This morning I read this bittersweet story in the New York Times about the auctioning of Vladimir Nabokov’s personal effects by his son Dmitri. As Dmitri has no heirs, it was agreed before the elder Nabokov’s death that it would be best to sell the collection before the death of the younger Nabokov. Reading the story, with its descriptions of invented butterfly drawings for Nabokov’s wife Vera — “They have variegated colors, delicate artistry and fanciful names. Only on these pages appear the blue ‘Colias verae’ or the dark ‘Maculinea aurora Nab.'” — reminded me of how much I enjoyed reading Nabokov’s lyrical memoir, Speak, Memory, when I was in college. I read it for a class called Transatlantic Identities, taught by the dandyish Professor Tucker (who was most of all devoted to John Ruskin). We read a dozen or so memoirs penned over the last 150 years on either side of the Atlantic. Among these, Speak, Memory, was transcendent, inspiring an interest both in lepidoptery and Nabokov’s expressive prose. As I read the book, Nabokov, in my mind, was transformed from the scurrilous author of the scandalous Lolita to the quiet emigre with a fascination for butterflies, and whose expertise with these brightly- winged insects landed him the curatorship of the butterfly collection at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. Now that these butterflies have been scattered throughout the world, one can only hope that the hands that now hold them will cherish the butterflies as much as the hands that created them.
A new Colors magazine came out the other day. The theme of this issue is violence, and as always they go to the ends of the earth to track down haunting, though-provoking stories and photographs. The Colors website further illustrates each issue. On the lighter side of the newsstand is a magazine that I first noticed in Derek's bathroom. It's called Wax Poetics and it is all about the sublime art of "beat digging," which is how all those DJs keep bringing hot new tracks to the turntables. They scrounge through the record bins looking for a long forgotten monster beat and then they mix it up on Saturday night. Wax Poetics serves the growing ranks of turntablists out there, but it's also great for anyone who has a turntable and won't pass up a Steely Dan LP for a buck when they come across one. It's also real nice to look at, full high quality reproductions of classic album covers and retro urban graphic design.Retail NotesI was marooned at the cash register for a while today. I was keeping myself busy by finishing Feeding a Yen by Calvin Trillin when I noticed that in the course of a half hour I had sold three copies of the lastest by the ubiquitous Dalai Lama himself, The Art of Happiness. I do live in Southern California and our typical clientele is pretty much the target audience for Zen Buddhist self help with the Richard Gere stamp of approval, but these people were tourists and that book is pretty old, and it's not supposed to be flying off the shelves right now. Then I realized that someone had put this book on the recommended shelf; probably it was the new girl. Like most independent book stores and like some of the chains, we have a prominently displayed shelf full of books especially recommended by the staff. Next to each book is a little blurb that we come up with to say, basically, "this book is good, buy it." We rotate the books on this shelf pretty regularly and without fail whatever is up there flies out of the store. We could borrow a fetid sock from one of the many crazy homeless people who hang out on the block, put a card next to it that says "This moving tale of loss and redemption will not fail to enrich and entertain," and it would be bought and paid for in under five minutes. Luckily, we try to take the moral highground and we recommend books that are better than what the customers would select if left to their own devices. The "recommend shelf phenomenon" has gotten me thinking about the current state of literature. There are many people out there who love to read, but for some reason, people have no idea which specific books they want to read. They look at the piles of books and they grow disoriented and dizzy, unwilling or unable to trust their instincts and judge a book by its cover, which is what they must do since only the smallest fraction of people read book reviews or even seem to be aware of their existence. That is where we come in. We tell them what to read. It's no wonder that people read so much crap. I can't imagine what tripe the typical Barnes & Noble clerk must be pushing on his confused customers.I have already done a great deal of planning for when I'm rich. I know what sort of yacht I would like to own, my air of disinterested aloofness has become ingrained after months of practice, and I have prepared myself to feel perfectly at peace when purchasing a particularly expensive pair of Italian loafers. I also, thanks to my delightful customers, have acquired an hilarious little joke with which I can entertain the various clerks and barkeeps who will provide me with goods and services. It goes like this: Select a moderate quantity of goods, bring them to the cash register, and whip out a hundred dollar bill from amongst a clutch of other one hundred dollar bills. When the clerk uses the counterfeit marker to ensure that the bill is not a fake (which he is REQUIRED to do by his bosses and might just LOSE HIS JOB if he doesn't) chuckle and wink and say "I just printed it this morning," in your very best ironic voice. Watch the clerk stare back at you blankly, barely able to conceal his rage, accept your change, go to the next establishment, and repeat. See! I can't wait. It will be so much fun.
This will probably be of little interest to anyone who is not a book industry professional, but I couldn't help myself. I happened to notice the other day a mention of the impending adoption of the 13-digit ISBN. ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number, and it's the 10-digit number typically found on the back of your books near the barcode. Every new edition of every book has its own ISBN, making it a unique identifier that can be used when organizing books in a computer library system. By 2007 all new books will be assigned 13-digit ISBNs. This is being done so that books conform with other products, which are all identified by a 13-digit number (usually next to the barcode.) I'm sure there are good reasons for doing this. Standardizing these numbers will probably streamline the business and make books easier to integrate with other products in stores. But I felt compelled to bring this up because I suspect the change might be detrimental to independent bookstores for two reasons. First, anything that makes it easier for books to be sold at the Walmart, Target, and the other "big box" stores is bad for independent bookstores (and chain bookstores, for that matter). Secondly, due to the expense, many independent bookstores do not have great inventory systems. Typically they have some sort of makeshift system, or they use an antiquated inventory system with poor tech support and little or no adaptability (the latter was certainly the case at the bookstore where I worked). Books are organized in these systems by ISBN, and I doubt that they are designed to handle an ISBN longer than 10 digits. While the chain stores probably have more robust systems and staff dedicated to the upkeep of their inventory programs, I wouldn't be surprised to see a lot of independent bookstores scrambling to adapt when the 13-digit ISBN comes along. Then again, this could be another Y2K situation, which I'm blowing out of proportion. We'll see, I suppose. If you are really intrigued by this, you can learn all about it here.In other news, the New York Times has named one-time restaurant reviewer William Grimes its new book reviewer. He joins Janet Maslin and Madame Kakutani. It will be interesting to see how this changes the overall persona of the Times' book coverage. I should also note here that an inordinate number of people come to this website by searching for "Michiko Kakutani." She is the object of much fascination, I think.The Publisher's Lunch email newsletter mentions an upcoming book by one of my favorite writers, the inventor of rotisserie baseball and current New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent. "Daniel Okrent's new book will also form the basis of a Ken Burns documentary, an illustrated biography of Einstein."
Along with the New Yorker, the only magazine that I read regularly is Colors. Since it comes out every two months or so, spotting a new one on the newsstand is a real treat. Each issue is devoted to a specific theme, from the very broad like Water, to the very narrow; at one point an entire issue was devoted to a South American wood chopper named Rolando Trujillo. The new issue that I read today is all about the city of Birmingham, Engand. In typical Colors fashion, this issue combines the testimony of individuals with statistics and striking photography to give a surprisingly insightful picture of its subject. Colors is one of the few examples of putting the magazine medium to good use.Heard on the RadioThere was a quick review of The Kalahari Typing School for Men by Alexander McCall Smith on All Things Considered this afternoon. I've heard from several people that his series of books (this new one is the fourth) is worth reading. They are detective novels. The hero is a woman named Precious Ramotswe. The setting is Botswana. I'm told that this exotic locale sets these already charming stories apart. And since I have always loved stories set in faraway places, I hope to get around to this set sooner rather than later.
We at The Millions have been anticipating Roberto Bolaño's magnum opus, 2666, for months now. While I'm not convinced that a book review is capable of capturing the beauty and profound oddity of this novel, my best effort is currently featured at More Intelligent Life.Bonus link (from the archives): "Why Bolaño Matters"
Just found out that John Keegan is Defense Editor at the Brit newspaper, The Telegraph. He has written about most of the military conflicts of this century. I read and was much edified by his book, The Second World War. His Telegraph articles can be found here