This week is turning out to be a mini-family reunion for me. My parents and two of my brothers are in town as are some aunts and uncles and cousins. Yesterday evening at a family barbecue near Venice Beach I fell into a conversation with my aunt and uncle about the reading habits of my young cousin, Tim, who is 10. He’s a very precocious reader and has finished off nearly all of the highly recommended children’s series that are out there right now: Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket, and Brian Jacques’ Redwall Series (I recommended Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy since he hasn’t gotten to that yet.) The thing is, there’s a limited amount of high quality young adult fiction out there, so what do you do if your kid has read it all? Since I started working at the bookstore I have occasionally been posed this question by parents. It’s actually a crucial moment in the life of a young a reader, the point where they could very easily lose some interest reading because they have read all the kids’ books and aren’t allowed to read adult books. What folks sometimes forget is that there are quite a few books that, though they are shelved in the adult fiction section, are perfect books to help segue strong, young readers into the wider world that lies beyond the young adult section. Some people call these books classics, but they are perfect for challenging kids and keeping them interested in reading: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Time Machine, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Journey to the Center of the Earth, to name just a few. I would also recommend that these children read the books in their original forms, not the abridged versions. I remember reading abridged versions of various classics when I was younger, and I think lots of other folks do as well, but looking back it just doesn’t seem necessary. In fact, as an eleven or twelve year old, I learned a lot of complex things about the world around me from the books I read, and these important details, the harsh language in Huck Finn, for example, seem to be just the things that are excised in order to create the kid friendly versions. We challenge kids in many aspects of their lives, why not challenge them to explore the big questions that arise from reading the classics. I hope that the children’s book industry continues to move in this direction, and a lot of the intelligent and challenging kids’ books that are out there indicate that it will. On the other hand, my friend Edan pointed out to me the other day the upcoming release of a “Student Edition” of Yann Martel’s international bestseller Life of Pi, from which, one can assume, the editors have removed anything that might distress, and therefore challenge, a young reader. Here’s hoping that this doesn’t kick off a new trend.
Holy Crap! Have you been into a bookstore lately; have you noticed how good books look these days? When I go to used book stores, I find that all the books released during a particular decade tend to look like one another with not much variation. But now you walk into a book store and each new book looks like a work of art. Some remarkably attractive books have come out over the last few years, and book design has come into its own as an art form that it is peculiar adventurous considering the publishing industry’s ever tightening ties to multi-national conglomerates. A lot of this is marketing. Many of the companies that own the publishing houses also have major entertainment divisions, and they tend to use the same marketing style to push both their movies and their books. Hence, book covers have gone the way of movie posters and trailers; they seek to grab the attention of the reader with an alluring display of eye candy. Every day, I see people buy books simply because of how cool the cover looks. You would be surprised at how often it happens. Which brings me to another reason why book covers have become more adventurous: people are ready for it… they need it even. People are constantly bombarded by interesting and strange visual imagery on television, in movie theaters, on billboards. If every book looked the same, people wouldn’t buy as many books, no matter how amazing the contents. It’s kind of sad, but not entirely. Though a result of the pervasive marketing that seems to have taken over our culture, the good looks of these book covers are still a good thing. Where else do graphic designers get such freedom in such a corporate setting? Where else is art combined in such an interesting way with the written word? If you want it to be, you can now treat every visit to a book store like a trip to an art gallery. Walk slowly down the aisles and admire the artwork, take the books in your hands and inspect the detail as closely as you want, then buy whatever it was you came in for. You’ve just turned an everyday act of commerce into an experience in art appreciation.Which brings me to Chip Kidd. If there is any one person who is at the forefront of forward looking book design, it is Kidd. As a book designer for Knopf, he has designed literaly hundreds of covers, and, as a result, has been heralded as the best in the business. To celebrate his work Yale University and Veronique Vienne have come together to produce a very attractive volume collecting and celebrating some of Kidd’s many covers. It is entitled, appropriately, Chip Kidd. Here are a few of Chip Kidd’s book covers:
We’re not shy about our praise for NYRB Classics. Their volumes are smartly edited and well designed and quite a few favorite books of The Millions contributors – The Dud Avocado, Wheat That Springeth Green, and, of course, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll – were first encountered in their NYRB Classics incarnations.While I had always planned on passing NYRB Classics books down to my progeny one day, I’ve just discovered that I may get to do that sooner than I had anticipated. NYRB Classics has a line of children’s books, the NYR Children’s Collection.One of the latest to come out under the imprint is James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks with an introduction by Neil Gaiman and illustrations by Marc Simont. The new book provide fodder for Sonja Bolle’s sentimental (in a good way) essay in the LA Times.The 13 Clocks is the first book I remember loving, and it is one of the few books I managed to wrest from my family’s library and preserve through all the mundane disasters of my life. Everything about it is dear to me: The texture of the cover, the cloth spine now in shreds, the gorgeous endpapers with the Duke’s shadowy castle on the hill overlooking the sunlit town.Young readers – and the older readers who are trying to get young readers to read good books – will likely find many more such discoveries among the NYR Children’s Collection.
In the first wave of articles on Governor Sarah Palin at The New York Times, I came across a reader-comment that Ms. Palin looked like Geena Davis in the TV show Commander-in-Chief. In this short-lived 2005 drama, Davis played the first woman Vice President, who ascends to the presidency after the death of the President. The Times reader’s comment also reminded me of another fictional first president, 24’s President David Palmer (played by Dennis Haysburt). Had this wildly popular (and very long running – Haysburt played the president from 2001-2005) imaginary depiction of a black president helped acclimate Americans to the idea? I found myself wondering if shows like Commander-in-Chief and 24, which offer fictional visions of scenarios that have not yet come to pass, give history a nudge. Can art/entertainment (the distinction between these two being a debatable one) help us as a culture imagine historical changes – and so help to bring them into being?It would not be the first time in our history that art has given life – and particularly public opinion and national politics – a little push. There is the famous (and quite possibly apocryphal) story of Abraham Lincoln meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Or, Life Among the Lowly, in 1861, and greeting her with words, “So this is the little lady who started this Great War.” Apocryphal stories aside, Stowe’s novel from 1852, sometimes considered a direct response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 but more likely the result of Stowe’s lifelong belief that slavery was a sin in the eyes of God, sold 300,000 copies in the US in its first year and went on to be the first international American bestseller, and the best-selling book of the century, after the Bible. While the novel’s sentimentality and deeply Christian worldview can be alienating to some modern readers, its vivid narrative – by turns realist, gothic, and melodramtic – is undeniably haunting (though its perpetuation of black stereotypes has become proverbial). Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been credited with capturing the national imagination, raising national consciousness, and giving the issues of slavery and emancipation a national urgency that precipitated the Civil War.Stowe’s work – not that of the freed slave turned orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass – is more often assigned the role of cultural catalyst in the American move toward abolition. Douglass’ work, both for its status as a first-hand account of life as a slave, and for the power and intelligence of Douglass’ narrative voice, is far superior to Stowe’s, but it is Stowe’s – the more melodramatic, the more imaginative, the more comparable to television drama – that sold 10,000 copies in its first week, while Douglass’ best-selling 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave had 11,000 copies in circulation only after three years in print. Also suggestive of a television-esque quality, Stowe’s Uncle Tom was originally published serially in a magazine – in episodes. If popularity in fiction is any indication of a country’s readiness for a historical change in fact, it would seem that America is ready for a black president but perhaps not quite ready for a female running mate who stands a decent chance of ascending to the presidency (given McCain’s age and history of skin cancer). It’s all much more complicated than this, of course, but I find the idea that the imaginary can give shape to the real (in a non-Don Quixote-ish way) quite captivating.
In December, we noticed the slimness of the New Yorker’s year-end Fiction Issue, and more recently Gawker has been on the case. Now, the Anniversary Issue hitting newsstands last week, though chock-full of goodies, also felt much lighter than normal. As it turns out, at 122 pages, it was 38 pages lighter than a year ago.While I have been taking advantage of the freed up reading schedule that a shorter New Yorker affords, I do hope that this is as short as it gets.(Hopefully Not) Related: Culture and Vigilance: Look for the Whimper, Not the Bang
Houghton Mifflin has posted a long excerpt of Jonathan Safran Foer’s forthcoming book Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Amazon also has the excerpt up.) And, well, I don’t quite know what to say about it. Have a look. You’ll see. It’s a long, furious stream of consciousness – the warp speed thought process of the 8-year-old, genius protagonist, Oskar – with a punch in the gut finale. It seems that this book is sure to produce a frenzy among critics and readers when it comes out in April, but it’s too early to know whether that frenzy will be positive or negative. On Neal Pollack’s blog, the quality of the excerpt and the book’s use of 9/11 as a plot point are already being debated.