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.
I have returned to the subject of the big televised book clubs a number of times since I started this blog nearly a year ago. I have reacted to them, at times, with shock, confusion, and dismay as when I was startled by the emergence of a new Oprah’s Book Club, an event that necessitated placing a splashy red banner bearing Oprah’s name across the cover of an American classic. Later on I would mellow out, having observed the profound (and mostly positive) effect that Oprah’s new focus on classic literature was having on America’s reading habits. And there was, of course, the piece that one time Oprah author Kaye Gibbons wrote emphasizing how important she found the club to be in getting more people to read. For most people who observe the book industry I think that the angst surrounding Oprah and the rest is dissipating, and most folks have come to realize that the good done by these clubs far outweighs the damage. A year ago it was possible to see the occasional angry screed directed against the proliferation of on air reading groups, but now, as Caryn James explains in this New York Times article, the ambivalence is waning. And, in fact, Oprah deserves a good deal of praise for both her selection of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez classic One Hundred Years of Solitude and the depth of the Book Club section of her website (which unfortunately requires you to register if you want to see it). So, the consensus seems to be that these book clubs are mostly good intellectually, but the impact of these clubs on the industry commercially cannot be overestimated. As this interesting roundup of the last ten years of bestsellers in USA Today shows, Oprah’s club has become as important as blockbuster news stories and runaway cultural fads when it comes to creating mega-bestsellers. (By the way, how about the amazing five straight “book of the year” titles for the Harry Potter Series.)
As reported at The Complete Review, FSG has announced a publication date for Roberto Bolaño’s massive final work, 2666. In both hardcover (912 pages!) and softcover (a three-paperback boxed set!), the book will hit shelves on November 11, just in time for the birthday of a certain Bolañophile I know. I’m picturing a more adult version of the Harry Potter release parties: customers queueing up outside their neighborhood bookstores at 11 p.m. the night before, wearing small round spectacles, smoking cigarettes and scribbling poetry on toilet paper. I suppose it’s time we started figuring out how to get blogger to accept tildes. [Ed note: We’ve got them this time, but it takes no small amount of HTML wrangling.]But seriously, folks: 2666 offers a bright spot at the end of what some observers believe will be a wrist-slittingly bad year for hardcover fiction sales. Not incidentally, it belies a number of pieties: that there’s no market for work in translation, that literary fiction is a tough sell… The New Directions and FSG publicity departments have been canny custodians of the Bolaño franchise, and the result has been an unmixed good: the introduction of an important Spanish-language writer to an American readership hungry for good books. I’ve had mixed reactions to some of Bolaño’s shorter works, translated by Chris Andrews (I’m currently working my way through Nazi Literature in the Americas), but Natasha Wimmer’s translation of The Savage Detectives was easily the best new novel I read last year.2666, which I’m surmising relates to The Savage Detectives somewhat in the way The Silmarillion relates to The Hobbit, was mentioned on our “Most Anticipated Books” list for 2008. There had recently been some speculation that it would appear again as a most anticipated book for 2009. It’s impressive that, amid what appears to have been lots of pressure to produce, Ms. Wimmer managed to deliver a manuscript in time for this year’s winter holidays. There’s something a little unnerving about the idea of translating under the gun, but in this case, Ms. Wimmer’s process may have mirrored Bolaño’s own; the author had to race to finish his magnum opus before liver failure took his life when he was fifty.Bonus links:Natasha Wimmer interviewed at The Quarterly ConversationFrancisco Goldman surveys the Bolaño canon
I stopped by the Vroman’s Bookstore blog today to answer some questions about teaching creative writing. On Tuesday, June 3rd, I begin teaching a 6-week beginning fiction class for their Vroman’s Ed program.Also, if you have a teenager, you might consider signing him or her up for my summer fiction writing class for high school students, which begins Tuesday, June 24th. If you are a teenager, and you’re reading this blog, well, you rock and I want you in my class!
As we adjust to new economic realities, Michael Lewis is emerging as the financial meltdown’s most important voice. His Portfolio piece “The End” told us how we got here but it also illuminated his own failure, in the 1980s, to get the point across with his book Liar’s Poker. Meant to be a cautionary tale, it became instead an inspiration.But Lewis appears unwilling to let “The End” be his final, confessional comment on the matter. This weekend, as a new year and new administration are gearing up, Lewis has delivered another far more aggressive piece, this time in the New York Times (Part 1, Part 2). In it, he calls out, more strenuously than before, the fraud, incompetence, and willful ignorance behind the financial crisis and makes it clear that this fall’s efforts to resolve it were flawed at best. He also makes several direct, clear-eyed proposals to set things back on the right course. One hopes Obama is watching. One also notices that Lewis, in these pieces, is no longer acting as a journalist or even a columnist. He has thrust himself into the center of this issue, as if looking to finish what he tried to accomplish more than 20 years ago.But Lewis has grown up too. Liar’s Poker didn’t wake up the world to Wall Street’s ills because its tone was too glib and too incredulous. We were meant to marvel at the goings on at Solomon Brothers just as the young Lewis had. That tone is gone now, and Lewis has returned to the task with a fierce seriousness. Whether or not you agree with everything that Lewis is writing in these pieces, his tone, backed up by his more than 30 years of writing about Wall Street, will give even the most optimistic observers pause.Interestingly, Lewis’ co-author for the two New York Times pieces is David Einhorn, a hedge fund manager who doesn’t exactly have a pristine reputation. Einhorn heads up Greenlight Capital, which racked up average annualized returns of 25.5% from May 1996 through mid-2008, according to New York Times, though his funds, like many on Wall Street, have struggled since. He’s also a serious poker player. In 2006, he placed 18th in the World Series of Poker’s main event, winning more than $650 thousand that he donated to charity.Einhorn made headlines this year for his very vocal bearish stance on now defunct investment bank Lehman Brothers. Einhorn eventually went public with discrepancies that he and his analysts had found in Lehman’s numbers. Believed to be short (i.e. placing bets that the stock would go down) Lehman and other financial names, Einhorn was excoriated in a war of words on Wall Street as regulators targeted short selling among financial stocks. Lewis and Einhorn make it clear where they stand on that issue, calling short sellers, “the only market players who have a financial incentive to expose fraud and abuse.”After much confusion as the crisis played out in 2008, it may be that we are seeing whistle-blowers like Lewis and Einhorn emerge from the mess to take control of the discussion. In time we will see if they have the ear anyone in power.
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.