When I asked people earlier this month to tell me about the best book they read this year, several wrote back to say that they honestly couldn’t because, over the course of a long and busy year, they had forgotten many of the books that they had read. Now I’m sure that they could have reconstructed their year of reading by combing through old reciepts and library records and interviewing the local barristas: “I’ll have a tall latte, and do you happen to remember what book I was reading during the last week of March?” But who wants to do that. So, if you are looking for a New Year’s resolution, I would like to propose one. It’s easy: make a list of all the books you read this year. If you want to do something a little more rigorous, commit yourself to putting some words down about every book you read (And if you deem these words ready for public consumption, I’ll happily post them here.) Somehow, this sort of casual reflection makes the reading experience that much more fun. Have a great New Year. Things will be slowly returning to full speed around here, so stay tuned.
Amar Bakshi was about five years behind me at my high school in Washington DC, but he has my dream job, traveling the world to author a blog for the Washington Post, taking on the charged topic, “How the World Sees America.” I started reading it because of the high school connection (Amar is a friend of my little brother’s), but I’ve become an avid reader of it over time as Amar follows in the footsteps of some of my favorite traveling journalists: Jon Lee Anderson, Paul Theroux, and, of course, Ryszard Kapuscinski. Unlike those masters of the form, Amar also carries a video camera with him to further chronicle his experiences. Since starting in May, he’s been to England and India, and now he’s back in the States hashing out plans to travel farther afield. It’s an interesting experiment from a young writer. Worth a read if you’re looking for another blog to follow.
With the announcement of a title and street date (July 21st) for the seventh and final Harry Potter book, the final chapter of a publishing industry fairy tale has begun.I witnessed the phenomenon of the boy wizard firsthand when I worked at a bookstore in Los Angeles. Even on the decidedly not family friendly Sunset Strip (we were a few doors down from the Hustler flagship store), we sold more copies of book five, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, than all of our other books combined in the first few days it was out, and our book buyer had to make emergency runs to Costco (where he could get the book wholesale) to keep it in stock. (You can see my thoughts at the time in this post.)Book six, of course, was even bigger, and judging by the numbers, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will be the biggest of all. According to an Amazon press release, in just the first seven hours of availability, the online bookseller sold “over 200% more books than it did the entire first day of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince the sixth book in the series. In fact, sales on Amazon.com in the first seven hours today have eclipsed total sales for the entire first two days of the sixth book.” Once all the first-day numbers were tallied, Amazon put out another release saying that orders for Deathly Hallows “were 547% higher than first-day pre-orders for Half-Blood Prince” and that the seventh and final book sold more copies on the first day than in the first two weeks of the pre-order period for book six.Amazon isn’t alone of course, Barnes & Noble reported selling Half-Blood Prince at a rate of 105 copies a second when that book came out, and I’m guessing the numbers will be even more astonishing for book seven. The books are such outliers that overall sales for the chain spike in years when Harry Potter books come out, creating lumpy year over year sales comparisons that the company’s management must explain to Wall Street.Of course, nowhere else is the series a bigger deal than Scholastic, the publisher behind the books, and the company can only hope that dozens of other projects in the pipeline will make up for the revenue lost once Harry Potter is history. At the same time, I’d imagine that the series will be repackaged again and again to entice die-hard fans and newcomers to shell out cash for the books years after book seven comes out. Already there are multiple editions of the Harry Potter books, and the “deluxe” version of book seven – retailing for $65 – is #2 at Amazon right now.While it’s unclear if the book industry will ever experience a phenomenon quite like Harry Potter again – the first six books have sold more than 325 million copies in 64 languages, dwarfing even The Da Vinci Code’s 60+ million copies in print – we can be sure that the press will spill many gallons of ink on the end of the series over the next six months or so. And to be honest, it’s probably deserved. There’s never been anything else quite like it.
Some media pundits suggest that, as the new owner of the Wall Street Journal, Rupert Murdoch has set his sights on taking down the New York Times, or at least giving the paper a run for its money. So it was with no doubt some glee that the Times was able to report that the WSJ is a bit more thin skinned than Murdoch would have you believe.The Times yesterday reported on a parody of the WSJ, My Wall Street Journal, created by Tony Hendra and with contributions from Andy Borowitz, Richard Belzer and Terry Jones. Apparently, the WSJ wasn’t too keen on the tabloid format send-up and actually sent people around the city trying to snatch up copies before they landed in the hands of the general public. Or as the Times cheekily put it: “It seems someone at The Wall Street Journal really likes a biting new parody of the paper – likes it enough, in fact, to leave at least one newsstand with no copies remaining for anyone else to buy.”Media spat aside, it is also interesting to see an attempt at a one-off publication like this, particularly in the age of the internet. Fishbowl NY explained the business model:The goal is to break even and, ideally, make money on the printing. “The business model is pretty simple, Hendra says. “Sell a lot of them.” Manhattan Media will be “well into break even territory” if half of the 200,000 available on newsstands are sold (an additional 50,000 will be sold in bookstores). At $3.95 per paper, the company will gain almost $1 million in revenue – an amount Murdoch “loses on the New York Post before lunch,” Hendra jokes – if the print run sells out.They are even available at Amazon, sold as a “Single Issue Magazine.”
On Feb. 9th, the documentary Operation Homecoming: Writing the War in Iraq went into limited release across the U.S. The movie follows the National Endowment of the Art’s (NEA) program to help soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan put their experience into words. Although the movie itself has gotten mixed reviews, the program has been considered a great success. After workshops across the nation led by the likes of Vietnam veteran and novelist Tobias Wolff and Tom Clancy, soldiers’ writings were collected in an anthology Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families. The book includes short stories, poems, letters and essays, arranged by theme and, unlike the movie, has received a considerable number of accolades.Brian Turner, whose book Here, Bullet, a collection of poems on the war in Iraq, was reviewed here last week, was a participant in the workshop, and appears in the movie reading his poem “What Every Soldier Should Know.” Although I haven’t yet had the opportunity to see the movie or pick up a copy Operation Homecoming, I have in the past found great value in the first person accounts of World War II collected by Studs Terkel in his book The Good War, and especially in Haruya Cook’s and Theodore Cook’s Japan at War (an absolutely stunning accomplishment that is a must read for anyone interested in Japan’s part in WWII.) The power of these accounts to educate and inform can’t be overestimated and all indications are that Operation Homecoming will be an excellent resource for those interested in another perspective on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.More information on the Operation Homecoming Program is available through the NEA.Bonus Links: Operation Homecoming mentioned in the New Yorker “War Issue.” And a list of World War II non-fiction compiled with help from readers of The Millions.
The Suitors, a debut novel by Ben Ehrenreich, draws from Homer’s Odyssey and James Joyce’s Ulysses. The story is another rewrite of those famous epics – there are so many, but then again it’s a fertile place to start – set, as PW puts it, “in a never-never land equal parts contemporary America and classical antiquity.” Ehrenreich is best-known as a widely published journalist whose work regularly appears in the Village Voice, LA Weekly, and The Believer. Ehrenreich is the son of participatory journalist, Barbara, author of the best-selling Nickel and Dimed, in which she tried to get by on minimum wage.Jeffrey Ford’s excellent novel The Girl in the Glass is currently being discussed in exhaustive detail at the Litblog Co-op blog, but he’s got a new book out, too. The Empire of Ice Cream is a collection of stories. Ford, as I recently had the pleasure of discovering, is like very few others writing today. Though he might be labeled as a writer of “speculative fiction,” his work doesn’t really need a label at all, as it is sure to be enjoyed by anyone who likes a good story told well. To see what I mean, check out a few stories from The Empire of Ice Cream: “The Annals of Eelin-Ok,” “The Empire of Ice Cream,” and “A Man of Light.”Kate Grenville’s novel, The Secret River, has already won the 2006 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and has been shortlisted for the Miles Frankin Prize awarded to the year’s best Australian novel. The Secret River is a historical novel about the convict settlement of Australia and follows the story of a particular convict named William Thornhill. The Guardian writes: “There isn’t much underlying moral ambiguity in this book: the costs of settlement are appalling, which makes Thornhill its villain, even while he carries its sympathetic weight.” Grenville previously won the Orange Prize in 2001 for her novel The Idea of Perfection.