Sure, today Apple unvailed the “iPod phone” and the superslim iPod Nano, but the real news is that for the first time, via iTunes, the entire Harry Potter series will be available on digital audio (that’s $249 for the whole set). This is more interesting to me for what it represents. As iPods and other high-capacity digital audio players have become ubiquitous and as digital audio delivery (via podcasts and/or services like audible.com) has become more user friendly, the stage has been set for a revolution in reading. Though digital audio books will never overtake paper ones, they will only grow in popularity and sometime soon we may see a mini-revolution in the way people consume literature.
A new book about a largely forgotten civil rights battle is getting good reviews. One Man's Castle by Phyllis Vine tells the true story of an African American doctor in Detroit in 1925 named Ossian Sweet. The day he moved his family into a white neighborhood, his house was surrounded by an angry mob throwing rocks. Attempting to defend his family, Sweet fired on the crowd killing one of them. This AP review continues: "in a remarkable civil rights victory for the time, two all-white juries refused to convict them -- recognizing the principle that a man's house is his castle, regardless of race." It sounds quite interesting.Everyone will be rushing out to see Troy this weekend, but you may want to flip through The Iliad if you want to get the real story.
We're not shy about our praise for NYRB Classics. Their volumes are smartly edited and well designed and quite a few favorite books of The Millions contributors - The Dud Avocado, Wheat That Springeth Green, and, of course, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll - were first encountered in their NYRB Classics incarnations.While I had always planned on passing NYRB Classics books down to my progeny one day, I've just discovered that I may get to do that sooner than I had anticipated. NYRB Classics has a line of children's books, the NYR Children's Collection.One of the latest to come out under the imprint is James Thurber's The 13 Clocks with an introduction by Neil Gaiman and illustrations by Marc Simont. The new book provide fodder for Sonja Bolle's sentimental (in a good way) essay in the LA Times.The 13 Clocks is the first book I remember loving, and it is one of the few books I managed to wrest from my family's library and preserve through all the mundane disasters of my life. Everything about it is dear to me: The texture of the cover, the cloth spine now in shreds, the gorgeous endpapers with the Duke's shadowy castle on the hill overlooking the sunlit town.Young readers - and the older readers who are trying to get young readers to read good books - will likely find many more such discoveries among the NYR Children's Collection.
There is a paperback on my bookshelf that doesn’t exist, but it managed to change my life anyway. I found this book among other homely paperbacks on the ninety-nine cent cart at the Montague Book Mill, a used bookstore in Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley. True to its slogan -- “Books you don’t need in a place you can’t find” -- nothing stocked is guaranteed to be there again, making this book a quintessential one-of-a-kind find. What arrested me first was its size: a little smaller than one of the classic mid-forties Penguin editions, narrow and flexible, ideal for slipping into a purse or pocket. What caught me next was its barefaced plainness. The jacket was entirely white, the cover crinkled from its stint as a coaster. Its title was an italicized Times New Roman second-cousin. It appeared to be a self-published book; inside, the author had written a note in an unassuming small-caps scrawl, wishing a friend the best of luck with his own career. Although I have searched the title and the author more than once, the novel remains nonexistent. Unlike I’d first imagined, this author had no website or author’s platform. Search engines brought up many potential origins of the title (it has a fantasy flair) but an exact match remained elusive. All signs point to the author not having “made it” as we expect authors to ascend in this century’s frenetic flux of multimedia attention. In effect, here lies the only copy; rest in peace. This novel has been on my bookshelf ever since, surrounded by the greats: Dante Alighieri and Leo Tolstoy, Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner. But this book has a special status compared to its neighbors, albeit an infamous one. It is my bad-mood effigy; I turn to this book for an adrenaline shot of self-indulgence whenever I’m in the throes of apathy, bad writing, and rejections. Simply put, the writing of this book is bad. In fact, it’s often laughably bad, an unremarkable and derivative species of the speculative genre. In my more magnanimous moments (or so I delude myself), I think self-righteously, This author -- the nerve! The self-published pretension! As my literary voodoo doll, I believed I could turn to this novel as a concrete specimen of the written word that was -- undeniably -- inferior to my own work. But books do not defer meekly to the morals we have assigned them. A bad book, so-called, has just as much to teach us as a good book. It is often a far better teacher than any work that is uniformly artful, where excellence disguises the nuts and bolts of craft. A bad book also teaches us something a better book cannot: humility. Not the humility of resignation -- that of admitting that we will never be very good at what we do, no matter how earnestly we try. Such humility can easily morph into the indulgent self-flagellation that either demands the commiseration of friends or brings our vocation to a standstill, where thereafter we are those people who petulantly claim we “could have been somebody.” Rather, it’s the humility of acknowledging that time and effort lead to changes in our abilities as writers. Instead of ascribing a moralistic verdict of good or bad, less or more, we humbly acknowledge that nothing more could be asked of us than what our creations can attest to at the time. The great works of literature are all relatively alike in their excellence. Their perfection is consummate, constantly out of reach. We become comfortable saying, amused and defeated, “I’m no Shakespeare,” as if that is that. But every bad specimen of writing is lit up by the harsh fluorescent lighting of reality. Each pockmark, scar, and slip-up is visible; we have our favorites to trot out in conversation like ghouls in chains. Moreover, what makes for a bad book is a constantly shifting parameter. Is a book bad if it is merely written poorly? Is a book bad if it’s successful with the masses? (Fifty Shades of Grey, for instance, being one of those “bad” novels that is known -- if not read -- by everyone.) But my own unique bad book quickly transformed from a voodoo doll to a mirror. This person’s writing is cheap and unmarketable, I start to think -- and before I finish the thought: So was your writing a year ago. A week ago. Yesterday. Bad books remind us of our failings and that such failings are always closer to us than we imagine. As writers, we have to be our own best advocate; we have to invest in the underdog. And by the same token, we must be our first critic, our arch nemesis. Anne Lamott posits in Bird by Bird that radio station KFKD ("K-Fucked") is playing in our heads each time we write, with “the endless stream of self-aggrandizement” blasting in the speaker of our right ear, while “out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing.” We can tune these out but not turn them off. Similarly, Orson Scott Card contends in How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, “Writers have to simultaneously believe the following two things: 1. The story I am now working on is the greatest work of genius ever written in English. 2. The story I am now working on is worthless drivel.” The bad book on my shelf reminds me that I will contend with both ideologies at any given moment, and at any given moment they are true. We are destined to be continuously judged and ranked on a scale of lesser to better in our work. In reality, art is a highly competitive realm with no real rules. By turns, we will be winning in the arena, and we will be losing. And KFKD is always playing in the background, whichever speaker is blaring louder at this moment. And thus the most marvelous lesson of the nonexistent book on my shelf: that of artlessness. We do not write good books or bad books. We are all teachers, capable of leaving a lesson behind.
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I dropped my buddy Cem off at the airport today. I'm a little jealous because he is embarking on a world tour that is sure to be remarkable. He is starting out with a brief stop in Australia, followed by extended stays in Thailand and Vietnam. After this, he intends to live in Cairo for a few months with jaunts to Turkey and possibly some other Middle Eastern locations... maybe even Baghdad if the cards fall a certain way. He has assured me that he will be keeping track of his wanderings via his brand new blog, complete with a title inspired by Maqroll which I gave him to read. It's the ultimate book for any traveller.
After spending nearly $4 million on a rare piece of Harry Potter ephemera, one of only seven existing handmade copies of J.K. Rowling's The Tales of Beedle the Bard, a book of five "wizarding fairy tales," referenced in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the online bookseller has putting its big investment to use. Amazon recently announced a "Beedle the Bard Ballad Writing Contest." Grand Prize winners will go to London "to spend a weekend with the rare and delightful book of fairy tales (security guards included, of course)." All the finalists also snag $1,000 gift certificates.The Harry Potter series, arguably the most lucrative book franchise in history, ended last summer, but expect to see many such related merchandising efforts in the coming years as Amazon and other booksellers look for ways to continue cashing in on Potter-mania. (Thanks, Laurie)