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.”
Millions contributor and ardent Canadian, Andrew Saikali, dropped me a line to let me know that Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish journalist and one of my favorite writers will be on the CBC Radio program Writers and Company this Sunday, June 5th. If you’re interested, you can listen live by clicking through from here. (Check that page to see when it will air in your time zone.) It appears as though the show will also be available here for download for a week after it airs on Sunday.
Film and literature are two vastly different mediums of communication, an argument best captured in the sentiments a friend wrote to me recently:”I identify books with age and place. It’s a nasty habit as it carries with it a certain sentiment that is not in the book itself, rather the impressions of habitat where and when I was reading a particular book, not to mention my desires at the time.”I replied to my friend that he had defined and distilled the reading experience. It’s those precise differences in approach that make the reading experience so monumental. No two people can read a book the same way, particularly people with different life histories.But film is a visual medium. Movies give us iconic images that last a lifetime. Or so I believed until recently.In early 2004 I wrote a series of 28 blithely interconnected short stories for L.A. Stories. One of the tales, “Bill’s Bottle,” is a first-person narrative that provides a voyeuristic look at the tragic death of film icon William Holden from the point of view of the fatal bottle of vodka that contributed to his passing.Immediately after “Bill’s Bottle” appeared on the fiction page at the L.A. Stories website I received perplexed e-mails from my readers, all asking the same question: “Who the hell is William Holden?””I just looked up his movies on the Internet Movie Database,” one reader wrote, “and I have to say that I am not familiar with the man or his work.”Not familiar with the star who appeared in a bevy of classic motion pictures? Consider just a small handful of Holden’s iconic roles: The struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Major Shears in David Lean’s epic The Bridge on the River Kwai. Max Schumacker in Paddy Chayefsky’s clairvoyant Network. Pike Bishop in Sam Peckinpah’s blood-soaked western The Wild Bunch.There was a time when Billy Wilder’s 1953 classic Stalag 17 – set in an Allied POW camp in World War II during one memorable Christmas, starring Holden as rough-hewn Sergeant Sefton – was a holiday perennial on television. Not anymore. This year I was compelled to rent the movie on video in order to add it to my plate of favorite Christmas movies.I purchased a previously viewed VHS of Stalag 17 at my local Blockbuster just a few days before Christmas. Pawing through the bin of discarded videotapes I discovered a virtual treasure trove of William Holden films being chased out the door for a mere $4.99 apiece: Picnic, Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, the original Sabrina. (A further irony is that every title mentioned possesses either a theatrical or literary pedigree but that’s another matter entirely.)William Holden was an alcoholic for much of his adult life. Biographer Bob Thomas points out in his book Golden Boy that the ruggedly handsome actor was embarrassed to make a living as an actor, believing the profession to be not only unmanly but downright humiliating. Holden began having a snort or two before scenes, a shyness killer that would eventually kill the man himself in a most gruesome and embarrassing manner.Holden was no Olivier but he was one of the greatest stars who ever graced the silver screen. In 1995 – fourteen years after his death – Empire Magazine selected Holden as one of the 100 Sexiest Stars in Film History. Securing Holden’s lofty place in the often-strange intersection between literature and film is this interesting factoid: J.D. Salinger got the name for protagonist Holden Caulfield in the classic book The Catcher in the Rye from the movie Dear Ruth, which starred William Holden and Joan Caulfield.Today, though, William Holden, sadly, is largely unknown. I moved “Bill’s Bottle” to my website earlier this year and reading the site meter for that page provides an excuse to ponder where our culture is going and has gone. “Bill’s Bottle” receives less than two page views per month. On the other hand, “Dead Porn Stars,” a trade magazine piece I wrote for X Biz World exploring those in cyberspace who are cashing in on late, great porn stars, receives over 1,000 page views per week.One thousand page views for dead porn stars per week. Two page views for Bill Holden.You do the math.
I made mention of a young writer named Ben Mezrich in my poker post earlier this week. Well, it turns out he’s got another high-stakes book out, but this time international finance, not poker, is the focus. Ugly Americans is about an Ivy Leaguer who follows a nebulous job offer to Japan where he ends up pulling off “a trade that could, quite simply, be described as the biggest deal in the history of the financial markets.” And it’s a true story. Kinda makes ya curious, no?In case anyone is feeling very generous as you read this. I found two things today that I really want: George Plimpton on Sports and The Complete Monty Python’s Flying Circus Megaset. (They’re on my wishlist.)Coming soon: “Goodbye, Los Angeles!”
A few posts back I touched upon the idea of the “style guide.” As a newly minted journalism student, I have been taught that these guides are essential for creating the “clean copy” that my editors will want to see. They are fascinating books in a way. In my AP Stylebook some entries are brief, just one word: tiptop says one, instructing me not hyphenate. Other entries go on for a few pages like the one for possessives, which explains how to deal with “nouns the same in singular and plural,” “special expressions,” and “quasi possessives.” I know, exciting. One of the undercurrents of journalism school seems to be that writing is a lot more than just putting words on paper. There are rules to be followed and facts to be vetted. The rules are covered by the Stylebook, but vetting the facts can often be done with The World Almanac and Book of Facts, where one might discover a daily astronomy calendar, a list of popes, and the name of every town in Alabama with more than 5,000 people. Armed with these two books, I ought to have much of the guidance I need, but I have also been known to refer to a couple of my favorite writing reference books when necessary. The Elements of Style is a thin, little book that is so elegant and efficient in teaching proper usage it supersedes many of the fatter, drier grammar books you may have encountered in your studies. I also love my The Synonym Finder, which I bought when I worked at the book store after a customer became misty when describing her devotion to it. I’m glad I bought it. Every time I go looking for a synonym, I find one so good that it feels like I’m cheating somehow. My reference library is by no means complete, however. I’m still looking for that perfect dictionary (any recommendations?). And though I’m always dropping hints that I’d love to get a nice hefty atlas for a gift, I still haven’t received one.
My book-loving friends keep writing me great emails that I feel compelled to share with all of you. Here’s one from my friend John about the great books he’s been reading:Currently reading Libra by Don Delillo. I’ve heard from a few people that it’s a modern classic, and though I don’t know if I necessarily agree with that, it is very good. Fictional retelling of the assassination of JFK. I think it might be overshadowed by Oliver Stone’s JFK, but I would say it’s an even more plausible a version of what happened. Just finished reading Dispatches by Michael Herr. Don’t know if you’ve read it, but you probably should. He was a freelance journalist in Vietnam (which is what the book is about) and was also the screenwriter for Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. Probably the most readable book about the Vietnam War; haven’t read that much though. I also saw The Sheltering Sky on your queue. Amazing book. That really got me into reading again. Very stark, but somehow it struck a chord. Something about wanting to be an ex-pat, but also seeing the hubris that we Americans have, especially in relation to foreign cultures. Some things never change. Probably my fave author of right now is T.C. Boyle. Love his stuff. His last novel, Drop City, is a great read. The thing about him is that his stories are highly readable. Great stories, great characters.A couple of quick comments: I’ve been wanting to read Dispatches for a very long time, and I think most of you know how I feel about T.C. Boyle. Also, everyone should check out John’s new band The Vanity Fair, they were sent here to rock. I also got a great email from longtime Millions contributor Brian that I’d like to share with all of you:Not a lot of time, but just wanted to drop an e-mail, let you know I read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Fantastic. He went to Spain to write about the Spanish Civil War but felt so strongly he joined the fight. He was in the trenches, fought, got shot in the throat, recovered, took part in street battles in Barcelona, was pursued by the police for being a member of the Marxist group P.O.U.M., fled to England and wrote the book. This passage is from just before he fled: “I seemed to catch a momentary glimpse, a sort of far-off rumour of the Spain that dwells in everyone’s imagination. White sierras, goatherds, dungeons of the Inquisition, Moorish palaces, black winding trains of mules, grey olive trees and groves of lemons, girls in black mantillas, the wines of Malaga and Alicante, cathedrals, cardinals, bull-fights, gypsies, serenades — in short, Spain. Of all Europe it was the country that had had most hold upon my imagination.”Great stuff guys. Thanks! If anyone else out there wants to contribute, just drop me an email. Remember, my Millions is your Millions. I have tons of stuff to write about, including the two books I finished last week, but I’m off to New York tomorrow for a few days, maybe a week, so it may have to wait until I get back.
Tao Lin, a young writer with a flair for cleverly drawing attention to his work, is in the news again. His latest scheme is to take investments from “the public” in his novel-in-progress in exchange for a portion of the royalties.The move appears to have been successful; shares are no longer available and Lin got written up in several mainstream publications, including a fairly lengthy piece in the Telegraph, and dozens of blogs. What nobody mentioned, however, is that this has been done before, some 40 years ago, by another outsized, New York personality.In the early years of his career, playwright and actor Wallace Shawn did the same thing, according to a John Lahr piece that originally ran in the New Yorker and is collected in his book of profiles, Show and Tell published in 2000. Shawn, son of legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn, was a struggling writer going out of his way to achieve literary success without tapping into his father’s considerable influence. Lahr writes:Back then, Wally was forced to follow his own quirky, unconventional path. He told me he’d “sold stock in himself” – his way of rationalizing a twenty-five-hundred-dollar loan he took from a consortium of friends in the sixties, in order to go off and write his plays. (To this day, the investors receive a small yearly check).The juxtaposition of the two schemes presents an interesting notion. $2,500 40 years ago got you some small percentage of a budding artist’s career in perpetuity. $2,000 now only gets you 10% of the royalties for a novel. Inflation, I suppose.Finally, despite Shawn’s scheme (I believe) initially being revealed in a New Yorker piece and despite Shawn’s obvious ties to the magazine, The New Yorker, in its (admittedly very brief) mention of Lin’s plan on its own blog, did not catch the Shawn connection.Given the fractured state of publishing and the enthusiasm for trying new models, perhaps this shareholder form of patronage will take off, but it will have been Shawn, not Lin, who was the first innovator.