I have returned to the subject of the big televised book clubs a number of times since I started this blog nearly a year ago. I have reacted to them, at times, with shock, confusion, and dismay as when I was startled by the emergence of a new Oprah’s Book Club, an event that necessitated placing a splashy red banner bearing Oprah’s name across the cover of an American classic. Later on I would mellow out, having observed the profound (and mostly positive) effect that Oprah’s new focus on classic literature was having on America’s reading habits. And there was, of course, the piece that one time Oprah author Kaye Gibbons wrote emphasizing how important she found the club to be in getting more people to read. For most people who observe the book industry I think that the angst surrounding Oprah and the rest is dissipating, and most folks have come to realize that the good done by these clubs far outweighs the damage. A year ago it was possible to see the occasional angry screed directed against the proliferation of on air reading groups, but now, as Caryn James explains in this New York Times article, the ambivalence is waning. And, in fact, Oprah deserves a good deal of praise for both her selection of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez classic One Hundred Years of Solitude and the depth of the Book Club section of her website (which unfortunately requires you to register if you want to see it). So, the consensus seems to be that these book clubs are mostly good intellectually, but the impact of these clubs on the industry commercially cannot be overestimated. As this interesting roundup of the last ten years of bestsellers in USA Today shows, Oprah’s club has become as important as blockbuster news stories and runaway cultural fads when it comes to creating mega-bestsellers. (By the way, how about the amazing five straight “book of the year” titles for the Harry Potter Series.)
Jeffrey Eugenides became a household name among many readers thanks to Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides. Eight years after Middlesex, Eugenides has quietly become one of the most admired American novelists working today, and it’s likely that many fans are looking ahead to October, when Eugenides’s next novel, The Marriage Plot, is set to be released.
FSG’s catalog copy describes a campus/coming-of-age/love-triangle novel (some may recall the protagonist Madeleine Hanna from an excerpt that was published in the New Yorker in 2010), but the The Marriage Plot‘s first paragraph sets the stage for what may be a very bookish novel, with some serious literary name dropping and a mention of John Updike’s Couples.
To start with, look at all the books. There were her Edith Wharton novels, arranged not by title but date of publication; there was the complete Modern Library set of Henry James, a gift from her father on her twenty-first birthday; there were the dog-eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot, and the redoubtable Bronte sisters. There were a whole lot of black-and-white New Directions paperbacks, mostly poetry by people like H.D. or Denise Levertov. There were the Colette novels she read on the sly. There was the first edition of Couples, belonging to her mother, which Madeleine had surreptitiously dipped into back in sixth grade and which she was using now to provide textual support in her English honors thesis on the marriage plot. There was, in short, this mid-sized but still portable library representing pretty much everything Madeleine had read in college, a collection of texts, seemingly chosen at random, whose focus slowly narrowed, like a personality test, a sophisticated one you couldn’t trick by anticipating the implications of its questions and finally got so lost in that your only recourse was to answer the simple truth. And then you waited for the result, hoping for “Artistic,” or “Passionate,” thinking you could live with “Sensitive,” secretly fearing “Narcissistic” and “Domestic,” but finally being presented with an outcome that cut both ways and made you feel different depending on the day, the hour, or the guy you happened to be dating: “Incurably Romantic.”
In fiction, people are reading a new novel by a former sports writer, Mitch Albom. Perhaps you recall an earlier book of his: Tuesdays with Morrie, it sold millions of copies. This new book, Five People You Meet in Heaven, though fictional, covers much of the same life and death territory that his bestseller did. Also big right now is the latest incisive and sharply funny novel by Diane Johnson, L’Affaire. From what I’ve heard, her books are character driven, modern, droll, and witty. Johnson is a two-time Pulitzer finalist and a three-time National Book Award finalist, so she is the real deal. Also, a new book by newly minted Nobel Laureate, J. M. Coetzee, has been rushed to stores. Originally intended for release in November, Elizabeth Costello, was released early to take advantage of and celebrate Coetzee’s latest honor.And in non-fiction??? Plath-mania continues with the release of what is apparently one of the best books yet written about the deeply troubled poet and her husband Ted Hughes. Her Husband: Hughes and Plath, Portrait of a Marriage by Diane Middlebrook is another in a long line of books that look at Sylvia Plath and Hughes, and from what I hear it’s quite good. Steel yourself for a tremendous resurgence in interest in Sylvia Plath, as the release of a biopic starring Gwyneth Paltrow approaches. For those of you intending to keep it real, get a copy of The Bell Jar quick before they put Gwyneth’s face on it. Meanwhile, true crime aficionados and Mafia watchers are rushing to get their copies of The Brass Wall by New York Times journalist David Kocieniewski which is about an NYPD detective who infiltrated the mob, but was later betrayed by a fellow officer. Apparently this one reads as though written directly for the screen.Lots of movie talk today, which is good because it allows me to mention that Phillip Roth’s highly-regarded novel, The Human Stain, while always a strong seller, has kicked it up a notch in anticipation of what is apparently a highly-regarded film version. (As I mentioned a few weeks ago, ditto Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River). The other paperback that people are buying is a bit less serious, but it seems like a pretty terrific gag gift for David Beckham fans as well as anyone who watches Queer Eye for the Straight Guy: The Metrosexual Guide to Style: A Handbook for the Modern Man.
I’ve had gift cards for some chain stores lying around for months now – gifts from Christmas and my birthday – and yesterday I decided to use them. It was strange though, despite having quite a bit of free money at my disposal, I found it very difficult to buy myself books. Over the last several years I’ve grown so accustomed to buying books very cheaply that I couldn’t rationalize paying full price, even with the gift card. I felt pretty bad about it, too. I know that authors get their paychecks when we buy their books new, but they don’t see any of my money if I buy a book at a used bookstore or a yardsale. I also feel bad because most independent bookstores can’t afford to mark their books down, and even the chain stores only put a handful of titles on sale, but I know that Amazon will have the book I want at 30 percent off, or more. After thinking about it for a while, I decided to get mad at the publishers. Why does a book have to be a luxury good? I won’t pretend to know the economics of bookselling, though I know that it requires many people – all of whom need to be compensated – to put out a book, but does it really make sense to charge 25 bucks or more for a new book? There are probably a lot of people who occupy a grey area as book customers. They enjoy reading but not enough to spend 25 bucks on it or even the 15 they now want for a paperback. Instead they buy a magazine or see a movie or go out to lunch, all equally entertaining in their minds. I don’t know where the money gets squeezed out of the book creation and selling process, but if books get cheaper people will read more and I won’t stand with my nose pressed up to the window of the bookstore staring at new releases that are beyond my means.Nonetheless with all this cash in hand, I had to buy something, so instead of spending it all on handful of paperbacks or a smaller handful of hardcovers, I decided to buy a truly expensive book, this time for Mrs. Millions who deserves such things. I bought Modern House Three, a Phaidon architecture book of considerable heft filled with glossy pictures of space age homes (she’s an architect). I got a couple of books for myself, too, a couple of novels I’ve been curious about for a long time: Donald Antrim’s The Verificationist and English Passengers by Matthew Kneale. I actually still have some more left on these cards, so maybe I’ll take another stab at the whole chain bookstore thing soon.
On day ten of our recent cross-country drive, it became clear that we had twenty hours left of driving and no more music and nothing to say to each other again, possibly ever. At one point we realized that we were fools and that for ten days we could have been listening to audio books instead of children’s programming on the Focus on the Family radio station, which is evidently the only radio station broadcasting in some portions of the country, which explains a lot of things about a lot of other things.We went to a Barnes and Noble in a strip mall in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and found that our audio options mostly consisted of self-help, Janet Evanovich, Sean Hannity, and six ponderous Classics. Moby Dick, at twenty-one hours, was the closest to our remaining driving time, so that was our pick. To my great shame, I have tried and failed to read that novel a number of times. It’s not the length, but the alarming density of it. The sentences, while exquisitely made, are exhausting, so many of them one after another like that. I had never listened to a book on tape, because the concept sounded too confusing, but I thought it might be an ideal format for this, my own white whale (if you will).And it was great! We were having such a fun time with Ahab and Queequeg and the gang, and during the parts which made my eyes glaze over in reading (like the whale classifications and whatnot), I could just look out the window and listen to the dulcet tones of Audie Award™ Winner Frank Muller!We had just finished disc six of eighteen, somewhere around chapter forty, and I went eagerly for the next one. Only to find that instead of discs 7-12, we had been given two sets of 13-18. There was a lot of suffering in the car at that moment. My traveling companion suggested, with choice words, that we call the company and have a representative read us those chapters over the phone. Unsurprisingly, however, their solution was to mail the missing discs. To our home, in which we will have no need for an audio book. It’s so obvious that I am never finishing Moby Dick.
Perhaps you’ve seen it on the news. A historic and potentially catastrophic storm, Hurricane Katrina, is about 24 hours from plowing into New Orleans. If there ever was a “big one,” this is it. Sustained winds are at 175 mph, and some experts think it may maintain this strength all the way to landfall. Despite the fact that New Orleans lies below sea level and needs levies and pumps to keep out the water, Mayor C. Ray Nagin has only just now ordered a mandatory evacuation. Many experts think it’s already too late. If you want to keep an eye on this storm here are some links. Blogs: Dr. Jeff Masters, Steve Gregory, Eye of the Storm, Brendan Loy, Fresh Bilge. Links to TV coverage on the web at Lost Remote. The National Hurricane Center. I may add more to this post as I find more links.
If you haven’t already, wander over to the LBC blog to check out our newest “Read This” selection. Personally, it’s my favorite out of all the books I’ve read for the Litblog Co-op. The book is called Television and it was written by Jean-Philippe Toussaint and Jordan Stump.