public school to Harvard. He was also my minister. What a loss.

    From the Harvard Gazette:

    The Rev. Professor Peter J. Gomes, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church at Harvard University, died on Feb. 28 from complications arising from a stroke. He was 68 years old.

    Gomes, an American Baptist minister, served in the Memorial Church since 1970. He was a member of both the Divinity School faculty and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard. Gomes authored many books, including the best-sellers “The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart” and “Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living,” as well as numerous articles and papers.

    Widely regarded as one of America’s leading preachers, Gomes participated in the inaugurations of Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He was named Clergy of the Year by the organization Religion in American Life in 1998; in 1979 Time magazine called him “one of the seven most distinguished preachers in America.” He received 39 honorary degrees and was an Honorary Fellow of Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge.

    “We are deeply saddened by this loss,” said Harvard President Drew Faust. “Peter Gomes was an original. For 40 years, he has served Harvard as a teacher in the fullest sense — a scholar, a mentor, one of the great preachers of our generation, and a living symbol of courage and conviction. Through his wisdom and appreciation of the richness of the human spirit Reverend Gomes has left an indelible mark on the institution he served with unmatched devotion and creativity. He will be sorely missed.”

    “No one epitomizes all that is good about Harvard more than Peter J. Gomes,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., Harvard’s Alphonse Fletcher University Professor. The pair met in 1991 when Gomes was part of a recruiting committee that helped to bring Gates to the University. Gates quipped it was “love at first sight,” and said Gomes had been a loyal friend and adviser for 20 years.

    “He was one of the nation’s truly great preachers and one of Harvard’s truly great scholars,” said Gates, who directs Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. Gates also praised Gomes for his expertise on the history both of Christianity and of Harvard University and for his “keen storytelling capacity.”

    “Peter has been a powerful presence in the University for more than four decades,” said William Graham, dean of Harvard Divinity School, who first met Gomes at Harvard in 1966.

    Graham recalled hearing Gomes offer parting words to graduating College seniors during Commencement. Those speeches “are masterpieces, both humorous and moving valedictions. That was something very special for undergraduates,” said Graham, John Lord O’Brian Professor of Divinity and Murray A. Albertson Professor of Middle Eastern Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

    Gomes preached and lectured across North America and the British Isles. In 2010, he gave The Princeton Lectures on Youth, Church, and Culture. Harvard University in 2010 elected him Honorary President of the Alpha-Iota Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. In 2009, he gave The Lowell Lectures of Massachusetts.

    In 2007, he was named a member of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, the oldest order of chivalry in Britain.

    In 2005, he presented a series of sermons in St. Edmundsbury Cathedral, England; in 2004 he gave the convocation address at Harvard Divinity School; and in 2003 he delivered the Lyttelton Addresses at Eton College, England. In 2000, he delivered the University Sermon before the University of Cambridge and the Millennial Sermon in Canterbury Cathedral. In 1998, he presented the Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale Divinity School.

    He also preached at the inauguration of Deval L. Patrick as governor of Massachusetts.

    Born in Boston in 1942 to Peter L. and Orissa White Gomes, Gomes was educated in the Plymouth, Mass., public schools. He graduated from Bates College with an A.B. degree in 1965, and he received the S.T.B. degree from Harvard Divinity School in 1968. That year, he was ordained to the Christian ministry by the First Baptist Church of Plymouth.

    From 1968 to 1970, Gomes was an instructor in history and director of the Freshman Experimental Program at Tuskegee Institute, Ala. There he also served as a church organist and choirmaster. He came to the Memorial Church as assistant minister in 1970. He became acting minister in 1972, and in 1974 was named the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Minister in the Memorial Church. In this capacity, he acted as the University’s leading religious officer and spiritual adviser.

    Gomes’ teaching and research interests included the history of the ancient Christian church, the Bible, homiletics, worship, and the history of the black American experience. He served as acting director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research at Harvard from 1989 to 1991.

    The former president of the Signet Society, Harvard’s oldest literary group, Gomes published eleven volumes of sermons as well as numerous articles and papers. In 1996, he published “The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart,” which became a best-seller. Gomes described it to the Boston Globe as a book about the Bible “for the average intelligent lay audience, not for seminarians or Divinity School colleagues.” In it, Gomes analyzes the historical efforts to misuse the Bible to marginalize Jews, blacks, women, and gays.

    A self-described cultural conservative, Gomes stunned the Harvard community and reluctantly made national news when he came out as a homosexual in 1991 in response to gay bashing on campus. “I don’t like being the main exhibit, but this was an unusual set of circumstances, in that I felt I had a particular resource that nobody else there possessed,” he told The New Yorker in 1996.

    “I’m always seen as a black man and now I’m seen as a black gay man. If you throw the other factors in there that make me peculiar and interesting — the Yankee part, the Republican part, the Harvard type — all that stuff confuses people who have to have a single stereotypical lens in order to assure themselves they have a grasp on reality,” he said in an interview with the Boston Herald in 1996.

    Gomes served as a trustee of the Roxbury Latin School. He was also a member of the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, and the Advisory Board of the Winterthur Museum, and a sometime fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, London. He had been a trustee of Wellesley College, the Public Broadcasting Service, and Bates College. He is past president and trustee of The Pilgrim Society, Plymouth, Mass.