In their quest to add more and more arcane content to every page, Amazon recently added Statistically Improbable Phrases to their pages for books that have the “Search inside…” feature. Apparently, Amazon is using an algorithm to determine which phrases in particular books are less likely to appear in other books with some interesting, though not terribly useful, results. Or so it would seem to me. (Although there is the prospect of a third party using this data to come up with some interesting applications). Anyway, to see it in action, let’s look at the page for Oblivion by David Foster Wallace, and you’ll see this near the top of the page: ” SIPs: consultant caste, executive intern, snoring issue, head intern, dominant village,” those, apparently, being some of the Statistically Improbable Phrases contained within the book. Then, if you want you can click on one of the SIPs to see other books that contain it. Here’s the short list of books that contain the phrase “snoring issue.”
An unread book is all possible stories. It contains all possible characters, styles, genres, turns of phrase, metaphors, speech patterns, and profound life-changing revelations. An unread book exists only in the primordial soup of your imagination, and there it can evolve into any story you like. An unread book – any unread book – could change your life. Like most readers, I love browsing in bookshops and libraries. I like to run my fingers along the spines and read titles and authors' names. I pull the books out and flip through them, thinking about the stories inside them, the things I would learn from them, how my life would be subtly but surely different after I had read them. Sometimes I buy or borrow the books and read them. As much as I enjoy the books, I often find that the book I have read is somehow not as exciting as the book I had imagined reading. No book is ever quite as good as it potentially could have been. Last week I bought a book. I looked at the blurb and read the first paragraph, and I could feel the texture of the book in my mind. It was going to be a steadily-paced yet exciting coming-of-age story about three young girls who go camping in the woods, stumble across a couple holidaying in a cabin, and see things through the windows that upend their world. It would move from the girls in their clumsy tent, to their fable-like journey through the forest, to the glowing windows of the cabin. The story was going to be overflowing with the smell of mulching leaves, the stale sweetness of fizzy drinks on the tongue, the crackle of empty sweet wrappers. It was going to be honest and real and uncomfortably sensual. Except that it wasn't about that at all: it was a thriller about a woman having an affair. With every sentence I read, the book I had imagined shrank smaller and smaller. By the end of the third page, it had disappeared. The actual book was by no means bad, it just wasn't the book I thought it would be. I have about 800 unread books on my shelves. Some would find this excessive, and they would probably be right. But I take comfort in knowing that I will have appropriate reading material whatever my mood, that I will be spoiled for choice whenever I want a book, and that I will never, ever run out of new stories. From the cover design, the back blurb, and general absorption of cultural knowledge, I have a strong idea of what each one of my unread books is like. For example, I think that Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast Trilogy is at once claustrophobic and expansive. It has the texture of solid green leaves crunched between your molars. It tastes of sweetened tea and stale bread and dust. When I read it, I will feel close to my father because it is his favorite book. Reading the Gormenghast books will allow me to understand my father in ways I currently do not, and at certain points in the book I will put it down and stare into the middle distance and say "Oh. Now my childhood makes sense." Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness will make me sad and proud and indignant. I will no longer get tangled up in discussions about gender issues, because I will finally have clear-cut and undeniable examples of how gender stereotyping is bad for everyone. Reading it will make me feel like an integral part of queer history and culture, and afterwards I will feel mysteriously connected to all my fellow LGBT people. Perhaps I will even have gaydar. Roberto Bolaño's 2666 is an obsessive and world-shifting epic. When I read it, I will be completely absorbed by it. It will be all I think about. It will affect my daily life in ways I can't fully understand, and when I finish it I will have come to profound revelations about the nature of existence. I will finally understand all the literary theory I wrote essays on when I was at university. I have not read these books because I worry that they're not the books I think they are. Perhaps I will never read them. I'm sure they are wonderful books, but no book could possibly contain all the knowledge and understanding I am expecting from these. I know it's unrealistic, but I still hope. There is another reason to leave books unread: because I know I will love them. This might seem nonsensical, and I suppose it is. I am a writer, and I learn how to write by reading; I know that certain books will teach me more than others because they are similar in style and content to my own writing, though vastly better. This is why I have not read Fucking Daphne, an anthology of sex writing about and edited by Daphne Gottlieb; or Alice Greenaway's White Ghost Girls, a short and lyrical novel about sisters in 1960s Hong Kong; or Francesca Lia Block's fantastical erotica novellas, Ecstasia and Primavera; or anything ever written by Martin Millar. I know that I will love them and want to learn from them, and so I don't read them: firstly because it is tiring to read that way, with your eyes and ears and brain constantly absorbing; and secondly because once I read them they will be over, the mystery will be revealed. Sometimes I hold these books in my hands and imagine what I will learn from them. These books have affected my writing, and I haven't even read them. Maybe we can learn as much from our expectations of a story as we can from the actual words on the page. Go to your bookshelves and pick a book you have not read. Hold it in your hands. Look at the cover and read the description on the back. Think about what the story might be about, what themes and motifs might be in it, what it might say about the world you inhabit, whether it can make you imagine an entirely different world. I suggest that the literary universe you just created might be more exciting and enlightening than the one contained within those covers. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that book. It might prove to be a great book; the best book you have ever read. But your imagination contains every possible story, every possible understanding, and any book can only be one tiny portion of that potential world. Back | 1. I prefer my version, and still harbor a hope that my imagined story is out there. If you've read it, let me know. Back | 2. In my defense, I spent six years as a bookseller and am now the reviews editor for a magazine, so I accumulated a lot of paperbacks. Plus, I can't go past a second-hand bookshop without finding something that I must have. Back | 3. This is also why I have never reread my favorite books: Patrick Süskind's Perfume, Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss, Françoise Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse, or Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie's Lost Girls. They're just too good. [Image credit: Kenny Louie]
Arts & Letters Daily links to a Washington Post article by a former Amazon.com employee, James Marcus, picking up on February's story about a programming glitch at Amazon.ca. He gives us a little insider perspective on the customer review phenomenon, but perhaps more interesting for Amazon-watchers is the prospect of his upcoming book: Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut chronicling the early days of the online superstore through the internet bust. This will likely be an interesting portrait of the dot-com era.Also at aldaily.com, a link to a review of Kingsley Amis' comic masterpiece Lucky Jim in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the book's publication. Believe the hype, this book is fantastic.Folks in Los Angeles, and probably most big cities, have probably noticed the proliferation of stencil and paste-up graffiti appearing on sidewalks and walls. The images range from blatant advertisements (usually for bands) to beguiling and intriguing symbols. The British artist Tristan Manco has collected these odd hybrid art forms into a couple of good-looking volumes, Stencil Graffiti and the soon to be released Street Logos. Here are some images from the first book: Stencil GraffitiI've added The Clerk's Tale by Spencer Reece to the Reading Queue, and I'm almost done with The Known World by Edward P. Jones. It is fantastic.
I attended a book reading and signing by Pete Dexter on Thursday night. It was a very entertaining evening. Dexter is an old newspaper guy from Philadelphia and he had a ton of great stories. One was about a guy he knew who would always invite people to punch him in the stomach. By flexing his powerful stomach muscles he was able to stop the puncher's fist cold. Not the most impressive trick, but good for a few laughs. Well, all was going fine until one day he invited the then unknown Sonny Liston to slug him in the gut and was promptly sent flying across the room. Dexter had several stories like this which kept people in stitches. He also read from the beginning of his latest book, Train, which is very good by the way. I had him sign a copy of his National Book Award winner, Paris Trout, and while I was standing there I asked him which of his books he thought I should read next. He recommended both Deadwood and Brotherly Love. I'll have to look for those.
Coinciding with the start of the PEN World Voices Festival, Tuesday's installment of the Pacific Standard Fiction Series in Brooklyn features three internationally acclaimed novelists. Francisco Goldman (The Ordinary Seaman), Anne Landsman (The Rowing Lesson), and Ceridwen Dovey (Blood Kin) will read from works set in Guatemala, South Africa, and an unnamed dictatorship. In honor of Mr. Goldman's latest, a work of nonfiction, the theme for the evening is "Art, Politics, and Murder." The event is free. (For more information, see Time Out.)[As Mr. Goldman has blurbed two of The Millions' favorite books, it seems fitting to offer a bonus link to his fantastic 2003 essay, "In the Shadow of the Patriarch," featuring cameos from Gabriel García Márquez and Alvaro Mutis, as well as early praise for Roberto Bolaño. ¡Buen apetito!]
Garth has an essay on Amazon's celebrity reviewers up at Slate.Full disclosure: It was late at night, in a fit of furtive self-Googling, that I discovered the first Amazon customer review of my debut book of fiction. "Superb," wrote Grady Harp of Los Angeles. "Fascinating ... addictive." Not to mention "profound." Such extravagance should have aroused suspicion, but I was too busy basking in the glow of a five-star rave to worry about the finer points of Harp's style.Check it out.
Last time I was at the book store I noticed an interesting cultural history sort of book called Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants. The "city" is, of course, New York City and the book uses rats as a vehicle to explore the New York's intricacies and tribulations. The author of the book, Robert Sullivan, is known for his quirky, narrative-based non-fictions, The Meadowlands and A Whale Hunt. If you're into the whole rat thing check out this Newsday journalist's account of an evening spent "ratting" with Sullivan. From rats to elephants: during my daily travels the other day I caught an interview with the author of an interesting-sounding book on one of the local public radio shows. Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear is a history of the magic act written by a master magician, Jim Steinmeyer. The book describes the origins of tricks that have become magic cliches, like sawing a lady in half. He also seeks to describe the interesting blend of mystery, showmanship, and hucksterism that embodied the turn of the century magic show. Finally, I mentioned the other day the centennial of the birth of Dr. Suess. It turns out that there is a sturdy coffee table book to commemorate this event. It displays his life and work and bears the somewhat dubious title: The Seuss, the Whole Seuss and Nothing But the Seuss.
The eulogies are already being written, but there are still six weeks of life left in Toronto's best bookshop. There's no escaping reality though: Pages, that literary hotbed amid the faux-cool of Queen Street West, is shutting its doors at the end of August.A casualty of skyrocketing rents, Pages has been THE place to go - for me, anyway - whenever I wanted something new and interesting. Independent, central, staffed by knowledgeable, friendly and literate people, the shop was always a pleasure to pop into. I often walked out with something I'd never heard of before.The discount table near the back was always an affordable, eclectic mix. Walls of shelves were devoted to cult favorites and small-press publications. (This was one of the first shops in the city to display Garth's Field Guide to the North American Family. Art, music, photography, gender studies, cultural studies, belles lettres, poetry, and a damn fine literature section - Pages had it all.Yes, there are still many fine bookshops in Toronto: Book City, particularly its Annex location, is good. BMV, with its mix of new, remaindered and used, has become a bright, lively, late-night Annex haunt. And my favorite second-hand shops still seem to be going strong - chief among them Balfour Books in Little Italy and Seekers in the Annex. But head right downtown and Pages stood out, offering a bracing tonic to the flat fizz of the big chains.Fortunately, the long-running, Pages-sponsored "This Is Not A Reading Series" - a performance series held at various venues where writers and artists can do anything except read - will continue under the leadership of Mr. Pages himself, Marc Glassman.[Image Credit: Sweet One]
● ● ●