I got a package today from my inlaws who decided to get me five books for my birthday (which was Jan. 5). They came right off my wishlist, so, of course, they’re exactly what I wanted. Two of the five are coffee-table books. I’ll be spending a lot of time with the utterly gorgeous book The World on Sunday. Nicholson Baker and Margaret Brentano have put together really nice reproductions of Joseph Pulitzer’s colorful newspaper. Baker’s foreword and Brentano’s captions really elevate the book. I wrote more about it last month. The other big book I received is a monograph, put out by Aperture, of photography by Robert Capa. Capa is famous for his war photography from the 1930s, 40s and 50s. His photographs, all in black and white, are unflinching and powerful. He’s essential to the grand tradition of war reportage. (This one actually wasn’t on my wishlist but they knew I’d like it.) In keeping with the Capa theme, I also received his illustrated memoir of World War II, Slightly Out of Focus. I also got The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux which Andrew wrote about a few months back, and Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Oster, which I think I first heard about at Language Hat.
I was looking at today’s installment of the Publishers Lunch newsletter (which I highly recommend for those interested in the book business, even if you only get the free version like I do), and something jumped out at me. News Corp reported fiscal fourth quarter earnings this week, including the regular update on HarperCollins, which is owned by Murdoch and company. Publishers Lunch got some additional color on the news from HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman. It’s not linkable because it’s an email newsletter, but here’s the quote:Segment by segment, Friedman says the general books group continued to grow sales and profits significantly in the US, as did the children’s group. “There’s one area where we are having a lot of problems–religious publishing is in a lot of trouble.” Though religious books “have had a fantastic run for the entire 9 years I’ve been at this company,” Friedman observed, “it is starting to see hard times. Right now we are seeing heavy returns–product that just didn’t work, but more significantly, we’re seeing a contraction in the CBA, which is what we went through with the ABA.” Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Life still sells more “than almost any other book” on the religious list, but Friedman has “concerns about the whole religious sector.”Emphasis mine. I was surprised to read this because, as Friedman indicates and as book industry-watchers know, religious books have been a huge seller in recent years, growing much faster than most other types of books.As I read this, though, it occurred to me that peoples’ reading tastes, taken broadly, might be a good indicator of the philosophical mood of the country. It may be that HarperCollins’ religious titles were duds this year, but it’s also possible that the fervent hold of religion — and when we talk about “religious books” we’re talking primarily about born-again Christian themes — on this country is loosening. I don’t want to read to much into this, but is it possible that, among the broader public, conservative Christianity was a cultural fad, with its own attendant movies, music, and books, and that people who don’t have too much invested in it will move onto the next thing that promises to help them with their lives? I’d be curious to see if there’s any other evidence out there that lends itself to this idea.
A year and a half ago, when BEA was in New York, Max and I decided, against our better judgment, to attend a panel discussion on the fate of book reviewing. The headliner was the intellectual performance artist Christopher Hitchens. However, we both walked away more impressed by the grit, gravity, and grace of panelist John Leonard than we were by Hitch’s charming bloviations.I’d been reading Leonard’s “New Books” column in Harper’s for years, but I emerged from that panel with a more expansive sense of the man, and promptly dug into his essays of the 1970s and 1980s. Those were years when vernacular brio and moral seriousness were not mutually exclusive – when glibness wasn’t held in such high esteem. Like Pauline Kael, Leonard made criticism feel like a vital part of the American intellectual landscape.Moreover, Leonard was a fearless explorer (and often defender) of the new and the unconventional. To name but one example, his last essay for The New York Review of Books (on Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union) was a model of sympathetic inquiry.Leonard’s death last week, at age 69, is thus both a substantial loss and a reminder that the life of the mind still matters. Leonard was a great critic. He was also something nobler: a great reader. He will be missed.
I was rather astounded by this article in The Guardian today about publishers taking retailers on lavish trips to promote their latest books: to Pompeii for Robert Harris’ Pompeii, to New York for Hillary Clinton’s Living History, and to Madrid for David Beckham’s Beckham aka My Side. Before I get into how unsavory this practice is, can I first say that if such thing are going on, why was I never invited on an overseas publicity junket to promote a bestselling book? In fact, I must admit that before today I had never heard of this practice in the publishing world. In the film industry, pushover movie reviewers are routinely wined and dined in exchange for positive press, but I never noticed the general manager of my store jetting off on an all expenses paid trip to Pompeii. Of course, it’s possible that such perks are reserved for the folks who make the decisions at the big chains. A happy regional VP translates to prominent displays in 300 stores and a frontlist order of 30,000 copies. Then again, perhaps this is more of a British phenomenon than an American one. The odd thing, to me, is why bother spending all that money on a book that is already going to have prominent placement due to public interest. This is what those midlist authors are bemoaning when they say there’s not enough publicity money to go around.Back to VirginiaI was born in Albemarle County, I returned their for four years of college at the University of Virginia, and I’ll be heading back there again this summer for my wedding. But it’s more than all the history that I have there that makes it a special place for me. It’s beautiful country, peaceful, serene, and full of history. And for those who share my feelings on Albemarle County, there is now a lovely coffee table book about the place called Albemarle: A Story of Landscape and American Identity. Here are some sample pages.
Most folks have probably heard that Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road on a 120 foot long continuous roll of paper, but now you can seen it. “Beginning this week at the Orange County History Center in Orlando, Fla., and ending with a three-month stay at the New York Public Library in 2007, Kerouac’s “On the Road” scroll will make a 13-stop, four-year national tour of museums and libraries.“One great byproduct of the new translation of Don Quixote is that it has given way to many reconsiderations of the classic. Now the Atlantic Monthly weighs in.Also from the Atlantic, a great piece explaining how they choose which books to review and why their reviews may sometimes come across as atypical. It’s a great read for anyone who is tired of the prevalence of cookie-cutter picks and pans.
On Monday I saw Marjane Satrapi speak at a local bookstore. Her graphic novel Persepolis has been a great success, and now she’s out promoting the sequel, Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return. As a speaker she was surprisingly frank and funny. When someone asked her about her self-imposed exile in France, she described Iran as her mother, but France as her wife. “You can cheat on your wife,” she said as the audience chuckled. She also wryly called out an audience member who implied that she was an Arab in asking whether Satrapi’s ethnicity posed any problems for her in her adopted country. “No,” Satrapi said, “in France they know that there is a difference between an Iranian and an Arab” (emphasis hers). Satrapi also said that she wrote fourteen children’s books and received hundreds of rejection letters before she shifted her focus slightly and morphed her project into a graphic novel. She proved to be a delightful and entertaining speaker, and I found myself thinking that she would probably be as successful doing speaking engagements as she is at penning graphic novels.After pushing the literary world’s buttons last year by awarding Stephen King an honorary National Book Award for contributions to American letters, the National Book Foundation has decided to continue in that same vein by giving this year’s award to the iconic writer of children’s books, Judy Blume. The New York Times reports.In book review news, Michiko Kakutani doesn’t like T.C. Boyle’s new novel, The Inner Circle, likening it to a couple of his lesser works, Riven Rock and The Road to Wellville. Meanwhile, in the New Yorker, Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America gets a good review, but I’ve received some emails from readers who managed to get their hands on advance copies saying the book isn’t Roth’s best.
Josh Ferris, who continues to do an admirable job filling in at TEV, noted today that Junot Diaz’s long-awaited novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao finally has a street date.The reason I’m so excited about this is that Diaz’s story by the same title in the New Yorker’s 2000 end-of-year fiction issue was one of the best stories that’s appeared in the magazine in the ten years I’ve been reading it. It is a story so good that I still remember talking to various people about in my then home city of Los Angeles, people with whom I never before or after talked fiction. It was a story that got around. And now, finally, it has blossomed into a book.Unfortunately, since the story dates from the NYer’s stone age era, it’s not available online, but a brief excerpt is available. In addition, Ferris at TEV has pointed to an audio interview of Diaz.Separately, (and also not available online), The Economist has a short but fairly glowing review of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, the debut novel of Paul Torday. “Every so often,” the review begins,a novel comes along that is quite original; think of Yann Martel’s enchanting Life of Pi, for instance. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is another oddball piece of fiction that – despite being told through dry diary extracts, e-mails and reports – is an amusing satire on the tensions between the West and the Middle East, and a commentary on the value of belief to mankind.