Last summer Oprah’s book club returned from its hiatus touting Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck’s East of Eden as “the book that brought Oprah’s Book Club back.” By doing this she turned her powerful book club on its head. Up until this point, book industry types had been treating the Oprah book club as a lottery of sorts by which a previously unknown (but hardworking and extremely talented writer) could be lifted from obscurity and delivered into the homes of readers everywhere. Apparently, after much behind-the-scenes horsetrading and Jonathan Franzen’s high profile disdain for receiving the award for The Corrections, Oprah became disgusted with the politics and controversy surrounding her club and suspended it. Then, months later she brought it back, and now she is sticking, more or less, to the classics. Recently, in fact, she announced her next selection, which happens to be one of my favorite books of all time, One Hundred Years of Solitude by another Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (Between the two Nobel Laureates, by the way, was Cry, the Beloved Country a largely forgotten book from the 1940s by Alan Paton.) Many serious readers, and perhaps I might suggest that they are being a bit snooty, are inconsolably annoyed that the covers of books that they have adored for decades are suddenly besmirched by book club logos. If anything is to be blamed, though, it is not Oprah for placing her mark on these “sacred” books; it is, perhaps, our greater culture of reading. In a better world, Steinbeck and Marquez, to give two examples, would be so widely read, that naming them for this book club would seem utterly ridiculous. Instead, and we should be happy about this, East of Eden, thanks to Oprah, was one of the most widely read books of 2003, and the same will likely be true of One Hundred Years of Solitude in 2004. So, perhaps the earlier incarnation of the Oprah Club was getting ahead of itself as it steered readers to somewhat more obscure books though they had never read, or perhaps even heard of, many of the classics. In the end, one can hardly fault Oprah for making readers out of millions of Americans, though the marketing effort behind the whole thing can make one a bit queasy. In an excellent guest post to The Millions a few months back, the author Kaye Gibbons (Ellen Foster, A Virtuous Woman) wrote about her experience of being plucked from relative obscurity and brought to national prominence after being selected for the Oprah Book Club. If you haven’t yet read it, here it is.
I can’t believe I’ve never mentioned this: My landlord is the moderately famous French philosopher and Columbia University professor, Sylvere Lotringer. He co-wrote a book with Paul Verilio called Pure War, and gave us each copies when we signed the lease. He is married to Chris Kraus a novelist/filmmaker from New Zealand/Germany. Just now he called to talk about the plumber.
There’s an article in the New York Times today about a Princeton undergrad who used statistical analysis to illuminate the biases of New Yorker fiction editors. Katherine L. Milkman read 442 stories printed in The New Yorker from Oct. 5, 1992, to Sept. 17, 2001, and “one main conclusion was that male editors generally publish male authors who write about male characters who are supported by female characters.” The 9/11 Commission will release its findings to the public in book form. It’s available for preorder at Amazon. And now hitting shelves, the paperback edition of Edward P. Jones’ Pulitzer-winning novel, The Known World. I highly recommend this book.
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
The effects of Amazon.com on the book industry, the debate as to whether it is good or bad for the cause of reading and literature, remains heated, and I find myself rooting both for and against Amazon. One thing that I AM decided on, though, is that Amazon watching is fun. Whether they are announcing a new innovation with a front page letter from CEO Jeff Bezos, like the recent introduction of the “Search within a book” feature, or just slipping new technologies quietly into their listings, there always seems to be something new popping up there, and each new feature seems like it generates another round of debate about this behemoth of a website. The feature I discovered yesterday isn’t likely to ignite too many debates, but I found it interesting nonetheless. Part of what is fascinating about Amazon is the way they turn the inner workings of their operation into content for the website. Features like Purchase Circles, “Customers who bought this item… also bought these books…”, and “Customers who bought books by this author… also bought books by these authors…, take information that typical companies guard closely and turn it into entertainment for readers and fodder for search engines. The new feature that I noticed the other day is called “Early Adopters.” According to Amazon, “These are the newest and coolest products our customers are buying. The following lists, updated daily, are based entirely on purchase patterns.” The term “early adopter” has more or less entered the popular vocabulary in recent years. Books like Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point have popularized the notion that there is a certain type of person that is predisposed to seeking out, learning about, and owning the newest technologies. This idea is based on the broader theories of an economist named Everett Rogers whose book Diffusion of Innovations (1965) explained that individuals could be divided into five categories based on their openness to innovations. 2.5% of the population are Innovators; these are the extremely adventurous, willing to take risks on unproven technologies. These folks pay top dollar to be some of the first people in the world to own flat screen televisions and Segways. 13.5% of the population are Early Adopters; these are the folks who have the insight to seek out the best of new technologies and with their buying power and word of mouth, they can turn an obscure new product into a household item. Early adopters are considered among the most important consumers in the marketplace, and when a new product is introduced marketers spend millions directing ads at this population, knowing that they can make or break their new product, a fact clearly not lost on Amazon in the naming of their new feature. The rest of the population is less exciting. The Early Majority (34%) is slightly more adventurous than average, the Late Majority (34%), slightly less. Then there are the Laggards (16%) with their rotary phones and wooden tennis rackets. Clearly, marketers have no patience for folks with more “classic” tastes, and the marketers at Amazon are likely no exception, hence their choice of buzz words. What’s interesting about the Amazon “Early Adopters” area is that, along with more typical applications like Electronics and Cameras, they apply the term to music and books, where new products are more likely to be derivative than innovative. Regardless of their intent, the algorithm used to generate the list for books needs some work, since the list is clearly made up of books that are being purchased in bulk by students, churches, and self-published authors, not books that are being purchased by folks with literary tastes on the cutting edge.
Another installment of Ask the Librarians has arrived at emdashes, and it provides another fascinating look at the New Yorker.In this issue you can learn how the magazine got writers in its early years; who has had the most short stories published in the magazine all time and in a single year; all about the now defunct horse racing column; and most interesting of all, a history of the magazine’s editorial “Comment” column and how it took on a political tone over the years.