Arts and Letters Daily recently linked an article from the National Journal that takes stock of an interesting development at the New York Times. In the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal and a good amount of internal and external strife about wavering journalistic standards, the Times has appointed an ombudsman, a position more commonly found at campus newspapers than at the world’s most important dailies. This ombudsman happens to be an author and journalist, Daniel Okrent, whom I admire for his baseball book Nine Innings and who was recently named a Pulitzer finalist for his book, Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center. His columns bring an impressive amount of transparency to a very powerful newsroom, and I suggest everyone read them before Okrent’s fellow employees stage a coup and kick him out. The most recent column can be found here.
The reviews are beginning to come in for Bill Clinton’s My Life, and Michiko Kakutani, at least, wasn’t very impressed. Read the review here.In other book news, I happened to catch a reading of a very interesting book on the radio last night. Here in DC we have C-SPAN radio, and they occasionally air the audio from their “Book TV” broadcasts (Yes, radio in DC is pretty bad, and that’s why I end up listening to C-SPAN radio). The book was The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime by William Langewiesche and his account of the sinking of the ferry Estonia in the Baltic Sea was riveting. Also in the book: modern day pirates in Indonesia and the Department of Homeland Security’s attempts to secure 95,000 miles of American coastline.
Strolling around the bookstore the other day, a book with a startling cover and a wacky title caught my eye. At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig is a humorous travelogue about one of South America’s more obscure countries, Paraguay. Pig is the first book by John Gimlett who has written articles for a number of travel magazines over the years. This excerpt is definitely worth a peek.
Borders’ plan to display more books face-out and, as a result, to stock fewer titles has generated quite a bit of discussion. On our own post about the plan, we received several interesting comments, but I was most intrigued by what commenter Matthew had to say:The Froot Loops example is classic thinking from retailers who enter bookselling from another retail environment.The next time I go down to my local chain Cerealseller to choose my cereal for this week from among the 150,000 cereals on offer Mr Froot Loop can come and offer me some buying advice.Finally, the point of facing out is to attract attention to specific titles from the larger product range. The larger product range sells fewer copies of individual titles, but sells well by total volume… it also serves to attract serious bookbuyers and lend kudos to the bookstore.If chains chose to employ staff with knowledge (and local control) of that enormous range then they’d have a most effective sales tool. These retail gurus need to spend less time in supermarkets and more time at beauty counters and in cell phone stores. Books are a knowledge product requiring retail guidance and salesmanship… do these guys spend as long with their Wheaties as they do with a novel?Emphasis mine. What Matthew has so deftly put into words is something I’ve mulled over since my bookselling days but never quite found the right words for. I’ve always known that knowledgeable booksellers are a huge asset to any bookstore – I was lucky to be surrounded by many when I worked at one – but I had never fully grasped what it means to sell a “knowledge product” as opposed to a “commodity product,” nor had it occured that generally products can be described as one or the other.What’s key here is the distinction between how knowledge products are sold versus commodity products. To use Matthew’s example, when buying a cell phone or going to the beauty counter, you are confronted with many dozens of choices offering an array of specific features suited to a variety of specific needs – bluetooth or dry skin, for example. When it comes to breakfast cereal, you don’t need the guidance as much. The product is cheaper, “wrong” choices cost less, and cereal box mascots aside, one type is generally as good as another.Viewed in this light, it’s crazy to try to sell books as a commodity product because, (and this is just a guess) out of all the retail categories out there, bookstores by far offer the widest array of products, and therefore would require the most guidance and the best systems to help customers find what they are looking for. Undoubtedly, there are many knowledgeable booksellers at chain stores, but if the chains continue to view books as commodity products, their booksellers’ efforts will be futile. It’s also clear why Amazon has been so hugely successful. The site is the ultimate resource for selling knowledge products, with a wealth of information at the ready for anyone looking for a book. It’s possible that, thanks to the internet, the costs are simply too high for chains to go the knowledge-product route, but running in the other direction, towards Froot Loops, hardly seems the answer.For those still interested in this issue even after all this, check out these links:GalleyCat wonders if face-out books will put more emphasis on cover design and follows up with further questions about the co-op payment aspect of this.The Stranger guesses we’ll see more extremely popular and/or bad books face-out at the expense of those hidden gems.A dissenting opinion
Michael Chabon’s official Web site doesn’t get much attention from the author. He’ll post longer items from time to time as well as the occasional cryptic note about the various projects he’s working on. Chabon has now, however, decided to pack it in with this Web site business:Lately I have been suffering from Repetitive Strain Injury that makes typing a chore and clicking an agony. As I have been spending less time online I have found that I’ve lost interest in the web as a whole, and in my site in particular. I’m tired of having to maintain www.michaelchabon.com, but I hate that it gets stale, and so quickly. Yet I don’t feel comfortable with or have any interest in getting somebody else to do it for me. So I’ve decided, not without regret, to take it down, a little at a time, starting with the posting of my monthly Details column.On the other hand, Chabon’s new novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union will be arriving in May.
A couple of weeks passed and I had the urge to read another novel, so using a trip to Chicago as the good chance it was, I picked up J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. Again, I was amazed at the ease with which Salinger grasps the reader’s attention and pulls him into the dialogues of Franny and Zooey. The Glass family is extraordinary in many ways and Zooey’s rants reminds me of an older version of Vince Vaughn. I could not finish the novel on my flights to and from Chicago, which is just as well, because on Monday, after I got home from work I filled the tub a la Zooey, lay in it for half an hour, and finished the book. A friend of mine once mentioned that it was his favorite piece growing up and he’d read it once every week, I understand and respect his mania now. I think I shall turn to The Catcher in the Rye next and keep reading the genius that Salinger is.I traveled to Charlottesville and back via train in the same week. During the thirteen hours I spent on the Amtrak couch, I luxuriously started and finished Orhan Pamuk’s Sessiz Ev (silent house, La Maison du silence). I really like Pamuk, he is a pretentious, rich, aristocratic bastard in life but his novels are for the most part very successful in grasping certain periods of Turkey’s modern history. I am afraid that Sessiz Ev has not been translated into English but you can read it in French if you so desire. In this second novel of his, Pamuk describes the visit of three siblings to their grandmother’s residence an hour east of Istanbul. It is the summer of 1980, three months before the military coup, the youngest brother, now a senior in high school, wants to continue his education in the U.S. and has high capitalistic ambitions, the sister, a junior in college, is an ardent communist and would like nothing better than to see the fascists beat, and the older brother, a thirty-four-year-old drunken history professor, is aloof to everything and resembles his father and grandfather in his disconnect to the world. Sessiz Ev is a very interesting study of an important period in Turkey through common, unhappy and disgruntled characters.My last pick of the year is a serious undertaking, Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. I am almost halfway through and enjoy the story, language, and the other novellas inserted in the middle. Clearly there is much to be said about Don Quixote but I will keep my reserve until I am done reading the whole novel.And last but not least, I also picked up Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Lord Henry Wotton’s opinions have forced me to put Don Quixote on hold and indulge in the vanity that Lord Henry propagates. Of course, more on The Picture of Dorian Gray once I am done, but let it suffice to say that I am currently thrilled by its brilliance.[Thanks for sharing your year in reading, Emre]Previously: Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
I’ve been a bit under the weather lately, but I think I’m starting to get better. I’m well enough to post here anyway. Which is good, because I noticed a couple of books that I thought people might be interested in. Remember a few years ago when everyone was suddenly talking about “string theory?” This was because of a book by Brian Greene called The Elegant Universe, which somehow managed to solve a longstanding dilemma in the world of physics, that “general relativity and quantum mechanics cannot both be right,” in a book readable enough to become a best seller. Greene proved to be one of those remarkable writers, of which there are very few, who have the ability to make a very boring and difficult topic interesting for everyone. And now he has a new book out: The Fabric of the Cosmos : Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality, in which he continues to unwind scientific complexities with a combination of analogy and wit.My friend Edan pointed out another interesting, new book to me other day. Dancing with Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution by the remarkably named, Alma Guillermoprieto. Edan and I both read an excerpt of this book in the New Yorker a while back. I enjoyed the way Guillermoprieto’s fierce Latin personality was tempered by her lyrical love of dance. This book seems perfect for anyone enamored by ballet and/or Cuba.A NoteFrom the book I just finished: “From his windows at MacGregor Road, he watched the President Polk leave the harbour. He knew nothing of President Polk, but assumed that the shipping company would have checked the record, beforehand, for anything scandalous. Then he did miss Audrey, with whom he could have spoken of such things.”
Posting has been light because I’m nearing the end of the quarter at school, and I am in the final stages of a very big project. And posting will probably continue to be light because I’ll be heading off on vacation as soon as school is done. I’m thinking about taking my laptop with me, but even if I do, I’m not sure how close I’ll be to the Internet. I’m excited about this vacation (we’ll be joining my family at the beach in North Carolina) not just because it’ll be a much needed break from school, but also because there’s no place I’d rather read than on vacation. On a proper vacation there are seemingly endless hours to spend with your books. I also love the way certain reading experiences become associated with certain exotic locales – and by “exotic” I mean simply “not home.” For example, last summer Mrs. Millions both read Walker Percy’s classic The Moviegoer during our honey moon in St. Maarten. The unfamiliarity of that island paradise mingled with the humidity of New Orleans where Percy’s Binx Bolling is trying to keep “despair” at bay. The book and the place where I read it combined to form a peculiar sort of dreamy memory that I love. Though I haven’t even gotten the suitcase out of the closet, I already know which four books I’ll be taking with me. I plan to finish The Count of Monte Cristo on the plane ride there. I’ve been enjoying the book immensely, by the way. After that I’m going to read Belly, a debut novel by Lisa Selin Davis that will be coming out later this summer. The publisher’s publicity compares her writing to that of Jane Smiley and Richard Russo. I’m also bringing a couple of nonfiction books: David Lipsky’s account of following a class of cadets through West Point, Absolutely American. Lipsky was originally assigned to write an article for Rolling Stone about the military academy but ended up sticking with the story for four years. I’m also bringing The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki, the resident business writer at the New Yorker. The book’s premise, which is borrowed from the world of economics, is that the collective choices of large populations of people are often correct, and that it’s even possible, by setting up what amounts to a futures market for ideas, to use this effect to predict the future. A good example of this is a futures market where one can bet on who will be elected president. Such markets have been very good predictors of actual events over the years. None of these books particularly strike me as “summer reading,” but I’ll just be happy that it’s summer and that my only obligation is to read.
It began as a way to pass the time at the Frankfurt Book Fair: find and log the strangest book titles of the year. And so the Diagram Prize For Oddest Title of the Year was born. Now, thirty years later, and indeed not to be outdone by the fine folks over at the Booker, we will soon have a Diagram of Diagrams.You can read about the history of the Diagram prize at Bookseller.com, see the list of past Diagram prize winners and vote for the Diagram of Diagrams.My personal favorites: 1982’s Population and Other Problems, 1986’s Oral Sadism and the Vegetarian Personality (with a sequel!), 2002’s Living With Crazy Buttocks, and for those with a penchant for the macabre: 1995’s Reusing Old Graves and 2005’s People Who Don’t Know They’re Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It – (It’s the What to Do About It part that I need to know).Sadly, there are no links to text excerpts for any of these titles. It is left to my fertile imagination, then, to envision how one actually lives with crazy buttocks (and just how crazy they need to be to require instruction).I’m sure there are countless odd titles out there that have been neglected. Feel free to comment with your favorite unsung odd title, or tell us your favorite odd title from the full list.