Mark Kurlansky is one of the primary practitioners of an interesting type of history book in which he takes a specific type of object or group of people and uses it as a lens through which he views history. Kurlansky has recently gained notoriety with three books that followed this sort of historical exploration: Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, Salt: A World History, and The Basque History of the World, all of which are clever and very readable and which, with their success, have spawned a sort of cottage industry (see: The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World by Larry Zuckerman, Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization by Iain Gately, How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It by Arthur Herman, and many, many others.) Kurlansky, meanwhile, has a new book coming out that is a new twist on the one subject history book. It’s called 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, and it’s thesis is that 1968 was the year when the world grew up, so to speak. A book like this will probably be pretty fun for a couple of reasons: Kurlansky is a skilled writer and historian, who is sure to produce the sort of engaging history that is always a thrill to read; at the same time, it is always fun to take sides along the way when a writer decides to choose a such a specific thesis, one that will undoubtedly prove difficult to defend against claims of selective inclusion and omission of events in order to prove the point. I’m curious to see if he is able to pull it off.
When I asked people earlier this month to tell me about the best book they read this year, several wrote back to say that they honestly couldn’t because, over the course of a long and busy year, they had forgotten many of the books that they had read. Now I’m sure that they could have reconstructed their year of reading by combing through old reciepts and library records and interviewing the local barristas: “I’ll have a tall latte, and do you happen to remember what book I was reading during the last week of March?” But who wants to do that. So, if you are looking for a New Year’s resolution, I would like to propose one. It’s easy: make a list of all the books you read this year. If you want to do something a little more rigorous, commit yourself to putting some words down about every book you read (And if you deem these words ready for public consumption, I’ll happily post them here.) Somehow, this sort of casual reflection makes the reading experience that much more fun. Have a great New Year. Things will be slowly returning to full speed around here, so stay tuned.
The Guardian looks at the trend of books by secular skeptics, who take various angles as they pick apart religion. Leading the charge is Richard Dawkins, whose book The God Delusion has become a bestseller if the #3 ranking on Amazon is to be believed. The other books mentioned in the Guardian sport impressive Amazon rankings as well. Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris is ranked #10. Daniel C. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon is ranked #227. But Dawkins is undoubtedly the headliner of this trend. For a taste of what he’s all about, the curious can read his recent essay at the Huffington Post.The coverage of the Dawkins book has been varied. Publishers Weekly’s review expresses alarm at Dawkins’ notion that “religion generally is ‘nonsense.'”The New York Times (setting aside Levi’s complaint) finds Dawkins to be compelling, but over the top in his rhetoric:The book fairly crackles with brio. Yet reading it can feel a little like watching a Michael Moore movie. There is lots of good, hard-hitting stuff about the imbecilities of religious fanatics and frauds of all stripes, but the tone is smug and the logic occasionally sloppy. Dawkins fans accustomed to his elegant prose might be surprised to come across such vulgarisms as “sucking up to God” and “Nur Nurny Nur Nur” (here the author, in a dubious polemical ploy, is imagining his theological adversary as a snotty playground brat).At the Philly Inquirer, Frank Wilson writes that Dawkins’ characterization of God and religion “amounts to caricature.”Dawkins’ rhetorical excesses aside, what interests me more is the larger trend, which, I hope, is representative of a recognition of how much violence in the world, now as ever, is committed in the name of religion. Beyond that, I’m wondering if people have grown weary so much being couched in religious terms these days, the battles over gay marriage, stem cells, and abortion, a president who is doing God’s work. It seems to me that a backlash may be building among people who don’t want religion’s reach to extend quite so far beyond the church, temple and mosque. It also interests me to see how book sales can be an indicator of the broader cultural trends in our country.See Also: HarperCollins Chief Says Religious Books Selling Poorly
Bookfinding is a science of sorts. Ostensibly, it is a money issue: the goal is to find books for two dollars or less a piece. But there is another element to this exercise. When you walk into a Salvation Army store, or any non-bookstore that has a few shelves full of books at the back, you never know what you’ll find. It’s a real treasure hunt. Sometimes you walk out the door with arms full of books, other times you walk out with one or none. Some of the highest yield bookfinding spots that I have found so far are the Out of the Closet thrift stores that are ubiquitous in some parts of Los Angeles. Out of the Closet is a charity that raises money for AIDS, and like any charity-based thrift store it does not discriminate. Along with a vast selection of clothing, each store has a ton of housewares and furniture and a mindboggling array of random junk. Still, there’s something slightly more hip about Out of the Closet. The staff is young, helpful, and fashionable. They’ve always got good tunes on the radio, and they put together clever displays and windows. It’s only a half step away from the church basement, but that half step makes a difference. I always go straight for the shelf or two of books tucked away at the back of the store, in the dimly-lit corner behind the broken exer-cycle. Though it requires the same amount of digging, the treasures that can be found are incrementally better. At the Salvation Army, I’m pleased to find old paperback editions of classics, but at Out of the Closet, you might just as easily come upon a cult-favorite and books that are more obscurely charming. Which brings me to Monday, when I made a quick run to an Out of the Closet that I hadn’t yet raided, spent ten bucks, and walked out with eight books. Good ones, too. I’m most excited about finding a hardcover edition (though it lacks its dust jacket) of Woody Allen’s print masterpiece Without Feathers. You really can’t go wrong with a book that in its first three pages has about two dozen gems like this one: “Play idea: a character based on my father, but without quite so prominent a big toe. He is sent to the Sorbonne to study the harmonica. In the end he dies, never realizing his one dream — to sit up to his waist in gravy. (I see a brilliant second-act curtain, where two midgets come upon a severed head in a shipment of volleyballs.)” Genius! I also picked up Fraud by David Rackoff, the frequent contributor to This American Life. I usually recommend this one to fans of David Sedaris who have read all of Sedaris’ books. I also somehow remembered that Michael Lewis is the name of the author of Moneyball, and when I saw a copy of Liar’s Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street, his 1989 memoir about working in the cut-throat, 1980s Wall Street world, I snagged it. I also found another first book by an author I like: Michelle Huneven’s debut Round Rock. And I picked up a slick little paperback edition of a somewhat forgotten 20th century American classic, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. I rounded out my purchases with three classics of the Calvin & Hobbes oevre which I gleefully found sitting neatly in a row: The Calvin and Hobbes Lazy Sunday Book, Weirdos From Another Planet!, and Yukon Ho!… not a bad take for 10 bucks!
It’s been hard to watch the news the last couple of days. I’ve been interning with chicagotribune.com this summer, so, since Monday, I’ve been pretty immersed in what’s been happening on the Gulf coast – as immersed as one can be, I suppose, with out being actually immersed. Judging from the light traffic this blog has gotten over the past few days, I’m guessing most folks have been spending their online time reading the news, as I have. Aside from the major news sources – CNN, etc. – here’s what I’ve been refreshing many times a day: the WWLTV blog, the Times Picayune Breaking News Weblog, The Irish Trojan’s blog, and The Interdictor. It’s amazing how much all the blogs out there have enriched the coverage of this catastrophe. It’s a great time to be a news consumer.But you may, like me, also need a diversion from the news. Luckily, my favorite New Yorker of the year has just arrived at my doorstep: The Food Issue. I can’t wait to start reading it. Other diversions:The Chicagoist is giving away three books to promote Picador USA’s 10th anniversary event at the Harold Washington Library in ChicagoI might have to try this: Library Thing is a Web site where you can catalog your library. You can tag the books by subject, and the system pulls in Library of Congress cataloging data. Free for the first 200 books and 10 dollars for a 20,000 book limit. (via H2O)Bookfinder.com, the ultimate Web site for tracking down hard to find books, has released their latest list “of the most sought after out of print titles in America.”
In the back office of my bookstore, folks are already abuzz about this year’s Book Expo in Chicago. Book Expo is probably the largest publishing convention in the world, but if you talk to booksellers, they typically bemoan the crowds and the hectic atmosphere of the Expo weekend. However, this year’s keynote speaker happens to be former prez Bill Clinton who will be pushing his new — and as of this writing, not yet completed — memoir, My Life (“The president came up with the title,” says attorney Robert Barnett, who handles Clinton’s literary endeavors.) Also from this Washington Post article about the Clinton book: a first printing of 1.5 million copies and the first of what will likely be legions of sales comparisons with Hillary’s blockbuster. Hillel Italie of the AP hopes that Clinton will depart from all previous presidential memoirs by providing readers and historians with some actual insights (LINK). I would rate the chances of this as extremely slim. And David D. Kirkpatrick of the New York Times believes that the timing of the book’s release is purely political (LINK). Meanwhile, back in bookseller land, Book Expo attendees are bracing themselves for the media furor that is sure to accompany the book’s unveiling.
Today I happened to walk by one of those thrift stores connected to a hospital, and, thinking they might have a couple of shelves of books, I decided to stop in. I’m glad I did. The books were way in the back in this weird garage-like annex, and the room smelled pretty bad. This made browsing unpleasant, but I had a theory that the odor might have kept prospective shoppers out – more books for me. The store was also right on with their pricing: 50 cents for paperbacks and a dollar for hardcovers, which, in my opinion, should be the standard pricing scheme if the customer has to sift through messy, disorganized shelves. The selection turned out to be pretty great, and I had to restrict myself to only the best books I could find – books that I was surprised enough to see on the shelves that I felt passing them up would be criminal, so I ended up leaving a lot of pretty good stuff behind. If I had bought everything I wanted, I would have had a hard time getting home on the el, and furthermore, empty bookshelf space is somewhat scarce in my apartment these days. So it was only the cream of the crop for me.I grabbed three hardcovers: The Biggest Game in Town by A. Alvarez. I was working at the bookstore when the poker craze started getting pretty big, and this classic from 1983 was one of the books we recommended to people wanting to read up on the game. I also found a copy of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, which I’ve been told is one of his best. And I was delighted to spot baseball guru Bill James’ out of print treatise on the Hall of Fame, Politics of Glory. I also snagged a pocket paperback edition of John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy. All in all, a pretty good haul.
Jerome Weeks has an interesting post up at his blog about the impact of Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s novels Journey to the End of Night and Death on the Installment Plan on the work of Kurt Vonnegut.Both novels were written 30 years before Slaughterhouse: Celine was seriously wounded in battle during World War I, while Vonnegut, of course, survived the firebombing of Dresden in World War II. But Celine’s fractured narrative style, in particular, had an enormous influence on Slaughterhouse (and Catch-22, as well).And in the Philly Inquirer, Carlin Romano tries to explain just why Vonnegut has been such an enduring novelist, “why Vonnegut’s leaps of inventiveness satisfied so many, why his political stilettos estranged so few.”