There was lots of discussion late last week about Ed Wyatt’s NY Times article talking about publishers “offering books by lesser-known authors only as ‘paperback originals,’ forgoing the higher profits afforded by publishing a book in hardcover for a chance at attracting more buyers and a more sustained shelf life.” I’m all for this development as are many other folks. Sarah at GalleyCat commented, as did Miss Snark, who led me to Levi Asher making some very good points at LitKicks. I’m not a big fan of hardcovers, either. Personally, I prefer pocket paperbacks when I can get them.
Yesterday in a crowded elevator, I watched a man punch furiously at the door-close button, trying to guard his territory from further invasion. And I thought back to the April 21 New Yorker, in which Nick Paumgarten dropped this bombshell:In most elevators, at least in any built or installed since the early nineties, the door-close button doesn't work. It is there mainly to make you think it works. (It does work if, say, a fireman needs to take control. But you need a key, and a fire, to do that.) Once you know this, it can be illuminating to watch people compulsively press the door-close button. That the door eventually closes reinforces their belief in the button's power. It's a little like prayer. Elevator design is rooted in deception.For me, this was a Lewinski-sized revelation. Granted, Paumgarten phrases it as a kind of aside (much as Lawrence Wright broke the news in the January 21 issue that he's been the subject of FBI wiretapping.) Still, I expected this news to spread rapidly - and to lead to a sharp decline in door-close-button pushing. Of course, my assumption that hundreds of thousands of Americans share my enthusiasm for Nick Paumgarten's writing about just about anything appears, in retrospect, to have been misguided. I'll be curious to see whether The Millions, with its vast readership among elevator riders, can finish what Mr. Paumgarten started. The Door-Close Button Doesn't Work - pass it on!
Guardian literary editor Robert McCrum has compiled an odd and rather subjective book list, collecting what he describes as "books that still speak volumes about the time in which they were written." The list contains some obvious entries - we are taught in school that Nineteen Eighty-Four was not just a dystopian fantasy but a stark portrayal of the time's prevailing years as well as some less well known (to me at least) selections like 1967's The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris. But the list falls apart somewhat as it approaches the present day with McCrum anointing some of the last decade's blockbuster bestsellers - Bridget Jones's Diary, the first Harry Potter, and The Da Vinci Code - and falling prey to the notion that the deluge of press these books have received will amount to something in the eyes of future historians looking to view our time through the lens of literature.
It began at the start of the year with Huck Finn, and Gulliver put in an appearance this week. Along the way, Gatsby and Don Quixote stood on the pedestal and took a bow, their tales championed, their authors heralded.The Globe and Mail, that venerable institution which, not incidentally, happens to pay my salary, has summoned a panel of experts (not, repeat, NOT including yours truly) to choose 50 books - the finest fifty in literary history - drawn from fiction and non-fiction, and including tomes both classic and modern.But this isn't just your garden variety list. No sir. For each book chosen, an essay is written by a noteworthy scribe (Alberto Manguel makes a case for Dante's Divine Comedy; Michael Ignatieff for Machiavelli's The Prince).Each week, one essay is published. There is no order to the publication of the fifty.We'll check back at the end of the year when the project comes to a close, but in the meantime, here's the latest essay, Victoria Glendinning's case for Swift's Gulliver's Travels. From there, scroll down and look on the left for individual links to each of the other essays published so far.
I got the most recent National Geographic in the mail yesterday. The issue is devoted entirely to one subject, Africa, and, according to the AP, is notable for being the first one-topic issue in the magazine's history and only the second (since they started using cover photographs) to not have a photo on the cover. National Geographic always provides broad, colorful stories, but never before have they delved so deeply on a single subject, and having read through this issue, I think they ought to do it more often. Some notable names make appearances in the Africa issue. Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel, Collapse) pens the issue's introduction with a discussion of why Africa has fallen behind the rest of the world but is not doomed to this fate in the future. Joel Achenbach, Washington Post reporter - and blogger - looks at some of the current shortcomings of paleoanthropology. And Alexandra Fuller (Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight) returns to Zambia, the country of her youth, in a piece that is more personal and less straightforward than a typical National Geographic article.
Millions contributor Garth pointed me to a funny little piece by Calvin Trillin in the New York Times in which the New Yorker writer is asked to test out the new Lexus "Advanced Parking Guidance System." Perhaps you've heard of this; it supposedly enables the car to park itself. Trillin, as he indicates, believes that he has been asked to try this newfangled technology out because he was the author of Tepper Isn't Going Out, "which is considered by most scholars to have been the first parking novel" and because in 1964 he was the founding co-editor of Beautiful Spot: A Magazine of Parking, which, Trillin says, "I've seen referred to as a one-issue publication even though we prefer to say that the second issue hasn't come out yet." Indeed, Trillin views himself as something of a parking expert:If I were asked to name my talent - talent, that is, in the way the Miss America pageant uses the word talent, as in "Miss West Virginia will now do her talent" - I would say "parallel parking." For the second issue of Beautiful Spot: A Magazine of Parking, I've been preparing an article on how I came up with the term "slicing the bread" to describe maneuvering into a spot that leaves only the width of a bread slice between your bumpers and the bumpers of the cars ahead of and behind you. In a later issue, I intend to discuss "breaking the matzo" - getting into a spot so small that a matzo would crack if you tried to place it between the relevant bumpers. Just for the record, the last time I broke a matzo was May 1994, on Riverside Drive, between 83rd and 84th; unfortunately, there were no witnesses.Good stuff.
The discussion about the future of book criticism can seem like a bubble sometimes, but I was reminded, in A.O. Scott's charming tribute to Roger Ebert in Sunday's New York Times, that book reviewers and their readers should not feel singled out in these challenging times. Scott noted the disappearance of movie critics as well at papers across the country, due to layoffs, buyouts, and cutting costs, adding:Such attrition is hardly limited to movie reviewers, and it has more to do with the economics of newspapers than with the health of criticism as a cultural undertaking. If you spend time prowling the blogs, you may discover that the problem is not a shortage of criticism but a glut: an endless, sometimes bracing, sometimes vexing barrage of deep polemic, passionate analysis and fierce contention reflecting nearly every possible permutation of taste and sensibility.I noted a year ago that the this same issue of the "economics of newspapers" had more to do with the demise of newspaper book coverage than anything else:The important thing to remember, I think, is that the disappearance of book sections isn't a book section problem, it's a newspaper industry problem, and the solution to book section woes will come with the solutions to the larger newspaper industry problems.Scott also takes umbrage at the notion that Ebert's famous TV career (which first brought him recognition with a show called "Sneak Previews") was somehow damaging to film criticism as a whole:It seems to me that "Sneak Previews" and its descendants, far from advancing the vulgarization of film criticism, extended its reach and strengthened its essentially democratic character.The same, perhaps, could be said of the role of personal publishing in film and book criticism which revels in the "essentially democratic character" of these pursuits.I also noticed at one point in Scott's profile that he describes Ebert as an "enthusiast." This word can be derogatory, comparing the "amateur" critic to the professional one, but Scott uses it in a different sense, making clear a difference in attitudes and aims - enthusiasm versus criticism. This isn't to suggest that an enthusiast blindly loves every film he sees and that the critic is filled with disdain, it merely describes two different approaches, both useful and neither mutually exclusive and each speaking to audiences in certain ways. Part of the tension felt right now, perhaps, is that blogging and the internet have allowed for enthusiasm to encroach upon the terrain of criticism at a time when the arts landscape itself seems to be shrinking. Ebert (and Scott in his praise for him), however, provide a useful reminder that audiences perhaps gravitate most towards unique voices that are able to offer both enthusiasm and criticism rather than attempt to demarcate the boundaries between the two.