I think I may have mentioned the USA Today bestseller list before. It’s fun because it ranks the top 150 books, not just the top 20 like most lists, and I also like it because it doesn’t separate books by category, so you can see how those self-help books stack up against those mystery novels. I also think it’s interesting to see which classic novels make appearances on the list. For example, this week – barring classics making the list due to movie tie-ins – we’ve got Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird at 93. I also recently noticed that you can use the search box at the top of the list to search its entire ten year history. For example, I now know that Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (which happens to be next to me on the shelf) was on the list for six weeks in late 2003, peaking at 108. Interesting.
I’m pleased to announce that Mark Batty Publisher, a New York-based art & design press, will be publishing my first book this spring. Modeled on fin-de-siecle scientific manuals, A Field Guide to the North American Family: An Illustrated Novella presents the story of two families in 63 alphabetized entries: Adolescence, Boredom, Commitment… A lavish, full-color plate will illustrate each entry.The book itself, in the tradition of Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch and of the Choose Your Own Adventure series, encourages collaborative reading via a system of cross-references. But in discussing the illustrations, MBP and I decided we didn’t want the collaboration to end there. So this week, we’re launching www.afieldguide.com, an online resource that allows interested artists to contribute digital images to the Field Guide. My dream has always been to have 40-60 photographers represented in the book, each offering their own distinct take on contemporary life.Every image submitted via the “upload” page will be posted on the website, indexed and cross-referenced by the Field Guide‘s entry tags. They will remain there in perpetuity, along with contributors’ bios and website links – a kind of networked reference work. In March, we’ll select 63 images from contributors who’ve asked to be considered for the print edition, and those will become the images in the book. Each contributor will have a bio in the back of the book, and will receive a contributors’ copy.Writers who publish in literary magazines have long been used to the online submission process, but illustrating a book via internet collaboration is, I think, a relatively new thing. I’m excited to see how it works. If afieldguide.com succeeds, it seems to me, it might open some publishing doors for the explosion of online photographic activity: flickr, photoblogging, etc. And the book promises to be beautifully designed.The photographic element of the book will only be as strong as the submissions we receive. So I want to take this opportunity to encourage readers of The Millions to explore afieldguide.com, to contribute an image or two, and to spread the word, via email and blog, to artists who might be interested in participating. Cheers.
The numbers are huge, 8.2 million copies sold in 24 hours in the U.S., 2.65 million in the U.K., but Harry Potter isn’t necessarily a boon for book stores. The big chains, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and the like, discount the book sharply in order to compete with one another, and then they hope that customers will pick up some other books where the profit margins are better. Independent bookstores are far less likely to discount at all. They don’t get the books in large enough quantities to get a deal from the publisher, and, less efficient than the chains, they can’t afford to trim profit margins much.Generally, this is the case for most any bestseller, where the chains discount 20%, 30%, even 40% or more, and the indies sell books at full price, getting by on atmosphere, customer loyalty, and skillfully selling non-bestsellers that may not be on the front tables at chain stores. In the case of Harry Potter, however, a whole nother layer of retail establishments gets in on the action. The big box stores, like Wal-Mart, Costco, and Target, have already put the squeeze on the bookstore chains with bulk quantities of deeply discounted bestsellers, so a book like Harry Potter fits nicely into their business plan. But the net is cast even wider for Harry Potter. Grocery stores, usually not likely to have much in the way of books aside from the occasional rack of mass-market paperbacks by the register had stacks and stacks of the final boy wizard installment. Even Best Buy, whose products are probably more typically responsible for a decline in reading, had customers lined up at midnight so it could sell the book, placing Harry Potter alongside the Wii and the PlayStation3 in the pantheon of must have products hawked by the electronics giant.And so, by selling the book at full price and getting by on charm, it’s likely some of the indies got a bottom line boost from the Potter madness, but for the chain stores, squeezed by other giant corporations, profits may be tougher. On a much smaller scale, this challenge was evident in Malaysia, where book chains protested the price slashing of grocery giants, who sold Harry Potter at below cost, by boycotting the book (imagine Barnes & Noble trying that!) Eventually, the Malaysian booksellers worked out a deal with Penguin, Harry Potter’s distributor in the country, but the episode highlights the high stakes competition that book retailers face when they are forced to go up against retail heavyweights.
I can’t believe I’ve never mentioned this: My landlord is the moderately famous French philosopher and Columbia University professor, Sylvere Lotringer. He co-wrote a book with Paul Verilio called Pure War, and gave us each copies when we signed the lease. He is married to Chris Kraus a novelist/filmmaker from New Zealand/Germany. Just now he called to talk about the plumber.
Stendhal was apparently a noted womanizer and in that light, The Red and the Black, reads a little like a projection of his greatest fantasies. There is in the first place the iconoclastic Julien Sorel, who triumphs over a coterie of boring, conventional nobles for the love (and virginity) of the fair Mathilde de la Mole. It’s not a leap to imagine Stendhal dreaming of the same for himself.In the book, Stendhal also introduces an incredible stratagem for wooing women. It emerges when Julien seeks love advice from the Prince Korasoff of Russia under desperate circumstances. Julien is in love with the imperious Mathilde, who lets him climb up the gardener’s ladder to her room on two occasions but then has all sorts of moral/class remorse the next day and eviscerates him with vicious rebukes which are sadly only referenced and not spelled out (a major deficiency of the book).The Prince entrusts to Julien a set of 54 love letters that previously aided a Russian general in the conquest of an English maiden and which, if deployed correctly, are like a romantic weapon of lore, so powerful that none can resist it. Julien’s instructions are to send the letters at prescribed intervals. The plan is described as such:”‘Here I am transcribing the fifteenth of these abominable dissertations; the first fourteen have been faithfully delivered to Marechale. And yet she treats me exactly as though I were not writing her. What can be the end of all this? Can my constancy bore her as much as it bores me?'”Like everyone of inferior intelligence whom chance brings into touch with the operations of a great general, Julien understood nothing of the attack launched by the young Russian upon the heart of the fair English maid [reference to the previous use of the letters]. The first forty letters were intended only to make her pardon his boldness in writing. It was necessary to make this gentle person, who perhaps was vastly bored, form the habit of receiving letters that were perhaps a trifle less insipid than her everyday life.”So that’s the ruse, to send love letters and to make them so innocuous and boring at first that they will not elicit a rejection, but will at the same time habituate the intended to the correspondence. Slowly, the temperature is turned up; the epistolary fire builds, and by the 54th letter, love and desire floweth over.I’ve been out of the dating world for awhile now, so I’m prepared to accept that this is not the unstoppably brilliant strategy I think it is. But I do think it is pretty brilliant, and I suspect it would even work today. I’ve encouraged one of my most eligible bachelor friends to try it with all the single women he knows, even in passing. It obviously all depends on the quality of the letters, but out of a sample of 20 recipients, I’d expect there to be at least five who would be intrigued at the very least.Much of The Red and the Black is based on real events; I wonder if such a packet of letters was rumored to exist in Stendhal’s time or if it might be unearthed today. Even if found, it would surely require some updating. In fact, it would be a fun exercise to try and write a pre-fabricated sequence of love letters for today’s dating world.
A few weeks back, Reuters reported on a new website called Daily Lit, which blasts short clips of classic literature to subscribers’ email addresses every day. Readers can take in Anna Karenina via Blackberry, in five-minute chunks disbursed over fourteen months. “Our audience includes people like us, who spend hours each day on e-mail but can’t find the time to read a book,” Albert Wenger, a founder of DailyLit, told the press.Now, far be it from me to denigrate any effort to make literature more accessible. I used to be a regular reader of the Samuel Pepys blog, and probably made more of a dent in the digital Diary than I would have in the hard copy. But Daily Lit seems to represent the unexamined costs of the information age’s promises of convenience. Is yet another daily email really the solution to too much email? What does it mean to click from Paris of Troy to Paris Hilton. (OMG, Achilles is sooo hot.) Does one find time, or does one make it?Already 50,000 people have enrolled in Daily Lit, which currently offers 370 titles from the public domain, free of charge. Soon the site will expand to charge for daily excerpts of newer work. No doubt certain texts – Lydia Davis stories, poems by Basho – might lend themselves to the DailyLit treatment, providing a short liberation from the drudgeries of the day. But big novels aren’t meant to be noshed on like an energy bar, wedged in between breakfast and dinner. At their best, they open up vistas of freedom beyond our daily habits and obligations. Opt for the bite-sized version if you like. But God forbid I come to look forward to Tolstoy with the same dread with which I approach my inbox.And so, book in hand, to bed.
I’d have thought that the whole concept of summer reading lists for high schoolers would have fallen by the wayside, as it would seem to lack usefulness in our testing- and extracurriculars-obsessed education system, but a CS Monitor article shows that it’s alive and well (and just in time for that last-two-weeks-of-summer cram).The article includes some interesting insights on the makeup of such lists and how they’ve changed over the years.For the most part, reading lists are still heavy on classics. But consider the differences between reading lists from the 1960s and those in the 1980s. Of the nine most commonly taught books in public high schools in 1963, only one (the 1938 play Our Town) was written in the 20th century. By 1988, the 10 most commonly taught novels in public schools included four books from the 20th century: The Great Gatsby (1925), Of Mice and Men (1937), Lord of the Flies (1954), and To Kill a Mockingbird (1960).But not all novels take a generation to catapult to required summer reading lists. Some new staples in summer reading lists: Life of Pi by Yann Martel, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, Monster by Walter Dean Myers, and The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.Ten years ago, these reading lists didn’t have new books like that,” says Alleen Nilsen, Arizona State University English professor and co-author of the textbook Literature for Today’s Young Adult. “These are really popular new books.”So what catapults Life of Pi and The Lovely Bones to the elusive reading list club? Both are bildungsromans, or stories of young people coming of age. Ms. Nilsen says this theme is crucial for reading list inclusion, as youth need to feel a connection to the literature.