Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man without a Country is turning into something of a surprise success thanks to prominent TV appearances and the fact that his essays appear to strike a chord with many Americans. From today’s AP story: “The book has reached the top 10 on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com, and publisher Seven Stories Press has already more than doubled its first printing, from 50,000 copies to 110,000.” Vonnegut has also taken the opportunity to remark on the onset of old age: “He jokes, sort of, that he has ‘lived too long’ and wishes he had been finished off by a fire at his home a few years ago, from which he escaped unharmed. ‘When Hemingway killed himself he put a period at the end of his life; old age is more like a semicolon,’ Vonnegut said with a wheezy laugh worthy of a long-term chain smoker.”
The effects of Amazon.com on the book industry, the debate as to whether it is good or bad for the cause of reading and literature, remains heated, and I find myself rooting both for and against Amazon. One thing that I AM decided on, though, is that Amazon watching is fun. Whether they are announcing a new innovation with a front page letter from CEO Jeff Bezos, like the recent introduction of the “Search within a book” feature, or just slipping new technologies quietly into their listings, there always seems to be something new popping up there, and each new feature seems like it generates another round of debate about this behemoth of a website. The feature I discovered yesterday isn’t likely to ignite too many debates, but I found it interesting nonetheless. Part of what is fascinating about Amazon is the way they turn the inner workings of their operation into content for the website. Features like Purchase Circles, “Customers who bought this item… also bought these books…”, and “Customers who bought books by this author… also bought books by these authors…, take information that typical companies guard closely and turn it into entertainment for readers and fodder for search engines. The new feature that I noticed the other day is called “Early Adopters.” According to Amazon, “These are the newest and coolest products our customers are buying. The following lists, updated daily, are based entirely on purchase patterns.” The term “early adopter” has more or less entered the popular vocabulary in recent years. Books like Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point have popularized the notion that there is a certain type of person that is predisposed to seeking out, learning about, and owning the newest technologies. This idea is based on the broader theories of an economist named Everett Rogers whose book Diffusion of Innovations (1965) explained that individuals could be divided into five categories based on their openness to innovations. 2.5% of the population are Innovators; these are the extremely adventurous, willing to take risks on unproven technologies. These folks pay top dollar to be some of the first people in the world to own flat screen televisions and Segways. 13.5% of the population are Early Adopters; these are the folks who have the insight to seek out the best of new technologies and with their buying power and word of mouth, they can turn an obscure new product into a household item. Early adopters are considered among the most important consumers in the marketplace, and when a new product is introduced marketers spend millions directing ads at this population, knowing that they can make or break their new product, a fact clearly not lost on Amazon in the naming of their new feature. The rest of the population is less exciting. The Early Majority (34%) is slightly more adventurous than average, the Late Majority (34%), slightly less. Then there are the Laggards (16%) with their rotary phones and wooden tennis rackets. Clearly, marketers have no patience for folks with more “classic” tastes, and the marketers at Amazon are likely no exception, hence their choice of buzz words. What’s interesting about the Amazon “Early Adopters” area is that, along with more typical applications like Electronics and Cameras, they apply the term to music and books, where new products are more likely to be derivative than innovative. Regardless of their intent, the algorithm used to generate the list for books needs some work, since the list is clearly made up of books that are being purchased in bulk by students, churches, and self-published authors, not books that are being purchased by folks with literary tastes on the cutting edge.
I am almost done reading a very remarkable book. Actually, it’s not really a book, it’s seven novellas about one man, a mysterious character by the name of Maqroll the Gaviero. He is too complex to really describe, but I suppose I might try: he is an adventurer first and formost, preferably by sea, but he is not in it for the excitment. His travels are constant because it is his compulsion. He is a lover of the world and ships and beautiful women. He is an excellent judge of character, though he is often drawn into disregarding his own judgements. He encounters many fascinating characters, and we follow as well the Gaviero’s companions and trusted friends, Abdul Bashur (Dreamer of Ships) and Ilona Rubenstein (the Nymph of Trieste).The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis is, dare I say it, on par with and even surpasses the work of Borges and Garcia Marquez. These novellas span the globe like no book ever has. Maqroll visits every continent and sniffs out schemes and companions in every port. This Maqroll, he is no vain adventurer, no hero. He is tortured by his restlessness. He is at the same time a most exceptional man, well-read and loyal, courteous and brave when bravery is required. And yet he is so fragile. I worry about Maqroll as he is blown about the globe by the whims of a strange fate. I am almost done with the 7th and final novella. I have almost reached the last of the 700 pages, but I am not ready to say good bye. This Maqroll, he can really get ahold of you. I have read some books, and though I am by no means an expert, I can say that this book will have to be a classic. It is just so good.
I did not realize that William Boyd would have the same effect that Italo Calvino had on me until I read An Ice-Cream War. When I told the old lady who runs the neighborhood bookstore that lately I had been into Calvino and Henry Miller, and that I really enjoyed Middlesex, she immediately recommended William Boyd, commenting that he is the most underrated contemporary author. Trusting her, I got a copy of An Ice Cream War and began reading. Shortly, I discovered that the novel is an amazing page turner, thanks, mostly, to the cynical British humour with which Boyd approaches the miseries and absurdity of World War I. Over the course of An Ice Cream War, which starts in the neighboring German and British east Africa colonies, the reader travels through Africa, being chased by and also chasing the barbarians (as the British ever so affectionately call the Germans), sees the unfortunate travels of an enthusiastic, newlywed soldier – from his honeymoon in France, back to England, to India, and to Africa – laughs out loud at the most absurd instances of violence, and gets dragged into a very, very cheesy, but still sympathetic love story between an unexpected couple. The reflections on the wartime life in England, the descriptions of three dysfunctional families, and the mockery of the grave consequences of a four year war that no one thought would last past three months are exquisite. Actually, dare I say and yes, here it goes, An Ice Cream War strongly parallels and at times even surpasses the ever great Catch 22 in reflecting cowardice, bravery – for all the wrong reasons, think Milo – and the amazing web of characters who are all interconnected. Read this novel and you too, as I did, will move into the Boyd sphere.Feeling the grips of addiction, I returned to my prime drug, Calvino, for the last novel I read by him in 2004. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is the story of two readers as they attempt to read Calvino’s latest novel and realize that there was a problem with the print, which cut off after the first chapter of the novel. Upon returning the book to the bookstore, both readers discover that they had in fact been reading another author’s novel and decide to stick with it since they really enjoy it, but the same problem occurs. Thanks to the persisting issue, the two readers meet each other and start their quest to reach the end of this bizarre occurrence. Calvino’s prose, which I would categorize as his second phase – splitting from traditional folk tales and becoming more fantasy oriented – cleverly weaves the developing affections between the two readers and the beginnings of novels by different authors. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is an ode to books and the pleasure book junkies such as myself derive from them.Previously: Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Mark Kurlansky is one of the primary practitioners of an interesting type of history book in which he takes a specific type of object or group of people and uses it as a lens through which he views history. Kurlansky has recently gained notoriety with three books that followed this sort of historical exploration: Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, Salt: A World History, and The Basque History of the World, all of which are clever and very readable and which, with their success, have spawned a sort of cottage industry (see: The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World by Larry Zuckerman, Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization by Iain Gately, How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It by Arthur Herman, and many, many others.) Kurlansky, meanwhile, has a new book coming out that is a new twist on the one subject history book. It’s called 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, and it’s thesis is that 1968 was the year when the world grew up, so to speak. A book like this will probably be pretty fun for a couple of reasons: Kurlansky is a skilled writer and historian, who is sure to produce the sort of engaging history that is always a thrill to read; at the same time, it is always fun to take sides along the way when a writer decides to choose a such a specific thesis, one that will undoubtedly prove difficult to defend against claims of selective inclusion and omission of events in order to prove the point. I’m curious to see if he is able to pull it off.
Not really a literary item, but I thought some folks might be interested in a Web site I found recently. Postcrossing is a postcard trading site. When you sign up, you get the address of a randomly selected Postcrossing member. You send them a postcard, and when they receive it and enter it into the system, you get put into the queue to receive a postcard from another member. So far I’ve sent a postcard to Portugal and received one from Finland. For those with an interest in faraway places and/or postcards, Postcrossing is an extremely low impact but rewarding hobby. I’ve always liked getting postcards, but it seems like a somewhat rare method of correspondence these days given the ease and immediacy of electronic methods. In my travels I’ve often picked up postcards, not necessarily to send, just to have as keepsakes. I’m something of a map person, so I’ve often been drawn to postcards with maps on them. I’ve got a small stack of them filed away somewhere right now, but I’ve had this idea that one day I might display them all on a wall of cork in collage form.