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.”
In December, we noticed the slimness of the New Yorker’s year-end Fiction Issue, and more recently Gawker has been on the case. Now, the Anniversary Issue hitting newsstands last week, though chock-full of goodies, also felt much lighter than normal. As it turns out, at 122 pages, it was 38 pages lighter than a year ago.While I have been taking advantage of the freed up reading schedule that a shorter New Yorker affords, I do hope that this is as short as it gets.(Hopefully Not) Related: Culture and Vigilance: Look for the Whimper, Not the Bang
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.
Over the past few years, I’ve read a good amount of twentieth century Russian history, and I’ve come to wonder, with dismay, why the Soviet regime – especially during Stalin’s reign – is not acknowledged as one of the great horrors in human history. One does not see memorials and museums to this tragedy in cities around the world, nor even in Russia. This view was reinforced in me by books like Anne Applebaum’s Gulag and Martin Amis’ Koba the Dread. Now Millions reader Brian has read another book about Stalin’s reign and sent in his thoughts:I just read Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore– One of the most intense and fascinating books I’ve ever read in my life. Wow. Focuses mostly on Stalin’s life after Lenin’s death and the lives of the Russian magnates that surrounded him. At about pg. 200 the Great Terror kicks in, leading into negotiations and subsequent war with Germany and… it is indescribable. Truly. We all know about Stalin, but I never really understood…- There is one scene in this book, the Russians had 17,000 Poles imprisoned. Stalin ordered 7,000 of them killed. Blohkin was the man to do it. At various times during the Terror he was denounced by Yezhov or Beria, but Stalin wouldn’t let him be killed as nobody could murder with such speed or efficiency. Moreover, like Stalin, it didn’t jangle Blohkin’s nerves; he didn’t turn to excessive drink, decadent sex, or lose him mind. (Although his mother, years later, recalled that he would come home, throw himself at her feet, and sob uncontrollably) – so, on the abovementioned night, Blohkin put on his rubber butcher’s apron, a cap, and took a German pistol (blame it on the Nazis if the crime was discovered) and personally shot 250 poles. He did this – 250 murders a night – for 28 nights. It is the single largest (known) mass murder by one individual in history.- Montefiore provides day by day descriptions of life in the Kremlin, the intrigues amongst Stalin’s ‘court’, the denunciations, confessions, and sexual liaisons amongst the men and women at the ‘top’ (one of Stalin’s favorite things, which he did over and over, was to order the murder of a top official’s wife and then force the official to hang around (and, possibly take orders from) her murderer); the meetings between Molotov and Hitler, Stalin and Ribbentrop, FDR, Churchill, etc. – he gives actual confessions, testimonies, and descriptions of Stalin’s right hand men being beaten so hard that their eyeballs pop out of their heads (for some reason this is mentioned frequently — what must be done to a man or woman’s head to have an eyeball pushed, not picked, out?) by their former best friends, and, at times, their sons or brothers. Seriously.The paperback came out last week. A must read.
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]
I recieved this note from a reader the other day and I enjoyed it so much I thought I would provide it for public consumption. Enjoy: I came upon your blog this morning and I liked it. The meta of the blog is a noble idea and I wish you the best. Thought you might appreciate a little ditty I penned- SummapoetaSumma was a bookie, not the Vegas thing where 5 will get you 10, but a fairy thathung out around ink and parchment and leather bindings. Summa hung out around books.Sometimes bookies are call library angels, but Summa bristled at this nomenclature.She was always quick to point out that angels were entities that had been very bad,that were now trying to be good. Not so with fairies. Fairies had always favoredphun and play and giggle, wiggle, laughing. Why be bad when having phun was so muchbetter?Summa’s full moniker was Summapoeta. She favored the short sweetest of poems to thedrudgery of wading through the ramblings of fools and their novels. Yes, beauty toSumma was to say much with little. – And unto my beckoningit did comea perfect point of celestial splendorand with this light I now seethe beauty amongst the shadows.- to Summa this was a zillion times more beautiful than any novel.I have always liked the concept of library angels or book fairies, an invisible handthat seems to lead you to what you need.You can catch some of my other stuff on http://robertdsnaps.blogspot.com. Hint -Some of the big ones hang out in the archives.Doing time on the ball,”d”I love libraries and I love the idea of “library angels and book fairies.” Libraries can be incredible, mystical places. Anyone who has been to the New York Central Library or the Los Angeles Central Library knows it… and anyone who has read the work of poet, writer, philosopher and blind librarian Jorge Luis Borges, knows the power of the library as well… see his Collected Fictions for various magical library tales. My favorite fictional library? It would have to be the library in Richard Brautigan’s novel, The Abortion. In this library, anyone can walk in and place their own handmade book on shelves that gather no dust, and the book will remain there for posterity, for anyone who wishes to see it.Bookfinding… Classic Literatures and my Broken Down CarI feel no particular affinity for my car. It is very average and there is nothing romantic about it. And yet, living in Los Angeles, I depend upon the car perhaps more than any of my possessions. Somehow though, this unassuming car of mine must be really tuned into my psyche, because it seems to collapse sympathetically when ever my life hits a rocky patch. During my various periods of full and gainful employment, my car has behaved admirably, quietly doing it’s job, asking and recieving no special notice from it’s owner… very unassuming. However, whenever I am scrimping and struggling, my car seems to feel my pain and its insides deteriorate and fail, seemingly reacting to the stresses felt by its owner. And so, naturally, with a rent check looming that may be beyond my means, I brought my car to a trusted mechanic for routine and necessary maintainance, and sure enough my trusted mechanic, after spending some time under the hood and under the car, quickly identified several areas where my car was teetering on the brink of total collapse. Having seen the decay with my own two eyes, and resigned to the fact that my car’s chronic desire to push me ever deeper into credit card debt, I set out on walk, not often done in Los Angeles, to kill time while my car was unde the knife.Along my way, I passed several bookstores peddling both new and used books, many of which I would like to have owned, none of which I could afford. So, I was much pleased to come upon a Goodwill store in the course of my travels, one with many shelves of dusty paperbacks going for 49 cents a piece. Many of the usual thrift store suspects were present, mounds and mounds of bestseller fodder from two decades ago, but I was able to lay my hands on three classic novels that I am very pleased to add to my growing library. First I found an old Signet Classic paperback copy of Bleak House by Charles Dickens. Dickens has long been one of my favorites, and I am especially fond of Great Expectations and Hard Times. Many consider Bleak House to be his greatest work. I also found a copy of one the most important American novels ever written: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Finally, I came across a novel that I had not heard of before working at the bookstore. Somehow I went through life without any knowledge of Carson McCullers, who as a 23 year old wrote a Southern gothic masterpiece called The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. But now I own the book, and I can’t wait to read it.
I was looking at today’s installment of the Publishers Lunch newsletter (which I highly recommend for those interested in the book business, even if you only get the free version like I do), and something jumped out at me. News Corp reported fiscal fourth quarter earnings this week, including the regular update on HarperCollins, which is owned by Murdoch and company. Publishers Lunch got some additional color on the news from HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman. It’s not linkable because it’s an email newsletter, but here’s the quote:Segment by segment, Friedman says the general books group continued to grow sales and profits significantly in the US, as did the children’s group. “There’s one area where we are having a lot of problems–religious publishing is in a lot of trouble.” Though religious books “have had a fantastic run for the entire 9 years I’ve been at this company,” Friedman observed, “it is starting to see hard times. Right now we are seeing heavy returns–product that just didn’t work, but more significantly, we’re seeing a contraction in the CBA, which is what we went through with the ABA.” Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Life still sells more “than almost any other book” on the religious list, but Friedman has “concerns about the whole religious sector.”Emphasis mine. I was surprised to read this because, as Friedman indicates and as book industry-watchers know, religious books have been a huge seller in recent years, growing much faster than most other types of books.As I read this, though, it occurred to me that peoples’ reading tastes, taken broadly, might be a good indicator of the philosophical mood of the country. It may be that HarperCollins’ religious titles were duds this year, but it’s also possible that the fervent hold of religion — and when we talk about “religious books” we’re talking primarily about born-again Christian themes — on this country is loosening. I don’t want to read to much into this, but is it possible that, among the broader public, conservative Christianity was a cultural fad, with its own attendant movies, music, and books, and that people who don’t have too much invested in it will move onto the next thing that promises to help them with their lives? I’d be curious to see if there’s any other evidence out there that lends itself to this idea.
Derek Teslik is still in his 20s for 15 more days and lives in Washington, DC.A few weeks ago Max posted about the “rules of writing.” About a week later, Garth revisited David Foster Wallace’s essay “Up, Simba!” which was published in the 2005 essay collection Consider the Lobster. “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage,” another Wallace essay from the same collection, reviews Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, or at least begins to, before veering into autobiography and the politics of grammar nerds. The crux of the essay, which DFW helpfully announces as such, is that Garner manages to transcend 40 years of infighting in the grammar world by being subtly persuasive rather than overly accepting or overbearingly authoritarian. I’ll spare you the extrapolation of this crux onto today’s political landscape; for that you can go here and draw your own parallels.I had encountered Garner’s work previously without realizing it: Garner is the modern editor of Black’s Law Dictionary, required buying, if not reading, for every incoming law student. I entered law school in 2004 after a mostly unsuccessful attempt to become the next Russell Simmons, and dutifully purchased Black’s upon arrival. Over the ensuing years, I consulted the book when necessary but gave it little consideration until reading Wallace’s essay. To be honest, I have given it little consideration since, but I have spent hours reading, for pleasure and for justification, Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage and his Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage.When I arrived for my first day of law firm work this last September, I was surprised to find the Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage on my desk already, next to a few pencils and a legal citation manual. Garner believes that the best lawyers don’t write in legalese but in exacting English. I held out hope that first day that the lawyers for whom I’d work would understand this, and for the most part they have. A few so fear splitting any verb phrases that they instead twist their sentences into awkward ambiguous messes. Garner describes this practice, and the refusal to ever split an infinitive, as superstition. I don’t think I’ll be able to pry these older lawyers out of their comfortable superstitions, but thanks to Garner I can take their “corrections” to my writing with quiet grace knowing that I’m right. Wallace nails in his essay the reasons why Garner’s dictionaries are so entertaining and so effective. All I mean to do here is second the endorsement.
Garth gets interviewed about Brooklyn and various literary topics by Jessica Stockton Bagnulo at The Written Nerd.My ideal day would involve writing all morning, lunch, writing until about four, riding my bike to get coffee and sit outside and read, writing a little reaction to what I’ve read, and then, right at the edge of mental exhaustion, going to a bar with some friends. And dinner should be in there somewhere. Amazingly, I get to have my ideal day with some regularity, especially in the summer. That might be possible anywhere, but I still feel a debt of gratitude to Brooklyn for making it possible.He makes Brooklyn sound like paradise.