Amazon has introduced a new feature that promises to be more useful than the Statistically Improbable Phrases feature that launched a few months ago. The “SIP” feature finds distinctive phrases inside books and then linked users to other books that contained those same distinctive phrases. For example, Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World contains five instances of the distinctive phrase “deer poaching,” which Amazon tells us also appears in several other books, including Deer and Deer Hunting Book 2: Strategies and Tactics for the Advanced Hunter. Amusing, but not terribly useful. Amazon’s new feature, Capitalized Phrases” or “CAPs,” links books by proper names and places, so by clicking on “King Lear” from among the CAPs for Will in the World, you get a list of books that mention “King Lear.” This seems like a potentially very useful research tool – especially if Amazon decides not to limit the results to twenty or so books as they are currently doing. These “phrases” features by Amazon also represent a foray into the relatively new Internet phenomenon of tagging, which sites like del.icio.us use to categorize Web sites. Since the process is external – in the case of del.icio.us, the tags are applied by users – and has a human element to it, sites that employ tagging have the potential to be “smarter” than those that rely on old-fashioned search engines. It will be interesting to see if Amazon begins to allow user submitted tags in addition to its Search Inside a Book data to create a deep and highly intuitive way of organizing its massive inventory.
Not too long ago, on a book finding expedition, I found a whole cache of old Granta magazines. Granta is very cool journal devoted to both short fiction and on the ground reporting of international conflicts and events. It attracts fantastic writers who tend to be relatively unknown to Americans, and so it tends to deliver angles on stories that you don’t see in the American press. Case in point: the other day I was, briefly, between books, and I picked up one of the old Grantas that I have lying around (this one was Autumn 1989). One of the stories I read was a first hand account of the Tiananmen Square massacre by a BBC journalist named John Simpson. I have always found first-hand accounts of these sorts of events to be the most fascinating type of news reporting. (The best I read this year were John Lee Anderson’s “Letters From Baghdad” in the New Yorker.) Simpson’s story on Tiananmen Square was both enthralling and terrifying, he captures a brutality that most of the Western world did not see. Immediately after I finished the article I wondered: is this piece in a book somewhere and has this guy written anything else like this? This answer to both questions is yes. Simpson’s World: Tales from a Veteran War Correspondent came out in August and it’s filled with close encounters with dictators and on the scene dispatches from all the major world conflicts from the last couple of decades.
The holidays are upon us, and I suspect that many of the folks reading this will be cutting out early this week. I think I’ll do the same, so don’t expect much in this space until 2005. I’m glad everyone seemed to enjoy the year end extravaganza. It was great fun seeing what everyone read this year. I’ll leave you with a couple of late additions and addenda before sending you off to your holiday jollification.Dan Wickett, proprietor of the Emerging Writers Network, previously gave us his Emerging Best of 2004, but he recently wrote in with some more of his personal favorites from this year. Novel: Steve Yarbrough – Prisoners of War; George Garrett – Double VisionShort Story Collections: Aaron Gwyn – Dog on the Cross; Percival Everett – Damned If I DoPoetry Collections: Beth Ann Fennelly – Tender Hooks; David Huddle – GrayscaleNon-Fiction: Steve Almond – Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America; Owen Gingerich – The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus CopernicusAnd last week, Brian shared with us his thoughts on a couple of books he enjoyed this year, but he couldn’t let me close things out without posting this:Chronicles, Vol. 1 by Bob Dylan: I lived in mortal fear that the genius of Bob Dylan – lyrically, melodically, and just plain cool-as-a-motherfuckerally – wouldn’t translate to prose. Naw, nothing to worry about. His book reads like nothing else: a smashed-up collage of history, (auto)biography, anecdote, music criticism, politics, fiction, lies, truth, and more. Dylan hangs with Chinese philosophers, New York playwrights, John Wilkes Booth(!!!), Tiny Tim, John Wayne, Gorgeous George, Bono, and, in my favorite scene in the book, during an early 60’s freezing cold NYC day, within the confines of a friend’s crash-pad, a teenaged Dylan skims through a wall of books and loses himself in ancient Greece, the Napoleonic wars, the Civil War, etc… a badass rootin-tootin’ tale of America(na) told through the eyes of one of its greatest (and most eccentric) poets.Now that sounds pretty good! Enjoy the holiday everyone. Coming after the break: a new installment from Millions contributor Andrew, the introduction of two brand new Millions contributors, my year in reading, and, yes, much, much more.
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.
Next I read Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser. Summers are great for reading all the random and must-read books that have been sitting on your shelf for too long. I remember moving to New York a year after the publication of Schlosser’s study on fast food companies and how they affect the food industry. Everyone on the subway was reading it. When asked to comment, people usually said: “I’ll never eat McDonald’s again.” I wanted to keep eating McDonald’s (even Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me did not stop me), so I made a mental note to read Fast Food Nation when I decided to stop eating McDonald’s on my own volition. Well, that happened a while ago and my friend Annastacia conveniently finished reading Fast Food Nation as I finished Marabou Stork Nightmares during a boat trip. So, we swapped. Schlosser’s study and diligence are both highly commendable. Despite the great amount of detailed facts contained in Fast Food Nation, which – at times – make it a little textbook like, the book is still an interesting and entertaining read. My favorite parts were: “The Founding Fathers,” where Schlosser provides historical information about the spread of drive-in joints and burgers in the US (as well as the suburban lifestyle that was adopted in California and spread – in my opinion like a plague – throughout the country); “Why the Fries Taste Good,” where Schlosser explains the intricacies of food engineering through his travels around the New Jersey Turnpike, smelling and tasting final products in chemical form; and “The Most Dangerous Job,” in which Schlosser describes the working conditions in meat processing plants. Fast Food Nation does have disgusting parts, especially while describing the meatpacking industry. It also has heart breaking moments such as the demise of mid-level, all-American ranchers, and the aforementioned working conditions in meatpacking.I finished the book on the plane back to New York. I had been in Turkey for two and a half months and longed for a good burger. As soon as I dropped of my luggage at my friends’ house, I went straight to the Corner Bistro and ate a medium-rare burger. It was delicious. I did, however, think twice about my order for the first time in my life. Schlosser’s dramatic presentation does leave one wondering about the quality of food we put in our bodies. I heard that Not on the Label: What Really Goes into the Food on Your Plate by Felicity Lawrence is worse. I am intrigued. One final note, despite enjoying Schlosser’s work I think it would be more appropriate to title it “Low Cost Meat: Straight from the Shit Trough and onto your Buns.” I think the connection between the fast food companies and the food industry is good, but not strong and substantive enough to warrant the title Fast Food Nation. In the overall context, however, the title does remain relevant as Schlosser also examines the fast food companies’ successful efforts to prevent unionization, the decline in industry wages, the creation of an easily dispensable and readily replaceable workforce, and the fast food companies’ stronger influence on the food industry than Congress’.Continuing my obsession with food I am now reading Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris by A.J. Liebling. My friend Serdar, who is a big time food lover as well as a graduate of the French Culinary institute in New York, gave the book to me and told me to become a journalist like Liebling. At this point I can only try. Liebling’s prose is entertaining and smooth. He talks about food with great expertise, and it is easy to see his vast understanding of fine dining and good wines. Hopefully I can, one day, be as decadent as Liebling too. From all I can gauge so far, Henry Miller would have penned Between Meals if he had been obsessed with food instead of sex. I am unsure if the opposite would apply to Liebling, but he is a connoisseur in his own field and shows, at every turn, how he acquired his knowledge over the years, beginning as a student. Between Meals is a light, entertaining and mouth watering read. I imagine that it would be perfect if you were on a plane to Paris and wanted nothing but to eat, drink, and be merry. Bon appetite!See Also: Part 1