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.
Last week, on WNYC’s The Leonard Lopate Show, George Saunders, Zadie Smith, and Vendela Vida used The Book of Other People as a jumping-off point for a refreshingly heterodox discussion of the craft of fiction.Audio is also available at www.wnyc.org.
The public literary program, One Book One City, that is half-heartedly sweeping the nation apparently has an outpost in my new city. They are already on book seven, which means that Chicagoans are reading circles around my former city, Los Angeles, which, last time I checked, was only on book two. The latest pick for Chicago is In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. I’ll be looking out for it on the “L”. In other news, the first volume of Bob Dylan’s extremely long-awaited memoir finally has a release date. October 12th will see the release of Chronicles: Volume 1 as well as Lyrics: 1962-2002, both from Simon & Schuster. I think we know what Dylan fans will be wanting for Christmas.
In the first wave of articles on Governor Sarah Palin at The New York Times, I came across a reader-comment that Ms. Palin looked like Geena Davis in the TV show Commander-in-Chief. In this short-lived 2005 drama, Davis played the first woman Vice President, who ascends to the presidency after the death of the President. The Times reader’s comment also reminded me of another fictional first president, 24’s President David Palmer (played by Dennis Haysburt). Had this wildly popular (and very long running – Haysburt played the president from 2001-2005) imaginary depiction of a black president helped acclimate Americans to the idea? I found myself wondering if shows like Commander-in-Chief and 24, which offer fictional visions of scenarios that have not yet come to pass, give history a nudge. Can art/entertainment (the distinction between these two being a debatable one) help us as a culture imagine historical changes – and so help to bring them into being?It would not be the first time in our history that art has given life – and particularly public opinion and national politics – a little push. There is the famous (and quite possibly apocryphal) story of Abraham Lincoln meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Or, Life Among the Lowly, in 1861, and greeting her with words, “So this is the little lady who started this Great War.” Apocryphal stories aside, Stowe’s novel from 1852, sometimes considered a direct response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 but more likely the result of Stowe’s lifelong belief that slavery was a sin in the eyes of God, sold 300,000 copies in the US in its first year and went on to be the first international American bestseller, and the best-selling book of the century, after the Bible. While the novel’s sentimentality and deeply Christian worldview can be alienating to some modern readers, its vivid narrative – by turns realist, gothic, and melodramtic – is undeniably haunting (though its perpetuation of black stereotypes has become proverbial). Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been credited with capturing the national imagination, raising national consciousness, and giving the issues of slavery and emancipation a national urgency that precipitated the Civil War.Stowe’s work – not that of the freed slave turned orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass – is more often assigned the role of cultural catalyst in the American move toward abolition. Douglass’ work, both for its status as a first-hand account of life as a slave, and for the power and intelligence of Douglass’ narrative voice, is far superior to Stowe’s, but it is Stowe’s – the more melodramatic, the more imaginative, the more comparable to television drama – that sold 10,000 copies in its first week, while Douglass’ best-selling 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave had 11,000 copies in circulation only after three years in print. Also suggestive of a television-esque quality, Stowe’s Uncle Tom was originally published serially in a magazine – in episodes. If popularity in fiction is any indication of a country’s readiness for a historical change in fact, it would seem that America is ready for a black president but perhaps not quite ready for a female running mate who stands a decent chance of ascending to the presidency (given McCain’s age and history of skin cancer). It’s all much more complicated than this, of course, but I find the idea that the imaginary can give shape to the real (in a non-Don Quixote-ish way) quite captivating.
Way back in 1971, before I was even born, and the use of the words “personal computer” would have branded the speaker a science fiction junkie, Michael Hart started Project Gutenberg, an effort to digitize the world’s books. Although the project has since been superseded by more ambitious efforts (i.e. Google Books), Project Gutenberg, with the efforts of tens of thousands of volunteers, keeps chugging along.Although lacking in the great search features offered by a service like Google Books or Amazon Search Inside, Project Gutenberg has several excellent features (an extensive collection of free books for PDAs, for example) that guarantee it a place in my heart. One of the greatest parts of the project is their RSS feed, which provides subscribers with nightly updates of additions to their catalog. I’ve been a subscriber for over a year and am always delighted by the book titles that arrive in my inbox each morning. A recent sampling included Arthur Waite’s Devil-Worship In France (1896), an omnibus of Atlantic Monthlies from 1916, a sixteenth century grammar of the Japanese language compiled by Portuguese missionaries, and… what’s this… a Kurt Vonnegut story?The story, “2 B R 0 2 B“, first appeared in the sci-fi journal Worlds of If in January 1962, placing it shortly after the release of his novel Mother Night. Apparently, Vonnegut never renewed the copyright, and it wasn’t included in any of his short story collections. The story itself is short and, although it’s easy to see why Vonnegut never bothered to anthologize it, as a big fan of Vonnegut, it’s a pleasant surprise.Enjoy!See also: Kurt Vonnegut RIPAs Noted in the Comments: It turns out that “2 B R 0 2 B” was in fact published in Bagombo Snuff Box.
It can only be with mixed feelings that we reiterate what you’ve probably already heard: David Foster Wallace was indeed well into a new novel at the time of his death last fall. At The New Yorker, D.T. Max’s long fact piece (accompanied by an excerpt) reports that the novel was to be called The Pale King and concerned the I.R.S., as we had speculated last year. “Good People,” which appeared in The New Yorker, and “The Compliance Branch” (whose publication in Harper’s triggered those speculations) were both parts of the novel-in-progress.The Howling Fantods (the preeminent website for Wallace readers) lists a couple of other fragments that may or may not have been linked to this longer work. Of the uncollected Wallace fiction I’ve read, “Three fragments from a longer thing” and especially the “Peoria” pieces from TriQuarterly (which I don’t think anyone has connected to the longer manuscript) strike me as remarkable, and thematically of a piece. That the “Three fragments” are no longer available online suggests they are part of the incomplete Pale King manuscript, which Little, Brown will publish next year. The resulting book will probably be more like The Arcades Project than 2666 – a blueprint, rather than a raised edifice. The fact that Wallace was already reading and publishing from it may allay some of the queasiness associated with posthumous publication. Still, as of this writing, that seems at best a complicated kind form consolation.See also: David Foster Wallace 1962 – 2008