I caught a few minutes of Fresh Air on NPR while I was out running a quick errand today. Terri Gross was interviewing David Denby, the New Yorker film critic who has a new book out. The book is called American Sucker and it is a memoir of the boom years. In 2000 Denby and his wife split, and he decided that he wanted to keep the Upper West Side apartment that had been their home for many years. In order to do this, Denby hatched a plan to buy out his wife’s share of the apartment. Lacking the funds to make the apartment his and cast adrift by the collapse of his marriage, Denby threw himself wholeheartedly into the mania of the stock market boom with the hopes that he, like so many others seemed to be doing, could hit it big. It would be the solution to all of his problems. A sort of addiction to his quest set in and American Sucker was the result. Today, Terri Gross, in her way, was trying to get him to relate his experience to some classic gambling films, Denby being a film critic and all. Denby, however, begged off and mentioned two interesting books that he feels are most analogous to the way he felt during his ordeal. Dostoevsky’s The Gambler and a somewhat forgotten Victorian classic by Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now, to Denby’s mind, best portray a sense of monetary desperation in the midst of a boom. I’m hoping that over the next few years there will be more books that look at the boom of the late nineties through a literary lens. It was a strange and fascinating time. Denby’s colleague at the New Yorker, James Surowiecki has penned a less personal book about business and money called The Wisdom of Crowds which is slated to come out at the end of May. A quick look reveals that Surowiecki has put together a readable tome meant to illustrate a principle that many economists hold dear: the idea that decisions can be made, problems can be solved, and the future can be predicted by the market. Imagine the Nasdaq but replace companies with possible outcomes. At the end of the day the outcome that is trading at the highest level is probably the correct answer to whatever problem was trying to be solved. Using markets you can, as Surowiecki terms it, unlock the “wisdom of crowds.” Last summer there was much public outcry when it was announced that one of our government agencies was considering setting a market that was meant to predict future terrorist attacks. The idea of people profiting off of this sort of speculation was abhorrent to many people and the plans were shelved, but, in The Wisdom of Crowds, Surowiecki will likely argue that the plan would have worked.
Let’s say that you’re on the couch tearing through a great weekend book, you know, one of those novels you completely devour in two days or less, and you come upon a cute little piece of paper hiding between pages 216 and 217. It’s not colorful, fairly unassuming, and not much larger than a Polaroid picture. The top of the page reads “Erratum.” This Latin word sounds important, fancy even, but it’s really just a sneaky way of saying “We screwed up.” And not just “We screwed up,” but “We had multiple people, whose full-time paid job is to find these errors, look through this book with a fine-toothed comb, and we still let a few things get past us.” I agree, “Erratum” sounds much, much better.
I hadn’t really thought about them in years. Why would I? They’re just not the kind of things you see every day. I read all the time, far more than average, yet I find four-leaf clovers more frequently than these elusive declarations.
It wasn’t even a book that got me thinking about these.
I was reading a recent issue of Interview magazine (which unlike the rare “Erratum” has far too many inserts) in which Miranda July was asked 20 questions by 20 different people. Among these inquiring minds were It-Lit icons including Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders, Dave Eggers and Lorrie Moore to name a few. To be completely honest, most of the questions were a little too cute or ironic for my taste. I won’t say who ridiculously asked, “If you were told that you had to live inside a work of art, which would you choose?” And it wasn’t even an author that asked the most interesting question, it was harp-playing, pixie-voiced songstress Joanna Newsom. I’m paraphrasing, but her question was basically this; name one thing you don’t care about but most people do, and name one thing you do care about that most people disregard. July’s answer to part one? Alcohol. Part two? Errata. Wait a second. What? Do you mean those little lists of corrections found in books? That is exactly what she meant, and she collects them.
I can’t quite explain why, but this caught me off guard. I guess I was expecting her to say something more along the lines of Rivers Cuomo bootlegs. She could have said she collected stuffed albino chinchillas and I would have been less surprised.
Unlike most things you might collect, say unopened action figures or LPs, you can’t just go into the local resale shop or flea market to look for them. Over the past 25 years, July said she has only been able to find a dozen or so. A dozen? That is certainly not a bountiful harvest by any means. But it certainly is patient. And I love that. It might even be a little bit lazy. To build his or her collection, the collector of this niche item has to do nothing more than sit around and read. Didn’t find one? Well, maybe next time. No big deal. It was still a pretty good book, right?
If I had to put my finger on the one thing I like most about Erratum sheets, it would have to be this; it is a tangible piece of evidence that proves that famous Alexander Pope quote to be true, to err really is human. And thank goodness for that. In this world, that is increasingly becoming mistake free, it’s nice to see an honest up-front admission of human error. Not that I want people to screw up, I don’t. But when you can clear up every blemish with Photoshop, spell check every misspelling, and delete and re-post a drunken status update, it’s a breath of fresh air to hear three little words… I. Screwed. Up. But if you want to sound fancy, you can say Erratum.
[Image source: Emran Kassim]
Recently perusing the course offerings for Temple University’s continuing education program here in Philadelphia, Season Evans uncovered what has to be one of the more unsavory market research strategies ever employed by the publishing companies. A course titled (and misspelled) “A Sneak Peak at Next Year’s Bestsellers,” is described as follows:Every fall publishers introduce and promote a new crop of novels, books they hope are future bestsellers. This unprecedented course is your chance to get a sneak preview of five forthcoming novels from major publishers. You will read special advance copies of the books and then, as a class, critique each book and predict what readers and critics will say when the books are actually published. Contributing publishers will include: W.W. Norton, Knopf, Random House and others to be determined.Though it’s not explicitly stated that the students’ output will be delivered to the publishers, it seems likely that the publishers would only participate if this were the case. As Season points out, this would mean that students will be paying the publishers to do market research for them under the guise of learning. The course is taught by Lynn Rosen, “a publishing consultant with twenty-plus years of experience in the book industry as an editor and literary agent,” though its not clear if the concept for this course came from her.Some questions I have: do other people out there agree that this sounds unsavory? I think it is, though I’m having trouble articulating exactly why (beyond the fact that students will be paying for this “privilege.”) Also, is anyone aware of this practice going on elsewhere? Is it commonplace, or is this Temple course an anomaly?
In light of the epidemic of violence and political repression in Zimbabwe – and South Africa’s African National Congress’s insistence (until much of the damage had been done) that interference from “outsiders” was not welcome – avid fiction readers may want to revisit a sub-Saharan perspective on political misrule: Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow. Writing here a couple years back, I gave the book a mixed review, finding some fault with the breadth of the satire. But, much as magical realism is said to just be called “realism” in Columbia, broad satire starts to seem awfully pointed the more one learns about the tactics of strongmen like Robert Mugabe. Which is to say, Mugabe’s decision to proceed with the election runoff in Zimbabwe borders on farce. As Ngugi shows, these antics can make for rich fiction. In life, of course, they are merely infuriating.The latest: Mugabe declared winner in Zimbabwe’s one-man election
I’ll be on Minnesota Public Radio show Midmorning tomorrow (Thursday) for a discussion of newspaper book sections and blogs. Also appearing on the show will be former LA Times Book Review editor Steve Wasserman. The segment starts at 11am Eastern and I’m told that I’ll be on from 11:30 until noon.Those of you not in Minnesota can listen in online here. Hope you enjoy it.
Scott Berg stopped by the store yesterday to sign some copies of his most recent book Kate Remembered. Signed books sell well during the holidays so lots of local authors have been dropping by to make their books slightly more “gift-worthy” by putting their names on them. Kate Remembered was quite a sensation in LA this past year. It is, more or less, a collection of conversations that Berg had with Katherine Hepburn over the last ten years. She spoke on the record on the condition that the book not be released until after her death, and so a few weeks after she passed away the book hit shelves and Hollywood folks raced in to see what Hepburn might have revealed about her long life. Berg, though very much entrenched in the Hollywood world, is perhaps better-known by the general reading public as the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Lindbergh, an illuminating portrait of one of America’s great tragic heroes. I asked him what he’s working on now, and he said that his next book will not be about Hollywood, but instead he is making a foray into presidential biography. He is currently deep into his sixty volume set of the collected papers of Woodrow Wilson, researching a biography he hopes to complete by 2009. You heard it here first.Jeff Bridges, meanwhile, stopped by to sign copies of his new book Pictures, a charming collection of photographs that he’s taken on various film sets over the years. The book itself is very attractive and the photographs are surprisingly accomplished.
There’s been a lot about soldiers in the news recently, both good and bad, and suddenly all us civilians are struggling to understand military culture. For the curious it might be worth taking a look at David Lipsky’s Absolutely American (I’ll be reading it sometime soon since it’s on the reading queue). The book is about the four years that Lipsky spent following a class of cadets through West Point. Lipsky is not a military guy, and his outsider’s perspective helps explain how the military fits in to our heterogeneous society. Of special interest to those who might have read the book already, here’s the transcript of a chat with Lipsky that follows up on a lot of the cadets that are in the book. Nearly all of them have been stationed in Afghanistan or Iraq.
There are two types of people in this world: (Segment One) people who adhere, as a point of pride, to every last comma and period of the laws of punctuation, and then there the people who just don’t have the time (Segment Two) and, frankly, are a little tired of hearing about these numerous and arcane rules that are supposedly all that separates us from the animals. Bearing in mind that Segment One would be offended that anyone might suggest that punctuation rules are not self-evident and that Segment Two will tell you to blow it out your ear, a book aimed at teaching the populace the in and outs of punctuation doesn’t seem likely to be a blockbuster. Yet just such a book was a huge seller in England last year. Are the Brits crazy or are we Americans missing out on the pleasurable nuances of punctuation? We’re about to find out. Next week, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss comes out, and its current sales ranking of 6 at Amazon indicates that it will indeed be a success on this side of the Atlantic. And the New York Times seems to like it, which can’t hurt. The success of this book will cement the notion that Americans appreciate this British brand of book that delivers dull subject matter contained in a humorous package and prove that the big sales of last year’s most delightfully useless British book, Schott’s Original Miscellany, was not a fluke. (I hope that I punctuated everything correctly in that post.)