In a post last December, I briefly explained why books first come out in hardcover and then, nine to eighteen months later, they come out in cheaper paperback versions. This has become a standard in the book industry, and as a result, some readers, myself included, are leery of books that come out in paperback first without ever being released in a hardcover edition. “What is wrong with this book,” I think to myself, “that the publisher didn’t want to release it as a hardcover?” At the same time, many readers, including myself, are frustrated that the book industry is so rigid like this, and that it is so expensive to purchase a brand new book. Laura Miller in the Times Sunday Book Review goes over many reasons why the current setup is counter-intuitive, including this one: “riskier books rely heavily on reviews and other media coverage to attract readers, but the reviews appear when the books are new. By the time the books show up as affordable paperbacks, the spotlight has moved on.” Miller wonders if the industry’s rigid selling strategy might be thawing, and she points to David Mitchell’s popular new book Cloud Atlas, recently released as a paperback original, as a sign. Read the column here.
So, I’m done with journalism school. It was a quick fifteen months. I’m excited about the journalistic climate of these times; I’m very caught up in all the heady things being said about blogs and the new medium in general. It’s an exciting time to be in this business. But then again I suppose journalism has always been exciting. Now that I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of journalists, I realize that they are a backward-looking bunch – which isn’t to say that they are anachronisms, just that they are very conscious of their history. I don’t blame them. It’s a very rich history. One thing I learned in journalism school is how our newspapers are shrinking – and one day they may shrink into nothing, living only on the Internet. Newspapers used to be much bigger than today’s, but high newsprint costs and the changing tastes of readers have made newspaper companies skew smaller and smaller. At the turn of the last century, though, newspapers were quite big, and, as it turns out, at least one of them was very colorful.It’s an odd experience looking at pictures from the The World on Sunday (found here and here), a New York paper from more than one hundred years ago, because I think that we’re trained to think of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a black and white world. These colorful images have recently gotten some attention thanks to Nicholson Baker and his wife Margaret Brentano who rescued the papers from the refuse pile of the British Library and used them as raw material for a book that came out this fall: The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer’s Newspaper (1898 – 1911). As Jack Shafer said in his column on Slate:But what made this vivid copy sing was its graphic and typographical presentation. Pulitzer’s people bulldozed the dreary, gray newspaper design template. The World ran headlines across a couple of columns, not just one, or completely across the page if it really wanted to provoke readers. Halftone photos, dramatic and comic illustrations, inset graphics, hand-lettered headlines, and buckets of color enlivened these artful pages.The Internet promises photos, audio, video and all kinds of interactivity. I love that, but I’m a little sad that newspaper like The World won’t be showing up on my doorstep any time soon.Earlier this month, Ron at Beatrice.com singled out this book as great gift idea, and I have to agree. This is the perfect gift for any fan of the news (and for future journalists, as well.)
There’s an interesting story from the New York Times that describes a couple of fiction writers who are trying their hand at penning superhero comics. For Michael Chabon the move is the almost inevitable result of the success of his Pulitzer winner, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which, within the narrative, contains a lengthy accounting of a comic book created by Kavalier and Clay, the book’s main characters. The comic book is about a Houdini-like superhero called the Escapist, and considering how fascinating Chabon makes this fictional comic book sound, it’s only fitting that fans would want to own the real thing. Also mentioned in the article is the writer of popular thrillers (The Zero Game), Brad Meltzer taking over the writing duties at the DC Comics series “Green Arrow.” Another well-known fiction writer, not mentioned in the article, who has long been crossing the line between comics and fiction, is Neil Gaiman who first became known for writing a comic book series called The Sandman before making a name for himself writing fantasy novels like American Gods. I’ve always preferred newspaper funnies and graphic novels to the superhero stuff, but genre jumping like this can produce interesting results.
Counterpoint is rereleasing a collection of Donald Barthelme tidbits (it’s subtitled “Satires, Parodies, Fables, Illustrated Stories, and Plays”), The Teachings of Don B.. The collection is perhaps most notable in that it contains an introduction by Thomas Pynchon. I’m fairly certain it’s the same essay by Pynchon that’s found here. It begins:Though to all appearances a gathering of odds and ends, what this volume in fact offers us is the full spectrum of vintage Barthelmismo — fictions thoughtfully concocted and comfortably beyond the reach of time, reactions less exempt from deadlines and rent payments to news of past moments that nonetheless remain our own, not to mention literary send-ups, intriguing recipes, magisterially extended metaphors, television programming that never was, strangely illuminated dreams, elegant ranting, debonair raving, and more, much more.Now that’s a blurb.
Jonathan Franzen’s second novel, Strong Motion, was about a mysterious outbreak of earthquakes in Massachusetts. The novel’s heroine, seismologist Reneé Seitcheck, discovers that these earthquakes are the byproduct of industrial drilling. The responsible party is a petrochemical firm whose agents attempt to assassinate Seitcheck after she proves that the company’s practice of injecting toxic waste into the ground is the cause of the bizarre quakes.
Something oddly similar might be happening in Oklahoma (which, like Massachusetts, is not your traditional hotbed of seismic activity). This past Saturday, a 5.6 magnitude earthquake struck the tiny town of Sparks in Lincoln County, Oklahoma. The quake was one of the largest ever recorded in the state’s history, and another example of the sharp increase in seismic activity Oklahoma has experienced in recent years. Up through 2009, Oklahoma had averaged about fifty earthquakes a year. The total number of quakes reported in 2010? 1,047.
This swift and dramatic change in Oklahoma’s vulnerability to earthquakes has some people wondering if the practice of hydraulic fracturing — or “fracking” — might be the culprit. Fracking is the process of injecting highly-pressurized fluids into the earth to break up shale and rock and release otherwise inaccessible sources of natural gas. The waste fluid is then shot back underground at sites called “injection wells.” There are 181 active injection wells in Lincoln County Oklahoma.
Energy companies deny that fracking causes earthquakes, and seismologist Austin Holland at the Oklahoma Geological Survey told the Associated Press there’s no reason — at this point — to blame these quakes on anything other than normal seismic activity.
However, Mr. Holland has studied this question before, and his findings were quite a bit more troubling — even if his way of putting them was transparently cautious. In a paper entitled “Examination of Possibly Induced Seismicity from Hydraulic Fracturing in the Eola Field, Garvin County, Oklahoma” (available here), Mr. Holland said:
The strong spatial and temporal correlations to the hydraulic-fracturing in Picket Unit B Well 4-18 [located in Garvin County Oklahoma] certainly suggest that the earthquakes observed in the Eola Field [also in Garvin County Oklahoma] could have possibly been triggered by this activity.
In that same paper, Mr. Holland admitted an important proximity in time between fracking and episodes of unusual seismicity, noted that the epicenters of the Garvin County earthquakes were within five kilometers of the injection wells, and that the earthquakes occurred at, or near, the associated injection depths. Mr. Holland’s conclusion, however, was basically, “Still — we can’t say for sure that fracking causes earthquakes.”
More troubling by far, though, is Mr. Holland’s weird epilogue, in which he agrees that studying the relationship between fracking and earthquakes might have one useful outcome: “It may also be possible to identify what criteria may affect the likelihood of anthropogenically induced earthquakes and provide oil and gas operators the ability to minimize any adverse effects[.]”
Perhaps I got lost in Mr. Holland’s grammar, but aren’t the earthquakes the adverse effects we’re talking about here? If a scientist has shown that fracking causes earthquakes, hasn’t he or she already demonstrated the adverse effects of fracking — namely, that it causes earthquakes? What minimization could he be talking about? Can you stop an earthquake once you’ve started it? Can it be hampered? Can it be softened? Or are we to understand that oil companies will pay to reinforce homes and repair damaged properties, foot medical costs, and make right any wrongful deaths? Because they obviously aren’t going to stop fracking — even if they believe it causes earthquakes.
We know this to be true, because at least one energy company wholeheartedly agrees that fracking causes earthquakes — and they’ve decided to keep doing it anyway. Cuadrilla Resources, a British company, has admitted it’s “highly probable” their fracking operation caused a series of small tremors in Lancashire, England (read the press release here). Cuadrilla hopes to get right back to fracking, though, after implementation of an “early detection system” that will serve to minimize the seismic impact of their operations.
I cannot imagine the circumstances under which I would discover that my actions had caused an earthquake. But I think if I did, my next move would probably be to stop doing whatever it was I was doing — not to figure out a way to live with the earthquakes. Because if energy companies actually believe that fracking causes earthquakes — and if they continue to frack — where does it end? If a company learned that fracking was responsible for international terrorism, would they stop? If they learned that fracking caused blindness in little orphan baby girls, would they care? If the sudden and contemporaneous deaths of all first-born male children within a hundred-mile radius of the Lincoln County injection sites was conclusively linked to fracking, would the drilling companies even slow down? And if not, would anyone in power stand up to stop them?
In Strong Motion, Franzen uses the language of earthquakes to describe forceful love. “Strong motion” is, in fact, a geological term for the powerful turbulence that occurs near the epicenter of a quake. It’s a good metaphor, with deep roots. Love is a force of biological authority, after all, and we humans are just bits of dust and dirt and stone that have managed over millions of years to stand up, to think, to mate and bear children, and to find ways to protect what we love.
I live in Oklahoma, with my wife and two sons. Monday night we felt another earthquake. I was lying on our bed, holding my youngest boy — he’ll turn two years old next month — when the shaking began.
Melvyn Bragg, who hosts the terrific In Our Time program on BBC Radio, has put together a list of the twelve British books that have changed the world. The list is for a television series that he’ll be hosting. As an article in the Guardian explains, the most recent book on the list is from 1918, and there’s no fiction at all. What’s interesting about Bragg’s list is that they’re not so much books as they’re historical documents of political and scientific importance. The list:Principia Mathematica by Isaac NewtonMarried Love by Marie StopesThe Magna CartaThe Rule Book of Association FootballOn the Origin of Species by Charles DarwinOn the Abolition of the Slave Trade by William WilberforceA Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary WollstonecraftExperimental Researches in Electricity by Michael FaradayPatent Specification for Arkwright’s Spinning Machine by Richard ArkwrightThe King James Bible by William Tyndale and 54 Scholars Appointed by the KingAn Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam SmithThe First Folio by William Shakespeare
As reported at The Complete Review, FSG has announced a publication date for Roberto Bolaño’s massive final work, 2666. In both hardcover (912 pages!) and softcover (a three-paperback boxed set!), the book will hit shelves on November 11, just in time for the birthday of a certain Bolañophile I know. I’m picturing a more adult version of the Harry Potter release parties: customers queueing up outside their neighborhood bookstores at 11 p.m. the night before, wearing small round spectacles, smoking cigarettes and scribbling poetry on toilet paper. I suppose it’s time we started figuring out how to get blogger to accept tildes. [Ed note: We’ve got them this time, but it takes no small amount of HTML wrangling.]But seriously, folks: 2666 offers a bright spot at the end of what some observers believe will be a wrist-slittingly bad year for hardcover fiction sales. Not incidentally, it belies a number of pieties: that there’s no market for work in translation, that literary fiction is a tough sell… The New Directions and FSG publicity departments have been canny custodians of the Bolaño franchise, and the result has been an unmixed good: the introduction of an important Spanish-language writer to an American readership hungry for good books. I’ve had mixed reactions to some of Bolaño’s shorter works, translated by Chris Andrews (I’m currently working my way through Nazi Literature in the Americas), but Natasha Wimmer’s translation of The Savage Detectives was easily the best new novel I read last year.2666, which I’m surmising relates to The Savage Detectives somewhat in the way The Silmarillion relates to The Hobbit, was mentioned on our “Most Anticipated Books” list for 2008. There had recently been some speculation that it would appear again as a most anticipated book for 2009. It’s impressive that, amid what appears to have been lots of pressure to produce, Ms. Wimmer managed to deliver a manuscript in time for this year’s winter holidays. There’s something a little unnerving about the idea of translating under the gun, but in this case, Ms. Wimmer’s process may have mirrored Bolaño’s own; the author had to race to finish his magnum opus before liver failure took his life when he was fifty.Bonus links:Natasha Wimmer interviewed at The Quarterly ConversationFrancisco Goldman surveys the Bolaño canon
Airports and airplanes are a great place to go bookspotting. They are also a great place to confirm that the bestseller lists aren’t lying. In fact, it sort of made me realize that there should be two different categories of bestseller lists: one for people who buy less than fifteen books a year and one for people who buy more. The vast majority of people fall into that first category, and when you realize this, you realize why the publishing industry isn’t very different from other entertainment industries. If people have a certain finite number of movies that they will be able to see in a given year given constraints on time and money, I think they will be less likely to take a risk on an unproven independent instead of a known quantity like one of the Matrix movies (maybe this is why sequels do so well.) The same is true of video games and any other form of entertainment that can be consumed as a unit. Therefore it makes sense that authors like John Grisham and Stephen King and many bestselling authors of lesser talent have such a strong repeat business. Readers who don’t have the time or inclination to seek out risky books will therefore prefer to purchase books that they ALREADY know that they will enjoy. (This theory, by the way, also explains why political rant books do so well, no matter how absurd they seem to some people). So, I like to test this theory of book consumption when I travel, because airports and airplanes are the one place where people who do not have the time or inclination to read regularly read for lack of any better way to pass the time. Here’s what I spotted:Buffalo Niagara International Airport:Hide & Seek by James Patterson: “Maggie Bradford is one of the most beloved singer/songwriters anywhere. She’s also the devoted mother of two children. She seems to have it all. And so, how could she have murdered not just one, but two of her husbands? With unrelenting suspense, James Patterson answers that question.”The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank: “As it explores the life lessons of Jane, the contemporary American Everywoman–who combines the charm of Bridget Jones, the vulnerability of Ally McBeal, and the wit of Lorrie Moore–The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing offers wise, poignant, and laugh-out-loud insight.”Q Is for Quarry by Sue Grafton: “The #1 “New York Times” bestseller, based on an unsolved homicide that occurred in 1969, is now available in paperback. Revisiting the past can be a dangerous business, and what begins with the pursuit of Jane Doe’s real identity ends in a high-risk hunt for her killer.”A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry: “With the compassionate realism of Dickens and a narrative sweep worthy of Balzac, this internationally acclaimed novel draws an unforgettable portrait of the cruelty and corruption, kindness and heroism of India. Set in 1975, A Fine Balance follows the destinies of four strangers who are forced to share a cramped apartment in an unnamed city by the sea.”Krakatoa by Simon Winchester: “From the bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman and The Map That Changed the World comes an examination of the enduring and world-changing effects of the catastrophic eruption off the coast of Java of the world’s most dangerous volcano–Krakatoa.”Detroit Wayne County:The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver: “In her most highly acclaimed book to date, Kingsolver presents a compelling exploration of religion, conscience, imperialist arrogance, and the many paths to redemption, telling the story of an American missionary and his family in the Congo in 1959.”The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle: “According to Tolle, accessing the deepest self, the true self, can be learned by freeing ourselves from the conflicting, unreasonable demands of the mind and living ‘present, fully and intensely, in the Now.'”Los Angeles InternationalThe Testament by John Grisham: “This ‘compulsory page-turner’ journeys deep into the halls of justice–and the rain forests of Brazil. An eccentric billionaire leaves his fortune to his illegitimate daughter, a Christian missionary in Brazil. Rachel stands to inherit $11 billion, but only if attorney Nate O’Reilly can find her.”Four Blind Mice by James Patterson: “Alex Cross is plunged into a case where military codes of honor conceal dark currents of revenge and ambition, and the men controlling the moves have the best weapons and training the world can offer.”Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling: “In the richest installment yet of J. K. Rowling’s seven-part story, Harry Potter confronts the unreliability of the very government of the magical world, and the impotence of the authorities at Hogwarts. Despite this (or perhaps because of it) Harry finds depth and strength in his friends, beyond what even he knew; boundless loyalty and unbearable sacrifice. Though thick runs the plot (as well as the spine), readers will race through these pages, and leave Hogwarts, like Harry, wishing only for the next train back.”So, there you have it, a small, but interesting cross-section of what the American casual reader is reading right now. Some is good and some is bad, but it’s nice to see so many people reading in one place.